Interlude 8 (Bonus)

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“I think we’ve got a stray, Tasha.”

Tasha frowned as she looked up from her cell phone, and looked to where Daniella, behind the register, was pointing.  Her lip curled in distaste.

It was a girl, fourteen or fifteen, with dirty blond hair – both in the sense of being greasy and in color – tipped with streaks of blue.  Her clothes looked like they had only barely made the cut for the goodwill bin, and had been worn for weeks or months since she’d gotten them.  The girl was pretending to look through a collection of jackets that were still left over from last spring.  People like that weren’t supposed to be able to walk around the Boardwalk and bother people.

“I’ll handle it,” Tasha told Daniella.

She quietly cleared her throat, straightened her back and approached the girl with a fake smile plastered across her face.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m good,” the girl shoved one jacket to the other end of the rack, and Tasha couldn’t help but imagine a fingerprint being left on the leather.  She wouldn’t be able to get that image out of her head until she evicted the kid and chedcked over the jacket herself.

It bugged Tasha that the girl hadn’t left.  Most cleared out when confronted, well aware they were in the wrong place.

“I’m going to be blunt, then.  You can’t afford these jackets.  That one you just pushed aside?  That’s a design by Fendi.  It’s over four thousand dollars.”

“No shit?  It’s ugly.”

Tasha pursed her lips, glanced at the other customers in the store.  A pair of college-age girls, a woman and her boyfriend.  Nobody seemed to have heard the vulgarity, or the crass insult.

Leaning close, Tasha hissed, “Do I need to call security, you little idiot?”

‘Security’ served as a euphemism for the enforcers on the Boardwalk, paid uniforms who patrolled the streets and the stores, keeping an eye out for the homeless, gang members and shoplifters.  Their methods were as blunt as methods got.  Victims generally weren’t in a position to go to the cops and complain, or the police simply overlooked the enforcer’s activities.

“I really hate being called stupid,” the girl spoke, meeting Tasha’s eyes with a glare.

“You must be new around here if you aren’t-“

“Shut the fuck up,” the girl interrupted her, with enough force and hostility that Tasha stopped mid-sentence.  “Breathe in my face again and I’m gonna gag.  Your breath smells like vomit and a halfhearted attempt at covering up the smell with candy.”

Unconsciously, Tasha’s hand rose toward her mouth.  She stopped and folded her arms, as if to prevent her hand from straying again.  She tried to gather her composure, tell off the girl, but the girl was already speaking.

“Your boyfriend is cheating on you, Tasha Fowler, sleeping with your best friend.  Pretty fucking ironic, given how unattractive your friend is, and your continued attempts to puke yourself thin and make yourself pretty for him.”

Tasha felt a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“If you hurry and run the entire way, you can catch them in the act.  But you can’t waste a second.”

“How do you…?”  Tasha asked, but the girl was already looking through jackets again, clearly not listening.  Tasha glanced at the door.

“Go!” the girl suddenly barked at her.  Startled, Tasha moved toward the door, and then she kept moving, running.

As the saleswoman left the store, the door banging closed behind her, Daniella stared first at the door her coworker had just escaped through, then at the ratty little girl.

The girl turned her head, pretending to examine a jacket, so she could hide a vulpine smile that spread across her face.

They arrived on site in a clap of thunder.  She almost lost her footing, but Grue offered her a steadying hand.

The downpour immediately drenched every part of her that had still been dry when the tidal wave crashed into the lobby.  She used her hands to pull her soaking hair back out of her face, combing it back into place with her fingertips.

“He’s down there, Tattletale,” Grue spoke.

“Yep,” she replied.  Leviathan was in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk, pushing one section of the wooden walkway out of his way with the tip of his tail.

“Bigger in person,” Regent spoke.  His normally loose fitting shirt clung to him.  After moving his arms and watching the water dripping off of the soaked sleeves, he pulled it off, so he wore only the closer-fitting mesh armor he’d had on beneath.

Tattletale grinned.  Sometimes you couldn’t do anything else.  “We are so fucking out of our depth.”

“Everyone is.  Even Legend,” Grue replied.

“Listen,” she said, “If I die-“

“None of us are dying,” Grue spoke, his voice hard.

Odds are one of us is going to.  Statistically speaking,” Tattletale pointed out.  “As there’s only four of us…”

“Three.  Bitch isn’t here and Skitter’s not in the group,” Grue spoke.

“Right,” Tattletale answered.  She looked for Skitter and spotted her in the jumble of people, on her hands and knees in the receding waters from the tidal wave.  The girl stood, coughed a few times, water spraying from the fabric of her mask, then turned her attention to surveying the scene in that peculiar way she did.

Skitter was so focused on the scene that she didn’t even seem to notice the bugs congregating around her.  More than one out-of-town cape gave her a weird look when a bug flew by, to settle on a wall or somebody’s shoulder, but the girl was oblivious.  Maybe she was so used to being self conscious and imagining people avoiding her or looking at her funny, she couldn’t see it when it was real.  Funny, that Skitter had turned her ability into such an effective tool for sensing and assessing her environment, yet she was so unaware of some things.

She’d be better at using my power than I am.

Skitter had a piece of wet paper hanging off her shoulder, some trash that the wave had picked up, but there was nobody to point it out or pick it off.  She was alone.  Tattletale felt a pang of sympathy.  She’d never been able to stand being isolated, had always had her family, with roommates, friends and fellow squatters living with her after she’d run away.  Taylor, though, seemed to gravitate towards solitude.  She pushed people away, and when it came down to the nitty-gritty, when their group had found out the details with the kidnapped girl, Taylor had left.  Tattletale couldn’t imagine doing the same thing, and she had strong suspicions Taylor was closer to the others than she was.  It was a damn shame that things had gone that way, because she been blossoming as a person, lately, actually connecting to others.  To Bitch, even, of all people.

Tattletale couldn’t help but feel regret, too.  She had to admit the schism was at least partially her own fault.  Not paying attention, not getting the right info.  Tattletale couldn’t help but feel she should have been watching out for this sort of thing, knowing that it would take so little to spook the most sensitive member of their group.

She’d grown lax.  It had been easy to, with the knowledge and comfort of the fact that Coil’s power gave them something of a safety net.   But when she’d phoned, informed him, her fingers crossed, he’d told her that he was already focusing on other things.  He could only make the call on one series of events with his power, after all, and in the wake of the Endbringer’s arrival, he had greater priorities.  The opportunity had been lost.

If I die,” she spoke, leaving no room for further argument, “An envelope should arrive in the mail for me, a week or two after I’ve bitten it.  I wrote it.  It’s got all my passwords and account numbers for the money I’ve set aside, so far.  You guys take it, give some to Taylor if you run into her.”

“Alright,” Grue spoke.  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow at him.  She’d expected more resistance.

“And if you happen to get yourself killed, we’ll make sure Aisha gets what she needs.  Just so you know.”

He didn’t voice a response, but he nodded once.

She cast another glance Skitter’s way.  She should’ve asked, before they parted ways.  Would Taylor want her dad to know what she’d been up to?  It was impossible to say.  Taylor wouldn’t want her dad to know about her villainous activity, but to at least have him know she’d gone out as part of a huge sacrifice like this?  Maybe.

“Get Ready!” Legend cried out.

Tattletale grinned, turning her full attention to the Endbringer from beneath the waves.  It was crouching, preparing to charge.

Using her power wasn’t a switch she turned on.  It was letting the walls come down, letting the information start pouring in.  It meant a killer migraine if she used it too much, especially on people or living things, but if she had a headache three hours from now, it would be a damn good thing.  It would mean she was alive.

Getting rid of the saleswoman had been easy-peasy.  The bit about the cheating boyfriend had been an outright lie.  In a similar vein, the part where she’d mentioned the best friend had been an educated guess, but the salesgirl, Tasha, wasn’t the type to have a friend prettier than her.   The way she’d obsessed over her phone and the revelation about the eating disorder were clue enough that the woman had been deeply insecure.  By the time she realized she’d been played, she would still feel compelled to hurry home and check.  Probably bad karma to leverage that sort of weakness, but it meant getting one obstacle out of the way.

The woman had been a bitch anyways.

Lisa watched out of the corner of her eye as the cashier picked up the phone, her eye on attitude, posture, body language, volume of speech.

Worry; calling coworker, not getting response.
Quiet, hushed; hiding anxiety from customers.  Wants to convey professionalism, confidence.
Anxiety, wants to convey professionalism: new to the job, only started two weeks ago.  Doesn’t know how to open safe: not much money in register.  Doesn’t know how to close store alone.  Still no response desperately needs break for bathroom and to sneak a smoke not allowed to smoke on the job looks bad for customers and manager has hard stance on it making clothes smell.

Lisa closed her eyes briefly, took a small breath to center herself.  This power was new, untrained.  It had a way of running away from her, overwhelming her and leaving her bedridden with headaches if she wasn’t careful.  People were too random, too chaotic, too complex.  She could only push herself like this for an hour or two every few weeks before she started to suffer.  It was getting better over time, as far as her tolerances, but the rate of improvement was agonizingly slow.

No, she had to focus on the essential detail: the girl behind the counter wasn’t calling security.  This was good.  And given the other bits of information Lisa had picked up, she could be sure the cashier would probably be calling other coworkers before getting someone to kick her out of the store.

Which meant Lisa could do what she came here to do.  She turned her attention to the man that sat on the leather covered bench by the change rooms.  Thirty-something, wearing fashionable clothes and a nice jacket that was perhaps a bit too big for him, hair recently cut.  He waited with his attention on his smartphone, while his girlfriend or wife tried on something.  Deserving of a little more scrutiny.

Expensive clothes, expensive phone; wealthy.
Confident, patient despite being in a position many guys hated; mature, adult.  Clothes style match his personal tastes, not the type to dress according to girlfriend’s tastes. Tall, athletic: exercise habits developed in military but not currently enlisted this ties into confidence and patience he’s used to waiting and-

She stopped.  Needed to get back on track.  Just needed a starting point to get at the stuff he’d keep secret.  Confidence, military.  How would he pick a four digit number?

Confident and military trained; goes out of his way to keep numbers random.  Looks early thirties; born late 70’s.  Tendency to go with higher number to start.  8 or 9, mid-range number like four, five or six, then high, low, no repeating numbers.  Dressing in darker jacket, pants, trimmed beard, conservative; number will be even-even-odd-odd or odd-odd-even-even.

“Something else,” she murmured to herself, as the flow of information began to slow.  If it slowed enough, it meant that there weren’t enough points of reference to generate new data, it could even mean her power would start supplying information based on speculation or falsehoods.  She chanced a look at the cashier, but the girl was studiously ignoring her, for the time being.

She looked back to the man.  Shoes were nothing special.  No logos or brand names on anything he wore, that she could see… but he was using his left hand on the touchscreen of his phone.

Southpaw; tendency to go for numbers on left side of keypad, eight, then four, seven, then one or three.  One.  8471.

Good.  And his wallet…

Southpaw, confident; wallet in left jacket pocket.

He was distracted.  She abandoned the coat rack and approached the man, being careful to stay directly behind him, in his blind spot.  His jacket was unbuttoned, and the end with the pocket was draped beside him on the bench, the pocket facing her.  Easy grab.

Wallet in left jacket pocket; intended to help mask presence of gun holstered at left hip.

She turned a hundred and eighty degrees on the spot and walked back the direction she’d come.  Concealed gun?  Not worth it.

Her retreat stopped when she saw the man that was entering the store.  Maroon uniform, cap, belt.  One of the enforcers from the Boardwalk.  Shit.

She glanced at the cashier.  She didn’t need her power to read the girl’s look of surprise and relief to know that the girl hadn’t made the call.  Bad luck?  She looked at the enforcer.

Moving with purpose, going out of his way to avoid looking at her; most definitely coming for her.

Had it been the girl she’d scared off, Tasha?  Probably not.  Did it matter?  She turned and looked for another exit.  The boyfriend with the smartphone was standing up, saying something to his girlfriend in the changing room, walking towards the clothes rack.

Placing himself in way of exit, position of hand; preparing to draw on her if she gets too close to making a run for it.  In cahoots with the enforcer.

Which could only mean one thing.  She looked back at the enforcer that was getting closer to her.

Working with the ‘boyfriend’; Not an enforcer.  Ex-military.  Has gun.

To top it off, the girlfriend was leaving the changeroom, talking cheerfully to her boyfriend as he pulled a dress off a rack.  Her hand was too close to her oversize bag, which was open.  That one was a gimmie.  A team of three, each with guns, all of whom were after her.


“No kidding,” she muttered to herself.  How had they tracked her down?  She had been careful to stay out of sight of security cameras, and she had avoided poaching at the same location more than once.  She’d used a different ATM each time she drained some rich schmoe’s bank account, hidden her face from the hidden cameras at each.

She bolted, shoving a display of sunglasses on top of the enforcer, ducking around to his right, out of his reach.

It was a miscalculation, he didn’t care about the sunglasses.  He pushed the rack to the ground, hard, and closed the distance with a single long step.  He had superior reach, strength.  His fist swung in one fluid movement with his step forward, striking her in the stomach, just below her ribcage and off to one side.

Striking solar plexus; trained in martial arts, striking to inflict maximum pain, disabling-

“Urggunnnh,” she swore, as she crumpled to the ground.

“Oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck did she do?!  The merchandise!” The cashier shrieked, shrill.  “I’m going to be in so much trouble, oh my god.”

“Phone the security office after I’m gone,” the not-enforcer spoke, “My supervisor will take it out of my pay.”

“Oh my god,” the cashier spoke, hands over her mouth, oblivious to his words.

“He-” Lisa began to speak, then grunted and choked as she was heaved up to her feet by the back of her shirt.  The not-enforcer twisted the fabric of her shirt until his hand was knotted up in it, the collar tight against her throat.  “He’s not…”

She gave up before going any further with her protests.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody would believe her.  A ratty young teenager from the poor part of town, being paranoid about the cops?  Nobody would step in for her, here.

“I’ll talk to her,” he spoke.  “Let’s see.”  He patted her down with his free hand, brusque, not giving a second’s thought to the fact that she was a girl and a minor.  He reached his hand into her back pocket and when he pulled it out, he had a small knife clasped in it.  Not hers.  He placed it on the counter.

The cashier stared at the knife, eyes widening, then she turned her attention to the merchandise.  Ignoring him.  What the enforcers did wasn’t something that few bystanders were willing to dwell on.  But these people wouldn’t step in.  Not for a potentially dangerous teenager that had been carrying a concealed weapon.

Had he been a real enforcer, Lisa would be scared enough.  There were stories.  People having their fingers broken for shoplifting, being beaten insensate, and there were even tales of the rare girl or boy getting raped by the really twisted fucks.  When the enforcer was done making sure the offender in question wouldn’t come back to the Boardwalk, they left the bloodied person in the back of an alley, worked with another to stick them in a dumpster, or if it was late enough that nobody would see, they would toss them off the side of the boardwalk.  A fifteen to twenty foot drop, depending on the tides and the location of the drop, onto sand or into water that was freezing cold for half the year.

He marched her out of the store, heaving her to the right to keep her from bumping into the doorframe.

He wasn’t an enforcer though.  And he had a gun.  The looming punishment was a little more final than what the enforcers tended to pull.

Has gun; has killed before.

He might kill her.  It wasn’t like she hadn’t done something worth killing over.  She’d drained people’s bank accounts, pocketed the funds.  Thousands of dollars, sometimes.

A spot of light hung in the center of her vision.  She’d pushed too hard with her power.  She’d have to conserve the use of her power, now, or the migraine would knock her out cold when it arrived in force.

There were people all over the Boardwalk.  The tourists watched with idle curiosity while the locals averted their eyes.  Such a contrast there – the locals knew what was up.  It was just inconvenient to pay attention to it.

He forced her into a side street, then rounded a corner so they were behind the row of stores.  He shoved her against a wall, held her there.

She spoke, “Tell me what they’re paying you, I’ll double it.  I won’t have the money right away, but-“

“Not negotiating,” the enforcer spoke.

A few long seconds passed.  She pushed the welling nervousness down, did her best to offer him a smile with her face smushed against the brick.  She asked him, “What’s next?”

“For now, we wait.”

Waiting she could live with.  Waiting wasn’t getting shot and left for some store employee to find as they took out the trash.

It took a minute before the boyfriend and girlfriend rounded the corner.

“Marcus, you know that’s no way to handle a lady,” the ‘girlfriend’ spoke.  She had a posh English accent.  When she spoke again, the accent remained, but the upper class lilt was gone, her voice serious, “Turn her around.”

Marcus, the ‘enforcer’, hauled on Lisa’s shoulder, flipping her around, before planting his palm on her collarbone and pushing her back against the wall.

The ‘boyfriend’ was holding a phone to his ear.  He handed it to the English woman.

“You have a phone call.  We advise you take it,” the woman smiled at Lisa.

Lisa accepted the phone and held it to one ear.

“‘Sup?” she injected playfulness and good humor she definitely didn’t feel into her voice, grinned for the benefit of the three adults with guns.

“I apologize for the manner of our meeting, I hope my soldiers were not too rough on you, Lisa Wilbourn,” the voice on the other end was smooth, calm, unruffled, “Or is it Sarah Livsey?”

“Either or,” she replied,  “Lisa these days.”

“As you wish.  I have been watching you for some time, Lisa Wilbourn, I have become aware that you are something special, and I would like to buy your services.”

Word choice, buy vs. hire: large amounts of money involved.
Word choice, buy vs. make an offer: not really a negotiation.

She glanced at the weapons the three hired guns had in hand.

“I’m listening.”

Leviathan whipped his tail around, slamming it through the ranks of capes.  Immediately after, a lash of water followed in the wake of his movement, cutting down yet another line of gathered heroes and villains.  The armbands announced the losses to the defending side with every attack Leviathan made.  Tattletale hung back, further than even the ranged attackers, and watched.

Steady blood flow from small wounds, asynchronous movement; has blood but no comprehensive cardiac system
No cardiac system, no mouth, no nose, no apparent ears: nonstandard nervous system.

“Educated guess says your power doesn’t work so hot on him,” she told Regent, as the two of them backed away.

“Fuck, no.  If I can do something, my power’s probably gonna backfire like crazy, and I think that bastard’s quick enough that he’s not about to fall flat on his face.”

Tattletale glanced at where Skitter was hurrying to assist one of the wounded.  Even knowing Taylor was out of earshot, she was careful to lower her voice, “And I guess your secret weapon isn’t going to work either?”

“Take two or three times as long, probably, if it worked at all,” Regent grumbled.  “Fuck, I’m useless.”

“Then use that first aid training Grue made us get, help out, and keep an eye out in case your power’s needed.”

Alexandria flew toward Leviathan like a black arrow.

Leviathan charged forward as if to meet the heroine in a head on collision, then stopped abruptly.  His ‘echo’, like a model of himself shaped out of water, continued forward with the same momentum he’d had while sprinting forward.  The heroine used her hands to break the surface tension of the water with a deafening crash, plunged through the water and out the other end, toward Leviathan.  She caught him around the neck and slammed him down against the road hard enough that even Tattletale, at the rear lines of the battlefield, had to adjust her footing as the impact rocked the ground.

Whatever advantage Alexandria had gained, it didn’t last long.  Leviathan’s tail snaked up and around the heroine’s neck, catching her.  He whipped her into the ground, beside him, up into a wall, then back down.  This time, he held her beneath the water, using one claw to help pin her.

Dragon, racing forward through the air with an earsplitting roar, launched the full complement of missiles she had on her suit.  Before the munitions even struck Leviathan, Dragon was shedding the jet engine atop her, the missile launchers, and other extraneous devices, much as a space shuttle cast off pieces of itself as it launched.  The suit collided with Leviathan a half second after the missiles exploded against his torso and shoulders, and steel claws gripped his limbs.

The ‘face’ of her armored suit opened up and began discharging a blue-white flame into his face.  The ‘flames’ didn’t move like flames should, spilling off him and down into the water, where they pooled on the road and continued to burn – after a fashion – beneath the water.  Leviathan, for his part, began tearing into Dragon, clawing away layers of armor with each swipe of his claws, almost uncaring as to the liquid fire that was spilling over him..

Between the smoke from the missiles and the steam that arose where the liquid fire touched water, Tattletale was having trouble seeing the battle.

Tattletale pressed the two buttons on her armband, “Give me a flier to get me to a better vantage point.  Moderate priority.”

It took only ten seconds before one of the Silicon Valley capes arrived.  The man with the jetpack gripped her wrists and carried her up a dizzying height to the roof of the nearest building, five stories tall.  She moved to the edge, being careful to stay out of the way of the other capes that were already set up, raining bullets, flames, lasers and other projectiles down on Leviathan at every opportunity.  The Endbringer was still battling Dragon, had dug deep enough through metal and armor to reach the center of her suit.

Dragon ejected, skidded to a stop eighty feet away, a smaller suit of armor with thin arms and legs, each tapering down to points.  The suit Dragon had left behind glowed red, orange, white, then exploded violently around Leviathan, as though every crevice had been packed with high explosives.  Leviathan reeled, lashed his tail, and then lunged back toward the gathered capes.  He was intercepted by three flying capes this time, who harried him with superstrength and the case of one hero, an oversized battle axe.

Dragon enters battle with suit packed with explosives, risky, current suit has insufficient room for arms and legs: Suit unmanned.

Remotely controlled?  Tattletale raised an eyebrow.  She hunkered down to to watch the fight, mentally opening those doors that let more information flow.

Leviathan, nonstandard cardiac, nervous systems: irregular biology.  No standard organs or weak points.  No brain, heart or center of operations for rest of his body.
Irregular biology, no vulnerable organs: body divided into layers, extending down to hyperdurable core body, each layer down is slightly more than twice as durable as previous. Exterior skin is hard as aluminum alloy, but flexible, lets him move.  3% deeper in toward core of arms, legs, claws, tail, or .5% in toward core of head, trunk, neck, tissues are hard as steel.  6% in toward core of extremities or 1% toward core of main body/head, tissues strong as tungsten.  9% toward core of extremities, 1.5% toward core of main body, head, tissues strong as boron.  12%-

She had to stop, start again.  Her power did that, if she didn’t focus, kept giving her a steady flow of information but not information she could use.

Leviathan had dispatched the three flying heroes and was dueling with Narwhal.  Ballistic from the Travellers was providing supporting fire, sending trash, dumpsters, rubble and pieces of the street careening into Leviathan.

Another try.

Durable layers to body, no conventional organs, irregular biology: Tissues mend from the inside out, layers expanding to fill wounds and integrating into surrounding structures.  Not human.

Knew that much.

Not human: Never was human.

That gave her pause.  But she could imagine Grue shouting at her, “Something we can use!” and that was nudge enough to get her to focus her efforts.  “Weak points.”

No vulnerable organs, hyperdurable tissues: simple organs exist at core of torso, where there is highest amount of surrounding tissues.  Optimal thickness of layer and narrowness of body part at upper arms, just before shoulder joint, and upper thighs, just below hip joint.

Something she – everyone – could use.  She pressed the button for the communicator on her armband, “He’s got weak points, sort of.  He’ll take the most damage at the arm-“

She was cut off by a blared warning from the armband, and a shuddering rumble of the roof she and the squad of ranged combatants had gathered on.  The rumbling only intensified with each passing second.

“Wave!” someone screamed.

Forcefields went up, and being as high as they were, they were out of reach of the worst of it.  She could see it, a tide of water several stories high.  The impact was reduced to a manageable level  only by the shattered Boardwalk and fallen buildings at the end of the road, the uphill slope.

The crash when when the wave rolled against the side of the building was enough to knock over nearly everyone on the roof.

Structure, building age, strength of wave; building will hold.

Hope the people on the ground are as fortunate.

Except another problem became immediately clear.  Without the interference of the most durable front line combatants, Leviathan was able to move freely.

The building shuddered, one wall of the building began to crumble, and Leviathan climbed fast enough that his momentum carried him twenty feet above the rooftop.  He landed in the midst of them, and the roof crumbled beneath his mass.  Two people closest to him were swallowed up as the roof disintegrated underfoot, tumbling towards Leviathan.  He adjusted the position of his feet and one hand, to place them at the still-intact portions of the roof’s edge, where the structure was strongest.

Only a second after he’d landed, the water that followed in his wake crashed down on the roof, splashing out to push everyone present ten or fifteen feet away from Leviathan, tearing the gaping hole in the roof open even further.  Tattletale gripped the edge of the roof to keep from being pushed over, choked as water forced itself into her nose and mouth.  A less fortunate cape screamed as she fell.

This would be a good fucking time to act, Regent.

Wave; Regent briefly incapacitated.

“Fuck,” she muttered.

Hadn’t Taylor been in a situation like this when they’d met?  With Lung?  How had she coped?

Right, she hadn’t.  We stepped in.  Great.

The armband was still rattling off the casualties from the wave.  As Tattletale coughed, tried to clear her mouth enough to breathe, Leviathan lashed out with the one claw that wasn’t planted against the walls of the building, easily striking two heroes down.  From the damage done, it was painfully obvious that they weren’t invincible or anywhere close to it.  A third person gravely injured by the crushing flow of water that followed in the wake of his claw, momentum and a lack of attachment to Leviathan’s own body letting it extend well beyond his reach.

Some cape wearing armor studded with stone imagery retaliated, some sort of power that let him generate matter, like chunks of rock or metal pouring out in a stream, spraying into Leviathan’s face, making the creature pull back.

Leviathan retaliated with a whiplike lash of his tail, bisecting the man.  Of the twelve or so that had been on the roof a minute ago, only three remained.

Not even looking her way, Leviathan raised one claw in Tattletale’s general direction.  The water on the roof shifted, surged toward Tattletale in an isolated wave as tall as she was, lifting her, pushing at her.

The sting of the spray and the salt of the water blinded her.  There was a brief dizzying moment where she realized she couldn’t tell which way was up.  She realized she was falling.

Stupid, the thought was an accusation, biting, directed wholly at herself.

She was the last to arrive.  She grinned as she joined the group that had gathered by the entrance to the Trainyards.  So these are the people Coil found.

“You aren’t wearing a costume, and you’re late,” spoke the tallest of the three present, his voice echoing as if from someplace more distant than he was.  He was covered in darkness that smouldered like a low flame, obscuring him, drifting off in faint wisps.  At times, she could see the image of a skull in the midst of it.  Intriguing.

Darkness generation; muffles sound.
Muffles sound, light: inhibits radiation, microwaves, radio frequencies, miniscule effects on the transfer of kinetic energy-

“Don’t have one,” Lisa replied, before she could get lost in the flow of information and took too long to respond.

“You’ll have to get one.”

Orders, demands, statements, condemnations, use of skull in costume: solo operator, organized, careful to divorce emotion from action & agenda.  Falls back on order, rules, self discipline in times of stress.

“I was sort of thinking I’d take a backseat role, serve as your contact, the gal on the other end of the phone, keeping you guys on track, feeding you info.”

“Fuck that,” the only other girl in the group spoke, jabbing a finger at her, “If you’re taking an equal share, you’re gonna get your hands dirty too.”  One of the dogs that accompanied the girl growled, as if to punctuate the statement.

Word choice, ‘too’:  haunted by demons.
Swearing: Antisocial.

Unhappy with status quo:  seeking to change things, seeking money, power, prestige.
Antisocial, swearing, clothes prioritizing function and comfort over style:  not seeking human connections, prefers company of dogs.  Powers relate to dogs.
Powers relating to dogs, not seeking human connections, antisocial, inner demons: powers side effects disconnected standard human empathy and understanding, no longer grasps full extent of human relations, signals, signs, cues-

Tattletale shrugged, admitted, “My power isn’t so good in a direct confrontation.”

“Figure it out,” the darkness generator told her.

“Alright, can do,” she assured him.  As much to test his patience and see his limits, she grinned and offered the words, “Should be fun.”

The darkness generator folded his arms .

Folded arms: Irritation, doubt.

She glanced at the one person who hadn’t spoken yet.  Hard ceramic mask with a blank expression frozen on it, a coronet set atop black hair, renaissance era clothing.  Only his eyes were visible.

“Barrels of fun,” the boy spoke, in a tone that might have been sarcastic, or might have been disinterested.  His eyes met hers.

Disinterest or affected disinterest, lack of engagement, lack of pupil dilation or contraction coinciding with eye contact:  limited emotional depth, deeply repressed emotions and/or depression.  Sociopath.

Odd as it was, she felt better, knowing these things.  She liked to think that everyone had roughly the same measure of fucked-up-ness in them, some weird or offensive element.  Knowing that it was so close to the surface, or relatively close in the darkness manipulator’s case, it was almost reassuring.  It meant that she didn’t find out something ugly days, weeks or months down the line.

Which was a set of memories she was not keen to dwell on.  She pushed that thought & the emotions that boiled up with it out of her mind and grinned as though she found Regent’s comment amusing.

The darkness generator made a noise, which she realized was a sigh.  He spoke, “Alright.  We do this team thing, we’re going to do it properly.”

“Of course,” she smiled wider.  As much to irritate him as anything else, she added, “How hard could it be?”

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Buzz 7.12

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“We’re not to blame for what Coil did,” Grue told me.

“We sure helped it happen.”

“There was no way we could know what he was really doing.”

“Because we were complacent, not paying attention.  Because of that, and because we assisted Coil in distracting the capes, Dinah has been held captive for what, three weeks?  Almost a month?”

“Almost a month,” Tattletale echoed me.

I looked at Tattletale, noted how she was refusing to look anyone in the eye, and I had an uncomfortable thought.  “Did you know about this?”

“I-” She stopped to give a little sigh and briefly make eye contact with me before staring back down at the ground.  “I had an idea, sort of.  I didn’t think it would be this ugly.  It’s hard to explain.”

“Try,” I spoke, my voice hard.

“She disappeared from the middle school near Arcadia the same day we robbed the bank.  Obviously, Coil wanted to ensure the Wards weren’t close enough to interfere, probably why he was so keen on us doing the bank job, after I suggested it.  I made the connection, after.  I just didn’t think – Nothing he said or did led me to think it would be a serious kidnapping.”

“What else could it be?” Grue asked her.

“Her uncle’s one of the mayoral candidates in the election this Summer, you know that?  I knew Coil was putting a lot of value on getting hold of her, I thought maybe he was kidnapping her to use her to ransom for the uncle’s campaign funds, or to get the uncle to drop out of the race in a more direct play.  I had a suspicion he got her to cooperate with some sort of incentive.  Figure out she’s unhappy at home, give her a place to stay and some sort of bribe.  Either way, it’s more fitting with his methods to date, and it would have been short term or more benign.  Not so bad.”

“Kind of off there,” I said, bitterly.

“I’m aware,” Tattletale answered, with just as much emotion in her voice.  “I don’t like it either.  He’s been around me enough, communicated with me enough, to have an idea of stuff that I won’t necessarily know or think to look for.  I didn’t even know she had powers, or how Coil would have found this out or found her.  This is out of character for him.  Ruthless, power hungry.”

“If it bothers you that much, tell him to fuck off,” Bitch cut in, sounding irritated.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.  “We can’t just walk away and leave her like that.”

“And some of us are kind of relying on Coil for some major stuff,” Grue spoke.  “Some of us have people we can’t leave behind.”

I looked at him, surprised, “I don’t want to say your sister isn’t important, but… are you really willing to let Dinah stay in captivity, just for Aisha?”

“If it comes down to it?  Yeah.”

I stared at him.

“I’m being practical, Taylor,” Grue lapsed into using my real name, “People are suffering all around the world.  We ignore what’s happening elsewhere every second of every day, focusing only on our country, our city, our neighborhood, or on the people we see daily.  We only really care about the pain and unhappiness of our loved ones, our friends and families, because we couldn’t stay sane if we tried to support and save everyone.  Nobody could try to do anything like that, except maybe Scion.  I’m applying that concept to a smaller scale.  My family and my team, they take priority, and they take priority in that order.  If I have to choose one way or the other, I’m going to take the option that includes Aisha and you guys.”

“This is different from ignoring starving kids in a third world country or ignoring some homeless guy on the street,” I told him, “You’ve seen Dinah in person, you’ve looked her in the eye.  You’re already involved, you’ve played a role in her situation.”

“I’m not saying I like it, I am definitely less sure I want to work with Coil, now, but I’m saying it’s something that we should discuss and come to a consensus on.”

I looked at the others, “You feel the same way?”

Bitch gave me an annoyed look.  Okay, I wasn’t expecting an ally there.

Regent shrugged, “I’ve told you where I come from, how I grew up.  I’ve seen similar stuff before, only it was my dad’s powers, not drugs.  I’ve got a high tolerance for that shit.”

I tried to convince him, “Didn’t you leave Heartbreaker because of stuff like that?  Aren’t you just getting back into the same situation with Coil?”

“I left my father because he was trying to control me and force me to be someone and something I wasn’t.  It wasn’t even remotely interesting or fun any more.  The day that happens with Coil, I’ll leave him too.  For now, it’s a good gig.”

These are the people I’ve been associating with?  I looked to my last hope for a backup and support.  Tattletale.

She had her thumbs hooked into her belt, her shoulders hunched forward a little, where she leaned against the wall.  She didn’t look happy.

When she met my eyes, she gave a little shake of her head.

“Coil’s not stupid,” Tattletale told me, “He knows what he just did, he had every reason to suspect that one or two people in our group might find his methods distasteful.  He calculated this.  He’s testing us, making sure we’ll stick around when it’s time to make the hard calls.”

“If this is a test,” I spoke, feeling my heart sink, “I think I fail.”

“Don’t say that,” Tattletale spoke.  “Grue’s right, we need to discuss this as a team.”

“Discuss what?  Whether to stay with Coil?”

“Yeah,” the word was a half-sigh coming out of her mouth.

“That you guys even think it’s negotiable is pretty fucked up,” I replied.  The anger and betrayal I was feeling made my tone harsher, harder.

I don’t know what I expected, but I stood there for a few seconds.  Maybe I was waiting for an apology, some sort of excuse, or an admission from them that I was right.

None of them opened their mouths to offer any of that.

I turned to leave, pushing the hatch open as I stepped back into the gravel lot that surrounded the high-rise in construction.

“Come on Taylor,” Grue called out behind me.  I didn’t listen.

“Hey!” He raised his voice.

I didn’t reply.  I was too angry, and as moronic as it sounded, I didn’t want our parting words to be me cussing at him.

I was three paces away from the hatch when I heard the crunch of gravel behind me.  I wheeled around to see Grue closing the gap behind me, one arm outstretched, as if to grab me.

My temper exploded at the same time my bugs did, spilling out from beneath my costume.  At my instruction, they swept between Grue and I, creating a barrier of sorts.

I was already thinking of how I’d deal if it came down to a fight – his costume covered his skin, but I remembered the vents on the edge of his mask, that redirected the flow of his darkness from his face out the edges of his mask, so the skull image would stand out.  In a pinch, my bugs could get in that way.  His power didn’t really affect me, but would a slow trickle of my bugs into his mask compensate for his obvious advantages in hand to hand fighting?

I heard the growling of Bitch’s dogs.  They weren’t full size, but they were bigger than normal, locked into the beginning stages of their transformations.  In the dimly lit lot of the construction area, I could see their shadows through the haze of my swarm.  Dealing with them would be hard, if not impossible.

“No,” Grue spoke, on the other side of the swarm.  “Fuck.  Let her go.”

I turned and fled.

The loft was empty, with only Angelica present.  Behind her, the TV had been left on, a low level of background noise and activity to reassure the dog, maybe, or just Alec being lazy about turning everything off.

Angelica moved very slowly as she climbed down from the couch and approached to investigate me.  Whatever her past experiences, she had never learned to like any humans other than Bitch, so I only got a cursory sniff before she turned to shamble back to the couch.  Whatever energy she’d expended to get to me, check me out and return to where she’d been resting, it didn’t leave her with enough of a reserve of strength to hop up.  She settled down under the coffee table, watching me with her one intact eye, a perpetual wink, if winks could be wary or threatening.

Fog had done a number on her.  It was hard to believe, but she was better than she’d been a few days ago.  Bitch had intended to use her power on the dog, but Lisa had advised against it, warning about the threat of cardiac arrest.  As a consequence, Angelica had spent the better half of a week so lethargic, weak and still that I’d frequently looked at her and wondered if she’d stopped breathing.  I wasn’t so attached to her that I’d be upset if she died, but knowing how much the loss of a dog would gut Bitch had given me enough of a reason to worry about the critter.

It was strange to think I was walking away from this: the loft, the dogs, and the others.

I didn’t know how to parse what I was feeling or thinking.  I felt angry, betrayed.  Standing in the living room of the loft, the feeling of being lost was particularly keen.  I didn’t have a plan, and I’d had a plan for a while, now.  For my first year and a half of High School, it had been all about getting through to the end of the day, reaching the weekend.  When the weekend came, it was about recuperating, rebuilding my mental and emotional strength to face the coming week.

Then I had gotten my powers.  I’d reached my very limit, the moment I might have cracked, and my powers had given me something else to strive for; being a superhero.  There’d been so much to do, so much to plan, prepare and research, that it had given me a reason.  I was hesitant to define it as hope, but it had given me something to focus on beyond the next twenty four hours.

Everything else had flowed from that point.  Meeting the Undersiders, committing to a new plan as an undercover agent, with a new goal of getting info on them and their then-anonymous boss.  When I couldn’t do that in good conscience, I changed my plan to getting to know the others, being a friend to Bitch, bonding with Brian.  Admittedly, I’d had varying degrees of success, in the short period I’d traveled that road, but it had been enough for the present.

And now I was adrift.

I was, in a way, back to square one.  I had to get through today, then get through this week.  I’d figure out where to go from there.  I headed to my room.

My backpack sat beside my bedside table, and a quick investigation revealed it still contained a lot of what I’d stashed in there a week ago, back when I’d expected to spend a few days at Brian’s.  Clothes, basic toiletries, cash, an unused disposable phone.  I added more money, the card with the info for my supervillain bank account, and a few more things.  Checking the room for anything I thought I might need, I found myself looking at my dresser.  Resting on top were the katana I’d claimed as a prize from one fight, and the piece of amber Brian had given me.

I stuck the amber in my bag, surrounding it with clothes to pad it, and then zipped it up.

The alarm clock marked the time at 6:40 in the morning.  If Coil hadn’t called for the meeting at this strange hour, if I hadn’t been packing, this would be about the time that I headed out the door for my morning run.

Leaving like I was, hurrying to be gone before the others caught up with me, I was leaving a lot of stuff behind.  Clothes, furniture, pictures.  Without even realizing it, I’d sort of begun making this space my own, decorating and personalizing it.  Settling in, in a way I hadn’t when I’d been planning to betray the group.

I was putting clothes on over my costume when Lisa’s voice came from the doorway, “Where are you going to go?”

I turned to look at her, and her expression changed.  Was it the look on my face?  I wasn’t sure what emotion I was conveying.  Anger?  Disappointment?  Regret?

“A motel, maybe,” I said.  “Why?  Are you going to have to hunt me down?  Tie up a loose end?”

“You know we wouldn’t.”

“Sure.  I suppose he’ll send the Travelers after me if he goes that route.”  I pulled my mask off and put it away in the backpack.

“This feels bad, Taylor.  You really have to go?”

“I don’t even want to look at myself in the mirror, right now.  Even if we came to some sort of agreement, made a plan to save her together, go against Coil…” I trailed off, trying to find the words, “I can’t face everyone else and pretend like things are normal.  Even if we were working to save her… it feels disrespectful.  Dinah deserves better than that.”

“Believe it or not, Brian’s as freaked out as you are.  If he’s being weird or out of character, it’s just him defaulting to his core programming, you know what I mean?  Like Bitch getting angry, or you going quiet and wary.”

I shrugged, tied my sweatshirt around my waist, told her, “In hindsight, I don’t think it was that out of character for him.  Part of the reason I’m leaving.”

“Is this leave permanent or temporary?”

“Don’t know.”

“Are you going to do something stupid like try to rescue Dinah yourself?”

“Don’t know,” I repeated myself.

“You’re aware that there’s an outside chance that if you try, we might have to try and stop you.  Depending on what agreement the rest of us come to about the current sitch.”

“Do what you have to, I’ll do the same.”

“Alright, then.”

I slung the bag over my shoulder, faced the door.

Tattletale spoke, “I’m not saying goodbye, because this isn’t.  I’ll resolve this situation with Coil and his captive myself, if I have to, if it means we can have another civil conversation in the near future.  Stay alive, don’t do anything rash, and be open to hearing us out in the future?  Surely our friendship is worth doing that much?”

After a moment, then I gave her a single nod.

Lisa moved out of the doorway to let me through.  When I turned in the direction of the living room and the stairwell, Lisa almost deliberately turned in the other direction, toward the kitchen.  As if following me to the exit constituted some vague sort of farewell, and she was sticking to the idea of refusing to say goodbye.

I was halfway down the stairwell to the first floor when I heard it.  A whining noise, like you might hear from a particularly large baby preparing to scream.  The nasal ‘wa’ sound stretched out, so loud it was painful to listen to.  A siren?  An air raid siren.

I reversed direction and ran back up the stairs.  Tattletale was already in the living room.  The TV was showing evacuation directions in a rotation of images:  Leave your homes.  Find the nearest shelter.  Follow the directions of local authorities.  Leave your homes…

“Bomb?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the siren, “Bakuda leave something behind?”

Lisa shook her head.

I’d seen her in the presence of Lung, around Glory Girl, Bakuda, Purity, Night and Fog.  Looking at her, now, I saw an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in any of those scenarios.  There was no trace of her vulpine grin, none of her characteristic humor or reckless abandon.

“Then what is it?”  I asked her, though I already had a dark suspicion.  Even the Bakuda’s terrorism campaign against the city hadn’t warranted the sirens, and that left very few possibilities.

Her response was one word, final. “Endbringer.”

“What- but-”  I turned toward the stairs, then back to Tattletale, “My dad.  I’ve got to-”

Tattletale cut me off, “He’ll evacuate or get to a shelter like everyone else.  Taylor, look at me.”

I did.

“The others and I, we talked about this possibility.  It came up before we met you.  You listening to me?  You know what happens, the usual response.”

I nodded.

“We all decided we’d go.  That we’d try to help, however we could.  But you weren’t a part of that talk, and there’s tensions in the group.  You’re pretty much not on the team, right now, so if you don’t want to-”

“I’ll go.”  I didn’t even need to think about it.  I would never be able to forgive myself if I walked away, knowing there was something I could have done to help.

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Buzz 7.11

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The skeleton of a building loomed over us.  Girders and beams joined together in what would become one of Brockton Bay’s high rises, twenty stories tall.  At the base of it was a sea of crushed stone, with innumerable bulldozers, piledrivers, loaders, mixers and graders standing still and dark.  The only light came from the buildings and streetlights on the surrounding streets.

Tattletale put key to lock and let us through the fence that surrounded the site.  She held the gate open as Grue, Regent, Bitch and I filed through, followed by Judas and Brutus.  The two dogs were nearly normal in size, nothing that would raise alarm if someone saw us at a distance.  When we were through, Tattletale shut the gate and reached through the gap to put the lock back in place and click it shut.

Gravel crushed underfoot as we made our way to the unfinished high rise.  Tattletale pointed to a hatch, surrounded by a rim of concrete.  The hatch itself had a yellow warning sign reading ‘Drainage’, sporting images beneath of a man wearing a hazmat suit and a man wearing a gas mask.  She fiddled with the keyring to get the right key, undid the lock and raised the hatch.  Stairs led down into a darkness that looked and smelled very much like a storm drain.

As we descended, the smell got stronger.  We passed through a door with metal bars, and then traveled down a long hallway.  The room at the end of the hall was small, with one other door and a small surveillance camera in one corner.  The door we faced had no handle, forcing us to wait.  It took about twenty seconds before someone opened the door for us.  One of Coil’s men.

The interior of the sub-basement had none of the smell of the previous chambers, and consisted of two tiers with walls of poured concrete.  The upper level we stood on was an arrangement of metal walkways that extended around the room’s perimeter.  Crates and boxes filled the level below, and I could see fifteen or so of Coil’s people down there, sitting on crates or leaning against them, talking among themselves.

Each soldier was outfitted in a matching uniform: shades of gray and some black, hard vests with raised collars to protect their necks.  Only a few wore their balaclavas, and I could see a variety of nationalities in a group that was mostly men.  All of the soldiers had assault rifles somewhere nearby, slung over shoulders with straps and leaning against walls or crates.  Polished steel attachments on the underside of each gun’s barrel contrasted with the dark gunmetal tone of the rest of the equipment.

The man who had opened the door for us inclined his head in the direction we were to go.  We traversed the metal walkway, and passed more of Coil’s soldiers.  I saw one squad of six below us was gearing up, pulling on masks and checking their guns.  Five seconds later, we passed Circus on the walkway, in a costume and makeup of red and gold.  Oblivious to us or our passing, she was leaning against a wall by a stack of cardboard boxes, standing intimately close to a young soldier with close-cropped red hair and an ugly scar running down one side of his neck.

We found Coil at the end of the walkway, talking to four people who most definitely weren’t soldiers.  Each wore a suit, and none seemed the type to carry a gun.  There was a heavyset woman, a man who must’ve been fifty or sixty, a man who stood no more than four feet tall and a blonde woman who barely looked out of high school.

“Cranston, can you have it for tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the blonde woman replied.

“Good.  Pearse, the soldiers?”

“Squads Fish, Nora and Young are suited up and ready for your okay,” the short man spoke.

“And the replacement recruits?”

Pearse handed Coil a set of folders, “I’ve put post-its on the most promising.  We need two to make up for one soldier that was recently injured, and one that decided to skip town.”

Coil tucked the folders under one arm, “Good.  Duchene, I’ll talk to you later tonight about our preparations.  The rest of you, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

The suits marched off, with all but the fat lady passing us to go the way we’d come, along the metal walkway.  The woman headed down the stairs to the lower area with all the soldiers, and a group of people that weren’t in uniform flocked to her.  People with clipboards and crowbars.  The construction crew?

“Undersiders,” Coil spoke, “You’ve recuperated this past week?”

“More or less,” Grue replied.  He had his arms folded.

“Excellent.  And what do you think?”  He gestured to the underground complex around us with a sweep of his arm.

“It’s impressive,” Grue spoke.

“Once things are set up, some of this will be a base of operations for the Travelers, the rest of this space serving as a place my men can meet before they deploy.”

“Right,” Grue replied.

“So.  I expected a reply once you felt you were healed and ready for more work, or if you decided on a reply for my deal, but I got a sense this isn’t quite that.”

Tattletale spoke, “We can’t keep doing this, Coil.”

It was hard to tell, but I suspected that did something to knock Coil off his stride.  “Hm.  Elaborate?”

“We keep getting through these fights by the skin of our teeth.  We’re not up to it.  Just a few days after we helped take down the ABB, a situation that had two of our members facing down Lung and Oni Lee, we were up against the Protectorate, the Wards and Empire Eighty-Eight in the span of forty-eight hours.  Even with your people and your powers to help, we’re not strong enough for this.”

“I see,” Coil turned to face the lower section of the sub-basement and look down at his people.  He rested his hands on the railing, “Are you terminating our arrangement?”

Tattletale shook her head, “We’d rather not, but it depends on what we agree to here and now, in this meeting.  We talked this over for the past week, and I’ll be blunt.  The one person who wasn’t keen on taking your deal changed her mind, but the rest of us now have some serious reservations.  And it’s not just the issue of our safety.”

Coil nodded.  “Well, let me start by saying I’m pleased to hear about your change of heart, Bitch.  Can I ask what prompted it?”

Bitch shot Tattletale an irritated look, clearly unimpressed that Coil had been informed on our negotiations.  Still, she gave him a response.  “Decided it wouldn’t be so bad to get help with my dogs.  I still think you’re full of shit, but way I see it, you can be as full of shit as you want, so long as I get what I want.”

“I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”  Coil sighed a little, “Which leads me to our subject of discussion.  Would I be right in assuming these reservations our Tattletale has mentioned have something to do with me, and how I operate?”

Grue and I both nodded.

“And you’re among these individuals with doubts, Tattletale?”

“Sorry.  I’ve worked with you for a while now, I know what you can do, I even like and respect you.  What you’re going for.  But this last play of yours was fucked up on a lot of levels.”

“Yes,” Coil conceded, turning back towards us, “You’re right.  Too heavy handed a maneuver.  A tactical nuke where a rocket launcher might have sufficed, with undeserving parties suffering for being too close to the real targets.”

“Us, and the families of the members of Empire Eighty-Eight that you outed.”

Coil nodded, “So the two main points we need to discuss are the apparent carelessness of my maneuver against Empire Eighty-Eight, and the risk your group has been facing in the field.  That said, if these issues are addressed in a satisfactory manner, would I be right in thinking you are prepared to accept my deal?”

Tattletale glanced at each of us, myself included, then told Coil, “Maybe.”

“Good.  Shall we walk?  I’ll be more able to answer your second concern when we get to the other side of this complex.” He stepped away from the railing and extended a hand, inviting us to join him.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, leading us around the end of the room to the walkway opposite the one we’d traveled to reach him.

“First off, apologies are in order,” Coil spoke, “Your concern over the way I outed the Empire’s members is entirely deserved.  In truth, it was a plan I had begun before I even knew of your existence, Undersiders.  My initial attempts to divine the secret identities of my enemies were slow to bear fruit, and my hired men often underwent weeks of investigation only to find they had been barking up the wrong tree.

“For almost four years, I have invested funds and time in the possibility that I could find the weak point of my enemies: their civilian lives, the faces under the masks.  For years, I was disappointed.  In my early days, I had less money to fritter away, my facility with my own power was not what it is today, and many of the failures on these fronts were costly.

“As I began to amass my fortunes, this became easier.  I could hire better investigators, pay the right people to divulge information and unseal court records.  Pieces began falling into place.  With my recruitment of Tattletale, I was able to avoid a number of wild goose chases.  It was still slow, and the turnover rate of Empire Eighty-Eight was frustrating, especially as I aimed to have the complete picture, with no member of Kaiser’s empire left unmasked.  My efforts with the local heroes were no better, if for different reasons.

“For some time, aside from regular payments and some direction, my attention was elsewhere.  It was only two weeks ago that I was contacted by my investigators and told that I had what I wanted on Empire Eighty-Eight.  To have it come together at that time, when the Empire was one of the sole barriers remaining before me, it seemed to be serendipity.  I jumped on the opportunity.”

Grue spoke to Coil’s back, “And you forgot about us.  What it might look like.”

Coil turned his head, “Yes.  I’ll admit I am not proud of my failure to see the bigger picture, and I assure you, it is not a mistake I am prepared to make again.”

“That’s it?  You say ‘I’m sorry’ and we’re just supposed to accept it?” Regent spoke for the first time since we’d arrived.

Coil stopped, and we were forced to stop or we would have walked right into him.  He spoke, “If you accept my deal, I will undertake no plan of this scale without first consulting you, the Travelers and the independent villains that work for me.  It is my hope that you would be able to inform me about any flaws or unintended consequences regarding my schemes.”

Grue unfolded his arms, “I can’t say for sure.  Maybe.”

I spoke, “I like the idea, but no offense, I’m not sure I trust you that far.  And don’t say that Tattletale would find out and tell us if you bent the rules and tried to slip something past us.  She’s not infallible.  Sorry, Tattle.”

Tattletale shrugged at that.

“I’ll leave you to think on the idea,” Coil spoke, “There’s no action or gesture I can really take that will earn your trust in one fell swoop.  All I can do is to work with you, giving you no more reason to distrust me.”

“Sure,” I replied, noncommittal.

“Now, that leaves one us final issue to remedy.  Your worries for your safety.  I wish to show you that you are in good hands, and I’m prepared to reveal one of my secret weapons,”  Coil came to a stop outside a door.  A soldier stood nearby, smoking a cigarette.

“Fetch her,” Coil ordered.  The soldier nodded, squashed the cigarette against the wall, pocketed the butt and went through the doorway.

Coil walked over to the wall where the soldier had extinguished the cigarette and used his thumb to wipe the smudge on the wall away.  He spoke to us, “If I told you I knew where Kaiser was hiding out from the heroes, alongside his bodyguards and perhaps a handful of his lieutenants, that I wanted you to defeat them in a nighttime ambush, this would be an example of the sort of situation you’re concerned about facing?”

“Yep,” Tattletale replied, “Even with your power-”

“-You have your worries, yes,” Coil finished for her.  “Forgive me if I do not elaborate on the subject of my abilities, or give Tattletale permission to do so.  We- ah, here she is.”

The soldier came through the door, with a girl in tow.  Twelve years old or so, she had dark circles under her eyes, and straight, dark brown hair that was in need of a trim.  She wore a white long sleeved shirt, white pajama bottoms and white slippers.  She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, staring at the ground.  Her right hand gripped her left elbow, and the fingers of her left hand drummed an inconsistent beat against her thigh.

Coil bent down and pushed the hair away from the girl’s face.  She looked at him, then looked away.

“I need some numbers,” Coil spoke, gently.

“I want candy.”

“Alright.  Candy after six questions.”

“Three,” she grew more agitated, turned as if to walk away, then turned back in his direction.  She was fidgeting more.

“Five questions.  Is that fair?”  Coil turned and sat on the metal walkway, beside where the girl stood.

“Okay.  Five.”

“I’d like these people,” Coil pointed at us, “To go fight Kaiser, tomorrow night at eleven in the evening.  You remember them?  The Undersiders.  And you remember Kaiser?  From the pictures I showed you?”

“Yes.  You asked me this before.”

“I did.  But I want the Undersiders to hear what you say.  Give me a number.  How would they do, without my help?”

“Forty-six point six two three five four percent chance they all come back.  Thirty three point seven seven nine zero one percent only some come back.  That’s one question.”

Coil paused to let that sink in, then looked up at us, “She calculates possibilities, we think she does it by seeing all the potential outcomes of an event in a fraction of a second.   Her power categorizes these outcomes and helps her to figure out the chance that a given event will come to pass.  It isn’t easy for her, and I try not to tax her abilities, but you can surely see why this is so valuable.”

I hugged my arms close to my body.  When I glanced at the girl, I caught her looking at me.  I looked away.

“Candy, now?”  She started to bite at her thumbnail.  Looking at her other hand, I saw her nails were bitten to the quick.

He moved her hand away from her mouth, “Four more questions, pet, then candy.  Tell me the numbers for the same situation, but if I sent the Travelers instead.”

“Sixty point two one zero zero nine percent chance they all come back.  Forty-four point one seven four three percent chance but someone gets hurt or killed.”

“Good girl,” he turned to look at us, “The Travelers are powerful, so it stands to reason their chances are higher.  But I’ve found that your group benefits more from a use of my power.  Pet, tell me the numbers for the same scenario, for both the Travelers and the Undersiders, but let’s say I was helping them in my usual manner.”

“That’s two questions.  Two teams, two questions.  No cheating.  I get really bad headaches when I try to get too many numbers.”

“Okay.  Answer those two, then there’s one more before you get your candy.  I just need to know the chances that the teams will come back intact.”

The girl nodded, a little too quickly and eagerly, “Those people there have a thirty-two point zero zero five eight three percent chance to come back with nobody dead or seriously hurt if you help them.  The Travelers have a forty-one point-”

“No, stop,” Coil stopped her, “That doesn’t make any sense.  You gave me different numbers before.  Those numbers are lower than the ones they’d have if I didn’t help.”

“It’s the numbers in my head.”

“The numbers are wrong, pet.”

She shook her head, raised her voice in a surprisingly sudden fit of anger, “No!  They’re right!  You just don’t want to give me any candy!”

Coil put a hand on her shoulder.  She pulled away, but he held her firm.  He had to raise her voice to be heard over her squeals, and he shook her just a little to be sure she was listening, “Last question, then you’ll get your candy, I promise.”

She began to settle, and Coil was calmer when he spoke again, more like his usual, reasonable self, “Just give me the number, again, if I sent the Undersiders out to fight Kaiser, without giving them my help.  What percentage, that they come back intact?”

“Twelve point three one three three percent-”

Coil stood, swiftly.  He turned to the soldier that stood nearby, “Give her what she wants.”

The soldier guided the girl back through the door.

Coil muttered to himself, “There’s some anomaly at work, here.  The numbers can’t skew that much, that fast.  More than a thirty percent drop…”

“Coil?” Tattletale spoke.  She looked a little pale.

“Tattletale, do you know why the numbers would change?  Does your power tell you anything?”

She shook her head, started to speak, but was interrupted.

“Then go,” he ordered her, ordered us.  “I will contact you later, and we will finish this conversation then.”


Please,” he stressed the word, “See yourselves out.  This situation, whatever it is, demands my attention.”

Tattletale nodded.  Together, we headed around the walkway to the door we’d come in.  We were halfway up the stairs to the hatch when Regent commented, “Well, that was surreal.”

“Not the word I’d use to describe it,” I replied, quiet.

“What’s her deal?  Is she like Labyrinth?  Powers fucked with her head?”

I looked at the others, then turned to look at him.  I couldn’t help but let a little venom seep into my voice as I asked him, “Are you dense?”

“What?  She said she got headaches, Coil said it was hard on her, using her power, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think there’s something going on mentally, especially seeing how she acted.”

“The candy she was asking for was a euphemism for drugs,” I spoke, and saying it aloud made it somehow more real.  I hugged my arms tighter against my body, “He’s keeping her strung out so she’ll cooperate, give him his numbers.”

“I don’t think-”

“Shut up,” I cut Regent off.  “Just shut up.  I- I can’t argue with you on this.  Please.”

He stopped.  I looked at the others.  Grue had his arms folded, and was standing very still.  Bitch just had her usual angry look.  Tattletale looked pale, even for the single lightbulb’s worth of light we had in the stairwell.  She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“You’d know if you watched the news,” I told Regent, “If you read the paper.  I hate that I have to explain this, when I don’t even want to think about it.  She’s the missing kid.  Remember our bank robbery?  How we were weren’t even front page news because an amber alert took priority?  That was her.  Dinah Alcott.”

The revulsion and anger that was welling up in my chest and throat made me want to throw up, hit something, right there.  Some of that emotion, a lot of it, was directed at myself.  I looked to Tattletale, “Tell me I’m wrong.  Please?”

She broke eye contact, which was answer enough.

“Get it, Regent?” I asked him, “The bank robbery was a distraction for the local capes, so Coil could be sure to get away with taking the kid.  We played a part in that. We made that happen.”

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Buzz 7.10

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Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”


“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.


Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Buzz 7.9

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

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

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

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

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Coil?” I guessed.


“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I called out.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh hell no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go!” I shouted at her.

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

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

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

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

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

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

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

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

She’d done that?

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

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

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

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

I nodded, once.

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


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


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

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

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

A flashbang grenade.


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

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

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Stormtiger raised one hand in the direction he’d come and created a blast of wind to clear a path through Grue’s darkness and reveal Hookwolf and Cricket.

“Fancy this,” Hookwolf chuckled, looking down at me, “We decide to attack the blockades and avoid being hemmed in like the ABB was, and we happen upon you?”

“Not looking for a fight,” I told him.

“Stormtiger, find the others of her group.” Hookwolf snarled, apparently not considering my words worth responding to.

“Can’t,” Stormtiger spoke, from where he stood above me.  “Not smelling them.”

“You smelled her.”

“And I smelled the two uniforms from the ambulance.  Other one’s bleeding, sitting near the ambulance somewhere over there.  Darkness boy isn’t around anymore or I’d be able to smell him.”

He was wrong.  My bugs could feel Grue out there.  If the driver had been injured, that might account for why Grue had lagged behind.  But Stormtiger couldn’t smell Grue?

Hookwolf turned to me, “The dog girl.  Where’s Bitch?”

“Not here.”

“I know that,” he growled.  His hand dissolved into a mess of knives, hooks and spearpoints, then solidified into an oversized claw with fingers as long as his torso.  He flexed them experimentally.  How did you even classify that?  Ferrokinetic shapeshifting?

I crawled backward a few feet, trying to maintain distance between us.  Stormtiger reached down and blocked my retreat with one blade-covered hand.

I looked up at Stormtiger and spoke, “We split up earlier today.  One of our members had a source, we heard about the email that went out when the news stations and papers did.  Decided it’d be better to back off, just in case.”  No harm done by admitting that much.

“Don’t believe you,” he snarled.  “Doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

“That’s because-”

I stopped as the two of them turned away.  The ‘paramedic’ a few feet from Stormtiger had bolted, and was drawing a gun as she ran toward the closest patch of darkness.  As she got close to her destination, still running, she turned on the spot and raised her gun to fire at Stormtiger and Hookwolf.

Hookwolf barely reacted as the bullets punched into his chest, and even that was just the inevitable force of being shot.  Stormtiger raised one arm as if to protect himself, but the bullets were already veering off before they could hit him, leaving a trio of hazy trails in the air where they had turned.

“Handle her, Cricket,” Hookwolf spoke, pressing a hand against his collarbone where a bullet had struck him.  The scarred girl with the buzz cut dashed forward, reaching behind her back to draw two scythe-like weapons, each only about as long as her forearm.

Coil’s soldier turned to fire at the incoming villainess, but Cricket ducked to the right, then evaded left, in time with the noise of the gunfire.  The distance between them closed rapidly.  I didn’t see what happened next, as Coil’s soldier disappeared into the darkness and Cricket followed her in.

Hookwolf turned back to me, “Suspiciously competent for an ambulance driver.  Pretty fucking sure that’s one of Coil’s people.  What are you doing with her?”

I didn’t answer.

My bugs reacted to a funny noise from the direction of Cricket and Coil’s woman, but I couldn’t hear it myself.  Grue’s power did strange things to sound.  I had more immediate concerns.

Hookwolf dropped his hand to his side, and I saw how the bullet had penetrated skin, but had failed to get any further than the interlocking grid of metal that sat in place of Hookwolf’s muscle.  He smiled.  “I was hoping you wouldn’t answer.  It means we get to interrogate you.”

Options, options, what were my options?  Bugs?  They were around, but I got the impression that Hookwolf wasn’t going to suffer that much if I swarmed him, and Stormtiger had some kind of aerokinesis, which was bound to be pretty effective against the lightweight bugs.  Knife, baton?  Not much better.   These guys were capable in hand to hand.  I wasn’t.

Where was Grue?  I felt out with my power, and found him at the back of the ambulance with the driver.  Whatever he was doing, I hoped he would do it soon.  I needed his help.

I looked for Cricket, and found her in the blackness, dragging Coil’s soldier back toward us.  I saw her emerge from the darkness, one of the miniature scythes buried in the woman’s upper arm, the other buried in her thigh.  With a full-body effort, Cricket swung the woman forward and pulled the scythes free.  Coil’s soldier rolled onto the ground before Cricket.  If her powers didn’t give her an edge in fitness, she was pretty damn fit for her frame.

Was Coil’s woman dead?  No.  The woman was breathing.  She was making lots of short, fast breaths, not moving, but she was breathing.

Hookwolf watched for a second before turning back to me.  “Maybe I’ll give Stormtiger some practice at getting answers out of people.  Those claws of his?  They’re compressed air.  Every second, he’s drawing in more air, shoving it into that claw shaped space, to make them denser, harder.  And when he releases it…” he offered me a low chuckle.

Come on, Grue.  I couldn’t handle this alone.

“Want to see what happens when one of them is buried inside you when he turns it into one of his blasts of wind?”  Hookwolf asked.  Again, the low laughter at my expense.

Grue was moving toward me with purpose, now.  I stirred bugs from the ground around him to place them on his body, get a sense of what he was doing.  He was carrying something three and a half feet long, nearly a foot wide, a rounded off shape that was all smooth metal.


I flipped over and scrambled away.  Stormtiger was behind me, and he kicked me in the back as I tried to rise up and start running, shoving me back to the ground, hard.  I was glad for my mask as my face bounced off the pavement.

Go with it.  Remembering the tips Brian had given me during our sparring session, I used the fact that Stormtiger had created a bit more distance between us and continued to move away as fast as I could manage.

“Running?” Hookwolf laughed, “You can try.”

“Gun oil,” Stormtiger called out, whipping around to face Grue.  “I smell gun oil.”

Grue hefted the long metal object back with both hands, then flung it forward.  He didn’t drop both his arms as he let go.  Instead, he used his left hand to follow up with a directed blast of darkness to cover it as it rolled into the clearing.

I clamped my hands to my ears, painful as it was with the bandage on my right ear.

Grue’s right hand was already withdrawing a gun from his jacket pocket as he backed up.

His arm jerked twice as he fired the gun at the oxygen tank he’d fetched from the back of the ambulance.  The first shot missed.  The second didn’t.

It was so quiet I thought I’d been deafened by the sudden explosion.  Hookwolf’s delayed scream of pain and rage was a bittersweet relief.

Wasting no opportunity, Grue marched forward, gun in hand.  Stormtiger had been farther away, and lay face down on the ground, bleeding badly but intact, from what I and my bugs could see.  Grue stopped, aimed, and shot him once in each leg.

“Hey!” Cricket’s voice was strangled, strained.  I wondered if one of the injuries that had given her one of those scars had done something to her vocal chords.  She lowered one of the scythes toward Coil’s soldier.  “I got a-”

Grue covered her and her hostage in darkness and turned toward me and Hookwolf.  The message was clear.  He wasn’t negotiating.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t have made that call, even knowing that stopping for the woman’s sake was almost inevitably going to lead to a worse situation.

Hookwolf staggered to his feet.  He’d taken more damage from the blast than anyone, and his skin hung off in tatters around the arm he hadn’t yet transformed, most of the trunk of his body and his thigh, with lesser damage over the surrounding area.  Beneath the tatters of skin, as I’d seen with the bullet wound, there was only blood-slick bands and blades of metal.  Hooks and knives all laid side by side in the general shape of human musculature.

Hookwolf thrust his damaged arm out to one side, and the muscles unhinged like a swiss army knife, revealing still more blades and hooks that unfolded, swelled and overlapped to cover and patch the injured area.  His arm grew with the use of his power, and the resulting limb was three times the normal size, ending in what looked like a two foot long fishhook.

“Skitter,” Grue called, “Run!”

I climbed to my feet and hurried toward him.  Hookwolf turned to face me, then lunged my way, closing more distance than I might have anticipated.   I abandoned my attempt to rejoin Grue and headed to my left, straight into the darkness.

My bugs dotted the surface of a mailbox, three paces into the blackness.  I ducked around it as Hookwolf blindly followed me in.  Swinging blindly, he struck a fire hydrant, but no water was forthcoming.  He lunged left, gouging chunks of brick from a wall, then he leaped right, striking the mailbox and cleaving it in half.

I was already scrambling in Grue’s general direction, the mailbox well behind me.

I felt a surge of relief at realizing that Cricket had abandoned her hostage in favor of going after Grue, to initiate a brief exchange of blows.  Unfortunately, my relief was short lived, because the combat wasn’t brief in a good way.  Grue fired the gun twice, and twice she dodged the bullet, standing only ten and seven feet away from the barrel.  It wasn’t superspeed, either, though she was quick.  Her movements were simply too efficient, and if there was any delay in her reactions, I wasn’t seeing it.

He swung a punch as she closed in.  Cricket leaned out of the way, then swung her scythe to rake him across the chest.  From the way he staggered, I knew she’d struck home.  He jabbed, she avoided it as though it were easy, then followed up with two more swings, and he failed to avoid either.  He staggered back, clutching one arm to his chest.

He blanketed the area around them in darkness, filling the clearing, and Cricket immediately switched to swinging blindly and ferociously around herself as she advanced toward where Grue had been.  Grue backed away, but this had the unfortunate effect of putting him closer to Hookwolf, who was doing much the same as Cricket.  Grue turned and ran to create some distance and avoid being hemmed in.

Then every bug in the area reacted to that sound I couldn’t make out, the one I’d heard when Cricket went after Coil’s soldier.  It was loud enough for them to hear through the darkness, but… entirely out of my range of hearing.

I couldn’t say for sure, but I got the impression the ones closer to Cricket had heard it a fraction of a second sooner.

“Grue!” I screamed into the oppressive shadow.  “Move!”

Cricket turned toward him and lunged in one motion, bringing both scythes down in an overhead swing.  Grue moved out of the way just in time.

“She has radar!” I shouted, my voice barely audible to myself.  Didn’t matter.  Grue could hear me.

Cricket passed one of the mini-scythes into one hand and then used her newly freed hand to wipe bugs from her skin.  They were gathering on her, and she was starting to feel it.  Good.

Again, that pulse emanated from her.  She maintained it this time, and my bugs began to suffer for it.  Their coordination suffered, they began to move slower, and their senses – such as they were in the darkness – began to go haywire.

After a second or two, I thought maybe I was starting to feel it too.  A bit off-balance, nauseous.  Grue was hunched over, his hands on his knees, but I wasn’t sure if that was Cricket’s power or the injuries she’d inflicted.  From the way Cricket was moving, I gathered that she couldn’t see us.  Was it echolocation?  Did it not work if she simply blasted the noise continually rather than use it in bursts?

Annoying as it was that everyone seemed to have a way of dealing with my bugs, I was at least putting her in a position where she couldn’t both find us and deal with them.

I was having trouble getting a sense of her powers.  I’d heard of her, seen pictures, read up on her on the wiki and message boards.  She was rarely more than a footnote, typically a suspect in a murder or arson case alongside Stormtiger and Hookwolf.  Never had I come across something like ‘Cricket has limited precognition’ or ‘Cricket is a sound manipulator’.

The bugs started to fall away from her, losing their grip or ability to navigate through the air.  Knowing our advantage would soon disappear, I advanced towards her, drawing my knife.  I checked on Hookwolf, and found him scaling a building a distance behind me.  Was he trying to rise above the cloud of darkness to spot us or get his bearings?

I was three paces from Cricket when I felt the sound die off, then resume again for one brief second.  Another radar pulse.

“Careful!” I shouted, adjusting my momentum and hurrying to back away.  Too slow.  She was already pivoting to swing at me.  The handle of one scythe struck me in the side of my throat, the actual blade hooking around behind my neck to halt my retreat.  Before I could do anything, she pulled me toward her.  I stumbled forward, and she adjusted her grip to swing the other scythe up and into the side of my stomach.

I doubled over and crumpled to the ground.

Grue shouted something, but his words didn’t reach me through the darkness.

Cricket emitted another radar pulse, then lunged for Grue.  She caught him in the arm, this time.  Then she backed off, going for the continuous, sense-warping noise to put my bugs on the fritz once more.

Grue raised his borrowed gun and his arm bucked with the kick.  Cricket was oblivious as the gun fired off several times in a row, but whatever she was doing with her power was screwing with Grue’s ability to aim.  None of the bullets struck home.  He stopped.  Either he was out of bullets, though it seemed too soon for that, or he wanted to conserve ammunition.

I climbed to my feet, feeling my side protesting in agony.  The blade hadn’t penetrated my costume, but the sides of my stomach weren’t armored and the cloth had done little to soften the jab of it, even if it had prevented me from being cut or disemboweled.  Cricket was bigger than me, stronger, and she knew how to use her weapons.  It had hurt.

When I was sure I could move without falling over, I lunged, knife in hand.

I’d hoped that if I was quick about it, I could act before she used her radar again.  I wasn’t so lucky.  She was already moving by the time I realized she’d made another pulse of noise, scythe points whipping around toward the side of my head, where my mask provided only partial coverage.  I had too much forward momentum to avoid walking straight into the incoming blades.

I half-fell, half ducked, and instead of driving my knife into her back like I’d intended, I wound up burying it in the side of her thigh.  Whatever technique let her dodge bullets, it apparently didn’t work if she couldn’t see.

As much as it might have hurt, she didn’t waste an instant in hefting her weapon to retaliate and swinging down at my head.  I wasn’t in a position to get out of the way.

Grue caught her by the wrist mid-swing and pulled her off-balance before she could follow through.

She moved fluidly, considering the blade buried in her upper leg.  She reversed her grip on her weapon with her free hand, stuttered her power to create what I took was another radar pulse, then readied to swing it at Grue.

I twisted the knife, and pulled it out of her leg with a two-handed grip.  Or, to rephrase, I pulled the knife through her leg, dragging it horizontally through the meat of her thigh, toward her hip, and out.

She toppled, and Grue put his hand on my shoulder to pull me back away.  Cricket lay on the pavement, pressing her hands to her injury.

“You okay?” Grue asked me, as he cleared the darkness within one foot of the both of us.

“I’m bruised but yeah.  I should be asking you that question.  How bad is it?”

He banished the darkness around his body, and in the gloom, I saw how the blades had neatly cut through his jacket and t-shirt to draw criss-crossing lines of red across his chest.  An uglier wound marked his right arm from elbow to wrist, all the more visible because the cut had extended to the cuff of his costume, leaving the sleeve to hang loose around his elbow.

“Looks worse than it is.  I’ve fought people like her before, in sparring and fighting classes.  She was showing off with the first few cuts.  Shallow, inflicting pain, not really meant to disable or deal real harm.”

“That’s stupid,” I muttered.  “I’m glad, but it’s stupid.”

“She probably didn’t think about it.  I’d bet it’s something she learned and incorporated into her style while fighting for a crowd.”  He looked over in Hookwolf’s direction, then winced at how the movement pulled against his injured chest.  “We should go.”


Grue opened a path in the darkness for the faux paramedic, we checked that she was alive, and then helped her limp to the ambulance, with me doing most of the heavy work for once.  I hurried to grab some first aid supplies, packing ointments, pills and bandages into a bag.  Coil’s soldiers retreated back toward the police barricade before I was finished, each supporting the other.

Grue flooded more of the area with darkness while I gathered most of the swarm back around myself.  I left only the bare minimum of bugs necessary to navigate the sightless world of Grue’s power and the ones I needed to track Hookwolf’s presence.  There were more I couldn’t touch because they were caught helpless in the endless, subsonic drone that Cricket still emanated, but I had enough that I could deal.  We hurried away before Hookwolf thought to attack the spot where the ambulance had crashed.

We were nearly four blocks away before Grue felt it safe to dismiss the darkness around us.  Rationally, I knew we were safer in the shadows, that it would prevent most ambushes, but a primal part of my psyche was glad to be in the light and noise once more.

I shot Grue another worried look as we walked.  “Looks like it’s my turn to give you some stitches.  You going to be okay?”

“Fuck.”  He touched his chest tenderly, not giving me a direct answer.  “What were her powers?  Overclocked reflexes and what was it you said?  Radar?”

“Enhanced reflexes is a better guess than what I’d come up with.  She was making some sort of subsonic drone.  It was the source of that disorientation effect.  She could use it like echolocation or something.”

“It’s times like this I can say it’s worth having Tattletale on the team.  I hate not knowing someone’s powers.”

We stopped at an old church with boards up where there should have been stained glass windows.  Litter and more than one half-full trash bag occupied the ground at the base of the building.  Together, we walked inside.

Regent was perched on the lip of the stage beneath the altar.  Tattletale sat on the back of one of the benches, her feet resting on the seat.  Bitch paced at the rear of the church, the point farthest from the front door, and her dogs moved like gargantuan silhouettes in the darkness of the aisles.  If it weren’t for the light filtering in between the plywood on the windows, I wasn’t sure I would have known they were there.

“Grue!” Tattletale leapt from her seat.  “What happened?”

“Ran across Hookwolf, Stormtiger and Cricket.  Those three like to cut people,” Grue spoke.  “We were lucky to get away as intact as we did.”

“Sit,” I ordered Grue.  Hissing between his teeth, he pulled off his jacket, then turned his attention to his T-shirt, which was sticking to his chest with the blood that had leaked from the cuts.  Rather than have to remove his helmet and drag the cloth over his injured chest and arm, he tore his shirt where it had been cut, and pulled it off in tatters.  He sat down, shirtless, his helmet on.  I began getting the stuff out to clean his wounds

“Did you guys run into trouble?” Grue asked.

“Just enough that we’ve been getting a little restless. Bitch took down some thugs, but they scattered, and word’s probably out that we’re in the area.”

“Purity?” He asked.

“She’s out there,” Regent spoke, in his characteristic distracted, disaffected manner, “We saw the lights and heard the noise as she was knocking down more buildings.  She moved away from this area a little while ago.”

Tattletale turned to me, “Here, give me that.  I’ll work on his arm.”

I duly handed over the cleaning solution and some antiseptic wipes.  I heard Grue mutter, “Shit, I hope Cricket isn’t the type to put poison on her weapon.”

“Don’t say that!” I gasped, horrified.

“Not to worry, either of you,” Tattletale sounded exasperated.  “My power says no.”

I nodded, but my heartbeat was still cranked up a notch from that momentary alarm.  When I glanced up from the stash of medical stuff I’d grabbed from the ambulance to see how Tattletale was doing with Grue’s arm, I saw Grue’s skull-visor pointed at me.  Was he looking at me?  What was he thinking?  What expression was on his face?

“I’m thinking guerrilla strikes,” Grue spoke, turning to Tattletale, “We have the dogs, we use their mobility to harass, catch any roaming groups off guard, take them down, disappear before reinforcements or heroes show.”

Tattletale shook her head, “One problem with that.”

“Which is?”

She pointed at his chest.  “You may not be poisoned, but you’ve lost some blood.  I’d lay even money that you’d pass out if you did something as high exertion as riding the dogs.”

“Don’t take a bet with Tattle,” Regent chimed in, “She cheats.”

“We need to end this fast,” Tattletale said.  “Not just because of Grue’s injuries, but because Purity’s going to wipe out our neighborhood soon if someone doesn’t stop her.  We take the most direct action we can.”

“Direct action,” I echoed her.  I didn’t like the sound of that.

“We go straight for Purity.”

“Fuck that,” Grue shook his head, “There’s no way.”

“Way,” Tattletale retorted.  “It’s not pretty, it’s risky, but it’s our best bet at ending this, one way or another.  Thing is, we’ve got to move fast or our opportunity will disappear.  Skitter, we’d better get started on the stitches, I’ll explain while we do it.”

I swallowed, nodded, turned my attention back to the bag of medical stuff, and found the needle and thread.

“Like you said before,” I told Grue, quiet, pulling the pre-threaded needle free of the spool, “Let me apologize in advance.”

“Damn it,” he muttered.

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Buzz 7.4

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Brian arrived as Bitch and I were trudging through the field with shovels and trash bags in hand.  Not the image I wanted him to get of me, but I was glad to see him nonetheless.

I’d rinsed off using the tap at the dog’s water trough, but I was still covered in dirty paw prints, grass stains, and my skin still itched with the feeling of bugs crawling on me.  I had little doubt that with my wet hair and the state of my clothes, that I looked pretty damn grungy.

“There’s bullet holes in the front door,” Brian spoke from the other side of the chain link fence, raising his voice to be heard over the torrent of barks.  He was wearing his costume and helmet, but had the visor flipped up and he wasn’t shrouded in his darkness.  From a distance, he’d look like some guy in motorcycle gear.

“Quiet,” Bitch ordered, and the dogs fell silent.  Seeing what the other dogs were doing, the few who hadn’t learned the command stopped after one or two more barks as well.

“Yeah, they fired off their guns a few times,” I told him.

“And you’re still here,” he said, in mild disbelief.

“My call,” Bitch told him.

“It’s a bad call,” he admonished her.

“I’m not leaving.”

Brian folded his arms.  “Is your pride or stubbornness worth getting those dogs hurt?”

She scowled and looked down at the dogs.

“The thing they said about the hotdogs,” I spoke, quiet, “About poisoning your dogs.  You couldn’t stop them unless you were here twenty-four seven, and maybe not even then.”

“It’s cowardly,” Bitch spat the words.

“They’re cowards,” I told her.  “Pretty much the definition of anyone who joins a hate group.  But even if they did take a more direct approach, would you be able to handle it?  Could you deal if twenty people showed up with guns?  Or if Night and Fog dropped by at three in the morning, when it was just you and these guys?”

“I can handle myself.”

I sighed a little and planted my shovel in the ground.  I had to think of a way to convince her.  If I lost my patience in the face of her stubbornness, she would win the argument, and we would all lose.

“I know.  But isn’t it better to rely on us?  To actually handle this instead of going it alone, hiding and letting those fuckers have the power?”

“I’m not hiding,” she gave me an angry look.  “I’m protecting-”

Brian interrupted her, “Protecting your dogs would mean taking them somewhere safe.”

She shook her head violently.  “No.  I do that, the fuckers win.

“I’ve been there,” I told her.  “Really, I know what you mean.  But our number one priority is keeping you and those dogs safe.  Once we’ve handled that, we can focus on dealing with any threats.”

She drummed her fingers against her thigh, looking back toward the building.

“We are going to deal with them?” she made the question a challenge.

“Yes,” Brian spoke.  “I don’t like that these guys are moving into this area.  I don’t like that they’d go so far as to attack a member of our group.  If we don’t do something to respond soon, it’s going to hurt our rep.  We need reputation, it protects us, gives people reason to think twice before they fuck with us.”

Bitch nodded.  “Okay.”

Brian quirked an eyebrow, “Okay what?”

“I’ll go, and the dogs come with.”

He smiled, “Good.  I don’t think I can hop this fence without getting on the bad side of those dogs, so I’m going to meet you around at the front door.  I’ll call Coil on the way”

“Alright,” I said.  As he turned to leave, I raised my hand in the lamest little goodbye wave ever.  Even though I was pretty sure he didn’t see it, I was left mentally kicking myself for doing it.

I glanced at Bitch, who was giving me a peculiar look.

“What?” I asked her, feeling painfully self conscious.

“You like him.”

“N-,” I started.  Before I went on to protest, I had to stop myself.  Bitch would appreciate straightforwardness and honesty more than anything else.  I wasn’t sure I could afford to come across as dishonest or two faced, with her.  “…Yeah.  I do.”

She turned to head back inside.  A horrible thought struck me at that moment.

“Do… do you like him?” I asked her.

She turned her head to give me an angry look, one I couldn’t read in the slightest.

“Because if you do,” I hurried to add, as I started to walk after her, “Hey, you were here first.  I’ll back off and keep my mouth shut if you want to make a move.”

There were about five seconds where she was very quiet.  My pulse pounded in my throat.  Why did I care so much about this?

“You should offer to sleep with him.”

“I-uh, what?” I stammered.  Relief mixed with embarrassment, and the abrupt change of topic left me struggling to get my thoughts in order.

“It’s what guys want.  Tell him you’re available if he ever wants to fuck.  He’ll accept right away, or he’ll start thinking about you as a possibility and he’ll take you up on it later.”

“That’s-  It’s more complicated than that.”

“It’s complicated because people make it complicated.  Just cut the bullshit and go for it.”

“I don’t think you’re wrong about there needing to be less expectations and rules and rituals around dating, bullshit, as you put it, but I don’t think I can do what you’re suggesting.”


I realized, belatedly, that she’d actually offered me advice.  As… I struggled to find the word.  As misdirected as her suggestion might have been, especially with Brian, it was probably the most blatant gesture of goodwill I had seen from her, next to her telling Armsmaster that she thought I could kick his ass.

“Thank you, though,” I told her.  “I’ll, uh, I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Don’t care if you do.”

We crossed the building’s interior and Bitch unlocked the door to let Brian inside.  For a second, I thought her bluntness would lead to her telling Brian outright that I liked him, but it wasn’t the case.  She was more focused on keeping the more unruly dogs from slipping outside and stopping them from barking at the new visitor than on our discussion.

“I can’t get hold of Coil,” Brian informed us.

“I couldn’t get Lisa or Alec, before,” I replied.  “You think something’s up?”

He nodded, “Maybe.  You stay here with Rachel.  I’m going to go check on the others.”

“No,” Bitch spoke.  “I don’t need babysitting, and I’m getting annoyed being badgered by you two.  Taylor goes with you.  I’m going to stay here and pack up.”

“Not a good idea,” Brian said, with a shake of his head, “If you get attacked in the meantime-”

“-I have Brutus, Judas and Angelica.  I managed on my own for years, dealt with people tougher than those fuckers.  If there’s trouble, I run.”

“And if they take one of your dogs hostage?” I asked her.  “One of the ones you can’t use your power on, yet?”

A dark look passed over her face as she considered that.  “Then I run… and I get revenge another day, on my terms.”

Brian tapped his foot for a few seconds.  “Okay.  If there’s trouble, it’ll be good to have Taylor at my back.  If and when I get hold of Coil, I’m going to see about getting you some trucks, and people to drive them.  In the meantime, stay alert, and don’t get yourself killed.”

Bitch scowled, but she nodded.

“Taylor, we should go.  The sooner we check on Lisa and Alec, the better I’ll feel,” he was already moving as he finished talking.

The moment we were out of earshot, he pulled off his helmet, tucking it under one arm, and asked me, “What happened?”

I told him, explaining everything after the point Bitch and I heard the ruckus the bottle man and his gang were causing.

“Funny that it’s Kaiser that’s having trouble controlling his people,” Brian mused, when I was done.

I wondered if he was still sore over what Kaiser had said at the meeting.

“Coil upped the pressure the moment the truce against the ABB was broken.  I would be surprised if Kaiser didn’t have his hands full with that,” I replied.

“You’re defending him?”

It wasn’t often that I felt acutely aware of the difference in our skin colors, but being asked if I was making excuses for the white supremacist supervillain was one of those moments.

“I don’t want to underestimate him, is all,” I said.

Brian sighed, “Yeah.  Maybe you’re right.  But Kaiser was willing to demand restitution for the attack on his dogfighting ring, and I’m more than willing to do the same for this attack from his skinheads, if it comes down to it.”

“Both events having something substantial to do with Bitch,” I noted.

“I’m aware of that fact,” he told me, frowning.  “She’s useful, she’s a credit to the team, but she comes with some problems.  We’ve dealt with it in the past, we’ll deal with it in the future.”


“How was she?  Any fights?”

“Nothing serious.  No, it was actually kind of nice.  I might even do it again, if she let me.”

“Really,” he replied, skepticism clear in his tone.


“What changed?”

“I’m figuring her out, I think.  How she operates, how she thinks.”

“I’ve spent ten months on the same team with her, and I haven’t even come close to getting how she thinks.  I can usually keep her from going too far or hurting someone, keep her mostly in line and get her to follow directions, but I haven’t had a conversation with her yet that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall.”

“That might be the problem.  You’re in charge, she looks up to you, respects you, but…” I paused.  How could I word this without getting into the particulars of her mode of thinking?  “…But you’re something of an authority figure in our group, and her personality demands she tests authority.  Especially when she’s insecure.”

Brian considered that.  With a note of approval in his voice, he commented, “You have been giving this some thought.”

“I think that you’d have a much easier time handling her if you took an official leadership role in our group.  Not just being the sorta-kinda leader, but actually taking the position.  If you’re not comfortable with that, or if you think the others will make it too hard, well, she’ll probably get more comfortable with relying on you as someone in charge over time, as you prove you can handle it.”

“It’s been ten months, how long does she need?”

“And she’s had how many years, without parents, teachers, bosses?  I mean, even when she had foster parents, I don’t think it was sunbeams and rainbows, y’know?”

He rubbed his chin.  “…Yeah.”

“Tell me she hasn’t gotten at least a bit better in the course of those ten months.”


“There you go.  It’ll only improve from here on out.”

He offered me a theatric groan in reply.

Brian was walking with long strides, and he had long legs, which forced me to do little jogging spurts to keep up.  It wasn’t tiring, I was fit enough from my running, but it was embarrassing to feel like a small child trying to keep up with a grown-up.

Either way, we did make good time getting back to the loft.

Brian put his finger to his lips as he pulled on his helmet and flipped his visor down, emanating his darkness to hide the costume.  I grimaced and brought bugs up to cover my face, calling more from the area to form the beginnings of a swarm.  Brian – Grue now – reached out and coated the front door of the loft in darkness, then opened it without the slightest of creaks or squeals.  Before we ascended the metal stairs leading to the second floor, he coated them in a layer of his power to render our footsteps utterly silent.

I didn’t anticipate the scene in the living room of the Loft.

The TV was on, showing ads.  Alec lay on the couch, his feet on the coffee table, a meal on his lap.  Lisa sat on the other couch, laptop resting on her legs, a phone to her ear.  She turned her head as we came upstairs, gave us a funny look, then returned her attention to her laptop.

“Why the fuck aren’t you answering your phones?” Grue raised his eerie voice.  He flipped up his visor and banished the darkness around him.

Lisa frowned and held up a finger.  She continued talking into the phone, “-don’t agree with this, and if you’d asked me, I would have said you shouldn’t do it.  No, yes, I think it’s an effective measure.”

She pointed to the laptop, and I stepped forward, moving the bugs off my face and down to the center of my back, where they would be present but not in the way, resting on cloth rather than skin.  I looked at the screen.

“My problem is that it’s not just them.  It’s their families,” Lisa spoke into the phone.  “Unspoken rule, you don’t fuck with a cape’s family.”

I read the contents of the email she had open.  I felt a ball of dread settle in the pit of my stomach.  I leaned over the back of the couch and put a hand on her shoulder to steady myself as I reached down to press the pagedown key on the laptop.  I read more of the email and then hit the button again to scroll down again.

When I’d read enough of the page to verify my suspicions, I hit the home key to return to the very top of the page.  I checked who else had been Cc’ed on the email and the time it had been sent.

Fuck,” I muttered.  “Fuck!”

Lisa looked up at me, frowned, then spoke to the person on the other end of the phone, “Can we finish discussing this later?  I’ve got to talk to my team about this.  Kay.  Later.”

The email was a list.  At the very top of the list was Kaiser.  Following his entry were his lieutenants, Purity, Hookwolf and Krieg, and the rest of the members of Empire Eighty Eight.  It wasn’t even limited to people with powers, noting some powerless captains and even some of the lower level flunkies.

The list included pictures and text.  Beneath each of the villain’s names was a comprehensive block of data, noting their civilian names in full, professions, addresses, phone numbers, the dates they moved to the city and the first appearances of their costumed identities in Brockton Bay.  There were pictures of them in costume paired with pictures of their alleged civilian identities, roughly matched in angle and size for easy comparison.  Most of the entries had zip files attached, doubtless with more data and evidence.

Kaiser.  Max Anders, president and chief executive officer of Medhall Corporation, a pharmaceuticals company based in Brockton Bay.  Father of a Theodore Richard Anders and an Aster Klara Anders.  Twice divorced, currently living in a penthouse apartment downtown.  Drives a black BMW.  Native born to Brockton Bay, son of Richard Anders.  Richard Anders, according to the email, was Allfather, the founder of Empire Eighty Eight.  From the pictures, it was clear to see how the armor fit around his face and body, how both Kaiser and Max Anders had the same height and body type.

There were other images as well, showing Max Anders with a gorgeous twenty-something blonde, and Max Anders with an older brunette woman at a coffee shop, their table strewn with what looked like paperwork.  I scrolled down to confirm my suspicions, the blonde appeared in another picture with her twin sister.  Fenja and Menja.

The brunette woman was Purity, according to the email.  Far mousier than I might have thought, given the sheer presence she had in costume.  Real name, Kayden Anders.  Interior decorator.  Single mother of one Aster Anders.  Purity was promoted to Kaiser’s second in command in the same week that Kayden Russel took Max’s hand in marriage to become Kayden Anders.  Their separation occurred within the same time period as Purity leaving Empire Eighty Eight to apparently strike out on her own.  Little citations pointed to files apparently in the attached zip file.

Krieg was alleged to be a James Fliescher.  Head of a pharmacy chain, in turn connected to Medhall.  Father of three, married.  According to the notes in his block of information, he took a vacation twice a year with his family.  The email stated that the zip file had copies of inter-company emails where he’d told his coworkers he went to places like South America or Paris, and flight records showed that he was lyingHe always went to London.  Twice a year, every year, for nearly twenty years.  Not once, during these trips, had Krieg been seen in Brockton Bay.

The list went on.  And on.

Every piece of information connected to others.  Even the info on the mooks like the ones I had met earlier with Kaiser’s business, showing how they were employed as low level employees of Medhall and its derivative businesses.  It seemed like everyone had a criminal record except the people at the top.

In short, It was comprehensive enough it would take a special kind of willful ignorance to not buy into what the email was selling.

The email had been sent not only to Lisa, but to the Brockton Bay Bulletin, a half dozen other local news stations, and several national ones.  Everyone that mattered, and a few that didn’t.

The email had been sent at 1:27 pm this afternoon.  Less than an hour ago.  That was the really bad news.

“Coil did this?”  I murmured.

Lisa nodded, tightly, “Yup.”

“With your help, I’m guessing?”

“Only a little.  He asked me a few times, to give him my thoughts on some stuff, put him on the right path, eliminate possibilities.  I didn’t think he’d get this far, or go this far.  Once I got him on the right track, he apparently used private investigators and hackers to dig up the rest of this and get the photographic evidence.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“I don’t agree with it,” she said.  “It’s crossing a line.  It’s not just messing with the enemy, there’s going to be a ton of collateral damage.”

“Why weren’t you answering your phone?” Brian changed the subject.

She blinked a few times, startled, “My phone was nearly a goner, so I grabbed a fresh disposable to talk to the boss.  I didn’t want to use the phone with the rest of your contact info in it, just to be safe.  Alec was with me the entire time.  He should’ve gotten any calls.”

“Check your phone, Alec” Brian spoke, terse.

Alec did.  His eyes went wide, “Oh fuck.”

“Part of being a member of this team is being on call if we need you.  I swear,” Brian growled at Alec, “I’m going to kick your ass so hard-”

Lisa looked from Brian to Alec to me, “Something happened.  Is anyone hurt?”

“Yes, something happened, no, nobody’s hurt.  That’s really not what concerns me,” I told her.  I pointed to the screen, “Did Coil plan this?  Is this a scheme of his, him using his power?  Using his destiny manipulation or whatever to create some general coincidence, put us in a bad spot, and force us to join him?”

Lisa shook her head forcefully, “I didn’t get the sense of anything like that, and that’s not how his power operates.  Besides, he expected we would agree anyways.  He wouldn’t jeopardize that with a gambit like this.  It’s too crude.”

“So it was just him attacking Empire Eighty Eight on a new front, and a fucking bad coincidence for us,” I said, as much to myself as anyone else.

“What’s going on?” Alec asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to explain just how bad the situation was.  “Coil just made a big play against the Empire, and it looks like it was anonymous.  Bitch and I got in a fight with some of his underlings at almost the same time.”

“I don’t-” Alec started.

“Look at it this way,” I interrupted, “Kaiser and every single one of his twenty-ish superpowered flunkies are going to be pissed enough to want to kill someone, after Coil went and turned their lives upside down.  Kaiser and his people know who we are, from our cooperation against the ABB.  Specifically, they know who Lisa is.  So who are they going to blame for this, if not the group his people were just fighting with this very afternoon, the group with the very talented information gatherer in their ranks?”

“Oh.”  Alec said.  “Fuck.”


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Buzz 7.3

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I was nervous, returning to Bitch’s spot with lunch in hand.  It wasn’t just that I’d left her alone with an uncontrollable beast composed almost entirely of fangs, nails, bone and muscle.  It was that it was lunchtime.

Between countless run-ins with the bullies, getting in contact with the Undersiders and the bank robbery, it felt like stuff seemed to go down around noon.

I was relieved when I got back and there wasn’t any carnage.  A dozen or so dogs greeted me, many poking their noses into the paper bag I held.  I navigated my way through them to Bitch, who was sitting on a pallet of concrete blocks by the open back wall.  Sirius was lying beside her with his head on her lap.

“Food?” I offered.

She reached down, so I got a chicken souvlaki wrap and a coke out of the bag and handed them up to her.

As she peeled the paper away from one end of the wrap, I found myself a spot to sit on a part of the wall where it was incomplete or damaged.  The weather had worn at the concrete blocks, and some greenery had managed to grow in the cracks, making for a not entirely uncomfortable seat.  Outside, behind the building, there was a field of uncut grass surrounded by chain link fence.  As they lost interest in the food, dogs wandered out there, chasing one another or baiting others into playing, trampling that long grass flat enough that we could see them.  The view of their playing was accompanied by a soundtrack of endless barks and snarls.

A white dog with a nub of a tail and chestnut colored patches on its body and over its ears approached me, sitting to stare at me as I took my first bite of my wrap.

I swallowed, and I told the dog,  “No.  This is too good to share, and it probably wouldn’t be good for you anyways.”

The dog cocked its head quizzically.

“You are awfully pretty, though,” I told it.

I heard a scoffing noise from Bitch’s direction.  I turned her way just in time to see her glance away.


“You should never own a dog.”

That was fairly harsh, especially coming from her.  “What are you basing this on?”

“Most dog owners are retards, and the most retarded are the ones who pick a dog because it’s cute, or because its pretty, without knowing anything about the breed, the temperament, the dog’s needs.”

I sighed, “Fuck off, Rache.  I can say it’s a pretty dog without saying I’m going to take it home.”

“Whatever,” she didn’t take her eyes off the dogs in the back field.

“No, don’t brush me off.  You want to start something, fine.  But if you do, you gotta hear what I have to say.  Listen to what I have to say.  Acknowledge me, damn it.”

She turned to glance at me.  She wasn’t frowning or glaring, but her gaze was so dispassionate it made me uncomfortable.

“Come on, you know me pretty well.  All the others describe me as careful and cautious, though I’m not entirely sure why.  Do you really think I’d pick something as important as a dog, a new addition to my family, without researching, first?”

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she turned her attention back to the dogs outside.

“Right,” I said.  “I wouldn’t.”

I didn’t press things any further.  We finished our wraps, I dug one piece of the foil-wrapped baklava out of the bag, set it down on the paper from my wrap and bunched up the foil around the remainder to throw up to Bitch.  When I was done eating my dessert and licking my fingers clean, I hopped down from my seat on the wall, found a ball and started throwing it for the dogs.

“Here,” Bitch told me.  I turned around, and she handed me the blue stick that had been jutting out of the zipper of the backpack.  It was plastic, molded to have a handle with finger-holds on one end and a cup on the other.  As a dog brought the ball to me, I experimentally pressed the cupped end down on it, and the ball snapped into place.

When I whipped it forward, the ball went flying, five times as far than it had when I’d used my hand.  Most of the dogs stampeded after it, racing to be the first to grab it or chasing after the ones in the lead.

It was nice, enjoying the sunshine, playing with the dogs, having no responsibilities or pressures for the moment.

I turned to look over my shoulder.  “Can you tell me about some of them?  The dogs?”

Bitch frowned, but she didn’t refuse me.  “This is Sirius.  He was bought as a puppy for some twelve year old, then grew too big and unruly to stay in the house.  He was caged outside and ignored, his nails grew too long, and he wound up with an infection in his foot.  They decided it was easier to leave him at a shelter than pay for medical care.  Since he wasn’t trained or socialized, he came off too wild and excitable to get adopted.  I got him in the week he was due to get put down.”

“That’s fucked up,” I looked at Sirius, who was sleeping.  “How do you know the story?”

“I know some people that volunteer at shelters, from when I used to.  They let me know if there’s a dog that deserves a second chance.  Not that many don’t.”


“The one you were talking to a few minutes ago is Bullet.  She’s the smartest in the group.  Her breed craves exercise, they’re meant to run around all day with hunters… except she was used as a beta to warm dogs up for one of the dogfighting rings around here and her shoulder was torn up pretty badly.  Even with the shoulder healed as well as it’s gonna get, it hurts too much for her to run as much as she needs.”

I spotted Bullet in the crowd.  Sure enough, she was lagging behind the rest.  I thought maybe she was favoring one leg.

“If your power heals, why doesn’t it help her?  Or Angelica’s eye and ear?”

Bitch shrugged.  “Lisa said it has something to do with me making a ‘blueprint’.  It’s babble to me.  All I know is that it doesn’t help older health problems.  It gets rid of disease and cancer, and parasites, and most damage they take when they’re big.  That’s all.”

“I think I get it,” I told her.  I looked at Bullet, who had stopped running and was sitting in the middle of the field, watching others run.  “Do they all have stories like that?”


“Damn,” I felt a pang of sympathy for the animals.

The herd of dogs returned to me, and a shaggy dog dropped the ball at my feet.

“Good dog,” I told it.  I threw the ball, aiming to get it near Bullet, and the herd of dogs rushed off again, with more than a few excited barks.

Bitch and I weren’t conversing, but neither of us were conversation people.  I was too socially clumsy to maintain small talk for any length of time, and Bitch was… well, she was Bitch.  So we sat, minutes passed between each exchange of dialogue, and it somehow didn’t bother me.  It was letting me pick and choose what I was talking about very carefully.

“It’s too bad dogs can’t have trigger events,” Bitch mused aloud.  “If they did, some people might think twice.”

I could have argued the details, pointed out that most people weren’t aware of the ins and outs of trigger events, I could have argued that some things could get worse if dogs could get powers.  It didn’t feel necessary.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

That was the extent of that dialogue.  We enjoyed another long silence and the dogs competed with one another to fetch the ball.

The sound of a breaking bottle and very human shouts disturbed our peace.

“These guys again,” Bitch snarled, moving Sirius’ head from her lap and hopping down from her seat on the pile of concrete blocks.  The black lab turned his head to watch as she stalked towards the front of the building.  Bitch whistled for her dogs and Brutus, Judas and Angelica rushed to her side.

“What’s going on?” I called after her, moving to follow.

“Stay inside,” she told me.

I did as she asked, but that didn’t mean I didn’t try to get closer, to get a better picture of what was going on.  I approached one of the boarded up windows at the front of the building and peeked through a gap in the plywood.

Bitch had her dogs standing around her, and she stood opposite a group of seven or so people.  They ranged from thirtyish to twelve in age.  It wasn’t hard to figure out who they identified with.  Half of the guys were blond or dyed blond, and the others had shaved heads.   The youngest was a twelve-ish girl who’d taken a razor to her scalp, too, leaving only her bangs and the hair hanging around her ears and the back of her neck.  The detail that confirmed my suspicions of their affiliation was the number eighty-three that I saw etched on one of the guys’ t-shirts in permanent marker.

The white supremacists loved codes in numbers.  If you were suspicious about whether a number was one of their codes, the number eight was a good clue, since it cropped up a lot.  The eight referred to the 8th letter of the alphabet, H; Eighty-eight stood for H.H. or ‘Heil Hitler’, while eighteen pointed to Adolf Hitler in the same way.  The eighty-three wasn’t one I’d seen before, but I knew it would have stood for H.C… Heil something.  Heil Christ?

In any case, these numbers had been a way to keep one’s racist feelings on the down low, around those that weren’t already affiliated, until Kaiser’s predecessor formed Empire Eighty-Eight here in Brockton Bay.  The move had pushed an ultimatum on the more secretive racists in the area, forcing them to either join the aggressive, active group in the public eye or retreat further into hiding.   It had also drawn crowds of the more diehard white supremacists from the surrounding regions to Brockton Bay.  When people with powers, Kaiser included, started to congregate in the group, Brockton Bay became something of a magnet for those sorts.  One of the bigger collections of racists above the bible belt.  Quite possibly the biggest congregation of racist supervillains.

The day Empire Eighty-Eight had gotten its name hadn’t been a good day for our city.

A guy, thirty or so, was holding a carton of empty beer bottles.  He held one by the neck, tossed it into the air and caught it again, then whipped it in Bitch’s direction.  I flinched more than she did as it shattered explosively against the front of the door.

“We told you to get of here,” he sneered at her.

“I was here first.”

“Doesn’t matter.  We’re claiming this neighborhood, and that barking is driving me up the fucking wall.”

“You’ve said so before.  Try earplugs.”

He grabbed another bottle and threw it, hard.  Bitch had to lean out of the way this time, to keep it from hitting her shoulder.

“Can’t do business wearing earplugs, you dumb whore,” the man put his hand on the head of the partially bald girl, who made a face at Bitch.

“Then don’t do business.  I don’t care.”

He reached for another bottle, then stopped.  A slow smile crossed his face as he looked to a teenage boy that was standing just beside the bald girl,  “Thing about something as goddamn irritating as that barking, is it gets us talking about how we could deal with it.  Tom, here, had my favorite suggestion.  He said we could soak hot dogs in antifreeze and throw ’em into the field back there.  Whaddya say?”

Fuck. I looked around the inside of the building for something I could use as a mask, but there wasn’t anything.  Why hadn’t I brought my costume?  The situation was a hair away from devolving into a bloodbath, and my civilian identity was plain to see.  I couldn’t even work from inside the building, without risking that someone might have heard about my power or how I operated, and come in after me.

I could only see Bitch from behind, but I saw her turn her head to evaluate the group.  Maybe sizing up how long it would take her dogs to murder them all.

“If you were going to do that,” she said, “You would have done it before now, and I’d kill you for it.  Either you’re too scared to really do something about it, which you should be, or Kaiser told you hands off.”

It was the last attitude I would’ve expected from her.  Bitch, being level-headed?

The man with the bottles sneered, “Nah.  See, we heard that howling earlier.  So did some of our neighbors.  Kaiser did tell us to play nice, but way I figure it, if we tell Kaiser you started this shit, and he asks around to check our story, he’s gonna hear there was howling before there was fighting.”

“You know who I am,” Bitch threatened them, “You know my abilities.  You’re really going to fuck with me, here?  With my dogs around?  Really?”

I heard, rather than saw, the sound of a gun cocking.  The teenage boy, who I identified as Tom, raised a gun in Bitch’s direction.

“Still think you’re tough?” the man mocked Bitch, “Guns are the great equalizer, y’know?  My son here wants a place in the Empire, and to do that, he’s gotta earn his stripes.  Killing you would be a good way to go about it, I’m thinking.”

I didn’t wait to hear the rest of the dialogue.  There was no way this wasn’t going to come to violence, now.  I pulled off my shoes, then ran in my sock feet across the concrete floor, keeping as low as I could.  I found the knife that Bitch had used to open the bags of dog food, then stuck it in my back pocket.  Still nothing I could see that would work as a mask.  I wasn’t even wearing a sweatshirt or enough extra layers to use a piece of my clothing for a mask.  It had been too warm a day.

Which left me one very unpleasant option.

I exerted my power, and was glad to find that the grassy field and the half built building had a fair supply of bugs to work with.  Grasshoppers migrated my way, and I emptied a wasp nest that nestled in the wall above the unfinished second floor.  Blackflies that had been enjoying the copious amounts of dog waste flew my way, and innumerable ants and spiders formed the remainder of the swarm.

All together, they streamed my way to gather on my skin, crawling up my legs and torso, some turning downward to cover my arms.  As one, they covered every inch of my body, even creating a mass over my mouth and glasses to obscure everything.  It didn’t tickle as much as I thought it might, but I did shudder.

I’d need a shower after this.  Ten showers.  And I’d pay to use a gym or pool or something, so I didn’t have to endure the craptacular shower at the loft while I scrubbed my skin raw.  Ninety percent of my rationale for designing a costume that covered my entire body was for this exact reason, damn it.

Why hadn’t I brought my costume?  Why?

I flinched at the deafening roar of a gunshot.  Waited with my breath held, until I heard the murmur of conversation at the door again, Bitch’s voice.  A warning shot?

I grabbed my cell phone from my pocket and sent a text out, selecting Brian, Lisa and Alec as the recipients:

Half a dozen skinheads here.  At least one gun.  Need backup.

My phone vibrated with a reply a few seconds later. Brian:

Omw.  was headin home.  will take minute.

No immediate reply from the other two.  My phone displayed the time as 1:38.  Close enough to lunch for me to mark it as a continuation of the trend.  I was going to develop an anxiety disorder over this.  I texted him directions, informing him to look for the building with the crane.

Enough bugs had gathered to cover me, with plenty to spare.  I’d wanted to be absolutely sure I was covered, so I piled them on top of one another, several layers deep.  It was stifling.  I was forced to breathe through my nose, and my vision was obscured by the bugs that had collected on my glasses.   More than that, it was hot in the midst of the dense swarm.  Still, I was happier enduring it than risking being identified.

I looked out the nearest boarded up window that I could see through, and saw that the group hadn’t moved.  The man with the bottles said something, but I couldn’t make it out.  My leaving to grab the knife and send the texts had carried me out of earshot.

I ran back to the front door, keeping to the same half-crouch as before, to ensure nobody saw me through the gaps in the boards on the windows.  I pulled my shoes back on, straightened, took a deep breath, and opened the door.

“Jesus fuck!” a twenty-something skinhead cursed as I moved to Bitch’s side.  I had a vague sense of what I must have looked like – a tower of swarming insects with vague human definition to it, giving the loose shape of a head, with vague indents in the ‘face’ where my eyes were.

Even Bitch’s eyes widened a fraction as she saw me.

“The hell?” she muttered.

I stayed quiet, keeping my attention on their group.

Bottle man looked me over, then spoke in a low voice, “Tom, was it?  Would you do the honors and deal with this amateur horror show?”

The teenage boy, turned the handgun my way, pointed at chest level.  He smirked and grinned, “My pleasure.”

The scene with Bakuda and her minions hadn’t been so different.  Only difference was, Tom didn’t hesitate a second when it came to pulling the trigger.

The sheer force of the gunshot left me reeling, and it hadn’t even hit me.

I had dropped to a crouch as I stepped outside, leaving most of the bugs where they were above me.  Some had fallen down, but the overall structure had remained more or less stable, each of the bugs gripping one another and spreading out enough to fill in the gap of the vacated head and chest area.

From what my bugs had experienced, I knew the shot had passed only inches above my head, around the center of my chest.  The swarm down where I crouched was denser, to support the structure above them, so I couldn’t see through them as easily.  I could only wait with my breath held, hope that the bugs offered me enough cover to hide my real self.

“The fuck?” Tom spoke.  I moved the bugs in front of my eyes so I could get a partial look at him, and saw him backing away, gun still raised.

I’d borrowed a trick from Grue, and figured it only made sense to borrow one from Tattletale, too.

When I spoke, I hissed the words, and at the same time, I had every bug in the swarm make noise: buzzing, chirping and droning in time with my words, doing everything I could to sound less human.  “Guns are not going to work when my body is like this.”

Putting my hands on the ground, bringing the upright mass of bugs with me, I crawled forward a step.  I saw almost everyone in their group move away.  Only the man with the bottles remained where he was, and he used one outstretched arm to keep Tom from retreating as well.

My ploy was working.  As Tattletale had done with Glory Girl and Panacea, then again with Bakuda, I could sell the idea I had powers I didn’t to mislead and misdirect.

“Shoot, boy!”  The man tightened his grip Tom’s shoulder.

The teenager obeyed, firing thrice more into the swarm, aiming too high to hit me.  Two more shots struck where my chest would have been.  The third passed through my fake ‘head’.

Tom, his eyes wide in alarm, decided to change targets.  He swung his arm to my right to point his handgun at Bitch.

I lunged forward, drawing the knife and swinging it in one motion.  I stabbed Tom in the thigh, as Bitch simultaneously evaded to one side.  Through a combination of my attack, Tom having to adjust his aim and Bitch’s movements, the shot went astray.

As Tom fell over, I collapsed the swarm on top of him.  Avoiding touching him directly, I pulled the gun from his hand, retrieved my knife, and stabbed the point of the knife down on his palm to eliminate any possibility of him retaliating or grabbing for his weapon.

On an impulse, I drew the knife across his forehead.  According to Brian, cuts to the forehead were rarely serious, but they bled enough to look like they were.  It was a fact that people that staged fights often played up, and a technique boxers used to blind their opponents with blood in the eyes.

I left some of my bugs on and around Tom as I moved away from him.  He screamed frantically and struggled to crawl away.

It was more brutal an approach than I might have liked, but as I interpreted it, any effect I generated by injuring him like this, would hopefully prevent others from joining the fight, and would lead to less people getting hurt in the long run.  I didn’t like Kaiser’s followers, I had zero respect for them, but I didn’t want to see them torn apart by Bitch’s dogs.

“This territory is ours,” Bitch growled at them, as people backed away.  Brutus, Judas and Angelica were larger now, their skin split with bloody spikes of bone sticking out of the gaps.  “Leave.”

“Kaiser will hear about this!” the bottle man shouted.

“Leave!” Bitch shouted.

Tom, still mindless with pain and fear, jumped at that command.  He tried to pull himself to his feet and failed, falling to the ground again with a ragged scream.  When he reached out, imploring his friends for help, the skin of his hands and face were almost completely covered in bugs and blood.  It did a lot to help spook the rest into a retreat.  Most of them fled.

The bottle man cautiously moved forward to Tom’s side.  I didn’t move from where I stood/crouched as he bent down to help Tom stand and limp away.

“Fuck,” Bitch muttered.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I hope I didn’t do anything wrong by stepping in.”

She shook her head.

“I mean, maybe if I hadn’t come out, it wouldn’t have gotten violent.”

“He was working up the courage to shoot me,” she spoke.  “It’s fine.”

“What are you going to do?”


“I mean, they’re going to come again.  Maybe soon.  Depending on what they say or who they complain to, there might be people with powers the next time around.”

“I’ll manage.”

“I know this is your space, I think it’s perfect, but maybe you should consider moving somewhere-”

She gave me a hard look.  “Do you want to get hit today?”

I shut my mouth.

“I’m going inside to pick up the shit.  You can help, or you can go back.  Doesn’t matter to me.”

I looked over my shoulder in the direction the skinheads had retreated.

“I’ll help,” I decided aloud. “I said I would, and you might need backup if they decide to come back in force.”  Besides, I’d texted Brian to come, and he’d need a proper recap of what had gone on.

She only whistled twice for her dogs to follow her back inside, glancing back to see they were still following.  She looked at me, and I wasn’t entirely sure, but I thought maybe she didn’t look as angry as she usually did.

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Buzz 7.2

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Bitch led the way as we traced a winding path through the Docks.  Her dogs trotted at her side, occasionally stopping to sniff, but never rushing ahead or lagging so far behind that they pulled on the leash.

Glancing at her, I could see how she was more at ease, like this.   When she was walking with the dogs at her side, I could see that the lines of her face were softer, there was less tension in her body.  She wasn’t quite so guarded.

I’d sort of assumed that her days of being homeless and fending for herself were the bad days, to her.  That it was a step up, being with us.  I was beginning to reconsider whether that was entirely true, seeing her stride down the streets and alleys with her dogs beside her.  Here, she didn’t have to worry about dealing with people and the social maneuverings she could no longer grasp.  This was what she was used to.

She glanced my way, and a shadow of irritation touched her expression.

I was intruding on her domain, spoiling that.  If I slipped up and pissed her off, I’d be lucky to get hit just once.

I knew we were close to our destination when I heard the barking.  Angelica yapped back in reply, cranked herself up to ‘excited frenzy’ mode and rushed forward, pulling on the leash.  Bitch stopped her, directed her to lie down with a motion of her finger, and we waited.  When Angelica relaxed and put her chin on the ground, we moved forward again.

We didn’t get three steps before Angelica pulled again, provoking the repetition of orders and another minute long wait.

The third time it happened, Bitch gave me a dark look.  As though it were my fault, or more probable, she might have been anticipating impatience on my part.  I didn’t really mind, though.  It wasn’t like I had anywhere to be, and it was interesting to see her process.

“How long have you had her?”

“Five months.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” I conceded, “I mean, she was abused before you got her, right?  So even with having to get her past that, and she’s already better trained than any dog I’ve seen that isn’t yours.”

“Walk on,” she instructed Angelica.  When Angelica didn’t pull, Bitch handed out treats to Brutus, then Judas, then Angelica in turn, without breaking stride.  “Dogs learn from their pack.  She learns some from imitating Brutus and Judas.”

I nodded.

“Most dog owners are retards anyways.”

“I can believe that.”

We approached the building that all the barking was coming from.  The rusted skeleton of a small crane stood atop a partially constructed building.  Bitch opened the door and waited until I was inside before closing it and latching it shut.  I could hear scratching at the door just past the first room.

When the second door leading further into the building was opened, a tide of dogs nearly bowled us over. I couldn’t count them, but there were more than ten, less than twenty.  All sorts of breeds, different sizes and shapes.

As Bitch moved forward as though the dogs weren’t there, I struggled to even stand.  I leaned against the front door for balance, and all I could think about was that moment Bitch had set her dogs on me, back when we first met.

I couldn’t afford to appear weak in front of Bitch, so I avoided asking for help.

Cement was laid out over nearly half of the building interior, as the floor or foundation, but the work had been interrupted and abandoned partway through.  There were areas where crushed stone had been laid out in preparation for the cement pour, and a combination of wind and rain had mixed regular dirt into the crushed stone a long time ago.  Any spot inside the building that wasn’t covered in concrete was marked by patches of grass and a few scraggy weeds.

Three walls of the ground floor were erect, plywood and drywall bolted to wood frames, with cement blocks piled against most of the exterior walls.  Enough had been done at the front of the building for the construction workers to have started laying out a second floor, providing an overhang between the ground floor and the sky to keep things more or less dry.   Things were too much of a mess for me to tell if the far exterior wall had been left incomplete or if had fallen down.  It stood open to the environment, letting rays of dusty sunlight inside.

Bitch headed to a wood pallet stacked with bags of dog food, which rested atop a pallet of bricks.  She drew a knife across the top of two bags and let them empty into a trough sitting below.  I was grateful when most of the dogs around me rushed off to get their food.

The reprieve didn’t last long.  Several of the dogs began fighting in front of the trough.  A black lab, snarling with his expression pulled into something grotesque, chased a smaller dog directly toward me.  The little dog collided with my legs, and with the lab hot on her heels, it started fighting tooth and nail in its own defense.  A bigger dog, longer and lankier than the lab, with very short fur, crossed the room to join the skirmish, protecting the little one.

“Bitch?”  I asked, doing my best to keep my voice calm as the dogs fought beneath me, bumping into my legs.  I backed up, but they brought the fight right to me once again.

“The black one is Sirius.  He’s the newest, not used to things.  He’ll get better as the other dogs socialize him and I get a chance to train him.”

“They’re, uh, really going at it,” I winced and pulled one leg off the ground to keep it out of the way.

“Let me know if he draws blood.”

The fighting was nerve wracking, conjuring up very vivid memories of Bitch’s dogs terrorizing me.  Why did this spook me so much when being around her dogs in monster form didn’t make me that nervous?

Shutting my eyes, I drew on my power.  My objective wasn’t to do anything with it, but simply to get a little outside my own head, achieve a greater perspective.  Focusing on the big picture, seeing myself as a very small figure against the backdrop of a whole neighborhood, I was able to center myself.  I could ignore the hairy animals shoving up against my legs, jumping up at and around me, pressing their cold noses against my hands and arms.

A mass of bugs in my immediate vicinity lunged between my legs.  My eyes snapped open, and I saw the culprit, placed my hands on him, the dark furred lab.  It wasn’t fleas, either, or ticks or anything like that.  It was a denser mass.  The closest parallel I could draw would be a wasp nest.  Or maggots in a trash bag.

“Bitch,” I spoke, cautiously.

“What?” She sounded… annoyed was the wrong word.  She sounded ready to kill me, for interrupting her from setting the dogs up with fresh water.

“I think one of these guys is really sick.”

Her head snapped in my direction.  “Show me.”

The dogs stopped fighting as she stalked toward us.  I took the opportunity to gingerly take hold of Sirius’s collar as she ushered the rest away.  She glowered at me, “Explain.”

It was hard to organize my thoughts, even without accounting for her intense scrutiny.  “Worms.  But not, like, tapeworm.  I-I can’t see through their eyes or anything.  Um.  I don’t know what they are, so I can only tell you what I know.  They’re mostly juvenile, only a few adult, um-”

“Above the heart, here?”  She pointed to a spot low in his chest.

I nodded.

“And the arteries?  There’s one from here,” she pointed at the lab’s shoulder, “To here?” she traced her finger along his spine.

“That’s where a lot of them are.  But they’re not just there.  They’re everywhere inside him.”

“Fuckers.  Those fuckers,” she growled.  “I warned them.”

Taking hold of the lab’s collar, she ordered the dog, “Come along, Sirius.”

The dog resisted until Brutus moved forward, then went along, though he still pulled and twisted against the grip on his collar.

“I don’t know dogs,” I said, following her into the herd of dogs just inside the building.  “I never had a pet, so I’m clueless here.”

“It’s heartworm.  Something dogs are supposed to take medicine to prevent, every month.”

“The owners didn’t, then?”

“The shelter didn’t.  Lazy, cheap-ass motherfuckers.  This is the second dog I got from that place that wasn’t taken care of.  And people who do adopt get a sick dog?  Fuckers, fuckers, fuckers.”

“What are you going to do with him?”  I tried to ignore the dogs milling around me, to keep moving forward and follow Bitch.

We are going to help him.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t think I can get the worms out without hurting him.  I mean, they’re in his bloodstream and the closest thing to an exit would be his lungs, and I think they would bleed too much.  I’m not even sure I can move them.”

“Grab that chain.”  She pointed across the room, still holding on to Sirius.

I saw several lengths of heavy chain, spotted with rust, looped up and hung on the wall above a pallet of weather worn brick.  I hurried over and hauled it down.  It was heavy enough I had to drag it on the grass to bring it to her.

“Backpack,” she told me.  I took it off and handed it to her.  She opened the front and handed me a carabiner, a metal loop with a locking hinge.  “Go tie the chain to something solid.”

I did, looping the chain around the base of the crane that was bolted to the concrete pad, toward the center of the room.  I fed the length through the carabiner  and headed back to Bitch.

Judas, Brutus and Angelica were already halfway to full size.   Bitch took the chain and began extending it around the struggling dog, winding it through a half dozen carabiners so it extended around his neck, body and stomach, and between his legs.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m using my power on him.  And he’s not trained.”

“Wait.  Didn’t a dog kill some people, back when you first had your powers?”


I felt my heartbeat speed up a notch.  “So this is really dangerous.”

“Yup.”  She tugged on the chain at his neck.

“Okay.”  I exhaled slowly.  “What can I do?”

“Keep out of the way for now.”

Sirius started to grow.  Muscles rippled underneath his black coat, and he yelped, pulling away.

“Couldn’t we maybe get him tranquilized, first?” I asked, watching the lab try to get away, despite the chains binding him.

Bitch held the length of chain in her hands, keeping him in place.  “No.  My power would burn away the drugs.”

“He doesn’t like it.”

“It takes getting used to. But this is better than what he’d go through if a vet took care of it.  Safer.”

Not for us, I thought, as Sirius pulled back.  Bitch pulled him closer to her, shifting her grip to the chain at his neck and chest to feed the slack through it and give Sirius more room to grow.  His ears were pulled back, his face etched in fear and rage, teeth bared.  I would have been terrified he would snap at me, given how easily he could take half of someone’s face off with a single bite, but Bitch never flinched or broke eye contact with him.

Something moved to my right, and I saw Brutus pacing.  The other dogs, the ones I didn’t know, stayed back a fair distance, kept at bay by Brutus’s watchful presence.

There was a sound of shuffling chain as Bitch adjusted the chain again.

“Judas, Angelica!” she called out, releasing Sirius and backing away.  “Hold!”

Sirius, pupils narrowed to dots, lunged at her.  Judas stepped between them, while Angelica struck at the lab from the side, knocking him to the ground.  In a moment, the two dogs were on top of him, Judas holding Sirius’s throat in his jaws, while Angelica lay astride his hindquarters.  Even with two full size dogs piled on him, Sirius managed to put up a struggle.

“The heartworm?” Bitch glanced at me.

I felt out with my power.  Whatever was going on inside Sirius’ body, the worms were being churned up, disintegrating and dissolving.

“Almost gone.”

She nodded.

She turned her attention to Sirius, who was lying prone, his chest heaving.  “Heartworms have a bacteria inside them.  When they die, the bacteria gets released into the dog.  Having a vet treat it is a long process that involves injecting arsenic into muscles and lots of antibiotics.  Like this, his body won’t just kill them, but it can kill the disease.  He’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

Sirius let out a long, mournful noise, somewhere between a whine and a howl, loud enough that I had to turn my face away and cover my ears.

When I was sure he wasn’t about to do it again, I dropped my hands.  I asked Bitch, “Have you done this before?”

She shook her head.  “I’ve used my power on most of them, but only a little, to keep them healthy.  Sirius is the only one I’ve made this big since Angelica, Brutus, Judas and Rollo.”

I almost asked who Rollo was, but I kept my mouth shut.  It was a habit of mine, I found, that I usually pushed a conversation with Bitch too far, gave her an excuse to get pissed at me.  I could prioritize other things over my curiosity.

Besides, as I thought on it, I realized Rollo might’ve been the first dog she used her power on.  The one with the body count.

“Time?” She asked.

I found my cell phone, fumbled with it to press a button and display the time.  “Nine minutes past eleven.”

“We’ll give it fifteen minutes,” she reached for the chain and held it.  “Takes about that long for it to wear off.”


“I don’t need you here.  If you want to be useful, there’s a shovel by the door.  You can go pick up the shit in the short grass over there.”

“Fuck you,” the words spilled out of my mouth before I could censor them.  I wasn’t positive I wanted to censor them, but it bugged me that I’d done it without thinking it through.

“What?” she growled at me.

“Fuck you,” I repeated myself, “I came to help.  Thought maybe I was helping, by pointing out what was wrong with Sirius.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to be your slave, or that it’s an excuse to give me the worst jobs.  You want me to pick up the poop?  Cool, but I’ll do it when you’ve got a shovel in your hand too, and you’re working beside me.”

“You told me I could hit you, free and clear, if you pissed me off,” she threatened me.

“Yeah, but if you do it here, for this reason, I’m hitting back,” I didn’t move my eyes away from hers, even as every awkward part of me twitched to look away and leave.  If she really did default to interpreting social interactions in dog terms, then eye contact was important.  I didn’t know much about animals, about dogs, but I did know that it was the submissive dog, the dog lower on the totem pole, that backed down.

“I’ve got Brutus, you wouldn’t win the fight,” she told me.

Almost definitely true, I thought.  But I couldn’t give in.  I resisted the urge to look at Brutus and told her, my voice low, “You want to go there?  Try it.”

She set her jaw, stared at me for several long moments.  Then Sirius made a noise, a smaller version of that whimpering howl he’d made earlier, and she turned her head.

I waited a minute, watching as Sirius got the strength to struggle again, nearly standing up, before the weight of the other two dogs pressed him down again.

“Bitch- Rachel.  I’m getting the impression you might be here a while, to keep an eye on Sirius, give him some attention after he’s back to normal so he knows everything’s okay?”

“What about it?”  Her voice was hard, and she didn’t look my way.

“Do you want me to pick up something for lunch, so you can stay here with him?”


“You know this area better than I do.  Where-” I stopped.  I needed to convey more self confidence than simply asking her for the info.  She might even see it as begging.  I told her, “Tell me where to go.”

I was crossing my fingers she wouldn’t go nuts over me giving her an order.

She was too preoccupied with watching Sirius to argue with me.  “There’s a Greek food stand if you walk in the direction of the Boardwalk.  You’ll smell it before you see it.”

“Okay.  What do you want?”

“Anything with meat.”

“I’ll be back,” I told her.

She didn’t reply, leaving me to make my way through the crowd of dogs to the front door.  I stuck my shaking hands into my pockets and headed off to grab our lunch, leaving Bitch with the monster in chains.

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Buzz 7.1

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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 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.”


“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?”


“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.


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