Interlude 19

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“Ballet, horseback riding, modeling classes or violin.  Pick one, Emma.  One.”

“Or, or, or, maybe I don’t pick any, and…”

“And?” she could hear a weariness in her father’s voice.  He checked over his shoulder and then turned the car into a side street.  A bag with assorted tubs of ice cream sat on the divider between the pair of them.

“Maybe you give a second thought to moving?   There’s really nice places just a little way South, and I’d still be going to the same school, and-”

“Nope.”

“Dad!”

“There’s three jobs I absolutely despise in this world.  One is matching socks, the second is ironing, and the third is moving.  I can foist the first two off on your mom, but the third is a lifestyle choice.  My lifestyle, specifically, is owning the house I’m going to live in until I die.”

Emma frowned, turning to look out the window.  She pouted a little, “This place sucks.  Brockton Bay sucks.

“What’s so bad about it?”

“Everything’s falling apart.  It’s like… show me any house, and I can point out ten things that are wrong with it.”

“Every house has something wrong with it.”

“Not every house!  Like, when I went to Chris’ birthday party?  I-”

“Chris?”

“Christine,” Emma injected a note of condescension into her voice, “Last weekend?  Or did you forget already?”

“Why not call her Christine?  Perfectly nice name.”

“Because androgyne is cool, dad.  It’s the thing in modelling.  Like, I could never have my hair short, but-”  She stopped mid-sentence, answering her phone mid-ring.  “Hello?”

“Emma!”  The voice on the other end was breathy, excited.  There was a babble of other voices in the background.  She could imagine the other youths lined up to use the pay phones.

“Taylor,” Emma said, smiling.

“Ok I gotta talk fast because I only have two minutes and I need my other fifty cents to call my dad.  We rowed across the lake this morning to this waterfall, only it wasn’t exactly a waterfall, more like a water stair, and we were all taking turns sliding and falling down this set of slick rocks, and Elsa, she’s this girl wearing a bikini, she’s been spending the last three days acting like she’s hot stuff, she slides down the wrong part, and it catches on the strap, right?  It doesn’t tear it off, but it stretches, so it doesn’t even fit her anymore

Emma laughed, leaning back against her car seat.

It was something of a relief, to hear Taylor getting excited about something, to hear her getting excited over nothing.  She’d lost her mother a year ago, and hadn’t bounced back, not entirely.  Her smiles not quite as wide, she was a second later to laugh, as if she had to wait, to give herself permission to do it, had to hold back.  Before, it had been almost no holds barred.  Anything went, however they wanted to amuse themselves, whatever they wanted to talk about.  Complete and total openness.  Lately there had been too many movies, too many activities and topics of conversation, that Taylor preferred to avoid.

It hadn’t been easy, Emma mused, as Taylor yammered on.  Sometimes she’d call, they’d do their customary hanging out, and she’d feel like the time was wasted, afternoons and weekends spent with her best friend that she didn’t enjoy.

Not that Taylor was a wet blanket, but, like, maybe she was a damp blanket?

This?  This inane, aimless, stupid, one-sided conversation where she’d said one word?  This was the good stuff.  It gave her hope that things could get back to normal.

“…and I wish I’d listened to my dad, because he suggested at least ten times that I might want to take more books, and I only brought three, and I’ve read each of them twice already.  My…”

Taylor’s voice continued over the phone, but Emma felt her dad’s hand on her wrist, lowered her phone to pay more attention to her surroundings.

The car had stopped in the middle of a narrow one-way street.  A dumpster had been shifted to block the end of the alley.

She looked over her shoulder, down the other end of the alley.  A white van had stopped there, the taillights glowing.  There were a group of twenty-something Asian-Americans approaching, sliding over the hood of the van to get into the alley and approach.  Members of the ABB.

This isn’t supposed to happen in broad daylight, Emma thought.

Taylor’s voice was faint, “…I could probably recite this one book word for word for you by the time I get back.  Maybe if I asked one of the counselors, I could get more.”

Her heart pounding as hard as it ever had, Emma hung up.  Some part of her rationalized it as needing to eliminate the distraction, to focus on the more immediate problem.

“Hold tight,” her father said.

She did, and he put his foot to the gas.  The car started rolling toward the dumpster, and the gang members behind them began running after them.

Too slow, she thought.

The car barely tapped the dumpster.  It was only after contact had already been made that her dad put his foot on the gas, pushing against the blockade instead of ramming or crashing into it.

The dumpster didn’t budge.

They blocked it.  Or they took the wheels offOr both.

There were too many people behind them for the car to reverse.  Not unless her dad wanted to hurt or kill a bunch of people.  Even if he did want to hurt them, he couldn’t be sure he’d hit them, and where could he go?  There wasn’t any guarantee he’d be able to move the dumpster if he backed up and rammed into it.

“Call the police,” her father said.

She barely registered it.

“Emma!  Call the police!”

She fumbled with the phone.  Nine-nine…

Why won’t my hands work?

Nine-one-one.

The window to her right shattered.  She screamed, then screamed again as hands clutched her hair, hauled her partially out of her seat, until the seatbelt strained against her shoulder and pelvis.  He wasn’t strong enough to actually lift her, but it hurt.  She wasn’t thinking, only wanted the pain to stop.  Her mind was flooded with images of what might happen if the person outside tugged in a slightly different direction and dragged her face against the broken glass of the window.  The phone clattered to the floor as she gripped her attacker’s wrists, tried to alleviate the pain of hair tearing free from her scalp.

She put her feet flat on the floor of the car, pushed herself up and away from her seat, almost helping her attacker.

Emma regretted it almost as she did it, but in the panic and pain, she undid the seatbelt.

She’d just wanted the pain to stop, and now there were two sets of hands gripping her, hauling her up and out through the car window.  Glass broke away against the fabric of her denim jacket, and she fell hard enough against the pavement that grit was pushed into her skin.

I hope the jacket didn’t get torn.  It was so expensive, she thought.  It was inane, stupid, almost hilariously out of sync with reality.  Delirious.

Her father’s screams of almost mindless panic sounded so far away, as he cried out her name, over and over again.

The gang members who stood above her each wore crimson and pale green.  There were other colors, predominantly black, but the constrast of red and green stood out.  Some had their faces exposed, others wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces.  One had a bandanna folded so it covered one eye.  She couldn’t think straight enough to count them.

They had knives, she belatedly noted.

Her father screamed for her again.

Stop, dad.  You’re embarassing me.  She was more cognizant of how irrational the thought was, this time.  Odd, how calm she felt.  Except that wasn’t right.  Her heart was pounding, she could barely breathe, her thoughts were jumbled and irrational, and yet she somehow felt more together than she might have guessed she would.

She wasn’t hysterical, at least.  She was oddly pleased with that, even as she wondered if she might wet herself.

“Turn over, ginger bitch,” one of the girls standing above her said.  The order was punctuated by a sharp kick to Emma’s ribs.

She flopped over, face pressing against the hot pavement.  Hands took hold of her jacket and pulled it off.  The sleeves turned inside out, the half-folded cuffs catching around her hands.

If she’d been taking it off herself, that would have been cause for some rearrangement, to get her hands free.  Instead, they pulled.  It hurt briefly, and then they had the jacket.

“Here, Yan,” one of the guys said, his accent almost musical.  “You owe me.”

“Sweet!”  The voice sounded young.

My jacket, Emma thought, plaintive.

“We could send this bitch out of town,” one of the guys said.  “Stick her in one of the farms and hold her for a while.  She’s got tits, could auction her off.

“Don’t be a moron.  White girl goes missing, they look.”

Someone opened the car door and climbed in.  There was the sound of the glove compartment opening, of items falling to the floor, where her cell phone was.

For the life of her, she couldn’t remember if she had hit ‘call’ on her cell phone before she’d dropped it.  It would mean the difference between her phone sitting on the floor of the car, the numbers displayed on the screen, and authorities using the phone to find her location, sending help.

Someone grabbed her hair, again.  This time, there was a tearing sensation, and the tugging abruptly stopped.  Her face cracked against the pavement beneath, one cheekbone catching almost all of the impact.

They’d cut her hair, and she’d just bruised her face.

“Face,” she mumbled.

“What’s that, ginger?” the girl standing over her asked.  Emma twisted her head around to see the girl holding a length of red hair in her hand.

“Not- not the face, please.  I’ll do anything you want, just… not the face.”

It was the delirium that had taken hold of her the second her father had seized her arm.  It wasn’t really her, was it?  She couldn’t be this stupidly vain when it all came down to the wire.  She didn’t want to be that kind of person.

“You’ll do anything?” One of the guys asked.  The one with one eye.  “Like what?”

She reached for an answer, but her thoughts were little more than white noise.

The answers that did come to mind weren’t possibilities.  Not really.

“Then it’s the face after all.  Hold her.”

Ten minutes ago, she’d never been afraid.  Not really.  Stage fright, sure.  Fear of not getting the Christmas present she wanted?  Sure.  But she’d never been afraid.

And before the one-eyed thug spoke that last sentence, she’d never known terror.  Had never known what it might be like to be a deer in the moment the wolves set tooth to flesh, the rabbit fleeing the bird of prey.  It was like being possessed, and the white noise that had subsumed her her thoughts when she searched for an argument now consumed her brain in entirety.  She felt a kind of surge of strength as her fight or flight instincts kicked into gear, and it wasn’t enough.

She was outnumbered, and many of them were stronger than her, even with the adrenaline feeding into her.  Two held her arms out to either side, and someone knelt just behind her, knees pressing hard against the side of her head, keeping her from turning it.  Looking up, she could see a girl, not much older than her, sporting a nose ring and a startling purple eye shadow.  She was wearing Emma’s jacket.

Emma could hear her father screaming, still, and it sounded further away than ever.

One-eye straddled her, planting his left hand on top of her hair, helping to hold her head down to the ground.

He held a knife that was long and thin, the blade no wider across than a finger, tapering to a wicked point.  What was it called?  A stiletto?  He rested the flat of the blade on the tip of her nose.

“Nose,” he murmured.  The blade moved to her eye, and she couldn’t move away.  She could only shut it, feel it twitching mercilessly as he laid the flat of the blade against her eyelid, “Eye…”

The blade touched her lips, a steel kiss.

“Mouth…”

He used the blade to brush the hair away from the side of her head, hooked an earring with the point of the blade.

“Well, you can hide the ears with the hair,” he said, his voice barely over a whisper.  The knife point pulled at the earring until her face contorted in pain.  “So maybe I’ll take both.  Which will it be?”

She couldn’t process, couldn’t sort out the information in the mist of the terror that gripped her.  “Unh?”

Again, the knife traveled over her face, almost gentle as it touched the areas in question.  “One eye, the nose, the mouth, or both ears.  Yan here thinks she has what it takes to be a member, instead of a common whore, so you choose one of the above, and she goes to town on the part in question, proves her worth.”

“Holy shit, Lao,” the girl with the eye shadow said.  She sounded almost gleeful, “That’s fucked up.”

Pick,” he said, again, as if he hadn’t heard.

Emma blinked tears out of her eyes, looked for an escape, an answer.

And she saw a figure crouched on top of her father’s car, dressed in black, with a hood and a cape that fluttered out of sync with the warm sea breeze that flowed from the general direction of the beach.  She could see the whites of the girl’s eyes through the eyeholes of what looked like a metal hockey mask.

Help me.

The dark figure didn’t move.

Lao, the one eyed man, reversed the knife in his hands and handed it to the girl with the eye shadow.  The girl, for her part, dragged the knife’s point over Emma’s eyelid, a feather touch.

“Pick,” the girl said.  “No, wait…”

She shoved the handful of hair she’d cut away into Emma’s mouth.  “Eat it, then pick.”

Emma opened her mouth to plead for help, but she couldn’t find the breath.  The hair wasn’t it, not really.  Some of it was the weight of the young man sitting on her chest, crushing her under his weight.  Mostly, it was the fear, like a physical thing.

She thought of Taylor, of all people.  Taylor had, in her way, been put to the knife, had had an irreplaceable part of herself carved away.  Not a nose or an eye, but a mother.  And in the moment she’d found out, a light had gone out inside Emma’s best friend, a vibrancy had faded.  She’d ceased to be the same person.

If she’d experienced her first real taste of fear when the gang members attacked the car, her first real taste of terror when Lao proclaimed he’d cut her face, then it was the thought of Taylor, of becoming Taylor, that gripped her with panic, a whole new level of fear.

I won’t become Taylor.

I’m not-

I’m not strong enough to come back from that.

The knife momentarily forgotten, she bucked, thrashed, fought.  An inarticulate noise tore out of her throat, a scream, a grunt, and a wail of despair all together, an ugly sound she couldn’t ever have imagined she’d make.  Lao was dislodged, one hand freed, and she brought it up, not in self defense, but to attack.  Her nails found his one good eye, caught on flesh, dug into the softest tissues she could find and dragged through them, through eyelid and across eyeball, through cheekbone and the meat of his cheek.

He screamed, struck her with enough force that she wondered if he’d had knuckle dusters she hadn’t seen.

Knuckle dusters… a weapon.  She belatedly remembered the knife, looked up at the girl with the eye shadow.

The figure in the black cloak had the knife-wielding girl, the knife hand twisted behind the girl’s back.

With a sharp, calculated motion, the arm was twisted a measure too far, the eye shadow girl jerked off balance so the weight of her body would only help twist it further.  The girl screamed, dropping the knife, and she flopped to the ground, her arm gone limp, dangling from the shoulder at an angle that shouldn’t have been possible.

The figure in black turned on Lao.  She swept her cape to one side, and momentarily became a living shadow, a transparent blur.  When she returned to normal, her posture was different, and the knife had disappeared from the ground.  It was in her hand.

Emma watched in numb horror and awe as the girl advanced on Lao, who crab-walked backward to get away.  She closed the distance, stretched out one arm, and delivered a single scratch with the knife, cutting into Lao’s right eye.

Other thugs had already fallen.  The one who’d held her arm before she pulled it free was slumping over, unconscious.  The woman who must have been standing next to Emma’s father, was lying prone on the ground on the other side of the car, a pool of blood spreading beneath her.

That left only one, the thug who’d held Yan’s left arm.  He was on his feet in a moment, running, Emma’s backpack in one hand, open, the contents from the glove compartment falling free.  Useless, trivial items.  A bag of candy, the driver’s handbook.  Things he’d taken only because he could.

The girl in the cloak was small, Emma noted.  Younger.  Again, the cloaked vigilante became a virtual living shadow, flung herself down the length of the alleyway, faster than the man was running.  She moved past him, ducking low as she materialized into a normal form.  The knife raked across the side of his knee, and he fell.  He twisted as he hit the ground, kicked out with one leg, and caught the girl in the side of one knee.  She tumbled landing on top of him.

The ensuing struggle was brief and one sided.  He tried to grab his attacker, found only immaterial shadow.  He turned over, getting on hands and knees to push himself to a standing position, but she moved faster, going solid as she loomed over him, one hand on the wall for balance.  She tipped, let herself fall, and drove his face into the pavement with all the weight she could bring down on him.

A second later, the cloaked girl was holding one of his hands against a door just to his right.  She used the stiletto to impale his hand to the wood, bent the blade until the handle snapped away.

“Emma,” her father said.  He was out of the car, embracing her.  “Are you hurt?  Emma?”

One hand absently tried to claw her own strands of hair from her mouth, failing to get all of them.  She settled for leaving the hand mashed against her mouth, as incoherent a gesture as anything she might have said if she’d been able to speak.

Wordless, the girl in the black cloak limped a few steps away from the fallen boy before adopting her shadow form, floating away, untouchable.

“Emma?”

Emma stared at her bedroom ceiling.  It was her sister’s voice.

“I went to that store, got that shampoo you liked.”

Emma turned over, pulling the covers tight, staring at the wall instead.

“I just thought a shower must sound pretty good right about now.”

There were still scraps of paper stuck to the wall with blue tack, the corners of the posters she’d torn down in a fit of emotion.  All the words in the English language, and there wasn’t one for what she’d felt.  Not anger, not fear, not resentment… some combination of those things that was duller, heavier, suffocating.  The eyes of the boys from the posters had been too much.

“…Okay,” her sister said, from the other side of the bedroom door.  “We love you, Emma.  You know that, right?”

Her mother spoke through the door, “Emma?  Taylor’s on the phone.  She’s still at summer camp.  Do you-“

Emma sat up in bed, swung her legs around until they hung off the end of the bed.

“No.”  Her voice was a croak.  How many days had it been since she spoke?

“If I explained, maybe she could-“

An image flashed across her mind’s eye.  Taylor, on the other end of the phone, laughing, blabbering on, happy, just before the incident.

The tables had turned.

“If you tell her, I’m never coming out,” she croaked.

There wasn’t a reply.  Emma stood from the bed and approached the door.  She could hear her mother on the other side.

“-doesn’t want to talk to you right now.  I’m sorry.”

A pause.

“No.  No, I don’t.”

Another pause, briefer.

“Bye, honey,” Emma’s mom said.

Floorboards creaked as her mother walked away.

“…a therapist.  You could go alone, or we could go together.”

She grit her teeth.

“I… I left her number by the phone.  We’re all going to be out.  Your sister’s at a thing related to the college dorms, a pre-moving in orientation.  Your mom and I have work.  You know our phone numbers, but I was thinking, uh.”

A pause.

“If you were thinking of doing something drastic, and you didn’t feel like you could talk to any of us, the therapist’s number’s there.”

Emma hugged her knees.  Her back pressed hard against the door, the bones of her spine grinding against the door’s surface.

“I love you.  We love you.  The doors are all double locked, so you’re safe, and there’s food in the fridge.  Your sister bought that stuff from the store you like.  Soaps and shampoos.”

Emma clutched the fabric of her pyjamas.

“It’s been a week.  You can’t- you can’t be happy like this.  We won’t be here to bother you, so warm yourself up some food, treat yourself to a nice bath, maybe, watch some television?  Get things a step back to normal?”

She stood, abrupt, paced halfway across her bedroom, then stopped.  Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

She stood there, staring at the wall with the torn corners of poster still stuck to it, fists clenched.

“Bye, honey.”

She was rooted to the spot, staring at a blank surface, listening as her family went about their routines.  There were murmurs of conversation as they got organized, orchestrated who was going in which car, what everyone was doing for lunch.  Quieter fragments of conversation where they were discussing her.

The door slammed, and she heard the locks click, a sound so faint she might have imagined it.

It was only after everyone had left that she ventured out of her room.

Coffee.  Cereal.  She went through the motions, reheating a mug of the former and preparing the latter.

She hadn’t finished either when she stood and ventured into the bathroom.  She didn’t touch the bag of expensive soaps and shampoos, instead using her father’s regular shampoo.  She soaped up with the bar soap, rinsed off, then stepped out of the shower to dry herself.

Once she was dressed, her hair still damp, she approached the front door, hesitated.

She pushed through, left it unlocked behind her.  She couldn’t shake the worry that if she stepped back inside to find keys, she might not be able to step through the threshold again.

Her teeth were chattering by the time she was at the end of the street, and it wasn’t cold out.

Her thoughts were a chaotic jumble as she walked.  Her stomach felt like a blob of gelatin, quivering with every step she took.

The stares were worst of all.  As much as she tried to tell herself that she wasn’t in the middle of a giant spotlight, that people didn’t care, she couldn’t shake the idea that they were watching her, analyzing her every move, noting her wet hair, noting the hunk of hair at the back that was shorter than the rest, crudely chopped off.  Were they seeing her as a victim, someone so full of fear and anxiety that her every movement practically screamed ‘easy target’?

Perhaps the dumbest insecurity of all was the worry that somehow they could read her mind, that they knew she was doing the dumbest thing she’d ever done.

Every step she took, the white noise of her fear consumed a bit of her rational mind.

She found herself back at the mouth of the narrow one-way road.  The dumpster had been moved, the van was nowhere in sight.

This was different from feeling like a victim, because here, she knew she really was begging to be attacked.  To loiter around in known gang territory, unarmed?  It was senseless.  This time, they might really carry through with their threats.  All it would take was the wrong person seeing her.

Emma couldn’t bring herself to care.  She was scared, but she was scared every moment of every day, had been for the last seven days.  Right now?  She was more desperate than scared.

She’d hoped she would run into the girl in the black cloak.  She wasn’t so lucky.  Her stomach started protesting that the half-bowl of cereal hadn’t been enough, but she stayed where she was.  She hadn’t brought a wallet, a phone or watch, so she had no way of getting food, nor any idea of how long she was really waiting.

When the sun was directly overhead, she turned to leave.

There was no place to go.  Home?  It would be too easy to shut herself in her room, to hide from the world.  There was nothing she wanted to do, nobody she wanted to talk to.

The world was an ugly place, filled with ugly scenes, and unlike before, she couldn’t shut it out, couldn’t shake the idea that something horrible was happening around every corner.  Thousands of people suffering every second, around the world.

What got her, the nebulous idea that haunted her, was the impact those scenes had.  There were so many defining moments, so many crises, big and small, that shaped the people they touched.  The biggest and most critical moments were the sorts that wiped the slate clean, that ignored or invalidated the person who had existed before, only to create another.

Emma had fought in a moment of desperation, as if fighting could make her stronger than Taylor, set herself apart.  Except she’d failed.  It was unbearable.  She hated herself.

Her eyes watched the crowd, searching for the people who were eyeing her, judging her.  She couldn’t find any obvious ones, but she couldn’t shake the belief that they were there.

“Takes guts.”

She could feel her heart leap into her throat, wheeling around, imagining the Asian girl with the eye shadow standing behind her.

It wasn’t.  The girl was dark-skinned, slender, with long, straight hair.  She had a hard stare, penetrating.

“Guts?”  Emma couldn’t imagine any word less appropriate.

“Coming back.  The only reason you’d do it is because you were looking for revenge, or you were looking for me.  Or both, depending on how cracked you are.”

Emma opened her mouth, then closed it.  The realization hit her.  This was the girl with the black cloak, announcing herself.

She asked the question she’d gone to such risk to pose to the girl, “Why… why did you wait?  You saw me in trouble, but you didn’t do a thing.”

“Because I wanted to see who you were.”

Before, Emma suspected she’d have been offended, aghast at the idea that this girl would leave her to suffer, leave her life at risk, just for an answer to a question.  Now?  Now she could almost understand it, oddly enough.  “Who was I?”

“There’s two people in the world.  Those who get stronger when they come through a crisis and those who get weaker.  The ones who get stronger naturally come out on top.  There’s ups and downs, but they’ll win out.”

“Who was I?” Emma asked, again.

“You’re here, aren’t you?”  The girl smiled.

Emma didn’t have an answer to that.  She shut her mouth, all too aware of the people walking past them, going about their everyday lives, overhearing snippets of their conversation and yet failing to pick up anything essential.

“I want to be one of the stronger ones.”

“I don’t do the partner thing, or the team thing.”

Emma nodded.  She didn’t have an answer ready.

The other girl’s eyes studied her, and she seemed to come to a decision.  “It’s a philosophy, a way of looking at it all. You can look at the world as a… what’s the word?  One thing and another?”

“A binary?”

“A binary thing.  But not black and white.  It’s about the divide of winners and losers.  Strong and weak, predators and prey.  I kind of like that last one, but I’m a hunter.”

Emma thought back to how readily the girl had taken the thugs apart.  “I can believe that.”

The girl smiled.  “And what you have to keep in mind, is the biggest question of all is one you’re answering for yourself, right now.  Survivor or victim?”

“What’s the difference?”

“On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.”

Emma stood from the kitchen table, aware that her entire family was watching her.

It’s all mental.

Three weeks ago, she might never have imagined that she’d be able to resume life as normal, to not be afraid.

Perhaps it was more correct to say that she was afraid, she just wasn’t acting it.  Faking it until she could make it the truth.

“You’re going out?” her sister couldn’t quite keep the note of suprise out of her voice.

“Sophia’s dropping by,” Emma said.

Just want to forget it happened, put it behind me.  Move forward.

“Taylor got back from camp this morning,” her mother said.

Emma paused.  “Okay.”

“She might stop by.”

“Okay.”

Emma couldn’t resist hurrying a little as she collected her dishes and rinsed them in the sink.

“If she comes by when you’re not here-”

“I’ll talk to her,” Emma said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

She made her way to the front hall, stopped by the mirror to run a brush through her hair.  It had all been cut to match the piece that had been cut shorter with the knife.

She couldn’t wait for it to grow in, as that alone would erase just one more memory that reminded her of her moment of weakness and humiliation, of how close she’d come to dying or being mutilated.  Until it did grow in, it was yet another reminder of all the ugliness she wanted to be able to look past.

Sophia was waiting outside by the time she had her shoes on.

“Heya, vigilante,” Emma said, smiling.

“Heya, survivor.”

She could see Taylor approaching, tan, still wearing the shirt from camp in the bright primary blue, with the logo, shorts and sandals.  It only made her look more kiddish.  Broomstick arms and legs, gawky, with a wide, guileless smile, her eyes just a fraction larger behind the glasses she wore, a little too old fashioned.  Her long dark curls were tied into a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful ‘friendship braclet’ style ties at the end.  Only her height gave her age away.

She looks like she did years ago.  Way before her mom diedLike she’s nine, not thirteen.

“Who the fuck is that?” Sophia murmured.

Emma didn’t reply.  She watched as Taylor approached the gate at the front of the house, walked up the path to the stairs where she and Sophia stood.

“Emma!”

“Who the fuck are you?” Sophia asked.

Taylor’s smile faltered.  A brief look of confusion flickered across her face.  “We’re friends.  Emma and I have been friends for a long time.”

Sophia smirked.  “Really.”

Emma resisted the urge to cringe.  Fake it until I make it.

“Really,” Taylor echoed Sophia.  The smallest furrow appeared between her eyebrows.  “What’s going on Emma?  I haven’t heard from you in a good while.  Your mom said you weren’t taking calls?”

Emma hesitated.

To just explain, to talk to Taylor…

Taylor would give her sympathy, would listen to everything she had to say, give an unbiased ear to every thought, every wondering and anxiety.  Emma almost couldn’t bear the idea.

But there would be friendship too.  Support.  It would be so easy to reach out and take it.

“I love the haircut,” Taylor filled the silence, talking and smiling like she couldn’t contain herself.  “You manage to make any style look great.”

Emma closed her eyes, taking a second to compose herself.  Then she smiled back, though not so wide.  She could feel Sophia’s eyes on her.

She stepped down one stair to get closer to Taylor, put a hand on her shoulder.  Taylor raised one arm to wrap Emma in a hug, stopped short when Emma’s arm proved unyielding, stopping her from closing the distance.

“Go home, Taylor.  I didn’t ask you to come over.”

She could see the smile fall from Taylor’s face.  Only a trace of it lingered, a faltering half-smile.  “It’s… it’s never been a problem before.  I’m sorry.  I was just excited to see you, it’s been weeks since we even talked.”

“There’s a reason for that.  This was just an excuse to cut a cord I’ve been wanting to cut for a long time.”

There it went.  The last half smile, wiped from Taylor’s expression.  “I… what?  Why?”

“Do you think it was fun?  Spending time with you, this past year?”  The words came too easily.  Things she’d wanted to say, not the whole truth, but feelings she’d bottled up, held back.  “I wanted to break off our friendship a long while back, even before your mom kicked the bucket, but I couldn’t find the chance.  Then you got that call, and you were so down in the dumps that I thought you’d hurt yourself if I told you the truth, and I didn’t want to get saddled with that kind of guilt.”

It was surprising how easily the words came.  Half truths.

“So you lied to me, strung me along.”

“You lied to yourself more than I lied to you.”

“Fuck you,” Taylor snapped back.  She turned to leave, and Sophia stuck one foot out.  Taylor didn’t fall, but she stumbled, had to catch the gate for balance.

Taylor turned around, eyes wide, as if she could barely comprehend that Sophia had done what she’d done, that Emma had stood by and watched it.

Then she was gone, running.

“Feel better?”  Sophia asked.

Better?  No.  Emma couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty or ashamed, but… it didn’t feel good.

That knot of negative emotion was tempered by a sense of profound relief.  One less reminder of the old, weak, pathetic vain Emma, one more step towards the new.

Emma’s cell phone vibrated.  She rose from her bed, suppressing a sigh.

As quiet as she could, she collected the tackle box from beneath her bed, dressed and headed downstairs.

Her father was at the kitchen table.  His eyes went wide, and he stood.

She pressed her finger to her lips, and he stopped, his mouth open.

She hesitated, then spoke in a whisper, “I need your help.  Please.  Can- can you not ask any questions just yet?”

He hesitated, then nodded.

She handed him the keys, and climbed into the passenger seat.

He started up the car, then drove in the directions she dictated, her eyes on the phone.

They found themselves downtown, in the midst of a collection of bodies.

And in the center, leaning against a wall, Shadow Stalker was hunched over, using her hands to staunch a leg wound.

Emma bent down, opened the tackle box, and began gathering the first aid supplies.

Wordless, her father joined her.

We owe her this, at least.

“Give it back,” Taylor’s voice was quiet, but level.

“Give what back?”

“You guys broke into my locker.  You took my flute.  It’s something my mom left me, something she used, that my dad gave to me so I could remember her.  Just… if you’ve decided you hate me, if I said the wrong thing, or led you to believe something that wasn’t true, okay.  But don’t do that to my mom.  She was good to you.  Don’t disrespect her memory.”

“If it was so valuable to you, then you shouldn’t have brought it.”

Taylor didn’t speak for long seconds.  “Can you blame me?  Since school started, you’ve been… after me.  As if you’re trying to make a point or something.  Except I don’t know what it is.”

“The point is that you’re a loser.”

Taylor wasn’t able to keep the emotion off her face.  “…Even if it’s just a flute and a memory, maybe I wanted to feel like I had some backup here.  I thought you were better than that, screwing with me on that level.”

“I guess you’re wrong,” Emma replied.  She let the words sit for a few seconds, then added, “Doesn’t look like she’s offering you any backup at all.”

Emma had mused, back in the week she’d been reeling from her near-miss with death or disfigurement, that there were moments that changed destinies, that altered people’s trajectories in life.  Some were small, the changes minor, others large to the point they were irreversible.  It was so easy, just to utter the words, and the reaction was so profound.  A mixture of emotions that briefly stripped Taylor bare, revealed everything in a series of changing facial expressions.

She didn’t enjoy it.  Didn’t revel in it.  But it was… reassuring?  The world made sense.  Predators and prey.  Attackers and victims.  It was like a drug, only she’d never experienced the high, the pure joy of it.  There was only the withdrawal, the need for a hit just to get centered again.

Fight back, get angry, hit me.

Challenge me.

It took Taylor long seconds to get her mental footing.  She met Emma’s eyes, and then stared down at the ground.  She mumbled her response.  “I think that says a lot more about you than it does about me.”

That wasn’t what I meant, Emma thought.

She felt irrationally angry, annoyed, and couldn’t put her finger on why.

It took her a minute to find Sophia, not helped by the fact that the two of them had classes on opposite sides of the building.

Sophia was putting coins into the vending machine.  She looked up at Emma.  “What?”

“Did you break into her locker?”

“Yeah.”

“Stole a flute?”

“Yeah.”

Emma paused for long seconds.  To give the flute back, surreptitiously, it would go a ways towards breaking the rhythm, the cycle.

Taylor’s words nettled her.  To back down now, it would be a step towards the old Emma, the victim.

“Fuck with it.  Do something disgusting to it, and make sure to wreck it so she can’t use it ever again.”

Sophia smiled.

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in this document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“I do,” Emma’s father spoke.

Emma reached out and took his hand, squeezing it.  He glanced at her, and she mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

There was a shuffling of papers at the other end of the long table.  “We, the committee, have reviewed the documents, and agree that case one-six-three-one, Shadow Stalker, has met the necessary requirements.  With stipulations to be named at a future date, specific to her powers and the charges previously laid against her, she is now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as she turns eighteen or violates the terms of this probationary status.  Congratulations, Shadow Stalker.”

“Thank you,” Shadow Stalker’s tone was subdued, her eyes directing a glare at the center of the table rather than anyone present.

Emma watched as the capes and official bigwigs around her got out of their chairs, fell into groups.

Dauntless approached her dad.  She only caught two murmured words of Dauntless’ question.  “-divorce attorney?”

Shadow Stalker, for her part, stood and strode out of the room.  Emma hurried to follow.  By the time she reached the staircase, Shadow Stalker was halfway to the roof.

“You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry.  Stipulations, rules and regulations.  I’ve had my powers for two and a half years and I’ve stopped more bad guys than half the capes in that room!”

Emma couldn’t stop the memory from hitting her.

The man struggled, and as much as Shadow Stalker was able to make herself immaterial, to loosen any grip or free herself from any bonds, she didn’t have the ability to tighten that same grip.  He tipped backwards, off the edge of the roof, and a gesture meant to intimidate became manslaughter.

Shadow Stalker stared off the edge of the roof at the body, then turned to look at Emma.

“Is- is he?”  Emma asked.

“Probably best if you don’t come on patrol with me again.”

“You have,” Emma replied, snapping back to reality.  How many have you ‘stopped’?

“It’s like putting a wolf among sheep and expecting it to bleat!”

“It’s only three years.  Better than prison.”

“Three years and four months.”

“Better than prison,” Emma repeated herself.

“It is prison, fuck it!”

“It’s like you said.  Just… just fake it until you make it the truth, put away the lethal ammunition for a few years.”

Shadow Stalker wheeled on her, stabbed a finger in her direction, “Fuck that.”

Emma stared at her best friend, saw the look in Sophia’s eyes, the anger, the hardness.

For a moment, she regretted the choice she’d made.

Then she had her head in order again, the little things she was faking contorted with reality until she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

People could convince themselves of anything, and there were worse things than convincing oneself that they were strong, capable, one of the ones on top, rather than one of the ones on the bottom.

The door of the bathroom stall swung open.  Sophia had flung one arm around Emma’s shoulders, and Emma joined her in laughing.  To their right, the third member of their trio was giggling so hard she had hiccups.

Taylor kneeled in the middle of a massive puddle of juices and sodas, some of it still fizzing around her.  She was drenched, head to toe, trickles still running off of the lengths of her hair.  Her style of dress had changed over the past little while, in ways Taylor probably wasn’t fully aware of.  She wore darker clothes now, cloaked herself in sweatshirts and loose fitting jeans.  Her long hair was a shield, a barrier around her face.  All measures to hide, signals and gestures of defeat.

More than that, she’d changed in behavior, had stopped fighting back. She’d stopped reacting, for the most part.  Her expression was impassive.  It took some of the fun out of it.  It was almost disappointing.

I’ll have to think of a better one than this.  Crack that facade, Emma thought.  She smirked as Madison led the way out of the bathroom, and they left Taylor behind.

Taylor had become the archetypical victim, Emma mused, in one sober moment, as she parted ways with the other two girls, and I’ve found myself becoming the type of person who could genuinely laugh at something like this.

She dismissed the thought, shifting mental gears, re-establishing the construction of self confidence she’d built.  It was a little easier every time she did it.

The fan on the other side of the room had a piece loose.  It squeaked on every third rotation.

She examined her nails, picked at a fleck of something white that had stick to the end of one nail, then checked her cuticles.

The fan squeaked, and she turned her head, as if she could spot the offending flaw and fix it.

“You come all this way, and you don’t have anything to say?”  Sophia asked.

Emma shrugged.  It was on our way.

“Say what’s on your mind.”

“It’s all backwards, isn’t it?”

“Backwards how?”

“Upside down, Turned around.  Two wrongs make a right.”

“What wrongs?”  Sophia’s voice was hard.

“Not you.  Not your thing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  We’re moving back to Brockton Bay.  As in, it’s in progress.  Half our stuff’s still back in Portland, half’s in the Bay.  We finally moved.”

“Someplace nice?”

“Further north.”

Sophia smirked.

“But that’s why I’m saying it’s all backwards.  Things got flipped around.  The north end is nicer, now.  They’re rebuilding, and it’s all coming together.  Downtown is the place that got hit hard.  You’ve got three big areas you can’t go, with the crater, the quarantine and the place I heard people calling the scar, where they did some bombing run with Bakuda’s stuff.  Construction’s slower towards the south, because there’s so much traffic and not a lot of roads.”

“Huh.”

“The bad guys are keeping the law, but things are better, and you talk to anyone, there’s hope.  I don’t know how that happens, how you visit every tragedy imaginable on a place, drop a dozen different nightmare scenarios on it, and things get better.  How does that work?”

“I don’t really care,” Shadow Stalker said.

“It’s your city.”

“The world ends in less than two years.  I won’t be out of here before then.  I… what’s the word?  I reiterate, I don’t really care.”

“I’m trying to make conversation.”

“You’re doing a shitty job of it,” Sophia replied.

Emma shut her mouth, stared at her friend.

“World ends in two years,” Sophia added.  “It’s a joke, pretending like things are getting better, like there’s hope.  The world turns a few hundred more times and then it all ends.”

Sour grapes?

“It’s kind of neat in terms of the big picture,” Emma said, ignoring Sophia.  “It’s like, the future hasn’t looked this bright in a while.  There’s promise, if this rumor about an open interdimensional portal is for real.  Multiple portals, if you believe the really out-there rumors.  Escape routes, resources, work.  And Brockton Bay is at the center of it all.”

Sophia snorted.

“And, more than that, it’s like, if we’re talking about hope, about the future, who’s more iconic for all that than kids?  You know, that line about how kids are the future?  Heroes too, they’re icons of hope too.  And put those things together, you get Arcadia High.  Winslow High’s gone, and there’s not quite enough students, so they’re herding us all together.”

“So?”

“So, it’s like, all this hope, you’ve got Brockton Bay at the center of it all.  And at the center of Brockton Bay’s hope, it’s Arcadia High.  And at the center of that?  You’ve got the heroes and the winners.  I fully intend to be the latter.  In a way, it’s like being queen of the world.”

“The popular kid in high school?”

“In the high school,” Emma said.  She shrugged.  “It’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s sad.”

Emma smirked.  “Someone’s grumpy.”

“It’s sad because you’re making a fool of yourself, you’re missing a key detail.”

“Which?”

Sophia shrugged.  “Better if you find out for yourself.  I won’t spoon-feed you.”

Emma rolled her eyes.  Sophia was just toying with her head.  Easy enough to ignore.

“I’m going to go.  I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…”

Sophia caught the ‘but’.  “Bitch.”

“Yeah.  Def,” Emma replied, before hanging up the phone.  She stood from the stool that was bolted to the floor, stretched, then offered a small wave.

Sophia raised both hands together to offer a miniscule wave with her right.  They were cuffed together, LEDs standing out on the cuffs, marking the live current.

Emma couldn’t tell herself she’d be back.  To stick around and be loyal now would betray every reason she’d given herself for dropping Taylor as a friend.  Taylor had been a wet blanket, a loser.  Sophia was no better, now.

It was ironic, but Sophia had proven herself to be more prey than predator, in the very philosophy she’d espoused.

“Hey dad?”

Her dad turned his head to acknowledge her, while keeping his eyes on the road. “What is it?”

“Mind making a detour?  I wouldn’t mind seeing Taylor’s house.”

“I thought you weren’t friends anymore.”

Emma shook her head.  “I’m… trying to put it all into perspective.  It’s really changed, and it’s easiest to get my head around the changes if I can look at the familiar places, and her house is pretty familiar.”

“Sure.  If nobody else minds?”

There were no objections from her mom or sister.

The city had always had its highs and lows, its peaks and valleys, but it seemed it was an even starker contrast now.  She’d commented, once, that for any one house, she could find three things wrong with it.  It had been flipped around, in its own way.  For every ten houses, there was one ruin, a dilapidated structure or pile of wreckage.  For every ten stretches of road that were intact, there was one that a car couldn’t pass over.

They turned off Lord Street, onto the street that Taylor’s house was on.

As they approached, Emma could see Taylor helping her dad unload a box from what looked to be a new or newly washed car.  He said something and she laughed.

The casual display of emotion was startling.  It was equally startling when, in the moment Emma’s dad slowed the car down, Taylor’s head turned, her eyes falling on them, her head and upper body turning to follow them as they passed.

She didn’t even resemble the person Emma had known way back then, not the girl who’d approached her house after coming back from camp, and not the girl who’d been drenched in juice.  The lines of her cheekbones and chin were more defined, her skin baked to a light tan by the sun, her long black curls grown a touch wild by long exposure to wind.  Light muscles stood out on her arms as she held a box, her dad standing back to direct.

Even her clothes.  She wasn’t hiding under a hood and long sleeves.  A trace of her stomach was exposed between the bottom of her yellow tank top and the top of her jeans.  The frayed cuffs were rolled up at the bottom, around new running shoes, and neither Taylor nor her dad seemed to be paying any attention to the knife that was sheathed at her back.

It surprised Emma, all the little clues coming together to point to one fact; that Taylor had stayed.  She’d stayed, and she’d come out of it okay.  Judging by the new car, the shoes and her clothes, the Heberts were doing better for money than they had been the last time Emma had run into either of them.  Were they early beneficiaries of Brockton Bay’s upswing in fortune?

It unsettled her, and she had a hard time putting her finger on why.

It didn’t hit her until they’d reached their new house, a recollection of something Sophia had said.

On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 14

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Lift!” Sierra grunted.

The tightness in her back was reminder enough to use her legs to rise to a standing position.  Her hands were blistered and every knuckle was scraped or bruised.  They were carrying a door, torn from its hinges; the peeling paint, the worn wood, and the weight of their burden made it less than comfortable to hold.

She held one end of the door.  Jay was at the opposite end, his back to the man who was draped over it.  She wanted to ask Jay to hold the other end; she doubted looking down at the figure as he carried the makeshift stretcher would even bother him.

But she didn’t ask.  She couldn’t spare the breath.  They’d been working so long already, it was easier to forge ahead than to stop for any reason.

Still, her silence meant she was faced with the corpse of the man who had once lived here.  Once upon a time, he’d had parents, had a first day at school, had made friends, even had a crush on someone.  He had probably worked.  He’d had things he loved about life, no doubt, and if he was living here, he probably had more than enough things about life that he’d hated.  Whoever he’d been, he was another one of Mannequin’s victims now.  Not quite so disturbing as the ones killed by Burnscar.  He didn’t have a wallet on him, so he was a John Doe for now.

When they’d started working yesterday, that sort of thinking had made her want to cry.  Now she felt numb.  She could have thought about something else, but a part of her wanted to pay John Doe his due respect.  If nothing else, he deserved to be looked at as a human being rather than another body.

She bent down to set the door on the ground.  Jay took hold of the man by the shoulders, she lifted by the pants legs, and they moved him three feet to the right.  John Doe was set down on the concrete floor.  He joined twenty-nine other bodies, now arranged in two rows of fifteen people.  Too many were fellow John and Jane Does.

A blister had popped on her hand as she’d carried the door.  It smarted, but her focus was on the man.  Forty or so, but the yellow of his skin pointed to liver problems.  He could be as young as thirty, prematurely aged by alcoholism; it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen enough drunks around the city to be blind to the signs.

She felt like she should say something, but the words didn’t come to her.  Had he been a mean-spirited lecher of a drunk?  Someone who’d worked hard at whatever job he could find to support his family, then drank his worries away with his buddies after a shift?  A lonely man without anyone to care for him?

She considered a simple ‘sorry’, not necessarily because she felt guilty.  She was speaking more for the fact that she couldn’t do more for him, and apologizing on behalf of the random, senseless events that had taken his life.

“Next?” Jay asked.

She looked at him.  He was tired, but she didn’t see any signs of the same emotional drain she was experiencing herself.  He’d been a gang member in the ABB, had preyed on others, maybe even killing.  This job didn’t faze him in the slightest.  Behind his shaggy hair, his narrow eyes were cold, uncaring.  He could have been carrying groceries for all he seemed to care.

It creeped her out.

“No,” she said.  “I’ve hit my limit.  Can you find someone else to move the last two bodies from the factory to here?”

“Okay.”

She stared at the bodies.  Hopefully they could arrange something early in the morning.  Maybe if she put together a group and sent them downtown to verbally request help?  It was only one of a growing number of issues she was having to solve.  She sighed.  “I’m going to go see how things are inside.”

“Okay.”

She watched as he left to rejoin Yan and Sugita, the other two ex-ABB members.  He must have said something to them, because Yan turned to look at Sierra.  The look was intense.  It wasn’t jealousy from the Chinese-American girl.  It was something else.  As creepy as Jay was, his girlfriend’s stare scared Sierra more.

Exhausted and unnerved, Sierra headed back to Skitter’s headquarters.  She double-checked that nobody was following before entering the storm drain.  It was pitch black inside.  Humid.  She walked with fingertips tracing the right-hand wall.  When that wall ended, she kept walking.  It was disorienting, uncomfortable, walking without a guide in darkness so absolute she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.

She felt the wall again, and she kept her hand on it as she rounded the next corner.  There was a wet patch where some small amounts of water were trickling down from the street above… two more paces, then a left hand turn.  She fumbled around briefly to find the opening.

That was the hardest part.  The rest was easy – finding the doorway, entering the cellar, then heading upstairs to the main floor.  She was glad to see light, to let go of that fear that she’d miss the gap and find herself wandering the storm drains and getting lost, unable to find a way back to the surface or the beach.  She wondered if Skitter had felt the same way.

She nearly tripped over a small child as she made her way into the kitchen.  Charlotte was there, and she was busy emptying the cupboards.  Everything edible was on the counter or on the floor, neatly arranged.  Sierra estimated roughly twenty children were on the ground floor.

“There’s more than there used to be.”

“O’Daly clan.”

Sierra frowned.  “They need to take care of their own kids.”

“They’re kind of preoccupied.  They were hit harder than anyone else by the attack.  I think only six of the twenty who were with us are left.”

“I know.  But they still need to take care of their kids.”

“Give them one more day to mourn?”  Charlotte asked.

“It’s your call.  You’re the one babysitting in the meantime.”

“I’m trying,” Charlotte said.  “But they’re switching between playing and being pretty normal kids to crying because their parents are… you know.”

Dead.

“Yeah,” Sierra confirmed.

Charlotte had taken off her mask and was using it to tie her hair back.  She straightened it and tied it over her forehead again.  “Isn’t the city supposed to handle this?  There should be something like foster care, or a special evacuation plan for orphaned kids.”

“I don’t think the city knows.  It’s not just the kids.  We’ve got thirty dead bodies and it’s not exactly cool out, and there aren’t any ambulances or anything showing up to handle it. We just spent the entire afternoon moving them to a new spot with Jay and two locals.

We were talking about burning them in a mass grave, but I’m worried that’s against the law.  And since half of them don’t have ID, we might ruin any chance of their families identifying them.”

“Not easy.”

“No,” Sierra admitted. “How’s the rationing?”

“It’s less like she went shopping and more like she wanted to stock this place like it was a miniature grocery store.  A little bit of everything.  I’m trying to organize it by expiry date so we can prioritize eating and serving the food that’s going bad now, in case she never comes back and the food starts to get low.”

“I know it’s a bit late, but there’s a lot of us who’ve been working hard, cleaning up the mess from the attacks…”  Sierra hedged.

“You want dinner?”

Sierra pressed her hands together in a pleading gesture.

“Maybe soup?  I figure we need to eat these vegetables, there’s stock, and if we water it down so we can split it up more…”  Charlotte trailed off.  “I never really cooked at home.  I helped my parents cook, but that’s not the same thing.”

“It works.  Prepare some rice from the supplies, since we have more than enough of that.  Bulk it out.  We have a lot of mouths to feed.”

“Okay.”

All she wanted to do was stop.  Instead, she stepped into the living room, where makeshift beds had been arranged with piles of blankets and sleeping bags.  Only two kids were sleeping there, both clearly brother and sister.  It was as much privacy as she was going to get.  She plucked the satellite phone from her pocket.

This scenario wasn’t what she’d expected, on any level.  Even as Skitter had explained the job duties as being helping out, rebuilding, organizing, Sierra had maintained doubts.  She’d been waiting for that one job where Skitter tested her limits, asked her to do something a little dangerous, something morally ambiguous.  It would be subtle, or it would have consequences she wasn’t immediately aware of, but it would set her on the road to something darker.

Except it hadn’t happened yet.  Even the scope of what she was doing here caught her off guard.  There were innumerable dead, and yet more people forced out of their homes by the fires Burnscar had started.  It seemed like everyone was walking a narrow line between banding together as a community and killing one another.

It felt strange to identify as one of the key people who were pulling for the former.  She was organizing everone, keeping in touch with the groups handling the other cleanup jobs and working tirelessly at the hardest and most unwanted jobs in the hopes of inspiring others to keep going.  When the smell of shit and rot that accompanied the dead got to someone, Sierra was at their side, helping calm them down, always ready to name another place where they were needed.

It was almost too much.  A huge part of her wanted to call Skitter, to get some guidance, to order supplies and defer on the harder problems, like the bodies.

Another part of her was scared to.

She dialed another number instead.

“Yes?” the voice was deep.

She was put in mind of being a little kid, calling a friend and hearing an adult on the other end.  It felt awkward.  She sort of resented it.

“I’d like to talk to Bryce?”  It came out as more of a question than a statement.

“One moment.”

She watched with the phone pressed to one ear as Charlotte recruited some of the older children to prepare dinner.  They started putting things back in cabinets, ordered not by the type of food, but by how long it would last.  One of the children found a cutting board and began to cut lettuce.

“Sierra?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Well?  What do you want?”

“Checking up on you, moron.”

“I’m fine,” Bryce said.  He managed to sound sullen.

She crossed the room to approach the kitchen counter and mimed proper cutting technique for the ten-year-old that was preparing the lettuce.  It wouldn’t do to have the kid lose any fingertips.  Or maybe she was sensitive to the idea while talking to Bryce.

“Is that it?” Bryce asked.

“I was hoping for more than two words of response.  How’s your hand?”

“Hurts.”

“That’s going to happen.  You lost all four fingers.”

“No.  It hurts like my fingers are still there and they’re being crushed.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.  I’m sorry?  You deserved what you got?

“Ask Tattletale about it?”

“She’s gone.  Has been for more than a day, now.  Jaw said she’s not to be disturbed with phone calls or anything like that.”

Skitter had been gone for roughly as long as Tattletale.  According to Charlotte, Skitter had invited a bunch of local villains over and then left shortly after.  They were probably the other eight territory bosses who were working to occupy the city.  That had been over forty-eight hours ago.

“Jaw gave me some painkillers,” Bryce said.

“What kind?”  Sierra felt a stab of alarm.

It must have been audible, because Bryce replied, “Relax.  Over the counter stuff.”

“Okay.  What have you been doing?”

“Nothing big.  Keeping track of some members of the Chosen as they move around.  Hookwolf’s guys.”

“I know who they are.”

“They’ve been moving in.  I thought we were going to get in a fight, but Jaw had us all retreat.  I think because I was with them.  It’s annoying.”

“It’s a good thing that you’re not being dragged into a firefight.  Especially one with capes.”

“They’ve been teaching me how to fight with a knife, how to throw one, how to use a gun-”

“I don’t want you learning that stuff.”

“I have to, in case we get ambushed or something.  And I’m not bad at it.  We could have fought those guys.”

“Did Tattletale tell you that you should fight them?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Like I said, Tattletale isn’t around and hasn’t been for a while.”

“So the answer is no, she didn’t give you the go-ahead.”

“No.”

“That’s a good enough reason to back off, then.  I don’t know exactly who she is or what she does, but she knows what she’s doing.  Trust her in that.”

“Always awesome to talk to you, Sierra.  Thanks.  Bye now.”

“Don’t hang up on me.  Put me on the phone with Jaw.”

Bryce hung up.

He’s supposed to be getting better, more disciplined.  Had she made the wrong call?  If Bryce was getting training with guns and knives, and still failing to shape up, this thing with him being recruited by Tattletale could be disastrous in the long run.

She waited a minute, then called the same number.

“Yes?”  Again, Jaw’s deep voice.

“He hung up on me.  I wanted to ask you how he was doing.”

“The boy is learning.”

“I’d rather he wasn’t learning how to use weapons.  If he’s getting in a situation where he needs to fight, you guys aren’t keeping your end of the deal.”

“That would be Pritt.  He thinks she’s attractive, and listens to her best, so Minor has her accompany him much of the time.  She is a former child soldier, she would have thought self-defense was a good way to regain confidence after the boy lost his fingers.”

She could imagine Jaw saying that with Bryce overhearing, her brother getting simultaneously annoyed and embarrassed.  She liked it.

“Have her cut it out?  I don’t want to sound like I’m giving you orders, but I don’t want my little brother shooting people.”

“It’s fine.  Tattletale told us to do whatever you required as far as the boy is concerned.  I will tell Minor, and he will order the others to keep the boy away from weapons.”

“Thank you.”

“I will also decide on a punishment for the boy for being rude and hanging up on his sister.  I think we would all like him to learn some respect for his betters.”

She could imagine him looking at Bryce as he said it.

“Nothing too serious?  As punishment goes?”

“Nothing serious.  It will build character.”

“Thank you.  Any word on what Skitter and Tattletale are doing?”

“No.  All I know is that it will be dangerous, and every squad is on high alert.  We are sleeping in shifts, maintaining combat readiness and doubling patrols.  We were informed three hours ago that the downtown area is off-limits.  I know Lieutenant Fish was deployed there when the order came down, and he has ceased all communications.”

All of downtown?”

“Yes.”

She hung up and headed for the bathroom to tend to the damage her hands had accumulated over the day’s work.  Disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, bandages.  Every time she thought she’d found the last small scrape, she found another.

By the time she was done, her hands had as much in the way of bandages as there was exposed skin.  She flexed her fingers to make sure she could still move them, adjusted two bandages, and then returned to the kitchen.

“Progress?”

“Nearly done.  It hasn’t cooked very long, and I’m worried it’ll just taste like boiled vegetables in water, but you said people were hungry.  How do you want to get the soup out there?”

“There’s three spots where people are sleeping tonight.  Let’s mobilize the kids and get some food out to everyone.”

“The kids?”

“Everyone needs to contribute.  Maybe if they see seven-year-olds doing their part, the O’Daly clan will get the message.”

“Sierra,” Charlotte made a pained expression as she spoke, “They’ve been through a lot.”

“They’re using our sleeping space, they’re eating our food supplies.  We can’t hold their hands and baby them.  Everyone’s having a hard time these days.”

“That’s cold.”

“Maybe, but I’ve been working from sunrise to well after dark, here, and they were just sitting around, getting in the way, complaining and crying.”

“Most of their family died just a few days ago.”

Sierra didn’t have a response to that.  They were still eating far too much and taking up too much room for people who hadn’t lifted a finger to help.  “Anyways, think I can use the kids?”

“Don’t push them.  Some are pretty emotionally sensitive.  But yeah.”

Sierra turned around, “Hey, munchkins!  Got a job for you.  Help out and we’ll give you first dibs on the after-dinner treats!”

Roughly half of the little ones approached her.  Six to ten years old, boys and girls, a variety of ethnicities.

“Who’s the oldest?  Raise your hand if you’re ten… okay, if you’re nine?  Eight?”

She mentally sorted them out, then directed them, “You, you’re in charge of those three.  You’re in charge of these two… You’re in charge of this pair, okay?”

Older kids looking after little kids.  They sorted into their groups.

“You’re carrying soup out to the sleeping areas.  We’ve got something to carry them in, Charlotte?”

“Yeah.  Just give me a minute.  Don’t want them to burn their hands.”

“Everyone carries what they can.  Take the soup out there and then come back here.”

Charlotte put the lids on the first few containers of soup, and the kids scampered off.

Sierra didn’t give it a second thought until she heard the shutter sliding open.

“Not the front door!”  Sierra called out, but the kids were already out the front door.  She sighed.

“They’re afraid of the storm sewer,” Charlotte pointed out.

“I know.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go out with the next group, just to keep an eye on the delivery process.”

“Okay.  I’ll prep some for you to carry,” Charlotte said.  “Find more tupperware or pots I can put this in?”

Sierra nodded and turned to do as she’d been asked, but the kids were already hopping to the task.  She let them go ahead.  It seemed they were glad for something to occupy themselves with.  Maybe they recognized how shitty the overall situation was and they wanted to help fix it.

She suspected she’d find the necessary tupperware faster than the four kids combined, but it wasn’t a big deal.

“Well, well, well.”

Sierra whirled around before the man was even finished talking.  Not a man, exactly, but boy didn’t fit.

It was Jay.  The Japanese-American boy glared at her through his mop of hair.

“Jay.  You weren’t invited here.”

“I can see why.  Electricity, running water, food… you’ve got it made.  Was wondering where you were going, tried following you, but you disappeared.  Thought we’d missed our chance until we saw some ankle-biters running down the street with plastic containers of food.  Seems you’re hoarding the good shit.”

“We’re not hoarding,” she spoke.  She had to swallow to clear her throat.  She knew she had to sound confident, “This is Skitter’s place.”

“Skitter’s, sure.  If she’s still alive.  But not your space.  Don’t see why you can have this stuff and we can’t.”

“Skitter gave us permission.”

“We supposed to believe?” Sugita asked, his voice heavily accented.

“Yeah.”

“No,” Yan spoke.  She reached behind her back and drew a handgun.  “Don’t believe you.”

There are kids here, Sierra thought.

“Stupid,” she spoke without thinking.

Yan pointed the gun at her.  “What did you say?”

“You know Skitter gave us the go-ahead to use her place.”

“That so?  I overheard someone complaining that Skitter left without announcing anything, after the fires,” Yan said.  Her tone was mocking.

“You assholes.  Least you can do is drop the bullshit and admit you just want to take our stuff.”

“Was thinking about it, sure,” Jay said, “Doesn’t look like Skitter’s coming back.  Two days, situation like this?  But you’re dreaming if you think we’re going to just walk away with some food.  I think we’re going to evict you.”

“Evict us?

“Move out of the way,” Yan ordered Sierra, twitching the gun to her left.

“Why?” Sierra asked.

“Because I’ll shoot you if you don’t,” Yan said.  “I can’t believe you’re not listening.  You’re either stubborn or stupid.”

“I’m tired,” Sierra replied.  “And what you’re doing here isn’t exactly brilliant.  Think about it. Where did this food come from?  The equipment?”

“Skitter bought it.”

“From who?  From where?  It’s pretty obvious this place was set up after Leviathan came, but where’d she get it?  She had it delivered.  And the same people who make deliveries like this to a supervillain are going to be pretty ticked off if they find out someone’s messed with one of their customers.”

The argument was feeble, and she knew it.

“If these people exist, they won’t show up tonight.  We’ll spend the night.  I figure we’re overdue for a party.”

“Leaving us to clean up the mess?”

“Sierra,” Charlotte spoke, her voice quiet, “Not worth it.”

Yan gestured with the gun, and Sierra listened this time, stepping out of the way.

Sugita and Jay headed past the counter and into the kitchen, while Yan stood where she could block the front door.  Sierra could see Charlotte shrinking away.  Like a shark that smelled blood, Sugita turned his attention to her.  He stepped close, invading her personal space.

Don’t show fear, Sierra prayed.

But Charlotte did.  In an instant, it was as though she was a different person than she’d been five minutes ago.  Weak-kneed, cringing, not even resisting as Sugita grabbed at her wrist.

There was something at play there that Sierra hadn’t been told about.  “Leave her alone!”

“Shut up, bitch,” Yan stepped closer, waggling the gun, “You want to get shot?”

“Just let us go.  Do whatever the fuck you want here, it’s on your head, but let us go.”

“Don’t think so.  I hate arrogant bitches.  Going to spoil my mood if I don’t do anything about it.  Your choice.  I can shoot you through your palm, shoot you in a knee, or I can shoot one of the kids.”

Sierra glanced at the kids who had shrunk back against counters, cabinets and the wall.  There were tears tracking through the dirt on their faces, but they were mostly managing to keep quiet.

“Well?” Yan asked, raising her voice.

Sierra couldn’t bring herself to speak.  Being shot in the hand- she might never use it again.  But the knee was supposedly the part of the body that had the hardest time recovering from a major injury.

Yan bent down and grabbed one of the oldest boys by the hair.  Ten years old, blond hair in bad need of a cut and a pugnacious nose.  He squealed and writhed in pain at the grip on his scalp, until he wrenched himself out of Yan’s grip, falling flat on his back.

The girl jammed the gun in his mouth before he could recover, and he froze.

“Choose!”

“My hand.”

Yan smirked, taking the gun out of the boy’s mouth.  “Put it flat against the wall.”

Sierra started raising her hand, then stopped.

A figure stood behind Yan.  Her costume was barely recognizable – She wore a short cape of tattered black cloth over her body armor, a skintight black suit beneath that, and there were folds of black cloth draped around her legs like a dress or a robe.  The entire fabric seemed to ripple and move.  It took Sierra a second to realize it was crawling with a carpet of insects.

The disconcerting part was the girl’s face, or lack thereof.  Her expression was masked behind a shifting mass of bugs that moved in and out of her hairline.  Sierra couldn’t even tell where the bugs ended and the scalp began, as the small black bodies crawled into and onto the black curls.  There was a hint of something like glass where Skitter’s eyes were, but the bugs ventured far enough over her eyelids and around the frames that nothing was visible in the way of goggles, glasses or skin.

Skitter hadn’t made a sound as she entered.  She hadn’t spoken, and her footsteps had been quiet.

Yan pointed the gun at Skitter.  “You’re back, huh?”

The villainess didn’t speak.  She pointed to her right instead.

Advancing toward the group was a beetle the size of a small pony.  It didn’t use its forelimbs to walk, but held them up so the razor edge was both visible and ready to strike.

“Call it off or I shoot!”

“Shoot and you die,” Skitter’s voice was distorted, not really resembling a sound from human lips.  The beetle seemed to offer a deep buzz to accompany the ‘oo’ sounds.  “It won’t be pretty.  Brown recluse venom makes your muscles necrotize.  That means it decays while you’re still alive.  It takes days, but the only real cure is taking a knife to the area around the bite.  That might be okay if you have one bite, carve out a half-pound of flesh, let the wound drain, stitch it up.  But what if you have three or four bites?  Or ten?”

“You’re bullshitting me,” Yan spat the words.

Skitter ignored her.  “It’s excruciatingly painful.  Nothing you experienced during your initiation into the ABB even compares, I can guarantee it.  You’re rotting alive, your flesh turning black as it liquefies.  So maybe you shoot me.  Maybe you even kill me, though I doubt it.  Either way, whether I walk away from here alive or not, you get bitten.  They’re already on you.  All three of you.”

Yan glanced down at her body.  In that same instant, the beetle took flight.  It crossed the room in the span of a heartbeat and slammed into her.  Its blade-like forelimbs caught around Yan and pulled her to the ground.

Sierra turned her attention to the other two, saw Sugita lunging to one side.  She practically threw herself between him and the countertop where the knife still lay on top of the cutting board.  Jay drew his knife, but dropped it in the same motion.  His other hand clutched his forearm as his eyes went wide.

“That’s one bite, Shaggy,” Skitter said.  “Giving you two seconds to kick the knife under the stove before I give you another.  One-”

Jay kicked the knife across the kitchen floor.  It slid out of sight.

“And you, I think you were the one with the bad accent?  You can step away from Charlotte now.”

Sugita scowled, but he did as he was asked.  He backed away from Charlotte until he stood beside Jay.  Charlotte let one sob escape before she hurried across the kitchen and moved to stand behind Skitter.

She’s been through something, Sierra thought.  She knew Charlotte was staying in town only because of her family, that she’d been captured by the Merchants and held for at least a short while… and there was some reason she couldn’t explain that to her family and just leave the city.

“I hope the rest of you are okay?”  Skitter asked.

“Where were you?” Sierra returned the question with one of her own.

“Dealing with the Nine.  They’re not a concern anymore, at least for now.”

It was surreal, hearing the girl talk about dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They weren’t in the same category as your average villain.  They were like monsters from horror films, the killer who always got up at the end of the film, the monster who never died.

“You mean they won’t attack anytime soon, or-”

“They’re dealt with.  Burnscar’s dead.  Crawler’s dead.  Mannequin’s probably dead.  Cherish and Shatterbird wish they were dead.  Found Siberian’s weak point, and it’ll be international news soon, if it isn’t already.  She, Jack and Bonesaw ran.  Tried to pursue, couldn’t track them.  It’ll be a while before they bounce back.”

“You took on the Nine and won?”

Skitter ventured toward Yan, then used one foot to hold the girl’s arm down against the ground.  The beetle pinned it there, pressing the point of one forelimb into her palm with enough pressure that a bead of blood appeared.  Skitter stepped around the girl so the beetle could do the same.  When Yan clenched her fist, Skitter stepped on her fist, crushing it underfoot.

She took her time responding.  When she did speak, all she said was, “I didn’t say we won.”

She lifted her foot, Yan unclenched it, and the beetle stabbed down with another pointed forelimb to pin it to the ground.

“What are you doing?” Yan asked, a note of desperation in her voice.

Skitter didn’t respond.  “Sierra?  Charlotte?”

Charlotte didn’t venture a reply, but Sierra managed one.  “Yeah?”

Were it not for the accompanying buzz of the bugs, Sierra suspected she wouldn’t have heard Skitter speak.  “You’ve been working hard.  Thank you.  I didn’t expect to have anything to come back to.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra said.  The words were a bit of a non-sequitur, but Skitter seemed to accept them.

“Thought you would have left,” Skitter said.

“Anyone that’s still in the city probably has some reason they can’t go.  But things here aren’t good.”

“We can fix that,” Skitter said.  It sounded more like she was talking to herself than to anyone in the room.  It would have been reassuring if she hadn’t been staring down at Yan.

“What are you going to do?” Yan repeated herself.

“Charlotte, would you take the children into another room?”

Charlotte seemed relieved to have the chance to escape.  Every child that was present flocked to her and she hurried into the bedroom.

Yan raised her voice, “You left!  You abandoned us!”

They were as insecure as the rest of us, Sierra thought.  Not that it excuses their behavior.

“Hand or knee?” Skitter asked.

“Fuck you!”  Yan shouted.

Then she convulsed.  She thrashed, dragging her hands against the pointed forelimbs with such violence that she opened ragged cuts in her palms.  She stopped as quickly as she’d started, her eyes going wide.

She’d been bitten, more than once.

“Shaggy-hair, hand or knee?”

Jay’s eyes went wide, but he very calmly stated, “Hand.”

His eyes went wide as a spider crawled down the length of his arm to the back of his hand.  He jumped like he’d been electrocuted.

“And Mr. Accent.  Hand or knee?”

Sugita glanced around, then lunged for Sierra.  Going for the knife on the counter yet again.  She blocked him for the second time, he tried to shove her aside, and she used the distraction to drive her knee into his stomach.  He grunted and folded over.

“Both, then,” Skitter said.

Sugita was too busy reeling from the knee to the gut to respond or react.

“Attacking my people?  That was dumb.  Attacking a little kid?  Dumber.  Consider my territory to be a very bad place to be from now on.  My bugs can see you, they can hear you, and I’ll know if you slow down even a little as you leave, give you a few more bites.”

The beetle climbed off Yan, using its forelimbs to pick up the gun by driving the points through the trigger-guard.  It moved to Skitter’s side.

Yan, Sugita and Jay all took that as their leave to climb to their feet and head toward the door.  None of them even looked at Skitter, but they stopped when she pushed the door closed.

“There’s no safe haven for you in Brockton Bay.  My allies have control of every district, every territory.  No shelter will host you, and our individual forces will be searching every other place you might want to sleep.  Before you get far enough to find a doctor and get those bites treated, my contacts will have spread the word.  The doctors may have to treat you, but we can have our people sitting in the waiting rooms, or working as assistants to the doctors.  If you show your face, you’ll get attacked.  Maybe it’ll be a direct attack, maybe it won’t.  Trust me when I say you won’t be in any shape to defend yourselves.”

“So you’re condemning us to die?”  Any bravado Yan might have had before had been excised and replaced by wide-eyed fear.

“No.  Leave the city as fast as you can, and you can get help somewhere else.  I don’t really care, so long as you’re out of my city.  You’ll have some ugly scars if you don’t hurry.”

Skitter gestured to the door, and the three were quick to leave.  “Sierra, the shutter.”

She hurried to obey, stepping into the open doorframe and reaching up to bring it down to the ground.  It latched at the door’s base.  She shut the door after it.  “There’re kids still on an errand, I think.”

“I’ll let you know when to open the shutter again.”

“Okay.”

Skitter scattered the bugs around her face and ran her gloved fingers through her hair to straighten it.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra replied, not quite sure what the apology was for.

“Couldn’t focus on this place and the Nine at the same time, and I thought this place was a lost cause.”

That stung, but Sierra didn’t voice the thought.  “Might be.  We’ve got bodies to get rid of-”

“I’ll handle that tonight.”

“The Chosen have been moving into the edges of your area, here and elsewhere, according to Tattletale’s soldier.”

Skitter let herself drop into a chair.  “Anything serious?  Ongoing attacks?”

“Just occupying the territory, I think.  Maybe making trouble for minorities nearby, but nothing so serious that I’ve hard about it.”

“Then I’ll deal with them after an afternoon’s rest.  Maybe open a discussion before I try anything more serious.”  Skitter’s voice buzzed as she spoke.  She pulled off the mask that covered the lower half of her face.

“Your voice.  You’re still doing the thing where your bugs talk with you.”

“Sorry,” Skitter said, the swarm suddenly quiet.  “I don’t even think about it anymore.”

“Your gang’s a lot smaller.  A lot of people died.”

Skitter put her elbows on her knees, removed her glasses and buried her face in her hands.

Crying?

Sierra hesitated.  What was she supposed to do here?

She ventured forward and reached out to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  She stopped when she saw the carpet of ants, cockroaches and wasps.

“I’m okay,” Skitter said, without looking up.  She removed her hands from her face and leaned back.  There was no sign of tears – her eyes were dry.  Just tired.  “Could I bother you to make me a cup of tea?  Milk, drop of honey.”

Sierra nodded, “I remember.”

Silence reigned as she filled the kettle and set it down on the stove.  Still have to deliver the soup.  Sierra tried to surreptitiously examine Skitter.  The girl was removing all of the bugs from the surface of her costume and the gaps in the armor.  The swarm flowed up the stairs as a single mass.

“Those three… are they going to die?”

“No.  The bites weren’t from a brown recluse.  They’ll hurt, they’ll swell, and the three will probably leave the city to find a doctor.  Even if they realize I conned them, I think I scared them enough that they won’t be coming back to challenge me.”

“Ah.”

They say we fear the unknown, Sierra thought to herself.  So why does she freak me out more as I get to know her?

She brought her employer tea in the largest cup she’d been able to find.

“Things are going to get better now?” she asked.  “You’re not worried about the Chosen?”

“No.  I think their leader is gone, and after facing down the Nine, somehow I’m not worried about dealing with them.”

Facing down the Nine.  Sierra shivered a bit.

“No,” Skitter thought aloud.  “I think the biggest challenge I face comes from within our organization.”

That gave Sierra pause.  Had Skitter intended to include her with that ‘our’, or was it just vaguely phrased?

“An ally?  One of the other people with their own territories?”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Skitter said.

There was a pause.  Sierra thought of how she would excuse herself, go tend to the soup and check on Charlotte, but Skitter spoke first. “But no.  Not an ally.  At least half of them might get involved, and that could get pretty ugly, fast, but I’m thinking the biggest issue right now is the man at the top.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I hadn’t actually slept in for a long, long time.  It was not the start I wanted for my day.

I’d been too tired to sleep, I hadn’t been able to get my thoughts to slow down, and I hadn’t been able to resist just one more check of my territory to ensure people were safe and sound.  Compounding it all were my injuries, which did an excellent job of jolting me from the twilight of almost-sleep any time I moved the wrong way or shifted position.  When daylight had started to stream in through the slits in the metal shutters, I’d pulled a pillow over my head and tried to get just a few hours more.

If I wound up having to face down Mannequin or any other members of the Nine, I’d need to be well rested.  Running on two or three hours of sleep would get me killed.

It sure didn’t feel like the added sleep I got made any difference.

My injuries and the general aches from running barefoot and fighting Mannequin had all melded together into one giant, stiff bruise.  It would be easier to name the parts of me that didn’t hurt.  My chest was the worst, each of my breaths drawing a stab of pain from the lowermost ribs of the right side of my body.  It took me two tries to get up from my bed and stand.

A quick investigation showed that bruises had spread across my abdomen, yellow and blue.  Some careful prodding showed that the tissues beneath the bruises weren’t rigid or particularly tender.  That meant there was no serious internal bleeding, if I was remembering right.

If this kept up, I was going to need another go at the first aid courses, to refresh my memory on the particulars and brush up on my skills.  February felt so very long ago.  So much had happened in the last few months.

Shuffling over to my bathroom, I groaned quietly at the sight of the shards of mirror and shower door that were carpeting the floor.  I made my way back to my room and put on some slippers, grabbed a shirt I didn’t care much about and dropped it on the bathroom floor.  I kicked it around enough to get the worst of the shards out of the way, brushed the glass out of the shower and onto the tiled floor, and then cranked the shower on.  The water pressure wasn’t even half of what it should be, and it was cold.  It didn’t warm up over the thirty seconds I stood there holding my hand under the flow.

I jumped in anyways, in the hopes of waking myself up and getting my hair wet enough that I could make myself look somewhat presentable.  I knew from experience that not washing my hair had a way of making it frizz out hardcore.  Not that I’d be able to tell, with every mirror within a thousand miles in pieces.

I dried off, put on my contacts, combed my dripping-wet hair into place, and stepped back into my slippers to navigate through the sea of glass shards and head back to my bedroom to dress.

My TV, laptop and phone were all useless.  There was no way to get information on recent events.  I couldn’t call the others, couldn’t check the news for details on the events of the past night, couldn’t even know if I’d managed to save anyone when I’d been waking them and leaving messages.  I was left to expect the worst, and it soured my already iffy mood.

I made my way downstairs, unlocking the door that led between the second and third floors.  The second floor was relatively unscathed – the metal shutter had kept the floor-to-ceiling windows from sending their contents indoors, and the terrariums were hard plastic rather than glass.  Knowing Shatterbird was in town, I’d been reluctant to spend much time in a room with sixty or seventy sturdy glass cases, and I was glad to have one less room to clean.  Still, there was no shortage of mess.

Sierra and Charlotte were downstairs, talking at the kitchen counter.  They fell silent as I appeared.

They didn’t speak as I walked over to the cupboard.  Tea.  Tea, maybe some toasted breakfast pitas, some bacon, an egg…

Opening the cupboard, my hopes of having a solid breakfast to start my day were dashed. Bottles of spices that had been on the same shelf as the teabags had exploded, sending their contents and countless glass shards throughout the cupboard.  The cupboard reeked of cinnamon and cumin and various peppers.  They weren’t the only casualties there.  Bottles of cooking supplies had exploded on the upper shelves, and their contents had settled overnight, most of it pooling on the shelves in layers of congealed liquid that were thick with the needle-thin particles of shattered glass.

I looked at the pair of them.  Neither spoke, and Charlotte even looked away.

I hated this.  Hated feeling flawed, knowing they saw me that way.  Being bruised, sore and stiff, I was visibly mortal to them.  I hadn’t been able to stop Mannequin from hurting bystanders, or protect and warn my people about Shatterbird.  How were they supposed to respect me as someone in charge?  Sierra was even older than I was.

Well, I’d have to make use of them anyways.  My focus on the cupboards and the damage inside, I asked, “Charlotte, you up for a job?”

“Yeah,” she said, behind me.  When I glanced back at her, she looked away again.  I knew I’d taken some hits, but did I look that bad?

“It’s a bit of a walk, but I need to get up to date on events.  You’ll be going to the territory of a guy named Regent.  He’s a friend, and it’s close.  Tell him about the Mannequin incident, tell him I’m alive, and get details on what happened to Tattletale and the father.”

“The father?”

“He should know what I mean.”

“Okay.”  She met my eyes as she responded.  Better.   I wrote the address down for her, then watched as she headed off to pull on her shoes and make her way off to the cellar exit.

“And me?” Sierra asked.

“Go to the basement, get a box of supplies, and bring it up.  There should be a propane stove in there.  Cook up some rice, and then start cleaning out the cupboards.  Wear gloves, and focus on picking out the stuff we can keep from the stuff that needs to be thrown out.  Use the box from the supplies to hold some of the extra trash if you need to.”

“Okay.”

I walked over to the corner to find a broom and dustpan.

“You’re cleaning up too?”

“Yeah.  You were at the hospital last night, right?  How did things go?”

“Nobody listened to me at first when I tried to warn them.  It was only when Battery showed up at the hospital and confirmed that the Slaughterhouse Nine were around that people started trying to prepare, but there wasn’t a lot we could do in those ten minutes.  There were a lot of people in the hospital, and a lot of equipment, monitors and displays, lots of windows.  Everyone who could got under their beds, and people put mattresses against the windows in rooms where there were people who couldn’t move.”

“But they were okay?”

“Most?” Sierra frowned. “I couldn’t really tell.  It was chaotic, lots of people running around, equipment failing.  Battery tried to grab me to ask me how I knew what was happening, and I used the chaos to slip away, spent the rest of the night in my parent’s room, hoping she wouldn’t spot me.”

“And they’re okay?  Your parents?”

“They’re okay.”

I smiled a little.  “Well, that’s good.”

She smiled back.  “You know, you’re not what I expected.”

“I’m not what expected, frankly,” I said.  I turned my attention back to the cabinet, found the dustpan and stood up.

“That reminds me-”  She paused.  “Nevermind.”

“Say it.”

“It wasn’t last night, but I overheard something at the hospital.  Something involving you and Armsmaster?”

I sighed, suddenly reminded of how weary I felt.  I saw her expression fall.  She said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No.  It’s fine.  What did you hear?”

“That you betrayed your team, and that you’d wanted to be a hero but, um,” she paused, “Couldn’t?”

She’d changed her mind about how she was going to finish speaking.  What had she left out, and had she stopped herself from saying it for my sake or for her own self-preservation, not wanting to piss off the villain?  I wanted to be a hero and I failed?

Given recent events, I wasn’t sure I could blame her for thinking along those lines.

“No, that’s not exactly right,” I responded.  “Long story short, once upon a time, I wanted to be one of the good guys.”

“What happened?”

“Took me a while, but I decided I’d rather have the likes of Tattletale and Grue at my back instead of siding with the sort of people who follow Armsmaster.”

“Really, Armsmaster?  Is he that bad?”

“Bad enough that Mannequin wants him to be the ninth member of their group.”

Sierra’s eyes widened.

I figured I wouldn’t mention that two of my teammates, including the one I’d sent Charlotte to meet, had also been nominated.  Regent had only been nominated out of spite, and Bitch… I wasn’t sure what the story was there.  “I’m going to be upstairs, cleaning up the balcony and the other rooms.  Give me a shout when the rice is done, or if you find anything breakfast-ish that’s edible.”

“Okay.”

I headed up to my bathroom and began to sweep up.  I deployed bugs to help me find the shards that the broom wasn’t catching.

I occupied myself with my other bugs as well.  I went out of my way to avoid using the spiders I’d employed to fight Mannequin, drawing from bugs in the streets and surrounding area instead.  I sent the weakest, smallest and most useless of the bugs to my spiders for a morning meal, then fed the non-spiders who were a little less reliant on protein.  With the other nearby bugs, I started collecting the smallest pieces of glass throughout the house.

The uncertainties of the day, the worries about Lisa and Dad, having my routine disrupted and the spoiling of my breakfast and morning shower had put me in a bad mood.  It would have been nice to say that it made me feel better, getting things in order again, and it did, but it wasn’t a cure-all nor was it a perfect distraction.  There was no way I could relax with the things I had hanging over my head.

Doing this felt like I wasn’t doing something to help Dinah.

Once I finished the bathroom, I tidied my room and opened the shutters on the windows.  Glass that had fallen against the shutter sloughed off to the second floor balcony, with stray shards falling onto the hardwood.  My bugs obligingly fetched them up for me.

Reams of glass shards fell as I opened the heavy shutters that stood just behind the pedestals with the mannequins I was using to design the costumes.  I stepped out onto the balcony and set about sweeping up the glass and dumping it into the trash can, using my bugs to collect what the dustpan wasn’t catching.  I wasn’t in costume, and I was in plain sight on the balcony, but I doubted the concentration of bugs was enough to draw attention.

Ten minutes passed before I heard from Sierra.  I assumed it would be about the food, but it wasn’t.

“Skitter!  You’ve got company!”

Every bug I had in the cabinets and corners of the room streamed forth to check the intruder, my thoughts immediately shifting into a combat mode.  What escape routes did I have?  Could I help Sierra if there was trouble?  What tools and weapons did I have on hand?

The second my bugs settled on the intruder and felt that familiar emanation of outward pressure, like a faint breeze, I calmed down.  I felt a mite embarrassed as I made my way downstairs to greet Grue.

“Christ, T- Skitter!” he exclaimed, the second he saw me.

“What?”

“Your, um-” he gestured at Sierra shaking his hand, agitated.

“Employee?”  I suggested.

“Your employee just informed me that you fought Mannequin last night?

“Yeah.”

“Are you suicidal!?”

“He’s not that strong,” I said, defensively.  “I mean, scary as fuck, he’s strong, but he was beatable.”

“Do you not recall the very specific numbers we got on our chances against these guys?  Fifty-five percent chance we die if we fight them!”

“There were people in danger.  My people.  I thought a forty-five percent chance of survival was worth the risk.”

He tapped his finger against the forehead of his helmet.  I could almost make out the noise through the thin emanation of his power.  “Could you ask your employee to give us some privacy?”

“I can go for a walk,” Sierra said.

“Thank you,” I told her, “I’ll signal you with my power when we’re done.”

My heart was speeding up just a bit as we waited for her to leave.  I distracted myself by limping over to the propane stove that was positioned on the countertop and checking the rice.  There were containers and boxes of food arranged on the counter that Sierra had apparently checked and deemed edible.  Nothing especially good for breakfast.

As the door closed behind Sierra, I hugged my arms against my body and said, “Please don’t tell me you asked her to leave because you have bad news about Lisa or my dad.”

Grue pulled off his helmet and the darkness dissipated around his head.  It was Brian’s frowning face I saw, now.  “Your dad is fine.  He was already fully checked out and sent home.  Lisa is… less fine.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s not life threatening.  I just don’t know if it’s hit her yet.  Coil’s doctor stitched her up, but he told her to expect a scar.  I don’t know if it’s shock, the blood loss, or if it’s that she hasn’t seen herself in a mirror, but she doesn’t seem to care.  Cracking jokes, even.  Isn’t- is it sexist of me to wonder why a girl doesn’t care more about her looks being spoiled?”

“It’s easily possible she does care,” I said.  I was thinking back to her interactions with our enemies in fights.  In particular, our run-ins with Glory Girl and Panacea during the bank robbery and Jack Slash last night seemed to stand out.  “I think maybe she handles stress and problems by throwing herself headlong against them.  It’s how she operates in costume, against serious threats and unexpected situations.  There’s a word I’m trying to pin down, it’s not reckless, but-”

“I think reckless may be a very good word to choose,” Brian replied.

“No.  It’s…” I reached for the word and couldn’t find it.  I was too tired, and my brain wasn’t really in that gear.

“I’m surprised, sometimes, at how much attention you pay to us.  You seemed to have Rachel down cold, and your description of Lisa seems pretty apt.  Makes me wonder how you’ve analyzed me.”

“I’m not all that.  Really.  There are exceptions, but dealing with people isn’t my thing,” I said.  Feeling awkward, I distracted myself with the rice, taking it off the propane stove and scooping some out into a bowl.  Holding the pot, I pulled at the wrong muscle and felt my rib protest.  I winced, and I wasn’t able to hide it.

Noting my pain, Brian commented, “I can’t help but worry you’re self destructing, Taylor.  You can’t go up against the Nine to protect people you don’t even know.”

“I can.  I’ll manage.”

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“Dunno.  Two or three hours, but I slept in.  What time is it?”

“Nine.”

“Maybe four hours?”

“You’re going to run yourself into the ground at this rate.  Or get yourself killed.  Take your time.  Go on the defensive, tell your people to stay out of trouble and avoid drawing the Nine’s attention, rest.  You can work on this territory thing over the next few weeks, instead of days.”

I shook my head, “I can’t.”

“Right.  Just like you rejected Hookwolf’s suggestion that our groups take a break.  I won’t say that hearing you muttering to yourself was the entire reason I refused his offer, or even half the reason, but it was a factor, and I think I deserve answers for going up to bat for you.  What’s going on?”

“I made a deal with Coil.”

Brian folded his arms, much as I was doing.  “What deal?”

“He said that if I can prove my services are worth it, he’ll release Dinah.”

Brian shook his head.  “No.  There’s got to be more to it.  You’ve been distant, driven, and you’ve done some very un-Taylor-like things in the past few weeks.”

I ate some of the plain brown rice.  Could I tell him?

“There is more to it.  Lisa and I talked it over after the Endbringer thing.  She doesn’t like the Dinah situation either, even if she’s more willing to roll with it.”

“Right.  Just for the record, I’m not in love with the kidnapping and confinement of some kid, either.”

I nodded.  “So Lisa suggested the deal.  But knowing Coil, and from what Lisa says, and from the way Coil framed it when I posed the deal to him and just my gut, I- we don’t think he’s going to let her go.”

“No, I don’t think he would.  Her talents are too valuable for him.  But that doesn’t explain your attitude lately.”

I shook my head.  “I-”

I stopped and raised one hand.  Sierra was outside, not too far away, and there was a small group of people around her.  What had gotten my attention was the fact that she was tapping her finger against the origami cube.  She’d wanted to signal me without doing anything overt, maybe.  Or without my calling a swarm down to her location.

“-Something’s going on outside.  Come with?”

Brian nodded.

I headed upstairs and got my costume on in record time.  I couldn’t help but note how dusty it was from last night’s encounter, and how the one arm was still crusty with old containment foam.  It was torture to actually get my limbs into the legs and sleeves and zip up, and to contort myself to attach my armor.  Especially doing it quickly.  I ended up enlisting Brian’s help with the armor at my shoulders and back.

I could feel Sierra’s steady but insistent tapping on the cube all the while.

They were a short distance down the beach, but they started walking towards us a little bit after we entered the storm drain, and met us halfway.

Sierra was in the company of a pair of Japanese boys and a petite Chinese girl with a pierced nose and a thousand-yard stare.  There was a degree of attitude coming from them that was all too familiar.  Gang members.  Of course.  Just because Lung and Bakuda were no longer around didn’t mean there wouldn’t be scraps of the ABB in the area.  They wouldn’t be liked, but they were there, they were equipped for trouble and criminal activity was all they knew.

“Sorry to interrupt your business meeting,” Sierra said, looking from me to Grue.

“It’s fine.  What’s going on here?”  I controlled the tone of my voice.  They didn’t seem too fazed by this encounter with two supervillains.  Were they veterans of Lung’s rule?  Or Bakuda’s?

A Japanese guy with a mop of hair covering his eyes and a bad slouch looked from Sierra to me and spoke in a very American accent, “You still looking for muscle?”

He didn’t look like he had much muscle, but I wasn’t about to comment on that.  If nothing else, I was a little too stunned at what he was offering to say anything witty.  “Pretty much.”

“We heard you took on Mannequin,” the girl said.  “That’s ballsy.”

“Thanks,” I said, in my driest tone.  Stupid as it was, that statement meant something to me.  Nobody had really congratulated me since my fight with Mannequin.  I hadn’t congratulated myself.  It was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that they respected me for what had happened with Mannequin.  A victory was a victory, but people had gotten hurt, I’d gotten hurt.

The second Japanese guy spoke up.  He was in his early twenties and his accent was thick enough that I didn’t realize he was speaking English at first.  He pronounced ‘girl’ more like ‘gurru’. “Other day, girl was knocking on neighbor’s door, talking about you.  Said you was good boss.  Nice, generous, fair.  But we think that means you weak, before, not so much of that now.”

I shook my head slowly.  “No.  I’m not weak.”

“We know you has trouble with Lung and ABB before.  Not friendly.  But they gone, we still here.”

“You should know this isn’t about preying on the people in my territory.  Just the opposite.  If you’re looking for an excuse to bully the people around here, you’re in the wrong place.  The only people we fuck with are our enemies.”

There were nods from all three.

“No starting violence, no drug dealing, no prostitution, no threatening people, and no drug use or drinking unless it’s a hundred percent limited to your own time.”

A look passed between the two boys.  Which of my points had given them that momentary hesitation?  Still, they nodded again.

“Do you guys have a place?”

“Nah,” said shaggy-hair.

“Come on,” I said.

I led them to the nearest spot to get from the beach to the old Boardwalk, and into the Docks.

I had our destination in mind.  During my stay in the area, nobody had occupied it.  A thorough check of the structure found no splintering supports or framework, and there was no crumbling masonry.

I opened the doors and strode inside, followed by the new members and Sierra.  Grue followed at the tail end of our group.

The square building had been a garage for the biggest sorts of trucks or for boats, and sported three sliding metal garage doors, only one of which still opened.  A cargo container sat in the back corner.  I had my suspicions that boxes of recyclables had been piled up along the walls when Leviathan’s wave hit.  Now, scraps of metal, paper and other trash littered the floor inside until the floor was barely visible.  “If you’re really interested in joining, you can start by cleaning this place up.”

“Why?” the girl asked.

“If my say-so isn’t good enough-”

“No,” she raised her hands to stop me.  “Just… can’t I know what the point is?”

“I want you somewhere accessible.  This is close to my command center, it’s dry, it took a hit from a tidal wave and it’s still in remarkably good shape, and it’s spacious enough to serve our purposes.  At least to start off.”

“Can I ask what they are?”

I looked around, and it was Grue I looked at while I spoke.  “Having everyone in the Docks spread out like this, over this wide an area?  It’s a problem.  We’ve got single families living in warehouses and factories that could comfortably house three to five families, and they’re dealing with problems that we could handle far more easily as a group.  And there’s the logistics of it, getting supplies to everyone when there’s only three to six groups of people on a given city block.  I want to bring people from the fringes in, so we’re not so spread out.  Get everyone working for the collective good.  Build a community and tie everything to a smaller area.”

“There’s going to be resistance,” Grue spoke.  “People aren’t going to want to move, and they’re too spooked about run-ins with Chosen and Merchants to trust one another.”

“If-” Sierra started, but she stopped when Grue snapped his head around to face her, intimidated.  She tried again, “If she’s going to try it, now would be a good time.  Word’s getting out.”

“About what, specifically?” I asked.

“You fought Mannequin, you said you’d make him pay, and then you did.  And you did it to save people, people from the docks.  I think people are realizing you’re for real.”

I couldn’t think of a response to that, and nobody volunteered anything further.  Instead, I said, “Come on, let’s get to work.”

It wasn’t the nicest of jobs, but my new employees worked without complaint.  Or, to be more specific, the girl and shaggy-hair complained often but they didn’t direct those complaints at me or the job, specifically.

Since the usual means of communication were out, and it might be some time before cell phone towers were out, I’d have to use messengers to pass word on to Coil.  I began explaining what I planned to do with the space to Sierra, outlining the need for bunk beds, a cafeteria or kitchen and an area for people to sit.  The area wasn’t a quarter of the size of Lisa’s shelter, but it was a refuge, maybe.  A place where people could congregate and get some peace.  And, ideally, it could be a barracks for my soldiers.

I instructed my new employees to stack the crates of trash outside the door.  I stayed outside with Sierra and Grue when they went back in to get more.

“You’re going to have to watch those ones,” Grue said.

“I know.  Listen, I want to send Sierra down to meet the boss, pass on word about stuff I need.  Can you escort her part of the way?”

“Sure,” he said.

“If you’re willing, Sierra?  I know it’s somewhat dangerous to cross the city, and our groups don’t control all of the territory between here and there.  I could send one of those guys with you.  Bit of a walk, though.  Maybe forty-five minutes both ways.”

“No, I can go alone, if it’s not too bad.”

“Good,”  I said.  I turned my head to see a trio of young men who were approaching us.

It took the one in the lead a bit of courage before he could approach me.

“Yes?” I asked, when he didn’t speak.

“We were remembering how some girl was saying you were recruiting, the other day.”

“I was and I am.”  My heart was pounding.  Why was this happening now, when it had met with only resistance earlier?

“Don’t want to do anything illegal.”

“Not asking you to.  You okay with starting with some clean-up?”

He looked at his buddies -or were they brothers?- and nodded.

“Sierra here will tell you what needs to be done.  Put in a good effort and I’ll pay you at the end of the day.”  My thoughts were on the small safe that I was using as a bedside table.

His eyes widened slightly at that.  “Mind if I go and get my cousin?  He’ll be interested too.”

“Go.”  I ordered, and Sierra led two of them inside while the leader of the newest group ran off at a half-jog.

“Seems like you started something,” Grue said, when the last of them were out of earshot.

I shook my head.  “I don’t even understand how.”

“Still think you’re moving too fast.  Like I said earlier, there’s no good reason for it.”

“Dinah’s a good enough reason for me.”

“Maybe.  But you’ve got to find time to relax, get some sleep, maybe have some fun.  Or you’re going to make mistakes, and you’ll set yourself back days or weeks in your plan.  Slow and steady wins this race.”

“Can’t afford slow and steady,” I said.

Why?  You were telling me earlier, but we got interrupted.”

I’d been glad for the interruption, and I was profoundly disappointed the subject had come up again.  I folded my arms and looked away, down the road to where it gradually sloped to the shattered Boardwalk and the ocean beyond.

Here was the leap of faith.  The test of my trust in him.  “Because if I don’t amaze Coil, if I don’t force his hand and give him absolutely no reason to say I failed… he’s going to keep Dinah.  If he does, the only way to free her is going to be if Tattletale and I take Coil down.  And I don’t think we’d succeed.”

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