Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22

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“…you can call me Weaver.”

The broadcast ended.   A hush took hold of everyone present, a silence that deepened when someone muted the television.

The spell was broken by one of the kids.  Ephraim.  “She’s going to be a hero?”

“She’s going to try,” Forrest answered.

Charlotte looked around at the collected residents of the Boardwalk.  It was customary, now, to have a block party every third night of the week.  A mass-barbecue, a bonfire on the beach, or some other big meal that would bring everyone together.  Community.

Skitter’s community, though Skitter was gone, in more senses than one.

Taylor had turned herself in, early in the day, and word had spread.  They’d hooked up a television, the biggest they could get their hands on, and set it up beneath a waterproof tent for good measure.

For the better part of the day, they’d watched.  People had stopped by, glancing at the latest news.  Any update, however large or small, was met by shouted alerts, by hollers and speculation.

Charlotte had taken the day off school, taking only the time necessary to see the little ones off and to bring them back.  She wouldn’t have been able to focus, anyways, and the schools were still being lenient.

And now, finally, this.

“It’s done,” Charlotte said.  “For better or worse.”

“For better,” Forrest said.

“I’m not so sure,” Charlotte said, lowering her voice so others wouldn’t hear.

“She’s a hero,” Forrest said.  “This is where she’s supposed to be.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte answered.  She couldn’t help but think of how scary Taylor had been when she’d dealt with the ABB thugs.  How easily the girl had slipped into her role as a leader of the territory.  “But even if it’s where she’s meant to go, they won’t necessarily accept her.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Forrest said.  “It’s out of our hands.  We’ll wish her the best, give her some moral support if they let her get fan letters, and handle our own business, so she doesn’t have to worry about us.  And speaking of handling our own business…”

Forrest directed a pointed look at the kids who were sitting around Charlotte.

“Right,” she said.

“I’ll be along to see to the lads,” Forrest said.  “Just have to clean up first.”

Charlotte nodded.  Bed time for the littlest ones.  She rose from the bench.  “Show’s over, come on, it’s time to go to bed.”

There were groans and grumbles here and there.  Charlotte knew who it was without looking.  She identified Mason, set a hand on top of his head, and pulled him closer to her as she walked back to their place.  “Be good.”

Mason mimicked the exact same groan he’d given a moment ago.

“So dumb,” Kathy was saying.  She was one of the older children, looking after Jessie and Aidan.  “I never had to go to bed this early before.”

“It’s easier,” Charlotte said.  “And we can all use an earlier bedtime.  It leaves us in better shape to face tomorrow, don’t you think?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Kathy said.

Kathy and Mason were the most likely to fight, to challenge her.  When she was hurrying to get them out to the bus stop for school, it was Mason who would decide he’d suddenly forgotten how to tie his shoes, or who would drag his feet to force her to seize his hand and pull him along.  He needed that attention in moments of crisis, however small.  Kathy was the opposite.  Charlotte hadn’t uncovered the details, but the girl had been burned by someone in authority, and rebelled against it as a matter of habit.  Kathy wanted to be independent, but she was too young.

“You were complaining about something I said.”

Kathy glared at her.  “I could stay up, watch TV for another hour or two, and then go to bed.  I’d be quiet.”

“And what if you were too tired to look after Aidan and Jessie?”

Kathy scowled, but she didn’t reply.

Jessie wet the bed most nights.  She never came to Charlotte to let her know.  More than once, Charlotte had found the girl sleeping on the floor when morning came.  Aidan had nightmares that left him screaming and wailing well after he’d woken up, refusing to listen to her.  More than once, he’d actually had the nightmares while sleepwalking.

It was hard to deal with, frankly.  She’d taken to setting her alarm for one, three and five o’clock in the morning, rising from bed and checking in to make sure the kids were alright, that Jessie’s bed was dry.  It was embarrassing to admit, but there had been four occasions when she’d been terrified as she had run into Aidan, standing in the bathroom or sitting at the table in the kitchen.  Each time, he’d been gripped by whatever terrors it was that found him at nighttime.  Half the time he fought her, the other half the time he just screamed, bloodcurdling.

Kathy, a little more than half Charlotte’s age, took it in stride, almost thrived on looking after the younger ones.  She had endless patience with Jessie’s nighttime accidents, and virtually every time Aidan’s screams woke her, Kathy was already at his side, speaking calmly, waiting until he’d relaxed enough that she could hug and cuddle him.

They made their way inside, and Charlotte was sure to close the shutter just beyond the front door.  Aidan watched carefully as she fed the chain through the ring at the base of the door and the small gap in the floor.  She locked it, then tugged it for good measure, demonstrating how secure it was.

“Safe,” she said.

Wordless, his forehead creased with the sort of worry he shouldn’t have for another fifteen years, Aidan turned and walked away.

“Girls in the bath first, snacks after,” Charlotte said.  “Boys, cookies and milk before your bath.”

The O’Daly clan had collected their kids, most of their kids, finally.  It left the number more manageable.  Kathy, Mai and Jessie made their way to the bathroom.  Aidan, Ephraim, Ethan and Mason found stools at the kitchen counter while Ben, the oldest of the boys, got the cookies, glasses and milk out.

Charlotte checked on the girls to make sure that they were getting along okay, then shut the bathroom door and got her laptop out.

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♦  Stickied Topic: Alexandria Discussion (July 14th) Goes Here
♦  TopicAlexandria Dead
♦  Topicchevalier’s ‘new PRT’ vs. endbringer
♦  Topic:  What the fuck happened?
♦  Topic:  Skitter
♦  Topic:  The Endbringers, Thread XXXIV
♦  Topic:  Dragon Suits: Continued Escalation of Cape Militarization?
♦  Topic:  Weaver
♦  Topic:  Undersiders
♦  Topic:  Alexandria died
♦  Topic:  Issues with recruiting villains
♦  Topic:  Portal confirmed ok by Chev 2011-07-14

“She’s famous,” Charlotte said aloud.

“Because she was on TV?” this from Aidan.

“Because she was a bad guy, and she turned around and decided to be good,” Charlotte said.  “And because she helped beat Alexandria.  It’s controversial stuff, and I think people are going to be arguing about it for a long time.”

“She’s not a bad guy,” Ben said, taking a seat beside the other boys.

“Was too,” Ephraim said.

“She was scary and mean,” Ben said, “But she’s not bad.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte says.

“She got us pizza,” Ben said.  “That’s all that matters to me.”

“That’s sound enough reasoning,” Charlotte said, smiling a little.

She left the laptop to visit the bathroom, calling through the door.  “Five minutes, then out!”

She could hear another grumble from Kathy.

They’d do better if left to their own devices.  Kathy would be happier with something to do, even if it was washing the hair of the younger girls and ensuring they brushed their teeth.

She returned to the kitchen, collecting the plates and glasses and putting them in the dishwasher.

A car horn outside caught her attention.  It wasn’t easy to get cars in and out of the area, with the streets still under repair, and the vehicles that were around were construction vehicles, which didn’t work this late at night.

The horn sounded again, and there were shouts in response.

She was still staring at the door, straining to make out something telling, when Ethan approached her.

“Do you need me to run an errand?”

“No, Ethan.  Now might not be a good time.”  There was more noise outside.  Voices.

“Okay,” he said.  He looked disappointed.

“If you want some fresh air, I can let you upstairs.  You can sit on the balcony.”

Ethan frowned.  “No.  No thanks.”

“Just give me five minutes,” she said.  “Ben?  Lock the shutter after me.  I’ll come through the door downstairs when I return.  Let Kathy and the girls know I’ll be back.”

Ben nodded.

She didn’t raise the shutter all the way, stooping beneath and holding it partially closed.  Ben wasn’t strong enough to lower it on his own, and the outside didn’t have any real handholds.

With Ben’s help, she still managed to press her hands against the broad strip of metal and push it to ground level.  There was a sound of the chain rattling through the gaps.

People were active, gathering in clusters and crowds.  The focus of attention?  A news van.

The news crew was surrounded.

“…word out,” the reporter was saying.  “People are going to make a lot of ugly assumptions.”

“Just go!” someone shouted.

“Turn the camera off and leave!”

The reporter, a tall, blond man with a broad jaw, only smiled.  “I’d almost think you guys had something to hide.”

“We want to be left alone,” Charlotte said.

“Not going to happen,” the reporter said.  “This is blowing up.  People are going to want to investigate every last scrap of dirt.  Even if I left, others would come.”

“We’ll tell them the same thing we told you,” she said.  She saw Forrest approaching, making his way through the crowd.  “That we had school and work all day, that everyone here is working on rebuilding, and we’re tired, we’re not interested in the scandal of the moment.”

“Working hard?” the reporter asked.  “What if I offered, say, two hundred bucks, to whoever gave me the most information?”

“We’d tell you to fuck off,” Forrest cut in, before anyone could take the deal.

“World wants to know.  What is she really like?”  The reporter asked.  “Two hundred dollars, your face on camera.  If you love her, don’t you want people across America to hear something good?  Best support you can give.  If you hated her, well, the opposite’s true, isn’t it?”

“You’d twist our words around,” Forrest said.  “Edit it to take the choicest bits.”

“That’d be dishonest.  It’s not the way we work at channel twelve.”

“No,” Forrest said.  “I think that you’re primarily interested in what gets viewers and ratings.  Maybe you’d stick around for two hours, interview everyone you could, and then take the most controversial and extreme statements.  Only way we don’t play into your hands is if nobody opens their mouth.”

He raised his voice a little at that final statement.

“That so?” the reporter asked.  “Three hundred dollars.  That’s, what, two or three days’ pay, with the kind of wage you earn here?”

Forrest didn’t respond.

“Okay,” the reporter said.  “Well, there’s nothing stopping us from sitting around, is there?  And if someone decides that they’d like to earn a little cash…”

“They’d have to be pretty stupid,” Forrest said.  “Property values are set to soar here, and the way things are organized, just about everyone here is slated to earn a property or a share of a property somewhere down the road.”

“And you’re saying that has nothing to do with the fact that you all worked for a supervillain.”

“I’m not saying anything one way or the other,” Forrest said.  “Except that the numbers don’t add up.  Three hundred dollars now, or get a share of a place that could be worth millions, a few years down the road?”

“People are enterprising,” the reporter said.  He smiled.  “And I can be discreet.  The public needs to know who’s protecting them.”

He turned, returning to the passenger side door of the van, then paused.  “We’ll be parked on the beach.  We can blur out your faces if we need to.”

It took them a minute to get their camera packed away and leave.  Sure enough, they made their way to the beach.  Charlotte could see the headlights illuminating the sand.  Then they went out, and the van was effectively invisible.

“Guards,” Forrest said.  “Take shifts.  We’re not giving them anything.”

“You’re wanting to protect Skitter?” someone asked, from the crowd.

“I worked for her,” Forrest said.  “Most of you know that.  In a way, I still think I work for her, even if she isn’t here anymore.  A lot of us owe her.”

“She brought us as much trouble as she stopped,” the person said.  Charlotte could see it was a tall man who’d hidden a receding hairline and bald spot by shaving his head.  There was only stubble, now.

“She made it possible to rebuild, Scott.”

Everyone’s rebuilding.  We got a head start, that’s all.  You’re saying that’s worth it?  Mannequin came here because of her.  Burnscar came here because of her.  Or didn’t you hear?”

Forrest folded his arms.

Scott said, “My sister-in-law works for the PRT.  Wears a uniform.  She said the Slaughterhouse Nine were here because they were recruiting.  They picked a bunch of people across the city, trying to recruit them, and Skitter was one.  Obviously.  So it’s her fault the people died here.  The help she gave?  She was probably guilty.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Forrest said.

“Bullshit.  You were there, that first time, when Mannequin was in the warehouse on Shell.  He was wagging his finger at her.  Why?  He was there for her.”

“I was there,” Forrest said.  “Remember?  I stepped up.  I dragged that bastard to where we could tie his head up.  I smashed his head with a concrete block.”

“And I won’t deny that,” Scott answered.  “I would’ve been right there with you if I didn’t have my wife and kid to protect.  We both saw how it played out.  Going by what my sister-in-law said, you wouldn’t have had to do that if Skitter had been somewhere else.”

“I would have,” Forrest said.  “I know Skitter.  Taylor.  Weaver.  Whatever you call her.  We’ve talked, talked a lot.  I’ve heard her side of things, and I know you’re off base.”

“You’re saying my family’s lying?”  Scott asked, raising his voice a touch.  “Or maybe you’re blind.  Can’t see what’s going on because of your own basic, underlying bias.”

Scott approached, moving through the crowd.  He was clearly irritated, a big guy, undoubtedly a dock worker, breathing just a little harder than normal.  Charlotte found herself biting her lip and backing away as he drew closer.  Her stomach twisted as he passed her, as though it were a towel someone was wringing out.  Not an unfamiliar sensation.

For a moment, she could imagine him in her face, hooting, hollering, a vein standing out on his bald head.

The wrenching got worse at the idea, until it felt like everything below her shoulders was being crushed.

The crowd around her was too much, now.  Too evocative.

She fled, pushing her way through the crowd.  For every part of her that wanted to follow the discussion, there was another part that could hear the discordant music blaring, could hear the yelling, smell the sweat, the smoke and incense.

She’d seen what people were like when everything else was stripped away.  Not everyone, not always, but often enough.  It was easy to descend to that level.  Taylor had offered security.  Strength, and the ruthlessness necessary to cut out the cancer.

It wasn’t rational to think this way.  Charlotte knew, generally speaking, that the people here were good.  The bad ones had been scared off, or cut out of the deals that kept everyone else loyal.

On a less rational level?  She hated the idea that this place could devolve into that.  Into what the Merchants had become.

She was upset, she wasn’t thinking straight, and she couldn’t afford to return to the kids like this.  Ben and Kathy would look after the littlest ones for five more minutes.  She could keep walking, burn off this nervous energy and get in a better headsp-

“Miss?”

She jumped, swiftly backing away.

It was a man.  Thin, with glasses, reaching out-

Groping, greedy for a handful of flesh.

No.  To get her attention.  Nothing more.  His hand dropped to his side.

“Are you a reporter?”

“I- do I look like a reporter?” he looked anxious, and the expression was unrelated to his question.

“No,” she said.

“I was asking around, for someone who knew Taylor.  Someone told me to look for a girl about your height, with long, dark hair, like yours, with kids around her.  I was going to ask some more, but then the crowd came, and I decided to hang back.”

So he is here to ask questionsBut he said Taylor instead of Skitter.  “You really aren’t a reporter?”

“If you know who they were talking about, maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

Charlotte frowned.  “They were talking about me.  What do you want?”

“I’m her father.  Danny.”

Oh.  She could see the resemblance, now that she knew to look for it.  Both he and Taylor were above average height, both were narrow.  She must have gotten her hair and mouth from her mom, though.

“Okay,” she said.  She forced herself to relax a touch.  He’s safe.  Mostly.  “O-”  She exhaled as she spoke, and her breath caught.  She was still a little out of sorts.

“Are you okay?”

She shook her head.  “Yes.”

“You’re sure.”

“A lot to deal with, all at once.”

“Yes.”

She glanced up at him, saw how troubled he looked.  “Do you drink tea?”

“Coffee.”

“We can do coffee,” she said.  She reached into her back pocket for her phone.  “Stand still.”

He looked confused as she turned the phone his way.  The flash went off.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Protocols,” she said.

“Protocols?”

She typed out a text and sent the text, picture included, to Tattletale.

“I worked for her.”

“Oh.  Oh.

“Come on.  We’ll, um, we’ll hear soon, if you’re okay to come inside.  But I have to head back that way anyways.”

He nodded.

“Why aren’t you with her?”  She asked, as they started walking.

“Things turned ugly.”

“Oh.  Alexandria?”

“I only just found out about Alexandria.  Maybe I shouldn’t say, but things don’t seem to add up.  What people were saying before, what happened, and what seems to have happened after.”

“Yeah,” she said, though she didn’t quite understand.

“All the way through this, I told myself I’d trust her.  That she was the same child my wife and I raised for the last sixteen years.  That things were muddled, but she was the same person deep down inside.”

“Isn’t she?”

“I’m not so sure anymore.”

The phone vibrated.  Charlotte checked.

Tt:
A-ok.  Treat him well.

“You’re clear to come inside,” Charlotte said.  She used her hand to indicate a change of direction, leading him towards the beach.

“All this secrecy?  It’s necessary?  I thought she left.”

“We still have enemies.  People who’d hurt her by hurting us.  We have to stay safe.”

He fell silent.

“What?”

“I haven’t really been thinking along those lines.  About the greater scale of things, my life being at risk because I’m connected to her.”

“You learn,” Charlotte said.  “You learn to think that way.”

“Why?  I mean.  I don’t have a choice, but you- you could walk away from this, and you haven’t.”

“I can’t walk away from this,” Charlotte said.  “I’m probably more tied up in this than you are.”

“How’s that?”

She glanced down the beach.  The people who were watching out for those who might talk to the reporter were far enough away.  Still, it would be a bad idea to use her flashlight.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out a glove, pulling it on.  “You’ll see in a minute.  Hold my hand and don’t let go.  Neither of us want you to get turned around in here.  Not much room to get lost, but yeah.”

She could barely see him in the gloom.  There were no lights on the beach.  Still, when she reached out for his hand, he took it, holding tight.

Carefully, Charlotte led Taylor’s father into the storm drain.  Her gloved hand traced the wall.  First right.  Skip the next right, with a few seconds of nerve-wracking isolation in the darkness, then follow the wall… one right, turn left at the t-junction.

They ascended to the cellar, first, and then up to the living room.

“It’s a house?” he asked.  He looked even more bewildered than before as he took in the particulars, the living room, with young girls clustered on one couch, boys on the other couch and the floor, the appliances, the stacks of boxed-up food that had yet to be unpacked.  “Children?”

“Orphans,” Charlotte said, keeping her voice low.  Both Mai and Ephraim could break down in tears at the slightest reminder of their departed parents.  “I’ve been looking after them.”

“You can’t do that.  Not like this, without certification, others checking in.”

“I know,” she said.  “It’s only for a little while longer.”

This is why you can’t leave?”

“Part of it.  There’s more.”

“This is what she was doing, all that time?  Taking care of these children?”

“That was only a small part of it.  She mostly paid me to look after them and make sure people got the food they needed.  She looked after everyone.  When they were all in the worst situations they’d ever faced, struggling for food, worrying every hour if they would be attacked or preyed on, she stepped up.”

“You’re trying to defend her.  To justify what she did.”

“Only a little.”

Ethan approached.  He gave Taylor’s dad a curious look.

“It’s Taylor’s daddy,” Charlotte explained.

“Danny,” Danny said.

“Oh,” Ethan said.  He looked down at the floor.

“Do you want to run an errand for me?”  Charlotte asked.

Ethan nodded, still not making eye contact.  Charlotte could see how he’d set his jaw, so stern for a little man.

“Go tell Forrest that Skitter’s daddy is here.  And if anyone approaches you to ask you questions, you don’t answer, okay?  No matter how nice they seem, don’t say a word, and blow your whistle.  There are reporters out there we don’t want to talk to.”

Ethan nodded.

“Don’t take too long,” she warned.

The little boy, no older than eight, ran off, opening the front door and unchaining the shutter.  A moment later, he was gone into the night.

“Is that okay?” Danny asked.  “A little boy going out alone after dark?”

“The area’s safe, the people know each other.  It’s a community, and the community will look after the kids.  Besides, he’s got a whistle in case he gets in trouble.”

“It almost looked like he was asking for an errand.”

“He was.”

Danny gave her a curious look.

Charlotte walked around the kitchen counter to get into the kitchen, starting the water boiling for the coffee.  She still had a habit of keeping the kettle full for Taylor.  “Ethan’s bottling up a lot of hurt, but he’s convinced himself that big boys shouldn’t cry, and nothing will convince him otherwise.  For now, I’ll let him take five to twenty minutes longer than he should when I tell him to go do something, and I won’t say a word if he comes back with red eyes and a runny nose.  If he needs to find a quiet place to cry on his own, that’s okay.”

“There has to be a better way to handle it,” Danny said.  His eyes were still roving, as if trying to find and identify Taylor’s signature touches on the surroundings.

“There probably is.  But for now, it works for him and it works for me.  The other kids-” she lowered her voice a fraction, “They all have their individual needs.  Some get aggressive.  Some internalize it, have nightmares or wet the bed.  Others withdraw.”

Danny sighed.  “Kids are hard, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said.  Then she changed her mind.  “No.”

“No?”

People are hard to deal with.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“You should really be with her.”

“I was there,” Danny said.  “I told myself I’d stand by her, and then… all at once, it wasn’t her.  I’ve seen her in a crisis, after her mom died.  She was one of the people who withdrew.  When she was bullied at school, she withdrew.  But there?  At the PRT headquarters?  That wasn’t her.”

“It was,” Charlotte said.  “Maybe you lost sight of who she was becoming, somewhere down the line.  I don’t think anyone would fault you, with the secrets she was keeping.”

“No,” Danny said.  “I don’t think it was her, not really.  For just a minute, she became a monster.”

“We all have a monster somewhere inside us,” Charlotte said.  “Like I was saying about the kids.  Sometimes it’s aggressive, sometimes it finds other forms of attack, and other times it’s a cowardly one.”

Like mine.

Danny sighed.

“You don’t agree?  I’m still off target?”

“I don’t know.  I think maybe you’re right.  I’ve got my own demons.  But… whatever monster that was, it was a big one.”

Charlotte didn’t have an answer to that.

There was a knock on the shutter.  Then it raised a fraction.  Forrest stepped inside, growled and made threatening gestures as the kids practically leaped off of the couches and swarmed him.

He gave Danny a funny look.

“Taylor’s dad,” Charlotte said.

“Nice to meet you,” Forrest said.  He waded through the cluster of kids and, straight-legged, he leaned over the kitchen counter to shake Danny’s hand.  “Right, rugrats!  If you stand up to pee, get yourselves into the bath, pronto!”

“I can pee standing up!” Mai said.  “A girl at school showed me how.”

“Then… if you think action figures are better than dolls!”

“I think army men are better than dolls!” Mai said.

“Then let’s go with those who’d rather be a baseball player than a princess!”

“I-”  Mai stopped short, shrieking as Forrest swept her up in his arms.

“I get the point,” he said.  “As penance, I’m letting you ride on my shoulders.”

Mai squealed in glee.

“With a blindfold, in case the menfolk are bashful.  Move along, tykes.”

Ben, Ephraim and Aidan made their way into the bathroom, followed by Forrest, with Mai sitting on his shoulders.  Forrest practically had to get on his knees to get through the doorway without hitting Mai’s head on the doorframe.  The door shut behind him.

“Coffee will be done in a few minutes,” Charlotte said, making sure things were set up.  She moved to the living room, and beckoned for Kathy to come closer.  Kathy scowled but obeyed, sitting beside Charlotte as Charlotte set to brushing out her hair.

“I couldn’t recognize my own daughter,” Danny said.  “Every step of the way, I’ve wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how.  Did she say anything?  About me?”

“No,” Charlotte said.  She could see Danny’s face fall.

“But,” she said.  “She acted on it.  When it came down to it, she wanted to spend time with you, even if it meant that all the rest of this was harder.”

“When it came down to it,” he said, “She chose her friends over me.  She chose to fight, to go all out, instead of making a concession and possibly coming home at some point.”

“Bigger things,” Charlotte said.  “I- the rest of us feel a little betrayed too, but we’re little more than specks, with the sheer scale of the stuff she’s focused on.”

Danny sighed.  “I came here to make a decision.  To work up some courage.  But I feel as conflicted as ever.  Worse, if anything.”

“A decision?”

“Taylor has to join the Wards, if she’s going to join an official team.  Her lawyer got in contact with me, to let me know that there’s certain procedures.  She needs a parent, guardian, notary, or a person in authority to vouch for her, and it has to be someone who’s otherwise free of connections to superheroes or supervillains, someone that knows her and can testify about her character.”

“Do it.”

“I’m wondering if I should.”

Charlotte gave him a hard look.  He took it without flinching.

“My number one instinct is to keep my daughter safe.  If she went to juvenile detention, it would… it wouldn’t be good, but it’d keep her out of the line of fire.  It’d stop her from going down this reckless path.”

“She’d hate you,” Charlotte said.  “She’d still love you, but she’d be angry.”

“She would be safe,” he said.

Charlotte didn’t have much to say in response to that.  She turned her attention to the girls, instead.  “Five more minutes of cartoons, then bed.  I’ll fix your hair in just a second, okay, Jessie?”

Jessie nodded.

“I could, if it would make it easier,” Danny offered.

Charlotte felt that twang of alarm at the notion of a relative stranger touching ‘her’ kids.  She could rationalize that this was Taylor’s dad, but…

Jessie made the decision for her.  Standing and approaching Danny, before sitting beside him.  Charlotte tossed the man a hairbrush.

For long minutes, they worked on combing through knots and tangles.  Kathy made sure to grunt with every one.

The boys exited the bathroom, each with a towel wrapped around them, while Forrest carried a squealing, giggling Mai under one arm, a sock tied over her eyes, her hair now dry and combed straight..

“You’re better than Char,” Jessie said, as Danny finished.  She hopped down from the armrest of the chair, before scampering off to the bedroom.

“Traitor,” Charlotte muttered, after Jessie was gone.  Kathy followed the girl, taking Jessie’s hand after catching up.

There was a pause.

“If she needs you, you should help her,” Charlotte said.

“I’m just not sure what helping her entails,” Danny replied.

Charlotte rose to pour the coffee.  Her phone glowed with a fresh text.  She stared down at it.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?” Danny asked.

“Company,” she answered.

“Enemies?  Danger?”

“Worse.  Allies,” Sierra said, from the doorway.

Charlotte turned to see her friend, Sierra.  The girl still had her red hair bound in dreads, but the rest of her was all professional attire.  Nice shoes, slacks, a blue dress shirt, and just a little makeup.

Sierra approached, arms reaching out to hug Charlotte.  Charlotte welcomed the hug, murmuring the words, “I missed you.”

But her eyes were still on the doorway.  Tattletale stepped into the front hallway, followed by Grue and the pairings of Imp and Regent, Parian and Flechette.

A superhero, here?

After a brief pause, Bitch entered as well, glowering, looking fit to murder something or someone.  Her appearance was at stark odds with the puppies that followed her, each at the end of a differently colored leash.

Danny stood, eyes widening as he recognized the people entering the room.

“Long time no see, Danny,” Tattletale said.

“Lisa,” he answered.  There was no warmth in his tone.

“Tattletale while I”m in costume, please,” she said.  She flashed a grin, and he didn’t return it.

Grue extended a hand to Danny.  It took the man a second to accept it.  He watched the group warily.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked.

“Need to watch your phone,” Tattletale said.  “I sent you a string of texts.”

“I was busy.  Looking after the kids, and talking with Danny.”

“Right,” Tattletale said.  She made her way to one couch, then lay down.  “Damn.  Hell of a day.  Not enough sleep, already feeling like shit, and then this gets dropped on us.”

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked, again.

“You mean what’s going on here or what’s going on in general?  Generallyour commander-in-chief just defected to the white hats.”

“Here,” Charlotte said.  “Why are you here?  We’re just getting the kids off to bed.”

“Loose ends,” Tattletale said.  “A few here, a few there.  Skitter’s gone, and she’s liable to spend time in prison before she joins the Wards, and she won’t be able to visit for a while, even after that.  I want to get this as done as we can, so I can sleep for a few days straight and wake up feeling better.”

Charlotte frowned.  Tattletale had taken up one couch, Grue was sitting in another, and she didn’t want to sit next to him.  She was forced to stand, but standing and being a part of the conversation meant standing in a place where her back was to Bitch, to Parian and Flechette, who were sitting on stools by the kitchen counter, and to Regent and Imp, who were rifling through cabinets and drawers, in search of snacks.

“I have to ask.  Why the puppies?” Charlotte asked, glancing at Bitch.

“Tattletale said to.”

“That’s not exactly right,” Tattletale said.

“It’s what you said,” Bitch responded, sounding irritated.

“I recommended puppy therapy,” Tattletale said.  “Everyone loves puppies, so maybe it’s a way to deal when we’re feeling a bit lonely?”

Bitch looked at Charlotte.  “You miss her?”

“Um.  Yes?”

Bitch bent down, grabbing a puppy with one hand, then thrust it into Charlotte’s arms.  She started to withdraw her hand, paused, then said, “It’s a loan.”

“Of course,” Charlotte said.  She held the puppy close, scratched it behind the ear.  She knew better than to argue the point.

“You?” Bitch asked Danny.

“No, thank you.”

“You don’t miss your daughter?” Bitch asked, narrowing her eyes a little.

“I do, I mean, I think I’ll see her soon, probably, but-”

“Then take it.  For now.”

He surrendered in the face of her blunt approach, accepting the puppy.

“The kids,” Charlotte said.  “They’ve already settled in bed, but I think they’d love to have a visit with the puppies.  Tell them it’s just for a little while, they can cuddle, but they have to stay in bed.  Oh, and they don’t know how to play with dogs, so be sure to teach them the ground rules, okay?”

Bitch nodded, then marched off with her new mission, the puppies leaping and falling over each other to keep up.

“Parian?” Tattletale asked.  “Supervise?”

Parian nodded.  She got down from the stool, and was joined by Flechette in heading to the back room.

“Well handled,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

She paused as the children in the other room started squealing and shouting.  Bitch’s barked orders could be heard over the racket.

“-doesn’t know how to handle this.  We’re sort of forging new ground, but I think time’s the only thing that’s going to mend this wound.  I think she’s hurting more than anyone, right now.”

Charlotte nodded.

Danny, though, said, “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”

“I can do presumptuous,” Tattletale said.  “Just trust me on this count, okay?”

Regent and Imp approached from the kitchen, finding spots on the floor of the living room to sit, just to the left of the television.  They had arms full of snacks, including the little gummy candies Charlotte had been planning to give the kids in their school lunches.

She’d figure something else out.  Best not to get distracted.  The puppies would suffice as a treat for the kids right now.

Damn it, they’re going to ask to keep them, Charlotte thought.  She scratched the puppy that now slept in her arms.

Grue stretched a hand in the direction of the pair, an unspoken request for one bag of snacks.  Imp replied by hurling a small bag of chips at him, with the same sort of movement that might accompany throwing a baseball.  It banked off of his helmet and fell behind the couch.

Grue grumbled, but he turned around to grab it.

Forrest arrived from the bedroom, pausing a second to take in the crowd in the living room.

“Okay, let’s get down to business,” Tattletale said.  “Forrest, Charlotte, we’re backing you up, on Taylor’s behalf.  As of now, the Boardwalk doesn’t fall in just one person’s territory.  Parian, Grue and I will each have a hand in protecting it.  As of tonight, it should be the safest place in the city.  That’s all already handled.  You’ll have our numbers, in case of emergency, but you should only use it if there’s real trouble.  Supervillains attacking or something like that.  This all goes more smoothly if we don’t maintain any obvious connection between our groups that can be exploited.”

Charlotte nodded.

“Sierra is working under me.  She holds the property and presents our legitimate face to the public.”

Charlotte glanced at Sierra, who nodded.

“Property?” Charlotte asked.

“Everything we own in Brockton Bay, through a series of dummy corporations, is officially in her name.  That includes the areas in the Boardwalk that Coil once controlled.  From now on, you can contact us through her for all of the basics.  I know Skitter arranged a way for those who contribute to the restoration of the Boardwalk to earn shares of property.  Sierra will see to that.  In a pinch, you can also talk to her about funding, big projects, and the like.  But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

Forrest frowned.  “Why not?”

“Skitter arranged for her territory to be taken care of,” Tattletale said.

“She left us some money.  For food, to pay people.  Not a lot, but things should be sustainable by the time we run out.”

“There’s more,” Tattletale said.  “She had a lot of money to spare.  Some from illicit activity, more from the properties we acquired and sold.  That’s going to you.”

“Wait, us?”

“To the Boardwalk.  She mentioned getting the ferry up and running again, a new set of storefronts, and pushing for more residential areas.  Duplexes, apartments, condos…”

“How much?”

“More than enough.  Part of the procedures for joining the Wards includes a full background check.  They’ll find out she had a lot of money, much of it illicit, and they’ll empty her accounts.  It might not be a problem, but I recently changed to a different bank, so to speak, and they’re liable to find Skitter’s end of the paper trail.” Tattletale said.

Charlotte nodded.

“Something to use to take care of yourselves.  And the kids,” Tattletale said.

Charlotte thought to what Scott had said.  Had Taylor blamed herself after all?  Was this a way of making amends?

“Part of the measures we’ll have for defending the Boardwalk will be the mercenaries I have on retainer,” Tattletale said.  “Non-powered individuals, though they have experience fighting capes.  They’re going to train your people.”

“Train?”

“In hand to hand, first aid, firearms and tactics for fighting bigger threats.”

Ethan reappeared in the front hall, hands jammed in his pockets.  His eyes went wide as he took in the supervillains sitting in the area where he’d been watching TV not twenty minutes ago.  Charlotte stood and ushered him towards the bedrooms.

Behind her, Forrest said, “That seems like it’ll cause more problems than it solves.  People are resentful.  There’s already cracks forming.”

“Discipline will help with that,” Grue said.  “Time will help with the rest.”

“It’s not perfect,” Tattletale said, “The rest, we can figure out.  What’s important is getting the foundation laid out, and being ready.  Shit’s going to go down when villains start making plays for the interdimensional door.”

Charlotte studied the people who were sitting around the room.  Concern, worry, anxiousness.  “Are we going to make it?”

“Have to,” Tattletale said.  She turned her head.  Bitch was returning from the back room.  She had only one puppy with her.  The wolf cub.  “Taylor won’t forgive us if we don’t.”

“You should know.  When I was there,” Danny spoke up.  “Alexandria offered her a hell of a deal.  Two years of juvenile detention, and leaving the rest of you alone.  It wasn’t everything she’d asked for.  She said no, said she trusted you to handle things on your end.  I don’t want to be offensive, but I couldn’t understand it.  Still can’t.  But I thought you should know.”

“She was prepared to leave us to our own devices when she surrendered,” Tattletale said.  “But if she believes in us to that degree, that’s another reason we can’t fail.”

There were nods all around.

The discussion continued, but fatigue caught up to Charlotte at the same time that the details seemed to grow even more trivial.  Bitch, for her part, was focused, listening intently, while Danny seemed reserved, not quite a part of this.

Was this influencing his decision?  Which way would it, if it did?

It was midnight by the time they finished.  Exhausted though they hadn’t fought anyone, weary Undersiders rose from their seats on the furniture and floors to make their way to the front door.

Charlotte accompanied Bitch to the bedroom, making her way to each bunk bed to collect a puppy, despite whispered protests and whimpers.  A tiny heartbreak, each step of the way.

I’m going to have to get these kids dogs now, she thought, swearing to herself.

“Puppy therapy,” she murmured, on her way back to the front hall.  Bitch was clipping the leashes onto the puppies.

“Mm,” Bitch grunted.

“Does it work?”

“Yes,” Bitch said.  “But it’s not enough.  I haven’t felt like this since… Brutus and Judas.”

Brutus and Judas?  Charlotte didn’t recognize the names.  “That’s natural, isn’t it?  We’re people, we need other people close to us.  A dog is… fantastic, but it can’t fill that void.”

Charlotte could see a crease in between Bitch’s eyebrows, but the look didn’t reach her eyes or mouth.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Bitch shook her head, but she didn’t reply.

“If you wanted to bring the dogs back, the kids would love it,” Charlotte said.  “And… I’m thinking we’ll have to get at least one to keep.  I think it could do them a lot of good, and they’d give the puppies more than enough love and care.”

Bitch’s silence extended for long seconds.  She looked down at the puppies.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Bitch shrugged.  She glowered at the ground, “She wanted me to go to the other side.”

“First I’m hearing of this,” Grue said.

“Through the portal,” Bitch said. “Police it.  Keep that side safe.”

“There won’t be anything over there for at least a few weeks or months,” Tattletale said.

The glower deepened.  “That… sounds good.”

“All on your own?” Charlotte asked, “But-”

“Me and my dogs,” Bitch said.  Then she seemed to think of something.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Tattletale said.

With that done, the Undersiders departed.

Danny met Charlotte’s eyes.

“Decided?”

Danny shook his head.

“Could be that she did it for you,” she said.  “I think even Tattletale was surprised she went over to the other side.”

Danny didn’t reply.

“Good luck, either way.”

“You too,” he answered.

“We survived,” Forrest said.

“We survived,” Charlotte said.  “You’ll be by in the morning?”

Forrest nodded.

She waited until he was gone, then closed the shutter, being careful to lock it.

Then she ascended to the top floor, past Skitter’s room, with the now-empty terrariums and the armor stand with her old suit.  She reached the top floor, where Skitter’s belongings had been collected and boxed.

I’d meant to show this to Danny, to see if there was anything he wanted to keep or to send to her.

She lay in her bed, Skitter’s old room, but sleep didn’t find her.  She was still awake when her alarm buzzed.  She rose and made her way downstairs to the bedroom.  Checking on the kids.

Jessie’s bunk, dry.

No food under Mai’s pillow, or at the end of her bed.  The girl had taken to hoarding food.

Others were asleep, though Ethan’s eyes were open, staring.  She pulled his covers up a bit, and he smiled in the dark.

Aidan was awake too.

“I want a dog,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back.  “No nightmares?”

“Not any really bad ones since… five nights ago.”

“Five nights ago?”

“Had a good dream.  A big dream.”

“About?”

He shook his head.  “Can’t really remember.”

“Okay,” she whispered back.  “Not a big deal.”

“But you told me to draw things or write them down after a bad dream,” he said.  He pulled a pad of paper from the gap between his bunk and the wall.

She looked at it.  It didn’t look like much of anything.  Two scribbles, circles and dots.

“These big things… Fish?”

“I don’t remember.  I think it started as a bad dream, and then became better.”

“And these dots or circles?”  They only covered part of the page.

“Planets and stars.  I only remember because that’s how I usually draw them.”

“What do you mean, you only remember?”

“Forgot.  Even faster than I usually forget the bad dreams.”

She frowned.  The way he described it, it put her in mind of something.  The day Skitter had rescued her.  Someone had had a trigger event, and both Skitter and Tattletale had reacted.

The way the two had forgotten, and the things Tattletale had mumbled about while she was recuperating…

“You don’t have superpowers, do you?” she whispered.

Aidan shook his head.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said, in a very solemn manner.

If it wasn’t a trigger event, then what?

“Five nights ago?”

“I know because it was the night Skitter stayed out all night.  I woke up a bit after she came in.  I was drawing while she made noise in the kitchen.”

The night Skitter had been outed.  Where had she been, and how did it connect?

If not a trigger event, the potential to trigger?

So many questions, and Skitter was no longer here to answer them.

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Interlude 21

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

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

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

Not even a thank-you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always an uphill climb.

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

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

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

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

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

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

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

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

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

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

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any details?” Parian asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

Nobody volunteered an answer.

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

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

“So?  We break her out.”

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

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

“Regent,” Grue said.

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

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

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

So?” Bitch asked.

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

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

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

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

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

“Literally,” Regent said.

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

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

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

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

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

There was no reply from the group.

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

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

She felt like that now, here.

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

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

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

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

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

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

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

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

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

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

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

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

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

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

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

“We’re allies.”

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

“You’re mocking me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s very concerning to me.”

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

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

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

“There’s an escape clause.”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

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

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

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

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

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

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

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

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

“I bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

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

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

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

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

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Herself?” Regent asked.

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

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

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

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

Regent sniggered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long?”

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

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

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

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

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

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

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

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

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

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

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

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

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

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

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

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

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

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With you.”

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

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

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

“Hard to forget.”

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

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

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

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

Parian didn’t answer.

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

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

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

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

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

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

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I think it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

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

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

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

“You’d leave the Wards?”

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

“You’re rambling.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

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

Still rambling.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Imago 21.5

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The rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time we finished.

My sundress was lying on the floor, a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the spot where we’d laid down.  I shook it, then called my swarm, let my bugs crawl up my body to sweep and brush my skin clean.  The bugs made their way up the sides and back of my neck to my hair, then weaved through it as a mass, their bodies and mandibles helping to set it in order.  Others progressed down my arms, making their way to the dress, doing much the same with the fabric.

I was just about finished when I caught Brian staring at me.

I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled a little, shook his head, turned his attention to his costume.

I pulled the sundress over my head, and it was my chance to take a look at Brian.  He had only the leggings of his costume on, and was working one arm into the sleeve, his chest bare behind the ‘v’ of the unzipped upper body.  The way his muscles shifted fluidly beneath his skin, the lines of his body… I felt an ache that wasn’t heartbreak.  A pang of loss on a baser level.

I wanted him, damn it.  Wanted to nourish every sense with him.  The visual of him, the taste of his sweat when I kissed his skin, his smell, the bass of his voice and the little noises he made.  The feel of him, warm, the way every part of him was firm without being unyielding.

But no, it wasn’t going to work out.  There was no long-term, and trying to cling to one would only spoil it all.

We hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t want to taint the silence with something that would only be awkward or ineffectual, couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, but I didn’t want to leave him feeling like I was ashamed or unhappy, leaving it like this.

While he was still pulling on the upper part of his costume, I approached him, stood on my tiptoes, and then kissed his cheek.

Brian didn’t respond as I got the bags, collected the paperwork, folder and booklet Citrine had given us and headed down the stairwell to the street, moving at something between a brisk walk and a jog every step of the way.

There were no catcalls as I made my way back to the upper end of downtown.  Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, moving indoors, and the ones who’d stayed outside were still in a state where they were focusing more on the work than on the wet, noisy, damaged world beyond the work site.

The thin drizzle of rain was bothersome.  It wasn’t so much the wet, or the fact that it threatened to draw attention to me.  It was the fact that it was raining just enough that it was uncomfortable, but I’d still look lame if I used an umbrella.

No matter, in the grand scheme of things.  I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.  It was a good feeling.

For a while now, it had been hard to put a finger on my emotions.  What I was feeling now was crystal clear.  Loss.  Disappointment.  Relief.

All things considered, I felt oddly upbeat as I boarded a bus and caught a ride to my territory.  I had to take off my hat to avoid bumping it into people, and felt conspicuous, the ends of my hair wet, hat gone, my light, tourist-y appearance a little the worse for wear.

I headed to the empty seats at the back, and I couldn’t help but notice that one thirty-something year old guy was studying my face as I walked by.  He was with two or three of his friends, all of them tanned and dressed like the construction workers I’d passed.  Laborers.  I directed a small few mosquitoes to him as I brushed past.  One on each elbow and knee, to give me a sense of where he was moving and what he was doing.

It was thanks to the bugs that I could get the general idea of his movements: him reaching out to one of his friends, tugging on their arm, then leaning close to say something I couldn’t hear.

Damn it.  Not a problem, like it would be if someone spotted me on my way away from my territory, creating the possibility that heroes might crash the meeting with Citrine, but nonetheless inconvenient.

I sat in the back corner and set the bags beside me.  They were loaded down with hostile bugs, I had the handle to the bus’ emergency exit beside me, and my weapons were near-to-hand if things really got ugly.

The four men approached me, and I kept looking out the window, feigning a lack of concern.

They sat around me, all well-built, tall men, a barrier between me and the rest of the occupants of the bus. The one who’d noticed me glanced my way; I met his eyes, and he gave me a curt nod before deliberately ignoring me.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I appreciated the idea behind it, assuming it was for my benefit.  Was it the notion that I was a girl who needed protection?  Or was I more bothered by the fact that I probably needed a shower, and they were sitting a little close to me?

It might help to get a license, I thought.  And a car.

I smiled just a little at the idea that I might get a Volkswagen Beetle.  It’d be stupid, impractical, and it would be too obvious.  A van would be better in every respect.

Not that I couldn’t buy a number of cars.  A bug, a van, a boat… even a helicopter, assuming Atlas wouldn’t hold up.

No.  I was being unrealistic.  Still, it was an amusing thought.

Everyone exited the bus at the final stop, the area where the ferry had once been.  My self-styled escorts were among the last to leave, departing without so much as a glance my way, and I was last to step out into my territory.

I made my way deeper into my territory, my hat still stuffed in a bag, the soft rain wetting my hair and beading my skin.  My escorts made their way to a construction site, but other  people were recognizing me now that I was in my territory, and their recognition only helped others to notice.  Groups of people stepped out of my way in respect, in fear or a mingling of the two.

There was no rush.  I took a roundabout route, watching over my bugs and ensuring that everything was in an appropriate place.  Rats were still something of an issue, having feasted and multiplied many times over in the aftermath of the Leviathan attack, and I made a point of finding and exterminating any litters I found.

Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply.  They were one species I wanted to keep away from people, and I made a point of moving them away from all residential areas.  They were the filler in my swarms, one of the only species around that I could eradicate or use up entirely without doing too much to upset the local ecology.

I wanted Brockton Bay stable, everything in order.  That wasn’t limited to the human aspect of things.

I entered an area where the damage had once been heaviest, and where much of the construction had recently finished.  Here, things had been brought up to standards.  The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that this area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved.  Even the alleys, marked clearly with new one-way signs, tended to be wide enough that trucks and cars could potentially pass through in pairs.  But where there had once been dilapidated warehouses and factories, the buildings were quaint, neat and tidy, with siding in whites and light colors.  ‘Seaside colors’ I’d heard it described.  Colors that were warmer and more enticing, fitting with the boardwalk-in progress, the beaches that were being thoroughly cleaned, and the bay itself.  The water was gray now, reflecting the overcast sky above, but it was capable of being a brilliant, stellar blue.

People were already officially moving into this area, which had once been the part of Brockton Bay that people were urged to stay away from.  Couples, laborers, people with kids.

I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ on the side of one of the nicer, newer homes: a narrow, pale blue condominium.  I’d made requests that the graffiti be kept subtle, and I’d told people who worked for me to pass on word that others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere, to limit confusion.  My emblem, a beetle with wings spread, marked walls and signposts, predominantly on the buildings that had yet to receive attention.  Still, there were crude replicas here and there.  I’d have to make sure someone was watching out for that and passing on the word.

People were still watching me, eyeing me as I walked through the area.  Mosquitoes I’d brought to myself were clinging to me, leaving little doubt about who I was.  There was no need to hide.  I’d have other measures in place before too long.

My detour brought me around to what had become a makeshift memorial.  There were flowers and the like forming a ring where a fence had been erected.  In the center of the ring, an oval shape sat embedded in the ground.  This was the area where we’d fought Leviathan.  A time-distortion grenade had gone off, and three heroes had been trapped inside.  Brockton Bay’s own Dauntless among them.

The center of the bubble was as impenetrable as Clockblocker’s power, while the effects were more nebulous around the edges.  Dust and moisture were caught in the sphere, obscuring the contents, all moving a fraction of a glacial pace.  There was a hand print at one point where someone had tried to touch it, shifting the dust and moisture, losing some skin in the process.  In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere.  Pennies, sticks.  That had stopped when others had tidied up the area and the flowers had started appearing here and there.

There had been talk of blanketing the entire thing in flower petals, so it wasn’t a gray-brown egg with a neat pattern, but others wanted to leave it be, protecting it with a bubble or shelter so the rain and dust could clear away, and people who visited could see the three heroes as they were when they were caught within, in the midst of being thrown through the air, the very moment they effectively gave their lives for the sake of the city and the world.

The entire thing was framed by the surrounding buildings.  There’d been too much damage from the skirmish with Leviathan for them to stand, and I’d made a special request to the designers for the rebuilding.  They were shaped so that there was something of a clearing around the bubble.  The city could decide what to do with the bubble itself; I’d done what I could with the surroundings.

I reached into one of the shopping bags, retrieving a small bouquet.  I laid it just outside the fence, where it joined innumerable other tokens of respect: Letters, flowers, an action figure, a Dauntless poster with something illegible scribbled on it.

The city was healing, but there were still scars.  Some were smaller, like this.  Others, like the appropriately named ‘Scar’ downtown, or the lake Leviathan had created, weren’t so minor, would loom in the awareness of the people who lived here for a long time to come.  The ‘Scar’ had been encased in a squat, windowless, zig-zagging piece of architecture.  The lake would likely remain as it was, until the city found a way to make more use of it.  Neither was particularly pleasant to think about, either in terms of what had happened or the ideas about what could come in the future.

I could only hope that we could be so lucky in other areas, to have only scars and unpleasant reminders.

I was halfway back to my lair when I sensed intruders.  In an instant, my nerves were on edge, bugs stirring from the surroundings to investigate as discreetly as I could.

I thought of Leviathan attacking the area, of Mannequin’s visits, of Burnscar.

Except these were heroes present.

I let myself relax a fraction, waited until I was as calm as I could get.  Then I approached.

Parian was sitting on a bench under some eaves, Miss Militia leaning against a wall a few steps to her right, holding a bottle of water, and Flechette was a little ways away, staring up at a building in progress.  My people hung back, staring or watching the heroes with a wary eye, hesitant.  They couldn’t be sure if there was a confrontation in the works or if they should keep working, so they weren’t leaving and they weren’t really working.

Others were staring at me, noticing me.  Miss Militia seemed to catch onto the reaction of the crowd even before I was in her field of view.  She straightened and a rifle appeared in one hand.

Flechette saw the heroine move out of the corner of one eye, turned my way with her arbalest in hand.

Neither of them pointed their weapons at me.  A good sign.

“You’re in my territory,” I said, when I was in earshot.

“Apparently,” Flechette said, her voice level, “We can’t go anywhere in this city without being in someone’s territory.”

Miss Militia shot the girl a warning look.  “Parian invited us.”

I glanced at Parian, who was still sitting in her seat, a cloth doll in her lap.  “I would have preferred if she’d asked me first, but fine.”

“We wanted to talk,” Miss Militia said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Because that’s worked very well in the past few days, hasn’t it?  Or did you miss the notice?  The PRT outed me.”

“I’m aware,” Miss Militia said.  “I was there when they made the decision.  I spoke against it, for all the good it did.”

“For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.  I didn’t have my costume, but I could use intimidation to armor myself.  “Your stay here is a very temporary one.  I can ask you to leave at any time.  Your choice whether that’s peacefully or if I evict you.”

I could see Flechette tense.

“We’re not looking to fight,” Miss Militia said.

“Good,” I said, glancing around me.  The rain was still pattering down around me, and the street was damp, not flooded, but it wouldn’t be good to offload my bags there.  I ventured under the eaves and set the bags down in a dry spot.  I folded my arms.  “Give me your weapons.”

“There’s no point to giving you mine,” Miss Militia said.  “I could call it back to me, switch it to something else and shoot you before you could react.”

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “This is a symbolic gesture.  Please give me your weapons.”

She stared at me, taking me in.  Then she looked down at the gun.  It flickered and became a bowie-knife.  She tossed it into the air, caught it by the flat of the blade, and then approached me, extending the handle in my direction.

I took the blade, and I could swear it reacted, vibrating.

“It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s a part of me.”

A part of her, as in… a part of her mind? Or is it her passenger?

I felt like there was something more I should say in response to that, but I decided to focus on the matter at hand. People were watching from the sidelines.

“Flechette.  Your arbalest,” I said.

She looked far less agreeable than Miss Militia had been.  She glanced at her superior, received a nod in response.

Flechette placed the arbalest on the ground halfway between us, then backed off.

I was willing to bet she had other weapons, but it wasn’t worth the effort to get them from her.

“You owe me,” Flechette told Parian.  Parian didn’t respond, staring down at the ground.

“She owes you?” I asked.

“I was home.  I came back because she asked, and it’s probably coming out of my time off.  And you weren’t even here when we arrived.  We waited twenty minutes.”

“I would have been if I had any notice,” I said.

“I don’t want something ugly to happen on my vacation day,” Flechette said.  “That’s all I’m saying.  Not happy-cool about this as it is.”

“Were you shopping?” Miss Militia asked, as if she were trying to change the subject or distract me from Flechette.  When I looked, her eyebrows were indicating mild surprise.

“I can’t go shopping anymore,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound hostile, but reminding me of that isn’t going to help anything.”

“You’re upset,” Miss Militia said.  Before I could think of a retort, she added, “You deserve to be.”

I shut my eyes briefly.  When I asked my question, I sounded almost exasperated, “Why are you here?”

“The first reports came back from inside the portal, and they’re promising.”

I nodded.

“Fresh water, lumber.  Geological surveys suggest there’s mining, and that’s all in close proximity to the portal.  Plant, animal and insect life seem to have evolved in rough parallel to our own.  Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect.  The deviation point seems to be nearly five thousand years ago.  Several teams are working on analyzing the sites where humans settled, looking for the cause of extinction.  We’ll have reports back soon, and we expect to make a statement to the world at large in a few days.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.  If she weren’t nursing a bad migraine, I suspected she would have already informed me of the details.

“Even if it turns out there’s a plague, parasite or hostile agency in this other world, the sheer value of the resources on the other side are going to make this portal very valuable.  I think it’s safe to say Brockton Bay stands to become a rich city, and that begins the moment the news gets out.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“Expected something like that,” I said.  “I suppose this means you want to talk to the villains that are currently controlling this soon-to-be-rich city’s underworld.”

“Dragon and Defiant came to Brockton Bay with the interest of setting up a plan, drawing a truce between your group and ours.  I suspect Dragon already had suspicions about this other world and everything it entailed.”

“Except things got screwed up along the way,” I said.

“Yes.  And on the other side of things, particular events came to light, validating things you’d said, on several fronts.”

I glanced at Flechette.  I’d given her directions to find the armband.  There was also the business with the leading heroes of the Protectorate being complicit in the Cauldron debacle.  I wasn’t sure Flechette was up to date on that one.

“You checked out the armband?”  I asked Flechette.

It was Miss Militia who answered, “I was informed about possible tinker material being passed around and investigated, possible contraband.  It was Flechette investigating the device.  We contacted Defiant together and got the answers we were looking for, in a much more direct manner.”

“He was your friend.”

“A colleague and a friend, yes.  We were very good at different things.  He told me he was sorry he couldn’t attend this meeting.  He’s… preoccupied at present.  Flechette, Defiant and I had a long series of discussions that led nowhere in particular.  It only pointed to an increasingly ugly situation without an easy resolution.  Until Parian contacted Flechette about a meeting.”

“With me,” I said.

“With you.”

I glanced back at Parian.  She wasn’t moving, still sitting in a chair, not looking our way.

“Okay,” I said.  “We can talk.”

“Good.  Let me start off by extending an apology.  I’m sorry things turned out as they did.  I don’t agree with the way that incident played out.”

That incident.  The thing at the school.

“We looked back at what happened with your history at the school, the allegations of bullying-”

“Stop,” I said.

She did.

“If you’re going to say anything on the subject, don’t mince words.  You know who Shadow Stalker was beneath the mask.  You probably have an idea of the kind of things she did.  Don’t pretty it up by using words like allegations.”

Flechette stared at me.

“Not allegations then.  The bullying, the abuse you endured.  I don’t like that it happened.  I don’t like that we were complicit in it.  It fills in quite a few blanks, helping me make sense of what happened after you uncovered Shadow Stalker’s secret identity.  Defiant knows too, now.  I recognize that it might even have pushed you to take a different direction with your newfound powers.”

“I got my powers because of her,” I said.

Miss Militia fell silent.

“Early January, followed by a hospital stay.  You can look it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I suspected it was your mother’s passing that caused your trigger.”

“See,” I told her. “There’s one thing that’s really grating with you heroes.  You keep saying sorry.  Oh, you guys are sorry your top members were kidnapping people and turning them into freaks.  You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers.  You’re sorry that your bosses crossed a line, trying to drop bombs on our team members after we did the grunt work of facing the Slaughterhouse Nine.  You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.  But you don’t change.  You don’t do anything about it.”

There was enough venom in my voice that Flechette had started eyeing her arbalest, where it sat in the rain.  One of her hands was poised in the air, as if she were preparing to reach into a pouch at her side.  She was looking at the crowd around us, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was worried they’d respond if she attacked me, or if she was double checking they were out of earshot.

“That’s why we’re here,” Miss Militia said, calm.

“That’s why we’re here,” I echoed her.  “Yeah.  Well said.  All those events I just mentioned, they’re part of why I’m here.  I’d say you have nobody to blame but yourselves for the fact that you have me to deal with, but I’m willing to admit I’m largely at fault for the decisions I made.  You guys… you just greased the wheels, I suppose.”

“We’d like to change that dynamic.  Defiant, Dragon, myself-”

“You want to change, but you’re still working for them.  For the Protectorate,” I said.

“We have to.”

I frowned, forced myself to relax.  “Dragon said the same thing.  Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.  You think we need the Protectorate.”

“We do.  And if everyone with enough of a conscience to feel regret over these events were to leave, I don’t think anyone will be happy with the group of those who stayed behind.”

“There’s another route,” I said.  “Accept that it’s broken, accept that it needs to change, and do something about it.  Recognize that what Tagg did was fucked up, act on that.”

“It’s dangerous.  Things are sensitive.  There’s only an eighteen percent chance of success in the upcoming fight if we face Behemoth.  Twenty-nine percent if it’s the Simurgh, with… a great deal more fallout after the fact.   Without the Protectorate, chances drop to an even lower number than they are, and the damage gets worse.”

Dinah.  The only way they’d have these numbers would be Dinah.

“You’re afraid of rocking the boat when the ship’s sinking,” I said.

“Something like that.”

I sighed.

“But…” Miss Militia hesitated.  “In light of revelations over this past month, keeping recent events in mind, and perhaps because we have more of an insight into who you are, Taylor Hebert, I think we might be more open to more discussion than we were.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Protectorate, the Wards.”

“The PRT?”

Miss Militia shook her head.

It wouldn’t be enough if the PRT wasn’t on board.  There was some argument I wanted to make, something I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t quite form the thought in my head.

“What do you think of this?” I asked Flechette, to buy myself time to think, or maybe in hopes of rounding out the half-formed thought.

“It doesn’t directly affect me,” she said, glancing away.  “I’m still trying to decide if I should trust you.

“If it doesn’t directly affect you, why does this matter?”

“Because I got home and saw my family, and they said I was different, angrier.  And they were right.  Because I’m hearing about everything that’s happening, all these secrets coming out, and I can’t even look at my teammates without wondering if there’s something nefarious about them.  Because Parian was the one good thing I found in this city, and you recruited her,” Flechette said.

Parian looked up.

“That costume, it’s like a slap in the face.  Like, it wasn’t obvious enough you corrupted her.  You had to take the playfulness away?  The joy?”

“Hey,” Parian said, standing.  “It was my decision.”

“She was following advice I gave,” I said.  “She wanted to stand up to the people who are trying to attack her territory, and she wanted to do it without our help.  Being a little more intimidating doesn’t hurt.”

“You-”

“Flechette,” Miss Militia cut her off.

Flechette went limp, the fight gone out of her, just like that.

“I don’t know anymore,” Flechette said.  “I don’t know where I’m going.  Everything was all laid out, a career with the Wards, a career with the Protectorate.  Except I’m not even sure there’s going to be a future anymore… and I’m not sure what happens if there is.”

“I think you and I are very similar on that front,” I said, my voice quiet.

She looked at me, her lips pressed together in anger, then looked away, unable to disagree, as much as she might want to.

“I guess… I guess what it comes down to,” I said, “Is that you have to decide what you want.  What you’re willing to fight for and make sacrifices for.”

Flechette’s eyes flickered over to Parian, then down to the ground.

Ah.

“I’m… alone,” she said.  “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself.  Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  And when I finally got to… I’ve never felt more disconnected from everyone around me.  It wasn’t what I wanted, or what I needed.  I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends.  Sounds stupid when I say that.  Sounds weak.”

“I’m fully aware I don’t have much stock with you, so maybe what I say isn’t worth much to you, but I don’t think less of you for saying that.  The prospect of being all on your own is scary.  It’s harder, and things are hard enough as it is.”

Miss Militia was staring at me.  I met her eyes.

“Interesting to have a conversation with you,” she said, “With a greater understanding of the girl behind the mask.  What do you want, Taylor?”

“I’m not Taylor,” I said.  “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

“Skitter, then.”

“Compromise,” I said.  “Give me compromise.”

“I can try.”

“You can, the Wards can, but the PRT won’t.  You said as much.”

“They have other burdens to bear.”

“And until they work with us, they’re going to be a bucking bull in a china shop,” I said.  “Strutting around and doing catastrophic damage to a delicate situation.  Tagg said this is a war-”

I could see a look flash across Miss Militia’s face.

“-and you can’t reason with people like that,” I said.  “Not people who are hungry for conflict, willing to fight until someone’s too beat up to fight back.”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  Her tone of voice had shifted.  “You can’t.  I’ve heard him say something along those lines before.  A small part of the reason I’m here.”

“Then you agree.  He can’t be leading the PRT if we’re going to reach any kind of consensus.”

“I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.  The very structure of the PRT is built around the idea that the unpowered call the shots, and the capes follow them.”

“We both know that it’s not that cut and dry,” I said.  I glanced at Flechette.  Did she know about Alexandria?

“I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s not in my power.”

“It’s in mine,” I said.  “I think.  I hope.”

I could see the furrow in between her eyebrows.  “What are you thinking?  More violence?  You won’t be able to twist Tagg’s arm to get what you want out of him.”

“I’m still not entirely sure,” I said.  “I think I can twist his arm.  It’ll be easier if you’re willing to compromise.  I need your help to make this work.”

“What sort of help?”

“A mixture of support and passive resistance.  Nothing that hurts the PRT as a whole.  Nothing that hurts the result against the Endbringers.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Specifically?”

“For starters, we treat every situation like you treated the ABB, back in April.  We address threats, tag team them.  Only we communicate more this time around.  The Teeth are a problem, but others are going to arise when word about the portal gets out.”

“Done.  The PRT may not play ball, but we can communicate by other channels.”

“The heat’s off the Undersiders and Ambassadors both.  We can’t do anything constructive if you guys are after us.”

“The PRT will continue to order us to engage you.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Then that’s when you apply passive resistance.  You return to your bosses and you say the mission against the Undersiders was unsuccessful.  Bitch ran, Grue used his darkness, Tattletale must have passed on information.  We do our best to avoid giving you cause to come after us, you don’t attack when the bosses order you to.”

She frowned.  “This is giving you amnesty for past misdeeds, in practice.”

“Yes.  But it ensures we’re all in fighting shape when the next Endbringer fight goes down.”

“Accord remains a problem.”

“We’ll keep him busy, put him in the background.  Tattletale has a sense of his motives.  We can keep him occupied while keeping him from having a direct hand in things.”

“Our passivity would hinge on his.”

“Deal,” I said.

“And you can’t keep pushing things like you have been.  The degree of aggression you’ve been demonstrating, with the attack at the PRT head offices and Valefor, it tests our patience.”

“They noticed, then?  Valefor’s eyeballs.”

“That’s the kind of event that provokes a response from the PRT.”

I nodded.  “It’s supposed to, just a little.  It was a message to Tagg as much as a way of dealing with Valefor.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that will get him to abandon his position or back down.”

“I think it is,” I said.  “But that’s only one aspect of a greater plan.”

I could see her frown.  Not that I could see the lower half of her face, but I saw it in her eyes.

“A day or two,” I said, “Then I stop.  I’ll fill you in on the details as soon as I have them.”

She frowned.

“Flechette,” I said.

“What?”

“Is this satisfactory?  If we call a truce, the local heroes will be free to assist Parian.  I suspect she’ll be willing to accept their help where she’s less accepting of ours.”

“I will,” Parian said.

“Would that make things easier between the two of you?”

“I’m not local,” Flechette’s words were a whisper.

“You could be,” I told her.  “Or you could visit.  I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.”

“We can use all the help here we can get,” Miss Militia said.  “If you wanted to join the Wards team on a permanent basis, I could see about arranging something.”

“Let- let me think about it,” Flechette said.  “It’d mean leaving my family.  Or moving them, depending.”

“Then that’s as settled as it’s going to get,” I said.

“I still have concerns about your continued swathe of destruction,” Miss Militia told me.  “If your vendetta against Tagg gets any uglier, this idea won’t hold.”

I’d hoped the distraction of talking to Flechette would keep her from returning to that topic.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt,” I said.  “Please.”

I could see the lines around her eyes deepen as she frowned.

“Just this once.  It’s all I’ve been asking you guys for, from the beginning.  Trust that I’m doing what I’m doing for a good reason.  I just need you to maybe turn a blind eye here and there, support me when the situation calls for it.  I’ll fill you in where I can, and I’ll make a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know what to do otherwise.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia conceded.

A second passed with nobody speaking.

“I’d extend my hand for you to shake,” I told her, “But we probably don’t want something that blatant popping up on a cell-phone video.  For now, at least, this truce stays unofficial.”

She offered me a curt nod.  I held her knife out towards her, and it dissolved into a mess of green-black energy.  It zipped to Miss Militia’s hand, became a pistol.  She holstered it.

Together with Flechette, she left, making her way out of my territory.  A hundred pairs of eyes watched them leave.  Maybe I could pass word around to get people to keep quiet on the subject.

“Thank you,” Parian murmured.

I glanced at her.

“For what you said to Flechette.  How you said it.”

“I have more respect for you than you’d probably believe,” I told her.  “I hope it works.”

“I think it will.”

I watched the heroes as they departed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, eyeing the light rainfall beyond the eaves of the building.  I shrugged, heading towards my lair.  “Redundant, maybe, but I think a shower is the least of the luxuries I’m entitled to as a wealthy, nationally recognized supervillain.  I’ll talk to you later.  Let me know if you hear back from Flechette.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to my back.

I looked back, gave her a quizzical look.

“I could have arranged that better,” she said.  “I sprung it on you.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “It was necessary.  No worries on that front.”

I didn’t voice my true thoughts aloud, though.  The conversation with the heroes had needed to happen.  The fact that Parian and Flechette had been present was a stroke of luck.  The downside, the other side of the matter, was that I now had to act before someone in a position of power caught on to what was happening with our truce and ended it prematurely, or before Miss Militia herself reconsidered.  I had to act before I started having second thoughts.

Which was harder than it sounded, because I hadn’t even figured out if there was a way to pull this off without alienating everyone that counted.

Parian had inadvertently accelerated my plan. For that, I hated her, just a little.  That feeling was clear enough, small as it might be.

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

“Are you comfortable?  Is there anything I can get you?” Jessica Yamada asked.

“A… okay,” the staff employee said.  What had her name been?  Worthwhile?  No.  Worth-something.  She was elderly, and took more time than was necessary to go through the letters, “M… okay.  M, n, o, p, q, r,s t, u…”

A… M…

“Stop,”  Jessica said.  “I can guess.”

“I have to continue,” the older woman said.  “Patient’s right to communicate.  T, u, v, w, x, y… Y.  Third letter is Y.”

“We’ve been over this, Victoria,” Jessica said.  “You know that’s something I don’t have any power to give you.”

Victoria blinked three times, the signal for the alphabet.  The older woman started.  As Victoria’s right eye was the only one open, she started with the second half.  “M, n, o, p… P, okay.”

Victoria switched eyes, closing one and opening the other.  First half of the alphabet.

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

“Phone?” Jessica interrupted, before the reading started again.

A blink.  Affirmation.

“I’ve explained you can’t phone her.  She’s gone to the birdcage-”

Jessica paused.  Her own heart rate was climbing, her breathing involuntarily quickening.  She felt a bead of sweat running down the back of her neck.  The old woman had stepped out of her chair, backing away.

“Stop that,” Jessica said, her voice firm.  She’d managed to keep her voice from trembling.

The sensation didn’t fade.

“She went to the birdcage because she wanted to,” Jessica said.  “And we let her because there were serious concerns about her unleashing an epidemic if she had another psychotic break.”

Three blinks.  To the old woman’s credit, she stuck to doing her job.  “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i… I, okay.”

“Victoria,” Jessica said, and she wasn’t able to hide the tremor this time, “if you want to communicate with me, I’m going to insist that you turn your power off.”

Victoria reduced the effect of her power, scaling it down to a general sensation of unease.

“Thank you.  Returning to our previous topic, Amy had to be contained somewhere.  Everyone involved agreed on that point.  There was too much danger, otherwise, with the possibility of uncontrollable, incurable plagues that could eat through plastic or metal.”

Jessica waited patiently as the staff member went down the list.  I.  D.  O.  N.  T.  C.  A.  R.  E.

I  don’t care.

“Others do care, Victoria,” Jessica Yamada informed her patient.  “Amy cared.  She knew her own limits and her own potential, for good or for ill.  It wasn’t an easy decision, for her or for the authorities, but that decision was made with everyone’s best interests at heart.”

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

“She didn’t feel that she could fix you, or that it was right to use her power on you again.”

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

Blink.  Agreement.  Three blinks to signal for the board.

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

“Not entirely, Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice gentle.  “There are others who care about you.”

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

“Back to my original question.  Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”

B.  A.  T.  H.

“Excellent,” Jessica said.  “We’ll see what we can do.  Anything else?”

Two blinks.  No.

“I’ll be seeing you for a longer appointment next Tuesday, then,” she said.  “Tell any of the staff if you would like to get in touch with me before then.  I’m on-call, twenty-four-seven.”

One blink.

Jessica exited the room.  The door sealed shut as it closed behind her.

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

“Some headway,” Jessica said.  She took off her suit jacket and folded it over the nearest chair.  Her back was drenched with sweat, shoulder-blade to belt.  “Hard to endure.”

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

“I know.  But I’ll take her on as a patient, and hopefully we can get her in a better head space.  Thank you again, for letting me overstep my duties.  It helps me to open a dialogue if I can offer her something she wants or needs.”

“You can’t offer her what she really wants.”

“But a bath is a good starting point.  Is it doable?”

“Yes.  We’re well equipped for disabled patients.  We’ll lower her in with hoists.”

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

“No.  She’s far more durable than she appears.  For better or for worse, she retains her invincibility.”

“I see.”

“Who’s the next patient on your caseload?”

“Sveta.”

“Garotte.  I know you’ve heard the instructions about the protective safeguards a thousand times-”

Jessica sighed.

“-But I have to go over them anyways.  There are regulations, Jessica, as you well know.  You’ll be wearing a type-C reinforced protective suit.  The suits include both an inner and outer layer, the inner layer-”

“Has a button in the palm.  I can withdraw my fingers from the outer glove and press the button.  At random intervals, you’ll buzz me surreptitiously…”

“And we expect you to press the button to verify that you’re okay.  You can press it twice in the event of an emergency.”

“The damn thing has malfunctioned and interrupted three of my last seven sessions with her.”

“It’s what we have for the time being.  If you don’t verify your own safety or if you signal an emergency, we’ll employ containment foam through the sprinkler system.”

“And I’ll be stuck here for another hour, with another four pages of paperwork after the fact.”

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

“No.  I’m scheduled to see Nicholas after.”

“Sadboy.”

Jessica didn’t correct the head nurse.  She hated using the codenames; it reinforced the idea of the patients being less than human.  “Yes.  I’ll see him, then I’m done for the day.  I’m on rotation with the PRT for Friday-Saturday, then I have Sunday all to myself.”

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

“I’ve learned not to make any.  There’s always a crisis of some sort.”

They’d reached the changing room, and Jessica pulled on the protective inner-suit.  The suit fit close to her body, smelled faintly of someone else’s sweat, and consisted of a stretching mesh covered in fine chain link.  The entire thing was reinforced by a grid of metal bars, complete with oiled hinges at each joint, so she had a near-full range of motion.  Zipping it up, it went straight up her neck, the bars running vertically down her throat.  She couldn’t look down without getting jabbed in the soft flesh beneath her jaw.

It made it harder to get the outer suit on.  The entire thing was one piece, like footie-pyjamas, and the fabric was heavy, with alternating layers of insulated fabric and more chain mesh.

She liked to go into situations armed with knowledge.  When she’d been new to the job, fearing her first week of work at the asylum, she’d researched all of the protective measures, even running down the patents that were public access to see what they entailed.

Odd as it might have sounded, she’d stopped doing that as of late.  It wasn’t due to a growing confidence.  Just the opposite.  Now that she had a better grasp of what her patients were capable of, it was easier to hope the people designing the safeguards were doing everything they needed to.  It was better than researching it and knowing they weren’t.

The heavy fabric exterior suit fit her like hazardous materials gear, bulky, broad, leaving a great deal of empty space between her body and the fabric.  Protective airbags of more reinforced cloth inflated to fill that space.

She stepped into the dock, and the door behind her shut.  The next door opened.

The room was empty.  The wall had a mural painted on it, ocean waves and beautiful architecture that Jessica couldn’t place as belonging to any particular era or culture.  There was a short, translucent table littered with painting and drawing supplies, and what looked like a cat’s tiered scratching post, extending floor to ceiling, securely bolted to both.  Mirrors were fixed to the wall, to show that the room’s resident wasn’t hiding behind it.

“Come on out, Sveta,” she said.  She clenched her teeth and braced herself for the ambush.

Sveta had been waiting above the door.  Tendrils snaked around the neck of the protective suit, and cinched tight in a moment.

Even with her full knowledge of the suit’s protective qualities, Jessica felt her heartbeat quicken.

Deep breath.

Her breath caught in her chest as she heard the faintest, almost inaudible sound of metal creaking.

More tendrils had caught her legs and arms, and even lashed across the room to catch the only points available to hold, the two-inch diameter bolts that held the scratching post ‘bed’ to the ground.

“So sorry,” Sveta whispered.  “Sorry.”

Jessica felt her arm jolt as one set of tendrils lashed up the length of her right arm to catch her gloved fingers.  Each finger was pulled in a different direction, but the metal reinforcement in the outer glove held, and her hand wasn’t crumpled like tissue paper.

“Relaxation exercises, Sveta.  Don’t try to fight the instincts all at once, don’t worry about me…”

Sveta convulsed, contorted, and every part of her drew tighter.  Jessica heard something metal give way, felt a small component tap her shoulder, bouncing around the interior of the outer suit before settling in her boot.

Calm.  Sound calm.  “…Just focus on your extremities.  Flex them, release them, repeat.”

Another contortion.  Jessica forced herself to take a deep breath, simultaneously cursing whoever had let this defective equipment go back in the changing room.

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.  “I’m trying, but it’s making it worse.”

“Take your time,”  she replied, defying every instinct that was telling her to get out of this dangerous situation: to press the button, fight or panic.  Like Sveta’s, her instincts weren’t serving her best interests here.  Unlike Sveta, she could fight them.

Sveta contorted, and an airbag gave way in the suit’s midsection.

“Oh!” Sveta said.  She’d noticed, and the realization coincided with further constriction.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Yamada!  No, no!”

“It’s fine,” Jessica lied.  Too many things were going wrong with the suit, all at once.  Why?  There had to have been an altercation between another staff member and a violent patient.  The only reason this many safeguards would be giving way would be if the suit had sustained recent damage.

Except it had gone unreported, and the suit had gone back on the shelf.

“Should have- we should have done this through the glass,” Sveta moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I like you.  I don’t want you to die.”

“We’re striving to socialize you, right?  That’s our goal?  We can’t do that without regular human contact.”

“I’m going to kill you.  I don’t want to but I’m going to.  I’ll-”

“Hush,” Jessica said, sounding far, far calmer than she felt.  “Take-”

She nearly said take a deep breath.  She corrected herself.  “-a few seconds and keep doing your relaxation exercises.  Flex your extremities, relax them.  Flex, relax, steadily work your way up, inch by inch.  Look at me.  I’m not worried.  I’m in this suit.  I feel safe.  Okay?”

“O-okay.”

“I want you to think of all the progress we’ve made since the start of the year.”

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

“We wear the same suits for multiple patients.  That was a safeguard to protect any patients that might collide with us.  It’s not meant for you.  Don’t worry.”

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

“It’s okay,” Jessica soothed.  “You remember our goal, right?”

“Christmas?”

“I think you’re well on your way to your goal.  That’s what you think of when you’re trying to be positive, right?  You can celebrate Christmas with a few other patients, people who you can’t hurt.  I just met one of them, I think.  A new patient of mine.  She’s someone who could use some friends.”

Like a dozen frog’s tongues, tendrils snapped across the length of the room to the ‘bed’, encircling it. In another second, as though each tendril were elastic bands stretched to their limits, Sveta had shifted there, her tendrils gripping the post as she hung from it.  Jessica was free.

Sveta was little more than a very pale face with thin tendrils streaming around it like hair.  Small organs dangled from the largest of the tendrils that extended from the back of her face.  A small symbol marked the girl’s cheekbone: a stylized ‘c’, in black.

It took Sveta a second before she relaxed enough to let the tendrils uncoil from the post.  The tendrils settled in the air, in a rough facsimile of where a person’s limbs might be.  She’d positioned herself so that the organs could rest on the ‘shelves’ on the post.

“I’m sorry,” Sveta said, eyes downcast.

“I’m fine.  I understand,” Jessica soothed.  She shifted position, and one tendril snapped out to catch her leg, gripping her around the knee, squeezing and twisting with a strength that could have torn every ligament in her knee and wrenched Jessica’s calf from her upper leg.  Sveta flinched, closed her eyes for a second, and the tendril moved back to the post.  The suit had held.  No damage done.

“Can… can you tell me about her?  The girl you just saw?”

“I can’t talk to you about my patients, just like I couldn’t tell them about you.”

Sveta clutched the pole harder.  “I understand.  Was she… was she a bad guy?  Like me?”

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

“I think that’s a good topic for today’s session.  But there’s a few things I want to cover first, before we get into the meat of it, so let’s put a pin in that topic for now.”

“Okay.”

“She was a superhero, I can say that much without betraying any confidence.”  And you’ll hear it from the staff sooner or later.  Better to hear it from me.  “There may be wiggle room.  Maybe I could convince one of the hospital staff to stop by, and she could tell you a bit about the new patient through the intercom?  If the patient gives consent?”

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

Sveta snatched a notebook off of the small table with the art supplies, reaching out and bringing it to her faster than the eye could follow.  She passed it to Jessica with just as much speed and force.  Even with the air bags filling the void in the protective suit and offering a cushioning effect, Jessica had to take a step back to catch her balance.

“May I?”

Sveta nodded, bobbing the mask with the mass of tendrils behind it.

The bed-post contorted into an ‘s’ shape as the girl twined around it.  It indicated some kind of negative emotion.  Jessica paged through the recent entries.  The letters of the words were exaggerated, and they got more so as the writer got agitated.  Worries, daydreams about being human, the vividness of her imagination when she pictured places like she’d drawn in the mural, her day-long spell of depression after waking up from a dream where she’d been human, in bed with a boy…

Jessica closed the book.  None of this was so unusual, capable of explaining the sudden anxiety she saw now.  “Can I ask what’s bothering you?”

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

“Because I have no reason to be,” Jessica lied, meeting the girl’s eyes.

The truth is that it’s because I’ve spent more time in the company of monsters than Legend, she thought.  Trust me, honey, you aren’t the scariest I’ve run into, not by half.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

“You’re not the person that was here last week,” the redheaded boy said, shutting the door behind him.

“We rotate.  The PRT doesn’t want any therapist developing a bond to the point that they could manipulate a cape.  By rotating through three or four for a given area, they can ensure that one therapist will be able to identify manipulations on the part of any of the others.”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?  Not letting us develop a bond, no trust?”

Yes, Jessica thought, but she said, “It’s not my place to say.  Is that what you’re hoping to get, here?  A one-on-one relationship?  A bond of trust?”

“And now it begins,” he said.  “Answering questions with questions.”

“An unfortunate fact of the job.  Would you like to sit?”

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

“What should I call you?” Jessica asked.  “I prefer to use real names wherever possible, but I understand if you’d prefer the confidentiality of a codename.”

“Clockblocker.  Dennis.  Whatever.  You get crucified, drawn and quartered if you betray our secret identities, right?”

“Nothing that graphic, but the penalties are severe, and they include extensive jail time, and forfeiting the credentials it took me eight years to get.  You strike me as someone who’s paying a great deal of attention to the workings of the system.  Where people are, how they’re operating.”

“I have to, don’t I?  You ignore that stuff, you get fucked,” Dennis said.

“That’s the second time in two minutes you’ve brought up consequences.  Is that something that concerns you?  Consequences?”

“In the last three months, my dad’s leukemia came back, Leviathan destroyed a third of my hometown, the Endbringer killed my best friend and teammate, and another of my teammates, the Undersiders abducted one of my teammates-”

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

“I talked to her after that incident.  Anyways, I’m sorry to interrupt.  I’m trying to frame it all in my head.”

“They left her so fucked up she went and broke her parole.  Um.  It’s all been unravelling.  People I care about and rely on are getting knocked around, screwed over by dumb luck or because they let their guard down.  Aegis, Gallant, Amy and Victoria, Battery, Shadow Stalker…”

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

“I know.  But the way your thoughts seemed to connect there, it sounded like something more.”

Dennis shrugged.  “It makes me sound like a sleazebag if I say it, but I can get away with that here, right?”

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

“She was hot, and when you spend four or five hours a day with the same people, and you’re a guy, and the one girl in the group that’s around your age is that good-looking, maybe you look forward to seeing her.”

“That doesn’t make you sound like a sleazebag.  It makes it sound like a perfectly normal teenager with a mild crush.”

“Maybe?  Not really; I couldn’t stand her as a person.  It still sucked balls, hearing what I did about her going to juvie, on top of everything else.”

“Did you see yourself in her shoes, at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very mindful of consequences and the dangers you’re facing.  Are you afraid you’ll suffer a similar fate?”

“I dunno.  No.  If I’m worried about anything like that, it’s that there’s a worse fate waiting out there for me.”

“A worse fate?”

“With all the stuff the capes bring to the table, there’s a hundred bad endings that are possible that wouldn’t have been possible thirty years ago.  You hear about what happened to Victoria and Amy Dallon?”

Victoria.  The vivid mental picture disconcerted her briefly.  “Um.  Yes I have.”

“Case in point,” Dennis shrugged.  “And there’s all the stuff that went down with the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Way I’ve been working, sleep isn’t a problem.  Head hits the pillow, I’m out.”

“And the stress of all of this, it’s not affecting your diet?”

“No.  I mean, my diet’s not great, but that’s just trying to work around shift schedules and crap, you know?”

“I know,” Jessica smiled.  “Work makes it hard on me too.  I was going to walk you through some coping methods for anxiety, but it seems like you’re getting by.”

“Too busy to think, really.  I prefer it that way.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word.”

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

“Take your time.  It’s not a big deal if you can’t come up with one.”

“It’s… I feel like there’s probably a word, in another language, but English doesn’t have it.  Not despair, but… that feeling you get when you’re losing?”

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

Dennis nodded, leaned back in the leather seat.  “We’re fighting a war.  The consequences don’t seem to hit the bad guys as hard.  We fight Leviathan, and people act like we won, because the casualty rates were lower than they’ve been in nine years.  Slaughterhouse Nine come, and again, there’s a lot of people who act like it was a victory because only half of them made it out of the city.  Nobody but me seems to notice that, hey, those guys still lived.  They escaped.”

“Maybe they share the same thoughts you do, but they don’t want to face that reality because it scares them.”

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

“Looking at the general notes from your last appointment, you gave the a-okay for him to mention that you were working on some coping mechanisms for your anger?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to keep working on that, or do you feel like it’s more under control?”

“It’s pretty much under control.  I was… my dad was dying, then.  Amy healed him.”

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

“Joining the Wards.  The rules, the bureaucracy.  It’s… fuck, I mean, I appreciate having the resources.  Guys to make the costume, even this.”

“Talking to me?”

“Sure.  Make sure my head’s screwed on right.  But at the same time, being stuck in a classroom after Leviathan attacks, because the rules say I have to be in school a certain number of hours a day?  It’s fucked.  I wonder if the villains are winning because they don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

“Could be.”

“I don’t get it.  I almost think I could be okay with things if I understood them.  Why the fuck do they get away with this shit?”

“I can’t give you the answers you want, and I’m afraid that answers to questions of that magnitude aren’t going to appear nearly as fast as we want them to.”

“I know.”

“But you’re very observant, Dennis.  I’ve already said as much.  I find that we often find what we’re looking for the moment we stop actively searching for them.  Perhaps spend less time looking for the answer, and keep an eye out for opportunities to learn the answer.”

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

“Sorry,” she said, returning the smile with one of her own.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

“Jessica?” Weld asked, peeking his head in the door.

“Come in,” she said.  “It’s good to see you, Weld.  It’s been a little while.”

Weld closed the door and settled in the reinforced chair she’d brought into her office in anticipation of the appointment.

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

He chuckled lightly.  “I’m Weld.  That’s it for now.”

She nodded.  Studied him, at ease in his chair, hands folded across his stomach.

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

“Endbringer, Slaughterhouse Nine.  Losing control of the city.  Did you come from out of town?”

“Yes.”

“Was it on the news?  What’s been going on here?”

“It has been.  I try to catch the eleven o’clock news, and it seems there’s a new story every night, detailing recent events in Brockton Bay.”

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

“Things look worse than they are, if you go by what’s on television.  It paints a positive picture of the local heroes, I have to say.  Not entirely undeserved, if you ask me.”

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  It’s only been five days since the Slaughterhouse Nine fled.  Smoke’s clearing, and I’m not liking where we’re at.”

“Where are you at?”

“Villains who took territory before everything went to hell are still holding the territory after.  Us?  We’re not in good shape.  We lost Battery.”

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

“We got hit harder, and while they’re picking up the pieces, nobody’s jumping to help us.”

“No?”

“Flechette’s going back to New York before too long.  Nobody’s replacing her, or any of the ones who died.  Maybe they think we’re cursed, or maybe it’s career suicide to try to help a city that can’t be helped.”

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

“Some.  There was mention of me maybe climbing the ranks.  I’m marketable, but I’m a freak, too.”

She thought of Sveta.  “It sounds like you’re being unfairly harsh on yourself.”

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

“I see.  That’s unfortunate, that a colleague would make you out to be a freak.”

“Water off my back.  Honest.  It doesn’t bother me.”

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

“Sorry,” he looked genuinely guilty as he reached for the phone, “Way things are-“

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

He answered.  “Weld here… yes.  Skitter?  With Parian.  I understand.  No, I get it.  We’ll see if we can track her.”

He was already out of her seat.  “If it’s okay-“

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

“Flechette said the local villains in power just made a move on a Rogue friend of hers.  I’ll… could I wrangle a longer session next week?”

“That could be arranged.  Go,” she said.

He was at the door when she called after him, “and Weld, I want you to pick a proper name!”

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

“Lily, please, could you sit?”  Jessica asked.

Lily stopped, resting her hands on the back of the armchair.

“It’s clear something happened,” Jessica said.  “You ask me to come, and that’s totally, one hundred percent okay, but I can’t do anything to help until you explain what happened.”

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

“The Rogue your teammate mentioned.  Was she hurt, or killed, or-“

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

“She changed sides.  Ran into Skitter, with Ballistic wreaking havoc in the background.  Knew something was up.  Tattletale fucking with our heads or something.  Then Skitter goes into this good cop bad cop routine, but she’s using Ballistic as the bad cop, the idea that if we don’t go along with her plan, he’ll try to kill us.  Makes Parian an offer she can’t refuse.”

“Power?  Money?”

“Money.  Two hundred thousand dollars, so that Parian’s friends and family who were mutilated by the Slaughterhouse Nine could pay for surgery.  So Parian could go to school.”

“A lot of money.”

“And she asks Parian to leave.  And it’s… it rips my heart out, because she’s my one good friend here.  Because she’s more, I… I can’t remember if I’ve talked to you about it.  You PRT therapists all sort of blend into each other.”

“We’ve talked about it.  You had feelings for her.”

Lily folded her arms on the back of the chair, rested her forehead against her wrists.

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

“No.  No I didn’t.  I was thinking about it, but now I can’t ever, because if it pushes her away, she’ll be totally, completely beyond my reach.  Completely on their side.”

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

“I don’t know.  Sometimes, I thought yes.  Other times, I thought yes, but not nearly as much as I had feelings for her.  And there were other times I thought definitely no.  But I couldn’t ask because by the time I got up the courage, the Slaughterhouse Nine had murdered most of her family and her friends, and the ones who weren’t dead were… altered.  Fuck, my feelings weren’t even on the third page of the list of priorities there.  It was about taking care of her, helping her.  It’s what you do for friends.”

“It is.  It sounds like she was lucky to have you.”

“And then Skitter waltzes in and… it’s like, she slithers right past your defenses.”

“How’s that?”

“I can’t even put it into words.  You run into her, and you can’t even look straight at her without feeling your skin crawl.  Like when someone’s got something wrong with their eye and your own eye starts watering… only with her it’s because of the bugs.”

“Okay.”

“And then she talks, and she sounds so idealistic, and naive.  I don’t know how you sound idealistic and naive with a swarm of cockroaches and bees crawling over your face, but she does.  And so you let your guard down.  And then she starts making sense.  And that was the point where Sab- where Parian started lapping it up.”

“Did she make sense to you?”  Jessica asked.

“I had a feeling about what was happening, said as much.  Now, I don’t know.  There’s only two good answers for it.”

Lily walked over to the door and picked up the satchel she’d brought into the office.  She returned to the chair and sat, plopping the satchel down on the coffee table.

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

“The thing that lets me know which of the two it was.”

“And what are those two answers?”

“Either my gut was right, and Skitter was just feeding us info that Tattletale prepared, just to fuck with us… or Skitter was right.”

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

“I can say no, right?  You don’t have the right to search my things.”

“You can,” Jessica said, leaning back.  “And I won’t touch it.  What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Lily said.  Her eyes were damp.  “Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change what happened with Parian.  Won’t change the choice she made.”

A tear fell free, and Lily wiped it away with her sleeve.

“Fuck, so stupid.  I go up against Leviathan, go up against the Slaughterhouse Nine, and this is what fucks with my head?  This is the moment I want nothing more than to go home, to go home and just crawl under the covers?”

“You could.”

“Can’t.  I… It’d mean I couldn’t do the costume thing again.  Not the same way.  Gotta tough it out.”

Lily didn’t look tough, Jessica observed  She looked like a heartbroken, homesick teenager.

She couldn’t say that, though.

Jessica stood from her chair and approached the girl.  When Lily realized what Jessica was doing, she gratefully accepted the offer of a shoulder to cry on.

Lily’s cell phone rang.  She pulled away, breaking the hug, but she didn’t answer the phone.  “Never fucking ends.  Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

“May I?  I’m not sure if it’s against the rules, but-“

“Yes.  Please.  But-” Lily paused, and the cell phone rang again before she spoke, “Don’t mention I was there?  With Parian?  I wasn’t supposed to be.”

Jessica nodded and answered.  “Mrs. Yamada answering for Flechette.”

Miss Militia here.  Could you please inform Flechette that Triumph has been hospitalized?  Anaphylactic shock.”

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

The one attached to the PRT headquarters.  Flechette knows where.

“We’re in the building,” Jessica said.  “I understand if you’re busy, but could you contact me in my office, when you have a free moment?”

I will.

Jessica hung up and returned the cell phone.  “The hospital in this building.  It’s Triumph.”

Lily stood, pocketing the phone.  “What happened?”

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

Lily wiped the tears from her face.  She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  Her expression hardened, her shoulders squaring.  There wasn’t a trace of the emotion she’d shown just moments before.  “Do I look okay?  Presentable?”

Jessica nodded.

“Thank you.”  Lily was already moving, snatching the satchel from the table, striding for the door.  It slammed shut behind her.

Jessica sat in her chair and tried not to dwell on just why it bothered her that Lily had been able to switch personas so easily.  Did the career demand it?  Why couldn’t a teenager just be allowed to be vulnerable, at a time they felt vulnerable?

The phone rang five minutes later.

“It’s Miss Militia.  You wanted me to contact you?”

“Yes.  I just… I’ve seen half your Wards today.  They aren’t doing well.”

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

“Hi.  I’m Kid Win,” the boy said.  He wasn’t in his suit, though.  He looked like he’d just come from the shower, and his brown hair was still damp.  He extended a hand and Jessica shook it.  “Clockblocker said we had a different therapist this week.”

“Protocols.  Can I ask how Triumph’s doing?”

“He’s okay.  Recovered.  Assault and some of the others are more upset over it.  We’re calling in the big guns.”

“That must be a relief.  To have others pick up the slack.  To deferring some responsibility, after having a heavy burden on your shoulders for some time.”

Kid Win shrugged.  “Dunno.  I am excited to see Dragon’s stuff.”

“I can imagine.”

A silence stretched on.  Jessica tried to get a grasp on this boy, reconcile him with the one filled with self-doubt that she’d read about in Mr. Camden’s files.

“Um.  I still don’t really get what we’re supposed to do here,” Kid Win said.

“We talk.  It’s safe territory.  A place where you can vent about your issues.”

“I kind of prefer to work through problems on my own.”

“It’s very common for tinkers to be introverts.  But sometimes we all need a person to bounce ideas off of.  Non-tinker ideas.  Sorry, it’s a rule I have.”

Kid Win smiled sheepishly, “I kind of subjected Mr. Kiles to a rant about types of modular equipment, a few days ago.  I think he needed therapy by the time I was done.”

“Do you have any ideas you want to bounce off me?  It’s been a rough month.”

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

“Needing to bounce ideas off people.  Needing therapy.  All my problems so far, they’ve stemmed from me trying to fit myself into everyone else’s mold.  It’s only when I broke away from that, started thinking on my own, that things started to make sense, all the pieces of the machine working in unison.”

“Given your tinker background, I’m not sure I can tell: is that a metaphor, or a literal machine?”

“Metaphor.”

“Okay.  Your life didn’t start making sense until you stopped worrying about what others think.  But I’m not being judgmental, and I don’t intend to change your mind about anything.  I don’t want to make you conform.”

“I’m… I still don’t think I want the therapy,” Kid Win said.  “Can I opt out?”

“I’m afraid not.  Why don’t you want it?”

“I’m more comfortable going the other route.  I’d rather walk my own path and be a little screwed up, than walk everyone else’s path.  I’m okay with thinking in a way that’s outside of the norm.  I’ve been happier since I started down that road.”

“How does that impact your duties with the Wards?”

“It doesn’t.  I mean, I stick to the rules,” Kid Win said, with a measure of confidence.  “Funny, how it’s easier to do that when I’m being more unconventional.”

“I’m still not sure I understand.  Can you give me an example of what you mean by unconventional?”

“It’s like… if I did this therapy thing, and I mentioned how I’m not bummed and pissed off about what’s going on with the villains and all that, if I talked about how I’m actually happier now, when everyone else is miserable and stressed, I feel like you’d talk me out of it.”

“I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“If you ask me a question,” he asked, “Do I have to answer?”

“You wouldn’t get in trouble, no.  Is there a particular question you don’t want to answer?”

“It’s not that.  I… I guess I’m saying I’m done here.”  He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pair of headphones.  “No offense.  But I feel like having thirty minutes to kick back and take some notes on stuff is going to be a hell of a lot better for my mental health than talking.  No offense.”

She was offended, but she didn’t say so.

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

“Please come in.  Would you rather me call you Vista or Missy?”

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

Vista sat down in the armchair.  It took her a second to get comfortable.  Her feet didn’t touch the ground if she sat all the way back, and she was forced to sit awkwardly upright if she couldn’t lean against the chair back.

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

“No.  I didn’t think I was talking down to you.”

“It sounded condescending.”

Jessica took a deep breath.  “What can I do for you, Vista?  Is there anything you want to share?”

“Have you been here?”

The non-sequitur caught Jessica off guard.  “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Have you been in Brockton Bay since this all started?”

“No.  I travel for work, and stay in hotels.  On the weekends, or when I’m not working, I stay in Boston.”

“How are you supposed to help when you don’t understand?”

The question might have sounded accusatory, but it rang as more curious instead.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve been trying to help the others, and a lot of the time I can’t.  So how can you do it, when you don’t even know?  When you have no idea what we’re talking about?”

“I went to school for a long time.”

“Does that teach you how to talk to someone when their mentor’s just been attacked?”

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

“Is it why you ask a lot of questions?  Because you don’t know?”

“I ask questions,” Jessica said, “Because only you can give your perspective on things.  I know a lot of what’s happened.  Some from research, some from your colleagues.  But the only opinion and viewpoint that matters to me when you’re in that chair is yours.”

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

“Where do you stand?” Jessica asked.  “What’s your view on things?  Summing it all up?”

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

“When I go on patrol, I can’t go alone, not until I’m fourteen.  So I spend the most time with everyone.  I hear what they say, and we talk about everything.”

“If there are doctors and field medics, maybe you’re the equivalent of a field therapist?” Jessica suggested.

Vista wasn’t amused in the slightest.  “Don’t be condescending.”

“I’m talking the same way I would with anyone else.  I promise.”

There was a pause.  Jessica sat quietly, letting it stretch on.  In a pinch, a resounding silence could prompt a patient to open up.

Vista finally said, “Weld said I’m the team’s heart.”

“I can imagine him saying it.”

Vista gave her a dirty look.  “I couldn’t help Shadow Stalker, but Weld said she was beyond helping.”

Jessica nodded.

“…But I think I got through to Clockblocker.  For a while I thought he’d fly off the handle at Weld.”

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

“I feel like there’s two ideas and they’re playing tug of war with my head,” Vista confessed.  She gave Jessica a look, as though she were daring her to say something.  “Yeah.  One part of me, it’s like… I want us all to stay together.  Aegis died.  Gallant died.  Battery died.  Velocity died.  Dauntless died.  Browbeat left, Armsmaster retired and Shadow Stalker went to jail.  And now even after it’s all over, Triumph gets hurt?”

“I think I’d feel pretty spooked, after all that,” Jessica said.  “It’s a lot of people to be losing, in the space of a month.”

“I just… I want to do what I can to keep us together.  Keep people fighting.  But..”

“But what?”

“The other part of me?  The colder part that’s being very logical, very rational?  It says that won’t happen.  We won’t stay together.  Can’t.  One by one, horrible things will happen to us.  My friends will die, and if they’re lucky, they’ll die fighting. And I’m somehow okay with it.  What does it really matter when the world’s supposed to end in two years?”

“I… I’ve heard about that.  It’s pretty strictly limited to the PRT, though, and there hasn’t been any strict confirmation.”

“We don’t have very good precogs,” Vista said.  “Not ones that can see that far ahead and still make sense of it all.”

“Does it… are you bothered?  Looking at things that way?  Thinking that your friends will die violently?  That the world will end?”

“No.  I’m… very okay with it, when I think about it clinically.  It’s the way things are, isn’t it?  The way the world works.”

“I don’t think so,” Jessica confessed.

“That part of me, that feels like that?  It’s telling me I’m going to die.  It’s inevitable, it’s soon, and it’ll be horrible,” Vista said.  “Therapy that.”

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

“Okay,” Jessica said, somber  “I’ll try.”

“Just like that?”  Vista’s eyes widened a little.

“Just like that.  Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse things than a young woman torn between fatalism and wanting to help her friends stick together.  I can’t tell you anything about your teammates, but I can arm you with some tools, so your field-therapy is more effective.  If that part of you is better equipped, maybe it’ll get a bit of an edge in that tug of war that’s going on inside your head.  Sound good?”

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

Jessica fumbled to find the ringing phone.  She had to move the pizza box and the bag of chips to reach it, reclined back on her bed the second she hit the call button, muting the television.  The pants she’d put on only for long enough to answer the door and pay the delivery guy slipped to the floor.

“Yeah,” she said, suppressing a sigh. “No, I’m not busy.  Isn’t he Richmond’s patient, though?  He’s away?  Fuck me.  Okay.  I’ll be there in an hour.”

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

Somehow, when she’d left after seeing the Wards on Saturday morning, she’d let herself believe that things were largely resolved.  Dragon had been en route.  Not just one suit, either.

When she’d heard, on Sunday, that the suits had left the city, unsuccessful in their mission, she’d allowed herself to believe that things, at least, hadn’t gotten worse.

She’d seen Clockblocker in the morning.  There had been a shift conflict with Weld having to watch Vista on her shift, and he’d rescheduled for the afternoon.

Now this.  She’d never felt more useless.  The Wards had intervened to stop a mad villain from attacking the local debate, and it had all gone tragically wrong.  They hadn’t finished tallying the dead.

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

Nobody came to her office all day.  Too much to be done.

Waiting nervously, restless in her inability to offer any assistance at all in a crisis like this, she headed up to the roof and bummed a cigarette from one of the interns, smoking for the first time since grad school.

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

Jessica sat on the edge of the roof, legs dangling.  She was on her fifth cigarette.

“Mrs. Yamada?”

The voice startled her, because it didn’t sound quite human.  She turned around.

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

“Could I ask for a few moments of your time?” he asked.

“I… yes.  I should warn you I predominantly work with juveniles.”

“I know.  I’m not looking for therapy.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t say anything as he crossed the rooftop.  Somewhere downstairs, the local heroes were gathering.  The Undersiders were present as well.  Another threat.  Flechette had been right.  It didn’t end.

She felt a pang of sympathy for her Wards.  Vista had asked her how she could dispense advice, when she hadn’t experienced it for herself.  The response that Jessica had been unable to frame was just this.  That if she did, if she found herself under that same pressure, she wouldn’t have the objectivity.  Besides, if she was unbalanced, how could she hope to offer any aid to another person?

It was a bittersweet thing that nobody had asked her to.  She wanted to help, but she was glad she didn’t have to, because she wasn’t sure of her own emotions, now.

Except Eidolon was asking.  One of the most powerful men in the world.

He sat down beside her.  He pulled his hood back, letting it fall around his shoulders, then undid the clasp for his mask. He set the glowing mask down on the edge of the roof, beside her cell phone and cigarettes.

He looked so average.  Heavy cheeks, thinning hair, a big nose, thick brows.  More ugly than attractive, but not so much that he’d draw attention walking down the street.

And still, she felt like it was hard to breathe, as though his very presence sucked the air away.  She felt like she might if someone had a gun to her head, with no intention of pulling the trigger.  It was there, devastating power that could end her existence in a heartbeat.  The fact that he didn’t plan to use it didn’t matter.

This, Sveta, she thought, is why I can be around you and be so calm.  Because I’ve been around monsters like this.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Eidolon said, sounding very normal, “because there are few I can trust to listen.  I might have found a priest, but it’s late, and there are so few good ones out there.  I’ve used psychometry to view the past few days of your life.  You’ll do what I need you to do.”

How am I supposed to respond to that?  “I… okay.”

“I’m losing my powers.  Slowly but surely.  If this goes much further, mankind may lose this war.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Against the Endbringers, there are really only two individuals who can stop them, drive them away.  Scion is one.  I’m another.  Each of us is worth a hundred other capes, if not more.  I’m not boasting when I say this.  But my powers are getting weaker every day, little by little.  Whatever vast, improbably deep well parahumans tap into to use abilities, I suspect mine is running dry.”

“And only Scion will be able to stop them, after you’ve lost your powers?  I’m sorry.  I’m thinking slowly tonight.  Been awake for a long time.”

“It’s fine.  You’re exactly right.  They really only need two or three critical victories, and it all ends.  And they will win more without me there.”

Jessica nodded.  I can’t process all this right now.

“When I fight, Mrs. Yamada, I feel as though my lost power is somehow within reach.  Reserves I have not yet touched, maybe.  Or a fresh well.  It is something, but it is there.  The problem is that I rarely get to truly fight.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.  I think so.”

“I hope that tonight is one of those moments.  I hope to fight, to fight seriously.  With the information we have about this threat, I can feel confident that the situation would be salvageable if I fail.  Even in the worst case scenario, this could be ended with a strategic missile strike.  In my absence, the heroes would have weeks to adjust, to change their battle plans and compensate, before the next Endbringer arrived.”

“You’re talking about dying?”

“Here, at least, I can fight this monster, and where I might never make the gamble against an Endbringer, I hope to fight this thing to the death.  Hers or mine.”

To the death.

He continued, “If I can find that untapped well of power, then it will be worth it.  If I can’t, then there’s no point to me existing anyways.”

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

He gave her a look that was both incredulous and pitying.  She felt a pang of sympathy for Vista, and how she’d reacted when she felt like she was being condescended to.

Maybe life doesn’t offer anything suitably interesting or profound to a man who’s been as powerful as Eidolon is, she thought.

“I…” Jessica said, “Why me?  What am I doing?”

“You know, now.  If I die, you can explain what happened.  But I’ve read you, and I don’t think you will tell others until the fight is over, and you won’t tell others what I planned if I succeed, tonight.”

She stared at him.

“If you were a priest,” he said, “I would have you say a prayer and bless my endeavor tonight.  I will settle for having you wish me luck.”

“Good…” she had to get her words in order, “Good luck.”

He nodded.

Then he took off.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Miss Militia didn’t respond.  She stared down the length of her gun at Tattletale.  I could believe that if we gave her cause, any of the rest of us were an instant away from getting shot.  We had bulletproof armor, but there wasn’t anything saying she wasn’t using the fanciest armor-piercing rounds.  Her power supplied whatever hardware she wanted.

“We didn’t take Vista,” I told her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Tattletale said, “We’d take her, do that sort of damage, and then come back?  Approach you guys peacefully?”

“I’m beginning to see why Armsmaster was so frustrated with you, Undersiders.  Every time we run into you, we’re left in the dark, vast amounts of information missing from the overall picture.  There’s always surprises.  So I’m paying very close attention to what you are saying.  Case in point, you say Vista was taken, and not murdered.”

“I don’t think she was killed,” I said.  Tattletale nodded.

“That’s good to know,” Miss Militia said.  She sighed, “When you’re going on the offensive, there’s nothing held back, you don’t pull any punches, short of murder… and you apparently came damn close with Triumph, Skitter.”

Triumph folded his arms.

She continued, “If you’re not trying to kill us, you’re approaching us with open arms, asking for help, putting us in a situation where we can’t accept without breaking our rules, but refusal comes at a cost.”

“It’s that second bit,” Imp said.  Some of the heroes wheeled around to find her standing on the opposite side of her group.  I managed to hide my own surprise.  Imp added, “We’re here because we need help.  This is a nasty one, too.”

Miss Militia turned back to me, and her voice was a little harder.  “I thought so.  It’s your pattern.  Except there’s always information missing.  Information withheld.  You said you were indirectly responsible for this?”

“You caught that,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me.  “Should we dish out the dirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have to anyways.”

“Full disclosure,” Tattletale said.  “We were working for Coil.  The Travelers were too.”

Miss Militia didn’t move a centimeter.  Some of the other heroes did.

“He’s dead, in case you weren’t aware,” Tattletale said.  “And the Travelers are a little upset, because they were counting on him to help them out.”

I could imagine Tattletale smiling.  She’s misdirecting them.  They think he died at the debate, but she’s talking about the real death.  The death at my hands.

Miss Militia shook her head.  “I doubt this was the Travelers.  We heard howling, and this wasn’t Genesis.  Analysis of her file by some of our top guys suggests she has limits to the strength of whatever forms she’s chosen.  Strong, yes, but not enough to tear half the wall off the front of a building in the time the witnesses described.  I would, however, believe Hellhound’s dogs could do it.  Besides, Genesis has never been on record shapeshifting to resemble someone or something.”

Never? I thought.  She crafted her bodies in a dream state.  I knew she’d made a body that resembled her real self, but the rest…  Did it take too much effort to get the aesthetic details exactly right, to the point that it cost her in other departments?

“When the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked,” I said, “Do you remember who they targeted?”

“Armsmaster, Regent, Hookwolf, Panacea.  Two more.  With the appearances Mannequin and Burnscar made in the Boardwalk, we belatedly discovered Hellhound was another, and we were theorizing you were the last of them, Skitter.”

“I got in their way too many times,” I said.  “But they didn’t want me.  But the last one was Noelle.”

Her gun shifted a fraction towards me.  I wasn’t sure she was aware she was doing it. “Noelle?”

Tattletale spoke up, “The Travelers have two other members who don’t see much action.  Oliver handles their day-to-day stuff.  Finds and prepares places for them to settle down, gets food, looks after Noelle.  Noelle…”

“New York,” Miss Militia interrupted.  “She’s the one that’s responsible for the disappearance of those forty people?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tattletale said.

“The reason the Travelers have been operating like they are,” I told Miss Militia, “Going for the quick and easy cash grabs and constantly moving, it’s been for her sake.  Trying to find someone who can help.  They found Coil, or Coil found them, and they thought they had the answer they needed.  Except now Coil’s dead.  Noelle’s snapped, and it’s very possible Vista was her first captive.”

“What does she-” Triumph started.  He stopped as Miss Militia raised one hand.

“You’re good at this, Undersiders,” she said.  “But I do learn my lesson.  I won’t get caught up in your story, I know you’ll have to give me the details, if this situation is as serious as you say.  But let’s postpone that for a minute.  Why don’t you start off by explaining how you’re indirectly responsible for this.”

I turned to Tattletale.  She gave her head a small shake.

“What aren’t you telling us?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Stuff,” Tattletale said.  “Surrounding the circumstances of Coil’s death.  But getting into the particulars would create more problems than it solves, for you guys and for us.”

“I dunno,” Assault said, from behind Miss Militia, “I doubt staying quiet is going to help you much.”

“Did you have something to do with the explosion at the town hall?”  Miss Militia asked, and there was a note of anger in her voice, “The way things went wrong?  The deaths of those reporters, the injuries sustained by the retired Director and the candidates?”

“No,” I said.  “I swear on everything I stand for that I, we, didn’t play any part in planning or setting that in motion.”

“You can understand if we don’t take you at face value on that, nice as it sounds,” Assault said.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Get your hands on the evidence from the scene, some of the blood and bits from the bodies.  Send them out of town.  Discreetly.  Get another lab to run DNA tests.”

“Why?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s pig meat.  Almost all of it.  Glued together with transglutaminase.  Human bone, and human blood, probably, but if you look for it, you’ll find antifreeze.”

“Antifreeze?”

“Glycerol.  It’s how they store it at blood banks.”

“You’re saying it was staged,” Miss Militia said.  “Despite the fact that we had Wards on scene, innumerable witnesses.”

“Despite that.”

Miss Militia straightened a fraction, “And of course, we can’t check it now.  So you’re expecting us to work with you in the meantime, help you with whatever problem you’re suggesting you’re partially to blame for setting in motion, and when the lab tests come in, long after the situation’s resolved, we’ll find you were lying.”

Assault added, “And somehow, conveniently, you come out ahead when all’s said and done.  A handful more of your enemies injured or dead.”  There was a hint of emotion punctuating the end of the statement.  Battery.

“Telling the truth,” Tattletale said.

“This situation’s serious,” I told Miss Militia, “And if you do what we’re suggesting, I can assure you, we don’t wind up in a better position at the end of this.”

“Why’s that?” Miss Militia asked.

It was Grue who answered her, breaking his silence with his deep, eerie voice, “Because we’re recommending you call in the big guns.  Call in everyone.”

“Class S threat,” Tattletale said.  “Or damn near.”

The tip of Miss Militia’s gun wavered as she started to react and then stopped herself.  Neither she nor any of the heroes moved or spoke for long seconds.

When she did speak, she said, “There’s six class S threats active in the world at large.  The Endbringers make up three of them.  The Slaughterhouse Nine as a group are a fourth.  You’re saying this Noelle is on par with one of them?”

“She’s a nascent Endbringer,” I said.

“Bullshit!”  Triumph shouted, not a half second after I’d said it.

“Fuck me,” one of the Wards said.  It was only after he opened his mouth again that I saw it was Weld.  “Please tell me this is another one of Tattletale’s mind-games.”

“Explain.” Miss Militia demanded.

“She’s maybe a nascent Endbringer,” Tattletale said.  “It’s one theory.  Her powers are transforming her, and she’s getting less human, getting tougher and more desperate every day.  Coil was keeping her contained, with heavy vault doors and promises of a fix.  Now she’s free and she’s pissed.”

“And this hypothetical individual has Vista?” Clockblocker asked.

“It’s very likely she has Vista,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Coil’s precog said she wouldn’t cause any real damage until dawn.  That’s… one hour and twenty-nine minutes from now.  I guess this kind of incident doesn’t count as anything serious.”

“You have Coil’s precog in your custody?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Dinah Alcott?”

“I took her home,” I said.  “Her powers are currently disabled, so resist the urge to go to her and ask her for help with this situation.  Everything she’s been through, she deserves some peace.”

“Assault,” Miss Militia said, “Let’s get some confirmation that at least some of what they said is the truth.  Get in touch with the Alcotts.”

“On it,” he said.  He drew a rugged smart phone from his belt and put it to his ear.

“I think it’s time you guys offer the particulars on this ‘Endbringer’,” Miss Militia said.

“She’s as strong as Leviathan, physically,” Tattletale said, “She’s not as tough, based on what I’ve seen.  Have you read the notes on what I told Alexandria after Leviathan’s attack?  About the density of Leviathan’s body?”

Miss Militia nodded.  “Higher density as you penetrate deeper to the core, to the point that it bends the rules of how molecules and atoms should work.  It makes sense.  Armsmaster had a molecule-severing weapon that couldn’t cut through all of Leviathan’s hand, and it explains why nearly all the damage we do is so superficial.”

“Noelle doesn’t have that yet.  I’m not sure if she ever will.  We don’t know if she’s really becoming an Endbringer or not.  What I’ve seen of her was only partial, a camera feed with dim lighting on the other end,” Tattletale said.  “But everything she eats gets added to her biomass, and I think she’ll probably reach a critical point and stop growing, start fortifying what’s already there instead.”

“She’s big?”  Weld asked.

“She’s big,” Tattletale said.  “And if she gets her hands on you, she’ll eat you whole.  Spit you out along with a copy.  Copies with powers like yours.  Stronger, tougher, meaner.  Understand?  When this fight starts, it starts for real.”

“She duplicates people,” Miss Militia stated.

“And the duplicates aren’t on our side,” Tattletale replied.  “You’re going to have to call for backup at some point, it’s just a question of whether you do it before shit goes down or after.  When you do get in touch with the PRT heads and get the a-ok to call a red alert or whatever it is you do, you’re going to want to be very careful about the kind of cape you request, because we might wind up fighting them.”

Assault had finished his phone call and was waiting for Tattletale to finish talking.  Miss Militia turned her attention to him, and he said, “Story checks out.  Kid’s at the hospital, recovering from a long stint of drug abuse.”

“The situation they’re describing is too dangerous to be ignored.  We’ll move forward with this.  Tentative cooperation,” Miss Militia announced.  “In exchange for our trust and our assistance, the Undersiders will give us one hostage.”

“How about me?” Imp offered.  Her tone was light, joking.

“Someone who we can keep track of,” Miss Militia said.  “Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  If you’d please step into the van?”

“Fuck that,” Rachel replied.

“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Grue said.  I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“You, along with Skitter, are problematic due to the sheer amount of damage you could do in the enclosed space of a van.  Tattletale’s more damaging in other ways.  It would help if we knew exactly what her powers were…”  Miss Militia trailed off, inviting a response.

“Not sharing,” Tattletale said.  “And I just had my turn at being a hostage.  Not sharing the details on that either, for the record.”

“Regent’s too dangerous.  We don’t know exactly how long it takes for him to achieve full control, and our records suggest he can regain control instantly.  Even if we assume it takes an hour or more, we can’t trust that we won’t end up in a crisis situation where Regent’s being kept in custody for an extended period and gets the opportunity to use his power on someone.  Not to mention the possibility that he could call Shatterbird to his location.  Separated from her dogs, Rachel Lindt is the least threatening and most vulnerable member of your team.  The optimal hostage, if you will.”

“And she won’t accept being separated from her dogs or being kept in custody,” I said.  “I will.  I can hand you my weapons and send my bugs away.”

“Skitter,” Grue said, “No.”

Miss Militia folded her arms, unconvinced.

I reached over my shoulder, slowly, and unbuckled my utility compartment.  Tattletale grabbed it for me as it came free, and the straps fed out through the rings beneath the shoulder panels.  She handed it to me, and I drove away the bugs I’d gathered inside.  When they were gone, I sent away the bugs that were nestled in the midst of my hair, beneath each of my other armor panels and the ‘skirt’ of my armor, where it covered the scorched leggings of my costume.

“So many fucking bugs,” Clockblocker said.  “They have to weigh as much as she does.”

“No, not as much as you’d think,” I said.  I turned to Miss Militia.  “Satisfied?”

She extended a hand for the concave, spade-shaped piece of armor, her gun turning into a handgun in the meantime.  “Triumph, pat her down.  Everyone else, get ready to mobilize. Assault, you’ll be riding my bike.  I’ll sit in the van.  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, and Kid Win, with me.”

I waited while Triumph roughly pat me down, running his fingers into the folds and crevices of my armor and beneath my belt.  He found the two pieces of paper I’d folded and tucked inside, shook them out as if there might be powder inside, unfolded them, read them, then put them back the way I’d had them.

I felt like saying something to him, but wasn’t sure what.  Sorry for attacking your family and nearly murdering you?  It sounded almost taunting.

Miss Militia led the way to a containment van, and I followed, feeling oddly lightweight.  She opened the back, indicating we should gather inside.

They arranged themselves with Clockblocker and Weld sat to either side of me, Miss Militia, Flechette and Kid Win opposite me.  The door slammed shut as Kid Win got himself seated.

I had only a few bugs in place to get a sense of their positions.  Few enough that I might have lost track of who was who if I wasn’t careful.  Using one of these bugs, I did a minor, peripheral sweep.  They didn’t have weapons pointed my way, but Flechette and Kid Win did have weapons on their laps, a crossbow and laser blaster.

“You’re shorter, looking at you like this,” Clockblocker said.  “Tall for a girl, but… not tall.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get rid of all your bugs,” Clockblocker commented, as the truck started moving.  He was looking in the direction of the patrolling mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

He noticed.

“Not all,” I agreed.

“Why not?”

Because I’m blind, and I’m utterly helpless if you take all the bugs away, I thought.

“Too much of it’s automatic,” I said.  “I got in the habit of using my power to survey the situation, and now it happens even without my thinking about it.”

“Thinker one,” Weld said.  “Because your bugs let you sense things to the point that you might be a short-range clairvoyant.”

“That’s about what the Director said,” I replied.

I heard a click, and bugs moved to the source of the noise to investigate.  Miss Militia had my utility compartment in her lap, and she was holding a handgun.  Mine.

“Only one shot remaining.  Two reasons that might be the case,” she said.  “Saving it for yourself, or it was used and you haven’t reloaded.”

“The latter,” I replied.

“Who have you been shooting?”

Your Director.  “Mannequin.  And shot through some boards so I could break them.”

“Oh?”

“Long story.  I haven’t really thought to reload it.  I don’t use the gun much.”

“Obviously,” she said, but she didn’t elaborate.  “String?”

“Can you leave stuff where it is?”  I asked.

“I’m curious why you have coiled string in your backpack here,” she said.

“It’s a utility compartment, not a backpack.  It’s so I don’t have to have the spiders make it in the middle of a fight.”

“Spider silk,” Kid Win spoke his realization aloud.

Miss Militia continued, “Pepper spray.  Changepurse with… cotton swabs?  I see, it’s to mask the rattle of spare change.  And smelling salts, needles.”

“Please leave everything where it was,” I said, a little firmer.

I’d collected a few bugs on the various objects she’d withdrawn from the interior of the compartment.  I sensed her putting things back, watched to make sure she was putting everything back properly and in the right place.

Clockblocker, though, leaned across the back of the van and picked up the baton.

“You’ve got stuff like this that’s high quality, but then the other stuff’s so mundane,” Clockblocker commented.  “Odd for someone half the nation’s paying attention to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Not really watching TV these days.”

“You guys took over the city, which is something that’s usually limited to psychos like Nilbog or the third world nations.  I guess with Coil gone, you’re queen of the local underworld.  Or is it Tattletale who’s taken that position?”

“We’re partners.”

“You sound so matter of fact about it,” Clockblocker said.  “You’re not ashamed?  Guilty?  Or proud?”

“Stand down, Clockblocker.  She was gracious enough to be our guest.  Don’t provoke her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“I’m not bothered,” I said.  I’m more annoyed at you picking through my equipment.  “And I don’t feel anything about being in charge.  It is what it is.”

“And you’re not afraid at all, being a hostage?” he asked.

“Should I be?”

“You violated the code by association when you took someone, took control of someone.  The same someone who you saw unmasked.  You violated the code again when you attacked Triumph’s family.  So what’s stopping us from tearing off your mask right now?  The same code you’ve disrespected and broken?”

“Look me in the eye,” I told Clockblocker, turning my head to face him, “And tell me you don’t think Shadow Stalker was a deeply damaged, broken person before we ever got our hands on her.”

He faced me square on, “She was also a hero.”

“She was a hero because the other choice was juvie,” I said.  “In the months leading up to our kidnapping her, she was using real crossbow bolts.  Shooting them at people, Grue included.  If I remember right, she wasn’t supposed to have or be using any lethal ammo, on penalty of jail time.”

“Do you have evidence?” Miss Militia asked.

“Would it matter?  Does it matter?  Judging by what I saw, in my limited interaction with her, she was pretty psychotic.  There’s no way you guys spent all that time with her without something crossing your radar.  The night we took her, I baited her out and she tried to cut my throat.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Miss Militia said, “But again, I have to ask for evidence.  I can’t take you at your word, there’s procedures to be followed.”

“Procedures that tie your hands,” I said.

“And they protect us at the same time.”

“If you’re looking for a reason why we’re in charge,” I said, turning towards Clockblocker, “That’d be a good place to start.  You guys knew you had someone bloodthirsty and fucked up working beside you.  You accepted it, probably accommodated her.  Probably cut her slack in other areas, because I doubt she was an angel outside of costume, either.”

I let that sit with them for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted positions on the bench.  “We aren’t limited by oversight and bureaucracy, and we don’t pretend our lunatics are kid-friendly.”

“And without that oversight, you’re free to kidnap people like her and subject her to torture,”  Clockblocker said.

“That’s enough,” Miss Militia said.  She wasn’t quite as sharp as before, but her words were somehow more effective.

We rode on in silence for a few long moments.

“You smell like smoke,” Clockblocker said.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said, “I reserve every right to adjust your patrol schedule if you won’t stop engaging Skitter.”

“I’m really okay,” I told her, keeping calm.  If I’m ever going to shake the idea of Skitter being this unpredictable, dangerous felon, it’s now.  “I’m not going to flip out and hurt someone because I don’t like what they’re saying.  When I said I shot some boards, it was to escape a burning building.”

“Coil wasn’t lying when he said he set your headquarters on fire,” Weld commented.

“He was,” I replied.  “This was something different.”

“Fuck it, give me shit patrols,” Clockblocker said.  “I’m not going to just sit by and obey orders, when I have a chance to get answers.”

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said the name in a warning tone.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” I muttered.  “Recognizing when the bureaucracy is hindering more than helping, pushing against it.  I can respect that.”

“Don’t compare me to you,” Clockblocker said.

“Okay,” I said, smiling a little behind my mask, “I won’t.”

“I’m wondering how the fuck you can justify doing any of the shit you’ve pulled and act high and mighty.”

“I won’t deny I’ve done stuff,” I said, “But I somehow doubt it’s the same stuff you’re thinking about.  But I had reasons for everything I did.  If you want to tell me what you think I’ve done, I can try my hand at explaining myself.  Provided you’re willing to hear me out.”

“Clockblocker,” Kid Win said, “Listen to Miss Militia.  This is the kind of stuff that goes on your record.”

Clockblocker shook his head.  “Fuck my record.  Let’s start with the takeover.  Justify that.”

“It put me in a position to help people.  Visit my territory.  People there are healthier, happier, safer, because of what I’ve done.”

“Except the ones Mannequin and Burnscar killed.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.

“No comment?”

“I tried,” I said.  “I did what I could to help the people in my territory.  Maybe my being there did more harm than good.  I don’t know.  But I tried to help.”

“Let’s call that one a draw, then.  What about how things turned out with Panacea and Glory Girl?”

“I already quizzed her on this,” Flechette said.

“I want to hear it from her myself.”

“That was Jack, not me,” I said.  Flechette nodded, snorted just loud enough that she knew I’d hear it.  It was very ‘I thought she’d say that’.

“But you were one of the last people seen with Glory Girl.  You were sighted in Panacea’s company,” Clockblocker said.

“I tried to help her.  Talk to her.  We invited her to join the Undersiders, because she was in a bad headspace, she needed other perspectives beyond her own.  But she finished giving Glory Girl medical care after Crawler’s spittle had burned through half her body, she refused our offers to help and refused Tattletale’s suggestion that she fix what she’d already done to Glory Girl’s head… Tattletale knows the full story there, though I have suspicions.  The next time I saw her, she was talking to Jack, and he was getting to her, fucking with her head.  Stuff happened, I went after him, and it was the last time I saw her.”

“She had a freak-out, you know,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in a bad headspace, sure, but she was a good person.  Healed people I really care about when she didn’t have to.  That’s why I’m pressing you on this stuff, no matter what Miss Militia might put on my record or do to my patrol schedule.  Because Amy deserves to have someone stand up for her, in her absence.”

“I’m sorry she freaked, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“It was bad.  She took Glory Girl with her, you know.  When Gallant died, Vista saw the body.  When Aegis was mashed to a literal pulp by Leviathan, to the point that he couldn’t function anymore, when he died, despite his power?  I got to see the remains to verify for myself.  But Victoria Dallon was still alive and they didn’t let us see.  A select few adults and family members got to see her, they carted her off to a parahuman asylum and none of the rest of us got to say goodbye, because the end result was that fucked up.”

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” I said.  “But that wasn’t my fault.”

“Fine.  I’ll concede a point for you, then.  You tried, maybe.  One-naught.  What about Battery?”

“I was with Jack and Bonesaw, affected by the miasma, thought they were my friends.  Battery was giving chase.  Around the time I figured out what was happening, she got attacked by the mechanical spiders.  She was fine when I left her.”

“Assault blames you.  Probably why Miss Militia didn’t have him riding in the van with us.”

“Okay.  If I’d been in a better headspace, I would have backed her up.  But there was the possibility Jack would get away, and the miasma-”

“It fucked with all of us.  Fine.  Let’s call that another draw.  Can’t judge you either way with that stuff in play.  Triumph?  His family?”

“Didn’t know he was Triumph until we were in the thick of it,” I said,  “But I did it for Dinah.  It doesn’t excuse it, but I did it for her.”

“How’s that work?”

“To get into a position where I could free her, I had to get close to Coil.  He’d already clued into the fact that I was planning on betraying him if he didn’t let her go, put the screws to me, basically.  Forced me to do what I normally wouldn’t.”

“It had nothing to do with keeping control of the city?”

I hesitated.  “I didn’t say that.  I could try to justify it, explain how I really felt like I was doing more good than harm and what all that meant, but it would take too long, cover too many details I’m not willing to share, and I’m not a hundred percent convinced I’d buy it myself.  I’ll concede that one to you.  Not in a position to defend or explain it.”

“One-all, then.  Let’s talk Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re back to that?”  I asked.

“She was an asshole, dangerous, didn’t even like her, but she was still a teammate of mine.  Some of your teammates might fall into that camp, so maybe you know how I feel.”

“Maybe.  But like I said, we weren’t holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue.  You guys were.”

“Our focus right now is you.  You, who drove Shadow Stalker into a corner, to the point where she flipped out on her mom and tried to hang herself with an electrical cord.”

What?

“…I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.

“Do you feel bad about it?  I’m genuinely curious.”

“I feel… less bad than I should,” I said.  “But yeah.  It isn’t nice to hear.”

“Because of what happened, because she was still reeling from the time she spent as your meat puppet, she attacked her mom, who called the authorities.  They caught up just in time to catch her in her room, electrical cord around her neck.  Cost Shadow Stalker her probation, meaning she got stuck in some parahuman detention center until she’s eighteen.  And word is her mom doesn’t want her back when she’s finished the three-year sentence.  Last straw and everything.  Her life, put on hold, her family shattered.  Maybe she was damaged like you said, but you took her captive and tormented her until she went off the deep end.”

“I’m not happy she was pushed that far,” I said, “That’s ugly.  You’re right.  But getting her off the streets?  Yeah.  That’s worth it, at least.”

“What I don’t get is… why?  Was the data from that computer really so important?”

“Coil needed it, and I needed Coil happy.  Either he’d like my work enough to free her on my request or he’d trust me enough that I could catch him off guard and help her escape some other way.”

“I’m sure Dinah would be thrilled to hear that,” Clockblocker said.  “Some other girl’s life ruined for her sake.  How does a supervillain warlord react to that sort of news, by the way?  Finding out a heroine tried to hang herself?  Do you sit in your swivel chair, stroking your tarantula and pull off your best maniacal laugh?  One more enemy out of the way?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.  “Not until you told me what happened to her.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” he commented.  “You do stuff, you have reasons, like your apparent feeling that, oh, it’s okay because she was a violent personality, but you don’t pay attention to the ending, to everything that comes after.  A whole lot of people have been screwed up and hurt in your wake, Skitter.”

“I react like you see me reacting.  I don’t enjoy it.  No maniacal laughing here.”

“But you plan to continue doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the future,” I said.  “Aside from stopping Noelle.”

“That’s a good point to end this particular discussion,” Miss Militia cut in.  “I will be adjusting your patrol route and noting this minor infraction on your record, Clockblocker.  I hope you’re more or less satisfied with this discussion.”

“More or less,” Clockblocker said, handing the combat baton to Miss Militia.  “Unless our local Supervillainess-in-chief wants to pursue further debate.  I think I was ahead by one.  Two-one.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  I left it at that.  No, I’m not entirely sure I want to hear the full details on any of the other stuff.  Quit while I’m only a little behind.

If he knew me a little better, I wondered just how targeted those questions could get.

I’d killed a man, and I still didn’t feel bad about it.  I didn’t feel anything in particular when I thought about it.

In a way, I’d taken the perspective that I didn’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t wrong.  He was a bad person, irredeemable, and it had been the only option.

Except now Clockblocker’s words and his tone were resonating within me, and I was left just a little less confident about the conclusions I’d come to, in terms of the stuff we’d discussed and all the little events that had added up over time.  I’d made peace with who I was and who I was becoming in part because my peers were limited to other villains and civilians who I could dismiss because they didn’t have the full perspective of life on the battlefield.  My dad was among those civilians, it almost pained me to admit.

I wasn’t entirely certain I felt so peaceful now.  Most things, I couldn’t imagine I’d really do them differently, given the circumstances and the knowledge I’d had at the time, but the decisions weren’t sitting quite so easily as they had been.

It was several minutes before the van stopped.  Assault was the one who opened the door, and Clockblocker held the front door of the PRT offices open for me, in a very ironic manner.  My team was already waiting in the lobby.

I’d entered once as a prisoner and thief, once as an invader and kidnapper.  It was an eerie thing to be entering as ally to the good guys, when I’d never felt further from being one.

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Queen 18.2

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“They won’t take me back.”

“They will.”

“I saw it,” Dinah whispered.  “Before I ever met Coil.  The fear in their eyes.  When I said the numbers and I was right.  They’re scared of me.  They were relieved when I got taken.  They won’t want me now that I’m free.”

“They will want you.  Just wait,” I said.  “They’ll welcome you with open arms, and there won’t even be a hint of fear.”

“I look weird.  My hair’s all dry and dull, and I haven’t been eating that much.  I always felt sleepy, or edgy, and was never hungry, even when my stomach was growling.  And maybe I didn’t eat some because it was my only way of fighting back, the only time I could choose something, even if it was bad for me.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does!”  There was a note of desperation in her voice.  “They’ll see me and I’ll look different and they’ll think about all those moments when I left them feeling nervous and how there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t even mentioned because it’s that bad.  I’m not even human anymore.”

“You’re definitely human, Dinah.”

“Then why do they call us parahumans?  Doesn’t the ‘para’ part mean half?  Paraplegic, only half your body works.  Parahuman, half human.”

“Not exactly.  It means beside, which is how it’s used with paraplegic, or paragraph.  It can also mean extra or beyond, like paranormal.  We’re next to human, or more than human, depending on how you look at it.  I think it’s pretty apt.  Powers, in a lot of ways, make the best and worst parts of our humanity stand out.  And that depends on the choices we make.  Your parents can’t judge you for stuff you didn’t choose.”

“How… how do you even know that?”

“Which?”

“The meaning of the words.”

“My mom taught English,” I said.  “So I was always sort of introduced to that stuff.  And after she passed away, I maybe started paying more attention to it because it’s the sort of thing she would have done.  A way of remembering her.”

“Are you an orphan?”

“My dad’s alive.  I don’t have as much contact with him as I should.”

“Why not?”

“It seems like every time I get closer to him, he gets hurt or put in danger.  Or I only get close because of the hurt.  I don’t know.”

“You should get back in touch with him.  Parents are important.”

“I know.”

My parents won’t take me,” she said.  She made a croaking noise, and I touched the bucket she was holding to ensure it was in position, held her braid so it wouldn’t get in the way as she tried to empty her stomach of contents that were no longer there.

I sighed, waiting until the worst of it had abated.  When it looked like she might tip forward and fall with the puke bucket into the space between the back seat and the front seats, I caught her shoulders and leaned her back, carefully.

“How’s the pain?” I asked.

“It ends later.”

“I know it ends.  But how is it now?”

“Hurts all over.  Painkillers didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah,” I said.  They couldn’t give her anything narcotic, not with the way the doctor was suspecting that Coil had dosed Dinah with a mixture of opiates and tranquilizers to keep her artificially content and mellow.

“They’re not going to take me.”

It was becoming a refrain.

“They will,” I said.  “I know you can’t use your power right now, but they will.”

“And even if they do take me, it’ll be weird, because they can’t ignore my power now.  They pretended I didn’t have one.  Pretended I was an ordinary kid.  Pretended the headaches didn’t mean anything, like they pretended the heart disease wasn’t a thing.”

“Heart disease?  You?”

Dinah shook her head.  “Not me.”

She didn’t elaborate.  Related to her trigger event?

“Don’t worry,” I said.  I might have gone on to try to reassure her, but I wasn’t sure what to add.  I didn’t know her parents.

“They’ll turn me away.  I’ll have to come to stay with you.  Or Tattletale.  And then it’s like it was with Coil.  Not as bad.  No drugs, no being locked up.  But I’ll know I can never go home.”

She was shaking, I realized.  Trembling.

“Dinah, listen.  That’s the drugs talking, okay?  That’s all it is.  As relaxed as they made you before, they’re making you rattled now while you’re in withdrawal.”

She made an incoherent noise in response.

I leaned towards the front seat.  “Do you have a brush?”

The driver, supplied by the doctor’s office, responded with only one word, “Comb.”

“Comb will do.”

He opened the glove compartment and reached back to hand me a small comb, not even as long as my hand.

“Here,” I said, “Let’s get you more presentable, so there’s one less thing to worry about.”

I pulled off the elastic that held her messy braid together and began combing it straight.

There wasn’t much time left, and still so much I should be saying, doing or asking.

Do we come out of this okay?

We’ll come out of this okay.

Can we stay in touch?

I’m sorry I played any part in this happening to you.

Either I didn’t have the courage or I couldn’t find the right words.  Dinah wasn’t in much of a state to converse, either.

I settled for tidying her hair, braiding it from scratch, and putting the elastic band in place.  Maybe it wasn’t as nice as it would be without the braid, but this would be easier to manage while she was recovering.

Not even a minute later, I was holding that braid back while she hung her head over the bucket, the both of us waiting to see if she would start heaving up mere teaspoons of bile or if this latest spell of nausea would subside.  I was avoiding putting bugs on her skin, but I was aware of how she was drenched in sweat to the point that it was soaking through her clothes.  She was feverish, too.  My swarm could tell the difference in her temperature, even through her clothes and scalp.

The car pulled to a stop.

Dinah startled, as if shaken by the realization of what it meant.

“Can you go on your own?” I asked.  “Or maybe we could sit you down on the edge of the front lawn and beep to signal your parents?”

“Go,” she said.

“What?”

“Go.  I’ll stay in the car.  You see if…”

She paused.  I wasn’t sure if it was because of nausea or something else.

“If?”

“If they want me?”

I thought about arguing.  About assuring her that they would.  Then I reconsidered.  I got out of the car and crossed the front lawn to the front door of her house.

I hit the doorbell, but neither I nor my bugs could hear a sound.  No power, or it wasn’t hooked up.

I gripped the heavy iron knocker and rapped on the door.

Two stray fruit flies found the parents in a bedroom on the ground floor.  They stirred, one sitting up, but they didn’t approach.

I knocked again.

The dad got a cast iron pan for an improvised weapon.  It was almost comical, cartoonish.  Through my swarm, I could almost make out his words as he assured his wife,  “…don’t know…”

Whatever started or ended the sentence, I didn’t catch it.

I stepped back before he cracked the door open, pan held like a weapon out of sight.

He saw me and slammed the door shut in the next instant.

I pushed the door open before he could lock it, winced at the pain that caused with my fractured rib.

He moved as if to swing at me, then dropped his arm as he reconsidered in the face of the thick cloud of bugs that stirred around me.  I wasn’t sure how much he could see.  There weren’t any streetlights, or lights on inside, but I would be backlit by moonlight.

“I’m not here to cause trouble, Mr. Alcott,” I said.  “And I don’t mean to scare you.”

“What do you want?”

“I brought Dinah.”

He froze.

“If that’s alright,” I said.

Not turning away from me, he shouted, “Anna!”

His wife exited the bedroom to stand in the doorway, peering out into the hallway.  She reacted as she saw me.

“Extortion?” he asked.  “We don’t have anything.  You can take anything we have here, but it’s not much.”

“Not extortion.  The man who took her died.  I’m bringing her back.”

“Please,” the mom said.  “Where is she?”

“Before I go get her,” I said, “You should know.  There’s no sign he touched her.  He didn’t hurt her, not physically.  He did everything he could to take care of her, in a utilitarian sense, but she was still a prisoner.”

Without working eyes, I couldn’t see their expressions.  Horror?  Grim acceptance?

“She was drugged, often and heavily.  She’s in the middle of recovery, and it isn’t pretty.  No narcotics, no painkillers, and no tranquilizers, maybe for the rest of her life.”

The mom made a subvocal noise.

“She’s an addict?” the dad asked.

“Yes.  And she’s a touch malnourished, and above all she’s scared.  I wouldn’t have brought her yet, but I thought it was more important that I get her away from anyone who would do what Coil did, using her for her power.  I wanted to get her home.”

“She has abilities, then?” the dad asked.

Why else would Coil take her and keep her?

An ability, to be specific,” I said.  “Does it really matter?”

The dad shook his head.

“I’ll go get her, then.”

I walked out to the car and opened the door next to Dinah.

“They don’t want me.  They won’t.”

“Come on,” I said.  I extended my hand.

“Maybe we should wait until I’m not sick anymore.  If they see me like this, they might have second thoughts.”

“They won’t.  And we agreed you should go home sooner than later.  Come on.”

She put her hand in mine, and I could feel it shaking in the half second before I got a firm grip.  I supported her as she got out of the car, then walked her back toward the house.

Mrs. Alcott made a noise somewhere between a moan and a cry as we approached the front door.  I moved my bugs out of the way and let go of Dinah the second her mother embraced her, right in the middle of the front lawn.  The father was only a step behind, dropping to his knees to wrap his arms around them.  A family reunited.

It was a rare thing, I was finding, that a family was both intact and functioning.  Too many of the people I’d interacted with so far were separated from the families they should have by death, by pain, misunderstandings or abuse.

I turned to leave.

“Thank you,” the dad called out.

I almost stopped.  Then I kept walking towards the car.

“Don’t thank me,” I said, without looking back.  I wasn’t sure if I was loud enough for him to catch it.

It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t feel bad, either.  I’d played a part in her being taken from her family.  Maybe a small part, but a part.  I’d done something to make up for that.  The real sacrifice, the real atonement, would be dealing with what came next.  Dealing with Noelle and the end of the world without using or abusing Dinah’s powers.

I wasn’t sure I felt good about that.  I’d gotten this far by making the most out of every resource I had available, and by being smart about things.  This was throwing away a resource, tying my own hands.  The decision felt dumb, even as I knew it was the right thing to do.

I climbed into the car.  Settling into the middle of the back seat, I swept my bugs over the area as a matter of habit.

Two folded pieces of paper were stuck in the flap behind the driver’s seat, where they hadn’t been before.  I picked them up, tried to view them with both my regular eyes and my bugs, then settled for tucking them into my belt.

Had to get someone to read them for me later.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Downtown.  I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The others were gathered outside Tattletale’s new headquarters.  The Undersiders were all there, Bastard and Bentley included.  Ballistic was present as well, though I hesitated to call him a member of the group.

There was also someone who I hadn’t expected.  Parian.  My recruit, after a fashion, the doll girl was dressed in a crisp new frock, accompanied by a giant stuffed penguin fashioned from cloth.

“You’re late,” Ballistic said.

“Had an errand to run.”

“Sent the girl home?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she said.  “Feel better?”

“Some,” I replied.  I turned to Parian.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Tattletale got in touch.  I… I apparently missed a lot.”

“You’re up for this?”

“No.  But I want to know what’s going on, in case it affects my territory.”

“She’s taking over my shelter and the surrounding area,” Tattletale said.

“Makes sense,” I said.

“Glad everything’s getting sorted out,” Grue said, “But we’ve got an hour and forty minutes until dawn, and we really need to deal with the present situation.”

Tattletale said, “Let’s talk as we walk, then.  We have one sighting of Noelle.  She left ten minutes ago, and I doubt we’ll run into her, but we could get info, something that’ll let us track her, or we’ll at least be in the right general area.  Sorry, Skitter.  We found Atlas, but he’s stashed halfway across the city.  So transportation might be a little awkward.”

I only nodded.

Parian took the penguin apart and created a longer, broader form: a dachshund, in black and white.

“This is so lame,” Imp said.  “How are you supposed to build a decent rep if you’re caught riding a wiener dog?”

“It’s the only thing long enough,” Parian said.

“Snake?”

“Too much wear.”

“If you don’t like it,” Grue said. “You can walk.  It’s functional.”

“You’ve fallen so far, man,” Regent murmured, wry,  “You used to care about these things.”

“Because they kept us alive, kept our enemies off our backs.  I don’t care too much about anyone dumb enough to ignore the fact that we own this city but care about how we travel.”

“I could ride Bentley,” Imp suggested.

Regent commented, “You’re calling him by his real name, now?  Didn’t you call him slobberjaws, just a little while ago?”

Rachel was looking at Imp.  Glaring?  “You’re not riding him.”

“You really care?” Imp asked.

“Not about the name,” Rachel said.  “About respect.”

Imp groaned audibly, and Regent laughed.

My bugs helped me catch the muttered exchange between the pair.

“Why?”  Imp asked, in her most wounded voice.

“Payback.” Regent replied.

Rachel was looking at me, the offer unspoken.

I accepted it, reaching up to take Rachel’s hand and using her help to climb onto Bentley’s back, settling in behind her.

We walked briskly alongside the cloth dachshund that bore the burden of the rest of the group; Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Parian and Ballistic.

“Everyone’s kosher with me taking the seat of power?”  Tattletale asked. “This isn’t me being manipulative like Coil, but I do consider us partners, I want us working side by side, even if our roles are different.”

“Partner?  You’re in charge, aren’t you?” Ballistic asked.

“I’m… headquarters.  Ops.  Management.  Skitter’s our real leader, our field commander.  If it comes down to it, she can call the shots.  I’ll back her up.”

“If she’s up for it,” Grue said.  “She’s blind, and neglected to mention it before the events earlier tonight.”

“It doesn’t matter that much.  I don’t need my eyes when I can use my power,” I said.

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“What are we up against?” I asked, aiming to change the subject.  “Ballistic, can you fill us in?”

“It’s why I’m here.  Consider Noelle a triple threat,” he said.  “She’s strong, she’s got nothing to hold her back, now, and she’s smart.”

“She was your team leader, right?” I asked.

“She was the leader before all of this started, yeah.  You have to understand, she’s a natural tactician, and tacticians come in two varieties.  There’s the strategists that think things through, innovate, and analyze.  Then there’s ones that go by instinct.  Noelle’s the latter.  Not to say she isn’t good if given a chance to plan, but she can get a sense of the current dynamic on an intuitive level, play things by ear while making spur of the moment calls.  Those calls turn out to be the right ones, not because she’s lucky, but because she grasps the situation so quickly that it looks like she didn’t give it any thought at all.”

“She’s quick witted, then,” I said.

“Not exactly what I meant.  Might be that I’m extrapolating too much from too small a sample of info.  Far as I know, she’s never been in a serious fight, but when you add that to the whole strong and desperate bits I just mentioned, it makes for a scary combo.”

“How’s that?” Grue asked.

“Right now, she’s scared, angry, desperate and frustrated, except all the dials are turned up to eleven,” Ballistic said.  “She can’t hold back her emotions like she used to.  She goes berserk at the drop of a hat, and this?  Losing what she sees as her last shot?  That’s more than a dropped hat.  If she were a person who relied on her brain in a crisis, she’d be at a disadvantage, because she’s not in any position to think straight.  The way she really operates, though?  She won’t be any less effective because of that fear and panic.  I don’t plan on getting in her way.  I’m sitting out on this fight, for the record.”

“You’re out?  You’re not working with us?” Grue asked.

“I’m holding territory, but I’m not a member of the team.”

“Same,” Parian said, “Sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said.  “But I think you’re underestimating how bad this situation could be.  I don’t think we can afford to have anyone sit out.”

“She’s scary,” Ballistic said.  “Let’s settle for that.  You don’t get within Behemoth’s range, you don’t aim for the long fight against Leviathan, and you don’t send everyone against the Simurgh at once, or you’re screwing yourself over.  Trust me when I say this is better all around if I skip this fight.  She knows me, and she’ll use me against you.”

“You talk about her being clever, but she didn’t seem that on the ball when we talked to her over the phone, back in your base,”  I said.  “You guys were lying to her about Tattletale, about Dinah, and other stuff.  If she’s that clever, why didn’t she pick up on it?”

Ballistic sighed.  “Honestly?  She put her trust in Krouse, in Trickster.  He betrayed that trust, and he did it pretty damn well.  I don’t fault him for it, exactly.  She couldn’t know the whole truth, or we’d be in exactly this situation, just at a worse time.”

“But you do fault him for something,” Tattletale said.

“He became team leader more because he’s fast at thinking on his feet than because he’s good at making the right call.  He took it on himself to make a whole lot of wrong calls.  I let a lot of that slide because he used to be a friend.  And maybe because they weren’t blatantly wrong.  Just a little wrong, a little disagreeable.  But at some point every call was a disagreeable call and every word out of his mouth became a white lie.  He started lying to us for what he saw as our own good.  Not Noelle with her delicate state, but us.”

“And you realized he was never going to change,” Tattletale said.  “His focus would always be on Noelle and himself, no matter what happened.”

“Yeah.  We shouldn’t discount Trickster, by the way.  Either as a threat or as a possible solution.”

“I hadn’t forgotten the possibility that he’d stick around and make life harder on us,” Grue said, “But solution?”

“Yeah.  Whatever else, I’d say Noelle still believes in him.  We can use that.  If we’re willing.”

“And that’s only if we can get him on board,” I said.

Ballistic nodded.

“What does she do?” Grue asked.

Ballistic sighed.  “Besides the ridiculous super strength, durability and the regeneration?”

“Besides that,” Grue said.

“To put it briefly, if it’s dead, she absorbs it and it becomes a part of her-“

“Powers included?” I asked.

“Don’t know.  Haven’t had cause to believe it.  In terms of raw material, raw mass?  Yeah.  She eats, she grows.  But here’s the thing.  If she absorbs something alive, she clones it.  More clones if she’s angrier, we think.  We don’t have a large sample size of incidents.”

“Clones?” I asked.  “Isn’t that an advantage for us?”

“No.  Because whatever they are, the extras come out wrong.  They come out ugly, their powers don’t always work exactly the same way, they’re screwed up in the head, but all that aside, they’re stronger, tougher, they have the memories of the parent.  Sometimes that means they’re just homicidal.  Other times, it means they’re just as sane as you are, but their priorities are reversed.  They want to end your existence, kill everything you want to protect, hurt everyone you care about, and dismantle your life.”

“Evil twins,” Regent said.  “She makes evil twins.”

Ballistic nodded.  “And that’s why I’m sitting this one out.  She’ll come after me if she sees me, especially if she heard the bit about my defection.  If she gets me, that’s even worse, because the clones she’ll get are capable of killing anyone and everyone here, easy.”

Bitch spoke for the first time.  “Animals too?”

“Animals too.  And microbes too, based on stuff she’s said before, though she might just treat them like she does dead material.  I don’t know.  For all we know, it ties into some other power.”

“Do the clones have an expiry date?”  I asked.

“Not as far as I know.  Any time we’ve had to deal with them, we were pretty ruthless in putting them down.  They sort of made a point of being too problematic to be left alone.”

“They’re still people,” Parian said.

“No,” Ballistic replied.  “They really aren’t. Trust me on that count.”

“I’ve got soldiers at key locations, keeping an eye out,” Tattletale said.  “Just a few guys, and I’m paying them an astronomical amount.  I won’t be able to keep it up for more than a few days.”

“Which is how you got this lead?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said, “Good.  But we’ll need a way to deal with her.  Ballistic, you said she regenerates?”

“Not that fast, but fast enough.  Her lower body is tougher, but her upper body isn’t exactly vulnerable.  I’ve seen her take bullets and barely even flinch, and that included one to the head.  They do damage, maybe, but it heals too quickly for it to matter.  And I think she’s gotten bigger and tougher since I saw her last.”

“When was that?”

“Maybe a week after we got to this city.  A while before Coil put in the first vault door, there was just a garage door.  I didn’t want to risk getting too close, not with the lethality of my power and the damage she could do.  Her appetite’s increased, so it might be a pretty dramatic difference in strength from the last time I saw her out and about.  You guys are going to have your hands full trying to kill her.”

“I don’t want to kill her,” I said.  “Not unless we absolutely have no other choice.”

Ballistic turned my way, and he had a funny tone in his voice as he asked, “How do you think you’re going to handle this?”

“Containment,” I said.  “If I get enough spiders together, I could try to surround her in web.”

“Not going to work,” Ballistic said.

“It almost worked against Crawler.”

“She’s stronger than Crawler.”

“Then we go to the heroes.  We get their assistance,” I said.  “Containment foam on top of my web.  Vista to slow Noelle down, Clockblocker to put her on pause.”

“Tattletale told you, didn’t she?  That we think she’s turning into an Endbringer.  Why is lethal force okay against Leviathan but not against Noelle?”

“She’s still a person, under it all,” I said.  “She deserves a chance.”

“You don’t seem to care at all about the subject of killing a friend, Ballistic,” Tattletale added.

“She’s not my friend.  She’s not the person I knew.  Maybe she has the same memories, fragments of the same personality, but that’s only surface stuff.  Because even the bits that look like Noelle aren’t really anything resembling the original.  She wouldn’t be able to heal bullet wounds like she did if they were.  Stands to reason the bits that think like her aren’t either.”

“Pretty cold,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck you,” Ballistic replied.  He slid off the stuffed animal’s back.  “I hope what I said was useful, and I wish you luck, but fuck you.  You don’t get it.”

Parian’s animal had stopped, but Ballistic was already striding away, in the general direction of his lair.

“Go on,” Tattletale urged Parian.  The stuffed dog started walking again.

“You told me I could protect people,” Parian said.  It took me a second to realize she was addressing me.  “How do I do that?”

“We could use your stuffed animals.  If she can’t absorb them, then they’re frontline combatants we can use.”

“I don’t want to fight.”

“I really don’t think we have a choice.  You fought Leviathan,” I said.

Parian shook her head, “I almost wish I didn’t.  I only did it because I promised myself when I was a kid, when I first learned about the Endbringers, that I would fight them if I ever got powers.  That’s why I did it, because I didn’t want to betray the kid version of myself.”

“Wouldn’t your child-self want you to do this?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  But I didn’t make any promises to myself about this.”

Tattletale cut in.  “Heads up.  I don’t think we’re the only ones checking out the scene.”

“Who?” Parian asked.

“The Protectorate.  The Wards.  If you’re not up for a potential fight, this is the time to back off.”

“The Wards?” Parian asked.

Tattletale nodded.

“I’ll stay.  I won’t fight, but I’ll stay.  I made my decision and I’ll own up to it.”

It’s at least one more body on our side, giving them less reason to pick a fight.

“We do this peacefully,” I said.  “We need their help, so we avoid confrontation.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Regent said.  “Just saying.”

“We’ll try it anyways,” I replied.

I could sense the heroes well before we reached them, gathered by a ruined building.  I used my bugs to get their attention before we appeared around the corner.

“Undersiders,” Miss Militia spoke, rifle raised and pointed in our direction.  The other members of the local hero teams were at the ready just behind her.  I noted Flechette gesturing, Parian shaking her head.

“Miss Militia,” I responded, when I realized none of the others were responding.  Should have hashed this out with Tattletale.  She can do the negotiating with hostile parties better than I can.

“You do this?”  She jerked her head in the direction of the wreckage, not moving the rifle.  Her voice was hard.

“Indirectly,” I replied.  “But not really, no.  I don’t know what that is, exactly.”

“I find that hard to believe,” she responded.  “A hell of a lot of damage, reports of howling eerily similar to the reports we’ve had for Hellhound’s animals, and let’s not forget your penchant for kidnapping the good guys.  Shadow Stalker, Piggot, Calvert…”

Kidnapping heroes?

With my bugs, I did a head count.  Someone was missing.

How?  Dinah said Noelle wouldn’t do any major damage before dawn.

“Vista,” I finished Miss Militia’s thought.  “You’re talking about Vista.”

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Monarch 16.2

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“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

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Interlude 15

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“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.

“Guys!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.

“Sorry.”

“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

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