Interlude 21

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How did the others do it?  They entered into a room and people respected them.

Sabah walked through her territory, a black, bipedal unicorn just behind her.  She had muscle, but the stares she got were hard ones, challenging.

Was it that she’d inherited territory that Bitch had controlled, once?  Territory where people had been afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by dogs?  She’d tried to make it clear she wasn’t that kind of leader, had tried to emulate Skitter, even, but it hadn’t worked.  Gifts she’d brought in were rejected outright, or taken wordlessly, as if people thought she owed them something for being in charge.  She’d saved people from the Teeth… saved them from extortion, threats.

Not even a thank-you.

She couldn’t shake the suspicion that, well, she hadn’t been here when the disasters hit Brockton Bay.  She hadn’t been a line of defense between these people and the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Merchants, the Chosen, or the Pure.

She’d been one of those people, instead.  She’d escaped being the victim, but… she’d lost so many people she cared about.

It wasn’t the first time she’d done this.  Gravitating towards one idea, feeling like she’d finally found the one thing she had to do.  It was never easy.  Always an uphill climb.

High school had been hard because she’d immigrated from Basra with her family.  She’d had an incomplete understanding of English, had been forced to learn the language as she learned the subject matter.  Her parents had been too occupied with their own issues and their own adjustment to help her out, so she’d done it alone.

Sabah was still kind of proud that she’d managed it, even if it wasn’t something that anyone else had ever recognized.  A private, personal victory.

She’d attended university, and had gravitated towards the grittier subjects.  She’d taken math courses, focusing on engineering after her first year, because they had been the subjects she’d found easiest in her transition to an English high school.  She’d been okay with it, not happy but not miserable, but still, she hadn’t had a person to confide in.  She’d stuck it out on her own, quietly uncomfortable with where she was in every sense of the word, unwilling to burden her family with her relatively minor issues.

Being a girl in a male-dominated field, she’d drawn attention from one student.  A boy.  He’d been nice, but he’d also been under the impression that being nice demanded reciprocation, as though every action deserved an equal and appropriate reaction from her.

He was always there.  They had the same classes, because they were in the same program, barely twenty-five of them in all, and Brockton Bay’s college wasn’t that big.  He was always interested in talking to her, and her more demure rejections had had no effect.

She tried a clear ‘no’, and it didn’t work.  He’d gone away for a few days, then came back, making another casual hint about them maybe going out.

She tried a harsh no, laced with all the anger and frustration she’d been feeling, and she got labeled a ‘bitch’.  The other students, friends or acquaintances of her would-be-paramour, wound up hearing and turned on her.  Her schoolwork started to suffer, because she didn’t have the study groups, nobody willing to work with her on projects and presentations.

So, after six weeks of that, she’d caved.  She told him she’d had a bad day, apologized for her attitude.  She’d hated herself for doing it.

It only served to put her right back where she’d been before, dreading going to class and dealing with him.  Always with that vague fear that he’d escalate, that he’d start sending her emails or phoning her.

And because of the way she’d done it, she’d burned a bridge.  She couldn’t defuse the relationship with a statement to the effect of, ‘I don’t like boys.’  He would have seen it as another manipulation, and she couldn’t have managed if she were cut off again.

Her father’s terminal heart attack had been another straw on the camel’s back.  Alone, it was nothing, but in combination with everything else… Sabah had triggered on what was only one in a long string of nights spent alone, stewing in frustration, fear and anger in her dorm room.  She’d glimpsed something bigger, something that was beyond her recall now, and she’d gained her powers.

That had been the push she’d needed to walk away from the boy and the engineering program.  She’d found a new goal.  Success in fashion design.  As far away from engineering as she could get.  Her mom had been disappointed, but she’d felt like she maybe had a direction.  She’d made friends.  Even moved out of a coveted single-bed dorm room to a double to socialize more.

It hadn’t lasted long, that motivation.  Even before Leviathan came and dashed the college to pieces, she’d had doubts about whether it was what she was meant to do.

Even before the Slaughterhouse Nine had killed her mom, her aunt, her cousin, and her roommate, she’d been feeling hopeless, desperate.

She’d taken Skitter’s offer, hoping that maybe, this time, it would be different.  That maybe, if it was something she needed to do, rather than something she wanted, she’d find that direction, find that focus.

She hadn’t.  From beginning to end, it had felt as hollow as each of the earlier ventures.

Sabah made her way to her headquarters, her atelier, and she couldn’t help but notice the way people stared, or the way they didn’t show her the respect that Skitter seemed to naturally accept and respond to.

She hadn’t been here when it counted.  Now they were moving on, and she was rudderless once again.

Always an uphill climb.

She’d just reached her atelier when her phone rang.  A text.

Flechette:
Skitter showed up at PRT office and turned self in.  They taking her to cell right now.

She had to reread it to make sure she wasn’t getting the wrong impression.  Skitter… The ramifications of this… The… What?

Before she could even wrap her head around the subject, there was another text.

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

Tt:I know. come 2 meet place from other nite asap.  First floor.

No answers, no information, only an order to meet up.

The unicorn wouldn’t do, put together like it was.  It had to be deconstructed, repurposed.

Her power gave her fine control with lightweight materials.  That wasn’t a problem.  Threads unwound, seams coming undone.

But her control of larger things was an entirely different beast.  Her telekinesis fell apart when she tried to move anything heavier than a half-pound or so, her dexterity and speed in moving those objects that much slower.  Worse, her telekinesis exploded, and not even in a constructive manner.  It got more and more unstable as she tried to move larger things, until it simply… expanded, dissipated over an area in an attempt to extend control to a multitude of tiny, lightweight objects.

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

She’d experimented, after getting her power.  Found that she could contain the telekinesis and keep it from dissipating.  It hadn’t been constructive until she started working with more flexible materials.  Porous materials worked best, because her telekinesis could soak into them, through them, and allow her to move the fabric rather than just the material within.  The gaps in the fabric allowed her to feed power into the ‘shell’ without it building to critical mass and collapsing.  Cloth worked best.  Torn or ripped seams could be mended, any other damage proved easily fixable, compared to the issues sturdier material posed.  It was plentiful, cheap, and effective.  Cloth was her ideal material.

And once the construction was formed, a shell that trapped the telekinetic energy within until it was heavy, she could move it as a collective whole.

The unicorn, at her bidding, bent down to allow her to climb onto its back.  Once she was securely in place, belted onto the cloth animal for security, it took off.

There was no instinct here.  It was all forced, all clumsily hobbled together with a power that probably wasn’t intended for this use.  If powers even had an intent backing them up.

As such, it took time to find the unicorn’s stride.  She had to watch where it put its ‘hooves’, fashioned of work gloves and the scraps of rubber boots.  She could feel with her power, where it was, but she couldn’t see through its eyes, and any coordination it possessed was limited to what she could give it from her current position.

She wasn’t good at this.  Navigating the streets, where they were congested with cars, or making her way through the areas where there was construction, littered with obstacles and pitfalls.  At being a cape, at being an important cape.

The Forsberg Gallery appeared, and she ducked off to one side to deconstruct the unicorn.

The material formed two smaller creations, for a smaller profile, and for some muscle to move a barricade meant to keep bystanders out of the construction area around the gallery.

Tattletale, Regent and Imp were already there when she arrived, along with two of Tattletale’s soldiers and one of Regent’s underlings.  A television was hooked up, standing in the center of the room.

“…not yet confirmed, but sources suggest that the supervillain is within a containment cell, as authorities convene to discuss…

Parian glanced at Tattletale, who was sitting on the stairs, head hanging.  She was wearing full-coverage sunglasses over her mask.  Solemn, staring at the ground, or just resting, with her eyes closed.

“Any details?” Parian asked.

“No,” Regent said.  “Nothing but the obvious.”

Grue entered, and he was a storm of darkness, to the point that his body wasn’t even visible.

“Hey, big brother,” Imp said.  There was a notable, very deliberate pause.  “How’re you doing?”

“I should have known.  Should have put it together,” he growled the words in that voice of his that made Parian’s hair stand on end.  He turned to Tattletale, “Did you know about this?”

“Power’s out of commission,” she said.  “Still have a headache.  Keep voices down, please.”

He didn’t reply, turning his attention to the TV.

“I can’t help but note you didn’t answer the question,” Regent told Tattletale.  “Did you know?”

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

Why?”  Grue asked.  “Why keep it a secret?  Why is she doing this?”

“I kept it a secret because she asked me to and she’s doing this because she thinks it’s going to fix more things than it breaks,” Tattletale said.  She shifted position with care, as though every movement was painful.  Even after she stopped, Parian could see her clenching her jaw, as if staving off waves of pain.

“Remains to be seen,” Grue said.  “Why didn’t she discuss this with us?”

It was Regent who replied, “She thought we’d convince her it was a bad idea.”

“That’s not a convincing reason,” Grue answered.

This is the team, Parian thought.  Skitter was always at the core of it, a group forged by innumerable challenges, each trusting the others to have their backs as they risked life and limb.  And she just betrayed that trust.

“There’s two major issues we have to deal with,” Tattletale said.  “Accord is going to be one.  The other is-

Bitch.

The girl entered the room, two large dogs flanking her, the wolf cub trailing behind, unmodified by her powers.  The young American bulldog, still not fully grown, an older pitbull that bore the scars of old dogfights.  The wolf cub was comparatively small.  Adorable.  Adorable and capable of turning into a murder machine the size of a pony.

Bitch was imposing in an entirely different way than Grue was.  Grue was intimidating, but he was fair.  Rational.  Bitch wasn’t either of those things.  Her blond hair was shaggy, having grown in, combed with little more than fingers, if appearance was any indication. The glimpses of her face that showed in the midst of the hair were a wary glower.

The girl had her jacket slung over one shoulder, otherwise wearing a simple white sleeveless undershirt with no bra.  She was muscular, but she had to be to control the dogs when they were growing, to exert enough strength to get them to turn their heads or change direction.  Other parts of her bore similar signs of her day-to-day activities.  Her knuckles were scraped and raw, and she had a scratch on one cheekbone, taped shut.  The chain that attached to the pitbull’s collar was wound around one arm.  She was beaded with sweat, likely due to the exertion of the ride coupled with the heavier pants and boots she wore.

I hate being short, Parian thought.  To look at them, few people would have guessed there was a four-year difference in ages.  Or they would have guessed the difference in ages went the other way.

Primal, unpredictable, dangerous.  Bitch was imposing for those reasons, and because she was emotional.  She could and would lash out with physical violence if provoked.  Even if she imagined that someone was provoking her.  If she was really provoked, she wouldn’t move a muscle, which was worse.  She’d whistle and set her dogs on anyone that crossed her.

Parian felt her heart rate pick up as Bitch approached, felt that sense of danger peak as they briefly made eye contact, before the girl moved on.

As unfriendly as the girl was, Bentley was friendly, the young bulldog nudging Parian’s hand for a scratch before hurrying to catch up to his master.

Regent turned off the TV.  Bitch stood there, turning to look at each of her teammates in turn.

“What?”

“Christ,” Grue muttered.  “Tattletale.  You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?” Bitch asked.  She glanced around.  “Where’s Skitter?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.

“Is she hurt?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t even sound concerned.  When nobody spoke up, she expanded her question.  “Is she dead?”

“Fuck it,” Regent said, “I’ll say it.  Skitter’s at the PRT headquarters.”

“So?  We break her out.”

“She went there on purpose,” Regent said, almost offhandedly.  Carelessly.

Parian couldn’t help but notice the way Bitch clenched her hands, one gripping the metal chain until her knuckles went white.

“Regent,” Grue said.

“What?  You don’t want to deliver the news, you don’t get a say in how it’s presented,” Regent retorted.

Bentley and the wolf cub both planted their feet further apart, while the pitbull was looking around, all of a sudden.

There.  Bentley’s shoulders were bulging slightly.  Bitch was using her powers.

So?” Bitch asked.

“So… that’s it.  That’s why we’re here,” Regent said.  “We’re here to talk about this, to plan.”

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

“I’m not so sure,” Grue said, echoing Parian’s thoughts.

“She makes plans,” Bitch said.  “She’s smart like that.  I’m not.  I don’t try to understand what she’s doing.”

“She paid me a visit,” Grue said.  “I didn’t realize it until I got the call from Tattletale.  She was saying goodbye.  Not out loud, but… checking I was okay, making sure I’d be able to manage… after she was gone.”

Bentley was still growing.  His flesh split at the shoulder, and he brought one back leg up, kicking at the air as if he had an itch he wanted to reach but couldn’t.

The pitbull and wolf puppy were growing too.  The pitbull looked a lot less comfortable with the process than the other animals, more alarmed.  Bitch tugged the chain absently to keep him in line.

“She visited us too,” Regent said.  “Imp and me.”

“Me too,” Tattletale spoke from her perch on the stairs, quiet.

Not me, Parian thought.  Unless I count that meeting with Miss Militia and Lily.

That served the same purposes, didn’t it?  Getting things settled?  Making sure things would be okay in the future.  Ensuring the heroes could help out with my territory?

Parian felt a sinking feeling in her gut.  Skitter hadn’t been leaving for the short-term.

And that sinking feeling couldn’t even compare to what the others were feeling, here.

Tattletale, nearly incapacitated.  Grue, with his darkness a virtual storm around him.  Regent and Imp, standing back, together.  And Bitch.  Stock still, radiating something more than tension.  Restrained aggression, even.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

“It’s telling,” Grue said.  “She was saying goodbye.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said, and her voice was harder.  “It’s a plan.”

Why am I even here?  The thought struck Parian, out of place, out of time, a non-sequitur, yet somehow profound.  As if this point, in the middle of the discussion, was when she realized how out of place she was in the dynamic.

“Of course it’s a plan,” Regent was saying.  “It might not be a good plan-”

Bitch cut him off.  “She goes there, she defeats them, and then she comes back.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

Loyalty, Parian thought.  Misguided loyalty, blinding Bitch to the truth, but loyalty nonetheless.

“Look, it’s not important,” Tattletale said.

“It’s important,” Bitch growled.  “You’re supposed to be her friends, and you’re talking about her like she’s gone.”

The pitbull seemed to take her cue, and began growling steadily.  He was still growing, his body straining against the chain harness he wore.

“She’s not gone for sure,” Tattletale said.  “We don’t know how this is going to play out, not exactly.”

Bitch didn’t seem the least bit satisfied with that, but the pitbull stopped growling.  Had she stopped using her power?

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

“That she wanted to keep us in the dark,” Tattletale said.  “That she wanted to go…”

“And she planned to be gone long time,” Grue said.  “She was asking me about leadership, about whether I was ready to take the reins.  I said no, but she did it anyways.”

“She thought this was important,” Tattletale said.  “Enough to put you out of your depth, as much as you don’t want it, as much as she didn’t want it for you.”

I don’t even figure into this, Parian thought.  I’m not even sure I’m an official member of the group.

“So I’m leader in the interim,” Grue said.  There was a note of something in his voice, behind that haunting echo that his power laced it with.  Not as severe as despair, bigger than unhappiness.  Defeat?

“…Unless there’s any objections,” he said.

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

“Then we run damage control,” Grue said.  “Her territory?”

“We can fold it into adjacent territories,” Tattletale said.  “Parian, Grue, me.  Maybe the others take over some of our territories to give us an easier job of it.  She made other arrangements, with her residents.  I can contact them so we can discuss it, put it all into action.”

“Her people aren’t a big priority,” Grue said.  “If they’re not going to riot, let’s put them on the backburner.  I’m more worried about anything that could go up in flames in the next hour.”

“Literally,” Regent said.

“…Possibly literally,” Grue said.  “Accord?”

“I called him just after Regent and Imp showed,” Tattletale said.  “He’ll be here at nine thirty, on the dot.  Would have mentioned sooner, but we got caught up in talking.”

Grue nodded, glancing back towards the TV.  Parian did the same.  A number blinked on the box beneath the screen: nine twenty-six.  “That doesn’t give us much time to organize.”

“The longer we wait, the more upset he’ll be,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s a planner.  If we give him time, he’ll work out some scheme to retaliate against us.  We’re stronger against him if he’s on his toes.”

“Granted,” Grue said.  He sighed, “God, I’m not up to this.  Damn her to hell.”

There was no reply from the group.

How many members of this group were voicing silent agreement?  Parian shifted her weight nervously.  How many people here had taken a life?  All of them?  Most?

Parian couldn’t help but feel out of her depth.  The terminology had never felt so apt, feeling like she was in the water, at that one point where she realized she couldn’t reach safety, the water around her face…

She felt like that now, here.

Taylor had been undercover once, hadn’t she?  She’d immersed herself in this.  It was impossible to imagine.

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

Parian thought at first that Tattletale was returning the group to the topic of conversation, but Tattletale was taking off her glasses, grimacing.

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

“Is slow,” Accord said.  “I arrived when I said I did, and I’ll ask you once to please stop suggesting otherwise.”

If Bitch was an ‘I’ll punch your face in for no reason’ kind of intimidating, and Grue was an ‘I’ll explain carefully just why I’m about to punch your face in’ intimidating, Accord was something else entirely.

It was really easy to imagine him nonchalantly standing above her while she stood in a pit he’d had dug out, a cement truck slowly filling in the space around her.  Or very politely eating someone’s severed leg with a knife and fork held in the proper manner.

He was the kind of scary guy they made movies about, only he was real.

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

She hated him.  She understood everything about why the Undersiders were working with him, understood that they’d be at the mercy of others like the Slaughterhouse Nine if they didn’t have muscle like his on their side, but she hated him.

He was her height, dressed in a white business suit and tie, his intricate wood-and-silver mask moving to replicate the expressions beneath.

He was joined by his Ambassadors.  Each wore a finished mask, a suit for the men and a dress for the ladies: Citrine in yellow, with gemstones; Othello in alabaster white and jet black, all stark contrasts; Ligeia in a deep blue-green that contrasted her dark skin, with a conch-shell mask that swept back over the corner of her forehead, with an ‘up’ hairstyle to match; Jacklight, with a deep royal purple dress shirt and pocket square, his mask a grinning visage that would be fitting for a child’s jack-in-the-box; and Lizardtail, bigger than the others, with a green dress shirt and pocket square, an ornate mask that looked more like a Celtic knot than anything lizardlike.  Maybe the segments or spiral of it were supposed to represent a cut tail?

He’d arrived with firepower, in short.  Parian didn’t consider herself very combat-savvy, but she was aware of that much.

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

“You and me both, pal,” Tattletale replied.

It wasn’t… it didn’t seem like a smart way to talk to the perfectionist supervillain.  Accord was dangerous, so why was Tattletale provoking him?

It seemed to take Accord a second to compose himself and get his thoughts in order.  “It would be polite to stand, when a guest arrives.”

“Feeling a bit under the weather,” Tattletale said.  “Forgive my bad manners.  I take it you caught the essentials on TV?”

“On the radio, while we drove,” Accord said.  “Did you know of this scheme?”

“Of course,” Tattletale said.  “Do you think we’re crazy?  Everything’s golden.”

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

“You don’t have to be,” Tattletale said.

“We’re allies.”

“You’re subordinate to us,” Tattletale said.  “If you have an issue with that, I urge you to submit a written complaint and formally declare war.  Twenty four hours notice, if you please.  I know you like rules and regulations.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Yes.  And you’re letting me mock you for some reason.  You’re making a lot of concessions in our bargain here.  You have a reason to be doing that,” Tattletale said.  “I’m comfortable leveraging that.”

“I made concessions because I was led to believe that Skitter was going to be the one in charge of matters here.  I investigated her, I met her in person, and I decided she fit the necessary qualifications.  Now I’m finding that things are definitely not what they appeared to be.  She’s not in charge, for one thing, there’s the reckless attack against the Teeth that saw one of my very expensive recruits killed…”

“You don’t really care about that,” Tattletale said.  “You wanted to wean out the ones who couldn’t cut it.  Codex couldn’t cut it.  Good at administration, fantastic cook, skilled when it came to managing people, and could even spar, sure, but she didn’t have the wits about her in a combat situation.  Couldn’t switch gears.”

He closed his eyes, and metal shutters flicked into place as the mask mimicked the movement.  “Please don’t interrupt me.”

“I don’t think you’re getting my point.  I don’t bend to your rules, Accord.  If you want to talk about your dead underling, let’s talk.”

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?” Tattletale asked.  “About her being poorly equipped for cape life?”

“No.  The analysis is right.  I won’t disagree.  But I have other concerns.  This business with how you murdered Butcher.  The girl at the bottom of the Boat Graveyard… Cherish… it was a risky decision.”

“Not so risky when you’ve done a read on the situation.  I had all the notes on Butcher Fourteen.  She couldn’t teleport free, not into open water.  She still can’t, and I had a crew use a remote control device to lash a cable to Butcher Fifteen’s pod.  They’ve dropped her into a deeper area of the ocean, and the only thing she’ll be likely to kill are fish.  If we’re lucky, maybe Leviathan will float that way and off himself.”

“It was risky nonetheless.  There was no assurance the plan would work.”

“And we shouldered that risk.  Bitch and Skitter, specifically.  If it didn’t work out, it was their lives on the line.”

“And now we have Skitter taking another risk.  This seems to be a pattern.”

“She’s taking the risk on our behalf,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s not your concern.”

“It’s very concerning to me.”

“But it’s not your concern,” Tattletale said.  There was a strain in her voice, and her fingernails were digging into her costume-covered thighs.  “We aren’t partners, Accord.  Let’s get that straight.  Do we work together?  Yes.  Have we arranged a division of labor?  Yes.  But this is our city, and you’re renting a space.”

“Tenants have rights when interacting with their landlords,” Accord said.

“Rights, yes.  But we’re supervillains.  Don’t forget that,” Tattletale relied.  “It’s our prerogative to be assholes.  And right now?  I’m going to be an asshole.  The contract stands.  Your provisions stand.”

“There’s an escape clause.”

“And you’re free to use it,” Tattletale said.  “Take the clause, leave, abandon the investments you’ve already made in this city…”

“Or attack,” Accord said, “And seize everything you have.”

“Or attack,” Tattletale said.  She sounded more tired than upset.  “You could do that.  Or you can take my offer.”

“Which is?”

“Skitter provided your notes on managing crime in Brockton Bay.  I don’t think either of us can agree to implement it, without knowing the exact outcome of Skitter’s expedition…”

“I agree,” Accord said.  His interest was clearly piqued.  Parian could see the way the eyebrows of his mask had raised a fraction.

“But I like it,” Tattletale said.  “And if your concern is about instability within this city, I can read your work, see the solutions you propose and consider implementing them.  We would give you a hand in shaping policy beyond this group.”

“You’d agree to a contract where you implement a set number of my plans?”

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

Parian felt her heart skip a beat.  She could see Accord bristle, and his Ambassadors had tensed, as if expecting an order to attack at any second.

“But,” Tattletale said, “I can consider them.  And that might be the best offer you’d ever get.  You know your ideas are good ones.  You know there are ideas that would be worth implementing.  If I agreed to read through them, bring the better points up for discussion within the group, across our entire alliance, and I’m hoping we recruit more than just you… well, there’s a chance they’d see the light of day.”

Accord frowned.  “You’re not promising anything concrete.”

“No.  I am sticking to the deal we arranged.  This is a bonus.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It’s fucking generous as it stands.”

“Please be more civil,” Accord said.  “I’d rather you didn’t swear.”

“And I’d rather you didn’t storm in here and act like you were personally offended by our particular way of doing things,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve offered you a fucking nice deal.  Are you fucking interested?”

“Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Enough.  I think he gets the point.”

“You’re in charge, then, Grue?” Accord asked.

There was a pause.  “Yes.  But I’m standing by what Tattletale said.”

“I’ll have to content myself with that, and I’ll give my answer to you, as one team leader to another.  I hope to continue working with the Undersiders, and I very much hope that things don’t degenerate any further, as they have with the situation at the PRT offices right now.”

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

“Yes.  But there won’t be further disturbances?  Nothing further that makes national news about your group?”

National, Parian thought, stunned.  We’re national news.

She couldn’t help but think of her family, of her friends and neighbors.  Her sole remaining family member, her friend from the Fashion program.  The people who’d come to her territory for protection that she’d ultimately failed to provide.

She felt a sick feeling in her gut at the thought.  They’d been surgically altered, and, according to the most recent emails, they were getting surgery to slowly regain their old faces.  Were they watching the news right now, thinking of her?

“I’m on the same page as Tattletale,” Grue said.  “That’s our business, not yours.”

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

Parian felt her pulse quicken.  A trap?  A sneak attack?

Grue took the hand and shook it.  Parian could feel the blood pumping in her ears as she watched Accord and the Ambassadors for any sign of betrayal.

Nothing.  Accord lowered his hand, then extended it again, in Tattletale’s direction.

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

Except it was only Tattletale’s mental fatigue.  The villainess, with her mercenary’s help, made her way to the foot of the stairs.  She leaned on the man as she crossed the room to Accord.

“Injury?” he asked.  “I’m thinking a concussion.”

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

“Ah,” Accord said.  He extended his hand a fraction further, and Tattletale shook it.  “I… suppose I can sympathize with that.”

“I bet.”

“I appreciate your willingness to meet, in light of your condition,” he said.  “That said, it would be best if we did not interact further.  I’d rather not terminate our alliance by being forced to murder you.  It wouldn’t be polite to say how many times I came close, just tonight.”

“I think we’re on the same page there,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t want you to kill me either.  Just know that if you tried, succeed or fail, I have a lot of questions about your involvement with Cauldron that could start circulating specific channels.”

“Ah, you’re proposing mutually assured destruction?”

“Is there any other way we’re going to manage this long-term?”

“No.  No, I suppose not,” Accord said.

“Great,” Tattletale said.  She managed a feeble smile.

“Then I wish you a good day,” Accord said.  He managed to make it sound like fuck you, the way people in the Victorian era might have.

That done, Accord turned to leave, marching out of the doors with his cadre of Ambassadors.

When he was out of sight, Tattletale sagged.  Her mercenary had to catch her to keep her from falling to the ground.

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

“Me doing the best I could,” Tattletale said.  “And speak quieter, please.  My head’s throbbing… I feel like someone’s hitting my eyeballs with hammers.”

In a marginally quieter voice, Grue said, “You provoked him.”

“I dealt with him the only way I could.  Working with old info.  Don’t even have my power, only what I got on our earlier meetings.  Shit, I haven’t even read that booklet Skitter gave me.”

“Well,” Regent said.  “This is fantastic.  Skitter really screwed the pooch here.”

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

“We don’t know what she did,” Grue said.  “Or what she’s doing.”

There was a pause.

Parian had felt lost, in well over her head, since she’d set foot in here.  These guys were a group, an organization, they had their way of doing things, their rhythm.  It was so hard to jump in, to say anything.

But now, maybe, she felt like she had a role.  A reason to be here.

“I… I think I understand what she’s doing,” Parian said.

All eyes fell on her.  Even Bitch’s gaze, intimidating and angry.

“Generally,” Parian said.  “Um.  I get what she’s…”

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

“She’s a lot like me,” Parian said.  “She wants to protect people.  She’s willing to make sacrifices for the people she cares about.”

“I’ve discussed that with her,” Grue said.

“Terribly unhealthy,” Regent commented.  “Worse than smoking, even.”

“So maybe this is a way to do that,” Parian said.  “A way to protect all of us.  She gives Director Tagg exactly what he wants.  Gets him to back down.  And this is how.  She uses herself as a bargaining chip.”

“I don’t fucking care about Tagg,” Bitch growled.  “I’d rather have Skitter than have him gone.”

“It’s more than that!” Parian raised her voice, hurrying to speak before she could get lost in the jumble, unable to cut in and find a voice in their dynamic.  She had objectivity they didn’t.  The ability to see the big picture.  “I… I think she’s decided on a way to help all of us.  With more things than just Tagg.  And maybe… maybe she helps herself, too.”

“Herself?” Regent asked.

“I’m just… I know what it’s like, to be on a single track, to feel compelled to keep going forward.  It isn’t easy, to disappoint the people you care about, but sometimes it comes down to doing that… or doing what they want and being unhappy.”

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

“Was there ever a time when she was with us, where she really seemed happy?  Content?”

“I know my brother’s made her happy,” Imp said.  “Ick.”

Regent sniggered.

“I didn’t,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  “Make her happy.”

“I don’t know anything more than you guys do,” Parian said, “But…Maybe she needs to make peace with her guilt and whatever, go to jail, and try to make amends with her dad?  If that’s part of it, can we really say no?”

“What if it isn’t part of it?” Tattletale asked.  “What if leaving us is the last thing she wants, but she’s doing it anyways?”

“Are you saying that’s the case?” Grue asked.

“No.  My power’s out of commission.  I can’t say anything for sure,” Tattletale said.  “Except we respect Taylor-”

“We’ve been through hell with Taylor,” Grue cut in.

“And we trust her,” Tattletale said, glancing at Bitch.

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

“…So let’s trust that she has an idea what she’s doing,” Tattletale finished.

Bitch moved, stepping forward, her boots making a heavy noise on the floor as she advanced.  She struck out, kicking.

The widescreen television with its tripod mount came crashing down, shattering.

Nobody spoke in the aftermath of that small gesture of pain and frustration.

They looked amongst one another, searching each other for some validation, for a response.

It was Bitch who broke the spell.  “If the PRT fucks her…”

“We destroy them,” Grue finished.  Bitch nodded.

The most sensible member in the group in agreement with the most violent, Parian thought.

“All we can do is wait,” Tattletale said.

“How long?”

The question had come from Bitch.  She was tense, rigid, her jaw set, eyes narrowed.

“Nightfall,” Tattletale said.  “We wait until the sun sets.  That’s the only instruction Skitter gave me.”

“What are we waiting for?” Grue asked.  “A signal?”

“If we don’t get a signal,” Tattletale said, “We act.”

Parian’s thoughts were buzzing with possibilities, more details, more responsibilities.  Taking on more territory, giving up some to Grue.

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

She reached her atelier and dismounted from the six-legged horse, stepping down to the floor of the alley.  It had been a little more stable than a four-legged unicorn.  She’d have to refine the idea, find a balance.  Specific forms for specific tasks.

She was behind.  Behind in her territory, behind in applying her powers to combat situations, in being able to understand and interact with people like Accord.

And until she figured those things out, she couldn’t truly be a part of the Undersiders.  And if she wasn’t a real member of the group, she couldn’t change anything where it really mattered.

The unicorn came apart into scraps of cloth.  The individual scraps rolled up, were neatly tied by braids of thread.  She lifted the largest bundle and made her way around the corner to her front door.

Ten and a half hours before sunset.  That was the deadline.  Skitter’s deadline, and the point that would determine whether this became an all-out war against the PRT or something entirely different.

Parian stopped in her tracks.  Lily leaned beside the front door, in full costume as Flechette.  The stainless steel shoulder-rest of her arbalest sat on the ground, and she used a single fingertip to keep the weapon upright, unloaded and pointed at the sky.

With a flick of a finger, Lily made the thing spin, stopped it, spun it the other way around.

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

“The PRT knows where you live,” Lily said.  “It’s on record.  But we’re not supposed to act like we know.  I thought you’d forgive me that, given our history.”

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

Lily shook her head.  “They asked me to go out and make a phone call, outside of Skitter’s range.  But they didn’t seem to know how far that was, so I…”

“Made your way to the far end of the city,” Parian said.

“Yeah,” Lily said, just under her breath, looking down at her weapon.  Again, she spun it.

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

“You weren’t.  I just got an angry call from Miss Militia,” Lily said.  “Been out here for a bit.”

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

Parian put the bundle of cloth down, resting the end on the ground.  After a moment’s thought, she leaned it against the wall by her front door.  By Lily.

She felt so conspicuous.  She knew Lily hated the black costume, with the black hair, the black dress.

Lily, who’d been maybe the only person to give her support without being asked.  Lily, who was… chivalrous.  Gallant.  Stubborn.  So very stubborn.

“Did you come here for a reason?”  Parian asked, in the same second Lily asked, “Where were you?”

“You first,” Lily said, after the momentary confusion.

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

“That’s a hell of a reason to wait thirty minutes.”

Lily glanced left, then right, as if looking for bystanders.

“This area isn’t occupied,” Parian said.  “My atelier is the only one on the block that you can live in.  The rest are sealed up.”

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

“Ah,” Lily said.  Then, as if she remembered why she’d been looking for bystanders, she let herself slide down until she was sitting with her back to the wall.

“That’s it for answers?” Parian asked.  “Don’t know?”

“No.”

“Just talk me through what’s going through your head.  Doesn’t have to be relevant.  Don’t have to censor your thoughts.”

“Definitely have to censor my thoughts,” Lily said.  She glanced up at Parian.

She felt her heart rate pick up with that, oddly enough, just like it had with Bitch.

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

“It’s… a hard city to like,” Parian said.  “But it’s not a city that lets you throw it away.  It’s tenacious, both in the big picture, and in how it attaches itself to you.”

“Yeah,” Lily murmured.  “Before I came here, everything was on track.  I could see my future ahead of me, straight as an arrow.  Career path, eventual Flechette action figures.  Every single one of my teachers and superiors seemed to know I had potential.  One of the only people who could hurt an Endbringer…”

Lily raised her unloaded arbalest, aimed it, “Pow.  Critical damage every time, and I don’t miss.”

“I remember what you said when you talked to Skitter and Miss Militia.  You don’t feel so confident, now.”

“I’ve been trying to think of where I might be comfortable.  Where I could find what I’ve lost.  During the whole post-Leviathan thing, I was always most comfortable here.”

Here?” Parian looked over at her Atelier, an unassuming, simple building.

“With you.”

“Ah.”

“And… fuck me, because I’m not acting confident.  I told myself I’d act confident, but… I’m blowing this.”

“Don’t stress so much about acting,” Parian said.

She reached up and detached her mask from the metal frame that held it over her face, then pulled the wig off as well.  She let them fall to the ground.

A pure white mask, in contrast to her own Arab ethnicity.  She’d meant to make a point of it, to challenge people to wonder more about what was behind the masks, about their assumptions about heroes and villains.  That had fallen apart when Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine had derailed her plan to unmask herself and start a career as a fashion designer.

More than the fashion designer part, it was the sudden recollection of what the Slaughterhouse Nine had done that took the wind from her sails.

She tipped over the roll of cloth and then seated herself on it, facing Lily.

Belatedly, she said, “We act too much.  Hide behind masks way too often.”

Lily looked around to double-check, then removed her visor.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Lily said.

“Do what?”

“I don’t know.  But whatever it is, I can’t do it.”

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

“You don’t get to ask that,” Parian said, quiet.  “Just like you don’t get to act like you own me, to say that my costume is anything but my choice.”

“You remember that,” Lily said, looking down at the ground.

“Hard to forget.”

“Skitter asked me what I wanted,” Lily said.  “I gave her my answer.”

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

“I’ve already had someone try to claim me, you know,” Parian said.  “They thought that I was something that was owed to them, because of what they’d done.  That being nice meant I was obligated to accept a date.  And that line of thinking goes one step further.  They think flowers and a few dates mean I’m obligated to come over to his apartment to spend the night.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Flechette said.

Parian didn’t answer.

“I mean, it’s not… my motives aren’t…”

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

“No,” Lily agreed.  “Fuck.  I was hoping this would go better.”

“And… I’m not so sure your motives were pure.  I’ve seen you sneak glances.  For someone who has a superpower that gives her enhanced timing, I’d think you’d be better at it.”

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” Sabah said, almost to herself.  “I’ve been bitten once.”

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

Lily shifted her grip on her arbalest, then set it on the ground, spun it on the end again, as though it were an oversized top.

“Skitter asked me for what I want.  What do you want?”

“Direction.  No, not even that.  It’s almost like I don’t care as much about what I do, as me feeling like I want to do something well, but I can’t.”

The Japanese-American girl frowned.  “And this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

“Because it’s the only way to get the rest of the money that my people need.”

“Your people?”  Lily started to glance around, then stopped.  “Not these people.  Your family, friends.  From Dolltown.”

Sabah nodded.  Her heart was heavy with the thought alone.  “And because I need to be a part of the Undersiders if they’re going to listen to me, and I need them to listen to me if I’m going to influence them, keep them on a straighter path.  To protect people from them, and to protect them from themselves.

“And that’s all worth giving up the life you want to lead?”

Parian thought of Skitter.  Of the motivations that could be driving the girl to turn on her friends.

“I think it is.”

“Then… would you take me along for the ride?”

Sabah glanced at Lily.  Lily was staring at her, an intense look.  Scary in its own way, but not quite in that way that was a reminder of uglier days.

“No,” Sabah answered.  “I don’t think I can.  It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

But I don’t trust youI can’t have someone try to possess me, to control me.

She couldn’t find a graceful way to say it, and she could see the pain on Lily’s face, the doubt, the embarrassment, as the pause lingered.

Then Lily seemed to compose herself.  “Not as a partner.”

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

“I’m not good at being alone,” Lily said.  “I found that out a while ago, and what’s happened these past few weeks, they only made it clearer.  I need company, and your company is what I want the most.  I can’t say it’ll be forever, but for now…”

Being together… having a helping hand where it counted.  Having firepower and authority both, to help win over the locals.  It wasn’t perfect, it wouldn’t be fast…

But maybe it wouldn’t be such an uphill climb.

“You’d leave the Wards?”

“They’re falling apart anyways.  I’d… I’d have to give up my arbalest.  Without tinker maintenance, it won’t keep working.  But I always liked the idea of the rapier, been meaning to go back to it.  And I have darts.”

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m terrified,” Lily said, meeting Sabah’s eyes.  She looked it.

She’s taken a leap of faith, and she hasn’t touched ground.

“You’re saying I call the shots.  You’re my lieutenant, my right hand?”

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

“I’d need a new costume, and a new name, probably.  For legal reasons.  If you said yes.  I was thinking more a stylized musketeer look than a knight, but I can work with whatever.”

Still rambling.

“A new costume is something I can do,” Sabah answered.  “And yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Sabah said.  “You’ll be my lieutenant.  And you’re okay with that?”

“That’s… what I’m offering.  The last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable.”

“That’s good enough,” Sabah said.  She stood, approaching Lily.

Needle and thread.  Somehow it felt more right, more solid, than any of the paths she’d started on, only to later abandon.  Maybe because she wasn’t doing it alone.

She put two fingers to Lily’s chin, raising it, and then she kissed her lieutenant.

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Imago 21.6

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Hate to do this with the weather like this, I thought.  I thought about the meeting Parian had arranged with Miss Militia.  But my hand is being inadvertently forced.

One more step forward.  One more phase in the plan.

The wind was worse than the rain.  I had to wonder how much of it was the aftermath of the Leviathan attack.  The city had been flooded, and those same floodwaters had evaporated into the air, trapped within Brockton Bay by the surrounding trees and hills… how wide-reaching were the effects of that one incident?

The downpour was steady, moderate.  The wind was what turned it into a barrage, a persistent pelting of droplets that moved horizontally as much as it moved vertically.  The noise of it, tapping against my armor and lenses, made for a steady patter.  My bugs were lurking and gathering in spots where there was shelter, and where things were dry.  With only the light of the moon above, these were the same areas that had shadows, by and large.  The masses of bugs only seemed to give those shadows substance, made them seem deeper, through the masses of dark brown, gray and black bodies.

Through other bugs I felt the movements of the wind, felt how it formed eddies, curling into itself when it met with dead ends, large or small.  I could, with a small number of bugs, feel how strong and steady the gale was where the buildings weren’t tall enough to break it up.  They helped me track the others around me, through bugs that took shelter in the drier folds of their costumes.

The Undersiders were here.  Minus Tattletale, we were all standing in the street a distance away from a squat building.  Regent was off to one side, ready to trip up our enemy if they made a sudden appearance.  Rachel hung back, corralling her forces, while the rest of us watched the building for any hint of trouble.

But Grue stood next to me.  I appreciated his presence, his casualness in light of the way we’d effectively parted.

I could sense the Ambassadors.  Citrine and Othello were there.  So were four new recruits: Jacklight, Ligeia, Lizardtail and Codex.  The fifth potential recruit hadn’t been so lucky.  The four of them stood off to one side, in the shelter of Citrine’s power, listening as she gave instructions.  The area around them was somehow faded in terms of the colors there, the area she was affecting looked as though I were viewing it through colorblind eyes that were capable of only seeing yellow.  Water wicked off of them as though they were waterproof, leaving them utterly dry even in the wind and rain.

Lizardtail’s power was pressing against me, even from the other side of the street.  It penetrated my costume to the skin, making my skin tingle and ensuring that I was always aware of where he was.  It was like the sensation of standing in front of a fire, just close enough to feel as though that heat had a physical form, just close enough to be bearable.  It wasn’t hot, though.  It was cold, if anything.

The rest of our forces were marshaled throughout the area.  A handful of volunteers from my territory, surviving members of the O’Daly family, had made their way to rooftops, stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and binoculars.  They’d have to make up for the fact that my bugs weren’t as mobile in this weather.

Tattletale’s mercenaries were here, though she was still largely incapacitated.  Minor, Brooks, Pritt, Senegal, and Jaw.  Regent had two followers, and I was doing my best to avoid paying attention to them.  It wasn’t the time to investigate whether he was controlling people or legitimately hiring them.

Rachel’s underlings were present too, hanging back enough that they were out of sight of the building.  Biter, Barker, the veterinarian, the boy with the eyepatch, others I didn’t recognize: a young teenager with darker skin, a tall man with a broad belly.  Each of them held a chain -the tall man and Biter held two- and each chain had a dog harnessed on the other end of it, grown to a fair size by Rachel’s power.  Only Bentley and Bastard were full size.

Inside the building, the Teeth were recuperating from a recent conflict with Miss Militia and the other heroes followed soon after by an attack from Parian’s stuffed animals. As a whole, the Teeth amounted to twenty or so unpowered troops, plus a half-dozen or so powered ones.  Even the unpowered Teeth had ‘costumes’ of a sort, were dressed in a hodgepodge of armor that made it hard to tell them apart from the powered members.

As a whole, they were bandaging minor injuries, preparing food, talking, joking, relaxing.  There were two televisions on, each playing something different, volume turned up, and the noise was discordant, even to the muted, confused senses of my swarm.  Porn on one television, I was pretty sure.  The other channel was either a cartoon or a news broadcast, judging by the words I was able to hear.

There was a fight in progress, a duel, between two unpowered members.  One was getting the better of the other, pounding his face in while others jeered and laughed.

One of the female members of the Teeth, I suspected Hemorrhagia, was cooking food for her team.  A distance away, Butcher was sitting on a stool, her feet up on a table, her mask off.  She had a cloth in hand and was wiping her gun clean, oddly disconnected from the clatter and chaos of her team.

I supposed the thirteen other voices in her head kept her company.

It had taken time to analyze them, to assess what each of the Teeth were doing and make a note of every individual part of it.  To do it discreetly, with no more than the bugs that were already in the building.

The Ambassadors were patient.  I got the sense that they could have waited for two hours in this wind and rain, and their only concern would be that their clothes and hair were a little worse for wear.  My teammates were a touch more restless.  Rachel moved from dog to dog, enforcing her authority, keeping them in line, and making sure they were listening to the underlings.  She was putting her trust in me, but I could tell she was getting tired of this.  Tired of the minutes passing with nothing happening.

Regent, too, was reacting.  He was maintaining a running commentary on everything from the weather to the surroundings, our allies and me.

“And… twenty minutes in, the rain’s still pouring, the wind’s still threatening to drop a house on our heads, and we’re still not doing anything.  I think our fearless leader needs to remember that some of us aren’t as good at being imposing when we’re drenched and standing around in the dark.  She does that whole schtick where being gloomy and creepy only make her scarier.  You know how scary I am with a wet shirt clinging to me?”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue said.

“I’m just saying.  She could be more considerate.  Maybe we could wait indoors, and she could stand out here in the rain, using her power to investigate our enemies.  If she’s even using it.  Maybe she fell asleep standing up.  Been a hard week for her-.”

“Regent,” I said.  “Be quiet.”

“She’s awake!  Excellent,” Regent’s jovial tone was forced enough to border on the sarcastic.

“There are no vantage points that are also indoors,” I said.  “I’d bet that’s why Butcher chose that building.  The parking lot that surrounds it, the terrain, it’s all to her benefit.”

“So we pick a mediocre vantage point.  Or a shitty one.  So long as it’s dry.  Or, here’s an idea, maybe we attack.  We have them outnumbered, we have better powers than most of them-”

“We win absolutely,” I said.  “Or we don’t fight at all.  Too many of them have powers that could help them escape.  Vex fills an area with her power and runs, Animos transforms and runs, or Spree masks their retreat with his power.  This way, we take all of them down, or we at least affect them on a psychological level.”

“Then why don’t we have them surrounded?”

“Because we don’t need to,” I said.  “Keeping Butcher from picking us off is a bigger priority.  We do that by forming battle lines.”

“Huh,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Twenty three minutes, standing in the rain…”

Inside the building, Hemorrhagia called out, “…st ready.”

The Teeth collectively began to make their way to the kitchen, while Spree headed for the washroom.

There.

We’re attacking,” I said, and I spoke through the bugs that were near each of my allies.  “Be ready.”

The bugs I’d kept in reserve swept into the building, not from the direction our forces were standing, but from the opposite direction.  They flowed in, swarming over the Teeth.

Less useful bugs plunged themselves into the food.  They scattered money, where money was left out in the open, caught unattended weapons and pieces of armor and either buried them or started to drag them from sight.

“No!” Hemorrhagia shouted, trying to cover her chili with a lid,  “No, no, fuck you, no!”

Hearing the shouting, Spree stood from the toilet, only to find a handcuff connecting him to the towel rack.

“Fight!” one of the Teeth shouted, rather unnecessarily.  He was joined by others.  “Kick their asses!  Kill them!”

Spree managed to tear the towel rack from the wall and made his way out of the washroom, working to get his belt buckled, other armor gathered under one arm.  I was well aware of how costumes made using washrooms a pain in the ass on the best of days: getting everything necessary off, getting it back on again, attaching everything essential… Spree had the added issue of innumerable trophies and pieces of armor in his suit, all loaded down with spikes and hooks, and he was now in a rush, running forward into a swarm of biting, stinging insects.  He dropped one piece of armor, and bugs swarmed it.  He cast one backwards glance at the item in question, an elbow pad or knee pad, and then decided to leave it behind.

It was the little things that would deliver a hit to their morale.  Attacking while they were tired, spoiling a meal they were anticipating, throwing everything into disarray.  If they happened to come out ahead in this fight, or if any of them slipped away, they might return to reclaim their things, they’d find cockroaches had chewed through the cords and internal wires of their televisions, that pantry moths infested their food supplies, and every article of clothing was infested with lice.

And if they entered this fight mad, all the better.  It would mean they were gunning for us instead of running.

The first person out the door was caught by a tripline of spider silk.  Others trampled over him.  One fired a gun into the darkness beyond.

Wrong door, wrong end of the building.  And the door had somehow closed and locked behind them.

The powered members weren’t in that group, though.  As disorganized as the rank and file members were, the capes in the gang were only looking to their boss, gathering in the kitchen.

Butcher didn’t react as bugs bit and stung, and capsaicin-laden bugs found her eyes and nose.  Her skin was too tough, and she didn’t feel pain, thanks to Butcher twelve’s powers.  She was composed as she lifted a gun that would normally have been mounted on the back of a truck.  Without putting it down, she held it with one hand and donned her mask.

She turned our way, as though it wasn’t even a question.  A sensory power.

Butcher two, the ability to see people’s veins, arteries and hearts through walls.

She had the powers of thirteen capes, watered down, plus her own.  Some of those capes had possessed multiple abilities.  By power or by cunning, each had managed to kill the last.  This Butcher had the resources of each of them.

She led her group through the doors towards us, as silent as they were noisy.  I’d almost expected her to do the inverse of what she was doing and send her foot-troops in first.  Instead, she was the first through the doors, her powered allies immediately behind her.  Her foot troops were last to arrive, traveling around the full length of the building, swearing all the way.  They filled in the gaps of her group and gathered behind.

It was a different dynamic than some groups we’d fought.  These weren’t loyal soldiers or people fighting because they had nothing to lose.  They were opportunists, riding the coattails of the ones with the real power, hyenas picking at the scraps that were left behind after the lions had supped.

Spree was the first to use his power, and I got a sense of just how and why the group had arrived at this present strategy.  It wasn’t just that Butcher was dangerous enough to walk face-first into danger.  They had Spree to form their front ranks.

Four Sprees split off from him as he stood there, slightly hunched over as if bracing himself against recoil.  They were produced with such force and speed that they briefly flew through the air, stumbling slightly as they hit the ground running.  Three more Sprees were a fraction of a second after the first wave, with even more following a half-second behind them.

Fifteen or so Sprees in three seconds, before I’d even had a chance to call out an order.  Duplicates produced at the rate that a machine gun spat bullets.

They ran, some screaming, others swearing aloud as they closed the distance between our two groups, charging as a mass, limbs flailing, weapons-

Weapons?

It was hard to see in the rain, but the Sprees were all subtly different.  Some had knives or pipes they could bludgeon with, others had guns, and more had improvised weapons.  The mixing and matching of their armor was different as well.

There was a drawback, though.  Whatever they were, as solid and innumerable as they might have been, they were dumb, getting dumber every second they were alive.  He was producing a living tide of bodies, but they weren’t capable.  They were good for little more than sheer body mass and violence.

By the time the first ones reached us, they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  One reached me, swung a table leg at me in a wide, predictable swing.  I caught it, twisted his arm, and pushed him into a Spree that was stumbling forward from behind him. They both fell, and neither seemed to have the wherewithal to climb to their feet before they were trampled underfoot.

It was like fighting an infant with the size and strength of a grown man, except there were fifty or sixty of them.  A hundred?  The street was nearly filled with the bastards, from sidewalk to sidewalk, a mob between the Teeth and us.

They didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize they could actually shoot the guns, where the occasional Spree had one in hand, but the sound of a gunshot going off suggested that one had accidentally pulled a trigger.  The shot rang through the air, cutting through the thrum of raindrops striking ground.

Like the gunshot that marked the start of a race, it was the moment that brought the real fighting to a peak.  The Teeth and our side all jumped into action.

My bugs flooded into the group, condensing on the key members.  I couldn’t seem to touch the Spree that was generating the mindless clones, as his body vibrated and rippled, but I could attack Hemorrhagia, Animos, Butcher, Reaver, Vex and the underlings.  The press of near-identical bodies was almost useful, giving my bugs shelter and dry surfaces to move on.

Codex advanced, breaking away from the rest of the Ambassadors.  She was a pale woman dressed in a white evening gown, wearing a simple, featureless white mask.  A temporary costume.

She reached towards the crowd.  I could see the eyes of the Sprees lighting up as the effect reached further back into the crowd.  They stumbled, slowing, blocking the ones behind them from advancing.  Groans and grunts echoed from the crowd, all eerily similar.

Their powers were new.  Less than six hours old.  Accord had agreed to lend them to us, though their costumes hadn’t yet been designed, their powers not fully explored.  We’d offered Tattletale’s analysis of their capabilities in exchange.  She’d barely been capable, hadn’t yet recuperated from the migraines she’d suffered earlier in the week, and the use of her power had only brought the migraines back with a vengeance.

Still, we’d talked it over and agreed that the assistance of the Ambassadors as a whole was that much more useful in this scenario than a worn and weary Tattletale.  Tattletale’s feedback was essential, but we already had a sense of who the Teeth were, and Tattletale had been able to fill us in on the new Ambassadors just as readily as she’d filled Accord in.

Codex was a blaster-thinker hybrid.  Tattletale had speculated that the woman caused permanent brain damage and memory loss , briefly augmenting her own processing power in exchange.  The duplicates Spree was generating weren’t gifted with much in the way of brains to begin with.  Even a little damage was having devastating results.

Jacklight was launching forth the miniscule orbs of light, each growing as it traveled before stopping in mid-air.  Each warped space around it, accelerated movement, enhanced the output of certain forms of energy.  Where one of his lights was set next to a wall, it redirected one running duplicate into a wall.  Another, closer to the ground, swung a Spree that stepped over it into the ground face first.

It was Ligeia, though, who slowed down the enemy the most.  She created water out of nothing, geysers of the stuff that drove the mob back and sent them sprawling.

Then she sucked up the water.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I got the impression she caught one or two duplicates in the process, drawing them into whatever place she’d taken the water from.

It took her a second each time she switched from creating water to drawing it in.  Clones slipped through the gaps in the defensive line as she changed gears.

“Rachel!” I gave the order.  Before Jacklight’s power makes it impossible to go further or more slip through.

Her responding whistle cut through the night.  Bentley and three more dogs were released, charging forward, leaping over our defensive line to crash into a sea of duplicates.  The duplicates were now too closely packed together to even fall down, and were literally climbing over top of one another.  The dogs stumbled or slipped as the Jacklights tugged at one or two of their legs, then proceeded to tear their way through the crowd.

They were brought to a stop when they found the second of the Teeth’s defensive powers waiting for them.  Vex’s forcefields were countless, numbering in the hundreds, each sharp enough to cut exposed flesh.  Alone, they weren’t strong, but the shards had a collective, cumulative resistance.  I’d hoped Rachel’s dogs would have enough raw strength to power through.

Still, we had the advantage here.  The tide of the duplicates was slowed as the bludgeoning power of the dogs crumpled them underfoot or crushed them against one another, and both Barker and Biter were free to join the defensive line.  I was able to step back and get a brief respite from the hand to hand fighting with the Spree duplicates.

“Kip up!” Rachel bellowed the words.

One dog leaped to the side, planting its feet on a wall, then leaped for the Teeth on the far side.

A four-legged creature just a little smaller than the dog lunged into the air, brought the two of them crashing down into the midst of the sea of tiny forcefields.  Animos.

Cape teams naturally found their own synergies and strategies.  This was how the Teeth fought.  Two defensive lines protecting the reserve forces while the truly dangerous members acted.

Butcher raised her gun, setting one finger on a trigger of her gun.  It started spinning up.

“Butcher incoming!” I called out.

She teleported past the worst of Vex’s forcefield barrier.  Flame billowed around her in a muted explosion as she appeared.

Butcher six’s explosive teleporting.  It’s weaker than it was when six had it, shorter range, and the intensity of the explosion isn’t nearly what it once was.

She pushed past the remainder, and leveled the gatling gun at the nearest dog, pulled the trigger before anyone, Regent included, could do anything to trip her up.

Ten bullets were fired in a half-second.  A moment later, the weapon jammed.

Wounded but intact, the dog turned and snapped at her.

She was gone a heartbeat before the teeth snapped together.

Butcher three’s danger sense.  Didn’t do him much good.  Driven mad, died in a suicidal attack against the Teeth.  Window of opportunity is lower, application limited to more physical danger.

She reappeared in a cloud of rolling flame, reversed her grip on her gatling gun and swung it like a club, knocking Bentley clean off his feet.

Super strength, courtesy of one, three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen.  Cumulative effects.  A little bit of super strength from multiple sources added up.

Animos was pinned by another dog, a yellow light surrounding both of the unnatural beasts.  He screeched at the dog, a high-pitched noise that made me wince, but the effect didn’t take hold.  Animos’ scream could strip someone temporarily of their powers, but Citrine was dampening the effect.  That, or there was nothing to take away from the dog.  The mutation was Rachel’s power, technically.

Butcher approached the pair, and Citrine abandoned her assault, letting up.

As Tattletale had warned Grue, she’d warned Citrine as well. Butcher’s power was too dangerous to muck with.  Grue risked absorbing the consciousness of the prior Butchers, and Citrine risked striking on the right ‘attunement’ and accidentally killing Butcher.

But Citrine was still a leader, didn’t waste a moment.  She gave the signal, shouted something I couldn’t make out, and her followers opened fire.  Jacklight and Codex lobbed their attacks towards Butcher, and the leader of the Teeth teleported away before either could do any real damage.  Ligeia produced a geyser of water that sent duplicates flying ten or twelve feet in the air.  Othello, for his part, was standing by, his hands in his pockets, his two-tone mask expressionless.

Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t contributing.  Hemorrhagia was enduring an assault from an invisible, immaterial foe.  I could feel him, feel the movement against my bugs, but the bugs didn’t settle on him, simply passed through.  He was only partially there, focusing on allowing certain aspects of himself, his weapon, to affect our world.

Shallow cuts appeared on Hemmorhagia’s face, chest and arms as she tried ineffectually to shield herself, and those same cuts exploded violently as she used her power to draw her blood from her body and turn it into hard, physical, cutting weapons.  More blood congealed into broad scabs that protected her and reduced the damage of the continuous slashes.

A distance away, Imp appeared, electrocuting Spree with a jab of her taser and bringing an end to the stream of duplicates.  Not that the duplicates were doing as much damage as they had been.  Like lemmings running off a cliff, many were scaling the piles of fallen clones and promptly running into Vex’s forcefields, only adding more corpses to the virtual hill of corpses that separated us from the other members of the Teeth.

Our two Strangers were doing much of the work in dealing with the back line.  That left us to deal with Butcher.

Bentley had recovered and charged her.  She responded by hitting him with a wave of pain, putting him off his guard so she could strike him aside.

Butcher oneInflicted agony at range.

Bentley was quick to recover, quick to push past the pain that she was inflicting and attack.  She prepared to strike him again.

Regent knocked her off-balance, and she was caught off guard as Bentley struck her with one paw.

She teleported out of Bentley’s way before he could follow through with the attack, appeared in between Regent and I, surrounded by our capes.  We staggered back as flame washed over us.

I felt my focus begin to slip, thoughts of violence filling my mind.  I itched to attack, to hurt her.

I sent my bugs in, but that was the one gesture that set the others in motion.  Without realizing it, I found myself charging her.

Biter and Regent were among those caught in her spell.  We attacked her as mindlessly as Spree duplicates had attacked us.

My knife stabbed at her armor, doing too little damage.  I stabbed again, found a vulnerable spot at the back of her neck, just below her hairline.  I dragged the knife through her flesh.

Without even turning to face me, she elbowed me, and all the strength I had went out of me.  I careened a distance away, tumbled, landed amidst Spree clones.

They clutched feebly at me while I reeled.

Lizardtail’s power pressed even harder against me.  I could feel the edges of my injuries tingling, the wounds slowly knitting closed.  Far slower than they should have been, given the earlier demonstration of Lizardtail’s power.  Either he was weaker, or her ability to inflict wounds that progressively got worse over time was taking away from the power of his regeneration.

Butcher had a grip on Regent, threw him into Biter with enough strength to take the two of them out of the fight.

Possibly enough strength to kill one, if Lizardtail’s power wasn’t able to outpace the internal damage done.

Induces mindless rage.  Power from Butcher Nine.  Very low range.

Inflicts wounds that fester.  Power from Butcher Four.  Less effect than Four had.  Far shorter duration.

She teleported.  I could sense where she’d arrived as my bugs died en-masse.  She was going after Rachel.

I had lines of silk prepared, did what I could to bind Butcher.  She struggled briefly, then teleported free of them.

Codex and Ligeia directed attacks her way, and again, Butcher disappeared before either could really affect her.

I felt something shift inside me, and the pain dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  I got to my feet.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Get the wounded!”

Rachel whistled, and the dogs converged on our location.  Butcher had appeared in the midst of the Ambassadors, but the variety and ferocity of their attacks had her teleporting from moment to moment, doing more damage with the flames that appeared around her than through any action she could carry out.

It seemed that even though Codex’s attack hadn’t connected full force, Butcher wasn’t keen on giving her an opportunity to deliver any more grazing hits.

Rachel stopped next to me, offered me a hand up.

“Fetch Codex,” I said.  “The Ambassador in white.  Butcher’s going after her.  It might mean Codex is doing the most damage.”

Rachel gave me a curt nod, and we charged, leaving Grue to help Regent.

Butcher teleported away as Bentley hurtled at her.  I reached for Codex, took her hand.  She looked at Citrine, as if asking permission.

“Go,” Citrine said.

I helped Codex up onto Bentley’s back.  She had to sit sidesaddle.  Those ridiculous dresses.  They weren’t meant for fighting.

But, then, I suspected that Accord was used to ‘shock and awe’ tactics, when he had to engage in a direct assault.  How many of his enemies were as tough, versatile or persistent as Butcher?

She’d teleported away, effectively leaving her team to fend for themselves.  Only Reaver, Vex and, to a lesser degree, Hemorrhagia, were in fighting shape.  Butcher was interested only in the fight.  She was the central pillar of the Teeth, and stopping her would stop them, and for much that reason, her team was a secondary concern to us as well.

“Run!” I told Rachel.  “Codex, hit her where you can.”

I was versed in fighting teleporting foes, had engaged in a similar conflict against Oni Lee.  Butcher wasn’t him.  She didn’t obsessively use knives.

No, she was drawing a configuration of metal rods and panels from her back.  Her gun abandoned in the course of the fighting, she was unfolding the device into a different weapon.

A compound bow.

I already knew which power she was using next.  Imp had sabotaged the gun, jamming the ammo feed, but she hadn’t been able to get at the bow.  It was massive when fully unfolded, nearly six feet long, not counting the extra length as part of the curve.  Large enough that it required superhuman strength to draw.

Less than a year ago, Butcher had been known as Quarrel, and as Tattletale told it, Quarrel had used a much smaller version of that same bow to kill Butcher Thirteen in a drawn-out fight in New York.

Regent wasn’t in fighting shape.  My bugs weren’t able to move fast enough to reach her.  Ligeia wasn’t in a position to hit her with water, and Jacklight’s orbs didn’t reach nearly that far.

If she started shooting, we’d drop like flies.

“Hit her,” I said.  “Codex!”

Codex reached out to use her brain-drain attack.  It was visible only by the effects it had, but I’d seen it move through the Spree clones.  It was slow.

Butcher had time to string her bow before she had to teleport out of the way, appearing on top of a building with a vantage point of the battlefield.  She knelt, touching the rooftop, and reformed the stone into arrows.

That power was Butcher Eight’s, except he’d had more reach, was faster.

Bugs clustered at her eyes, but she barely seemed to notice.  Nearly blind, she drew her string, pointed the arrow at us.

Before I could react, shout a warning, Codex hit me with enough force to nearly unseat me, despite how I was sitting astride Bentley.  Something else struck my shoulder with enough force to tear half the armor away.

The new villain slumped and fell, joined by the piece of my armor that had been shorn off.  An arrow neatly penetrated her neck.

Butcher drew her bow again.

She didn’t miss.  She did something to warp space or adjust the very fabric of reality, so her shots always struck the intended target.

She aimed towards my teammates, paused, lowered her weapon a second as if momentarily confused.

The bow swept in the Ambassador’s direction.

Then she turned, her body rotating, the massive bow and long arrow pointing at us.  Rachel and I.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Go, go!”

We could only get out of range.

How far could a bow like that send an arrow flying?

Apparently Butcher didn’t think it would be this far.  She teleported, paused, then teleported again.  A small fire erupted at each destination point.

Another teleport, and she killed a swarm of bugs I’d left lying in wait.  I’d hoped she would fall short, and that I could bind her weapon with silk.  No such luck.

“She’s following!” I shouted.

Rachel grunted a response, kicked Bentley to drive him to run faster, then whistled.

Her dogs broke away from the rest of the Ambassadors and Undersiders, trailing after us.  Butcher had to teleport as one spry, smaller dog noticed her and ascended to the rooftop to give chase.

Buying time, but she was closing the distance.

I drew from the silk I had stored in my utility compartment.  Coils of it, braided together into lines strong enough to suspend a grown man.

Hopefully strong enough to hold Butcher.

We had a plan, I just hadn’t counted on her being quite as tenacious as she was.  I’d looked at the teleportation power, had failed to account for what it meant in conjunction with her danger sense.

I formed the silk into nets.  I could guess at her next destination, track her possible arrival points.

Again, she teleported right on top of a net.  The flames destroyed it.

One net left.

We’d reached the edge of the city.  There were fewer buildings, fewer rooftops.  Wet clumps of sand flew behind Bentley’s feet as he dug deep to find traction.

Butcher appeared on one of the last remaining rooftops, killing a cloud of bugs.  Other ambient bugs clustered on her, biting and stinging, doing ineffectual damage. Too tough, courtesy of Butcher number… fuck it.  Didn’t matter, really.

She deemed herself close enough to take a shot, drew her arrow back, raising the bow so it pointed nearly at the sky.

The net closed around her, unseated her arrow from its mount.

Bugs wound more strands around her knees.  The wind pushed at her, and she tried to extend one foot to catch her balance, succeeded only in tipping herself over.  She fell from the roof of the five-story building.

She teleported herself right to the ground, cutting the height of her fall in half and freeing herself of the net.

It was still a hard landing.

“Get her!  Fetch her!”

Rachel nodded, whistled three times, pointed.

The dogs that trailed after us were quick to follow the order, snatching up Butcher.

She’d heal, was probably healing the brain damage Codex had inflicted.  Butcher was tough enough that the dogs probably wouldn’t do enough damage before she regained her senses.

I might have been wrong in that assumption, but we couldn’t afford to think otherwise.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran.  Rachel and I on Bentley, a pack of her dogs following behind.

There was no telling how much time we had.

We’d gone into this with one plan.  One solid way of putting an end to Butcher.  It was why we weren’t hiding in the safety of Grue’s darkness.

Though we were in less danger than we’d been since the battle started, my heart was pounding harder than ever.

“Stop!” I called out, to be heard over the wind.

Rachel pulled Bentley to a stop.  She knew what came next, gave a hand signal.  “Dogs, stop!  Rat-dog, forward!’

The dog that had Butcher ran on a little further, passing over a line of stones in the wet sand.

“Shake!”

Rat-dog shook Butcher like she was a chew toy.

“Good dog,” Rachel said.  “Drop her.”

Rat-dog dropped Butcher.

“Come.”

Rat-dog whimpered.

“Good boy, come.”

Tail between his legs, Rat-dog approached, passing over the line of stones in the wet sand.

Long seconds passed.  Bentley virtually heaved with the exertion of the run.

My eyes didn’t leave Butcher.

Butcher roused, and it wasn’t a slow affair.  One instant she was lying prone, the next she’d teleported, appeared next to the narrow, light-bodied dog and bludgeoned it, sending it flying.

“Dakota, go!  Bear, go!”

Two more dogs charged Butcher, drove her back.

“Stop,” I warned Rachel.  I lowered my voice, “She has that rage aura.”

It didn’t matter.  Butcher dispatched the two dogs just as easily, eyed us warily as Rachel commanded them to retreat.

“Good dogs,” Rachel said, as they hurried to her side.

My eyes still didn’t leave Butcher.  I watched, waited.

She didn’t understand what was going on, why we weren’t pressing the attack.

But she wasn’t confident either.

She strung her bow, as if testing us.  She started to create an arrow out of sand, condensing it into a more solid form.

Then she gave up, stepped back.  The hardened rod of sand crumbled.

“Stop it,” she said.

I shook my head.

She lashed out, hit us with raw pain.

In the agony, the feeling of fire running through my veins, I toppled from Bentley’s back.

I’d anticipated this, or something like it, knew it was temporary.  I could only grit my teeth and tell myself it was almost the best case scenario, even when it didn’t quite feel like it.

Rachel’s dogs bristled, but the pain dissipated, and she found herself free to command them to stand down.

It didn’t matter.  Butcher was on her knees now, face turned toward the ground.

“Don’t say anything,” I murmured.

With more focus than before, Butcher formed a spike out of hard sand.

She was murmuring to herself now.  Conversing under her breath with the voices in her head.  She sounded oddly insistent, plaintive in a very childish manner.

When the weapon was formed, she glanced skyward, murmured something indistinct.

Then teleported a distance into the air, directly above the spike.

There was a wet sound, a pause.

“Nothing?” I asked Rachel.  “You… don’t feel her powers?”

She shook her head.

“Then let’s go.”

We began our long journey back to the others, leaving Butcher with a spike through her heart.

No rush.  The fight was over.  One more foe taken down.

If the PRT happened to wonder if any of the Undersiders or Ambassadors had acquired Butcher’s powers, all the better.

“Mind if I come by tonight?” I asked, my voice low.

Rachel shot me a glower over her shoulder, “Why?”

“To talk.”

“We can talk now.”

“And so I can see how you’re coping with your minions.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a whatever,” she said.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Okay,” I said.

There was no more conversation as we closed the distance to the others.

They were more or less in ship-shape when we arrived.  Regent was propped up against a wall, but he wasn’t pulverized.  The only one we’d lost was Codex.

“Success?” Grue asked.

“Success,” I said.

The entire group, even the straight-backed Ambassadors, seemed to react with relief.

“Guess my sister has one more kill under her belt,” Regent commented.  “Fourteen voices in Cherish’s head to keep her company as she spends the next few centuries alone at the bottom of the bay.”

“Daddy!” a toddler squealed.  No older than three, the small child waded past a pack of dogs to her father, the tall, large-bellied man who I’d seen handling some of Rachel’s dogs.

Rachel ignored the reunion, greeted the dogs who milled around her, barking and whining in joy as their master returned.

“Food?” she asked me, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Sure.”

“Someone make food,” she declared.

“I will!” a darker-skinned teenage girl declared.  She looked to be of mixed race, with brilliant blue eyes that didn’t match up with her brown, coarse hair and skin.

“Hamburger,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” the kid said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Vegetables,” I cut in.  “Something healthier.”

Rachel shrugged.  “That grilled crap you made before, with the… long green vegetables.”

“The asparagus?”

“Yeah.  That was good.”

The kid looked like she’d just won the lottery, almost bursting with joy.

Barker, Biter and the veterinarian all set to basic chores around the place, as if it were routine.  No one seemed to begrudge the fact that Bitch was taking it easy while they worked, not even Barker, who had been somewhat prickly the last time I’d run across him.

Either she’d earned their respect, or they’d learned how stubborn she was.

“I wanted to talk to you about the future,” I said.

“Mm,” Rachel said, reclining.  The dogs were clustered around her feet, the larger ones laying their heads in her lap.

“It’s… problematic, having you patrolling the area out here, scaring the locals.  You know that, right?”

Rachel shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

I watched as the man with the three year old girl joined one of Bitch’s other followers, a woman who had apparently been babysitting the child.  He fished in one pocket for money, then handed it over.

His voice was quiet, a mumble, “When some’dy helps you out, what d’you say?”

“Thank you!” the toddler chirped.

The woman only scowled.  I saw Rachel out of the corner of one eye, watching.

The man made his way past the kitchen, nearly running into the darker-skinned girl who was already cooking, past Barker and Biter, before finding a place to sit with his child.

Despite his size, his presence, the man with the child didn’t make eye contact with anyone.  Almost flinched at it, even in the face of a hundred-pound girl.

Mentally disabled?  Developmentally delayed?  Or had he suffered a trauma?

Between the way the girl had been so overjoyed at the slightest praise, and this man’s attitude, I was wondering if maybe Rachel’s people were somehow just as damaged as she was.

“There’s one possibility,” I said to Rachel.  “A role you could play in this.  You don’t have to.  Just putting it out there.”

“What’s that?”

“The portal, it sounds like it’s going to be a thing.  There’s a whole world out there with nobody around.  People will be settling there, establishing a society.  I’m imagining there’ll be something of a society popping up around the portal, a mirror city to Brockton Bay.  But there’ll be pioneers as well.  People striking out on their own.  And some of the Undersider’s enemies are going to try to slip through, control things on the other side.”

“And?”

“If you’re willing, maybe you could serve as an aide to the Undersiders, but you patrol for trouble, track down troublemakers and fugitives.  That could be your territory, more than just the fringes of this city.”

She frowned.

“It’s just an idea.”

“It’d be hard to feed my dogs.”

“Manageable,” I said.  “Tattletale aims to control one of the fleets that brings supplies to the other side.  We don’t know how restrictive the government will be with the portal, or where ownership will lie, but… I don’t imagine getting dog food to you will be a problem.  And as the area gets settled, maybe you could supply trained dogs to pioneers or hunters looking to capitalize on the area.”

She didn’t reply, focusing on her adoring dogs, instead.  Two hands, no less than twenty ears to scratch in her reach.

“Think about it,” I said.

“Mm,” she grunted.

The man was playing with his daughter, who was squealing and reaching out to pet the dogs who were standing by, almost protective.

“They’re okay?” I asked.  “The dogs won’t hurt the kid?”

“None of the dogs at this shelter,” Rachel said.  “Picked them carefully.”

I was a little stunned at that.  To give that much thought to something like that… it wasn’t in her character.

“Why?” I asked.

“You said I should think about what people need from dogs.  If I’m going to find them homes, the dogs need to be able to live with families.”

I nodded.  There were more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to spoil the quiet relief I felt at hearing her say that.

We sat for ten more minutes before Bitch rose and began playing with dogs.  She incorporated training into the play, dividing dogs into teams and having them fetch in shifts, among other things.  I stood, joining her, and she handed me a ball.

There wasn’t much more conversation beyond that.  Most of the talking was reserved for the dogs.

Time passed quickly enough that I was surprised that Rachel’s henchperson announced that the food was ready.  Not everyone collected some.  Barker and Biter held off.  The vet had her hands full.  Rachel loaded up a plate with two burgers and a pile of grilled vegetables.  I took about half the portions she did.

It wasn’t very good, but the kid seemed so pleased with herself that I couldn’t say anything to that effect.  Rachel didn’t seem to care, nor did the big man and his daughter.

“Thank you,” the toddler piped up, sing-song, when she was done eating the bits of crumbled up hamburger and bun.

Rachel, for her part, only stood to grab a soda.  She mussed up the cook’s hair on the way back, as if she were petting a dog.

…Not quite a leadership style I might have suggested, but the kid looked happy.

I finished what I could, considered throwing the rest to the dogs, then decided it was best not to risk angering Rachel.

It was late at night, now, but I didn’t return to my lair.  We tended to the dogs, grooming them, cleaning their ears and brushing their teeth.  Certain dogs were due pills, and Rachel saw to it that they got the pills.

It was an endless sequence of those little tasks I’d always found frustrating.  Cleaning up, doing jobs that would only be undone by the next day, if not within minutes.  I’d always found them frustrating, found it tolerable only now that I could delegate bugs to many of them.

Rachel reveled in it.  It seemed to calm her, center her.

The others found their way to their beds, or made their way out the front door to head back to wherever they lived.  Many dogs retreated to the kennels that were set out for each of them, and Rachel took the time to lock them in.

The night was creeping on, and I wasn’t leaving.  I knew why, didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Exhaustion overtook me eventually, though I would have been hard pressed to say exactly when.

I woke in the middle of the evening, found myself slumped on a couch with a crick in my neck, a blanket over me.

Rachel was on another couch, and the blue-eyed girl, the cook, was lying beside her, her back pressed to Rachel’s front.

I stood, stretched, winced at the knot at the muscle where my neck met my shoulder.  The movement seemed to stir Rachel.  She started to extricate herself from behind the girl.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” I murmured, keeping my voice quiet enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone.

She shifted position, keeping herself propped up, “You leaving?”

I frowned, “Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She settled back down, and the kid curled up against her.  Kid.  The teenager was probably older than Aisha or Vista.  I couldn’t help but see her as younger, because there was something about her that screamed ‘lost’.

Maybe that was the role that Rachel filled, here.  Forming a screwed up, antisocial family with those who had nobody else.  Damaged people.

I was okay with that.  I could believe that, even if she didn’t heal them or help them get better in any explicit way, she wouldn’t make them worse.

I felt like I should say something more, but I was tired, my thoughts increasingly occupied by greater matters.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said.

I headed to the door.  I was already gathering bugs to me, just to ensure I had a safe walk back.  A walk home in the dark would be nice.  Time to think.

“Thanks.”

I stopped in my tracks, looked back.

Rachel had her head down against the armrest of the couch.  I couldn’t see her through the other girl’s head.

But it had been her voice.

I revised my opinion.  Maybe they could heal each other, in their own ways.

It helped, as I stepped outside and started my long, quiet trek home.  I was riddled with doubts, with countless worries, but knowing that Rachel was in a better place was a light in the darkness.

I had let two days pass since my conversation with Miss Militia.  Dealt with the Teeth.  They weren’t all gone.  Hemorrhagia had slipped away, as had Reaver, and there were rank and file troops.  Parian still had some cleaning up to do, at the very least, but the Teeth weren’t the presence they had been.

Now I had to face everything I’d been dreading.  I’d spent time here because I was procrastinating.  Putting off the inevitable.  I couldn’t put it off any longer: if I didn’t bring myself to do it soon, it would only get harder to bring myself to do it.

Tomorrow morning, I thought.  I face off with Tagg and the rest of the PRT.

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Interlude 20

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If Accord didn’t know better, he might have thought this little soiree was located here with the sole purpose of irritating him.

Wait, he did know better.  Tattletale.  She would have done this just to beleaguer him.

The Forsberg Gallery.  The building had once been a pristine, albeit distressingly asymmetrical construction of glass and steel.  Now it was a shattered ruin.  There was little rhyme or reason to the design, and navigating was something of a chore.

To his right, as he ascended a staircase, there was a wing that jutted out from the side of the building, six stories up, like an architectural tumor.  With the damage done by Shatterbird’s attack, the only glass that remained in the building was scattered across the floor like a winter frost.  The offending growth on the side of the building had sustained some damage, more likely a consequence of the vibrations than damage from the glass itself, and the reinforcements that had been made to shore it up only served to make it uglier.

Inelegant, unbalanced.

His power immediately began supplying answers and solutions.  He was on his guard, and the first thoughts to his mind were of offense and harming others.  As clear as if he were seeing it for himself, he could see a pendulum, disguised among the steel frame of the building, swinging from a point above, and he could hear the sound of steel on steel, like a sword being drawn from its sheath, only at twelve times the scale.

With the appropriate design, the impact would be clean, almost muted.  His enemies, isolated within the wing, would make more noise, screaming as the reinforcing struts and the rivets holding intact beams to the larger structure were shorn away.  The end result would see his enemies dead, and the building improved, more balanced.

Ten minutes to draw up the blueprint.  Eighty to a hundred minutes of labor, depending on the skill of the craftsmen.  Two hundred and forty five minutes of labor if he did it himself… and the result would be stronger, better and more efficient if he did.  One thousand, four hundred dollars plus salaries.

Impractical.  Getting his enemies into the area would be hard.  Impossible, if they had any intelligence at all.

He dismissed the thought, but others were already flooding into place.  Him and his two Ambassadors in the offending wing, connected to nearby buildings by an arrangement of steel cables.  Not one pendulum, but seven.

One pendulum would cut the tumorous wing free.  It would swing out on the steel cables, between the two buildings.  With the right angle, it would swoop between the two nearest buildings.  The right mechanism, and one cable could come free at the right moment, allowing a change of direction.  They wouldn’t even lose their balance, as the angle of the floor and centripetal force kept them steadily in place.

With attention to details, they’d even be able to step free of the platform, as though they were departing a ski lift.  The wing would then slingshot into the rubble of a nearby building, cleanly disposed of.  The Forsberg Gallery would be pulled apart, steel cut from steel by the shearing blades of the pendulums, the weight and movement of the mechanisms serving a second purpose by magnifying the damage, pulling individual pieces free of one another and setting the complete and total destruction of the building into motion.

The unseemly Forsberg Gallery would crash to the ground, with many of his enemies inside, while he and his Ambassadors watched from the point where they’d disembarked.

He loathed making messes, but cleaning up after the fact was so very satisfying, whether it was mopping up the gore or seeing the lot cleared of debris.

Thirty two minutes to draw out blueprints for the pendulums and work out the sequence needed for best effect.  Three hundred to three hundred and forty minutes of time to set it up.  He could estimate costs north of eleven thousand dollars, not counting salaries.  None of the materials were particularly expensive in and of themselves, and he had any number of businesses in his pocket where he could acquire those materials at a significant discount.

Somewhat more practical, but impossible.  He didn’t have the time to set it up, not for tonight.  It made for an elegant image, if nothing else, somewhat soothing.

No sooner had he turned away from the idea of violence than other thoughts were forcing their way into his mind’s eye.  The outstretching wing being transformed from an edificial cyst to a bridge, with similar connections networking the entire city, each bridge and connection point changing individual points of design into a series of gradients.  Architectural styles and building heights would change from a stuttering, jilted progression to something flowing, a seamless wave

Accord closed his eyes briefly, doing what he could to shut it out.  It didn’t help.  He had a sense of the building as a whole, could imagine reconfiguring it, removing the parts that jutted out and using them to fill gaps towards the building’s center mass.  He’d worked with his power to see things through the various lenses of viability: money, resources, time, personnel, but that was almost a detriment now.

He opened his eyes to search for something to take his mind off of the irritating aspect of the building’s design, but he saw only glass shards, discordant in how they had fallen throughout the building.  Some had been swept out of the way by people who’d taken up residence in the Gallery, but the heaping, lumpy piles of glass, dust and debris weren’t any better.  He caught a glimpse of a soggy sleeping bag and the scattered contents of a supply kit and wished he hadn’t looked.

Images rifled through his mind.  A network of wires, drawn taut by a weight plunging through the elevator shaft, moving in concert to sweep the glass shards and signs of human life into the elevator shaft.  The same wires would catch his enemies, mangling them as they were cast down after the rain of glass.  Between the long fall and the thermite that could reduce the mess to a fine, clean ash, even more durable capes wouldn’t be walking away.

No.  It wasn’t constructive to think this way.

On the uppermost floors, plexiglass and a large volume of water mixed with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a sudsing agent, sweeping through the building.  Staggering it, so the water from the highest floor could clean away the soap-

Rearranging the glass shards into a kaleidoscopic-

“Citrine, Othello,” he spoke, interrupting his own train of thought.  “Distract me.”

“I’m not so comfortable with this vantage point,” Citrine said.  “The climb only tires us out, and the vantage point doesn’t suit any of our abilities.  It puts us in a weak position.”

“Sir,” Othello whispered.

“…Sir!” she belatedly added.

Accord was ascending the stairs just in front of her.  It might normally be impossible, but here, it was easy: to turn and deftly slice her throat with the folded blade within his cane.  Quiet, efficient.

He stopped partway up the stair case and faced her, saw her unharmed and unhurt.  His Citrine, young, blond, wearing a goldenrod yellow evening gown and a gemstone studded mask.  Her hair was immaculately styled, her makeup flawless, with a yellow lipstick that matched her outfit without being garish.

Accord’s left hand folded over the right, both resting on top of the ornate cane.

She stopped, glanced at Othello, beside her.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Everything and everyone in the appropriate place,” he said.  “Not just in terms of physical position, but socially.  Courtesy and acknowledgement of status are pivotal.”

“I know, sir.  It’s not an excuse, but I was tired from the walk and the climb, and I was thinking of strategy, in case we were ambushed.  I will endeavor to do better, sir.”

“We all have to do better.  We must all strive to improve.  A step backwards is a tragic, dangerous misstep.”

“Yes sir.”

As if he were watching himself on film, he could see himself pushing her down the stairs.  Not so steep a fall as to kill her, but the pain would enforce discipline, and the act of discipline would both help drive the point home for her and quiet his own thoughts.

But the bruises, cuts any broken bones, her inconsistent attempts at suppressing any sounds of pain as she joined him on the trek to the upper floor?  It would only make things worse.  More disorder.

The thoughts were so sharp they were difficult to distinguish from reality.  He shifted his hold on his cane, staring into her eyes.  She still stood before him.

With just the fractional movement of his hands, there was a change in her body language.  Muscles in her neck and shoulders grew more taut, her breathing changed.  She said, “Sir-”

“Shh,” he said.  She fell silent.

His left hand cupped her chin, his eyes never leaving hers.  More of a reaction: her eyes flickered, moving mere milimeters as she strained to maintain eye contact.  he could feel the warmth of her breath on his wrist as she exhaled slowly, the faintest of movements against his hand as she shifted her weight to stay absolutely still.

His thumb brushed against her cheek.  Soft.  He knew she dedicated an hour every morning to caring for her skin, another hour to her hair.  Unlike hers, his gaze was unwavering, assured.  In his peripheral vision, he could see her chest rise and fall.  He wasn’t a sexual creature, not in the base, animal sense.  The idea of intercourse, it didn’t appeal.  The mess of it.  But she was a thing of beauty, nonetheless.  He could appreciate her from an aesthetic standpoint.

Citrine had shifted out of place, though.  A square peg, just askew enough that it wouldn’t slide into the hole designated for it.  It jarred, and it cast a pallor on everything else that was right about her.

As his fingers moved, tracing the line of her jaw, drifting to her chin, the idea of cutting her throat invaded his thoughts.  A quick, clean severing of vital flows.  He could see the lines of tension in her neck as she stretched it, striving to keep it absolutely still.

Again, though, the disorder, the disruption.  Blood was so messy, and as much as he might relish the opportunity to take thirty minutes from his day and clean up back in a more secure area, others would see, and it would throw too many things out of balance.

There wasn’t a right answer here, and it bothered him.

Thinking rationally, he knew he was irritated.  The location, even this city, they didn’t suit him.  He couldn’t act on that, not yet, and the resulting dissatisfaction affected how he responded to the little things.

His fingers broke contact with her chin, one by one, as he contemplated his options.  By the time his index finger had dropped away, he’d decided.

“You’re my best ambassador, Citrine,” he said.

She was breathing just a bit harder than she had been, as the tension that had drawn her entire body tight was released.  A flush touched her cheeks as she responded, “Yes sir.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do my utmost to ensure you don’t have cause to.”

“Please do,” he said.  He noted that the flush had spread down to her decolletage.  Not the result of fear or anger.  Another base emotion.  “Citrine?”

She glanced at him.

“Calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” she breathed the words.

He glanced at Othello, who wore a black suit and a mask divided between alabaster white and jet black.  The man hadn’t commented or flinched as Accord addressed Citrine.

Accord turned and started ascending the stairs again.  “Quicken your paces.  I refuse to be late.”

Intrusive thoughts continued to plague him.  He’d once described it as being very similar to the sensation one experienced on a train platform, a ledge or while standing in front of fast moving traffic, that momentary urge to simply step forward, to see what might happen.

Except the thoughts were sharper, with more weight to them, more physical than ethereal.  His power was problem solving, and every problem demanded to be addressed. The solutions were posited whether he wanted them or not, one step and hundred-step plans alike.  And it never ended.

Every flaw needed correcting, every imbalance needed to be weighed again.  Mediocrity could be raised to greatness.

The greater the problem, the faster he could solve it.  He’d taken the time one afternoon to solve world hunger.  Six hours and twenty-six minutes with the internet and a phone on hand, and he’d been able to wrap his head around the key elements of the problem.  He’d drafted a document in the nine hours that followed, doing little more than typing and tracking down exact numbers.  A hundred and fifty pages, formatted and clear, detailing who would need to do what, and the costs therein.

It had been bare bones, with room for further documents detailing the specifics, but the basic ideas were there.  Simple, measured, undeniable.  Every major country and ruler had been accounted for, in terms of the approaches necessary to get them on board, given their particular natures and the political climate of their area.  Production, distribution, finance and logistics, all sketched out and outlined in clear, simple language.  Eighteen years, three point one trillion dollars.  Not so much money that it was impossible.  A great many moderate sacrifices from a number of people.

Even when he’d handed over the binder with the sum total of his work, his employer had been more concerned with the fact that he’d shown up late to work for his job.  His boss had barely looked at the binder before calling it impossible, then demanded Accord return to work.  A mind like his, in an office handling economic oversight within the PRT, looking for the precogs and thinkers who were trying to manipulate the markets to their own ends.

It was only one imbalance, one irregularity, but it had been an important one.  It had nagged at him, demanded resolution.  He had to prove it was possible.

So he’d siphoned the very funds that his department was managing.  It hadn’t been hard to redistribute some of the wealth that the villains and rogues were trying to manipulate.  One ambiguous evil for the sake of an undeniable good.  He covered his tracks flawlessly.

In the process, he failed to account for the full breadth of his newest coworker’s talents.  Thinker powers interfered with one another, and despite his ability to work with that particular drawback, even help them to work in concert, the clairvoyant had found him out.  He’d been caught, jailed, and subsequently freed by the jailbreak specialist he’d contacted well in advance.

Here he was, years later.  Nobody he’d contacted had taken to his ideas, and government after government had failed to thoroughly read the documents he sent them.  Nobody raised the subject of his work to the United Nations or any major political body.  They were too interested in maintaining the status quo.

His plans weren’t observably closer to fruition, but he had contacts and he had wealth, and that went a long way.  He would take the slow, steady path to victory.  The binder relating to world hunger had been expanded on, with the addition of further binders to detailing the specifics.  Other sets of binders had joined it, each relating to a major issue: disease, population, government, energy, and climate.  He spent an hour and a half every morning ensuring that everything was up to date with recent changes to the economy and international politics.

The recent altercation with the Slaughterhouse Nine in Boston had been a setback, but he remained confident.  Twenty-three years to see it all through.  Twenty-three years to bring the world into order.  Everything was a step towards those ends.

Even this, as much as the setting and the people grated.

They reached the top floor and came face to face with the Teeth.  Seven parahumans, wearing costumes that bristled with blades, spikes and spines.  They managed to wear the trophies of their defeated enemies without looking primitive.  Teeth, eyes, dessicated body parts and bones were worked into their costumes, a collective theme that promised aggression and violent retaliation for any slight.

Accord tightened his grip on his cane.  He itched to end them.  His mind burned with hundreds of ideas on how to do it.  Traps, ploys, ways to set them against one another, or ways to use the other people in the room against them.

The Teeth didn’t get in his way as he led his two ambassadors around the periphery of their group.  There were no windows, and the wind sent minuscule shards of glass dancing over the tiled floor, periodically glinting as they caught the light from the flood-lamps that were set around the room.

“Welcome, Accord,” Tattletale greeted them.

He surveyed the group at the end of the long table.  They weren’t holding back, in making a show of power.  No less than six dogs were chained in place behind them, each mutated and grown to massive size by Bitch’s power.  Their number was bolstered by the addition of a massive spider and a scorpion, both wrought of black cloth.  Silk?  Skitter’s silk?

Regent stood by Imp, a costume of predominant white contrasted by a costume of black.  They seemed to be exchanging murmured words.

Bitch wore a mask that looked much like her dogs did, bearing a black jacket with thick, shaggy fur around the edges of the hood and collar.  She didn’t flinch, even as one of her larger mutants growled and gnashed its teeth inches from her head.  The creature’s ire was directed at Accord, not her.

Parian’s style of dress had changed from the images Accord had seen in his research.  Her hair was no longer blonde, but black, her frock matching.  The white mask she wore had a crack running down one side.  She was very diminutive compared to the others, almost demure with the way she sat at one side of the table, hands folded, as though she didn’t want to be a part of this.

Tattletale, by contrast, was seated on the cloth scorpion, just beside a large monitor.  She was cavalier, her hair wind-tousled, disrespectful by her very body language, sitting askew.

He had to work to ignore her.  He turned his attention to the figures at the head of the table.  Grue stood behind the chair, one hand set on the backrest, a demonic visage wreathed in absolute darkness. Skitter sat at the end, backed by her forces, looking over the room.  Bugs swarmed her from the shoulders down, but Accord could note a shawl and hints of protective armor.  Neither the yellow lenses of her mask or the expanse of black cloth that covered her face gave any indication of her mood or expression.  Either the images that he’d seen had been misleading, or she’d done some work to her mask, making the mandible-like sections of armor that ran forward from her jawline sharper and more pronounced.

Dismissing Tattletale’s greeting, Accord spoke to Skitter, “We finally meet.  Good evening.”

“Good evening,” she said, her voice augmented by the accompanying buzzes and drones of countless bugs in the area.  “Have a seat.”

He took a seat midway down the length of the twelve-foot table, and his ambassadors sat on either side of him.

The Fallen must not have been terribly far behind him, as they arrived less than a minute after he did.  Valefor and Eligos.

Valefor wore a delicate-looking mask without eye-holes: a woman’s upper face with closed eyes.  Beneath the mask, he had a sly, perpetual smirk with tattoos that colored his lips black and extended from the corners.  The ink depicted fangs poking from thin lips that nearly reached his jaw, the points alternating up and down.  His costume was almost effeminate, with white and silver feathers featuring heavily on flowing white clothes that clung to his narrow body, including a corset that drew his waist in.

The costume was meant to invoke images of the Simurgh, no doubt.  Crass.  Eligos’ costume wasn’t so fine, suited more for a brawl, but it, too, conjured up thoughts of an Endbringer: the Behemoth.  Obsidian horns that swooped back over his head, heavy armor that resembled rhino hide in texture and claws built into his gloves.

“Valefor, Eligos, members of the Teeth, now that we’re all here, I’ll ask that you take a seat,” Skitter said.

“Why should we listen to you?” Valefor asked, his voice was incongruous with his outfit, bearing a slight southern twang.  He leaned over one chair, his arms folded over the backrest, taunting.

“It’s customary for there to be violent retaliation if someone causes trouble at a meeting like this,” Skitter said.  “Usually involving every other party that’s present.”

“I’m not saying I’m intending to cause trouble,” Valefor said.  “I’m wondering why we should follow the schoolgirl.  I’m sure everyone here saw the news.  Did you see the news, Butcher?”

“Yes,” the leader of the Teeth answered.  A woman stepped out of the midst of the group of Teeth.  She was elegant, long necked and long-limbed, with her hair tied up in a high ponytail.  Her mask and armor had an Asian style to it, though the costume were studded and trimmed with a number of wickedly barbed blades.  More incongruous, there were three bleached skulls strung to one another and hanging around one shoulder.

The costume, it was asymmetrical, lacking harmony, trying to do too many things at once.  The samurai, the headhunter, the bloodletter.  None of it fit the title she wore: Butcher.

Images flickered through Accord’s mind.  Ways to obliterate both costume and wearer. More difficult than it seemed, given just who she was.

As if to punctuate Accord’s line of thinking, she effortlessly lifted a gatling gun and set it down on the end of the table.  The sheer mass of the weapon was imposing enough that Accord momentarily wondered if the other end of the long wooden table would lift off the ground.

The woman very deliberately refused the offer to sit.  She’d spoken only one word, but managed to convey a great deal with her actions.

“Very embarrassing,” Valefor mused aloud.  “Really, I don’t see why you should get to sit at the head of the table.  A sixteen year old girl, a victim of bullying, it doesn’t conjure up the most imposing image, does it?”

“If everyone agreed to suspend the usual rules, I would be more than happy to go head to head with your group,” Skitter replied.

“Of course you would.  You outnumber us.”

“Just me,” Skitter answered him.

“That so?”  Valefor smiled, considering.

Accord surveyed the situation.  Valefor was a stranger, less in terms of his ability to hide, and more in his ability to engage in subterfuge.  He had only to look on a target with his naked eye, and the fight was over.  It was no small wonder, really, that he’d styled himself after the Simurgh.  The effect was all too similar, in how the victim was often unaware of what had happened until it was too late.

Yet Skitter didn’t seem to mind.  Was it a decoy?  An empty costume?  No.

A trap?

Accord studied the area around Valefor.  What would he do, with her abilities?

He saw it: almost invisible, except where the light caught it at the right angle.  Threads, surrounding Valefor, trailing from his corset, his elbows and knees.

They were all trailing in the direction of the window.  If they were pulled taut, Valefor would be dragged outside.  Depending on how well they held, he’d either dangle or fall to the street below.

“Valefor,” Accord spoke, the layers of his mask shifting to emulate his smile, “Trust me when I say you already lost the fight.”

“Is that so?”

“I won’t spoil the conclusion if you’re eager to see this through.  One less threat to worry about.  But if I may offer my own opinion, I think the response she gave, given the situation, was eminently reasonable.  I gained respect for her, seeing how it unfolded.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Regardless, I won’t condone fighting here.  It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yes,” Butcher said.

Valefor frowned.

“That’s that, then,” Skitter said.

Accord studied her.  He could see her swarm in the shadows behind the floodlights, moving in anticipation of a fight, no doubt.  Their presence nettled him almost as badly as if they’d been physically crawling on him.  They were all of the issues he’d had with the glass, but they were alive.  He knew he could make them stop, make them go away, simply by giving an order to his ambassadors.  Not that it was a possibility.

He glanced at Skitter.  “I think you and I both know you’d win the fight.  But how final would the outcome be?  You’re in the seat of power.  More villains will arrive with every passing day.  Are you prepared to kill?”

“Is this some kind of head game?” Valefor asked.

“It isn’t any manner of head game,” Accord responded.  “I’m curious.  Her response would shed a great deal of light on the discussion tonight.”

“Yes,” Skitter gave her belated response.  “But I’d like to keep to the unwritten rules, as abused as they have been, lately.  Killing should be a last resort.”

“I see.”  She has some other trap on hand?  The bugs at the edge of the room?  “Can I ask if- no, wait.  Don’t tell me.  I’ll enjoy it more if I discover it for myself.”

“Very well.  Now, if everyone would be seated, we can begin,” Skitter said, resting both elbows on the table.  

It wasn’t quite straight, Accord noted.  The table was askew, in relation to the rest of the room.  Solutions flickered through his mind’s eye, ranging from ones as simple as standing to push the table into a proper position to a flat-faced wrecking ball that could slam into the building’s side.

No, he had to focus.  He could distract himself by figuring out Skitter’s contingency plans.

Butcher seemed to come to a decision, but that was normal for her, to take some time, ruminate.  To discuss, for lack of a better word.  She sat at the end of the table opposite Skitter.  She was tall enough to be seen head and shoulders over the massive gun.  Her followers didn’t sit, but stood in a half-circle around her, a mirror to Skitter’s own group.

“Valefor,” Skitter spoke, and her voice was more ominous, hinting at the sheer number of bugs lurking at the edges of the room, “Either take a seat or leave.”

Valefor glanced over the room, then shrugged, as if he didn’t care anymore, sitting.  Eligos followed his cue.

And Accord realized Skitter’s contingency plan in the next instant.  Silk wasn’t just attached to Valefor, to him, even.  She’d connected silk to the furniture.

The table.  She could drag the table with the silk lines, each laid out to fit in the gaps between tiles, nearly invisible.  In doing so, she’d sandwich any one group between the table and a wall, or leave them clinging for a grip, almost falling.

How would she drag it?  Another mutant dog?  Some counterweight?

Regardless of the answer, Accord felt oddly pleased with himself.  The danger posed by this trap didn’t even concern him.

“Let’s talk business,” Skitter said.  “Whether you like it or not, the Undersiders have prior claim on this city.”

“A matter of a week and a half,” Valefor said.

“Prior claim,” Skitter repeated herself.  “We have rules, and if you bend or break these rules, we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’ve already discussed your rules with Tattletale,” Accord said.

“You had your chance to accept the terms we were offering then.  Now the rules we’re stipulating have changed.  No killing.  Cross that line and we kill you.  Several members of our team are capable of doing that without you knowing we’re anywhere nearby.  If you’re lucky, Imp slits your throat with you none the wiser, or Regent has one of your underlings stab you in the back, and you go quick.  If you’re unlucky, Bitch’s dogs tear you to shreds, and it’s a long, drawn out, painful process.  If you’re very unlucky, you get the worst of both worlds, and you deal with me.”

“What if there’s someone that has to die?” Valefor asked.  “Sometimes killing is necessary.”

“You come to me.  I decide,” Skitter said.

“There’s no new detail here,” Accord said.  “Tattletale outlined much the same thing, though with less in the way of threats.”

“I’m not even close to done.  Property.  We will find out about any territory you acquire.  Whatever you pay for the land, you pay us a third.  That includes the cost of buying the land itself, rent and taxes.  If you’re not paying property taxes or rent, we still expect an appropriate amount.”

“Expensive,” Accord said.

“You could have accepted our earlier offer,” Skitter replied.  “If you want out from under that particular constraint, any of you may fold your organizations into ours, coming under our direct authority.”

“This is a passive takeover, then,” Accord said.  “You intend to put the squeeze on us until we cave.”

“I am very, very tired of people telling me what I intend,” Skitter answered him.  “Our territory borders are marked with our individual signatures.  Traffic in anything illegal or harm someone within any of these areas, and we retaliate.  Target any of us, and we retaliate as a whole.”

“It doesn’t sound like it leaves us much elbow room,” Accord replied.  “I have yet to see an area that wasn’t already marked as being in one territory or another.”

“Then you grasp my meaning.” Skitter added, “My next point: during any Endbringer event, or the possible incident at the end of the world, you send half of your powered membership or three members to assist, whichever is more.”

“This is bordering on the ridiculous,” Valefor said.  “You expect us to fight the Endbringers?”

“You?  No.”

“You’re picking a fight,” Valefor said.

“I’m giving each of you the option of obeying, leaving or fighting,” Skitter said.  “The Ambassadors will accept the deal as posed.  They won’t like it, Accord may even hate me, because of my powers and my less predictable nature, but they’ll accept.”

“Is that so?” Accord asked.

“Yes.  You’ll do it because you have resources that you can use to leverage what unfolds when they’ve finished scouting the other side of the portal and open it up for business.  You wouldn’t come all the way here and then leave because you didn’t like the terms.”

“There are the other options.”

“Fighting us?  You have only two underlings that survived the attack in Boston.  As strong as they are, you’re not equipped to fight.  You’ll join us because it’s the fastest route to get what you really want.”

Ah, Accord thought.  Tattletale filled her in.

It made life a little easier, and a little harder, in very different ways.

Skitter leaned back, one hand resting on the table.  “What was it you said to Tattletale?  Everyone and everything has a place?”

“More or less.”

“Your place isn’t on a battlefield, opposite the Undersiders.  It’s in this city, building an infrastructure and gathering resources for your long term plans.  You’ll accept an expensive rent and a limitation on criminal activity for that very reason.”

“You would have me risk good help on fruitless fights against immortal killing machines,” Accord said.

“That too,” Skitter replied.  “I don’t expect the Fallen will accept the terms, with the restriction about fighting Endbringers, but I doubt they’re long for this city anyways.”

Valefor stood from the table.  Eligos joined him.  Together, they strode from the room, silent.

“That was a touch rash,” Accord commented, “insulting them.”

“I wasn’t lying.  Imp and Haven will handle them soon.”

“Valefor is more cunning than you’d assume.  An arrogant young man, impetuous and immature, but history suggests he’s rather cunning when he puts his mind to something.”

“Not a concern,” Skitter said.

“If you say so.”

Skitter turned her attention to the other leader.  “Butcher?”

“No,” the woman replied, standing from the table.

“I didn’t think so.  Do you have any other business you’d like to bring up, while we’re all here?”

“You die,” Butcher said.  “You can’t kill me.  I will win.”

With that, her longest statement yet, she turned and walked away.

“Not good enemies to have,” Accord commented.  It was just his group and the Undersiders now.

“We’ll manage.”

“The first Butcher had super strength, durability, and the ability to inflict enough pain at a distance that his enemies went into cardiac arrest.  His other powers only became evident later.  He was killed by a subordinate, and the man who would later be known as Butcher Two inherited a fraction of his powers and a share of his consciousness.”

“Butcher Three inherited it too, along with a share of Two’s powers and consciousness,” Tattletale said.  “He was a hero, though.”

Accord rankled at the fact that she’d spoken out of turn.  Her voice rang in his ears, as though each syllable were the echoing toll of a bell, growing louder with each iteration.  Out of turn, out of sync, out of place.

He bit his tongue.  “Yes.  And the two voices in the hero’s head worked together to drive him mad.  He was gone from this world well before he died in battle.  The Teeth reclaimed the power, and the legacy has largely remained within the group since, each successor inherting powers of the ones before.  The voices and consciousnesses only work with rightful heirs, members of their group who challenge the leader and beat him in a fair match.”

“Which one is this?” Regent asked.

“Fourteen,” Tattletale said.

“This one’s number fourteen?” Regent asked.  “Which means she’s got thirteen sets of powers?”

Another one, speaking out of turn, Accord thought.

Citrine was giving him a sidelong glance.  He met her eyes, shook his head fractionally.

Tattletale answered, “Only a small share of each power.  Don’t forget she’s got thirteen voices in her head, giving her advice and helping her work stuff out, and all the powers she brought to the table, besides.  Her attacks don’t miss.  She imbues them with an effect which means they bend space so they strike her target,  Bullets turn in midair, swords curve, all means she’s pretty much guaranteed to hit you if her attack reaches far enough.”

She hopped down from the scorpion’s head and walked around the table until she was opposite Accord.

One by one, the Undersiders who’d been standing behind Skitter found seats.  The other groups had left, and they were making themselves more at home, now.  Regent put his boots on the table, right in front of Imp, who pushed them away.

Overly familiar.  Presumptuous.

Accord closed his eyes for a moment.  The table was unbalanced now, in a metaphorical sense, but it felt very real.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you leave to sit.”

Tattletale raised her eyebrows.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you permission to complain.  Our territory, our house, our rules.”

I could kill you.  Car bombs, other traps.  I could manipulate the heroes into going after you.  When I direct my ambassadors, they win their fights.  You’d break in the face of what I could do, the pressure I could inflict, everything and everyone in the world suddenly a threat, with me pulling the strings. 

He drew in a deep breath.  Too much at stake, to say such things.  In his most patient tone, as though he were speaking to a well meaning but misguided eight year old, he explained, “I’m talking about the way things are meant to be, Tattletale, understand?”

Tattletale bristled as though he’d slapped her.

“Enough,” Skitter said.  Her voice was quiet.

The silence that followed was both surprising and relieving.  She had control over her subordinates.  Good.  It took a measure of talent to exert control over such disturbed individuals.

He studied the girl.  She was composed, despite the fact that less than twelve hours had passed since her identity had been revealed to the world.  And her bugs… it had grated how disordered they had been, but now that he was looking at the ones she wore like a second layer of clothing, he could see how they were ordered, all in formation.

Skitter was calm, collected, reasonable but willing to act with a heavy hand when needed.  Clever.  She thought at the scale necessary for a true leader.

“Do you accept the deal?” Skitter asked.  “Best if I ask now, because your answer dictates the tone of the conversation that follows.”

“I accept,” he replied.  She was right: he really had no choice in the matter.  He’d dealt with worse deals and worse circumstances before.  “I suspect there will be friction, and we will have our disagreements, but we’ll be able to find a common ground.  You and I are very similar people.”

She didn’t reply.  The silence yawned, and his fingertips twitched involuntarily, dangerously close to the trigger that would turn his cane into a weapon.

“In saying that,” he said, doing his best to remain level, “I was inviting a response.”

“And I was taking a second to think before giving it,” she responded.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction.  He grit his teeth and smiled, his mask moving to emulate the expression.  “Beg pardon.”

“Let’s talk about details,” Skitter said.

The city is too dirty.  Too disordered.  The thoughts were intruding again, oppressive, insistent.  They were at the point where they were repeating, cycling back on one another.  He’d have to do something to break the cycle.  It could be time spent at a workbench, sorting out the projects in his binders or eliminating some of the more chaotic elements.

Murder was out, but there were other options.  He’d sent capes to the Yàngbǎn before.  It was more constructive than killing.  Cleaner.  It also built relationships with the C.U.I..

“Talk,” he said, after too many long minutes of silence.

“We can take them, sir,” Othello said.  “Any one group, we could handle, but not two groups at once.”

“I agree,” Accord said.  “Do you think you could handle them if things went sour?”

“With little trouble, sir.  The only ones I’d wonder about are Tattletale, Imp, Valefor and Fourteen,” Othello replied.

“Imp and Valefor… your stranger powers against theirs makes for a troublesome fight.  Imp is the one I would worry about first.  Unpredictable, impossible to track.”

“I’m suspicious my power cancels hers out, sir.  My other self saw her get close to Butcher.  I think she had a weapon.”

“Interesting.  Citrine?”

“I don’t know, sir.  Forgive my saying so, but a lot of people have thought they could handle the Undersiders, and they were wrong.  I don’t know how my power would interact with theirs.”

“Very true.  Sensible.  I’ll need to recruit, regardless of whether we encounter them.  Focus on the Teeth and the Fallen for the time being.”

“Yes sir,” the pair echoed him.

Skitter and Tattletale, he thought.  They were the real issues for him.  Tattletale’s power might have seemed similar to his own, but it was almost the inverse.  He’d heard himself described as falling somewhere in between a thinker and a tinker, and perhaps that was apt.  It was how he applied his power, starting with the end result and building backwards, and the designs that he fashioned that were so tinker-like.  But his real ability was as a thinker, involving planning, awareness and ideas beyond the reach of the unpowered.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to plan for every contingency.

They’d reached their accomodations, a newly built office building.  He owned the two uppermost floors, and was buying the floors beneath as the owners agreed to the sales.  Soon he would have it set up his way, with escape routes and traps to target his enemies.

“Othello,” he said.

“Yes sir?”

“Send the five first tier employees with the best grades to my room.  I expect them in fifteen minutes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Once you’re done, retire for the evening.  Rest well,” he said.  “There are big things on the horizon.”

“Yes sir,” the two ambassadors echoed him.

Only two.  It wasn’t enough.

He settled in his room.  Too much of the furniture was pre-made.  He preferred things he had made himself.  Cleaner, simpler.  He knew where it had all come from, knew how it was put together.  Accomodations he had crafted himself were as soothing as the outside world wasn’t.

The five employees arrived right on time.  Satisfactory.  He opened the door to his room and invited them in.  Three men, two women, immaculate, all in proper business attire.

His vetting process was strict, and each step up the ladder required both his invitation and the employee’s acceptance.  Each step required them to prove their worth, to face progressively more stress and heavier workloads, and to hold themselves up to his increasingly exacting standards of perfection.

It might have made for reality television, if it weren’t for the blood that was shed along the way.  Theirs and others.

“You are being promoted,” he said.  “After tomorrow, you will be my ambassadors, my representatives to the rest of the world.”

The displays of emotion were well hidden, but they were there.  They were pleased.

“That is all.”

Wordless, the five marched out of his room.

Withdrawing his cell phone, Accord dialed a long distance number.

He smiled a little at that.  He wasn’t much for humor, but it had its places.

The ringing stopped, but there was no voice on the other end.

“Accord.  Brockton Bay.”

The doorway opened at one end of his room.  His hair stirred as air pressure equalized between the two planes.

The Number Man stood on the other side, in the white hallway with white walls.

“Five vials.  Of the same caliber as the last set, same price.”

“Done,” The Number Man said.  “Where do we stand?”

“It’s promising, but I wouldn’t make any guarantees.”

“Of course.  Everything’s progressing according to plan, then?”

Accord nodded, once.  “As well as we might hope.  We lost Coil, but the Undersiders may serve as a model in his absence.”

“Good to know.  I’ll inform the Doctor.”

The gateway closed.  Accord sat down on the end of the bed, then lay back, staring at the ceiling.

Coil had been the focus of the test, unaware.  The man had also been Accord’s friend, the one who’d sold him the PRT databases.  His death had been a tragic thing, on many levels.  There were few men Accord considered worthy of being his friend.

Now it hinged on the Undersiders.  They’d taken up Coil’s legacy, after a fashion, and just like Coil, their ambitions fell in line with Cauldron’s.  The organization’s hopes rode on them and their decisions.  Accord’s hopes rode on them: his twenty-three year plan, saving the world from the worst kind of disorder.  In the end, they were responsible for billions.

Not that he could tell them or change his actions in respect to them.  It would defeat the point.

Everything and everyone had their respective places in the grand scheme of things.  For one sixteen year old, the decisions she made in the immediate future would have more impact than she imagined.

It all came down to whether she could embrace this new role, and whether the city could embrace her in turn.

Accord drifted off to sleep, his weary mind grateful from the respite from the endless assault.

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