Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

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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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11h

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Amy sat on her bed, staring at the piece of paper in her hands.  The header at the top was stylized, a silhouette of a superhero with a cape flowing, with a script reading ‘The Guild’ extending to the right.

Mrs. Carol Dallon.  Brandish,

Let me open by stating my condolences for the loss of your brother-in-law, nephew, and your husband’s injury.  I have heard New Wave is currently considering disbanding, and you have my best wishes, whatever route you end up taking.  We have too few heroes and heroines to lose them, and even fewer of the truly good heroes and heroines who set the standard for everyone else, parahuman and human alike.  If finances ever become a concern, know that all you need to do is ask, and we will find you employment among the Guild’s uncostumed staff.

Knowing what you have been through as of late, it is with a heavy heart that I send you this message with further bad news.  Marquis, interred in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center, confided to another inmate that he fears for his daughter’s life.  I have checked the facts to the best of my ability, and the details I have been able to dig up match with his story.  I must warn you that Allfather may have arranged for Amy Dallon to be murdered at some future date, in revenge for his own daughter’s death at Marquis’ hands.

She had to stop reading there.  The paper had been on Carol’s bedside table, and Amy had found it while collecting a change of clothes for Mark a week ago.  Carol had probably been reading it to him late the previous night, and maybe forgot to put it away due to a mixture of exhaustion and the distractions that came with waking up each morning to a disabled husband and a ten-year career in jeopardy.

Amy knew she shouldn’t have read it, but the header had caught her attention.  With her family’s fate uncertain, she had found herself reading, to see if they were joining the Guild, if something else had happened that could distract them from this.

Now that door was open, and she could never shut it again.  She didn’t care so much about the possible hit on her.  No.  What shook her was that she now knew who her father was.  She even suspected that, like Tattletale had told her months ago, she’d always known.  She just hadn’t dug for it, hadn’t put the pieces together.

Marquis had been an aspiring crime lord in the bad old days of Brockton Bay.  It had been a time when the villains had been flocking to the city to profit off the booming tech and banking sectors, to recruit mooks and henchmen from the city’s unemployed dockworkers.  It had been an era when the heroes hadn’t been properly established, and the villains had been confident enough that some didn’t give a second thought to murdering any heroes who got in their way.  Marquis included.

The bad old days were how Carol and Mark referred to that time.  There were more heroes now, and there was more balance between the good guys and the bad, but things were arguably worse now.  Everything was in shambles.

Marquis had been an osteokinetic.  A manipulator of both his own bone and, provided some was exposed, the bones of his enemies.  He’d been notorious enough that she’d heard about him despite the fact that he’d been arrested more than a decade ago, that the city and the public had remembered him.  He’d lived in the outskirts of the city, residing in a large house in the woods, just beneath the mountains.

She thought maybe there was something familiar about that idea.  Was it imagination when the vague image of a house popped into her mind?  The study with the black leather chair and countless bookshelves?  Or was it memory, something recalled from her early childhood?

To all reports, the man had been heartless, callous.  Wasn’t she?  She couldn’t bring herself to care anymore when she went to the hospitals to heal the injured and sick.  It was a chore, something she made herself do because people wouldn’t understand if she stopped.  There were only so many people she could heal before she became desensitized to it.

What else did she know about Marquis?  She vaguely recalled Uncle Neil talking about the man when he’d been talking to Laserdream about villain psychology.  There were the unpredictable ones, the villains who were hard to stop because you couldn’t guess where they’d strike next, but who were less practiced in what they did and made mistakes you could leverage against them.  There were also the orderly ones.  The ones who were careful, who honed their methodology to perfection, but they repeated themselves, showed patterns that a smart hero could use to predict where they struck next, and often had rules or rituals a hero could turn against them.

Which wasn’t to say that one was smarter than the other, or that one was better.  Each posed problems for the local authorities and capes.  Marquis had fit into the latter category, the perfectionists, the pattern killers.  He’d had, as Neil explained, a warped sense of honor, underneath it all.  He didn’t kill women or kids.

Not hard to pull the pieces together.  She could remember how quickly Neil had dropped the subject when he realized she was listening.  He hadn’t outright said that they’d caught Marquis, but she could imagine that the weaknesses that Neil had been outlining had been what they’d used.  Send Lady Photon, Brandish and Fleur against the man.  Add the fact that Amy had been there, a toddler, and Marquis had been too concerned about collateral damage to go all out.

It was him.  She didn’t want it to, but it all fit together.

It was all so fucked up.  She was so fucked up.

There was a knock on her door.  She hurried to hide the paper.

“Come in,” she said, trying to compose herself in the span of one or two seconds.

Carol opened the door.  She was pulling on the gloves for her costume.  “Amy?”

“Yeah?”

Carol took a few seconds before she looked up from her gloves and met Amy’s eyes.  When she did, the look was hard, accusatory.

“There’s word about some strange howling near the Trainyard.  Glory Girl and I are going on a patrol to check on it.”

Amy nodded.

“Can you look after Mark?”

“Of course,” Amy said, her voice quiet.  She stood from her bed and headed to the door.  Carol didn’t move right away.  Instead, Amy’s adoptive mother stayed where she was, staring at Amy.  Amy reached the door and had to stop, waiting for Carol to speak.

But Carol didn’t.  The woman turned and left the doorway, Amy meekly following.

They don’t understand.

Mark was in the living room, sitting on the couch.  No longer able to don his costume and be Flashbang, Mark could barely move.  He had a form of brain damage.  It was technically amnesia, but it wasn’t the kind that afflicted someone in the movies and TV.  What Mark had lost were the skills he’d learned over the course of his life.  He’d lost the ability to walk, to speak full sentences, hold a pen and drive a car.  He’d lost more – almost everything that let him function.

What little he regained came slowly and disappeared quickly.  It was as though his brain was a shattered glass, and there was only so much he could hold in it before it spilled out once again.  So they’d patiently worked with him, helping him to hobble between the bedroom, living room and bathroom.  They’d worked with him until he could mostly feed himself, say what needed to be said, and they didn’t push him to do more.

Victoria was in costume as Glory Girl, but she was unclipping a bib from around his neck, something to ensure he didn’t stain his clothes while he ate.  Amy’s adoptive father turned and smiled gently as he saw the other two members of his family.  It was all Amy could do to maintain eye contact, smile back.

“Ready, mom?” Victoria asked.

“Almost ready,” Carol said.  She bent down by Mark and kissed him, and he was smiling sadly as she pulled back.  He mumbled something private and sweet that his daughters weren’t privy  to, and Carol offered him a whispered reply.  Carol stood, then nodded at Victoria, “Let’s go.”

They left without another word.  There was no goodbye for Amy, no hug or kiss.

Victoria can’t even meet my eyes.

The slight hurt more than she’d expected.  It wasn’t like it was something new.  It had been going on for weeks.  And it was fully deserved.

Amy felt her pulse pounding as she looked at Mark.  Made herself sit on the couch next to him.  Does he blame me?

It was all falling apart.  This family had never fully accepted her.  Being in the midst of a family that all worked together, it was hard to preserve secrets.  Amy had learned a few years ago, overhearing a conversation between Carol and Aunt Sarah, that Carol had initially refused to take her in.  Her adoptive mother had only accepted in the end because she’d had a job and Aunt Sarah didn’t.  One kid to Aunt Sarah’s two.  When she’d taken Amy in, it hadn’t been out of love or caring, but grudging obligation and a sense of duty.

Mark had tried to be a dad.  He’d made her pancakes on the weekends, taken her places.  But it had always been inconsistent.  Some days he seemed to forget, others he got upset, or was just too distracted for the trips to the ice cream store or mall.  Another secret that the family hadn’t kept – Mark was clinically depressed.  He had been prescribed drugs to help him, but he didn’t always take them.

It had always been Victoria, only Victoria, who made her feel like she had a family here.  Victoria was mad at her now.  Except mad wasn’t the right word.  Victoria was appalled, seething with anger, brimming with resentment, because Amy couldn’t, wouldn’t, heal their father.

They’d fought, and Amy hadn’t been able to defend her position, but still she’d refused.  Every second that Victoria and Carol spent taking care of Mark was a second Amy felt the distance between her and the family grow.  So she took care of Mark as much as she could, only taking breaks to visit the hospitals to tend to the sick there.  She’d also needed a few to process the letter she’d received.

The letter.  Carol wasn’t angry in the same way Victoria was.  What Amy felt from her ‘mother’ was a chill.  She knew that she was only justifying the darker suspicions Carol had harbored towards her since she was first brought into the family.  It was doubly crushing now, because Amy knew about Marquis.  Amy knew that Carol was thinking the same thing she was.

Marquis was one of the organized killers.  He had his rules, he had his code, and so did Amy.  Amy wouldn’t use her power to affect people’s minds.  Like father, like daughter.

“Do you need anything?” she asked Mark, when the next ad break came up.

“Water,” he mumbled.

“Okay.”

She headed into the kitchen, grateful for the excuse to leave the room.  She searched the dishwasher for his cup, a plastic glass with a textured outside, light enough for him to lift without having to struggle with muscle control, easy enough to grip.  She filled it halfway so it wouldn’t be as heavy.

Tears filled her eyes, and she bent over the sink to wash her face.

She was going to lose them.  Lose her family, no matter what happened.

Which meant she had to go.  She was old enough to fend for herself.  She would leave of her own volition, and she would help Mark as a parting gift to her family.  She just had to work up the courage.

Drying her face with her shirt, she carried the mug into the living room.

The TV was off.

Had Mark turned it off because he’d wanted to sleep?  Amy was careful to be quiet, stepping on the floorboards at the far sides of the hallway so they wouldn’t creak.

A girl stood in the living room, five or so years younger than Amy.  Her blond hair had been curled into ringlets with painstaking care, but the rest of her was unkempt, filthy.  She stared at Mark, who was struggling and failing to stand from the couch.

The girl turned to look at Amy, and Amy saw that some of the dirt that covered the girl wasn’t dirt, but crusted blood.  The girl wore a stained apron that was too large for her, and the scalpels and tools in the pocket gleamed, catching the light from the lamps in the corner of the room.

Amy recognized the girl from the pictures that were hung up in the office.

“Bonesaw.”

“Hi,” Bonesaw gave a little wave of her hand.  A wide smile was spread across her face.

“What- What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you.  Obviously.”

Amy swallowed.  “Obviously.”  Was it possible that Allfather had arranged for a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine to murder her?

Amy’s eyes roved over the room, looking for Bonesaw’s work.  Nothing.  She looked over her shoulder and a shriek escaped through her lips.  A man was not two feet behind her, tall and brutish, his face badly scarred and battered to the point that it was barely recognizable as human.  A long-handled axe sat in one of his massive, calloused hands, the head resting on the floor.  Hatchet Face.

“Runnn,” Mark moaned, urging her.  She didn’t give it a second thought.  She dashed for the front door, threw it open with enough force that a picture fell from the wall.

Hatchet Face stood on the other side, blocking the doorway.

“No,” she gasped, as she backed towards the living room, “No, please.”

How?  How had he gotten there so fast?  She turned around and saw he was still there, still in the hallway.

There were two Hatchet Faces?

Then the first one exploded into a cloud of white dust and blood spatters, momentarily filling the room.  Amy could hear Bonesaw’s giggling, felt her heart sink.

“Get it?  You figure out what I did?  Turn around, Hack Job.”

Amy had figured it out, but Bonesaw’s creation demonstrated anyways.  He turned his back to Amy, and she saw what looked like a tumorous growth on the back of his head, shoulders and arms.  Except the growth had a face, vaguely Asian in features, and the lumps inside the growth each roughly corresponded with organs and skeletal structure.  The jaw of the figure that was attached to the back of Hatchet Face’s body was working open and closed like a fish gasping for air.  The stitches were still fresh.

“You mashed them together.  Oni Lee and Hatchet Face.”

“Yes!  I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it was.  I mean, I had to conduct the operation from a remote location, using robots, because I would lose my Tinker powers if I got too close to the big lug.  And I had to fit their bodies and nervous systems together so that they could use their powers without messing up the other.”

“Oh god,” Amy mumbled.  Is this what she’s going to do to me?

“Had to add in a control frame and perform a spot lobotomy so Hatchet would obey me, you know.  He didn’t lose much.  Was never very bright.”

“And Oni Lee?” Amy was almost afraid to ask.

“Oh, I barely touched his brain.  He suffered some moderate brain damage from his close brush with death, but I revived him.  His brain’s more or less intact, even.  He can’t control his body, but he’s alert and aware, and he feels everything Hatchet does,” Bonesaw smiled wider.

“That’s horrifying.”

“It’s not a perfect mesh.  I only just started doing these mash-ups.  Still practicing.  Hatchet’s power isn’t working as well anymore, and I’m worried about physical wear and tear as they teleport, but it’s still one of my better works.  Took me four whole hours.”  Bonesaw clasped her hands in front of her, shifting her weight from foot to foot, waiting expectantly.

Amy swallowed.  She didn’t have words.

Bonesaw smiled.  “I thought you’d appreciate this more than anyone.”

“Appreciate this.”

“You’re the only other person who works with meat.  I mean, we’re different in some ways, but we’re also really similar, aren’t we?  You manipulate people’s biology, and I tinker with it.  The human body’s only a really intricate, wet machine, isn’t it?”

Others were entering the room now.  From the kitchen, a woman, the structure of her face altered into something that was more rat-like than human, conelike, ending in a squashed black nose that had staples around it.  Bonesaw had added a second set of teeth, all canines, so that the woman would have enough as her jaw was stretched forward.  Drool constantly leaked between her teeth in loops and tendrils.  She was pale, except for her face and patches all down her body, where patches of ebon black skin were stapled in place.  Her hair was long, dark, and unwashed, but most unnerving of all were her fingers, which had been replaced by what looked like machetes.  The clawtips dragged on the hardwood as she stumped forward on feet that had been modified in a similar way, no longer fit for conventional walking.

The third was another Frankenstein hodgepodge of two individuals, emerging from the hallway where the amalgamation of Oni Lee and Hatchet Face -Hack Job- had exploded.  The lower half was a man who must have been built like a gorilla in life, rippling with muscles, walking forward on his knuckles.  His upper body grew up from the point the other body’s neck should have begun, an emaciated man with greasy brown hair and beard, grown long.  He was not unlike a centaur, but the lower half was a brutish man.

Then there were the other things.  They weren’t alive.  Spidery contraptions of scrap metal, they lacked heads, only consisting of a box half the size of a toaster and spindly legs that moved on hydraulics, each ending in a syringe or scalpel.  A dozen of them, climbing onto the walls and floor.

“Murder Rat used to be a heroine, called herself the Mouse Protector.  One of those capes who plays up the cheese, no pun intended.  Camped it up, acted dorky, used bad puns, so her enemies would be embarrassed to lose to her.  Ravager decided she’d had enough, asked the Nine to take Mouse Protector down.  So we took the job.  Beat Mouse Protector, and I took her to the operating table.  The other Nine tracked down Ravager and collected her, too.  Just to make it clear that we don’t take orders.  We aren’t errand boys or errand girls either.  Now Ravager gets to spend the rest of her life with the woman she hated, making up.”

Amy swallowed, looking at the woman.

“The other, I’m trying to figure out a name.  The one on the bottom was Carnal.  Healer, tough, and healed more by bathing himself in blood.  Thought he had a place on our team, failed the tests.  The one on the top was Prophet.  Convinced he was Jesus reborn.  What do you call a mix of people like that?  I’ve got a name in mind, but I can’t quite figure it out.”

“I don’t know.”

“So you’re bad at names too?” Bonesaw grinned.  “I’m thinking something like shrine, temple… but one with multiple floors.  Um.”

“Pagoda?”

“Pagoda!  Yes!”  Bonesaw skipped over to her creation, wrapped her arms around one of his, “Pagoda!  That’s your name, now!”

None of the three monsters moved or reacted.  Each stared dumbly forward, Murder Rat drooling, the others appearing to be in a daze.

“That’s good!”  Bonesaw smiled at Amy, “I knew we’d make a good team!”

“Team?”  What could she say or do to escape?  Failing that, was there anything she could use to kill herself, so Bonesaw couldn’t get her hands on them, turn them into something like those things?  In the worst case scenario, she could use her power on Mark before finishing herself off.

Except she wasn’t sure it would matter.  Amy was incapable, but there was nothing saying Bonesaw couldn’t raise the recently dead.

“Yes, team!  I want you to be my teammate!”  Bonesaw was almost gushing.

“I don’t-” Amy stopped herself, “Why?”

“Because I always wanted a big sister,” Bonesaw replied, as if that was answer enough.

Amy blinked.  Sister.  She thought of Victoria.  “I make a pretty shitty sister.”

“Language!”  Bonesaw admonished, with surprising fierceness.

“I’m sorry.  I- I’m not a very good sister, I don’t think.”

“You could learn.”

“I’ve tried, but… I’ve only gotten worse at it as time passed.”

Bonesaw pouted a little.  “But think of the stuff we could do together.  I do the kludge, the big stuff, you smooth it over.  Imagine how Murder Rat would look without the scars and staples.”

Amy looked at the onetime heroine, tried to picture it.  It wasn’t any better.  Worse, if anything.

“That’s only the beginning.  Can you even imagine the things we could make?  There’s no upper limit.”

There was a beep from the answering machine.  It began playing a message.  “Amy, pick up!  We’re looking at dealing with Hellhound, and there’s injured.  Call Aunt Sarah or Uncle Neil over to look after dad and get over to the-”

The message cut off, and there was the sound of a clatter, a distant barking sound.

“I don’t think I have it in me to do stuff like that,” Amy said.  If nothing else, I can’t disappoint Victoria any further.

“Oh.  Oh!”  Bonesaw smiled.  “That’s okay.  We can work through that.”

“I- I don’t think we really can.”

“No, really,” Bonesaw said.  Then she snapped her fingers.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in front of Amy, and there was little she could do to escape.  She cried out as the man’s massive hand smashed her down onto her back, a few feet from Mark.

Mark struggled to stand, but Murder Rat darted across the room to light atop the back of the couch and press one of her three-foot long claws against his throat.

Amy was pinned.  She tried to use her power on Hack Job through the contact he was making with her chest and neck, only to find it wasn’t available.  She couldn’t sense his body, the blood flowing in his veins, or any of that.  Even her own skin felt quiet, where she normally felt the pinprick sensations of innumerable, microscopic airborne lifeforms touching her.  She’d barely even realized that was happening until it stopped.

“Jack’s taken me on as his protegé.  Teaching me the finer points of being an artist.  What he’s been saying is that I’m too focused on the external.  Skin, bone, flesh, bodies, the stuff we see and hear.  He’s told me to practice with the internal, and this seems like a great time to do that.”

“Internal?” Amy replied.

“It’s easy to break people’s bodies.  Easy to scar them and hurt them that way.  But the true art is what you do inside their heads.  Do you have a breaking point, Amy?  Maybe if we find your limits and push past them, you’ll find yourself in a place where you’ll want to join us.”  A wide smile spread across Bonesaw’s face as she settled into a cross-legged position on the floor, facing Amy.

“I- no.  Please.”

“You’re a healer, but you can do so much more.  Why don’t you go out in costume?”

Amy didn’t respond.  There was no right answer here.

“Are you afraid to hurt someone?  That could be our first exercise.”

Amy shook her head.

“Murder rat, come here.  Hack Job, back off.”

Hack Job let go of her, and she tried to scramble away, but Murder Rat pounced on her, pressing her down against the ground.  The woman smelled rank, like a homeless person.

“So here’s the lesson,” Bonesaw said, “Hurt her, take her apart.  If you go easy on her, or if you leave her in a state where she can move, she’ll cut you, and then she’ll cut a body part off that man on the couch there.”

Murder Rat placed a blade against her cheek, scraped it down toward her chin, as if giving Amy a close shave.

She reached up and touched the woman’s chest.  Without Hack Job touching her, her power was coming back quickly.  She felt Murder Rat’s biology snap into her consciousness, until she could see every cell, every fluid, every part of the woman.  The two women.  She could see Bonesaw’s work, the integration of body parts, the transfusions of bone marrow from one woman to the other, the viruses with modified DNA inside them, skewing the balances and configurations until she couldn’t tell for sure where one woman started and the other began.

She could also see the metal frames inside the woman, interlacing with the largest bones of her skeletal system, the needles in her spine and brain.  Bonesaw’s control system.  There was something around the heart, too.  Metal, with lots of needles pointing inward.  She was rigged to die if the control frame was ever disabled.  The woman, no, the women, were awake in there.  One and a half brains contained in a synthetic fluid in her skull.

She targeted the ligaments at the woman’s shoulders and hips.  Cutting them was easier than putting the things back together again.  Dissolve the cells, break them down.

The woman collapsed onto a heap on top of her.

“Excellent!  Pick her up, H.J.”

Hack Job picked up the limp Murder Rat, put her down a short distance away from Amy.  Bonesaw walked over to her creation and propped up Murder Rat so she had a view of the scene.

“I’m surprised you didn’t kill her.  The healer, letting someone suffer like that.  Or are you against mercy killing?”

Again, there was no answer she could give that wouldn’t worsen her situation.

“Or are you against killing in general?  We can work on that.”

“Please.  No.”

“Pagoda.  Your turn.”

Pagoda approached with an awkward lurch, and Amy managed to stand and run.  She got halfway to the front door before Hack Job materialized in front of her, barring her way.  He pushed her, and she fell.  Pagoda lurched over to her and pressed her down.

“I use my creations to collect material for other work.  It’s a circle, using them to get material for more creations.  Having the Nine was essential to get things started, and to help get things going again if a hero managed to put down a few, but now I’m in good shape.  I stick around because they’re mostly fans, and they’re kind of family.  I want you in my family, Amy Dallon.”

“Please.”

“Now, I’m willing to make sacrifices to see that happen.  Same thing as with Murder Rat.  You don’t stop Pagoda, I’ll have him hurt the man on the couch.”

Amy used her power on Pagoda, felt his body, much the same as Murder Rat’s in so many respects, though the metal frame with the needles in his spine was different.  She reached for the ligaments at his shoulders and hips, separated them.

The first had grown back before she’d started on the third.

“He heals,” Bonesaw informed her.  “Two regenerators in one.  There’s only one good way to stop him.  Try again.”

Pain.  She inflicted pain on Pagoda.  No reaction.  She’d have to reach into his brain to make it so he really felt pain again.  She tried atrophying his muscles, with no luck.  Anything she did was undone nearly as fast as she could inflict it.

“Five seconds,” Bonesaw announced.  “Four.”

Sending signals to his arms to get him to move.  No.  The metal frame overrode anything she could do with her power to control him.

“Three.”

Amy used the only option available to her.  She disconnected him from the metal frame that Bonesaw used to control her subjects.  She could sense it as the metal shifted into motion around his heart.  Not needles, as there had been for Murder Rat, but small canisters of fluid.

“Two… one… zero point five… Ah, there we go.”

Pagoda lurched backward and broke contact with Amy, her power no longer giving her an insight into what was happening with him.  He sat down, using one hand to prop himself up.  A moment later he slumped over, his eyes shutting.  His breathing stopped.

“A chemical trigger for something I already put in his DNA, when I was patching his regeneration abilities together.  Reverses the regeneration so it does the opposite, starting with the heart.”

Amy looked at her hand.  She’d just taken a life.  A mercy, most probably, but she’d killed.  Something she had promised herself she would never do.

She shivered.  It had been so easy.  Was this what it was like for her father?  Had she just taken one more step toward being like him?

“Ready to join?” Bonesaw asked, looking for all the world like a puppy when her master had the leash out, ready for a walk.  Eager, brimming with excitement.

“No,” Amy said.  “There’s no way.”

“Why?  Whatever’s holding you back, we can fix it.  Or we can break it, depending.”

“It’s not- don’t you understand?  I don’t want to hurt people.”

“But we can change that!  We’re not so different.  You know as well as I do that anything about anyone can be changed if you work hard enough.”

“Then why don’t you change?  You could be good.”

“I like the other members of the Nine.  And I couldn’t make anything really amazing if I was following rules.  I want to make something even more amazing than Hack Job, Murder Rat or Pagoda.  Something you and I could only make together.  Can you imagine it?  You could use your power, and then we could make one superperson out of a hundred capes, and all of the powers would be full strength because you helped and we could use it to stop one of the Endbringers, and the whole world would be like, ‘Are we supposed to clap’?  Can you picture it?”  Bonesaw was getting so excited with her idea that she was almost breathless.

“No,” Amy said.  Then, just to make it clear, she added, “No, it’s not going to happen.  I won’t join you.”

“You will!  You have to!”

“No.”

“I have to do like Jack said.  He said I won’t be a true genius until I’ve figured out how to get inside people’s heads.”

“Maybe- Maybe you won’t be inside my head until you realize there’s no way I’m going to join the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Bonesaw frowned.  “Maybe.”

Amy nodded.

“Or maybe I need to figure out your breaking point.  Your weak spot.  Like that man there.”  Bonesaw pointed at Mark. “Cherish said you sleep here, and you’ve been around him for a while… so why haven’t you healed him?”

Amy shivered.

“Who is he?”

“My dad.”

“Why not fix your dad?”

“My power doesn’t work on brains,” Amy lied.

“You’re wrong,” Bonesaw said, stepping closer.

“No.”

“Yes.  Your power can affect people’s brains.  You have to understand, I’ve taken twenty or thirty people apart to figure out how their power works so I can put them back together again the way I want them.  I’ve learned almost everything about powers.  I’ve induced stress of all kinds on people until they had a trigger event, while I had them on my table and wired to computers, so I could record all the details and study their brains and bodies as the powers took hold.”

Twenty or thirty people she’s taken apart.  However many others she’s tortured to death.

Bonesaw smiled, “And I know the secrets.  I know where powers come from.  I know how they work.  I know how your power works.  You have to understand, people like you and me?  Who got our powers in moments of critical stress?  The powers aren’t meant for us.  They’re accidents.  We’re accidents.  And I think you could see it if you were touching someone when they had their trigger event.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to.  What you need to know is that the subjects of our power, the stuff it can work on, like people?  Like the fish lady in Asia?  The boy who can talk to computers?  Our powers weren’t created to work with those things.  With people or fish or computers.  It’s not intentional.  It happens because the powers connect to us in the moments we have our trigger events, decrypt our brains and search for something in the world that they can connect to, that loosely correlate with how the powers were originally supposed to work.  In those one to eight seconds it takes our powers to work, our power goes into overdrive, it picks up all the necessary details about those things, like people or fish or computers, sometimes reaching across the whole world to do it.  Then it starts condensing down until there’s a powerset, stripping away everything it doesn’t need to make that power work.”

Amy stared.

“And then, before it can destroy us, before we can hurt ourselves with our own power, before that spark of potential burns out, it changes gears.  It figures out how to function with us.  It protects us from all the ways our power might hurt us, that we can anticipate, because there’s no point if it kills us.  It connects with our emotional state at the time the powers came together, because that’s the context it builds everything else in.  It’s so amazingly complicated and beautiful.”

Bonesaw looked down at Amy.  “Your inability to affect brains?  It’s one of those protections.  A mental block.  I can help you break it.”

“I don’t want to break it,” Amy said, her voice hushed.

“Ahhh.  Well, that just makes me more excited to see how you react when you do.  See, all we have to do is get you to that point of peak stress.  Your power will be stronger, and you’ll be able to push past that mental block.  Probably.”

“Please,” Amy said.  “Don’t.”

Bonesaw reached into her apron and retrieved a remote control.  She pointed it at Mark, where he sat on the couch.  A red dot appeared on his forehead.

“No!”

One of Bonesaw’s mechanical contraptions leaped across the room, its scalpel legs impaling the suede cushions on either side of Mark.  One leg, tipped with a syringe, thrust into Mark’s right nostril.  He hollered incoherently, tried to pull away, only for two mechanical legs to clutch his head and hold him firm.

Amy’s screams joined his.

“I’m doing you a favor, really!”  Bonesaw raised her voice to be heard over the screams.  “You’ll thank me!”

Amy rushed forward, hauled on the metal leg to pull it from Mark’s nostril, pulled at the other legs to tear it from him and then hurled it away.  Lighter than it looked.

“Now fix him or he’ll probably die or be a vegetable,” Bonesaw told her.  “Unless you decide you’re okay with that, in which case we’re making progress.”

Amy tried to shut out Bonesaw’s voice, straddled Mark’s lap and touched his face.

She’d healed him frequently in the previous weeks, enough to know that he was remarkably alert in a body that refused to cooperate or carry out the tasks he wanted it to.  Not so different from Bonesaw’s creations in that respect.  She’d healed everything but his brain, had altered his digestive system and linked it to his circadian rhythms so he went to the bathroom on a strict schedule, to reduce the need for diapers.  Other tune-ups she’d given him had been aimed at making him more comfortable, reducing stiffness and aches and pains.  It was the least she could do.

Now she had to focus on his brain.  The needle had drawn ragged cuts through the arachnid layer, had injected droplets of acid into the frontal lobes.  More damage, in addition to what Leviathan had inflicted with the head wound, and it was swiftly spreading.

Everything else in the world seemed to drop away.  She pressed her forehead to his.  Everything biological was shaped in some way by what it had grown from and what had come before.  Rebuilding the damaged parts was a matter of tracing everything backwards.  Some of the brain was impossible to restore to what it had once been, in the most damaged areas or places where it was the newest growths that were gone, but she could check everything in the surrounding area, use process of elimination and context to figure out what the damaged areas had tied to.

She felt tears in her eyes.  She had told herself she would heal him and then leave the Dallon household.  Actually doing this, fixing him, taking that plunge, she knew she would probably never have found the courage if she hadn’t been pushed into it.

It wasn’t that she was afraid to get something wrong.  No.  Even as complicated as the mind was, she’d always known she could manage it.  No, it was what came after that scared her more than anything.  Just like finding out about Marquis, it was the opening of a door she desperately wanted to keep shut.

She restored his motor skills, penmanship, driving a car, even the little things, the little sequences of movements he used to turn the lock on the bathroom door as he closed it or turn a pencil around in one hand to use the eraser on the end.  Everything he’d lost, she returned to him.

He moved fractionally.  She opened her eyes, and saw him staring into her eyes.  Something about the gaze told her he was better.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I’m so sorry.”  She wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for.  For taking so long to do it, maybe.  Or for the fact that she would now have to leave.

His attention was on his hands.  She could feel it through her contact with him, the power he was just barely holding back.  And Bonesaw?  The little lunatic was somewhere behind her.

She drew Mark’s hands into his lap, between her body and his, where Bonesaw would be less likely to see.

An orb of light grew in his hands.

“It worked!  Yes!” Bonesaw crowed.

Mark flicked his eyes in one direction, offered the slightest of nods, his forehead rubbing against hers.  Amy flung herself to one side as Mark stood in one quick motion, flinging the glowing orb at the little girl.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in time to have to orb bounce off his chest.  It exploded violently, tearing a hole into his stomach and groin.  The villain flew backward, colliding with Bonesaw.

But two more copies of Hack Job had already appeared, and the scalpel spiders were responding to some unknown directions, leaping for Mark and Amy.

Amy grappled with one spider, struggled to bend its legs the wrong way, cried out as the scalpels and needlepoints of the other legs dragged against her skin.

A blast sent her tumbling, throwing her into the couch and dislodging the spider.  Mark could make his orbs concussive or explosive.  He’d hit the spider with the former, nothing that could seriously hurt Amy.  She climbed to her feet, picked up the oak side-table from beside the couch and bludgeoned the spider with it.

More explosions ripped through their living room as Mark continued to open fire, hurling the orbs with a ferocity that surprised Amy.  When Hack Job tried to block the shots with his bodies, Mark bounced them between Hack Job’s legs, off walls and off the ceiling.  Almost as if he could predict what his enemy would do, he lobbed one orb onto the couch.  It exploded a half-second after one of Hack Job’s duplicates appeared there.

More duplicates charged from either direction, and Mark dropped a concussive orb at his feet, blasting himself and one of the duplicates in opposite directions.  He quickly got his footing and resumed the attack, fending off one duplicate that turned his attention to Amy, then going after Bonesaw.

Bonesaw had retreated into the hallway that led into the bedrooms at the back of the house, the basement and the kitchen at the side.  Mark threw an orb after her, obliterating the hallway, but Amy couldn’t see if he’d struck home, not with the clouds of dust that were exploding from Hack Job’s expired duplicates.  Between the time it had taken to create the orb, throwing it and the lack of a scream after it had gone off, Amy knew Bonesaw would have gotten away.

There was an extended silence.  Bonesaw and Hack Job were gone, leaving only Pagoda’s body and the limp Murder Rat.  Long seconds passed as the dust settled.

“That woman.  Can you help her?”  Mark’s voice sounded rough-edged.  It hadn’t been used in its full capacity for a long few weeks.

“Her mind is gone, and not in a way I think I could fix,” her voice was hushed.

“Okay.”  Mark walked over to Murder Rat and adjusted her position against the wall until she was more horizontal, almost lying down.  He crossed her claws over her chest, and then formed an orb of light the size of a tennis ball.

“Rest in peace, Mouse Protector,” he said.  He placed the orb of light in the gap where two claws crossed one another, just over her heart, then stepped away.

There was a small explosion and a spray of blood.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said, “So sorry I didn’t help you sooner, that-”

Mark stopped her with a raised hand.  “Thank you.”

She didn’t deserve thanks.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

She looked away.  Tears were welling out.  “No.”

“Listen.  Sit yourself down.  I’m going to call your mother and sister, make sure they’re all right after dealing with Hellhound, let them know what happened.  Then I’ll call the Protectorate.  Maybe they can help guard us, in case Bonesaw comes after you again.”

“She will.  But I- I can’t sit.  I’m going to my room.  I’ll pack so we leave sooner.”

“You sure?”

She nodded.

“Shout if anything happens.”

She nodded and turned to go, picking her way through the destroyed hallway.  The floorboards that looked like a giant-sized version of pick-up-sticks.  She was only halfway when she heard Mark on the phone.

“Carol?  It’s me.”

Her face burned with shame.  She made her way to her room and began packing her things into a gym bag.  Clothes, toiletries, and other things, mementos.  A small scrapbook, a memory card filled with pictures of her, her cousins and her sister.  She found a pad of post-it notes and scribbled out a few words.

I’m sorry it took me so long to help Mark.

Good bye.  I love you all,

Amy.

She wouldn’t be coming back.

Amy opened her bedroom window and climbed out, pulling the bag out behind her.

It would be better this way.  Maybe, after weeks or months, she could stop worrying, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everything to fall apart in the worst way.  She’d already had to face finding out about Marquis.  She’d taken a life.  She’d broken one of her cardinal rules.  She wasn’t sure she could take any more.

She just had to get away.

Amy cursed the curfew as she saw the figure in the air above her.  When people weren’t allowed out on the streets after dark, it made those few who did venture out that much more visible.  Not what she’d wanted, not when she was trying to avoid this exact conversation.

It was even more problematic when she walked at maybe three or four miles an hour, limited to following the paths the roads and alleys allowed her, when her sister could fly at fifty miles an hour.  She should have hid, instead of trying to make some distance.

Victoria stopped midflight and hovered in the air, five feet above the ground and five or six paces in front of her.

“I was just at the house.  I don’t even know what to say,” Victoria spoke.

“Pretty self-explanatory.  One of the Nine came, house got trashed, I healed Mark.”

“Why?  Why heal dad now, when you couldn’t before?”

“I only did it because I had to.”

“That’s what I don’t get.  Why couldn’t you?  You’ve never explained.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“So that’s it?  No explanations?  You just up and leave?” Victoria asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Amy looked away.

“We could get you a therapist.  I mean, Mom was setting aside money for Dad’s care, we could use that to give you someone to talk to.”

“I… a therapist wouldn’t be able to help.”

“Geez, what’s going on?  Amy, we’ve been together for a decade.  I’ve stood by you.  I’d like to think we were best friends, not just sisters.  And you can’t tell me?”

“I can’t.  Just let me leave.  Trust me when I say it’s better.”

“Fuck that!  I’m not about to let you walk away!”  Victoria floated closer, reaching out.

Don’t touch me,” Amy warned her sister.

Looking lost, Victoria stopped and spread her arms.  “Who are you, Amy?  I don’t even recognize this person I’m looking at.  You go berserk at the bank robbery over some secret I’ve totally not gotten on your case about.  You apparently say something to Skitter that causes this huge commotion in the hospital after the Endbringer attack.  You… I don’t even know what to say about your reaction to Gallant’s death, the way you distanced yourself from me at a time when I was hurting the most.”

Amy looked down at her feet.

“And most of all, you just leave dad to suffer, when you could have healed him?  You lash out at me, here, when I’m trying to mend fences and be your sister?”

“You want to know who I am?” Amy asked.  Her voice sounded hollow.  “I’m Marquis’s daughter.  Daughter of a supervillain.”

“Marquis?”

Amy nodded.

“How did you find out?”

“Carol left some paper out.  I think it’s under my pillow, if you want to look for it.”

“You have his genes, but you’re Carol and Mark’s daughter,” Victoria replied, her voice firm.  “And they’re going to be worried.  Come home.”

“They don’t care.  They don’t love me, not really.  Trust me, this is better for everyone.”

I love you,” Victoria said, stressing the ‘I’.  She dropped to the ground and stepped closer.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Idiot,” Victoria grabbed her sister by the shirt collar and pulled her into a painfully tight hug.

“Don’t,” Amy moaned into her sister’s shoulder.

“All of this?  We’ll work it out.  As a family.  And if your idea of family means it’s just you and me, then we’ll work it out together, just the two of us.”

All it took was one moment of weakness, and she was weak.  At the end of her rope, desperately lonely, haunted by her father’s shadow, her shame at being unwilling and unable to help Mark until now, the idea that one of the Slaughterhouse Nine thought she belonged with them?

She was losing everything so quickly.  Victoria was all she had, and it was the choice between abandoning that for everyone’s good and keeping Victoria close.

She felt Victoria’s body more acutely than she felt her own.  Every heartbeat, every cell brimming with life.

Like a flame at the end of a long fuse, leading to a stick of dynamite, her power traveled from the side of Victoria’s neck to her brain.  It was barely a conscious action on Amy’s part.

Victoria let go of her, pushed her away.  “What did you just do?”

Amy could see the revulsion slowly spreading across Victoria’s face.

The magnitude of what she’d just done hit her with a suddenness and pain she likened to a bullet to the chest.  “Oh god.  Please, let me undo it.”

She reached out, but Victoria stepped back.

“What the hell did you do?” Victoria asked, her eyes wide, “I felt something.  I feel something.  You’ve used your power on me before, but not like this.  I- You changed the way I think.  More than that.”

Tears welled at the corners of Amy’s eyes.  “Please.  This is what I was afraid of.  Let me undo it.  Let me fix it and leave, and you can go back to Mark and Carol and you three can be a family, and-”

“What did you do!?”

“I’m sorry.  I… knew this would happen.  I was okay so long as I kept following my own rules, didn’t open that door.  Bonesaw forced me to open it.”

“Amy!”

“You have to understand, for so long, you were all I had.  I was so desperately lonely, and that was at the same time I was starting to worry about my dad.  I got fucked up, my feelings got muddled somewhere along the line, and it’s like… maybe because you were safe, because you were always there.”

“You have feelings for me,” Victoria answered.  She couldn’t keep the disgust out of her voice, she didn’t even try.  “That’s what Tattletale was using as leverage, wasn’t it?”

Amy couldn’t meet Victoria’s eyes.  She looked at her hands, appalled at what she had just done.

“And Gallant?  I was thinking you secretly liked him, but-”

Amy shook her head.  “I hated him.  I felt jealous because he had you and I never could… but I never acted on those feelings.  I never acted on any of my feelings, until just now, and all I want to do is to take that back.”

“When I was at the lowest point in my life, when the boy I thought I might marry someday was dead, were you secretly elated?  Were you happy Gallant died?”

“No!  Vic- Victoria, I love you.  I wanted you to be happy with him.  I just… it hurt at the same time.”

“Oh my god,” Victoria whispered, the revulsion giving way to something worse.  Realization.

“I- I tried to keep things normal between us.  To act like your sister, keep it all bottled in.  It’s just tonight was such a nightmare, and I’m so scared, and so tired, and so desperate.  Bonesaw forced me to ignore all the rules I was imposing on myself.  All the rules I was using and following so I wouldn’t do anything stupid or impulsive.”

“Anything stupid.  Like what?  What did you do?”

Amy’s voice was a croak as she replied, “…make it so you would reciprocate my feelings.”

She chanced a look at Victoria’s face, and she knew that the horror she saw in her sister’s expression didn’t even compare to what she felt.

“Please.  Let me fix it.  Then I’ll leave.  You’ll never have to see me again.”

“What in the world makes you think I’d let you use your power on me again!?”  Victoria shouted, taking to the air, out of reach.  “Who knows what you’re going to do to me!?”

“Please?” Amy begged.

“I can find someone else to fix it.  Or maybe, at the very least, I can show some fucking self-control and realize it’s my sister I’m having those feelings about.”

“You can’t.  I- Oh fuck.  You’re underestimating what I did.  Please.  If you never ever give me anything else, if you never talk to me or look at me again, just let me fix this.”

Victoria shook her head slowly, then scoffed.  “Good job, Amy.  You just did an excellent job of taking every instance of me defending you, every instance of my giving you the benefit of a doubt, and proving me fucking wrong.  You were worried about being as fucked up as your dad?  Congratulations, I’m pretty goddamn sure you just surpassed the man.”

With that said, Victoria was gone, flying into the distance.

Amy sank to her knees on the flooded street.

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Buzz 7.9

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“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”

“That’s…”

“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Right.”

I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

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