Interlude 10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I’m letting you go,” Regent lied.

He made Shadow Stalker drop to all fours on the ground and forced a grunt from her mouth.  With the same ease as he moved his own body, he made her load her bolt and spin to point her crossbow at him.  There was no danger of her shooting him; he was fully in control from start to finish.

He could feel her striving and straining to move her finger, to pull the trigger and plant an arrow just above his collarbone.  Every iota of her willpower must have been focused on the task.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

He had her nod, stiffly, awkwardly.  He felt her rising heartbeat, the slight increase in her breathing, which he managed, controlled.  Her muscles clenched, an involuntary reaction just beyond the scope of his control.  She’d realized what he was doing.  Rather, she knew what he wasn’t doing.

He wasn’t letting her go.

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”  He rolled his eyes.

That said, he turned her around, activated her power and walked her through the door.

Regent looked at the others, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

Using the shadow form, she could cover a lot of ground very quickly.  For long minutes, he exercised her power, the ability to be as light as a feather, enjoyed it.  He even liked the running, too, when he turned off her power and just legged it.  This girl was in good shape.  He could tell she exercised regularly, that she ran on a regular basis.  Running was almost effortless, and it felt good, even with the aches and pains of the recent brawl. Months or years of practice had fine tuned her body.

Fighting had been much the same way, but it had been even better.  Her muscle memory had been so primed for punching, kicking, takedowns and evading that he’d almost been able to let her go on autopilot, let her body handle things on its own.

Not that he could, really.  But it had been easy.  He loved that sort of thing.  Maximum reward for minimum effort.

That same philosophy of minimizing the work he had to put in, sticking to what he enjoyed and the things that interested him, it was an advantage here.  Brian, Lisa and Taylor had their own dynamic.  They were friends.  He considered Brian a friend, but it was more along the lines of someone he could play video games with, talk about movies.  It wasn’t much different from if they were coworkers or roommates.  He smiled at the thought.  They kind of were, when it came down to it.

Regent knew he was a background character, for the most part.  He played along, he didn’t make waves, he didn’t stand out.  He wasn’t close to any of the others.

He was cool with that.  In fact, it suited him perfectly.

He was cool with it because it meant that when they were all heading out to meet Coil, nobody noticed that he was distracted, or that he wasn’t joining in the conversation.  His control got worse as the distance between himself and his puppets widened, which meant he had to devote more focus to Shadow Stalker and the act of keeping her movements fluid.  He ran into the same issues when he controlled more people, and there was the irritating side effect that his own coordination, speech and fluidity of movement all suffered to the same extent that his ‘puppets’ did.  Were he to open his own mouth now and speak to Brian or Taylor, he might stutter or slur his words.  It was almost more trouble than it was worth.

Almost.  He was surprised to realize how much he’d missed this.  It was like a high, a whole other set of emotions, of physical sensations.  Real life, just being Alec, only Alec?  It paled in comparison.  It was dull.

He wondered sometimes if dealing with his father had messed up something inside him.

He could remember being young, maybe eight or so, fighting with two of his sisters over the fact that he’d wanted to watch the music channel and they wanted to watch some craptastic stop motion cartoon.  They’d outnumbered him two to one, and he’d known he would lose the argument.  So he’d thrown a tantrum, started screaming.

The entire atmosphere in the house had changed in a second.  His sisters went from argumentative to conciliatory in an instant, changed the channel to the music, tried to give him the remote.  One of father’s ‘girls’ came in and tried to quiet him down.  When he hadn’t, she’d clamped a hand over his mouth.

It hadn’t been enough.  Dear Old Dad had come marching out of the master bedroom.  Nikos Vasil.  Heartbreaker.  Tall, wearing only boxer briefs, with a muscled, lanky physique, long hair plastered to his head with sweat.  Father had taken two or three seconds to assess the situation before using his power on Alec, his two sisters and the ‘girl’ with a hand over Alec’s mouth.  He hit each of them with stark terror.  The kind of fear you experienced when you were claustrophobic and you woke up in a coffin six feet underground.

Then father had gone back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

It had been around summer when that happened, Alec mused.  He didn’t have many ways to tell time, back then, since he hadn’t gone to school, and the days kind of passed.  Still, it had been hot, he remembered.  Between that summer and Christmas, Alec hadn’t opened his mouth to speak once.

That was only one of a dozen or so experiences that came to mind.  So yeah, maybe father had broken something in the process.  Maybe it had been the emotional equivalent of staring into the sun for far too long, too many times, being left almost half blind.

Or maybe it was his own power.  He could be two, three or four people at the same time, feeling what they felt.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d experienced every kind of drug, in someone else’s body, had slept with himself as various boys and girls.  How was being just ordinary Alec supposed to compare?

Shadow Stalker wasn’t emotionally dulled.  Her emotions were rich, uninhibited.  She was  passionate in her emotions: angry, judgemental.  Even the negative feelings were something he could savor in their own way.  He wasn’t really experiencing them – it was more of a very involved spectator role.  Her fear was thrilling in the same way a fantastic scary movie was, with the detail and the immersion cranked up to eleven.

He leaped straight up into the air, then activated the shadow state.  When she was as high as she would get, he had her grip her cloak in her hands and use it to guide her descent so she could land atop the roof of the gas station.  He stopped, stretched her arms.  She was breathing hard, but not as much as his Alec-self would be after even half as much running.  He could feel the endorphins being pumped into her body from the hard exercise, and he was all the more aware of it because he had his other body to compare to.  She was an athlete.

He ran her hands down her chest, felt her breasts, the muscles of her stomach.  Stretching once more, he clenched her hands, felt the muscles in her arms flex.  He felt her shudder in revulsion.

“Almost forgot you were in there,” he murmured, barely loud enough for her to catch.  Not that it mattered.  She was as aware of the movements of her mouth as he was.  He could mouth the words and she would probably understand.  He smirked for her benefit as much as his own.

“So.  Bet you’re wondering what’s up,” he commented.  “Funny thing about having this control over you, I can feel your emotions, your body’s reactions.  Like a really, really good polygraph test.  I wasn’t even half done saying my piece back there when I caught on to the fact that you were too pissed and too angry to back down and walk away.  There’s no way you’re going to leave town if I let you go, right?”

He felt her struggle to open her mouth and respond.  He could have let her, by giving her some limited control over her own movements, but he didn’t.

“Right.  So I’m taking it upon myself to ensure this all goes smoothly.  My teammates have other shit to worry about, and I’m kind of enjoying flexing my powers.  So I’m dealing with this situation myself.  You and I?  We’re going to go another route.”

He fished in her belt and pockets and began withdrawing the contents.  He tossed the things he couldn’t use over the edge of the roof.  Billfold, spare cartridges for the crossbow, a small knife, spare strings for the crossbows, bandages, keys and a Wards ID card fell to the ground by the side of the gas station, in and near an overflowing dumpster.  There were plastic cuffs in the belt, but he couldn’t be bothered to fish out every last one and throw them all away.  At the right hip, he found two cell phones.  Success.

One of the phones looked years out of date.  The screen was scuffed so badly it was barely readable, and the plastic cover for the plug slot at the bottom was missing.  The other was a touch screen smart phone.  He didn’t recognize the make or the model, and the interface when he turned it on and touched the screen was unfamiliar.  Special issue from the Wards?  Whatever.  Not important.

The smart phone was password protected.  That was more Lisa’s thing, but he did have one trick up his sleeve.  Holding her fingers above the keypad, he let them follow through with the most natural feeling sequence of numbers, ingrained into the mind-body connection through the habitual repetition of a sequence of movements over weeks or months.  Muscle memory.

It took two tries.  The first felt slightly off at the end.  The second was spot on, and was rewarded with a vibration of the phone and a menu.

“Contacts,” he murmured, pressing a button, “Weld, Clockblocker, Vista, Flechette, Kid Win… boring.  Nothing I can work with, here.”  Director Piggot?  No.  Some potential there, maybe, but she was probably on top of this body-snatching situation.  Fully informed.

He scrolled down.  Beyond the contacts that had been pinned to the top of the list, there was a short list of contacts that were sorted in order of who had been contacted most recently.  At the top of the list was an ‘Emma Barnes’.

He checked the other, older phone.  No password.  A quick examination showed it was her civilian phone.

“Taking this out on patrol?  Is that stupidity or arrogance?  What if you lost it?”  He shook his head, then offered her a dramatic gasp, “What if it got into the wrong hands?”  Her voice was far better for the gasp than his own was.  He couldn’t help but chuckle after hearing it.

This Emma girl was listed in both of the phones.  Now he had a strong suspicion as to who it was.  A quick read of the received texts gave away Shadow Stalker’s name, but he already knew that.  Taylor had let it slip, before.

Her pulse was pounding now, and he could feel a growing sense of… what was that?  Outrage?  She was pissed at the invasion of privacy.

He tried a giggle on for size, to see if he could, and to see if it irritated her.  It worked on both counts.

No text messages had been exchanged on the smart phone, so he dug through the archive of old texts on the crummy old phone.  Lots sent to Emma.  Some sent to a Madison.  Others, relatively few, to a mom, a Terry and an Alan.

When he’d gotten sick of paging through the texts in the order that they’d been sent, he went looking for the saved texts, the messages Sophia had deemed important or noteworthy enough to save from being deleted.  What he uncovered was telling.  He had to do more digging to find the rest of the discussions for each message Sophia had saved, in order to get as much a sense of things as he could.  It was hard, when each series of texts was in response to some event he hadn’t participated in.

Some were inane, others he just didn’t understand.  Then he found one that gave him pause, that confirmed his suspicions about who Emma was.

Emma: what r u doing with her bag?

Sophia:  am in art class atm.  was thinking i can fill it with paint when teach leaves room.  put it in lost&found.  her art midterm is inside so she might look for it and find it and

Sophia: be all yay i found it and then she looks inside and sees its fucked

Emma: lol.

Sophia: what did you say to make her cry?  that was awesome.  blew my mind.

Emma: (SAVED MESSAGE) crying hrself to sleep for a week?  she told me she did after her mommy died

Sophia:  you r so evil

Emma: ya ya

Sophia: can i use that one on her?  saving that one for posterity btw

Emma: won’t have same bite to it.  brilliant bit was the suprise.  that slow realization abt what i meant.

Sophia: teach me o master

Emma: lol

Emma: wont be as good but i was thinking of that day.  think i remember musc we were listening to when she got the phone call abt her mom.

Emma: we shld wait a while and then see if she cries agn if we play it in hallways or b4 class.

Sophia:  and we cant get in trouble for just listening to music

Emma: ya

Sophia: cant believe you were her friend.

Emma: she was lame but not depressing and lame @ same time.

Regent closed the phone, threw it casually into the air, and then caught it on the way down.  He did that a few more times, thinking.

“Huh,” he said.

Long seconds passed.  He knew he should feel bad for the dork, but he only felt annoyed.  He felt worse about the fact that he didn’t feel bad than he did about what he’d just read.

Something to thank father for, maybe.

“You are not a nice person,” he spoke to Sophia with a note of irony in his voice.  He could feel her try to respond.

He smiled slowly, “Let’s see…”

He thumbed through the phone’s menus until he found an email option.  He verified it could send attachments.

The smart phone in his other hand, he found the web browser and did a search for local high schools.

“Hmmm.  What school do you go to?  Arcadia?  No.  Immaculata?  No.  Clarendon?  Nope.  Winslow?”

He felt the slightest of reactions from her.  A hitching of breath, maybe.  And there was nothing she could do to stop it, because the reactions were hers only because they were involuntary.

“Awesome.”  He searched for the web site for Winslow High School, and whistled tunelessly to annoy Shadow Stalker as he found the teacher’s emails.  He began painstakingly entering them into the recipient field.

When he’d done that, he began the process of attaching the texts to the email.  It would have been mind-numbingly dull if it wasn’t for that gradually building sense of trepidation he was experiencing from his gracious host.

He typed out a message for the email itself:

found phone.  stuff inside is concerning.  thought u should see what ur students r doing.

Her thumb hovered over the button that would send the email.

“Nah,” he decided.  He felt a wave of relief from his host.

That relief swiftly faded as he turned her eyes to the smart phone and searched for Brockton Bay’s police force.

When he’d added that email to the list, he added another line:

contacting police to make sure something is done

He sent the email.

He felt an explosion of rage from within Shadow Stalker’s body.  Her hands even shook with it.  He laughed, and her anger mixed with his amusement to create something that sounded unhinged.

Probably was, when he thought about it.  She had multiple personalities, in a way.

He stepped from the roof, and waited until the last second to use her power.  Her body exploded into a cloud of shadows.  As she pulled back together, he felt a strong discomfort.  Not quite pain.  In seconds, she had condensed back to her normal form.  The pain his hosts felt was something distant.  It didn’t bother him half as much. He couldn’t be sure if it was because he instinctually prevented it or if it was something else.

He resumed his whistling as he hopped up onto the railing of a bridge and walked atop it.  He dialed Emma, felt a mild reaction from his host: Annoyance with a note of anxiety.

Emma picked up on the fourth ring.  “What the fuck soph… what the fuck!?  It’s three AM!”

“Terribly sorry,” Regent tried to sound convincing, but it came out sounding sarcastic.

“You said you’d call me hours ago, to give me a recap.”

“I’m sorry,” Regent didn’t trust himself to pull off a sincere apology, so he lowered her voice to a hush instead.

“What’s going on?”

“I needed to talk to someone,” he spoke.

“…Are you hurt?  What happened?”

“Nothing.  There was this brawl at the headquarters, Dragon showed up, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

Regent held his breath, waited.

“Seriously, you’ve got me worried.  You’re making it sound like this important thing, and you woke me up at ten past three in the morning, so it had better be important.  Dish.  Explain.”

“I’m lonely.”

Emma’s voice rose in pitch, irritated, “SeriouslyThat‘s your issue!?”

“I miss you.”  He knew she wasn’t in town from the most recent texts he’d read on the phone.

“This doesn’t sound like you.  Are you high, or did you get poisoned or something?”

“I really miss you,” Regent breathed into the phone.

“What.”

“I’ve been in love with you from the beginning.”

“Sophia, stop.  If this is a prank-”

“Why do you think I pushed you to turn on that depressing little shit of a friend, way back then?  I was jealous of her.”

“This is retarded.  Don’t fucking call me again until you’re ready to grow up,” Emma growled.

“Please,” Regent managed to pull off a pleading tone, but Emma was already hanging up.  He heard the dial tone and swore, “Fuck.”

He hopped down from the railing as he reached the end of the bridge.  He commented,  “Don’t think she bought it.”

Sophia tried to respond, and for the first time, she almost succeeded.  The distance between Alec and Shadow Stalker was too wide, now.  It would only get worse.  He could feel it in his other body, too.

“Let’s see,” he grinned, raising the smart phone.  Her hand shook as she held it.  “Ooh, maps.”

The map application still showed the last route Shadow Stalker had requested from it, detailing directions from a point in the south end of the Docks to a place downtown.

“Thirty-three Stonemast avenue.”

Again, that slight reaction from her that told him he’d found something.

“That got your attention.  Let’s go pay a visit.”

He set the phone to display directions from their current location to Stonemast avenue, and then he ran once more.

Her movements were more awkward, now.  Her reflexes were slower, her balance worse.  Activating her power was becoming a chore, a slower, harder process.  Above all, it required more of his attention.  He had his Regent-self put his headphones in and turn on some music.  It was an excuse to ignore the others, and to have his attention elsewhere.  They weren’t at their destination yet.

Shadow Stalker reached Stonemast avenue before Regent, Tattletale, Skitter, Imp and Grue got to Coil.  It was funny, but with the route they were taking, if the timing was a little different, the group could have theoretically crossed paths with Shadow Stalker.  At least his control was improving as the gap between them closed.

Thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three.  It was a residential area.  The houses here weren’t in the best shape, and a lot of houses had trash or belongings in the yard.  Thirty-three Stonemast avenue had a toddler’s toys sitting on the front lawn.  The hedges between the property and the neighbors was overgrown, and the tree at the front of the property looked dead.  It might have seemed deserted, but someone had taken up the effort of picking up the detritus the tidal wave had brought in and piling it at the front corner of the lawn, by the driveway.

He walked her through the front door, felt rising anger and worry from his host.

That anger and worry peaked when a young man, nineteen or twenty, stepped from the living room to the front hall, heading towards the kitchen, and saw her.  The man stopped and stared.

“Mom!”  He shouted.

A tired looking middle-aged woman entered from the kitchen, holding a four-year old girl in her arms.  Regent had grown up around lots of kids.  He liked to think he was a good judge of ages.

The woman stared at Shadow Stalker, then turned, “Terry, take your sister upstairs.”

“But-”

“Now!” the woman barked.

Terry moved to pick up the child, who was looking increasingly concerned over the raised emotions and the strange person in their hallway.  Regent reached out and grabbed Terry’s arm.

“Chill, bro,”  Regent was making a guess here.  From the way the boy stared at Shadow Stalker, he knew he’d hit the mark.

Sophia!?”

“Yeah,” Regent grinned behind her mask.  “Duh, moron.”

The woman stepped between Shadow Stalker and Terry, a look of fury on her face, “Sophia!  Kitchen.  Now!”

With a swagger, Regent walked Shadow Stalker into the kitchen.  There was a flurry of hissed words between Terry and Shadow Stalker’s mother.  Among them was a surprised, hurt, “You knew!?”

Regent sat down at the kitchen table and put her feet up.  Dirty water pooled on the table’s surface.

It was nearly a minute before the mother came storming into the kitchen.  She pushed Shadow Stalker’s feet off the table.

“Explain!” she demanded.

“What?” Regent lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“We had a deal.  You could do this thing of yours, but your siblings were not to know!”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” Regent said.  He pulled off Shadow Stalker’s mask and started tapping the edge against the table, idly.

“It’s the rules in my house!  If it’s going to keep you out of prison and on the straight and narrow, fine.  But I will not have you glorifying violence-”

The mother stopped mid-sentence as Regent opened Shadow Stalker’s mouth in a very real yawn.  Funny that his other self yawned as well, in that sympathetic reaction to someone else yawning.  The mother slapped the mask from Sophia’s hand.  It clattered to the ground.  “Listen to me!”

“Whatever,” Regent drew a crossbow and turned it over in his hands.

The mother stared at it.  Her voice was hushed as she spoke, “That doesn’t look like the tranquilizer dart the Director showed me.”

Regent quirked an eyebrow, “Oops.”

“What are you doing, Sophia?  Do you want to go to jail?”

“I’m bored,” Regent replied.

“You do not have the right to complain about something like being bored!  I work two jobs for you three!  I put in overtime, I attend every school function, I come into the office every time you get reprimanded because you’ve got anger issues!  You aren’t even taking care of your sister, or helping out around this house!  What do you think-”

“And now you’re making me even more bored,” Regent cut her off.

The mother slapped Sophia so hard that her head turned to one side.  Her cheek burned.

“Don’t you dare,” the mother intoned.

Shadow Stalker stood at Regent’s directions, then pointed the crossbow at the mother.  The woman’s eyes widened, and she hurried to back away as Shadow Stalker advanced.  They stopped when the mother’s back was to the wall by the kitchen door, with Shadow Stalker’s crossbow bolt pressed against her throat.

“I think I’m done with listening to you whinge,” Regent whispered.

“What are you doing?  What’s wrong with you?”

“Like you said,” Regent shrugged, “Anger problems.  I promise you, you don’t have the slightest idea of what I go through.”

When in doubt, be vague.

“If you’re talking about Steven…”

Steven.  Regent could feel a reaction from Shadow Stalker at the name.  “I’m not talking about Steven.”  He put some inflection in the name.  He dropped the crossbow to one side, stepped away and stretched.  The mother didn’t budge from where she was pressed up against the wall.  “I’m going to my room.  Don’t disturb me.”

He bent down and grabbed the mask, but he didn’t put it back on.  He stepped out into the hallway, and saw a vacuum cleaner parked in the corner.  An extension cord trailed from it to a neighboring room.  An office?  He unplugged the cord from the wall and the vacuum, and then headed upstairs, winding the cord into a simple coil.

Shadow Stalker’s body was a cocktail of emotion.  Fear, anger, anxiety, worry, panic and sheer fury.  Regent staved off the worst of the physical reactions, the trembling and the heavy breathing, and managed to make Shadow Stalker seem calm as she reached the top of the stairs.  Terry was up there in the hallway, staring, uncomprehending.

Regent found her room, then shut the door.  It was small, old-fashioned, with wood paneling on the walls.  The furniture was limited to a twin-sized bed, a vanity with a mirror, candles and cosmetics littering the top, a bookshelf and a combination computer desk and dresser with a computer and a printer perched on top.  The wall behind the pictures showed Shadow Stalker with a redheaded girl.  There were a lot of photos with them laughing.  Emma?

“Emma?” he asked.  That slight alteration in her heartbeat and her breathing told him he was right.

He found a picture of Shadow Stalker – Sophia – with her family.  Her mom looked younger and far less tired there, and was pregnant.  Shadow Stalker looked twelve or so, and her brother looked sixteen or seventeen, sporting a fantastic looking afro and a less fantastic attempt at a moustache.  They were clustered around one another, but only the mom was smiling.

Regent’s eyes fell on the man who was cut out of the photo, only his hand on the mom’s shoulder, and a sliver of his torso and leg were visible at the edge of the picture.

“Steven?” he asked.  Raw hatred boiled up inside Shadow Stalker, for both Regent and the man that couldn’t be seen in the picture.  “Steven.  So what did he do do you?  Believe me, I’ve seen it all.  Hit you?  Touch you?”

No reaction from either of those.  Verbal abuse?  Emotional?  Something else?  He didn’t care enough to quiz her more.

He grabbed the lighter from beside the scented candles and began pulling the photos off of the wall.  Using the lighter, he burned a hole in the photograph where Emma’s face was.

“Well,” he said, his tone dry.  He had to cough to keep himself from letting her anger turn his voice into a growl.  “You sure rose above that shit, treating your classmates like you do, getting in fights, not helping out dear old mom.”

Again, he had to struggle to maintain control as she exploded with emotion.  It didn’t help that his other self was trying to listen to what Coil was saying.  Better to avoid testing her.

“You and I are more alike than you’d suspect, I think,” he said. “We’re both arrogant assholes, yeah?  Difference is, I admit it, I don’t dress it up and tell myself that I’m a bitch and that that’s a good thing.”  He burned Emma’s face out of another photo.

“So, let’s tie all this shit together.  I have been working with a goal in mind, believe me.”

He got a piece of paper out of the printer, then found a pen in one of the drawers.  He was careful to rely on her muscle memory when it came to the handwriting.

I thought I could manage.

I’m too angry.  Too lonely.  I hate myself for what I’m doing.  Hurting people.

I hurt my mom.  I hurt my classmates as Sophia.  I hurt people as Shadow Stalker, and I hate myself for enjoying it.

I thought I could manage it.  I had Emma.  She had my back.

Except she turned me down.  I loved her, really loved her, and when I confessed she turned me away.  Acted like it was a joke.

This is the right thing to do.  I won’t be able to hurt anyone anymore.

Terror surged through her body like ice water.  When he laughed in reaction, it came out shaky.  He littered the burned photographs around the piece of paper, with Emma’s face missing from each, then drew an arrow from the crossbow’s cartridge and laid it across the bottom edge of the paper.  It was overdramatic enough to work.

He stood on the chair and began wrapping the extension cord around the base of the light fixture.  He grabbed the cord and hung off it for a few seconds to verify it could hold her weight.  The light fixture itself was flimsy , but the frame it was attached to was bolted securely into the wooden beams of the ceiling.

He found moisturizers and soaps on top of the vanity.  Using them, he rubbed the end of the extension cord, making it slick.  Holding the end, he began tying it into a crude hangman’s knot.  When he failed to do it right, he used the smart phone to find a video of how to tie one, then turned the volume all the way down.

“Here’s the thousand dollar question,” he mused, as he began following the steps outlined in the video, putting the knot together, “Will your boss tell your mom what happened with me controlling you?  If she keeps her mouth shut, well, this paints a pretty ugly picture, doesn’t it?”

A tear rolled down his cheek.  He scoffed a little, blinked the tears out of her eyes.

“But if she does tell, if she lets mommy know, then shit hits the fan.  It looks pretty fucking bad for her, and if word gets out, it’s as bad as it gets for public relations.  Scary, dangerous parahumans.  Not just lives at risk, but you could be controlled.  Ooooh, scary.  Nobody would ever be able to trust their coworkers or neighbors.  It’s the kind of stuff they want to keep quiet.”

“Looks bad for me, sure, but you saw the fight earlier.  It’s not like you guys are that big a threat.  Like I said, I’m arrogant that way.”

He reached to plug the extension cord into the wall, but found it too short.  He sighed and went to unplug everything from the computer’s power bar and use that to extend the length of the cord so he could plug it in.  He grabbed her alarm clock, stood on the chair, and plugged it into the noose.  He put her hood down, and then set the alarm clock inside her hood, blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.

“Any last words?”  He slid the noose around her neck.  It was slimy with the soaps and other shit he’d poured on it.

He gave her enough control to speak, but retained control of her arms, legs so she couldn’t escape, and held her diaphragm so she couldn’t draw in enough air to scream for help.

“Why?” she breathed.

“You fucked with my teammate,” he shrugged her shoulder.

“Grue?  I-”

He didn’t let her finish.  “I dunno if I care all that much, but it’s the sort of thing I’ll do because it feels like I should.  Dunno.  There’s also the fact that you’re dangerous, and you’ve outlived your usefulness, so… unless you can give me a convincing reason.”

“Please.”

“Not that convincing.”  He raised one foot, then kicked the chair, hard.

It rocked, but didn’t tip over.

He chuckled lightly, feeling the confusion and the relief from his host.  It was a thrill unlike any other.  “I think I made my point.”

She wanted to respond, but he didn’t let her.  She was bewildered, just as scared as she had been before.

“I’d like to think that you have much less reason to hang around this city than you did an hour ago.  Even if she hears how you were controlled by yours truly, mom’s not going to be so comfortable having you around in the future, given the dim possibility of a repeat performance.  Things are going to be awkward with Emma there, too.  Your career as a hero here isn’t looking good, either.  Eff why eye, I was telling the truth about my ability to assume total control faster, easier, if I’ve controlled someone before.”

He fished out a set of the plastic cuffs and put them around her wrists, then worked her fingers to pull the end and cinch the cuffs tight, behind her back.

“I can feel your emotions.  I know I’ve convinced you.  You leave town, and if you don’t want me paying a visit, wherever you wind up, you keep your mouth closed about tonight.  They don’t need to know this was all my doing.  Things get messy that way, yeah?”

He gave her limited control, and she nodded, fractionally, as if afraid to move.

“If I do get control again?  I won’t pull my punches.  Or my kicks.”  He tapped her foot against the back of the chair.  Her heart leaped in her chest.  “You can’t feel my emotions, so you’ll have to trust that I’m capable of it.  You know I’m Heartbreaker’s kid.  You know I’ve killed before.”

Again, she offered a slight nod.  She tried to speak, but he didn’t let her.  No need, he could guess, from what she was feeling.  The anger was gone now.  There was only fear.

He glanced out the window.  There were flashing lights.  A PRT van?  Or maybe a police car.

A chuckle escaped her lips.  “Well, I’ll leave it to you to get out of this situation.  When you do?  Get the fuck out of my city.”

He let out a breath, and then relinquished control of her body back to its owner.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Brian was quicker than a guy his height should’ve been.  He stepped back out of the way of my jab, then turned his body in what I was learning was going to be a kick.  Thing was,  I didn’t know where that kick would be directed, and he generally didn’t hold back with his kicks the way he did with his jabs.  Knowing this, keeping to his instructions on being unpredictable, I threw myself forward and awkwardly tackled him.

His thigh caught me in the side as he brought his leg around, which hurt, but not as badly as the kick would have.  Even so, I succeeded in knocking him to the ground.  Any sense of victory I might have felt was short lived, because I fell with him, and he was more prepared for what came next than I was.  We hit the ground, he used the leverage of his hands and his still-raised thigh to heave me to his right.  Before I had my bearings, he flipped himself over in my direction and straddled me.

I jabbed a hand for his side, but he caught my wrist and twisted my arm around until my elbow was pointing at my bellybutton.  I grabbed at his shirt with my other hand, hoping to maybe buck him off me (fat chance), and he grabbed that wrist too.  He adjusted his grip on my twisted right arm and pinned my arms down against the ground, stretched out over my head.

“It’s a start,” he smiled down at me.

Realizing the position he had me in, feeling the pressure of his thighs against my hips, his weight resting partially on my lower body, I must’ve blown a synapse.  My thought process ground to a halt.  It didn’t help that the first place my mind went was interpreting his ‘start’ as being this position leading to something else.

“We keep this up, and you could be quite the scrapper,” he elaborated.  “When we were on the ground, here, and I pushed you to one side, you should have rolled with it.  Get yourself some distance.  If you were really quick about it, you could have even been on your feet before I was, which would be a good position for attack.”

Mmm,” was the most coherent response I could manage.

“You going to let her up, or are you enjoying this too much?” Lisa asked him, from where she sat on the couch.  She had her arms folded over the back of it, her chin on the cushion.  Her hands were folded in front of her mouth, hiding what I suspected was an amused smile.

Brian smiled as he stood, “Sorry, Taylor.  You want to go a round, Lise?”

“Not dressed for it, it’s too early in the day, and I wouldn’t deny Taylor her fun,” she spoke, without raising her head.  When I gave her an irritated look, she winked at me.

Brian and I stood and faced each other, then both of us hesitated, me staying just out of his reach.

“I’m surprised you’re up for this, you two,” Lisa commented, “Aren’t your legs sore from the jumping around last night?  You especially, Taylor.  You went on a run this morning, and now you’re sparring?”

“If my knees could talk, they’d be screaming in agony,” I answered her.  I raised my hand as Brian moved to attack while I was distracted, and he backed off again.  “But staying active keeps my mind off stuff.”

“Everything okay?” Brian asked me.  I shrugged, glanced at Lisa.

“Taylor went home,” Lisa explained, “Got in an argument with her dad, came back here.  Might be staying a while, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I echoed her.

“Sorry,” Brian sympathized.

“Me too,” I spoke.  I stepped in closer, trying to provoke him to move, but he didn’t fall for it.  “I love my dad.  I never really had that phase others did, where I felt embarassed to be around him, where we didn’t understand each other.  I thought we were closer than that, until last night.”

“Are things going to be okay?”

“Don’t really know,” I replied.  Changing the subject, I admitted, “Okay, I’m stuck.  I’m standing here, facing you, and I don’t know what I can do that isn’t going to wind up with me getting hit or thrown to the ground.  I move forward, there’s a million things you could do to kick my ass.  What would you do, in my shoes?”

“Honestly?  Hmm,” he relaxed a bit, “Good question.  I guess I’d go for the nearest thing I could use as a weapon.”

“Besides that.  There’s nothing I could grab that would work for sparring without really hurting you.”

“I guess I’d do what you’re doing, wait for the other guy to make a move.”

“Okay.  So move.”

He did. He stepped closer, feinted high with a kick, then ducked low to try and kick my feet out from under me.  I could handle that much – I hopped a little to avoid his foot as it moved beneath me.  Still, he was one step ahead of me, getting his footing with the extended leg and shoulder-checking me onto my ass.  I took his advice from earlier, going with it, scrambling backward to create some distance, but he had the advantage of having both feet on the ground.  He half-turned and followed after me, bringing his knee forward, stopping a few inches shy of my face.

“You’re learning,” he said.

“Very slowly.”

“You’re learning,” he stressed, “You listen to what I say, you keep it in mind, and I almost never have to remind you of something twice.”

He offered me his hand, and as I reached up to take it, he gripped my upper arm.  I gripped his, and he hauled me back up to my feet.

“I come bearing coffee and breakfast,” Alec pronounced, “That a certain team leader was too lazy to fetch.”

“Aw fuck off, Alec,” Brian replied, without any venom in his voice.  He let go of my arm to grab a coffee.  “I grab you something nine days out of ten, on my way here.”

“That’s your tax for the inconvenience of you living off site,” Alec replied, moving toward the couch and handing Lisa and me our coffees.  Lisa took the paper bag and fished out some muffins, handing me one.  I sat on the couch next to her.

“So,” Brian addressed us, as we all walked to the couches.  “I think it’s important to get a few things out of the way, now that we know who we’re employed by, why, and our possibilities for the future.”

Bitch settled on the other couch with her dogs hopping up around her as she pulled her feet up beside her.  That left Brian to sit in the empty space between Alec and me.  I felt painfully conscious of where his calf and arm were touching my leg and shoulder.  I’d been running and sparring, I was probably sweaty.  Did I smell?  Would that gross him out?  I couldn’t help but feel self conscious, but I would’ve stood out more if I did something about it.  I tried to focus on the discussion instead.

“First off, I don’t think we should do a majority vote for this thing Coil proposed.  As far as I’m concerned, this is too important, too game-changing, for us to go ahead with it if anyone’s going to be unhappy or upset.  We come to a consensus or we don’t do it.”

I wasn’t the only one to nod in silent agreement.

“Second, Alec, I gotta ask about what Coil said.  Past identity, your dad.  Is this something that’s going to come back and bite us in the ass?”

Alec sighed and leaned back against the arm of the couch with a roll of his eyes, “No chance we can ignore that?”

“I dunno, can we?”

“My dad runs his own group in Montreal.  I was working for him before anything else.”

“Who is he?” Brian pressed.

“Nikos Vasil.  Heartbreaker.”

My eyebrows went up at that.

Lisa whistled, “After Coil let that detail slip, I made a mental list of possibilities.  Had it narrowed down to four.  Heartbreaker was one, the pieces fit, but it was so hard to believe.”

“He’s big,” Brian said.

“No,” Alec shook his head, “He’s scary.  He’s newsworthy.  But he’s not all that.”

Heartbreaker was what you got when someone had a power like Gallant, the ability to manipulate emotions, and absolutely no compunctions about using it selfishly.  Unlike Gallant, Heartbreaker didn’t need to shoot you with any blasts of energy to affect you.  He just needed to be near you, and the effects were long term or permanent.

Despite Alec’s attempts at downplaying who and what his dad was, it was hard to ignore the fact that I’d grown up hearing what this guy had done on the evening news, that I’d come across mentions of it online since I started browsing the web for cape stuff as a kid.  Heartbreaker found beautiful women, made them love him, really love him, and formed a cult-like group with them serving him hand and foot, committing crimes for his favor.  They worshiped him to the extent they were willing to die for him.  Drawn to their natural conclusion, his methods meant he had lots of kids.  Alec included.

“Damn,” I muttered.  I asked Alec, “You grew up with that guy?”

He shrugged, “It was normal to me.”

“I mean, what was it like? I can’t even wrap my head around it.  Were the women nice to you?  What- how does that even function?”

“My dad’s victims had eyes only for him,” Alec said, “So no, they weren’t nice to me or my brothers and sisters.”

Details,” Lisa said, “C’mon.  Talk.”

“I’m not a talkative person.”

“Talk or I kick your ass,” she threatened.

“Seconded,” I added.

He scowled briefly, then crossed one foot over the other on the coffee table, settling deeper into the couch with his coffee resting on his belt buckle.  “We had everything we could ask for, as far as money and stuff went.  Dad’s victims took care of the chores, so the only thing us kids would have to do was take care of the babies sometimes.  Didn’t have to go to school, but some of my brothers and sisters did just to stay out of my dad’s way.”

“Why?” I asked, “Or is that a dumb question?”

“Eh.  It’s hard to explain.  He cultivated us, bred for us, went miles out of his way to get us back if a member of his ‘family’ was taken from him.  Mounted a freaking crusade if it came down to it.  But when we were around, he paid almost no attention to us kids.  When he did pay attention, it was to discipline us or test us.  Discipline usually meant getting a dose of paralyzing terror for not listening to him, insulting him or even looking him in the eye, sometimes.  Testing happened on our birthdays or if he’d had a bad day… he’d try to set up a trigger event.  Not supposed to be so hard, given that we were second generation capes, obviously, but he started when we were eight or so.”

“How old were you?  When your powers showed?” I asked, quiet, feeling intense pity not only for Heartbreaker’s victims, but for the kids in that situation.

Whatever my feelings, Alec managed to look bored with the topic.  “Hard to tell.  Since I didn’t go to school, and nobody really kept records, I lost track of the years.  Ten or eleven, maybe.  I was his fourth kid to show powers, and there were eighteen or so of us when I left.  Most of ’em were babies, though.”

Which made him, not Grue, the one of us with the most experience and seniority.

Alec shrugged, “So yeah.  I worked for him for three or four years.  We did jobs, I learned the family trade.  Called myself Hijack at first.  He started to get on my case.  I think maybe he was having trouble affecting me the same way he did before my powers kicked in, so he compensated for that by riding me.  Pushed my limits, made me do stuff that was dangerous, stuff that was hard on my conscience.  Wanted me to break, beg him to stop, so he’d have leverage to get me to do what he wanted.”

“And?”

“And he ordered me to kill this foot soldier for a group trying to push us out of their territory.  After I was done, he told me I did it wrong, that I had to do it again with a captive we’d taken, and I knew no matter what I did, he’d make me keep doing it.  Just another way of pushing my limits.  I had convinced myself I didn’t care about the people I was hurting or about this guy I’d just killed, and maybe I didn’t.  Maybe I don’t, still.  Dunno.  But it was so pointless.”

He shrugged, “I didn’t see a real reason to stay.  Walked away.  Changed my name, got fresh ID, changed my villain name too.”

He’d killed someone on his father’s orders, which made him the second killer in the group. Armsmaster must have dug up that detail & drawn the right conclusions after connecting Alec to his prior alter ego.

“When did this happen, this killing?” I asked, quiet, “How old were you when you killed that guy?”

“Hmm.  I’d been gone for about two years before the boss got in touch with me, which was about this time last year, so three years ago.  I would’ve been twelve or thirteen.”

Was that forgivable?  He’d been made to do it, he’d been in fucked up circumstances with no real moral compass to go by, still a kid.  The way he described it, though, it didn’t sit well with me.  Cold blooded murder.

“You said he goes after his kids if they leave,” Brian spoke, “Will that happen here?  If he realizes you’re one of his?”

“Dunno.  Maybe.  I’d bet he’d send one of my brothers or sisters to talk to me, ask me to come back before he did anything else.  If that happened, I’d probably leave before he came in person.”

“Or we could back you up,” Brian pointed out.

“Or that,” Alec agreed, apparently oblivious to the show of camaraderie.  “Anything else?  Any more questions for yours truly?”

“Dozens more,” I said, “But I think we need to get to the other big topic of the day.”

“Yeah,” Brian agreed.  “I’m less than thrilled you didn’t mention this, I have my concerns about the possibility that a guy like him might come after you, after us, but there’s nothing we can do about it for the time being.  Let’s focus on more pressing matters.”

Lisa pulled her feet up beside her on the couch, “Thoughts on the deal?  Before we vote?”

“Makes sense to me,” Alec replied.  “It’s something I figured I’d end up doing eventually, controlling a territory, being boss of an area, letting the green roll in without any major effort.”

“Could be a lot of effort,” I spoke, “Depending on how secret he manages to keep this, and how successful he is.  If this goes bad, it means us against however many capes the Protectorate decides to throw at us.  We could wind up with the teams from Boston and New York coming to deal with the problem, if word gets out about what we’re doing.”

“Call me an optimist,” Alec said. “I don’t think it’ll be that bad.”

“Taylor just reminded me of what I said about the bank robbery, and what wound up happening.”  This from Brian.  “We’ve been successful because we, by and large, pick our battles, go on the offensive, and catch our enemies off guard.  In situations where we haven’t done that, and I’m thinking specifically about our fight with Bakuda, we really struggled.  That’s when we came closest to getting killed.  Consider that we’ll be the ones on the defensive, if we’re holding this territory and taking on all comers.”

“We can work around that,” Lisa replied, “Plans, information gathering, pre-emptive attacks. I’ve got the inside info, and there’s nothing stopping Taylor from using her bugs to keep an eye on the neighborhood.  Besides, Coil didn’t say we couldn’t hire other parahumans, just that anyone who wanted to work in Brockton Bay had to bend the knee to him.  So we could theoretically recruit other parahumans, if we needed to, bulk our forces.”

“My problem,” I chose my words carefully, “Is it sounds too good to be true.  What if it doesn’t work out?  What if we wind up miserable, or if he screws us, or if he isn’t as good as he thinks he’ll be?  Do we walk away?  Will we be able to?”

“I got away from my dad,” Alec said.  “Would it be so hard to get away from Coil?”

I didn’t have a good answer to that.  “I guess we don’t know enough about him or the resources he’s got at his disposal to say.”

“I do have my reservations,” Brian spoke, “But I get the impression Coil’s going ahead with this regardless of whether we’re in or not.  I’d rather be in on this than sitting on the sidelines, watching it happen.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I think that right now, what we stand to gain by saying ‘yes’, and being right, far outweighs what we stand to lose.”

“So, who’s for the deal, then?” Lisa asked us.

I raised my hand.  Alec, Brian and Lisa joined me in raising theirs.  That left the one person who hadn’t participated in the conversation over Coil’s deal as the sole nay vote.  Bitch seemed unconcerned as she rubbed Brutus’ shoulder.

“What’s up?” Brian asked her.

“I don’t like it.  Don’t trust him,” she didn’t raise her eyes from Brutus.

I leaned forward, “Not saying you’re wrong in not trusting him, but why?”

Angelica, the one eyed, one eared terrier, nuzzled her, and Bitch scratched her behind the ear.  Bitch explained, “He talks too much.  Only reason people talk like he does is if they’re covering something up.”

“I don’t think he’s covering anything up,” Lisa said, “My power would probably clue me in if he was hiding something.”

“I’m going with my gut, and my gut says no.  Besides, things are fine the way they are.”

“But they could be better,” Alec said.

“Your opinion, not mine.  We done here?  You said we wouldn’t accept the deal unless everyone was cool with it, and I’m not.”

Brian frowned, “Wait.  I assumed we’d discuss this, hear each other out.”

“Nothing to discuss,” Bitch stood up and whistled twice.  Her dogs hopped down from the couch to follow her.  “I’m going to work.”

“Come on,” Brian said, “Don’t-”

Lisa stopped him, “Let’s wait, then.  He said we had a week, we can afford to wait a day or two.  Bitch, go do your thing, get it out of the way.  But maybe try to be more open to negotiation and discussion when it comes up again.”

Bitch’s eyebrows knit together in a glare, not directed at anyone in particular.  She turned her attention to collecting the things she needed – plastic bags, a few energy bars, leashes, and a backpack with a bright blue plastic stick jutting out of a gap in the zipper.

“Hey,” I spoke up, “Can I come with?”

I’d told myself I wanted to connect with these guys, and that wasn’t going to happen if I just sat back and participated only when invited.  I had to put myself out there.  Given what I was giving up to be here, I figured I owed it to myself.

Bitch, though, was less than impressed.  The look she gave me could have sent a small animal fleeing for its life.

“Fuck you,” she spat the words.

“Hey.  What?” I was stunned.

“You want to come and bug me to change my mind.  Well fuck you.  You’re not coming into my space, getting in my business, to make me do or say anything I don’t want to do.”

I started to raise my hands, in a placating gesture, but I stopped myself.  Bitch had a different standard for handling social situations.  She didn’t understand stuff like tone, stress, sarcasm, and precedent had led her to assume sarcasm and aggression from any statement.  And it wasn’t just statements, I had a suspicion that the gesture of raising my hands could be seen as aggressive, or something like an animal trying to make itself look bigger, intimidating.

I had to communicate with her in a way that left the least room for misinterpretation.

“You’re going to take care of the rescued dogs, right?  That’s what you do when you go out?  Your ‘work’?”

“None of your business.”

“Coil said you’re overloaded.  I’m offering an extra set of hands, so you can give the dogs more of the attention they need.”

“Bullshit.”

“Enough,” Brian started to rise, “You need to calm down-”

I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him down.  “I’m fine.  Rachel, I’m going to make you a deal.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I thought my last deal was pretty fair, so hear me out?”

“Fine.”

“Let me come along.  I’ll help out where I can, we’ll maybe talk, but we won’t talk about Coil, unless you bring it up.  In exchange, if I do bring it up, or if I try to manipulate you one way or the other, you get a free shot at me.”

“A free shot.”

“One punch, however you want it, wherever you want to stick it.  I know Brian said something about there being no repeats of the day we met, no fighting inside the group or whatever, but this would be a freebie.  Totally allowed.”  I glanced at Brian, who only gave me a concerned look and a small, tight shake of the head.

“Nah,” Bitch answered, “You’ll just piss me off some other way.”

Impulsively, I told her, “Then how about this?  If we finish, we get back here, and it turns out I’ve ruined your day, you get that free shot.”

She stared at me for a moment.  “So I just got to put up with you for a few hours, and then I get to knock your teeth out?”

No,” Brian said, raising his voice.

Yes,” I told her, giving Brian a pointed look.  “If I mention the meeting before you do, or if I piss you off.”

She looked me over, “Whatever.  If you’re that eager to get hit, it’s your funeral.”  She took off the backpack and threw it at me.  I caught it with both arms.  Heavier than it looked.

As I hurried her way to get my running shoes on, Alec hissed at me, “You’re crazy.”

Maybe.  Probably.  But I couldn’t think of a better way to reach out to Bitch.

I hoped this wasn’t something I was going to regret.

 

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter