Infestation 11.7

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Newter dropped from the ceiling.  The main part of the mall had only the one level to it, but the roof was arched slightly, and he was dropping from one of the higher points.  I was bad at estimating distances, but what was that?  Fifty feet? Sixty?

He landed in a crouch, a hair behind the girl who was carrying the vial down the pile of rubble to the base of the platform.  As she turned, dust, papers, cigarette butts and fragments of rock stirred around her.  They moved in a counterclockwise orbit, rising, increasing in intensity over a span of one and a half seconds.  Whatever her power did, Newter stopped it, smacking her in the forehead with his palm, almost gently.  She stepped back, as if she’d lost her balance.  The building whirlwind around her dissipated into a billowing cloud of dust and her legs turned to rubber beneath her as she tried to step back once more. She fell.

Newter’s tail encircled the vial before she could drop it, and he flicked it into his left hand.  An instant later, he was racing for the stage, almost casually finding stepping stones as he made a beeline for Skidmark and the rest of the group.  He was going for the case and the vials.

Much of the crowd was running after Newter, rushing for the base of the stage and climbing the heaps of rubble to follow.  In doing so, they were vacating the center of the mall where the casualties lay.  I hated to get closer to the chaos, but I suspected it would be a long time before I had a better chance to find and retrieve Bryce.

“I’m going after the kid,” I said.

“Minor, Brooks, escort her,” Lisa ordered.

On the other side of the mall, Newter had reached Skidmark and pounced for him.  In reaction, Skidmark used his power to coat his cape in a layer of his power.  He raised it between himself and Newter.  Newter was already airborne, unable to change course, but he had the presence of mind to hock a loogie into Squealer’s face.  He bounced off of the cape, knocking Skidmark back, and fell to the ground.

Skidmark used his power to saturate Newter and the ground around him.  As his power took hold, Newter was launched through the rungs of the metal railing and down into the midst of the crowd at the base of the stage.  Skidmark shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out over the noise of the other Merchants.

I tore my eyes from the scene and we hurried toward the heaps of unconscious, bloodied and wounded that lay where the arena had been.  We were halfway there when the entire mall began to brighten.  The barred windows were expanding, and massive torches were lighting on the far sides.  Shafts of orange light extended into the mall’s interior, patterned into diamonds by the meshes of bars Labyrinth had erected.

The wall behind Skidmark and the other ‘upper circle’ members of the Merchants began to bulge inward.  Features took form: a face, ten feet tall.  Protrusions below it, near the floor of the platform, marked emerging fingertips.

Labyrinth wasn’t stopping there.  Minor had to catch my arm and pull me back to keep me from being caught in the path of another effect in the mall’s floor.  The ground cracked and bulged upward as though a mole was tunneling at high speeds just beneath the tile.

“Get back!” someone shouted behind me.  I recognized Lisa’s voice and took her advice, backing away from the hump.  Minor stopped me from backing up into another hump that had appeared behind me.

Stone walls heaved upward from the mounds of broken tile, blocking my path and stopping at a height of twelve or more feet.  As more walls rose around me, I saw a door form to my right, and the corridor to my left had a bend in it.

A maze.  She was living up to her name.

The walls at the outside edges of the mall were altering, now, more faces and body parts making themselves apparent.  Like statuary or reliefs.  Limbs intertwined and nude figures decorated the interior walls of the mall, each tall enough to extend from floor to ceiling, animated so that they moved with a glacial slowness.  With a surprising speed, the interior of the mall was coming to resemble some kind of temple.

I had to admit, I was spooked.  That girl’s power was intimidating when she wasn’t on my side.  She wasn’t all there, mentally, so the only thing holding her back was the person telling her what to do.  If she could make those giant torches, she could set the floor on fire.  Or she could have created spikes instead of walls, without leaving the rest of us any place to run.  That nobody had been hurt was purely by her choice.

Stone poles speared down from the roof.  Looking up, I saw that the edges of the crack in the roof had fanged teeth, and that figures were sliding down the metal poles.  Two female, one obese male.  Spitfire, Faultline and Gregor the Snail?

Not quite.  Faultline and Gregor, yes.  I didn’t recognize the other woman, and she was too tall to be Spitfire with her mask off.  Red haired, slender, older than Spitfire or Labyrinth had been.

She slid down the pole, up until the moment Trainwreck leaped from the stage and caught the base of the pole with his shoulder.  He was built like a football player in a quadruple-thick layer of cast iron protective gear, steam billowing behind him as he tore past the stone pole like it was nothing.  It cracked in four places, and the girl dropped out of the air.

One section of the pole hit the ground in an upright position, and she landed atop it with one foot, wobbling briefly.  Controlling the angle the pole fell, she angled her fall toward a nearby wall of the maze.

It wasn’t enough.  Trainwreck smashed the pole from under her, sending her flying through the air to land in the midst of Labyrinth’s maze.

Labyrinth created a short pillar below the metal case and canisters, and began to extend it towards the gap in the roof.  Skidmark used his power to force the things off the top of the pillar and onto the platform, where they rolled.  A few stray papers fluttered from the case.

There was a crack of gunfire, and I saw the momentary light of the shot to my right.  I couldn’t see over the wall, but I saw Trainwreck lumbering forward, one oversized metal gauntlet raised to protect his head, the only vulnerable part of his body.  I directed some bugs to the scene, and realized that a woman with the exact same proportions as the red-haired woman was firing at Trainwreck.  She’d made it through the maze and back to the skirmish with Trainwreck so quickly?

There was a brief pause in the gunfire, then a single shot fired.  Sparks marked the ricochet between his shoulder, the back of his hand, and the armor that rose behind his head.  He dropped to one knee with a suddenness that suggested he was wounded.

I hurried to the wall.  I could use my bugs to find my way through the maze, getting a sense of the layout, but I needed something faster.  Labyrinth was using her power and adjusting the battlefield with every passing second.  The way things were, given how she wasn’t aware of who I was, I was included among her enemies.  If I didn’t go now and the battle resolved one way or the other, I might lose my window of opportunity to get Bryce.

There was no way I was going back without him.  The intensity of the emotion I was feeling on the subject surprised me.

I hated the idea of going back to Sierra and telling her I’d failed.  Hated the idea of that conversation on top of the news I had about Bryce joining the same Merchants that assaulted her friend with a broken bottle.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t be leader of a territory and know that someone out there was maybe telling others I hadn’t followed through, fighting that constant nagging doubt in the back of my mind that wondered if ‘my’ people were whispering or laughing at me behind my back.

And maybe a small part of it was that my meeting with my father had been a reminder of how important family was.  Bryce was the errant youth, his sister the anxious family member.  Were my emotions here tied to the parallel between them and my father and me?

“Help me over,” I ordered Minor.  There was a crash not too far away as Trainwreck tore through one of Labyrinth’s walls.

“Can give you and Brooks a boost, but not sure if I can follow,” Minor told me, “Maybe if I find a place with something to stand on-”

“That’s fine.  Look,”  I drew an arrow on the wall with my bugs, “I can give you directions.”

There was little surprise on his face at the demonstration of my power.  He gave me a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and wove his fingers together to give me a stirrup for my foot.  I sheathed my good knife, stuffed the spare between the sheath and the strap that attached it to my midsection and stepped inside the bridge of Minor’s hands.  He heaved me up, almost throwing me.

The cut on the back of my arm burned as I found a grip, then hurt twice as much as I hauled myself onto the top of the wall, my toes scrabbling on the untextured surface for traction.  I reached down for Brooks, but he shook his head and waved me aside.  He wanted to come up on his own.

Fine, whatever.

I hopped down into the next corridor.  The far left had an archway leading into one of the more open areas, a circular area that was serving as a clearing for Trainwreck and the red-haired girl to fight.

I crouched down as I reached the doorway, peeking out and trusting my bugs to give me the fuller story of what was going on.  Brooks appeared behind me and crouched, gun raised, his back to the wall.  His breathing was quiet and controlled even after his recent climb and jog.

Trainwreck and the new girl on Faultline’s team were facing off on the far side of this area.  Behind Trainwreck, I saw a section of wall toppling, spotted Faultline dashing through the obstruction as though it were barely there.  She ran up behind Trainwreck and slashed her fingertips across his heel as he was stepping forward.

As he set the foot down on the marble floor, his ankle shattered and his foot broke free of his calf.

He caught the ground with the stump of his mechanical leg, and she darted in close to cut through the knee of his other leg.  He fell onto his back as she slipped between his legs, and she quickly turned to begin using her fingertips to cut down the wall, like a jungle explorer using a machete to hack through brush and vines.  The red-haired woman joined her.

The ground rumbled as sections of the black marble floor rose to form into broad, shallow stairs, leading from the two young women to Skidmark’s stage.  The capes in Skidmark’s group were struggling to find ground to stand on, as they were crowded back to the edges of the platform by the statue that was still emerging from the wall.  A head and two forearms with reaching hands, all in dark stone.

It was eerie, to see the changes that had occurred in our surroundings in the time it had taken me to cross the wall and wait for the fight to pass.  If the attentions of the Merchants had erased any familiarity I had towards the Weymouth shopping center, Labyrinth had cremated the remains and erected something else in its place.  It was a cathedral, dedicated to a goddess that was very real and having a very active hand in current affairs.  Labyrinth.

Which reminded me of the fact that I needed to get through this maze.  Labyrinth’s power was drawing many of the crawling bugs down into the ground as it refurbished the floors and consumed the piles of trash or rubble.  I still had the bugs on the ceiling, but I didn’t want to give our presence away.  Of the relatively few bugs I was willing to use, a share were being used to direct Minor and placing them in strategic locations to get a sense of the layout.  As the maze took shape in my head, I showed Minor the way.

I stepped into the clearing and, double checking nobody was in earshot, I approached Trainwreck.  Brooks followed just behind me, watching my back.

Trainwreck didn’t look like much, just going by the face.  He had a round face, small eyes, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail and scarred cheeks.  He looked like a homeless guy who hadn’t had a shower in a long time.  The only thing setting him apart from the Merchants were the gunshot wound near the corner of his jaw and the steam-powered armor that rendered him strong enough to pound the crap out of Armsmaster.

I asked him in a low voice, “Trainwreck.  Are you still working for Coil, or did you leave?”

He tensed, and his eyes turned my way, though he couldn’t turn his head with the hardware around it.  I stepped back as he used one arm to prop himself up and get a better look at me.

“No idea what you’re saying,” he said.  He gave me a level stare, and I was almost convinced.  But I’d seen him in the parking garage when I first found out Coil was the Undersider’s employer.

“Right, total nonsense, sorry,” I said.  I tried not to show fear as he tried to get to a standing position with his ruined mechanical legs, looming over me.  “But if you were working for the man, maybe you could find some excuse to knock over that wall over there…”

I pointed at the nearest section of wall.

“You’re fucking nuts,” he told me.  He raised his arm, and my legs tensed, ready to leap towards him if he took a swing at us.  As big as he was, without him being able to use his legs, being in close would be safer than trying to leap back out of his reach.

He brought his hand down on the wall I’d pointed at to heave himself to an upright position.  The wall fell as he rested his weight on it.  Using his other hand to help balance himself, he gripped the wall in his heavy gauntlet and flung the section of wall at Faultline and the red-haired girl.  The girl turned and stepped out of the way as the wall rotated in the air, bounced between her and Faultline with mere inches gap between them, and slid back down the stairs.  He didn’t pay any further attention to us as we ran for the gap he’d opened.

My power let me get a general map of the people who were still unconscious or prone, and the bugs wouldn’t stand out too much as they checked the bodies.  I went by body types, trying to find people of Bryce’s height and build.  The path Trainwreck had opened gave us avenues to two people who could have fit the mark, with a third over the next wall.

Good news?  The first of the prone bodies I went to was Bryce.

Bad news?  He was injured.

Scrub’s power had torn through the clusters of Merchants during the fighting, and Bryce’s new ‘family’ was no exception.  The girlfriend was dead, her head and shoulders gone, muscle and fluids flowing out where the flesh had been annihilated.  The girl’s mother was a goner too.  She lay on her back, her face missing.  Had she been behind her daughter, holding her, hit by the same blast?

‘Thomas’ was still alive, the black man with the scar on his lips.  The man who had hurt Sierra’s friend from the church, who had literally torn the guy a new asshole, if I’d gotten Sierra’s meaning right.  Thomas crawled slowly for the nearest arch, breathing hard, his face drawn with pain.  A slice had been taken out of his arm, shoulder, and a section of his back, as though a guillotine had grazed him from behind.  I wasn’t quite sure how he hadn’t died yet, with the amount he was bleeding.

Brooks stooped down to help Bryce, who had gotten off lightly compared to the others.  He was missing a large portion of his right hand, and he’d had the presence of mind to try to loop his belt around the injury to control the blood loss, pulling it tight.  He seemed like he’d lose consciousness any second.  Brooks retrieved some medical supplies from his backpack and began tending to the boy.

I watched Thomas struggle towards the door.

Minor arrived fifteen or twenty seconds after Brooks had started to work on the boy, standing guard while our medic took care of Bryce’s hand.

Brooks helped Minor to get the boy to a standing position, while I watched Thomas struggle on.  He was getting weaker, fast.  The blood loss had been too severe.

Skidmark had several parahumans working for him, and I didn’t know all their powers.  Maybe Thomas would get care.  Maybe Skidmark would attend to his people.

Probably not.  I knew that by leaving him here, I might be leaving him here to die, but the chance of him surviving anyways was pretty slim. Besides, bringing him would slow us down, and I wasn’t sure we could afford that.

I shook my head a little, as if it could cast away the layers of little justifications and excuses I was putting together.  I was searching for a rationale, a reason to leave him behind.  Also, maybe, I suspected I was trying to give a reason to the fact that I had almost no sympathy for the man.

If I was going to leave him there, I’d own up to what I was doing.

Sierra had wanted Thomas and his followers to suffer, and I’d agreed to make it happen.  I couldn’t do anything about Bryce’s girlfriend or her mom.  They were dead, and it had probably been instantaneous and painless.  Thomas, though?

Brooks followed my gaze to Thomas.  In his accented voice, he asked me, “You want me to bandage him up?  Don’t know how much I can do.”

Thomas heard and stopped crawling, dropping onto his belly.  He didn’t look toward me, but I knew he was listening.

“It’s fine,” I told Brooks.  “Focus on the boy.”

He nodded, then helped hold Bryce’s prone form while Minor got a better grip.  Thomas didn’t move, react or say anything.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We ran, and with Brooks keeping one hand on my shoulder to guide me, I glanced behind us to get a sense of what was going on.

The battle was still ongoing.  Gregor the Snail was here, but unlike the others, he wasn’t operating in Labyrinth’s world.  He passed through the walls of the maze, spraying streams of slime at Trainwreck, who had apparently advanced halfway up the stairs by using his hands to help him walk.  Trainwreck retaliated by throwing a chunk of stairs at Gregor with one hand while trying to block the stream of slime with the other.  The section of stairs hit the wall of the maze just in front of Gregor, some of it bouncing over to pass through Gregor.  Not real, as far as he was concerned.

What did this look like to Gregor?  Was he standing in the mall as it had been, while Trainwreck seemed to stand on thin air?  Or was Trainwreck on the ground?  I couldn’t parse it.

Mush had started pulling himself together, but Labyrinth was making his job into a struggle.  His right arm had divided, stretched, forked out and reconfigured until it looked like a mass of reaching veins and arteries.  He plunged it into one of the trash cans that Labyrinth was absorbing into the floor, and when he withdrew it, the tendrils had formed the connective tissue for an oversized hand crafted out of garbage.  His other arm and much of his lower body had already gathered some garbage around it, letting him stand several feet taller than he had before.  The skin of his head and body was peeling off into more tendrils, reaching for more trash and distributing some from his arms to his torso.

From what I could gather, he needed some kind of loose matter to form the body of his other self.  Dirt, compost, trash, maybe even sand.  Problem was, however fantastic his surroundings might have been for this five minutes ago, Labyrinth was screwing him over by cleaning things up, maybe inadvertently.  One upper arm, his naked upper body and his nearly bald head were all exposed and vulnerable.

Scrub had climbed up to one corner of the platform, and was keeping to the edge of the fight.  His intent was clearly to be close enough to Faultline’s group to possibly tag them, but not so close that one of his uncontrolled blasts would catch a fellow Merchant.

My bugs told me we were close to Lisa, Charlotte, Jaw and Senegal.  I caught Minor’s attention and pointed, and he put Bryce down long enough to give me a boost up to the top of the wall that stood between us.  I straddled the wall and waited for Brooks and Minor to figure out how to get Bryce up to me so I could pass him down to the others.

From my vantage point, I could see more of the battle unfolding on the far side of the mall.

One powered Merchant charged Faultline and collapsed through the ground she had strategically weakened.  She kicked him several times in the face before the next member of Skidmark’s group tried to take her on, drawing and pointing a gun.  Faultline drew her feet apart, and then dropped through the floor of the platform in a spray of splinters.

To her right, the red-headed woman was striding towards Scrub.  He aimed a shot and missed by a fraction, and she didn’t even flinch.  Another try, another miss.  As she got close, he let his power go haywire, and a dozen flashes erupted in close vicinity to him.  None touched her.

She had her gun drawn, but she didn’t shoot him.  Instead, she grabbed him by the collar, then wrenched him to one side so he tipped over the side of the platform and fell the twenty or so feet to the ground below.  It wasn’t enough of a fall to guarantee that he was out of the fight, but she seemed confident enough to turn away and move on to the next target before he’d even finished falling.

Gregor was keeping up his steady pressure, alternating between blasting Trainwreck and blasting Mush with one hand and aiming at Skidmark with the other.  Skidmark used his power to push away the worst of the slime, but it was clear he was losing.  His power wasn’t strong, it didn’t have much more push to it than a strong wind.  Any attempt to get it as effective as it had been at the edge of the arena took time and multiple layers of the effect.  In short, Gregor could make the slime more easily than Skidmark could get rid of it.

A knotted bandage tied around Bryce’s good arm was thrown up to me, and I used it to draw his arm up while the others managed his lower body.  Once I had his wrist, I gripped it firmly in one hand, my upper body hugging the top of the wall to keep myself from being pulled off.

Minor gave Brooks a boost and the medic straddled the wall facing me.  We worked together to raise the unconscious boy over the top of the wall and pass him down to where the others waited.

I glanced back towards the fight.  Faultline had emerged from beneath the platform and moved around to the side, and using her power to draw hand holds into the side of the platform.  The cape who’d been aiming at her with the gun stooped over the hole she’d dropped into and looked down to see if she was still down there.  He was oblivious as she hauled herself over the edge of the platform and attacked him from behind, striking him with one elbow, then reversing the turn of her body to sweep his legs out from under him with one extended leg.  The sweep of her foot had apparently coincided with a use of her power, because there was a cloud of stone dust as he collapsed onto broken, uneven ground.  From my angle I couldn’t see for sure, but I thought maybe he’d fallen head first into the hole she’d first descended into.

Brooks and I hauled Minor over, and I waited while he climbed down, since I was already fairly secure where I was.

Skidmark was losing.  It was obvious from where I sat, and I could see his changing expression as he saw Mush collapse beneath Gregor’s sludge and realized he had no friends left.  Gregor, Labyrinth, Faultline and the red-haired woman were all in action, and Skidmark was pretty much alone at this point.

I hadn’t seen Newter or Spitfire, and I couldn’t be sure if he was okay or not.  Sure, the Merchants could have hit him with weapons rather than their bare hands, but he was quick, he had his tail, and he only needed to touch someone to drug them out of their minds.  Spitfire might be the one babysitting Labyrinth somewhere out of the way.

It had to suck for Skidmark, losing like this.  He’d risen to power based on a streak of good luck and momentum rather than any talent, deed or ability.  Now it was falling apart.  He’d lost, he’d had his ass kicked in front of the bulk of his followers, and he would likely never regain what he’d had.  Not that I felt bad for him.  There was a kind of justice to it.

He didn’t even have a power that would let him go down in a blaze of glory.  No, his final act here would be one of petty spite.

His power streaked from his hand to the ground where the canisters and metal case sat.  I could see Faultline’s expression change behind her mask, saw her set her feet and start sprinting for the case before Skidmark’s power even took hold.

The metal box and canisters launched out over the edge of the platform and into the air above the crowd.  Only a few papers escaped the case at first, but his power had saturated the insides of the box.  Just after reaching the apex of its flight, his power seized the contents and the case expelled everything from within.  Papers slid off one another and into the air, forming a small cloud.

“Taylor!” Lisa shouted.

I knew what she wanted.  I drew clouds of my bugs from the ceiling, catching the papers that weren’t saturated with Skidmark’s power, collecting my bugs on them.  I could have maybe carried them directly to me with enough bugs, but I found it easier and more discreet to use the bugs and nudge the papers into floating on the air currents, like paper airplanes without the ‘airplane’ aspect of things.

As they got close, I took a firmer hold over them and moved them directly to us.  The papers crumpled as my hands closed around them.  Four or five pages.  I couldn’t be sure two might have been stuck together.

“We need an exit,” I said, as I hopped down from the wall.  I handed Lisa the papers.

Lisa nodded, “I’ve been thinking on that.  Look.”

She pointed at one corner of the mall.  It looked like any other section, heavily altered by Labyrinth’s powers.  The shops had been almost entirely consumed by Labyrinth’s powers, and were further shrouded by the floor-to-ceiling statues of human figures that stuck out of the walls.  In the corner Lisa was pointing at, there were male and female figures, expressions solemn, hands reaching, moving so slowly I might have thought it was my imagination.  The shop below was nearly gone, the entrance nearly covered up.

“Not seeing it,” I said.

“Look at how they’re standing.  The male figure is sticking out of the left wall, reaching with his right hand, the female figure is doing the opposite.  Look past them, at the corner.”

I did.  Between the figures was the point where the two exterior walls of the shopping center joined… nothing jumped out at me.  The walls were bare.

“I don’t see it,” I repeated, as she tugged on my arm and started running forward.  As a group we started moving toward the corner.  “What am I looking for?”

“Nothing!  There’s nothing there because her power isn’t extending to that corner.  She’s too far away, on the roof at the other side of the mall. Which means the interior of that shop isn’t affected by her power!”

However ominous the giant statues were, they didn’t react to our passing.  The exit was small, barely three feet across.  If Lisa hadn’t given me her reasoning, I wasn’t sure I would have had the guts to go through.  It was spooky to think about putting myself in a smaller space like the store interior and having it close tight behind me.

The bodyguards had to go through the doorway in a crouch, and Minor dropped Bryce to let the others drag him inside, just so he could fit.

As Lisa had suggested, the shop interior was largely unaffected by Labyrinth’s abilities, though it had been trashed by looters and the effects of Leviathan’s attack.  We found the back rooms, and Jaw kicked the door open.  From there, we made our way to the emergency exit, cleared rubble away and escaped into the parking lot.

A handful of others had found escape routes too, I noted.  Merchants were crossing the parking lot at a run, or helping wounded buddies limp away.  We weren’t so conspicuous.

I hurt.  I’d been cut on the arm, and I’d taken my lumps in too many other places to count.  My knuckles and fingertips were scratched raw from climbing the walls of the maze and moving rubble, my cheekbone throbbed where I’d been elbowed, and my fucking contact lenses were still irritating.  Never ever something I could get used to, even with other things taking up my attention.

But we’d made it.

We moved at a light jog for a good distance before Brooks called us to a stop.  We lay Bryce down for him to look at, and he decided we needed call for a pickup to get the boy more serious medical attention.

While we waited for the car to arrive, Lisa, and I sat down on a nearby set of stairs.  The other bodyguards were still on duty, still watching for trouble.  Charlotte stood a distance away, hugging herself.  She looked like she wanted to leave, but lacked the courage to go alone.

I was going to go reassure Charlotte, but Lisa retrieved the papers I’d given her and smoothed them out against her leg, and the widening of her eyes caught my attention.

“It’s a letter or contract from the people who made the stuff, talking to the guy who’d bought this stuff.  Let’s see, we have… page two.  Pages eighteen and nineteen.  Page twenty-seven.  Page sixteen.  Wonder if we can put a narrative together.”

“You probably could,” I said.

She glanced over one page, then handed it to me as she moved on to the others.  I read it.

client one, and clients two through six for confidentiality purposes.  For clarity, and to help ensure that the proper clients receive the intended products, we must restate facts for client one to double-check.  Client one is the negotiator for each of the clients, guardian of clients two and three and is not intending to consume the product.

This cannot be stressed enough.  Client one is not to share or use any of the product intended for other clients.  Ignoring this warning or failing to adhere to any other warnings or directions within this documentation will compel Cauldron to carry out the countermeasures and call in all debts noted in sections 8b and 8c on pages seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

Clients two through six are noted here in as much detail as is allowed given the agreed-upon confidentiality.
■  Client two is the elder of client one’s two relatives noted here, female.
■  Client three is the younger of client one’s two relatives noted here, male.
■  Clients four and five are client two’s friends.  Client four is female.  Client five is male.
■  Client six is the friend of client three, male.
Both vials and protective containers are noted with the numbers specific to each client, each containing the requested upon products from the catalogue.

I wish to give written evidence of the verbal exchange between Cauldron and client one on February 18 2011.  Client one is informed that client four scored a borderline failure on the psychological testing and that results may lead to a Deviation scenario

“What’s on the other pages?” I asked.

“Sixteen is accounting.  Bank statements, confirmation of money exchanged, a list of what was bought.  Seven figures base price, more for this Nemesis program, still more for some powers.  Don’t have all the pages I’d need to get it, but I’m getting the sense the more unique powers and the stronger ones cost way more.”

‘The sense’, she’d said.  Her power filling in the blanks.

“Pages eighteen and nineteen refer back to something called the ‘Nemesis program’, potentially revoking it, they’re talking about debts, services required by this ‘Cauldron’ using the clients’ powers.  There’s a bunch of specifics on how the time, effort and risk of said services would factor in with one another.”

“People can buy powers?  How many people are doing this?”  I felt a touch offended at the idea.  I’d earned my powers through my hardships.  Most of us had.

“Enough that there’s a whole enterprise here with a private army.  There’s this bit that very politely notes that breaking the rules will get you hunted down and executed by Subjects, capital S.  Clients are warned that these guys are entirely loyal to Cauldron, will not accept bribes.  And these Subjects are apparently something different from Deviations.”

“Cauldron calls us Subjects.  The PRT calls us Case 53s,” a voice said from above us.  “Regular people call us monsters.”

Our bodyguards wheeled on the spot, a set of guns training on Newter, where he clung to the side of the building.  They had been covering the possible approach points from the ground.  They hadn’t been expecting trouble from directly above us.

“I heard of the Case 53 thing,” Lisa told him, backing away.  “The rest is new.  You work for them?  No.  But you’re related to this.”

“Gregor, Shamrock and I were test subjects.  Guinea pigs to test the new formulas, so the buyers don’t get fucked.  According to Shamrock, three in five of us don’t even survive.  One in five Subjects are retained and brainwashed so they can protect the business and enforce the contracts.  Shamrock was going to be one of them, but she escaped.  The rest of us have our memories removed, and we’re released as part of the ‘Nemesis program.'”

“Which is?”

Newter glanced at the papers, “I’d really like to know.”

“So you followed us.”

“Something about the way that one moved,” Newter pointed at Jaw with his tail, “Reminded me of some other mercenaries I’ve come across.  Don’t bother shooting, by the way, I’m too quick.”

Lisa gestured, and the bodyguards lowered their weapons.

Newter frowned, “I gathered you were mercenaries, decided to spy, but finding you’d taken the papers was a surprise.  Who are you?”

Lisa looked at me, without a ready answer for once.  I looked over at Charlotte and sighed.  She’d already put some of the pieces together.  She could probably figure it out from here.  I might as well control when that happened, so I wouldn’t get caught off guard further down the road.

I raised the piece of paper, as if to hand it to Newter, and I directed bugs to cluster on it.  In moments, the half of the paper closest to him was dark with various flies and creepy crawlies.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  This was apparently her putting the last piece into place.

“Ah, Skitter,” he said.  Apparently my having saved his life once and gifting him a paper bag filled with money didn’t do much to ease his wariness.  He wasn’t any less guarded when he asked, “Why are you here?”

I pointed at the unconscious Bryce.  “An errand.  Didn’t mean to get in your way.  I only grabbed the papers as a spur of the moment thing, and because they would’ve been ruined if they’d just drifted all over in there.”

“That wasn’t much of a concern.  One of my teammates is collecting the papers as we talk, and I expect she’ll find nearly all of them.  The ones that she could find with some luck, anyways.”

“We’re honestly not looking for trouble, and  I have no problem with giving you these.” I banished the bugs on the paper and stepped forward to extend it towards him.

Lisa followed my cue, offering the others, “Wouldn’t mind copies of whatever you’ve got.”

Newter frowned.

Before he could say anything, Lisa hurried to add, “I’m good at figuring stuff out.  I’m a fountain of knowledge.  I want to know more about this stuff, and I could help you guys in exchange for what you’ve already got.”

“I’d have to ask Faultline.  She doesn’t like you.”

Lisa grinned.  “And I don’t like her.  But she’s not stupid, either.  She knows this is mutually beneficial.”  Lisa drew a pen from her pocket and scribbled on the back of one page.  “My number, if you’re interested.”

He took the sheets, looked them over, then rolled them up and stuck them in his back pants pocket.

“We’ll be in touch one way or another,” he said.

Then he was gone, around the side of the building and up to the roof in heartbeats.

I looked at Charlotte, and she shrank back, as if I could hurt her by looking at her.

Which was dumb.  It was fairly obvious to anyone who considered my power that I didn’t need to look at people to hurt them.  Not that I’d hurt her, anyways.  She’d done nothing to deserve any such thing, beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Charlotte, Bryce and Sierra.  The civilians.  I still had to figure out how to deal with them.  My heart sank.  Social interaction: not where my talents lay.

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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?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” Brian asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

“But they could be better,” Alec said.

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

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

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

“Come on,” Brian said, “Don’t-”

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

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

“Hey,” I spoke up, “Can I come with?”

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

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

“Fuck you,” she spat the words.

“Hey.  What?” I was stunned.

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

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

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

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

“None of your business.”

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

“Bullshit.”

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

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

Her eyes narrowed.

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

“Fine.”

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

“A free shot.”

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

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

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

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

No,” Brian said, raising his voice.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tangle 6.9

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Dear Miss Militia…

Was it wrong to start with Dear?  Was that implying more friendship or intimacy than there was?  Would it seem taunting?

Miss Militia, we met earlier tonight…

No.  If I went that route, she might throw it aside alongside all the other fan mail she got.

Miss Militia, you know me as Skitter, but you don’t truly know me…

Better, but I didn’t like the tone.  I’d leave it as is, move on, and come back to it later.

You see, I’m not a villain, despite…

Despite what?  Despite the fact that I’d terrorized and hurt a lot of innocent people?  Despite the fact that I’d nearly killed Lung and later cut his eyes out?  That I had nearly two hundred and eighty thousand dollars in illegitimate money to my name?

I shivered, pulled my hands from my pockets and did up my sweatshirt to cover my exposed stomach.  After we’d arrived at the Loft, Brian had suggested that we were all too tired to discuss Coil’s proposal, so we tabled all discussion until the morning.  I was glad for the excuse to avoid hearing or seeing anything that might make this any harder.  Besides, I’d promised my dad I would be home tonight.

It was past nine, so the bus from the ferry was only arriving every ninety minutes.  I’d figured it was better to walk home than wait.  I could use the stretching, too, given the abuse my body had sustained while I was riding Judas.

Sticking my hands back in my pockets, I returned my thoughts to how I’d word my letter to Miss Militia.  Scratch ‘despite’.  Another approach, maybe?

…Believe it or not, my intentions all along have been good.  I joined the Undersiders in the first place to assist you.  To assist this city…

Was that entirely true?  No.  If I was being entirely honest with myself, part of the reason I’d joined and stayed with the Undersiders was because I had been lonely.  What if I offered some honesty?

…It caught me off guard just how easy it was to like them.  I was in a bad place, and they accepted me.  So writing this email to you is difficult.  But it is necessary.  In the end, I decided to go this route because it serves the greater good…

That was what I had told myself, earlier today, before we left for the job.  That sticking with those guys would pose the greatest risk to innocents, that it would eventually lead to someone getting caught in crossfire, or me getting arrested for something serious.

But now I had Coil’s agenda to consider.  Was he really being honest about how he planned to help this city?  I had no reason to believe he was lying, and Tattletale was vouching for him.  But at the same time, Coil’s motif was a snake, and Tattletale had hedged the truth and misled me before.

Question was, was I taking this route because it served the greater good?  No.  Or at least, I wasn’t sure enough either way for it to be the reason I was doing this.

Why was I doing it, then?

It had been a hard question to answer hours ago, and it was doubly hard now.  Enough that it spooked me.  How had I gotten to this point?

I was put in mind of a time I’d sat in on one of my mom’s university classes.  I couldn’t have been older than ten, my dad had been busy and my mom hadn’t been able to find a babysitter.  So I’d been precocious, proud as hell to be sitting in that English lecture with the teenagers and twenty-somethings and understanding what my mom was saying.  We’d even read the book together, over the prior few weeks, so I knew the material.  Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

While I’d been sitting and listening, an older man had come in and sat next to me, in the back row.  In a kind voice, he’d murmured a comment about how my mother was an excellent professor.  Then, a few minutes later, when I got up the courage to raise my hand and answer one of her questions, he’d complimented me, got up and left.  All my pride in myself and my mother aside, what had struck me about the encounter was the man’s hair.  A ridiculous comb-over.

After the class was over and my mom had been taking me home, I mentioned the man, and she’d identified him as the head of her department, her boss.  Then I brought up the comb-over and how bad it looked.

“Look at it from his perspective,” she’d explained.  “Maybe, a long time ago, he started to lose a little hair, but he could brush it to one side in a way that made it not show so much.  Every year that passed he brushed his hair over a bit more.  It was gradual, something he slowly got used to, seeing it in the mirror every morning and every night.  Lots of small steps.”

“Why doesn’t someone point it out?”  I’d asked her.

“He doesn’t have anyone to point it out for him,” she had replied, “And anyone who knows him well enough doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, even if it might be better in the long run.”

“You could,” I’d told her.

So she had, later that week.  Ripped off the band-aid for the old head of the English department.  According to her, he’d gotten a haircut, then thanked her at a later date.  That event and what my mom had done afterward always stuck in my memory.

I swallowed past a lump in my throat.  It always caught me off guard, just how frigging much I missed her, when I thought about her.  I’d give anything for a thirty minute conversation with her, right this moment.  I didn’t have the slightest doubt in my mind that she could have made sense of everything, put things into terms so simple that working it out looked easy.

I had to stop, look up, blink back the tears in my eyes, and take a deep breath before I moved on.

Was my situation the same as the old man’s?  Had I let myself gradually slip into a bad spot, because of my lack of perspective beyond what was going on inside my own head?

I hadn’t been thinking about this clearly.  I was still confident enough I could send that email, make the call… but before I did that, I had to get my thoughts in order.  Composing the letter in my head wouldn’t work, I needed the words on my computer screen in front of me, concrete words in black and white.

I walked around the back of my house and reached into my pocket for my keys.  Before I could get them, my dad opened the door.

“Taylor.  It’s good to see you safe and sound.”  My dad looked tired, years older than the last time I saw him.

I gave him a brief hug, “Hi, Dad.  You got my message, saying I’d be late?”

“I did.”  He shut and locked the door behind me.  “What happened?”

I shrugged as I pulled off my sweatshirt, made sure my pepper spray, phone and keys were all in the pockets, then hung it up by the door.  “Nothing big.  I was at Brian’s, helping him put furniture together, then his sister and his sister’s social services caseworker came without any warning.  I couldn’t find a way to leave without it being kind of awkward.”  Which did happen, pretty much, just at an earlier time.

“I see,” he murmured. “Were you two alone?”

“No,” I lied, to stop him from getting the wrong impression.  “At least, not for long.  Lisa left a few minutes before the caseworker dropped by.”

“And you have a new shirt, I see.  It’s nice.”

“Lisa’s,” I fibbed, squirming a little under the scrutiny.

“Ah,” he nodded.

“I’m going to go to my room, if that’s alright?  I’m kind of wiped.”

My dad shook his head, “I’d rather you stayed to talk.”

Not what I wanted to do.  My mind was jammed with enough crap and internal debates that I didn’t want to worry about concocting more lies for my dad.

“Can we do it tomorrow morning?” I offered him, retreating toward the door to the front hall, pressing my hands together in a pleading gesture. “I really need to sit at my computer for a minute and organize my thoughts.”

I pushed on the door and it didn’t open.  Strange.  I tried the doorknob, and it didn’t help.

“Door’s jammed,” I said.

“Door’s locked, Taylor.  So is the door to the living room.”  My dad answered me.  When I looked at him, he showed me the old fashioned key in his hand.

As I watched, he pulled out two chairs from beside the kitchen table, placed one in the middle of the room, then placed the second chair against the back door and sat down in it.

“Sit.”

“Dad, tonight’s not really-”

Sit.

My heart dropped out of my chest.  Or at least, it felt like it.  I felt an ugly sour feeling in my stomach.

“I talked to your school today,” he informed me, confirming that ugly feeling.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ve missed nearly a month of classes, Taylor.  Three weeks.  You’ve missed major tests, project due dates, homework… they’re saying you might fail, if you haven’t already.”

“I- I’m sorry,” I repeated myself.

“I could maybe understand, I know what you’ve been dealing with, except you didn’t just leave me in the dark.  You lied to me.”

I couldn’t form the words for another apology.

“I called the school to get an update on how you were doing, and they said you hadn’t been to class in some time, and I didn’t know what to do.  I just- I felt completely lost.  I called your Gram.”

I winced.  Gram was my mom’s mother, an austere woman who’d never fully approved of my dad as a match for her daughter.  It wouldn’t have been easy for him to make that call.

“She convinced me that maybe I’ve been too focused on being your ally, and not focused enough on being your parent.  If she’d told me that a week ago, I would have hung up on her.  But after talking to your school, realizing how badly I failed you-”

“You didn’t fail me,” I told him.  I was caught off guard by how my voice broke a bit with emotion.

“I did.  It’s clear that whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, if you’re in this situation, if you can’t talk to me.  No more secrets, no more half truths.  So we’re going to stay here all night if need be.  I’ll even call off work tomorrow if I have to, but we’re going to talk.”

I nodded and swallowed, hard.  I still hadn’t sat down in the chair he’d left in the middle of the kitchen.

“I, um, need to use the washroom.”

“Okay,” he stood.  “I’ll walk you there, and I’ll walk you back here to the kitchen afterward.”

“You’re treating me like I’m a prisoner?

“You’re my daughter, Taylor.  I love you, but I know there’s something going on, and it’s not just the bullying, or it’s something to do with the bullying that you haven’t mentioned yet.  I’m scared for you, Taylor, because you’re avoiding me and staying silent even if it means failing.”

“So you force my hand by making me your prisoner,” I replied, letting anger and hurt creep into my voice, “Do you think this is even remotely cool, after all the times I’ve been cornered by those bitches from school?  I’ve got to come home to this bullying power-abuse shit, too?”

My dad answered me with the utmost patience, “I hope you know that I’m doing this because I love you.”

I did.  Thing was, that didn’t make it even slightly easier to handle.

Do you need to go to the bathroom, Taylor?”

I shook my head.  What I needed was to get out of this room.  I saw him purse his lips, knew he was aware I’d just been looking for an escape.

Talk to me, Taylor.”

“Don’t feel like talking.”  I walked across the room to try the other doors, to the living room and basement.  Locked.

“Why are you so insistent on escaping?” he asked.  I could hear the pain in his voice, which didn’t make me feel any better.  “Please, just relax, sit down.”

I felt the crackle of my power at the edges of my awareness, realized I was clenching my fists.  Why was it that the people I was supposed to be able to rely on were the people who turned on me, cornered me, made me feel the worst?  Emma, the school, Armsmaster, now my dad?

I kicked the chair, hard enough that it made a mark as it hit the fridge.  My dad’s eyes went just a bit wider, but he didn’t move or speak.  I could feel the tug of my power as bugs throughout my neighborhood began to move to my location.  I had to willfully cancel out the order to make them back off and return to their normal behavior.

Not feeling even remotely better after my abuse of the chair, I shoved the cookbooks and printouts off the shelf beside the fridge, letting them spill to the ground.  A picture frame that had been hidden in the middle of the pile broke as it hit the ground.

“Damn it,” I muttered.  I still didn’t feel better, and I was having a harder time keeping the swarm at bay.

“Possessions can be replaced, Taylor.  Vent however you need to.”

“Dad?  D-” I had to stop for a few seconds until I felt like I could catch my breath and talk without my voice breaking up, “Do me a favor?  Stay quiet for a bit and let me think?”

He gave me a careful look before he answered me.  “Okay.  I can do that.”

With nowhere else to sit, I put my back to the wall under the bookshelf I’d just cleared and let myself sink to the ground, my legs making their protests felt as I brought my legs up against my chest.  I folded my arms, resting them atop my knees, and buried my face against them.

I knew it had been 9:24 when I got in.  By the time I’d suppressed the bugs, got my power under control and felt safe to raise my head, it was 9:40.  My dad still sat in the chair.

I let out a long sigh, quiet, then buried my face in my arms again.

What now?

Come on, Taylor.  You’ve faced down Supervillains in life or death situations.  You faced down Armsmaster earlier tonight.  Is it that hard to face your own dad?

No.  Ten times harder.

But I had to face the problem the same way.  Catalogue my options, my tools at hand.  Physical violence was out.  So was using my power.  What did that leave me?

The situation was ultimately the same, I decided.  I still had to write that letter to Miss Militia, organize my thoughts.  Problem was, now I had an additional thing to deal with.  I had to fess up to my dad about what I’d done.

I wasn’t sure I could say it.  My throat was thick with emotion, and I doubted I could organize my thoughts enough to convince my dad that I’d done everything for the right reasons.  I’d open my mouth to tell him, stammer out the basics of it, maybe he’d even look concerned at first.  Then as I kept talking, failing to adequately describe what I’d done and why, I could see his face turning to confusion.  After that?  Disgust, disappointment?

A little part of me died inside at the thought.

I’d write it.  I raised my head abruptly, looked to the papers scattered around me.  I found a manilla envelope, the kind you put documents inside.  Then I found a marker.

Along the top of the envelope, I wrote the words: “I AM A SUPERVILLAIN.”

I stared at those words on the brown envelope that rested against my legs.  Then I looked up at my dad.  He was reading a book, his right ankle resting on his left knee.

I imagined handing him the envelope as-is.  Just that one line.

Fuck.”  I muttered.

“Did you say something?” my dad looked up from his book and reached over to put it down.

“It’s okay.  Keep reading,” I said, absently, annoyed at the distraction, still pissed at him for cornering me like this.

“Okay,” he agreed, but he didn’t look at the book for longer than three seconds before glancing up at me again, as if to check on me.  I tried to ignore him and focus on the envelope

What to write?  After a second, I began writing below the title I’d put on the envelope.

I like Brian and Lisa.  I even like Alec and Rachel.  But they’re supervillains too.  I joined them with the idea that I would get details the Protectorate needed and then betray them.

I raised the marker and frowned.

Why was this so damn hard?

I put the cap on and nervously tapped the marker against my knee.  Thinking about stuff, trying to gauge my feelings, exploring my thoughts to see what it was that made that knot deep in my gut get tighter.

My dad?  Was I too conscious of what he would read, how he would perceive it?  Yes.  But it had also been hard to write when I’d been mentally writing it for just Miss Militia.  That wasn’t the whole picture.

Was I scared of arrest?  No.  Well, I’d seen bureaucracy at work with school, I didn’t trust the system, I fully expected to get screwed over somewhere down the line.  But that wasn’t what was driving my choices.  It was something more personal.

The team.  Was I worried over how they would take it?  Over possibly having them as enemies?  Like Coil had said, there was no guarantee any action against them would be wholly successful.  Tattletale would probably be able to tell a PRT team was there before they could get in position, and the team was good at making an escape in a pinch.  Then I’d have one or more enemies after me, who knew everything they needed and had all the tools to make my life a living hell.

Warmer.

It did have to do with those guys, and it slowly dawned on me what it was.

I stood, then walked over to the oven.

“Taylor?” my dad spoke, quiet.

I folded the envelope lengthwise to hide the words, turned on the oven burner, then held the tip of the envelope to the flame until it ignited.

I held the burning envelope over the sink until I was sure my message was obliterated.  I dropped the remains of the envelope into the basin and watched it burn up.

I didn’t want to send that email to Miss Militia because I liked those guys.  That wasn’t the big realization.  What made me stand up and burn the envelope was the realization that I liked those guys, I was fond of them, I trusted them to have my back…

Yet I’d always held myself at arm’s length.

It was stupid, it was selfish, but I really, desperately wanted to see what it would be like to get to know Lisa, without worrying that she would find out my scheme.  I’d like to see what it was like to interact with her without having to censor myself out of fear that I’d provide that damning clue.  I wanted to get to know Bitch and Alec better.  And Brian.  I wanted to be closer to Brian.  I couldn’t phrase it any better than that, because I didn’t know if there would be any future with him beyond a simple friendship.  I didn’t expect there to be.  It still mattered.

I’d let myself think that I’d tried a friendship with these guys, that I had grown as a person, so it was okay to go ahead with my plan.  But I hadn’t.  I’d never let myself truly open up and connect with them, and I was realizing just how much I wanted to.

My reasons for going ahead with my plan were thinning out, getting harder to justify.  My reputation was probably in shambles, I’d made enemies of everyone that mattered, and I had a number of felonies under my belt.  As much as I might try to ignore all that and tell myself I was doing it for the greater good, my conversation with Coil had left me less sure.  That wasn’t to say I believed him wholeheartedly, or that I thought he’d be as successful as he thought, but I was less sure.

Damn it, I wanted to hang out more with the Undersiders. Knowing I was out of reasons to justify sticking with the plan, all the crap that would come raining down on my head if I did go ahead with it, how much I’d loathe myself for betraying friends?  This little desire for a real, genuine friendship was enough of a nudge in that direction.  I could change my mind.  I wouldn’t be sending any letters to Miss Militia.

I ran the tapwater over the smoking remains of the envelope, watched the remains get washed away.  I watched the water running down the drain for a long time after the last scrap of burned paper was gone.

I turned off the tap, stuck my hands in my pockets, and crossed the kitchen to lean back against the door leading to the front hall, glancing briefly at the handle and lock before I leaned against the door with my back to it.  I called some bugs from the living room, hallway and heating vents down the front hall and up to the door, into the mechanism of the lock.  Could they move the necessary parts?

No such luck.  They weren’t strong enough to manipulate the door’s internal workings, and any bugs that might be strong enough wouldn’t fit inside.  Go away, I told them, and they did.

Which left me no good way to avoid dealing with my dad.  I felt more guilty than ever as I looked across the room at him.  He looked so bewildered, so concerned, as he watched me.  I didn’t have it in me to lie to his face again.

But whatever I did was going to hurt him.

I crossed the room and he stood up, as if unsure as to what I was going to do.  I hugged him tight.  He hugged me back tighter.

“I love you, dad.”

“I love you too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.  Just- just talk to me, okay?”

I pulled away, and grabbed my sweatshirt from the hook by the door.  As I crossed back to the other side of the room, I fished in the pockets and retrieved the phone.

I started typing out a text.

“You have a cell phone,” he was very quiet.  My mom had died using a cell phone while driving.  We’d never talked about it, but I knew he’d thrown his out not long after the accident.  Negative connotations.  An ugly reminder.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Why?”

“To stay in touch with my friends.”

“It-it’s just unexpected.  I wouldn’t have thought.”

“It worked out that way.”  I finished the text, closed the phone and stuck it in the pocket of my jeans.

“New clothes, you’re angrier, lying to me, missing school, this cell phone… I feel like I don’t know you anymore, little owl,” he used my mom’s old pet name for me.  I flinched a little.

Carefully, I replied, “Maybe that’s a good thing.  Because I sure didn’t like who I was before.”

“I did,” he murmured.

I looked away.

“Can you at least tell me you’re not doing drugs?”

“Not even smoking or drinking.”

“Nobody’s making you do anything you don’t want to do?”

“No.”

“Okay,” he said.

There was a long pause.  The minutes stretched on as if we were both waiting for the other to say something.

“I don’t know if you know this,” he spoke, “But when your mom was alive, and you were in middle school, the subject of you skipping a grade came up.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a smart girl, and we were afraid you were bored in school.  We had arguments on the subject.  I-I convinced your mom you would be happier in the long run attending high school with your best friend.”

I coughed out a laugh.  Then I saw the wounded look on his face.

“It’s not your fault, dad.  You couldn’t have known.”

“I know, or at least, I have that worked out in my head.  Emotionally, I’m not so sure.  I can’t help but wonder how things would have played out differently if we’d gone ahead with what your mother wanted.  You were doing so well, and now you’re failing?”

“So I fail, maybe,” I said, and I felt a weight lift, admitting it out loud.  There would be options.  I’d picked up enough that maybe I could still pressure the faculty to let me skip a grade.  I would be old enough to take online classes like Brian was.

“No, Taylor.  You shouldn’t have to.  The staff at the school knows your circumstances, we can definitely get some exemptions made, extend deadlines…”

I shrugged.  “I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to beg and plead for help from those assholes in the school faculty, just so I can return to the same position I was in a month ago.  Way I see it, the bullying is unavoidable, impossible to control or prevent.  It’s like a force of nature… a force of human nature.  It’s easier to handle, if I think about it like that.  I can’t fight it, can’t win, so I’ll just focus on dealing with the aftereffects.”

“You don’t have to give up.”

“I’m not giving up!”  I raised my voice, angry, surprised at myself for being angry.  I took a breath, forced myself to return to a normal volume, “I’m saying there’s probably no fucking way I’ll understand why she did what she did.  So why waste my time and energy dwelling on it?  Fuck her, she doesn’t deserve the amount of attention I’ve been paying her. I’m… reprioritizing.”

He folded his arms, but his forehead was creased in concern.  “And these new priorities of yours are?”

I had to search for a response.  “Living my life, making up for lost time.”

As if to answer my statement, the back door opened behind my dad.  My dad turned, startled.

“Lisa?” He asked, confused.

Lisa revealed the key she’d taken from the fake stone in the back garden, then placed it on the railing of our back steps.  Unsmiling, she looked from my dad to me.  She met my eyes.

I shoved my way past my dad, and he grabbed my upper arm before I was clear of the doorway.

“Stay,” he ordered me, implored me, squeezing my arm.

I wrenched my arm free, twisting it until he couldn’t maintain his grip, and hopped down the back steps, felt my knees ache at the landing.  Three or four strides away, I turned back in his direction, but was unable to look him in the eyes.

“I love you, dad.  But I need-”  What did I need?  I couldn’t form the thought.  “I, uh, I’ll be in touch.  So you know I’m okay.  This isn’t permanent, I just… I need a breather.  I need to figure all this out.”

“Taylor, you can’t leave. I’m your parent, and this is your home.”

“Is it?  It really doesn’t feel like that’s the case, right now,” I answered.  “Home’s supposed to be a place I feel safe and secure.”

“You have to understand, I didn’t have any other options.  You were avoiding me, not talking, and I can’t help you until I get answers.”

“I can’t give you any answers,” I replied, “And you can’t help anyways.”

He took a step forward, and I quickly stepped back, maintaining the distance between us.

Trying again, he told me, “Come inside.  Please.  I won’t press you any further.  I should have realized you weren’t in a place where I could.”

He took another step toward me, and Lisa took a little step to one side to get in his way, as I backed up again.

“Lisa?” My dad turned his attention to her, looking at her like he’d never seen her before.  “You’re okay with this?”

Lisa glanced between us again, then carefully said, “Taylor’s smart.  If she’s decided she needs to get away and work stuff out for herself, I trust it’s for good reason.  There’s plenty of room for her at my place.  It’s not a problem in the slightest.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“She’s more capable than you give her credit for, Danny.”

I turned to leave, and Lisa hurried to catch up with me, putting an arm around my shoulders as she reached my side.

“Taylor,” my dad called out.  I hesitated, but didn’t turn around.  I kept my eyes fixed on the gate of the backyard.

“Please do keep in touch,” he said, “You can come home anytime.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I wasn’t sure if my voice was loud enough for him to hear.

As Lisa led me to her car, I had to steel myself to keep from looking back.

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