Buzz 7.10

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Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”

“How-”

“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.

Tattletale:

Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Shell 4.11

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“Hey Taylor, wake up.”  A girl’s voice.

“Taylor?”  A deeper, more adult voice, “Come on, kiddo.  You’ve done really well.”

I felt warm, fuzzy.  Like waking up in a warm bed on a cold day, all the covers in the right place, feeling totally rested, knowing you don’t have to get up right away.  Or like being six years old, having crawled into bed with Mom and Dad at some point during the night and waking up between them.

“I think she’s gradually coming to.  Give her a moment,” Someone older.  An old man, maybe.  Unfamiliar.

“I was worried she wouldn’t wake up,” the deeper male voice said.

“Could have told you she wasn’t in a coma,” the girl replied.

“The same way you’re absolutely, one hundred percent positive she doesn’t have a serious brain injury?” the old man asked. “Because narcotics can camouflage the symptoms, and if we wait too long to take action on that… well.”

“Nothing beyond what I described to you,” the girl said, just a bit testily, “Unless your equipment is faulty.  I need correct information to work with, or I get false info.”

“I assure you, my equipment may be limited, but it is in perfect working order.”

I tried opening my eyes, found everything too bright.  Foggy, like I was looking at it from underwater, but my eyes were sandpaper dry.  Something dark moved over my vision, made my eyelid flicker.  Something else tickled my cheek.  I tried to raise my hand to my face to brush at them, but my arms were at my sides, buried under sheets and I didn’t have the strength to move them.

“Hey sleepy,” the deeper voice once more.  I felt a large hand rest on my forehead, it moved to brush my hair back, reminded me of my mom and dad again.  Being a kid, being taken care of.

The old man and the girl were still arguing.  Her tone was impatient “-a concussion, severe blood loss, bruising, external and internal, plus whatever it is that fucked with her nervous system, understand?  I have no reason to lie to you.”

“All I’m telling you is that if there is something else, and complications result, it’s on you, because I’m taking your word on this.  I would rather the girl not die or wind up brain damaged, of course, but if she does, I won’t feel guilty, and I-”

“If something happens because I was wrong, and it isn’t because you gave me the wrong information or tools to work with, I’ll own up.  I’ll tell him, and your reputation will be unaffected.  Promise.”

The old man grumbled and mumbled, but didn’t say anything more.

I tried opening my eyes again.  I recognized the face.  Brian.  Lisa joined him at the bedside.

“Hey there,” she said, her tone sympathetic, “You got walloped, huh?”

“Guess so,” I replied, except I wasn’t sure I said the ‘so’ out loud.  I might have been drifting back to sleep, but another tickle at my face made me wrinkle my nose.  “What is-?”

“That, honey, is the only reason we’ve been trying to wake you up.  You’ve been using your power while you sleep, and every bug in the neighborhood has been gathering here to crawl on you.  Not all at once, not all together, but they’re adding up and someone’s going to notice.”

Brian looked across the room, ” We’ve got the windows and doors sealed with saran wrap and tape, and they’re still getting in.  Can’t take you anywhere like this, and the good doctor here needs us to clear out in case a real patient comes in.”

“What I need is a sterile work environment,” the old man groused, “One that isn’t ridden with cockroaches and-”

“We’re handling it,” Lisa snapped at him.  Then, in a softer voice, she said, “Taylor, don’t go to sleep.”

I was surprised to realize I was drifting off.  Funny.

“I know the painkillers are nice.  We gave you boatloads, since you were really hurting.  But we need you to send them away.  The bugs.”

Oh.  I dimly recalled telling my bugs to come to me not long before I passed out.  I guess I hadn’t ever told them to stop.  I guess blacking out had prevented me.  I sent an instruction, then told her, “Good as done.”  Something caught my attention. “Hmm.  Interesting music.”

“Music?”  Lisa momentarily looked very concerned.  She looked at Brian.

“Outside.  In front of the door.  A smartphone, maybe.  There’s a guy, listening to music.  Maybe he doesn’t have the headphones on or the buds in his ears.  Or they aren’t plugged in to the phone itself.  Sounds like orchestra, or pop.  It’s Latin?  Or English?  Both?  That last bit sounded Japanese.  Or Chinese.  Is it racist I can’t tell the difference?”

“You’re babbling, Taylor,” Brian said, not unkindly.

Lisa briefly disappeared from my field of vision, “But she’s right.  There’s a guy on the steps out front, listening to music.  How did you know?”

“Moth on the door.  I was so busy listening, I forgot to make her go.  I’m sorry.  I’ll… I’ll-”

“Shh.  Relax.  It’s fine.  Just send the bugs away, and you can go back to sleep.  We’re handling everything, okay?”

It was okay.  I drifted off.

I was jostled from a dream.

“Careful!”

“I am being careful.  Stop being so twitchy.  Just close the car door.”

“I’m not being twitchy.  You almost dropped her a few seconds ago.  I swear, if you drop her on her head…”

“I won’t,” the words were a bass vibration against one side of my body as much as they were a noise in my ears.  I was warm on that side of my body, too.  It smelled nice.  Like leather and shaving cream.

I started to say something, then stopped.  Too much effort.

A girl’s voice sounded not far from my ear.  “Hey there, Taylor.  Making a bit of a sound?  You waking up?”

I shook my head and pressed my cheek harder against the warm body.

She laughed.

A knocking sound.  The classic rhythm of ‘shave and a hair cut, two bits.’  The door opened a moment later.

“God, Taylor.  Is she?”

The girl – Lisa, I recognized it now – responded, “She’s okay, just sleeping.  Like I said on the phone-”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, just… I’m sorry, I’ve completely blanked on your name, but can I help you carry her inside?”

“Actually, I’m alright, and I think I’d be more likely to drop her if we tried to adjust to a two person carry.  The name’s Brian.”

“Brian, okay.  Thank you.  If you could just bring her through here.  After you called, I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I made up the sofa bed, in case we couldn’t get her upstairs, or if there was a wheelchair.  I was thinking the worst…”

“The couch is fantastic,” Lisa said, “She’s most definitely not in the worst shape she could be in, or even close to it.  She’s going to sleep a lot, and you’ll need to check on her every half hour to make sure she’s okay, for the next twelve hours.  Besides, she might want to watch TV between naps, so this looks like a perfect place to be.”

“Okay.  Good.”

I was laid out flat, and instantly missed the warmth and closeness I’d had moments before.  Then someone pulled dryer-warmed covers and a heavy comforter around me and I decided I could cope.

“Would you come through to the kitchen?  Our house is small and I’m afraid there’s nowhere to sit in our living room with the sofa bed out.  In the kitchen, we’ll be quieter.”

“But still able to see if she wakes up,” Lisa answered, “Makes sense.”

“Can I get you anything?  Tea, coffee?”

“Coffee, please,” Brian replied, “Long night.”

“Would it be okay if I asked for tea, when you’re already busy with coffee, Mr. Hebert?”

“After all you’ve done, making tea is the least I can do.  But please, call me Danny.”

If I’d been comfortable in a morphine induced haze before, I was very, very awake the moment I heard the name and realized these voices and names I recognized had no business being together.

Dad, Lisa and Brian.  At my kitchen table. I kept my eyes half-shut and hung on to every word.

“She’s okay?”

“Like I said on the phone, she’s alright,” Lisa said, “Concussion, bruising, some blood loss.  Nine stitches.”

“Should I take her to a doctor?”

“You can.  But my dad’s a doctor, and he looked her over in his clinic.  Pulled strings to get her a CT scan, MRI.  He wanted to be absolutely sure there was no brain damage before he gave her stronger painkillers.  Here.  I’ve got the bottle in one of these pockets.  There.  It’s codeine.  She’s probably going to have some major headaches, and she was moaning in her sleep about pain in her extremities.  Give her one pill four times a day, but only if she feels she needs it.  If she’s okay as is, just wean her off.  Two a day, or half a pill four times a day.”

“How much?”

“The codeine?  Four pills-”

“The CT scan, MRI, prescription.  If you just give me a second to grab my wallet, I’ll give-”

I could picture Lisa taking hold of his hand, stopping him.  “She’s a friend, Danny.  My papa would never even hear of having you pay.”

So surreal.  Hearing words like my dad’s name or the word ‘papa’ from Lisa’s mouth.

“I… I have no words.  Thank you.”

“It’s fine.  Really.  I feel guilty-”

We feel guilty,” Brian cut in.

“-for letting it happen.  That Taylor got the brunt of it.  And I’m sorry that we didn’t call you sooner.  We had to wait for Taylor to wake up and get coherent enough to give us your phone number.”

I was pretty sure I hadn’t.  Which probably made this one of those creepy Tattletale moments where she had been able to figure out something I wouldn’t have guessed she could.

“I – that’s alright.  Your other friends are okay?”

“Rachel’s more scratched and bruised than Taylor, but she didn’t get a concussion, and she’s a tough girl.  My guess is she’s sleeping soundly at home, and she’ll be up and about this afternoon.  Alec, our other friend, passed out when it happened, woke up with a bad headache, but he’s alright.  We’ve been teasing him about how he fainted, and it’s bugging the f-, uh, it’s bugging him.  As if guys never faint.”

“And you two?”

“A little worse for wear, but you could tell just by looking at us, obviously.  Scrapes, bumps, bruises.  I got burned, just a bit.  No worse than a bad sunburn.”

“Not around your eyes, I see”

Lisa laughed, so naturally you’d never think twice about it, “Yeah.  I was wearing sunglasses when it happened.  It’s that noticeable?”

“Not so bad, and if it’s like a sunburn, you’ll be fine in a few days.  Can you tell me more about what happened?  On the phone, you said something about-”

“A bomb.  You’ve seen the news?”

“Explosions across the city all night and all morning, yes.  The incident at the PHQ.   All started by one of the parahumans.  I can’t remember her name.  Sounded Japanese?”

“Bakuda, right?  Yeah, pretty sure that’s it.  We were cutting through the Docks on our way back from the Lord Street Market, and I guess we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One second, everything’s normal, then disaster.  Brian was carrying Taylor’s bags while she retied her shoes, so she was a bit behind the rest of us when it happened.  Brian and I stood up after the explosion, and Alec, Rachel and Taylor didn’t.  Taylor was the scariest to see lying there, because you could see the blood right away.”

“God.”

I opened my eyes to peek and saw my dad at the kitchen table, his face in his hands.  I swallowed a fist sized lump of guilt and shut my eyes again.

Brian’s voice.  “I feel bad about it.  I shouldn’t have walked ahead of Taylor while she was tying her shoes, or-”

“Brian.  If you had been standing beside her, you would have wound up in the same shape as her and you wouldn’t have been able to carry her,” Lisa objected. “It was my fault for suggesting we cut through the Docks.”

“I have to ask-” My dad started, “Why…?”  He trailed off, unable to find a good way to phrase it.

“We normally wouldn’t take a shortcut through that part of town,” Lisa said, “But there were five of us, and you know… look at Brian.  Would you want to mess with a big guy like him?”

“Gee, thanks, Lise,” Brian said.  Then he and my dad laughed together.

So surreal.

“I… I know it sounds strange,” my dad spoke, hesitantly, “But even after you told me it was a bomb, on the phone, I couldn’t believe it.  I thought maybe it was a mean prank, or Taylor had come across, um.”

“The bullies,” Lisa finished my dad’s sentence.

“You know?”

“She explained a lot of it, including what happened in January.  All of us made it clear we’d help if she asked, however much or little she wanted.”

“I see.  I’m glad that she found someone to talk to, about it.”

Sympathetically, Lisa answered, “But you’re disappointed that someone wasn’t you.”

If guilt caused you physical pain, I think that would have been like a shiv through my heart.

My dad, inexplicably, laughed, “Well, aren’t you eerily on target?  Taylor did say you were smart.”

“She did, did she?  That’s nice to hear.  What else did she say?”

My Dad laughed again. “I’ll quit now, before I say something that she would rather I keep private.  I think we both know she plays things close to the vest.”

“Too true.”

“There’s homemade cookies in the jar, there.  Still warm.  After I got the couch ready, I didn’t know what to do.  Had to work out the anxiety somehow, so I baked.  Make yourselves at home while I see to your tea and coffee.”

“Thank you, Danny,” Lisa said, “I’m going to go to the living room and check on Taylor, if that’s cool?”

“Please do.”

“Just gonna grab a cookie first… Mm.  Smells good.”

I shut my eyes and pretended to be sleeping.  I could hear Brian talking to my dad in the other room, something about my Dad’s job.

“So?” Lisa asked me in a quieter voice, as she climbed onto the sofa bed to lie beside me, “Does the story pass muster?”

I thought about it, “I don’t like lying to my dad.”

“So we did the lying for you.  Unless you want to tell him the truth?”

“No, but I don’t want you here.”  The mental brakes that should have stopped my lips from moving failed to keep the words from leaving my mouth.  I closed my eyes, feeling the heat of a flush on my cheeks.

“I- I’m so sorry… That came out wrong.  I’m grateful for what you did, what you’re doing.  You guys are awesome and hanging out with you has been some of the most fun I’ve had in years.  I’m so glad you’re here, and I’d like nothing better to just kick back and unwind after all that, but-”

Lisa put a finger against my lips, silencing me.  “I know.  You like to keep different parts of your life separate.  I’m sorry, but there wasn’t a way around it.  You were hurt, and we couldn’t keep you without your dad causing a stir.”

I lowered my eyes, “Yeah.”

“You’re probably going to be a little wobbly for a few days.  Your, um, brutal honesty just now was probably the concussion at work.  It’s going to influence your mood, maybe loosen your inhibitions as if you were a bit drunk.  Your memory might be a little unreliable, you might be more disorganized, or you might have extreme mood swings, like crying jags.  You might have a harder time reading social cues.  You work on getting through all that, we’ll shrug it off if you say something you normally wouldn’t.  Just… try not to let anything private slip around your dad, so nothing slips?  All of this should pass before too long.”

“Okay.”  That last part was something of a relief.

Brian joined us and sat on the corner of the bed opposite where Lisa was lying, by my feet.  “Your dad’s an alright guy,” he told me.  “Reminds me a lot of you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just said, “Thanks.”

“Even after you’ve recovered most of the way, I think we’ll go out of our way to stay out of hairy situations, at least for a little while,” Lisa said.  Brian nodded.

“I like that idea,” I replied. “So what really happened, last night?”

She moved her head so she was sharing my pillow, “Starting from when?”

“From when Alec crashed the car.  One second everything’s fine, the next, I can barely move, barely think.”

“She was playing possum.  I was busy looking after Alec, assuming you guys were watching her. At the same time, you and Brian, I guess, were assuming I’d keep an eye on her.  While we weren’t paying attention, she loaded her grenade launcher and shot you.  It should have burned you, but I think your costume saved you, there.  Your costume couldn’t do much to prevent the concussion, though.  There was some secondary effect, where it did something to your nervous system.  Like being jabbed with a Taser, but more about incapacitating you with unadulterated pain than knocking you out.”

I shivered.  Just remembering what it had felt like made me twitch, like I was hearing nails on a blackboard.

“I was farther away, and I think your body shielded Brian, or maybe his power helped, because we didn’t get hit half as hard.  It was still enough to put the two of us down long enough for Bakuda to load and fire two rounds of that gluey string crap.  Once that happened, we were pretty fucked.  Until you turned the tables.”

“I stabbed her foot,” I remembered.

“Cut off two and a half of the toes on her left foot.  One of which had a toe ring.  Brian said you pushed the knife towards him as you passed out.  He blacked out the area, managed to reach the knife, cut himself free, and then rescued the rest of us.”

“And Bakuda?”  I whispered.

“One of two bits of bad news.  She got away while Brian was getting free and helping us.”

“Fuck!” I said, a touch too loud.

Brian sounded apologetic, “You were in bad shape, I wasn’t sure what had happened to Regent, and Lisa was a little feeble from the same blast that messed you up like it did.  I could maybe have caught up to Bakuda, stopped her, but I decided making sure you guys were okay was more important.”

I nodded.  I couldn’t exactly argue with that.

Lisa continued, “I called the boss, he sent us to a doctor who has a reputation for being discreet and working with parahumans.  Been doing it twenty years.  We were worried about you.”

“Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for.  Anyways, it all more or less worked out.  The doc got the capsule out of Brian’s nose, patched you up, gave Regent an IV.  I sat and watched you while Brian went and got Rache, her dog and the money.  Only two or three thousand gone, that someone thought they could get away with grabbing from the bag before it was all counted.  Our boss sent a van and picked it up a little after midnight.  Money he gave us is already in our apartment, with more to come after he decides what the papers are worth.”

“You said it more or less worked out, and you still haven’t told me the second piece of bad news.  What aren’t you saying?”

She sighed, “I was hoping you were too out of it to ask.  You really want to know?”

“Not really.  But if I’m going to lie here for a while, getting better, I don’t want to be left to imagine worst case scenarios.”

“Okay.”  She fished inside her jacket pocket, then handed me a newspaper clipping.  Except it was torn, not clipped.  Newspaper ripping?  Across the top, in big bold letters, was the word ‘Escaped’.

When I tried to read the article, though, I found I couldn’t keep my eyes fixed on one line.  “Read it to me?”

“I’ll give you the cliff notes.  Just before she started to come after us in the Jeep, Bakuda gave the order to put another plan into action.  Bombs started going off all over the city.  Blowing up transformers to deny power to entire districts, a school, a bridge, train tracks… the list goes on.  People are freaking out.  Front page news, it’s on every channel.  They’re saying at least twenty people confirmed dead so far, with other bodies yet to be identified, and that’s not counting the four people she blew up when she was holding us at gunpoint.”

A vivid image of what had happened to Park Jihoo flashed through my mind’s eye.  He died.  He’s really dead.  I never knew him, but he’s gone forever, and I couldn’t do anything to save him.

“Here’s the second bit of bad news.  All of that?  It was one overblown distraction.  Something to keep every cape in the city busy, while Oni Lee sprung Lung from the PHQ.”

I let out a long sigh.  “Oh fuck.”

“The city is a warzone right now.  The ABB is twelve times the size of what it was two weeks ago, and Bakuda’s gone on a rampage.  More bombs are going off every few hours, but they’re not aimed at major services this time.  Businesses, tenements, warehouses, boats.  My guess is she’s targeting places the other major gangs and factions in the city hang out, or places they might hang out.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“You’d think having a third of her toes cut off would slow her down, if anything,” Brian said.

Lisa shook her head.  “She’s in a manic phase.  She’ll burn out, if she hasn’t already, and the explosions will stop in a matter of hours.  With Lung reinstated as leader, though, that doesn’t mean the ABB is going to lose any steam.  Chances are he’ll capitalize on the advantage Bakuda created for him.  It’s just a question of where, when, and how much.  Depends on the shape he’s in.”

We didn’t get a chance to talk further on the subject.  Tattletale raised a finger to her lips, and we shut up.  A few seconds later, my dad walked into the living room, holding a tray.  He put it in my lap.  Three mugs, a plate of cookies and two toasted bagels, one with jam and one with butter.

“I’ve got another bagel in the toaster, so help yourselves and ask if you want more.  Green mug is Brian’s coffee.  Tea for you girls.  Here you are, Lisa.  Woodstock mug is Taylor’s favorite since she was a kid.  Here.”

Brian chuckled a little as I accepted the mug with two hands.

“Hey!  No laughing at me while I’m like this.”

“Which reminds me, how long before she’s okay to return to be up and about?” My dad asked Lisa.

“A week, bare minimum,” Lisa replied, “Maybe escort her to and from the bathroom until you’re sure she’s steady on her feet, but beyond that, probably best if she stays in bed, stays home and takes it easy until next Saturday.”

That stopped me.  “What about school?”

Lisa nudged my upper arm with her elbow and grinned, “You got a perfect excuse not to go.  Why complain?”

Because I’d forced myself to go to school after missing nearly a week of classes, with the intention of not skipping any more, and now I was going to miss another full week.  I couldn’t say that, especially not in front of my dad.

“Okay if we stay a bit?” Lisa murmured in my ear, the moment my dad left to get the third bagel.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  The damage was done, so to speak, they were already here.  I might as well make the best of it.  I scooted over so Brian could sit on the bed, just to my left, and Lisa got up for just a second to grab the remote.  She found a movie that was only a few minutes in as she settled in on my right.

I momentarily dozed off and woke to realize my head was resting on Brian’s arm.  Even after my eyes opened and I started focusing on the movie again, I left my head where it was.  He didn’t seem to mind.  The three of us laughed at a series of jokes in the movie, and Lisa got the hiccups, which only made Brian and I laugh harder.

I saw my dad puttering about in the kitchen, probably to keep an eye on me, and our eyes met.  I gave a little wave, not moving my arm, just my hand, and smiled.  The smile he gave me in return was maybe the first truly genuine one I’d seen on his face in a long time.

The school thing?  I’d worry about it later, if it meant I could live in the present like this.

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