Interlude 20 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Park there,” Stan said, pointing to a space off the side of the road.

“We’ll be facing uphill, and we still have to unload the equipment,” Nipper piped up, from the back seat.

“There’s a method to my madness.  Park, Marshall.  I’ll even deign to help unload and carry this time.”

He got a glimpse of Marshall rolling his eyes, but the boy steered the van to a parking spot.

True to his word, Stan was out the door, rolling up his sleeves.  Didn’t hurt: the humidity was brutal outside the air-conditioned van.  His dress shirt was already sticking to his back.

They were on a hill, and the vantage point afforded them a view of the city.  Cranes dotted the skyline, and the buildings themselves were gleaming, the whites and colors brightened by the ambient moisture in the air.  It might have looked attractive, but there were spots where buildings were missing, whole areas where the construction was only just beginning.

He could see the white building, not too far away, which was taller than even the skyscrapers immediately around it.  He’d investigated it just a few days ago.  They’d erected a tall white tent, holding it up with a crane, they’d reinforced it with plexiglass panels and iron reinforcement, and now a more solid construction was going up around it.  Slow, painstaking, careful work, filled with redundancies.  The workers would be glad to be free of the hazmat suits in this heat.

Brockton Bay wasn’t lacking in stories to tell.  The quarantine building alone was one.

“Need a hand,” Nipper said.

He hurried around to the back of the truck.  The van had been parked at the side of the road, emergency brake cranked, wheels turned so it would ride up onto the sidewalk if the brake failed, but the steep incline was making it hard to unload the equipment.  Much of it was set up to be slid out of the back of the van at a moment’s notice, but that same convenience was an obstacle, here.  The stuff was expensive, and if it slid to the road…

He found a space beside her and reached to get a grip on the far end of the camera.  It might not have been a problem, but Nipper was short, petite, built more like a thirteen year old than a twenty-three year old college graduate.

She wasn’t suited for the job.  She knew the equipment, she was capable with a computer, she had good eyesight, and the tattoos and array of piercings on her right ear were as good an indicator of her creative edge as anything else.

But this wasn’t the job she’d been working towards.  She wasn’t one to complain, but she didn’t have stamina, she didn’t have strength, and this, all of this, it was too fast paced for her.  She’d have been better, maybe even happier in the newsroom, managing the feeds, maintaining the systems and working on post production.

Marshall hefted the bag out of the back of the van.  All the wires, the tripod, the lighting, packed into a dense case.  The boy didn’t look like a professional, hadn’t quite adapted to the job he’d been pulled into: from intern to a jack of all trades, filling in the gaps in Stan’s team.  Set up, interviewing, driving, gopher… anything and everything.  He was drawing in a paycheck, but he was definitely working for it, facing all of the hassles, the intense stresses and dangers of the job, for eleven dollars an hour.

Dangers, Stan thought.  Images flickered through his mind.  Everyone at the station had seen the feeds, had watched them several times over.  Purity taking the camera from Manzaneres, a guy from channel four, then setting her monsters on the man.  A man with a wife and a newborn had been murdered, just to make a point.

There was a reason for the shortage of field reporters.  It wasn’t limited to Manzaneres, either.  The problem was a chronic one.  This was a job that put ordinary people on the fringes of events that were dangerous for capes.

“Set?”

Marshall closed the back of the van and locked it.  “Set.”

Stan set off, with Nipper and Marshall following, Nipper almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.  “Reason we’re parked here is that the school’s on top of the hill.  We don’t know how much parking there’ll be, with students possibly taking up spaces, and if we have to drive by, searching for a spot, then someone’s liable to spot us and take measures.”

“Measures?” Nipper asked, a touch breathlessly.

Right.  She didn’t have the experience to know.  “You’ll see what I mean.”

There were students gathered outside the walls that bordered the school.  Police cars were parked at the front, along with PRT vans, but it was the uniformed guards with ‘Arcadia High School’ stenciled on their sleeves that caught his attention.

Guards?  It conjured up an image of a prison, rather than a school.

“Nip, get some footage of the uniforms,” Stan said.

She hefted the camera and trained it on the nearest of the uniformed guards.  She had to slow her pace to keep the shot steady, but she kept following him.  When a group of students obstructed her vision, she shut off the feed and hurried to catch up.

They reached the gate, where a woman with a colorful scarf was talking to a PRT uniform.  He signaled Nipper, and the young woman raised the camera.

“Damn it,” the woman with the scarf groaned, as she saw them.  The police officer took the opportunity to step away.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Stan said, “We’re not the enemy.”

“You’re here to bog down an overcomplicated situation,” she said.  “I have enough problems without vultures descending.”

“We’re here for the story, that’s all.  You’re in charge here?”

“I’m in charge of the school.  Principal Howell.”

He made a mental note.  Howell, Howell, Howell.  She wasn’t the prettiest woman, with old acne scars riddled across her cheeks, a short stature and a nose that didn’t quite fit her face.

“Stan Vickery, channel twelve news,” he flashed her his best smile and extended a hand.  She didn’t take it.

“You’re not allowed on school property.”

“I would be if you gave me permission,” he said, dropping his hand.  The job was politics as much as it was investigation, creativity and presentation.  What did she want?  Peace and quiet.  “Give us fifteen minutes to talk to your students and shoot a few takes in front of the doors, and I’ll get the word out that we got the story first.  Other stations are playing it safer, these days, less crew, less willing to act on sloppy seconds.”

The principal made a face.

Stan smiled, “Sorry.  You get what I mean.  Give us fifteen minutes, and we’re one less thing you have to worry about today.  With luck, I’ll be the only local reporter you see today.”

“With all due respect, Mr…”

“Vickery,” he said, already told you my name.  “But you can call me Stan, Mrs. Howell.  Fact of the matter is, you let me in the school, and I owe you one.  I pull strings or emphasize certain aspects of a story.  Not just this one either.  Who knows?  The next incident could be worse, or more sensitive.”

“Mr. Vickers,” she said.  “I’m fully aware that you’re trying to bait me into giving you a sound bite.  I won’t comment on this situation, and I won’t be letting you onto school grounds.  I don’t want you talking to any of my students.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go talk to the cops.”

“Seriously?  We’re giving up?” Nipper asked.

“Yes,” he said, he took long strides away from the front gate of the school, until he was sure the principal wasn’t in immediate earshot.  “No.  She’s liable to get on our case if we don’t pretend to play along.  Howell has no authority outside of the school walls, so we interview students there.  Marshall, head back in the direction of the van.  Talk to students, see if they want to be on TV.  Look for the talkative ones and the emotional ones, and point them my way.”

“What about the cops?” Marshall asked.

“They’ll be around later, and cops have better memories than civilians.  It’s the students who were at the scene.  Go.  We don’t know how long we have before other crews show.”

It was a shame the principal hadn’t let him into the school, Stan mused.  Silly of her, too.  That favor he’d offered her was gold, all things considered.  Something she could use to bail a superior out of an awkward position and advance her own.

Your guanxi could be better, Mrs. Howell, he thought.  He loved the idea behind the Chinese concept of guanxi.  It fit in the same general category as the concepts of friends, family, acquaintances, but it was more based in business and politics.  Guanxi was about being able to call up a person one hadn’t seen in years and ask for a favor.  To have enough people in one’s debt that there was more implied leverage to use when seeking favors from others.

He’d been introduced to the idea a few years ago, and he attributed much of his recent career advancement to it.  It was something to be aware of at all times, and it changed his perspective on things.

He approached a group of teenage girls who were gathered in a group, observing the police and PRT officers.  He flashed one of his best smiles at them.  He could see one of them glance him over, her body language changing subtly.  He directed the smile at her, “I bet you’re dying to talk about what happened here.  Exciting stuff.”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  “Supervillain doesn’t attack the school every day.”

“Wasn’t an attack.  She showed up, and they came after her in her civilian ID.”

“I know it wasn’t an attack,” the first girl replied.  “I was just… It’s what others have been saying.”

“Skitter, wasn’t it?”  Stan chimed in.  He snapped his fingers, and Nipper pointed the camera at the girls.

“Yeah.  The bug girl,” another girl spoke up.  “I guess she goes to Arcadia.”

“No way.  I heard she was a student at Winslow, before Leviathan came.  Geeky kid, was having a hard time with some jerks, apparently.  I think her name was Taylor, but you’d have to ask someone from Winslow.”

He prodded, “What happened?  Was there a fight?”

“Dragon and this new guy Defiant showed up, along with the two new heroes.  Don’t know their names.”

He’d memorized the names.  “Adamant?  Clasp?  Dovetail?  Halo?  Crucible? Rosary? Sere?”

“Sere and Adamant,” one girl replied.

“Sere and Adamant,” he said, making a mental note.

“And two of the Wards.  Clockblocker was one of them.  Anyways, she got away.”

“She didn’t do anything to provoke them?”

“Didn’t hear about anything.”

“And they mobilized on the school?”

“Sure.”

He started to ask for more details, then stopped.  Marshall was approaching, with a kid in tow.

“Cell phone video,” Marshall said.  “Long conversation between Defiant, Dragon and Skitter in the cafeteria.

Stan raised his eyebrows, looking at the girl with the phone, “Pay you twenty bucks to let us copy it.”

“A hundred,” she said.

“Twenty.  If you got it on camera, others did too, and someone‘s going to take the twenty.”

She glanced at Marshall, then back to Stan.  “Fine.”

“You have the equipment?” Stan asked Marshall.

“Laptop and a cord.  Give me a minute.”

“We’ll watch it later,” Stan said, absently.  He turned his attention back to the girls.

This wasn’t the first time he’d walked into a situation almost blind.  The job was a stressful one, but he thrived on stress.  Racing against the clock, to be the first to the scene, the first to report on the situation.  But even reporting was a kind of challenge unto itself.  The scene had to be investigated, the story teased out, details verified.  To top it off, it had to be presentable.

He’d been the producer, before Coil had blown up the camera crew and reporter that had been covering the mayoral debate.  He had an eye for this.  Had to, because there was nobody back at the studio that would be able to cover this base for him.  Sad and ironic, really.  There weren’t enough people in the bay, resources weren’t consistent.  So they’d reduced the size of the staff, cut back on hours.  Then six people had died, including their lead reporter.

Nevermind the rumors that the PRT was, on Miss Militia’s behalf, investigating ties between Coil and the killed reporters and camera crews.  He’d itched to look into that more, but it didn’t fit with his philosophy.

“Were you there, in the cafeteria?” he asked the girls.

“No.”

“Right.  Alright.  Any thoughts?  Were you scared, knowing there were so many capes in the school?”

Twenty more seconds, to grab more details and reaction clips, and then he was moving, searching for others to talk to.

Two more groups questioned, and he didn’t have much else.  He knew Skitter’s name, and Channel four had arrived, and the race was on.

“Got the video!” Marshall called out.

Stan took the offered laptop.  To watch now, it would mean delaying interviews.  Memories would fade.

But he needed the narrative.  How had things unfolded?  What were the key, crucial points at the heart of this?  That the school was unsafe?  It would work, grab attention and viewers, but it felt cheap.  No, the public knew that the Protectorate was imploding.  There had to be a connection, tying this to something greater.

“Thank you,” he said.  He’d decided.  “Now, I need you to find me someone who knew Skitter in her civilian guise.”

Marshall nodded.

“He or she will be one of the students who attended Winslow.”

“On it.”

Stan retreated to the van with the laptop.  He took the extra time to open the video in an editing suite before playing it.

Without being asked, Nipper hooked it into the van’s computers.  A little icon notified him that he was connected to the studio.

…There for the S-class threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

On a notepad of lined paper, he penned down ’20th’ followed by a question mark.  The video continued playing, and he noted down times and key phrases, along with questions.  When a critical comment was shown, he was sure to copy the clip.  There were a few times where the volume was too quiet, the voices too low or things were drowned out by background noise.  Nipper worked to tune the sound so they could make it out, raising the volume or filtering out the noise.

D&D picked fight?  Pushed by authorities?Drag past convo with Skitter.  When?
Putting children at risk
Violation of truce

“…And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months…”

What does Skitter know?  App’tly important.

“…the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them…”

S9?  D-check events post-Boston.

Hospital?  Skitter & Defiant?

D&D negotiating with villains?  Possible cooperation?  Corruption?

“…Stand if you side with me!

Both video and audio were distorted by the movements of students, rising from tables, pushing away from the jumble of bodies.

Stan smiled.  There.

He cut out the scene in question, the students siding with Skitter over the heroes, and gave the clip a title.  ‘The heart of this story?’

A second later, a note appeared on the side of the window.  The crew at the studio had a R.A.T. connecting them to the laptop, and freedom to make changes or add their own details.

Yes – Ed

He had it.  The editors at the station were on board.

Now to cobble it together into a story.

He opened a file and began sketching out the script.  At the very top, he put up notes, clips he’d need from the station.

There was a knock on the door of the van.  Stan opened it to see Marshall with an awkward looking young man.  Fifteen or sixteen.  He looked despondent.  Hangdog.

“He says he was her friend, once.”

“No,” the boy said.  “Not exactly.  But we sort of knew each other.  Had classes together, did group work.  And I owe her.”

Stan smiled.

…take you now to reporter Stan Vickery.”

Thank you, Nick.  One thousand and two hundred students made their way to Arcadia High for their first day back at school, earlier on this sunny day.  They hoped to readjust and get a taste of normal life after weeks spent away from home, or enduring the long series of incidents to afflict Brockton Bay.  Less than halfway through their day, those hopes were dashed.

A video clip replaced the blond man with the mustache and a face lined by years of stress.  A massive metal suit, looming at the far end of the school’s parking lot, a mechanized dragon.

The school became the site of a confrontation between Dragon, a heroine known across the world, and local warlord and leader of the Undersiders, Skitter.  Within moments of their meeting on school grounds, Dragon revealed Skitter’s identity as Taylor Hebert, a sixteen year old student.  With this revelation came a dozen more questions…

“Change the channel,” a boy in prison sweats said.  “News is boring shit.”

“No,” Sophia said.

Skitter was Taylor.  A dozen things fell into place.

Anger boiled within her.  Outrage.  That cringing, whiny, pathetic little scarecrow was the ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld?  It didn’t fit.  It demanded an answer of some sort.

But she couldn’t.  As the voice droned on, Sophia turned her attention to the bracelets she wore.  There was a live current running through them, and they could be joined together to fashion handcuffs, but even like this, they were bondage.  She couldn’t enter her shadow state without passing through the insulated sheath that protected her.

She couldn’t leave, as much as she wanted to, right this moment.

Glowering, a confused, impotent frustration building within her, she fixed her eyes on the television.  It swelled within her until she could barely think.  She clenched her hands, but she couldn’t squeeze hard enough to release any of the building emotion.  She unclenched her fists, extended her fingers, as if reaching for something, but there was nothing she could grab.

There was no release valve for this, no way to vent.

Taylor’s face appeared on the screen in the same moment she hit her limit.  She rose from her seat, aware of the guards advancing on her, and kicked the television screen, shattering it, amid the protests and swearing of her fellow inmates.

A second later, they were tackling her.  Two guards at once, forcing her to the ground.

She screamed something so incoherent that even she would have been hard pressed to interpret it.

Who was she?  And what motivated these professed heroes to mobilize on a school, risking the lives of students and staff?  Skitter herself wondered aloud about their willingness to put hostages within her reach…

A clip appeared on the screen.  Taylor, sitting on the edge of a counter.  She spoke, filled with confidence, almost nonchalant.  “You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…

A student abruptly shrieked, thrashing and falling to the ground in her haste to get away.

“Danny,” Kurt said, settling a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You don’t need to watch this.”

Danny shook his head.  Kurt looked down the man.  He hadn’t even spoken, from the moment he’d opened the door and Lacey had wrapped her arms around him.

This is bait, isn’t it?” Taylor’s voice, oddly out of place coming from the television.

The tone of the conversation even implied there were unspoken secrets that Skitter was aware of, that the Protectorate sought to silence,” Stan Vickery spoke, reappearing, with Arcadia High behind him as a backdrop.  “Raising questions about what those secrets might be.

…You seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months?”  Taylor’s voice, again.

Danny put his face into his hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead in the process.  Kurt rubbed his back, while Lacey looked on, sympathetic.

What did Skitter know, and does it relate to the event  on the twentieth of June?  Why were Defiant and Dragon willing to abandon their pursuit of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

“Is…” Danny started to speak, but his voice cracked.  He paused, then spoke again.  “Is this on me?”

“No!” Lacey said.  “No, honey.”

“Those aren’t questions I’d hope to pose any answers to today,” the news reporter said.  “The real question is bigger than that, and smaller at the same time.  What forces drive a child from this…

A teenage boy, his eyes downcast.  “She was nice, quiet.  I know people won’t believe me when I say it, but she was a genuinely good person.  Is.  Is a good person.  At heart.  I’m sorry, Taylor.

To this?

It switched to Taylor’s voice, calm, unruffled, accompanied by the same long-distance, low resolution footage of her sitting on the counter in the school cafeteria.  “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of-

Kurt turned off the television.  Danny was frozen, unmoving, staring down at his hands.

“It was context,” Lacey said, quiet.  “She was acting.  I’m sure-“

She broke off as Kurt shook his head.  Doing more damage than good.

“We’re going to stick by you, okay, Dan?” Kurt spoke.  “Let’s have you come by our place.  Better you aren’t alone right now, yeah?  And it’ll get you away from those reporters.”

Danny didn’t respond.  He stayed hunched over the kitchen table.

“Unless you want to wait here for her, in case?” Lacey asked.

“She already said goodbye,” Danny replied, pushing against the table to help himself rise to a standing position.  “I think that’s it.”

You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.

And what drives dozens of students to reject the heroes of this city in favor of the villain in charge?”  Stan asked.

The widescreen television showed the students rising from the tables, joining Skitter.  Another clip followed, showing students actively wrestling with the heroes.

“Christ,” the Director spoke.

Beside her successor, Piggot was watching in silence, elbows on the table, hands folded in front of her mouth.

“This could have been avoided,” the Director said.  “On multiple levels.”

“Most likely,” Defiant replied.  He stood at one end of the long table, Dragon beside him.

“If you would have cut off the feed, deleted the footage from phones, we would have had time to do damage control.”

“We won’t ignore people’s first amendment rights,” Defiant said.

…The PRT and the Protectorate have refused to comment, and the silence is damning, in light of what occurred today,” the reporting continued in the background.  “Brockton Bay has become the latest, greatest representation of the troubles the world faces in this new age, and perhaps a representation of the world’s hopes…

“You’re better than this, Dragon,” Piggot spoke.  “To the point that I’m left wondering… did you steer all of this in this direction?”

“If you try to place the blame on us,” Defiant replied, “I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

Director Tagg, Piggot’s latest successor, picked up the remote and muted the television.

Defiant shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back.  The body language was smug, somehow.

Piggot glanced at each of the people who were seated at the table.  Mr. Tagg, the Director of Brockton Bay’s PRT, Director Armstrong from Boston, and Director Wilkins from New York were all present.  Mr. Keene sat opposite her.  A camera mounted on the table gave the Chief Director of the PRT eyes on the meeting, where she watched from Washington.

Nobody else seemed willing to answer Defiant, some simply staring at him, others watching the segment on the wall-mounted television.  She spoke, “I would remind you that you are on a strict probation, with terms you agreed to.”

“I am,” Defiant said.  “Would you arrest me for being insubordinate?  Or would it take something more substantial?”

“Test us and you’ll find out,” Director Tagg responded.

“And what would happen then?  Would you send me to the Birdcage?” Defiant asked.

The question was heavy with the reminder that it was Dragon who maintained and managed the Birdcage.

Emily Piggot was caught between a desire to feel smug and quiet fear.  She’d warned them.  She’d communicated her concerns at every opportunity, through channels that Dragon wouldn’t be able to track.  She’d been dismissed, shrugged off, when she raised the question of what might happen if Dragon was killed in battle, or if Dragon turned against them.

“I’d like to hear a response from Dragon,” Piggot said.

Dragon turned her head to look at her, face hidden behind an expressionless mask and unblinking, opaque lenses.  There was something about the movement that seemed off.  Both the movement and the silence that followed was oddly disturbing.

“No?  No response?”

“A consequence of our recent visit to Brockton Bay,” Defiant said.  “I’m hoping she’ll be better in a few days.”

Curious, Piggot observed, the note of emotion in his voice, at that simple statement.

As if eager to change the subject, Director Armstrong said, “Mr. Keene.  Thoughts?  How does this affect your department?”

Piggot turned her attention to the man.  She’d only had limited interactions with him, but the man had earned her respect quickly enough.  He wasn’t a Director, but rather the liaison between the Protectorate and various other superhero teams worldwide, organizing deals, ensuring that everyone held to the same code of conduct, and ensuring that the groups could all coordinate in times of emergency.

“It’s catastrophic,” Keene said.  “I can manage some damage control, offer further aid, manipulate the grants available, but I can’t build on a foundation that isn’t there.”

“Where do our biggest problems lie?”

“The C.U.I. is first to mind.  The Suits and the King’s Men will cooperate, because they have to.  For the American teams, it varies from case to case.  But we’re in the middle of negotiations with the C.U.I., and this won’t reflect well on us.  That is, it won’t if we can’t get our footing here and make a strong showing at the next major event.”

The next major event.  The idea seemed to give everyone pause.

“Something needs to change,” Defiant said.

“Somehow, Colin,” Piggot replied, “I think our ideas on what needs to change are very different.”

“Very likely,” he said, his voice hard.  “But this was a last straw for us, in many ways.  We have a few stipulations for our continued assistance.”

“Defiant,” Tagg interrupted him.  “You’re not in a position to make demands.”

He’s a hard man, Piggot thought.  Army, PRT squad leader, a general, not a politician.  Ironic, that they’d butt heads.  “Director Tagg, you asked me here as a consultant, so allow me to consult.”

Tagg turned his attention to her.

She continued, “I don’t like this scenario any more than you do.  But let’s hear Defiant’s demands before you reject him out of hand.”

Director Tagg didn’t reply, but he turned his attention back to Defiant and he didn’t speak.

“Dragon and I have discussed this in-depth.  We need the present Directors to admit culpability for the incident, and we need to clean house, with in-depth background checks and investigations into any prominent member of the PRT.  We can’t maintain things as they are with the spectre of Cauldron looming over us.”

“You’d have us fire any number of PRT employees at a time when we’re struggling to retain members?”  Tagg asked, almost aghast.

“And relieving capes from duty at the same time,” Defiant said.  “With so few employees, it’s ridiculous to continue working to shut down leaks and control the flow of information.  Dragon has expressed concerns over having to do this in the past, and between the two of us, we’ve agreed that the censorship stops tonight, at midnight.”

Tagg rose from his seat, opening his mouth to speak-

“I agree,” Piggot spoke before her successor could.

Heads turned.

“It’s a misuse of resources,” she said, “And we do need to clean house.”

“You don’t have a position to lose,” Tagg replied.

“I wouldn’t lose it anyways,” she retorted, “I’ve had no contact with Cauldron.”

Keene clapped his hands together once, then smiled, “Well said.  We have nothing to fear if we aren’t connected to them.”

“You realize what they’re doing, don’t you?” Tagg asked.  “How does this investigation happen?  Dragon has her A.I. rifle through all known records and databases.  We defeat the sole purpose of the PRT, by putting the parahumans themselves in a position of power!”

“That ship has long sailed,” Keene commented, “With the revelations about Chief Director Costa-Brown, if you’ll pardon my saying.”

“You’re pardoned,” the Chief Director’s voice sounded over the speaker, crystal clear.  “I think this would pose more problems than it solves.  We’ll have to turn you down, Defiant.”

“Then I don’t see much of a reason for us to stay,” Defiant replied.

“And if you leave, the assumption is that we’ll be left without Dragon’s ability to maintain every system and device she’s created for us.  The PRT without a Birdcage, without our computer systems or database, without the specialized grenade loadouts or the containment foam dispensers.”

“An unfortunate consequence,” Defiant said.

“Not a concern at all,” the Chief Director replied.

There was a pause.  Dragon glanced at Defiant.

“No?” Defiant asked.

“No.  We’ve been in contact with an individual who has a proven track record with Dragon’s technology.  He feels equipped, eager, almost, to step into Dragon’s shoes should she take a leave of absence.”

“Saint,” Defiant said.  “You’re talking about the leader of the Dragonslayers.  Criminal mercenaries.”

“My first priority is and always has been protecting people.  If it’s a question between abandoning the security the Birdcage offers the world at large or requesting the assistance of a scoundrel-”

“A known murderer,” Defiant said.

“I wouldn’t throw stones,” Tagg replied, his voice a growl.

“-A known murderer, even,” the Chief Director continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I will take security without question.”

Defiant looked at Dragon.

“The second dilemma I have to pose to you two,” the Chief Director continued, “Is simple.  What do you expect will happen when the next Endbringer arrives?  Between Dragon’s brilliant mind and Defiant’s analysis technologies, I’m sure you’ve given the matter some consideration.  Without the Protectorate, how does the event tend to unfold?”

Piggot studied the pair, trying to read their reactions.  They were so hard to gauge, even if she ignored the armor.

“It doesn’t go well,” Defiant said.  “It doesn’t go well even if we assume the present Protectorate is coordinated and in peak fighting condition.”

“We can’t afford a loss,” the Chief Director said.  “You know it as well as I do.  Now, tell me there isn’t room for a middle ground.”

Dragon turned to Defiant, and moved with a careful slowness as she set one hand on his arm.

“We get through the next fight,” Defiant said.  “Then we clean house.”

“I think that’s an acceptable compromise.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

“Too rich,” Jack commented, smirking.  “Across the board, I love it.  Fantastic.”

Hookwolf, pacing on the opposite side of the television, grunted a response.

Bonesaw was crouched by the side of a machine.  She watched with hands on hips as Blasto ratcheted in a bolt at the base of a tall, black-handled lever, his movements jerky with the internal and external mechanisms that forced them.

The Protectorate declined to comment, and in light of recent events and allegations of deep-seated secrets, their silence is damning.

“Almost ready,” Bonesaw said, her voice sing-song.  “You’re next, Hooksie.”

Hookwolf glanced at her, and then at the contraption.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she said, her tone a taunt.

“Not of… this.  I’m questioning if this is the path we should take.”

“I’m expected to bring about the end of the world,” Jack said, still watching the television.  “But this is rather tepid for my tastes.  I’d like to hurry it along, inject some more drama into the affair.”

“…event at Arcadia High School is sure to draw attention from aross America.  We, the public, want answers.  The death of Vikare marked the end of the golden age, the end of an era where becoming a superhero was the expectation for anyone and everyone with powers, and even those who decided to work in business or public affairs with their abilities were termed ‘rogues’…

Bonesaw took ahold of Hookwolf’s hand and led him to his seat.  She stepped back, glancing over the contraption.  The only light was cast by a small desk lamp and the glow of a computer monitor, an island of light in the middle of an expansive, wide-reaching darkness.  Desk, engine, and tinker-designed seats, surrounded by an absolute, oppressive darkness.

“It doesn’t sit well,” Hookwolf said.  “I can’t articulate why.  My thoughts are still cloudy.”

Bonesaw hit a button, and the lights began to flicker, the engine beside her starting to hum with a progressively higher pitch.  With the flickering of the lights came glimpses of the things beyond.  Light on glass and wires.

“I’d rather a Ragnarök than-“

Bonesaw hauled on a white-handled lever, and Hookwolf’s voice cut off.  The flickering of the lights ceased, and the room returned to darkness.

Jack sighed.

…threatens to mark a similar occasion…

Bonesaw stepped over the body of a dead tinker in a lab coat, stopping in front of Jack.  “Strip.”

Jack shucked off his shirt, and then pulled off his pants and boxer briefs.  The blades that hung heavy on his belt made an ugly metal sound as they dropped to the tiled floor.

“…and cover yourself up,” Bonesaw said, averting her eyes.  “Shameful!  You’re in the company of a child, and a girl, no less.”

“Terribly sorry,” Jack said, his voice thick with irony, as he cupped his nether regions in both hands.  He stepped back and took a seat, leaning back against the diagonal surface behind the short bench.  Cold.

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

The segment ended, and the television turned back to the news anchors at their desks.

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack smiled.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The lights were flickering more violently now, to the point that periods of light matched the periods of darkness.  Between the spots in his vision, Jack could see more and more of their surroundings.

Row upon row of glass case lined the underground chamber, each large enough to house a full-grown man, though there were only fetal shapes within at present.  Each was labeled.  One row had cases marked ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’… ten iterations in total.  The next row had ten cases labeled with the word ‘Siberian’.  The one after with ten repetitions of ‘Chuckles’.

One column of cases dedicated to each member of the Nine, past and present, with the exception of Jack and one other.

“Makes for a greater fall?” Bonesaw asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He glanced at the one isolated case, felt his pulse quicken a notch.  It was the only one that was standalone.  ‘Gray Boy.’

“I guess we find out soon!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the whine of the engine.

Bonesaw only laughed.  She hauled on the switch with both hands, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness.

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Chrysalis 20.2

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It couldn’t be easy.  No.  Everything was finally starting to settle down, and then this.  Inconvenient timing, inconvenient in every way.  It had to be at the high school, of all places.

Tattletale and Grue would be meeting with the Ambassadors soon.  That took them out of the running, as far as people I could call.  Forrest was just a little too old and a little too attention-grabbing to be seen lurking around the local high school.  Regent, Imp or Bitch?  I was trying to fix the situation, not make it worse.

I pressed Charlotte for more information:

RT:
You see him?

Charlotte:
no.  no bars here. had to leave to make call.

Right.  Arcadia was one of the schools that had a Faraday cage, if I was remembering right.  Something to stop kids from texting and making calls in class.

RT:
What was he doing?

Charlotte:
asking about u in hallways, checking with ppl to see if u were around.

Charlotte:
i approached him and asked how he knew u.  he said he didnt.  seemed too intense for that so i called u.

RT:
GJ.

All in all, almost exactly what I might have told her to do if I’d been in direct contact with her at the time.

RT:
This is Eric with blond hair?  Blue eyes?  Talks like he’s going to run out of breath and pass out?

Charlotte:
Yes.

My suspicions were confirmed.  Greg.

Charlotte:
is break btween class atm.  have 2 go soon.  what shld I do?

No time to think or plan.  It was annoying how these codes and protocols that Tattletale and I had come up with were costing us precious seconds.

RT:
Go back inside to see if there’s drama.  Tell him I’m not at school, if you can, but that I can meet him later.

Charlotte:
k

While I waited, I patted the mattress dry where the cleaner had soaked into it, then dragged it upstairs.  My phone buzzed before I’d dressed to take it out to the balcony.

Charlotte:
he gone.  class starting.  no drama I can see.

Damn.  Not as bad as it could be, but the situation wasn’t resolved.

RT:
What’s your next class?

Charlotte:
Eng.

RT:
Go.  I’ll see if I can track him down.  Will find you if I need you but don’t worry.  Good job.

I’d let her return to business as normal: I didn’t want her too caught up in this.

There was something to be said for having good help.  I felt more than a little guilty.  Much like Sierra had during the worst periods, Charlotte was picking up my slack.  In managing my territory while I was going home to sleep at my dad’s house, she was earning her wage twice over.  I would have increased her pay but she didn’t want me to, claiming it would arouse suspicion.

Maybe I could get Tattletale to arrange some kind of scholarship for her.  We had funds.  Tattletale had acquired everything Coil had owned, and it had been easy enough to assume his false identities and take over the dummy corporations.  Now that the city was starting to pick up and people were talking about the potential the portal in the downtown area had, the land was skyrocketing in value.

Not to mention that the Ambassadors had given us a healthy lump of cash when they’d arrived in Brockton Bay, and were paying rent in the thousands of dollars so we’d be copacetic with them just being around.

Apparently that was villain protocol, in a way, doing jobs or giving gifts when intruding on another’s territory.  I could see why: it let one ask for permission and show respect while still giving evidence to a measure of power.  If these guys were willing to hand over tens of thousands in the same way other people gave gift baskets, it showed they had that kind of money to spare, and they were confident.  The side benefit for us specifically was that it kept Tattletale from complaining too loudly.

With luck, there would be others like them.  Which wasn’t to say I trusted them.

I dressed, pulling on my running shoes, a tank top and the lightweight cargo pants I’d worn to run.  I left the grungier clothes laid out on the bed, and made doubly sure I had my cell phone, identification and my knife.  I doubted I could have it in plain sight, so I stuck it in my sock and pulled my pants leg down around it.

It was nine fifty in the morning, and I figured I had an hour and forty-five minutes before the second class of the day ended and the lunch hour began.

I had to find a way to drag Greg out of class and talk to him without alerting others.  That, or I’d have to wait until lunch started and postpone plans with my dad.  Inconvenient.

The bus was running on a reduced schedule.  There were fewer intact vehicles, fewer drivers in the area, and routes were longer with the detours that they had to take.  It wasn’t as bad as it might otherwise be: a twenty-minute wait.

I stewed in my own frustration.  There had been occasions in the past where I’d had to leave my territory to handle greater threats.  It irritated me more than it should have, to be forced to leave for this.  Such a minor thing, but prickly enough that it had the potential to become something major if ignored, and awkward overall to handle.  How did I even approach the conversation?

I’ve faced down a handful of the scariest sons of bitches in the world, I’ve been intentionally trapped in a burning house, blinded, had my back broken, I’ve been paralyzed and at the mercy of no less than two lunatic tinkers, and I’ve killed a man, I thought.  And going back to school stirs up old feelings of anxiety.

I could feel the building tension and a shift back to old ways of thinking, and the ridiculousness of it made me smile.  It was the middle of the morning, the bus was almost empty, and I stretched as though I were just waking up.  One or two people glanced my way, and I allowed myself to not give a fuck.

It helped, as though I were physically shrugging off the old burdens that were settling on me.

The wind from the open windows of the bus stirred my hair, and I exhaled slowly, turning my face into the sun, letting it warm me even as the breeze cooled me off.  I couldn’t do anything about the time it took to get there, so I might as well take the opportunity to get a breather.

Arcadia High.  I’d seen it in the midst of some of Brockton Bay’s worst days, but effort had been expended to fix it up and get everything sorted out.  New windows, that caught the light in a way that made them look almost like compound eyes.  Some kind of sub-layer or something worked into them that made for a number of quarter-sized hexagons.  The front gate had been rebuilt, cracks paved over, and vandalism cleaned up.  It was pristine, with panels of white tile and glass that almost glowed in the morning light.

The thing that caught me off guard was the people.  Classes had started, but there were forty or so students gathered around outside, sitting and talking, texting or simply enjoying the sun.  A half-dozen adults in outfits that were uncomfortably similar to the enforcers of the old Boardwalk were stationed at the gates and at points around the school grounds that let them keep an eye on things.  Security?  Volunteers?

That wasn’t the entirety of it.  The students fell into two groups.  One was very much what I might have expected, kids in new clothes or casual summer wear, smiling and talking.  Months ago, I might have felt like the smiles and periodic laughs were directed at me, and not in a flattering way.  I’d always rationally understood that they weren’t, but not to the point that I could convince myself.  Now I reveled in my anonymity.  I knew what it was to have every set of eyes on me, people covertly trying to gauge who I was and what I was doing every time I moved a finger.  This wasn’t it.

The other, larger group of students, adding up to maybe thirty-five of the forty kids present, was something else.  They were the Sierras, the Charlottes, the Ferns and the Forrests.  They were the Jessies and Bryces, the Taylor and Danny Heberts.  The people who had stayed.

I just had to look at them, and I knew it.  Some had dressed in new clothes, but others wore the clothes that had weathered the last few weeks and months, worn and frayed at the edges.  Physically, some were frayed.  They had lines in their face that spoke to weeks with a bare minimum of sleep, and both skin and hair bore the coloration that resulted from days spent outdoors.

One or two, I noted, carried weapons.  One had a knife displayed visibly at his hip.  A girl with a burly frame very similar to Rachel’s was sitting beneath a tree, eyes closed, her hands on a stick with an electrical tape grip.  There wasn’t anything definable, only little clues that added up, and a general atmosphere about them.

I didn’t miss the division between the two groups.  The five or so fresh-faced teenagers weren’t hanging out with the ones who had stayed.

“You just arriving?” one of the enforcers at the gate asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.

He studied me just long enough that I felt acutely aware of my bare shoulders and arms, and how my top clung to my stomach.  I glared at him, and he met my eyes with an ease that suggested he didn’t care I’d caught him looking.  Creepy.

“Got a weapon?”  he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Can’t keep it if you want to go inside.”

I was only keeping myself armed as a matter of practice, and I was aware I wasn’t alone on that front, or I wouldn’t be doing it so casually.  I reached into my sock and withdrew the sheathed knife.  It says something that we can even take this conversation in stride.

I handed it to him.  It wasn’t worth the time it would take to argue.  “What’s with these people outside, here?”

He shrugged.  “Easing into it.  We asked if we should round ’em up and take them inside, but the principal said we should give them a few days to depressurize if they wanted it.”

“Depressurize,” I said.

He glanced at the knife, “All I know is we’re not enforcing a lot of rules yet.  Sometimes a few take a break and come outside, smoke, talk, get some fresh air and sun.  Those ones don’t tend to stay long.”

He was looking at one group by the front door, three of the ones who didn’t have that weary, worn, and wary sense about them.  The ones who’d no doubt fled the city when things turned ugly.

I’m not the only one who sees the distinction, I mused.

“I think they’re intimidated.  Or you and I see it as a nice sunny day and they see it as being outside in a shithole of a city.”  When I didn’t keep the conversation going, he shrugged, “If you’re going in, you’ll want to go to the office.  They’ll sort out where your classes are.”

“Okay,” I said.  There was no need to explain that I wasn’t here for classes.

By the time I’d reached the front door, a trio of teenagers younger than me had already approached the same guard.  It would be another litany of questions.

It did something to explain why the guards were there.  The two kids who hadn’t been willing to part with their weapons were no doubt another part of that.  The whole dynamic was skewed, now, and they were mediating the worst of it.

I’d been in Arcadia High once, and it had been more of a life or death situation, one where I had been able to tentatively use my bugs.  In this unfamiliar territory, with a thousand or more students throughout the building, I had to actively work to suppress the powers I’d been using on an almost automatic level.  I couldn’t be sure that a small cloud of flies would go unnoticed as they traced the contours of a hallway.

Much like I’d seen outside, there were a handful of students who hadn’t yet made their way to class, or had stepped out for a breather, congregating in pairs and trios, or standing alone.

I knew I could have asked them for directions, but I wasn’t keen on approaching people who were in the process of avoiding socializing.  The men and women in uniforms that were stationed at the intersections where the halls met?  More of a possibility, but there was no need.  Directions were posted on the wall.

I glanced at a note on the wall.  One sentence, with no punctuation, and a big black arrow pointing one way.

New sudents go to front office

If I’d had a little bit of hope that things were working out here, they faltered some when I saw the typo.

I noticed another set of papers that were arranged on the wall, not because of what it said or the title, but the cartoon etched on the wall in permanent marker.

The heading of each of the sheets read ‘Know where you are’.  The paper with the graffiti was Rachel’s; a crude drawing of a dog was violating one corner, which had been torn slightly to accommodate the dog.  A speech balloon over the smiling dog’s head read ‘you don’t know shit’.

Fitting, if it was one of Rachel’s followers.

I headed in the direction of the office, feeling strangely out of place.  This entire thing was surreal.  There were the hallways with gleaming floors smudged by the passage of hundreds of feet, the bright primary colors in trophy cabinets and on bulletin boards, all contrasted with the security guards that were set up and standing to attention as though they expected a fight to break out any moment, and the innumerable teenagers who were being allowed to roam the grounds, some hanging around with weapons at hand.

But more than anything else, it was the notion of where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  Growing up, attending school, there had always been this general sense of the local gangs and powers and their influence.  It was the little things.  The gang tags scrawled on walls, the posters informing Asian students of who they could contact if the ABB started pushing them to join or pay tribute.  There had always been the rougher kids who wore certain colors and symbols of their affiliation.  It had meant something when a teenager wore yellow, or when an adult had an eight-ball tattooed on them.

was aware that Arcadia High had been scrubbed clean, and that things wouldn’t become fully apparent until people had gotten more settled and more comfortable.  Even with that, though, it was unsettling to notice that for the first time since I was eleven, I couldn’t see anything relating to the hostile gangs in the area.

There were no real gangs except for ours.  Grue, Tattletale, Bitch, Regent, Imp, Parian and I were the vague, intimidating forces that people worried about crossing.  We weren’t as bad as some of the ones that had come before us, sure, but people still saw us as something to warn others about.

I’d seen all the people working for me, sensed them with my bugs.  I’d read about myself on Parahumans Online, and in news articles.  At the same time, high school was sometimes described as a microcosm of the world at large.  There was something else about being in the midst of a three-dimensional model of it all, seeing it have a concrete impact on a place that was more familiar.

Four teenagers were sitting along the side of the hallway as I walked by.  They stared at me as I passed.

I had to work to reassure myself that there was no connection between what I was thinking and the fact that they were looking at me.

It did remind me that the Wards were here, and whatever else had happened, they might have seen my face.  Not my face, but they could easily have seen a deformed evil clone of me.

There was that surreal sensation, again.  Was it weird that I felt most like Taylor at school?  That I was all the more cognizant of the weirdness of all the cape stuff?

They were still looking.  I gave one a curt nod, and she nodded back.

I quickened my pace as I headed to the office.  I wanted to be gone.

There were a lot of students in the office, and I was soon aware of why.  There were capes present.  Ones I only barely recognized.  Adamant and Sere.

“Listen!”  a woman behind the counter raised her voice to be heard over the general babble.  She had more authority than I might have expected of a secretary.  “Get in a line! If you’re here to look at the superheroes, you can do it later!  They’ll be here all week!”

Nobody listened, of course, and the secretaries weren’t really helping, taking requests and giving out information to whoever was closest to the front.  It only encouraged the press of bodies.

I headed to the other end of the room, hoping I’d be able to work my way around the end of the crowd.

I glanced at the clock.  Ten-forty.  I had maybe twenty minutes before my dad called me, and getting back in time would be difficult, even if I was lucky enough to have the bus show up at a convenient time.  I could postpone, plan a late lunch, but I really didn’t want to.

“Please,” Adamant spoke, and his voice was filled with confidence, “Do as Principal Howell is asking and form lines.”

That worked, but not all that well.  People elbowed and pushed against me as we arranged ourselves into loose columns.  I’d never liked the feeling of being in a press of bodies, and it made me think of other unpleasant situations: Bonesaw straddling me, being drawn into a massive, monstrous lump of flesh.  It made me exceedingly uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable made me instinctively reach for my bugs.

That was another reason to not be in classes.  How long would it be before my power did something while running on autopilot and drew attention?

I studied Adamant and Sere while I waited.  Adamant, naturally, wore a metallic costume, featuring metal bands and panels that were loosely linked together by chains, fit over a black bodysuit.  He’d been at the fight against Leviathan, if I remembered right.  He was a member of Legend’s team in New York.  Or he had been.  Legend was gone now.

Sere wore cloth, in contrast to Adamant.  He wore a kind of nomadic, desert-tribe style of robe, all in pristine white with a fine pattern embroidered onto it.  His mask was more stylistic than representing anything, a solid white plate with light blue lenses for the eyes and no opening for his nose or mouth.  What made him stand out was the moisture that flowed from the gaps in his handwraps and from around his mask.  It swirled around him like a breath outdoors in winter, pale.  Almost an inverse of Grue.

Powerwise, I knew Adamant was a bruiser, though I didn’t know the specifics.  Sere, I did know about, but only because I’d once come across a cell phone video of him brutally taking down a number of thugs, posted online somewhere, months ago.  Some capes shot fire from their hands.  Sere was the opposite – he could draw moisture to himself with surprising speed and violence.  It didn’t matter if a foe was armored or behind a forcefield, he could dehydrate them in a flash.  It was the kind of power that might have earned him a villain label if he hadn’t had all of the Protectorate’s PR at his back.

I idly wondered what had made the pair stick with their employer, in the wake of the recent events that had so many leaving the Protectorate with little to no explanation, Legend among them.

More than that, I was wondering how I’d fight them if it came down to it.  With the way the armor and chains of his costume were arranged, Adamant was just begging to be tied up. Sere would be trickier.

“You’re next, black curls,” the secretary closest to me spoke.

I focused my attention closest to her and approached the counter.

“What do you need?”

“I need to get in contact with someone.”

“We can’t give out personal information.”

“Not even if it’s an emergency?”

“If you need to inform a student of something critical, we can make an announcement.”

“No.  That’d be the opposite of what I need to do.”

“You could always look for them during the lunch break.”

I frowned.

“If there’s nothing else, there are others in line.”

“What’s the procedure for signing up for classes?”

“You tell us your old schedule.  We slot you in as well as we’re able.  Core classes are in classrooms.  We’ve adopted another system for non-core classes.”

“Non-core?”

“Anything besides maths, science, phys ed, and all those.  Non-core classes are held in the computer labs.  You’ll have a rushed curriculum, alternating reading assignments with quizzes and worksheets on the computers.  There are teachers at the front of the lab if you have any questions.”

“I don’t suppose you could tell me all the classes that are second period?”

She gave me a stern look.

I was feeling the pressure.  This maybe wasn’t the brightest move, but I wanted to find Greg, get this solved, then return to life as normal.  Lunch with my dad, in an ideal world.

What classes did Greg take?

I could remember him talking in Spanish.  God, it felt like years had passed, not months.

“World issues-”

“Grade?”

“Ten.  World Issues, Spanish…”

Not English.  Charlotte’s in that class and she probably would have slipped out to send me a text.

“…History and Music,” I finished, picking two more that weren’t likely to be on the computers.

“World issues is a non-core class.  That’ll be your fourth period.  You have History now.”

She struck a key and the sheet began printing.

“You don’t need my name or ID?”

“We have zero notice on who’s going to be here or not.  For now, everyone is to go to classes.  Do your best to catch up for the tests in one week, where we evaluate where everyone is.  We’re adding students to the system on a priority basis.”

I nodded.  Something of a relief, that this wasn’t set in stone.  She handed me the paper and I took it, turning on my heel to head out of the office.

Computer labs first, I thought.  I hated to do it, but I drew on my bugs to find the labs in question.  With my luck, Kid Win would have put something together something to track unusual bug movements, and I’d get found in a second.

The first lab was a bust.  Nobody got in my way or spoke up as I entered the room.  There was only an older teacher who pointed wordlessly at a space where computers were unattended.

I walked up between the rows and looked at the students.  No luck.  I left through the back door at the other end of the class.

Halfway through the second lab, I saw Emma, clustered with a group of others.  Her hair was dyed blond, done up in a french braid, and her clothes were brand new.  Their eyes were on a computer screen where they were watching a video on a streaming site.  I wasn’t surprised that she’d drawn people to her so quickly.  She had that magnetism to her.

She looked up and noticed me, no doubt expecting to see a teacher, and I could see her eyes widen a fraction in recognition.

But I was already walking, moving on with my search.  She wasn’t a priority.  I deposited a single fly in her bag so I could keep out of her way and headed out of the room.

Ten minutes passed as I moved from area to area.  I was aware of the moving timeline, and felt a knot of anxiety in my stomach that had nothing to do with school.

Fuck him.  Seriously.

By the time I found him in the smaller gymnasium, where long tables and computers had been arranged to form an impromptu computer lab, it was past eleven.  My dad would call any minute.

I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

The change in his expression when he saw me, with the spreading smile of a child that had torn open the wrapping paper to find the very present they’d wanted… fuck me.  I could see where Charlotte had been concerned.  There was zero subtlety to him, and a bare minimum of restraint.  Or maybe it was the other way around.

He pointed at the door, and I nodded once by way of reply.  I headed in that direction without waiting for him.

At least he didn’t blurt out ‘Skitter!’ in front of everyone.

“I can’t believe you came, you-”

Seeing his awe, the unrestrained excitement, I decided on a strategy.

“Are you stalking me?” I asked, cutting him off.

I could see his expression change, shifting from enthusiasm to confusion.  He looked decidedly deranged for the split second he was midway.

“No,” he said.  “The reason-”

Can’t let him get going or it’s all over.  He’ll keep talking until he says something we’ll both regret.  “Then you have a grudge against me.  Some vendetta or something?”

“No!”

“Because you barely know me, and a friend said you were being seriously creepy with the way you were trying to get info on me.”

“I wasn’t!  I was trying to help!”

Help?

I fumbled for a question that wouldn’t give him an excuse to say anything vital aloud.  I felt like I was channeling Rachel as I spoke, “I don’t need your help.”

“I-”

“In fact,” I cut him off.  “I’m offended you would say it.”

I know!” he strained the words at me, two words said in a way that was too excited to be a successful whisper.  He wasn’t talking about me being offended.  He was talking about my secret identity.  Fuck me.

“Greg,” I said, reaching out to put the flat of one hand against his shoulder, as if pushing him away, “You don’t know anything about me.”

“We’re not that different,” he said.  He’d shifted gears to bewilderment.

“In what way are we the same?” I asked.  Safe question, unless his answer included a confession that he had powers.

“We’re… not social people.  We like reading,” the answers were weak, and from the look on his face, he knew it.  There was a benefit to him being this transparent, and I was counting my blessings that he wasn’t very good at articulating what he was thinking.  “We like computers.”

And, fuck me, I couldn’t help but admit that he was nice.  Part of the reason he was struggling to provide an answer was that he was couching his statements to avoid hurting my feelings.  The answer was short: we’d both been the losers, but he wouldn’t say it outright.

I let him flounder for a little bit longer.  I didn’t want to tear him down, but every second that his confidence wavered was an advantage to me.

“You don’t know anything about me,” I repeated myself for effect, then quickly added, “You kind of messed up my day doing this.”

With the reaction I got, someone might have thought I’d slapped him.

“I wanted to help,” he said.

“I was spooked,” I said, feeling like shit even as I continued to leverage his better qualities against him.  “All I got was a friend texting me to say someone’s looking for me like they have a vendetta.”

“That’s not it…” he said, trailing off, but his enthusiasm was crushed.  He was visibly sagging, as though someone had let the air out of him.

“And I found out it was you, and all I could think was that you were angry and you wanted to hurt me, or maybe you had some crazed infatuation with me and you were stalking me.”

I could see the look on his face.  Horror mixed with panic.

“Fuck, Greg-”

“No.  That’s not what it was-” he said, breathless.  His face betrayed the lie.  It was at least part of it.  “It wasn’t like I was crazy over you, it was a little thing, a while back.  That’s not-”

“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out the words in my haste to cut him off again.

It was like kicking a dog.

He went silent, and I took the opportunity to get my mental footing and plan out what to say next.

A boy stopped in his tracks on his walk way down the hall.  A little shorter than me, red haired.  Apparently our atmosphere was screwed up enough that he’d noticed.  “Problem?”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We’re in the middle of resolving it.  Personal stuff.”

“That’s-” Greg started, then he stopped, looking at the boy.  Even he wasn’t so clueless as to say something in front of a stranger.

The boy looked between us, and then gave me a curious look.  He was one of the ones who’d stayed, I could tell at a glance.  Unlike some, though, unlike me, he hadn’t gotten much sun.  Odd.  Maybe he’d holed up in a house or a shelter for the last few months.  Staying indoors would have been safest.

From the way he was looking at me, I wondered if he saw something like that.  Difference was, I had a secret to keep.

“Thank you, though,” I told him, before he could figure anything out.

He took it for what it was: me saying ‘go away’ in the politest way I could manage.  He left.

“Greg,” I said, “I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want to be your enemy.  You have to understand, the last while has been scary.  I’m guessing you didn’t stay in town?”

“I did,” he said, then he stopped, breaking eye contact.  “I was on the outermost edge of the city.  Other side of Captain’s Hill.”

There’s a mountain on the far side of Captain’s Hill, I thought.  Which meant he wasn’t close enough to matter.  I would have hesitated to call that area a part of Brockton Bay, but I could see where maybe Greg had convinced himself it was close enough to count.

“You didn’t stay in town, then,” I said.  “That’s fine.  Smart.  But maybe you don’t get what it’s been like here.  All I want is peace and quiet.  I want to spend time with my dad, who I very nearly lost.  I don’t want trouble.  I don’t want complications.”

“I was trying to help!” he protested.

“Greg-”

He bowled over me this time, “But I was thinking, you know, if I could figure this out, others could too.”

I glanced over my shoulder to ensure there was nobody in earshot.  A few fruit flies ventured out of a locker and checked around the corners.

“Greg, what is it you think you know?”

You’re Skitter,” he whispered.

“No, Greg,” I said, calm, quiet.

“I was reading online, and it’s like, there were people wondering if you were an adult, and it got me thinking what Skitter must be like in real life, and then it clicked.”

That was just about the most horrifying thing he could have said, barring near-impossibilities like, ‘I got powers and I ate your hair to get pregnant with your child.’

“A feeling, Greg?”

“It’s more than that!  It all makes sense!”

“I was going to spend time with my dad,” I said.  “That was my whole goal for the day, it’s my only goal.  I just want to unwind and relax after weeks and months of living in this hellhole of a city.  And you pull me away from all that because of a hunch?”

“It makes sense.  Your age, your location, your attitude.  Even with the bullying, your trigger event-”

I cut him off, “Trigger event?”

“Yeah, you-”

“What’s that?” I asked.

He stopped, trying to think of a way to parse the answer, and I could even see a flicker of enthusiasm, as he imagined explaining the concept.

The enthusiasm drained from his face.

“You’re playing dumb,” he said, but the confidence had taken a hit.

“You know that capes hurt my dad?” I asked.  “Both times he got hospitalized.  Shatterbird the first time, the explosion at the town hall the second.   Superpowers are really the last thing I even want to think about.  We can talk, but I really don’t want to talk about the superhero stuff.”

Fuck me, I felt slimy, playing him like this, using my dad for leverage.

“I can’t talk about this without talking about capes.”

“About me being one of the villains?  Isn’t it kind of insulting?  No, Greg.  I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.”

“But the proportions, the appearance-”

“You’re wrong,” I repeated.  I was feeling enough sympathy for him at this point that it wasn’t hard to inject some into my voice.

“Everything fit,” he said, his voice small.

Fit, not fits.  He’d already come to the conclusion I’d wanted.  I kept my mouth shut.  I wanted nothing more than to be gone, to arrange things so I could meet up with my dad with a minimum of questions, but I stood there and waited for Greg’s response.

“I’m sorry,” he said, in the end.

“You’re not a bad guy, Greg,” I said.  “Sorry I’m not the person you wanted me to be.”

He nodded, mute.

“Take care of yourself.  Good luck with school.  Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“I hope your dad’s alright,” he said.

“Thanks,” I answered him.  Then I turned to leave.

God damned people.  I felt like crap, both for manipulating him and the way I’d manipulated him, but there’d been no other choice.  What the hell had he even expected?  That I’d admit it and be bursting with gratitude that he’d let me know I needed to take some extra measures with my secret identity?

Probably.

I headed for the front door of the school.  As crummy as I felt, I could relax a bit, now.  Crisis averted.  I’d send Charlotte a text, then see about meeting up with my dad.  I wanted to leave.  There was nothing for me here.  Only ugly feelings.

Except the difference from then and now was that I felt a hell of a lot more like an Emma than a Taylor.

Speak of the devil.  I could sense her by the front door, hanging out with a group of her new friends.  I changed routes and found a door in a stairwell, and stepped outside that way.

The problem was the gate.  A short wall surrounded the grounds, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb it, not with the attention it would attract.  Going through the exit at the parking lot would take me in the opposite direction I’d wanted to go, and I was in something of a rush.

And maybe a part of me didn’t want to run.  Avoiding her was one thing, but going five or ten minutes out of my way to circle a whole city block just to keep out of her way was something else.

I walked briskly for the gate.

She saw me, walked to intercept.  Fuck her.  Of course she’s starting something.  It can’t be easy.

She placed herself between me and the gate.  She was almost playful as she stepped right, then left to cut me off as I changed direction.  I was forced to stop.

A sly smile was plastered on her face.  I was aware of the others looking.  The people who were sitting outside, the guards… her friends were approaching to join her.

“Sneaky, sneaky,” she said.  She looked like she was having a ball.  “Trying to avoid me?”

I didn’t reply.  I was a little spooked at how quickly my bugs were responding to my irritation.  Half of my psyche was saying ‘fight’, the other half was saying ‘ignore her’, and the bugs were only listening to the first half.  The second half was needing a bit of a push on my end.

There were few people in this world that had truly earned my hate.  I’d put a bullet through the last one’s brain.

Emma?  I couldn’t care less about her.  That was what unsettled me.

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Chrysalis 20.1

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I stepped out of the shower, but I didn’t dry off.  It was hot out, and the cold beads of moisture on my skin offered something of a reprieve.  I felt acutely aware of the breeze blowing into the room, as it traced frigid lines against my body.  My hair was wet, plastered to my neck, shoulders and back, and water ran down from the individual locks of hair in thin streams.

More than anything, the cool sensation of the wet hair on my head was a contrast to the workings inside my skull.  It wasn’t even seven in the morning, and in purely mental terms, I was hitting the ground running.  Had to.

I leaned over the sink, letting the droplets fall from my eyelashes and run down my face.

I reached out, and my toothbrush found its way to my hand, as much as my hand found it.  The toothpaste was much the same, maneuvered to my hand by a dozen threads and twice that many insects.  I took two minutes brushing, another minute to use some mouthwash, and then stood straight, stretching.  My skin felt tight, contracted by the temperature.

Like the act of rubbing one’s stomach while patting their head, I was moving out of sync.  I held out one hand for the hairbrush, closed my fingers around it, then set to tugging the plastic bristles through the tangles and knots, slow, strong, deliberate movements, a patient, calming exercise.

My mind?  I was watching, studying, sensing and experiencing ten thousand things at once, an engine going full-bore.  I could follow my dad as he moved through the house, picked work clothes out of his closet, threw away a sock and its matching pair.  I watched every entryway into the house, the windows and doors, tracked the movements of the neighbors, and our neighbor’s neighbors.  With fleas, I could track the movements of the neighbor’s outdoor cat, a surprisingly violent creature with a sizable body count of local frogs and mice, many killed purely for sport.

I could track each of these details for roughly a thousand feet around me, to the point that I was aware of every person and every piece of terrain in the area.  There were bugs crawling inside walls and the dark corners of houses all up and down the street, and I had only to pay attention for a moment to grasp the layout of each house and home.  I could feel the worms crawling through the earth, the ants navigating the surface, struggling but surviving in the humid heat of the outdoors.  I could feel the maggots that were devouring one of the cat’s abandoned victims, the ants working to collect the food before descending into their labyrinthine hive.

And I thought of my own hive, of jobs that needed doing and positions that needed filling, of threats and threat assessment.  I was prioritizing, knowing it would be impossible to do every job in the time I had.  I had to check in with everyone, to look after the individual groups, get more information on construction and finances, to make sure everything was running smoothly.  Each and every task could potentially be interrupted at a moment’s notice, so I had to ensure I had people at hand that I could delegate to in a pinch.

It was a lot to take in, a jumble of half-formed thoughts that I only considered for moments at a time before categorizing them, making or postponing a decision.  There were too many I wouldn’t be able to address yet.  Tasks that I needed eyes on, people I needed to talk to for information.

I toweled my hair dry, brushed it again, had the bugs clean up the silk strands that littered the bathroom, and then wrapped a towel around myself to venture to my bedroom and get dressed.

By the time my dad descended to the ground floor, I was already halfway done preparing breakfast, standing by the stove with my damp hair tied back into a loose ponytail, wearing a strapless top and loose-fitting, lightweight cargo pants.

Preparing breakfast was another of those routine activities, rubbing my stomach.  I was still patting my head, thinking of how to address one sensitive issue.  When my dad entered the scene, though, I made a deliberate attempt to break from that mode of thinking, to shift mental gears.

“You’re going to school wearing that?” my dad asked.

“I’m going running like this,” I replied.

“In this heat?  Take some water with you.”

I pointed at the kitchen table, where I’d set two water bottles by the salt and pepper shakers.

“Good.”

“Crepe?” I asked.  “And fruit salad?  We have some left over from last night.”

“Please.”

I slid the crepe out of the frying pan and onto a plate, then handed it to him.  I dropped some butter on the pan, poured more batter on, and then tilted it until the batter was spread thin over the surface.

“You’re usually out the door by now, and back fairly late.”

“Trying to do my part,” I said.  “And I wanted to talk.”

“Okay.  I like talking,” he said.  “Unless this isn’t the kind of conversation we look forward to?”

He made a face as he eased himself down into his chair.   He’s still not completely recovered.  I admitted, “It isn’t.”

“Ah,” he said.  His expression was placid, his eyes watching me carefully.

“I was thinking… I don’t think I’ll go back to school.”  I turned my eyes to the crepe.  I poked the spatula at the corner to verify it was more solid, lifted it, then flipped the thing over.

I could hear him pouring orange juice.  Flies hidden on ledges and on a shelf between cookbooks could see the vague movement as he raised the glass to his lips and drank before he spoke.  “It’s a month and a half of classes.  Everyone will be catching up, not just you.  We couldn’t ask for better circumstances.  A new environment, new people, a new dynamic.  You’re different.”

“I am,” I said.  I slid the crepe onto a plate.  I didn’t use the fruit salad, but instead went straight for the blueberries I’d defrosted, adding a spoonful of cream.  I rolled it up, spooned some fruit salad onto the side of the plate, collected my mug of tea by the side of the stove and then sat down opposite my dad.

He looked so old.  Two serious sets of injuries, one he hadn’t fully recovered from, and a measure of stress that I was partially responsible for, all adding up to artificial years.  I felt a pang of fondness mixed with regret.

“If I asked you to, would you?” he asked.  “Hypothetically.”

“If you did, I would,” I admitted.  “But it’s not where I want to be right now.”

He nodded, taking a bite.  A dribble of fruit juice ran down from the corner of his mouth, and he thumbed it away.  I reached for a roll of paper towels, tore one off and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he said.  It wasn’t a response to my statement.

If he asked, I’d find a way.  Work things out.  Reprioritize, filter out the nonessential tasks, shift things around.  Everything would take longer, there would be issues in countless areas, more things I couldn’t do and people I couldn’t protect.  But I’d do it.

“What will you do instead?”

“What I’ve been doing.  I’ll work,” I said.  “There’s cleanup work, still.  It pays pretty well, all things considered.”

“It’s not easy,” he said.

“I’m tough,” I said, flexing an arm.  I had some muscle, but it looked pretty sad on my thin arm.  I let my arm drop.  “At least it’s not all heavy lifting.”

“But it wears you out.  I won’t say it’s bad work, we both know how many hundreds of people I’ve worked with who are employed along those lines.  I’ve been employed along those lines.  But you’re smart.  Your mom and I both expected you to go on to college.  The idea that you might never graduate high school never crossed our minds.”

Bringing Mom into it.  I sighed.  “I will graduate.  I promise.  But I can wait a year, study online.”

“Why?  Why put things off and study for half a year to a year, when you could pass tenth grade in two months?”  He didn’t sound angry or upset, only confused.

Prioritizing, weighing every action against the costs involvedSpending most of my day at school, everything else takes a back seat.

“Like you said, I’m different than the person I was,” I replied.

He looked up at me, met my eyes, and I could feel my blood run cold.  That searching, studying look…

He knows?

“You are,” he said, simply.  Not a confirmation of my fears, not dismissing them either.  It was only an admission of what we both knew as truth.

“If you want me to go, you can tell me to go.  I will.  You’re my dad.  You can tell me to do something, and I have to do it.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “We both know that’s not true.”

I took another bite of my crepe instead of replying.

“Being a parent, there’s always that niggling fear, that notion that maybe one day your child will realize you’re not all-knowing, not all-powerful.  That they don’t really have to do anything you say.  But you spend years growing up together, parent and child, as a parent you get accustomed to acting like you’re in power, believing it as much as your daughter does.  For some, for most, that confidence gets worn down after the child hits adolescence, and the parent changes from being one of the most important figures in their child’s life to being an embarrassment.”

“You were never embarrassing to me,” I said.

“I know,” he said.  “But that makes it harder, doesn’t it?  For all those other parents, it’s a transition, a transformation, as their children gradually test their authority and discover how very fragile a thing it is.  For me?  I didn’t have nearly enough time to get used to it.  One night, one conversation, and you decided I didn’t have any say in your life anymore.”

“You do,” I said, feeling alarmed, in a way I couldn’t articulate.  “I want you to have a say.  I’m saying you can set curfews or demand that I go to school, and I will.  I might complain or argue, but I’ll listen.  I’ll let you have a say.”

He reached across the kitchen table, taking my hand.  He pulled it towards him, and I let him stretch my arm out straight.  He bent over and kissed the fingers.

His voice was quiet, “I hope that, if and when you ever have a child of your own, you never have to hear them say anything like that.”

He released my hand, and I withdrew it.

“You’re sure you don’t want to go to school?”  He asked.

I nodded.

“It’s your decision,” he said.  “Yours, not mine.  Where would you work?”

“The Boardwalk,” I said.  “It’s close, it’s good pay, good food, and it’s safe.”

“A little more directly involved with the local supervillain-in-power than I’d recommend for  any employees of mine that were looking for a job,” my dad replied.

I didn’t have a response to that.  I ate the last bite of my crepe.

“Will you still be there at lunchtime?”

I nodded.

“I’ll meet you.  Things are busy, things are good, but I’d like to set aside a block of time.  We can pick up lunch, or I’ll bring something.  How’s that?”

It was awkward on a dozen different levels.  Even staying here caused me any number of problems.  It removed me from a place I needed to be, it made for awkward transitions between my civilian and costumed life, and every conversation with my father stressed me out, left me wondering if he could guess.  Or maybe when I stepped in the door, I might find out that the local heroes had recognized me, using one of the mutant clones that had been running around, or any number of other possibilities.  My dad waiting to ambush me with the fact that he’d received a telling phone call, like he had when I’d skipped school, only he’d be backed up by superheroes.

The last big conversation in that vein had done irreparable damage.  Enough that I found myself checking my house and making sure there wasn’t an ambush waiting for me on the other side.  On my dad’s side of things, well, we’d just discussed that in some depth.  Our relationship wasn’t any better for it.

Taking time away from everything else I had to do, to eat lunch, to fill in the details and arrange things so my dad didn’t discover I was bending the truth yet again?  To have another awkward conversation?

I was willing.  “I’d really like that.”

He smiled.

I grabbed the notepad by the phone that we usually used for writing down numbers and put down my cell number.  “Call me when you’re coming around, so we can find each other.”

“Your cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

He looked sad for a brief moment, then perked up a little, “I suppose you need it if you’re going to stay in touch with the others.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should go.  I want to get a light run in and maybe catch up with some people before I start working.”

“Take care of yourself.  I’ll be in touch around eleven or eleven thirty.”

I nodded.  I gathered a billfold with some ID and cash, a fresh tube of pepper spray, and then a sheathed knife from the backpack that hung by the back door.  It wasn’t my good knife: I wouldn’t be able to explain how I had a knife of that kind of quality.  This one was serviceable for self-defense, the kind that was currently being worn by countless people around the city.

I glanced at my dad, but he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid looking as I did everything necessary to prepare myself for venturing out into the city.

Was it him suppressing his worry for my well-being, or were my doubts on target?  Did he suspect, and simply not want to know for sure?

I couldn’t ask, couldn’t hint or try to get clarification, not without potentially seeding the idea in his mind, or prompting him to give me an answer I didn’t want to hear.

I stepped outside, and the hot air was like a physical barrier.  I’d known it, had anticipated it with the knowledge my bugs provided me, but there wasn’t anything quite like that first faceful of eighty-five degree weather, so humid it went straight through both skin and clothing.

The second I was out of sight of the house, I had my phone out.  I re-checked the messages that had come in last night and this morning.  Twenty in total.

Charlotte:
I know its already pretty late, not a big deal, but was wondering if u wanted to go out and grab ice cream?  terrys craving some.  we can grab jelly beans and a chocolate for my brother on our way back.

Charlotte:
eric stopped by.  no drama.  you should say hi while he’s around.

Forrest:
saw Eric 2nite.  shuld say hi.

Forrest:
n/m Char already sent you msg.

Charlotte:
taking my little brother to school today.  if I dont see u, have a good day, will see u tonite.

All code.  Mostly code, anyways.  The names dropped were a shorthand for specific kinds of situations and people.  ‘Eric’ was trouble.  ‘Little brother’ meant the kids Charlotte was looking after.  ‘Terry’ was the catch-all term for people in my territory.

There were two for me, as well.  ‘u’ and ‘you’, as odd as it sounded.

People were probably craving some luxuries in the food department and some treats for the kids wouldn’t hurt.  There was some kind of trouble while I’d been out, but it was handled and I should pay a visit in costume to make sure it was resolved.  Charlotte would be going to school, taking all the little ones with her.

There were other messages.  Among them, there was a mess of some sort one of the side streets hadn’t been cleaned up and ‘Terry’ had been complaining, there were some vague concerns about the food supplies for lunch later today, and Lisa had called about a nebulous ‘party’.

I ran the rest of the way to the Boardwalk.

There weren’t many people up and about yet.  Some cars on the road, the sounds of construction starting to get underway, and some parents with kids to see off to school and no cars getting an early start.

I passed by my headquarters and found someone unfamiliar inside, in the main room with Charlotte.  She was helping a little boy put a shirt on.  Forrest was in the kitchen, mass-producing kids’ lunches with the supplies I’d had brought in yesterday.

I made my way to the beach, entering the storm drain that led, in a roundabout way, into my base.

The original plan, as far as I was aware, had been for this entrance to be temporary.  Work would continue on the Boardwalk, and it was inevitable that someone would run into the storm drain, either where it was deliberately blocked off or entering from the beach as I was.  It would have changed, with Coil leveraging his resources to set up something else that would serve as a covert entrance.

I’d have to contact Tattletale, though she was probably busy enough that my to-do list looked trivial.

Bugs flowed down the stairs, surrounding me as a thick cloud that would hide me from sight. I could sense the kids reacting as I made my appearance.  Fearful starts and backing away, taking shelter behind Charlotte.

I singled out a handful of butterflies and sent them towards the kid nearest me.  They flew in formation, forming a circle around her hand.  She stretched it out, and one butterfly landed on her thumb.

As other children reached out, I settled butterflies on their hands as well.  The distraction was good enough that I could walk past them and head upstairs without causing anyone to burst into tears.

I locked the door behind me and quickly changed.  I draped the shawl-cape over my armored shoulders, and then covered it in bugs.  Wearing black in the summer would be uncomfortable, especially with the added heat and weight of the bugs, but maybe I could provide myself with some shade using a swarm overhead.

It would make me a target to any heroes paying a visit, though.  The PRT had recognized the potential for trouble that surrounded the door, Tattletale’s improvised portal to another universe, and out-of-town capes were being given permanent positions on the local Wards and Protectorate teams. It said something, given the state of the PRT these days, that they were willing to devote the manpower.

A pair of villains from the Fallen were lurking somewhere in Imp’s territory, and their presence meant that Haven felt obliged to send two or three capes our way as well.  Until the Fallen were dead or gone, Haven would have something of a local presence.

I’d done my part to try to help find the two Fallen, just a few days ago, but even with Tattletale’s help in identifying the general area, I hadn’t been able to root them out.  Her gut told her that one of the two was Valefor.  Despite the intimidating names and the fact that they called themselves an Endbringer cult, the Fallen didn’t pose a grave threat.  They were thieves and vandals, allegedly committing incest in the belief that it would guarantee that their entangled family produced more kids with powers, but only a few people in the controlling body of the family were demonstrably capable of murder.  They were far from being the Slaughterhouse Nine.

Still, both Imp and Valefor were what the PRT termed ‘strangers’.  Capes with abilities that tended towards subtlety and subterfuge.  That wasn’t a fight I wanted to get caught up in.  I would if it came down to it, if people were in danger or Aisha needed my help, but I was perfectly content to not be in a position where I was looking over my shoulder every few seconds.  I’d dealt with that enough.

All of that wasn’t even touching on the other villains seeking a foothold in the city.  The Ambassadors were looking for a slice of the Brockton Bay pie, and both Grue and I were tentatively willing.  The group of villains was willing to play by our rules and participate in our alliance, they would add their own strength to ours, and they were more interested in shady but legitimate dealings and preying on other villains than they were on causing trouble or bucking with the local authorities.  I couldn’t be entirely sure whether that was because of their general ethos or because they were recuperating from being nearly wiped out, but their simple existence and their membership in our alliance would help scare off troublemakers.

It all added up to making the Ambassadors as ideal a partner-group as we could hope for.  The only sticking point was that their leader was a Thinker, and Tattletale almost automatically disliked him.  It would take a great deal more convincing to get her to play along.

The Teeth had tried to take a bite out of Parian’s territory.  They had a history in the bay, and like the Ambassadors they had been nearly wiped out, only it was nearly a decade ago.  They’d settled elsewhere while they bounced back, with a turnover rate high enough that none of the original members persisted.  There was only the name, and an ethos of violence, anarchy, and profit at any cost, not unlike the ABB.  Parian seemed to be making a point of not asking for our help, and I wasn’t intending to offer it until she did.

I had others to take care of, and I could only trust that she knew what she was doing.

“Skitter,” Charlotte said, as I returned downstairs.  I could see the other girl, plump, with a shorter haircut that only seemed to accentuate the roundness of her face.  She seemed more scared of me than the kids were.

Forrest, by contrast, was almost bemused.  He leaned over the kitchen counter.  He had a barrel chest, a burly build, a natural glower, a thick black beard and coarse, unkempt hair.  He might have looked savage if it weren’t for the tight-fitting striped polo shirt and the nerdish thick-framed glasses.  It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d helped sway the outcome of my fight against Mannequin, putting his life on the line to help take down a monster that even some top-tier capes had been scared of.

I’d asked Charlotte to find someone who could serve as my second in command.  I considered it serendipitous that she’d nominated him.

“Any urgent issues?” I asked.  She shook her head.  I let myself relax a touch and gestured toward the new girl, “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked guilty.  “She’s an extra set of hands.  Don’t worry.  Forrest and I blindfolded her while bringing her here.  I didn’t think I’d be able to manage looking after the kids all by myself, and I was ok with paying her.”

“I can cover that cost,” I said.  “No trouble on that front?  Taking care of the kids?”

“We’re just about ready to go,” she said.  “Kids are washed, fed and clothed, lunches nearly finished.  They have their bags…”

“Good,” I said, “The school bus is arriving soon.  Can you spare a minute to fill me in?”

“I can’t even remember all of the stuff that’s been going on.  I’m kind of frazzled.”

I felt a pang of sympathy.  This was the cost of me staying with my dad.  “The pertinent points only, then.  Who or what is the ‘Eric’?”

“Forrest can explain.  Some thugs were causing trouble for some people living further north.  Your guys caught them.”

“The mess in the alley?”

“The garbage trucks couldn’t get down the road.  Shale avenue is still in rough shape, and nobody told the residents they shouldn’t put their trash on the sidewalk there.  It’s piled up and it’s hot, so it’s smelling.”

“I’ll resolve it.”  Wasn’t so long ago this whole city stank, and people weren’t complaining this much then.  “The lunch supplies?”

“One of the pallets of vegetables you ordered was in bad shape.  Past ripe.  I’d planned to have something done last night that Forrest could warm up for people’s lunches today, but I couldn’t work with what I had, and I thought you’d want something better than a thin soup.  Then I was occupied looking after the kids and forgot.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’ve done an excellent job.  Better than I could have hoped.  I’ll figure something out for lunch.  Maybe reach out to a local business.  What’s a food most people would enjoy, which we haven’t had available for a good while?”

“Pizza!” one boy in Charlotte’s herd of children piped up.

“Pizza it is,” I said.  “With luck, there’s someone trying to get set up somewhere in the north end.  We can order a batch for everyone that’s working here, then another batch for tonight, for the kids?  If they’re good in school and they do their homework.”

The children almost crowed, and one literally jumped with glee.

“Forrest,” I said.  “Can you see them off to the bus stop?  I need to have a word with Charlotte.”

Wordless, Forrest stood straight, gathered up the paper bag lunches in two hands and then approached the kids.  Like magnets, two kids gravitated to his legs and clung to him, and he walked stiff-legged to the front door with them hanging on him and the rest trailing after him like my bugs trailed after me.

My bugs kicked into motion, blocking the line of sight to the door.  No use giving Charlotte’s friend a view of the street outside and a clue about our location.  She made a small frightened sound and backed away.

Did Charlotte honestly bring in someone who’s afraid of bugs?

I glanced at the two girls.  Charlotte’s eyebrows were knitted in concern.  Her friend, by contrast, looked terrified: her fingers were knotted together, her eyes wide.

“Jessie’s still wetting the bed, I see,” I noted.  My bugs could feel the damp on one of the bunk beds in one of the other rooms.  Something mundane, so we don’t frighten the new girl further.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  “Shit!  I was so busy trying to get things organized-”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “I’ll handle it.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” she said, “Fern-”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to mention.  Your friend-” I glanced at the girl.  She didn’t look any less spooked.  Why did Charlotte bring her here if she’s going to be so afraid?  “Did Tattletale vet her?”

“It was a spur of the moment thing.  I know it was sorta dumb, but-”

“I don’t want to be hard on you,” I said, “But this is something I’m going to be strict about.  Someone comes here, they have to be vetted first.”

“I’ll be more careful.”

“Please.  And are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to thank you for your help?”

“You’re paying me more than enough.”

“Let me know if anything comes to mind.  In the meantime, pizza and some candy for the kids tonight?”

“It’s tough, going back to school, trying to get back to something even resembling a normal routine.  They’d appreciate it, I think.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t mention the candy.  Let it be a surprise.  I think the bus is coming, so you should head to the stop.”

“Blindfold on, Fern,” Charlotte said.

A minute later, they were gone.

I sighed and set to tidying up.  Bugs carted away the unused paper bags and scraps of lettuce.

And everyone’s off to school, I thought.

I felt a pang of regret.  A part of me wanted to go, to prove to myself that I’d grown past it, to have another normal thing in my life, like breakfast with my dad.

At the same time, there were so many reasons not to.  My face having been exposed in a roundabout fashion, the presence of the Wards somewhere in that school, the time it took away from other things that needed doing…

Better to keep out of it.

Forrest returned.  “Want to see ’em?”

I nodded, and we ventured out into my territory.

All around us, the Boardwalk and what had been the shadier parts of the Docks were coming together.  New streets, new sidewalks, new buildings.  There were more people out and about than there had been just ten or fifteen minutes ago, and everyone present was getting ready to work or even starting early.  Building something as a community.

Conversations died as I approached, power tools were turned off, and heads turned.

My bugs followed behind me like the trail of a fancy gown, rising from my shoulders and hair like pitch black sparks from a fire.  Image.  I’d done what I could to earn the loyalty of my people.  I’d tried to be even-handed, tried to be generous, but image and attitude was a big part in keeping that loyalty.

I was put in mind of my dad’s thoughts on a parent’s authority.  Was this so different?

“The attackers were leftovers from the Chosen,” Forrest explained.  “I’m not even sure they were full members.”

“Is the family okay?”

“They’re okay.  Scared, they lost a few possessions, but nothing really valuable.”

“The little things matter most when you have the least,” I said.

“Profound.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, and I couldn’t see his face without glancing over my shoulder, so I didn’t say anything..

The cells were hidden in one building, much like my base was.  A few of the O’Dalys were lingering at the front.  They stood at attention as I approached.  The closest thing I had to foot soldiers.

A Japanese couple stood nearby as well.  The man had a bandage across his nose, blood crusted around his nostrils.  Bruises stood out on both of them.

I walked past them to step inside, and looked at my prisoners.  Three thugs, no younger than fifteen, nor older than twenty-five.  They wore so much face paint I couldn’t make a good guess beyond that.

My soldiers and the couple had followed me inside.

“You came for revenge?” I asked.

“N-no,” the man said.  “I came to ask for leniency.”

“Fuck you, faggy ass fagass!” one of the people in the cell shouted.

“For them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“They hurt you.”

“Out of ignorance,” he said.

You’re ignorant, assfaggot!”

“My wife and I consider ourselves good Christians,” the man said.  “He would want us to show mercy, to turn the other cheek.”

“Why don’t you spread those cheeks and get fucked, faggot!?”

“Quiet,” I said.  A handful of bugs flowed into the cell, the boy opened his mouth to retort and choked on a fly.  To the man, I said, “You’re tying my hands here.  I can’t let them leave unscathed.  It would send the wrong message, and that would do everyone in this territory a disservice.  You, me, them, everyone else.  People need to know they’re safe, especially after everything that’s happened.”

“The police can take care of them.  Call it a citizen’s arrest.  We won’t mention your name.”

“And if they go free?  If the police decide there’s not enough evidence, or the officers are too busy to give your case their full attention, and these three get to go on and hurt others?”

“If that’s the cost of having a system that otherwise works.”

I glanced at the three thugs, and my bugs flowed over them.  Silk was threaded in strategic locations, and bugs deposited where they wouldn’t be able to reach.

“Open the cells,” I said.

I could see the fear on the faces of the couple as they backed away.  Forrest pulled the switch, bidding the three iron-barred doors along the hallway to slide open.

One of the thugs glared sullenly at me, but he was smart enough to not mouth off.

“There’s a small police office nearby,” I said.  “You three can head down Shale avenue, stop one block short of Lord street, and turn left.  It’s a tent, and there’s two officers and a police car there.  They’ll take you into custody.”

“Right.  We’ll totally turn ourselves in,” a second guy said.

“Do I need to repeat the directions?”

“Nah,” the first one smiled.

“Go,” I said.  My bugs cut the silk threads binding them to the bars.  If they’d lunged or tried to attack us, they would have fallen short, possibly choking or tripping.

“Seriously?” Forrest asked.

“Cool shit,” the lead thug commented.  He gave Forrest the finger as he headed to the door.  Forrest moved as if he was going to hit the punk, and the thug flinched, but there was no follow through.

They bolted the second they were out of sight of the O’Dalys who were stationed at the front of my miniature jail.

I commanded the bugs I’d planted on the three thugs to bite, then gestured for the contingent of people around me to follow me.

All three boys were still lying on the ground, writhing, when we arrived.  One was screaming as though he’d been jabbed with a hot poker.  Another was arching his back, as though his ribcage was trying to force its way free.

“What did you do?”  Forrest asked, in mixed horror and awe.

The third thug’s screaming joined his friend’s.

“Bullet ants,” I said.  “Their bites top the scale in terms of sheer pain caused.  People have compared their bites to being shot.  Thus the name.”

The thug was still screaming, albeit with less volume and more intermittent whimpers.

“It’s also known as the twenty-four hour ant,” I added.

“Why?”

“That’s how long the pain lasts.  Get up,” I ordered them.  “Now, or you get bitten again.”

It took them a second, but they were making a halfhearted effort, and I didn’t follow through on my threat.  They stood, one of them hunched over, two moaning audibly.  They glared at me.

“You brought that on yourselves,” I said.  “This is your second chance.  Get yourselves to the police station and turn yourselves in.  This time, I’ll have them bite each of you periodically to hurry you along.”

“What the fucking-”

He broke off mid-sentence as he screamed and fell to the ground, thrashing.

“If you think of doing anything but admitting your full crime to the police officer right then and there, I’ll try figuring out how many times those ants can bite you before they run out of venom.  Now go.  Run.”

Two of them ran, stumbling as they twitched and flinched at the continuing pain, while the third crawled.  I had an ant bite the mouthiest one when he was only a few paces away, to hurry them along.

I turned to the others.  The Japanese-American man was staring at me.

“You should go to the police too,” I said.  “Give your side of the story, let them take photos.”

“I will,” he said, his tone curt.  He turned to leave, then paused.  “I asked you to be lenient.”

How can I even explain?  I’ve seen the worst of the worst.  I want to protect each and every one of you from it.  The system won’t stop them, not all on its own.

But if I explained, they would argue, and every counter-argument would make me look weaker, damage my image and hurt people’s confidence in me.  There were people who would be happy with a firm hand being used to deter criminals, there were others who wouldn’t be happy, but they’d accept it as the price that came with everything else I had to offer.

I didn’t like it, but I’d do it.

He was still staring at me, his question lingering.  I asked you to be lenient.

“I was,” was all I said.

I returned to my lair, and took the time to strip out of my costume.  It stuck to my skin as I pulled it off.

I’d need to design something lighter for the warmer months.  More porous, while still offering protection, maybe a paler color, if I could manage it and still have it blend into the swarm…

The major tasks were done.  I’d called Lisa, and through her I’d gotten caught up on all the other essential details about what was happening around the city.  She and Grue had a meeting with an Ambassador – not the leader of the Ambassadors, which I was thankful for.  I would have wanted to be present for a meeting that volatile.  As it was, I could hope that Grue was in a good enough headspace to keep Tattletale on course.

I’d contacted everyone necessary to clear garbage out of the alley, to order pizzas for lunch and to order more food in to make up for the bad batch of vegetables.  I’d shown my face as Skitter and now a swarm-clone lingered on a rooftop, standing in plain view of the people on the street, overlooking a construction in progress.  ‘Skitter’ would appear here and there over the course of the day, just to reassure others she was here.

Which she was.  I was.

I stripped out of the rest of the costume.  I laid out a grungier change of clothes.

I hadn’t been lying to my dad when I said I’d work.  I’d put in the hours, work alongside the other members of my territory.  It was easier to do my share and be working here on a legitimate basis, even part-time, than to try to sustain the lie.

Before I started, I had only one minor chore.  I headed downstairs and I pulled Jessie’s mattress off the bunk bed, dragging it into an open space so I could clean it.  The mattresses were thin, and would dry after a day in this heat.  The humidity was a problem, but I could put it in direct sunlight.

My phone buzzed, still in the utility compartment upstairs.  My bugs brought it to me.

Charlotte:
I met someone in class.  I think it could be big Eric?

Big trouble?  I contemplated sending a reply, but the next text wasn’t far behind.

Charlotte:
says hes an old classmate of urs.  asking where u are.  loud insistent intense.  wouldnt believe that u werent at school.  sounds like he might want to talk to you.

I didn’t miss the distinction.  ‘u’ meant Taylor.  ‘you’ was Skitter.  If this person was careless enough that Charlotte had caught on… Fuck.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #2)

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You have six infractions and two warnings.  You were last banned on September 03, 2010.  Your probationary status expires in 63 days, on September 07, 2011.

♦  Topic:  What the Fuck Happened?
In:  Boards ►
News ► Events ►America
Bagrat
(Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (The Guy in the Know)
Posted on June 22nd, 2011:

I admit it.  I’m a cape geek.  You know it.  I know it.  I’m the cape geek the OTHER cape geeks go to for the crusty, juicy details on what’s happening and where.  Look at my badges^.  I’m the guy in the know, and everyone on the News boards knows me.

Except I’m not in the know.  I’ve been calling in every contact I know, some CAPES, even.  I’ve been watching four different news channels and scouring the internet, and I’m CLUELESS.

Someone clue me in?  I’m desperate.  What the hell happened in Brockton Bay?

EDIT:  Board rules say I’m supposed to contribute something if I’m starting a thread, so here’s what I do know.  Someone help fill in the blanks:

•  June 18th:  Mayor Christner of Brockton Bay flies to Washington.  Makes argument against evacuation.  Surprises more than a few people.  At the same time, multiple Dragon suits are reported in the city.

•  June 19th:  Explosion at Brockton Bay town hall, after supervillain Coil attempts coup and tinker equipment misfires in the ensuing skirmish.  Christner and Director Emily Piggot hospitalized and sent to ICU.  Thirty or more people reported dead, including Coil and subordinates Über, Leet and Circus, and a number of field reporters.

•  June 20th:  Massive deployment to Brockton Bay.  Unspecified class A threat.  Cape wives on the boards confirm: something’s up.
Two hours later:  Threat level upgraded to class S.  All Protectorate capes who subscribed to the emergency response measure and accompanying pay increase now forced to get over to Brockton Bay and help.  Legend and Alexandria are among them.
We have a report (see link) from White Fairy, one of three more notable board members on the ground in Brockton Bay, who says they started establishing quarantine procedures around the site of the battle.

Cape wives on the boards report calls from their husbands and wives saying they’re ok by about noon.  A few casualties, Myrddin among them.  No report on what happened and who the cape was on the opposing side.

•  June 21st:  Almost a day later, capes start filtering home.  Still no reports.
Brocktonite03 (second of the three excellent people on the ground that are giving us reports) travels all the way out of town to get his hands on a working computer.  Reports Shatterbird attack and apparent quarantine procedures in the middle of an empty lot downtown.  White tent and beginning construction around it.

And then nothing.  Help me out!

(Showing page 242 of 243)

►  Ekul (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
The theory makes sense.  Huge clean up involving a hundred plus bodies, portal to another world, it would be something that they’d want to keep from the public, and you could even call it Class S if that world had capes of its own.  Which they’d have to, if they wanted to kill Myrddin.  Were we at war with another Earth on June 20th?

AverageAlexandros (Cape husband)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Does that fit the Class S scenario?  If nobody can answer I can ask my wife if she’ll let me look through her regulations handbook.

Lolitup
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Class S includs situations where threat can produce more threats which can produce more etc.  In scenario with a whole alt world of capes on par with our own they could have powers like that.  Sitch got upgraded to S after the first showed up?
(Posted from phone, sry)

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Scary [censored].  Imagine if they had their own Endbriners or Alexandria.

Robby
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Two things:
1)  You don’t need to censor yourself.
2)  Doesn’t fit with what we know of alternate Earths. Breakdown of Haywire’s research says we can’t get to alt. Earths that are too close to our own.  Closest Earth to our own is Aleph, and deviation from that world started 30 years ago, the moment Scion arrived.  Anyone over 30 was born in both worlds, anyone under 30 wasn’t, or the odds are almost impossible (same sperm, same egg, same time of conception required to have the same kid, and that’s ignoring all the environmental influences during the pregnancy, and everything post-pregnancy that shapes the personality.)

► TheGnat
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But Alexandria is over 30, isn’t she?  It’s not impossible they’d have a version of her.

Robby
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
With powers?  Improbable.
I doubt this alternate world we’re talking about is exactly as far away as Earth Aleph, anyways.  I’d assume the point of deviation occurred more than thirty years ago, which lowers the chances even more.
In brief:  I doubt we have to worry about Endbringers and an evil Triumvirate.  This isn’t the movies, and evil alternates are so overdone.

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I censored myself because I don’t want an infraction and a ban for swearing.

Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Void Cowboy: they don’t give out infractions for swearing.
@ Everyone else:  I get that it makes sense on a lot of levels, but nothing’s confirmed.  Any other theories?

TRJ
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I’m going to get called a tinfoil hat, but what about that thing where the guy was talking about posts with the word C*auldron getting screened if they weren’t censored?

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 5241, 242, 243

♦  Private message from GstringGirl:

GstringGirl:  i started to play it. i’m not good with the controls.
XxVoid_CowboyxX: Takes practice.  You gotta at least play through the individual template packages.  that lets you unlock the skills and takes the skill cap off for the individual traits.  Then you can build your own class and play in the Hero League with me.  I can show you the ropes and help you figure it out.
GstringGirl:  i have it figured out.  i read the forums and watch videos.  i understand all that stuff. its the controls i struggle with.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:  Practice, practice practice!
GstringGirl:  i have a 33 percent win rate.  makes it so slow to unlock everything.  i liked that other game more.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:  Don’t even mention that game to me.  I’m still mad about it.
GstringGirl: sry. and i have to go now.  my parents want me off the computer. sister wants a turn.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:   Sorry I didn’t reply.  Was in game.  Guess you already went to bed.  Listen, I’ll be traveling this summer with my family.  Could swing your way, if you wanted to meet up.  Grab coffee?
GstringGirl *New Message*:  Oh.  Wow.  My parents are really strict, so I don’t think I’ll be able to.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  You haven’t replied, so I sent you a text.  I can’t receive texts back, so PM me, plz.

♦  Topic:  The Ground Zero Badge
In:  Boards ►
Places ► America ►Brockton Bay ►Ground Zero (Private Board)
White Fairy
(Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Posted on June 31st, 2011:

I’m getting kind of fed up with this.  I talked about it with Alathea and Judge (the two original Brockton Bay board moderators) and Bagrat (major guy in the news section).  We got special dispensation to issue Brockton Bay Refugee and Ground Zero badges.  The goals were:
•  It automatically give more weight to those of us who know more about what’s going on in Brockton Bay, either because of our familiarity with the local capes or because we’re there.
•  It’s a way to get aid to people in trouble.  This was essential early on.  Someone’s low on food or needs medical attention, the fact that they have a badge and that the badge is (presumably) validated means we can take a cry for help as something serious rather than a hoax.  (And for the record, I don’t think a temporary ban is enough for the scumbags who faked cries for help – in the early days, traveling across the city to deliver supplies was life threatening)
•  It furthers the interests of Parahumans Online, to disseminate information and allow network among people in the right positions.  The badges let people know who can be contacted for more information or people we can coordinate with for certain tasks.  Case in point: Bagrat contacts Brocktonite03 about the incident a week and a half ago, Brocktonite03 goes and finds the quarantine tent and construction.  I can then contact Brocktonite03 and we organize a way to take turns visiting the construction site and then report progress to the boards, with picture progress so you guys can speculate or offer your own expertise.
•  Filters access for getting onto the private board, so people in the prior two situations can manage

But there’s certain individuals who aren’t using the system as it’s meant to be used.  People got the badges with the loose verification system that existed in the early stages (and the mess of new moderators that came on board to manage the board), and they’re using them for status or to put incorrect information or outright lies out there.  Alathea and Judge said they’re willing to do a ban from this sub-board (and all related boards) if details can’t be confirmed with further validation.  I’m talking to moderators of the main boards about maybe banning them from the site altogether.

So we’re proposing further validation…
•  A photo of yourself at any construction in progress or recent piece of paperwork (flier, shelter pamphlet, whatever), with the date and your username prominently displayed.  Doesn’t have to show your face, a photo of a hand with the details written on it, with the quarantine building in the background is perfect.
•  I will meet you.  Time and place of your choosing, though I’d prefer to meet you halfway if you’re a ways away from the Towers, and I won’t go into any of the danger zones.  If you need supplies, I have access to batteries, supply kits, gas and a car, and I will deliver it to you when we meet.  I might have luxury goods, but you’ll have to pay for those.

There’s a limited time window here, because the city’s slowly coming together, and people are moving back in.
Edit:  Now that people are moving back in, we’ll start banning people who weren’t able to verify.  If you contact us and can explain why you weren’t able to verify, that’s ok (stay in hospital, no connection/power where you were at).  We’d like to meet you in person or see where you were staying for verification that you were in the city during the time of crisis.

We’re going down the list.  The unconfirmed will be banned when verification stops being possible.

Confirmed:
•  Chilldrizzle – Met in person.  Delivered some fresh water and dog food.
•  Morgan Sinister – Met in person.  Brought chocolate, chocolate was paid for.
•  Lo A Quest – Met in person.  Talked for a few minutes, parted ways.
•  Char – Met in person.  Had the best meal I’ve had in weeks on the Boardwalk.
•  bothad – Photo verification
•  Laser Augment – Photo verification

Banned:
•  Aku-42 – Attempted to photoshop verification using an image Brocktonite03 already uploaded.
•  Whackograve – Admitted lie.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but we use systems like this for a reason.  It can mean life or death, even.

(Showing page 4 of 4)

►  White Fairy (Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@Void_Cowboy: you’re exactly the type I was talking about.  Where do I even begin?
Your posting hours on the site suggest you’ve got something occupying your time from early in the day to evening.  Like maybe school?  Except there’s no school in Brockton Bay yet (soon).  You state your location as the north end of Brockton Bay, profess to have a generator and satellite internet.  Ok, not unheard of.  Except you’ve apparently got enoguh gas stockpiled to keep the generator going 24/7 and, oh yeah, you’re in Bitch’s territory!  Bitch would maim or kill you for being in her territory, let alone making the kind of racket a generator does.

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I have a quality generator that doesn’t make much noise.

Laser Augment (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But no phone or camera to take a picture of yourself in the city?

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I have a camera, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving the house.  That’s the sort of thing that gets me killed by mutant dogs.

Laser Augment (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
You do know that Bitch left the north end a while ago?  How would you even miss the fact that you haven’t heard howling in the last while?  If you’re not leaving the house, why don’t you take a picture of yourself by this high end generator of yours?  Because it doesn’t exist.
You fuckers make me sick, like you can pretend to be all cool by being one of the survivors, who stuck it out through the Endbringer attack, the Nine and the gang wars.  But you left.  Your mommy and daddy took you out of town, and you’re pretending you stuck it out, that you’re here when you’re not, all for a stupid internet badge and a peek at the private board.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4

♦  Topic:  Legend Leaves the Protectorate
In:  Boards ►
Teams ► Protectorate
Brilliger (Original Poster) (Moderator: Protectorate Main)
Posted on June 26th:

Word’s out, and we’re waiting for the Protectorate to give a statement before we get further details.  Legend is stepping down, citing family reasons.  He’s already on record saying that he intends to offer his aid in crisis events, but will no longer be leading the Protectorate.  His successor has not yet been named.

(Showing page 1173 of 1180)

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
@ Lainerb
It should totally be Eidolon.

Valkyr (Wiki Warrior)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Lainerb
They haven’t picked a successor yet because it’s a little more complicated than picking the strongest hero.  They need someone who works on a number of levels, as a leader (both in terms of day to day paperwork and management and in the field), an ambassador (there’s no less than 30 teams around the world that work with the Protectorate to some degree), a powerhouse (can’t be weak or you won’t be respected) and from a marketing standpoint.

Coyote-C
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Cowboy
Can’t be Eidolon.  He’s strong, but he’s not a leader.  There’s a ton of references to people meeting him at conventions or cape wives meeting him at functions.  I won’t say he’s an asshole, though some have said he rubbed them the wrong way, but people definitely don’t walk away from meeting him with that universal “Oh my god he’s so nice!” reaction that they have with Legend.

Mock Moniker
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Not to mention that there’s rumors Alexandria or Eidolon might step down.  There’s a lot of animosity being directed at them from certain groups.  Look at this link and this one.  The monsters in the Protectorate have almost all left.  Only one who stayed, I think, are Hunch and Polish.  I’ve been thinking it’s another Bastion incident.  Someone higher-up says something racist or offensive, the Protectorate pulls strings to try and cover it up, but offended people are still offended.  Run off to make their own team.

Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I don’t know whether to be sad about it or not.  Weld’s awesome, and it’s great he gets to run his own team, but I was hoping he’d become a big figure in the Protectorate.  Why be a big fish in a small pond when you could be a big fish in a big pond?

Nod
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
We don’t know how big the Irregulars are going to get.

►  Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But they’re never going to be the Protectorate big.

Weld (Verified Cape) (Irregulars)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I dunno, I’m optimistic. 😉
For the record, I harbor no animosity toward the Protectorate.  We’re still attached, and we’re receiving equipment, funding and contacts through them.  They were very respectful as a whole, but we got a chance to interact a few weeks ago, and we collectively agreed that while the Protectorate’s plan to build a rapport between us Case-53s (as the Protectorate terms us) and the public was sound (making me leader of the Brockton Bay Wards, for example), it was too slow, and we could do more as a group.

Answer Key
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Weld:
I have questions:
1 – How much did they pay you guys to keep quiet and play nice?
2 – I notice you said you don’t have issues with the protectorate ‘as a whole’.  You’re not denying there’s issues with one or two prominent members?
3 – What the hell happened on the 20th?
4 – How is making you leader of the wards in Brockton Bay a good thing?
@ everyone else:
Question – just wondering.  Who’s been leading the Protectorate since Legend left?

►  Whitecollar (Cape Wife)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Answer Key – Tinfoil hats ahoy.  I can answer that last question, though.  Or my hubby can.  He says the Protectorate is currently being run by a joint team atm.  Chevalier, Alexandria and Prism are each handling different tasks.

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♦  Topic:  The Endbringers, Thread XXXIV
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Lasersmile
(Original Poster)
Posted on June 28th, 2011:

Starting a new topic because the last one hit post limit.
The Simurgh attacked Canberra, Australia on February 24th, 2011.  Thread here.
The Leviathan attacked Brockton Bay, America on May 15th, 2011.  Thread here.
Estimated time for next attack is August 30th, 2011.  This time is not exact, and is likely to deviate by as much as 15 days.
Official speculation points to Eastern Europe as the next likely target.

(Showing page 23 of 25)

►  Miss Mercury (Protectorate Employee)
Replied on July 5th, 2011:
Speaking for someone in the thick of it all, I don’t think that there’s any expectation or assumption that recent events (losing Legend, losing Myrddin, several members leaving) will change the outcome of the next attack.  The Protectorate and immediately related teams only make up 25-50% of the defending side when outside of North America, and North America isn’t a likely target.  There’s been no policy changes or anything of the sort in the Protectorate that point to that degree of pessmism
-☿

►  Space Zombie
Replied on July 5th, 2011:
I’m more inclined to think the PRT is making a mistake than to think they’re on the ball.

My money’s on a big-ass clusterfuck.  This is the first time since Behemoth first showed that we haven’t had all our ducks in a row.  May’s Leviathan attack had the lowest casualty rate we’ve ever had, but I think the next one’s going to hurt us bad.

►  Chaosfaith 
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
My cousins are traveling through Europe this year.  All the analysts say the odds are worse there.  Should I try convincing them to delay the trip to Greece?

I think I’m even spooked about there being an attack where I’m at (London, UK).  If I wanted to visit somewhere during the crisis point, would anyone have any recommendations?

►  XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
O_o  Definitely tell them to skip Greece.  I’ve seen an attack for myself and its worse than you think it would be.

I don’t know where you could run to be safe, though.  Alaska?

►  SenorEel
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Can’t let the Endbringers dictate your life.  Live it as you can, know where the nearest shelter is, and keep a well stocked supply closet.

►  ArchmageEin
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
If you wanted to go anywhere, and I agree with SeniorEel that you shouldn’t go just because you’re scared, apparently Brockton Bay is putting itself back together.  The Endbringers never attack the same place twice in a row, so it’s oddly the safest place to be, and it might help you to see the city for yourself.  The stories are/were bad, and scary stuff happened, but they made it.  They’re still there.  You might find that reassuring?

►  Tumbles
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
That’s if you don’t mind being in a city where supervillains run the scene.

Xyloloup (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Copy pasting from one of my posts in another thread.  Current state of the villains in Brockton Bay:
•  Skitter – Boardwalk/North end.  Five stars, almost no crime, free food, work if you want it.  Water and power both.  Heard from a friend that stayed there for a while that he ran into some trouble, his place got raided, stuff taken.  Mentioned it to someone in passing, and the next day it’s all returned, with some cash (two hundred dollars) and a note apologizing for the trouble, assuring him the matter was dealt with.  He left after that, which I don’t get (free money).  Said he was creeped out.
•  Parian – Not a villain, but apparently struck a deal for a slice of territory at the very upper end of the city.  Not great, not bad.  Good spot to stay if you want a clear conscience and don’t mind that the water and power aren’t always on (80% of the time?) and shelters are a bit crowded.  Four and a half stars.
•  Grue – Western end of the city, from the docks to the lake downtown.  Almost a nonentity, but he’s apparently dealt with some people who tried to set up shop.  Pick where you stay carefully, cuz there’s areas with power and water, areas without, and it doesn’t change much day to day.  Three stars.
•  Imp – Southernmost end of the city.  Shopping district, some of downtown.  There’s a few dregs trying to set up shop with the no-name villain calling it her territory, and a few fights as a result (doesn’t help that the big guns like Skitter are further away.)  I’d stay away from here because of that alone.
•  Regent – Eastern end of downtown.  Kind of a shantytown, area got hit hardest by the waves, shelter water and power nearly nonexistent, but the places that you can get are nice and very expensive.  Some violence bleeding over from Imp’s territory.  Nothing here unless you’re rich and want to live like a king among serfs.

Procto the Unfortunate Tinker (Not a tinker)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
And Tattletale?  Bitch?

Sothoth
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Sorry to continue derailing thread, but Bitch apparently has a slice of the more remote areas, where you don’t find many people living.  Captain’s hill, the woods/hills, the beaches at the south that haven’t been cleaned up yet.  Her gang’s growing though, or so I hear.  Tattletale’s not a fighter so it makes sense that she’s more a behind the scenes person than one of the local warlords.  I think what Xylopop was saying was that the town’s not so dangerous.  Probably more peaceful than it was at the start of the year, if you stay out of the very southernmost areas (and maybe the north – I heard there’s a few upstarts from New York and Boston trying to get a foothold there in Parian’s area) and turn around if you hear a lot of barking.

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♦  Topic:  Hypothetically, if I wanted to become a henchman…
In:  Boards ► Places ► America ►Brockton Bay ► Teams ► Undersiders
WagTheDog
(Original Poster) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Posted on July 1st, 2011:

Been a fan of Bitch/Hellhound/Rachel Lindt since the start.  Always loved dogs.  Always loved badasses.

She’s both, and now she’s one of the villains running the city?  So coooool!  If I wanted to become a henchman/henchwoman/henchperson (hypothetically) how would I do it?
(Showing page 1 of 1)

►  Char (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 1st, 2011:
Sent you a private message.

►  Good Ship Morpheus
Replied on July 2nd, 2011:
Yeah, I might be too late to say anything, but I wanted to warn you to be careful.  Really, the reality could be different from the ideal you’ve built up in your head.

►  WagTheDog (Original Poster)
Replied on July 3rd, 2011:
Omg.
It’s all good.
Harder than I thought but all good.

XxVoid_CowboyxX
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I came through a link on the main board.  Is this real life?  Can’t you get arrested or banned doing something like this?

Laotsunn (Kyushu Survivor)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Better arrested or banned than dead.  I’d say death is the thing to worry about here.

WagTheDog (Original Poster)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
All good, my man.  All good.

End of Page.  1

♦  Private Messages from GstringGirl:

(Two new messages not included, click here to see)
GstringGirl *New Message*:
  my phone broke so i’m messaging you here. you have to understand its not what you think.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  i just wanted to hang out and play space opera. you were the one who approached me so don’t jump straight to the conclusion that I’m a “middle aged pervert trying to get into your pants”.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  theres a reason i cant send a photo but i don’t want to have to explain,.,  cant we just go back to the way things were?
GstringGirl *New Message*: 😦

♦  Topic:  Who’d you lose?
In:  Boards ►
Places ► America ►Brockton Bay Discussion (Public Board)
Brocktonite03
(Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Posted on May 29th, 2011:

See topic.  Friends?  Family?
On topic posts only, please.  No commentary.  Nc= no condolences via. private message.

(Showing page 17 of 17)

Mac’s Dual Rocket Propelled Grenades (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th:
Nobody close to me died, but I still did lose quite a few people.  My best friend moved away.  My other friend joined the Merchants because an artificial high was better than being lucid and uncertain.  Come to think of it, he might have died in that massacre at the Towers.  My parents were separated, but they still lived in the same city before.  My mom wants to move back, but my dad’s gone to Florida and I don’t know how much I’ll see him.
Nc.

►  Reave (Verified PRT Agent) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th:
My coworker and squad captain.  Went to school together, dropped out together, joined the PRT as grunt forces.  S9 got him, and as glad as I am he died fast, given what might have happened, doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone.  Loved him more than I love my wife, in a way.
Nc.

►  XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
My aunt and uncle.  They were attacked by Chosen, dragged out of their homes and beaten.  My uncle fought back and smashed this one guy in the nose, and wrestled a gun from his hand, but got punched in the throat and dropped the gun.  He fought back some more, but eventually got knocked to the ground and shot.  I wasn’t there, but I heard he went down like a hero.

►  White Fairy (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton bay)
Replied on July 6th:
My boyfriend.  He was in a shelter Leviathan attacked.  Only about half of us made it.  One of the heroes bailed us out.  Distracted the Endbringer and led him away.  Nc.
@Void_Cowboy: How do you know the story if you weren’t there?

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
Leave me alone!
User received an infraction for this post: all posts must be related to the topic question.

Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied on July 7th:
Gallant.  Aegis.  Battery.  Armsmaster.  Dauntless.  Velocity.  Glory Girl.  Browbeat.  One family member. I can’t say who for obv. reasons.
Nc plz.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 516, 17

♦  Topic:  Skitter
In:  Boards ► Places ► America ►Brockton Bay Discussion (Public Board)
Miraclemic (Original Poster) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Posted on June 11th, 2011:

The reason arachnophobes don’t want to live in Brockton Bay.  Her discussion thread.

(Showing page 30 of 30)

  Mr. Fabuu (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
I’m not saying she’s right…  I’m saying she saved my life.  I get woken up by bugs.  Writing on the wall.  I go climb in the tub and *BAM*.  Glassplosion.

►  WhedonRipperFan
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
This conversation’s going nowhere.  She’s bad.  But she fought an Endbringer!  But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s bad.  But she saved lives!  But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s bad.  But she keeps the peace!
Aside:  Anyone else find it really funny that we’re talking about Skitter being powerful like we used to talk about Kaiser and Lung?  If you’d told me the gawky bug girl was going to be one of the scariest motherfuckers in town, I wouldn’t have believed you.

XxVoid_CowboyxX
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
I wouldn’t have either.

Bruce Lao (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Easy to be one of the scariest people around if you’re one of the only people around.  It’s a question of surviving, and the Undersiders are the types who can get away from trouble, so they outlast the opposition.  How many capes are even left, now?

► Nondeceptive (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Makes you wonder what she’s like in real life.  Who’s the woman behind the mask (assuming woman from height)?  What’s her day job?

Antigone
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
She lives in the North end (apparently, first sighting, current location), slightly-above average height woman.  Slender.  Personality?  No idea.  What do we even know of her personality?

Greg stopped scrolling down the page.  The computer screen glowed in his dimly lit bedroom.

“A woman of above average height… or a tall teenager,” he mumbled to himself.  “North end, lives in the area.  Personality… vicious, smart, tough, a little unhinged?”

The image clicked.  A girl he’d had classes with, what felt like ages ago.  Taylor Hebert.

He’d thought maybe he had a shot with her, once.  Only she’d brushed him off.  It had bugged him more than it should have.  Why couldn’t it be like it was in the movies and on TV?  Why couldn’t the geeks band together?

He thought briefly of GstringGirl, felt a pang of disappointment and a momentary digust.  She’d refused the offer to meet up, then had turned down his request for a picture, or a webcam chat.  The conclusion had been obvious.  A creep.  A liar.

The name should have been a giveaway, but he’d held on to a shred of hope that there really was a girl out there more into gaming, coding and finding cool stuff on the web than on being ‘cool’ and going out on Friday nights.

Was Taylor a creep of an entirely different sort?  A degenerate villain?  An upstanding villain?  He could visualize her, sitting in class, tense with anger and frustration, the lines of her face hard as she bottled up a million little indignities and more than a few big ones.  It wasn’t that hard to imagine.  Was Taylor Skitter?

If he’d figured it out, others would too.  Or they would soon enough.  Her parents – did they know?  They had to.  How could they not?  Others.  Who else might have paid enough attention to Taylor to guess?  The girls who had been bullying her?  Maybe, maybe not.  Now that he’d thought about it, it was impossible to shake the idea.  But the bullies maybe didn’t know the real her, didn’t see the person.

There was no way people wouldn’t start connecting the dots.  Not with the eyes of the whole city, the whole country on her.  Leader of a villain organization that had claimed a town and driven out all comers.  Ruthless, standing up against Endbringers and the Slaughterhouse Nine.

He wheeled his computer chair away from the desk.  His eyes fixed on the bulletin board to his left.  A poster for Ransack took up half of it, and other scraps of paper took up more space.  A checklist of unlocks to get for the game, the ad for the computer class he was taking, and in a space all on its own, an information sheet.  The remaining summer months would feature special arrangements for classes, to make up for the weeks of classes students had missed in the wake of the Endbringer attack.

The eighth of July.  Tomorrow.

Did she plan to go?  Was she aware of how much attention people were paying to her?

He could imagine himself in her shoes and could almost guess.  To actually have some confidence, after having none for so long?  To have a second chance?

In her shoes, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Insinuation 2.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I didn’t have any time to contemplate the message I’d received from Tattletale.  The bell rang and I had to hurry to properly log off and shut down before heading to my next class.  As I gathered my stuff, I realized I had been so caught up in researching on the villains I’d met last night and in Tattletale’s message that I had forgotten to worry about getting into trouble for skipping class.  I felt a kind of resignation as I realized I would have to face the music later in the day, anyways.

Madison was already in her seat as I got to the classroom.  She had a pair of girls crouching by either side of her desk, and all three of them broke into giggles as they saw me.  Bitches.

My seat of choice was the far right, front row, closest to the door.  Lunch hour and immediately after school was when the trio tended to give me the hardest time, so I tried to sit as close as possible to the door, for a quick escape.  I spotted a puddle of orange juice on the seat, with the empty plastic bottle lying just underneath the chair.  Madison was going for a two for one.  It was both a ‘prank’ and a reminder of how they had doused me with juice and soft drinks last Friday.  Irritated, I carefully avoided looking at  Madison and took an empty seat a few rows back.

Mr Gladly entered the room, he was short and young enough you could almost mistake him for another high school student.  It took a few minutes for him to start the class, and he immediately ordered us to break into groups of four to share our homework with one another and to prepare to share it with the rest of the class.  The group that had the most to contribute would win the prize he had mentioned on Friday, treats from the vending machine.

It was stuff like this that made Mr. Gladly my least favorite teacher.  I got the impression he’d be surprised to hear he was anyone’s least favorite teacher, but that was just one more point against him in my book.  I don’t think he comprehended why people might not like him, or how miserable group work was when you didn’t identify with any of the groups or cliques in the school.  He just figured people liked doing group work because it let them talk and hang out with their friends in class.

While the class got sorted, I figured I’d avoid standing around like a loser with no group to join and get something else out of the way. I approached the desk at the front of the room.

“Mr. Gladly?”

“Call me Mr. G.  Mr. Gladly is my dad,” he informed me with a sort of mock sternness.

“Sorry, uh, Mr. G.  I need a new textbook.”

He gave me a curious look, “What happened to your old one?”

Soaked with grape juice by a trio of harpies.  “I lost it,” I lied.

“Replacement textbooks are thirty five dollars.  I don’t expect it now, but…”

“I’ll have it for you by the end of the week,” I finished for him.

He handed me a textbook, and I looked over the room before joining the only group with room for more: Sparky and Greg.  We had been in a group several times before, as the leftovers when all the friends and cliques had banded together.

Sparky had apparently picked up his nickname when a third grade teacher used it in an ironic sense, and it had stuck, to the point where I doubted anyone but his own mother even knew his real name.  He was a drummer, long haired, and was so out of touch with reality that you could stop talking in the middle of a sentence and he wouldn’t notice.  He just went through life in a daze, presumably until he could do his thing, which was his band.

Greg was just the opposite.  He was smarter than average, but he had a way of saying every thought that came into his head – his train of thought didn’t have any brakes.  Or tracks.  It would have been easier to be in a group with just Sparky and essentially do the work by myself than it would be to work with Greg.

I got my share of the homework out of my new backpack.  Mr. Gladly had asked us to come up with a list of ways that capes had influenced society.  In between the various steps of my getting ready for my first night out in costume, I had taken the time to fix up my art project and had come up with a fairly comprehensive list for Mr. Gladly’s homework.  I had even used newspaper and magazine clippings to support my points.  I felt pretty good about it.

“I didn’t get much done,” Greg said, “I got distracted by this new game I got and it is really really good, it’s called Space Opera, have you played it?”

A full minute later he was still on the same topic, even though I wasn’t playing any attention to him or giving him any feedback on what he was saying, “…you have to understand it’s a genre, and it’s one I’ve really been getting into it lately, since I started watching this anime called – Oh, hey, Julia!”  Greg broke off from his monologue to wave with enough energy and excitement that I felt a little embarrassed to just be sitting next to him.  I turned in my seat to see one of Madison’s friends coming in, late.

“Can I be in Madison’s group?” Julia asked Mr. Gladly.

“That wouldn’t be fair.  Greg’s group only has three people.  Help them,” Mr. Gladly said.

Julia walked over to where we were sitting and made a face.  Just loud enough for us to hear, she muttered a disgusted, “Ew.”  I felt much the same about her joining us.

It was downhill from there.  Madison’s group moved so the four of them were sitting right next to our group, which let Julia talk with them while still sitting with us.  The presence of all the popular and attractive girls in the class just got Greg more wound up, and he began trying to insert himself into their conversation, only to get shut down or ignored.  It was embarrassing to watch.

“Greg,” I said, trying to distract him from the other group, “Here’s what I did over the weekend.  What do you think?”

I handed him the work I had done.  To his credit, he gave it a serious read.

“This is really good, Taylor,” He said, when he was done.

“Let me see,” Julia said.  Before I could stop him, Greg dutifully handed my work over to her.  I watched her glance over it, then toss it onto Madison’s table.  There were a few giggles.

“Give that back,” I said.

“Give what back?” Julia said.

“Madison,” I said, ignoring Julia, “Give it back.”

Madison, cute and petite and crush of choice for half the guys in our grade, turned and managed a combined look and tone of such condescension that a grown man would have flinched, “Nobody is talking to you, Taylor.”

That was that.  Short of running to the teacher and complaining, I wasn’t going to get my work back, and anyone who considered that an option has clearly never been in high school.  Greg looked between me and the girls with a kind of panic before settling into a funk, Sparky had his head down on his desk, either asleep or close to it, and I was left fuming.  I made an attempt at trying to to salvage things, but getting Greg to focus was impossible, as he constantly tried to apologize and made lame attempts to convince the other group to give my work back.  Our time ran out, and Mr. Gladly picked out people from each group to stand up and go over what they had come up with.

I sighed as Mr. Gladly picked Greg to do our group’s presentation, and was forced to watch Greg botch it badly enough that Mr. Gladly asked him to sit down before he was finished.  Greg was one of those kids I always figured made teachers groan inwardly when they raised their hands in class.  The sort of kid that took twice as long to answer as anyone else, and was often only half-right or so off-tangent that it derailed the discussion.  I couldn’t imagine what had possessed Mr. Gladly to pick Greg to do our group’s presentation.

What made things worse was that I then got to watch Madison rattle off my very impressive sounding list of ways capes had changed the world.  She cribbed almost all of my stuff; fashion, economics, Tinkers and the tech boom, the fact that movies, television and magazines had been tweaked to accommodate cape celebrities, and so on.  Still, she got it wrong when explaining how law enforcement had changed.  My point had been that with qualified capes easing the workload and taking over for most high profile crises, law enforcement of all stripes were more free to train and expand their skill sets, making for smarter, more versatile cops.  Madison just made it sound like they got a lot of vacation days.

Mr. Gladly named another group as the winners, by virtue of the sheer number of things they had come up with, though he made a point of saying the quality of Madison’s work was nearly good enough to count.  From there, he moved on to his lecture.

I was steamed and I could hardly focus on the lecture, as my power crackled and tugged at my attention from the periphery of my consciousness, making me acutely aware of every bug within a tenth of a mile.  I could tune it out, but the extra concentration that took, coupled with the anger I felt towards Madison and Mr. Gladly, was distracting enough that I couldn’t focus on the lecture.  I took a cue from Sparky and put my head down on the desk.  Being as exhausted from the previous night’s activity as I was, it was all I could do to keep from dozing off.  Still, spending the class half asleep made it go by faster.  I was startled when the bell rang.

As everyone gathered their things and began to file out, Mr. Gladly approached me and quietly said, “I’d like you to stick around for a few minutes, please.”

I just nodded and put my books away, then waited for the teacher to finish negotiating where to meet the prize winners from the class contest so he could pay for their prizes.

When it was just me and Mr. Gladly in the classroom, he cleared his throat and then told me, “I’m not stupid, you know.”

“Okay,” I replied, not sure how to respond.

“I have something of an idea of what goes on in my classroom.  I don’t know exactly who, but I know some people are giving you a pretty hard time.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I saw the mess left on your usual seat today.  I remember a few weeks back when glue was smeared on your desk and chair.  There was also the incident that happened at the start of the year.  All of your teachers had a meeting about that.”

I couldn’t meet his gaze as he brought that last event up.  I looked at my feet.

“And I’m guessing there’s more that I don’t know about?”

“Yeah,” I said, still looking down.  It was hard to explain how I felt about this conversation.  I was gratified, I think, that someone had brought it up, but annoyed that that someone was Mr. Gladly.  I felt kind of embarrassed too, like I had walked into a door and someone was trying too hard to make sure I was okay.

“I asked you after the glue incident.  I’m asking you again.  Would you be willing to go to the office with me, to talk with the principal and vice principal?”

After a few moments of consideration, I looked up and asked him, “What would happen?”

“We’d have a discussion about what’s been going on.  You would name the person or people you believe responsible, and each of them would be called in to talk to the principal, in turn.”

“And they’d get expelled?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

Mr. Gladly shook his head, “If there was enough proof, they would be suspended for several days, unless they’ve done something very serious.  Further offenses could lead to longer suspensions or expulsion.”

I gave a rueful chuckle, feeling the frustration welling up, “Great.  So they might miss a few days of school, and only if I can prove they were behind it all… and whether they get suspended or not, they feel a hundred percent justified in whatever else they do to the rat for revenge.”

“If you want things to get better, Taylor, you have to start somewhere.”

“That isn’t a starting point.  It’s shooting myself in the foot,” I said, pulling my bag over my shoulder.  When he didn’t immediately respond, I left the classroom.

Emma, Madison, Sophia and a half dozen other girls were standing in the hall, waiting for me.

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