Interlude 23

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Lightning ripped across the landscape, following its own path, independent, breaking every rule that electricity was supposed to follow.  It danced over the outside surfaces of houses, running across concrete and leaving glassy scorch marks in its wake.  It touched objects that should have grounded it, channeling it into the earth, but leaped for another target instead.

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

Cody was already moving to use the thirty-sixth path to rescue anyone who’d absorbed the remnants of the shock.  None.  It hadn’t touched them.  He was among the last of them to dismiss his forcefield.  The forcefields drained their reserves of energy, and weren’t to stay up for too long.  They’d been drilled on this.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

Ninth path.  Short range electromagnetism.  They skated off of the little exposed metal that was available around them, car hoods and pipes, gaining speed to augment their flight.

There were forty-two paths in all.  Forty-two powers.  No, he corrected himself, there were forty-one now that Seventeen was dead.  More would die by the day’s end.

The hope, the plan, was to demonstrate the Yàngbǎn’s strength, to show that they had the answer, a way to defeat the Endbringers.  It wouldn’t happen today, but a solid demonstration would serve to bring others on board.

They hadn’t been asked.  The expectation was that they would give their lives for this.  He would have refused.  He’d dealt with an Endbringer before, and he still hadn’t recovered from that chance meeting.  He’d lost everything, been stripped of friends and family both.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  The group responded in chorus.  Cody’s voice joined theirs, quieter.  His pronunciation wasn’t good.  In all this time with the group, he hadn’t even managed to grasp the fundamentals of the language.  Mispronunciation was punished, not by any reprimand, but in a subtle way.  They would speak to him even less than they were now, he would get less food.  Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days.  The thought bothered him, and the degree to which it unsettled him was more disturbing still.

Something so minor as that shouldn’t have mattered so much to him, but it was all he had, now.

There was a crash of lightning, and a building collapsed, directly in their path.  Flames and smoke barred their path.

Shèntòu!”  Three ordered, his voice nearly drowned out in the noise of the building settling.  They were still moving forward, not even slowing.

The forward group hit the barrier with localized vacuums.  Individually, they were weak, but with twelve all together, flames were quenched, smaller objects levitated into the air.

Cody joined the middle group in shearing through the remaining wreckage.  Thirty-first path.  The cutting lasers.  The first group was slowing a fraction, and Cody slowed his flight to hold formation.

The twelve members of the Yàngbǎn only accelerated, flying around the group members they had been following.  They turned solid, space distorting around them as they rendered themselves invincible and incapable of any action but their pre-existing momentum, effectively human bullets.  They tore through the wreckage, clearing a path for the rest.

He felt a rush, just being part of the unit.  Being a part of a maneuver that let them cut through a burning ruin of a building with the ease they had.

Some of that rush, he knew, was the second path.  Magnification of powers.  Two wasn’t present, she was too valuable to risk losing, but they still shared her power between them.  Each of them had a sliver of her ability to enhance the powers of those nearby.  It was the reason their powers worked to the degree that they did, a feedback loop in power augmentation across their whole unit.

There were more things feeding into his consciousness, other senses he wasn’t actively tapping into.  The twenty-third path, it enhanced his perception, particularly his awareness of others, the threat an individual person posed, and enhanced his reflexes, particularly when dealing with people who wanted to hurt him.  It was of minimal use against Behemoth, but it made him cognizant of the other members of the Yàngbǎn, aware of their breathing, the noises they made as they ran.

In this way, the group subsumed him, rendered him a part of something overwhelming.  For now, in the midst of this, the deep loneliness and isolation was gone.  Language was almost unnecessary, beyond the one- or two-word commands he needed to know for particular maneuvers and directives.

Zig-zagging down the streets, they naturally settled back into their established rank and file.  With every member of the group having access to the same pool of powers, placement in the formation was a question of experience and how expendable they were.  Cody was an essential defensive asset, no use if he was taken out of action, so he rested in the middle of the group, surrounded by people who could protect him in a pinch.

Rumbles marked the collapses of taller buildings as Behemoth advanced, somewhere a quarter-mile behind them.

The heat was oppressive.  Even as they got further away from the monster, the fire only seemed to get worse.  The smoke was the worst part of it, preventing them from seeing or tracking their enemy.  It meant they couldn’t see more than a hundred or so feet around them, and they didn’t have any idea whether they were going to walk straight into the monster’s path or wind up encircled by burning buildings.  Their flight depended on proximity to a solid surface.  It involved hovering five to ten feet off the ground while moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour.  They had another means of flight, but less controlled, one that risked putting them above the skyline, obvious targets for a lightning strike.

Was the Behemoth smarter than he looked?  Was the destruction seeded in a way that would spread?  Fires started where buildings were closely packed?

Cody could feel his skin prickling.  His mask was filtering out the smoke, but the heat, it was getting unbearable.

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

Zhàn wěn,” the group echoed her, their voices strong.  It was an encouragement, an affirmation.  Cody didn’t know what it meant.  He’d been with them for an indeterminate length of time, what felt like years, but he didn’t feel any closer to grasping the language than he had been on the first day.  He’d had help, briefly, but that had been stopped.

Every member of the group was permitted to speak freely, but virtually every utterance was vetted by the group as a whole.  If, like Ten, someone were to speak, and others were in agreement, deeming the phrase acceptable, then the response was clear.  If the statement was poorly timed, or out of tune with the group’s line of thinking, then it was ignored, followed only by a crushing silence.

Cody had never experienced the adrenaline rush that Ten was no doubt experiencing over the simple act of getting a response from the squadron.  The group had never deemed his statements acceptable, because his pronunciation was poor.  He was a member of a tight-knit crowd, yet utterly, completely alone.

Tíng!” one of the members in the rear called out.

They dropped to the ground, their landings practiced, wheeling around a hundred and eighty degrees by planting one foot on the ground and sweeping the other out.

His forcefield was up before he even knew what the threat was.  Individually weak, strong in formation: a makeshift bubble of overlapping forcefields twenty feet over their heads.

The glowing projectile swiftly grew in his perspective, giving him only a second to brace himself before it crashed down on the wall of forcefields.

The wave of heat was intense, even on the other side of the barrier.  It seemed almost liquid as it spilled out over the edges.  In seconds, they were surrounded in flame.  The forcefields sealed it off, prevented superheated air from burning them alive, but the viscosity meant it was resting against the forcefield.

Magma?

They’d drilled on abstracts, on possible situations.  Attacks from any direction.  Attacks in various forms.  He’d never really considered the ideas behind dealing with magma, but he had the tools.  Being a member of the Yàngbǎn meant being constantly drilled.  They took your power, all but a fraction of it, but every member of the group had that same fraction.  Every member was expected to know how to use every power, to know when and to do it in unison with the rest of the squad.

A small handful of individuals in the C.U.I. hadn’t been brought onto the group.  Null, the cape who made the Yàngbǎn possible, was independent.  He couldn’t be a part of the whole.  Others included Tōng Líng Tǎ, who had a power that was too slow to use, not worth the fractional decrease in power that came with including her in the network, Shén yù, the strategist, and Jiǎ, the tinker that supplied the C.U.I. with its devices, including the simulations for the drills.

It was those drills and simulations that allowed him to react a precious fraction of a second faster as he responded.  It kept him in sync with the others in the group as he joined half of them in letting his forcefield dissipate, simultaneously reaching out to apply another power.

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

The effect was short ranged, and he could see the shifting in the air as it extended, passed through the gaps in the forcefield where the magma and heated air were only just beginning to leak through miniscule gaps.

The waves generated by thirty-two served to stabilize.  It stalled things in motion, warmed up cold things, cooled warm things.  It silenced, stilled.

The magma cooled with surprising rapidity, but then, the power was affecting the inside at the same time it affected the outside, rather than trying to cool the outside to a degree that would extend inward.

Path thirty-two.  It made him think of Thirty-two, the member.  The source of that particular power.  He snuck a glance at her.

She was one of four outsiders, four people not native to China.  She’d been his closest ally.  Something more.

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

Like the others, the maneuver was a practiced one.  The last forcefields dropped, and the group mobilized.  Odd-numbered members of the squad crouched, legs flexing, while even-numbered members, Cody included, reached out.

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

The odd-numbered members of the group pierced the barrier of cooled magma, and the vacuum spheres scattered the shards.

Another sphere was already in the air, aimed close to them, if not at the exact same spot.

Without even thinking about it, he trained a laser on it.  Others were doing the same, or following suit.  The glob of magma, still mid-air, was separated into loose pieces, no longer as aerodynamic as it had been.  It expanded, fell short, disappeared into the cityscape between them and Behemoth.

Each action Cody performed as a part of the unit was validating, affirming.  It was a series of small payoffs for the drills he’d gone through for over a year, with smaller groups and the Yàngbǎn as a whole.  The drills had been intense, with one new situation every one or two minutes, like flash cards, only they were holograms, color coded polygons and shapes with just enough mass that they could be felt.  If they failed the scenario, the offending members of the squad would be named out loud, the scenario shuffled back into the list of possibilities, so it might repeat in five minutes, or two hours.

Cody was well aware of what they were really doing, between the six hours of drills and the twelve hours of schooling that combined lectures on the C.U.I. with traditional education.  He knew why they only got forty-five minutes in total to eat for their two daily meals, only five hours of rest a night, why every minute of the day was scheduled.

He’d always told himself that he wouldn’t be a victim, that when the time came and he was indoctrinated into a cult, he’d recognize the targeted isolation, the practice of tiring him out so he’d be more amenable to suggestion, more likely to conform.  He’d told himself that he would rebel and maintain his individuality.

So stupid, to pretend he had that degree of willpower, in the face of crushing social pressure and exhaustion.  It had taken him nearly five days after he left the basic training and joined the official team before he realized what was going on.  The saddest part of it was that he was fully aware they were brainwashing him, indoctrinating him, and there was nothing he could do about it.  Despite himself, despite the pride he’d once had as a person, he wanted acceptance.

They were a poor surrogate, a surrogate he hated, in a way, but he had nothing else.  His family was a universe away, his friends had turned on him, gone mad.

There was a crash, and a shockwave ripped through the area, momentarily clearing the smoke.  Cody instinctively raised his forcefield.

Behemoth was there, standing amid leveled buildings, fighting some flying capes who strafed around him.  He had built up some steam, and lightning coursed over his gray flesh, illuminating him.  Only one or two of the metal ships were still fighting.  Other craft, airborne, seemed focused on evacuating, but it was a gamble at best, as shockwaves and lightning struck them down.

The smoke filled the sky once more, obscuring Cody’s vision too much for him to see any further.

Behemoth clapped again, then again, each collision of claw against claw serving to extend the damage one step further, clearing obstructions out of the way for the next.

The Yàngbǎn backed away, spreading out inadvertently.  Cody could feel the benefit of the second path fading, the enhanced powers the others granted slipping from his grasp.

“Tā shì fúshè kuòsàn,” Three said.  He said something else that Cody couldn’t make out.  Something about leaving.

The group moved out, flying low to the ground, and Cody was a fraction of a second behind, pushed himself to make sure he was in formation.

“Radiation,” Thirty-two said, her English perfect, unaccented.  It was for Cody’s benefit, and the benefit of the other two English-speaking members of the group, who might not understand the more complicated words.  She got glances from the other members of their squad, but continued speaking.  “He’s using the shockwaves to spread irradiated material across the city.  We’re retreating, okay?”

Cody nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to speak as the group took flight.  It was unnecessary, wasn’t worth it when he accounted for how the others would react and respond if he used English.  Thirty-two would be shunned for doing so, there was no need for him to join her.

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

The Yàngbǎn collectively dropped into fighting stances, ready to use any power the instant it was called for.

Villains stepped out of the smoke, and it was only then that the benefits of the twenty-third path belatedly granted the Yàngbǎn their ability to sense these people.  The power had been blocked by someone or something in the group.

They were Westerners, by the looks of them.  Cody’s eyes narrowed as he studied them.  A guy with a demon mask, surrounded by the same eerie darkness that formed a wall between the group and Behemoth, a young girl with a horned mask, a stocky guy or girl with a thick fur ruff on their hood, and a girl in black with an opaque pane over her face and a crossbow in her hands.

The other group was also mounted, but clearly distinct in style, even if they’d shuffled together with the other group.  The boy in medieval clothes with a silver crown, the girl in a frock, two grown women in evening gowns.

They were all mounted on mutants.  He had to reach for the name.  The guy from Boston, Blasty?  Blasto.  He was supposed to make horrific mutants.  Maybe he was here.

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

“Jesus,” the man with darkness shrouding him said.  His power was billowing out around him, more darkness.  “What the hell are you doing?”

He’s getting the benefit of the power boost, Cody thought, but he didn’t speak.

The others were shifting uncomfortably, but the one with the white mask and silver crown, and the two in the evening gowns… they seemed to take it more in stride.

Something about them, it tugged at a memory.  Not a strong memory, but a brief encounter at some point… it gave him an ugly, twisting feeling in his gut.

He blinked, and the girl with the gray, horned mask was right in front of him. He resisted the urge to react.  His teammates, he knew, were raising their hands in anticipation of a fight.  They were distrustful.  They’d been taught that foreign heroes were dangerous, unpredictable.

Thing was, they were right.  As a rule, capes were fucked up.  People were fucked up.  The Yàngbǎn, Cody mused, resolved the situation by stripping capes of their humanity.

She turned around, as if she hadn’t just appeared in front of him.  “Shit, you weren’t kidding.  It gets stronger as you get closer to more of them.  I can do practically anything, and they don’t react.”

“No idea,” the man in black said.

“They’re Chinese capes,” a woman in a yellow evening gown said.  “They probably don’t speak enough English to answer.”

Something nagged at him.  Cody searched his memories.  Between the crossbow and the boy in the renaissance era clothes, he couldn’t help but think of the game he’d played with his friends before everything went horribly wrong.  But the evening gowns, those masks…

Accord.  The bastard who had taken him, who had traded him to the Yàngbǎn for money.

The anger was refreshing, startling, and unexpected.  A splash of scalding water to the face, as if waking him from a dream.

“Thirty-six!”  It was Thirty-two calling.

“Thirty-six?” the girl with the horns asked.  “What?”

It was Cody’s name.  His new name, rather, but he’d never quite identified by it.  He turned and realized he’d dropped out of formation.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

“I can guess what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it,” she said.

Every step of the way, I got fucked.  Fucked by Krouse, fucked by the Simurgh, fucked by Noelle, fucked by Accord, fucked by the fucking Yàngbǎn.

The woman in yellow spoke.  “Whether it’s answers, or revenge, or something else entirely, you won’t find any of it here.”

Others in her group were looking at her in surprise, or as much as one could, when wearing masks.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?” Cody asked.

Three gave an order in Chinese.  Incomprehensible, but Cody could guess.

“If you killed me,” the woman in yellow said, “He’d barely care, and you’d spend the rest of your life in a hole that Ziggurat made, if they didn’t just paralyze you from the neck down and leave you alive to borrow your power.”

Ziggurat?  Oh.  Tōng Líng Tǎ, the earth mover.

She’d said she didn’t have answers, but this-

The ground shook violently.  Behemoth was still active.  Lightning was arcing through and around the dark clouds of smoke that were rising at the edges of the city.

“If it’s alright, we should go,” the darkness man said.  “Things get much worse, I’m not sure how much we can help, and I’m losing my mind waiting like this.”

There was a whistle from someone in the group, and they were gone, the mutant quadrupeds breaking into a run.

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

Three snapped something, and Thirty-two translated, “He’s saying we can send you back, if-”

“No.  It’s fine,” Cody said.  He turned and fell into formation.  The disapproval was like a weight on him from all sides.  He withered a little.  How many weeks, months or years would it be before he was allowed to hold a conversation with his comrades?

More heroes were running by, now.  A group of young heroes, a cluster of religious capes with halos and crosses worked into their costumes, and a fresh wave of mechanical ships.  The reinforcements had arrived.

Eight said something, but the accent was too thick for Cody to make it out.

He’d been stirred from a delirium, a state where the days had blended into one another, where the sole defining moment of his week might be if he were acknowledged by the other members or rebuked.  It wasn’t Behemoth who’d shaken him from that point.  It was the woman in yellow.

Anger twisted in his gut, and it wasn’t going away.  He found himself holding onto it, embracing it.

As if it reflected the violence within Cody, the city was burning, shattered and gripped in chaos.  Thousands were in the streets, running between flimsy looking buildings crusted with signage, or lying dead, struck down by shockwaves created by a monster half a mile away.  Women, children.

They passed injured, and didn’t spare a second glance.  A family of five were caught in a ring of burning structures, and the Yàngbǎn didn’t even spare a second glance.

We’re military, not heroes.

The goal was to fight the monster, to support the Yàngbǎn and support the C.U.I. in any way possible.

Three changed course, and the rest flew after him, setting down.  Their destination was a flattened building, with a group of dead, maimed and dying Indian capes lying in the debris.

Cody exercised the twenty-third path to find out what Three surely knew already.  There was nobody nearby.

Three reached down, and others around him joined in, making contact with one of the dying.

It took nearly a minute, to attune everything the right way.  But the effect took hold, and the injured hero disappeared.

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

Lowest rung on the totem pole.  If I didn’t think Null would rescind my powers, I’d kill you here and now.

Reluctantly, still stewing with anger, he obeyed, kneeling by the body.

The forty-second path.  Teleportation.  He could see the destination in his mind’s eye, like an annoying spot of light in the center of his vision, gradually getting more detailed and focused.  Each person that joined his side to assist sped the process along.

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

By the time they were done, all three bodies had been removed.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

As they traveled, he could see the streets choked with evacuees, a virtual tide of people, rickshaws, bicycles and cars.  They’d reached bottlenecks, points where they couldn’t advance, and the evacuation wasn’t proceeding.

Was this an extension of Behemoth’s strategy?  The major streets were unused, either because the Endbringer could see them, unleashing waves of electricity and shockwaves to strike down anyone who tried those routes, or because buildings had been felled and they were impassable.

The heroes who weren’t helping with the evacuation were establishing perimeters, staggered lines of defense.  Here, Indian capes were setting up turrets on high ground, guns the size of cars, drilling them into the roads and rooftops.  Another block over, there were civilians who weren’t running.  They’d gathered, and were talking in low voices.  They radiated a different degree of power, on par with the capes on the rooftops.

The Yàngbǎn squadron slowed down as the cluster of capes grew denser, the buildings more solid and further apart.  There were trees here, but the heroes were cutting them down.  Each squad seemed to be executing a different plan, a different setup.  What appeared to be force-field fences were being erected in between each group and Behemoth’s estimated point of approach.

There was one group with heavy ranged weapons.  An area was being cleared, set up with devices.  Another area had been marked off with chalk, but it wasn’t clear what they intended to do.  Tinkers everywhere were setting up.  A kid with red armor and lenses had two odd-looking cannons set up on one rooftop, each the size of a city bus.

It painted a picture, formed a script of sorts, for the story that had yet to take place.  The idea that Behemoth would change direction from where he’d initially started off wasn’t even a consideration.  They weren’t consolidating forces, gathering together for one good strike, but were arranging it so one would follow after the other.  The capes he’d already seen were the ones that had gone forward to support, to find the injured, trusting to mobility or evasion to slip away.

And here, this far in, a dozen countermeasures were being set up, if not two dozen.  This would be the staging ground, without the crush of flammable buildings all around them.  Each countermeasure would occupy Behemoth for just long enough that the heroes could manage a barrage of attacks.

The Yàngbǎn reached the center of the network, landing on the rooftop with the most capes.  The makeshift command center.

He only had to take one look, and he knew.  Something vital was missing.  They had any number of ways to stall, and each one would cost them a little.  But for all of that, he couldn’t make out anything that looked like it would end the fight.

Cody could see the heroes react as the Yàngbǎn landed, and he could see the way others looked to one small set of people for cues.  The top-level guys, the leadership of the Protectorate.

A a man in gleaming armor extended a hand to Three, who’d stepped away from the group.  “We didn’t expect the Yàngbǎn.”

Three looked over his shoulder, and Thirty-two stepped forward.  Three murmured something, and she translated.  “Your PRT was very persuasive, Chevalier.”

“I suppose we can count that as a good thing.  You read the briefings and plans we sent out?”

Thirty-two continued to translate, “We did.  With your permission, we’ll return to the fight with Behemoth shortly.  But we’d like to make a proposal.”

“I know what you’re going to propose,” Chevalier said.  “I’m sorry, it-”

“It’s somewhat counter to our usual offer,” Thirty-two spoke quickly to match Three’s attempted interruption.

Chevalier fell silent.

“Your heroes here are scared.  They want to help, they are good people.  We’re offering another way.  They can help without risking their lives.”

“I think I understand.  You have to understand why I’m saying no,” Chevalier said.

“Our group shares powers.  Time and time again, the West has refused them.  We would rehabilitate your criminals, and share their powers among us.  They are divided in strength, but we have the ability to magnify powers.  You can feel it now, being close.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

In the distance, a column of lightning cut through the wall of smoke above the city, as big around as an apartment building.  Cody could feel the vibrations shudder through the building, as sturdy as it was, though the lightning was miles away.

“We might each have only a share of a power, reduced effect, range or duration, but we regain as much as a third of that power back with this magnification, depending on how many are together.  A full third of forty powers at once.  If any would volunteer, we would teleport them to a safe place, where we would borrow their power for this fight only.  We would send them home when the fight was over.”

Cody could see the reactions of the capes on the rooftop.  People were exchanging glances.  Considering it.

A part of him wanted to scream, to warn them, whatever the cost to him might be.

“I see,” Chevalier said.

“For years, we have boasted of the strength the Yàngbǎn offers the world.  But we are small, and too many citizens with powers flee or fight rather than cooperate.  Today, we hope to show our strength.  We have extended our support, and we ask for trust in exchange.”

“Your support is welcome, and that’s why we couldn’t ever ask you to make this leap of faith,” Chevalier said.  “I understand your motives are pure, but if some accident transpired, and a good cape didn’t make it back, it would mean war.”

Cody hadn’t missed the way the hero had stressed the words.  A warning for his people, more than a statement for Three.

“We would be exceedingly careful,” Thirty-two translated for Three.  “Rest assured.”

Cody was watching the negotiations continue, Chevalier looking more and more uncomfortable, when he saw him.

Accord.  He was accompanied by a girl in a lavender and black costume, and a dark-skinned man in a suit.

Cody had to hold himself back to keep from striking the man.  It would be suicide, and no matter which power he used, Cody couldn’t be sure he could guarantee a kill.

He could see the moment where Accord saw the Yàngbǎn.  Cody could see the reaction, as if the man had been slapped in the face.  Accord’s shifting mask gave away his reaction, and then his expression set, his body language neutral, as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

The girl beside him smiled, and brilliant green eyes settled on Cody, stark contrasts to her pale purple costume.

He hated not knowing anything, being cut off by language barriers and the rules of the Yàngbǎn.  Who was the girl in lavender?  Where were Alexandria, Eidolon and Legend?

Every question left him more uneasy, increasingly angry, and Accord was the person who had put him in this situation.

I’m a slave, and he’s the one who put me in chains.

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

“If the Yàngbǎn will excuse me?” Chevalier asked Three.

Three nodded.  “As you will.  We can wait.”

Cody suspected Chevalier had been hoping to end the conversation, rather than postpone it.  He stared at Accord.  Do they know what you do?  What you are? 

There was a crash, a clap of thunder, and a rush of hot wind.  The cloud of smoke around Behemoth’s battlefield was growing, and it wasn’t just a matter of perspective, of Behemoth getting closer.

Capes flew off, joining the fray.  The Yàngbǎn remained.

“What can you tell us?  Do you have a plan?” Chevalier asked Accord.

I’ll kill him.  I’ll kill him.  Somehow.  I just need a chance.

It was too much, like being asleep for months and finally waking up, only to discover that the only thing inside him was rage.

“…optimal timing,” Accord was saying.  “I’m still working out the particulars.”

Krouse thought he was smart too.  When I’m done with you, I’ll find him and kill him. 

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

Cody virtually twitched with a need to move, a craving to fulfill some deep-seated desire for revenge, but the group around him wouldn’t afford him the chance.  Each member of the Yàngbǎn was simultaneously a prisoner and a guard, some more of one than the other.

Chevalier nodded.  “You’ll have it.  Rime?”

A woman in blue limped forward, “I’ll handle it.”

The girl in lavender glanced at Cody before falling in step with Rime and Accord.

Had she sensed his emotion?  She hadn’t said a thing.

“He just reached the first perimeter,” someone reported.  “Tore through our skirmishers.  Some teenagers were killed.  Eidolon and Legend are fighting, but they’re not in good shape.  We didn’t expect him to move this fast.”

“The Triumvirate’s missing a key member,” Chevalier said.  “Our more mobile capes should move out now.  Meet him at the first perimeter if you’re fast enough, hold at the second if you aren’t.  Maintain cover where possible.”

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

But he could feel the tickle of new powers taking hold.  The three they’d collected from the shattered building were joining them, like it or not.

The first power was an easy one to grasp.  He could feel his body surging with some added strength, and that strength swelled a step further as the power-enhancing auras took hold.

The second was a tinker power, he was almost positive, or it was a thinker power with a focus on guns.  Nothing useful.

The third… another thinker power.  His vision clarified a step.  The ability to see through smoke?

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

He was disappointed, and he couldn’t be sure why.  What had he wanted?  What did he want, in general?

Even now, he was alone.  The Yàngbǎn wanted to collect capes, to prove themselves.  The heroes wanted to stop Behemoth.

Cody didn’t care about either.

He entertained the notion that helping Behemoth go loose would almost be better.  It could mean the end of the Yàngbǎn, Accord’s death.  Even Trickster’s death, if they had decided to show up.

Except there was no reasonable way he could do that.  Not for a lack of wanting to, but because he couldn’t hope to oppose the Yàngbǎn and the heroes at the same time.

Needed an opportunity.

The Yàngbǎn passed through the worst of the smoke, into the blasted, shattered ruins of the city.  In the moment they joined the fight, Cody held back.

They sensed he was gone, but they couldn’t disengage, not as Behemoth gathered up a ruined section of building and melted it down, hurled massive globs of melted plastic, metal and stone at them.

The process took a minute at the best of times, with help.  His destination couldn’t be a distant one, and he couldn’t hope to behead the Yàngbǎn on his own, not with the members they’d kept in reserve, the precious ones, with powers they couldn’t afford to lose, like Two’s.

He nearly lost his concentration as a massive crash knocked him off his feet.

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

The teleportation took hold, and he found himself back at the building the Yàngbǎn had just left, three stories down.

The command center.

Accord, the lavender girl, and Chevalier were leaning over a table with computers arranged along it, papers strewn out across the surface.

It brought back memories of the moment everything had turned upside down, the computers, the interrupted tournament.  Finding themselves in another world…

If he needed a push to act, that was it.  The biggest one first.

The laser didn’t cut the armor.  It was capable of cutting granite like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t cut the armor.  Chevalier turned, drawing his sword, a six-foot long beast of a weapon.  The armor glowed orange as the laser concentrated on his belly.

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

He flew out of the way as another swing came within an inch of decapitating him.

A laser with one hand, a vacuum sphere with another, pulling Chevalier off balance.

Again, it didn’t work.  The man barely reacted as the vacuum sphere caught his legs.  He aimed his weapon, and a combination of danger sense and a nullification wave stopped the shot in the chamber, disabling the gun.

The x-ray vision was barely penetrating the sword or armor.  Cody had to duck, back up and rely on his enhanced reflexes to avoid Chevalier’s attacks.  He had forty-four powers and not one was letting him beat, what, a swordsman in a suit of armor?

It was the lack of the power boost.  The Yàngbǎn were only strong as a group, granting the aura to one another.  Here, now, he was feeble.  Forty powers, and not one of them sufficient.

Always second best.  Always alone, Cody thought.  No.

Keeping the laser trained on Chevalier, he used his own power.  Perdition’s power.  The thirty-sixth path.

Chevalier was moved back to where he was seconds ago.  Cody backed out of the way, kept the laser trained on the hero, and the instant his opponent got too close, he used his power again.  It barely set Chevalier back two seconds, but it was enough.

Slow, steady, inevitable progress.  Time was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, undeniable.

Accord and the girl in lavender made a sudden attempt to run to the door.  Cody created a forcefield to bar their way.

They reached for phones.  He used a vacuum sphere to pull them away.

It took nearly a minute to cut through Chevalier’s armor, using the time reversals to effectively put the man on hold while he put some distance between them, and the laser to cut.  The man folded over the second the laser pierced flesh, cutting straight from the front of his stomach to his back.

Obstacle gone.

“Reckless,” Accord said, sounding more sad than afraid.  “Lunacy.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“I’d hoped your placement with the Yàngbǎn would temper you.”

Cody lashed out with the laser.  Accord’s right arm was lopped off.

Another cut, for the right leg.  Accord screamed as he fell.

The girl in lavender hadn’t reacted, only stared down at the two dying men.  She clicked her tongue, “Tsk.”

“He’s asymmetrical in death,” Cody mused.  “There’s a justice in that, isn’t there?”

“If there’s irony here, it’s the fact that his desire for order led to this,” the girl commented.  “We just lost our strategist and our field commander, so there’s going to be more chaos than ever.”

The windows briefly rattled with the shockwave of one of Behemoth’s attacks, halfway across the city.

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

The anger still burned inside him, not sated in the slightest.  Did I end it too quickly?  Maybe I should have drawn it out more.

He glanced at her.  She was staring at him.  “Can you use that computer to find someone?  If they’re here, or somewhere else?”

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, I can tell you that without looking.  He bit it.  Some freaky monster calling herself Noelle freaked out, made clones of him.  They ate him alive.  Literally.”

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

The details fit.  Cody nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

“He wasn’t,” Cody snapped.  He felt off balance.  This was so unexpected.  How was he even supposed to react to that?  How long had it been since he’d really made a call on his own?

Slowly, he spoke, as if sounding out the ideas as they came to him, “No.  I suppose that’s good.  Thank you.  I’d tell you I’ll make it quick, but… you worked for him.  You probably deserve it.”

“Nuh uh,” she said.  She’d backed away, gripped the edge of a table.  Her entire body was rigid.  “I’ll give you my phone, you can call any one of my buddies, tell them it’s Tattletale.  They’ll tell you we were constantly fighting. Only reason we haven’t offed each other is that it’d be mutually assured destruction.”

“Trickery.  No, knowing him, knowing the kind of people he associates with,” like Trickster“there’s probably contingency plans.  I won’t fall for that.”

“Spare me, maybe I can salvage this mess.  I mean, you’ve still got to live on this planet, right?  We can’t let Behemoth win.  Not today.”

“I’m dead anyways.”

“Because of the Yàngbǎn.  I could help.  I’ll figure out a way for you to escape.  Hopeless as this feels, there’s a way out.”

“No,” Cody shook his head.  He felt so lost, so tired, so unsatisfied.  There was one major enemy left to eliminate, one more group who’d wronged him.  The Yàngbǎn.  He already knew he wouldn’t get any more satisfaction from it.  He knew he’d likely die in the attempt.  “No, no point.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “There’s definitely a point.  Just… give me a second, I’ll think of it.  Shit.  Sucks I don’t know much about you.  Don’t suppose you’d give me a hint?”

He raised a hand, pointing at her.  “No.”

“Think about her,” the girl who’d called herself Tattletale blurted out the words.  “What would she think?”

He hesitated.

Her?  The first person that popped into mind was Thirty-two.  The Yàngbǎn member who’d tried to teach him Chinese.  They’d been close, had been friends, before the group segregated them, because they were more malleable as individuals than as a group.  Members of the same team, but never given a chance to talk with one another.  Always in arm’s reach, never together.

The second person he thought of was Noelle.  His first love, the betrayer, the monster.

He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears.  When had that started?  With the shockwaves?  During the fight with Chevalier?

Or before all that?  Before the Yàngbǎn.  Had it ever stopped?

He thought of the Simurgh, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.

His head hung.

Always a pawn.  Always the expendable one.  Kicked off the team, traded away to Accord for the team’s safety.

“There’s…” he started to speak, then trailed off.  She didn’t interrupt him.  “Who?  Which her are you talking about?  Which her?  Be clear.”

He approached Tattletale, gripping her throat, feeling the added strength of the newest additions to the Yàngbǎn.

Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Honestly?  I figured I’d toss it out there.  There’s bound to be someone important, and saying her gives me a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I hate smartasses,” he said, and he squeezed, feeling her windpipe collapse in his grip.

She fell to the ground, and he watched as she struggled for air that didn’t come.

The faint screaming rang through his head as he watched her struggle to climb a chair, taking ten, fifteen seconds to just get her upper body onto the seat.

She found a plastic pen, collapsed to the ground with it in her hand.  When she flopped over onto her back, it was broken.  She’d caught it between her body and the ground.

This’ll have to do as a surrogate for Trickster, Cody mused, watching.  Had Noelle felt anything like this when she’d killed and devoured innocent people?  A kind of despair, mingled with helplessness?

Anger was all he had left, the drive for revenge the sole thing keeping him moving.  Feeble and misdirected as this was, it wasn’t it.

Tattletale drew a knife from her belt, used the edge to remove the nib and the ink reservoir from the plastic case of the pen.

When that was done, she stabbed herself in the base of the throat.

She’s giving herself a tracheotomy, Cody thought, watching in fascination, even as he reached out and took hold of the plastic pen case.

He watched her expression as he crushed the plastic in one hand.

And he felt nothing.  Even the paradoxical grin that appeared on her face, in contrast to the frustrated slam of one hand against the floor, it reminded him of Trickster in an odd way.  Yet it added nothing to this.

Think about her.  What would she think?  Tattletale’s words struck him.

He thought of Thirty-two, and without even deciding to, he used his own power on the pen case, returning it to the state it had been in seconds ago.

He handed it back to Tattletale, then stood, his back to her, as he concentrated.

As goals went, it wasn’t much of one.  He’d barely talked to her.  As far as kindnesses went, hers had been minor at best.  But he’d save Thirty-two.

It took two minutes to carry out the teleport.  He didn’t have much time before the Yàngbǎn found a free moment to contact Null and rescind his powers.  Maybe they were calling already.  Maybe the electromagnetic radiation in the area would block the call.

He’d find a way, regardless.

He felt his power take hold and teleported.  Back to the battlefield, back to Thirty-two.

Chest heaving as she greedily sucked in air through the plastic tube she’d jammed into the hole in her throat, Tattletale feebly crawled over to Chevalier.  Her strength was depleted before she got halfway.

She stared across the room at Accord and Chevalier’s bodies, straining to see if either were breathing.

She managed the only utterance she could, without the ability to bring air from her lungs to her mouth:  A click of her tongue.  “Tsk.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Drone 23.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The waiting was the worst part.

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

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

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

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said.

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

I nodded.

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“For now.”

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

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

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

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

“But you’re doing this for me.”

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

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

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

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

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

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

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

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

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

I turned around, surprised.

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

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

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

I glanced at him.

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

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

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

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

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

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

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

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

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

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weaver,” I corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

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

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

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

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

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

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

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

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

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rachel,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Locals?” I asked.

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

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

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

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

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

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

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

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

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

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

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

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

A camera?

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

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

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

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

“The Yàngbǎn.”

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

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

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

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

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

“They were right,”  I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

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

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

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

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

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

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

A second craft perished a second later.

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

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

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

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

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Dragon answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“My condolences,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“You’re a rookie?”

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

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

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

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

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

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

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

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

Again, nods.

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

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

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Drone 23.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“Mr. Chambers?  Weaver’s here to see you.”

He called out from the opposite end of the room, “Send her in!”

I ventured into his realm, staring around me as I entered the space that was apparently the hub of costume design and marketing for the PRT.

The wall to my left had a map of North America.  Cities had been identified, with clusters of portraits around each major city.  Protectorate members on top, Wards on the bottom.

To my right, there were glass cases showing off costume designs, old and new.  A woman was inside the case, dressing a dummy.

Further down, there was Glenn.

Power was a funny thing.  I’d seen it expressed in a number of ways, with parahumans, but the unpowered weren’t quite so flexible.  There were people like Tagg, who relied on bluster and bullying, and people like Calle, with sheer confidence and a strict reliance on their own abilities in a particular field.  Piggot had been something else, someone who had known how to leverage people and situations, more like Calle than anyone, but with the added advantage that she’d had the authority to call in airstrikes and requisition Dragon’s A.I. driven craft.  Like Tattletale had said, Piggot wasn’t a genius, but she had her strengths.

I’d suspected that Glenn Chambers would be more like Calle, with a touch of Tagg’s tendency to bulldoze through problems.  Seeing him operating in his home territory, I wasn’t so sure that was the case.

Glenn Chambers wore plaid pants with red and green, and a pink dress shirt, His belt bore a buckle with the PRT logo on it.  His hair had changed too, parted neatly into what I assumed was ‘geek chic’, and the glasses had changed as well, with thick, round frames.  An ID card hung around his neck.  He didn’t fit any of those particular archetypes.

I looked at him and the person who came to mind was Skidmark.  Brockton Bay’s onetime loser villain, meth-head and drug dealer, later the head of the depraved, anarchist Merchants.  It was hard to pinpoint why, at first.  They were nothing alike, on an aesthetic level.  Their demeanor, their status in society, their appearance or goals, there were no similarities.

People milled around him.  Twenty-something men and women, who carried coffees and portfolios, cloth and paperwork.  Fat as he was, Glenn moved swiftly.  He sipped a coffee, handed it back to the assistant who’d delivered it, and sent her off with a command or clarification.  Men and women with portfolios were told to set up at his desk while he examined action figures in the light of the window.  His pudgy hands, almost childlike, took hold of an action figure by the arm.  He shook it violently, his cluster of minions backing away at the sudden flailing of his arm and the plastic figure.  The arm snapped off, and the toy went sailing through the air.  Someone scooped it up and brought it back to the group.

“Go, and hurry,” Glenn said.  “Tell them to fix it and cast another prototype before the run starts.  These are toys, they’ll be in the hands of children and collectors both.  The people who are buying these are fans.  What’s it going to say if their most immediate association with Esoteric is the broken toy sitting on a shelf?  It’s going to convey that he’s flimsy.”

The action figure people fled, and Glenn approached his desk, where the portfolios had been set out.  I approached, a touch lost in the midst of all of this, and nearly stumbled as another group entered the room, vacating to fill the void left by the group that was exiting.

“Weaver, come.  Look and tell me what you think.”

I approached the desk, and the group parted to give me space.  It was hard to put my finger on why, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were doing it at Glenn’s bequest and not mine.

The massive portfolio folders were open, showing poster images of various Protectorate members.  The leaders of the new teams.  The images were stylized, with splashes in pale watercolor in the background, an almost sketchier appearance to the heroes.  But the masks, necks and shoulders, the emblems and their characteristic tools were all done in hyper-realistic detail.  Chevalier, Rime and Exalt, with backgrounds in gray, blue and yellow, respectively.  There looked to be more behind them.

“They’re good,” I said.

“They’re crap,” Glenn countered.  One finger tapped on a blossoming of yellow and red watercolors at the tip of Chevalier’s Cannonblade.  “The last thing we want to convey are that things are a mess, and that’s exactly what the blobs in the background will do.”

I’d buy one,” I said.  “If I wasn’t already a cape, anyways.  Things are a mess.  I don’t see how you’d convince a non-cape me otherwise.”

Glenn sighed.  “We’re treading into philosophical and hypothetical territories there.  It’s a no-go.”

He turned to one of the artists,  “Something cleaner, tighter.  And don’t use a side-profile of Rime.  If she doesn’t want the post-effects, she’ll have to accept that her waist isn’t quite poster material.”

The poster people disappeared, fleeing Glenn’s presence.

I stepped into the gap, “I wanted to talk to you-”

“One minute,” Glenn dismissed me.  He turned to the group that had just arrived, “The interview?”

“It’s good,” a young man said, handing over a print-out.  “Chevalier is personable, but different from the old leaders.  Fits the ‘New Protectorate’ atmosphere you described.”

“Of course it does,” Glenn said.  He skimmed the paper, turning pages.  “I based it all around him.  Good call on the interview’s quality.  Quite good.”

Skidmark, I thought again.  Skidmark, who had built up a kind of momentum around himself, like-minded people falling into his orbit.  Despite being utterly repulsive and foul-mouthed, Skidmark had charisma.  People followed him.  Glenn wasn’t repulsive, but he grated.

Maybe that was part of their charisma.  Maybe the natural, casual narcissism, as much as it didn’t jibe with Skidmark’s meth-mouth or Glenn’s obesity, conveyed that they were the center of the universe.  Everyone wouldn’t necessarily be swept up in their delusion, but the fact that they drew in weak-willed sheep lent them a measure of clout that forced people to acknowledge them.  For Skidmark, it had been depraved homeless, addicts and thugs.  For Glenn, it was a cadre of college students hoping for a career in marketing, advertising or public relations within the PRT.

Or maybe I wasn’t thinking too generously about Glenn Chambers, given how pissed I was.  Maybe he wasn’t that bad.

“Well?” he asked me, as if I was making him wait.

I resisted the urge to react, forced myself to stay calm.

If he was really like Skidmark, in how he surrounded himself with loyal and terrified sheep and minions, there were two ways to mount an attack.  I could take the fight straight to him, like Faultline had with Skidmark, or I could strip him of his flock.

“I’d like to speak to you in private.”

“Impossible, I’m afraid.  I’m busy enough I shouldn’t even be taking the time to talk with you,” he said.  He offered me a smile, “But you’re my most interesting project.”

“It’s a matter of courtesy,” I said.  He wanted to play this on a political level?  “Please.”

Put him on the spot.  Force him to play along or look bad.

Glenn only smiled.  “Isn’t it just as discourteous to interrupt me in the middle of my work, when I’m already doing you a favor by meeting you?”

Fine.  He wanted to play it that way?

“Last night, Pretender got broken out of Dragon’s craft, our team crushed, and Rime shot.  I almost died.”

“I heard,” he said.  He looked at the woman who was just arriving with his new coffee, “Kayleigh, can you go talk to Mr. Payet?  He was supposed to call me in ten minutes and it’s been fifteen.”

“Yes sir,” she said, running off.

He either doesn’t care or he’s deflecting.

“Your insane restrictions on powers were a big part of that, Mr. Chambers.  The bad guys won, and it’s partially your fault.”

The heads that turned my way, silent and staring, only confirmed my suspicions.  The crowd of twenty-something assistants and designers around him were a defense system.  Not a power, but power in general.

“My fault? I wasn’t even there.”

“I asked to speak to you because I wanted you to know about the damage that’s being done.”

“Ah, this is about the butterflies.”

“It’s about a lot more than butterflies.  It’s the whole mindset.  The attitude of the heroes.  I’d talk to Chevalier, but he’s too busy.  I’d talk to Rime, but she’s recovering from being shot three times.  You’re the only other person I’ve met so far who really seems to be in a position to know what I’m talking about.  Besides, as far as I can figure, image and PR seem to be at the heart of the problem.”

“A complicated issue, something you could study for six years in college,” he said.  “But you’ve figured it out after two brawls?  The rumors of your intelligence must be true after all.”

“I wouldn’t make light of it.  Pretender got captured.  Either he’s in enemy hands, and there’s a body snatcher out there, or he’s dead.  Because of a fight we could have won.” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“There’re no certainties, but come on.  There’s got to be a point where the kiddie gloves come off and we actually put up a fight.  I saw the Wards struggling in Brockton Bay, as they faced pressure from outside forces, me included, and serious threats.  They got whittled down because, as powerful as they are, they didn’t get the chance to put up a fight.  Now the rest of us are starting to face the same pressures, and the PRT isn’t learning from past mistakes.”

“I’m trying to understand what you’re wanting to argue.  Are you saying our Wards, children with powers, should take your cue?  Fight more viciously?  Intimidate?  Be merciless?”

All your capes could stand to stop holding back.  Wards and Protectorate both.  At least in situations like this.  We lost Pretender, and we didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Vegas teams.  That played a part in losing them.”

Glenn frowned, glancing at his collection of underlings.  “Everyone but Weaver, out.  I hope each of you can find something to do.”

The flock scattered.

“You already know what happens if you speak on the subject,” Glenn called out to them, raising his voice as they got further away.  “I personally know everyone you might try to leak details to.  It’s not worth the risk!  Discretion!”

A moment later, they were gone.  His office seemed so empty without the young professionals running around.

“We must have a talk about which things can be said when,” Glenn said.  He took a second to tidy up stray pictures on his desk.

“I did ask if we could speak alone,” I told him.

“And I said no.  I’m much too busy, and as much as I relish our future discussions, hearing how you did what you did in Brockton Bay, the Vegas Wards are a large part of why I’m racing to provide the public with our new, upgraded Protectorate.”

“Misdirection and deception,” I said.  “You know, I do know about subtlety.  I kind of ran a group that ruled a city.”

“And I’m sure you did an excellent job,” Glenn said.  “But you’re a dog in a duck pond here.  You’re out of place, you don’t know the usual precautions, the customs and conventions.  You gave evidence to that when you talked about the Vegas wards, something that should be kept more discreet.”

That would be his mode of attack then.  I was the ignorant child, who didn’t quite know how the Protectorate worked.

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn.  You guys know I can hold my own, but you ignore the fact that I took down Alexandria, that I’ve fought against three class-S threats.”

Glenn sighed.  He walked around his desk and plunked down in his chair.  “You’re going to be one of the challenging ones, aren’t you?”

“I only want to help people.  The PRT and the hero teams are falling apart, but you’re more focused on testing me than letting me do something.”

“Chevalier would be a better person to talk to about this,” Glenn said.

“You want me to fight with nerf weapons?  I can.  Put me up against just about any Ward, I could probably give them a pretty hard time, whether I’m using regular bugs or just butterflies.  I could win against most.”

“Your strength isn’t in question.  We’re not sure you’re dependable.”

“I can show you that I can make the butterflies work.  I just want the a-ok to use my full assortment of powers against the real threats.  Like the sniper and whoever that woman in the suit was, last night.  If I’d had a real arsenal in reserve, I could have attacked either of them before they really get underway.  Give me the ability to match the strength of the tools I’m using to the strength of my enemies.”

“Beginning an endless loop of serial escalations,” Glenn said.  “No, Weaver, that’s not what I mean when I say ‘dependable’.  Wrong word.  We have footage of you snapping, shifting from calm to homicidal in an instant.  Was there motivation?  Yes.  But it doesn’t inspire confidence in your allies.  We wanted to see how you functioned in high pressure situations, your willingness to follow our restrictions, as unfair as they might seem.”

“Always testing me,” I said.  “Okay.  I listened, I followed your orders, and the test doesn’t serve a purpose as long as I know about it.  Can we call it quits, at least with the butterflies?”

“You didn’t follow the orders,” Glenn said.  When I glanced at him, he locked his eyes onto mine.  “You stung Bambina.”

“To save people.  She was going to pick us off.  Would you blame me if I picked up a dropped gun and shot someone who was aiming a surface-to-air missile launcher at me?”

“It’s a little different.”

“It’s an almost exact parallel to what I was doing!  She’s a living surface to air missile, only she ricochets all over the place, and she keeps going.  I didn’t even use a gun.  I debilitated her, maybe enough that Vantage could hit her with his bolas.  Nonlethal weapons, exactly like what the Wards are supposed to use.”

“The focus isn’t on lethal or nonlethal,” Glenn said.  “It’s on whether we can trust you to keep on the path you’re walking.  If you start taking shortcuts now, what happens a year down the line?  If we decide you can go all-out in one specific situation, does that open the door for another?”

“Maybe, instead of setting rules and restrictions in place, you could ask.  Talk to me like a human being, negotiate certain rules.”

“Rules you then break or circumvent.  You take rather naturally to it, and no, that isn’t a jab at your iniquitous backgroundIt’s a statement about your particular abilities.”

I grit my teeth.  “I’m good.  I have more experience than some of your Wards who’ve been on their teams for two years.  I’m versatile.  If you need someone in Vegas to deal with thinkers and strangers, I can hold my own, the embarrassment with August Prince aside.  If you need someone to track down groups like the Nine, I can do that.  Recon, assassination, communication…”

“The public’s watching this too closely for us to let you off your leash so soon after Alexandria’s death.  When things quiet down, it might be a possibility.  Our heroes in Vegas tend to be a little grayer than white, and an ex-villain would fit.  But not now.”

I exhaled slowly.  “You guys wanted a newer, shinier protectorate.  You guys need wins.  Give me the chance, I’ll give them to you.  But this isn’t me.  I’m not about butterflies.”

“We know what you’re about,” Glenn said.  He touched his keyboard, then typed out what I presumed was a password.  A second passed, “Look.”

He spun his monitor around.

It was me, entering the PRT office in Brockton Bay.  A video feed from a surveillance camera.

It was me, crawling through a window.  That would be from the night I retaliated against Tagg.  Odd, seeing how the bugs moved in coordination with me.  When I turned my head in the video, the orientation of every bug in the swarm changed in the same moment.

All around me, PRT employees were howling in pain, their cries silenced by the lack of an audio feed.  Either the camera hadn’t picked it up, or Glenn had muted it.  They thrashed.  One reached for me, for the me on the screen, and I could see how I moved out of the way without even glancing at him.  The swarm concealed me at the same time, briefly obscuring the Skitter in the video from both the man on the ground and the security camera.  When it parted, she had shifted two or three feet to the left.  A simple step to one side in the half-second she couldn’t be seen, but it misled the eyes.

And I couldn’t remember doing it.  I’d never consciously added the trick to my repertoire.

“If you told me that girl was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Glenn said, “I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.”

It was like hearing my voice played back to me, but it was compounded over several levels.  The movements, the movements of the swarm, it wasn’t familiar to me.

The head turned towards the security camera for a moment, and I could see the yellow eyes of my lenses in the midst of the thick black swarm.

“That isn’t marketable,” Glenn said, oblivious to just what I found so bothersome.

“There’s a middle ground,” I said.

“When I asked you to use butterflies, it was to break a habit, see if it changed how you functioned in the midst of a fight, just like I might ask someone to try on a particular outfit and see how it fits them.  I didn’t think it would throw you off kilter as much as it has.  But that isn’t a bad thing.”

“It is if it means Rime nearly dies and Pretender gets taken.”

“We collected the three members of Bambina’s group.  Not a complete loss.”

“They’ll get free and continue their rampage,” I said.

“Most likely.  We’ll strive to hold on to Bambina at the very least.  With luck we’ll be able to recruit the little prince, maybe Starlet as well.”

I looked at the video.  Glenn had paused it.  The momentary turn of the head, the yellow lenses…

“I can work on being a little less nightmarish,” I said.  “But there’s got to be a way for me to be more effective.  How long are these restrictions in effect?”

“Until you come of age and join the Protectorate,” a voice spoke from behind me.

It was Chevalier, accompanied by Defiant, my ride.  Chevalier wore his gold and silver armor, heavily decorated and etched until every square inch looked like a miniature work of art.  It didn’t strike me as something that would hold up to any abuse, but I’d heard how tough it really was.

“Until I turn eighteen,” I said, feeling a little hollow.

Chevalier approached.  “You murdered two people.  Three, going by your admission while in custody.  Two PRT directors, one major hero.  When Dragon and Defiant suggested we bring you on board, we were divided.  It was Glenn who offered the compromise that we ultimately agreed to.  This compromise.”

I glanced at Glenn, who shrugged.

Glenn?

“You have blood on your hands.  We need to know that you can hold back, that you won’t simply snap as you did when you were in custody in Brockton Bay.  We’re still wanting to ensure that this isn’t a long-term scheme on the Undersider’s part, as unlikely as it might be.”

That’s why you’re waiting two years?  You think that it’ll take that long to vet me, before you can give me actual responsibility?”

“It’s one consideration of many.”

“It’s ridiculous.  The world is going to end before I have my eighteenth birthday.  I’m giving you full permission to use me.  Send me to round up tinkers who could find the Nine’s pocket dimension I’ve been a villian.  I’ve got some reputation I can fall back on.  I can talk to people you guys can’t.”

“I won’t say this is set in stone,” Chevalier said.  “Maybe in a few weeks or a few months, we can discuss options.  For now, we’ll find you a team, get you settled.  Once we know where we’re situating you, we’ll find a different institution to keep you in.  Possibly low security, or in the Wards headquarters, depending.  The rest… there’s time to figure that out.”

I sighed, closing my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Chevalier said.  “Really.  I was there for the fight against Echidna.  I saw the Undersiders in action.  I saw you in action, and I’m willing to credit you with the maneuver that turned the situation around in the final stages.  As long as your rap sheet may be, I’ve heard of the good you did.  It strikes me that you’ve likely saved one person from death and injury for each person you’ve assaulted, if I were to count what you did before Shatterbird hit your city.”

“But that doesn’t matter in the end.”

“It does.  More than you suspect, but you have to be patient.”

“You’ve faced a great deal in the span of half a year,” Defiant said.  “Take this for the reprieve it is.”

I grit my teeth.  No use.  The legitimate avenues were failing me.

I couldn’t put up with this.

“Then there’s one last thing,” I said.  “If I can’t help directly, let me help indirectly.  I can outfit your heroes.  Most of them.”

Glenn and Chevalier exchanged glances.

“We were going to raise the idea somewhere down the road,” Chevalier said.  “We can work out a deal, like we have with our tinkers.  An allowance, with payment for each costume produced.”

“I don’t want money,” I said.  “But so long as you’re offering, maybe we could talk about a workshop?”

I glanced at Defiant, “And equipment?”

Spiders moved through the back corridors of the prison.  It was a space where the plumbing and heating for the two interconnected prisons ran through pipes, and where the flooring was little more than metal grates, easily removed and replaced in a pinch.  Almost lightless, but that didn’t bother me.  My spiders could manage, and it only meant I had some time to hide them if someone entered and hit a switch to turn the lights on.

I’d thought of ‘Weaver’ as a hero on the straight and narrow.  That was out.

Being a villain with good PR just wouldn’t work either.

No.  A middle ground, then.

The spiders found a rat.  It backed away from the mass, hissed.

A spider dropped on it from above and delivered the first of what soon became a series of bites.  Fatal.

Working together, the spiders set to devouring it.  They weren’t natural scavengers, but meat was meat.  Meat meant the spiders could get the sustenance they needed for breeding.  Breeding, in turn, meant I could start mass-producing silk.

It was calming, a relief to do something concrete after an afternoon in Glenn Chamber’s company.  When the time came, I could carry any materials and the spiders onto the bottom of the Pendragon, moving them to my workshop.

“Hebert,” the guard said.

I raised my head.

“Mail day.  You’re a popular one.”

It was a bundle of mail, bound together with tape marked ‘USPS’.

“They’re already open?”

“Rules.  We don’t read it, or we’re not supposed to.  But they check there’s nothing illegal inside, and the dogs give it a sniff.”

I nodded.  She studied me for a second, then moved on to the next cell.

Mail from all around the United states.  From strangers, from fans.

Words of support.  Criticism.  Death threats.

I opened the ones from Brockton Bay last.

Taylor.  Weaver.  Skitter.  Is it bad that you’ll always be Skitter to me?

I could hit you, hug you, yell at you and hold onto you for hours all at the same time.  It’s fitting that I want to kiss you and throttle you at the same time because that’s what you were to me for a long time.  You drive me crazy and I can never understand what’s going through your head.

This isn’t easy.  I’m not good at this.  Not with where we left off.  It felt like an incomplete break, but I don’t think it would be much better if we were still together or if we’d broken it off completely.  I’m not the type to write heartfelt letters.

I hope they don’t read your mail and give you a hard time because of this.  I’d erase that part but I’ve already started over three times.

What ever am I even supposed to write?  That I want to yell at you because I told you I couldn’t be leader and you left anyways?  That you shouldn’t worry and Tattletale and I have it covered?

You’re an idiot.  I want you to know that.  You’re an idiot, Skitter.  You’re brilliant and reckless and I’m betting it makes sense to you to do this but you’re an idiot.

I’ll write again, when I can figure out what to write.

Grue.

I read it three times.  I could almost hear his voice.

I opened the next one.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! what the fuck???

There was only a little circle with devil horns at the bottom, in place of a signature.  I rolled my eyes and moved on.

Tt here.

You probably want to know the situation.  We’re all alive, Accord hasn’t turned on us yet, things are getting more exciting but we’ll manage.  Heroes are leaving us alone, like you arranged.  Trick will be to get Regent and Imp to stop prodding them for reactions when they cross ways.

Heartbreaker making initial forays, decided to pay a visit.  Can’t tell if he’s invading or after Regent.  Red Hands are a little more aggressive but not too bad.  Meeting for negotiations tonight.  Lost Garden approacheth, sending members after us and trying to clear way for Barrow to advance.  Annoying but no problem until they enter city limits.

Grue wasn’t okay at first.  Worst days since right after Bsaw.  He won’t say in his letter but you would want to know.  Got better when Red Hand and Heartbreaker came.  Busier, something to do other than wallow.

Regent&Imp constantly together.  Mucho annoying since you gone.  They’re testing the waters, seeing what they can get away with.  Will see how it turns out.

We got Flechette.  She a pair with Parian.  Lovey-dovey.  Best case scenario, really.  Not sure if you arranged that, good call if you did.  Flechette’s going by Foil now.  Likes those F names.

My head’s better as of yesterday.  Tryng to take it easier.

Managed to get hold of Rachel.  She said she’d send letter.  She can’t read/write but she insisted she would anyways.  Interesting to see how that turns out.

Everyone on edge of their seat waiting for Endbringer to hit.  Won’t be Bbay but we participating.

See you there, hun?

P.S.  To the asshats reading Taylor’s mail, there’s no codes in this message.  Promise.  Don’t bother.  You want to know what we’re up to, call me.  I’ll fucking tell you.

P.S.S.  Gathering all letters together, 12 hours ltr.  None from Reg, he said to say hi.  Meeting with Red Hands went ok.  No alliance but nonaggression pact mebbe

I took it in and sighed.  There were no less than three villainous groups converging on the Undersiders, and Grue had been in bad shape.

And yet it was still reassuring.  Things were, for better or worse, normal.  Much as I’d expected.

Atlas died.  I wanted to let you know.  Tattletale had him, but he wouldn’t eat or move.  We asked for him, and we found a place for him.  The guys say they think they know a good way to make a mold.  They’re covering him in brass.

A way of saying you’re still with us.  Take care of yourself.

-Char

It affected me more than I would have thought.  Not him dying – he’d never been more than an automaton, a freak of nature made to do little more than obey my commands.

But it was one more tie to the Undersiders that had broken.

The last letter was handwritten in a spidery script.

(She said to write what she said.  All of it.)

(She hasn’t said anything for a long while.  She growled at me when I started to walk away tho.  Oh here.)

I did what you said.  Is quiet.  Have tents and dogs and am hunting with dogs.  Hunting fucked up bull things.

(Bison)

Very quiet with no people.  Learning to cut them up.  (The bison not people).

People are cutting down trees to clear space around portal, but easy to stay away from them.  Simple way to live.  Nice but miss toilets.

(We all miss toilets)

Tattletale visits, brings dog food and tools, tents.

Is what I wanted for long time.  Except others, my people, but they are okay and I can take a break and ride for while if they get on my case.

Being around you wasn’t simple or quiet but things made more sense.  Your minion with dark hair said we need to be around people but I’m around people and still feel somethings missing.

Fucked up.  Makes me angry.  Tattletale tried explaining but whatever.

Going to take puppies to your place again soon.  Show the kids to them.  Might help.

You have plan, okay.  But if your plan means you’re thinking about fighting us you should know I am getting very good at hunting and skinning things.

Sucks somehow but can’t really understand why.  Maybe see you at next Endbringer fight.  We both stay alive.  Try hard.

That’s all.

(Signing off – Rachel and Rachel’s excellent minion/henchperson/letter writer)

Stay alive until we can see each other again?

Doable.

‘Try hard’?

Maybe that was the push I needed, such as it was.

I collected the mail, wedging it into a space between two of the library books on the little table in my cell.

Withdrawing a notepad, I started sketching out the designs I was thinking of.  Alterations to the costume, weapon ideas, tools and concepts.

Payloads for bugs?  Something I can drop?  Caltrops?  Something toxic?

Back to my roots, to where I’d been after my powers had manifested.  Only then, I’d been writing in a black speckled notebook.

Darker fabric?  Must talk to Glenn about costume style.  Butterflies are in, but can I complement them?  Need official word.

It was moronic to have a white costume.  Equally moronic to have butterflies.

What about containment foam?  If Dovetail can use it what does it take for me to get permission?

I’d pay homage to Atlas and push Defiant and Dragon to create something that would let me fly.  Pay homage to Skitter and settle on a middle ground in costume design, in combat effectiveness, weapons and utility.

I thought of Atlas, and added a note – jetpack?  With beetle wings?  Flight system?

I was nearly through the pad, and it was pushing four in the morning by the time I had the sketches and outlines at an acceptable point.

The costume Defiant and Dragon had given me was theirs, not mine.  The fighting style that had been dictated was Glenn’s and Chevalier’s.

This, this would be me.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“…you can call me Weaver.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, finally, this.

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

“For better,” Forrest said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were complaining about something I said.”

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

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

Kathy scowled, but she didn’t reply.

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

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

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

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

“Safe,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Parahumans Online message boards.
You are currently logged in, Char
You are viewing:
•  Threads on Subscribed Boards
•  Last 12
•  Topics only

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

“She’s famous,” Charlotte said aloud.

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

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

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

“Was too,” Ephraim said.

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

“They’re the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte says.

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

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

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

She could hear another grumble from Kathy.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you need me to run an errand?”

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

“Okay,” he said.  He looked disappointed.

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

Ethan frowned.  “No.  No thanks.”

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

Ben nodded.

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

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

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

The news crew was surrounded.

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

“Just go!” someone shouted.

“Turn the camera off and leave!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised his voice a little at that final statement.

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

Forrest didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She made it possible to rebuild, Scott.”

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

Forrest folded his arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss?”

She jumped, swiftly backing away.

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

Groping, greedy for a handful of flesh.

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

“Are you a reporter?”

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

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“I’m her father.  Danny.”

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

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

“Are you okay?”

She shook her head.  “Yes.”

“You’re sure.”

“A lot to deal with, all at once.”

“Yes.”

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

“Coffee.”

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

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

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Protocols,” she said.

“Protocols?”

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

“I worked for her.”

“Oh.  Oh.

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

He nodded.

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

“Things turned ugly.”

“Oh.  Alexandria?”

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

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

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

“Isn’t she?”

“I’m not so sure anymore.”

The phone vibrated.  Charlotte checked.

Tt:
A-ok.  Treat him well.

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

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

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

He fell silent.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why you can’t leave?”

“Part of it.  There’s more.”

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

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

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

“Only a little.”

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

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

“Danny,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

Ethan nodded.

“Don’t take too long,” she warned.

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

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

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

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

“He was.”

Danny gave her a curious look.

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

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

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

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

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

“No?”

People are hard to deal with.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“You should really be with her.”

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

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

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

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

Like mine.

Danny sighed.

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

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

Charlotte didn’t have an answer to that.

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

He gave Danny a funny look.

“Taylor’s dad,” Charlotte said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mai squealed in glee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A decision?”

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

“Do it.”

“I’m wondering if I should.”

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

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

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

“She would be safe,” he said.

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

Jessie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

“Shit,” she said.

“What?” Danny asked.

“Company,” she answered.

“Enemies?  Danger?”

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

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

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

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

A superhero, here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tattletale said to.”

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

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

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

Bitch looked at Charlotte.  “You miss her?”

“Um.  Yes?”

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

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

“You?” Bitch asked Danny.

“No, thank you.”

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

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

“Then take it.  For now.”

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

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

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

“Parian?” Tattletale asked.  “Supervise?”

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

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

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

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

Charlotte nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grue grumbled, but he turned around to grab it.

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

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

Charlotte nodded.

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

Charlotte glanced at Sierra, who nodded.

“Property?” Charlotte asked.

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

Forrest frowned.  “Why not?”

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

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

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

“Wait, us?”

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

“How much?”

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

Charlotte nodded.

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

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

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

“Train?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm,” Bitch grunted.

“Does it work?”

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

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

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

“Did I say something wrong?”

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

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

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

“Maybe?”

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

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

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

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

The glower deepened.  “That… sounds good.”

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

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

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

With that done, the Undersiders departed.

Danny met Charlotte’s eyes.

“Decided?”

Danny shook his head.

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

Danny didn’t reply.

“Good luck, either way.”

“You too,” he answered.

“We survived,” Forrest said.

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

Forrest nodded.

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

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

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

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

Jessie’s bunk, dry.

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

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

Aidan was awake too.

“I want a dog,” he whispered.

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

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

“Five nights ago?”

“Had a good dream.  A big dream.”

“About?”

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

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

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

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

“These big things… Fish?”

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

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

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

“What do you mean, you only remember?”

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

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

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

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

Aidan shook his head.

“You’re sure?”

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

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

“Five nights ago?”

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

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

If not a trigger event, the potential to trigger?

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

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cell 22.6

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Dragon’s craft closed the distance to the rooftop’s edge, using precise adjustments to almost freeze in mid-air as it hovered.  It was gentle and graceful in comparison to Defiant’s squat, durable tank.  I wondered how intentional that was.  Just looking at it, I had little doubt that it was even longer range than any of the other models I’d crossed paths with.  I was put in mind of a sniper rifle, long, narrow, sleek and focused in its almost singular design.  The stability it had fit with the idea.  A stark contrast to Defiant’s craft, which seemed more like the type to be in the thick of a fight, fighting alongside him and complementing his fighting style.

Not that the aesthetics of Dragon’s work was really a priority right this moment.

“A mistake,” I said.

“We know how she operates,” Defiant said.  “Dragon, Miss Militia and I have each worked directly under Alexandria at some point.  It’s something of an unofficial policy to have anyone that’s being considered for a leadership position working under each member of the triumvirate for a time.”

“Must have been real fun for you guys when you found out what they’re really like, last month.”

“Not fun at all,” Miss Militia said.  She had to stoop to exit the ship and step onto the roof’s edge.

“We’ve seen how Alexandria handles interrogations,” Defiant said.  “She reads microexpressions.  Shapes every statement and action to get the responses she wants.”

“And she wanted this?” I asked.

Defiant shook his head.  “Knowing her, this was a gambit.  It wouldn’t do to have one workable outcome.  She pushes you, and if you attack, she has cause to finish you off or send you straight to the birdcage without a trial.  If you don’t attack, she knows she has leverage against you and the Undersiders.  She’d see which way you were leaning, then refine her approach further.”

“And here I was,” Miss Militia mused, “Thinking you didn’t have a head for this sort of thing, Defiant.”

“I’ve had help,” he said, glancing at Dragon.

“But she didn’t get either of those results,” I said.  “At least, not like she wanted.  For all her brains, for all this apparent ability to read me, she… didn’t understand what my friends mean to me.”

“I think she understood well enough,” Defiant said.  “But the mistake, the tragedy in all of this, was that she didn’t get an accurate read on you.  Much, I expect, for the same reason my lie detector could never seem to.  She was working with bad information, and she pushed you too far, too fast.”

An eerie parallel to mistakes Tattletale had made in the past.  And I killed Alexandria and Tagg because of it.

“And… my friends?  Just to make sure.  They’re okay?”

“Alexandria didn’t touch them.  The ones she brought into the building were body doubles, and the real Undersiders are poised to attack in-”  Miss Militia reached for her phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Defiant said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.  “In the meantime, we’re trying to deal with your lawyer, who got his hands on the footage of the interrogation and is threatening to bring hell down on our heads-”

Earning his pay, I thought.

She continued without pause.  “-And we still have to find a way to handle this without a complete PR catastrophe.  Once the media gets hold of this, we lose the ability to control the situation.”

“Dragon is managing the details as we speak,” Defiant said.  “She can isolate and track digital communication, but she can’t stop the spread of word of mouth.  Chevalier’s doing what he can on his end, but the PRT agents that confirmed Alexandria’s death won’t be able to keep their mouths shut forever, not with something as grave as this.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“Fourteen,” Defiant cut in, correcting her.

Fourteen minutes,” she said, “That’s our working timeline.  Even if Skitter were to call off the Undersiders, we have information leaks.”

“Then what if we let it leak?” I asked.  “We say ‘fuck it, the PRT is fucked, Alexandria is a monster, let people figure it out for themselves.'”

“You don’t really want that,” Miss Militia said.

“The system is fucked,” I said.  “Everything that’s happened, it’s taught me a few things.  People are fucked up, for one thing.  And any organization that has people in control is going to be fucked on an exponential level.  But for all that, people are a hell of a lot tougher than we give them credit for.  We survive.  We innovate.  So yeah, I’m seriously thinking along those lines.  I wouldn’t mind seeing the PRT burn, damn it, because I think we’ll make it regardless.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “What changed your mind from the moment you decided to surrender?  Your friends weren’t at risk, you already knew something about Tagg and Alexandria.”

“You,” I told her.  “You were part of it.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly.”

“You can’t blame me for standing out of the way.  You had a plan, Alexandria told me she had a plan, and nobody shared anything substantial with me.  I couldn’t take a step without risking that I’d get in someone’s way.”

I frowned.

“You’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re still reeling from what you thought happened,” Miss Militia said.  “Fine.  That’s fair.  But we don’t have time to work through that.  You said you wanted to work together, to compromise.  Do you stand by that?  Are you willing to at least try a workable solution?  Or are you going to keep fighting us?”

I glanced at Defiant.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“We need you to call your team and get them to stand down.  We can’t have bloodshed, and we can’t have Tattletale divulging critical information.”

I folded my arms.  “Meet me halfway.”

“Twelve minutes,” Defiant said.  “This isn’t the time to be hard-nosed.  You don’t want this fight any more than we do.  If this happens, your team will be at a very real risk of death or arrest.  Three of the A.I. models, Dragon’s, mine, the Brockton Bay heroes and no less than ten visiting heroes.”

“This is exactly the time to be hard-nosed.  The Undersiders get left alone.  Those are my terms.  Figure it the fuck out.”

There was a pause, an exchange of looks between Defiant and Dragon.

“We’re talking to Chevalier and the Chief Director,” Defiant said.

“Good,” I answered him.

A few seconds passed.  I glanced at the sun, dipping beneath the mountains to the west.

Miss Militia will fill in as an interim PRT director,” a male voice sounded from the speaker at Dragon’s shoulder.  Chevalier.  “I’ll arrange it.  We have leverage, with the current state of emergency and the issues that are liable to come up with the announcement that we can make use of the portal.

“And I’ll remain hands off, unless I’m replaced or I have no other choice?” Miss Militia said.

We’ll keep you in position for as long as we can, postpone any changes or replacements until people get more comfortable with the idea.  With luck, we can segue into keeping you in position on a permanent basis. Failing that, we tap someone sympathetic to our aims.

“Damn it,” Miss Militia muttered.  “I feel like my lifespan just got cut short.  Double the work, too.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Defiant said.  He looked at me.  “Satisfactory?”

“Yes.  Phone?”

Miss Militia tapped out a password, then handed me hers.

I dialed Tattletale’s number.

When Tattletale didn’t pick up on the first ring, I felt my heart jump into my throat.  She’d never done that.

“‘Lo,” Tattletale said.  I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.  She continued, “Call display says PRT Phone server.  Who am I talking to?

“It’s me,” I said.

You!  You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been.  Or the headache I have.  You know they gave you bad info?

“I know,” I said.

The stuff you were writing, it didn’t match up.  Tried to tell you, but you couldn’t understand me.

“I know,” I said.  “Just tell me… everyone’s safe?”

Everyone’s accounted for.  Shit, what did they do?

“Tattletale-”

They tried something.  What happened?”

“Tattletale,” I said, raising my voice a notch.  “Time’s short.  Call off the hounds, literal or otherwise.  Delay.”

Delay?”

“They’re making temporary offers,” I said, eyeing the heroes, “We can make some temporary concessions.”

Okay.  But I can’t hold back some of the bastards we put into play.  I can stop them, but that’s it.  They’ll leave, and we’re that much weaker.

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “These guys are at a bit of a disadvantage too.”

Okay… let’s see… alright.  Holding off for… half an hour?  Adding fifteen minutes to the clock?” Tattletale asked.

“Longer?” I asked.

Any longer and more mercenaries start walking away, deciding to take the half we paid up front.

“That’ll do, then, I guess.”  I said, giving the heroes a thumbs up.

You said they’re weaker, huh?  So it’s true.  I didn’t want to use my power to verify… but the rumor mill is right?  Alexandria bit it?

“Yes.  I-” I stopped.

You?  You did it?”  Tattletale asked.  “Guys-

Her voice faded as she turned away from the phone.

“Don’t tell them,” I said, once I realized what she was saying.

It was too late.  I could hear jeers and whooping from Regent and Imp in the background.  I couldn’t make out everything Grue was saying, but I caught something along the lines of ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ.

It’s too late to matter, honey bear,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have much juice powerwise, but I don’t need any to know this much.  Word’s already out about Alexandria.

“Word’s out about Alexandria,” I said, for the benefit of the heroes.

Defiant folded his arms.

Anything else I can do?” she asked.

“Stay near a phone.  Thank you,” I said.  And keep the jailbreak specialists on hand, I thought.  Not that I could say that with the Protectorate members around me.

“One disaster averted,” Miss Militia said.

“Held at bay,” Defiant said.  “The word’s spreading.  It’s starting to pop up on isolated channels.”

“We’ll need to get our official word out first,” Miss Militia said.

“What do you even say?” I asked.  “She’s dead.”

“And that will make a lot of people lose hope,” Miss Militia said.  “We have other ideas, but we need something bigger, more concrete.”

“But she’s dead,” I said.  “The only way to change the reaction is to convince everyone we have a winning game plan anyways.  That the PRT isn’t fucked, which it is.”

“The A.I. craft,” Defiant said, turning to look at the Pendragon.  “Expendable, versatile, devastating in their own right, and there’s image attached to them.  They’ll get the public’s imagination fired up.”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “There’ll be doubts, it’s not enough.  Behemoth can generate electromagnetic waves that wipe out electronics.  Even many reinforced electronics, if he’s close enough.  The Simurgh can scramble coding.  We don’t just have to convince the public.  We need to convince the heroes, and they know these things.”

“And they know what the difference is going to be, without Alexandria on the front lines,” Defiant said.  He sighed audibly.  “Four times now, she’s been the deciding factor in beating the Simurgh back early.  Once with Leviathan, when I was new to the Protectorate.”

“We can reduce the impact of the loss with careful word choice and a good speech,” Miss Militia said.  “If Skitter is willing to call off her other dogs.”

I glanced at the phone in my hand.  “Okay.”

“No demands this time?”

“Believe it or not, I want to fix things,” I said, as I dialed Mr. Calle’s number.  “We’re on the same side here.  The difference is I consider my friends to be a part of a workable scenario.  I have my issues with you guys, but I’m extending the benefit of a doubt again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.  Again.”

The phone rang.  Mr. Calle answered.  “Quinn Calle speaking.

“It’s Taylor Hebert.”

Ah, excellent.  I’d feared they’d executed you or sent you to be incarcerated.

“I’m sorry for, um, that,” I said.

They had one of your good friends in a body bag, or they led you to believe they did.  You reacted as many would, with anger and pain.  You were simply, how to put it… better equipped than the rest of us mere mortals to express that anger and pain.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left.”

Rest assured, Ms. Hebert, I’ve dealt with worse.

“Okay,” I said.  “I need you to back off on whatever threats you’re directing at the PRT.”

No can do, I’m afraid.

“Why the hell not?”

Because, right at this moment, you’re in the custody of the heroes.  They’ve given you a phone, no doubt, and they’ve caught you at an emotionally vulnerable moment.  For your benefit, I can’t assume you’re of sound mind or that you aren’t being coerced.

“How do we change your mind?”

I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the discussion.

“We’re sending a vehicle your way,” I said.  “Where are you?”

The lovely little shop with the donuts I visited this morning.

“Okay,” I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece, “He says-”

I stopped.  The armored suit Miss Militia had left was already moving, heading directly for my territory.  She’d been listening in.

“Never mind.”

“Let’s talk about our game plan,” Miss Militia said.  “We’ve got the peripheral stuff in the works.  You’re bringing the suits in?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “She is.  Chevalier is on the way as well, and we’ve contacted the media.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “The two major crises are being held at bay, thanks to Skitter’s cooperation.  We can’t keep the word from spreading through other channels, so let’s cover every base we can.  We only get one shot at this.”

“Key points being Skitter’s role in this, and addressing how we deal with Alexandria’s demise,” Defiant said.

“My role?” I asked.  “I thought you wanted me to call off the attack?”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “There’s more.”

I narrowed my eyes, very conscious of the fact that there were three rather powerful capes and one mechanized suit in my immediate vicinity.  “What more?”

She glanced at Defiant, then back to me.  “We’d like you to be there for the conference with the media.  Dragon’s going over footage, and so long as your lawyer doesn’t release the unedited content, we can hide the worst of the details from the media.  Shape the narrative.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“We’re revising the truth,” she said.  She paused.  “Yes.  We’re lying.”

“And you want me to participate in that?”

“Yes.  Your presence will lend a degree of legitimacy to what we’re saying.  We’re on opposite sides, in the public eye, making it all the more meaningful if we agree on what happened.”

“Are you fighting to keep the PRT going, or are you working to rebuild it?” I asked.

“Rebuild it,” she said.  No hesitation.

“And you’re doing it by starting with a lie.  Just like they did.”

“Yes,” she said.  Again, there was no hesitation.  “There’s no pretty, perfect answers, and concessions have to be made.  Questions and issues on a greater scale mean more repercussions for failure, and they call for bigger concessions if we want to ensure success.”

“And this is a big event, a lot of power,” I said.  “Big concessions?”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked ten times as tired as she said it.

I folded my arms.  I couldn’t disagree.  I didn’t like it.  But I’d been a leader.  I’d made shady calls.  I’d hurt people.  Had lied, cheated, stolen, killed.

The sun was gone, hidden by the mountains, and the clouds were changing from purple to black.  How long until the new deadline?  Twenty minutes?

I could see Defiant, saw him conversing with Dragon and Miss Militia.

I saw how he folded his arms, still holding his spear, so it rested against his shoulder.  How he planted his feet further apart.  A warrior’s stance.

It inspired a memory, of my first night out in costume.  The bad guy lying defeated on the street below, the city quiet around us, the dark sky overhead, with only meager light illuminating us.  Framing the situation, talking about options and priorities.

Not so different from the scene here.  The villain wasn’t here.  Alexandria had fallen a distance away.  But the city was quiet, the area still blockaded, the sky was dark, and the topic of discussion…

I thought of something, one moment in that night’s discussion when I’d thought that maybe Armsmaster could live up to the reputation, that he could really truly be someone who I could look up to.

“Hey,” I said.

Heads turned my way.

“As far as Alexandria goes, what if we turn it around?”

“Turn it around?”

“Way back, when I first started out in costume, I had a talk with Armsmaster.  He told me that I should be happy I was mistaken for a villain, because it meant I didn’t have to fight the Undersiders.  This was before I joined them.  It reminded me of how I’d been trying to deal with the shit I was going through back then, turning negatives into positives.  I think we can do that here.”

“How?” Miss Militia asked.  She glanced at Dragon’s craft, just now arriving to bring my lawyer to us.

“So long as we’re lying,” I said, “Let’s go wholesale.  We present Alexandria as the villain she was.”

“That’ll make the situation worse,” Miss Militia said.

“It depends on how we present the idea,” I said.

Dragon’s suit once again came to a stop at the edge of the roof, as it had when it had delivered Miss Militia.  It turned sideways, and the body opened, revealing my lawyer, looking more stressed than I’d seen him, in the midst of a rather compact cockpit.

Mr. Calle accepted Miss Militia’s offered hand in stepping down to the rooftop, and seemed to relax the instant his feet touched solid ground.

“Whoo,” he said.  “Never let it be said that my job isn’t an adventure.  You’re well, Ms. Hebert?”

“I am.”

“You haven’t made any deals?”

“Nothing permanent.”

“Good.”

Dragon touched my shoulder.  When I turned her way, she set her fingers in my hand, pulling me after her with the light contact of two of her fingertips.  Gentle, easy to avoid, but clear enough.

I followed as she led me to her hovering Dragon-craft, Mr. Calle a step behind me.  Mr. Calle had longer legs than I did, but he was the one who hesitated at the gap before stepping into the open cockpit.

Once I was on board, Dragon reached over to the wall and opened a shallow drawer, no more than three inches deep.  The drawer opened with a noise like something from a science fiction movie.

I stared at the contents.

“How?” I asked, and all of the confidence was gone from my voice.  “Wait, nevermind. You’re fu- you’re tinkers, damn it.”

Mr. Calle stepped up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder in an uncharacteristic need for some support.  He looked down.  “I take it we’ve reached something of a consensus here?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said, from the rooftop.

“Then it seems I need to draw up some paperwork,” Mr. Calle said.  “For formality’s sake, if nothing else.”

“Do it in five minutes,” Miss Militia said, from Defiant’s side.  “We’re out of time.  The media’s here.”

“Five?”  Mr. Calle seemed momentarily pained.  “Paper, fast.”

Dragon handed him a sleek keyboard, pointing to a screen.  He started typing.

“I’ll credit you this, Ms. Hebert,” my lawyer said, as he typed away, tabbing to different windows to draw up pages he could copy-paste from.  “You manage a great deal of grief and chaos in very short spans of time.”

Chevalier had arrived, and stepped into the cockpit.  Gold and silver armor, his cannonblade resting against one shoulder.  He briefly clasped hands with Defiant.

I stopped tidying my hair long enough to take the stylus from Dragon, scribbling my signature on the offered pad.  Others were already present – Miss Militia’s and Defiant’s.  The Chief Director’s signature appeared as the document was signed from a remote location.

“You’re ready?” Chevalier asked me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“But you’re willing?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I rubbed my arms, then  zipped up my prison-issue sweatshirt.  “Has to be done, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not pretty,” he said.  “There’s a lot of ugliness in this.  But yes.  This gives us the best chance.”

I nodded.  I still had Miss Militia’s phone.  I dialed Tattletale.

Yo?

“Turn on the TV,” I said.  “And call them off.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” I said.  No, I thought.

I hung up.

All together, we stepped out of the cockpit and walked around the craft.

The Wards were here.  Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Crucible, standing on guard.

Rounding the corner, we approached the open street where the crowd of reporters waited.  Television cameras shifted to focus on the reporters announcing our arrival, or to follow us as we walked.  Tripod-mounted lights cast shafts of light across the road, all converging on one point, the makeshift stage – the flat ledge of the Dragon-suit’s wing, five feet off the ground.  Voices bubbled around us, a million questions, almost a singular noise.

Chevalier stepped forward, and they simultaneously drew quiet.  He had a presence, a kind of nobility that garnered respect.

“Today, not two hours ago, Alexandria was killed.”

I could barely see the reporters past the massive lights that were shedding light on the stage, on us.  They were solemn, focused on every single word.  They didn’t even flinch at the news.  They’d already known.

“Alexandria was a veteran among capes.  She was one of the first capes, one who was present for almost every major catastrophe in the last twenty years.  With every challenge she surmounted, she reaffirmed our belief in her, showed us how strong she was, how impervious and noble she was.”

He lowered his head.  I resisted the urge to fidget.  This was showing live, to homes across America.

On a rooftop nearby, capes teleported in.  Other capes, flying, were touching down on top of a news car.  Dovetail, with Sere beside her.

“If that was it, this would be hard enough,” he spoke.  “But she was a mythic figure in her own way.  She was a living symbol, recognized across the world.  She was a leader among us.  She was a friend to some of us.”

I sensed rather than saw Eidolon, hovering well above the reach of the lights.  Legend was close too, though less intent on hiding.

I steeled myself for what came next, willing myself to stay calm, to not give anything away.

“And she was a traitor.”

That garnered a response from the news reporters.  Shouted questions pierced the silence that loomed in the wake of Chevalier’s words.

He continued.  “When Alexandria was slain, earlier today, it was done by individuals standing on this stage.”

Every word carefully chosen, so it was technically or at least partially true.  Alexandria was a traitor, with her involvement with Cauldron, she had been slain at the hands of someone on the stage.

“There are individuals out there right now, who have kept quiet about recent events.  Only last month, there was an event in this city, a threat that was theorized to be a nascent Endbringer.  In the wake of that event, Alexandria was revealed to be partially responsible.”

The reporters, I noted, were deathly still.  Deer in the headlights.

Good capes,” Chevalier said, “Burdened by conscience, walked away from the PRT.  Without them to serve as our backbone, we were left gutted.  There has been rampant speculation on what has been going on within the PRT, on what might have caused so many capes to abandon it.  We –they– couldn’t speak because Alexandria held a position of power, because she was purportedly invincible, unassailable.  Because of the threat she posed, and the resources she had at her disposal.”

Others were joining the crowd of reporters.  Civilians, returning now that the blockades had been taken down, maybe going home, only to see the scene, the heroes in the spotlight.  They clustered, or parked at the periphery of the crowd, getting out of their cars.

How many millions were tuning in right this moment?

“Some of us left, because their consciences couldn’t bear serving a corrupt power.  Others, many of us on the stage included, stayed, because we felt the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards program and the teams that draw on us for resources were too important.  I’m not here to say one decision was better than the other, or to lay blame with those who sided with her.  In coming weeks and months, our capes, accountants and lawyers will be meeting with anyone and everyone in a position of power within the Protectorate program or the PRT, ensuring nothing of this scale occurs again.”

Something moved into my range.  An insect.  Large.

Atlas.

I moved him experimentally, and felt how incredibly weary he was.  His reserves of energy were drained, his body dying.  His forelegs touched the walls around him.  He’d been placed in the back of a van.

And the occupants of that van – bugs entered open windows to make contact with the others.  Lisa, Brian, Alec and Aisha.  I could hear the echo, time delayed by five seconds, as they watched Chevalier speak on a tablet PC.

 “Alexandria betrayed us on a fundamental level, and the whole cape community has felt that.  The public has felt that.  I urge people not to blame her.  She had no less than eighteen fights against the Simurgh.  We had been led to believe her powers rendered her immune, but she was clever enough to hide and alter the evidence.  She was a victim, and it’s a testament to her character that she fought off the Simurgh’s influence for as long as she did.”

And there’s the first egregious lie, I thought.

With luck, nobody would believe anyone that was callous enough to point it out.  Nobody would want to believe them.  It was an ugly thought, that Alexandria could be twisted to act against our interests just because of who she was.  She’d worked with Cauldron, had experimented on humans, all in the interest of… what?  Creating powers?  Selling them?

I swallowed hard.  I knew what came next.

“It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.”

Chevalier reached out, put a hand on my shoulder.  He drew me closer to him, until I stood in front of him and he had both hands resting on my shoulders.

“Many will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.”

And now half the world hates me, I thought, staring forward.  The glare was so intense I thought my eyes might start crossing.  And the other half… I don’t know what the other half thinks.

I’d agreed to share ‘credit’ for the kill, but only because there had been a consensus that people wouldn’t believe it if I took sole responsibility.

Chevalier wasn’t speaking.  I saw a red light go on at the corner of my collar.  The microphone Dragon had clipped there was live.  The signals would be received by all equipped, official cameras.  Something the PRT had arranged for convenience’s sake some time ago.

I had a chance to speak in my own defense, in front of countless tens or hundreds of millions of eyes, and the words were dying in my throat.

My thoughts were grinding to a standstill.  What was I supposed to say?  We’d barely had any time to prepare.  We hadn’t had time to prepare.

There were whole lines I was supposed to give.  Ideas I was supposed to express, striking the right tone, and I’d gone blank.

I couldn’t defend myself like this, even with rehearsed lines.

Chevalier rescued me.  He spoke, his voice clear.  “This isn’t a happy day.”

It was a reminder of what my line was supposed to be.  I’m not proud, I’m not happy that it came to this…

“It’s not a happy day, but it’s a good day,” he said, skipping ahead two or so minutes.  “It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.”

Dragon’s ships descended from the sky above.  My hair and the hood of my sweatshirt flapped as the vessels landed to either side of us.  Eleven vessels.  The ones we’d destroyed had been rebuilt, updated.  Others, old Dragon suits, had apparently been set up with A.I. to fly on their own.  They gleamed, various shades of chrome and gunmetal, with trim in different metals and colors for decoration and highlighting.

She had more made, I thought.

“A chance to fight Endbringers without as many casualties,” Chevalier said.  “And hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency.”

I stared at the van where the Undersiders were.

“And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.”

His hands dropped from my shoulders.

I reached up to the zipper of my sweatshirt.  I pulled it down, then shrugged out of it.  Chevalier took the piece of clothing in one hand.

I bent over and stepped out of the loose-fitting prison sweats as well.

Defiant handed me my new mask, and I pulled it on.  Electric blue lenses, the opposite of the yellow I’d worn before.  They helped with the glare, though they weren’t so good against it as my old lenses.

Light gray fabric where I’d had black.  Armor panels in the same dark gray as before, albeit with cleaner lines, less bulk, and less in the way of edges.  I had no points at the tips of my gloves, and both the mantle around my shoulders and the cloth that hung around my belt were marked with an electric blue border, with my gang emblem in miniature at each corner, flipped upside down so they faced skyward, altered to match my new color scheme.

“I admitted to reprehensible things,” I said.  “I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.”

I paused.  For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d forget what to say again.  Then I fixed my eyes on the windshield of the van, at the far end of the crowd.

It struck me that I hadn’t suffered stage fright.  It had been something else entirely.  I hadn’t wanted to speak, because there would be no going back.

When I finally spoke, I didn’t follow the cues I’d been given.  My eyes didn’t leave the spot where the Undersiders were watching from.

“I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable.

“Except there are bigger things.  More important things.”

The eyes and cameras on me made me feel like I was deep in the ocean, a crushing weight pressing down on me.

“I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.”

A lump welled in my throat.  I knew I didn’t have many more words left before I wouldn’t be able to speak.

“This is what I want to do, above all else,” I said, and I said it to the Undersiders.  “Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-“

A howling in the distance interrupted me.

Moments later, others took up the cry.  Ten dogs, then twenty.  Others took up the cry around the city, from various shelters and homes.  A hundred, two hundred dogs, and the wolf cub that had started them off.

“-When and if I do take up the job,” I finished, speaking around the growing lump in my throat, “You can call me Weaver.”

Chevalier set a hand on my shoulder.

“That’ll be all,” the hero said.  “We’ll have another statement and a conference to answer questions early tomorrow, when we know more for sure.”

The reporters were already calling out questions.  Is this the first time you’ve recruited a villain?  How did Alexandria die?  What crimes did she commit, exactly?

More questions, until it was a jumble.

He led me away, one hand steady and firm on my shoulder, and Miss Militia, Defiant, Dragon and my lawyer fell into step behind us.

I cast one last glance at the van, then entered Dragon’s ship.

“You stumbled,” Defiant said.  “Improvised.  But that was good.”

I didn’t respond.

“You know you can’t stay here.  There’s a conflict of-“

Dragon reached out and pressed an index finger against the ‘mouth’ of his mask.

Then she folded her arms around me.  She was cold to the touch, hard and unyielding, but she still managed a motherly embrace.

My face pressed against her shoulder, I found myself glad that my mask hid my face from view.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cell 22.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

I watched my dad’s expression change.  “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said,” Tagg said, “Peace of mind.”

“Let’s get started,” Alexandria said.  “I believe I’m fully up to speed, unless Director Tagg has agreed to any deals or made any concessions.”

“Sadly, he hasn’t,” my lawyer said.

“This is common knowledge?” my dad murmured to me.

“Since roughly ten days ago,” I said, not taking my eyes off the woman.  She was looking at me like Tattletale sometimes did.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make this the focus of our discussion.  You wanted to be on board, I presume.  You had to be informed, so you understood exactly what it means when I make a threat.”

“You’re planning to make threats?” I asked.

“Threats is the wrong word,” she said.  “But English is a limited language in some ways.  There’s really no word to articulate what I mean.  A threat with a measure of inevitability to it.  A promise?  Too feeble.  People break promises too often.  A curse?  A malediction?  Too… magical.  An oath?  The connotations are wrong.  When I say I’ll do something, I make it happen.”

I didn’t respond.  Mr. Calle did.  “You seem rather confident.”

Overconfident?  I imagine I seem that way.  It doesn’t matter.”

I studied her, “When you say you’re going to do something?  What is it you’re doing?”

“Putting an end to this nonsense, for one thing.  The PRT, flawed as it is, is my legacy, and I truly believe that it saves lives, or I wouldn’t try to protect it.”

I’m trying to protect it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “But the timing is wrong.  Things are too fragile at this moment.  It won’t do.  We’ll arrange this discussion for another time, weeks or months from now, when things have stabilized.”

“I… don’t think it works that way,” I said.

“It does.  Truth be told, I’ve relinquished all authority.  I’m serving under the new Chief Director, and I’m carrying out his instructions, between the times where I’m instructing him in the particulars of his job.  Alexandria, however, remains with the Protectorate, having given her notice that she quits within the week.  She’ll continue as a solo operative.”

An operative for Cauldron, I thought.  I didn’t say it aloud.  Best to let her dictate what information was acceptable to mention aloud.  And she refers to her costumed self as someone else entirely.

I could see the confusion in my father’s face, the dawning realization of how far in over his head he was.

“So you’re following orders,” I said.  “That’s the worst and scariest excuse in the world, really.”

“It’s a reality,” she said.  “When you’re dealing with organizations as big as these.”

“And it’s also a reality that you’ll have people at the top who don’t understand how things work on the ground, giving orders that don’t jibe with reality.”

“You’d be surprised at what I’m capable of understanding,” Alexandria told me.

“You’re forgetting about the Undersiders.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t forget anything.  Your team is now my bargaining chip.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “How’s that?”

“It’s twenty minutes to six.  I’m not in a particular rush, and I actually enjoy the idea of some field work.  We can talk for five minutes, and then have ‘Alexandria’ remove one of your teammates from the field.  Depending on the situation, I will either arrest them and take them to PRT offices in New York and Boston, or I’ll kill them.”

I could feel my blood run cold.

“After, we can talk for another five or ten minutes, and then I will, again, depart to dispatch one of your teammates.  I expect that by the time the sun sets at eight thirty, the Undersiders will be either dealt with or so neutered that they aren’t a consideration.”

“You’re talking about killing teenagers,” my dad said.  “Without a trial?”

“I’m talking about self-defense, if it comes down to it.  Tattletale can see through weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leverage mine in the spur of the moment, but I won’t rule anything out.”

I stared at her.  “You’re willing to go this far, yet you couldn’t bring yourself to show up to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Or Echidna, when she first showed.”

“There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Tattletale, you mean.”

“No.  Tattletale was only a small part of it,” she said.  “And it should be obvious that the rest isn’t up for discussion.  Three minutes and forty-five seconds.  Negotiate.”

“You mean you want me to make concessions.”

“I’m saying I’m willing to hear you out.  Convince me.”

“You’re underestimating my team.”

“And now you’re referring to them as ‘your team’.  I thought you left.  You committed to this idea of yours, did you not?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.  But as much as I may be underestimating them, I find that others underestimate me.  Strength, durability, flight.  It doesn’t lend itself to much imagination, does it?  Yet others acknowledge me as one of the strongest heroes in the world.  ‘Cape geeks’ debate my effectiveness, protesting that I’m only seen as powerful by association with Legend and Eidolon.  Do feel free to interrupt me if you want to talk about more concrete things.”

I would have, if I could have thought of something to say.

“My reputation isn’t so different from yours, Taylor Hebert.  It’s a reputation that was forged.  There have been fifty-six Endbringer attacks in the last nineteen years.  I have personally participated in forty-nine of them, and in each fight I’ve attended, I’ve been in the thick of the fighting, personally trading blows with the abominations.  The creatures know me.  They know how to fight me, and I know how to fight them.  Yet I’m still here.  Strength, invulnerability, flight.  Those are my core powers, but my other power is greater.”

“Other power?” my dad asked.  “I remember.  When you started off… you explained the reason for your name.”

“A reference to the burned library of Alexandria.  It’s been mythologized as that era’s sum of human knowledge.  I am much the same.  I think faster, I think more easily.  I know martial arts and I remember everything that crosses my path.”

Miss Militia reacted to that, giving Alexandria a look I couldn’t interpret.

She went on.  “I would say I am one of three or four people in this world who truly understands what is going on.  I don’t have all of the answers, and there are some riddles in particular that we’re desperately seeking to unravel.”

We, of course, being…” I said, trailing off.  It wasn’t a question.  Something about the gravity of the word made my dad look at me, startled.

“I won’t discuss the others.  I’ve been disconnected from my former partners, so it’s a moot point.  A debatable point, to use the true meaning of the word.”

I saw a possible piece of leverage and grasped for it, “If you need answers, then we’re the last people you should be attacking.  Tattletale can offer input.  Leave the Undersiders in place, and they can work with you where necessary.  Treat me fairly, and I’m sure Tattletale will play ball.”

“There’s two problems with that offer,” Alexandria said.  She stood from her seat and adjusted her suit jacket, then turned her attention to her cuffs.  “First of all, I believe I mentioned that there’s only a small number of people who truly understand what’s going on.  We haven’t shared this information.  Why?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“This isn’t a riddle.  It’s quite simple: we don’t want people to know.  And we don’t want people to know for good reason.  Having Tattletale off leash with all of the information she might discover is a dangerous prospect.”

“She’s not that unpredictable.”

“But it’s not a variable we can afford to have in play.  As I’ve said, things are fragile.  Which brings me to my second point.  There’s no reason to leave her here if we can bring her into custody and use her freedom or probationary freedom as leverage to obtain her talents.”

I frowned.

Alexandria glanced at Tagg, “It’s time.  Five forty-five.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.

She was at the door, waiting for the guard to open it, when I called out, “Tattletale won’t listen.  She’s too rebellious, wants to be the smartest person in the room.  If you force her, she’ll sabotage you, or she’ll just make you put her in the Birdcage, having her here, it’s the only way to get her help.”

Alexandria paused, then looked back at me.  “That will do.  Information I can use, that changes how I’ll respond to this particular confrontation.  I don’t agree, but we can discuss that after.  I’ll target one of the others in the meantime.”

The metal door slammed shut.

Miss Militia stood.  “I need some fresh air.”

She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t even look at anyone as she made her way to the door and knocked for the PRT guard to let her through.

“Everything she was talking about,” my dad said, “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“This is what I’ve been living,” I said.  “This has been my day-to-day.  My friends and I, facing terminal risk, facing down monsters like her, like Alexandria.”

“She’s one of the heroes.”

“Yeah,” I said, meeting my dad’s eyes.  It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d been able to cling to that basic idea.  The image, as I’d heard it phrased, of the heroes, of the Triumvirate.  It had been Armsmaster who instilled the seed of doubt in me, as far as the heroes went.  “Do you think she’s that heroic, now that you’ve met her in person?”

“No,” he said.  He looked troubled.

Shit.  I was stuck in a box while one of the scariest heroes around was going after my friends.  I’d expected retaliation, had told Tattletale to expect it, but this was… I hadn’t expected Alexandria.  She wasn’t even supposed to be with the PRT.  Eidolon, we possibly could have dealt with.  Or Tattletale could have.  Even Legend, possibly.  Alexandria was something else.  The heroic equivalent of a cruise missile.

There was Grue’s power, Imp’s power… did Alexandria have the ability to see through it?

Alexandria was taking her time.  She’d said ten minutes, but she wasn’t in a hurry, making her way out of the building.

“You know, now,” I said.  “After the Echidna incident-”

I could see Tagg stiffen, kept talking, “-Stuff went down.  Alexandria was outed as head of the PRT, other secrets came to light.  You know the PRT is supposed to be led by non-capes, there was scandal, and now the PRT is falling apart.”

“I see,” my dad said.  “Other secrets?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.  “And Tagg would be exceedingly upset if I shared.”

My dad frowned and stared down at the table.  “I believe you.”

I nodded.

Alexandria had found an alley and promptly took to the air, zig-zagging between buildings and flying with enough speed that people couldn’t follow her with their eyes.

“My phone isn’t working,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have you warning them,” Tagg replied.

“I’m offended at the implication,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have her warning them either,” Tagg replied.

Warning them.  I needed a way to contact my team. Cells wouldn’t work.  A land line?  An unoccupied office… Tagg’s office would do.  My bugs made their way there.

Too small to affect anything, to press a key on the computer, even if I could see the screen.  Too small to transmit a message of any sort.

I needed a larger bug.  There were larger beetles and cockroaches outside.  Everything else had been wiped out by Kid Win’s drones.

I could see Mr. Calle and Tagg watching my dad and I, looking between us.  “What?”

Mr. Calle answered, “I’ve represented a lot of supervillains.  I can count on one hand the ones who had parents show up at their trial, let alone pre-trial.  When they did show up, half of them were a nightmare.  Bambina’s mother, for example, all of the worst aspects of a showbiz parent, but the kid’s a vandal and a mass murderer.  Don’t even get me started on how toxic that dynamic was.  You two are civil with one another, at the very least.  That’s… something.  Hold onto it.”

“Hold onto it?” Tagg commented, from the opposite end of the table.  “I think you’re forgetting your client’s circumstances.”

Again, interjecting himself in between my dad and I.  Driving in wedges.  I felt a momentary urge to do something painful to him.

I couldn’t rise to the bait, though.  I had to channel the anger.  Bugs were finding their way through vents and down hallways, spreading out so the two or three remaining drones couldn’t eradicate them.

Others clustered on Tagg’s phone.  Silk allowed multiple bugs to effectively ‘grip’ the phone handle.  Larger bugs found their way under the base of it, wedging their bodies beneath as the pull on the cord tilted it.  A little bit of progress, driving in the wedge to make sure the phone didn’t simply fall back into place.

“You’re going to jail, Skitter,” Tagg said.  “And if you’re very, very lucky, it won’t be the Birdcage or a death sentence.”

“She’s a minor,” my dad said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Calle sighed.

“Look at me, Tagg,” I said.  “You said you weren’t going to underestimate me.  Do you really think I’m worried?  Do you think I would have surrendered if I didn’t have confidence that I’d be able to manage?”

My dad was staring at me.

“No,” he said.  “I think you have a number of plans in the works.  But it doesn’t matter.  Alexandria can out-think your plans, counter anything your Tattletale throws at us.

His phone handset fell from its perch, clattering across the keys before it fell from the desk, swinging.  I could see the flare of light on the phone, marking that the line was active.  I hoped there wasn’t a secretary who’d notice.

I flew the largest beetle I had into the number pad, driving him into the number five.  The bugs on the mouthpiece heard a sound I took to be the answering beep.

Five again.  Second number in the sequence.

Not hard enough.  No beep.

Five again.

Seven numbers.

The message that came through was odd, rhythmic somehow, though I couldn’t make out the words.  A recording.

I had to dial an outside line.

Eight numbers this time, starting with… Nine.  It took a full minute to hit the buttons.

Nothing.

Eight numbers starting with eight…  No.

Seven.

The call went through.  I got a response.

Please be Lisa.

I tried buzzing out words.  It didn’t feel like enough.

So I retired the abused beetle and set to using cockroaches.  My bugs felt the indents of the characters on the number pad.

Two, five, three, nine, two, six…

The voice interrupted me.

The number of syllables was right.  She understood.  The numbers each corresponded to three possible letters, and each number pressed on the phone generated a different sound.  Anyone else might have struggled, but Tattletale picked up on it right away.  ‘Alexandria’.

I could only hope it helped.  A little forewarning, at best.

Still couldn’t make out words that followed.  The filter of both the phone and my bugs was too much, and I couldn’t begin to guess where the speaker phone button was.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using it in case someone stepped into the office.  A phone being off the hook was far better than a voice talking to nothing.

“You meant it, when you said they were your friends,” my dad said.

“We’ve been through thick and thin.  They saved me, in some ways.  I’d like to think I saved them.”

Tagg snorted.  I ignored him.

“They did… bad things, didn’t they?” my dad asked.

“So have I,” I said.

“But you’re willing to martyr yourself for them?”

“No,” I said.  “I didn’t come here to be a martyr, I had other hopes.  But… things didn’t work out like that.  It’s down to secondary goals… and if those fail, then I’m willing to go to jail for their sakes.  Not just my friends.  The people in my territory, and maybe just a little, everyone.”

I looked at Tagg as I said that last word.  He gave me a dirty look, then more or less turned his attention to his phone, watching me with one eye while texting with one hand.

“Everyone?” my dad asked.

“We can’t lose the next Endbringer fight,” was all I could say.

“No, I don’t imagine we can,” he said.

That was something he understood in full, even if he didn’t know the particulars.  The Endbringers were something we all understood.  A fact of reality, something that touched everyone, struck a chord of fear in cape and civilian alike.

My heart sank as Alexandria appeared.  She plunged past the cloud of bugs that had collected over the roof, into an opening aperture in the ceiling.  She passed down a shaft that ran parallel to the elevator, and into the Wards’ quarters.

From there, she reached the elevator and made her way up to the cells.

Alexandria rejoined us in the cell, virtually the same, though her hair was disheveled, her suit jacket folded over one arm.  She laid it across the back of Miss Militia’s empty chair and stayed there, leaning on the back of the chair that was bolted to the floor.

Noting Miss Militia’s absence led to me double checking on her.  She was on the roof.  No, I couldn’t count on anything from her.  I’d hoped to have one more piece in play, but she was leaning over a railing at the edge of a helicopter landing pad, staring out over the city.

Alexandria had to be my focus.  She was staring at me, scrutinizing me.  I met her eyes, and she locked hers onto mine.

“I’d thought Tattletale had figured it out…” she paused, “But no.  You told them.  You have an open line of communication with them.”

I shrugged, thinking of Tagg’s phone, with the handset still dangling over the edge of the desk.

Wished I could hear her response.  What had happened to my teammates?

“Let’s take five minutes more to talk.  Then I’ll take care of another of the Undersiders.”

“Another?”

“A PRT van will be along shortly.  I wanted to keep to my time commitment, so I sent a truck.”

“Why should I say anything?” I asked her.

“Because as long as we’re talking, I’m not out there, taking your team to pieces, and you have a shot at passing them information.  It gives them time to recuperate and strategize.  Five minutes gives them time to make a getaway, or contact help.  I imagine you arranged for backup.  Hired mercenaries to help break you out if this went badly enough that you faced jail without getting anything you wanted or needed.”

I set my jaw.

“I know the general value of the properties you acquired, the proposed value of it.  Your team would spend it.  Ninety two million dollars, spent on hired soldiers, hired parahumans.  That’s only your liquid assets.”

I didn’t reply.  I set to typing the next message on Tagg’s phone.  K-N-O-W-S-A-B-O-U-T-M-E-R-C-S

She straightened, removing her hands from the back of the chair.  “If you’re not going to say anything, I might as well go now.  You’re rather partial to Grue, aren’t you?  Or should I take Tattletale out of the picture?”

“We can talk,” I told her.

“Excellent,” she said.  She stepped around the corner of the table and sat in her chair, opposite me.  “Do you need anything?  Water?  Coffee?  Soda?”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Calle?  Mr. Hebert?”

Two refusals.

She removed her phone from her jacket pocket.  “Forgive me for using this in the midst of our discussion.  Chevalier is likely to become the head of the Protectorate once the Triumvirate has departed, and he’s insisting that I keep tabs with him, what with the scandal and all.  I’d show you, but that would be a breach of confidence.”

She smiled, as though at a private joke.  The smile didn’t matter to me.  It was the way her eyes didn’t leave me.

“You’re cold reading me,” I said.

“Cold reading?” My dad asked.

“Tattletale does it too.  Mixes details she knows with ones she doesn’t, with very careful wording and a bit of an edge with her thinker powers.”

“Mm hmm,” Alexandria said.  She typed expertly on her phone, almost absently.  “I know you’ve probably got someone in the lobby or outside, receiving coded messages.  I know about the mercenaries.  More mercenaries than I implied.  I expect Tattletale called in favors.  Probably not the Irregulars, but I didn’t read that.  Simple logic.  They wouldn’t work for you.  I know that you’re still feeling confident, but not entirely so.  If you were very close to breaking or very, very confident, you would have accepted my offer of a drink.  And I know that your bugs can’t see computer screens.”

Was she bluffing on that last part?  Did it matter if she was?  I could refuse, play some kind of trick, and she’d see right through it.

“I could make some noise about my client’s rights being trampled, a lack of consent to that kind of analysis,” Mr. Calle said.

“But you know the law doesn’t apply here.  We’re in a gray area, up until the moment we decide to press charges and set this into motion, or you decide to force the issue.  But neither of us want that.  For now, this is… somewhere between her being in our custody and us having a friendly chat.”

My lawyer glanced at me.  I frowned.  “Yeah.  So long as she doesn’t start grilling me.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Calle said.

My head turned as I sensed the truck arriving.   Bugs clustered to it as it found a spot at the side of the building, PRT uniforms moving their target on a stretcher.  My bugs shifted position, tracking what they were moving.  The white mask, the curls, the shirt, with a tightly woven fabric beneath… a spider silk shirt?  It was Regent, unconscious.

The bugs moved, tracing down the length of his arm.  It was broken in two places, virtually zig-zagging.  His leg was the same.  I caught the words ‘medical’ and ‘doctor’.  ‘Tranquilizer’.

“He’s arrived, I take it.” Alexandria said.

I nodded tightly.

“The paradigm has changed,” Alexandria said.  “In… two minutes and thirty seconds, I go and dispatch another of your teammates.  I’ll hear concessions, offers or relevant information, and I’ll adjust my methods and the severity of my attack where appropriate.”

“This is extortion,” my dad said.

“She makes the process easier for us, we make it easier on her and her friends.”

I frowned.  “That’s still extortion.”

“Two minutes and eight seconds,” she said, not even bothering to deny it.  She had the same habit as Tattletale, of knowing the time without looking at a clock.  “They’re going to be running, now, trying to throw me off their trail.  I’ll find them.  I can study the environment, I’ve studied the case histories and I know where they own property.”

Another alert I needed to give.  I was still typing in the last one.  The cockroaches weren’t strong enough to hit the keys with enough force, so it was more of a case of having to leverage the key down through the combined efforts of several larger roaches and carefully arranged silk.

I grit my teeth, trying to focus on the spelling while keeping track of what Alexandria was saying.  Started on the next message.  X-K-N-O-W-S-P-R-O-P-E-R-T-I-E-S

“You’re backing me into a corner,” I said.  “Backing them into a corner.  Someone’s bound to snap.”

“Most likely,” she said, and there wasn’t a trace of concern in her expression.  It was almost eerie, how little she seemed to care.  Was that her passenger at work, or was she simply good enough at what she did, comfortable enough in her invincibility, that she’d grown able to shrug off the insignificant things?

I shook my head.  “I’m not making concessions.  The terms I gave still stand.  If you want to discuss the reasons behind-”

She was already getting out of her chair.

“-behind why I made the demands I made, we can.  I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

“I’ve heard this,” Alexandria said.  She donned her suit jacket, buttoning it up in front.  “Read it, rather.  I’ve thought about all the permutations and unless you’re willing to change tack or tell me something I don’t know, there’s no point to this discussion.”

She walked to the door and knocked.  While waiting for the officer to open the door, she turned, “One last chance to offer me something.  Any detail I can use, things to watch out for.”

Bitch, I thought.  Her power, it screwed with her headShe can’t relate to people.  She doesn’t understand facial expressions, body language or our social constructs.  It’s all replaced by dog behavior. 

Grue.  Post traumatic stress.  He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like being confined, or the dark.  But he’s stable otherwise.

Information that could be used to protect Bitch, protect Grue.  To keep a bad situation from getting worse.  It felt like it would be a betrayal anyways.  It was an eerie reversal of the rationalization I’d done back at the bank robbery, on my first job as a villain.  Telling myself that terrorizing the hostages was for their own good.

But I couldn’t bring myself to betray them on that level.  Not to people who trusted me.

And she was gone.

I grit my teeth.  I looked at Calle, but he shook his head.

Tagg reached for his phone, where it sat on the table.

Long minutes passed, as Tagg texted and I sat in anxious silence.

“You said you’ve worked with cape families,” my dad spoke.  It took me a second to realize he was talking to Calle.

“Yes,” my lawyer answered.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

“I was just about to step outside, call some colleagues.”

“Oh.”

“After.  Unless you want to join me?”

“Isn’t it better if she isn’t alone?”

“Everything’s recorded.  Short of her being threatened with serious bodily injury or death, I don’t see a problem.”

My dad cast me a look.  I nodded.

He left with Mr. Calle.

“You and I,” Tagg said.

I folded my arms as best as I was able, then leaned forward to rest my head.  Not worth giving him the benefit of a conversation.

The table shook, and I briefly looked up, only to see Tagg setting his feet on the metal surface.

He took his time getting comfortable, and kicked the table several times in the process.

When I set my head down, he started humming.

He’s trying to get to me, I thought to myself, for the Nth time.

They were bullies.  Tagg and Alexandria both.  They were the equivalent of the older child picking on the kindergartener, or the adult picking on the child.  They had power to throw around that I didn’t, they had freedom, liberty, the power of choice.  They wanted to punish me, to put me off-balance for their own ends.

Just… bullies in a grander scale.

I simultaneously felt like I understood Tagg a little more, and a little less.

Mr. Calle answered a ton of my father’s questions, big and small.  About things I’d thought were common knowledge, like trigger events, and more specific, grave matters, like the prospect of my receiving the death penalty.  When he’d exhausted each of those questions, he asked about other things.  Smarter things, like the degree to which he might be able to stand up to Alexandria or Tagg, about how he could work with Calle to throw them off-balance, and signals to arrange a plan of attack.

My dad, entirely out of place, out of his depth, confused and utterly unarmed, fighting to get up to speed, in the hopes that he could do something to help.

It was a step forward.  A small step, but a step forward.

Tagg stood, approaching me, then leaned on the table just beside me, so he loomed over me, not speaking, invading my personal space, denying me the ability to rest or relax.

And my bugs, in his office, continued punching away as best as they were able.  Me, communicating with Tattletale, unable to hear her response, straining to hear some sign of the violence.  Had they split up?

Regent’s arms and legs had been set, and he lay on a bed identical to the one I’d had, apparently tranquilized.

I was the target, the mastermind, the one they were trying to break.

Alexandria only took six minutes.  She arrived by the same route, only she held a girl this time.  A hard mask with horns and slanted lenses that tapered into points at the corners, a skin-tight bodysuit.  Imp.

Alexandria had found a way around Imp’s power.  Or her mental powers had overridden them.

One more body in the cells.  One more Undersider down.

Alexandria found her way back to the cells before my dad and my lawyer did, accompanied by Miss Militia.  Alexandria grabbed one of Kid Win’s active drones from the air and tucked it under one arm like a football as she made her way down, and held it up as she visited the cell where they were checking an unconscious, tranquilized Imp.  Every bug was eradicated by the mist that appeared, leaving me utterly blind.

I didn’t see her again until she opened the door and joined us.  She was drenched, her hair soaked, swept back away from her face, and the makeup that had hidden the seam of her prosthetic eye had been washed away, leaving a conspicuous line in place.  Miss Militia looked grim and very dry beside her.

“They fought back?”  I asked.

“A firehose, and a cape with a water geyser power.  They tried to drown me.  It didn’t work.  Others have tried the same thing, in many different variations.  Old hat.”

A cape with water generating powers?  The Ambassadors.

She looked around, “Your lawyer?”

“Out,” Tagg said, not looking up from his phone.

“I suppose it would be bad manners to talk to you while he’s occupied,” Alexandria said.

I didn’t reply.

“Well, five minutes before I go again.  If this is a delaying tactic, it won’t work.”

“Read my face,” I said, “It’s not a delaying tactic.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “I’m keeping to a schedule.  Roughly half an hour at a time, collecting one Undersider with each excursion.  I told you I’d hold off on collecting Tattletale, so I’ll save her for last.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

Tattletale was still periodically speaking into the phone, while I typed out letters.  She’d stopped talking as much when I’d typed out a few words to let her know I couldn’t understand.  No, her focus right now would be on arranging her remaining forces, handling what she could, dealing with Alexandria.

“I’d like to stay,” Alexandria said.  “May I sit?”

“If you want,” I said.  I gestured towards the chair, best as I was able with the cuffs.

“Excellent.  So cooperative.”  She sat down.  “And we can talk?”

I nodded mutely.

Alexandria, a bully, believing herself untouchable.  I felt a grim sort of loathing stirring in the depths of my gut.

“My terms, to you.  You surrender.  The Undersiders receive no amnesty, but I let captives go, with all required medical care.  They fend for themselves from here on out.  Tagg remains in position.  He’s here for a reason.  Miss Militia is promoted elsewhere.  With the fall of the Triumvirate, we need a new core group.  We can market it.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“It’s what I’m offering.  And you… provided you cooperate fully, giving us all the information we desire on you, your histories, and the Undersiders, we put you in juvenile detention.  Two years, followed by a long probation and acknowledgement that any conceivable violation of that probation will be counted as a third strike and cause for sentencing to the Birdcage.”

My dad and lawyer were just arriving.

“What’s this?” Mr. Calle asked.

“Skitter’s hearing my revised terms,” Alexandria said.

“And?” Mr. Calle asked.

“They want me to turn myself in.  I get virtually nothing, except the prompt release of the Undersiders she’s picked up and a stay in juvenile detention until I’m eighteen.”

I could see my dad’s eyes light up.  He saw this as a way out, when he was seeing just how deep we were in the midst of this.

Which broke my heart, in a way.

“And your thoughts?” Mr. Calle asked.

“No,” I said.  I looked at Alexandria.  “No.”

“This isn’t the sort of offer that stays on the table,” she said.  “If you want to push this further, we could keep the Undersiders.”

“You need the Undersiders,” I told her.  “You need someone on the ground, keeping the real monsters out of the city.  You need us, so don’t pretend you’re really going to keep them.”

“There’s other options,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Because even if there wasn’t that security, no.”

“That’s a disappointment,” she said.

“You wanted compromise, Skitter,” Miss Militia said, “But you’re asking for the impossible.”

“I’m asking for the improbable,” I said.  “But it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it was easy.  Alexandria isn’t asking me to meet her halfway.  She’s threatening people I love.”

“From teammates to friends to people you love.”

I grit my teeth.

“I don’t blame you,” she said.  “I loved Hero.  I loved Legend, and Eidolon, and Myrddin.  I know what it means to pass through hell together, to take a desperate breath for air, to clutch for clarity of mind, and help each other find the briefest of respite in the little things, only to plunge into that hell once more.  The little jokes, the familiarity, the gestures and small kindnesses, they count for a lot, when you’ve been through what we’ve been through-”

“Don’t compare us,” I cut in.

“-and you learn to look past their faults.  The little evils,” she said.  “And they learn to look past yours.”

Miss Militia gave Alexandria a curious look, then turned to me, “The offer, it’s the most reasonable one we can give you.  It’s generous, considering all you’ve done.”

“It’s not enough,” I said.  “Until my team has amnesty, I can’t back down.  I can’t abandon them to fight lunatics like Tagg and Alexandria the second I’m gone.”

“That’s what you want?” Alexandria asked.  “Amnesty, release for captured teammates, and a sentence to juvenile detention?”

My dad reached out, taking my hand, a silent plea.  Saying everything without doing me the disservice of interjecting.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.  I could trust my teammates to hold their own.  I could… I could find my way.  Two years made for such a small length of time.  It… it would mean I was in custody when Dinah’s deadline came.  But maybe that was what she’d wanted.  For me to be somewhere secure when it all started.  I couldn’t rule it out.

And all it would take was for me to do what I’d done for so long before I had my powers, for months after I’d had my powers.  To capitulate, to let go of my pride.  To let them win, those people who wanted to use their power, their prestige and superiority against me.

My dad squeezed my hand, hard.

“I named my terms,” I told Alexandria.  “I trust my teammates, and I trust that they’ll win where it counts.  No.”

I met Tagg’s eyes, and my voice was a growl, “And if you fucking hurt another hair on their heads, I’ll see you pay for it.  Like Lung, like Valefor, and if it comes down to it, I’ll come after you like I did with Butcher, and Coil- Calvert.”

I directed my glare at Alexandria as I said that last part.

“You’re admitting-” Miss Militia started.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t all know,” I said.

I felt my dad’s hand drop away from mine.  I might have met his eyes, to take in the hurt and the pain that came with seeing who I really was, but I wasn’t willing to break eye contact with Alexandria.

You can read facial expressions?  Read this.  Know I’m telling the truthKnow that I’ll take you apart, given the slightest excuse.

I was pressing the keys on the telephone before Alexandria had even stood from her seat.  Another warning that Alexandria was en route.

She stood, wordless.  There was no negotiation, no offer for leniency, and I didn’t ask for either.

I could only hope.

In a matter of minutes, she was gone, flying away.  A third mission.  A third hunt.

Bugs found their way through vents to Regent, but Imp’s cell was sealed tight, no doubt due to the Stranger-class precautions that had led to the note being pasted on her cell door, notifying the PRT of the special precautions.  It didn’t matter.  Regent was still unconscious, and Imp was likely to be as well.

Grue, Rachel, Tattletale and Parian.  Flechette too, if it came down to it.

Flechette… could she hurt Alexandria?

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have answers, couldn’t get them.  I could only wait, keeping my bugs out of the way of the drones that Kid Win had finally recharged.

“You had a way out,” Miss Militia said.

“You said you understand me,” I told her.  “That you had insight into who I was as a person, now that you knew my history.  If that’s true, you understand why I had to say no.”

“For your sake.  Because of what you’ve been through.”

“And because of them.  They’d never forgive me if I betrayed everything they helped me become, because I didn’t think they could fend for themselves.”

“And me?” my dad asked.  “I know it’s asking a lot.  I failed you where it counted.”

“Dad-”

“And maybe it’s selfish, to want my daughter, when you’re talking about things on this scale…” he said, pausing as if he was going to follow that with an argument.  But no argument followed.

And I couldn’t give him a good response.

Eight minutes passed.  I could count the progression of time on the clock hands, when I dared let a bug pass through open spaces.

Nine minutes in, I could see Tagg suddenly tense, lines in his neck standing out as he read the newest message on his phone.  He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

The PRT van arrived before Alexandria did, this time.  The PRT officers took their time before they finally emerged.

Restless, I shifted position.  My forearms were digging into the table where the cuffs held my arms in front of me.  Leaning forward made my back hurt.

They opened the back of the van, and there were no precautions this time.  Their weapons were holstered, and they didn’t stand in any particular formation.

The only thing in the back was a single body bag.

Back pain forgotten, I went as stiff as Tagg.  I drew more bugs in to get a better picture of the scene.

They took a different route this time, using their phones to make their way through the various doors and checkpoints.  They entered the attached building.  A small hospital, or a special office with medical facilities.  It didn’t matter.

And they made their way to the morgue.

The size of the bag… it couldn’t be Lizardtail.  He was too large.  Was the wrong size and shape to be one of the dogs.  That left only three real possibilities.  A PRT officer, Rachel, or Brian.

I closed my eyes, clenched my hands.

Then one of the PRT officers who was escorting the body said something, and others laughed in response.  It was one of those rare moments I could discern tone, and it wasn’t a kind one.  That was enough for me to know it wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t a civilian.

Metal clicked as they unlocked the heavy clasps and locks that were likely meant to prevent any parahumans from getting up from the dead.

They unzipped the bag, and lifted the body onto the drawer.  The drawer slid into the recess, the lid was closed and locked.

I didn’t want to know which of them it was.  I couldn’t. Whether it was Brian or Rachel, it didn’t matter.  Neither of them would get up from the dead.  They weren’t so lucky.

I stared down at my hands, and I felt myself go cold, my thoughts crystal clear, singular.

“Taylor,” my dad murmured, so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Yes?”

I sounded so calm, like an entirely different person was speaking.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered.

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t really think of anything else to say.  He was right.  My fingers were trembling.

I looked at Tagg, to see if he’d heard or if he’d noticed.  No indication, but his hand was close to his gun.  The text he’d read… he knew.  He probably wasn’t aware he was doing it, but he was ready for a fight to erupt any second.

Miss Militia’s hand wasn’t, but I could read a tension in her, as she exchanged words with Calle.  But then, I suspected she could draw faster than Tagg in virtually any circumstance.  Or maybe she wasn’t as ready or willing to deal out violence as Tagg was.

Then I had to lower my eyes, to hide the tears that were welling.  Needed just a few moments.  Just a few more seconds.

Alexandria arrived the same way she had after her last two excursions, through the hole in the roof.  With the speed she moved, she didn’t risk being spotted.  Even photography wasn’t in the cards.

With the speed she moved, she didn’t seem to notice the bugs that followed after her as the aperture began to close behind her.

She got as far as the Wards HQ before she stopped and the bugs had a chance to catch up to her.

As though I’d thrown a javelin, they speared right for her nose and open mouth, the fastest moving bugs I had at my disposal, and spiders.

She was invincible, the flesh inside her throat untouchable.  The flap that kept food out of her lungs kept the bugs at bay.  At first.  They bound themselves together, spiders fixing themselves and others to the inside of her throat with adhesive.

As strong as she was, air didn’t move past the mass of bugs that filled her mouth, as they fought to move into positions where they could block her throat.  She coughed in an instinctive attempt to dislodge them.

Even with super strength, even with a diaphragm like hers, the coughs didn’t remove every bug, and the greedy gasp of air allowed those who remained to find their way inside, filling her lungs.  They were just as impervious inside, but the bugs arranged themselves side by side, forming a layer that blocked the flow of oxygen to the membranes of the lung itself.  Spiders drew out silk, filling gaps.

If she could choke, if Leviathan saw submerging her in water as a viable tactic, if Tattletale saw fit to try to do the same, then I could drown her in insects.

The Wards were watching, realizing what was going on.  Clockblocker ran, pressing a button for the alarm.

And in front of me, Tagg moved, drawing his gun.  His voice was a roar, “She knows!”

A thread caught it before he could point it at me, and it fell to the ground.

With each entry that had been made into the interrogation room, barring the one where she’d used the drone in Imp’s cell, I’d brought more bugs inside.  Spiders, hornets, black widows, brown recluses and more.

I’d warned him.  He jumped as he felt the bites.  Shouted as hornets found the soft tissues of his eyes, his tongue and eardrums.  Black widows and brown recluses found crevices.

Miss Militia moved too, but the silk I’d used only bound her hand, didn’t serve to stop her.

“Taylor!” my dad’s voice sounded so far away.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t let the bullies win again, I thought.  That I’d stop the monsters.

But the thoughts sounded disconnected, false.

No, this was revenge.  Something simpler than any of that.

Miss Militia raised a gun, pointing it at me, where I had my head bowed, hands still chained in front of me.  My dad was shaking me, but I wasn’t a hard target to hurt.

And my bugs weren’t hurting her.  Weren’t touching my dad, or Mr. Calle, who was backed up into a corner, trying to make as much distance from me as he could.

She didn’t shoot.  Her gun clattered to the ground.

“Taylor!” she called out, as if she could reach me that way.  “I’m not going to shoot, but you have to stop!”

“Not a promise, not an oath, or a malediction or a curse,” I said, sounding calm, probably inaudible in the midst of Tagg’s screaming.  “Inevitable.  Wasn’t that how she put it?  I told them.  Warned them.”

Alexandria, in the basement, still choking, drowning on dry land with lungs full of dragonflies, spiders and cockroaches, soared.  She flew through the closed barrier in the roof, and debris showered down on the Wards who’d approached her, wanting to help but finding themselves unable.

In moments, she was out of my range, too high in the air.  I wasn’t sure it mattered.

And Tagg- Tagg was staggering towards me, roaring something incoherent, chewing and spitting in a feeble attempt to remove bugs from his mouth.  His tongue was likely swollen already.  The black widow venom would take effect soon.

He tried to push my dad out of the way, and my dad blocked him, shielding me with his body.

Tagg kicked my father hard enough to drive him to the ground.  The Director was still shouting, nearly blind.  He gripped me by the hair and slammed my head down on the table, hard.

I saw stars, felt tears welling out freely, as if the dam had finally broken.

Blind, writhing in pain and a struggle to get the insects off him, Tagg still managed to hold me down as the PRT officers burst into the room.  They had darts like the one that Shadow Stalker had kept in her crossbow, jammed one into my neck.

I had only the chance to think of how they’d just signed Tagg’s death warrant, that my power would work while I was unconscious.  I could have rescinded the order in the last moments.  I didn’t.

And then it was only darkness.  Oblivion.  A false kind of death.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 21

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

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

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

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

Not even a thank-you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always an uphill climb.

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

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

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

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

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

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

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

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

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

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

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any details?” Parian asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

Nobody volunteered an answer.

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

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

“So?  We break her out.”

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

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

“Regent,” Grue said.

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

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

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

So?” Bitch asked.

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

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

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

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

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

“Literally,” Regent said.

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

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

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

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

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

There was no reply from the group.

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

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

She felt like that now, here.

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

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

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

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

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

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

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

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

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

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

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

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

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

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

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

“We’re allies.”

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

“You’re mocking me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s very concerning to me.”

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

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

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

“There’s an escape clause.”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

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

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

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

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

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

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

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

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

“I bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

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

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

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

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

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Herself?” Regent asked.

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

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

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

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

Regent sniggered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long?”

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

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

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

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

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

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

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

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

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

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

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

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

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

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

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

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

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

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With you.”

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

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

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

“Hard to forget.”

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

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

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

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

Parian didn’t answer.

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

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

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

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

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

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

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I think it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

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

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

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

“You’d leave the Wards?”

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

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m terrified,” Lily said, meeting Sabah’s eyes.  She looked it.

She’s taken a leap of faith, and she hasn’t touched ground.

“You’re saying I call the shots.  You’re my lieutenant, my right hand?”

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

“I’d need a new costume, and a new name, probably.  For legal reasons.  If you said yes.  I was thinking more a stylized musketeer look than a knight, but I can work with whatever.”

Still rambling.

“A new costume is something I can do,” Sabah answered.  “And yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Sabah said.  “You’ll be my lieutenant.  And you’re okay with that?”

“That’s… what I’m offering.  The last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable.”

“That’s good enough,” Sabah said.  She stood, approaching Lily.

Needle and thread.  Somehow it felt more right, more solid, than any of the paths she’d started on, only to later abandon.  Maybe because she wasn’t doing it alone.

She put two fingers to Lily’s chin, raising it, and then she kissed her lieutenant.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Imago 21.6

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Hate to do this with the weather like this, I thought.  I thought about the meeting Parian had arranged with Miss Militia.  But my hand is being inadvertently forced.

One more step forward.  One more phase in the plan.

The wind was worse than the rain.  I had to wonder how much of it was the aftermath of the Leviathan attack.  The city had been flooded, and those same floodwaters had evaporated into the air, trapped within Brockton Bay by the surrounding trees and hills… how wide-reaching were the effects of that one incident?

The downpour was steady, moderate.  The wind was what turned it into a barrage, a persistent pelting of droplets that moved horizontally as much as it moved vertically.  The noise of it, tapping against my armor and lenses, made for a steady patter.  My bugs were lurking and gathering in spots where there was shelter, and where things were dry.  With only the light of the moon above, these were the same areas that had shadows, by and large.  The masses of bugs only seemed to give those shadows substance, made them seem deeper, through the masses of dark brown, gray and black bodies.

Through other bugs I felt the movements of the wind, felt how it formed eddies, curling into itself when it met with dead ends, large or small.  I could, with a small number of bugs, feel how strong and steady the gale was where the buildings weren’t tall enough to break it up.  They helped me track the others around me, through bugs that took shelter in the drier folds of their costumes.

The Undersiders were here.  Minus Tattletale, we were all standing in the street a distance away from a squat building.  Regent was off to one side, ready to trip up our enemy if they made a sudden appearance.  Rachel hung back, corralling her forces, while the rest of us watched the building for any hint of trouble.

But Grue stood next to me.  I appreciated his presence, his casualness in light of the way we’d effectively parted.

I could sense the Ambassadors.  Citrine and Othello were there.  So were four new recruits: Jacklight, Ligeia, Lizardtail and Codex.  The fifth potential recruit hadn’t been so lucky.  The four of them stood off to one side, in the shelter of Citrine’s power, listening as she gave instructions.  The area around them was somehow faded in terms of the colors there, the area she was affecting looked as though I were viewing it through colorblind eyes that were capable of only seeing yellow.  Water wicked off of them as though they were waterproof, leaving them utterly dry even in the wind and rain.

Lizardtail’s power was pressing against me, even from the other side of the street.  It penetrated my costume to the skin, making my skin tingle and ensuring that I was always aware of where he was.  It was like the sensation of standing in front of a fire, just close enough to feel as though that heat had a physical form, just close enough to be bearable.  It wasn’t hot, though.  It was cold, if anything.

The rest of our forces were marshaled throughout the area.  A handful of volunteers from my territory, surviving members of the O’Daly family, had made their way to rooftops, stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and binoculars.  They’d have to make up for the fact that my bugs weren’t as mobile in this weather.

Tattletale’s mercenaries were here, though she was still largely incapacitated.  Minor, Brooks, Pritt, Senegal, and Jaw.  Regent had two followers, and I was doing my best to avoid paying attention to them.  It wasn’t the time to investigate whether he was controlling people or legitimately hiring them.

Rachel’s underlings were present too, hanging back enough that they were out of sight of the building.  Biter, Barker, the veterinarian, the boy with the eyepatch, others I didn’t recognize: a young teenager with darker skin, a tall man with a broad belly.  Each of them held a chain -the tall man and Biter held two- and each chain had a dog harnessed on the other end of it, grown to a fair size by Rachel’s power.  Only Bentley and Bastard were full size.

Inside the building, the Teeth were recuperating from a recent conflict with Miss Militia and the other heroes followed soon after by an attack from Parian’s stuffed animals. As a whole, the Teeth amounted to twenty or so unpowered troops, plus a half-dozen or so powered ones.  Even the unpowered Teeth had ‘costumes’ of a sort, were dressed in a hodgepodge of armor that made it hard to tell them apart from the powered members.

As a whole, they were bandaging minor injuries, preparing food, talking, joking, relaxing.  There were two televisions on, each playing something different, volume turned up, and the noise was discordant, even to the muted, confused senses of my swarm.  Porn on one television, I was pretty sure.  The other channel was either a cartoon or a news broadcast, judging by the words I was able to hear.

There was a fight in progress, a duel, between two unpowered members.  One was getting the better of the other, pounding his face in while others jeered and laughed.

One of the female members of the Teeth, I suspected Hemorrhagia, was cooking food for her team.  A distance away, Butcher was sitting on a stool, her feet up on a table, her mask off.  She had a cloth in hand and was wiping her gun clean, oddly disconnected from the clatter and chaos of her team.

I supposed the thirteen other voices in her head kept her company.

It had taken time to analyze them, to assess what each of the Teeth were doing and make a note of every individual part of it.  To do it discreetly, with no more than the bugs that were already in the building.

The Ambassadors were patient.  I got the sense that they could have waited for two hours in this wind and rain, and their only concern would be that their clothes and hair were a little worse for wear.  My teammates were a touch more restless.  Rachel moved from dog to dog, enforcing her authority, keeping them in line, and making sure they were listening to the underlings.  She was putting her trust in me, but I could tell she was getting tired of this.  Tired of the minutes passing with nothing happening.

Regent, too, was reacting.  He was maintaining a running commentary on everything from the weather to the surroundings, our allies and me.

“And… twenty minutes in, the rain’s still pouring, the wind’s still threatening to drop a house on our heads, and we’re still not doing anything.  I think our fearless leader needs to remember that some of us aren’t as good at being imposing when we’re drenched and standing around in the dark.  She does that whole schtick where being gloomy and creepy only make her scarier.  You know how scary I am with a wet shirt clinging to me?”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue said.

“I’m just saying.  She could be more considerate.  Maybe we could wait indoors, and she could stand out here in the rain, using her power to investigate our enemies.  If she’s even using it.  Maybe she fell asleep standing up.  Been a hard week for her-.”

“Regent,” I said.  “Be quiet.”

“She’s awake!  Excellent,” Regent’s jovial tone was forced enough to border on the sarcastic.

“There are no vantage points that are also indoors,” I said.  “I’d bet that’s why Butcher chose that building.  The parking lot that surrounds it, the terrain, it’s all to her benefit.”

“So we pick a mediocre vantage point.  Or a shitty one.  So long as it’s dry.  Or, here’s an idea, maybe we attack.  We have them outnumbered, we have better powers than most of them-”

“We win absolutely,” I said.  “Or we don’t fight at all.  Too many of them have powers that could help them escape.  Vex fills an area with her power and runs, Animos transforms and runs, or Spree masks their retreat with his power.  This way, we take all of them down, or we at least affect them on a psychological level.”

“Then why don’t we have them surrounded?”

“Because we don’t need to,” I said.  “Keeping Butcher from picking us off is a bigger priority.  We do that by forming battle lines.”

“Huh,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Twenty three minutes, standing in the rain…”

Inside the building, Hemorrhagia called out, “…st ready.”

The Teeth collectively began to make their way to the kitchen, while Spree headed for the washroom.

There.

We’re attacking,” I said, and I spoke through the bugs that were near each of my allies.  “Be ready.”

The bugs I’d kept in reserve swept into the building, not from the direction our forces were standing, but from the opposite direction.  They flowed in, swarming over the Teeth.

Less useful bugs plunged themselves into the food.  They scattered money, where money was left out in the open, caught unattended weapons and pieces of armor and either buried them or started to drag them from sight.

“No!” Hemorrhagia shouted, trying to cover her chili with a lid,  “No, no, fuck you, no!”

Hearing the shouting, Spree stood from the toilet, only to find a handcuff connecting him to the towel rack.

“Fight!” one of the Teeth shouted, rather unnecessarily.  He was joined by others.  “Kick their asses!  Kill them!”

Spree managed to tear the towel rack from the wall and made his way out of the washroom, working to get his belt buckled, other armor gathered under one arm.  I was well aware of how costumes made using washrooms a pain in the ass on the best of days: getting everything necessary off, getting it back on again, attaching everything essential… Spree had the added issue of innumerable trophies and pieces of armor in his suit, all loaded down with spikes and hooks, and he was now in a rush, running forward into a swarm of biting, stinging insects.  He dropped one piece of armor, and bugs swarmed it.  He cast one backwards glance at the item in question, an elbow pad or knee pad, and then decided to leave it behind.

It was the little things that would deliver a hit to their morale.  Attacking while they were tired, spoiling a meal they were anticipating, throwing everything into disarray.  If they happened to come out ahead in this fight, or if any of them slipped away, they might return to reclaim their things, they’d find cockroaches had chewed through the cords and internal wires of their televisions, that pantry moths infested their food supplies, and every article of clothing was infested with lice.

And if they entered this fight mad, all the better.  It would mean they were gunning for us instead of running.

The first person out the door was caught by a tripline of spider silk.  Others trampled over him.  One fired a gun into the darkness beyond.

Wrong door, wrong end of the building.  And the door had somehow closed and locked behind them.

The powered members weren’t in that group, though.  As disorganized as the rank and file members were, the capes in the gang were only looking to their boss, gathering in the kitchen.

Butcher didn’t react as bugs bit and stung, and capsaicin-laden bugs found her eyes and nose.  Her skin was too tough, and she didn’t feel pain, thanks to Butcher twelve’s powers.  She was composed as she lifted a gun that would normally have been mounted on the back of a truck.  Without putting it down, she held it with one hand and donned her mask.

She turned our way, as though it wasn’t even a question.  A sensory power.

Butcher two, the ability to see people’s veins, arteries and hearts through walls.

She had the powers of thirteen capes, watered down, plus her own.  Some of those capes had possessed multiple abilities.  By power or by cunning, each had managed to kill the last.  This Butcher had the resources of each of them.

She led her group through the doors towards us, as silent as they were noisy.  I’d almost expected her to do the inverse of what she was doing and send her foot-troops in first.  Instead, she was the first through the doors, her powered allies immediately behind her.  Her foot troops were last to arrive, traveling around the full length of the building, swearing all the way.  They filled in the gaps of her group and gathered behind.

It was a different dynamic than some groups we’d fought.  These weren’t loyal soldiers or people fighting because they had nothing to lose.  They were opportunists, riding the coattails of the ones with the real power, hyenas picking at the scraps that were left behind after the lions had supped.

Spree was the first to use his power, and I got a sense of just how and why the group had arrived at this present strategy.  It wasn’t just that Butcher was dangerous enough to walk face-first into danger.  They had Spree to form their front ranks.

Four Sprees split off from him as he stood there, slightly hunched over as if bracing himself against recoil.  They were produced with such force and speed that they briefly flew through the air, stumbling slightly as they hit the ground running.  Three more Sprees were a fraction of a second after the first wave, with even more following a half-second behind them.

Fifteen or so Sprees in three seconds, before I’d even had a chance to call out an order.  Duplicates produced at the rate that a machine gun spat bullets.

They ran, some screaming, others swearing aloud as they closed the distance between our two groups, charging as a mass, limbs flailing, weapons-

Weapons?

It was hard to see in the rain, but the Sprees were all subtly different.  Some had knives or pipes they could bludgeon with, others had guns, and more had improvised weapons.  The mixing and matching of their armor was different as well.

There was a drawback, though.  Whatever they were, as solid and innumerable as they might have been, they were dumb, getting dumber every second they were alive.  He was producing a living tide of bodies, but they weren’t capable.  They were good for little more than sheer body mass and violence.

By the time the first ones reached us, they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  One reached me, swung a table leg at me in a wide, predictable swing.  I caught it, twisted his arm, and pushed him into a Spree that was stumbling forward from behind him. They both fell, and neither seemed to have the wherewithal to climb to their feet before they were trampled underfoot.

It was like fighting an infant with the size and strength of a grown man, except there were fifty or sixty of them.  A hundred?  The street was nearly filled with the bastards, from sidewalk to sidewalk, a mob between the Teeth and us.

They didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize they could actually shoot the guns, where the occasional Spree had one in hand, but the sound of a gunshot going off suggested that one had accidentally pulled a trigger.  The shot rang through the air, cutting through the thrum of raindrops striking ground.

Like the gunshot that marked the start of a race, it was the moment that brought the real fighting to a peak.  The Teeth and our side all jumped into action.

My bugs flooded into the group, condensing on the key members.  I couldn’t seem to touch the Spree that was generating the mindless clones, as his body vibrated and rippled, but I could attack Hemorrhagia, Animos, Butcher, Reaver, Vex and the underlings.  The press of near-identical bodies was almost useful, giving my bugs shelter and dry surfaces to move on.

Codex advanced, breaking away from the rest of the Ambassadors.  She was a pale woman dressed in a white evening gown, wearing a simple, featureless white mask.  A temporary costume.

She reached towards the crowd.  I could see the eyes of the Sprees lighting up as the effect reached further back into the crowd.  They stumbled, slowing, blocking the ones behind them from advancing.  Groans and grunts echoed from the crowd, all eerily similar.

Their powers were new.  Less than six hours old.  Accord had agreed to lend them to us, though their costumes hadn’t yet been designed, their powers not fully explored.  We’d offered Tattletale’s analysis of their capabilities in exchange.  She’d barely been capable, hadn’t yet recuperated from the migraines she’d suffered earlier in the week, and the use of her power had only brought the migraines back with a vengeance.

Still, we’d talked it over and agreed that the assistance of the Ambassadors as a whole was that much more useful in this scenario than a worn and weary Tattletale.  Tattletale’s feedback was essential, but we already had a sense of who the Teeth were, and Tattletale had been able to fill us in on the new Ambassadors just as readily as she’d filled Accord in.

Codex was a blaster-thinker hybrid.  Tattletale had speculated that the woman caused permanent brain damage and memory loss , briefly augmenting her own processing power in exchange.  The duplicates Spree was generating weren’t gifted with much in the way of brains to begin with.  Even a little damage was having devastating results.

Jacklight was launching forth the miniscule orbs of light, each growing as it traveled before stopping in mid-air.  Each warped space around it, accelerated movement, enhanced the output of certain forms of energy.  Where one of his lights was set next to a wall, it redirected one running duplicate into a wall.  Another, closer to the ground, swung a Spree that stepped over it into the ground face first.

It was Ligeia, though, who slowed down the enemy the most.  She created water out of nothing, geysers of the stuff that drove the mob back and sent them sprawling.

Then she sucked up the water.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I got the impression she caught one or two duplicates in the process, drawing them into whatever place she’d taken the water from.

It took her a second each time she switched from creating water to drawing it in.  Clones slipped through the gaps in the defensive line as she changed gears.

“Rachel!” I gave the order.  Before Jacklight’s power makes it impossible to go further or more slip through.

Her responding whistle cut through the night.  Bentley and three more dogs were released, charging forward, leaping over our defensive line to crash into a sea of duplicates.  The duplicates were now too closely packed together to even fall down, and were literally climbing over top of one another.  The dogs stumbled or slipped as the Jacklights tugged at one or two of their legs, then proceeded to tear their way through the crowd.

They were brought to a stop when they found the second of the Teeth’s defensive powers waiting for them.  Vex’s forcefields were countless, numbering in the hundreds, each sharp enough to cut exposed flesh.  Alone, they weren’t strong, but the shards had a collective, cumulative resistance.  I’d hoped Rachel’s dogs would have enough raw strength to power through.

Still, we had the advantage here.  The tide of the duplicates was slowed as the bludgeoning power of the dogs crumpled them underfoot or crushed them against one another, and both Barker and Biter were free to join the defensive line.  I was able to step back and get a brief respite from the hand to hand fighting with the Spree duplicates.

“Kip up!” Rachel bellowed the words.

One dog leaped to the side, planting its feet on a wall, then leaped for the Teeth on the far side.

A four-legged creature just a little smaller than the dog lunged into the air, brought the two of them crashing down into the midst of the sea of tiny forcefields.  Animos.

Cape teams naturally found their own synergies and strategies.  This was how the Teeth fought.  Two defensive lines protecting the reserve forces while the truly dangerous members acted.

Butcher raised her gun, setting one finger on a trigger of her gun.  It started spinning up.

“Butcher incoming!” I called out.

She teleported past the worst of Vex’s forcefield barrier.  Flame billowed around her in a muted explosion as she appeared.

Butcher six’s explosive teleporting.  It’s weaker than it was when six had it, shorter range, and the intensity of the explosion isn’t nearly what it once was.

She pushed past the remainder, and leveled the gatling gun at the nearest dog, pulled the trigger before anyone, Regent included, could do anything to trip her up.

Ten bullets were fired in a half-second.  A moment later, the weapon jammed.

Wounded but intact, the dog turned and snapped at her.

She was gone a heartbeat before the teeth snapped together.

Butcher three’s danger sense.  Didn’t do him much good.  Driven mad, died in a suicidal attack against the Teeth.  Window of opportunity is lower, application limited to more physical danger.

She reappeared in a cloud of rolling flame, reversed her grip on her gatling gun and swung it like a club, knocking Bentley clean off his feet.

Super strength, courtesy of one, three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen.  Cumulative effects.  A little bit of super strength from multiple sources added up.

Animos was pinned by another dog, a yellow light surrounding both of the unnatural beasts.  He screeched at the dog, a high-pitched noise that made me wince, but the effect didn’t take hold.  Animos’ scream could strip someone temporarily of their powers, but Citrine was dampening the effect.  That, or there was nothing to take away from the dog.  The mutation was Rachel’s power, technically.

Butcher approached the pair, and Citrine abandoned her assault, letting up.

As Tattletale had warned Grue, she’d warned Citrine as well. Butcher’s power was too dangerous to muck with.  Grue risked absorbing the consciousness of the prior Butchers, and Citrine risked striking on the right ‘attunement’ and accidentally killing Butcher.

But Citrine was still a leader, didn’t waste a moment.  She gave the signal, shouted something I couldn’t make out, and her followers opened fire.  Jacklight and Codex lobbed their attacks towards Butcher, and the leader of the Teeth teleported away before either could do any real damage.  Ligeia produced a geyser of water that sent duplicates flying ten or twelve feet in the air.  Othello, for his part, was standing by, his hands in his pockets, his two-tone mask expressionless.

Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t contributing.  Hemorrhagia was enduring an assault from an invisible, immaterial foe.  I could feel him, feel the movement against my bugs, but the bugs didn’t settle on him, simply passed through.  He was only partially there, focusing on allowing certain aspects of himself, his weapon, to affect our world.

Shallow cuts appeared on Hemmorhagia’s face, chest and arms as she tried ineffectually to shield herself, and those same cuts exploded violently as she used her power to draw her blood from her body and turn it into hard, physical, cutting weapons.  More blood congealed into broad scabs that protected her and reduced the damage of the continuous slashes.

A distance away, Imp appeared, electrocuting Spree with a jab of her taser and bringing an end to the stream of duplicates.  Not that the duplicates were doing as much damage as they had been.  Like lemmings running off a cliff, many were scaling the piles of fallen clones and promptly running into Vex’s forcefields, only adding more corpses to the virtual hill of corpses that separated us from the other members of the Teeth.

Our two Strangers were doing much of the work in dealing with the back line.  That left us to deal with Butcher.

Bentley had recovered and charged her.  She responded by hitting him with a wave of pain, putting him off his guard so she could strike him aside.

Butcher oneInflicted agony at range.

Bentley was quick to recover, quick to push past the pain that she was inflicting and attack.  She prepared to strike him again.

Regent knocked her off-balance, and she was caught off guard as Bentley struck her with one paw.

She teleported out of Bentley’s way before he could follow through with the attack, appeared in between Regent and I, surrounded by our capes.  We staggered back as flame washed over us.

I felt my focus begin to slip, thoughts of violence filling my mind.  I itched to attack, to hurt her.

I sent my bugs in, but that was the one gesture that set the others in motion.  Without realizing it, I found myself charging her.

Biter and Regent were among those caught in her spell.  We attacked her as mindlessly as Spree duplicates had attacked us.

My knife stabbed at her armor, doing too little damage.  I stabbed again, found a vulnerable spot at the back of her neck, just below her hairline.  I dragged the knife through her flesh.

Without even turning to face me, she elbowed me, and all the strength I had went out of me.  I careened a distance away, tumbled, landed amidst Spree clones.

They clutched feebly at me while I reeled.

Lizardtail’s power pressed even harder against me.  I could feel the edges of my injuries tingling, the wounds slowly knitting closed.  Far slower than they should have been, given the earlier demonstration of Lizardtail’s power.  Either he was weaker, or her ability to inflict wounds that progressively got worse over time was taking away from the power of his regeneration.

Butcher had a grip on Regent, threw him into Biter with enough strength to take the two of them out of the fight.

Possibly enough strength to kill one, if Lizardtail’s power wasn’t able to outpace the internal damage done.

Induces mindless rage.  Power from Butcher Nine.  Very low range.

Inflicts wounds that fester.  Power from Butcher Four.  Less effect than Four had.  Far shorter duration.

She teleported.  I could sense where she’d arrived as my bugs died en-masse.  She was going after Rachel.

I had lines of silk prepared, did what I could to bind Butcher.  She struggled briefly, then teleported free of them.

Codex and Ligeia directed attacks her way, and again, Butcher disappeared before either could really affect her.

I felt something shift inside me, and the pain dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  I got to my feet.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Get the wounded!”

Rachel whistled, and the dogs converged on our location.  Butcher had appeared in the midst of the Ambassadors, but the variety and ferocity of their attacks had her teleporting from moment to moment, doing more damage with the flames that appeared around her than through any action she could carry out.

It seemed that even though Codex’s attack hadn’t connected full force, Butcher wasn’t keen on giving her an opportunity to deliver any more grazing hits.

Rachel stopped next to me, offered me a hand up.

“Fetch Codex,” I said.  “The Ambassador in white.  Butcher’s going after her.  It might mean Codex is doing the most damage.”

Rachel gave me a curt nod, and we charged, leaving Grue to help Regent.

Butcher teleported away as Bentley hurtled at her.  I reached for Codex, took her hand.  She looked at Citrine, as if asking permission.

“Go,” Citrine said.

I helped Codex up onto Bentley’s back.  She had to sit sidesaddle.  Those ridiculous dresses.  They weren’t meant for fighting.

But, then, I suspected that Accord was used to ‘shock and awe’ tactics, when he had to engage in a direct assault.  How many of his enemies were as tough, versatile or persistent as Butcher?

She’d teleported away, effectively leaving her team to fend for themselves.  Only Reaver, Vex and, to a lesser degree, Hemorrhagia, were in fighting shape.  Butcher was interested only in the fight.  She was the central pillar of the Teeth, and stopping her would stop them, and for much that reason, her team was a secondary concern to us as well.

“Run!” I told Rachel.  “Codex, hit her where you can.”

I was versed in fighting teleporting foes, had engaged in a similar conflict against Oni Lee.  Butcher wasn’t him.  She didn’t obsessively use knives.

No, she was drawing a configuration of metal rods and panels from her back.  Her gun abandoned in the course of the fighting, she was unfolding the device into a different weapon.

A compound bow.

I already knew which power she was using next.  Imp had sabotaged the gun, jamming the ammo feed, but she hadn’t been able to get at the bow.  It was massive when fully unfolded, nearly six feet long, not counting the extra length as part of the curve.  Large enough that it required superhuman strength to draw.

Less than a year ago, Butcher had been known as Quarrel, and as Tattletale told it, Quarrel had used a much smaller version of that same bow to kill Butcher Thirteen in a drawn-out fight in New York.

Regent wasn’t in fighting shape.  My bugs weren’t able to move fast enough to reach her.  Ligeia wasn’t in a position to hit her with water, and Jacklight’s orbs didn’t reach nearly that far.

If she started shooting, we’d drop like flies.

“Hit her,” I said.  “Codex!”

Codex reached out to use her brain-drain attack.  It was visible only by the effects it had, but I’d seen it move through the Spree clones.  It was slow.

Butcher had time to string her bow before she had to teleport out of the way, appearing on top of a building with a vantage point of the battlefield.  She knelt, touching the rooftop, and reformed the stone into arrows.

That power was Butcher Eight’s, except he’d had more reach, was faster.

Bugs clustered at her eyes, but she barely seemed to notice.  Nearly blind, she drew her string, pointed the arrow at us.

Before I could react, shout a warning, Codex hit me with enough force to nearly unseat me, despite how I was sitting astride Bentley.  Something else struck my shoulder with enough force to tear half the armor away.

The new villain slumped and fell, joined by the piece of my armor that had been shorn off.  An arrow neatly penetrated her neck.

Butcher drew her bow again.

She didn’t miss.  She did something to warp space or adjust the very fabric of reality, so her shots always struck the intended target.

She aimed towards my teammates, paused, lowered her weapon a second as if momentarily confused.

The bow swept in the Ambassador’s direction.

Then she turned, her body rotating, the massive bow and long arrow pointing at us.  Rachel and I.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Go, go!”

We could only get out of range.

How far could a bow like that send an arrow flying?

Apparently Butcher didn’t think it would be this far.  She teleported, paused, then teleported again.  A small fire erupted at each destination point.

Another teleport, and she killed a swarm of bugs I’d left lying in wait.  I’d hoped she would fall short, and that I could bind her weapon with silk.  No such luck.

“She’s following!” I shouted.

Rachel grunted a response, kicked Bentley to drive him to run faster, then whistled.

Her dogs broke away from the rest of the Ambassadors and Undersiders, trailing after us.  Butcher had to teleport as one spry, smaller dog noticed her and ascended to the rooftop to give chase.

Buying time, but she was closing the distance.

I drew from the silk I had stored in my utility compartment.  Coils of it, braided together into lines strong enough to suspend a grown man.

Hopefully strong enough to hold Butcher.

We had a plan, I just hadn’t counted on her being quite as tenacious as she was.  I’d looked at the teleportation power, had failed to account for what it meant in conjunction with her danger sense.

I formed the silk into nets.  I could guess at her next destination, track her possible arrival points.

Again, she teleported right on top of a net.  The flames destroyed it.

One net left.

We’d reached the edge of the city.  There were fewer buildings, fewer rooftops.  Wet clumps of sand flew behind Bentley’s feet as he dug deep to find traction.

Butcher appeared on one of the last remaining rooftops, killing a cloud of bugs.  Other ambient bugs clustered on her, biting and stinging, doing ineffectual damage. Too tough, courtesy of Butcher number… fuck it.  Didn’t matter, really.

She deemed herself close enough to take a shot, drew her arrow back, raising the bow so it pointed nearly at the sky.

The net closed around her, unseated her arrow from its mount.

Bugs wound more strands around her knees.  The wind pushed at her, and she tried to extend one foot to catch her balance, succeeded only in tipping herself over.  She fell from the roof of the five-story building.

She teleported herself right to the ground, cutting the height of her fall in half and freeing herself of the net.

It was still a hard landing.

“Get her!  Fetch her!”

Rachel nodded, whistled three times, pointed.

The dogs that trailed after us were quick to follow the order, snatching up Butcher.

She’d heal, was probably healing the brain damage Codex had inflicted.  Butcher was tough enough that the dogs probably wouldn’t do enough damage before she regained her senses.

I might have been wrong in that assumption, but we couldn’t afford to think otherwise.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran.  Rachel and I on Bentley, a pack of her dogs following behind.

There was no telling how much time we had.

We’d gone into this with one plan.  One solid way of putting an end to Butcher.  It was why we weren’t hiding in the safety of Grue’s darkness.

Though we were in less danger than we’d been since the battle started, my heart was pounding harder than ever.

“Stop!” I called out, to be heard over the wind.

Rachel pulled Bentley to a stop.  She knew what came next, gave a hand signal.  “Dogs, stop!  Rat-dog, forward!’

The dog that had Butcher ran on a little further, passing over a line of stones in the wet sand.

“Shake!”

Rat-dog shook Butcher like she was a chew toy.

“Good dog,” Rachel said.  “Drop her.”

Rat-dog dropped Butcher.

“Come.”

Rat-dog whimpered.

“Good boy, come.”

Tail between his legs, Rat-dog approached, passing over the line of stones in the wet sand.

Long seconds passed.  Bentley virtually heaved with the exertion of the run.

My eyes didn’t leave Butcher.

Butcher roused, and it wasn’t a slow affair.  One instant she was lying prone, the next she’d teleported, appeared next to the narrow, light-bodied dog and bludgeoned it, sending it flying.

“Dakota, go!  Bear, go!”

Two more dogs charged Butcher, drove her back.

“Stop,” I warned Rachel.  I lowered my voice, “She has that rage aura.”

It didn’t matter.  Butcher dispatched the two dogs just as easily, eyed us warily as Rachel commanded them to retreat.

“Good dogs,” Rachel said, as they hurried to her side.

My eyes still didn’t leave Butcher.  I watched, waited.

She didn’t understand what was going on, why we weren’t pressing the attack.

But she wasn’t confident either.

She strung her bow, as if testing us.  She started to create an arrow out of sand, condensing it into a more solid form.

Then she gave up, stepped back.  The hardened rod of sand crumbled.

“Stop it,” she said.

I shook my head.

She lashed out, hit us with raw pain.

In the agony, the feeling of fire running through my veins, I toppled from Bentley’s back.

I’d anticipated this, or something like it, knew it was temporary.  I could only grit my teeth and tell myself it was almost the best case scenario, even when it didn’t quite feel like it.

Rachel’s dogs bristled, but the pain dissipated, and she found herself free to command them to stand down.

It didn’t matter.  Butcher was on her knees now, face turned toward the ground.

“Don’t say anything,” I murmured.

With more focus than before, Butcher formed a spike out of hard sand.

She was murmuring to herself now.  Conversing under her breath with the voices in her head.  She sounded oddly insistent, plaintive in a very childish manner.

When the weapon was formed, she glanced skyward, murmured something indistinct.

Then teleported a distance into the air, directly above the spike.

There was a wet sound, a pause.

“Nothing?” I asked Rachel.  “You… don’t feel her powers?”

She shook her head.

“Then let’s go.”

We began our long journey back to the others, leaving Butcher with a spike through her heart.

No rush.  The fight was over.  One more foe taken down.

If the PRT happened to wonder if any of the Undersiders or Ambassadors had acquired Butcher’s powers, all the better.

“Mind if I come by tonight?” I asked, my voice low.

Rachel shot me a glower over her shoulder, “Why?”

“To talk.”

“We can talk now.”

“And so I can see how you’re coping with your minions.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a whatever,” she said.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Okay,” I said.

There was no more conversation as we closed the distance to the others.

They were more or less in ship-shape when we arrived.  Regent was propped up against a wall, but he wasn’t pulverized.  The only one we’d lost was Codex.

“Success?” Grue asked.

“Success,” I said.

The entire group, even the straight-backed Ambassadors, seemed to react with relief.

“Guess my sister has one more kill under her belt,” Regent commented.  “Fourteen voices in Cherish’s head to keep her company as she spends the next few centuries alone at the bottom of the bay.”

“Daddy!” a toddler squealed.  No older than three, the small child waded past a pack of dogs to her father, the tall, large-bellied man who I’d seen handling some of Rachel’s dogs.

Rachel ignored the reunion, greeted the dogs who milled around her, barking and whining in joy as their master returned.

“Food?” she asked me, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Sure.”

“Someone make food,” she declared.

“I will!” a darker-skinned teenage girl declared.  She looked to be of mixed race, with brilliant blue eyes that didn’t match up with her brown, coarse hair and skin.

“Hamburger,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” the kid said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Vegetables,” I cut in.  “Something healthier.”

Rachel shrugged.  “That grilled crap you made before, with the… long green vegetables.”

“The asparagus?”

“Yeah.  That was good.”

The kid looked like she’d just won the lottery, almost bursting with joy.

Barker, Biter and the veterinarian all set to basic chores around the place, as if it were routine.  No one seemed to begrudge the fact that Bitch was taking it easy while they worked, not even Barker, who had been somewhat prickly the last time I’d run across him.

Either she’d earned their respect, or they’d learned how stubborn she was.

“I wanted to talk to you about the future,” I said.

“Mm,” Rachel said, reclining.  The dogs were clustered around her feet, the larger ones laying their heads in her lap.

“It’s… problematic, having you patrolling the area out here, scaring the locals.  You know that, right?”

Rachel shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

I watched as the man with the three year old girl joined one of Bitch’s other followers, a woman who had apparently been babysitting the child.  He fished in one pocket for money, then handed it over.

His voice was quiet, a mumble, “When some’dy helps you out, what d’you say?”

“Thank you!” the toddler chirped.

The woman only scowled.  I saw Rachel out of the corner of one eye, watching.

The man made his way past the kitchen, nearly running into the darker-skinned girl who was already cooking, past Barker and Biter, before finding a place to sit with his child.

Despite his size, his presence, the man with the child didn’t make eye contact with anyone.  Almost flinched at it, even in the face of a hundred-pound girl.

Mentally disabled?  Developmentally delayed?  Or had he suffered a trauma?

Between the way the girl had been so overjoyed at the slightest praise, and this man’s attitude, I was wondering if maybe Rachel’s people were somehow just as damaged as she was.

“There’s one possibility,” I said to Rachel.  “A role you could play in this.  You don’t have to.  Just putting it out there.”

“What’s that?”

“The portal, it sounds like it’s going to be a thing.  There’s a whole world out there with nobody around.  People will be settling there, establishing a society.  I’m imagining there’ll be something of a society popping up around the portal, a mirror city to Brockton Bay.  But there’ll be pioneers as well.  People striking out on their own.  And some of the Undersider’s enemies are going to try to slip through, control things on the other side.”

“And?”

“If you’re willing, maybe you could serve as an aide to the Undersiders, but you patrol for trouble, track down troublemakers and fugitives.  That could be your territory, more than just the fringes of this city.”

She frowned.

“It’s just an idea.”

“It’d be hard to feed my dogs.”

“Manageable,” I said.  “Tattletale aims to control one of the fleets that brings supplies to the other side.  We don’t know how restrictive the government will be with the portal, or where ownership will lie, but… I don’t imagine getting dog food to you will be a problem.  And as the area gets settled, maybe you could supply trained dogs to pioneers or hunters looking to capitalize on the area.”

She didn’t reply, focusing on her adoring dogs, instead.  Two hands, no less than twenty ears to scratch in her reach.

“Think about it,” I said.

“Mm,” she grunted.

The man was playing with his daughter, who was squealing and reaching out to pet the dogs who were standing by, almost protective.

“They’re okay?” I asked.  “The dogs won’t hurt the kid?”

“None of the dogs at this shelter,” Rachel said.  “Picked them carefully.”

I was a little stunned at that.  To give that much thought to something like that… it wasn’t in her character.

“Why?” I asked.

“You said I should think about what people need from dogs.  If I’m going to find them homes, the dogs need to be able to live with families.”

I nodded.  There were more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to spoil the quiet relief I felt at hearing her say that.

We sat for ten more minutes before Bitch rose and began playing with dogs.  She incorporated training into the play, dividing dogs into teams and having them fetch in shifts, among other things.  I stood, joining her, and she handed me a ball.

There wasn’t much more conversation beyond that.  Most of the talking was reserved for the dogs.

Time passed quickly enough that I was surprised that Rachel’s henchperson announced that the food was ready.  Not everyone collected some.  Barker and Biter held off.  The vet had her hands full.  Rachel loaded up a plate with two burgers and a pile of grilled vegetables.  I took about half the portions she did.

It wasn’t very good, but the kid seemed so pleased with herself that I couldn’t say anything to that effect.  Rachel didn’t seem to care, nor did the big man and his daughter.

“Thank you,” the toddler piped up, sing-song, when she was done eating the bits of crumbled up hamburger and bun.

Rachel, for her part, only stood to grab a soda.  She mussed up the cook’s hair on the way back, as if she were petting a dog.

…Not quite a leadership style I might have suggested, but the kid looked happy.

I finished what I could, considered throwing the rest to the dogs, then decided it was best not to risk angering Rachel.

It was late at night, now, but I didn’t return to my lair.  We tended to the dogs, grooming them, cleaning their ears and brushing their teeth.  Certain dogs were due pills, and Rachel saw to it that they got the pills.

It was an endless sequence of those little tasks I’d always found frustrating.  Cleaning up, doing jobs that would only be undone by the next day, if not within minutes.  I’d always found them frustrating, found it tolerable only now that I could delegate bugs to many of them.

Rachel reveled in it.  It seemed to calm her, center her.

The others found their way to their beds, or made their way out the front door to head back to wherever they lived.  Many dogs retreated to the kennels that were set out for each of them, and Rachel took the time to lock them in.

The night was creeping on, and I wasn’t leaving.  I knew why, didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Exhaustion overtook me eventually, though I would have been hard pressed to say exactly when.

I woke in the middle of the evening, found myself slumped on a couch with a crick in my neck, a blanket over me.

Rachel was on another couch, and the blue-eyed girl, the cook, was lying beside her, her back pressed to Rachel’s front.

I stood, stretched, winced at the knot at the muscle where my neck met my shoulder.  The movement seemed to stir Rachel.  She started to extricate herself from behind the girl.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” I murmured, keeping my voice quiet enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone.

She shifted position, keeping herself propped up, “You leaving?”

I frowned, “Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She settled back down, and the kid curled up against her.  Kid.  The teenager was probably older than Aisha or Vista.  I couldn’t help but see her as younger, because there was something about her that screamed ‘lost’.

Maybe that was the role that Rachel filled, here.  Forming a screwed up, antisocial family with those who had nobody else.  Damaged people.

I was okay with that.  I could believe that, even if she didn’t heal them or help them get better in any explicit way, she wouldn’t make them worse.

I felt like I should say something more, but I was tired, my thoughts increasingly occupied by greater matters.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said.

I headed to the door.  I was already gathering bugs to me, just to ensure I had a safe walk back.  A walk home in the dark would be nice.  Time to think.

“Thanks.”

I stopped in my tracks, looked back.

Rachel had her head down against the armrest of the couch.  I couldn’t see her through the other girl’s head.

But it had been her voice.

I revised my opinion.  Maybe they could heal each other, in their own ways.

It helped, as I stepped outside and started my long, quiet trek home.  I was riddled with doubts, with countless worries, but knowing that Rachel was in a better place was a light in the darkness.

I had let two days pass since my conversation with Miss Militia.  Dealt with the Teeth.  They weren’t all gone.  Hemorrhagia had slipped away, as had Reaver, and there were rank and file troops.  Parian still had some cleaning up to do, at the very least, but the Teeth weren’t the presence they had been.

Now I had to face everything I’d been dreading.  I’d spent time here because I was procrastinating.  Putting off the inevitable.  I couldn’t put it off any longer: if I didn’t bring myself to do it soon, it would only get harder to bring myself to do it.

Tomorrow morning, I thought.  I face off with Tagg and the rest of the PRT.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Imago 21.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time we finished.

My sundress was lying on the floor, a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the spot where we’d laid down.  I shook it, then called my swarm, let my bugs crawl up my body to sweep and brush my skin clean.  The bugs made their way up the sides and back of my neck to my hair, then weaved through it as a mass, their bodies and mandibles helping to set it in order.  Others progressed down my arms, making their way to the dress, doing much the same with the fabric.

I was just about finished when I caught Brian staring at me.

I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled a little, shook his head, turned his attention to his costume.

I pulled the sundress over my head, and it was my chance to take a look at Brian.  He had only the leggings of his costume on, and was working one arm into the sleeve, his chest bare behind the ‘v’ of the unzipped upper body.  The way his muscles shifted fluidly beneath his skin, the lines of his body… I felt an ache that wasn’t heartbreak.  A pang of loss on a baser level.

I wanted him, damn it.  Wanted to nourish every sense with him.  The visual of him, the taste of his sweat when I kissed his skin, his smell, the bass of his voice and the little noises he made.  The feel of him, warm, the way every part of him was firm without being unyielding.

But no, it wasn’t going to work out.  There was no long-term, and trying to cling to one would only spoil it all.

We hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t want to taint the silence with something that would only be awkward or ineffectual, couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, but I didn’t want to leave him feeling like I was ashamed or unhappy, leaving it like this.

While he was still pulling on the upper part of his costume, I approached him, stood on my tiptoes, and then kissed his cheek.

Brian didn’t respond as I got the bags, collected the paperwork, folder and booklet Citrine had given us and headed down the stairwell to the street, moving at something between a brisk walk and a jog every step of the way.

There were no catcalls as I made my way back to the upper end of downtown.  Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, moving indoors, and the ones who’d stayed outside were still in a state where they were focusing more on the work than on the wet, noisy, damaged world beyond the work site.

The thin drizzle of rain was bothersome.  It wasn’t so much the wet, or the fact that it threatened to draw attention to me.  It was the fact that it was raining just enough that it was uncomfortable, but I’d still look lame if I used an umbrella.

No matter, in the grand scheme of things.  I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.  It was a good feeling.

For a while now, it had been hard to put a finger on my emotions.  What I was feeling now was crystal clear.  Loss.  Disappointment.  Relief.

All things considered, I felt oddly upbeat as I boarded a bus and caught a ride to my territory.  I had to take off my hat to avoid bumping it into people, and felt conspicuous, the ends of my hair wet, hat gone, my light, tourist-y appearance a little the worse for wear.

I headed to the empty seats at the back, and I couldn’t help but notice that one thirty-something year old guy was studying my face as I walked by.  He was with two or three of his friends, all of them tanned and dressed like the construction workers I’d passed.  Laborers.  I directed a small few mosquitoes to him as I brushed past.  One on each elbow and knee, to give me a sense of where he was moving and what he was doing.

It was thanks to the bugs that I could get the general idea of his movements: him reaching out to one of his friends, tugging on their arm, then leaning close to say something I couldn’t hear.

Damn it.  Not a problem, like it would be if someone spotted me on my way away from my territory, creating the possibility that heroes might crash the meeting with Citrine, but nonetheless inconvenient.

I sat in the back corner and set the bags beside me.  They were loaded down with hostile bugs, I had the handle to the bus’ emergency exit beside me, and my weapons were near-to-hand if things really got ugly.

The four men approached me, and I kept looking out the window, feigning a lack of concern.

They sat around me, all well-built, tall men, a barrier between me and the rest of the occupants of the bus. The one who’d noticed me glanced my way; I met his eyes, and he gave me a curt nod before deliberately ignoring me.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I appreciated the idea behind it, assuming it was for my benefit.  Was it the notion that I was a girl who needed protection?  Or was I more bothered by the fact that I probably needed a shower, and they were sitting a little close to me?

It might help to get a license, I thought.  And a car.

I smiled just a little at the idea that I might get a Volkswagen Beetle.  It’d be stupid, impractical, and it would be too obvious.  A van would be better in every respect.

Not that I couldn’t buy a number of cars.  A bug, a van, a boat… even a helicopter, assuming Atlas wouldn’t hold up.

No.  I was being unrealistic.  Still, it was an amusing thought.

Everyone exited the bus at the final stop, the area where the ferry had once been.  My self-styled escorts were among the last to leave, departing without so much as a glance my way, and I was last to step out into my territory.

I made my way deeper into my territory, my hat still stuffed in a bag, the soft rain wetting my hair and beading my skin.  My escorts made their way to a construction site, but other  people were recognizing me now that I was in my territory, and their recognition only helped others to notice.  Groups of people stepped out of my way in respect, in fear or a mingling of the two.

There was no rush.  I took a roundabout route, watching over my bugs and ensuring that everything was in an appropriate place.  Rats were still something of an issue, having feasted and multiplied many times over in the aftermath of the Leviathan attack, and I made a point of finding and exterminating any litters I found.

Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply.  They were one species I wanted to keep away from people, and I made a point of moving them away from all residential areas.  They were the filler in my swarms, one of the only species around that I could eradicate or use up entirely without doing too much to upset the local ecology.

I wanted Brockton Bay stable, everything in order.  That wasn’t limited to the human aspect of things.

I entered an area where the damage had once been heaviest, and where much of the construction had recently finished.  Here, things had been brought up to standards.  The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that this area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved.  Even the alleys, marked clearly with new one-way signs, tended to be wide enough that trucks and cars could potentially pass through in pairs.  But where there had once been dilapidated warehouses and factories, the buildings were quaint, neat and tidy, with siding in whites and light colors.  ‘Seaside colors’ I’d heard it described.  Colors that were warmer and more enticing, fitting with the boardwalk-in progress, the beaches that were being thoroughly cleaned, and the bay itself.  The water was gray now, reflecting the overcast sky above, but it was capable of being a brilliant, stellar blue.

People were already officially moving into this area, which had once been the part of Brockton Bay that people were urged to stay away from.  Couples, laborers, people with kids.

I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ on the side of one of the nicer, newer homes: a narrow, pale blue condominium.  I’d made requests that the graffiti be kept subtle, and I’d told people who worked for me to pass on word that others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere, to limit confusion.  My emblem, a beetle with wings spread, marked walls and signposts, predominantly on the buildings that had yet to receive attention.  Still, there were crude replicas here and there.  I’d have to make sure someone was watching out for that and passing on the word.

People were still watching me, eyeing me as I walked through the area.  Mosquitoes I’d brought to myself were clinging to me, leaving little doubt about who I was.  There was no need to hide.  I’d have other measures in place before too long.

My detour brought me around to what had become a makeshift memorial.  There were flowers and the like forming a ring where a fence had been erected.  In the center of the ring, an oval shape sat embedded in the ground.  This was the area where we’d fought Leviathan.  A time-distortion grenade had gone off, and three heroes had been trapped inside.  Brockton Bay’s own Dauntless among them.

The center of the bubble was as impenetrable as Clockblocker’s power, while the effects were more nebulous around the edges.  Dust and moisture were caught in the sphere, obscuring the contents, all moving a fraction of a glacial pace.  There was a hand print at one point where someone had tried to touch it, shifting the dust and moisture, losing some skin in the process.  In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere.  Pennies, sticks.  That had stopped when others had tidied up the area and the flowers had started appearing here and there.

There had been talk of blanketing the entire thing in flower petals, so it wasn’t a gray-brown egg with a neat pattern, but others wanted to leave it be, protecting it with a bubble or shelter so the rain and dust could clear away, and people who visited could see the three heroes as they were when they were caught within, in the midst of being thrown through the air, the very moment they effectively gave their lives for the sake of the city and the world.

The entire thing was framed by the surrounding buildings.  There’d been too much damage from the skirmish with Leviathan for them to stand, and I’d made a special request to the designers for the rebuilding.  They were shaped so that there was something of a clearing around the bubble.  The city could decide what to do with the bubble itself; I’d done what I could with the surroundings.

I reached into one of the shopping bags, retrieving a small bouquet.  I laid it just outside the fence, where it joined innumerable other tokens of respect: Letters, flowers, an action figure, a Dauntless poster with something illegible scribbled on it.

The city was healing, but there were still scars.  Some were smaller, like this.  Others, like the appropriately named ‘Scar’ downtown, or the lake Leviathan had created, weren’t so minor, would loom in the awareness of the people who lived here for a long time to come.  The ‘Scar’ had been encased in a squat, windowless, zig-zagging piece of architecture.  The lake would likely remain as it was, until the city found a way to make more use of it.  Neither was particularly pleasant to think about, either in terms of what had happened or the ideas about what could come in the future.

I could only hope that we could be so lucky in other areas, to have only scars and unpleasant reminders.

I was halfway back to my lair when I sensed intruders.  In an instant, my nerves were on edge, bugs stirring from the surroundings to investigate as discreetly as I could.

I thought of Leviathan attacking the area, of Mannequin’s visits, of Burnscar.

Except these were heroes present.

I let myself relax a fraction, waited until I was as calm as I could get.  Then I approached.

Parian was sitting on a bench under some eaves, Miss Militia leaning against a wall a few steps to her right, holding a bottle of water, and Flechette was a little ways away, staring up at a building in progress.  My people hung back, staring or watching the heroes with a wary eye, hesitant.  They couldn’t be sure if there was a confrontation in the works or if they should keep working, so they weren’t leaving and they weren’t really working.

Others were staring at me, noticing me.  Miss Militia seemed to catch onto the reaction of the crowd even before I was in her field of view.  She straightened and a rifle appeared in one hand.

Flechette saw the heroine move out of the corner of one eye, turned my way with her arbalest in hand.

Neither of them pointed their weapons at me.  A good sign.

“You’re in my territory,” I said, when I was in earshot.

“Apparently,” Flechette said, her voice level, “We can’t go anywhere in this city without being in someone’s territory.”

Miss Militia shot the girl a warning look.  “Parian invited us.”

I glanced at Parian, who was still sitting in her seat, a cloth doll in her lap.  “I would have preferred if she’d asked me first, but fine.”

“We wanted to talk,” Miss Militia said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Because that’s worked very well in the past few days, hasn’t it?  Or did you miss the notice?  The PRT outed me.”

“I’m aware,” Miss Militia said.  “I was there when they made the decision.  I spoke against it, for all the good it did.”

“For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.  I didn’t have my costume, but I could use intimidation to armor myself.  “Your stay here is a very temporary one.  I can ask you to leave at any time.  Your choice whether that’s peacefully or if I evict you.”

I could see Flechette tense.

“We’re not looking to fight,” Miss Militia said.

“Good,” I said, glancing around me.  The rain was still pattering down around me, and the street was damp, not flooded, but it wouldn’t be good to offload my bags there.  I ventured under the eaves and set the bags down in a dry spot.  I folded my arms.  “Give me your weapons.”

“There’s no point to giving you mine,” Miss Militia said.  “I could call it back to me, switch it to something else and shoot you before you could react.”

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “This is a symbolic gesture.  Please give me your weapons.”

She stared at me, taking me in.  Then she looked down at the gun.  It flickered and became a bowie-knife.  She tossed it into the air, caught it by the flat of the blade, and then approached me, extending the handle in my direction.

I took the blade, and I could swear it reacted, vibrating.

“It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s a part of me.”

A part of her, as in… a part of her mind? Or is it her passenger?

I felt like there was something more I should say in response to that, but I decided to focus on the matter at hand. People were watching from the sidelines.

“Flechette.  Your arbalest,” I said.

She looked far less agreeable than Miss Militia had been.  She glanced at her superior, received a nod in response.

Flechette placed the arbalest on the ground halfway between us, then backed off.

I was willing to bet she had other weapons, but it wasn’t worth the effort to get them from her.

“You owe me,” Flechette told Parian.  Parian didn’t respond, staring down at the ground.

“She owes you?” I asked.

“I was home.  I came back because she asked, and it’s probably coming out of my time off.  And you weren’t even here when we arrived.  We waited twenty minutes.”

“I would have been if I had any notice,” I said.

“I don’t want something ugly to happen on my vacation day,” Flechette said.  “That’s all I’m saying.  Not happy-cool about this as it is.”

“Were you shopping?” Miss Militia asked, as if she were trying to change the subject or distract me from Flechette.  When I looked, her eyebrows were indicating mild surprise.

“I can’t go shopping anymore,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound hostile, but reminding me of that isn’t going to help anything.”

“You’re upset,” Miss Militia said.  Before I could think of a retort, she added, “You deserve to be.”

I shut my eyes briefly.  When I asked my question, I sounded almost exasperated, “Why are you here?”

“The first reports came back from inside the portal, and they’re promising.”

I nodded.

“Fresh water, lumber.  Geological surveys suggest there’s mining, and that’s all in close proximity to the portal.  Plant, animal and insect life seem to have evolved in rough parallel to our own.  Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect.  The deviation point seems to be nearly five thousand years ago.  Several teams are working on analyzing the sites where humans settled, looking for the cause of extinction.  We’ll have reports back soon, and we expect to make a statement to the world at large in a few days.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.  If she weren’t nursing a bad migraine, I suspected she would have already informed me of the details.

“Even if it turns out there’s a plague, parasite or hostile agency in this other world, the sheer value of the resources on the other side are going to make this portal very valuable.  I think it’s safe to say Brockton Bay stands to become a rich city, and that begins the moment the news gets out.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“Expected something like that,” I said.  “I suppose this means you want to talk to the villains that are currently controlling this soon-to-be-rich city’s underworld.”

“Dragon and Defiant came to Brockton Bay with the interest of setting up a plan, drawing a truce between your group and ours.  I suspect Dragon already had suspicions about this other world and everything it entailed.”

“Except things got screwed up along the way,” I said.

“Yes.  And on the other side of things, particular events came to light, validating things you’d said, on several fronts.”

I glanced at Flechette.  I’d given her directions to find the armband.  There was also the business with the leading heroes of the Protectorate being complicit in the Cauldron debacle.  I wasn’t sure Flechette was up to date on that one.

“You checked out the armband?”  I asked Flechette.

It was Miss Militia who answered, “I was informed about possible tinker material being passed around and investigated, possible contraband.  It was Flechette investigating the device.  We contacted Defiant together and got the answers we were looking for, in a much more direct manner.”

“He was your friend.”

“A colleague and a friend, yes.  We were very good at different things.  He told me he was sorry he couldn’t attend this meeting.  He’s… preoccupied at present.  Flechette, Defiant and I had a long series of discussions that led nowhere in particular.  It only pointed to an increasingly ugly situation without an easy resolution.  Until Parian contacted Flechette about a meeting.”

“With me,” I said.

“With you.”

I glanced back at Parian.  She wasn’t moving, still sitting in a chair, not looking our way.

“Okay,” I said.  “We can talk.”

“Good.  Let me start off by extending an apology.  I’m sorry things turned out as they did.  I don’t agree with the way that incident played out.”

That incident.  The thing at the school.

“We looked back at what happened with your history at the school, the allegations of bullying-”

“Stop,” I said.

She did.

“If you’re going to say anything on the subject, don’t mince words.  You know who Shadow Stalker was beneath the mask.  You probably have an idea of the kind of things she did.  Don’t pretty it up by using words like allegations.”

Flechette stared at me.

“Not allegations then.  The bullying, the abuse you endured.  I don’t like that it happened.  I don’t like that we were complicit in it.  It fills in quite a few blanks, helping me make sense of what happened after you uncovered Shadow Stalker’s secret identity.  Defiant knows too, now.  I recognize that it might even have pushed you to take a different direction with your newfound powers.”

“I got my powers because of her,” I said.

Miss Militia fell silent.

“Early January, followed by a hospital stay.  You can look it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I suspected it was your mother’s passing that caused your trigger.”

“See,” I told her. “There’s one thing that’s really grating with you heroes.  You keep saying sorry.  Oh, you guys are sorry your top members were kidnapping people and turning them into freaks.  You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers.  You’re sorry that your bosses crossed a line, trying to drop bombs on our team members after we did the grunt work of facing the Slaughterhouse Nine.  You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.  But you don’t change.  You don’t do anything about it.”

There was enough venom in my voice that Flechette had started eyeing her arbalest, where it sat in the rain.  One of her hands was poised in the air, as if she were preparing to reach into a pouch at her side.  She was looking at the crowd around us, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was worried they’d respond if she attacked me, or if she was double checking they were out of earshot.

“That’s why we’re here,” Miss Militia said, calm.

“That’s why we’re here,” I echoed her.  “Yeah.  Well said.  All those events I just mentioned, they’re part of why I’m here.  I’d say you have nobody to blame but yourselves for the fact that you have me to deal with, but I’m willing to admit I’m largely at fault for the decisions I made.  You guys… you just greased the wheels, I suppose.”

“We’d like to change that dynamic.  Defiant, Dragon, myself-”

“You want to change, but you’re still working for them.  For the Protectorate,” I said.

“We have to.”

I frowned, forced myself to relax.  “Dragon said the same thing.  Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.  You think we need the Protectorate.”

“We do.  And if everyone with enough of a conscience to feel regret over these events were to leave, I don’t think anyone will be happy with the group of those who stayed behind.”

“There’s another route,” I said.  “Accept that it’s broken, accept that it needs to change, and do something about it.  Recognize that what Tagg did was fucked up, act on that.”

“It’s dangerous.  Things are sensitive.  There’s only an eighteen percent chance of success in the upcoming fight if we face Behemoth.  Twenty-nine percent if it’s the Simurgh, with… a great deal more fallout after the fact.   Without the Protectorate, chances drop to an even lower number than they are, and the damage gets worse.”

Dinah.  The only way they’d have these numbers would be Dinah.

“You’re afraid of rocking the boat when the ship’s sinking,” I said.

“Something like that.”

I sighed.

“But…” Miss Militia hesitated.  “In light of revelations over this past month, keeping recent events in mind, and perhaps because we have more of an insight into who you are, Taylor Hebert, I think we might be more open to more discussion than we were.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Protectorate, the Wards.”

“The PRT?”

Miss Militia shook her head.

It wouldn’t be enough if the PRT wasn’t on board.  There was some argument I wanted to make, something I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t quite form the thought in my head.

“What do you think of this?” I asked Flechette, to buy myself time to think, or maybe in hopes of rounding out the half-formed thought.

“It doesn’t directly affect me,” she said, glancing away.  “I’m still trying to decide if I should trust you.

“If it doesn’t directly affect you, why does this matter?”

“Because I got home and saw my family, and they said I was different, angrier.  And they were right.  Because I’m hearing about everything that’s happening, all these secrets coming out, and I can’t even look at my teammates without wondering if there’s something nefarious about them.  Because Parian was the one good thing I found in this city, and you recruited her,” Flechette said.

Parian looked up.

“That costume, it’s like a slap in the face.  Like, it wasn’t obvious enough you corrupted her.  You had to take the playfulness away?  The joy?”

“Hey,” Parian said, standing.  “It was my decision.”

“She was following advice I gave,” I said.  “She wanted to stand up to the people who are trying to attack her territory, and she wanted to do it without our help.  Being a little more intimidating doesn’t hurt.”

“You-”

“Flechette,” Miss Militia cut her off.

Flechette went limp, the fight gone out of her, just like that.

“I don’t know anymore,” Flechette said.  “I don’t know where I’m going.  Everything was all laid out, a career with the Wards, a career with the Protectorate.  Except I’m not even sure there’s going to be a future anymore… and I’m not sure what happens if there is.”

“I think you and I are very similar on that front,” I said, my voice quiet.

She looked at me, her lips pressed together in anger, then looked away, unable to disagree, as much as she might want to.

“I guess… I guess what it comes down to,” I said, “Is that you have to decide what you want.  What you’re willing to fight for and make sacrifices for.”

Flechette’s eyes flickered over to Parian, then down to the ground.

Ah.

“I’m… alone,” she said.  “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself.  Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  And when I finally got to… I’ve never felt more disconnected from everyone around me.  It wasn’t what I wanted, or what I needed.  I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends.  Sounds stupid when I say that.  Sounds weak.”

“I’m fully aware I don’t have much stock with you, so maybe what I say isn’t worth much to you, but I don’t think less of you for saying that.  The prospect of being all on your own is scary.  It’s harder, and things are hard enough as it is.”

Miss Militia was staring at me.  I met her eyes.

“Interesting to have a conversation with you,” she said, “With a greater understanding of the girl behind the mask.  What do you want, Taylor?”

“I’m not Taylor,” I said.  “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

“Skitter, then.”

“Compromise,” I said.  “Give me compromise.”

“I can try.”

“You can, the Wards can, but the PRT won’t.  You said as much.”

“They have other burdens to bear.”

“And until they work with us, they’re going to be a bucking bull in a china shop,” I said.  “Strutting around and doing catastrophic damage to a delicate situation.  Tagg said this is a war-”

I could see a look flash across Miss Militia’s face.

“-and you can’t reason with people like that,” I said.  “Not people who are hungry for conflict, willing to fight until someone’s too beat up to fight back.”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  Her tone of voice had shifted.  “You can’t.  I’ve heard him say something along those lines before.  A small part of the reason I’m here.”

“Then you agree.  He can’t be leading the PRT if we’re going to reach any kind of consensus.”

“I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.  The very structure of the PRT is built around the idea that the unpowered call the shots, and the capes follow them.”

“We both know that it’s not that cut and dry,” I said.  I glanced at Flechette.  Did she know about Alexandria?

“I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s not in my power.”

“It’s in mine,” I said.  “I think.  I hope.”

I could see the furrow in between her eyebrows.  “What are you thinking?  More violence?  You won’t be able to twist Tagg’s arm to get what you want out of him.”

“I’m still not entirely sure,” I said.  “I think I can twist his arm.  It’ll be easier if you’re willing to compromise.  I need your help to make this work.”

“What sort of help?”

“A mixture of support and passive resistance.  Nothing that hurts the PRT as a whole.  Nothing that hurts the result against the Endbringers.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Specifically?”

“For starters, we treat every situation like you treated the ABB, back in April.  We address threats, tag team them.  Only we communicate more this time around.  The Teeth are a problem, but others are going to arise when word about the portal gets out.”

“Done.  The PRT may not play ball, but we can communicate by other channels.”

“The heat’s off the Undersiders and Ambassadors both.  We can’t do anything constructive if you guys are after us.”

“The PRT will continue to order us to engage you.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Then that’s when you apply passive resistance.  You return to your bosses and you say the mission against the Undersiders was unsuccessful.  Bitch ran, Grue used his darkness, Tattletale must have passed on information.  We do our best to avoid giving you cause to come after us, you don’t attack when the bosses order you to.”

She frowned.  “This is giving you amnesty for past misdeeds, in practice.”

“Yes.  But it ensures we’re all in fighting shape when the next Endbringer fight goes down.”

“Accord remains a problem.”

“We’ll keep him busy, put him in the background.  Tattletale has a sense of his motives.  We can keep him occupied while keeping him from having a direct hand in things.”

“Our passivity would hinge on his.”

“Deal,” I said.

“And you can’t keep pushing things like you have been.  The degree of aggression you’ve been demonstrating, with the attack at the PRT head offices and Valefor, it tests our patience.”

“They noticed, then?  Valefor’s eyeballs.”

“That’s the kind of event that provokes a response from the PRT.”

I nodded.  “It’s supposed to, just a little.  It was a message to Tagg as much as a way of dealing with Valefor.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that will get him to abandon his position or back down.”

“I think it is,” I said.  “But that’s only one aspect of a greater plan.”

I could see her frown.  Not that I could see the lower half of her face, but I saw it in her eyes.

“A day or two,” I said, “Then I stop.  I’ll fill you in on the details as soon as I have them.”

She frowned.

“Flechette,” I said.

“What?”

“Is this satisfactory?  If we call a truce, the local heroes will be free to assist Parian.  I suspect she’ll be willing to accept their help where she’s less accepting of ours.”

“I will,” Parian said.

“Would that make things easier between the two of you?”

“I’m not local,” Flechette’s words were a whisper.

“You could be,” I told her.  “Or you could visit.  I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.”

“We can use all the help here we can get,” Miss Militia said.  “If you wanted to join the Wards team on a permanent basis, I could see about arranging something.”

“Let- let me think about it,” Flechette said.  “It’d mean leaving my family.  Or moving them, depending.”

“Then that’s as settled as it’s going to get,” I said.

“I still have concerns about your continued swathe of destruction,” Miss Militia told me.  “If your vendetta against Tagg gets any uglier, this idea won’t hold.”

I’d hoped the distraction of talking to Flechette would keep her from returning to that topic.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt,” I said.  “Please.”

I could see the lines around her eyes deepen as she frowned.

“Just this once.  It’s all I’ve been asking you guys for, from the beginning.  Trust that I’m doing what I’m doing for a good reason.  I just need you to maybe turn a blind eye here and there, support me when the situation calls for it.  I’ll fill you in where I can, and I’ll make a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know what to do otherwise.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia conceded.

A second passed with nobody speaking.

“I’d extend my hand for you to shake,” I told her, “But we probably don’t want something that blatant popping up on a cell-phone video.  For now, at least, this truce stays unofficial.”

She offered me a curt nod.  I held her knife out towards her, and it dissolved into a mess of green-black energy.  It zipped to Miss Militia’s hand, became a pistol.  She holstered it.

Together with Flechette, she left, making her way out of my territory.  A hundred pairs of eyes watched them leave.  Maybe I could pass word around to get people to keep quiet on the subject.

“Thank you,” Parian murmured.

I glanced at her.

“For what you said to Flechette.  How you said it.”

“I have more respect for you than you’d probably believe,” I told her.  “I hope it works.”

“I think it will.”

I watched the heroes as they departed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, eyeing the light rainfall beyond the eaves of the building.  I shrugged, heading towards my lair.  “Redundant, maybe, but I think a shower is the least of the luxuries I’m entitled to as a wealthy, nationally recognized supervillain.  I’ll talk to you later.  Let me know if you hear back from Flechette.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to my back.

I looked back, gave her a quizzical look.

“I could have arranged that better,” she said.  “I sprung it on you.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “It was necessary.  No worries on that front.”

I didn’t voice my true thoughts aloud, though.  The conversation with the heroes had needed to happen.  The fact that Parian and Flechette had been present was a stroke of luck.  The downside, the other side of the matter, was that I now had to act before someone in a position of power caught on to what was happening with our truce and ended it prematurely, or before Miss Militia herself reconsidered.  I had to act before I started having second thoughts.

Which was harder than it sounded, because I hadn’t even figured out if there was a way to pull this off without alienating everyone that counted.

Parian had inadvertently accelerated my plan. For that, I hated her, just a little.  That feeling was clear enough, small as it might be.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Imago 21.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Had Tagg done me a favor, by getting me to think along these lines?  For what felt like too long, I’d been overly focused on the now.  Getting through the next few days, surviving, staying sane, parceling out the time I had to relax and striving to find moments where I could feel safe.  That state of mind hadn’t started when I put on my costume.

Odd, to be taking someone’s words to heart, when I had so very little respect for them.

I was in plainclothes, and they were clothes I wouldn’t normally have worn, which was sort of the point.  The idea was to be hidden in plain sight, as I walked in the midst of the crowds downtown.  I’d removed my glasses and regretfully donned contact lenses, slathered on sunscreen and donned a white summer dress and sandals, along with a big, wide-brimmed sun hat that was incongruous enough to mark me as a possible tourist.  Shopping bags and loosely braided hair helped complete the image.

Maybe the sun hat was conspicuous.  The clouds were heavy overhead, and the wind was moving them across the sky at a decent pace.  Hopefully it would brighten up.

If anything would give me away, I suspected it’d be my eyes.  I eyed everyone that crossed paths with me, looking at them without looking directly at them, watching for that glance and that restrained reaction that might suggest I’d been spotted.

Were that to happen, I’d change direction, take a different route to my destination.  If that wasn’t enough to shake the attention, well… I did have my bugs, flowing through my hair, beneath my hat and between the dress and my bare skin.  I had weapons, my costume and more bugs in the shopping bags, beneath the shoeboxes and spare clothes I’d put over top of them.

I stopped at an intersection, and was briefly relieved of the need to watch the people around me, free to look at their movements as a whole.  The crowd was moving like a river, separating into streams of people who moved through the streets that had open shops and restaurants, avoiding the ones where construction was prevalent.

I detoured into one of those construction-heavy side streets, fully aware that I was abandoning the ‘hide in plain sight’ ploy.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody could really see my face, and I had my bugs.

There were a few crude catcalls from the construction workers at the sites to either side of me.  Not because I was attractive in any way, I suspected, but because I was over fourteen, under forty, I weighed less than two hundred pounds and I was wearing a skirt.

This area was the site of the fight against Echidna.  Walls bore the marks of laser blasts and gunfire, blood still marked the streets here and there, and there were divots and holes in the road, surrounded by rings of bright spray paint so pedestrians wouldn’t step into one and break an ankle.  Holes created by blasts of energy, small explosions, large explosions and the heavy footfalls of a gargantuan monster with clawed toes.

Bugs notified me about a change in the wind before the wind even reached me.  I already had my hand on my hat to keep it in place as hat, hair and skirt were stirred by the gust.  The weight of the swarm bugs that clung to the inside of the dress helped to keep it in place.

I found I was tense, as the wind dissipated, the muscles of my legs tight, ready to shift me to either side, to push me into the air with a leap or throw me to the ground.

But it was only a strong breeze.  Rosary was gone, I hoped, or she’d be gone soon.  We’d taken care of Eligos and Valefor yesterday.

It would be so easy to get paranoid over the slightest things, if I let myself.  Parahumans kind of opened a lot of doors on that front.  There was no way to be on guard against every eventuality.  Bystanders could have been manipulated by Valefor before we confronted him, cloth in store displays could be Parian’s work, the mannequins some trap laid by, well, Mannequin.  The ground, the wind, changes in temperature, shadows… anything could be a sign of incoming attack.

Not that I was in a position to complain, but… was it any surprise that capes tended to get a little unhinged as they grew in prominence?

I reached one construction site with plywood strapped to a chickenwire fence, protecting the interior, grafitti painting the plywood with a large face.

Eye on the door, I thought.  I let myself in.

Grue and Citrine were inside, both in costume.  Citrine in her yellow evening gown and mask, adorned with her namesake gemstones for both jewelry and embellishments, a file folder tucked under one arm.  Grue, for his part, was wreathed in darkness.  They couldn’t have been more different in appearance: sunshine and darkness.

But both, I knew, were professionals.  I suspected they were very similar people.

A part of me felt like I should be jealous that the pair were keeping each other company.  Except, rationally, I knew they weren’t.  Rationally, I knew there was no reason they’d be together, or even that they’d be attracted to one another.  Citrine was pretty, but… I couldn’t imagine she was Grue’s type.

Why did it bother me that I wasn’t jealous, then?

“Skitter?” Citrine asked.  She looked me over.

“Yes,” Grue said.  “Hi, Taylor.  You look nice.”

“Thank you,” I said, and despite my efforts, I smiled.  I’d sort of hoped to maintain the contrast between appearance and demeanor.  No major loss.  I looked at Citrine, “You wanted to meet?”

“I have a few points to go over, details my employer wanted to raise.”

“Nothing troublesome?”

“It depends on your response.  I don’t think it’s anything troublesome.  Keeping you abreast of his operations.”

“No complaint here,” Grue said.

“I expected Tattletale would be here.”

“If it’s alright,” Grue said, “We’ll record the conversation and pass it along to her.  She’s occupied with some other matters.”

“The difficulties of being a thinker,” Citrine mused.

More than you know, I thought.  Tattletale was occupied with little more than an intense migraine.  She’d pushed herself too far and was now paying for it.

I cleared my throat.  “Any objection to stepping upstairs?  It’s too nice a day to stay inside.”

She shook her head.

We ascended two staircases to the roof.  It was sunny, and the wind was strong enough that even the long, dense braid of hair at my back was stirred.  I put the shopping bags down at my feet.

The location had seemed incongruous, even inconvenient, given where Grue and I were headquartered.  I knew that Accord and his Ambassadors weren’t anywhere near here either.  Now that I saw our view, I had a sense of why Citrine had asked that we meet here, and the topic of the conversation.

Ahead of us, just a block away, the portal.  A white tower in progress, surrounded by three cranes.  A white tent was framed with a rigging of criss-crossing metal poles, and that rigging was being covered in turn by a solid white building, windowless.  We couldn’t make out the base of the building from our vantage point, but I could make out the ramps that led to the interior, like the on-ramps to a highway or the entrance to an aboveground parking garage.  They curved up around the building, a geometrical arrangement like the petals of a flower, and led into the tent at different heights.  There were signs of construction and recent demolition in neighboring lots.  The adjoining buildings would support the main structure: administration and defense.

It was so complete, considering that so much about the future of the portal was in question.  Nothing had been confirmed yet, as far as the ownership of the portal.  Accord’s design, Tattletale’s construction, the government’s rules on quarantine.  The government had sent people inside, and Tattletale had followed suit.  It was technically her property, they had no evidence it was anything but the curiosity of an invested businessperson, and they hadn’t complained.

Yet.

It was a mingled blessing and curse.  The portal, the door, as some were calling it, was taking some of the spotlight from us Undersiders.  There was a great deal of national debate over whether the landowner or the government should get the rights to the property.  I almost wished people could ignore it.  Things threatened to get out of control if and when it was verified that this thing was usable.

“Accord is recruiting five new capes to his team,” Citrine said, interrupting my thoughts.

That gave me pause.  Not the topic I’d expected her to raise.  I turned on the tape recorder, held it up so she could see.  She nodded.

I repeated her statement for the tape, “Accord is recruiting five new capes.  Who?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“You’ll let us know who they are as soon as you find out?  Give us a sense of their personalities?”

Citrine lifted the file folder, opened it and handed me a set of pages, neatly stapled.

The entire thing was high-resolution, complete with a picture and lines of text in labeled boxes.  Much of it was neatly censored with black bars.  A young man, in his mid twenties, his hair immaculate, parted to one side, wearing a high quality business suit.  ‘Kurt’, last name censored.  Date of birth censored.  Age twenty-five.

The next page was more details.  Personality tests, psychiatric tests, GPA in middle school and high school, post-secondary education, work history.  ‘Kurt’ had ascended to the role of head chef at a record pace, returned to school to get a four year education in three years, then started working for Accord.

‘Pam’.  Contract lawyer for a major firm, made partner at age twenty-eight, stepped down to work for Accord.

‘Shaw’, ‘Laird’, and ‘Kyesha’ followed the same pattern.

“They are going through the vetting process as we speak.  Experienced members of Accord’s businesses, on board with his plans, and loyal,” Citrine said.

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.  I handed the papers to Grue for him to look over.

“My apologies for being unclear,” Citrine said.

I waited a second for her to elaborate or clarify, but she decided not to.  She wanted us to draw our own conclusions?

“You don’t know who they are, but they work for you?” I asked.

“She means she doesn’t know who they’re going to be when they get powers,” Grue said.  “Don’t you?”

Citrine nodded once, the rest of the file folder held behind her back.

“Cauldron,” I said.  “Accord’s using Cauldron to empower his employees.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Grue asked.

“This is your territory and we are your guests.  It’s only natural to request permission to bring five new parahumans into the area.”

“Are you a Cauldron cape, Citrine?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So you know something about how they operate, then.”

She shook her head.  “Very little.  We get our powers with Accord serving as the middleman, and I’m not entirely sure how much he knows.  Either I would have to ask him for details, and I have no reason to, or you would have to ask.”

I frowned a little.

“Accord wanted me to inform you that the product has a slight chance of causing physical defects and mental instability.  A possibility of an incident.”

I thought of Echidna.  No shit.  More diplomatically, I said, “And you wanted to warn us, so we were forewarned and forearmed about possible issues.”

“We hope and expect to keep things wholly internal.  There are very few powers I cannot counter, and I will be there to act if something goes awry in any way.”

In any way?  Did that extend to physical deformities?  I couldn’t see Accord tolerating something like that.  I could have stipulated something, warned them to let the deformed ones go… except it would destabilize the alliance.

“They’ve been informed of the risks?” I asked.  “These… soon-to-be capes?”

“Fully.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Why leave a successful, ordinary, happy life behind, and go to that risk?  Why work for Accord, of all people?”

“Power,” Citrine said.  She turned her back to the portal to meet my eyes, her dress flaring slightly with the rotation of her body.

“Power isn’t magical,” I said.  “It creates as many problems as it solves.”

“Power is less a thing unto itself than it is a journey.”

“To where?”

Her eyes were penetrating as she gazed at me.  “Not all journeys have destinations.  Power is the ability to effect change, and people who create change ride that tide, with far-reaching effects.  For some of us, that’s something we’re born into.  Our fathers or mothers instill us with a hunger for it from a very early point in time.  We’re raised on it, always striving to be the top, in academics, in sports, in our careers.  Then we either run into a dead-end, or we face diminishing returns.”

“Less and less results for the same amount of effort,” Grue said.

“Others of us are born with nothing.  It is hard to get something when you don’t have anything.  You can’t make money until you have money.  The same applies to contacts, to success, to status.  It’s a chasm, and where you start is often very close to where you finish.  The vast majority never even move from where they began.  Of the few that do make it, many are so exhausted by the time they meet some success that they stop there.  And others, a very small few, they make that drive for success, that need to climb becomes a part of themselves.  They keep climbing, and when someone like Accord recognizes them and offers them another road to climb, they accept without reservation.”

“Which are you?” Grue asked.  “Did you start with power, or did you fight for it?”

Citrine smiled a little, looking over her shoulder at the tower.  “I suspect Tattletale will tell you, if you’re curious enough to ask.”

“And your power?” I asked.

She arched one of her carefully shaped eyebrows.  “Tattletale didn’t share?”

“Tattletale had some ideas, but nothing definitive.”

“I wouldn’t normally share, but Accord told me I should disclose any information you request.  I attune areas to particular functions.”

“To what ends?” Grue asked.

“More gravity, less gravity, more intense temperature variation, less intense temperature variation.  Friction, light intensity, the progression of time… More possibilities than I can count, many so minor you wouldn’t notice.  But if someone powered is in the area, and I find the right attunement, as though I were searching a radio station, I can cut off their powers.  If I’m exact enough, which never takes more than twenty or thirty seconds to narrow down, I can use my power to cancel out the filters that keep someone’s powers in their control.  I can also remove the filters that keep their power from affecting them.”

“Turning their power against them,” I said.

“Yes,” Citrine said.

I could picture my bugs slipping from my control, gravitating towards me in response to my stress, biting and stinging, even devouring me, perpetuating the stress, pushing the cycle forward.

Or Grue… what would happen to him?  Rendered blind and deaf by his own power, dampening his own abilities until they sputtered out, or creating a feedback loop by draining his own abilities, until he was overwhelmed?

“And Othello?” I asked.

“He has a mirror self,” she said.  “Who walks in a world very similar to this one.  This self has a limited ability to affect our world, and can’t be affected by us.  Othello can push himself into that other world to bring his other self into ours, and vice versa.  One leaves, the other enters.  It looks very much like teleportation or invisibility.  It isn’t.”

“Accord buys good powers then,” I said.

“The best.  There would be no point if he didn’t.”

“And there’ll be five more?  Of your caliber?”

“Allowing for variations in results, yes.”

“What else do you know about Cauldron?”

“Very little.”

And Accord is sitting out this meeting because he thought Tattletale might be here, and he didn’t want her to dig anything up.

Which meant Accord would be avoiding us, avoiding Tattletale from here on out.  That made life easier.  It meant he wouldn’t be pestering us or trying to subvert us.  Not to our faces, anyways.

“Five new members is fine,” I said.  “Each of them should meet Tattletale on an individual basis.  She’ll vet them in ways Accord can’t.”

“Agreed,” Citrine said.

“The deal we struck with Accord stands.  He buys no territory, holds only what Tattletale gives him, and he doesn’t get to expand his territory to account for new members.”

“Agreed.”

“How long until they have powers?” I asked.

“Two days.  We’ll devote a week after that to training their abilities and ensuring they meet standards.  Accord likes to hand-craft masks for us, picking out appropriate colors and names.”

“Would he object to giving them the Teeth as a job?  It can be a collaborative effort between Ambassador and Undersider.”

“I’ll raise the idea with him.  I have little doubt he’ll agree.”

“Good,” I said.  I turned my attention to the tower.

Citrine looked as well.  “The door.”

“You’ve heard the world ends in two years,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“When Tattletale set up the portal, she made an escape route.  Not for us, but for the world.  As much as they’re able, they’re leaving room for mass-evacuation.  You can’t see it from here, but the bottom of the tower doesn’t have a road or a ramp leading into it.  If the city cooperates, they can route train tracks through there.  The trains wouldn’t even have to slow down as they passed through, if there was enough set up on the other side.”

“Many would live here for the possibility of easy escape alone,” Citrine said.

“There’s also the work,” Grue said.  “Making the space on the other side livable, research on the other world, investigating differences in plant and animal species.”

“When I had a discussion with Director Tagg,” I said, “He told me to consider where things would stand in a few years.  The doorway is going to be a big part of it.  I’d like to ensure that we still have a presence here, that there’s a measure of peace, both from heroes and villains, and that the portal remains an escape route.”

“Any particular thoughts on how things should be arranged?” Grue asked.

“Some, as far as our group is concerned.  But I’d have to talk to the others about it before I put any ideas out there.”

“Do the Ambassadors fit into that image of the future?” Citrine asked.

“It depends on Accord,” I said.  “You know him better than I do.  Is he stable?”

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

My heart sank.

“But you can trust him.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said, not feeling much better.  “Do me a favor, sound him out on what limits he’d set in terms of bringing others on board.  Other teams, other groups.  Individuals.  We should set standards, hard rules for people in the city and people in our alliance.  I’m not going to mince words.  His response to this is a big factor in how all this plays out.”

“Including his presence in this hypothetical future you’re envisioning,” Citrine said.

I shrugged.  “You say we can trust him.  I’d like to believe you, and I will, until I have a reason not to.”

“That’s all we can ask for,” Citrine said.

“Is that it?  You wanted to meet to address the recruitment of your five members?”

“No.  Here.”

She handed me the folder, and my arm sagged with the weight of it.  I approached Grue and stood next to him as I paged through it.

It was a three-hundred page treatise, complete with binding at the spine and a gray cover printed with the simple words ‘Brockton Bay: Crime and Public Safety’.  I handed Grue the folder and the dossiers on the five recruits to the Ambassadors, keeping the tome.  I paged through it, holding it so Grue could read alongside me.

It was less an essay than a technical manual.  A step-by-step guide to bringing the city in order.  Size eight font, bolded and centered headings, annotations, continually referring to other sections.  It was readable, though, almost seductive in how it made it all sound so possible.  The language was simple, clear, and unambiguous, as though it were outlining little more than how to build a bookshelf, without more than the occasional diagram.  There were branching paths, too, clearly outlined, detailing the routes to be taken if something didn’t work out.  I could only assume that the bulk of the text was Accord’s accounting of all the various possibilities.

No murder, nothing totalitarian.  Not at a glance.  It was merely a very involved analysis on Brockton Bay, the various criminal elements, the various players and how things could be brought into alignment.

“I’ll read it,” I said, “And I’ll make sure Tattletale gives it a thorough looking-over.”

“Okay,” Citrine said.  “Don’t worry about giving him a response.  He already knows.  Nobody ever accepts the proposals.”

“We’ll give it a serious look,” I stressed.  “Who knows?  Tattletale might get a kick out of being able to debate the finer points of the plan with Accord.”

Citrine arched an eyebrow.

“I’ll tell her to play nice,” I said.

“Then I suppose those are the key points covered.  Thank you,” Citrine said.  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Nothing springs to mind,” I told her.

She offered me a curt nod, then headed for the stairwell.  Grue and I stayed put.

The pair of us stood on the rooftop, just out of sight of anyone on the ground.  The portal-tower loomed a short distance away, taller than the surrounding buildings, rippling slightly as the wind pulled at the upper areas where there were only the tent and metal framework.

“So much talk of the future,” Grue said, “And no guarantee there’ll be one.”

“There will,” I said.  “With everything else Dinah said, we know there’ll be some kind of future.  It might not be a pretty one, but people will survive.  We’ll slip away to other dimensions, the best of us will persist, and we’ll slowly make our way back to where we are now, but we’ll survive.  Or maybe, with all the powers out there, we’ll find a way around this, and it doesn’t come to pass.”

“And we establish some kind of stability in Brockton Bay?  Bring Accord’s plan to fruition?”

I didn’t have an answer to that.  I looked down at the book.

“You’re skeptical?”

“Skeptical,” I said.  “Ever notice how every power gets turned to violent ends?  Even the people with powers that could benefit humanity wind up losing it?  Accord, Sphere, there’s Parian on the smallest end of the scale…”

“And you think there’s some ugly twist to this.”

“Accord works out some scenario where it’s possible to establish peace in Brockton Bay by exerting pressure in the right areas, promoting the right people, and allocating resources in the right way, but it turns out like a wish from a malevolent genie.  It turns ugly, or there’s some loophole.  I think Tattletale should look at it.  That’s all.  We need to be very careful.”

“You’re obsessing over what Tagg said,” Grue said.

“I’m trying to see everything through the perspective of what they’ll be in a year or two from now, and maybe what they’ll become ten years from now, if we’re lucky enough to get that far.  What form will the team take?  How will the team run, and how will personalities change as time passes and we get more comfortable with where we stand?”

“There’s time to figure this out,” Grue said.

I frowned.  “Not as much as you might be thinking.  Not nearly enough time.  The Undersiders need to solidify a hold on the city, become a fixture.  It’s impossible to do that by scrambling here and there and struggling to defeat each enemy that crosses our paths.  We needed a reason for the crazier and more reckless enemies to think twice before interfering with us.”

“People like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Teeth.”

“And the Merchants, Lung and Bakuda.  All of them are very different kinds of villain, with a different sort of momentum.  The Merchants weren’t ever going to maintain a consistent hold on a territory.  It was less a question of whether they’d hold an area for years and more a question of the damage they’d do in the meantime.”

“You may be underestimating what they could have become.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “I get that the Merchants had the benefit of being the right people in the right place at the right time, but they didn’t really have any sense of self-preservation.  There’s going to be others like them.  I’m not underestimating that.  There are teams who exist only because they earned attention through luck or circumstance, and those are the teams that have to throw themselves at the biggest targets available.  They have to prove their worth to the world at large, or they collapse in on themselves.  Brockton Bay and the Undersiders are going to remain a target for guys like that if we can’t create a big enough deterrent.”

Grue folded his arms.

“And here’s the thing, there are ones like the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

I could see him react.  His arms dropped to his side, darkness trailing after them.  He seemed to realize he’d reacted, that he had nothing to do with his hands, and shifted his weight with his feet instead, leaving them dangling.

“Sorry,” I said.

He shook his head.  After a second, he prompted me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“There’s the monsters who were drawn to the city because it was vulnerable, because others were already paying attention to it, or because it was different in a way that appealed to their warped sensibilities.  We have to account for all these different people who are going to want to come after us and our city, and each demands a different response.  Can the Undersiders be boring enough to not be a desirable target to take down, scary enough to drive away the troublemakers, and still have the cold efficiency needed to take out ones like the Nine?”

“It’s not impossible.  We’re on our way there.”

“Except there’s a whole other set of checks and balances in terms of the authorities.  Need to play along to a certain degree, cooperate, but also need to convey the right image.”

“A lot on your plate.  Are you going to be able to manage?”

I hesitated.

“What?”

“When I phoned you,” I said, “I wanted to talk about some things.  Two things.”

“And you wanted to talk in person,” he said.

“In person,” I agreed.  “Um.  I guess I’m thinking about things in the same way Accord does.  Looking toward the future, accounting for the possibilities, simplifying.  If something happens to me-”

“Skitter,” Grue said.

“We know something goes down in two years.  You know we live a high-risk lifestyle.  We’re going to have enemies, I’ll be risking my life.  I’m-  I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s no guarantee I’ll always be here.  I need to know if you think you’d be up to taking over.  Becoming leader again.”

“I couldn’t do what you do,” he said.

“What’s the alternative?  Tattletale has her hands full with just the management side of things.  Imp?  Regent?  Rachel?  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  Do you really want the team to work for Accord?”

“I don’t see it happening.”

“No.  I’m just… let’s look at what happens in the future.  If you had to take over, could you?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Okay,” I said.

We stood there for a while.  I reached out and took his hand, my fingers knitting between his, the oily darkness slithering against my bare arm.  We stared up at the portal-tower, backed by an increasingly overcast sky.  So much depended on it, but we wouldn’t hear the verdict for a little while yet.

“I raised the idea of you maybe getting therapy,” I said.  “I could use it too, to be honest.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you think, maybe, if you were in a better head space, you could handle the leadership thing better?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe.”

“Would you be willing to try?  I don’t want to guilt you into it, but it’d give me a lot of peace of mind, knowing that you’d be there to keep things going.”

“I’d be willing to try,” he murmured, his voice a hollow echo from within his darkness.   “But why are you being so fatalistic?”

“I don’t think I’m being fatalistic,” I said.  “But… but maybe I sort of lost one half of my life.  I lost Taylor, not so long ago.  So I’m thinking about what happens if the other half were to disappear, too, and that’s in conjunction with my focus on the future, on the team…”

I trailed off.  It sounded feeble, but he didn’t call me on it.

“Regent and Imp,” I said, stopping when he turned his head my way.

A heavyhanded way of changing the subject.

“What about them?”

“They’re together,” I said.  “I don’t know if it’s romantic, but… they’re together.”

“I’m aware,” he said.

“It’s a problem.”

“It is,” he agreed.  “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Rein them in?”  I suggested.

“How?  Aisha bucks at rules and restrictions.  She’d use her power and run before I could talk to her more seriously.  She was always one for flight more than fighting.  Fitting that she got that power.  Infuriating.”

“Then talk to Regent.”

“Not much better.  He’s never one to face confrontation, but he handles it differently.  He doesn’t run, he evades.  He’d say or do whatever it took to stop me lecturing him, stop me from threatening him, and he’d go right back to what he was doing, in a different way, a different angle, so I’m less likely to catch on.  And if I angered him, or upset him, he’d make me answer for it somehow.”

“I don’t think I’ve really seen him angry or upset.”

“You don’t,” Grue said.  “Because he doesn’t show it.  I don’t think he even fully realizes it, that he feels that way.  But his jokes get a bit more barbed, he pushes back a little harder when pushed.  He makes dealing with him annoying or toxic in a thousand small ways, until you can’t continue to press him.  Then he uses that, goes right back to doing what he wanted to do.  It’s not worth the trouble.  They’re friends.  I don’t like it, but I can live with it.”

“He controlled her.”

Grue let go of my hand, stepped away so he was facing me.  “What?”

“He controlled her.  She let him, because she thought it would be interesting.  It made a difference in us winning against Valefor, yesterday, but… I thought you should know.”

Grue didn’t respond.  He folded his arms, so I at least knew he hadn’t gone catatonic.

“Maybe they’re not romantic now,” I said, “But who knows where they’ll be a few years from now?  Their trust is born of mutually assured destruction, because neither can absolutely control the other, but it’s still trust.  It could go places.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Grue said, and there was a hint of a growl in his echoing voice.

There was a distant rumble of thunder.  Surprising, given the amount of blue to the very north and south.  A summer storm?

Rain started to patter down around us.

In wordless agreement, we ventured to the staircase and into the building, to take shelter from the weather.

I reached up to my face to take my glasses off, ready to wipe them free of moisture, before realizing that I wasn’t wearing them.  I let my hand drop.

Grue was looking at me, his expression hidden by his mask.  I felt momentarily embarrassed, then let the feeling drop away.

I reached up and pulled his mask off.  He let the darkness start to dissipate, his face half-hidden behind a veil of wisp-thin darkness, almost as if he weren’t even aware I’d removed the mask.  He seemed pensive.

“Sorry to be a downer,” I said.  “Bearer of bad news.”

“It’s not that,” he said.  “You’ve been looking forward.  That’s good.  Except I’m wondering… where are we, in the future?  Suppose we made it through the end of the world.  Are we together in ten years?  Do we have kids?  Are we married?  Are we together, king and queen of Brockton Bay?  Have we retired?  Can you imagine a scenario like that?  Like any of that?”

I was caught off guard by the question.  I could visualize it.  Us in some mansion, little kids running around.  Just outside the window, Brockton Bay as it could be, swelled with industry and life and vigor and development, nourished by that portal and all the promise the portal held.  Inside our home, a mess, not so different from the mess that I’d seen on first walking into the loft.  A good mess, the kind of mess that came from life and living.  I could imagine Grue blanketing me in darkness to drown out the screaming, to give us a momentary privacy so he could hold me, kiss me.

Yes, I thought.  Yes.  Please, yes.

But I couldn’t bring myself to voice the thought aloud.

“Me either,” Grue said, his voice quiet, in response to an answer I hadn’t expressed with anything but my expression and body language.

I couldn’t lie and say that the mental picture, the fantasy, was a real possibility.  I couldn’t see it unfolding the same way I could see a thriving Brockton Bay secured with equal measures of fear and fairness.

It had been busy, hard and violent, with too much to do.  It was too easy to see how things could continue down that road.

Was it possible that this relationship could become something?  Yes.

Likely?  No.

“Shit,” he said.  He must have seen something in my expression.  “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I replied, shaking my head.  I put his mask aside on a workbench, along with the booklet Citrine had given us, reached out and plucked the folder and papers from Grue’s hands, putting them aside as well.

Taking his hands in my own, I stepped close, pressing my body against his.  The bugs under my dress moved away from the points of contact so they wouldn’t get squished, flying down and out of the way or crawling down my bare legs, making me very, very aware of the bare skin of my legs.

He was cool, between the moisture-beaded fabric of his costume and the darkness, but if I pressed hard against, him, I could feel the warmth of his body where the darkness didn’t sit between us.  I slowly, carefully drew his hands up so his arms were around my shoulders, arranging them.  When I was done, I wrapped my arms around his neck, felt him adjust his hold on me.

“Skitter- Taylor.”

I had to crane my head up to kiss the tip of his chin.

It had been a fantasy.  Two damaged, lonely people clinging to each other for warmth in a dark time.  He’d needed a rock, I’d needed warmth and gentleness.

“There’s no regrets?” I asked him.  “About us, together?”

“No,” he said, and his face was less than an inch from mine, his breath as warm as his power was cool.  I felt his chest rise and fall as it pressed against me.  “It was right.”

It was right.  Then.

“Then let’s make this one place where we don’t have to give any thought to the future,” I murmured.  “Focus on the present.”

He lowered his head and kissed me with surprising tenderness.

I hated to do it, but I broke the kiss, pulled away a fraction.  I murmured, “Besides the usual precautions.”

“Mm,” he murmured his agreement, an inarticulate, wordless sound that vibrated through his body and mine.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter