Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Chrysalis 20.3

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Yes,” I said.  “I’m trying to avoid you because I have someplace to be.”

“I’m hurt, Taylor.  It’s been a while since we had a chance to talk.  We used to be friends, don’t you remember?”

“I remember,” I replied.  Didn’t want to get caught up in this.  At the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to back down, either.

I glanced around at the others.  I needed a better term for the people who’d stayed, a name for that particular clique.  They’d approached us, interested, but were hanging back enough to indicate they weren’t about to jump to my defense.  Couldn’t blame them.  The last series of events in Brockton Bay weren’t the sort that rewarded heroes.  These people had made it through by playing it safe and avoiding trouble.

Emma’s friends weren’t the same way.  They approached, offering Emma backup and support.  They didn’t join in, though.  Emma was point-man here.  She was in a mood to start trouble, I could tell, and everyone present knew it.

The guards?  They hung back, even further away than the ones on the periphery.  Two or three of them.  As I saw it, they were backing Emma up.  If I smashed her teeth in or tore her ear half-off like Sophia had once done to me, they’d stop me, and I’d get in trouble.  I’d get delayed from getting to where I wanted to be.

“Changed your look?  I have to say, you manage to make any style look great.”

The sarcasm was subtle.  There was also a glimmer of a memory in there; she was referencing something.  I brushed it aside.  I doubted I wanted to think too hard on it.

“You’re not impressing anyone,” I said.

“So hostile,” Emma said.  “Is that part of your new image?  Being rude?  Keeping everyone at arm’s length?  If anyone’s trying too hard, it’s you.”

Oh, I just had to take one look at her expression to see that she was reveling in the irony.  She didn’t give a damn that the accusations she was directing at me could be turned against her.  For her, it was all about the reaction she got out of me.  Victories, both big and little.

And all the while, she was oblivious to what I was holding back: tens of thousands of bugs, insects and arachnids, worms, centipedes, snails and slugs.  I restrained them in the same way I might keep my fist clenched, resisting the urge to swing it at her.

It wasn’t just the idea of hurting her.  That was almost secondary.  It was the idea of catching her right now, when she had less of a hold over me than she’d had in years.  To see the look on her face in the moment before the bugs forced themselves into her airways.  The dawning comprehension, the realization of what she’d brought on herself.

One action, and she might experience a share of the fear, the frustration and disgust I’d experienced over the years.  The hopelessness, the helplessness in the face of someone with more power to throw around.

I could imagine the bugs flowing into her mouth before she thought to cover it, flowing into her nostrils until she covered that.  I could imagine the moment she realized she’d have to swallow if she wanted to breathe.  I might even dismiss the bugs from flying around between us, just so I’d have a clear visual of it.  More likely that she’d throw up, but I’d have a minute or two before the heroes mobilized-

“Zoning out on me, Hebert?  Or did you spend too long outdoors and bake your brain?”

“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.

“Big surprise.”

“…because I don’t really think much of you anymore.  I’ve dealt with drug dealers, vandals, looters and thugs, and the gangs that were roving the city trying to get their hands on young girls.  Hell, I was there when Mannequin attacked the boardwalk.”

All true.  Except… I ‘dealt’ with them in a more direct fashion than I was implying.

“Big girl.  So brave,” Emma said.

I saw one or two people on the periphery of the crowd shift position, irritated.  They weren’t my allies, not exactly, but Emma had just lost points, belittling what they had been through.

“I have a bit more perspective,” I told her.  “I’ve seen how shitty people can be.  I’ve seen people who were desperate, fighting just to get by.  Others preyed on people, in the midst of it all.  I can’t say I respect them for it, but maybe I understand it.”

“You’re-” she started.

I cut her off, talking over her, “And the thing is, even after seeing all of the starving people, the ones who ate trash or stole to make it through the next twenty-four hours, I think less of you than I think of them.”

I could see her eyes narrow at that.

You’re insulting me?

“I’m stating facts,” I replied.  “Talking to you even now, I’m realizing how small your world is.  You think of popularity and high school, of looking nice.  That’s not even one tenth of a percent of what’s going on in the world at large.  Yet you’re trying so hard to climb to the top of this tiny, sad little hill.”

“You’re missing one key fact there,” she said.  There was no smile on her face now.  “You’re beneath me on this little hill.  So what does that make you?”

“Emma, you’re snarling at me and insulting me, trying to make jabs as if each little gesture will give you a higher spot on the totem pole, but there’s no point.  I’m not even a student here.”

“You’re a dropout.  A failure.”

I sighed a little.  “I really like this approach of yours.  You started off really subtle, and in the last minute alone, you’ve descended to flinging basic insults at me, trying to see what sticks.  Except I’m really not bothered, and you’re doing more to make yourself look bad.”

Maybe I should have let her play it out a bit more and try a few more aimless jabs before I called her on it.  Didn’t matter.

One member of her entourage piped up, “Who do you think you are?  Talking to her like that?”

Another.  “You think you sound so smart, telling her what she’s-”

The girl stopped as Emma raised one hand.  Emma was glaring at me.  How long had it been since I’d seen anything besides glee and mean smirks?  Something substantial, and not just a look of fear as she huddled with her family at some fundraiser, or being shocked when I’d slapped her in the shopping mall.

Was Emma actually angry?

The Taylor of months ago would have appreciated at the realization, she might even have found it healing.  Not caring about what she said now came with an equal measure of not caring about her reaction.  I was almost disappointed.

“I’ve seen you break down in tears one too many times to buy that you don’t care.  You’re a wimp, Hebert, a coward.  You just want to look strong, pretend you’re something other than what you are.”

“No,” I replied.  “I just want to go to lunch with my dad.  If you want to stroke your own ego, you can do it after I’m gone.”

I didn’t feel better, as this played along, somewhat in my favor.  I was still angry, I still wanted to hurt her, to see the look on her face.  But that feeling, in combination with what I’d mentioned to her earlier, when I’d said how small high school seemed in the grand scheme of things, it made my emotions seem out of proportion.  Monstrous.

And punctuating that monstrous line of thinking was the bugs.  Reflecting my feelings, it almost made for a throbbing sensation, insistent, the swarm working to move toward me, being pushed back with a semiconscious thought the next moment.

She was getting to me.  It just wasn’t the way she’d intended.

“You keep trying to run, Hebert, like a coward.  You should thank me.”

“Thank you?  I’d love to hear this one.”

“God, if you just would have pretended to grow a spine a little sooner, everything would have been fine.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

“People who stand up for themselves get respect.  If you would’ve tried this a little sooner, laughed more at the pranks and jokes, stood a little straighter instead of cringing like a whipped dog, it would have worked.  We would’ve been friends again.  You’d have been part of the group, and things would have been peachy.  But you put it off too long, you made yourself into a victim.  It wasn’t us.”

I could feel a few ideas fall into alignment.

“You’re talking about Sophia.  You mean she would have let me into the group.”

“That’s part of it.”

Now we were talking about Sophia.  About Shadow Stalker.  Emma knew that the two were one and the same, and I knew as well, but I couldn’t let on.

Still, it was leverage.

“That’s a lot of it, I bet.  How demented are you, that you think I’d fucking want to be your friend, after all the shit you pulled?”

“Are you really better off where you are?”

“Now?  Yes.  Then?  Fuck, even then, yes!  I called you pathetic a minute ago, but Sophia’s worse than you.  She was a sad little basket case who lashed out at people with violence and barbed words because it was the only way she could deal.  The only real advantages she had were the fact that she was attractive and how you were misguided enough to look up to her, which is laughable unto itself.”

“Watch it,” she said.

“I would’ve thought you were better than that, but no.  She brought you down to her level, and you saved her from becoming a deranged thug, and made her a popular deranged thug instead.”

One of her friends stepped forward, no doubt to bark a retort, but Emma pushed her away.

“Watch it!” one of the guards called out.  “Hands off!”

He was perfectly content to let this argument slide, but a push was too much?  Whatever.

Emma turned to her friend, “Sorry.”

“Whatev,” the girl muttered back.  She didn’t look too happy.

Emma turned to me, and she had that mean, sly smile, like she had all the confidence in the world.  “You want to play hardball, Taylor?”

“I want to go meet my dad for lunch.  I’ve already said.  You’ve been playing hardball for years.  You can’t really top using my mom’s death to taunt me unless you’re willing to pull a weapon.”

“Sure I can,” the anger had faded, and she was cool, calm.  She seemed to relish her words as she said them.  “You killed your mom.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  My thoughts were momentarily a jumble, as I tried to process how that was even possible.

“Remember?  You were at my house when you got the call?  You were supposed to call your mom.  She was dialing for you when she got in the accident.”

“Pretty weak, Emma.  I don’t really buy it, and I don’t think even you buy that I’m at fault.”

“Oh, but there’s more.  See, your dad thought so.  Your dad blamed you.  He blames you. Remember?  He kind of disconnected?  Stopped caring about you?  You eventually went to my parents to ask if you could stay over some, until he found his feet?”

I could remember.  It had been the darkest period following one of the darkest moments of my life.

“My dad gave good old Danny a talking to, and your dad said he couldn’t get over it.  He thought you were responsible, blamed you because you didn’t make the call you were supposed to, and your mom had to drive over, worrying something was wrong.”

I could visualize it, fit this information into the blanks.

Emma continued speaking, and her words were in parallel with my own train of thought.  “Ever think about how distant he got?  Maybe how distant he is, even now?  He loves you, maybe, but he hates you too.  He dished all the dirt to my dad, and told him how if you’d just called, if you’d picked up when your mom tried to call you from home, he’d still have his wife.  He’d still have a woman who was fantastic and smart and beautiful, someone way too good for him.  Now all he’s got is you.  You, who he took care of more because he had to than because of anything else.  Does he even like you, now?”

Did my dad love me?  Yes.  Did he like me?  That was up for debate.

A hollowness had settled in me.  I wasn’t sure how much of it was what Emma was saying, how much was my thinking back to those days, and how much was an extension of the dissonance I’d been feeling since I stepped foot on school grounds.

I glanced at the others around us.  They were quiet, watching.  They weren’t leaping to my defense or joining in on Emma’s side.  Observers.

Emma, for her part, was smiling, mocking me with her smugness, waiting for the reaction.

I exhaled slowly.

With all the time I’d spent around Tattletale, it wasn’t hard to see what Emma was doing.  Identifying the weak points, then making educated guesses, making claims that were difficult to verify, but devastating in their own right.  She didn’t have powers, but she did have the background knowledge of me, my dad and that period of my life.

If I’d ever been close to using my power on her, it was here, now.  The fact that she was using my parents against me?  Trying to fuck with me on this level?

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled again.  Be calm.

Was it true?  Possibly.  But it would be next to impossible to verify, unless I was willing to discuss old, ugly memories with my dad.  Right here and right now, the information had only as much weight as I gave it.  I had to react to it like I might one of Tattletale’s headgames.

“Okay,” I said.  “Are you done?  I’d like to go now.”

The anger was bleeding out of me.  If that was all she could do, on the spur of the moment, I didn’t need to worry anymore.

The smile on her face remained, but it wasn’t quite so smug, now.  “I’m sorry.  I should have realized you’re a heartless bitch.  You don’t even care.”

“I don’t think I really believe you,” I replied.  “But even if I did, whatever.  I’ve dealt with people who are smarter than you, I’ve had to handle people who are scarier and meaner than you.  I’ve even had to work with people who are better at manipulating others than you.  You don’t have the slightest-”

I stopped.  My phone was vibrating.

There were too many possibilities for what it could be.  Issues with the Ambassadors, my dad, Charlotte…

I turned away and answered the call, putting the phone to my ear.

Taylor,” my dad spoke.

“Hi dad,” I said.

How’s the work?

“It’s not,” I said.  “I got a call from someone I’ve been working with on and off, and stopped by the school.  Where are you?”

The boat graveyard.  We’re trying to do some problem solving, and it’s slowing us down.  Which school?

“Arcadia.  Want to meet me halfway?  The…”

Through the single fly I’d planted on her, I could tell that Emma was striding towards me.  With only a split second to decide on a course of action, I decided to let her hit me.

She struck the phone out of my hand, and then shoved me into the wall that marked the perimeter of the school grounds.

Emma didn’t say a word, but she was panting.  Was she trying to think of something to say?  She pulled me away from the wall, only so she could slam me against it again.

I could have laughed.  She wasn’t strong, she wasn’t intimidating.

I thought about saying something.  You’re out of cards to play.  You’ve dropped past insults and you’ve descended to brute force, now?

I didn’t get a chance.  A guard advanced on us and pulled her off me.

The guard sounded almost casual as he kept a grip on the back of her shirt and one of her wrists, fighting to stop her from struggling.  “Now we’re off to see the principal.”

Figured.  I glared at him.  “So you stand back until a fight erupts, and get both attacker and victim in trouble?”

“The job’s to stop students from hurting others or getting themselves hurt.  Not about to step in the middle of an argument, or I’d be running around all day,” he said.

“I’m not even a student here,” I replied.

“Didn’t figure you were, with how fast you were in and out.  That’s why it’s your call.  You can go, do that thing you were talking about with your family, or come back to the office with me and the girl.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

He shrugged, then grimaced as she continued to struggle.  “We’re supposed to take any troublemakers to the office along with students who might be willing to testify.  You’re not a student, but maybe you plan to be, so it’s up to you.”

I didn’t respond right away.  For one thing, I was going to relish the sight of Emma finally getting the short end of the stick.  For another, I couldn’t shake the notion that this was some kind of trap.  For so long, it had been two steps forward, and one step back.  Why should things be any easier now?

I picked up my phone and put it to my ear to see if the call was still connected.  “Hello?”

Taylor?” My dad was still on the other end of the phone.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I met Emma’s eyes.  “Emma tried to pick a fight.  They’re taking her to the front office now.”

There was a pause on his end.  “…Do you need me to come?

“You said you were busy with something.  I doubt anything will come of this, so don’t stress over it.  Want to meet tomorrow?”

OkayGood luck.

“Thanks.  Love you,” I said.  The memories Emma had just stirred up flickered through my mind’s eye.

“You too,” he replied.

I hadn’t taken my eyes off Emma.  She glared at me up until the moment the guard hauled her around, forcing her to march toward the school.

“You, in the sleeveless t-shirt, and you, girl with the haircut,” the guard said, “And you, the blonde in the purple shirt.  You’re witnesses.  Inside.”  He’d named two of the people who’d been hanging outside, both with the telltale look of people who’d stayed in Brockton Bay, and one of Emma’s friends.

There was some hesitation from a girl with the right half of her head shaved.  Her friends nudged her, and she joined the group.

Eyes were on us as we collectively headed in the direction of the office.  Emma pulled her hand free of the guard’s grip, and sullenly marched at the head of the group.  Once or twice, she tried to change course, but the guard gave her a little push to keep her moving.  It meant that every set of eyes was on her from the moment where we entered the school to the point we reached the front office.

Principal Howell had given up on managing the late arrivals when we turned up, and was on the phone at the very back of the office.  Seeing us, she looked almost relieved to have a distraction.  One finger pointed the way to her office, and she quickly wrapped up her call, cupping one hand around the mouthpiece to drown out the babble of voices from the gathered students.

We had to take very different routes to get there, with the counter in the way.  By the time we arrived, she was seated behind her desk.  Emma and I took our seats in front of the desk, with the guard and the three witnesses lined up behind us.

The principal wasn’t terribly attractive, and her roots gave away her bleached hair.  Just going by her appearance, and by the colorful blouse and scarf she wore, she didn’t give me a sense of an authority figure.  I didn’t get the sense she’d stayed in Brockton Bay these past few months.

Then she spoke, and my initial impressions were banished the instant I heard her hard tone.  “Collins?  Thirty words or less, give me the rundown.”

The guard answered her, pointing to Emma, “Extended argument was initiated by the blonde one.  The one with the glasses tried to back out.  Blonde escalated to pushing and shoving, I stepped in.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Witnesses, any commentary?  Keep it short.”

“What he said,” the girl with the half-shaved head said, sullen.  “The one who started it, I think her name was Emma?  Yeah.  Um.  She’s a bitch.”

This was somehow surreal.  I wondered if I was caught in some kind of trap.  The Ambassadors didn’t, to my knowledge, have anyone with a power that could mess with my head.  Maybe Haven or the Fallen had someone like that, capable of trapping me in some kind of warped world where things actually turned out okay, leaving me in a state where I never wanted to leave.

Such a world wouldn’t necessarily have Emma in it in the first place, though.  Or Greg.

“Emma didn’t do anything wrong,” the blonde in the purple shirt said.  “There’s a history.  She was only responding to some stuff that happened before.”

“I don’t care about what happened before,” the principal said.  “I care about keeping the peace.  We’ve already had three fights with weapons, and the day isn’t even half over.  No less than ten fistfights.  Nearly a third of the students attending this school were in Brockton Bay during the recent crises.  Some were Merchants, others were members of the white supremacy groups, and many more either found or are still taking refuge in a territory held by the current crime lords of Brockton Bay.  Friction is inevitable, I’m certain many of my students have post traumatic stress disorder, and any number of students haven’t yet made the transition from being a survivor to being an ordinary student.”

She leaned her elbows on the desk.

“That’s fine.  I’m willing to accept trouble as a fact of life, given recent events.  It would be unfair to hold you-” she paused to eye me, the girl with the hair and the boy in the sleeveless t-shirt, “-to the same standards as any other student, given what you’ve been through.”

“That’s not fair,” Emma said.

“Emma,” the principal said, “What you did was monumentally stupid and dangerous.”

Again, that surreal feeling.  This would be the point that I woke up to find I was still buried in Echidna, experiencing some warped reflection of past events, only in a more pleasant vein.  Or maybe this scene twisted around and I’d realize I was in some modified agnosia fog and everyone around me was a member of the Nine.

Principal Howell continued, “You there, your name?”

“Terry,” the boy in the sleeveless t-shirt said.

“Did you bring a weapon to school today?”

“No.”

“Have you been in a fight, in the last few weeks?”

“A few.”

“Okay.  And you, miss?”

“Sheila, and yeah.  Brought a weapon.”

“Do you have it on you?”

Sheila reached into a back pocket and withdrew a keychain.  A piece of metal dangled from the end, a bar that could be gripped, and two spikes that stuck out in front.  It was like brass knuckles, but not quite.  The same principle applied.

“Thank you.  If you could hand them to Collins, I’d appreciate it.”

Sheila gave Collins a wary look.

“Or you could step outside,” Howell suggested.

“Yeah,” Sheila replied. “I’ll do that.”

She turned on her heel and stepped out of the office.

“And you?  Your name?”

She was looking at me.  I responded, “Taylor Hebert.”

“Were you armed?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“She handed over her weapon without a fuss,” Collins said.  “Cheap knife, basic sheath.”

“And, if pushed, if you’d had it, would you have used it?” the principal asked.

I hesitated.

“You won’t get in trouble if you say yes.  Be honest.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Define ‘pushed’.”

“Nevermind.  Have you used it?”

“That one?  No.”

“But you have used a knife?”

I nodded, reluctant.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the walls were going to close in around me, screwing me over.

“I hope you’re getting my point,” the woman said, turning back to Emma.

“You’re saying they could have hurt me,” Emma replied, sullen.

Would have, in some cases.  This isn’t the city you’re used to, nor the same students.”

“It’s fine,” Emma said.

“We’ll see.  Just putting you into the computer.  Emma… what was it?”

“Barnes,” I supplied.  “E-S at the end.”

She typed on the computer keyboard to her right.  “And Taylor… Hubert?”

“Hebert.  E-B-E.”

More typing.  “Hebert.  Just give me a second to pull records… damn.  Fancy new school, you’d think they’d give us better equipment.”

She hit the power button.  The computer took a minute to reboot.

Long seconds passed.  Nobody spoke.

The screen flared back to life.

“Hm,” she murmured.

“What is it?” Collins asked.

“A number of past incidents.  And we got the emails from Winslow High School, I did a search for their names, and there’s one that post-dates the Endbringer attack.  It’s apparently a series of text messages between an Emma Barnes and Sophia Hess.  There’s a great deal of discussion of the ongoing bullying campaign against Taylor here.”

I glanced at Emma.  She’d gone pale.

A final ‘fuck-you’ from Sophia?  Guess she wasn’t a friend after all.

The principal looked me square in the eye.  “Would you like to press charges?”

I couldn’t even think straight, hearing that, it was so out of tune with my expectations.

No.  I was still seated on the hard plastic chair, Emma to my immediate left.  This was reality.

This was everything I’d wanted, as far as the Emma situation: to enjoy a small victory, to see her house of cards come tumbling down.  To actually get to press charges?  To see justice?

“No,” I said.  Emma’s head snapped to face my direction with enough speed that I thought she might have given herself whiplash.

“Why not?”  Principal Howell asked.

Because I’m a supervillain, and I don’t want the scrutiny.  Because her dad’s a lawyer with connections, and it won’t work…

“Because she’s not worth the trouble,” I gave her the first answer that I could think of that wouldn’t cause any more problems.  Time spent on this is time I can’t devote to my territory.  I don’t want more conflictNot with all the other issues surrounding this.

“The school can take action against her without your consent,” she said.

“Feel free.  I want to be done with her, that’s all.”

“Very well.  Emma?  I’ll see you again in September.”

“September?”

“The summer classes we’re offering are very much a privilege.  Now, I’m sure you’ve faced your share of stresses in having to relocate twice in a short span of time, but I’m not inclined to extend the same leniency to you that I’m extending to those who’ve been through so much more.”

I suspected Emma was at least as stunned as I was.

“When you return, we can discuss whether you’ll repeat the tenth grade, and whether you’ll repeat it here.  I’ll have had time to review the emails and past records…”

She tapped a few keys on the keyboard, then frowned.  “…What was I saying?  Right.  Given the possibility that Taylor might choose to attend in the future, and even just the basics I’m reading here, it may not be conscionable to let you attend as well.”

“This is ridiculous.  My dad’s a lawyer.  There’s no way he’ll let this happen.”

“Then I expect we’ll have a great many discussions in the future.  Collins?  Would you please take her to the front?  I’d like a word with Ms. Hebert.”

“Will do.”

Maybe not a delusion.  A trap?  Head games from Accord?  Or was she an Ambassador, trying to curry favor?  I wasn’t sure what every member of the Fallen or the Teeth could do.  Could one be a shapeshifter?  Something else?

The door shut behind Collins, leaving the principal and I alone in the room.

“Satisfactory?” she asked me.

“What?”

“Is this end result satisfactory?  If you were holding back because you were afraid your membership among the Undersiders might come to light, rest assured I can be discreet.”

She did know something.

“I- I’m not sure I understand.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I got the impression you didn’t want to be treated any differently.”

“Who are you?”

“A vice principal in well over her head,” she said, leaning back in her chair.  “I didn’t see it firsthand, but I’ve felt the effects of this… long series of disasters.  My predecessor made it through, past an Endbringer attack, past food shortages and disease, past the roving gangs, the thugs and looters, past the Slaughterhouse Nine, an amnesia fog and a takeover of the city.  So many things.  And at the end of it all, just when things started to get better, he couldn’t adjust.  He got in a fight, was punched in the head, and died soon after of an embolism.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Seventeen years working together.  He was like a brother.  I told myself I would keep the peace.  Someone gave me a list of names, and I recognized your name on that list.  So perhaps I support certain students and keep an eye on the ones who would inevitably cause trouble anyways.”

Tattletale.  She arranged this.

“I’m not confirming or denying that I am such a student-”

“Of course.”

“-but why?  What do you get out of it?”

“Peace.  It’s an ugly road to travel to get there, but it’s peace.  I lost one good friend and boss to the crises here, I won’t lose anyone else.  Particularly not my students.”

Why did she have to tell me?  I would have been content to be ignorant here.  This was a perversion of justice.  The fact that it was perverted in my favor didn’t matter.

“Treat me like you would anyone else,” I said.

“I will.”

I couldn’t quite believe her.  If she was currying favor with Tattletale, helping to solidify Tattletale’s hold and perhaps feeding Tattletale information on more troublesome gang members, I wasn’t sure I could trust her to stay impartial here.

I’d won, so to speak, but this small revelation had taken the justice out of it.

“I’m going to go,” I said.

“I need you to fill out some paperwork, so everything’s organized for Emma’s suspension.  Are you a student?”

“No.”

“Are you intending to be a student?”

“No.”

“Okay.  Then I’ll have you fill out a form as a visitor.  Let me reboot my system again, print what you need, you can fill out one short page, and I’ll manage the rest.”

I was about to protest, to give some excuse and go, but the phone rang.  She picked up and pressed one hand over the mouthpiece.  “Wait at the front, a secretary will bring it to you.”

I couldn’t refuse without intruding on the conversation.  I stepped outside.

Emma was at the front, too, slouched in a chair with Collins standing beside her.  No doubt she’d had a secretary let her call her dad, or would as soon as the opportunity came up.

I stood at the opposite end of the room.

I felt numb.  A little disgusted with how things had turned out, that the only reason this system seemed to be working was because it was already corrupt to a fundamental level.  I could still feel some of the anger and irritation from the argument with Emma, the thrill of adrenaline…

I raised a hand to adjust my glasses and found my fingers were shaking.  I was trembling, and I couldn’t identify why.  None of the emotions I could single out would account for this kind of response.  Even all put together, they shouldn’t have gotten me halfway here.

I had a lump in my throat, and I felt like I might cry, and I wasn’t sad.  Was I happy?  Scared?  Relieved?  I couldn’t sort anything out in the jumble.

Was my emotional makeup that fucked up?

I found a chair and fell into it, rather than sitting.  I focused on deep breaths, on using my power to contact my bugs and detach myself from things.

“Hebert?  Taylor Hebert?”  A secretary was calling out for me.

I stood and made my way to the front, where I got the paper, already attached to a clipboard.

Some had already been automatically filled in, and there was a header asking me to double-check the details.  My name, my age and grade, the address…

I stopped.

Address:  911 Incoming St.
Alt Address: 9191 Escape Ave.

I looked up in the direction of the principal’s office.  She was standing at the window, staring at me, a phone pressed to her ear.

She mouthed a word at me.  ‘Run’.

Someone knows I’m Skitter.

I ran.

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Interlude 19

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“Ballet, horseback riding, modeling classes or violin.  Pick one, Emma.  One.”

“Or, or, or, maybe I don’t pick any, and…”

“And?” she could hear a weariness in her father’s voice.  He checked over his shoulder and then turned the car into a side street.  A bag with assorted tubs of ice cream sat on the divider between the pair of them.

“Maybe you give a second thought to moving?   There’s really nice places just a little way South, and I’d still be going to the same school, and-”

“Nope.”

“Dad!”

“There’s three jobs I absolutely despise in this world.  One is matching socks, the second is ironing, and the third is moving.  I can foist the first two off on your mom, but the third is a lifestyle choice.  My lifestyle, specifically, is owning the house I’m going to live in until I die.”

Emma frowned, turning to look out the window.  She pouted a little, “This place sucks.  Brockton Bay sucks.

“What’s so bad about it?”

“Everything’s falling apart.  It’s like… show me any house, and I can point out ten things that are wrong with it.”

“Every house has something wrong with it.”

“Not every house!  Like, when I went to Chris’ birthday party?  I-”

“Chris?”

“Christine,” Emma injected a note of condescension into her voice, “Last weekend?  Or did you forget already?”

“Why not call her Christine?  Perfectly nice name.”

“Because androgyne is cool, dad.  It’s the thing in modelling.  Like, I could never have my hair short, but-”  She stopped mid-sentence, answering her phone mid-ring.  “Hello?”

“Emma!”  The voice on the other end was breathy, excited.  There was a babble of other voices in the background.  She could imagine the other youths lined up to use the pay phones.

“Taylor,” Emma said, smiling.

“Ok I gotta talk fast because I only have two minutes and I need my other fifty cents to call my dad.  We rowed across the lake this morning to this waterfall, only it wasn’t exactly a waterfall, more like a water stair, and we were all taking turns sliding and falling down this set of slick rocks, and Elsa, she’s this girl wearing a bikini, she’s been spending the last three days acting like she’s hot stuff, she slides down the wrong part, and it catches on the strap, right?  It doesn’t tear it off, but it stretches, so it doesn’t even fit her anymore

Emma laughed, leaning back against her car seat.

It was something of a relief, to hear Taylor getting excited about something, to hear her getting excited over nothing.  She’d lost her mother a year ago, and hadn’t bounced back, not entirely.  Her smiles not quite as wide, she was a second later to laugh, as if she had to wait, to give herself permission to do it, had to hold back.  Before, it had been almost no holds barred.  Anything went, however they wanted to amuse themselves, whatever they wanted to talk about.  Complete and total openness.  Lately there had been too many movies, too many activities and topics of conversation, that Taylor preferred to avoid.

It hadn’t been easy, Emma mused, as Taylor yammered on.  Sometimes she’d call, they’d do their customary hanging out, and she’d feel like the time was wasted, afternoons and weekends spent with her best friend that she didn’t enjoy.

Not that Taylor was a wet blanket, but, like, maybe she was a damp blanket?

This?  This inane, aimless, stupid, one-sided conversation where she’d said one word?  This was the good stuff.  It gave her hope that things could get back to normal.

“…and I wish I’d listened to my dad, because he suggested at least ten times that I might want to take more books, and I only brought three, and I’ve read each of them twice already.  My…”

Taylor’s voice continued over the phone, but Emma felt her dad’s hand on her wrist, lowered her phone to pay more attention to her surroundings.

The car had stopped in the middle of a narrow one-way street.  A dumpster had been shifted to block the end of the alley.

She looked over her shoulder, down the other end of the alley.  A white van had stopped there, the taillights glowing.  There were a group of twenty-something Asian-Americans approaching, sliding over the hood of the van to get into the alley and approach.  Members of the ABB.

This isn’t supposed to happen in broad daylight, Emma thought.

Taylor’s voice was faint, “…I could probably recite this one book word for word for you by the time I get back.  Maybe if I asked one of the counselors, I could get more.”

Her heart pounding as hard as it ever had, Emma hung up.  Some part of her rationalized it as needing to eliminate the distraction, to focus on the more immediate problem.

“Hold tight,” her father said.

She did, and he put his foot to the gas.  The car started rolling toward the dumpster, and the gang members behind them began running after them.

Too slow, she thought.

The car barely tapped the dumpster.  It was only after contact had already been made that her dad put his foot on the gas, pushing against the blockade instead of ramming or crashing into it.

The dumpster didn’t budge.

They blocked it.  Or they took the wheels offOr both.

There were too many people behind them for the car to reverse.  Not unless her dad wanted to hurt or kill a bunch of people.  Even if he did want to hurt them, he couldn’t be sure he’d hit them, and where could he go?  There wasn’t any guarantee he’d be able to move the dumpster if he backed up and rammed into it.

“Call the police,” her father said.

She barely registered it.

“Emma!  Call the police!”

She fumbled with the phone.  Nine-nine…

Why won’t my hands work?

Nine-one-one.

The window to her right shattered.  She screamed, then screamed again as hands clutched her hair, hauled her partially out of her seat, until the seatbelt strained against her shoulder and pelvis.  He wasn’t strong enough to actually lift her, but it hurt.  She wasn’t thinking, only wanted the pain to stop.  Her mind was flooded with images of what might happen if the person outside tugged in a slightly different direction and dragged her face against the broken glass of the window.  The phone clattered to the floor as she gripped her attacker’s wrists, tried to alleviate the pain of hair tearing free from her scalp.

She put her feet flat on the floor of the car, pushed herself up and away from her seat, almost helping her attacker.

Emma regretted it almost as she did it, but in the panic and pain, she undid the seatbelt.

She’d just wanted the pain to stop, and now there were two sets of hands gripping her, hauling her up and out through the car window.  Glass broke away against the fabric of her denim jacket, and she fell hard enough against the pavement that grit was pushed into her skin.

I hope the jacket didn’t get torn.  It was so expensive, she thought.  It was inane, stupid, almost hilariously out of sync with reality.  Delirious.

Her father’s screams of almost mindless panic sounded so far away, as he cried out her name, over and over again.

The gang members who stood above her each wore crimson and pale green.  There were other colors, predominantly black, but the constrast of red and green stood out.  Some had their faces exposed, others wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces.  One had a bandanna folded so it covered one eye.  She couldn’t think straight enough to count them.

They had knives, she belatedly noted.

Her father screamed for her again.

Stop, dad.  You’re embarassing me.  She was more cognizant of how irrational the thought was, this time.  Odd, how calm she felt.  Except that wasn’t right.  Her heart was pounding, she could barely breathe, her thoughts were jumbled and irrational, and yet she somehow felt more together than she might have guessed she would.

She wasn’t hysterical, at least.  She was oddly pleased with that, even as she wondered if she might wet herself.

“Turn over, ginger bitch,” one of the girls standing above her said.  The order was punctuated by a sharp kick to Emma’s ribs.

She flopped over, face pressing against the hot pavement.  Hands took hold of her jacket and pulled it off.  The sleeves turned inside out, the half-folded cuffs catching around her hands.

If she’d been taking it off herself, that would have been cause for some rearrangement, to get her hands free.  Instead, they pulled.  It hurt briefly, and then they had the jacket.

“Here, Yan,” one of the guys said, his accent almost musical.  “You owe me.”

“Sweet!”  The voice sounded young.

My jacket, Emma thought, plaintive.

“We could send this bitch out of town,” one of the guys said.  “Stick her in one of the farms and hold her for a while.  She’s got tits, could auction her off.

“Don’t be a moron.  White girl goes missing, they look.”

Someone opened the car door and climbed in.  There was the sound of the glove compartment opening, of items falling to the floor, where her cell phone was.

For the life of her, she couldn’t remember if she had hit ‘call’ on her cell phone before she’d dropped it.  It would mean the difference between her phone sitting on the floor of the car, the numbers displayed on the screen, and authorities using the phone to find her location, sending help.

Someone grabbed her hair, again.  This time, there was a tearing sensation, and the tugging abruptly stopped.  Her face cracked against the pavement beneath, one cheekbone catching almost all of the impact.

They’d cut her hair, and she’d just bruised her face.

“Face,” she mumbled.

“What’s that, ginger?” the girl standing over her asked.  Emma twisted her head around to see the girl holding a length of red hair in her hand.

“Not- not the face, please.  I’ll do anything you want, just… not the face.”

It was the delirium that had taken hold of her the second her father had seized her arm.  It wasn’t really her, was it?  She couldn’t be this stupidly vain when it all came down to the wire.  She didn’t want to be that kind of person.

“You’ll do anything?” One of the guys asked.  The one with one eye.  “Like what?”

She reached for an answer, but her thoughts were little more than white noise.

The answers that did come to mind weren’t possibilities.  Not really.

“Then it’s the face after all.  Hold her.”

Ten minutes ago, she’d never been afraid.  Not really.  Stage fright, sure.  Fear of not getting the Christmas present she wanted?  Sure.  But she’d never been afraid.

And before the one-eyed thug spoke that last sentence, she’d never known terror.  Had never known what it might be like to be a deer in the moment the wolves set tooth to flesh, the rabbit fleeing the bird of prey.  It was like being possessed, and the white noise that had subsumed her her thoughts when she searched for an argument now consumed her brain in entirety.  She felt a kind of surge of strength as her fight or flight instincts kicked into gear, and it wasn’t enough.

She was outnumbered, and many of them were stronger than her, even with the adrenaline feeding into her.  Two held her arms out to either side, and someone knelt just behind her, knees pressing hard against the side of her head, keeping her from turning it.  Looking up, she could see a girl, not much older than her, sporting a nose ring and a startling purple eye shadow.  She was wearing Emma’s jacket.

Emma could hear her father screaming, still, and it sounded further away than ever.

One-eye straddled her, planting his left hand on top of her hair, helping to hold her head down to the ground.

He held a knife that was long and thin, the blade no wider across than a finger, tapering to a wicked point.  What was it called?  A stiletto?  He rested the flat of the blade on the tip of her nose.

“Nose,” he murmured.  The blade moved to her eye, and she couldn’t move away.  She could only shut it, feel it twitching mercilessly as he laid the flat of the blade against her eyelid, “Eye…”

The blade touched her lips, a steel kiss.

“Mouth…”

He used the blade to brush the hair away from the side of her head, hooked an earring with the point of the blade.

“Well, you can hide the ears with the hair,” he said, his voice barely over a whisper.  The knife point pulled at the earring until her face contorted in pain.  “So maybe I’ll take both.  Which will it be?”

She couldn’t process, couldn’t sort out the information in the mist of the terror that gripped her.  “Unh?”

Again, the knife traveled over her face, almost gentle as it touched the areas in question.  “One eye, the nose, the mouth, or both ears.  Yan here thinks she has what it takes to be a member, instead of a common whore, so you choose one of the above, and she goes to town on the part in question, proves her worth.”

“Holy shit, Lao,” the girl with the eye shadow said.  She sounded almost gleeful, “That’s fucked up.”

Pick,” he said, again, as if he hadn’t heard.

Emma blinked tears out of her eyes, looked for an escape, an answer.

And she saw a figure crouched on top of her father’s car, dressed in black, with a hood and a cape that fluttered out of sync with the warm sea breeze that flowed from the general direction of the beach.  She could see the whites of the girl’s eyes through the eyeholes of what looked like a metal hockey mask.

Help me.

The dark figure didn’t move.

Lao, the one eyed man, reversed the knife in his hands and handed it to the girl with the eye shadow.  The girl, for her part, dragged the knife’s point over Emma’s eyelid, a feather touch.

“Pick,” the girl said.  “No, wait…”

She shoved the handful of hair she’d cut away into Emma’s mouth.  “Eat it, then pick.”

Emma opened her mouth to plead for help, but she couldn’t find the breath.  The hair wasn’t it, not really.  Some of it was the weight of the young man sitting on her chest, crushing her under his weight.  Mostly, it was the fear, like a physical thing.

She thought of Taylor, of all people.  Taylor had, in her way, been put to the knife, had had an irreplaceable part of herself carved away.  Not a nose or an eye, but a mother.  And in the moment she’d found out, a light had gone out inside Emma’s best friend, a vibrancy had faded.  She’d ceased to be the same person.

If she’d experienced her first real taste of fear when the gang members attacked the car, her first real taste of terror when Lao proclaimed he’d cut her face, then it was the thought of Taylor, of becoming Taylor, that gripped her with panic, a whole new level of fear.

I won’t become Taylor.

I’m not-

I’m not strong enough to come back from that.

The knife momentarily forgotten, she bucked, thrashed, fought.  An inarticulate noise tore out of her throat, a scream, a grunt, and a wail of despair all together, an ugly sound she couldn’t ever have imagined she’d make.  Lao was dislodged, one hand freed, and she brought it up, not in self defense, but to attack.  Her nails found his one good eye, caught on flesh, dug into the softest tissues she could find and dragged through them, through eyelid and across eyeball, through cheekbone and the meat of his cheek.

He screamed, struck her with enough force that she wondered if he’d had knuckle dusters she hadn’t seen.

Knuckle dusters… a weapon.  She belatedly remembered the knife, looked up at the girl with the eye shadow.

The figure in the black cloak had the knife-wielding girl, the knife hand twisted behind the girl’s back.

With a sharp, calculated motion, the arm was twisted a measure too far, the eye shadow girl jerked off balance so the weight of her body would only help twist it further.  The girl screamed, dropping the knife, and she flopped to the ground, her arm gone limp, dangling from the shoulder at an angle that shouldn’t have been possible.

The figure in black turned on Lao.  She swept her cape to one side, and momentarily became a living shadow, a transparent blur.  When she returned to normal, her posture was different, and the knife had disappeared from the ground.  It was in her hand.

Emma watched in numb horror and awe as the girl advanced on Lao, who crab-walked backward to get away.  She closed the distance, stretched out one arm, and delivered a single scratch with the knife, cutting into Lao’s right eye.

Other thugs had already fallen.  The one who’d held her arm before she pulled it free was slumping over, unconscious.  The woman who must have been standing next to Emma’s father, was lying prone on the ground on the other side of the car, a pool of blood spreading beneath her.

That left only one, the thug who’d held Yan’s left arm.  He was on his feet in a moment, running, Emma’s backpack in one hand, open, the contents from the glove compartment falling free.  Useless, trivial items.  A bag of candy, the driver’s handbook.  Things he’d taken only because he could.

The girl in the cloak was small, Emma noted.  Younger.  Again, the cloaked vigilante became a virtual living shadow, flung herself down the length of the alleyway, faster than the man was running.  She moved past him, ducking low as she materialized into a normal form.  The knife raked across the side of his knee, and he fell.  He twisted as he hit the ground, kicked out with one leg, and caught the girl in the side of one knee.  She tumbled landing on top of him.

The ensuing struggle was brief and one sided.  He tried to grab his attacker, found only immaterial shadow.  He turned over, getting on hands and knees to push himself to a standing position, but she moved faster, going solid as she loomed over him, one hand on the wall for balance.  She tipped, let herself fall, and drove his face into the pavement with all the weight she could bring down on him.

A second later, the cloaked girl was holding one of his hands against a door just to his right.  She used the stiletto to impale his hand to the wood, bent the blade until the handle snapped away.

“Emma,” her father said.  He was out of the car, embracing her.  “Are you hurt?  Emma?”

One hand absently tried to claw her own strands of hair from her mouth, failing to get all of them.  She settled for leaving the hand mashed against her mouth, as incoherent a gesture as anything she might have said if she’d been able to speak.

Wordless, the girl in the black cloak limped a few steps away from the fallen boy before adopting her shadow form, floating away, untouchable.

“Emma?”

Emma stared at her bedroom ceiling.  It was her sister’s voice.

“I went to that store, got that shampoo you liked.”

Emma turned over, pulling the covers tight, staring at the wall instead.

“I just thought a shower must sound pretty good right about now.”

There were still scraps of paper stuck to the wall with blue tack, the corners of the posters she’d torn down in a fit of emotion.  All the words in the English language, and there wasn’t one for what she’d felt.  Not anger, not fear, not resentment… some combination of those things that was duller, heavier, suffocating.  The eyes of the boys from the posters had been too much.

“…Okay,” her sister said, from the other side of the bedroom door.  “We love you, Emma.  You know that, right?”

Her mother spoke through the door, “Emma?  Taylor’s on the phone.  She’s still at summer camp.  Do you-“

Emma sat up in bed, swung her legs around until they hung off the end of the bed.

“No.”  Her voice was a croak.  How many days had it been since she spoke?

“If I explained, maybe she could-“

An image flashed across her mind’s eye.  Taylor, on the other end of the phone, laughing, blabbering on, happy, just before the incident.

The tables had turned.

“If you tell her, I’m never coming out,” she croaked.

There wasn’t a reply.  Emma stood from the bed and approached the door.  She could hear her mother on the other side.

“-doesn’t want to talk to you right now.  I’m sorry.”

A pause.

“No.  No, I don’t.”

Another pause, briefer.

“Bye, honey,” Emma’s mom said.

Floorboards creaked as her mother walked away.

“…a therapist.  You could go alone, or we could go together.”

She grit her teeth.

“I… I left her number by the phone.  We’re all going to be out.  Your sister’s at a thing related to the college dorms, a pre-moving in orientation.  Your mom and I have work.  You know our phone numbers, but I was thinking, uh.”

A pause.

“If you were thinking of doing something drastic, and you didn’t feel like you could talk to any of us, the therapist’s number’s there.”

Emma hugged her knees.  Her back pressed hard against the door, the bones of her spine grinding against the door’s surface.

“I love you.  We love you.  The doors are all double locked, so you’re safe, and there’s food in the fridge.  Your sister bought that stuff from the store you like.  Soaps and shampoos.”

Emma clutched the fabric of her pyjamas.

“It’s been a week.  You can’t- you can’t be happy like this.  We won’t be here to bother you, so warm yourself up some food, treat yourself to a nice bath, maybe, watch some television?  Get things a step back to normal?”

She stood, abrupt, paced halfway across her bedroom, then stopped.  Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

She stood there, staring at the wall with the torn corners of poster still stuck to it, fists clenched.

“Bye, honey.”

She was rooted to the spot, staring at a blank surface, listening as her family went about their routines.  There were murmurs of conversation as they got organized, orchestrated who was going in which car, what everyone was doing for lunch.  Quieter fragments of conversation where they were discussing her.

The door slammed, and she heard the locks click, a sound so faint she might have imagined it.

It was only after everyone had left that she ventured out of her room.

Coffee.  Cereal.  She went through the motions, reheating a mug of the former and preparing the latter.

She hadn’t finished either when she stood and ventured into the bathroom.  She didn’t touch the bag of expensive soaps and shampoos, instead using her father’s regular shampoo.  She soaped up with the bar soap, rinsed off, then stepped out of the shower to dry herself.

Once she was dressed, her hair still damp, she approached the front door, hesitated.

She pushed through, left it unlocked behind her.  She couldn’t shake the worry that if she stepped back inside to find keys, she might not be able to step through the threshold again.

Her teeth were chattering by the time she was at the end of the street, and it wasn’t cold out.

Her thoughts were a chaotic jumble as she walked.  Her stomach felt like a blob of gelatin, quivering with every step she took.

The stares were worst of all.  As much as she tried to tell herself that she wasn’t in the middle of a giant spotlight, that people didn’t care, she couldn’t shake the idea that they were watching her, analyzing her every move, noting her wet hair, noting the hunk of hair at the back that was shorter than the rest, crudely chopped off.  Were they seeing her as a victim, someone so full of fear and anxiety that her every movement practically screamed ‘easy target’?

Perhaps the dumbest insecurity of all was the worry that somehow they could read her mind, that they knew she was doing the dumbest thing she’d ever done.

Every step she took, the white noise of her fear consumed a bit of her rational mind.

She found herself back at the mouth of the narrow one-way road.  The dumpster had been moved, the van was nowhere in sight.

This was different from feeling like a victim, because here, she knew she really was begging to be attacked.  To loiter around in known gang territory, unarmed?  It was senseless.  This time, they might really carry through with their threats.  All it would take was the wrong person seeing her.

Emma couldn’t bring herself to care.  She was scared, but she was scared every moment of every day, had been for the last seven days.  Right now?  She was more desperate than scared.

She’d hoped she would run into the girl in the black cloak.  She wasn’t so lucky.  Her stomach started protesting that the half-bowl of cereal hadn’t been enough, but she stayed where she was.  She hadn’t brought a wallet, a phone or watch, so she had no way of getting food, nor any idea of how long she was really waiting.

When the sun was directly overhead, she turned to leave.

There was no place to go.  Home?  It would be too easy to shut herself in her room, to hide from the world.  There was nothing she wanted to do, nobody she wanted to talk to.

The world was an ugly place, filled with ugly scenes, and unlike before, she couldn’t shut it out, couldn’t shake the idea that something horrible was happening around every corner.  Thousands of people suffering every second, around the world.

What got her, the nebulous idea that haunted her, was the impact those scenes had.  There were so many defining moments, so many crises, big and small, that shaped the people they touched.  The biggest and most critical moments were the sorts that wiped the slate clean, that ignored or invalidated the person who had existed before, only to create another.

Emma had fought in a moment of desperation, as if fighting could make her stronger than Taylor, set herself apart.  Except she’d failed.  It was unbearable.  She hated herself.

Her eyes watched the crowd, searching for the people who were eyeing her, judging her.  She couldn’t find any obvious ones, but she couldn’t shake the belief that they were there.

“Takes guts.”

She could feel her heart leap into her throat, wheeling around, imagining the Asian girl with the eye shadow standing behind her.

It wasn’t.  The girl was dark-skinned, slender, with long, straight hair.  She had a hard stare, penetrating.

“Guts?”  Emma couldn’t imagine any word less appropriate.

“Coming back.  The only reason you’d do it is because you were looking for revenge, or you were looking for me.  Or both, depending on how cracked you are.”

Emma opened her mouth, then closed it.  The realization hit her.  This was the girl with the black cloak, announcing herself.

She asked the question she’d gone to such risk to pose to the girl, “Why… why did you wait?  You saw me in trouble, but you didn’t do a thing.”

“Because I wanted to see who you were.”

Before, Emma suspected she’d have been offended, aghast at the idea that this girl would leave her to suffer, leave her life at risk, just for an answer to a question.  Now?  Now she could almost understand it, oddly enough.  “Who was I?”

“There’s two people in the world.  Those who get stronger when they come through a crisis and those who get weaker.  The ones who get stronger naturally come out on top.  There’s ups and downs, but they’ll win out.”

“Who was I?” Emma asked, again.

“You’re here, aren’t you?”  The girl smiled.

Emma didn’t have an answer to that.  She shut her mouth, all too aware of the people walking past them, going about their everyday lives, overhearing snippets of their conversation and yet failing to pick up anything essential.

“I want to be one of the stronger ones.”

“I don’t do the partner thing, or the team thing.”

Emma nodded.  She didn’t have an answer ready.

The other girl’s eyes studied her, and she seemed to come to a decision.  “It’s a philosophy, a way of looking at it all. You can look at the world as a… what’s the word?  One thing and another?”

“A binary?”

“A binary thing.  But not black and white.  It’s about the divide of winners and losers.  Strong and weak, predators and prey.  I kind of like that last one, but I’m a hunter.”

Emma thought back to how readily the girl had taken the thugs apart.  “I can believe that.”

The girl smiled.  “And what you have to keep in mind, is the biggest question of all is one you’re answering for yourself, right now.  Survivor or victim?”

“What’s the difference?”

“On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.”

Emma stood from the kitchen table, aware that her entire family was watching her.

It’s all mental.

Three weeks ago, she might never have imagined that she’d be able to resume life as normal, to not be afraid.

Perhaps it was more correct to say that she was afraid, she just wasn’t acting it.  Faking it until she could make it the truth.

“You’re going out?” her sister couldn’t quite keep the note of suprise out of her voice.

“Sophia’s dropping by,” Emma said.

Just want to forget it happened, put it behind me.  Move forward.

“Taylor got back from camp this morning,” her mother said.

Emma paused.  “Okay.”

“She might stop by.”

“Okay.”

Emma couldn’t resist hurrying a little as she collected her dishes and rinsed them in the sink.

“If she comes by when you’re not here-”

“I’ll talk to her,” Emma said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

She made her way to the front hall, stopped by the mirror to run a brush through her hair.  It had all been cut to match the piece that had been cut shorter with the knife.

She couldn’t wait for it to grow in, as that alone would erase just one more memory that reminded her of her moment of weakness and humiliation, of how close she’d come to dying or being mutilated.  Until it did grow in, it was yet another reminder of all the ugliness she wanted to be able to look past.

Sophia was waiting outside by the time she had her shoes on.

“Heya, vigilante,” Emma said, smiling.

“Heya, survivor.”

She could see Taylor approaching, tan, still wearing the shirt from camp in the bright primary blue, with the logo, shorts and sandals.  It only made her look more kiddish.  Broomstick arms and legs, gawky, with a wide, guileless smile, her eyes just a fraction larger behind the glasses she wore, a little too old fashioned.  Her long dark curls were tied into a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful ‘friendship braclet’ style ties at the end.  Only her height gave her age away.

She looks like she did years ago.  Way before her mom diedLike she’s nine, not thirteen.

“Who the fuck is that?” Sophia murmured.

Emma didn’t reply.  She watched as Taylor approached the gate at the front of the house, walked up the path to the stairs where she and Sophia stood.

“Emma!”

“Who the fuck are you?” Sophia asked.

Taylor’s smile faltered.  A brief look of confusion flickered across her face.  “We’re friends.  Emma and I have been friends for a long time.”

Sophia smirked.  “Really.”

Emma resisted the urge to cringe.  Fake it until I make it.

“Really,” Taylor echoed Sophia.  The smallest furrow appeared between her eyebrows.  “What’s going on Emma?  I haven’t heard from you in a good while.  Your mom said you weren’t taking calls?”

Emma hesitated.

To just explain, to talk to Taylor…

Taylor would give her sympathy, would listen to everything she had to say, give an unbiased ear to every thought, every wondering and anxiety.  Emma almost couldn’t bear the idea.

But there would be friendship too.  Support.  It would be so easy to reach out and take it.

“I love the haircut,” Taylor filled the silence, talking and smiling like she couldn’t contain herself.  “You manage to make any style look great.”

Emma closed her eyes, taking a second to compose herself.  Then she smiled back, though not so wide.  She could feel Sophia’s eyes on her.

She stepped down one stair to get closer to Taylor, put a hand on her shoulder.  Taylor raised one arm to wrap Emma in a hug, stopped short when Emma’s arm proved unyielding, stopping her from closing the distance.

“Go home, Taylor.  I didn’t ask you to come over.”

She could see the smile fall from Taylor’s face.  Only a trace of it lingered, a faltering half-smile.  “It’s… it’s never been a problem before.  I’m sorry.  I was just excited to see you, it’s been weeks since we even talked.”

“There’s a reason for that.  This was just an excuse to cut a cord I’ve been wanting to cut for a long time.”

There it went.  The last half smile, wiped from Taylor’s expression.  “I… what?  Why?”

“Do you think it was fun?  Spending time with you, this past year?”  The words came too easily.  Things she’d wanted to say, not the whole truth, but feelings she’d bottled up, held back.  “I wanted to break off our friendship a long while back, even before your mom kicked the bucket, but I couldn’t find the chance.  Then you got that call, and you were so down in the dumps that I thought you’d hurt yourself if I told you the truth, and I didn’t want to get saddled with that kind of guilt.”

It was surprising how easily the words came.  Half truths.

“So you lied to me, strung me along.”

“You lied to yourself more than I lied to you.”

“Fuck you,” Taylor snapped back.  She turned to leave, and Sophia stuck one foot out.  Taylor didn’t fall, but she stumbled, had to catch the gate for balance.

Taylor turned around, eyes wide, as if she could barely comprehend that Sophia had done what she’d done, that Emma had stood by and watched it.

Then she was gone, running.

“Feel better?”  Sophia asked.

Better?  No.  Emma couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty or ashamed, but… it didn’t feel good.

That knot of negative emotion was tempered by a sense of profound relief.  One less reminder of the old, weak, pathetic vain Emma, one more step towards the new.

Emma’s cell phone vibrated.  She rose from her bed, suppressing a sigh.

As quiet as she could, she collected the tackle box from beneath her bed, dressed and headed downstairs.

Her father was at the kitchen table.  His eyes went wide, and he stood.

She pressed her finger to her lips, and he stopped, his mouth open.

She hesitated, then spoke in a whisper, “I need your help.  Please.  Can- can you not ask any questions just yet?”

He hesitated, then nodded.

She handed him the keys, and climbed into the passenger seat.

He started up the car, then drove in the directions she dictated, her eyes on the phone.

They found themselves downtown, in the midst of a collection of bodies.

And in the center, leaning against a wall, Shadow Stalker was hunched over, using her hands to staunch a leg wound.

Emma bent down, opened the tackle box, and began gathering the first aid supplies.

Wordless, her father joined her.

We owe her this, at least.

“Give it back,” Taylor’s voice was quiet, but level.

“Give what back?”

“You guys broke into my locker.  You took my flute.  It’s something my mom left me, something she used, that my dad gave to me so I could remember her.  Just… if you’ve decided you hate me, if I said the wrong thing, or led you to believe something that wasn’t true, okay.  But don’t do that to my mom.  She was good to you.  Don’t disrespect her memory.”

“If it was so valuable to you, then you shouldn’t have brought it.”

Taylor didn’t speak for long seconds.  “Can you blame me?  Since school started, you’ve been… after me.  As if you’re trying to make a point or something.  Except I don’t know what it is.”

“The point is that you’re a loser.”

Taylor wasn’t able to keep the emotion off her face.  “…Even if it’s just a flute and a memory, maybe I wanted to feel like I had some backup here.  I thought you were better than that, screwing with me on that level.”

“I guess you’re wrong,” Emma replied.  She let the words sit for a few seconds, then added, “Doesn’t look like she’s offering you any backup at all.”

Emma had mused, back in the week she’d been reeling from her near-miss with death or disfigurement, that there were moments that changed destinies, that altered people’s trajectories in life.  Some were small, the changes minor, others large to the point they were irreversible.  It was so easy, just to utter the words, and the reaction was so profound.  A mixture of emotions that briefly stripped Taylor bare, revealed everything in a series of changing facial expressions.

She didn’t enjoy it.  Didn’t revel in it.  But it was… reassuring?  The world made sense.  Predators and prey.  Attackers and victims.  It was like a drug, only she’d never experienced the high, the pure joy of it.  There was only the withdrawal, the need for a hit just to get centered again.

Fight back, get angry, hit me.

Challenge me.

It took Taylor long seconds to get her mental footing.  She met Emma’s eyes, and then stared down at the ground.  She mumbled her response.  “I think that says a lot more about you than it does about me.”

That wasn’t what I meant, Emma thought.

She felt irrationally angry, annoyed, and couldn’t put her finger on why.

It took her a minute to find Sophia, not helped by the fact that the two of them had classes on opposite sides of the building.

Sophia was putting coins into the vending machine.  She looked up at Emma.  “What?”

“Did you break into her locker?”

“Yeah.”

“Stole a flute?”

“Yeah.”

Emma paused for long seconds.  To give the flute back, surreptitiously, it would go a ways towards breaking the rhythm, the cycle.

Taylor’s words nettled her.  To back down now, it would be a step towards the old Emma, the victim.

“Fuck with it.  Do something disgusting to it, and make sure to wreck it so she can’t use it ever again.”

Sophia smiled.

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in this document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“I do,” Emma’s father spoke.

Emma reached out and took his hand, squeezing it.  He glanced at her, and she mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

There was a shuffling of papers at the other end of the long table.  “We, the committee, have reviewed the documents, and agree that case one-six-three-one, Shadow Stalker, has met the necessary requirements.  With stipulations to be named at a future date, specific to her powers and the charges previously laid against her, she is now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as she turns eighteen or violates the terms of this probationary status.  Congratulations, Shadow Stalker.”

“Thank you,” Shadow Stalker’s tone was subdued, her eyes directing a glare at the center of the table rather than anyone present.

Emma watched as the capes and official bigwigs around her got out of their chairs, fell into groups.

Dauntless approached her dad.  She only caught two murmured words of Dauntless’ question.  “-divorce attorney?”

Shadow Stalker, for her part, stood and strode out of the room.  Emma hurried to follow.  By the time she reached the staircase, Shadow Stalker was halfway to the roof.

“You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry.  Stipulations, rules and regulations.  I’ve had my powers for two and a half years and I’ve stopped more bad guys than half the capes in that room!”

Emma couldn’t stop the memory from hitting her.

The man struggled, and as much as Shadow Stalker was able to make herself immaterial, to loosen any grip or free herself from any bonds, she didn’t have the ability to tighten that same grip.  He tipped backwards, off the edge of the roof, and a gesture meant to intimidate became manslaughter.

Shadow Stalker stared off the edge of the roof at the body, then turned to look at Emma.

“Is- is he?”  Emma asked.

“Probably best if you don’t come on patrol with me again.”

“You have,” Emma replied, snapping back to reality.  How many have you ‘stopped’?

“It’s like putting a wolf among sheep and expecting it to bleat!”

“It’s only three years.  Better than prison.”

“Three years and four months.”

“Better than prison,” Emma repeated herself.

“It is prison, fuck it!”

“It’s like you said.  Just… just fake it until you make it the truth, put away the lethal ammunition for a few years.”

Shadow Stalker wheeled on her, stabbed a finger in her direction, “Fuck that.”

Emma stared at her best friend, saw the look in Sophia’s eyes, the anger, the hardness.

For a moment, she regretted the choice she’d made.

Then she had her head in order again, the little things she was faking contorted with reality until she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

People could convince themselves of anything, and there were worse things than convincing oneself that they were strong, capable, one of the ones on top, rather than one of the ones on the bottom.

The door of the bathroom stall swung open.  Sophia had flung one arm around Emma’s shoulders, and Emma joined her in laughing.  To their right, the third member of their trio was giggling so hard she had hiccups.

Taylor kneeled in the middle of a massive puddle of juices and sodas, some of it still fizzing around her.  She was drenched, head to toe, trickles still running off of the lengths of her hair.  Her style of dress had changed over the past little while, in ways Taylor probably wasn’t fully aware of.  She wore darker clothes now, cloaked herself in sweatshirts and loose fitting jeans.  Her long hair was a shield, a barrier around her face.  All measures to hide, signals and gestures of defeat.

More than that, she’d changed in behavior, had stopped fighting back. She’d stopped reacting, for the most part.  Her expression was impassive.  It took some of the fun out of it.  It was almost disappointing.

I’ll have to think of a better one than this.  Crack that facade, Emma thought.  She smirked as Madison led the way out of the bathroom, and they left Taylor behind.

Taylor had become the archetypical victim, Emma mused, in one sober moment, as she parted ways with the other two girls, and I’ve found myself becoming the type of person who could genuinely laugh at something like this.

She dismissed the thought, shifting mental gears, re-establishing the construction of self confidence she’d built.  It was a little easier every time she did it.

The fan on the other side of the room had a piece loose.  It squeaked on every third rotation.

She examined her nails, picked at a fleck of something white that had stick to the end of one nail, then checked her cuticles.

The fan squeaked, and she turned her head, as if she could spot the offending flaw and fix it.

“You come all this way, and you don’t have anything to say?”  Sophia asked.

Emma shrugged.  It was on our way.

“Say what’s on your mind.”

“It’s all backwards, isn’t it?”

“Backwards how?”

“Upside down, Turned around.  Two wrongs make a right.”

“What wrongs?”  Sophia’s voice was hard.

“Not you.  Not your thing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  We’re moving back to Brockton Bay.  As in, it’s in progress.  Half our stuff’s still back in Portland, half’s in the Bay.  We finally moved.”

“Someplace nice?”

“Further north.”

Sophia smirked.

“But that’s why I’m saying it’s all backwards.  Things got flipped around.  The north end is nicer, now.  They’re rebuilding, and it’s all coming together.  Downtown is the place that got hit hard.  You’ve got three big areas you can’t go, with the crater, the quarantine and the place I heard people calling the scar, where they did some bombing run with Bakuda’s stuff.  Construction’s slower towards the south, because there’s so much traffic and not a lot of roads.”

“Huh.”

“The bad guys are keeping the law, but things are better, and you talk to anyone, there’s hope.  I don’t know how that happens, how you visit every tragedy imaginable on a place, drop a dozen different nightmare scenarios on it, and things get better.  How does that work?”

“I don’t really care,” Shadow Stalker said.

“It’s your city.”

“The world ends in less than two years.  I won’t be out of here before then.  I… what’s the word?  I reiterate, I don’t really care.”

“I’m trying to make conversation.”

“You’re doing a shitty job of it,” Sophia replied.

Emma shut her mouth, stared at her friend.

“World ends in two years,” Sophia added.  “It’s a joke, pretending like things are getting better, like there’s hope.  The world turns a few hundred more times and then it all ends.”

Sour grapes?

“It’s kind of neat in terms of the big picture,” Emma said, ignoring Sophia.  “It’s like, the future hasn’t looked this bright in a while.  There’s promise, if this rumor about an open interdimensional portal is for real.  Multiple portals, if you believe the really out-there rumors.  Escape routes, resources, work.  And Brockton Bay is at the center of it all.”

Sophia snorted.

“And, more than that, it’s like, if we’re talking about hope, about the future, who’s more iconic for all that than kids?  You know, that line about how kids are the future?  Heroes too, they’re icons of hope too.  And put those things together, you get Arcadia High.  Winslow High’s gone, and there’s not quite enough students, so they’re herding us all together.”

“So?”

“So, it’s like, all this hope, you’ve got Brockton Bay at the center of it all.  And at the center of Brockton Bay’s hope, it’s Arcadia High.  And at the center of that?  You’ve got the heroes and the winners.  I fully intend to be the latter.  In a way, it’s like being queen of the world.”

“The popular kid in high school?”

“In the high school,” Emma said.  She shrugged.  “It’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s sad.”

Emma smirked.  “Someone’s grumpy.”

“It’s sad because you’re making a fool of yourself, you’re missing a key detail.”

“Which?”

Sophia shrugged.  “Better if you find out for yourself.  I won’t spoon-feed you.”

Emma rolled her eyes.  Sophia was just toying with her head.  Easy enough to ignore.

“I’m going to go.  I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…”

Sophia caught the ‘but’.  “Bitch.”

“Yeah.  Def,” Emma replied, before hanging up the phone.  She stood from the stool that was bolted to the floor, stretched, then offered a small wave.

Sophia raised both hands together to offer a miniscule wave with her right.  They were cuffed together, LEDs standing out on the cuffs, marking the live current.

Emma couldn’t tell herself she’d be back.  To stick around and be loyal now would betray every reason she’d given herself for dropping Taylor as a friend.  Taylor had been a wet blanket, a loser.  Sophia was no better, now.

It was ironic, but Sophia had proven herself to be more prey than predator, in the very philosophy she’d espoused.

“Hey dad?”

Her dad turned his head to acknowledge her, while keeping his eyes on the road. “What is it?”

“Mind making a detour?  I wouldn’t mind seeing Taylor’s house.”

“I thought you weren’t friends anymore.”

Emma shook her head.  “I’m… trying to put it all into perspective.  It’s really changed, and it’s easiest to get my head around the changes if I can look at the familiar places, and her house is pretty familiar.”

“Sure.  If nobody else minds?”

There were no objections from her mom or sister.

The city had always had its highs and lows, its peaks and valleys, but it seemed it was an even starker contrast now.  She’d commented, once, that for any one house, she could find three things wrong with it.  It had been flipped around, in its own way.  For every ten houses, there was one ruin, a dilapidated structure or pile of wreckage.  For every ten stretches of road that were intact, there was one that a car couldn’t pass over.

They turned off Lord Street, onto the street that Taylor’s house was on.

As they approached, Emma could see Taylor helping her dad unload a box from what looked to be a new or newly washed car.  He said something and she laughed.

The casual display of emotion was startling.  It was equally startling when, in the moment Emma’s dad slowed the car down, Taylor’s head turned, her eyes falling on them, her head and upper body turning to follow them as they passed.

She didn’t even resemble the person Emma had known way back then, not the girl who’d approached her house after coming back from camp, and not the girl who’d been drenched in juice.  The lines of her cheekbones and chin were more defined, her skin baked to a light tan by the sun, her long black curls grown a touch wild by long exposure to wind.  Light muscles stood out on her arms as she held a box, her dad standing back to direct.

Even her clothes.  She wasn’t hiding under a hood and long sleeves.  A trace of her stomach was exposed between the bottom of her yellow tank top and the top of her jeans.  The frayed cuffs were rolled up at the bottom, around new running shoes, and neither Taylor nor her dad seemed to be paying any attention to the knife that was sheathed at her back.

It surprised Emma, all the little clues coming together to point to one fact; that Taylor had stayed.  She’d stayed, and she’d come out of it okay.  Judging by the new car, the shoes and her clothes, the Heberts were doing better for money than they had been the last time Emma had run into either of them.  Were they early beneficiaries of Brockton Bay’s upswing in fortune?

It unsettled her, and she had a hard time putting her finger on why.

It didn’t hit her until they’d reached their new house, a recollection of something Sophia had said.

On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Darkness.  Almost a physical presence, bearing down on her as though she were deep underwater and the weight of all of the water above her was pressing against her head and shoulders.

Some of that was fatigue, some of it was hunger, some was thirst.  She had no idea how much time had passed.  She might have been able to guess from her period, but her body had decided such would be a waste of precious resources.  It hadn’t come, and she had no idea how many weeks or months it had been.

Darkness, so absolute she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed.  As she breathed, it almost felt like the dark was pressing down on her, making exhaling harder with every breath.  It didn’t help that the room smelled like an open sewer mingled with body odor.

Reaching out, she fumbled, felt the dim warmth of skin.  An arm so thin she could wrap her hand around it, middle finger and thumb touching.  Her hand slid down the arm and her fingers twined with those of a hand smaller than hers.  The physical contact seemed to put the physical sensations of air on her skin into a kind of context.  The sense of pressure faded.

“I’m hungry,” the girl beside her spoke.

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock, and her heart leapt.

The light felt like knives being driven into her eye sockets, but she stared anyways.  A man, tall, tan and long-haired, entered the room, a lantern in one hand and a plate of food in the other.

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

“Thank you!” she called after him.  She saw him hesitate.

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

She couldn’t justify it.  Her heart was pounding.  She stared at the plate.  Soup and bread: enough food for one person, barely enough for two.  She could have said she did it in the hopes that he would feed them more often, but she wasn’t sure she would be telling the truth.

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

“I knew you were here when I was a block away,” Alan spoke.  “The number of lights on in these offices is asking for troublemakers to notice and come by.  And the doors were unlocked.”

Carol looked up in surprise.  Composing herself, she answered, “I’m not concerned.”

The man laughed, “No, I imagine you aren’t.”

“You’re back?”

“For a little while, at least.  The partners asked if I could come by in case we had to close up shop in a hurry.”

“In case the city is condemned?”

“That’s it.  What are you doing?  Are those the files from downstairs?”

Carol nodded, glancing at the crate of paperwork marked ‘1972’.  “We’ve been saying we would copy them over to digital format the next time business got slow.  It won’t get much slower than it is now.”

“The idea was that everyone in the office would pitch in,” Alan answered.

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

“Except you’re the only one here,” Alan said.  His brow creased in worry, “What’s going on?  Are you okay?”

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

He sat down on the corner of her desk, reached over and turned off the scanner.  “Talk.”

“When I agreed to join New Wave, Sarah and I both agreed that I’d keep my job, and I’d strike a balance between work and life in costume.”

He nodded.

“I felt like I had to keep coming, even after Leviathan destroyed the city.  Keep that promise to myself, keep myself sane.  This filing helps, too.  It’s almost meditative.”

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to stay in the city, with everything that’s gone on.  I heard things in the news, but it really didn’t hit home until I came back.”

Carol smiled a little, “Oh, it hasn’t been pretty.  Addicts and thugs thinking they can band together to take over the city.  The Slaughterhouse Nine-”

Alan shook his head in amazement.

“My husband was gravely injured in the attack, you might have heard.”

“Richard mentioned it.”

“Head injury.  Could barely feed himself, could barely walk or speak.”

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

“Amy has always insisted she couldn’t heal brain injuries.”

Alan winced.  “I see.  The worst sort of luck.”

Carol smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “So imagine my surprise when, after weeks of taking care of my husband, wiping food from his face, giving him baths, supporting him as he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, Amy decides she’ll heal him after all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.  But we can’t ask Amy, because she ran away from home while Mark called to let me know he was okay.”

“Something else happened?”

“Oh, quite a bit happened.  But if I got into the details of the Slaughterhouse Nine visiting my home, the ensuing fight destroying the ground floor, Bonesaw forcing Amy to kill one of her Frankenstein mutants and inviting her to join the Nine, I think that would derail the conversation.”

Alan opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it.

“This is strictly confidential, yes?” Carol stated.  “Between friends?”

“Always,” he replied automatically.  After a moment’s consideration, he said, “Amy must have been terrified.”

“Oh, I imagine she was.  Victoria went looking for her after she ran away, returned home empty-handed.  I think she was even more upset than I was, with Amy taking so long to heal Mark.  She was almost inarticulate, she was so angry.”

“Your daughters are close.  The sense of betrayal would be that much stronger.”

Carol nodded, then sighed.

“Quite a lot to deal with.  I can understand why you’d need some quiet and routine to distract yourself.”

Carol fidgeted.  “Oh, that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Victoria’s been flirting with the notion of joining the Wards, and she went out to fight the Nine just a few days ago.  Apparently she was critically injured.  She was carried off for medical care and nobody’s seen her since.”

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

“The Undersiders.  Who have dropped off the face of the map, in large part.  I’ve tried finding them on my patrols, but all reports suggest they’ve spread over the city in an attempt to seize large tracts of territory.  It’s a big city with a lot of stones to overturn and dark corners to investigate.”

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

“Or dead,” Carol said.  She blinked a few times in rapid succession, fighting the need to cry.  “I don’t know.  I was patrolling, searching, and I felt my composure start to slip.  I feel like shit for doing it, but I came here, I thought maybe if I took fifteen minutes or half an hour to center myself, I could be ready to start searching again.”

“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it.”

“She’s my daughter, Alan.  Something’s happened to her, and I don’t know what.”

“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head.

“I could call some people, if we organized a search party-”

“Too dangerous when you’re talking supervillains and the numbers of armed thugs on the streets.  Even civilians are likely to attack first and ask questions later, if confronted.  Besides…” she picked up her cell phone from the corner of her desk.  She showed him the screen, “Cell towers are down.  No service.”

He frowned.  “I- I don’t know what to say.”

“Welcome back to Brockton Bay, Mr. Barnes.”

“Carol, wake up.”

Carol stirred.  She was sleeping so much of the time now.

There was a man in the doorway.  Her heart leapt in her chest.

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

“Time’s up,” he spoke, his voice heavily accented.

“Don’t understand,” Sarah spoke, her voice thin.

“Where’s… where’s the other man?” Carol asked.  She felt almost ashamed she didn’t have a better name for him.

“Quiet,” the man snapped.  He moved the hand that wasn’t burdened with the lantern, and Carol could see a knife.  She gasped, or maybe moaned.  It was hard to tell what it was supposed to be, because it was involuntary and her voice caught, making the sound come out more like a yelp or a reedy shriek.  She shrank back.

“No, no, no,” Sarah squeaked, shaking her head.

Time’s up.  Sarah had to know what he meant, now.

They’d spent so long in the darkness, in their own filth.  They’d eaten so little, grown so weak, and now they’d die.  And the thing that upset Carol most was that they would never understand why.

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

The light was so bright it momentarily blinded Carol.  She covered her face with her arms.  When she looked up again, the man was on his hands and knees.  And her sister… Sarah was standing.

Except standing was the wrong word.  Sarah was upright, and her legs were moving, but her toes were barely touching the ground.  She wasn’t supporting her own weight.  She advanced on the man, raising one hand.

Again, that blinding light.  It didn’t burn the man, nor did it cut him.  He reacted like he’d been punched instead, stumbling backward through the doorway.  She hit him again, over and over, wordless cries accompanying each attack.  Carol saw only glimpses of the man’s bloodied body in the split-seconds the light hung in the air.  He was being beaten, pulverized.

She couldn’t bring herself to protest.  For the first time in long weeks or months, she felt a flicker of hope.

Darkness reigned over them for a few seconds as Sarah stopped to catch her breath.

Carol tried to stand and found her legs were like spaghetti noodles.

She was so busy trying to maintain her balance that she almost didn’t see.

The man who’d brought them the food.  He stepped into the doorway and raised one hand.  A gun.

The report of the handgun was deafening after such a long time in the quiet room.

But they weren’t hurt.  Sarah had raised her hands, and a glowing, see-through wall stood between them and the man.

He’d tried to attack them?  Carol couldn’t understand it.  He was the one who’d taken care of them.  When he’d appeared, she’d been happy.  And now it felt like that had been ruined, spoiled.

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

Again, the gun fired.  She flinched, and not because of the noise.  It was like she’d been slapped.

Then silence.

Silence, no hunger, no pain, no sense of betrayal.  Even Sarah and the wall of light she’d put together were gone.

A flat plain stretched out around her, but she had no body.  She could see in every direction.

A crack split the ground.  Once the dust had settled, nothing happened for a long time.

More cracks.

It’s an egg, she realized, just in time to see it hatch.

The egg’s occupant tore free from the crack, unfolding from a condensed point to grow larger with every moment and movement.

Others were hatching from the same egg, spreading out like sparks from the shell of a firework.  Each unfolding into something vast and incomprehensible within seconds of its birth.

But her attention was on the first.  She felt it reach out and connect with another that shared a similar trajectory.  Still more were doing the same, pairing off.  Forming into trios, in some cases, but most chose to form pairs.

A mate?  A partner?

Each settled into a position around the ruined egg, embracing their chosen companions, rubbing against, into and through one another as they continued to grow.

The egg vibrated. Or did it?  No, it was an illusion.  There were multiple copies of the egg, multiple versions, and they each stirred, deviating from one another until subtle double images appeared.

Then, one by one, they crumpled into a single point.  The egg at the center of the formation of these creatures was the last, and for the briefest of moments, it roiled with the pressure and energy of all of the others.

Then it detonated, and the creatures came alive, soaring out into the vastness of the void, trails of dust following in their wake, each with a partner, a companion, traveling in a different direction.

And she was back in the dark room, staring at the man.

The betrayer.

The memory was already fading, but she instinctively knew that whatever had happened to Sarah had just happened to her.

His gun was spent, which was good, because Sarah had fallen to the ground in the same instant Carol had, and the wall of light was gone.

Carol advanced on him, her emotions so wild and varied and contradictory that she’d seemed to settle into a kind of neutrality, a middle ground where there was only that confused sense of betrayal.

A weapon appeared in her hands, forged of light and energy and electricity.  Crude, unrefined, it amounted to little more than a baseball bat.

When she struck him in the leg, the weapon sheared through without resistance.  That’s good, her thoughts were strangely disconnected from everything else, because I can’t hit very hard right now.

He screamed as he fell to the ground, his leg severed.

She hit him again, then again, much like Sarah had with the other man.  Except this wasn’t simply beating him to a pulp.  It was more final than that.

When she was done, the weapon disappeared.  Sarah hugged her, and she hugged her sister back.

When she cried, it wasn’t the crying of a thirteen year old girl.  It was more basic, more raw: the uncontrolled, unrestrained wail one might expect of a baby.

There was a knock on the door.  She looked up.

It was Lady Photon.  Sarah.  “What are you doing here?  I’ve been looking all over.”

“I needed a few minutes to myself to think.  Get grounded.”

Lady Photon gave her a sympathetic look.  She hated that look.

“Why did you want me?”

“We found Tattletale.  In a fashion.  We made contact with her and struck a deal.”

Carol didn’t like the sound of that, but she wouldn’t say that out loud.  It would bother her sister, start something.  “What was she asking and what was she offering?”

“She wanted a two-week ceasefire.  The Undersiders won’t give any heroes or civilians any trouble, and we ignore them in exchange.”

“That gives them time to consolidate, get a firmer hold on the city.”

“Maybe.  I talked to Miss Militia about it, and she doesn’t think they’ll accomplish anything meaningful in that span of time.  The Undersiders have their hands full with white supremacists and some leftover Merchants, the Protectorate and Wards aren’t part of the ceasefire and they’ll be putting pressure on the Undersiders as well.”

“I’m not so optimistic,” Carol commented.  She sighed again.  “I would have liked to be part of that negotiation.”

“We didn’t know where you were.  But let’s not fight again.  The important thing is that Tattletale pointed us in the right direction.  We think we know where your daughters are.”

Daughters?  Plural?

Carol couldn’t put a name to the feeling that had just sucker-punched her.

“Give me thirty seconds to change,” she said, standing from her chair.

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

“Now why would I want to do that?” Marquis asked.  “I’ve won every time your team has challenged me, this situation isn’t so different.”

“You have nowhere to run.  We’ve got you where you live,” Manpower spoke.

“I have plenty of places to run,” Marquis replied, shrugging.  “It’s just a house, I won’t lose any sleep over leaving it behind.  It’s an expensive house, I’ll admit, but that little detail loses much of its meaning when you’re as ridiculously wealthy as I am.”

The Brockton Bay Brigade closed in on the man who stood by his leather armchair, wearing a black silk bathrobe.  He held his ground.

“If you’ll allow me to finish my wine-” he started, bending down to reach for the wine glass that sat beside the armchair.

Manpower and Brandish charged.  They didn’t get two steps before Marquis turned himself into a sea urchin, bone spears no thicker than a needle extending out of every pore, some extending twelve or fifteen feet.

Brandish planted her heel on the ground to arrest her forward movement and activated her power.  In an instant, her body was condensed into a point, surrounded by a layered, spherical force field.  It meant she didn’t fall on her rear end, and she could pick a more appropriate posture as she snapped back into her human shape.

Manpower wasn’t so adroit.  He managed to stop himself, slamming one foot through the mahogany floor to give himself something to brace against, but it was too late to keep him from running into the spears of bone.  Shards snapped against his skin and went flying.

Lady Photon opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late.  Flashbang fell to one knee as a shard bounced off the ground near him, reshaping into a form that could slash across the top of his foot.  Brandish caught only a glimpse of the wound, primarily blood.  She didn’t see anything resembling bone, but Marquis apparently did.

There was a sound like firecrackers going off, and Flashbang screamed.

The needles retracted.  Marquis rolled his shoulders, as if loosening his muscles.  “Broke your foot?  How clumsy.”

Lightstar was the next to go down, as one splinter that had embedded in a bookshelf branched out to pierce his shoulder.  Fleur caught him before he could land on top of more of the bone needles.

Brandish shifted her footing, and the slivers of bone that scattered the ground around her shifted, some reshaping into starbursts of ultrafine needle points, waiting for her to step on them.  She knew from experience that they would penetrate the soles of her boots.

Lady Photon fired a spray of laser blasts in Marquis’ general direction, tearing into bookshelves, antique furniture and the rack of wine bottles.  Marquis created a shield of bone to protect himself, expanding its dimensions until it was taller and wider than he was.

He’s going to burrow, Brandish thought.  He’d done it often enough in the past, disappearing underground the second he’d dropped out of sight, then attacking through the ground, floor or rooftop.

“Careful!” she shouted.

Lady Photon spent the rest of the energy she’d gathered in her hands, spraying another spray of lasers at Marquis’ shield.  Then, as they’d practiced, she prepared to use her forcefield to shield Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  Brandish and Manpower could defend themselves.

A barrier of bone plates erupted around one corner of the room, rising just in time to keep some of Lady Photon’s salvo from striking a closet door.  Marquis emerged from the floor a short distance away, driving a spike of bone up through the ground and then deconstructing it to reveal himself.

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me.”  He glanced around, “I don’t suppose we could change venues?  I’ll be good if you are.”

“Seems like we should take every advantage we can,” Manpower said.

“If you’re talking purely about increasing your odds of victory, yes.  But should you?  No, you really shouldn’t.”

This isn’t his usual behavior, Brandish thought.  His power let him manipulate bone.  If it was his own, he could make it grow or shrink, reshape it and multiply it.   It made him, in many respects, a competent shapeshifter.  His abilities with the bones of others were limited to a simple reshaping, and there was a nuance in that the longer his own bone was separated from his body, the less able he was to manipulate it.  Every second he was wasting talking was a second that the bone splinters he’d spread over the area would be less useful to him.  He was putting himself at a disadvantage.

Well, only in a sense.  They still hadn’t touched him, and two of their members were out of commission.  Three, if she counted Fleur being occupied with a wounded Lightstar in her arms.

But the fact remained that Marquis wasn’t pushing his advantage.  The way his power worked and his very personality meant he was exceptional when it came to turning one advantage into another.  Or turning one advantage into three.  It was in his very nature to trounce his enemies, to grind them into the ground without an iota of mercy or fair play.

Was he distracted?

If he was, it was barely slowing him down.  She felt something clutch her from behind, covering her eyes.  When she tried to tear it free, she found it hard, unyielding.

She dropped into her ball form and then back into her human form, taking only a second to break free of the binding.  She caught the offending article in one hand before it could hit the ground.

It was a blindfold of solid bone, but it had been a skull of some sort beforehand.  Probably something that had sat on a bookshelf behind her.  Stupid to overlook it.

In the seconds it had taken her to deal with the blindfold, Marquis had trapped Lady Photon, binding her in a column of dense bone that had likely sprung around her from the floor or ceiling.  From the glow that was emanating through the barrier, she was apparently trying to use lasers to cut her way out.  She was strong enough to do it in one shot, but she couldn’t do that without risking shooting a teammate if the shot continued through.

That left Marquis to duel with Manpower, striking the hero over and over with a massive scythe of bone that extended out from his wrist.  Manpower was strong, and he was durable thanks to his electromagnetic shield – sparks flew as the scythe hit home over and over.  Even so, the hero didn’t try to fight back.

It took her only a moment to realize why.  Each swing of the scythe was calculated so that if the movement followed through, it would strike either the crippled Flashbang or Lightstar.

And Flashbang can’t shoot because Marquis will just armor himself before the sphere detonates.  Lightstar is injured, Fleur needs her hands free to strike, and Lady Photon’s incapacitated.

“Brandish!”  Manpower shouted.  “Same plan, just the two of us!”

Right.  Their battle plan wasn’t useless, now.  Just harder to pull off.

This would take some courage.

She charged forward, manifesting energy in the shape of a lance, driving it toward Marquis.

He cast a glance her way and stuck one foot out in her direction.  His toes mutated into a jagged, uneven ripple of bone that stretched out beneath her.  Unable to maintain her footing, she had to cancel out the lance, using her hands to brace her fall.

Spikes of bone poked out of the ground in a circle around her, rising to form a cage.

She created twin knives out of energy, slashing out to cut through the bars.

The hardest part would be what came next.  Brandish threw herself in the way of the scythe’s swing.

Marquis’ weapon virtually exploded into its component pieces, blade, join and shaft flying past her.

“Careful now,” Marquis chided her.  “Don’t want to get decapitated now, do we?”

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

Marquis surrounded himself in plates of bone that resembled the petals of a flower blooming in reverse, and sank into the ground.

Any other day, Brandish would have followed him into the room below.  A wine cellar, it seemed.

Instead, she turned and charged for the closet, creating a sword out of the crackling energy her power provided, slashing through the plates of bone that had surrounded it, then drawing the blade back to thrust through the wooden door-

Marquis emerged between her and the closet door.  She plunged the sword into his shoulder without hesitation.  She could smell his flesh burn, the wound cauterized by the same energy that formed the blade.

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

She let him fall, and then pressed the sword to his throat.  If he gave her an excuse, she would finish him.

She stared down at him.  That long hair, it was such a minor thing, but there was something else about him that stirred that distant, dark memory of the lightless room and the failed attempt at ransom.  Her skin crawled, and she felt anger boiling in her gut.

It took some time for the others to recover, getting their bearings and ensuring their wounds weren’t too serious.

“What were you so intent on protecting?” Manpower asked.  “This where you stash your illegitimate gains?”

Marquis chuckled.  “You could say that.  The most precious treasure in the world.”

“Somehow I missed the news report where you stole that,” Lady Photon replied.

“Stole?  No.  It would be better to say a devoted fan and follower gave her to me.”

Her?”  Brandish asked.  But Lady Photon was already reaching for the door, pulling it open.

A girl.  A child, not much younger than Vicky.  The girl was brown hair, freckle-faced, and clutched a silk pillow to her chest.  She wore a silk nightgown with lace at the collar and sleeves.  It looked expensive for something a child would wear.

“Daddy,” the girl’s eyes were wide with alarm.  She clutched the pillow tighter.

“Brigade, meet Amelia.  Amelia, these are the people who are going to take care of you now.”

Brandish was among the many faces to turned to stare at him.

He chuckled lightly, “I expect I won’t last long without medical care, so I’ll hardly be turning the tables on you and making a break for it.  You’ve won, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by taking care of her?”  Lady Photon asked.

“I have enemies.  Would you like to see her fall into their hands?  It wouldn’t be pretty.”

“They don’t have to know,” Manpower spoke.

“Manpower… do try to keep up.  The dumb brute stereotype persists only because people like you insist on keeping it alive.  They’ll always know, they’ll always find out.  You put that girl in foster care and interested parties are going to find out.”

“So you want us to take her?” Brandish asked.  She couldn’t keep the incredulity off her face.

“No,” the girl said, plaintive.  “I want you!”

“Yes,” Marquis said.

“The motherfucker has a kid?” Lightstar muttered the question, as if to himself.  “And she’s, what,  five?”

“Six,” Marquis answered.

Six.  Vicky’s age, then.  She looks younger.

“She’ll go to her mother,” Lady Photon decided.

“Her mother’s gone, I’m afraid.  The big C.  Amelia and I were introduced shortly after that.  About a year ago, now that I think on it.  I must admit, I’ve enjoyed our time together more than I’ve enjoyed all my crimes combined.  Quite surprising.”

His daughter, Brandish thought.  The resemblance was uncanny.  The nose was different, the brow, but she was her father’s daughter.

The idea disturbed her.

She couldn’t shake that dim memory of the nameless man she’d killed on the night she got her powers.  She hated Marquis in a way she couldn’t articulate, and if the memories that recurred every time she crossed paths with him were any clue, it was somehow tied to that.

She wondered if it was because she liked him on a level.  Was her psyche trying to protect her from repeating her earlier mistake?

“Little close for comfort, Brandish dear,” Marquis spoke.

She looked down.  She’d unconsciously pressed the blade closer.  When she lifted it, she could see the burn at the base of his throat.

“Thank you kindly,” he spoke.  There was a trace of irony there.

That cultured act, the civility that was real.  Marquis was fair, he played by the rules.  His rules, but he stuck to them without fail.  It didn’t match her vision of what a criminal should be.  It was jarring, creating a kind of dissonance.

That dissonance was redoubled as she looked at the forlorn little girl.  Layers upon layers, distilled in one expression.  Criminal, civilized man, child.

“You can’t take him away,” the girl told them.

“He’s a criminal,” Brandish responded.  “He’s done bad things, he needs to go to jail.”

“No.  He’s just my daddy.  Reads me bedtime stories, makes me dinner, and tells me jokes.  I love him more than anything else in the world.  You can’t take him away from me.  You can’t!”

“We have to,” Brandish told the girl.  “It’s the law.”

“No!” the girl shouted.  “I hate you!  I hate you!  I’ll never forgive you!”

Brandish reached out, as if she could calm the girl by touching her.

The girl shrank back into the closet.

Into the dark.  She felt as if she was separated from the child by a chasm.

“Let’s call the PRT,”  Manpower said.  “We should get Marquis into custody stat.”

“Wouldn’t mind some medical treatment, if you could rush that?” Marquis asked.

“…And medical treatment,” Manpower amended his statement.

Brandish walked away.  The others would handle this.  She would wait outside to guide the responders into the manor, past the traps Marquis had set in place.

She was still waiting when Lady Photon came outside, holding the little girl’s hand.  Lady Photon seated the girl in the car and shut the door.

Lady Photon joined Brandish on the stone stairs.  “We can’t let her go into foster care.  It’s not just the danger his enemies pose.  Once people found out she was Marquis’ child, they’d start fighting over who could get their hands on her.”

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

“Then they’ll kidnap her.  They’ll do it to exploit her powers, and she’s bound to be pretty powerful if she inherits anything like her father’s abilities”

“Then you take care of her,” Brandish replied, even as she mentally prayed her sister would refuse.  There was something about the idea of being around Marquis’ child, that uncanny resemblance, having those memories stirred even once in a while, even if it was just at family reunions… it made her feel uneasy.

“You know Neil and I don’t have that much money.  Neil isn’t having luck finding work, and all our funding from the team is going into the New Wave plan, which won’t happen for a few months, and we have two hungry mouths to feed…”

Brandish grasped her sister’s meaning.  With a sick feeling in her gut, she spoke the idea aloud.  “You want Mark and I to take her.”

“You should.  Amelia’s Vicky’s age, I think they would be close.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

Brandish shook her head.  “I… you know I never planned to have kids?”

“I remember you saying something like that.  But then you had Vicky.”

“I only caved to having Vicky because Mark was there, and I had to think about it for a while.”

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

Brandish could have mentioned how Mark was tired all the time, how his promise had proved empty.  She might have mentioned how he was seeing a psychiatrist now, the tentative possibility of clinical depression.  She stayed silent.

“It’s not just that,” she said.  “You know I have trouble trusting people.  You know why.”

The change on Lady Photon’s face was so subtle she almost missed it.

“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Brandish said. “But it’s relevant.  I decided I could have Vicky because I’d know her from day one.  She’d grow inside me, I’d nurture her from childhood… she’d be safe.”

“I didn’t know you were dwelling on it to that degree.”

Brandish shrugged and shook her head, as if she could shake off this conversation, this situation.  “That child deserves better than I can offer.  I know I don’t have it in me to form any kind of bond with another child if there’s no blood relation.”

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

“She needs you.  You’re her only option.  I can’t, and Fleur and Lightstar aren’t old enough or in the right place in their lives for kids, and if she goes anywhere else, it’ll be disastrous.”

Brandish decided on the most direct, clear line of argument she could muster, “I don’t want her.  I can’t take her.”

Brandish glanced at the kid that they’d stowed in the team’s car.  The child was standing on the car seat, hands pressed against the window.  Her stare bored into Brandish as though little girl had laser vision.

The window was open a crack, Brandish noted.  The girl could probably hear everything they’d been saying.  Brandish looked away.

Lady Photon did as she’d so often done, ignoring reason in favor of the emotional appeal.  “You grew to love and trust Mark.  You could grow to love and trust that little girl, too.”

Liar.

Brandish stared at the teenaged girl.  Amy couldn’t even look her in the eye.  Tears were streaming down the girl’s face.

“Where’s Victoria?”  Brandish made the question a demand.

“I’m so sorry,” Amy responded, her voice hoarse.  She’d been crying long before anyone had showed up.

Brandish felt choked up as well, but she suppressed the emotion.  “Is my daughter dead?”

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Carol-” Lady Photon spoke, her voice gentle.  “Take it easy.”

They stood in the mist of a ruined neighborhood.  Amy had stepped outside within a minute of their arrival, blocking the door with her body.  There was no resistance in the girl, though.  It was more like the obstruction was a way of running, of forestalling the inevitable.

The girl hugged her arms against her body, her hands trembling even as they clutched her upper arms.  Her teeth chattered, as if she were cold, but it was a warm evening.

Was the girl in shock?  Carol couldn’t muster any sympathy.  Amy was stopping her from getting to Victoria.  Victoria, who she’d almost believed was dead.

“Amy,” Lady Photon spoke, “What’s going on?  You won’t let us inside, but you won’t explain.  Just talk.”

Amy shivered.  “I… she wouldn’t let me help her, she was so angry, so I calmed her down with my power.  She’d been hurt badly, so I wrapped her up.  A cocoon, so she could heal.”

“That’s good.  So Victoria’s okay?”  Lady Photon coaxed responses from Amy.

Of course she’s not okay, Brandish thought.  What about this situation makes you think she could be okay?

“I… I had to wait a while before I could let her out, so I could be sure she had healed completely.  I-“

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

Amy glanced at Brandish, who stood with her arms folded, stone-faced.

If I change my expression now, if I say or do anything, I’ll lose it, I’ll break, Brandish thought.  Her heart thudded in her chest.

“I didn’t want her to fight.  And I didn’t want her to follow, or to hate me because I used my power on her again.”

Again?

“So I thought I’d put her in a trance, and make it so she’d forget everything that happened.  Everything that I did, and the things that the Slaughterhouse Nine said, and everything that I said to try to make them go away.  Empty promises and-“

Her voice hitched.

“What happened?” Brandish asked, for the Nth time.

“She was lying there, and I wanted to say goodbye.  I- I-“

Something in Amy’s voice, her tone, her posture, it provided the final piece, clicking into place, making so many things suddenly come together.

Brandish marched forward, fully intending to walk right past Amy.  Amelia.  His daughter.  She could never be my daughter because she’d never stopped being his.

A cornered rat will bite.  Amy realized what Brandish intended and reached out, a reflex.

A weapon sprung into Brandish’s hand.  Not so dissimilar from the first weapon she’d made, an unrefined bludgeon of raw lightstuff.  She moved as if to parry the reaching hand and Amy scrambled back out of the way, eyes wide.

Where to go?  Brandish glanced to the rooms to the left, then down the hall in front of her.  She looked back and saw Amy with her back to the wall.  She moved toward the staircase, glanced back at Amy, and saw a reaction.  Fear.  Trepidation.

Before Amy could protest, Brandish was heading up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

“Carol!”  Amy shouted, scrambling up the stairs.  There was the sound of her falling on the stairs in her haste to follow,  “Stop!  Carol!  Mom!

Only one door was still open.  Brandish entered the room and stopped.

She didn’t move as Amy’s spoke from behind her.  “Please, let me explain.”

Brandish couldn’t bring herself to move or speak.  Amy seemed to take that silence as assent.

“I wanted to see her smile again.  To have someone hug me before I left forever.  So you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.  I- I told myself I’d leave after.  Victoria wouldn’t remember.  It would be a way for me to get closure.  Then I’d go and spend the rest of my life healing people.  Sacrifice my life.  I don’t know.  As payment.”

Lady Photon had made her way upstairs.  She entered the room and stopped just in front of Brandish.  Her hands went to her mouth.  Her words were a whispered, “Oh God.”

Amy kept talking, her voice strangely monotone after her earlier emotion, as if she were a recording.  Maybe she was, after a fashion, all of the excuses and arguments she’d planned spilling from her mouth.  “I wanted her to be happy.  I could adjust.  Tweak, expand, change things to serve more than one purpose.  I had the extra material from the cocoon.  When I was done, I started undoing everything, all the mental and physical changes.  I got so tired, and so scared, so lonely, so I thought we’d take another break, before I was completely finished.  I changed more things.  More stuff I had to fix.  And days passed.  I-“

Brandish clenched her fists.

“I lost track.  I forgot how to change her back.”

A caricature.  A twisted reflection of how Amy saw Victoria, the swan curve of the nape of the neck, the delicate hands, and countless other features, repeated over and over again throughout.  It might even have been something objectively beautiful, had it not been warped by desperation and loneliness and panic.  As overwhelming as the image and the situation had been in Amy’s mind, Victoria was now equally imposing, in a sense.  No longer able to move under her own power, her flesh spilled over from the edge of the mattress and onto the floor.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Betrayal.  Brandish had known this would happen the moment Sarah had talked about her taking the girl.  Not this, but something like it.  Brandish felt a weapon form in her hand.

“Please tell me what to do,” Amy pleaded.

Brandish turned, arm drawn back to strike, to retaliate.  She stopped.

The girl was so weak, so powerless, a victim.  A victim of herself, her own nature, but a victim nonetheless.  A person sundered.

And with everything laid bare, there was not a single resemblance to Marquis.  There was no faint reminder of Brandish’s time in the dark cell, nor of her captor.  If anything, Amy looked how Sarah had, as they’d stumbled from the house where they’d been kept, lost, helpless and scared.

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

The weapon dissipated, and Brandish’s arms dropped limp to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” the digitized voice spoke.

Carol watched Amy through the window.

Amy seemed to have changed, transformed.  Could Carol interpret that as a burden being lifted?  Relief?  Even if it was only because the very worst had come to pass, and there was nothing left for Amy to agonize over?  There was shame, of course, horrific guilt.  That much was obvious.  The girl couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze.

“Everyone’s sorry,” Carol spoke, her voice hollow.

“You were saying something about that before,”  Dragon said.  “Are you-?”

She left the question unfinished, and the fragment of it on its own was a hard thing to hear.

Carol stared as Amy shuffled forward.  The cuffs weren’t necessary, really.  A formality.  Amy wasn’t about to run.

“It’s your last chance,” Dragon prodded.

Carol nodded.  She pushed the door open and stepped into the parking lot.

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

Prisoner 612, please board for transport to the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center,” the announcement came from within the truck.

The armed escort would be waiting.  No court- Amy had volunteered, asked
to go to the Birdcage.

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

So she stepped forward to close the distance between herself and Amy.  Hesitant at first, she reached out.

As if she could convey everything she wanted to say in a single gesture, she folded her daughter into the tightest of hugs.

She couldn’t forgive Amy, not ever, not in the slightest.  But she was sorry.

Amy swallowed hard and stepped back, then stepped up into the truck.

Carol watched in silence as the doors automatically shut and locked, and remained rooted in place as the truck pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road.

Numb, she returned to the office that looked out on the lot.  Dragon’s face displayed on a computer screen to the left of the door.  The computer chair was unoccupied.

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

“She’ll be transported there and confined for the remainder of her life, barring exceptional circumstance.”

Carol nodded.  “Two daughters gone in the blink of an eye.”

“Your husband decided not to come?”

“He exchanged words with her in her cell this morning.  He decided it was more important to accompany Victoria to Pennsylvania.”

“I didn’t realize that was today.  If you’d asked, I could have rescheduled Amy Dallon’s departure.”

“No.  It’s fine.  I prefer it this way.”

“You didn’t want to see Victoria off to the parahuman asylum?”

“Victoria is gone.  There’s nothing of her left but that mockery.  Mark and I fought over it and this was what we decided.”

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

“Her arrival?  I know the prison is segregated, but she’s still-“

“It isn’t.  There’s a bridge between the male and female sections of the Baumann center.”

Carol nodded.  “Then I have to see.  Please.”

“It’s going to be the better part of a day before she arrives.”

“I’ll wait.  If I fall asleep, will you please wake me?”

“Of course.”

Dragon didn’t venture a goodbye, or any further condolences.  Her face disappeared from the screen, replaced by a spinning logo, showing the Guild’s emblem on one side and the Protectorate’s shield on the other.

Carol waited patiently for hours, her mind a blank.  She couldn’t dwell on the past, or she’d lose her mind.  There was nothing in the present, and the future… she couldn’t imagine one.  She couldn’t envision being with Mark without Victoria.  Couldn’t imagine carrying on life as Brandish.  Perhaps she would continue filing.  Something simpler than criminal law, something lower stress.  At least for a little while.

For an hour or so, she occupied herself by reading the pamphlets and the back covers of books.  Reading a novel was too much.

Somewhere along the line, she nodded off.  She was glad for the sunlight that streamed in through the window, the glare of the florescent bulbs overhead.  Recent events had stirred her old fears of the dark.

It didn’t feel like hours had passed when she was woken by Dragon’s voice.  “Carol.”

She walked over to the screen.

It was a surveillance camera image.  The camera zoomed in on a door.  An elevator door, perhaps.  It whisked open.

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

A second later, the sound cut in.  An announcement across the prison PA system: “-one-two, Amy Dallon, AKA Amelia Lavere, AKA Panacea.  Cell block E.

Carol watched as the girl stepped out of the elevator.  She pulled off a gas mask and let it drop to the floor.  A small crowd was gathering around her, others from her cell block checking out the new resident.

How long would it take?

She would have asked Dragon, but her breath was caught in her throat.

He appeared two minutes later, as a woman who must have been the self-imposed leader of Cell block E was talking to Amy.

He looks older.

Somehow Carol had imagined Marquis had stayed as young and powerful as the day they’d last fought.  The day she’d met Amy.  But there were lines in his face.  He looked more distinguished, even, but he looked older.

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

Was Lung an enforcer for Marquis?  It was hard to imagine.  Or were they friends?  That was simultaneously easier and harder to picture.  But it was somehow jarring, as if it instilled a sort of realism in an otherwise surreal picture.

Lung and Marquis moved forward, and the women of the cell block moved to block Lung’s advance, letting Marquis through.

Marquis stopped a few feet away from his daughter.  Their hair was the same, as were their eyes.

The day I cease seeing her as his daughter and see how she could be mine, he takes her back, she thought.

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

That was enough.  She had the answer she’d wanted, even if she hadn’t consciously asked the question.

She left the office, stepping outside into the too-bright outdoors, leaving the reunion to play on the screen.

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Hive 5.4

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A huge pet peeve of mine: being asked to arrive for a specific time, then being made to wait.  Fifteen minutes was just about my limit of my patience.

My dad and I had been waiting for more than thirty minutes.

“This has to be intentional,” I complained.  We’d been asked to wait in the principal’s office a few minutes after we arrived, but the principal hadn’t been around.

“Mmm.  Trying to show they’re in a position of power, able to make us wait,” my dad agreed, “Maybe.  Or we’re just waiting for the other girl.”

I was at an angle where if I slouched in my chair just a bit, I could see the front of the office through a gap between the bottom of the blinds and the window.  Not long after we’d arrived, Emma and her dad had showed up, looking totally casual and unstressed, like it was a regular day.  She isn’t even worried.  Her dad was her physical opposite, beyond the red hair they shared – he was big in every sense of the word.  Taller than average, big around the middle, and while he could speak softly when the situation called for it, he had a powerful voice that caught people’s attention.  Emma just had a biggish chest.

Emma’s dad was talking to Madison’s mom and dad.  Only Madison’s mom was really petite like she was, but both her mom and dad looked really young.  Unlike Emma and her dad, Madison and her parents did look concerned, and I was guessing that some of what Emma’s dad was doing was reassuring them.  Madison in particular was looking down at the ground and not really talking, except to respond to what Emma was saying.

Sophia was the last to arrive.  She looked sullen, angry, an expression that reminded me of Bitch.  The woman who accompanied her was most definitely not her mom.  She was blond and blue eyed, had a heart shaped face and wore a navy blue blouse with khakis.

The secretary came to get us from the office not long after.

“Chin up, Taylor,” my dad murmured, as I slung my backpack over one shoulder, “Look confident, because this won’t be easy.  We may be in the right, but Alan’s a partner in a law firm, he’s a master manipulator of the system.”

I nodded.  I was getting that impression already.  After getting a phone call from my dad, Alan had been the one to call this meeting.

We were directed down the hall to where the guidance counselor’s offices were, a room with an egg-shaped conference table.  The trio and their guardians were seated at one end of the table, seven in total, and we were asked to sit at the other, the tip of the egg.  The principal and my teachers all came into the room not long after, filling in the seats between us.  Maybe I was reading too much into things after seeing an eerie echo of this situation just two days ago, with the meeting of villains, but I noted that Mr. Gladly sat next to Madison’s dad, and the chair next to my dad was left empty.  We would have been completely isolated from the mass of people at the other side of the table if Mrs. Knott, my homeroom teacher, hadn’t sat at my left.  I wondered if she would have, if there’d been another seat.

I was nervous.  I had told my dad that I’d missed classes.  I hadn’t told him how many, but I hadn’t wanted to repeat Bitch’s mistake and leave him totally in the dark.  I was worried it would come up.  Worried this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Worried I’d find some way to fuck it up.

“Thank you all for coming,” the principal spoke, as she sat down, putting a thin folder down in front of her.  She was a narrow woman, dirty blond, with that severe bowl-cut haircut I could never understand the appeal of.  She was dressed like she was attending a funeral – black blouse, sweater and skirt, black shoes, “We’re here to discuss incidents where one of our students has been victimized.”  She looked down at the folder she’d brought in, “Ms. Hebert?”

“That’s me.”

“And the individuals accused of misconduct are…  Emma Barnes, Madison Clements and Sophia Hess.  You’ve been in my office before, Sophia.  I just wish it had more to do with the track and field team and less to do with detention.”

Sophia mumbled a reply that might have been agreement.

“Now, if I’m to understand matters, Emma was attacked outside of school premises by Ms. Hebert?  And shortly after, she was accused of bullying?”

“Yes,” Alan spoke, “Her father called me, confronted me, and I thought it best to take this to official channels.”

“That’s probably best,” the principal agreed.  “Let’s put this matter to rest.”

Then she turned to me and my dad, palms up.

“What?” I asked.

“Please.  What charges would you lay against these three?”

I laughed a little, in disbelief, “Nice.  So we’re called here on short notice, without time to prepare, and I’m expected to be ready?”

“Maybe outline some of the major incidents, then?”

“What about the minor ones?” I challenged her, “All of the little things that made my day-to-day so miserable?”

“If you can’t remember-”

“I remember,” I cut her off.  I bent down to the backpack I’d set at my feet and retrieved a pile of paper.  I had to flip through it for a few seconds before I could divide it into two piles.  “Six vicious emails, Sophia pushed me down the stairs when I was near the bottom, making me drop my books, tripped and shoved me no less than three times during gym, and threw my clothes at me while I was in the shower after gym class had ended, getting them wet.  I had to wear my gym clothes for the rest of the morning.  In biology, Madison used every excuse she could to use the pencil sharpener or talk to the teacher, and each time she passed my desk, she pushed everything I had on my desk to the floor.  I was watching for it the third time, and covered my stuff when she approached, so on the fourth trip, she emptied the pencil sharpener into one of her hands and dumped the shavings onto my head and desk as she walked by.  All three of them cornered me after school had ended and took my backpack from me, throwing it in the garbage.”

“I see,” the principal made a sympathetic face, “Not very pleasant, is it?”

“That’s September eighth,” I pointed out, “My first day back at school, last semester.  September ninth-”

“Excuse me, sorry.  How many entries do you have?”

“One for pretty much every school day starting last semester.  Sorry, I only decided to keep track last summer.  September ninth, other girls in my grade had been encouraged by those three to make fun of me.  I was wearing the backpack they had been thrown in the trash, so every girl that was in on it was holding their nose or saying I smelled like garbage.  It picked up steam, and by the end of the day, others had joined in on it.  I had to change my email address after my inbox filled in just a day, with more of the same sorts of things.  I have every hateful email that was sent to me here, by the way.”  I put my hand on the second pile of papers.

“May I?” Mrs. Knott asked.  I handed her the emails.

“Eat glass and choke.  Looking at you depresses me.  Die in a fire,” she recited as she turned pages.

“Let’s not get sidetracked,” my dad said, “We’ll get to everything in time.  My daughter was speaking.”

“I wasn’t done with September ninth,” I said, “Um, let me find my place.  Gym class, again-”

“Are you wanting to recount every single incident?” the principal asked.

“I thought you’d want me to.  You can’t make a fair judgment until you hear everything that’s happened.”

“I’m afraid that looks like quite a bit, and some of us have jobs to get back to later this afternoon.  Can you pare it down to the most relevant incidents?”

“They’re all‘ relevant,” I said.  Maybe I’d raised my voice, because my dad put his hand on my shoulder.  I took a breath, then said, as calmly as I could, “If it bothers you to have to listen to it all, imagine what it feels like to live through it.  Maybe you’ll get just a fraction of a percent of an idea of what going to school with them felt like.”

I looked at the girls.  Only Madison looked really upset.  Sophia was glaring at me, and Emma managed to look bored, confident.  I didn’t like that.

Alan spoke, “I think we all grasp that it’s been unpleasant.  You’ve established that, and I thank you for the insight.  But how many of those incidents can you prove?  Were those emails sent from school computers?”

“Very few school email addresses, mostly throwaway accounts from hotmail and yahoo,” Mrs. Knott replied, as she flipped through the pages, “And for the few school email accounts that were used, we can’t discount the chance that someone left their account logged in when they left the computer lab.”  She gave me an apologetic look.

“So the emails are off the table,” Alan spoke.

“It’s not your place to decide that,” my dad answered.

“A lot of those emails were sent during school hours,” I stressed.  My heart was pounding.  “I even marked them out with blue highlighter.”

“No,” the principal spoke, “I agree with Mr. Barnes.  It’s probably for the best that we focus our attention on what we can verify.  We can’t say who sent those emails and from where.”

All of my work, all of the hours I’d put in logging events when remembering the events of the day was the last thing I wanted to do, dashed to the winds.  I clenched my fists in my lap.

“You okay?” my dad murmured in my ear.

There was precious little I could actually verify, though.

“Two weeks ago, Mr. Gladly approached me,” I addressed the room, “He verified that some things had occurred in his class.  My desk had been vandalized with scribbles, juice, glue, trash and other stuff on different days.  Do you remember, Mr. Gladly?”

Mr Gladly nodded, “I do.”

“And after class, do you remember seeing me in the hallway?  Surrounded by girls?  Being taunted?”

“I remember seeing you in the hallway with the other girls, yes.  If I remember, that was not long after you told me you wanted to handle things on your own.”

“That is not what I said,” I had to control myself to keep from shouting, “I said I thought this situation here, with all the parents and teachers gathered, would be a farce.  So far, you’re not proving me wrong.”

“Taylor,” my dad spoke.  He put his hand on one of my clenched fists, then addressed the faculty, “Are you accusing my daughter of making up everything she’s noted here?”

“No,” the principal spoke, “But I think that when someone is being victimized, it’s possible to embellish events, or to see harassment when there is none.  We want to ensure that these three girls get fair treatment.”

“Do I-” I started, but my dad squeezed my hand, and I shut up.

“My daughter deserves fair treatment too, and if even one in ten of these events did occur, it speaks to an ongoing campaign of severe abuse.  Does anyone disagree?”

“Abuse is a strong word,” Alan spoke, “You still haven’t proven-“

“Alan,” my dad interrupted him, “Please shut up.  This isn’t a courtroom.  Everyone at this table knows what these girls did, and you can’t force us to ignore it.  Taylor ate dinner at your dining room table a hundred times, and Emma did the same at ours.  If you’re implying Taylor is a liar, say it outright.”

“I only think she’s sensitive, especially after the death of her mother, she-”

I shoved the pile of paper off the table.  There were thirty or forty sheets, so it made a good size cloud of drifting papers.

“Don’t go there,” I spoke, quiet, I could barely hear myself over the buzzing in my ears, “Don’t do that.  Prove you’re at least that human.”

I saw a smirk on Emma’s face, before she put her elbows on the table and hid it with her hands.

“In January, my daughter was subjected to one of the most malicious, disgusting pranks I have ever heard of,” my dad told the principal, ignoring the papers that were still making their way to the floor, “She wound up in the hospital.  You looked me in the eye and promised me you would look after Taylor and keep an eye out.  You obviously haven’t.”

Mr. Quinlan, my math teacher, spoke, “You have to understand, other things demand our attention.  There’s a gang presence in this school, and we deal with serious events like students bringing knives to class, drug use, and students suffering life threatening injuries in fights on the campus.  If we’re not aware of certain events, it’s hardly intentional.”

“So my daughter’s situation isn’t serious.”

“That’s not what we’re saying,” the principal answered him, exasperated.

Alan spoke, “Let’s cut to the chase.  What would you two like to see happen, here, at this table, that would have you walk away satisfied?”

My dad turned to me.  We’d talked briefly on this.  He’d said that as a spokesperson for his Union, he always walked into a discussion with a goal in mind.  We’d established ours.  The ball was in my court.

“Transfer me to Arcadia High.”

There were a few looks of surprise.

“I expected you to suggest expulsion,” the principal answered, “Most would.”

“Fuck no,” I said.  I pressed my fingers to my temples, “Sorry for swearing.  I’m going to be a little impulsive until I’m over this concussion.  But no, no expulsion.  Because that just means they can apply to the next-closest school, Arcadia, and because they aren’t enrolled in school, it would mean accelerated entry past the waiting list.  That’s just rewarding them.”

“Rewarding,” the principal spoke.  I think she was insulted.  Good.

“Yeah,” I said, not caring in the least about her pride, “Arcadia’s a good school.  No gangs.  No drugs.  It has a budget.  It has a reputation to maintain.  If I were bullied there, I could go to the faculty and get help.  None of that’s true here.”

“That’s all you would want?” Alan asked.

I shook my head, “No.  If it were up to me, I’d want those three to have in-school suspension for the remaining two months of the semester.  No privileges either.  They wouldn’t be allowed dances, access to school events, computers, or a spot on teams or clubs.”

“Sophia’s one of our best runners in Track and Field,” the principal spoke.

“I really, really don’t care,” I replied.  Sophia glared at me.

“Why in-school suspension?” Mr. Gladly asked, “It would mean someone would have to keep a constant eye on them.”

“Would I have to take summer classes?” Madison piped up.

“There would be remedial classes if we took that route, yes,” the principal spoke, “I think that’s a little severe.  As Mr. Gladly mentioned, it would require resources we don’t have.  Our staff is stretched thin as it is.”

“Suspension’s a vacation,” I retorted, “and it just means they could take a trip over to Arcadia and get revenge on me there.  No.  I’d rather they got no punishment at all than see them get suspended or expelled.”

“That’s an option,” Alan joked.

“Shut up, Alan,” my dad replied.  To the rest of the table, he said, “I don’t see anything unrealistic about what my daughter is proposing.”

“Of course you don’t,” Sophia’s guardian spoke, “You’d feel differently if the tables were turned.  I feel it’s important that Sophia continue to attend her track and field practices.  The sports give her structure she needs.  Denying her that would only lead to a decline in her behavior and conduct.”

Madison’s dad added his own two cents, “I think two months of suspension is too much.”

“I’m forced to agree on all counts,” the principal spoke.  As my dad and I moved to protest, she raised her hands to stop us, “Given the events that happened in January, and with Mr. Gladly’s own admission that there’s been incidents in his class, we know there’s been some ongoing bullying.  I’d like to think my years as an educator have given me some ability to recognize guilt when I see it, and I’m certain these girls are guilty of some of what the victim is accusing them of.  I’m proposing a two week suspension.”

“Weren’t you listening to me?” I asked.  My fists were clenched so hard my hands were shaking, “I’m not asking for a suspension.  That’s pretty much the last thing I want.”

“I’m standing by my daughter in this,” my dad spoke, “I’d say two weeks was laughable, given this laundry list of criminal offenses these girls have committed, except there’s nothing funny about this.”

“Your list would mean something if you could back it up with evidence,” Alan wryly commented, “And if it wasn’t all over the floor.”

I thought for a second that my dad would hit him.

“Any longer than two weeks would mean these girls’ academics would suffer to the point they could fail the year,” the principal stated, “I don’t think that’s fair.”

“And my schoolwork hasn’t suffered because of them?” I asked.  The buzzing in my ears was reaching its limit.  I realized, belatedly, that I’d just given her an opening to raise my missed classes.

“We’re not saying it hasn’t,” the principal’s tone was patient, as if she was talking to a small child.  “But eye-for-an-eye justice doesn’t do anyone any favors.”

She hadn’t mentioned the classes.  I wondered if she even knew.

“Is there any justice here?” I replied, “I’m not seeing it.”

“They’re being punished for their misconduct.”

I had to stop to willfully push the bugs away.  I think they were reacting to my stress, or my concussion was making me a little less aware of what I was doing with them, because they were pressing in without my giving them the order.  None had entered the school or the conference room, thankfully, but I was getting increasingly worried that my control would slip.  If it did, instead of sort of wandering in my general direction or gravitating towards my location, the bugs would erupt into a full fledged swarm.

I took a deep breath.

“Whatever,” I said, “You know what?  Fine.  Let them get away with a two week vacation as a reward for what they did to me.  Maybe if their parents have an ounce of heart or responsibility, they’ll find an appropriate punishment.  I don’t care.  Just transfer me to Arcadia.  Let me walk away from this.”

“That’s not really something I can do,” the principal said, “There’s jurisdictions-”

Try,” I pleaded, “Pull some strings, call in favors, talk to friends in other faculties?”

“I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep,” she said.

Which meant no.

I stood up.

“Taylor,” my dad put his hand on my arm.

“We’re not the enemy,” the principal spoke.

“No?” I laughed a little, bitter, “That’s funny.  Because it looks like it’s you guys, the bullies and the other parents against me and my dad.  How many times have you called me by my name, today?  None.  Do you even know why?  It’s a trick lawyers use.  They call their client by name, but they refer to the other guy as the victim, or the offender, depending.  Makes your client more identifiable, dehumanizes the other side.  He started doing it right off the bat, maybe even before this meeting started, and you unconsciously bought into it.”

“You’re being paranoid,” the principal spoke, “Taylor.  I’m sure I’ve said your name.”

“Fuck you,” I snapped, “You disgust me.  You’re a deluded, slimy, self-serving-”

“Taylor!” my dad pulled on my arm, “Stop!”

I had to concentrate a second and direct the bugs to go away, again.

“Maybe I’ll bring a weapon to school,” I said, glaring at them, “If I threatened to stab one of those girls, would you at least expel me?  Please?”  I could see Emma’s eyes widen at that.  Good.  Maybe she’d hesitate before hassling me again.

“Taylor!” my dad spoke.  He stood up and pulled me into a tight hug, my face against his chest so I couldn’t say any more.

“Do I need to call the cops?” I heard Alan.

“For the last time, Alan, shut up,” my dad growled, “My daughter is right.  This has been a joke.  I have a friend in the media.  I think I’m going to give her a call, email her that list of emails and the list of incidents.  Maybe pressure from the public would get things done.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Danny,” Alan replied, “If you recall, your daughter assaulted and battered Emma just last night.  That’s in addition to threatening her, here.  We could press charges.  I do have the surveillance video from the mall, and a signed slip from that teenage superheroine, Shadow Stalker, that verifies she saw it happen, in what could have provoked a riot.”

Oh.  So that was why Emma had been so confident.  She and her dad had an ace up their sleeve.

“There’s mitigating circumstances,” my dad protested, “She has a concussion, she was provoked, she only hit Emma once.  The charges wouldn’t stick.”

“No.  But the case could drag out for some time.  When our families used to have dinner together, you remember me saying how most cases were resolved?”

“Decided by who ran out of money first,” my dad said.  I felt him clutch me a fraction tighter.

“I may be a divorce attorney, but the same applies in a criminal case.”

If we went to the media, he’d press assault charges just to drain our bank accounts.

“I thought we were friends, Alan,” my dad replied, his voice strained.

“We were.  But at the end of the day, I have to protect my daughter.”

I looked at my teachers.  At Mrs. Knott, who I’d even say was my favorite teacher, “Don’t you see how fucked up this is?  He’s blackmailing us right in front of you, and you can’t understand that this manipulation has been going on from the beginning?”

Mrs. Knott frowned, “I don’t like the sound of it, but we can only comment and act on what happens in school.”

“It’s happening right here!”

“You know what I mean.”

I pulled away.  In my haste to get out of that room, I practically kicked down the door.  My dad caught up to me in the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said, “I’m so not surprised.”

“Let’s go home.”

I shook my head, turning away, “No.  I need to get gone.  Going.  I won’t be home for dinner.”

“Stop.”

I paused.

“I want you to know I love you.  This is far from over, and I’ll be waiting for you when you come home.  Don’t give up, and don’t do anything reckless.”

I hugged my arms close to my body to get the shaking in my hands to stop.

“‘Kay.”

I left him behind and headed out the front door of the school.  Double checking he hadn’t followed and that he couldn’t see me, I retrieved one of the disposable cell phones from the front pocket of my sweatshirt.  Lisa picked up partway through the first ring.  She always did – one of her little quirks.

“Hey.  How did it go?”

I couldn’t find the words for a reply.

“That bad?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you need?”

“I want to hit someone.”

“We’re gearing up for a raid on the ABB.  We didn’t bother you about it because you’re still recovering, and I knew you’d be busy with your meeting at school.  Want in?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.  We’re splitting up for a bunch of coordinated attacks with some of the other groups.  You’d be with, um, one second-”

She said something, but it wasn’t directed at the phone.  I heard the bass of Brian replying.

“Every team is splitting up, bit complicated to explain, but yeah.  Bitch would be going with one or two members of the Travelers, some of Faultline’s crew and probably some of Empire Eighty-Eight.  It would do a lot for our peace of mind if you went with.  ‘specially with the tension between us and the Empire.”

I could see the bus at the far end of the street, approaching.

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

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Hive 5.3

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There was a long squeal of feedback, followed by the barely audible sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Attention shoppers.  Please be informed that stores will be closing at five-thirty this evening, in cooperation with the city-wide curfew.  Make sure to cooperate with authorities at the entrances and exits of the Weymouth shopping center, and return to your homes by six o’clock.  Thank you.”

The crowd of people that had paused in their conversation and meandering to hear the announcement started moving and talking again, like someone had paused a video and had pressed the play button to get things started once more.

I looked at my dad, “Should we go?  Beat the last minute rush?”

“Sure.  If there’s nothing else you need.”

I was due back at school tomorrow, and my dad had maybe sensed how stressed I was, because he offered to take me shopping.  It felt a little redundant after having been out with Lisa and the guys a week ago, but it did give me the chance to pick up some essentials and to spend some quality time with my dad.

In the bags my dad was holding, I had a new backpack, some notebooks, pens, a half-dozen books, and a new pair of running shoes.  The sort of stuff that I wouldn’t have bought with Lisa, because they were so boring, like the notebooks, or because they were the sort of thing I took forever deciding on, like the books and shoes.

All in all, the trip to the mall was a nice gesture, and it somehow meant more to me than Lisa treating me to a few hundred dollars worth of clothes.  Maybe because it was stuff for me.

We made our way to the exit, and I had to hold back a groan.  There was still over half an hour before the doors were due to close, but there was a crush of bodies at the exit.  Maybe half were trying to leave, but the other half were gawking.

Both inside and outside the glass doors of the mall’s entrance, there were soldiers.  Their guns were holstered, but they looked pretty intimidating anyways.  In the midst of the soldiers were two capes; Battery and Shadow Stalker.  I knew that members of the Protectorate, the Wards, and various volunteers were stationed at places where there were groups of people, especially in areas in and around the ABB’s territory.  The Wards, I supposed, were too young to handle a single location all by themselves, which was probably why Shadow Stalker was in a ‘sidekick’ role here.

I’d had a lot of time to watch the news as I was on bed rest.  Bakuda was living up to what she’d been saying about maximizing fear and panic by combining unpredictability with grim certainty.  Every day, there were reports of anywhere from one to five bombs going off, and while every single one was probably to the advantage of the ABB in some way, there was no way to tell what she’d hit next or why.  One article online had surmised that as the military and superhero presence forced the ABB into a corner, the attacks would only escalate.  Schools, malls and office buildings were all potential targets.  Justification enough for an armed presence here at the mall.

The upside was that the mall had organized major sales in pretty much every store, to keep business going.  Maybe not the brightest or most logical thing, but too many businesses and employees were getting by on a day to day basis, around here.

Getting in had been like passing through airport security, getting our bags checked, showing ID.  Nothing too bad.  It had been only Manpower from New Wave standing watch when we arrived, and there hadn’t been much of a crowd.  This was something more, two attractive, dangerous heroines, both with some controversy around them.  As much as I could understand why the heroes were here, I could tell they were slowing things down, as the rubberneckers got in the way of the people who were actually leaving.  Half of the military presence that was inside the mall was busy working to keep the crowd back from the doors and the two heroes and trying to organize people into lines.

Progress through the line was slow, but I admit, it was interesting to be able to watch Shadow Stalker and Battery going about their business from a safe perspective.

Battery was a member of the Protectorate.  When I’d been starting junior high, she’d been the head of the Wards for a brief while, and she’d soon after graduated to the Protectorate.  I could guess she was twenty-two or thereabouts now, if they didn’t fudge the graduation date or anything to make it harder to guess the hero’s real age.  Her power let her charge up as she stood still and concentrated, with every second spent charging giving her a few seconds of greatly enhanced speed, some extra strength and some electromagnetic powers.  Her costume was white and dark gray, with cobalt blue lines tracing it like you might see on a circuit board.  Inquiries about whether her teammate Assault was her boyfriend or her brother had been met with coy deflections, leading a small fraction of the local superhero fans to surmise he was both.  Any time she did something in public, you could trust the online message boards to explode with speculation and theory.

That soap-opera/paparazzi style drama had never really grabbed my attention.  Ignoring the vague possibly-maybe chance there was something going on there, I thought she was the kind of hero I could look up to.  She was nice, she worked hard, and in those inevitable situations where she found herself on TV with some asshole getting in her face about something, she handled things rather well.

Battery leaned over to cup her hand over Shadow Stalker’s ear and whisper something.  Shadow Stalker nodded and then turned to walk through the glass door to say something to the soldiers stationed outside.  Literally through the door.  As she did it she turned a little smoky, like she was made of sand and not anything solid.  It didn’t seem constructive to me.  In her shoes, I think I would have stuck to business as usual, without giving them more reason to stare – I would have used a door normally.

Maybe I was biased.  I kind of felt like I should dislike or hate her on principle, since she was Grue’s self-declared nemesis.  Lisa and Alec had explained how Shadow Stalker was a vigilante that agreed to join the Wards rather than jail, after going too far in the pursuit of justice.  She was supposed to be using nonlethal weapons, but she wasn’t.

Capes always seemed so much bigger and impressive on the news.  Once you looked past the dark gray urban-camouflage hood and cape, and the black-painted metal of her mask, Shadow Stalker was still just a teenage girl.  Only about as tall as me.  Battery was only two or so inches taller than either Shadow Stalker or myself, which meant she was still shorter than most of the men in the crowd.  Now that I had been involved in cape stuff, I felt like I could look past the costume in a way most didn’t.  They looked normal, pretty much.

“Alan,” my dad spoke, “It’s been a long time.”

I turned to look.  I should have been surprised, or shocked, but by the time I realized who we’d run into, I felt too deflated.

“It’s good to see you, Danny.  I’ve been meaning to get in touch.”

“Not a problem, not a problem,” my dad laughed easily.  He shook the hand of the red cheeked, red haired man.  Alan Barnes.  “These days, we can count it as a good thing if we’re busy.  Is your daughter here?”

Alan looked around, “She was thirsty, so I’m holding our place in line while she… ah, here she is.”

Emma joined us, a diet sprite in one hand.  She looked momentarily surprised as she saw me.  Then she smiled, “Hi Taylor.”

I didn’t reply.  A few moments of awkward silence lingered.

“We need to get back in touch, Danny,” Emma’s dad smiled, “Maybe you could come over for a barbecue sometime.  When it’s a little warmer, the weather will be perfect for it.”

“I’d like that,” my dad agreed.

“How’s work?

“Better and worse.  There’s work to be had for the Dockworkers, with cleanup, reconstruction efforts, so that’s good.”

“And your projects?  The ferry?”

“I’ve resigned myself to waiting a few more months before I start making noise again.  Mayoral elections are this coming summer, and there will be elections for the city council this fall.  I’m hoping to see some fresh faces, people who won’t dismiss some revival efforts as options.”

“I wish you luck, then.  You know my firm is there if you need us.”

“Appreciated.”

Emma turned her attention from idly watching the heroes and army at work to our dads’ conversation.  My dad saw her looking his way and decided to include her in the conversation.

“So.  Is Emma still modeling?”

“She is!” Alan smiled proudly, “And doing quite well, but that’s not why we’re here today.  We were just here for the sales,” Alan chuckled a little, “My daughter wouldn’t let me relax the second she heard about it.”

“Ah.  Us too.  Shopping, I mean.  Taylor was caught at the edge of one of the explosions, around the time this whole scene started,” my dad answered, “She’s been home for a week recuperating.  I thought we’d go shopping before she got back into the swing of things.”

“Nothing serious in the way of injuries, I hope?” Alan asked.

“I’m in one piece,” I answered, not taking my eyes off Emma.

“That’s good.  My god, you’re the third person I know who’s been affected by this anarchy.  One of my partners is in recovery from surgery.  An explosion crystallized his arm, turned it to glass.  Terrifying.” Alan told my dad, “When does this end?”

While our dads talked, Emma and I just stared at each other.

Then Emma smiled.  It was a look I’d seen so many times in the past few years.

It was the smile that had greeted me when I came back to school from the hospital, back in January, that look that let me know she wasn’t done.  The same expression she’d had when she was looking down on me, covered in juice and cola in the stall of the school bathroom.  The one she’d been wearing when I’d come out of the showers to find my clothes crammed in the toilets, both my gym clothes and regular ones.

The same smile she’d had before she reminded me of how my mom had died, in front of everyone.

The sound of the impact was like a splash of water in my face.  I felt a twinge of pain from that gouge one of Bitch’s dogs had made in my arm, when I first met her.  Still sore.

Emma fell over, bumping into her dad, who dropped the bags he was holding.  There were gasps from the crowd around us.

“Taylor!” My dad cried out, aghast.

My hand was stinging.  Outstretched in front of me, like I was reaching out to shake someone’s hand.  It took me a seconds to connect the dots.  I’d hit her?

Emma looked up at me, eyes wide, mouth open, one hand to the side of her face.  I was as shocked at what I’d done as she was.  Not that I felt bad.  A large part of me wanted to laugh in her face.  Weren’t expecting that?  Miscalculated how I’d react?

Hands seized me with an iron grip and spun me around.  Shadow Stalker.  She interposed herself between me and Emma.  Dark brown eyes glowered at me from behind her mask.

“What was that for?!” Alan protested, “Emma didn’t even say anything!”

“I’m so sorry,” my dad hurried to explain to the superheroine and Emma’s dad, “She’s still recovering from a concussion, it’s affected her mood.  I didn’t expect anything this extreme.”

Shadow Stalker scolded him, “This is not the time or place for arguments.  If your daughter is this… unwell, then that’s your responsibility.”

I felt like laughing.  Part of it was just being giddy at doing something to get back at Emma.  The other part was that this whole scenario was so ridiculously upside-down.  Shadow Stalker wasn’t really anything special.  She was just a teenage girl, lecturing my dad, an adult.  The crowd that was watching was seeing Emma as the victim, me as the bad guy.  But if you stripped away the costume, if everyone knew the real story, this would all be playing out so differently.  Emma would be the bad guy, and my dad wouldn’t be so conciliatory about this girl telling him off.

I had the presence of mind to not laugh aloud.  Maybe it was the adrenaline, the relief that flowed from what I’d just done.  Maybe it was the concussion, again, but I did find the conviction to do something else.

I pointed at Emma, turned to my dad, “You want to know why I hit her?”

Shadow Stalker put one hand on the side of my face, forced me to look at her, stopping me from talking in the process. “No.  I’m stopping this right here.  No arguments, no excuses as to why you just assaulted someone.  We’re breaking this up now.  Turn around.”

“What?” I half-laughed, incredulous, “Why?”

“Taylor,” my dad said, looking drained, “Do as she says.”

It didn’t really matter, because she forced me to turn around anyways, wrenching my arm until I did, then pulling my arms behind my back.

“Please, miss,” my dad said, “This isn’t necessary.”

Shadow Stalker bound my wrists with what I guessed was a plastic wrist-tie.  Too tight.  Then she turned to my dad, and her voice was hushed.  “Look at this crowd.  These people.  They’re scared.  A place like this, with this much suppressed panic, fear and worry, this many people close together?  I don’t care if your daughter is an idiot or just ill.  She’s proven to be volatile in a powder-keg situation.  It’s both dangerous and stupid to have her here.  You can cut off the plasti-cuffs when she’s separated from anyone she might harm.”

“I’m not dangerous,” I protested.

“Didn’t look like it to me.” Shadow Stalker shook her head and gave me a push towards the exit, “Go home and be grateful your dad isn’t having to post bail for you to sleep in your own room tonight.”

My dad held his bags with one hand so he could help usher me toward the door.  He looked over his shoulder at Alan, “I’m very sorry.  It’s the concussion.”

Alan nodded, sympathetic.  His ruddy cheeks were redder at the attention our scene had drawn, “I know.  It’s alright.  Just… maybe she should stay home from school for a bit longer.”

My dad nodded, embarrassed.  I felt bad at that.  I felt worse at being led off like a criminal, while Shadow Stalker gave Emma a hand to help her up.  Emma was beaming, smiling one of the widest smiles I’d seen her give, despite the red mark on the side of her face.  Smiling as much at the way things had turned out, I imagined, as she was at getting the chance to talk with the concerned superheroine.

We headed out to the car, away from the crowd, the soldiers and Emma.  I stood by the open passenger door for two minutes before my dad scrounged up some nail clippers to cut off the plasti-cuffs.

“I’m not mad,” he told me, quietly, after we’d settled in, as he started up the car and took us out of the parking garage.

“Okay.”

“It’s perfectly understandable.  You’re emotionally sensitive, after getting knocked around by the explosion, and she reminds you of what’s going on at school.”

“More than you know,” I muttered.

“Hm?”

I looked down at my hands, rubbed my wrists where the plastic tie had cut into them.

If I didn’t tell him now, I don’t think I ever would.

“It’s her.  Emma.”

“Oh?  What?” He sounded confused.

I didn’t have it in me to clarify matters.  I just let him think it over.

After a long pause, he just said, “Oh.”

“From the beginning. Her and her friends,” I added, needlessly.

Tears welled up, unexpected.  I hadn’t even realized I felt like crying.  I raised my glasses to rub them away, but more came streaming out.

“Stupid head injury,” I mumbled, “Stupid mood swings.  I’m supposed to be better by now.”

My dad shook his head, “Taylor, kiddo, I don’t think it’s the only reason.”

He pulled over.

“What are you doing?” I asked, wiping ineffectually at my cheek, “We gotta be home before the curfew.”

He undid our seat belts and pulled me into a hug, my face against his shoulder.  My breath hitched with a sob.

“It’s fine,” he assured me.

“But-”

“We’ve got time.  Take as long as you need.”

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