Interlude 21

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How did the others do it?  They entered into a room and people respected them.

Sabah walked through her territory, a black, bipedal unicorn just behind her.  She had muscle, but the stares she got were hard ones, challenging.

Was it that she’d inherited territory that Bitch had controlled, once?  Territory where people had been afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by dogs?  She’d tried to make it clear she wasn’t that kind of leader, had tried to emulate Skitter, even, but it hadn’t worked.  Gifts she’d brought in were rejected outright, or taken wordlessly, as if people thought she owed them something for being in charge.  She’d saved people from the Teeth… saved them from extortion, threats.

Not even a thank-you.

She couldn’t shake the suspicion that, well, she hadn’t been here when the disasters hit Brockton Bay.  She hadn’t been a line of defense between these people and the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Merchants, the Chosen, or the Pure.

She’d been one of those people, instead.  She’d escaped being the victim, but… she’d lost so many people she cared about.

It wasn’t the first time she’d done this.  Gravitating towards one idea, feeling like she’d finally found the one thing she had to do.  It was never easy.  Always an uphill climb.

High school had been hard because she’d immigrated from Basra with her family.  She’d had an incomplete understanding of English, had been forced to learn the language as she learned the subject matter.  Her parents had been too occupied with their own issues and their own adjustment to help her out, so she’d done it alone.

Sabah was still kind of proud that she’d managed it, even if it wasn’t something that anyone else had ever recognized.  A private, personal victory.

She’d attended university, and had gravitated towards the grittier subjects.  She’d taken math courses, focusing on engineering after her first year, because they had been the subjects she’d found easiest in her transition to an English high school.  She’d been okay with it, not happy but not miserable, but still, she hadn’t had a person to confide in.  She’d stuck it out on her own, quietly uncomfortable with where she was in every sense of the word, unwilling to burden her family with her relatively minor issues.

Being a girl in a male-dominated field, she’d drawn attention from one student.  A boy.  He’d been nice, but he’d also been under the impression that being nice demanded reciprocation, as though every action deserved an equal and appropriate reaction from her.

He was always there.  They had the same classes, because they were in the same program, barely twenty-five of them in all, and Brockton Bay’s college wasn’t that big.  He was always interested in talking to her, and her more demure rejections had had no effect.

She tried a clear ‘no’, and it didn’t work.  He’d gone away for a few days, then came back, making another casual hint about them maybe going out.

She tried a harsh no, laced with all the anger and frustration she’d been feeling, and she got labeled a ‘bitch’.  The other students, friends or acquaintances of her would-be-paramour, wound up hearing and turned on her.  Her schoolwork started to suffer, because she didn’t have the study groups, nobody willing to work with her on projects and presentations.

So, after six weeks of that, she’d caved.  She told him she’d had a bad day, apologized for her attitude.  She’d hated herself for doing it.

It only served to put her right back where she’d been before, dreading going to class and dealing with him.  Always with that vague fear that he’d escalate, that he’d start sending her emails or phoning her.

And because of the way she’d done it, she’d burned a bridge.  She couldn’t defuse the relationship with a statement to the effect of, ‘I don’t like boys.’  He would have seen it as another manipulation, and she couldn’t have managed if she were cut off again.

Her father’s terminal heart attack had been another straw on the camel’s back.  Alone, it was nothing, but in combination with everything else… Sabah had triggered on what was only one in a long string of nights spent alone, stewing in frustration, fear and anger in her dorm room.  She’d glimpsed something bigger, something that was beyond her recall now, and she’d gained her powers.

That had been the push she’d needed to walk away from the boy and the engineering program.  She’d found a new goal.  Success in fashion design.  As far away from engineering as she could get.  Her mom had been disappointed, but she’d felt like she maybe had a direction.  She’d made friends.  Even moved out of a coveted single-bed dorm room to a double to socialize more.

It hadn’t lasted long, that motivation.  Even before Leviathan came and dashed the college to pieces, she’d had doubts about whether it was what she was meant to do.

Even before the Slaughterhouse Nine had killed her mom, her aunt, her cousin, and her roommate, she’d been feeling hopeless, desperate.

She’d taken Skitter’s offer, hoping that maybe, this time, it would be different.  That maybe, if it was something she needed to do, rather than something she wanted, she’d find that direction, find that focus.

She hadn’t.  From beginning to end, it had felt as hollow as each of the earlier ventures.

Sabah made her way to her headquarters, her atelier, and she couldn’t help but notice the way people stared, or the way they didn’t show her the respect that Skitter seemed to naturally accept and respond to.

She hadn’t been here when it counted.  Now they were moving on, and she was rudderless once again.

Always an uphill climb.

She’d just reached her atelier when her phone rang.  A text.

Flechette:
Skitter showed up at PRT office and turned self in.  They taking her to cell right now.

She had to reread it to make sure she wasn’t getting the wrong impression.  Skitter… The ramifications of this… The… What?

Before she could even wrap her head around the subject, there was another text.

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

Tt:I know. come 2 meet place from other nite asap.  First floor.

No answers, no information, only an order to meet up.

The unicorn wouldn’t do, put together like it was.  It had to be deconstructed, repurposed.

Her power gave her fine control with lightweight materials.  That wasn’t a problem.  Threads unwound, seams coming undone.

But her control of larger things was an entirely different beast.  Her telekinesis fell apart when she tried to move anything heavier than a half-pound or so, her dexterity and speed in moving those objects that much slower.  Worse, her telekinesis exploded, and not even in a constructive manner.  It got more and more unstable as she tried to move larger things, until it simply… expanded, dissipated over an area in an attempt to extend control to a multitude of tiny, lightweight objects.

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

She’d experimented, after getting her power.  Found that she could contain the telekinesis and keep it from dissipating.  It hadn’t been constructive until she started working with more flexible materials.  Porous materials worked best, because her telekinesis could soak into them, through them, and allow her to move the fabric rather than just the material within.  The gaps in the fabric allowed her to feed power into the ‘shell’ without it building to critical mass and collapsing.  Cloth worked best.  Torn or ripped seams could be mended, any other damage proved easily fixable, compared to the issues sturdier material posed.  It was plentiful, cheap, and effective.  Cloth was her ideal material.

And once the construction was formed, a shell that trapped the telekinetic energy within until it was heavy, she could move it as a collective whole.

The unicorn, at her bidding, bent down to allow her to climb onto its back.  Once she was securely in place, belted onto the cloth animal for security, it took off.

There was no instinct here.  It was all forced, all clumsily hobbled together with a power that probably wasn’t intended for this use.  If powers even had an intent backing them up.

As such, it took time to find the unicorn’s stride.  She had to watch where it put its ‘hooves’, fashioned of work gloves and the scraps of rubber boots.  She could feel with her power, where it was, but she couldn’t see through its eyes, and any coordination it possessed was limited to what she could give it from her current position.

She wasn’t good at this.  Navigating the streets, where they were congested with cars, or making her way through the areas where there was construction, littered with obstacles and pitfalls.  At being a cape, at being an important cape.

The Forsberg Gallery appeared, and she ducked off to one side to deconstruct the unicorn.

The material formed two smaller creations, for a smaller profile, and for some muscle to move a barricade meant to keep bystanders out of the construction area around the gallery.

Tattletale, Regent and Imp were already there when she arrived, along with two of Tattletale’s soldiers and one of Regent’s underlings.  A television was hooked up, standing in the center of the room.

“…not yet confirmed, but sources suggest that the supervillain is within a containment cell, as authorities convene to discuss…

Parian glanced at Tattletale, who was sitting on the stairs, head hanging.  She was wearing full-coverage sunglasses over her mask.  Solemn, staring at the ground, or just resting, with her eyes closed.

“Any details?” Parian asked.

“No,” Regent said.  “Nothing but the obvious.”

Grue entered, and he was a storm of darkness, to the point that his body wasn’t even visible.

“Hey, big brother,” Imp said.  There was a notable, very deliberate pause.  “How’re you doing?”

“I should have known.  Should have put it together,” he growled the words in that voice of his that made Parian’s hair stand on end.  He turned to Tattletale, “Did you know about this?”

“Power’s out of commission,” she said.  “Still have a headache.  Keep voices down, please.”

He didn’t reply, turning his attention to the TV.

“I can’t help but note you didn’t answer the question,” Regent told Tattletale.  “Did you know?”

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

Why?”  Grue asked.  “Why keep it a secret?  Why is she doing this?”

“I kept it a secret because she asked me to and she’s doing this because she thinks it’s going to fix more things than it breaks,” Tattletale said.  She shifted position with care, as though every movement was painful.  Even after she stopped, Parian could see her clenching her jaw, as if staving off waves of pain.

“Remains to be seen,” Grue said.  “Why didn’t she discuss this with us?”

It was Regent who replied, “She thought we’d convince her it was a bad idea.”

“That’s not a convincing reason,” Grue answered.

This is the team, Parian thought.  Skitter was always at the core of it, a group forged by innumerable challenges, each trusting the others to have their backs as they risked life and limb.  And she just betrayed that trust.

“There’s two major issues we have to deal with,” Tattletale said.  “Accord is going to be one.  The other is-

Bitch.

The girl entered the room, two large dogs flanking her, the wolf cub trailing behind, unmodified by her powers.  The young American bulldog, still not fully grown, an older pitbull that bore the scars of old dogfights.  The wolf cub was comparatively small.  Adorable.  Adorable and capable of turning into a murder machine the size of a pony.

Bitch was imposing in an entirely different way than Grue was.  Grue was intimidating, but he was fair.  Rational.  Bitch wasn’t either of those things.  Her blond hair was shaggy, having grown in, combed with little more than fingers, if appearance was any indication. The glimpses of her face that showed in the midst of the hair were a wary glower.

The girl had her jacket slung over one shoulder, otherwise wearing a simple white sleeveless undershirt with no bra.  She was muscular, but she had to be to control the dogs when they were growing, to exert enough strength to get them to turn their heads or change direction.  Other parts of her bore similar signs of her day-to-day activities.  Her knuckles were scraped and raw, and she had a scratch on one cheekbone, taped shut.  The chain that attached to the pitbull’s collar was wound around one arm.  She was beaded with sweat, likely due to the exertion of the ride coupled with the heavier pants and boots she wore.

I hate being short, Parian thought.  To look at them, few people would have guessed there was a four-year difference in ages.  Or they would have guessed the difference in ages went the other way.

Primal, unpredictable, dangerous.  Bitch was imposing for those reasons, and because she was emotional.  She could and would lash out with physical violence if provoked.  Even if she imagined that someone was provoking her.  If she was really provoked, she wouldn’t move a muscle, which was worse.  She’d whistle and set her dogs on anyone that crossed her.

Parian felt her heart rate pick up as Bitch approached, felt that sense of danger peak as they briefly made eye contact, before the girl moved on.

As unfriendly as the girl was, Bentley was friendly, the young bulldog nudging Parian’s hand for a scratch before hurrying to catch up to his master.

Regent turned off the TV.  Bitch stood there, turning to look at each of her teammates in turn.

“What?”

“Christ,” Grue muttered.  “Tattletale.  You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?” Bitch asked.  She glanced around.  “Where’s Skitter?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.

“Is she hurt?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t even sound concerned.  When nobody spoke up, she expanded her question.  “Is she dead?”

“Fuck it,” Regent said, “I’ll say it.  Skitter’s at the PRT headquarters.”

“So?  We break her out.”

“She went there on purpose,” Regent said, almost offhandedly.  Carelessly.

Parian couldn’t help but notice the way Bitch clenched her hands, one gripping the metal chain until her knuckles went white.

“Regent,” Grue said.

“What?  You don’t want to deliver the news, you don’t get a say in how it’s presented,” Regent retorted.

Bentley and the wolf cub both planted their feet further apart, while the pitbull was looking around, all of a sudden.

There.  Bentley’s shoulders were bulging slightly.  Bitch was using her powers.

So?” Bitch asked.

“So… that’s it.  That’s why we’re here,” Regent said.  “We’re here to talk about this, to plan.”

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

“I’m not so sure,” Grue said, echoing Parian’s thoughts.

“She makes plans,” Bitch said.  “She’s smart like that.  I’m not.  I don’t try to understand what she’s doing.”

“She paid me a visit,” Grue said.  “I didn’t realize it until I got the call from Tattletale.  She was saying goodbye.  Not out loud, but… checking I was okay, making sure I’d be able to manage… after she was gone.”

Bentley was still growing.  His flesh split at the shoulder, and he brought one back leg up, kicking at the air as if he had an itch he wanted to reach but couldn’t.

The pitbull and wolf puppy were growing too.  The pitbull looked a lot less comfortable with the process than the other animals, more alarmed.  Bitch tugged the chain absently to keep him in line.

“She visited us too,” Regent said.  “Imp and me.”

“Me too,” Tattletale spoke from her perch on the stairs, quiet.

Not me, Parian thought.  Unless I count that meeting with Miss Militia and Lily.

That served the same purposes, didn’t it?  Getting things settled?  Making sure things would be okay in the future.  Ensuring the heroes could help out with my territory?

Parian felt a sinking feeling in her gut.  Skitter hadn’t been leaving for the short-term.

And that sinking feeling couldn’t even compare to what the others were feeling, here.

Tattletale, nearly incapacitated.  Grue, with his darkness a virtual storm around him.  Regent and Imp, standing back, together.  And Bitch.  Stock still, radiating something more than tension.  Restrained aggression, even.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

“It’s telling,” Grue said.  “She was saying goodbye.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said, and her voice was harder.  “It’s a plan.”

Why am I even here?  The thought struck Parian, out of place, out of time, a non-sequitur, yet somehow profound.  As if this point, in the middle of the discussion, was when she realized how out of place she was in the dynamic.

“Of course it’s a plan,” Regent was saying.  “It might not be a good plan-”

Bitch cut him off.  “She goes there, she defeats them, and then she comes back.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

Loyalty, Parian thought.  Misguided loyalty, blinding Bitch to the truth, but loyalty nonetheless.

“Look, it’s not important,” Tattletale said.

“It’s important,” Bitch growled.  “You’re supposed to be her friends, and you’re talking about her like she’s gone.”

The pitbull seemed to take her cue, and began growling steadily.  He was still growing, his body straining against the chain harness he wore.

“She’s not gone for sure,” Tattletale said.  “We don’t know how this is going to play out, not exactly.”

Bitch didn’t seem the least bit satisfied with that, but the pitbull stopped growling.  Had she stopped using her power?

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

“That she wanted to keep us in the dark,” Tattletale said.  “That she wanted to go…”

“And she planned to be gone long time,” Grue said.  “She was asking me about leadership, about whether I was ready to take the reins.  I said no, but she did it anyways.”

“She thought this was important,” Tattletale said.  “Enough to put you out of your depth, as much as you don’t want it, as much as she didn’t want it for you.”

I don’t even figure into this, Parian thought.  I’m not even sure I’m an official member of the group.

“So I’m leader in the interim,” Grue said.  There was a note of something in his voice, behind that haunting echo that his power laced it with.  Not as severe as despair, bigger than unhappiness.  Defeat?

“…Unless there’s any objections,” he said.

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

“Then we run damage control,” Grue said.  “Her territory?”

“We can fold it into adjacent territories,” Tattletale said.  “Parian, Grue, me.  Maybe the others take over some of our territories to give us an easier job of it.  She made other arrangements, with her residents.  I can contact them so we can discuss it, put it all into action.”

“Her people aren’t a big priority,” Grue said.  “If they’re not going to riot, let’s put them on the backburner.  I’m more worried about anything that could go up in flames in the next hour.”

“Literally,” Regent said.

“…Possibly literally,” Grue said.  “Accord?”

“I called him just after Regent and Imp showed,” Tattletale said.  “He’ll be here at nine thirty, on the dot.  Would have mentioned sooner, but we got caught up in talking.”

Grue nodded, glancing back towards the TV.  Parian did the same.  A number blinked on the box beneath the screen: nine twenty-six.  “That doesn’t give us much time to organize.”

“The longer we wait, the more upset he’ll be,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s a planner.  If we give him time, he’ll work out some scheme to retaliate against us.  We’re stronger against him if he’s on his toes.”

“Granted,” Grue said.  He sighed, “God, I’m not up to this.  Damn her to hell.”

There was no reply from the group.

How many members of this group were voicing silent agreement?  Parian shifted her weight nervously.  How many people here had taken a life?  All of them?  Most?

Parian couldn’t help but feel out of her depth.  The terminology had never felt so apt, feeling like she was in the water, at that one point where she realized she couldn’t reach safety, the water around her face…

She felt like that now, here.

Taylor had been undercover once, hadn’t she?  She’d immersed herself in this.  It was impossible to imagine.

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

Parian thought at first that Tattletale was returning the group to the topic of conversation, but Tattletale was taking off her glasses, grimacing.

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

“Is slow,” Accord said.  “I arrived when I said I did, and I’ll ask you once to please stop suggesting otherwise.”

If Bitch was an ‘I’ll punch your face in for no reason’ kind of intimidating, and Grue was an ‘I’ll explain carefully just why I’m about to punch your face in’ intimidating, Accord was something else entirely.

It was really easy to imagine him nonchalantly standing above her while she stood in a pit he’d had dug out, a cement truck slowly filling in the space around her.  Or very politely eating someone’s severed leg with a knife and fork held in the proper manner.

He was the kind of scary guy they made movies about, only he was real.

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

She hated him.  She understood everything about why the Undersiders were working with him, understood that they’d be at the mercy of others like the Slaughterhouse Nine if they didn’t have muscle like his on their side, but she hated him.

He was her height, dressed in a white business suit and tie, his intricate wood-and-silver mask moving to replicate the expressions beneath.

He was joined by his Ambassadors.  Each wore a finished mask, a suit for the men and a dress for the ladies: Citrine in yellow, with gemstones; Othello in alabaster white and jet black, all stark contrasts; Ligeia in a deep blue-green that contrasted her dark skin, with a conch-shell mask that swept back over the corner of her forehead, with an ‘up’ hairstyle to match; Jacklight, with a deep royal purple dress shirt and pocket square, his mask a grinning visage that would be fitting for a child’s jack-in-the-box; and Lizardtail, bigger than the others, with a green dress shirt and pocket square, an ornate mask that looked more like a Celtic knot than anything lizardlike.  Maybe the segments or spiral of it were supposed to represent a cut tail?

He’d arrived with firepower, in short.  Parian didn’t consider herself very combat-savvy, but she was aware of that much.

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

“You and me both, pal,” Tattletale replied.

It wasn’t… it didn’t seem like a smart way to talk to the perfectionist supervillain.  Accord was dangerous, so why was Tattletale provoking him?

It seemed to take Accord a second to compose himself and get his thoughts in order.  “It would be polite to stand, when a guest arrives.”

“Feeling a bit under the weather,” Tattletale said.  “Forgive my bad manners.  I take it you caught the essentials on TV?”

“On the radio, while we drove,” Accord said.  “Did you know of this scheme?”

“Of course,” Tattletale said.  “Do you think we’re crazy?  Everything’s golden.”

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

“You don’t have to be,” Tattletale said.

“We’re allies.”

“You’re subordinate to us,” Tattletale said.  “If you have an issue with that, I urge you to submit a written complaint and formally declare war.  Twenty four hours notice, if you please.  I know you like rules and regulations.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Yes.  And you’re letting me mock you for some reason.  You’re making a lot of concessions in our bargain here.  You have a reason to be doing that,” Tattletale said.  “I’m comfortable leveraging that.”

“I made concessions because I was led to believe that Skitter was going to be the one in charge of matters here.  I investigated her, I met her in person, and I decided she fit the necessary qualifications.  Now I’m finding that things are definitely not what they appeared to be.  She’s not in charge, for one thing, there’s the reckless attack against the Teeth that saw one of my very expensive recruits killed…”

“You don’t really care about that,” Tattletale said.  “You wanted to wean out the ones who couldn’t cut it.  Codex couldn’t cut it.  Good at administration, fantastic cook, skilled when it came to managing people, and could even spar, sure, but she didn’t have the wits about her in a combat situation.  Couldn’t switch gears.”

He closed his eyes, and metal shutters flicked into place as the mask mimicked the movement.  “Please don’t interrupt me.”

“I don’t think you’re getting my point.  I don’t bend to your rules, Accord.  If you want to talk about your dead underling, let’s talk.”

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?” Tattletale asked.  “About her being poorly equipped for cape life?”

“No.  The analysis is right.  I won’t disagree.  But I have other concerns.  This business with how you murdered Butcher.  The girl at the bottom of the Boat Graveyard… Cherish… it was a risky decision.”

“Not so risky when you’ve done a read on the situation.  I had all the notes on Butcher Fourteen.  She couldn’t teleport free, not into open water.  She still can’t, and I had a crew use a remote control device to lash a cable to Butcher Fifteen’s pod.  They’ve dropped her into a deeper area of the ocean, and the only thing she’ll be likely to kill are fish.  If we’re lucky, maybe Leviathan will float that way and off himself.”

“It was risky nonetheless.  There was no assurance the plan would work.”

“And we shouldered that risk.  Bitch and Skitter, specifically.  If it didn’t work out, it was their lives on the line.”

“And now we have Skitter taking another risk.  This seems to be a pattern.”

“She’s taking the risk on our behalf,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s not your concern.”

“It’s very concerning to me.”

“But it’s not your concern,” Tattletale said.  There was a strain in her voice, and her fingernails were digging into her costume-covered thighs.  “We aren’t partners, Accord.  Let’s get that straight.  Do we work together?  Yes.  Have we arranged a division of labor?  Yes.  But this is our city, and you’re renting a space.”

“Tenants have rights when interacting with their landlords,” Accord said.

“Rights, yes.  But we’re supervillains.  Don’t forget that,” Tattletale relied.  “It’s our prerogative to be assholes.  And right now?  I’m going to be an asshole.  The contract stands.  Your provisions stand.”

“There’s an escape clause.”

“And you’re free to use it,” Tattletale said.  “Take the clause, leave, abandon the investments you’ve already made in this city…”

“Or attack,” Accord said, “And seize everything you have.”

“Or attack,” Tattletale said.  She sounded more tired than upset.  “You could do that.  Or you can take my offer.”

“Which is?”

“Skitter provided your notes on managing crime in Brockton Bay.  I don’t think either of us can agree to implement it, without knowing the exact outcome of Skitter’s expedition…”

“I agree,” Accord said.  His interest was clearly piqued.  Parian could see the way the eyebrows of his mask had raised a fraction.

“But I like it,” Tattletale said.  “And if your concern is about instability within this city, I can read your work, see the solutions you propose and consider implementing them.  We would give you a hand in shaping policy beyond this group.”

“You’d agree to a contract where you implement a set number of my plans?”

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

Parian felt her heart skip a beat.  She could see Accord bristle, and his Ambassadors had tensed, as if expecting an order to attack at any second.

“But,” Tattletale said, “I can consider them.  And that might be the best offer you’d ever get.  You know your ideas are good ones.  You know there are ideas that would be worth implementing.  If I agreed to read through them, bring the better points up for discussion within the group, across our entire alliance, and I’m hoping we recruit more than just you… well, there’s a chance they’d see the light of day.”

Accord frowned.  “You’re not promising anything concrete.”

“No.  I am sticking to the deal we arranged.  This is a bonus.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It’s fucking generous as it stands.”

“Please be more civil,” Accord said.  “I’d rather you didn’t swear.”

“And I’d rather you didn’t storm in here and act like you were personally offended by our particular way of doing things,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve offered you a fucking nice deal.  Are you fucking interested?”

“Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Enough.  I think he gets the point.”

“You’re in charge, then, Grue?” Accord asked.

There was a pause.  “Yes.  But I’m standing by what Tattletale said.”

“I’ll have to content myself with that, and I’ll give my answer to you, as one team leader to another.  I hope to continue working with the Undersiders, and I very much hope that things don’t degenerate any further, as they have with the situation at the PRT offices right now.”

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

“Yes.  But there won’t be further disturbances?  Nothing further that makes national news about your group?”

National, Parian thought, stunned.  We’re national news.

She couldn’t help but think of her family, of her friends and neighbors.  Her sole remaining family member, her friend from the Fashion program.  The people who’d come to her territory for protection that she’d ultimately failed to provide.

She felt a sick feeling in her gut at the thought.  They’d been surgically altered, and, according to the most recent emails, they were getting surgery to slowly regain their old faces.  Were they watching the news right now, thinking of her?

“I’m on the same page as Tattletale,” Grue said.  “That’s our business, not yours.”

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

Parian felt her pulse quicken.  A trap?  A sneak attack?

Grue took the hand and shook it.  Parian could feel the blood pumping in her ears as she watched Accord and the Ambassadors for any sign of betrayal.

Nothing.  Accord lowered his hand, then extended it again, in Tattletale’s direction.

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

Except it was only Tattletale’s mental fatigue.  The villainess, with her mercenary’s help, made her way to the foot of the stairs.  She leaned on the man as she crossed the room to Accord.

“Injury?” he asked.  “I’m thinking a concussion.”

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

“Ah,” Accord said.  He extended his hand a fraction further, and Tattletale shook it.  “I… suppose I can sympathize with that.”

“I bet.”

“I appreciate your willingness to meet, in light of your condition,” he said.  “That said, it would be best if we did not interact further.  I’d rather not terminate our alliance by being forced to murder you.  It wouldn’t be polite to say how many times I came close, just tonight.”

“I think we’re on the same page there,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t want you to kill me either.  Just know that if you tried, succeed or fail, I have a lot of questions about your involvement with Cauldron that could start circulating specific channels.”

“Ah, you’re proposing mutually assured destruction?”

“Is there any other way we’re going to manage this long-term?”

“No.  No, I suppose not,” Accord said.

“Great,” Tattletale said.  She managed a feeble smile.

“Then I wish you a good day,” Accord said.  He managed to make it sound like fuck you, the way people in the Victorian era might have.

That done, Accord turned to leave, marching out of the doors with his cadre of Ambassadors.

When he was out of sight, Tattletale sagged.  Her mercenary had to catch her to keep her from falling to the ground.

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

“Me doing the best I could,” Tattletale said.  “And speak quieter, please.  My head’s throbbing… I feel like someone’s hitting my eyeballs with hammers.”

In a marginally quieter voice, Grue said, “You provoked him.”

“I dealt with him the only way I could.  Working with old info.  Don’t even have my power, only what I got on our earlier meetings.  Shit, I haven’t even read that booklet Skitter gave me.”

“Well,” Regent said.  “This is fantastic.  Skitter really screwed the pooch here.”

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

“We don’t know what she did,” Grue said.  “Or what she’s doing.”

There was a pause.

Parian had felt lost, in well over her head, since she’d set foot in here.  These guys were a group, an organization, they had their way of doing things, their rhythm.  It was so hard to jump in, to say anything.

But now, maybe, she felt like she had a role.  A reason to be here.

“I… I think I understand what she’s doing,” Parian said.

All eyes fell on her.  Even Bitch’s gaze, intimidating and angry.

“Generally,” Parian said.  “Um.  I get what she’s…”

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

“She’s a lot like me,” Parian said.  “She wants to protect people.  She’s willing to make sacrifices for the people she cares about.”

“I’ve discussed that with her,” Grue said.

“Terribly unhealthy,” Regent commented.  “Worse than smoking, even.”

“So maybe this is a way to do that,” Parian said.  “A way to protect all of us.  She gives Director Tagg exactly what he wants.  Gets him to back down.  And this is how.  She uses herself as a bargaining chip.”

“I don’t fucking care about Tagg,” Bitch growled.  “I’d rather have Skitter than have him gone.”

“It’s more than that!” Parian raised her voice, hurrying to speak before she could get lost in the jumble, unable to cut in and find a voice in their dynamic.  She had objectivity they didn’t.  The ability to see the big picture.  “I… I think she’s decided on a way to help all of us.  With more things than just Tagg.  And maybe… maybe she helps herself, too.”

“Herself?” Regent asked.

“I’m just… I know what it’s like, to be on a single track, to feel compelled to keep going forward.  It isn’t easy, to disappoint the people you care about, but sometimes it comes down to doing that… or doing what they want and being unhappy.”

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

“Was there ever a time when she was with us, where she really seemed happy?  Content?”

“I know my brother’s made her happy,” Imp said.  “Ick.”

Regent sniggered.

“I didn’t,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  “Make her happy.”

“I don’t know anything more than you guys do,” Parian said, “But…Maybe she needs to make peace with her guilt and whatever, go to jail, and try to make amends with her dad?  If that’s part of it, can we really say no?”

“What if it isn’t part of it?” Tattletale asked.  “What if leaving us is the last thing she wants, but she’s doing it anyways?”

“Are you saying that’s the case?” Grue asked.

“No.  My power’s out of commission.  I can’t say anything for sure,” Tattletale said.  “Except we respect Taylor-”

“We’ve been through hell with Taylor,” Grue cut in.

“And we trust her,” Tattletale said, glancing at Bitch.

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

“…So let’s trust that she has an idea what she’s doing,” Tattletale finished.

Bitch moved, stepping forward, her boots making a heavy noise on the floor as she advanced.  She struck out, kicking.

The widescreen television with its tripod mount came crashing down, shattering.

Nobody spoke in the aftermath of that small gesture of pain and frustration.

They looked amongst one another, searching each other for some validation, for a response.

It was Bitch who broke the spell.  “If the PRT fucks her…”

“We destroy them,” Grue finished.  Bitch nodded.

The most sensible member in the group in agreement with the most violent, Parian thought.

“All we can do is wait,” Tattletale said.

“How long?”

The question had come from Bitch.  She was tense, rigid, her jaw set, eyes narrowed.

“Nightfall,” Tattletale said.  “We wait until the sun sets.  That’s the only instruction Skitter gave me.”

“What are we waiting for?” Grue asked.  “A signal?”

“If we don’t get a signal,” Tattletale said, “We act.”

Parian’s thoughts were buzzing with possibilities, more details, more responsibilities.  Taking on more territory, giving up some to Grue.

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

She reached her atelier and dismounted from the six-legged horse, stepping down to the floor of the alley.  It had been a little more stable than a four-legged unicorn.  She’d have to refine the idea, find a balance.  Specific forms for specific tasks.

She was behind.  Behind in her territory, behind in applying her powers to combat situations, in being able to understand and interact with people like Accord.

And until she figured those things out, she couldn’t truly be a part of the Undersiders.  And if she wasn’t a real member of the group, she couldn’t change anything where it really mattered.

The unicorn came apart into scraps of cloth.  The individual scraps rolled up, were neatly tied by braids of thread.  She lifted the largest bundle and made her way around the corner to her front door.

Ten and a half hours before sunset.  That was the deadline.  Skitter’s deadline, and the point that would determine whether this became an all-out war against the PRT or something entirely different.

Parian stopped in her tracks.  Lily leaned beside the front door, in full costume as Flechette.  The stainless steel shoulder-rest of her arbalest sat on the ground, and she used a single fingertip to keep the weapon upright, unloaded and pointed at the sky.

With a flick of a finger, Lily made the thing spin, stopped it, spun it the other way around.

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

“The PRT knows where you live,” Lily said.  “It’s on record.  But we’re not supposed to act like we know.  I thought you’d forgive me that, given our history.”

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

Lily shook her head.  “They asked me to go out and make a phone call, outside of Skitter’s range.  But they didn’t seem to know how far that was, so I…”

“Made your way to the far end of the city,” Parian said.

“Yeah,” Lily said, just under her breath, looking down at her weapon.  Again, she spun it.

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

“You weren’t.  I just got an angry call from Miss Militia,” Lily said.  “Been out here for a bit.”

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

Parian put the bundle of cloth down, resting the end on the ground.  After a moment’s thought, she leaned it against the wall by her front door.  By Lily.

She felt so conspicuous.  She knew Lily hated the black costume, with the black hair, the black dress.

Lily, who’d been maybe the only person to give her support without being asked.  Lily, who was… chivalrous.  Gallant.  Stubborn.  So very stubborn.

“Did you come here for a reason?”  Parian asked, in the same second Lily asked, “Where were you?”

“You first,” Lily said, after the momentary confusion.

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

“That’s a hell of a reason to wait thirty minutes.”

Lily glanced left, then right, as if looking for bystanders.

“This area isn’t occupied,” Parian said.  “My atelier is the only one on the block that you can live in.  The rest are sealed up.”

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

“Ah,” Lily said.  Then, as if she remembered why she’d been looking for bystanders, she let herself slide down until she was sitting with her back to the wall.

“That’s it for answers?” Parian asked.  “Don’t know?”

“No.”

“Just talk me through what’s going through your head.  Doesn’t have to be relevant.  Don’t have to censor your thoughts.”

“Definitely have to censor my thoughts,” Lily said.  She glanced up at Parian.

She felt her heart rate pick up with that, oddly enough, just like it had with Bitch.

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

“It’s… a hard city to like,” Parian said.  “But it’s not a city that lets you throw it away.  It’s tenacious, both in the big picture, and in how it attaches itself to you.”

“Yeah,” Lily murmured.  “Before I came here, everything was on track.  I could see my future ahead of me, straight as an arrow.  Career path, eventual Flechette action figures.  Every single one of my teachers and superiors seemed to know I had potential.  One of the only people who could hurt an Endbringer…”

Lily raised her unloaded arbalest, aimed it, “Pow.  Critical damage every time, and I don’t miss.”

“I remember what you said when you talked to Skitter and Miss Militia.  You don’t feel so confident, now.”

“I’ve been trying to think of where I might be comfortable.  Where I could find what I’ve lost.  During the whole post-Leviathan thing, I was always most comfortable here.”

Here?” Parian looked over at her Atelier, an unassuming, simple building.

“With you.”

“Ah.”

“And… fuck me, because I’m not acting confident.  I told myself I’d act confident, but… I’m blowing this.”

“Don’t stress so much about acting,” Parian said.

She reached up and detached her mask from the metal frame that held it over her face, then pulled the wig off as well.  She let them fall to the ground.

A pure white mask, in contrast to her own Arab ethnicity.  She’d meant to make a point of it, to challenge people to wonder more about what was behind the masks, about their assumptions about heroes and villains.  That had fallen apart when Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine had derailed her plan to unmask herself and start a career as a fashion designer.

More than the fashion designer part, it was the sudden recollection of what the Slaughterhouse Nine had done that took the wind from her sails.

She tipped over the roll of cloth and then seated herself on it, facing Lily.

Belatedly, she said, “We act too much.  Hide behind masks way too often.”

Lily looked around to double-check, then removed her visor.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Lily said.

“Do what?”

“I don’t know.  But whatever it is, I can’t do it.”

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

“You don’t get to ask that,” Parian said, quiet.  “Just like you don’t get to act like you own me, to say that my costume is anything but my choice.”

“You remember that,” Lily said, looking down at the ground.

“Hard to forget.”

“Skitter asked me what I wanted,” Lily said.  “I gave her my answer.”

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

“I’ve already had someone try to claim me, you know,” Parian said.  “They thought that I was something that was owed to them, because of what they’d done.  That being nice meant I was obligated to accept a date.  And that line of thinking goes one step further.  They think flowers and a few dates mean I’m obligated to come over to his apartment to spend the night.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Flechette said.

Parian didn’t answer.

“I mean, it’s not… my motives aren’t…”

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

“No,” Lily agreed.  “Fuck.  I was hoping this would go better.”

“And… I’m not so sure your motives were pure.  I’ve seen you sneak glances.  For someone who has a superpower that gives her enhanced timing, I’d think you’d be better at it.”

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” Sabah said, almost to herself.  “I’ve been bitten once.”

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

Lily shifted her grip on her arbalest, then set it on the ground, spun it on the end again, as though it were an oversized top.

“Skitter asked me for what I want.  What do you want?”

“Direction.  No, not even that.  It’s almost like I don’t care as much about what I do, as me feeling like I want to do something well, but I can’t.”

The Japanese-American girl frowned.  “And this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

“Because it’s the only way to get the rest of the money that my people need.”

“Your people?”  Lily started to glance around, then stopped.  “Not these people.  Your family, friends.  From Dolltown.”

Sabah nodded.  Her heart was heavy with the thought alone.  “And because I need to be a part of the Undersiders if they’re going to listen to me, and I need them to listen to me if I’m going to influence them, keep them on a straighter path.  To protect people from them, and to protect them from themselves.

“And that’s all worth giving up the life you want to lead?”

Parian thought of Skitter.  Of the motivations that could be driving the girl to turn on her friends.

“I think it is.”

“Then… would you take me along for the ride?”

Sabah glanced at Lily.  Lily was staring at her, an intense look.  Scary in its own way, but not quite in that way that was a reminder of uglier days.

“No,” Sabah answered.  “I don’t think I can.  It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

But I don’t trust youI can’t have someone try to possess me, to control me.

She couldn’t find a graceful way to say it, and she could see the pain on Lily’s face, the doubt, the embarrassment, as the pause lingered.

Then Lily seemed to compose herself.  “Not as a partner.”

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

“I’m not good at being alone,” Lily said.  “I found that out a while ago, and what’s happened these past few weeks, they only made it clearer.  I need company, and your company is what I want the most.  I can’t say it’ll be forever, but for now…”

Being together… having a helping hand where it counted.  Having firepower and authority both, to help win over the locals.  It wasn’t perfect, it wouldn’t be fast…

But maybe it wouldn’t be such an uphill climb.

“You’d leave the Wards?”

“They’re falling apart anyways.  I’d… I’d have to give up my arbalest.  Without tinker maintenance, it won’t keep working.  But I always liked the idea of the rapier, been meaning to go back to it.  And I have darts.”

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m terrified,” Lily said, meeting Sabah’s eyes.  She looked it.

She’s taken a leap of faith, and she hasn’t touched ground.

“You’re saying I call the shots.  You’re my lieutenant, my right hand?”

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

“I’d need a new costume, and a new name, probably.  For legal reasons.  If you said yes.  I was thinking more a stylized musketeer look than a knight, but I can work with whatever.”

Still rambling.

“A new costume is something I can do,” Sabah answered.  “And yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Sabah said.  “You’ll be my lieutenant.  And you’re okay with that?”

“That’s… what I’m offering.  The last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable.”

“That’s good enough,” Sabah said.  She stood, approaching Lily.

Needle and thread.  Somehow it felt more right, more solid, than any of the paths she’d started on, only to later abandon.  Maybe because she wasn’t doing it alone.

She put two fingers to Lily’s chin, raising it, and then she kissed her lieutenant.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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The Number Man swept one finger over the touchscreen display.  Two point six billion dollars here, a hundred thousand dollars there.

Money was the blood of civilized society, its currents running through everything and everyone.  Where money was insufficient, things withered.  People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas perished.  Where funds were plentiful, the same things blossomed with new life.

And money was, in the end, little more than the product of collective imagination.  A slip of paper or a coin had no value beyond that of the material it was fashioned of.  It only took on a life of its own when people as a whole collectively agreed that certain papers and coins were worth something.

Only then did people bleed and die for it.  For a fantasy, a faith given form in hard, concrete numbers.

Then again, much of society was built on a series of shared delusions.  Clothing was little more than scraps of particular materials with particular geometries, but people clung to the idea of fashion.  Style.  Good and bad fashion was another belief system, one which all members of a culture were indoctrinated into.  Breaking certain conventions didn’t only challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of others, but it challenged their sense of self.  It reminded them, subconsciously, of the very pretendings they clung to.

Only those with power could stand against society’s tides, flaunt the collective’s ‘safe’ aesthetic.  When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them and safely say something calculated to reduce their own dissonance and remind the offending party of the unspoken rules.

When one had enough power to take a life with a twitch of a finger, a thought, they earned the right to wear skin-tight clothing and call themselves Hero, or Legend.  To wear a mask and name themselves something inane like ‘the Cockatoo’ and still take themselves seriously.

He armored himself in normalcy.  He wore only a button-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, his blond hair cut into a short style that was easy to maintain.  To anyone on the street, he wouldn’t appear to be anything but a bookish middle-aged man.

He hadn’t always been this bland.

The Number Man stepped away from the screen.  His office was plain, white tile with white walls. The rear of it was a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a foreign landscape, a place far from Earth.  Still an Earth, but not the one he’d been born to, not even the one he was in at this very moment.  The Doormaker maintained a portal to that foreign landscape, just behind the Number Man’s office and changed it on request.  Today, it was a mountaintop view of a wilderness with a crimson foliage and gray branches, the sky perpetually overcast.

One of a number of Earths where humans had never been.

The Number Man had gone to some lengths to spruce up this place.  He’d never liked the eternal white of this complex, so he’d adorned his walls with other images.  To his right, there was a large print of the Golden Mean, the Phi decimal as a fractal image in gold against black paper, with mathematical notation surrounding it.

Opposite it, Dali’s Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubus.  The painting was blown up to one-and-a-half times the size.  Jesus crucified on a fourth dimensional cross.

No chairs.  He’d worked out the dangers of sitting against the convenience and decided it wasn’t worth falling into that trap.  When he did enter his office, he walked, paced, tapped his foot while pondering deeper problems, stood and stared out the window at whatever landscape he had outside his window in a given week.

He crossed his room and touched a screen.  It lit up, filled with data fed to his computers from a doorway to Earth Bet.  The pulse of society, right under his thumb.

The Elite, a villain group expanding a subtle control over the western seaboard of America, putting pressure on rogues to bring them under their thumb as performers, thinkers, designers and innovators.  He could see the numbers, extrapolate from the data to gauge their rate of growth.  They were developing too slowly to be useful, not developing fast enough to outpace the predicted end of the world.  They’d reach Brockton Bay in about a year.  There would be time to decide if countermeasures were needed in the meantime.

Gesellschaft, a nationalistic organization half a planet away from the Elite, was moving large funds in anticipation of a small war.  Money was being laundered through cover operations and businesses, almost impossible to track, unless one was able to take in the bigger picture, to see the intent, the beginnings and endings of it.  They were investing in transportation, and their fundings seemed to decline at the same time some notable arms dealers in Southern Europe found themselves richer by an equal amount.  The Number Man flicked his way past a series of windows detailing the transaction amounts.  Arms dealers who specialized in nuclear materials.  This was pointing towards terrorism, and not on a small scale.  Troubling, but the system would address them.  The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem.  It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have a disaster at this crucial juncture.  The Protectorate was required for just a little longer.  If they were going to make it through this, there couldn’t be any substantial distractions.

Gesellschaft hadn’t elected to seek out the Number Man and make use of his services, as so many supervillains around the world did.  He had no compunctions, as a consequence, about interfering with them.  He tapped into a series of bank accounts he hadn’t touched in some time, then scheduled a large number of transfers to the personal Gesellschaft accounts.  Ten or twenty thousand Euros at a time.

Where funds weren’t likely to be held for moderation, he scheduled more transfers and disputed the charges.  The transfer amounts were large enough to raise flags, to draw attention to the accounts in question.  The banks were on the lookout for suspicious activity, and a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand Euros would be suspicious enough to merit a serious look.

That was only to slow them down.  They would want to investigate, to be careful and find out where the money came from.  Later, if the situation was resolved and they somehow managed to hold on to the money, they would want to know where the money disappeared to, as he reclaimed it with a severe interest rate.  They would suspect interference, would wonder if this outside agent had connected their civilian identities to their personas within Gesellschaft.

Which he had.

The transfers took him less than thirty seconds to arrange, and it would occupy them for one or two days.

Freezing the larger business accounts would take only a little more time.  One or two minutes.  The meetings with the arms dealers had fit a vague schedule.  The arms dealers always took a different route, but they traveled enough that they needed to buy gas at one point on the way.  There was always a large transfer of funds.

He laid a trap, calculated to start falling into place when the gas was bought in the time window.  The main accounts that the Gesellschaft used to manage their funds would be frozen by the time the meeting was underway.  They’d likely find themselves at the meeting, the product delivered, but with no funds to pay for it.

He swept his fingertips along the window, dismissing the task.  Who else?  Where were the priorities?

The C.U.I. had bought a parahuman.  Not so unusual.  Higher rates, as of late, but then, the C.U.I. faced a slight chance of an Endbringer attack in coming weeks.  They would want to bolster their forces, add parahumans to their peculiar team.

Tattletale had been actively separating herself from the Number Man, issuing new accounts to the Undersiders and her organization.  Not so surprising.  Eidolon had outed him, announcing the Number Man as a Cauldron-involved cape to a crowd.

Irritating.  At least it had been manageable.  He didn’t exactly have a great deal of traction with the hero community.  Tattletale was one loss, and he was hands-off with the Undersiders, regardless.

The King’s Men were in debt.  Easy enough to manage an anonymous donation, keep them afloat for another two months.

Child’s play, all of it.  The money, with its imaginary value, it was something he breathed.  Setting up the tools to manipulate it had taken a little time, but that was it.  Numbers were the fundament of the universe, as much a fabrication as money in some ways, more real than anything else in others.

He understood numbers, and through them, he understood everything.

A soft beep marked the arrival of somebody at his door.  He turned.  “Enter.”

There was only one person it could logically be.  The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.

Except it wasn’t a person.  The door swung open, but there was nobody on the other side.

“You can’t handle it yourself?” he asked.

No reply, of course.

He broke into a quick stride, hurrying through the door.  “Contessa is busy, I take it?”

Again, no reply.

He reached an intersection and felt his hair stir imperceptibly, little more than what one might excuse as the exhaust from an air conditioning vent thirty feet away.  He took that as his cue to change direction.

He knew where he was going, now.  He was relieved that it wasn’t the worst case scenario, if one could call it that.  A mercenary calling herself Faultline had been leading a team that was opening portals for exorbitant amounts, traveling the world.  It was a matter of time before someone contacted her to ask her to open a portal to here, or her own curiosity about Cauldron happened to lead her down that same road.

If and when that happened, the young woman and her team… perhaps organization was more fitting now that their numbers had grown, would get a visit from Contessa.  They would be removed from consideration, the portal would be sealed, and Cauldron would be safe again.

In the meantime, they’d let things carry on like they were.  Faultline would make contacts, she’d find like-minded individuals, and through her, Cauldron would uncover enemies, to be eliminated in one fell swoop.

At the very least, right here and right now, the threat wasn’t an invader.  Given the layout of the complex, and the fact that whole wings of the structure were on separate continents, linked only by the Doormaker, there were only a few possibilities for why an invader would be here.  Not that it really mattered, it would be near impossible for someone to find their way here, now.

No, this was a threat from within.

Double doors unlocked and slid open.  The Number Man wrinkled his nose as he entered the basement areas of the building.

When the Simurgh had attacked Madison, she’d copied Haywire’s technology to open a gate to a building much like this one.  A research facility.  The portal had dumped the buildings, soil, plant life and all the residents into the city on Earth Bet, costing Cauldron a horrific amount.  Even a stockpile of formulae had been lost.

Perhaps most frustrating was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they’d been near a breakthrough.  She’d sensed, somehow, had known, and had dashed it to pieces with the ease that a person might tear down a painstakingly made sandcastle.

They’d rebuilt, and this facility was somewhat different.  More reinforced, connected to the surrounding terrain.

Silly, to think she’d do the same thing twice, but they’d felt it necessary, after feeling the losses of that last attack.

The architecture here wasn’t white, and he was somewhat relieved at that.  The tile was dark gray, lit by fluorescent bulbs and the light from windows at the end of the hallway.  At regular intervals down the hallway, there were cells.  Only some had windows to keep the occupants within.  Others had only three walls and a white line that marked the division between the cell and the hallway.

In each cell was an occupant.  Large metal plates engraved with numbers helped track who they were, matched to the numbers hidden in the right ‘arm’ of the tattoo that each subject received; a series of white dots that looked like nothing more than areas where the tattoo hadn’t taken.

The cells on the right were new test subjects, lost and angry.  He didn’t hesitate as he walked past them.  The angry words they spat in alien languages were nothing to him.  Their glares and hatred less than that.

Their powers were only a small consideration.  It was a rare parahuman that didn’t try to move beyond the boundary of their cell.  There was no forcefield to stop them.  They inevitably ignored the warnings and gestures from those in neighboring cells, stepping free, or they used their power, teleporting free or lashing out at one of the staff.  The Doctor, the Number Man, Contessa.

They learned after the first time.

Several staff members were housed in the cells to the Number Man’s left.  Those cells didn’t open directly into the hallway.  There were short paths that led around to the back of the room.  It helped mask the noise, gave them some privacy.  The cells were bigger too.

Zero-twenty-three, with a placard beneath.  ‘Doormaker’.

Two-six-five.  No name.  The Number Man knew him well enough, regardless.  He’d been too young a subject when he’d taken the formula, his brain too malleable for the required changes, too slow to form natural immunities and defenses.  Not a problem with regular trigger events, as it was.  The boy’s eyes had burned out of his sockets as he’d tried to process the vast amount of information he was capable of perceiving.  Even now as he was reaching his late teens, the boy’s mind had never developed beyond the mental age of eight, and his eyes remained like twin ashtrays.

A partner to the Doormaker, capable of granting clairvoyance, seeing whole other worlds at once.  It left most subjects incapacitated for a week after use, and it overrode any other perception powers.

No use to the Number Man, but essential for Cauldron in vetting universes and finding individuals.  Most individuals.  There were some, like the Dealer, and triple-seven, who’d escaped.

Two-nine-three.  Incapable of talking, barely able to move.  Limbless, obese.  Another key member of the staff.

No sign of interference.  The odds of the threat being an assassin dropped.

He quickened his pace, reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

Second floor basement.  He stepped out of the stairwell and progressed down the main hallway.  There were rows of cells to either side of him.  Two thousand and forty-eight parahumans, each with a number, both on the wall of their cell and in their tattoo.

“You need to narrow it down,” the Number Man said.  “Help me find the trouble.”

His voice resulted in an outcry, the people in the cells nearest him realizing he was there, shouting, swearing, insulting him in twenty-nine different languages.

He ignored the shouting, instead extending his right hand.  “Is it this floor?  Yes…”

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

The faintest brush of air touched his left hand, so faint he might not have felt it while he was walking.

He turned back for the staircase, made his way down.

The third floor basement.  Here, the special case studies could be found.  Seven-seven-seven had been one.  They got a name, more space, some quiet.

He paused.  Again, a brush against his left hand.

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

He took the stairs two at a time, moving with an uncharacteristic haste.  He also spoke, more to himself than his companion.  “There are others who are supposed to attend to these matters.  Which suggests the escapee is smart, is strong enough to deal with them, or… as is more typical for the denizens of the fourth floor, interesting.”

Smart, he could deal with.  Strong, he could deal with, barring certain exceptions.  Interesting escapees, well.  There’d be degrees of unpleasantness.

He was still hurrying down the stairs as he reached the bottom.  Two doors, both heavy, stainless steel top to bottom, capable of withstanding a small bomb blast.  Only the Doctor entered the rightmost door.  The Number Man turned his attention to the door on the left, and entered his access codes, pressed his hand against the disguised plate to the right.

As security measures went, it wasn’t impossible to crack, not when one considered the breadth of parahuman abilities, but if anyone who got this far decided to pass through this door, they deserved what they got.

The deviations, the ones who didn’t take to the formula, tended to fall into certain categories.  There were those who had some minor physical or mental changes; they were little different from the most extreme deviations that appeared in typical trigger cases.  Such deviations occurred a mere eighth of a percent of the time.  They weren’t what he was thinking of.

The formula wasn’t exact.  Though they learned more every day, there were still unknowns regarding powers.  Whatever connection the agents formed with individuals before or during a trigger event, it didn’t manifest as strongly through the formula.  When the subject was stressed, their body engaged by that distress, the connection grew weaker.

In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.

For many -for ninety-three percent of the unfortunates who were so afflicted- the agent drew from plant and animal life, from physical objects, materials and designs in the subject’s immediate vicinity.

But seven percent of the extreme deviant cases didn’t find something physical, and there was little to nothing to rein things in.

Such cases were not, as a general rule, released into the wild.  It would be counterproductive.  They were briefly studied, then disposed of.  The Number Man’s office was in this building because he was but one line of defense against escapees and threats, even in this department.

He paused, concentrating.

As though it were penciled in the air, in thread-thin, elaborate notation, he could see the geometry and the numbers unfolding across the world around him, through the air.

He withdrew a pen from his pocket, spun it around one finger.  The notation billowed around it, and through it, he could see the movement of the pen, the plotted trajectory, the velocity and rotation of it.  The numbers clicked into place with a speed that made the rest of him, his very perceptions, seem like slow motion.

Here and there, there were incongruities.  Painting an entirely different picture.  His companion was here, near him.  Bending the most fundamental rules.  The Custodian.

In another scenario, she would have been kept here and disposed of once we’d found a way to dissect her.

“I know you want to help,” he commented.  He wasn’t even entirely sure if he was being heard.  “You see it as your responsibility.  But it’s best you stay behind.”

That said, he pushed the door open.

If the cells on the third basement floor were twice as large as the ones on the second floor, these were larger still.  Each was isolated, standalone in the vast, dark basement.  The space allowed countermeasures to be maintained in each space.

And here, experiment number three-zero-one-six was out of his cell.  The Number Man knew of this one.  He’d paid particular attention, once he’d heard about the peculiarities, heard about the power.

The man was only half-dressed, his upper body bare, his beard a shaggy growth, his hair long and greasy.  Showers were provided, where patients were able to make use of them, but the solitude wore on them, and few partook with any regularity.

But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.

One leg of his uniform flapped in the wake of a wind turbine used to keep two-nine-nine-zero contained.  There was no right leg beneath the pelvis, but his right foot was there nonetheless, set firmly on the ground.  He stood as if his weight rested on it.

Other parts of him had been carved away when he’d had his trigger event.  An area of his stomach, around one eye, his entire left arm.  Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plane, featureless, without shading or definition.

But the Number Man could see it.  Could see it in the physics of the way the pants leg moved, just slightly out of tune with the way it should have been flapping.  There was something there, a disturbance.

The test subject had destroyed one wind turbine, was facing the occupant, who was hidden in shadow.

“We escape,” three-zero-one-six said, his voice a rasp, heavily accented.  “Together.  I stop the spirit, you take-”

He stopped, turned to face the Number Man.  The pair was separated by an expanse of a hundred feet, in an open area with a high ceiling, only the lighting around each standalone cell allowed them to see one another.

No conversation, no pleading.  Three-zero-one-six struck before he could be attacked, leaning back and then swinging, using the left arm that wasn’t there.

The Number Man was already moving, the mathematical notation filling his field of vision, singing in his ears, running along his skin.  He could taste it, virtually swam in a clear, precise, organized outline of the world around him.

His weight shifted as he found his center of balance.  He kicked out to push himself to the left.

Three-zero-one-six manifested the strike as though his arm were exponentially larger, the attack repeated in almost infinite variations through the space in front of him, as though he were leveraging every possible version of himself that could have been here, in this basement, drawing them together in one coordinated strike.

Concrete and steel were obliterated, and the blow carved divots into floor and ceiling both, disintegrated layers of stainless steel that sat behind and beneath the concrete of floor and wall.

The Number Man was airborne.  He’d measured the trajectory of the first hit as it carved through the ceiling, letting it slide past him by a mere one and three-quarter feet.  He angled and oriented his body to absorb the rush of wind and dust, used it to carry himself just a little further, a little higher.  His shoes squeaked as they found traction.

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-”

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-”

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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Imago 21.7

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I eased the door closed, then paused to let my eyes adjust.

Every window had the blinds closed and curtains shut over it.  The room was dusty, and needle-thin rays of light caught the flurries of specks, making them glow.

I grew aware of my surroundings, distinguishing dark gray shapes from an oppressive darkness.  A desk sat in the middle of the room, shaped like a ‘c’, with a cushy computer chair in the middle.  Four monitors were arranged at even intervals across the desk.  Beyond them, three widescreen televisions were mounted on tripods.  The walls and open spaces beyond the televisions, in turn, were filled with bulletin boards and whiteboards.

I glanced at my phone.  The last text I’d received was still displayed on the main screen:

the nearest keyboard to entrance.  don’ wander and don’t turn monitor on.  type WQtksDH2.

I followed the instructions, making my way to the desk, carefully angling my body so I wouldn’t touch any of the bulletin boards, and so that I didn’t bump anything with the loose fabric of my running pants or my backpack.  I didn’t want to risk using my bugs to check for obstacles, so I was forced to rely on my eyes alone, in this near-total darkness.

I found the keyboard, found the little nibs on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys so I could center my hand, and very carefully typed out the password.

A series of barely-audible ‘beeps’ sounded throughout the room.  What had I just disabled?  Claymores?

Did I really want to know?

Free of whatever safeguards that had been set in place, I turned on the monitor.  The faint glow lit up one half of the room, casting light on Tattletale’s costume in one corner, and the heavy metal door leading to her bedroom.

I found a dimmer switch on the wall and turned the lights up just enough that I could see.  The details on the bulletin boards became clear.  They were color coded by subject, but there were threads connecting elements, pieces of yarn tacked into place or held in spots with magnets.

I approached the nearest boards.  The set furthest to the left were each headed ‘Cauldron’, with subheadings, and had either green construction paper or words in green marker.  The board closest to me had photos of various capes, organized into forty rows and twenty-five columns, headed ‘Cauldron, unconfirmed’.  One-and-a-half inch by one inch images of various masks, their names penned in underneath.  Here and there, portraits were missing, presumably where Tattletale had found better spots for them.

So many capes.  It was startling really, and I was suspicious it was incomplete.  Was she planning on expanding that?

The upper half had sections marked for ‘likely’ and ‘confirmed’.  Many of the ‘likely’ capes had a series of letters and numbers by their name, five digits long: reference numbers.

There were only three ‘confirmed’ capes on the board.  Capes that had been more or less verified, through a combination of admission and Tattletale’s powers:  Eidolon, Alexandria, Legend.

Lines were drawn on the construction paper behind them, pointing to one portrait-sized rectangle of paper at the top, as though indicating a hierarchy.  It was blank, and the ‘name’ at the very bottom was only ‘Cauldron?’.

The back of the same bulletin board had ‘confirmed trigger’ capes and ‘Case 53’.  Each ‘trigger’ cape had a trigger event marked in pen below the name, along with the same series of letters and numbers by their name:  Jadeite: Post-brainwashing dissonance HSPuT.  Gethsemane: Lost family in war H2UXa.  Skitter: Bullying 9Zw3t.

The rest of the Undersiders were on that section of the board as well, but the trigger events had been left off.  Chances were good that she didn’t want prying eyes to dig up details, while my information was presumably public knowledge.

I walked across her setup, my hand trailing across the index cards and pictures as I walked, as though I could take in the information through touch.

Lengths of yarn connected the ‘Cauldron’ board to the PRT board, which was a whiteboard, magnets affixing index cards to specific areas.  A black piece of yarn extended from Alexandria on the ‘Cauldron’ board to the recently retired Chief Director on the ‘PRT’ board.  Black for a direct connection?  Yellow yarn extended from the Cauldron board to index cards regarding PRT funds.

The whiteboard held scrawlings of notes, musings and possibilities, some half-erased.  Degree of involvement with CauldronFunding: is PRT siphoning official funds to pay for powers?  Agenda?

It wasn’t reassuring.  The number of questions, the idea that the PRT might be far larger than I’d conceived.

I moved on to boards of a different color.  The red bulletin boards and whiteboards with red writing: Brockton Bay.  Potential threats: the Teeth, Red Handed, Heartbreaker, Lost Garden, Adepts, the Orchard, The Fallen.

Each was labeled with a code, much like the trigger events had been, and a letter-number combination after that.

It took me only a minute to find what they were referring to.  Things were organized beyond the initial veneer of chaos.  A small bookshelf, knee-high, held file folders with the same letter-number pairings as I saw on the bulletin board.  I picked one out at random.

Adepts.  Self professed magic users.  One page of information, listing names and powers.  Another page with the PRT’s information on them: a series of codes and symbols I didn’t quite follow, numbers inside colored circles, squares and diamonds.  From what I could gather, they had a low threat level, moderate crime rate, moderate ‘engagement’ level, low activity level.  Led by Epoch, a time traveler.

Fun.  I didn’t even want to think about the headaches that power would cause.

I put the folder away carefully, picked out another.  Lost Garden. High threat level, low crime rate, low engagement level and moderate activity level.  Leader, Barrow.  A powerful shaker, similar to Labyrinth, only rather more single-minded in what he did.  He couldn’t leave the altered area he created around him, only extending it slowly to an area while letting it fade behind him, an effect described as ‘a depression’ with overgrowth extending into the surrounding neighborhood.  Tattletale’s own notes in the file suggested he was making slow but steady progress towards Brockton Bay, and that he had been since the portal appeared.

I flipped through the rest of the file.  What kind of people gravitated towards someone like that?  Apparently a lot of very young parahumans, boys and girls around Aisha’s age, had gathered around the middle-aged Barrow.  A little creepy, when I imagined that collection of capes and the resulting dynamic.

I put the folder away, returned to the boards.  Brockton Bay had several more.  Money.  Planning.  Property acquisition priorities.  Property sales.  A whiteboard with the word ‘door’ written in red, circled and underlined several times, surrounded by question marks.

Who would own the portal?

A single blue-lettered whiteboard with pale blue index cards.  At the very top was the title, in bold black letters:  Powers: Source.

I looked at the index cards that were fixed onto the board with magnets.  There were no real answers there.  Only questions and theorizing.  It was Tattletale’s stream of consciousness distilled.

the whole?  pieces of greater puzzle but don’t know what shape it takes.  place person thing or something less concrete?  what are powers?  Mirror/extrapolation a consideration? is there link between there and here?

why?  power distribution aimless simple chaotic.  mistake?  something go wrong?  is this only part of something greater?  scheme or something more base?

why trigger events?  why go to trouble?  Connection to the source?  tied to something primal or some scheme?  simple or complicated?

what is deviation between cauldron and typical trigger?  was there leak to water supply from cauldron?  Parasite?  look into epidemiology.  prob not.  get someone’s story about process for getting powers from Cauldron for hints.

Who has answers?  if not thinkers then capes with closer connection to passenger?  PRT?  Cauldron?  S9?  other gov’ts?  what channels can I use to get these answers?  theft, coercion money goodwill barter?  have to set a value for an answer before raising idea with coil Skitter

I frowned and stepped away.

The last board, far right, was backed by black construction paper.  At the top, printed on white index cards in bold black letters: ‘End of the World’.

The board was disturbingly empty.  Jack’s picture was in the upper left corner with pieces of paper arranged below it, tracking everything that he’d done since he left the city.  Each piece of paper had names of known entities he’d interacted with in any direct fashion.  Sites the Nine had attacked, a string of small towns as they progressed in a zig-zagging fashion away from Brockton Bay.

Capes recruited to the group, capes slain.

The other three-quarters of that board were almost entirely clear, but for one index card in the upper-right:

limits to Dinah ability: can’t see accurately points of interaction with power immune capes, precogs, situ change Thinkers. Limited sight past points of interaction.  these are ‘stoppers’

Hartford: No known stoppers in area.
Enfield: No known stoppers in area.
Chicopee: No known stoppers in area.
Southbridge: No known stoppers in area.
Boston, Charlestown Area:  Yes stoppers, no direct interaction b/w any stoppers and Nine.  call to dble check with Still.  no interaction
Toybox: No known stoppers.

It made a lot of sense.  Tracking Jack’s trail of destruction from the point he’d left the city, finding the point where Dinah couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to see, using them to narrow down possibilities.

But the expanse of black on that board was daunting, considering everything that was at stake.

I made my way to the desk, set my backpack down on the ground, and took a seat in Tattletale’s chair.  I pressed the power buttons for each of the other monitors, and they flickered on.  Checking the drawers, I found a remote, and turned each television on in turn.

Two televisions dedicated to news, one to business, each on mute, with captions spelling out the words as the reporters spoke.

The password I’d entered had apparently logged me into the computers as a guest.  I kicked off my shoes and set my feet on the desk, as I’d seen Tattletale do, slipping into her shoes for a moment.

Everything was arranged so it was in clear view: monitors, televisions, bulletin boards.  Looking at the notes, the different colors, the disorder and the number of questions, it made me think of a kind of paranoid schizophrenia, seeing connections everywhere.  Except she was right.

Even logged in as a guest, I could see vestiges of the programs she’d installed on her main accounts: a stock ticker, a news ticker, weather, time, trending topics, social media feeds, several alert boxes for when pages relating to certain topics were updated or created.  Even the background was a series of four video feeds from cameras that overlooked Brockton Bay.

That was just what was worked into the desktop, with no windows opened.

The monitors flickered with new information at a speed that was two or three times that of the televisions, and the material on the televisions wasn’t exactly slow-paced.  The bulletin boards, conversely were static.  It was like a physical representation of what was going on in Tattletale’s mind.  Information streaming in, details from other sources intruding as I tried to focus on only one.  And always, there were the questions in the background, the same ones marked on the bulletin board.  Things to keep in mind while she took in other details, constantly seeking out the connections that tied things together.  Did she simply sit here, taking it all in, while using her phone and the computer to manage the Undersider’s business?

No small wonder she had overloaded on her power.

I opened up a browser window on the computer, logged into Parahumans Online.

Two new tabs.  A search for Skitter, a search for Taylor Hebert.

‘About 95,000 posts relating to Skitter.’

‘About 5,200 posts relating to Taylor Hebert.’

I sighed, closed the tabs, and then investigated the board for Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t anything I wanted to read.

I had checked most of the pages up to the halfway point on page two of the Brockton Bay sub-board when the heavy metal door clicked and opened.  Tattletale- Lisa stepped out, wearing an oversized t-shirt and pyjama pants.  My momentary confusion on how to define her was due to the fact that her hair was down, which I associated with Tattletale, while she was in civilian clothes, which was naturally fit for the name ‘Lisa’.

“Su- oh hell,” she broke off, recoiling in pain in the face of the dim lights and the glow of the various screens and monitors, shielding her eyes.

I hurried to reach for the dimmer switch, but she was already calling out a command, “System, lights off.”

The lights went out.

“System, screens off.”

The televisions and computer monitors went dark.

“Sorry,” I said, keeping my voice low.  “Thought you’d have recovered more.”

“Nah,” she said.  She still wasn’t opening her eyes, and was speaking with a care that suggested even the sound of her own voice hurt her.  I could see dark circles under her eyes.  She probably hadn’t slept recently.  “But no big.”

“You could go back to bed,” I said.

“No way am I missing this,” she said.  “My chair.”

I climbed out of the chair and turned it around so the seat was available to her.  She made her way there as if she were an old woman, eased herself into the seat and reclined, putting her feet on the desk.  One arm draped over her face so her eyes were hidden in the crook of her elbow.

“This setup… all of this is too much for you,” I said.  “You’re trying to handle too much at once.”

“Ironic,” she mumbled, “Coming from you.”

I took a seat on the edge of the desk.  “You’re bombarding yourself.  You should try to tackle one thing at a time.”

“Can’t.  I focus on one thing, I let others fall by the wayside.  Too many bases to cover.”

“Maybe you should let things fall by the wayside,” I commented.  “Is it so important to understand where powers come from?  Isn’t it enough to run the city, watch out for enemies, and maybe devote weekends to figuring out this business with Jack?”

She groaned.

“Sorry,” I said.  I was only giving her more cues and prompting involuntary uses of her power, making the problem worse.  Asking questions was cruel, with her like this.

“No.  No, it’s okay.  It’s all related.  I described my power as being like a massive, three-dimensional game of Sudoku, right?  Spaces get filled in.”

“Yeah.”

“This… if I get stuck somewhere, maybe there’s something on the periphery that helps me figure it out from another angle.  If I’m going to tackle the problem, I gotta tackle the whole problem.  Helps keep the facts straight.  Notice sooner when the wrong piece of information’s in a spot.”

“You forgot to note that Accord buys powers,” I said.  “Came up a little while ago, didn’t see them on the back of the green board.”

She put her feet down on the ground, as if she was going to spring up and make the necessary adjustment, then seemed to think twice about it.  She rested her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Index cards are on the shelf by the door.”

I got up and walked over to the shelf, fished around until I found the green index cards and a black felt-tip pen.  I wrote down, ‘Reminder: Accord buys powers from Cauldron to empower qualified underlings.  They don’t know much about process, but he will.’

I pinned it up in the ‘Likely’ section.

When I was done, I glanced back at Lisa, still resting her head in her hands.

I let a minute or two pass in silence, while she got her bearings.

“So,” she finally said.

“So.”

“Sorry I took so long to show,” she said.

“Not a problem,” I said.  “I enjoyed the peace.  A moment of quiet before the storm.”

“I’m not messing up your schedule?  What time is it?  Eight?”

I started to shake my head, then realized she wasn’t looking at me.  Hard to tell in the gloom.  “You aren’t.  And it’s about seven forty-five.”

“Not sure I follow this plan of yours.  That’s a bad sign, if I can’t get my head around it.”

“You’re not exactly in the best shape.”

“Still.”

“Still,” I echoed her, sighing.  I leaned against the wall, hooking my thumbs in my pockets.  “Maybe you’re right.”

She slowly raised her head, grimaced, and then shifted back to a reclining position, moving at a glacial speed.  I felt a pang of sympathy.

“Can I get you anything?”  I asked.

“Drugs don’t help.”

“Something besides drugs, maybe.  Water.”

“No.  Nothing makes a difference except time, being very still, very dark and very quiet.  Let’s just…”

She trailed off.

“Let’s just what?” I prompted.

“I was going to say we should get this over with, but… we don’t want that, do we?”

“No,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.

Silence lingered.

I stared at the room, all the unanswered questions now illegible in the darkness, reduced to shades of dark gray on black, and black on dark gray.

Those questions were Lisa’s province.  My focus was on the team, the dynamics of the group, and the how we handled those beyond our inner circle.  Our enemies, allies who could become enemies.  Even the public at large had to be handled, managed, addressed as a possible threat.

Those were the concerns I had right now.

“Wish I could use my power more,” Lisa said, “Give you advice so you’re going in with your eyes wide open.”

“I wish you could too.  Don’t be upset with yourself, though.  I didn’t give you much advance warning, and you’d already overloaded your power.  The sentiment’s enough.”

“It’s not, really.  Fuck me.  I’m not very good at this.  Being uncertain.  Frustrated.  Disappointed in my inability to offer anything…”

She trailed off.

I thought of the Lisa I knew, her personality, her general demeanor.  Slightly reckless, confident, cocky.  Fearless.

“And scared?” I offered.

“Scared,” she agreed.

I’d never really seen her vulnerable.  I’d seen her hurt, had seen her reactions after her arm had been dislocated, after Jack had slashed her face open.  I’d seen her worried, even spooked, when the Endbringer was en-route, and when she’d been concerned for me.

But this was Lisa, temporarily bereft of her powers.  A mere mortal.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

“You know, Rachel said thank you last night,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Got me thinking,” I said.  “Don’t know if I ever said it to you.  I owe you the most, in a way.”

Lisa smiled, but it wasn’t a joyful expression.  She murmured, “Don’t know if you should be that thankful.  What I did, bringing you on board, trying to help you, if I can even call it help, considering where we wound up.”

“The means justify the end, maybe,” I suggested.

“Maybe.”

“I appreciate it, whatever the case,” I told her.

“Then you’re welcome,” she said.

She changed position, and I made out a nearly imperceptible noise of pain.

“And I think that’s my cue to go,” I told her.

She frowned, “Damn.  That’s it?”

I shrugged.  “What more is there to say?”

“I’m supposed to give you advice.  Some insight.  But I’m crapped out.”

“Give it a shot anyways,” I suggested.

She frowned.  After a few seconds, she said, “Give ’em hell.”

“Will do,” I said.  I approached her, then leaned down and wrapped my arms around her, while she was still sitting in the chair.  One gesture, as if it could convey everything I couldn’t say with words.

Grue had worried I was fatalistic.  That wasn’t quite the term that applied, here.  But the underlying idea was sound.

We’d established something of a rule, way back when, on the night we’d first found out about Dinah and her powers, the same night Leviathan had arrived.  I’d very nearly turned my back on the group, and Tattletale had established a rule.

No goodbyes.

I collected my backpack, turned, and then left, wordless.

The sun and the heat were working on destroying the fog that had settled around the city in the wake of the grim weather.  The result was that the sky was very blue overhead, the city still harboring traces of the early morning’s fog.  It couldn’t be later than nine.

I wasn’t wearing a costume, but I wasn’t hiding in clothing I wouldn’t normally wear, either.  A simple white tank top, black running pants and running shoes.  For all the bystanders could see, I was Taylor Hebert, indistinguishable in appearance or fashion from the girl who’d appeared on the news.

Nobody gave me a second glance.  I moved with purpose, and that was enough.  The eyes in the crowd looked right past me.

It had taken me some time to get used to the sheer obliviousness of people.  Even Rachel, with her distinct appearance, had been able to manage with brief public appearances.  It was less about getting caught, more about escape routes.  Being spotted while I was on my way to visit Grue and Citrine would have been problematic.  Being spotted on my way back to my territory wasn’t a problem.  By the time the heroes could respond, they wouldn’t be cause for any concern.

The same principle applied here.  The only distinction was why the heroes weren’t a cause for concern.

Tension sang through my body with every step.  My stomach felt hollow – I hadn’t had much of an appetite this morning.

At the same time, I felt an almost zen calm.  My thoughts were clear.  I’d already decided on a plan of action.  It was a similar calm to the one I’d experienced against Dragon and Defiant.

I approached the PRT headquarters.  Many of the bugs I’d infested the building with on my last visit were still there, and the occupants of the building had adjusted to them.  Nobody gave a second thought to the bugs that made contact with them, unless it was to absently slap at a mosquito or brush an ant from their leg.

I could sense Tagg in his office, talking on the phone.

People were filing in through the front doors, some were employees, others were tourists, eager to check out the newly opened gift shop and inquire about a tour.  It was puzzling.  Did Tagg not anticipate another attack?  Or had he decided that my attack with my bugs was the very extreme to which I was ready to go?  The full extent of the threat I posed when angered?

The PRT officers stationed just inside the door, grown men and women who had the job of looking out for troublemakers, barely glanced at me as I joined the crowd and walked right under their noses.

Then again, I’d said something to Regent about that.  Attacking from an unexpected direction, doing the last thing one’s enemy expected.  This was definitely that.  There was no way they expected me to walk into the building, first thing in the morning on a sunny day, when they hadn’t even done anything in recent memory to provoke me.

I made my way into the center of the lobby and stopped to looked around.

Maybe it was that I was standing still, while the rest of the people in the lobby were moving.  If not moving against the flow, resisting it.  But someone noticed me.  A PRT officer by the front desk.  I could see him out of the corner of my eye, reaching for his weapon.

I exhaled slowly.  I felt eerily calm, while my power roared at the periphery of my consciousness.  It was as if my bugs were screaming at me to attack, to retaliate.  To strip flesh from bone, sting and bite.

I pushed my bugs back, told them to go still.  It had been months since my power and I were this at odds.  Months since I’d been in the bathroom of Winslow High, telling myself I didn’t want to fight, that I didn’t want to retaliate against the bullies.

But now I was left to wonder if that was my subconscious or my passenger?

“Villain!” the PRT officer bellowed as he trained his gun on me.

The reaction was oddly delayed, as each one of the fifty or sixty people in the lobby turned to the PRT officer for a cue, for some indication of the danger or the direction of the threat.  They saw the direction that he was facing and the direction his gun was pointing, and turned their attention to me.

Only then did the civilians and unarmed staff scream, run, and seek cover.  Only then did the PRT officers around me draw weapons and point them at me.  A half-dozen PRT officers in full body armor, with their lethal and nonlethal weapons trained on me.

“Get down!” one officer screamed.

I slowly dropped to my knees, then folded my hands behind my head.

There were sounds of footsteps.  I could see Miss Militia and the Wards exiting a room behind the front desk.  I tried to think of what my bugs had told me about the layout on past visits.  It was a meeting room, if I was remembering right.

Miss Militia, Clockblocker, Flechette, Vista, and Crucible stared, eyes wide.  Miss Militia’s expression was one of concern, her eyebrows furrowed.  She was still, compared to the PRT officers around me, who were shouting at me, asking questions I couldn’t answer.  I bowed my head and closed my eyes, as if I could find the same kind of refuge Tattletale had been seeking, find a stillness by shutting out the chaos of the outside world.

I’d said my goodbyes to my team, as much as I’d been able.

I’d put my ducks in a row, again, as much as I could.  I’d have to trust to Grue to see to Regent and Aisha, keep them on the right path.  I’d have to trust Tattletale to look after Grue.

I’d decided, in the course of talking to my mom, that I’d have to cross a line if I was going to follow Dinah’s instructions, if I was going to achieve everything I needed and wanted to achieve.  To do it, I’d told her, I’d have to be heartless, and this was the most heartless, inhuman thing I could do.  Leaving my people.  Leaving Rachel.  Leaving Brian.

I thought of the paper, of the words from Dinah.  ‘Cut ties’.  I hope you know what you’re doing, Dinah. because this is as cut as I can get them.

My eyes met Miss Militia’s.

“I surrender.”

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Imago 21.6

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Hate to do this with the weather like this, I thought.  I thought about the meeting Parian had arranged with Miss Militia.  But my hand is being inadvertently forced.

One more step forward.  One more phase in the plan.

The wind was worse than the rain.  I had to wonder how much of it was the aftermath of the Leviathan attack.  The city had been flooded, and those same floodwaters had evaporated into the air, trapped within Brockton Bay by the surrounding trees and hills… how wide-reaching were the effects of that one incident?

The downpour was steady, moderate.  The wind was what turned it into a barrage, a persistent pelting of droplets that moved horizontally as much as it moved vertically.  The noise of it, tapping against my armor and lenses, made for a steady patter.  My bugs were lurking and gathering in spots where there was shelter, and where things were dry.  With only the light of the moon above, these were the same areas that had shadows, by and large.  The masses of bugs only seemed to give those shadows substance, made them seem deeper, through the masses of dark brown, gray and black bodies.

Through other bugs I felt the movements of the wind, felt how it formed eddies, curling into itself when it met with dead ends, large or small.  I could, with a small number of bugs, feel how strong and steady the gale was where the buildings weren’t tall enough to break it up.  They helped me track the others around me, through bugs that took shelter in the drier folds of their costumes.

The Undersiders were here.  Minus Tattletale, we were all standing in the street a distance away from a squat building.  Regent was off to one side, ready to trip up our enemy if they made a sudden appearance.  Rachel hung back, corralling her forces, while the rest of us watched the building for any hint of trouble.

But Grue stood next to me.  I appreciated his presence, his casualness in light of the way we’d effectively parted.

I could sense the Ambassadors.  Citrine and Othello were there.  So were four new recruits: Jacklight, Ligeia, Lizardtail and Codex.  The fifth potential recruit hadn’t been so lucky.  The four of them stood off to one side, in the shelter of Citrine’s power, listening as she gave instructions.  The area around them was somehow faded in terms of the colors there, the area she was affecting looked as though I were viewing it through colorblind eyes that were capable of only seeing yellow.  Water wicked off of them as though they were waterproof, leaving them utterly dry even in the wind and rain.

Lizardtail’s power was pressing against me, even from the other side of the street.  It penetrated my costume to the skin, making my skin tingle and ensuring that I was always aware of where he was.  It was like the sensation of standing in front of a fire, just close enough to feel as though that heat had a physical form, just close enough to be bearable.  It wasn’t hot, though.  It was cold, if anything.

The rest of our forces were marshaled throughout the area.  A handful of volunteers from my territory, surviving members of the O’Daly family, had made their way to rooftops, stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and binoculars.  They’d have to make up for the fact that my bugs weren’t as mobile in this weather.

Tattletale’s mercenaries were here, though she was still largely incapacitated.  Minor, Brooks, Pritt, Senegal, and Jaw.  Regent had two followers, and I was doing my best to avoid paying attention to them.  It wasn’t the time to investigate whether he was controlling people or legitimately hiring them.

Rachel’s underlings were present too, hanging back enough that they were out of sight of the building.  Biter, Barker, the veterinarian, the boy with the eyepatch, others I didn’t recognize: a young teenager with darker skin, a tall man with a broad belly.  Each of them held a chain -the tall man and Biter held two- and each chain had a dog harnessed on the other end of it, grown to a fair size by Rachel’s power.  Only Bentley and Bastard were full size.

Inside the building, the Teeth were recuperating from a recent conflict with Miss Militia and the other heroes followed soon after by an attack from Parian’s stuffed animals. As a whole, the Teeth amounted to twenty or so unpowered troops, plus a half-dozen or so powered ones.  Even the unpowered Teeth had ‘costumes’ of a sort, were dressed in a hodgepodge of armor that made it hard to tell them apart from the powered members.

As a whole, they were bandaging minor injuries, preparing food, talking, joking, relaxing.  There were two televisions on, each playing something different, volume turned up, and the noise was discordant, even to the muted, confused senses of my swarm.  Porn on one television, I was pretty sure.  The other channel was either a cartoon or a news broadcast, judging by the words I was able to hear.

There was a fight in progress, a duel, between two unpowered members.  One was getting the better of the other, pounding his face in while others jeered and laughed.

One of the female members of the Teeth, I suspected Hemorrhagia, was cooking food for her team.  A distance away, Butcher was sitting on a stool, her feet up on a table, her mask off.  She had a cloth in hand and was wiping her gun clean, oddly disconnected from the clatter and chaos of her team.

I supposed the thirteen other voices in her head kept her company.

It had taken time to analyze them, to assess what each of the Teeth were doing and make a note of every individual part of it.  To do it discreetly, with no more than the bugs that were already in the building.

The Ambassadors were patient.  I got the sense that they could have waited for two hours in this wind and rain, and their only concern would be that their clothes and hair were a little worse for wear.  My teammates were a touch more restless.  Rachel moved from dog to dog, enforcing her authority, keeping them in line, and making sure they were listening to the underlings.  She was putting her trust in me, but I could tell she was getting tired of this.  Tired of the minutes passing with nothing happening.

Regent, too, was reacting.  He was maintaining a running commentary on everything from the weather to the surroundings, our allies and me.

“And… twenty minutes in, the rain’s still pouring, the wind’s still threatening to drop a house on our heads, and we’re still not doing anything.  I think our fearless leader needs to remember that some of us aren’t as good at being imposing when we’re drenched and standing around in the dark.  She does that whole schtick where being gloomy and creepy only make her scarier.  You know how scary I am with a wet shirt clinging to me?”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue said.

“I’m just saying.  She could be more considerate.  Maybe we could wait indoors, and she could stand out here in the rain, using her power to investigate our enemies.  If she’s even using it.  Maybe she fell asleep standing up.  Been a hard week for her-.”

“Regent,” I said.  “Be quiet.”

“She’s awake!  Excellent,” Regent’s jovial tone was forced enough to border on the sarcastic.

“There are no vantage points that are also indoors,” I said.  “I’d bet that’s why Butcher chose that building.  The parking lot that surrounds it, the terrain, it’s all to her benefit.”

“So we pick a mediocre vantage point.  Or a shitty one.  So long as it’s dry.  Or, here’s an idea, maybe we attack.  We have them outnumbered, we have better powers than most of them-”

“We win absolutely,” I said.  “Or we don’t fight at all.  Too many of them have powers that could help them escape.  Vex fills an area with her power and runs, Animos transforms and runs, or Spree masks their retreat with his power.  This way, we take all of them down, or we at least affect them on a psychological level.”

“Then why don’t we have them surrounded?”

“Because we don’t need to,” I said.  “Keeping Butcher from picking us off is a bigger priority.  We do that by forming battle lines.”

“Huh,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Twenty three minutes, standing in the rain…”

Inside the building, Hemorrhagia called out, “…st ready.”

The Teeth collectively began to make their way to the kitchen, while Spree headed for the washroom.

There.

We’re attacking,” I said, and I spoke through the bugs that were near each of my allies.  “Be ready.”

The bugs I’d kept in reserve swept into the building, not from the direction our forces were standing, but from the opposite direction.  They flowed in, swarming over the Teeth.

Less useful bugs plunged themselves into the food.  They scattered money, where money was left out in the open, caught unattended weapons and pieces of armor and either buried them or started to drag them from sight.

“No!” Hemorrhagia shouted, trying to cover her chili with a lid,  “No, no, fuck you, no!”

Hearing the shouting, Spree stood from the toilet, only to find a handcuff connecting him to the towel rack.

“Fight!” one of the Teeth shouted, rather unnecessarily.  He was joined by others.  “Kick their asses!  Kill them!”

Spree managed to tear the towel rack from the wall and made his way out of the washroom, working to get his belt buckled, other armor gathered under one arm.  I was well aware of how costumes made using washrooms a pain in the ass on the best of days: getting everything necessary off, getting it back on again, attaching everything essential… Spree had the added issue of innumerable trophies and pieces of armor in his suit, all loaded down with spikes and hooks, and he was now in a rush, running forward into a swarm of biting, stinging insects.  He dropped one piece of armor, and bugs swarmed it.  He cast one backwards glance at the item in question, an elbow pad or knee pad, and then decided to leave it behind.

It was the little things that would deliver a hit to their morale.  Attacking while they were tired, spoiling a meal they were anticipating, throwing everything into disarray.  If they happened to come out ahead in this fight, or if any of them slipped away, they might return to reclaim their things, they’d find cockroaches had chewed through the cords and internal wires of their televisions, that pantry moths infested their food supplies, and every article of clothing was infested with lice.

And if they entered this fight mad, all the better.  It would mean they were gunning for us instead of running.

The first person out the door was caught by a tripline of spider silk.  Others trampled over him.  One fired a gun into the darkness beyond.

Wrong door, wrong end of the building.  And the door had somehow closed and locked behind them.

The powered members weren’t in that group, though.  As disorganized as the rank and file members were, the capes in the gang were only looking to their boss, gathering in the kitchen.

Butcher didn’t react as bugs bit and stung, and capsaicin-laden bugs found her eyes and nose.  Her skin was too tough, and she didn’t feel pain, thanks to Butcher twelve’s powers.  She was composed as she lifted a gun that would normally have been mounted on the back of a truck.  Without putting it down, she held it with one hand and donned her mask.

She turned our way, as though it wasn’t even a question.  A sensory power.

Butcher two, the ability to see people’s veins, arteries and hearts through walls.

She had the powers of thirteen capes, watered down, plus her own.  Some of those capes had possessed multiple abilities.  By power or by cunning, each had managed to kill the last.  This Butcher had the resources of each of them.

She led her group through the doors towards us, as silent as they were noisy.  I’d almost expected her to do the inverse of what she was doing and send her foot-troops in first.  Instead, she was the first through the doors, her powered allies immediately behind her.  Her foot troops were last to arrive, traveling around the full length of the building, swearing all the way.  They filled in the gaps of her group and gathered behind.

It was a different dynamic than some groups we’d fought.  These weren’t loyal soldiers or people fighting because they had nothing to lose.  They were opportunists, riding the coattails of the ones with the real power, hyenas picking at the scraps that were left behind after the lions had supped.

Spree was the first to use his power, and I got a sense of just how and why the group had arrived at this present strategy.  It wasn’t just that Butcher was dangerous enough to walk face-first into danger.  They had Spree to form their front ranks.

Four Sprees split off from him as he stood there, slightly hunched over as if bracing himself against recoil.  They were produced with such force and speed that they briefly flew through the air, stumbling slightly as they hit the ground running.  Three more Sprees were a fraction of a second after the first wave, with even more following a half-second behind them.

Fifteen or so Sprees in three seconds, before I’d even had a chance to call out an order.  Duplicates produced at the rate that a machine gun spat bullets.

They ran, some screaming, others swearing aloud as they closed the distance between our two groups, charging as a mass, limbs flailing, weapons-

Weapons?

It was hard to see in the rain, but the Sprees were all subtly different.  Some had knives or pipes they could bludgeon with, others had guns, and more had improvised weapons.  The mixing and matching of their armor was different as well.

There was a drawback, though.  Whatever they were, as solid and innumerable as they might have been, they were dumb, getting dumber every second they were alive.  He was producing a living tide of bodies, but they weren’t capable.  They were good for little more than sheer body mass and violence.

By the time the first ones reached us, they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  One reached me, swung a table leg at me in a wide, predictable swing.  I caught it, twisted his arm, and pushed him into a Spree that was stumbling forward from behind him. They both fell, and neither seemed to have the wherewithal to climb to their feet before they were trampled underfoot.

It was like fighting an infant with the size and strength of a grown man, except there were fifty or sixty of them.  A hundred?  The street was nearly filled with the bastards, from sidewalk to sidewalk, a mob between the Teeth and us.

They didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize they could actually shoot the guns, where the occasional Spree had one in hand, but the sound of a gunshot going off suggested that one had accidentally pulled a trigger.  The shot rang through the air, cutting through the thrum of raindrops striking ground.

Like the gunshot that marked the start of a race, it was the moment that brought the real fighting to a peak.  The Teeth and our side all jumped into action.

My bugs flooded into the group, condensing on the key members.  I couldn’t seem to touch the Spree that was generating the mindless clones, as his body vibrated and rippled, but I could attack Hemorrhagia, Animos, Butcher, Reaver, Vex and the underlings.  The press of near-identical bodies was almost useful, giving my bugs shelter and dry surfaces to move on.

Codex advanced, breaking away from the rest of the Ambassadors.  She was a pale woman dressed in a white evening gown, wearing a simple, featureless white mask.  A temporary costume.

She reached towards the crowd.  I could see the eyes of the Sprees lighting up as the effect reached further back into the crowd.  They stumbled, slowing, blocking the ones behind them from advancing.  Groans and grunts echoed from the crowd, all eerily similar.

Their powers were new.  Less than six hours old.  Accord had agreed to lend them to us, though their costumes hadn’t yet been designed, their powers not fully explored.  We’d offered Tattletale’s analysis of their capabilities in exchange.  She’d barely been capable, hadn’t yet recuperated from the migraines she’d suffered earlier in the week, and the use of her power had only brought the migraines back with a vengeance.

Still, we’d talked it over and agreed that the assistance of the Ambassadors as a whole was that much more useful in this scenario than a worn and weary Tattletale.  Tattletale’s feedback was essential, but we already had a sense of who the Teeth were, and Tattletale had been able to fill us in on the new Ambassadors just as readily as she’d filled Accord in.

Codex was a blaster-thinker hybrid.  Tattletale had speculated that the woman caused permanent brain damage and memory loss , briefly augmenting her own processing power in exchange.  The duplicates Spree was generating weren’t gifted with much in the way of brains to begin with.  Even a little damage was having devastating results.

Jacklight was launching forth the miniscule orbs of light, each growing as it traveled before stopping in mid-air.  Each warped space around it, accelerated movement, enhanced the output of certain forms of energy.  Where one of his lights was set next to a wall, it redirected one running duplicate into a wall.  Another, closer to the ground, swung a Spree that stepped over it into the ground face first.

It was Ligeia, though, who slowed down the enemy the most.  She created water out of nothing, geysers of the stuff that drove the mob back and sent them sprawling.

Then she sucked up the water.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I got the impression she caught one or two duplicates in the process, drawing them into whatever place she’d taken the water from.

It took her a second each time she switched from creating water to drawing it in.  Clones slipped through the gaps in the defensive line as she changed gears.

“Rachel!” I gave the order.  Before Jacklight’s power makes it impossible to go further or more slip through.

Her responding whistle cut through the night.  Bentley and three more dogs were released, charging forward, leaping over our defensive line to crash into a sea of duplicates.  The duplicates were now too closely packed together to even fall down, and were literally climbing over top of one another.  The dogs stumbled or slipped as the Jacklights tugged at one or two of their legs, then proceeded to tear their way through the crowd.

They were brought to a stop when they found the second of the Teeth’s defensive powers waiting for them.  Vex’s forcefields were countless, numbering in the hundreds, each sharp enough to cut exposed flesh.  Alone, they weren’t strong, but the shards had a collective, cumulative resistance.  I’d hoped Rachel’s dogs would have enough raw strength to power through.

Still, we had the advantage here.  The tide of the duplicates was slowed as the bludgeoning power of the dogs crumpled them underfoot or crushed them against one another, and both Barker and Biter were free to join the defensive line.  I was able to step back and get a brief respite from the hand to hand fighting with the Spree duplicates.

“Kip up!” Rachel bellowed the words.

One dog leaped to the side, planting its feet on a wall, then leaped for the Teeth on the far side.

A four-legged creature just a little smaller than the dog lunged into the air, brought the two of them crashing down into the midst of the sea of tiny forcefields.  Animos.

Cape teams naturally found their own synergies and strategies.  This was how the Teeth fought.  Two defensive lines protecting the reserve forces while the truly dangerous members acted.

Butcher raised her gun, setting one finger on a trigger of her gun.  It started spinning up.

“Butcher incoming!” I called out.

She teleported past the worst of Vex’s forcefield barrier.  Flame billowed around her in a muted explosion as she appeared.

Butcher six’s explosive teleporting.  It’s weaker than it was when six had it, shorter range, and the intensity of the explosion isn’t nearly what it once was.

She pushed past the remainder, and leveled the gatling gun at the nearest dog, pulled the trigger before anyone, Regent included, could do anything to trip her up.

Ten bullets were fired in a half-second.  A moment later, the weapon jammed.

Wounded but intact, the dog turned and snapped at her.

She was gone a heartbeat before the teeth snapped together.

Butcher three’s danger sense.  Didn’t do him much good.  Driven mad, died in a suicidal attack against the Teeth.  Window of opportunity is lower, application limited to more physical danger.

She reappeared in a cloud of rolling flame, reversed her grip on her gatling gun and swung it like a club, knocking Bentley clean off his feet.

Super strength, courtesy of one, three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen.  Cumulative effects.  A little bit of super strength from multiple sources added up.

Animos was pinned by another dog, a yellow light surrounding both of the unnatural beasts.  He screeched at the dog, a high-pitched noise that made me wince, but the effect didn’t take hold.  Animos’ scream could strip someone temporarily of their powers, but Citrine was dampening the effect.  That, or there was nothing to take away from the dog.  The mutation was Rachel’s power, technically.

Butcher approached the pair, and Citrine abandoned her assault, letting up.

As Tattletale had warned Grue, she’d warned Citrine as well. Butcher’s power was too dangerous to muck with.  Grue risked absorbing the consciousness of the prior Butchers, and Citrine risked striking on the right ‘attunement’ and accidentally killing Butcher.

But Citrine was still a leader, didn’t waste a moment.  She gave the signal, shouted something I couldn’t make out, and her followers opened fire.  Jacklight and Codex lobbed their attacks towards Butcher, and the leader of the Teeth teleported away before either could do any real damage.  Ligeia produced a geyser of water that sent duplicates flying ten or twelve feet in the air.  Othello, for his part, was standing by, his hands in his pockets, his two-tone mask expressionless.

Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t contributing.  Hemorrhagia was enduring an assault from an invisible, immaterial foe.  I could feel him, feel the movement against my bugs, but the bugs didn’t settle on him, simply passed through.  He was only partially there, focusing on allowing certain aspects of himself, his weapon, to affect our world.

Shallow cuts appeared on Hemmorhagia’s face, chest and arms as she tried ineffectually to shield herself, and those same cuts exploded violently as she used her power to draw her blood from her body and turn it into hard, physical, cutting weapons.  More blood congealed into broad scabs that protected her and reduced the damage of the continuous slashes.

A distance away, Imp appeared, electrocuting Spree with a jab of her taser and bringing an end to the stream of duplicates.  Not that the duplicates were doing as much damage as they had been.  Like lemmings running off a cliff, many were scaling the piles of fallen clones and promptly running into Vex’s forcefields, only adding more corpses to the virtual hill of corpses that separated us from the other members of the Teeth.

Our two Strangers were doing much of the work in dealing with the back line.  That left us to deal with Butcher.

Bentley had recovered and charged her.  She responded by hitting him with a wave of pain, putting him off his guard so she could strike him aside.

Butcher oneInflicted agony at range.

Bentley was quick to recover, quick to push past the pain that she was inflicting and attack.  She prepared to strike him again.

Regent knocked her off-balance, and she was caught off guard as Bentley struck her with one paw.

She teleported out of Bentley’s way before he could follow through with the attack, appeared in between Regent and I, surrounded by our capes.  We staggered back as flame washed over us.

I felt my focus begin to slip, thoughts of violence filling my mind.  I itched to attack, to hurt her.

I sent my bugs in, but that was the one gesture that set the others in motion.  Without realizing it, I found myself charging her.

Biter and Regent were among those caught in her spell.  We attacked her as mindlessly as Spree duplicates had attacked us.

My knife stabbed at her armor, doing too little damage.  I stabbed again, found a vulnerable spot at the back of her neck, just below her hairline.  I dragged the knife through her flesh.

Without even turning to face me, she elbowed me, and all the strength I had went out of me.  I careened a distance away, tumbled, landed amidst Spree clones.

They clutched feebly at me while I reeled.

Lizardtail’s power pressed even harder against me.  I could feel the edges of my injuries tingling, the wounds slowly knitting closed.  Far slower than they should have been, given the earlier demonstration of Lizardtail’s power.  Either he was weaker, or her ability to inflict wounds that progressively got worse over time was taking away from the power of his regeneration.

Butcher had a grip on Regent, threw him into Biter with enough strength to take the two of them out of the fight.

Possibly enough strength to kill one, if Lizardtail’s power wasn’t able to outpace the internal damage done.

Induces mindless rage.  Power from Butcher Nine.  Very low range.

Inflicts wounds that fester.  Power from Butcher Four.  Less effect than Four had.  Far shorter duration.

She teleported.  I could sense where she’d arrived as my bugs died en-masse.  She was going after Rachel.

I had lines of silk prepared, did what I could to bind Butcher.  She struggled briefly, then teleported free of them.

Codex and Ligeia directed attacks her way, and again, Butcher disappeared before either could really affect her.

I felt something shift inside me, and the pain dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  I got to my feet.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Get the wounded!”

Rachel whistled, and the dogs converged on our location.  Butcher had appeared in the midst of the Ambassadors, but the variety and ferocity of their attacks had her teleporting from moment to moment, doing more damage with the flames that appeared around her than through any action she could carry out.

It seemed that even though Codex’s attack hadn’t connected full force, Butcher wasn’t keen on giving her an opportunity to deliver any more grazing hits.

Rachel stopped next to me, offered me a hand up.

“Fetch Codex,” I said.  “The Ambassador in white.  Butcher’s going after her.  It might mean Codex is doing the most damage.”

Rachel gave me a curt nod, and we charged, leaving Grue to help Regent.

Butcher teleported away as Bentley hurtled at her.  I reached for Codex, took her hand.  She looked at Citrine, as if asking permission.

“Go,” Citrine said.

I helped Codex up onto Bentley’s back.  She had to sit sidesaddle.  Those ridiculous dresses.  They weren’t meant for fighting.

But, then, I suspected that Accord was used to ‘shock and awe’ tactics, when he had to engage in a direct assault.  How many of his enemies were as tough, versatile or persistent as Butcher?

She’d teleported away, effectively leaving her team to fend for themselves.  Only Reaver, Vex and, to a lesser degree, Hemorrhagia, were in fighting shape.  Butcher was interested only in the fight.  She was the central pillar of the Teeth, and stopping her would stop them, and for much that reason, her team was a secondary concern to us as well.

“Run!” I told Rachel.  “Codex, hit her where you can.”

I was versed in fighting teleporting foes, had engaged in a similar conflict against Oni Lee.  Butcher wasn’t him.  She didn’t obsessively use knives.

No, she was drawing a configuration of metal rods and panels from her back.  Her gun abandoned in the course of the fighting, she was unfolding the device into a different weapon.

A compound bow.

I already knew which power she was using next.  Imp had sabotaged the gun, jamming the ammo feed, but she hadn’t been able to get at the bow.  It was massive when fully unfolded, nearly six feet long, not counting the extra length as part of the curve.  Large enough that it required superhuman strength to draw.

Less than a year ago, Butcher had been known as Quarrel, and as Tattletale told it, Quarrel had used a much smaller version of that same bow to kill Butcher Thirteen in a drawn-out fight in New York.

Regent wasn’t in fighting shape.  My bugs weren’t able to move fast enough to reach her.  Ligeia wasn’t in a position to hit her with water, and Jacklight’s orbs didn’t reach nearly that far.

If she started shooting, we’d drop like flies.

“Hit her,” I said.  “Codex!”

Codex reached out to use her brain-drain attack.  It was visible only by the effects it had, but I’d seen it move through the Spree clones.  It was slow.

Butcher had time to string her bow before she had to teleport out of the way, appearing on top of a building with a vantage point of the battlefield.  She knelt, touching the rooftop, and reformed the stone into arrows.

That power was Butcher Eight’s, except he’d had more reach, was faster.

Bugs clustered at her eyes, but she barely seemed to notice.  Nearly blind, she drew her string, pointed the arrow at us.

Before I could react, shout a warning, Codex hit me with enough force to nearly unseat me, despite how I was sitting astride Bentley.  Something else struck my shoulder with enough force to tear half the armor away.

The new villain slumped and fell, joined by the piece of my armor that had been shorn off.  An arrow neatly penetrated her neck.

Butcher drew her bow again.

She didn’t miss.  She did something to warp space or adjust the very fabric of reality, so her shots always struck the intended target.

She aimed towards my teammates, paused, lowered her weapon a second as if momentarily confused.

The bow swept in the Ambassador’s direction.

Then she turned, her body rotating, the massive bow and long arrow pointing at us.  Rachel and I.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Go, go!”

We could only get out of range.

How far could a bow like that send an arrow flying?

Apparently Butcher didn’t think it would be this far.  She teleported, paused, then teleported again.  A small fire erupted at each destination point.

Another teleport, and she killed a swarm of bugs I’d left lying in wait.  I’d hoped she would fall short, and that I could bind her weapon with silk.  No such luck.

“She’s following!” I shouted.

Rachel grunted a response, kicked Bentley to drive him to run faster, then whistled.

Her dogs broke away from the rest of the Ambassadors and Undersiders, trailing after us.  Butcher had to teleport as one spry, smaller dog noticed her and ascended to the rooftop to give chase.

Buying time, but she was closing the distance.

I drew from the silk I had stored in my utility compartment.  Coils of it, braided together into lines strong enough to suspend a grown man.

Hopefully strong enough to hold Butcher.

We had a plan, I just hadn’t counted on her being quite as tenacious as she was.  I’d looked at the teleportation power, had failed to account for what it meant in conjunction with her danger sense.

I formed the silk into nets.  I could guess at her next destination, track her possible arrival points.

Again, she teleported right on top of a net.  The flames destroyed it.

One net left.

We’d reached the edge of the city.  There were fewer buildings, fewer rooftops.  Wet clumps of sand flew behind Bentley’s feet as he dug deep to find traction.

Butcher appeared on one of the last remaining rooftops, killing a cloud of bugs.  Other ambient bugs clustered on her, biting and stinging, doing ineffectual damage. Too tough, courtesy of Butcher number… fuck it.  Didn’t matter, really.

She deemed herself close enough to take a shot, drew her arrow back, raising the bow so it pointed nearly at the sky.

The net closed around her, unseated her arrow from its mount.

Bugs wound more strands around her knees.  The wind pushed at her, and she tried to extend one foot to catch her balance, succeeded only in tipping herself over.  She fell from the roof of the five-story building.

She teleported herself right to the ground, cutting the height of her fall in half and freeing herself of the net.

It was still a hard landing.

“Get her!  Fetch her!”

Rachel nodded, whistled three times, pointed.

The dogs that trailed after us were quick to follow the order, snatching up Butcher.

She’d heal, was probably healing the brain damage Codex had inflicted.  Butcher was tough enough that the dogs probably wouldn’t do enough damage before she regained her senses.

I might have been wrong in that assumption, but we couldn’t afford to think otherwise.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran.  Rachel and I on Bentley, a pack of her dogs following behind.

There was no telling how much time we had.

We’d gone into this with one plan.  One solid way of putting an end to Butcher.  It was why we weren’t hiding in the safety of Grue’s darkness.

Though we were in less danger than we’d been since the battle started, my heart was pounding harder than ever.

“Stop!” I called out, to be heard over the wind.

Rachel pulled Bentley to a stop.  She knew what came next, gave a hand signal.  “Dogs, stop!  Rat-dog, forward!’

The dog that had Butcher ran on a little further, passing over a line of stones in the wet sand.

“Shake!”

Rat-dog shook Butcher like she was a chew toy.

“Good dog,” Rachel said.  “Drop her.”

Rat-dog dropped Butcher.

“Come.”

Rat-dog whimpered.

“Good boy, come.”

Tail between his legs, Rat-dog approached, passing over the line of stones in the wet sand.

Long seconds passed.  Bentley virtually heaved with the exertion of the run.

My eyes didn’t leave Butcher.

Butcher roused, and it wasn’t a slow affair.  One instant she was lying prone, the next she’d teleported, appeared next to the narrow, light-bodied dog and bludgeoned it, sending it flying.

“Dakota, go!  Bear, go!”

Two more dogs charged Butcher, drove her back.

“Stop,” I warned Rachel.  I lowered my voice, “She has that rage aura.”

It didn’t matter.  Butcher dispatched the two dogs just as easily, eyed us warily as Rachel commanded them to retreat.

“Good dogs,” Rachel said, as they hurried to her side.

My eyes still didn’t leave Butcher.  I watched, waited.

She didn’t understand what was going on, why we weren’t pressing the attack.

But she wasn’t confident either.

She strung her bow, as if testing us.  She started to create an arrow out of sand, condensing it into a more solid form.

Then she gave up, stepped back.  The hardened rod of sand crumbled.

“Stop it,” she said.

I shook my head.

She lashed out, hit us with raw pain.

In the agony, the feeling of fire running through my veins, I toppled from Bentley’s back.

I’d anticipated this, or something like it, knew it was temporary.  I could only grit my teeth and tell myself it was almost the best case scenario, even when it didn’t quite feel like it.

Rachel’s dogs bristled, but the pain dissipated, and she found herself free to command them to stand down.

It didn’t matter.  Butcher was on her knees now, face turned toward the ground.

“Don’t say anything,” I murmured.

With more focus than before, Butcher formed a spike out of hard sand.

She was murmuring to herself now.  Conversing under her breath with the voices in her head.  She sounded oddly insistent, plaintive in a very childish manner.

When the weapon was formed, she glanced skyward, murmured something indistinct.

Then teleported a distance into the air, directly above the spike.

There was a wet sound, a pause.

“Nothing?” I asked Rachel.  “You… don’t feel her powers?”

She shook her head.

“Then let’s go.”

We began our long journey back to the others, leaving Butcher with a spike through her heart.

No rush.  The fight was over.  One more foe taken down.

If the PRT happened to wonder if any of the Undersiders or Ambassadors had acquired Butcher’s powers, all the better.

“Mind if I come by tonight?” I asked, my voice low.

Rachel shot me a glower over her shoulder, “Why?”

“To talk.”

“We can talk now.”

“And so I can see how you’re coping with your minions.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a whatever,” she said.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Okay,” I said.

There was no more conversation as we closed the distance to the others.

They were more or less in ship-shape when we arrived.  Regent was propped up against a wall, but he wasn’t pulverized.  The only one we’d lost was Codex.

“Success?” Grue asked.

“Success,” I said.

The entire group, even the straight-backed Ambassadors, seemed to react with relief.

“Guess my sister has one more kill under her belt,” Regent commented.  “Fourteen voices in Cherish’s head to keep her company as she spends the next few centuries alone at the bottom of the bay.”

“Daddy!” a toddler squealed.  No older than three, the small child waded past a pack of dogs to her father, the tall, large-bellied man who I’d seen handling some of Rachel’s dogs.

Rachel ignored the reunion, greeted the dogs who milled around her, barking and whining in joy as their master returned.

“Food?” she asked me, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Sure.”

“Someone make food,” she declared.

“I will!” a darker-skinned teenage girl declared.  She looked to be of mixed race, with brilliant blue eyes that didn’t match up with her brown, coarse hair and skin.

“Hamburger,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” the kid said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Vegetables,” I cut in.  “Something healthier.”

Rachel shrugged.  “That grilled crap you made before, with the… long green vegetables.”

“The asparagus?”

“Yeah.  That was good.”

The kid looked like she’d just won the lottery, almost bursting with joy.

Barker, Biter and the veterinarian all set to basic chores around the place, as if it were routine.  No one seemed to begrudge the fact that Bitch was taking it easy while they worked, not even Barker, who had been somewhat prickly the last time I’d run across him.

Either she’d earned their respect, or they’d learned how stubborn she was.

“I wanted to talk to you about the future,” I said.

“Mm,” Rachel said, reclining.  The dogs were clustered around her feet, the larger ones laying their heads in her lap.

“It’s… problematic, having you patrolling the area out here, scaring the locals.  You know that, right?”

Rachel shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

I watched as the man with the three year old girl joined one of Bitch’s other followers, a woman who had apparently been babysitting the child.  He fished in one pocket for money, then handed it over.

His voice was quiet, a mumble, “When some’dy helps you out, what d’you say?”

“Thank you!” the toddler chirped.

The woman only scowled.  I saw Rachel out of the corner of one eye, watching.

The man made his way past the kitchen, nearly running into the darker-skinned girl who was already cooking, past Barker and Biter, before finding a place to sit with his child.

Despite his size, his presence, the man with the child didn’t make eye contact with anyone.  Almost flinched at it, even in the face of a hundred-pound girl.

Mentally disabled?  Developmentally delayed?  Or had he suffered a trauma?

Between the way the girl had been so overjoyed at the slightest praise, and this man’s attitude, I was wondering if maybe Rachel’s people were somehow just as damaged as she was.

“There’s one possibility,” I said to Rachel.  “A role you could play in this.  You don’t have to.  Just putting it out there.”

“What’s that?”

“The portal, it sounds like it’s going to be a thing.  There’s a whole world out there with nobody around.  People will be settling there, establishing a society.  I’m imagining there’ll be something of a society popping up around the portal, a mirror city to Brockton Bay.  But there’ll be pioneers as well.  People striking out on their own.  And some of the Undersider’s enemies are going to try to slip through, control things on the other side.”

“And?”

“If you’re willing, maybe you could serve as an aide to the Undersiders, but you patrol for trouble, track down troublemakers and fugitives.  That could be your territory, more than just the fringes of this city.”

She frowned.

“It’s just an idea.”

“It’d be hard to feed my dogs.”

“Manageable,” I said.  “Tattletale aims to control one of the fleets that brings supplies to the other side.  We don’t know how restrictive the government will be with the portal, or where ownership will lie, but… I don’t imagine getting dog food to you will be a problem.  And as the area gets settled, maybe you could supply trained dogs to pioneers or hunters looking to capitalize on the area.”

She didn’t reply, focusing on her adoring dogs, instead.  Two hands, no less than twenty ears to scratch in her reach.

“Think about it,” I said.

“Mm,” she grunted.

The man was playing with his daughter, who was squealing and reaching out to pet the dogs who were standing by, almost protective.

“They’re okay?” I asked.  “The dogs won’t hurt the kid?”

“None of the dogs at this shelter,” Rachel said.  “Picked them carefully.”

I was a little stunned at that.  To give that much thought to something like that… it wasn’t in her character.

“Why?” I asked.

“You said I should think about what people need from dogs.  If I’m going to find them homes, the dogs need to be able to live with families.”

I nodded.  There were more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to spoil the quiet relief I felt at hearing her say that.

We sat for ten more minutes before Bitch rose and began playing with dogs.  She incorporated training into the play, dividing dogs into teams and having them fetch in shifts, among other things.  I stood, joining her, and she handed me a ball.

There wasn’t much more conversation beyond that.  Most of the talking was reserved for the dogs.

Time passed quickly enough that I was surprised that Rachel’s henchperson announced that the food was ready.  Not everyone collected some.  Barker and Biter held off.  The vet had her hands full.  Rachel loaded up a plate with two burgers and a pile of grilled vegetables.  I took about half the portions she did.

It wasn’t very good, but the kid seemed so pleased with herself that I couldn’t say anything to that effect.  Rachel didn’t seem to care, nor did the big man and his daughter.

“Thank you,” the toddler piped up, sing-song, when she was done eating the bits of crumbled up hamburger and bun.

Rachel, for her part, only stood to grab a soda.  She mussed up the cook’s hair on the way back, as if she were petting a dog.

…Not quite a leadership style I might have suggested, but the kid looked happy.

I finished what I could, considered throwing the rest to the dogs, then decided it was best not to risk angering Rachel.

It was late at night, now, but I didn’t return to my lair.  We tended to the dogs, grooming them, cleaning their ears and brushing their teeth.  Certain dogs were due pills, and Rachel saw to it that they got the pills.

It was an endless sequence of those little tasks I’d always found frustrating.  Cleaning up, doing jobs that would only be undone by the next day, if not within minutes.  I’d always found them frustrating, found it tolerable only now that I could delegate bugs to many of them.

Rachel reveled in it.  It seemed to calm her, center her.

The others found their way to their beds, or made their way out the front door to head back to wherever they lived.  Many dogs retreated to the kennels that were set out for each of them, and Rachel took the time to lock them in.

The night was creeping on, and I wasn’t leaving.  I knew why, didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Exhaustion overtook me eventually, though I would have been hard pressed to say exactly when.

I woke in the middle of the evening, found myself slumped on a couch with a crick in my neck, a blanket over me.

Rachel was on another couch, and the blue-eyed girl, the cook, was lying beside her, her back pressed to Rachel’s front.

I stood, stretched, winced at the knot at the muscle where my neck met my shoulder.  The movement seemed to stir Rachel.  She started to extricate herself from behind the girl.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” I murmured, keeping my voice quiet enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone.

She shifted position, keeping herself propped up, “You leaving?”

I frowned, “Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She settled back down, and the kid curled up against her.  Kid.  The teenager was probably older than Aisha or Vista.  I couldn’t help but see her as younger, because there was something about her that screamed ‘lost’.

Maybe that was the role that Rachel filled, here.  Forming a screwed up, antisocial family with those who had nobody else.  Damaged people.

I was okay with that.  I could believe that, even if she didn’t heal them or help them get better in any explicit way, she wouldn’t make them worse.

I felt like I should say something more, but I was tired, my thoughts increasingly occupied by greater matters.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said.

I headed to the door.  I was already gathering bugs to me, just to ensure I had a safe walk back.  A walk home in the dark would be nice.  Time to think.

“Thanks.”

I stopped in my tracks, looked back.

Rachel had her head down against the armrest of the couch.  I couldn’t see her through the other girl’s head.

But it had been her voice.

I revised my opinion.  Maybe they could heal each other, in their own ways.

It helped, as I stepped outside and started my long, quiet trek home.  I was riddled with doubts, with countless worries, but knowing that Rachel was in a better place was a light in the darkness.

I had let two days pass since my conversation with Miss Militia.  Dealt with the Teeth.  They weren’t all gone.  Hemorrhagia had slipped away, as had Reaver, and there were rank and file troops.  Parian still had some cleaning up to do, at the very least, but the Teeth weren’t the presence they had been.

Now I had to face everything I’d been dreading.  I’d spent time here because I was procrastinating.  Putting off the inevitable.  I couldn’t put it off any longer: if I didn’t bring myself to do it soon, it would only get harder to bring myself to do it.

Tomorrow morning, I thought.  I face off with Tagg and the rest of the PRT.

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Imago 21.5

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The rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time we finished.

My sundress was lying on the floor, a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the spot where we’d laid down.  I shook it, then called my swarm, let my bugs crawl up my body to sweep and brush my skin clean.  The bugs made their way up the sides and back of my neck to my hair, then weaved through it as a mass, their bodies and mandibles helping to set it in order.  Others progressed down my arms, making their way to the dress, doing much the same with the fabric.

I was just about finished when I caught Brian staring at me.

I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled a little, shook his head, turned his attention to his costume.

I pulled the sundress over my head, and it was my chance to take a look at Brian.  He had only the leggings of his costume on, and was working one arm into the sleeve, his chest bare behind the ‘v’ of the unzipped upper body.  The way his muscles shifted fluidly beneath his skin, the lines of his body… I felt an ache that wasn’t heartbreak.  A pang of loss on a baser level.

I wanted him, damn it.  Wanted to nourish every sense with him.  The visual of him, the taste of his sweat when I kissed his skin, his smell, the bass of his voice and the little noises he made.  The feel of him, warm, the way every part of him was firm without being unyielding.

But no, it wasn’t going to work out.  There was no long-term, and trying to cling to one would only spoil it all.

We hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t want to taint the silence with something that would only be awkward or ineffectual, couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, but I didn’t want to leave him feeling like I was ashamed or unhappy, leaving it like this.

While he was still pulling on the upper part of his costume, I approached him, stood on my tiptoes, and then kissed his cheek.

Brian didn’t respond as I got the bags, collected the paperwork, folder and booklet Citrine had given us and headed down the stairwell to the street, moving at something between a brisk walk and a jog every step of the way.

There were no catcalls as I made my way back to the upper end of downtown.  Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, moving indoors, and the ones who’d stayed outside were still in a state where they were focusing more on the work than on the wet, noisy, damaged world beyond the work site.

The thin drizzle of rain was bothersome.  It wasn’t so much the wet, or the fact that it threatened to draw attention to me.  It was the fact that it was raining just enough that it was uncomfortable, but I’d still look lame if I used an umbrella.

No matter, in the grand scheme of things.  I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.  It was a good feeling.

For a while now, it had been hard to put a finger on my emotions.  What I was feeling now was crystal clear.  Loss.  Disappointment.  Relief.

All things considered, I felt oddly upbeat as I boarded a bus and caught a ride to my territory.  I had to take off my hat to avoid bumping it into people, and felt conspicuous, the ends of my hair wet, hat gone, my light, tourist-y appearance a little the worse for wear.

I headed to the empty seats at the back, and I couldn’t help but notice that one thirty-something year old guy was studying my face as I walked by.  He was with two or three of his friends, all of them tanned and dressed like the construction workers I’d passed.  Laborers.  I directed a small few mosquitoes to him as I brushed past.  One on each elbow and knee, to give me a sense of where he was moving and what he was doing.

It was thanks to the bugs that I could get the general idea of his movements: him reaching out to one of his friends, tugging on their arm, then leaning close to say something I couldn’t hear.

Damn it.  Not a problem, like it would be if someone spotted me on my way away from my territory, creating the possibility that heroes might crash the meeting with Citrine, but nonetheless inconvenient.

I sat in the back corner and set the bags beside me.  They were loaded down with hostile bugs, I had the handle to the bus’ emergency exit beside me, and my weapons were near-to-hand if things really got ugly.

The four men approached me, and I kept looking out the window, feigning a lack of concern.

They sat around me, all well-built, tall men, a barrier between me and the rest of the occupants of the bus. The one who’d noticed me glanced my way; I met his eyes, and he gave me a curt nod before deliberately ignoring me.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I appreciated the idea behind it, assuming it was for my benefit.  Was it the notion that I was a girl who needed protection?  Or was I more bothered by the fact that I probably needed a shower, and they were sitting a little close to me?

It might help to get a license, I thought.  And a car.

I smiled just a little at the idea that I might get a Volkswagen Beetle.  It’d be stupid, impractical, and it would be too obvious.  A van would be better in every respect.

Not that I couldn’t buy a number of cars.  A bug, a van, a boat… even a helicopter, assuming Atlas wouldn’t hold up.

No.  I was being unrealistic.  Still, it was an amusing thought.

Everyone exited the bus at the final stop, the area where the ferry had once been.  My self-styled escorts were among the last to leave, departing without so much as a glance my way, and I was last to step out into my territory.

I made my way deeper into my territory, my hat still stuffed in a bag, the soft rain wetting my hair and beading my skin.  My escorts made their way to a construction site, but other  people were recognizing me now that I was in my territory, and their recognition only helped others to notice.  Groups of people stepped out of my way in respect, in fear or a mingling of the two.

There was no rush.  I took a roundabout route, watching over my bugs and ensuring that everything was in an appropriate place.  Rats were still something of an issue, having feasted and multiplied many times over in the aftermath of the Leviathan attack, and I made a point of finding and exterminating any litters I found.

Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply.  They were one species I wanted to keep away from people, and I made a point of moving them away from all residential areas.  They were the filler in my swarms, one of the only species around that I could eradicate or use up entirely without doing too much to upset the local ecology.

I wanted Brockton Bay stable, everything in order.  That wasn’t limited to the human aspect of things.

I entered an area where the damage had once been heaviest, and where much of the construction had recently finished.  Here, things had been brought up to standards.  The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that this area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved.  Even the alleys, marked clearly with new one-way signs, tended to be wide enough that trucks and cars could potentially pass through in pairs.  But where there had once been dilapidated warehouses and factories, the buildings were quaint, neat and tidy, with siding in whites and light colors.  ‘Seaside colors’ I’d heard it described.  Colors that were warmer and more enticing, fitting with the boardwalk-in progress, the beaches that were being thoroughly cleaned, and the bay itself.  The water was gray now, reflecting the overcast sky above, but it was capable of being a brilliant, stellar blue.

People were already officially moving into this area, which had once been the part of Brockton Bay that people were urged to stay away from.  Couples, laborers, people with kids.

I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ on the side of one of the nicer, newer homes: a narrow, pale blue condominium.  I’d made requests that the graffiti be kept subtle, and I’d told people who worked for me to pass on word that others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere, to limit confusion.  My emblem, a beetle with wings spread, marked walls and signposts, predominantly on the buildings that had yet to receive attention.  Still, there were crude replicas here and there.  I’d have to make sure someone was watching out for that and passing on the word.

People were still watching me, eyeing me as I walked through the area.  Mosquitoes I’d brought to myself were clinging to me, leaving little doubt about who I was.  There was no need to hide.  I’d have other measures in place before too long.

My detour brought me around to what had become a makeshift memorial.  There were flowers and the like forming a ring where a fence had been erected.  In the center of the ring, an oval shape sat embedded in the ground.  This was the area where we’d fought Leviathan.  A time-distortion grenade had gone off, and three heroes had been trapped inside.  Brockton Bay’s own Dauntless among them.

The center of the bubble was as impenetrable as Clockblocker’s power, while the effects were more nebulous around the edges.  Dust and moisture were caught in the sphere, obscuring the contents, all moving a fraction of a glacial pace.  There was a hand print at one point where someone had tried to touch it, shifting the dust and moisture, losing some skin in the process.  In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere.  Pennies, sticks.  That had stopped when others had tidied up the area and the flowers had started appearing here and there.

There had been talk of blanketing the entire thing in flower petals, so it wasn’t a gray-brown egg with a neat pattern, but others wanted to leave it be, protecting it with a bubble or shelter so the rain and dust could clear away, and people who visited could see the three heroes as they were when they were caught within, in the midst of being thrown through the air, the very moment they effectively gave their lives for the sake of the city and the world.

The entire thing was framed by the surrounding buildings.  There’d been too much damage from the skirmish with Leviathan for them to stand, and I’d made a special request to the designers for the rebuilding.  They were shaped so that there was something of a clearing around the bubble.  The city could decide what to do with the bubble itself; I’d done what I could with the surroundings.

I reached into one of the shopping bags, retrieving a small bouquet.  I laid it just outside the fence, where it joined innumerable other tokens of respect: Letters, flowers, an action figure, a Dauntless poster with something illegible scribbled on it.

The city was healing, but there were still scars.  Some were smaller, like this.  Others, like the appropriately named ‘Scar’ downtown, or the lake Leviathan had created, weren’t so minor, would loom in the awareness of the people who lived here for a long time to come.  The ‘Scar’ had been encased in a squat, windowless, zig-zagging piece of architecture.  The lake would likely remain as it was, until the city found a way to make more use of it.  Neither was particularly pleasant to think about, either in terms of what had happened or the ideas about what could come in the future.

I could only hope that we could be so lucky in other areas, to have only scars and unpleasant reminders.

I was halfway back to my lair when I sensed intruders.  In an instant, my nerves were on edge, bugs stirring from the surroundings to investigate as discreetly as I could.

I thought of Leviathan attacking the area, of Mannequin’s visits, of Burnscar.

Except these were heroes present.

I let myself relax a fraction, waited until I was as calm as I could get.  Then I approached.

Parian was sitting on a bench under some eaves, Miss Militia leaning against a wall a few steps to her right, holding a bottle of water, and Flechette was a little ways away, staring up at a building in progress.  My people hung back, staring or watching the heroes with a wary eye, hesitant.  They couldn’t be sure if there was a confrontation in the works or if they should keep working, so they weren’t leaving and they weren’t really working.

Others were staring at me, noticing me.  Miss Militia seemed to catch onto the reaction of the crowd even before I was in her field of view.  She straightened and a rifle appeared in one hand.

Flechette saw the heroine move out of the corner of one eye, turned my way with her arbalest in hand.

Neither of them pointed their weapons at me.  A good sign.

“You’re in my territory,” I said, when I was in earshot.

“Apparently,” Flechette said, her voice level, “We can’t go anywhere in this city without being in someone’s territory.”

Miss Militia shot the girl a warning look.  “Parian invited us.”

I glanced at Parian, who was still sitting in her seat, a cloth doll in her lap.  “I would have preferred if she’d asked me first, but fine.”

“We wanted to talk,” Miss Militia said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Because that’s worked very well in the past few days, hasn’t it?  Or did you miss the notice?  The PRT outed me.”

“I’m aware,” Miss Militia said.  “I was there when they made the decision.  I spoke against it, for all the good it did.”

“For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.  I didn’t have my costume, but I could use intimidation to armor myself.  “Your stay here is a very temporary one.  I can ask you to leave at any time.  Your choice whether that’s peacefully or if I evict you.”

I could see Flechette tense.

“We’re not looking to fight,” Miss Militia said.

“Good,” I said, glancing around me.  The rain was still pattering down around me, and the street was damp, not flooded, but it wouldn’t be good to offload my bags there.  I ventured under the eaves and set the bags down in a dry spot.  I folded my arms.  “Give me your weapons.”

“There’s no point to giving you mine,” Miss Militia said.  “I could call it back to me, switch it to something else and shoot you before you could react.”

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “This is a symbolic gesture.  Please give me your weapons.”

She stared at me, taking me in.  Then she looked down at the gun.  It flickered and became a bowie-knife.  She tossed it into the air, caught it by the flat of the blade, and then approached me, extending the handle in my direction.

I took the blade, and I could swear it reacted, vibrating.

“It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s a part of me.”

A part of her, as in… a part of her mind? Or is it her passenger?

I felt like there was something more I should say in response to that, but I decided to focus on the matter at hand. People were watching from the sidelines.

“Flechette.  Your arbalest,” I said.

She looked far less agreeable than Miss Militia had been.  She glanced at her superior, received a nod in response.

Flechette placed the arbalest on the ground halfway between us, then backed off.

I was willing to bet she had other weapons, but it wasn’t worth the effort to get them from her.

“You owe me,” Flechette told Parian.  Parian didn’t respond, staring down at the ground.

“She owes you?” I asked.

“I was home.  I came back because she asked, and it’s probably coming out of my time off.  And you weren’t even here when we arrived.  We waited twenty minutes.”

“I would have been if I had any notice,” I said.

“I don’t want something ugly to happen on my vacation day,” Flechette said.  “That’s all I’m saying.  Not happy-cool about this as it is.”

“Were you shopping?” Miss Militia asked, as if she were trying to change the subject or distract me from Flechette.  When I looked, her eyebrows were indicating mild surprise.

“I can’t go shopping anymore,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound hostile, but reminding me of that isn’t going to help anything.”

“You’re upset,” Miss Militia said.  Before I could think of a retort, she added, “You deserve to be.”

I shut my eyes briefly.  When I asked my question, I sounded almost exasperated, “Why are you here?”

“The first reports came back from inside the portal, and they’re promising.”

I nodded.

“Fresh water, lumber.  Geological surveys suggest there’s mining, and that’s all in close proximity to the portal.  Plant, animal and insect life seem to have evolved in rough parallel to our own.  Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect.  The deviation point seems to be nearly five thousand years ago.  Several teams are working on analyzing the sites where humans settled, looking for the cause of extinction.  We’ll have reports back soon, and we expect to make a statement to the world at large in a few days.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.  If she weren’t nursing a bad migraine, I suspected she would have already informed me of the details.

“Even if it turns out there’s a plague, parasite or hostile agency in this other world, the sheer value of the resources on the other side are going to make this portal very valuable.  I think it’s safe to say Brockton Bay stands to become a rich city, and that begins the moment the news gets out.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“Expected something like that,” I said.  “I suppose this means you want to talk to the villains that are currently controlling this soon-to-be-rich city’s underworld.”

“Dragon and Defiant came to Brockton Bay with the interest of setting up a plan, drawing a truce between your group and ours.  I suspect Dragon already had suspicions about this other world and everything it entailed.”

“Except things got screwed up along the way,” I said.

“Yes.  And on the other side of things, particular events came to light, validating things you’d said, on several fronts.”

I glanced at Flechette.  I’d given her directions to find the armband.  There was also the business with the leading heroes of the Protectorate being complicit in the Cauldron debacle.  I wasn’t sure Flechette was up to date on that one.

“You checked out the armband?”  I asked Flechette.

It was Miss Militia who answered, “I was informed about possible tinker material being passed around and investigated, possible contraband.  It was Flechette investigating the device.  We contacted Defiant together and got the answers we were looking for, in a much more direct manner.”

“He was your friend.”

“A colleague and a friend, yes.  We were very good at different things.  He told me he was sorry he couldn’t attend this meeting.  He’s… preoccupied at present.  Flechette, Defiant and I had a long series of discussions that led nowhere in particular.  It only pointed to an increasingly ugly situation without an easy resolution.  Until Parian contacted Flechette about a meeting.”

“With me,” I said.

“With you.”

I glanced back at Parian.  She wasn’t moving, still sitting in a chair, not looking our way.

“Okay,” I said.  “We can talk.”

“Good.  Let me start off by extending an apology.  I’m sorry things turned out as they did.  I don’t agree with the way that incident played out.”

That incident.  The thing at the school.

“We looked back at what happened with your history at the school, the allegations of bullying-”

“Stop,” I said.

She did.

“If you’re going to say anything on the subject, don’t mince words.  You know who Shadow Stalker was beneath the mask.  You probably have an idea of the kind of things she did.  Don’t pretty it up by using words like allegations.”

Flechette stared at me.

“Not allegations then.  The bullying, the abuse you endured.  I don’t like that it happened.  I don’t like that we were complicit in it.  It fills in quite a few blanks, helping me make sense of what happened after you uncovered Shadow Stalker’s secret identity.  Defiant knows too, now.  I recognize that it might even have pushed you to take a different direction with your newfound powers.”

“I got my powers because of her,” I said.

Miss Militia fell silent.

“Early January, followed by a hospital stay.  You can look it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I suspected it was your mother’s passing that caused your trigger.”

“See,” I told her. “There’s one thing that’s really grating with you heroes.  You keep saying sorry.  Oh, you guys are sorry your top members were kidnapping people and turning them into freaks.  You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers.  You’re sorry that your bosses crossed a line, trying to drop bombs on our team members after we did the grunt work of facing the Slaughterhouse Nine.  You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.  But you don’t change.  You don’t do anything about it.”

There was enough venom in my voice that Flechette had started eyeing her arbalest, where it sat in the rain.  One of her hands was poised in the air, as if she were preparing to reach into a pouch at her side.  She was looking at the crowd around us, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was worried they’d respond if she attacked me, or if she was double checking they were out of earshot.

“That’s why we’re here,” Miss Militia said, calm.

“That’s why we’re here,” I echoed her.  “Yeah.  Well said.  All those events I just mentioned, they’re part of why I’m here.  I’d say you have nobody to blame but yourselves for the fact that you have me to deal with, but I’m willing to admit I’m largely at fault for the decisions I made.  You guys… you just greased the wheels, I suppose.”

“We’d like to change that dynamic.  Defiant, Dragon, myself-”

“You want to change, but you’re still working for them.  For the Protectorate,” I said.

“We have to.”

I frowned, forced myself to relax.  “Dragon said the same thing.  Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.  You think we need the Protectorate.”

“We do.  And if everyone with enough of a conscience to feel regret over these events were to leave, I don’t think anyone will be happy with the group of those who stayed behind.”

“There’s another route,” I said.  “Accept that it’s broken, accept that it needs to change, and do something about it.  Recognize that what Tagg did was fucked up, act on that.”

“It’s dangerous.  Things are sensitive.  There’s only an eighteen percent chance of success in the upcoming fight if we face Behemoth.  Twenty-nine percent if it’s the Simurgh, with… a great deal more fallout after the fact.   Without the Protectorate, chances drop to an even lower number than they are, and the damage gets worse.”

Dinah.  The only way they’d have these numbers would be Dinah.

“You’re afraid of rocking the boat when the ship’s sinking,” I said.

“Something like that.”

I sighed.

“But…” Miss Militia hesitated.  “In light of revelations over this past month, keeping recent events in mind, and perhaps because we have more of an insight into who you are, Taylor Hebert, I think we might be more open to more discussion than we were.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Protectorate, the Wards.”

“The PRT?”

Miss Militia shook her head.

It wouldn’t be enough if the PRT wasn’t on board.  There was some argument I wanted to make, something I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t quite form the thought in my head.

“What do you think of this?” I asked Flechette, to buy myself time to think, or maybe in hopes of rounding out the half-formed thought.

“It doesn’t directly affect me,” she said, glancing away.  “I’m still trying to decide if I should trust you.

“If it doesn’t directly affect you, why does this matter?”

“Because I got home and saw my family, and they said I was different, angrier.  And they were right.  Because I’m hearing about everything that’s happening, all these secrets coming out, and I can’t even look at my teammates without wondering if there’s something nefarious about them.  Because Parian was the one good thing I found in this city, and you recruited her,” Flechette said.

Parian looked up.

“That costume, it’s like a slap in the face.  Like, it wasn’t obvious enough you corrupted her.  You had to take the playfulness away?  The joy?”

“Hey,” Parian said, standing.  “It was my decision.”

“She was following advice I gave,” I said.  “She wanted to stand up to the people who are trying to attack her territory, and she wanted to do it without our help.  Being a little more intimidating doesn’t hurt.”

“You-”

“Flechette,” Miss Militia cut her off.

Flechette went limp, the fight gone out of her, just like that.

“I don’t know anymore,” Flechette said.  “I don’t know where I’m going.  Everything was all laid out, a career with the Wards, a career with the Protectorate.  Except I’m not even sure there’s going to be a future anymore… and I’m not sure what happens if there is.”

“I think you and I are very similar on that front,” I said, my voice quiet.

She looked at me, her lips pressed together in anger, then looked away, unable to disagree, as much as she might want to.

“I guess… I guess what it comes down to,” I said, “Is that you have to decide what you want.  What you’re willing to fight for and make sacrifices for.”

Flechette’s eyes flickered over to Parian, then down to the ground.

Ah.

“I’m… alone,” she said.  “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself.  Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  And when I finally got to… I’ve never felt more disconnected from everyone around me.  It wasn’t what I wanted, or what I needed.  I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends.  Sounds stupid when I say that.  Sounds weak.”

“I’m fully aware I don’t have much stock with you, so maybe what I say isn’t worth much to you, but I don’t think less of you for saying that.  The prospect of being all on your own is scary.  It’s harder, and things are hard enough as it is.”

Miss Militia was staring at me.  I met her eyes.

“Interesting to have a conversation with you,” she said, “With a greater understanding of the girl behind the mask.  What do you want, Taylor?”

“I’m not Taylor,” I said.  “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

“Skitter, then.”

“Compromise,” I said.  “Give me compromise.”

“I can try.”

“You can, the Wards can, but the PRT won’t.  You said as much.”

“They have other burdens to bear.”

“And until they work with us, they’re going to be a bucking bull in a china shop,” I said.  “Strutting around and doing catastrophic damage to a delicate situation.  Tagg said this is a war-”

I could see a look flash across Miss Militia’s face.

“-and you can’t reason with people like that,” I said.  “Not people who are hungry for conflict, willing to fight until someone’s too beat up to fight back.”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  Her tone of voice had shifted.  “You can’t.  I’ve heard him say something along those lines before.  A small part of the reason I’m here.”

“Then you agree.  He can’t be leading the PRT if we’re going to reach any kind of consensus.”

“I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.  The very structure of the PRT is built around the idea that the unpowered call the shots, and the capes follow them.”

“We both know that it’s not that cut and dry,” I said.  I glanced at Flechette.  Did she know about Alexandria?

“I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s not in my power.”

“It’s in mine,” I said.  “I think.  I hope.”

I could see the furrow in between her eyebrows.  “What are you thinking?  More violence?  You won’t be able to twist Tagg’s arm to get what you want out of him.”

“I’m still not entirely sure,” I said.  “I think I can twist his arm.  It’ll be easier if you’re willing to compromise.  I need your help to make this work.”

“What sort of help?”

“A mixture of support and passive resistance.  Nothing that hurts the PRT as a whole.  Nothing that hurts the result against the Endbringers.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Specifically?”

“For starters, we treat every situation like you treated the ABB, back in April.  We address threats, tag team them.  Only we communicate more this time around.  The Teeth are a problem, but others are going to arise when word about the portal gets out.”

“Done.  The PRT may not play ball, but we can communicate by other channels.”

“The heat’s off the Undersiders and Ambassadors both.  We can’t do anything constructive if you guys are after us.”

“The PRT will continue to order us to engage you.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Then that’s when you apply passive resistance.  You return to your bosses and you say the mission against the Undersiders was unsuccessful.  Bitch ran, Grue used his darkness, Tattletale must have passed on information.  We do our best to avoid giving you cause to come after us, you don’t attack when the bosses order you to.”

She frowned.  “This is giving you amnesty for past misdeeds, in practice.”

“Yes.  But it ensures we’re all in fighting shape when the next Endbringer fight goes down.”

“Accord remains a problem.”

“We’ll keep him busy, put him in the background.  Tattletale has a sense of his motives.  We can keep him occupied while keeping him from having a direct hand in things.”

“Our passivity would hinge on his.”

“Deal,” I said.

“And you can’t keep pushing things like you have been.  The degree of aggression you’ve been demonstrating, with the attack at the PRT head offices and Valefor, it tests our patience.”

“They noticed, then?  Valefor’s eyeballs.”

“That’s the kind of event that provokes a response from the PRT.”

I nodded.  “It’s supposed to, just a little.  It was a message to Tagg as much as a way of dealing with Valefor.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that will get him to abandon his position or back down.”

“I think it is,” I said.  “But that’s only one aspect of a greater plan.”

I could see her frown.  Not that I could see the lower half of her face, but I saw it in her eyes.

“A day or two,” I said, “Then I stop.  I’ll fill you in on the details as soon as I have them.”

She frowned.

“Flechette,” I said.

“What?”

“Is this satisfactory?  If we call a truce, the local heroes will be free to assist Parian.  I suspect she’ll be willing to accept their help where she’s less accepting of ours.”

“I will,” Parian said.

“Would that make things easier between the two of you?”

“I’m not local,” Flechette’s words were a whisper.

“You could be,” I told her.  “Or you could visit.  I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.”

“We can use all the help here we can get,” Miss Militia said.  “If you wanted to join the Wards team on a permanent basis, I could see about arranging something.”

“Let- let me think about it,” Flechette said.  “It’d mean leaving my family.  Or moving them, depending.”

“Then that’s as settled as it’s going to get,” I said.

“I still have concerns about your continued swathe of destruction,” Miss Militia told me.  “If your vendetta against Tagg gets any uglier, this idea won’t hold.”

I’d hoped the distraction of talking to Flechette would keep her from returning to that topic.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt,” I said.  “Please.”

I could see the lines around her eyes deepen as she frowned.

“Just this once.  It’s all I’ve been asking you guys for, from the beginning.  Trust that I’m doing what I’m doing for a good reason.  I just need you to maybe turn a blind eye here and there, support me when the situation calls for it.  I’ll fill you in where I can, and I’ll make a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know what to do otherwise.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia conceded.

A second passed with nobody speaking.

“I’d extend my hand for you to shake,” I told her, “But we probably don’t want something that blatant popping up on a cell-phone video.  For now, at least, this truce stays unofficial.”

She offered me a curt nod.  I held her knife out towards her, and it dissolved into a mess of green-black energy.  It zipped to Miss Militia’s hand, became a pistol.  She holstered it.

Together with Flechette, she left, making her way out of my territory.  A hundred pairs of eyes watched them leave.  Maybe I could pass word around to get people to keep quiet on the subject.

“Thank you,” Parian murmured.

I glanced at her.

“For what you said to Flechette.  How you said it.”

“I have more respect for you than you’d probably believe,” I told her.  “I hope it works.”

“I think it will.”

I watched the heroes as they departed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, eyeing the light rainfall beyond the eaves of the building.  I shrugged, heading towards my lair.  “Redundant, maybe, but I think a shower is the least of the luxuries I’m entitled to as a wealthy, nationally recognized supervillain.  I’ll talk to you later.  Let me know if you hear back from Flechette.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to my back.

I looked back, gave her a quizzical look.

“I could have arranged that better,” she said.  “I sprung it on you.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “It was necessary.  No worries on that front.”

I didn’t voice my true thoughts aloud, though.  The conversation with the heroes had needed to happen.  The fact that Parian and Flechette had been present was a stroke of luck.  The downside, the other side of the matter, was that I now had to act before someone in a position of power caught on to what was happening with our truce and ended it prematurely, or before Miss Militia herself reconsidered.  I had to act before I started having second thoughts.

Which was harder than it sounded, because I hadn’t even figured out if there was a way to pull this off without alienating everyone that counted.

Parian had inadvertently accelerated my plan. For that, I hated her, just a little.  That feeling was clear enough, small as it might be.

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Imago 21.4

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Had Tagg done me a favor, by getting me to think along these lines?  For what felt like too long, I’d been overly focused on the now.  Getting through the next few days, surviving, staying sane, parceling out the time I had to relax and striving to find moments where I could feel safe.  That state of mind hadn’t started when I put on my costume.

Odd, to be taking someone’s words to heart, when I had so very little respect for them.

I was in plainclothes, and they were clothes I wouldn’t normally have worn, which was sort of the point.  The idea was to be hidden in plain sight, as I walked in the midst of the crowds downtown.  I’d removed my glasses and regretfully donned contact lenses, slathered on sunscreen and donned a white summer dress and sandals, along with a big, wide-brimmed sun hat that was incongruous enough to mark me as a possible tourist.  Shopping bags and loosely braided hair helped complete the image.

Maybe the sun hat was conspicuous.  The clouds were heavy overhead, and the wind was moving them across the sky at a decent pace.  Hopefully it would brighten up.

If anything would give me away, I suspected it’d be my eyes.  I eyed everyone that crossed paths with me, looking at them without looking directly at them, watching for that glance and that restrained reaction that might suggest I’d been spotted.

Were that to happen, I’d change direction, take a different route to my destination.  If that wasn’t enough to shake the attention, well… I did have my bugs, flowing through my hair, beneath my hat and between the dress and my bare skin.  I had weapons, my costume and more bugs in the shopping bags, beneath the shoeboxes and spare clothes I’d put over top of them.

I stopped at an intersection, and was briefly relieved of the need to watch the people around me, free to look at their movements as a whole.  The crowd was moving like a river, separating into streams of people who moved through the streets that had open shops and restaurants, avoiding the ones where construction was prevalent.

I detoured into one of those construction-heavy side streets, fully aware that I was abandoning the ‘hide in plain sight’ ploy.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody could really see my face, and I had my bugs.

There were a few crude catcalls from the construction workers at the sites to either side of me.  Not because I was attractive in any way, I suspected, but because I was over fourteen, under forty, I weighed less than two hundred pounds and I was wearing a skirt.

This area was the site of the fight against Echidna.  Walls bore the marks of laser blasts and gunfire, blood still marked the streets here and there, and there were divots and holes in the road, surrounded by rings of bright spray paint so pedestrians wouldn’t step into one and break an ankle.  Holes created by blasts of energy, small explosions, large explosions and the heavy footfalls of a gargantuan monster with clawed toes.

Bugs notified me about a change in the wind before the wind even reached me.  I already had my hand on my hat to keep it in place as hat, hair and skirt were stirred by the gust.  The weight of the swarm bugs that clung to the inside of the dress helped to keep it in place.

I found I was tense, as the wind dissipated, the muscles of my legs tight, ready to shift me to either side, to push me into the air with a leap or throw me to the ground.

But it was only a strong breeze.  Rosary was gone, I hoped, or she’d be gone soon.  We’d taken care of Eligos and Valefor yesterday.

It would be so easy to get paranoid over the slightest things, if I let myself.  Parahumans kind of opened a lot of doors on that front.  There was no way to be on guard against every eventuality.  Bystanders could have been manipulated by Valefor before we confronted him, cloth in store displays could be Parian’s work, the mannequins some trap laid by, well, Mannequin.  The ground, the wind, changes in temperature, shadows… anything could be a sign of incoming attack.

Not that I was in a position to complain, but… was it any surprise that capes tended to get a little unhinged as they grew in prominence?

I reached one construction site with plywood strapped to a chickenwire fence, protecting the interior, grafitti painting the plywood with a large face.

Eye on the door, I thought.  I let myself in.

Grue and Citrine were inside, both in costume.  Citrine in her yellow evening gown and mask, adorned with her namesake gemstones for both jewelry and embellishments, a file folder tucked under one arm.  Grue, for his part, was wreathed in darkness.  They couldn’t have been more different in appearance: sunshine and darkness.

But both, I knew, were professionals.  I suspected they were very similar people.

A part of me felt like I should be jealous that the pair were keeping each other company.  Except, rationally, I knew they weren’t.  Rationally, I knew there was no reason they’d be together, or even that they’d be attracted to one another.  Citrine was pretty, but… I couldn’t imagine she was Grue’s type.

Why did it bother me that I wasn’t jealous, then?

“Skitter?” Citrine asked.  She looked me over.

“Yes,” Grue said.  “Hi, Taylor.  You look nice.”

“Thank you,” I said, and despite my efforts, I smiled.  I’d sort of hoped to maintain the contrast between appearance and demeanor.  No major loss.  I looked at Citrine, “You wanted to meet?”

“I have a few points to go over, details my employer wanted to raise.”

“Nothing troublesome?”

“It depends on your response.  I don’t think it’s anything troublesome.  Keeping you abreast of his operations.”

“No complaint here,” Grue said.

“I expected Tattletale would be here.”

“If it’s alright,” Grue said, “We’ll record the conversation and pass it along to her.  She’s occupied with some other matters.”

“The difficulties of being a thinker,” Citrine mused.

More than you know, I thought.  Tattletale was occupied with little more than an intense migraine.  She’d pushed herself too far and was now paying for it.

I cleared my throat.  “Any objection to stepping upstairs?  It’s too nice a day to stay inside.”

She shook her head.

We ascended two staircases to the roof.  It was sunny, and the wind was strong enough that even the long, dense braid of hair at my back was stirred.  I put the shopping bags down at my feet.

The location had seemed incongruous, even inconvenient, given where Grue and I were headquartered.  I knew that Accord and his Ambassadors weren’t anywhere near here either.  Now that I saw our view, I had a sense of why Citrine had asked that we meet here, and the topic of the conversation.

Ahead of us, just a block away, the portal.  A white tower in progress, surrounded by three cranes.  A white tent was framed with a rigging of criss-crossing metal poles, and that rigging was being covered in turn by a solid white building, windowless.  We couldn’t make out the base of the building from our vantage point, but I could make out the ramps that led to the interior, like the on-ramps to a highway or the entrance to an aboveground parking garage.  They curved up around the building, a geometrical arrangement like the petals of a flower, and led into the tent at different heights.  There were signs of construction and recent demolition in neighboring lots.  The adjoining buildings would support the main structure: administration and defense.

It was so complete, considering that so much about the future of the portal was in question.  Nothing had been confirmed yet, as far as the ownership of the portal.  Accord’s design, Tattletale’s construction, the government’s rules on quarantine.  The government had sent people inside, and Tattletale had followed suit.  It was technically her property, they had no evidence it was anything but the curiosity of an invested businessperson, and they hadn’t complained.

Yet.

It was a mingled blessing and curse.  The portal, the door, as some were calling it, was taking some of the spotlight from us Undersiders.  There was a great deal of national debate over whether the landowner or the government should get the rights to the property.  I almost wished people could ignore it.  Things threatened to get out of control if and when it was verified that this thing was usable.

“Accord is recruiting five new capes to his team,” Citrine said, interrupting my thoughts.

That gave me pause.  Not the topic I’d expected her to raise.  I turned on the tape recorder, held it up so she could see.  She nodded.

I repeated her statement for the tape, “Accord is recruiting five new capes.  Who?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“You’ll let us know who they are as soon as you find out?  Give us a sense of their personalities?”

Citrine lifted the file folder, opened it and handed me a set of pages, neatly stapled.

The entire thing was high-resolution, complete with a picture and lines of text in labeled boxes.  Much of it was neatly censored with black bars.  A young man, in his mid twenties, his hair immaculate, parted to one side, wearing a high quality business suit.  ‘Kurt’, last name censored.  Date of birth censored.  Age twenty-five.

The next page was more details.  Personality tests, psychiatric tests, GPA in middle school and high school, post-secondary education, work history.  ‘Kurt’ had ascended to the role of head chef at a record pace, returned to school to get a four year education in three years, then started working for Accord.

‘Pam’.  Contract lawyer for a major firm, made partner at age twenty-eight, stepped down to work for Accord.

‘Shaw’, ‘Laird’, and ‘Kyesha’ followed the same pattern.

“They are going through the vetting process as we speak.  Experienced members of Accord’s businesses, on board with his plans, and loyal,” Citrine said.

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.  I handed the papers to Grue for him to look over.

“My apologies for being unclear,” Citrine said.

I waited a second for her to elaborate or clarify, but she decided not to.  She wanted us to draw our own conclusions?

“You don’t know who they are, but they work for you?” I asked.

“She means she doesn’t know who they’re going to be when they get powers,” Grue said.  “Don’t you?”

Citrine nodded once, the rest of the file folder held behind her back.

“Cauldron,” I said.  “Accord’s using Cauldron to empower his employees.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Grue asked.

“This is your territory and we are your guests.  It’s only natural to request permission to bring five new parahumans into the area.”

“Are you a Cauldron cape, Citrine?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So you know something about how they operate, then.”

She shook her head.  “Very little.  We get our powers with Accord serving as the middleman, and I’m not entirely sure how much he knows.  Either I would have to ask him for details, and I have no reason to, or you would have to ask.”

I frowned a little.

“Accord wanted me to inform you that the product has a slight chance of causing physical defects and mental instability.  A possibility of an incident.”

I thought of Echidna.  No shit.  More diplomatically, I said, “And you wanted to warn us, so we were forewarned and forearmed about possible issues.”

“We hope and expect to keep things wholly internal.  There are very few powers I cannot counter, and I will be there to act if something goes awry in any way.”

In any way?  Did that extend to physical deformities?  I couldn’t see Accord tolerating something like that.  I could have stipulated something, warned them to let the deformed ones go… except it would destabilize the alliance.

“They’ve been informed of the risks?” I asked.  “These… soon-to-be capes?”

“Fully.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Why leave a successful, ordinary, happy life behind, and go to that risk?  Why work for Accord, of all people?”

“Power,” Citrine said.  She turned her back to the portal to meet my eyes, her dress flaring slightly with the rotation of her body.

“Power isn’t magical,” I said.  “It creates as many problems as it solves.”

“Power is less a thing unto itself than it is a journey.”

“To where?”

Her eyes were penetrating as she gazed at me.  “Not all journeys have destinations.  Power is the ability to effect change, and people who create change ride that tide, with far-reaching effects.  For some of us, that’s something we’re born into.  Our fathers or mothers instill us with a hunger for it from a very early point in time.  We’re raised on it, always striving to be the top, in academics, in sports, in our careers.  Then we either run into a dead-end, or we face diminishing returns.”

“Less and less results for the same amount of effort,” Grue said.

“Others of us are born with nothing.  It is hard to get something when you don’t have anything.  You can’t make money until you have money.  The same applies to contacts, to success, to status.  It’s a chasm, and where you start is often very close to where you finish.  The vast majority never even move from where they began.  Of the few that do make it, many are so exhausted by the time they meet some success that they stop there.  And others, a very small few, they make that drive for success, that need to climb becomes a part of themselves.  They keep climbing, and when someone like Accord recognizes them and offers them another road to climb, they accept without reservation.”

“Which are you?” Grue asked.  “Did you start with power, or did you fight for it?”

Citrine smiled a little, looking over her shoulder at the tower.  “I suspect Tattletale will tell you, if you’re curious enough to ask.”

“And your power?” I asked.

She arched one of her carefully shaped eyebrows.  “Tattletale didn’t share?”

“Tattletale had some ideas, but nothing definitive.”

“I wouldn’t normally share, but Accord told me I should disclose any information you request.  I attune areas to particular functions.”

“To what ends?” Grue asked.

“More gravity, less gravity, more intense temperature variation, less intense temperature variation.  Friction, light intensity, the progression of time… More possibilities than I can count, many so minor you wouldn’t notice.  But if someone powered is in the area, and I find the right attunement, as though I were searching a radio station, I can cut off their powers.  If I’m exact enough, which never takes more than twenty or thirty seconds to narrow down, I can use my power to cancel out the filters that keep someone’s powers in their control.  I can also remove the filters that keep their power from affecting them.”

“Turning their power against them,” I said.

“Yes,” Citrine said.

I could picture my bugs slipping from my control, gravitating towards me in response to my stress, biting and stinging, even devouring me, perpetuating the stress, pushing the cycle forward.

Or Grue… what would happen to him?  Rendered blind and deaf by his own power, dampening his own abilities until they sputtered out, or creating a feedback loop by draining his own abilities, until he was overwhelmed?

“And Othello?” I asked.

“He has a mirror self,” she said.  “Who walks in a world very similar to this one.  This self has a limited ability to affect our world, and can’t be affected by us.  Othello can push himself into that other world to bring his other self into ours, and vice versa.  One leaves, the other enters.  It looks very much like teleportation or invisibility.  It isn’t.”

“Accord buys good powers then,” I said.

“The best.  There would be no point if he didn’t.”

“And there’ll be five more?  Of your caliber?”

“Allowing for variations in results, yes.”

“What else do you know about Cauldron?”

“Very little.”

And Accord is sitting out this meeting because he thought Tattletale might be here, and he didn’t want her to dig anything up.

Which meant Accord would be avoiding us, avoiding Tattletale from here on out.  That made life easier.  It meant he wouldn’t be pestering us or trying to subvert us.  Not to our faces, anyways.

“Five new members is fine,” I said.  “Each of them should meet Tattletale on an individual basis.  She’ll vet them in ways Accord can’t.”

“Agreed,” Citrine said.

“The deal we struck with Accord stands.  He buys no territory, holds only what Tattletale gives him, and he doesn’t get to expand his territory to account for new members.”

“Agreed.”

“How long until they have powers?” I asked.

“Two days.  We’ll devote a week after that to training their abilities and ensuring they meet standards.  Accord likes to hand-craft masks for us, picking out appropriate colors and names.”

“Would he object to giving them the Teeth as a job?  It can be a collaborative effort between Ambassador and Undersider.”

“I’ll raise the idea with him.  I have little doubt he’ll agree.”

“Good,” I said.  I turned my attention to the tower.

Citrine looked as well.  “The door.”

“You’ve heard the world ends in two years,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“When Tattletale set up the portal, she made an escape route.  Not for us, but for the world.  As much as they’re able, they’re leaving room for mass-evacuation.  You can’t see it from here, but the bottom of the tower doesn’t have a road or a ramp leading into it.  If the city cooperates, they can route train tracks through there.  The trains wouldn’t even have to slow down as they passed through, if there was enough set up on the other side.”

“Many would live here for the possibility of easy escape alone,” Citrine said.

“There’s also the work,” Grue said.  “Making the space on the other side livable, research on the other world, investigating differences in plant and animal species.”

“When I had a discussion with Director Tagg,” I said, “He told me to consider where things would stand in a few years.  The doorway is going to be a big part of it.  I’d like to ensure that we still have a presence here, that there’s a measure of peace, both from heroes and villains, and that the portal remains an escape route.”

“Any particular thoughts on how things should be arranged?” Grue asked.

“Some, as far as our group is concerned.  But I’d have to talk to the others about it before I put any ideas out there.”

“Do the Ambassadors fit into that image of the future?” Citrine asked.

“It depends on Accord,” I said.  “You know him better than I do.  Is he stable?”

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

My heart sank.

“But you can trust him.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said, not feeling much better.  “Do me a favor, sound him out on what limits he’d set in terms of bringing others on board.  Other teams, other groups.  Individuals.  We should set standards, hard rules for people in the city and people in our alliance.  I’m not going to mince words.  His response to this is a big factor in how all this plays out.”

“Including his presence in this hypothetical future you’re envisioning,” Citrine said.

I shrugged.  “You say we can trust him.  I’d like to believe you, and I will, until I have a reason not to.”

“That’s all we can ask for,” Citrine said.

“Is that it?  You wanted to meet to address the recruitment of your five members?”

“No.  Here.”

She handed me the folder, and my arm sagged with the weight of it.  I approached Grue and stood next to him as I paged through it.

It was a three-hundred page treatise, complete with binding at the spine and a gray cover printed with the simple words ‘Brockton Bay: Crime and Public Safety’.  I handed Grue the folder and the dossiers on the five recruits to the Ambassadors, keeping the tome.  I paged through it, holding it so Grue could read alongside me.

It was less an essay than a technical manual.  A step-by-step guide to bringing the city in order.  Size eight font, bolded and centered headings, annotations, continually referring to other sections.  It was readable, though, almost seductive in how it made it all sound so possible.  The language was simple, clear, and unambiguous, as though it were outlining little more than how to build a bookshelf, without more than the occasional diagram.  There were branching paths, too, clearly outlined, detailing the routes to be taken if something didn’t work out.  I could only assume that the bulk of the text was Accord’s accounting of all the various possibilities.

No murder, nothing totalitarian.  Not at a glance.  It was merely a very involved analysis on Brockton Bay, the various criminal elements, the various players and how things could be brought into alignment.

“I’ll read it,” I said, “And I’ll make sure Tattletale gives it a thorough looking-over.”

“Okay,” Citrine said.  “Don’t worry about giving him a response.  He already knows.  Nobody ever accepts the proposals.”

“We’ll give it a serious look,” I stressed.  “Who knows?  Tattletale might get a kick out of being able to debate the finer points of the plan with Accord.”

Citrine arched an eyebrow.

“I’ll tell her to play nice,” I said.

“Then I suppose those are the key points covered.  Thank you,” Citrine said.  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Nothing springs to mind,” I told her.

She offered me a curt nod, then headed for the stairwell.  Grue and I stayed put.

The pair of us stood on the rooftop, just out of sight of anyone on the ground.  The portal-tower loomed a short distance away, taller than the surrounding buildings, rippling slightly as the wind pulled at the upper areas where there were only the tent and metal framework.

“So much talk of the future,” Grue said, “And no guarantee there’ll be one.”

“There will,” I said.  “With everything else Dinah said, we know there’ll be some kind of future.  It might not be a pretty one, but people will survive.  We’ll slip away to other dimensions, the best of us will persist, and we’ll slowly make our way back to where we are now, but we’ll survive.  Or maybe, with all the powers out there, we’ll find a way around this, and it doesn’t come to pass.”

“And we establish some kind of stability in Brockton Bay?  Bring Accord’s plan to fruition?”

I didn’t have an answer to that.  I looked down at the book.

“You’re skeptical?”

“Skeptical,” I said.  “Ever notice how every power gets turned to violent ends?  Even the people with powers that could benefit humanity wind up losing it?  Accord, Sphere, there’s Parian on the smallest end of the scale…”

“And you think there’s some ugly twist to this.”

“Accord works out some scenario where it’s possible to establish peace in Brockton Bay by exerting pressure in the right areas, promoting the right people, and allocating resources in the right way, but it turns out like a wish from a malevolent genie.  It turns ugly, or there’s some loophole.  I think Tattletale should look at it.  That’s all.  We need to be very careful.”

“You’re obsessing over what Tagg said,” Grue said.

“I’m trying to see everything through the perspective of what they’ll be in a year or two from now, and maybe what they’ll become ten years from now, if we’re lucky enough to get that far.  What form will the team take?  How will the team run, and how will personalities change as time passes and we get more comfortable with where we stand?”

“There’s time to figure this out,” Grue said.

I frowned.  “Not as much as you might be thinking.  Not nearly enough time.  The Undersiders need to solidify a hold on the city, become a fixture.  It’s impossible to do that by scrambling here and there and struggling to defeat each enemy that crosses our paths.  We needed a reason for the crazier and more reckless enemies to think twice before interfering with us.”

“People like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Teeth.”

“And the Merchants, Lung and Bakuda.  All of them are very different kinds of villain, with a different sort of momentum.  The Merchants weren’t ever going to maintain a consistent hold on a territory.  It was less a question of whether they’d hold an area for years and more a question of the damage they’d do in the meantime.”

“You may be underestimating what they could have become.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “I get that the Merchants had the benefit of being the right people in the right place at the right time, but they didn’t really have any sense of self-preservation.  There’s going to be others like them.  I’m not underestimating that.  There are teams who exist only because they earned attention through luck or circumstance, and those are the teams that have to throw themselves at the biggest targets available.  They have to prove their worth to the world at large, or they collapse in on themselves.  Brockton Bay and the Undersiders are going to remain a target for guys like that if we can’t create a big enough deterrent.”

Grue folded his arms.

“And here’s the thing, there are ones like the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

I could see him react.  His arms dropped to his side, darkness trailing after them.  He seemed to realize he’d reacted, that he had nothing to do with his hands, and shifted his weight with his feet instead, leaving them dangling.

“Sorry,” I said.

He shook his head.  After a second, he prompted me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“There’s the monsters who were drawn to the city because it was vulnerable, because others were already paying attention to it, or because it was different in a way that appealed to their warped sensibilities.  We have to account for all these different people who are going to want to come after us and our city, and each demands a different response.  Can the Undersiders be boring enough to not be a desirable target to take down, scary enough to drive away the troublemakers, and still have the cold efficiency needed to take out ones like the Nine?”

“It’s not impossible.  We’re on our way there.”

“Except there’s a whole other set of checks and balances in terms of the authorities.  Need to play along to a certain degree, cooperate, but also need to convey the right image.”

“A lot on your plate.  Are you going to be able to manage?”

I hesitated.

“What?”

“When I phoned you,” I said, “I wanted to talk about some things.  Two things.”

“And you wanted to talk in person,” he said.

“In person,” I agreed.  “Um.  I guess I’m thinking about things in the same way Accord does.  Looking toward the future, accounting for the possibilities, simplifying.  If something happens to me-”

“Skitter,” Grue said.

“We know something goes down in two years.  You know we live a high-risk lifestyle.  We’re going to have enemies, I’ll be risking my life.  I’m-  I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s no guarantee I’ll always be here.  I need to know if you think you’d be up to taking over.  Becoming leader again.”

“I couldn’t do what you do,” he said.

“What’s the alternative?  Tattletale has her hands full with just the management side of things.  Imp?  Regent?  Rachel?  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  Do you really want the team to work for Accord?”

“I don’t see it happening.”

“No.  I’m just… let’s look at what happens in the future.  If you had to take over, could you?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Okay,” I said.

We stood there for a while.  I reached out and took his hand, my fingers knitting between his, the oily darkness slithering against my bare arm.  We stared up at the portal-tower, backed by an increasingly overcast sky.  So much depended on it, but we wouldn’t hear the verdict for a little while yet.

“I raised the idea of you maybe getting therapy,” I said.  “I could use it too, to be honest.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you think, maybe, if you were in a better head space, you could handle the leadership thing better?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe.”

“Would you be willing to try?  I don’t want to guilt you into it, but it’d give me a lot of peace of mind, knowing that you’d be there to keep things going.”

“I’d be willing to try,” he murmured, his voice a hollow echo from within his darkness.   “But why are you being so fatalistic?”

“I don’t think I’m being fatalistic,” I said.  “But… but maybe I sort of lost one half of my life.  I lost Taylor, not so long ago.  So I’m thinking about what happens if the other half were to disappear, too, and that’s in conjunction with my focus on the future, on the team…”

I trailed off.  It sounded feeble, but he didn’t call me on it.

“Regent and Imp,” I said, stopping when he turned his head my way.

A heavyhanded way of changing the subject.

“What about them?”

“They’re together,” I said.  “I don’t know if it’s romantic, but… they’re together.”

“I’m aware,” he said.

“It’s a problem.”

“It is,” he agreed.  “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Rein them in?”  I suggested.

“How?  Aisha bucks at rules and restrictions.  She’d use her power and run before I could talk to her more seriously.  She was always one for flight more than fighting.  Fitting that she got that power.  Infuriating.”

“Then talk to Regent.”

“Not much better.  He’s never one to face confrontation, but he handles it differently.  He doesn’t run, he evades.  He’d say or do whatever it took to stop me lecturing him, stop me from threatening him, and he’d go right back to what he was doing, in a different way, a different angle, so I’m less likely to catch on.  And if I angered him, or upset him, he’d make me answer for it somehow.”

“I don’t think I’ve really seen him angry or upset.”

“You don’t,” Grue said.  “Because he doesn’t show it.  I don’t think he even fully realizes it, that he feels that way.  But his jokes get a bit more barbed, he pushes back a little harder when pushed.  He makes dealing with him annoying or toxic in a thousand small ways, until you can’t continue to press him.  Then he uses that, goes right back to doing what he wanted to do.  It’s not worth the trouble.  They’re friends.  I don’t like it, but I can live with it.”

“He controlled her.”

Grue let go of my hand, stepped away so he was facing me.  “What?”

“He controlled her.  She let him, because she thought it would be interesting.  It made a difference in us winning against Valefor, yesterday, but… I thought you should know.”

Grue didn’t respond.  He folded his arms, so I at least knew he hadn’t gone catatonic.

“Maybe they’re not romantic now,” I said, “But who knows where they’ll be a few years from now?  Their trust is born of mutually assured destruction, because neither can absolutely control the other, but it’s still trust.  It could go places.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Grue said, and there was a hint of a growl in his echoing voice.

There was a distant rumble of thunder.  Surprising, given the amount of blue to the very north and south.  A summer storm?

Rain started to patter down around us.

In wordless agreement, we ventured to the staircase and into the building, to take shelter from the weather.

I reached up to my face to take my glasses off, ready to wipe them free of moisture, before realizing that I wasn’t wearing them.  I let my hand drop.

Grue was looking at me, his expression hidden by his mask.  I felt momentarily embarrassed, then let the feeling drop away.

I reached up and pulled his mask off.  He let the darkness start to dissipate, his face half-hidden behind a veil of wisp-thin darkness, almost as if he weren’t even aware I’d removed the mask.  He seemed pensive.

“Sorry to be a downer,” I said.  “Bearer of bad news.”

“It’s not that,” he said.  “You’ve been looking forward.  That’s good.  Except I’m wondering… where are we, in the future?  Suppose we made it through the end of the world.  Are we together in ten years?  Do we have kids?  Are we married?  Are we together, king and queen of Brockton Bay?  Have we retired?  Can you imagine a scenario like that?  Like any of that?”

I was caught off guard by the question.  I could visualize it.  Us in some mansion, little kids running around.  Just outside the window, Brockton Bay as it could be, swelled with industry and life and vigor and development, nourished by that portal and all the promise the portal held.  Inside our home, a mess, not so different from the mess that I’d seen on first walking into the loft.  A good mess, the kind of mess that came from life and living.  I could imagine Grue blanketing me in darkness to drown out the screaming, to give us a momentary privacy so he could hold me, kiss me.

Yes, I thought.  Yes.  Please, yes.

But I couldn’t bring myself to voice the thought aloud.

“Me either,” Grue said, his voice quiet, in response to an answer I hadn’t expressed with anything but my expression and body language.

I couldn’t lie and say that the mental picture, the fantasy, was a real possibility.  I couldn’t see it unfolding the same way I could see a thriving Brockton Bay secured with equal measures of fear and fairness.

It had been busy, hard and violent, with too much to do.  It was too easy to see how things could continue down that road.

Was it possible that this relationship could become something?  Yes.

Likely?  No.

“Shit,” he said.  He must have seen something in my expression.  “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I replied, shaking my head.  I put his mask aside on a workbench, along with the booklet Citrine had given us, reached out and plucked the folder and papers from Grue’s hands, putting them aside as well.

Taking his hands in my own, I stepped close, pressing my body against his.  The bugs under my dress moved away from the points of contact so they wouldn’t get squished, flying down and out of the way or crawling down my bare legs, making me very, very aware of the bare skin of my legs.

He was cool, between the moisture-beaded fabric of his costume and the darkness, but if I pressed hard against, him, I could feel the warmth of his body where the darkness didn’t sit between us.  I slowly, carefully drew his hands up so his arms were around my shoulders, arranging them.  When I was done, I wrapped my arms around his neck, felt him adjust his hold on me.

“Skitter- Taylor.”

I had to crane my head up to kiss the tip of his chin.

It had been a fantasy.  Two damaged, lonely people clinging to each other for warmth in a dark time.  He’d needed a rock, I’d needed warmth and gentleness.

“There’s no regrets?” I asked him.  “About us, together?”

“No,” he said, and his face was less than an inch from mine, his breath as warm as his power was cool.  I felt his chest rise and fall as it pressed against me.  “It was right.”

It was right.  Then.

“Then let’s make this one place where we don’t have to give any thought to the future,” I murmured.  “Focus on the present.”

He lowered his head and kissed me with surprising tenderness.

I hated to do it, but I broke the kiss, pulled away a fraction.  I murmured, “Besides the usual precautions.”

“Mm,” he murmured his agreement, an inarticulate, wordless sound that vibrated through his body and mine.

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Imago 21.3

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Regent’s base was in the midst of renovations.  The exterior was tame, unassuming, but the interior was becoming something else entirely.  The floor and walls were being covered in stone tile, suits of armor stood on either side of the doorway, and I could see ornate chandeliers at one side of the room, each individual segment separated from the others by extensive bubble wrap.

There was a dais at the far end of the room, almost a stage, with a throne laying on its side on top.  Four people were working in the room.  Workers Tattletale had hired, who would get enough steady employment and money to reward their silence.  Two were working on the walls, one worked on the floor, and the fourth was preparing the dais so the throne could be bolted into place.

“Found it,” Regent said.  He raised his scepter, tossed it into the air and let it spin twice before catching the handle.

I winced.  “Careful.  You really don’t want to catch the wrong end and electrocute yourself.”

He only chuckled.

“It’s daylight.  It’s fucked up that we’re doing this in the middle of the day,” Imp groused, as we ventured outside.  Atlas was waiting, and started half-crawling, half-flying alongside us.

“What does it matter to you?” I asked her.  “It’s not like it makes any difference with your power.”

“It’s the principle of it,” Regent said.  He was walking briskly to keep up with Imp, Atlas, and me.  Despite everything we’d been through, he wasn’t one to exercise or take care of his body, and he huffed just a little to keep his breath. “This is the sort of maneuver you pull in the dead of night.”

I shook my head.  “Circumstances are ideal right now.  You don’t handicap yourself by trying to conform to any preconceived notions.  Keep a goal in mind, look at everything through the lens of that goal, and look for paths to get what you want.  If they’re prepared for you, you strike from an unexpected direction.  If everyone else is expecting a maneuver from an oblique angle, you take a direct route.”

“See, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” Regent said, “Constantly thinking about that stuff.  When do you sit back and chill out?”

“Either you make that kind of thinking a part of yourself, you lose a little sleep to achieve that ‘me’ time, or you don’t get to relax,” I said.

“Doesn’t sound fun at all,” Regent said.

“If it was easy to take over a city, more people would have managed it,” I said.  “This is work.  There’s always more to be done, whether you’re dealing with your enemies, dealing with your subordinates or coordinating with your allies.  If you find you have free time, you’re probably fucking up.”

“Or!” he said, raising a finger, “I could delegate.”

“That’s a recipe for failure,” I told him.

“My dad managed it.”

Heartbreaker, I thought.  I was put in mind of the images of Heartbreaker that had made the web.  The villain, by virtue of his personal, extensive harem, had a whole cadre of women virtually climbing over each other for the chance to fawn over him and worship him.  The pictures were a consequence of that, released by his ‘girls’, as Regent had termed them.  Each picture depicted a man in his thirties or forties, depending on the time the picture in question had been taken.  He had black hair, the scruff of a beard, and was invariably seen sitting or reclining on couches and beds, often shirtless, with women at the periphery of the image.  He oozed confidence and raw sexuality, languid, more lanky than athletic.

I could envision Regent in a very similar picture.  Years older, grown to his full height and proportions, surrounded not by women, but by the people he had claimed as his tools.  Capes he controlled with his power.  Acceptable targets perhaps, people who would be destined for the Birdcage or long sentences in prison, but still people.  A different underlying theme than sexuality: Regent would be sitting casually on his throne, pampered in a very different way than I’d seen with his father, having been fed, washed and dressed by a half-dozen pairs of hands working in unison.  Regent controlled people so absolutely that he would essentially be pampering himself; it was a charade.  Almost the inverse of his father, in some ways, but still narcissistic at its core.

The idea bothered me more than I wanted to admit, and it bothered me in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.  Did I not want him to become that?  I did.  I wanted him to be powerful, and that was what he’d naturally become, given his personality and powers.  I wanted him to customize his lair like he was, because he’d inevitably have people he was controlling in there, and it would be worth a thousand times the amount it cost if it helped him convey a certain image.

Maybe part of it was the ease with which I could put Imp in that imaginary crowd of people who were waiting on him hand and foot.

I’d have to talk to Grue about that.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Regent said.

“Oh!” Imp closed the distance between us, wrapping both of her arms around one of mine, “Did he win the argument?  Tell me he won the argument.”

“We’re discussing, not debating,” I said.

“People say that sort of thing when they’re losing,” she said.

I ignored her.  “I was just wondering, Regent… do you really want to follow in your dad’s footsteps?”

He didn’t respond right away.  He looked away from Imp and I both, as if he were idly observing the scenery.

“You’re a little bit of an asshole, aren’t you?” Regent asked.

“Only when I have to be,” I said, mildly surprised at the reaction.

“Fuck it,” Imp said, letting go of my arm.  “Us two lesser members of the group need a little victory here and there.  Need to win arguments, get more rep.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I said.  “If everything goes well, today should serve several purposes, and one of those was that I wanted to see how you two are operating.”

“Great,” Regent commented, giving Imp a look.  “Mom’s watching over us, making sure we’re doing it right.”

“For any of our enemies with the sense to realize it, you two are the scariest members of the Undersiders,” I said.  “Let’s focus on using that.”

“I’m already using it,” Imp said.

“Probably,” I replied.

“You mean this is about me,” Regent said.  “You ask us both to come along to tutor us in how to freak people out, but Imp doesn’t need any help, so this has to be about me.”

I suppressed a sigh.  These two.  “Not only you.  Imp was doing a terrific job of terrorizing troublemakers in the territory she shared with Grue.  She graduated to owning her own territory, and the fact that she’s there has been keeping Valefor and Eligos at bay.  That’s good.  But it can’t hurt to get an objective opinion and find out how to do it betterI do that, with Grue and Tattletale’s feedback.”

“I’m versatile,” Regent said.  “Give me credit.”

“I’m not saying you aren’t, I’m saying we can always stand to improve,” I replied.

Regent tossed his scepter into the air and caught it.  It bugged me, the idea that he might accidentally taze himself and collapse, with some bystander catching the thing on video.  He knew it bugged me, and it was undoubtedly a very deliberate way to get on my case.  I ignored it.

I thought about what Imp had done in Grue’s territory; Grue had filled me in on the basics and I’d heard more from people who’d been in that area.  As standalone individuals, none of the members of our team had fully matured.  We were finding our way, figuring out the roles we wanted and needed to take, adjusting our images.

Who would Imp be, a couple of years down the line?  It was maybe bizarre to think about the future, with the way Tattletale had outlined the possible ends of the world, but it was defeatist to let things slide because things might end prematurely.  I’d seen Imp change from someone on the periphery of the group, struggling to find a position, to a lesser terror.  She’d cut down superpowered clones with ease, and she was fearless and reckless in a way that could only ease her journey down a bloodier path.

Would Imp become an assassin?  At age eighteen or twenty, would she be an unholy terror, coldly and remorselessly executing enemies who couldn’t even be aware enough to guard against her?  If Tattletale erased all records of Imp, if we employed measures to restrict people from tracking her on video cameras and the like, what might Imp become?

Both Regent as a successor to Heartbreaker and Imp as a murderer with a body count were possible.  Even likely.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to do about that.  With Imp, maybe I could have words with Grue, but Regent…

I was still thinking on the subject of Regent, searching for an angle I could use to convince him, when I was distracted.  My swarm noted a number of soft movements, like a flurry of leaves in the wind.

Autumn was months away, there weren’t many trees around, and there wasn’t wind.

“Found them,” I said.

“Which?” Regent asked.

“Haven.  The Fallen will be nearby.  We’ve got Rosary in a combat mode, and Halo’s not in the air, as far as I can see, so they’re obviously geared up for a fight.  In your territory,” I said, eyeing Regent.

“I could’ve done something if Tattletale called me first.”

I drew myself against a building, increasing the number of bugs I was using to scout for trouble.  “What would you have done?”

“Waited until they were done fighting each other, go after the stragglers.”

“There’s a lot of flaws with that idea,” I said.

He shrugged.  “I’m flexible.  I could figure something out.”

The more I thought on it, the less sure I was that there was any way it’d really work.  It was an easy way out.

I had a growing suspicion that Regent was interested in being in charge for more for the sake of being in charge than anything else.  It made his position tenuous because he wasn’t doing much to hold it.  If this was his modus operandi, then he risked being seen as more of a hyena that preyed on the weak than someone powerful.

“So… if Haven won, they’d arrest Valefor or Eligos, cart the pair off to jail and then leave.  What would you do?”

“Don’t know.  Would have to see the situation for myself.”

“Or if Valefor won, what would you even do?  The members of Haven would be too dangerous to get near.”

“Again, I don’t know,” he said.  He glanced at Imp.  “Today’s going to be a fun day.”

I frowned.

Rosary wasn’t close, but her presence was unmistakable.  Bugs I’d settled on a car were scattered into the air, carried aloft on paper-thin slices of stainless steel and glass.  I had them take flight, returning in the general direction of the car, measured the progress of her power as more of the debris filled the air, surrounding her.  I knew of her from some internet browsing and a few videos, but this was concrete information.  They were details I could use in the event that I had to fight her.

Three or four seconds in all, for her power to erase the car, scattering it into the air as a storm of incredibly light, thin flakes of matter.  Those same flakes flew around her like a tornado.

She raised one hand, covered in a fingerless glove with hard, metallic feathers or scales at the edges. The storm of petals altered in direction and intensity, the flakes flying forward.  A small few of my bugs died where the flakes struck them at the right angle and speed.  A storm of tiny, fragile blades.  A lot of the petals were actually bouncing off of my wasps, bumblebees and cockroaches, leaving me suspicious that it would take a good while to kill someone with her power.

Up until the point where the petals converged together, reforming into a car tire, ten feet in the air.  A man hurried to leap out of the way before it struck him.  I realized it was Eligos.  He wasn’t wearing the Endbringer costume.  Something similar, but without the same theme.  He hurried out of the way as more tires appeared above him.

“We’re going on the offensive,” I said.  “We don’t come out looking like the top dogs if either of the two groups win.”

“We sucker punch them,” Regent said.

“Better to forewarn them just enough that it doesn’t feel like a sucker punch,” I told him.

“Don’t you get it?” Imp said.  She feigned a condescending tone, “It doesn’t count if we don’t do it the hardest way possible.”

“It won’t be that hard,” I told them.  I closed my eyes.  “Let’s focus.  Rosary.  Deconstruction and reconstitution of matter, minor telekinesis with the fragments she creates.  Apparently she can take things apart and then reform them so they fall on you.”

“Not a problem,” Imp said.

“Eligos manipulates wind, creates blades of telekinetically altered air that grow as they travel and boomerang back to him.”

“You’d be better at handling him,” Regent said.

“His wind will probably mess with my bugs.  We take him together.  One-two punch.”

“Right.”

“Halo packs a special ring.  Kind of like Sundancer, but the thing doesn’t burn.  It’s a hoop with a cutting edge, and it acts as a forcefield generator and spits out lasers.”

In the distance, Rosary was blocking Eligos’ path by reconstituting two trucks, blocking off one road.

“I take Halo?” Regent asked.

“Do.  That leaves Valefor.  I’ve got him,” I said.

I paused, bringing my swarm to the battlefield.

I’d used Atlas to travel to Regent’s territory, and I’d walked a short distance.  Throughout, I’d been gathering flying insects and bugs.  I’d been forming silk threads and cords.

Now they rose, flying in formations, just over the tops of the buildings, as they approached Rosary and Eligos.  They meshed together into a barrier, nestled close enough to one another to filter out sunlight.

The area darkened visibly, and the droning of the bugs filled the air.

Rays of golden light speared into the swarm.  They were persistent, unending, five steady beams that concentrated on areas where the bugs were thickest.  Halo.

That left only one unknown.  Valefor had to be somewhere nearby.  The second he got a glimpse of me, it was over.

My swarm hit Eligos and Rosary.  Eligos created a strong wind that whipped around him, driving the bugs away.  Rosary used her power to shred the silk lines.  In the face of the biting insects, however, she couldn’t do as much.  The petals around her cut into the swarm, but it was minimal damage to a great many attackers.

She gathered the petals together to create a car without either wheels or a driver’s side door, and though she’d formed it with some bugs trapped inside, she climbed in and had the petals reconstitute into a door, creating a perfect seal.

Eligos put an end to that when he sent a blade of wind at the back of the car, shearing one corner of the vehicle.  My bugs flowed into the open area, covering Rosary from head to toe.  Her mask was hard, around her eyes, cheekbones and nose, ending in a sharp point, an etched metal plate, worked into her hood.  It didn’t cover her lower face and it surrounded but didn’t cover her eyes.

“Come, and stay close,” I said, drawing the bugs around us.  I walked briskly forward.  Rosary had her petals, I had my bugs.  If Valefor wanted us, he’d have to be clever.  “And Regent?”

“What?”

“I’m going to ask you a question later, and I’ll have my arms folded.  I want you to lie.”

“Lie?” Imp asked, aghast.  “So dishonest!”

“We’re honest villains, Skitter,” Regent said, taking a stern tone.  “We earn our victories the right way, not through deceit and dishonesty.”

I rolled my eyes.

As we approached, I found Halo in my reach.  My swarm approached him, and his halo zipped to his side, five feet in diameter and razor-edged.  A force field protected the hero.

He was still rooted in place.  One less person to deal with.

“Regent,” I said, touching his shoulder.  My bugs spread out to create a clearing around us, and I pointed.

He turned to face Eligos, and I parted the bugs. Eligos was wearing only the bodysuit that went under whatever armor he’d been wearing, and a mask that covered his face, leaving only one eye exposed.

With a wave of his hand, Regent knocked Eligos over, causing one leg to buckle just as the other was involuntarily straightened.  Eligos sprawled, and the wind briefly cut out.  My swarm descended on him, and I began binding him in silk.

I had Atlas take to the air, as I worked more silk cords into the surroundings.  “Be nice if this works.”

“What are you doing?”  Imp.  Her presence caught me off guard.

“Threads,” I said.

“He can cut threads,” Imp commented.  “It won’t work.”

“I know he cuts threads,” I said.  “Watch.”

Atlas passed over a space between two buildings, then dropped out of the sky.  The string that extended between him and Eligos went taut.  I had a series of threads strung between two buildings, and Atlas served as a counterweight, so Eligos could be hauled into the air.

“No way that holds,” Imp said.

“Never intended it to,” I told her.

Mandibles severed the thread, and Eligos fell.  Three stories, give or take, and he landed on all fours.  He screamed, and wind ripped through the area, scattering both bugs and petals.  Eligos flopped over onto one side.

“Two left.  Rosary and Valefor,” I said.

Rosary had disintegrated what remained of the car and was facing me, the multicolored petals a tight storm around her.  I could only make out glimpses of her general silhouette.  The rest I could fill in from my research.  A young woman in a rose-tinted robe with gold leaves at the edges, and a gold-colored mask.  She was silent.

“We have no quarrel with you,” she said.  “We’re only here to deal with the Fallen.”

“Then kneel,” I said.  I banished the bugs, and she almost staggered in relief, after holding firm against their onslaught.

She straightened her back and squared her shoulders, but didn’t respond.

“Kneel.  This is our territory.  If you pay the proper respect, I hand you Eligos and Valefor, and you can leave the city with no problems.”

“I could drop a car on your head.”

“And I could take you down as easily as I did Eligos.”

“Without silk?”

“Without silk,” I said.

She nodded slowly, then slowly knelt, dropping to one knee.  Her eyes, behind her mask, were glaring at me.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t?” she asked.

“Not my style to give away plans to the enemy,” I said.

“You could be bluffing.”

“I’m not.  I would have disabled you, knocked you out and Regent would have used his power to seize control of you.”

Her eyes widened a fraction.

“Regent, you can use your power on unconscious people, right?” I asked.

Regent shrugged, “Obviously.”

There was the lie.

“That simple,” I told Rosary.  “He can assume control instantly, once he’s had control over someone once.”

“That crosses a line.”

“I’m far less concerned about crossing lines these days,” I told her.  “But you only broke one rule.  We’d let you go, with the idea that we’d seize control of you if you ever came back.  We’ll do that with anyone and every-”

I stopped.  Imp had appeared at a grocery store nearby.  She was speaking in a low voice, murmuring.

“…Skitter said she’d take you on and she can use her bugs to attack you without being seen and she can hear and see this so she knows…”

“Fuck!” I growled the word.

“Valefor got her,” Regent drew the obvious conclusion..

“I told her to stay close,” I said, breaking into a run.  Rosary wasn’t even a consideration.

“She’s not the type to listen!”  Regent huffed.  Rosary started to follow us, then hesitated, glancing at Eligos.

Watch him!” I barked the order, augmenting my voice with the combined drones, chirps and buzzes of all the bugs in the area.  The heroine stopped where she was.

Regent and I were thoroughly shrouded by bugs when we reached the grocery store.  There were only a handful of people inside, every one of them rooted in place.

Stranger-type capes were classified that way due to their capabilities in stealth and subterfuge.  Valefor was more the latter.  He wasn’t stealthy, exactly, but his ability to perpetrate subterfuge was devastating.

One look, and his target was stunned, rendered eminently suggestible.  A hypnotic gaze, so to speak.

He’d played up the telepathy angle before people caught on, and the costume that echoed the Simurgh was a token to that.  The fact that he could leave suggestions that only triggered under certain conditions was another part of it.  ‘Attack so-and-so next week’.  ‘Set fire to your workplace the next time your boss pisses you off’.

Capes with powers that allowed them to compel others walked a fine line.  Even without murder, Valefor was pushing that line.

“To everyone listening, if that swarm or any of the people inside move away from that spot, or if something happens to me,” a young girl spoke in a man’s voice, stepping out of the sheltering embrace of a middle-aged woman. “Kill yourselves or do your best to kill them, I don’t care which.”

I’d taken her for a scared kid in the company of her mother.  No.  She’d… he’d compelled a woman to pretend to be his mother, and my roving insects hadn’t thought twice about it.

It was Valefor, in a teenage girl’s top and skinny jeans, with long, straight blond hair, and makeup caked onto his face to hide the tattoo.

“…and forget I gave these orders,” he finished.

That would be one reason for the stranger classification, right there.

The orders to kill or commit suicide were a surprise to me, but he was more than capable of covering his tracks.

“Imp,” Valefor said.  “Find and kill your teammates.  I want you to kill yourself when you’re done trying.  Go, and forget I gave this order.”

Imp drew her knife with one hand and her taser with the other.  She paused a second, and then charged for Regent and I.

I tensed.  I had options, but if any of his hostages read it as a cue to kill themselves-  no.

I could shoot from the midst of the cloud, but then we’d be paralyzed.  There was no guarantee that Valefor’s influence would end with his death.

I’d told myself I’d be heartless, but this wasn’t what I’d meant.

Imp turned a right angle, moments before plunging into the swarm.  She charged for Valefor.

He reacted, giving an order, “Everyone listening, kill yo-”

He didn’t get any further.  She kicked, directing the attack between Valefor’s legs.

Valefor hit the ground, and Imp kicked him between the legs once more for good measure.

“Cancel the orders, fuckwit!” she growled, dropping on top of him.  Her knife pressed against Valefor’s throat.

“How-”

She backhanded him across the face, striking him in one cheekbone with the knife handle.  “Cancel!”

I could sense the crowd relaxing.  People hurried away from the scene.  It took more than a minute before they were all gone.

Imp struck Valefor again.

“Stop,” I said.

“Regent got one in, I wanted one too,” she said.  She spat at Valefor.

I tentatively moved bugs, then settled them around his eyes.  Valefor struggled, but froze when Imp pressed the knife against his throat.

Regent got one in?

Oh.

“You… voluntarily gave him control over you?” I asked.

“Little while back,” Imp said.  “I wanted to see what it was like.  Could come in handy.  Did come in handy.”

It’s Regent, I thought.  I’d fought beside him in life and death scenarios and I would never have allowed him to take control of me.  Couldn’t fathom it.

Was there a way I could diplomatically say as much?

None I could think of, right this minute.

“I can’t imagine submitting myself to that,” I said.

“Riskier for you,” she said.  “For me, his power over me shorts out when I use my power, and that’s any time he slips up or goes to sleep.  Then he forgets who I am, and I’m free to come after him and fuck him up.”

“Eviscerate me in my sleep,” Regent said, too jovially.

“Exactly,” Imp said, sounding just as pleased with herself.  “And I know him.  He’s not about to fuck with me with the amount of work it’d take to keep track of me.”

“Told you, Dork,” Regent commented.  “I’m versatile.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I glanced at Imp.  “Tell me something only Imp would know.”

Seriously?” Regent asked.

“I could tell you that there’s a mole on your back,” Imp said.

That took me a second to process.  When had I ever had my clothes off where she could see?

Not her.  Brian.

“You were there?

“I stopped in.  I wanted to see if my brother was okay.  Believe me, I wish I hadn’t.”

She was thereThen.

“Wait, what’s this?” Regent asked.

“It’s not important,” I said, my voice tight.

“I’ll tell you later,” Imp said.

“Don’t,” I said, in a warning tone.

There was a pause.  I could tell the pair of them were having too much fun at my expense.

But there was still an enemy to deal with.

She looked down at Valefor.  Her tone was more serious as she said, “I didn’t think this man-slut would be able to see me.”

“You know his powers,” I said, glad for the change of topic.  “Hypnotic stare, Tattletale said he might have other senses or augmented awareness to track his victims.”

“It’s fine,” Imp said.  She adjusted her hold on the knife.  “Worked out.”

“Yeah,” Regent said.

“I guess you two got a victory,” I said, “A little… what did you call it?”

“Rep,” Imp said.

“Rep.”

Long seconds passed.

“I could control him,” Regent said.

“What’s the point?” Imp asked.

“It’d be an advantage,” I said.  “And I suppose it’s up to you two what we do next.  It’s your territory, Regent.”

And I want to see how you operate, when left to your own devices.

“Pain in the ass,” Regent said.

“We let him go, he’s going to come after us,” Imp said.

“Probably,” I agreed.

“You want us to turn him in,” Regent told me.

“I’m not saying that,” I answered.

Regent studied me, “You’re here for a reason, and it’s not just babysitting us, being an overbearing boss and making sure we do the job right.  Let’s not waste time.  Out with it.”

I kept my voice low, so Valefor couldn’t hear.  “I said you and Imp were the scariest members of our group.  You heard what I said to Rosary.  How I was going to let her believe that we could take control of her at any second, so long as she’s in the city.”

“Sure.”

“Fear.  Ruling through fear.  How do we get the maximum result for the minimum effort?”

“I like the sound of this,” Regent said.

“We make our enemies paranoid,” I told him.  “We get them scared enough that they start devoting more effort than is necessary to dealing with us.  Feed them misinformation.  With your power, we have an easy way to keep any enemy we capture from wanting to enter the city, and so long as we let them go, rather than using them, we’re not drawing enough heat to get a kill order put on our heads.”

It was the best I could do.  This was the crossroads, as far as I was concerned.  If he didn’t take to this idea, the Regent I’d envisioned was likely to come to pass.  If he did accept the idea… well, it was still likely, but I could have hope.

“Huh,” Regent said.

Apparently that was the only answer I was about to get.

“What do we do with him?” Imp said.  She had the knife in Valefor’s mouth.  “I’m going to get a cramp, leaning over him like this.”

“We can hold onto him long enough for Regent to seize him,” I said, “Then let him go.  Or turn him into custody.  But there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t use his power to control someone and turn them into an unwitting assassin.”

“If he hasn’t already set some up,” Imp said.

“If he hasn’t,” I agreed.

I thought briefly of my dad.  If Valefor had been feeling malicious…

I put the idea out of my head.

“We could trust the PRT to look after him,” Regent said, somber.  “They’re professionals, they know how to deal with dangerous villains.”

He didn’t manage to hold it in for long.  He chuckled in near-silence, his shoulders shaking.

“The other possibility,” I said, “Is stripping him of his powers.”

I reached behind me, and found a small metal container.  I tipped out the contents into my palm, and then held out my hand so Regent could see.

“Seriously?” Regent asked.

“Seriously.”

“If you’re up for it…” Regent trailed off.

“I’m done with holding back,” I said.  “Decisive action.  No mercy for those who don’t deserve mercy.”

“Right,” Regent said.

I approached Valefor and Imp.

Valefor heard the footsteps, must have felt the impact as I stepped forward, standing over him.  He shook his head violently, oblivious to the knife Imp had placed in his mouth.   That, or he’d overheard something I’d said and didn’t care anymore.

He managed to shake enough bugs off that he could open his eyes.  He fixed his gaze on me, and I froze.  My thoughts dissolved to warm, wet, white noise.

The maggots, millipedes and centipedes dropped from my hand.  A part of me that was aware without being quite conscious controlled them, carried out my intent.  They spilled onto his face, and moved toward his eyes.  The stronger bugs helped pave the way for the others, leveraging the eyelids away from the eyes so the maggots could pass beneath.

“No!” he shouted, around the knife.  “Sto-”

Imp shifted position.  She was kneeling on his chest, and she moved the knife, bringing one knee into Valefor’s chin.  I could feel the force of the impact through the bugs on his face.

“Oh god,” Imp said, “Gross.  Gross, gross, gross.  Did I get any of them on me?”

My thoughts were clearing.  I blinked, and the movement felt painfully slow, as though I were almost asleep.

“You didn’t get any bugs on you,” I said, stepping on Valefor’s right hand.  Imp held his left with one hand, and held the knife’s blade against Valefor’s makeup-caked lips.  He groaned and writhed beneath her grip.

“They stink,” Imp complained.

“You’re imagining it.”

“I’m really not.”

Valefor’s struggles continued.  His writhing intensified, and it got to the point where he had to turn his head to throw up.

When he turned his head my way, his eyes moved over me, unseeing.  His chest was heaving as though he’d just run a long distance.

“Let him up,” I said.

Imp backed off, We pulled Valefor to a standing position.

“Walk,” I told him.

He was almost defeated in demeanor as we marched him in the general direction of Rosary.  He looked like he had tears streaming down his face, but it was only the leaking vitreous fluids.

“Fear,” I said.  “Remember what Bakuda said?  You have to be unpredictable, but you balance it with certainties.  Realities.”

“It’s a little fucked that you’re taking cues from the psycho bomb girl,” Regent commented.

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t about to deny it.  “But I’d prefer more certainties than unpredictable elements.  The punishment fits the misdeed.”

And if you take that to heart, then today’s worth whatever bad karma I reap from this, I thought.

“The look on Rosary’s face is going to be delicious,” Imp said.  “Doesn’t Haven have a major hate-on for the Fallen?”

“They do,” I said, “But when we meet her, don’t say anything.”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“It’s the effect,” I said.  “Trust me.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“I’m supposed to bribe you?”

“Fo’ sho,” she said.

“Ice cream,” I said.  I can’t buy ice cream as Taylor anymore.  “I’ll pay for it, you pick it up.”

“Sweet!”

Rosary was on guard as we approached, her stance intensifying as she recognized Valefor.  The petals were a storm around her.

I shoved Valefor, and he tripped and sprawled in front of the heroine.

She stared down at him.  He raised his head, and I could see her tense.

“I was expecting medusa’s head,” Rosary said, when Valefor hung his head again.  It looked like he was trying to avoid gagging.

What?  I could remember the myth, but… what?  I kept my mouth shut rather than ask.

“He’s blind,” she voiced the realization out loud.  “You blinded him.”

I nodded, still silent.

“Permanently?”

I had to give a response, now.  “He’ll need antibiotics.  Both Valefor and Eligos will need medical care.  It’s up to you whether you save his vision.”

“Just like that.”

I nodded once.

“We had it handled,” she said.

“Our city, our business,” I said.  “Next time, ask.  We’ll deal with it.  You leave, now, and you ask permission before you set foot in Brockton Bay again.”

“Or we can expect a fight.”

“Expect consequences,” I said.  I looked down at Valefor.  “See to his eyes.”

I turned and led the other two in walking away.

“What-” Regent started.  I held up a finger.

When we were out of earshot of Rosary, I dropped the finger.

“What’s with that?” he asked.

“We got what we needed.”

“You didn’t even mention how you blinded him,” Imp said.

“It’s about using fear as a tool,” I told her.  “The unknown is always better than the known.  Silence is better than almost anything we could say.  For example, you can leave them wondering just why Valefor’s power didn’t work on you.  And consider the reaction when they realize just why he’s blind.  Maggots packed into his eyeballs.”

Imp shuddered visibly.  “How?”

“That’s the exact question they’ll be asking,” I told her.  “In case you’re wondering-”

“I’m not.”

“-Centipedes and bigger bugs opened a path through the external layers.  Maggots crawled inside.  Nothing critical damaged.  Probably repairable, though I’m not an expert in anatomy.”

She shivered again, “My eyes are watering.  Total heebie-jeebies.”

I didn’t reply to that.  I was more focused on Regent.

“We okay?” I asked him.

He shrugged.  “Sure.”

Noncommittal response, no clue as to whether he’d take my suggestion on using his power to scare people away without creating a harem like his dad.  I hadn’t really expected anything else.

“So gross,” Imp muttered.

But he had the ability to take control of Imp.

I needed to have a discussion with Grue.  A very careful discussion.

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Imago 21.2

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Atlas started to falter.  Compared to humans and other animals, bugs didn’t quite have the same ability to push themselves past the breaking point.  Most bugs were small, and their bodies were hyperefficient, condensed down to the essential elements.  If a bug needed to be able to leap, to lunge or to fly, it maintained a certain capacity and it didn’t generally go beyond that.  It wasn’t absolute, but I’d found it was a definite trend.

In brief, there wasn’t really a hundred-and-ten-percent.  When Atlas started demonstrating fatigue and difficulty in carrying me, I wasted no time in setting him down on the ground.

I ran my hand along the giant beetle’s shell while Tattletale and Rachel caught up.

“Problem?” Tattletale asked.

“No,” I said.  “Yes.  Can I catch a ride on a dog?”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.  She whistled, loud and sharp enough that I flinched, and swept her finger in my direction.  One of her dogs took the cue and approached me.

“What’s wrong with Atlas?” Tattletale asked.

“He’s wearing out,” I said.  My voice sounded flat.  “During the Echidna fight, I saw how quickly he was getting tired, and I chalked it up to the fact that he hadn’t eaten properly while separated from me… but I’ve been realizing that it’s more than that.  I haven’t figured out the perfect diet to give him absolutely everything he needs, and I’m only barely managing to maintain an equilibrium.  Every time he gets hurt, every time he gets tired, there’s general wear and tear I can’t compensate for.”

“I’m sorry,” Tattletale said.

“That’s the way things go, isn’t it?  Nothing works a hundred percent right.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said.  “I have to wonder, when you named him, what was the idea behind calling him Atlas?”

“My mom raised me as a reader,” I said.  “He’s a giant-sized Hercules beetle, and the only name-upgrade I could think of from Hercules was the titan Atlas.”

“The titan who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Apropos.”

I shrugged.

“And like his master, he’s having trouble with his burden?”

“I’m really not in the mood for the Tattletale psychoanalysis.”  I climbed onto the dog’s back.  It wasn’t one I knew well, and moved away from me as I climbed up its side, making the process more awkward.  Rachel made sound that was almost a bark, almost an ‘ah!’, and the animal went still.

“Maybe it’s not exactly what you want, but what if it can help?”  Tattletale asked.

“My issues aren’t ones that can be fixed with words,” I said.  “Unless you have any insights to offer about Tagg, a way to make this world suddenly make sense, or a way to make people stop being such assholes, such morons, then I’m not sure I want to hear it.”

“He got to you.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Nothing he said-”

“But he got to you, even if you ignore everything he said.”

“Armsmaster,” I said.  “Kaiser.  Purity.  Miss Militia.  Piggot.  Dragon… a bunch of others I can’t even be bothered to think of.  Why is it so hard to find someone who’s willing to cooperate?  To find someone that’s on the same page as me?  They keep making these calls I just can’t understand, sometimes unfathomable, stupid calls, and things keep falling apart.”

“They probably look at you and wonder why you can’t fall in line with their perception of the way things should go.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not like that.”

Tattletale didn’t interject or argue.

I struggled to find the words.  “…What I’m talking about, ideas like keeping the peace, keeping people safe, making sure that everyone’s safe, it’s… they’re not complicated.  This is basic stuff.  If we can’t get the fundamentals right, then how are we supposed to handle the more complicated stuff, like keeping this city running, or stopping war from breaking out?”

“If we could all handle the fundamental stuff, the larger issues wouldn’t exist.”

“No, he… there’s no way it makes any sense, whether you’re talking fundamentals or larger scale.  He attacked a school to, how did he say it, to give me a bloody nose?”

“It’s probably more complicated than that.  You know as well as anyone that we put on a mask and play a role when dealing with our enemies.  He was playing up a certain attitude because he knew it was the only way to get to you.”

“Why did he have to ‘get to me’?”

“You attacked him.”

“I mean, why did it even have to get to that point?  They weren’t as aggressive with Kaiser and Purity, when unpowered members of Empire Eighty-Eight were dragging people from their homes.  They didn’t act on this scale when the ABB was dealing in hard drugs and ambushing people on the street to tell them that because of where their parents were born, that they had to be soldiers, prostitutes or pay money every month in tribute.  They were doing that to middle schoolers.”

“You took over a city.”

“How is that worse?  How does that even compare to those other guys?”

“It doesn’t compare,” Tattletale said.  She hopped down from Bentley’s back.  She paced between Rachel and I, thumbs hooked into her belt.  Rachel stared at me, her expression unreadable, her mask dangling around her neck by a strap.  Tattletale continued, “Not really.  But it means a world of difference to them.  They have to care about appearances.”

“Maintaining appearances is so important that they have to attack a school?  Break the unwritten rules?”

“I could go on a whole spiel about the unwritten rules.  But that’s not important.  For people like Tagg and Piggot, it’s cape business, and they’re not quite part of that.  And yeah, appearances are worth putting kids at risk, for what they’re facing.  Things are just calming down here-”

Rachel snorted.

“-But they’re only picking up for the PRT.  They’re running scared, hemorrhaging members.  They’re falling apart, and they’re big enough in the grand scheme of things that we don’t even know the repercussions if this keeps going on.  Every team that fights the Endbringers relies on the Protectorate for information, for backup, equipment and even periodic training.  But even beyond that, beyond the capes, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who are watching the Protectorate, looking to them for reassurance.  Our perspectives and feelings are barely a factor in the face of those hundreds of millions of watching eyes.”

Barely a factor.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “They put on a brave face, they put a tenacious fucker in office here, and they gear up to take a bite out of us.  They don’t want to win.  Not completely, not all at once.  They need us, because they don’t have the capes to dedicate to protecting this territory, not even with the possibility that the portal becomes something big.  They aim to take you out, destabilize us, and maybe then they hope to focus on the other bad guys.  The Teeth, the Fallen, anyone else who shows up and doesn’t play by the rules.  They do something to assure the world that they’re still relevant, and they keep the balance, all with a minimum of resources expended.”

“And in doing that, they fuck with the rules, and they attack a high school.”

“Are you really surprised that they broke the rules?  We have, Piggot did, when she wanted to drop bombs on us while letting us act as decoys for bigger threats.  The rules are only useful so long as they protect the status quo, and Brockton Bay bent the status quo over backwards and fucked it a long time ago.”

“And the school?”

“Dinah,” she said.  “They had some basic, hard numbers saying that you wouldn’t do something disastrous, and they have PR to clean up the mess afterwards.  I suspect there’ll be something in the news early tomorrow.  They’ll say you were an undeniable threat, they’ll twist things around, fudge the truth or outright lie, and they’ll suppress anything that contradicts that line.  After that, they’ll have Tagg and the local heroes keep looking to take a bite out of us, do some damage they can put on camera, for the benefit of the hundreds of millions of watching eyes, and they’ll keep at us until they do.  He was being honest about that much.”

I clenched my fist.  I didn’t want to think about Dinah.

“Sorry,” she said.  “But it’s better you know this in advance, so it doesn’t blindside you when the news-”

“Rachel,” I interrupted Tattletale.

“What?”  Rachel asked.  Her eyes hadn’t left me.

“Can I borrow this dog?  I’ll look after him.”

“He needs to eat.  Can you get him back to me by tomorrow morning?”

“I asked Tattletale to ship dog food to every headquarters, the same kinds you feed your dogs, just in case,” I said.  “Not tomorrow morning, but I’ll make sure he eats.”

Tattletale frowned, “Skitter, we need to talk about-”

“I got the gist of it,” I said.  “Did you ship the food?”

“Yes.”

I looked to Rachel, “I’ll walk him, make sure he has food and water.”

“No need for a walk,” Rachel said.  “Boston terriers don’t need more than one a day.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’ll come for him tomorrow afternoon,” she said.  As an afterthought, she said, “His name is Radley.”

“Thank you,” I said.

No questions, no pressure, no explanations.  It was just Rachel, stepping outside of her comfort zone and trusting one of her dogs to someone.  It helped more than everything Tattletale had said put together.

Not that that was saying much.

“Let’s go, Radley.”

Radley hesitated to obey.  I half-expected Rachel to urge him forward, but she didn’t say a thing, apparently content to let me take charge.

I was glad when he started running, glad on so many levels.

Moving felt good.  It wasn’t me running, my feet pounding on the ground, but feeling Radley’s muscles shift beneath me, feeling the impacts of his feet on the ground, jolting through my body to the point that I had to clench my teeth to keep from biting my tongue, it was good.

I’d always liked the sensation of the wind in my hair.  It was cleansing, soothing, if not relaxing.  It was cool, when the air around me was warm and humid.

I shifted position, holding on with only one hand, and pulled off my mask with the other. The world was blurry, I didn’t have the extra hand to don my glasses, but I could feel the wind in my face now.  I shut my eyes, trusting to Radley and my swarm-sense to navigate the streets.

But where was I supposed to go?

I wanted to see Dinah, knew it was the last place I should go.  I already knew the answers, already knew that the conclusion was a foregone one.  Didn’t want to think about it, just like I didn’t want to think about those two pieces of paper she’d left in the car before we’d parted ways.  I was actively trying not to think about them, as a matter of fact.

Dinah had left me two messages, and I had little doubt that she’d done it that way for a reason.  To meet her now, it would go against that, it would put me in the heroes’ sights,  and it would crystallize things I didn’t even want to think about into a single discussion.

My dad?  No.  There was nothing to say, no signal that would work.  If he was even there, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the media around his place, or the Protectorate, the reminder that I hadn’t just abandoned him, but that my very existence was inconveniencing him.

I steered Radley around a corner, hauling on one of the chains.  I wasn’t really strong enough to make him turn his head, but Rachel had trained him to respond to slight cues, and it seemed his personality was more cooperative than not.  If he’d been stubborn, he could have chosen to run up until Bitch’s power wore off.  Not that I really minded.

“Good boy,” I said.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t have any hobbies.  For one and a half years, I’d just been trying to get by, managing with school, reading, surfing the web aimlessly.  Once my powers had manifested, my hobby had been preparing for the idea that I’d go out as a superhero.  I’d had only this and my day-to-day life as Taylor since then, and only one of those things had survived the day.

We ran with no destination, until Radley had foam flecking the corner of his mouth, and the meat of his back started shifting position in a way that suggested he was shrinking.

At my instruction, Radley slowed to a walk, then a complete stop.  I slid off his back.  Holding the chain, I led him in a walk.  It served to help me work the kinks out of my arms and legs, and it let Radley cool down after the run, flesh sloughing away around him.  Atlas followed, flying above us.

I wanted to see Brian, didn’t want to continue our discussion from earlier.

I itched to deal with one of my enemies, to ride off to battle and do something about the Teeth or the Fallen, but I didn’t trust that I’d be focused enough to tackle the situation and fight at my best.

I couldn’t imagine I’d be focused after a good night’s sleep, either.

Radley couldn’t walk any more, and I waited while the last of his body sloughed away, gathering up the chains.  It made for a surprising amount of weight, especially when it was all coiled up into a single length.

One chain had a collar on it.  I found Radley’s real body in the fluid-filled sac that  encased him, and punctured it to get my hands on him.  I managed to attach the collar, and clipped one end of a chain to it.  I gave Atlas some of the chain, and lifted the remainder over my head, shouldering the burden.

Without Atlas or Radley to carry me, I faced a long walk, even if I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go.

Time to think, without any outside forces to interject.

Damn Tagg.  I hated that my conversation with him was among the most recent, the one that I couldn’t help but dwell on.

Where the hell had Radley and I even gone?  What was even close by, here?  Captain’s hill?  The woods?  The upper end of Grue’s territory?  What would even motivate me to come this way?

I kept walking.  Part of it was that I couldn’t bring myself to go back to my territory, to answer the questions of my underlings.  Another part of it was that I knew I’d wake up after a fitful night’s sleep, and I would resume being Skitter.  I would be Skitter with anyone and everyone I interacted with for a long time.

My confused thoughts crystallized into a realization when I found a short stone wall topped by an iron grille railing, sharp points spearing toward the sky, protecting the inhabitants of the property.

I scooped up Radley with one arm and scaled the wall.

The ground was soft, thick with bugs.  The area was dense with trees, once young, now overgrown.  The air was cooler here, thanks to the shade the trees had offered during the day and the wind that blew down from the surrounding hills.

I took a seat on the grass.

“Oh boy,” I said, “Where do I even begin?”

Radley seemed to think I was talking to him.  He approached and nudged me with his nose.  I scratched behind his ears, gently.  I’d altered the armor of my gloves, and they ended more in points.  Radley seemed to like it, pushing against my fingertips, his eyes half-closing.

“I guess I should say I’m sorry it’s been so long, mom,” I said, still scratching Radley.

The headstone, naturally, didn’t respond.  There were only the words:

Annette Rose Hebert
1969-2008
She taught something precious to each of us
.

“It’s… it’s sort of humiliating, to think about everything in context.  I get this knot in my chest, right up near my collarbone, when I think about getting into everything, about filling you in and catching you up on the past few months.  It’s almost harder than it’d be to explain to dad, and I never even managed to do that.”

Silence lingered.  We were remote enough that there weren’t even the sounds of the city.  Oblivion, as clean as it might be in Grue’s darkness.

“I guess things have kind of turned upside down.  That whole superhero thing I told you about, before?  It… really didn’t work out.”

I laughed a little, a small sound, humorless.

Radley climbed into my lap and turned around until he was nestled in place.

“And it’s like… if I even started to tell you everything that went on, all of the stuff that dad’s probably finding out about?  Stuff maybe worse than what I was saying to intimidate Dragon and Defiant, on the cell phone videos that made it to the news?  I don’t think I could manage it.  It’s- how did I even get to this point?  I did horrible things, stuff that makes me feel three feet tall when I just imagine telling you or dad about it, and the stupid thing is I’m not sure what I would’ve done different if I had to do it all over again.

“So where do I begin?  How do I even frame it all?  Everything’s flipped around.  I’m not alone anymore.  I have maybe a hundred and fifty people working for me, some people who trust me with their lives, others who owe me their lives.  I’ve got Lisa and Brian.  Rachel.  There’s Alec and Aisha too, but I’m not as close to them.  We’ve, uh, we’ve been through a lot.  Life and death stuff.  On television, in the movies and in books, you sort of get the impression that you make it past the one big hurdle, and you’re bound together by circumstance.  It happened a lot in the books you read to me at night.  Not so much in reality.

“Except getting through the crisis doesn’t mean we’re all together forever, without our issues.  We’re close.  We’re closer, in the aftermath of it all, but I’m not sure where Brian and I stand.  Right now, when I’m maybe feeling lower than I have in forever, I don’t even feel like I can talk to them.”

My swarm detected someone traveling the grounds.  I glanced over in that direction, saw the dim glow of a flashlight.  It didn’t turn my way, and in a minute, he was gone.  A caretaker of the grounds.  Groundskeeper?  Whichever.

“Brian wants to address the problem, Lisa wants to understand it.  I’d go to Rachel, will probably go to Rachel, but I don’t know that I can really talk about any of this with her.  I don’t know if she has any real conception of what I lost, today.  I don’t want to suggest you’re the last person I’d turn to, but I think the real reason I came here was because I wasn’t sure where else to go, to have someone to listen.”

I sighed.  Radley echoed me, doing the same, supine in my lap, eyes closed.

“Um.  I’ve gone from an insignificant nobody to someone that’s being talked about all over the world.  I didn’t even really mean to, but I kind of wound up taking over a city.  It needed doing, so I did it, and we can’t give up the job because others would step in to take over, and they wouldn’t be as fair to the locals, I don’t think.  Tattle- Lisa was saying she thinks the authorities are holding back because they need us here.  They don’t like us, they don’t like me, but we’re a fixture, now.  So here I am, and governments on the other side of the planet are probably discussing contingency scenarios and the possibility of bad guys taking over their towns.  I’m on the news, and I’m all over the internet, and I guess even your name’s come up.  Dad’s too.”

I pulled my mask from where I’d tucked it into my belt and turned it over.  I held it up so it was facing the headstone.

“I guess I should get around to saying it outright.  I’m a supervillain.  Crime lord of Brockton Bay.  It’s not as bad as it sounds.  Or maybe it’s worse.  I’ve saved lives.  Fought Leviathan, fought the Slaughterhouse Nine and Echidna.  I’ve also taken a life.  Fought the heroes, and hurt people who probably didn’t deserve it, just to make a point.”

I had to stop there.  I sighed, then turned to stare out over the unlit graveyard and the city beyond the short walls.

“This whole thing, I didn’t really ask for any of it.  I made myself into this… entity, just to get by.  I’ll probably have to keep doing it.  I tried to avoid hurting people out of anger, but that sounds pretty feeble when I look at what I’ve done.  A little while back, there was this guy who was dying.  One of the Merchants.  The man had taken a boy away from his sister and did some shitty stuff in general.  Hurt people.  I left him there to die, and part of the reason I did it was because I knew I needed to be harder, to reassure myself that I could kill another man when the time came.  Which I did.

“I told myself I was doing that to save a little girl.  I don’t even know why I made it as big a deal as I did.  Saving Dinah.  Some of it might have been because I was trying to do what was right, and because I wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to do anything about it.  But the more I think on it, the more I think I was trying to make up for the bad stuff I’d already done.”

There were a fresh set of flowers in the small, narrow vase at the base of the headstone.  I picked it up and studied it.  Had my dad paid a visit earlier in the evening?

“She turned on me, you know,” I said.  “The girl I saved.  And I think I sort of know why she did it.  I understand the rationale.  I don’t even blame her.”

I fished the two little notes from my belt.  I’d crumpled and flattened them out so many times they were little better than tissue paper.  I hadn’t wanted to read them, but I hadn’t been able to throw them away, either.

“Shit,” I muttered.  “What gets me, more than anything, is the injustice of it all.  There’s no karmic retribution, no reward for good deeds or punishments for the bad.  It’s almost the opposite.  It might explain why the Protectorate’s in such rough shape.

“I do horrible things, kill a man, and I can’t even bring myself to feel bad about it.  I scared innocents, did property damage, attacked good heroes who were trying to protect the city and the shitty heroes who were doing the job for selfish reasons, and I get rewarded.  Power, prestige, respect.”

I straightened out the notes so they were each flat, being careful not to tear them.

“And I save a girl from the clutches of an evil, scheming crime lord, and this is my reward.”

I held out the papers for the tombstone.  Two squares of paper.  Each had a number in the upper left corner, circled, to indicate the order the notes should be read in.  Two words for the first note, two and a half for the second.

1.  Cut ties.

2.  I’m sorry.

“Let me tell you, mom.  If there are two and a half words you don’t want to hear from a person who can see the future, those words are ‘I’m sorry’.  It’s terrifying.  She gave me instructions, and I didn’t follow them.  I knew, I almost did it, several times over, but I didn’t make the call.  I didn’t leave dad.  So maybe that’s why she forced my hand by going to the authorities and telling them to out me.”

I took my time folding up the notes, tucking them into my belt.

“I guess this next bit must be important, if she was willing to do this to me after everything I did for her.  Maybe it’s for the greater good.  Maybe it gives me the greatest chance at surviving what comes next.”

I tensed as the groundskeeper with the flashlight appeared again.  The flashlight turned my way, but he didn’t seem to notice me.

“She says she’s sorry, and it’s like… I’m not mad at her.  I don’t blame her, because she’s just one piece of a bigger picture, and she’s a pawn in it all, just like me.  It’s everything that’s fucked up, isn’t it?  The whole dynamic where wrongs get rewarded and right gets punished, some of the good guys turning out to be worse than the worst of the bad, the sheer lack of cooperation, when there’s not just one apocalypse coming, but two.  The Endbringers and this thing with Jack Slash.”

I sighed.

“I’ve spent far too much time looking at these notes, wondering why she wrote them, interpreting them, and considering the worst case scenarios.  I’ve thought about it until I started thinking in circles.  I keep coming back to different facets of the same idea.”

I could imagine her there.  My mom, standing in front of me, a physical presence.  All of her gentleness and warmth.  Her silent, quiet disapproval.  Her brilliance, which she couldn’t share with me right now.

I felt a sort of relief.  Being able to talk it out, it helped clarify my thoughts where I’d felt so lost, before.  I was feeling more direction, now.  I could see a goal, something to aim for.  I didn’t like it, but I’d known from the moment I read Dinah’s notes that I wouldn’t like the outcome.

“I’ve got to be heartless, I think,” I said, and my voice was barely above a whisper.  I was aware of the groundskeeper approaching, but I didn’t move.  “I know you and dad won’t approve of this, but Dinah seems to think I have a bigger role to play in what comes next, and maybe I won’t be in the right position, in the right place at the right time, if I don’t do it.”

Radley stirred, reacting to the noise of the groundskeeper’s footsteps.  I held his collar to keep him from attacking.

I moved Radley, stood and faced the groundskeeper.  I could see the whites of his eyes in the gloom, even through the glare of the flashlight.  He was older, round-faced, with a potbelly, his hair a bit too long.

His look was wary.  The girl in a black body suit complete with gray body armor, in the company of a small dog, sitting by a grave.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” I said.  “I’ll leave.”

He peered at me, then glanced at my mom’s headstone.  “You’re visiting?”

“My mother.”

“Not causing any trouble?”

I shook my head.

“I won’t begrudge you that, so long as you don’t cause any trouble or leave any mess.  You clean up after that dog.”

I nodded again, silent.  I didn’t have bags, but I had bugs.

His expression softened a touch.  “You need anything?  I’ll be making some tea before I get another walk in later tonight, but I could brew a spot of coffee if you think you’ll be sitting out here for a bit.”

I felt tears in the corners of my eyes.  Odd, that they hadn’t appeared earlier.

“Tea would be…” I struggled to find the word.  I almost said lovely, but it sounded wrong.  “Tea, please, if it’s no trouble.”

“I’ll bring out a cup.”

“And paper?”  I blurted out the words.

“I only have printer paper, I think.”

“That’s fine.”

“How many pages?”

I opened my mouth to say, but I had no idea.

Again, a gentle expression that I didn’t deserve crossed his face.  “I’ll bring you a good amount.  You bring the leftover back to my office when you return the teacup.”

“Thank you,” I told him.

It was a little while before he arrived with the tea, the paper and a pen.  I didn’t speak to my mother’s headstone in the meantime, and even after the groundskeeper stopped by, I couldn’t find anything to say.

I wrote; twelve pages, front and back.  It wasn’t a fast process.  Two hours passed before the groundskeeper did another patrol of the grounds.  I wasn’t sure if it was his job or a thing he did because he had nothing else to do, but he finished up and retired in a little house a little ways up the hill, turning in for the night.

My hand was cramping and I had a stitch in my neck by the time I’d decided I was finished.  Too many hours spent writing with the paper pressed against the armor on my leg, considering how to phrase things, knowing that there was no perfect way to say it.

I penned the final words:

I love you, dad.  I’m sorry
-Taylor

I removed the flower from the vase, and laid it at the foot of the headstone.  I rolled up the paper and slid it into the vase, then placed it upside-down so the rain wouldn’t filter inside.  My dad would be the only one to see it.  If someone like the groundskeeper investigated, I didn’t particularly mind.

I stood, stretching.  Radley wagged his tail at me, excited to be moving again.  He was a happy, easygoing little guy.  Had Rachel sent him with me with his personality in mind?

I thought about saying something more to my mom, but the illusion had been shattered.  I’d made a decision, and it wasn’t one I’d been prepared to make when I’d left the PRT headquarters.  Talking had helped to clarify my thoughts.  I didn’t feel as lost as I had, nor as frustrated.  I’d been able to pen out an explanation for my dad.  Not as long or as in-depth as he deserved, perhaps, but an explanation.

“Thanks for hearing me out,” I said, acutely aware that she wasn’t there, that she wasn’t listening.  “I’m going to be busy, so it’ll probably be a while before I drop by again.  Sorry.”

I walked away with a lump in my throat, my head held high, and a direction in mind.

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Imago 21.1

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Tattletale stood at the very edge of the floor, with a twenty-five story drop just in front of her.  The wind whipped her hair around her, and she didn’t even have a handhold available.  Shatterbird had cleared out all of the window panes, long ago.

She lowered her binoculars.  “He’s gone.  If he was going to pull something off, he’d want to watch and make sure everything went off without a hitch.”

“I could have gone with them,” Imp said.  “Listened in.”

“Not without us knowing their full set of powers,” Tattletale said.

Imp folded her arms, pouting, “I thought you were one of the cool ones.”

“Othello’s a stranger,” Tattletale said.  “I’d think he has an imaginary friend who can mess around with us, but I didn’t see any sign of anyone invisible walking around.”

“Isn’t that the point?” Regent asked.

“No dust or glass being disturbed, none of that.  I might think his ‘friend’ is invisible and intangible, but then what’s the point?  Accord tends to have people with good powers.  Citrine, only bits I could figure out were that she’s got an offensive power, something with substance, and her focus was in a strange place.  She was more focused on places in the room where the strongest powers were clustered, and her focus was fairly indiscriminate beyond that.  Either her power wasn’t anything that anyone here would have been able to defend against, like Flechette’s arrows or a controlled version of Scrub’s blasts, or she’s a trump classification.”

“What’s that?” Regent asked.

“Official classification for capes who can either acquire new powers on the fly,” Tattletale gestured towards Grue, “Have an interaction with other powers that can’t be categorized or they nullify powers.”

“She’s powerful, then,” Regent said.

“She acts like she’s powerful,” Tattletale said, “And she probably is.  But that database of PRT records we had didn’t have anything in it about those two.  I don’t know where he finds those guys, but Accord collects some damn heavy hitters.”

Parian broke her spell of silence.  “You keep talking like we’re going to fight them.”

“Threat assessment,” Tattletale said.  She made her way back to her chair, sitting at the long table.  “Be stupid not to know what we’re getting into, especially with someone like him.”

“Not to mention we’ve gotten in fights with pretty much everyone who ever set up shop in the ‘Bay,” Regent commented.

“There’s nothing imminent,” Grue said.  “Let’s focus on more immediate problems.”

He turned his attention my way.

“Me?” I asked.

“He’s right.  We’ve been so busy preparing for possible fallout that we haven’t had time to discuss this,” Tattletale said.

“I’m a non-factor.  The damage is done, and it’s a question of the dust settling,” I said, staring down at my gloves.  I’d altered some of my costume, but the real adjustments would have to wait until I had time.  I’d made up the extra cloth in an open area of my territory I was devoting to the purpose, but hadn’t had time to turn it into something to wear for tonight.  Some of my mask, the back compartment of my armor and my gloves were more streamlined.  Or less streamlined, depending on how one looked at it.  Sharper lines, convex armor panels that flared out more, gloves with more edges for delivering damage if I had to get in a hand to hand fight.

I’d only done some of the armor, pieces of my costume that were already battered and worn.  My gloves, my mask and the back compartment of my armor tended to take the most abuse.  I’d update the rest later.

“I’m not sure it’s that simple,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  He reached across the table and gripped my hand, squeezing it.  “Have we double checked to see what bridges they’ve burned for us?  My parents aren’t showing any sign of interference.”

“Mom wouldn’t care either way,” Aisha said.  “She might try to capitalize on the attention with appearances on television if she could get money for it.”

“Yeah,” Grue agreed.

“My family wouldn’t care,” Tattletale said.  “I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know.  They’d choose to ignore it, I’d bet.  Parian?  You’ve covered your bases.”

“Most of my family is dead.  The ones who aren’t dead already know,” Parian said.  She looked out toward the window, at the city lights under the night sky.

Tattletale nodded, “Let’s see… Rachel isn’t a problem, not really.  Never had a secret identity.”

Rachel shrugged.  Her attention was on her dogs.  They were shrinking, their extra mass sloughing away.  She already had Bastard sitting next to her, his fur spiky and wet from the transformation.

“And if they tried to come at me through my family, they’d get what they deserved,” Regent said.

“Why?” Parian asked.

“His dad’s Heartbreaker,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.  Oh wow.”

“Funny thing is,” Regent said, “If you think about it, we might be bigger than Heartbreaker, now.  People all over America know who we are, and I’m not sure if Heartbreaker is known that far to the south or west.”

“That’s not our focus right now,” Grue said, squeezing my hand.  “It’s good that we’re talking about safeguards and damage control, but discussing villains and the rest of America can wait.  They came after Skitter while she was out of costume.”

“How are you coping?” Tattletale asked, leaning forward over the table.  “You were pretty heavy-handed tonight.  We discussed it, sure, but I thought you’d at least pretend to play ball with them.”

“I didn’t need superpowered intuition to figure out they weren’t going to cooperate no matter what I said,” I replied.

“But you were provoking them.  Valefor especially.  You up for this, with all the other distractions?”

“This is what I’ve got left, isn’t it?  The good guys decided to play their biggest card.  They couldn’t beat Skitter, so they beat Taylor.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to throw myself into this, to deal with both heroes and villains as a full-time thing.  I lay down the law, because now I’ve got time to enforce it.  I can be stricter with the local villains, back you guys up if they cause trouble, and dedicate the rest of my time to my territory.”

“Dangerous road to travel down,” Tattletale said.  “You need to rest, to have downtime.”

“And do what?  Go to a movie?  I’m not sure if any theaters are open-”

“They are,” Tattletale said.

“-And I couldn’t go even if they were.  My face is plastered all over the news, and I’ve got a tinker who might be watching every computer system and surveillance camera in the city, because she’s not willing to go against her bosses.  I can’t go shopping, can’t leave my territory unless I’m in costume and ready for a fight.”

“More time to go after them,” Regent said.  “You can’t let this slide.”

“I’m not planning to,” I said, standing from my seat.

“Hold on,” Grue said, as my hand came free of his grip.

“Walk with me,” I said.  “All of you.  The city may be getting better, but there shouldn’t be lights on in this building, and it’s only a matter of time before one of the local heroes decides to stop by and see why.”

“We can take them,” Rachel said, from the rear of the group.

“We can, and we will,” I said, entering the stairwell.  “On our terms, not theirs.”

“There’s enough enemies to fight,” Parian said.  She had to hurry around the table to catch up.  “We don’t need more.”

“I agree,” Grue said.  “Not that I don’t understand the need for some response, but you’re talking aggression.”

“I’m feeling aggressive,” I said.  “I think.  I don’t know.  Hard to pin it all down.”

“Might be better to wait until you have a better idea of what you’re feeling,” Grue said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, stepping down onto the staircase.  “Logically, there’s no choice but to act on this.  You heard Valefor.  The villain community won’t respect us until we answer the PRT, and the so-called good guys won’t have a reason to think twice about doing it again.”

“The rest of us aren’t as vulnerable as you are,” Regent said.  “Don’t want to sound disrespectful or anything, but we don’t have the same kinds of civilian lives to protect.”

“There’re others,” I said.  “Part of the reason we uphold these rules is because it sets precedents.  Other villains hold to the rules and we benefit, the opposite is true.”

“The flip side of it,” Tattletale said, “Is that we’re risking an escalation in conflict.”

“I don’t see how they can escalate,” I said.  “As I see it, they played the last card they have.  The harder we hit them now, the more clear it is to outsiders that the PRT doesn’t have an answer.  I can show that it doesn’t bother me, and the effect is the same.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” Tattletale asked.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Yes,” I said.  “In terms of me, I don’t know.  I can’t say for sure whether it’s justified or not.  But they went after my dad.”

“I get that,” Grue said, “I’d be pissed if they went after Aisha.  God, you know, when I was swallowed up by Echidna, and she was filling my head with all the worst stuff I could think of, revised memories, it-”

He stopped, and I paused to glance back up the stairs at him.

“Bro?” Aisha asked.

He took a second to compose himself, then said, “I get what you’re saying, Taylor.  Believe me.  I was buried in it.  If anyone here knows what it’s like to want to protect people-”

“That’s not it,” I cut him off.

“No?”

“It’s not about me wanting to protect my dad from the aftermath of all of this.  That’s done, and right now he’s hurting more than he has since my mom died.  Some of that’s on me, and some of it’s on the people who sent Defiant and Dragon into the fray.  The damage is done.”

“And you want to go after the non-capes who made the call?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sick of being on the defensive.  I hate waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s always another shoe, and always a bigger threat.  Speaking of, what’s your interpretation on the company we had tonight, Tattletale?  How do you think they’re going to play this?”

“The Ambassadors are on the up and up, as far as I can guess their direction.  Accord’s unpredictable, which is kind of ironic.  I’d say they’re lower priority.”

“They’re going to stick to the deal?”

“Until Accord’s neurosis pushes him to break it,” Tattletale said.

“Then who’s a higher priority?  The Teeth?”

“Lots of aggressive powers.  Butcher’s at the forefront of it all.  Spree has rapid fire duplicate generation, Vex has the ability to fill empty spaces with small, razor-sharp forcefields, Hemorrhagia is a limited hemokinetic with some personal biokinesis, Animos can transform for limited times and packs a power nullification ranged attack while in his other shape.  There’s two or three others.”

“I’m asking about their goals,” I said.  “Any clue what they’re thinking?  Are they going to come after us?”

“Probably.  We seem weak and unbalanced right now, especially with Parian not doing the absolute best job protecting her territory.”

“I’m trying,” Parian said.

“You’d be doing better if you’d accept help,” Tattletale retorted.  “Except you don’t want to do that because you haven’t committed to this.”

“I will.  I’m still figuring out the more basic stuff you guys figured out ages ago.”

“Commitment on a mental level, P.  That’s more than just coming to meetings.  You don’t have to like us, but respect us, get to know us, trust us and maybe allow for the occasional intimate moment.”

Parian snapped her head around to stare at Tattletale, in a way that was rather more dramatic than the statement warranted.

“Not that kind of intimate.  Sorry hon.  Trust me when I say we’re all pretty accepting here, and there’s no reason to lie; none of us girls here bat for the other team.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course,” Tattletale said, smiling.  “But I was talking about letting us see more of the girl behind the mask.  Share those vulnerabilities, let us give you a shoulder to cry on.”

“I don’t need one,” Parian said, “And that has nothing to do with me defending my territory.”

“More than you think,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me, “They’re the type to prey on weakness, and Parian’s capable of only protecting a short section of her perimeter.”

“Hire people?” I asked.  “Henchmen, mercenaries.”

“I don’t want to put innocents in the line of fire,” Parian said.

“You don’t want others to suffer if the Teeth come after the people you wanted to protect, either,” I said.

“I don’t know what you want me to do.  If I call for help, they’ll retreat, and we wind up wasting your time, while leaving me looking and feeling useless.”

“There’s an alternative,” I said.

“What?”

“What I was talking about before.  Going on the offensive.  Only it’s not about just the good guys.  I’m talking about targeting our enemies, wiping them out before they hurt us and give us cause.”

“That’s dangerous,” Grue said.

“You guys keep saying things along those lines,” I responded.  “I shouldn’t be so strict with our enemies, I shouldn’t ratchet up my involvement in things, I shouldn’t be aggressive.  It’s more dangerous to leave them loose, to always give our enemies the first move.”

“The flip side to that coin is that it gives everyone else we deal with less reason to play ball.  We need to get other villains to parley if we’re going to seriously hold this territory.  The Ambassadors are only step one,” Grue said.  “If some other group comes into town and they’re considering joining us, are they going to look at whatever humiliating defeat we visit on the Fallen and feel it’s better to attack us first?”

“Escalation,” Parian echoed Tattletale’s earlier statement.

I sighed.  Atlas had descended from his vantage point above the building, and flew in to land next to me.  I ran my hand along his horn.

“We’re not… the idea here isn’t to attack you, Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “Hell, what they did was low.  You said it yourself, in that cafeteria.  But you’re talking about changing our dynamic, and it’s a dynamic that’s been working.  We’ve already been through some high-tension, high-conflict scenarios.  A bunch of times when we went days without a chance to breathe.  You want to ratchet that up?”

“Not entirely,” I said.  “If we do this right, if we play this smart, then this should reduce the amount of conflict.  I need to know if you guys are on board.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“I’m in,” Regent replied.  Imp nodded.

“My- my vote doesn’t count,” Parian said.  “I only wanted a show of force, to see if we couldn’t scare the Teeth.  Only I think it had the opposite effect, because what you guys were saying about Butcher is spooking me.  If you guys want to help me with them, okay.  But I don’t want to commit to anything major here, and I can’t tell you guys how to operate, because I’m new to this.  Skip my vote.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?  Grue?”

“I’ve already said my bit,” Tattletale said.  “You call the shots in the field, and act as the face of the group, I do the behind the scenes stuff.  That’s how we worked it out.  I’m kosher with that.”

Grue said, “I have one thing to say.  Think it over, or keep it in mind.  We made it further than most groups do.  Some villains set their sights high, and they fall.  Others try to eliminate their enemies and get eliminated in turn.  Still others set their mind on a goal and they strive for it, only to get worn down along the way.”

He paused, glancing away.  I didn’t interrupt.  Picking the right words?  Thinking about himself, as one of the ones who were worn down by circumstance?  Or maybe he was thinking about me in that light.

“Maybe part of the reason we made it this far was because you weren’t striving for that.  When we were villains, you were trying to be the good guy, behind the scenes.  When we were trying to take out some pretty nightmarish opponents, your focus was on surviving more than it was on attacking.  I didn’t get the impression you craved to be team leader or to rule the city, but you took on the job because you knew the alternative would be disaster.”

I nodded.  Even if I’d wanted to say something in response, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve wanted to say.

“Maybe the reason I’m less comfortable with this is that it’s not your usual pattern.  I feel like you’re wanting to be aggressive because you’re hurt and angry.  There’s nothing to temper it.  Think about it, okay?  I won’t tell you not to do this.  Despite everything I just said, I do trust your instincts, and I’m not sure I trust mine these days.”

“Grue-”

“I don’t.  That’s me being honest.  Do what you have to do, but do it with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try.”

I had a sudden impulse to hug him, to hold him as close and as tight as our costumes allowed, my arms tight around his broad back, his muscled arms holding me just as tight.

The idea alone made me feel like I might suddenly burst into tears, and I found it startling, inexplicable.

I didn’t hug Grue; I wasn’t sure enough about what I was feeling or why, didn’t want to come across as anything but a leader.  Leading this team was something I could do.  Something concrete, with real dividends.

Why had I brought Atlas here?  Had I already been thinking about running?  Avoiding further contact with these guys?  Avoiding Grue?  It was disconcerting to think about.

Tattletale was staring at me.  Could she read what I was experiencing, or get a sense of the emotions that were warring inside me?

“Okay,” I said, and I was surprised at how normal I felt.  “We’re playing this much like we did against the Nine, only we aren’t waiting for better excuses to do it.  Groups of three, one group active at a time, one target at a time.”

“Who are we fighting?” Rachel asked.

“The Fallen, the PRT, and the Teeth.”

“And you’re in this group of three for tonight’s mission?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”  I needed a release, to do something.

She glanced at Grue, and I suspected there was some kind of unspoken agreement there.  She met my eyes, or the opaque yellow lenses that covered my eyes.  “I’ll come.”

“You’re ops,” I said, “I thought the whole point of that was that you’d stay behind the scenes and out of trouble.”

“I’ll come,” she repeated herself.  No argument, no manipulation.  Only the statement.

I sighed.

“Me too,” Rachel said.

“Not sure that’s a good idea,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe someone more subtle?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

Subtlety wasn’t what I had in mind.

Bentley crashed into the side of the PRT van.  The vehicle rocked, but it was set up to be in the field amid villains with superstrength and literally earth-shattering powers.  It didn’t tip over.

Two more dogs crashed into the side of it, and the thing fell.  The PRT officer in body armor fell from the turret at the top, his armor absorbing just enough of the impact that he wasn’t badly hurt.

The containment foam sprayers might have been an issue, but none of the uniforms were in a position to use the stuff.  I’d come prepared, and each sprayer was either thoroughly snagged on spider silk at the top of the equipped trucks, or the PRT agents who were wearing the portable tanks were bound, blind and under siege by massed bugs.

Dovetail flew after Atlas and I, a trail of luminous slivers of light falling in her wake.  She was good at maneuvering in such a way that the sparks didn’t fall on the PRT uniforms and heroes below, even with my swarm crawling over her head, shoulders and arms.  Where the slivers touched something solid, they ballooned out into what Tattletale had described as soft force fields, encasing the subject.  Anyone could push hard enough against the force fields to break them, even with multiple fields layered over one another, but it impeded movement, and she could hover over a target to keep reinforcing the forcefields until the victim could be smothered in more permanent containment foam.

It might have been a crummy power, but she was fast.  If she could have thrown the forcefield-generating slivers further than she did when she flung her arms out, she might have had us.

It was to my advantage that it was easier to dodge pursuit than to match someone else’s course exactly.

Didn’t hurt that she had bugs in her nose, ears and mouth, and that she was being bound by silk, limiting her range of movement with every passing second.  She was already unable to use the compact containment foam sprayer she had built into her costume.  Nothing I did would stop her from flying, but so long as she was blind and unable to use her arms, I didn’t see her being too much of a threat.

She wasn’t making headway on the offense, but retreating wouldn’t change her circumstances.  I’d still bind her in silk, blind and choke her.  Her costume had a flared collar, and my bugs were crawling inside, between skin and cloth.  That attack was as much about the psychological effect as about getting to more skin to inflict bites.

I wasn’t sure if it was just me, but her movements were bordering on the frantic, now.

No holding back.  I only had so many wasps and hornets, but I did what I could.  Mosquitoes were a good one.  Welts.  Leaving a mark.

Rachel’s dogs knocked over another one of the vans that had been circled around the PRT headquarters. The van was knocked into the side of the building, bending the bars that were supposed to protect the windows.  Each window cracked, with the lines spiderwebbing out between the hexagonal sections, but they didn’t break.

Adamant got into close quarters combat with the dog, slashing at it with pieces of his armor and driving the animal back.

Rachel whistled, shrill, and two dogs tackled him.  He delivered one good swipe before the other blindsided him.  The disadvantage of forming a full covering of armor was that it limited his peripheral vision.

She wasn’t going even two seconds without giving a command.  There were five dogs in the field, or four dogs and one young wolf, and many were lacking in serious training, so she managed them with lengths of chain between their collars and Bentley’s, and by giving enough commands that they wouldn’t have time to get creative and go after one of the PRT uniforms.

Sere was indoors, along with Triumph.  Binding Sere had been a first priority, and I’d achieved it in much the same way.  He’d done what he could to target the bugs managing the threads, and to disentangle himself, but time spent on that was time he wasn’t moving outdoors and shooting me or one of the dogs.  As with Dovetail, I’d managed to make enough progress that he was more or less out of the fight.  She was blind, he was immobile.

The other heroes would be arriving soon.  I double-checked Dovetail wasn’t in a position to give pursuit, then ventured inside, entering through an open window on the uppermost floor.

I felt calm, which was odd, given the scene.  Bugs swarmed every employee, from the official heroes to the kids who might have been interns.  Some howled in pain, others screamed more out of fear, or yelped as bugs periodically bit them.

The bugs gave me a sense of the route I needed to take, my destination.  There were offices in the back corner, but I had a sense of where I was going.  I’d been here before, when Piggot had been director.

I saw the labels on the door.  Commissioner.  Deputy Director.  Director.

I opened the last door.  Director Tagg.

He held a gun, but he didn’t point it my way.  There was a woman behind him, using him as a shield.

I’d had statements ready, angry remarks, any number of things I could have said to him, to punctuate what my swarm was doing to his assembled employees.  Statements, maybe, that could have surprised him, woken him up to what he’d done to me.

Then I saw the steel in his eyes, the sheer confidence with which he stood in front of the woman… they had matching wedding bands.  His wife.  I knew in an instant that there wouldn’t be any satisfaction to be had that way.

Rather, the word that left my mouth was a quiet, “Why?”

His eyes studied me, as though he were making an assessment.  His words were gruff, the gravelly burr of a long time smoker.  He very deliberately set the gun down on the desk, then replied, “You’re the enemy.”

I paused, then pulled off my mask.  I was sweating lightly, and my hair was damp around the hairline.  The world was tinted slightly blue in a contrast to the coloring of my lenses.  “It’s not that simple.”

“Has to be.  The ones at the top handle the compromising.  They assess where the boundaries need to be broken down, which threats are grave enough.  My job is to get the criminals off the streets and out of the cities.”

“By starting fights in schools.”

“Didn’t know it was a school until the capes were already landing,” he replied.  “Had to choose, either we let you go, and you were keeping an eye out for trouble from then on, or we push the advantage.”

“Putting kids at risk?”

“Dragon and Defiant both assured me you wouldn’t risk the students.”

I sighed.  Probably right.

Someone behind me screamed as a group of my hornets flew to him to deliver a series of bites across his face.

“Barbaric,” Director Tagg said.

“Inflicting pain isn’t the point.”

“Seem to be doing a good job of it,” he commented.

“There are heroes on their way back from patrol, your guys called them in.  But there’s also news teams on the way here.  We called those guys in.  They’ll find your employees covered in welts, every PRT van damaged or trashed.  Your employees won’t be able to get any cars out of the parking lot, so they’ll have to walk, which will make for some photo opportunities.  A handful of heroes will be a bit the worse for wear.  You can try running damage control, but some of it’s bound to hit the news.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“I couldn’t let you get off without a response from us.”

“Didn’t expect you to.”

“This was as mild as I could go,” I said.  “I think you know that.  I’m not looking to one-up you or perpetuate a feud.  I’m doing what I have to, part of the game.”

“Game?  Little girl, this is a war.”  His voice took on a hard edge.

I stopped to contemplate that.  Rachel was destroying the last containment van, and Tattletale was saying something to her about incoming heroes.  I was low on time.

“If it is a war, my side’s winning,” I said.

“And the world’s worse off for it.  You can’t win forever,” he said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He must have sensed he had some leverage there.  “All of this goes someplace.  Do you really see yourself making it five more years without being killed or put in prison?”

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have.  Bad publicity fades with time.  So do welts and scabs.  Five or ten years from now, provided the world makes it that long, nobody will remember anything except the fact that we fought back.  Good publicity will overwrite the bad, carefully chosen words and some favors called in with people in the media will help whitewash any of our mistakes.  We’re an institution.”

“So you think you automatically win?  Or you’re guaranteed to win in the long run?”

“No.  They didn’t pick me to head this city’s PRT division because I’m a winner, Ms. Taylor.  They picked me because I’m a scrapper.  I’m a survivor.  I’m the type that’s content to get the shit kicked out of me, so long as I give the other guy a bloody nose.  I’m a stubborn motherfucker, I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t give up.  The last few Directors in Brockton Bay met a bad end, but I’m here to stay.”

“You hope.”

“I know.  You want to fight this system?  I’ll make sure it fights back.”

“So you want to escalate this?  Despite what I said before?”

“Not my style.  I’m thinking more about pressure.  I could pull your dad in for questioning every time you pull something, for example.  Doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter who it’s directed at.  You or your team do anything that gets an iota of attention, I drag the man into the building, and grill him for a few hours at a time.”

I felt a knot in my stomach.  “That’s harassment.”

I was aware of Tattletale approaching me from behind.  She leaned against the doorframe, arms folded.

“It’s a war of attrition,” Tagg said.  “I’ll find the cracks, I’ll wear down and break each of you.  If you’re lucky, then five years from now they’ll remember your names, speaking them in the same breath as they talk about the kid villains who were dumb enough to think they could keep a city for themselves.”

“He’s playing you,” Tattletale murmured.  “He knows he’s got you on a bad day.  Best to just walk away.  Remember, the Protectorate hasn’t had a good day against us yet.”

I thought about asking him about Dinah, but there wasn’t a point.  It was something he could use against me, and I already knew the answer.

I approached the desk and turned around the photo frames.  The second showed Tagg with his wife and two young women.  A family portrait.

“You have daughters,” I said.

“Two, going to universities halfway across the world.”

“And you don’t feel an iota of remorse for hurting a father through his daughter?”

“Not one,” he replied, staring me in the eye.  “I look at you, and I don’t see a kid, I don’t see a misunderstood hero, a girl, a daughter or any of that.  You’re a thug, Taylor Hebert.”

A thug.

His mindset was all ‘us versus them’.  Good guys versus the bad.

It wasn’t much, but it served to confirm the conclusion I’d already come to.  Dinah had volunteered the information.  Whatever else Director Tagg was, he wasn’t the type to abuse a girl who’d been through what Dinah had.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel’s downstairs with all her dogs, we can run before the reinforcements collapse in on us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Nearly done.  You, back there.  Are you Mrs. Tagg?”

The woman stepped a little to one side, out from behind her husband.  “I am.”

“Visiting him for the night?”

“Brought him and his men donuts and coffee.  They’ve been working hard.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And you stand by your husband?  You buy this rhetoric?”

She set her jaw.  “Yes.  Absolutely.”

I didn’t waste an instant.  Every spare bug I had flowed into the room, leaving Director Tagg untouched, while the bugs flowed over the woman en masse.  She screamed.

He reached for his gun on the desk, and I pulled my hand back.  The thread that I’d tied between the trigger guard and my finger yanked the weapon to me.  I stopped it from falling off the desk by putting my hand on top of the weapon.

Tagg was already reaching for a revolver at his ankle.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  Slowly, he straightened.

“I’m illustrating a point,” I said.

My bugs drifted away from Mrs. Tagg.  She was uninjured, without a welt or blemish.  She backed into the corner as the bugs loomed between her and her husband.

“Not sure why.  Doesn’t change my mind in the slightest,” Tagg said.

I didn’t respond.  The swarm shifted locations and dogpiled him.  Stubborn as he professed to be, he started screaming quickly enough.

I picked up the gun from the edge of the desk, joining Tattletale.  We marched for the exit together, moving at a speed between a walk and a jog, passing by twenty or so PRT employees, each covered in bugs, roaring and squealing their pain and fear to the world as they stumbled blindly and thrashed in futile attempts to fight the bugs off.

Nothing venomous, the wasps and hornets weren’t contracting their bodies to squeeze the venom sacs.  There was nothing that could put their lives at risk.  It was still dramatic enough.

“He’s right,” Tattletale commented.

“About?”

“You won’t change his mind with a gesture like that.  Sparing his wife.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I opened a drawer and put Director Tagg’s service weapon inside, while Atlas ferried Tattletale down to the ground floor.

Atlas returned to me, and I took to the air, flying just above Lisa and Rachel and the dogs as we fled the scene.  I made a point of leaving every single bug inside the PRT headquarters, to infest it until they had the place exterminated, which would only be another photo opportunity for the media, or to serve as a perpetual reminder as it took weeks and months for all of the bugs to be cleared out.

The news teams were already arriving on the scene.  No doubt there was a camera following us.  I remembered Director Tagg’s threat, to bring my father into custody.  Only a threat, going by his wording, but it did make me think about how every activity, every thing I did that brought me into the public consciousness, it would be a little twist of the knife that I’d planted in my dad’s back.

Not a good feeling.

Maybe the little demonstration I’d done with Tagg’s wife hadn’t been for him.  It could just as easily have been me trying to prove something to myself.

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