Monarch 16.6

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“We should throw a party,” Imp said.  “Celebrate.  Rub it in a little.”

“Rub it in?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  Party in the streets, maybe some fireworks.  Show the heroes that we know we won and we’re doing fine.”

There were a few chuckles from the others.  Regent and the Travelers, primarily.

“In what way is that even close to being a sensible idea?”  Grue asked.

“I didn’t say it was sensible.  But it’s fun, and that’s why we got into this, right?”

“No.  No it isn’t.  It was maybe a side-bonus when I joined the group, if anything, but things have changed since then.  I warned you this would be hard work, that it wouldn’t be fun and games.  And throwing a party to celebrate a win is a monumentally bad idea when we don’t even want the heroes to know we consider this victory anything out of the ordinary.”

“It is out of the ordinary.  We’re not giving anything away if we’re celebrating scaring off Dragon.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Regent chimed in.  Grue turned his way, and I could imagine the death glare that was behind his mask.  Probably scarier than the mask itself.

“Maybe you’re right,” Grue said, “Maybe, I won’t say you’re absolutely right there-”

“Of course not,” Imp said, sighing.

“-But we definitely don’t need to rub it in the heroes’ noses.  Not if it means they have both an excuse and motivation to try this again, sooner.”

“If you’re afraid of that, we’ll never be able to celebrate a win.”

“I’m okay with that,” Grue said.

“Do we get to chime in?” Trickster asked.  “Because I’m siding with the Imp, here.  Morale could become pretty important if we’re going to be building up individual gangs and collections of henchmen.”

Grue sighed.  “Feeling outnumbered here.  Skitter?”

“What?”  I blinked.  “Sorry, not keeping track of the conversation.”

“She’s out of it.  Tattletale broke Skitter when she said we won,” Regent said.

“I’m… I’m alright.  Lost in thought”

Grue settled a hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t read his expression with his mask in the way.

I sighed and confessed, “I’m… I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Isn’t that what happens?  The second things start to go right, the next disaster strikes?  Empire Eighty-Eight, Leviathan, The Nine, Dragon…”

“That’s a pretty defeatist way of thinking,” Trickster commented.  “Didn’t Tattletale basically say that there’s nobody left to cause us any problems?”

“There’s always something,” I said.  “I’d rather anticipate it and be ready.”

“Look at it this way,” Genesis spoke.  She was in a human-ish form, not unlike her real self, though she was wheelchair-free.  “If it’s more dangerous than Leviathan, the Nine or the Dragon suits, there’s no way we can make some plan to deal with them until they make the first move.  If they’re less dangerous, we can deal.  Relax.  We’re in good shape.”

I shrugged.

“Sooo,” Imp drew out the word, “Party?”

“No,” Grue and I spoke at the same time.  Imp groaned.

“Coil told us to check on our territories.  We should do that,” I said.  “Take your costumes off, take it easy.  I’m going to see if the food and drink I’d arranged to go to people in my territory is still okay, and make sure that they get fed and don’t have cause to lynch me.  Then I’m probably going to sleep for twelve straight hours.”

“Wait, didn’t you just say no party?” Imp asked.

“It’s not a party.  It’s something I was doing before the Dragon suits came.”

“Do the heroes know that?”

“Dragon could confirm it,” I said.  “She disrupted the preparations.”

“Dunno, that sounds pretty flimsy,” Imp said, sounding way too pleased with herself, “Maybe you better cancel, just to be safe.”

“Imp,” Grue growled the word.

Imp laughed, “I’ll go patrol our territory.  I’ll be using my power, so no worries about being seen in costume.”

“Coil said we shouldn’t go out in costume at all,” I said.  “I thought that part of the message was pretty clear.”

“Fine,” Imp said.  “Whatever.  If I’m not supposed to do anything, I’m going back to our place, gonna to kick back and catch up on some shitty reality shows.”

“No TV,” Grue said.

“Nuh uh.  No way.  If you two want to play hardass mom and dad and be controlling assholes, okay.  But you can’t tell me I can’t watch T.V.”

“I mean you won’t get any channels.  There’s no cable, no digital connection and no satellite.  Only static.”

Imp groaned, an agonized sound one might expect from someone who had just been speared through the gut.

What did it say about me that my metaphors were tending towards that kind of violent imagery?

“Why don’t you come by?” Regent asked her, “Play video games?  I’ve got shows on DVD.  No shitty reality shows, but stuff.”

I looked Grue’s way to gauge his reaction to Imp and Regent hanging out, only for our eyes to meet, so to speak.  We were thinking the same thing.

“I don’t think-” Grue started to speak.

Imp wheeled on him, jabbing a finger in his direction, “Enough!  You don’t dictate how I live my life!”

“No fighting, please,” Sundancer said, from the sidelines, “We’ve been through too much already.”

Grue stepped forward, raising one hand, but Imp didn’t give him a chance to touch her, backing away, swinging one hand through the air, as if to swat his hand away if he tried.  “You’ve said enough!  You don’t want me to celebrate my first legit win where I was actually fucking useful?  Fine!  Don’t want me to go on patrol?  Fine!  I’ll accept that shit because I’ll take orders from the guy who actually pays me.  But if you’re going to whine because I want to play video games with a teammate, I’m not going to stand here and listen to it!  Deal!”

“If you’d just-” Grue started.  He stopped and sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say something,” he said, turning around.  “But I can’t remember what.”

We experienced a moment where the conversation died, where nobody was sure what to say next, and nobody was able to tie things back to the prior conversation to resume an earlier topic.

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Trickster said, finally.  “Good work.  Skitter’s right.  Let’s go retreat, tend to any wounds, and we’ll take a breather.”

There were nods and murmurs of assent from everyone present, myself included.

More to his team than the rest of us, Trickster said, “I’m located closest to Coil, so I’m stopping by, going to check on Noelle, see if Tattletale needs help setting our captive Director free, and then I’ll talk to Coil about his progress with our issues.”

“Don’t get on his case,” Genesis said.  “Whatever his plan is, he’s under a lot of pressure right now.  I’d rather wait another few days and then talk about it with him than push it now and risk upsetting him.”

“The difference between us,” Trickster said, terse, “is I’m not willing to wait.”

With that said, he tipped his hat at me and walked away.  He wasn’t three paces out the door before he found something to swap with, leaving a mailbox at the mall’s edge.  The rest of the Travelers began to file off.

“I’ll be off too,” Regent said.  He offered me a sloppy mock-salute, “Good work, chief.”

I winced at that.  I hadn’t wanted to raise the subject of me taking over as leader for the previous confrontation.  I glanced at Grue and found him looking at me.

“Can we talk?” he asked.  Thanks, Regent.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We did make plans.”

“You’re dating?”  Bitch asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Grue said.

“But you’re dating.”

“Yeah,” he admitted.  Bitch looked at me to double check and I nodded.

“Hm.”  She somehow conveyed smugness with the monosyllablic response.

“You want to come?” I asked her.  “Hang out?”

“Nah.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “You’re welcome to spend some time with us, kick back, watch something, eat some good food?”

“Being around people’s too tiring.  Warm night like this, nice weather, figure I’ll go play with my dogs.  Make sure they aren’t too hurt, throw a few balls for ’em in the moonlight, eat when I want to eat, sleep when I feel like sleeping, not having to worry about getting in anyone’s way.”

“You wouldn’t be getting in the way,” I assured her.

“It’s all good.  I’m happiest doing this.”

“Well, stay in touch.  If you feel like some company, come by again?”

She shrugged and turned to leave, Bentley to her right and Bastard to her left.  With every step Bentley was taking, he was getting larger.  When she was nearly out of sight, Bentley was big enough for her to climb on top of.

Leaving Grue and me standing in the mall.

“I’d almost think you didn’t want to spend time alone with me,” he commented.

He was looking at me.  I felt scrutinized, like every movement and every part of me was suddenly under the spotlight, anything I did potentially being read as meaning something.

“No,” I said, very carefully.  Not exactly.  I just didn’t want to hurt him by taking away his role on the team, and I knew it would come up.  I tucked my hair behind the spot where the armor of my mask covered my ear.  “No.  Being alone together is good.”

“Your place?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

My people were active in my territory, but they were busier cleaning up the mess than they were actually getting stuff done.  It was irritating on a lot of levels.  We’d been accomplishing something, and Dragon had interrupted.  We’re in the world on the other side of the looking glass, I thought, where it’s the heroes who get in the way of progress and recovery.

I could understand why Dragon did it.  I wasn’t saying it was her fault, exactly.  Especially if it wasn’t actually her directing the suits.  But it was still irritating.

The silence between us was a tense one.  I wished Bitch had decided to come along.  Not because it would have generated conversation, but because it would have put off the subject of discussing team leadership, and the third wheel would have made for a reason for the quiet.  Was it bad of me to think about using her like that?  Or was it just accepting that she made an uncomfortable silence comfortable by her very nature?

I used my power to scout for any groups of people as we made our way to the beach.  We weren’t supposed to be out in costume, but we didn’t have any great options at this point.  I figured Coil would forgive us this much.  We entered the storm drain and made our way up to my lair.

Charlotte and Sierra looked surprised to see us as I opened the door.  Charlotte had three kids sitting on the couch with her, while Sierra reclined.  She rose to a sitting position.

“What happened?” Sierra asked.  She glanced nervously at Grue.

I saw Charlotte and the kids had plates on their laps.  The pork we’d been cooking earlier in the day.  I headed for the fridge and found a hunk of it wrapped in cling film.  “The PRT didn’t like the fact that we’d claimed control over Brockton Bay, so they sent in seven Dragon suits to root us out.”

“What do you want us to do?” She asked.

“Nothing.  It’s fine.  Stick to business as usual.  I’m glad you managed to get back to the food in time to make sure it finished cooking alright.  Any other problems?”

“We didn’t get a lot of work done,” Charlotte said.

“We weren’t going to anyways,” I said, “That’s fine.  I’m going to grab some food.  Grue, you want any?”

“Yeah.  Please.”

“Seven Dragon suits?” Sierra said.  “If they come back-“

“They’re dealt with,” Grue said.  Was the surprise on Sierra and Charlotte’s faces because of what Grue had said, or was it the way he’d said it with such confidence in his strange, echoey voice?

I set two servings worth of the pork onto one plate and put it in the microwave.  “They may come back, but that’ll be a little while coming.  What I’m worried about is my territory.  Were people upset?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said.  “A few people got shocked by those floating flying saucer things.”

“The drones,” I said.  My heart sank a little.  My promise to protect my people had been broken yet again.

“Yeah.  Drones.  People were pissed.  They were trying to get the drones, catch them in trash cans, but the wings got in the way, so they started using tarps.  They even got hold of a few before the drones started fighting back.”

Grue gave me a look that I couldn’t read.  Stupid masks.

“Anyone seriously hurt?”

Sierra shook her head.

“Ok, good.  Listen, I’m going to be working from the background these next few days.  I won’t be appearing anywhere in costume or overtly using my powers.  Are you okay with keeping things running smoothly?  I’ll be available by phone if you run into any problems.”

“I, um, I don’t know.”

I opened the microwave and withdrew the plate of smoking, herb-rubbed pork.  “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried people are going to recognize me, and it’ll get around to the people I know.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything criminal.  I’m just looking for someone I can trust enough to put in a management role.  Make sure things are cleaned up and that nobody’s slacking off.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t be doing working for a cleanup crew somewhere else in the city.”

“Except I’m doing it for you.  I’m working for a criminal.  Even doing what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t sit right.  No offense.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  I was apparently taking too long to prepare the food, because Grue was edging in to take over the preparation, cutting the meat into two portions and arranging the plates.  How was I supposed to manage this?  “Listen, I’ll take five thousand dollars out of the safe upstairs, sometime late tonight or early tomorrow.”

“It’s not about the money, or the lack of money, or any of that-” she protested.

“I know.  I’m not trying to bribe you.  Not exactly.  I guess, um…” I trailed off.  I was tired, thinking at high intensity for too much of the day.  “Um, I’m trying to say I trust you, and I value the work you put in.  So take that money, then if you know of someone who could do what I’m asking, someone like Charlotte or someone else you think we could trust, give them as much as you think is appropriate.  If there’s any left over, maybe you and Charlotte split it.  Or split an amount between the people who fought the drones, and be sure to tell them that as much as I appreciate them standing up to Dragon, I don’t want them to do anything like that again.”

“You don’t?”

“The last thing I want is people who live in my territory to get hurt for my sake.  And I don’t want you to be inconvenienced either.  Think about what you’ll do with the money tonight.  But don’t overthink it.  It’s a gift, a thank you.”

“I can’t take your money,” Sierra said.

“Then don’t,” I told her, trying to look like I was more focused on the food than anything else.  It wouldn’t do for her to see how much this was gutting me, and I didn’t want her to get guilted into anything.  I grabbed a coke from the fridge.  I gestured with it to Grue, and he nodded.  I grabbed another for him.  I had to swallow and clear my throat before I said, “I hope you’ll stay.  I really do.  But if you’re not comfortable doing what you’re doing, that’s okay too.  You can take a secondary role, or you can leave.  I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t be angry.”

“Okay.”

I looked at Charlotte and the kids, the steaming plate in my hand, a coke in the other, my right foot resting on the bottom stair of the staircase.  I asked Charlotte, “Are you okay with the status quo?”

“Yeah.  But I’m just looking after the little ones, and making sure people get fed.  I’m out of sight, I don’t come off like a second in command or anything.  I- Sierra and I have talked about this, before, her being uncomfortable.  I’m okay because this works for right now, but I understand what she’s saying?”  Her voice quirked with uncertainty as she finished speaking, as if she were asking a question, or asking permission to have that opinion.

“I understand too,” I said, sighing.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been around enough for you to talk to me about this, Sierra.”

“You’ve had bigger things to worry about.”

“And I shouldn’t have forgotten about this stuff while I was doing it.  I’m sorry.  You do what you need to do, decide if there’s any compromises or options you want to ask for.  I think I’ll understand, whatever you do.”

She nodded.

Grue had walked ahead of me and stopped halfway up the stairs.  I followed him, leaving my nanny-cook and reluctant lieutenant behind.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You going to work that out?” Grue asked.  He paused on the second floor.  After a moment’s thought, I tilted my head up toward the next set of stairs.

“Don’t know.  Hope I can keep her.  Wouldn’t have made it this far without her to hold things together when I was away.  If there was something I could do for her, maybe I would.  I dunno.”

We stepped into my bedroom.  I was glad I’d left it more or less tidy, but I had to take a second to hastily make my bed and throw some stray clothes in the hamper.  I moved some folded clothes from a wooden chair and let Grue take the seat.  I grabbed a remote and turned on the TV, only to remember that there wouldn’t be anything to watch.  I left it on the display screen for the DVD player.

Edgy with nervous energy, I took a moment to remove my mask and find a pair of glasses from the bedside table before seating myself on the edge of my mattress, my soda at my feet.

Grue had pulled off his helmet in the meantime to start eating, and I saw his face for the first time since we’d left his apartment for Coil’s.  I could see the dark circles under his eyes, which suggested he probably hadn’t slept well last night.  He wasn’t better, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to be.

Brian swallowed, “I wish I could offer you advice, but Imp and I are at a point where it’d be nice if we had to worry about retaining… what did you call them, way back when?”

“Employees.”

“Right.  If we had to worry about keeping our employees, it’d be good, because it’d mean we actually had some.  I’m not sure how to get underway on that front.  We’re intimidating.”

“I’m intimidating,” I said, admittedly defensive.

“You are.  But I’d say you’re more intimidating as an idea than you are in person.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No.  That’s not bad.  You’re more intimidating overall than I am, and yet you’re more approachable than I am.  I’m tall, I’ve got broad shoulders, I’ve got the mask, I’ve got the mass of darkness rolling off me.  People run when they see me coming for them.”

“My costume isn’t exactly lovey-dovey, either.  I’ve got the bugs crawling on me.  Sure, I’m smaller, narrower, but-“

“The idea of being attacked by you might be spooky, but even if you can hold your own most of the time, people don’t imagine getting in a hand to hand fight with you and feel scared.  It’s your power that’s scary.  Me?  I think people look at me and they can imagine me pounding them into a bloody pulp, or worse.  My power’s inconvenient, it’s spooky, but it’s not the scary thing.”

“You can’t really see your darkness, though.”

He shook his head, “I know where it is, but I don’t really see it.”

“I think you underestimate what it’s like.”

“Maybe.  But my point is that people are more likely to run than stick around and talk when I’m approaching.  You can take your bugs off the table, make it clear they aren’t a threat, and people feel less threatened, they’re willing to hear you out.”

“Maybe.  But if that’s the case, don’t give them a chance to run.”

“What?  Pop out from around a corner, scare the living daylights out of them, then offer them a job?”

“Sure.  Why the hell not?  Or have Imp break into apartments and leave a card.”

“I don’t think that would send the right message.  It’s vaguely threatening.”

You’re vaguely threatening.  If your prospective hires can’t deal with that much, then they probably won’t handle the job all that well, either.  If you can’t find anyone, then maybe I send some of my people your way to help get you started, or you could shell out for some decent mercenaries.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s options.  Don’t stress about it.  Whatever else happens, we have a few days before we decide on the next leg of our plan.  Let’s relax.  Movie?”

“Sure.”

I stood from my bed and began going through the box of DVDs that Coil had supplied with the TV.  Most were still in the tight plastic wrap that they’d been bought in.  I looked through, then handed some to Brian before turning back to the bag to keep browsing.

What the hell were we supposed to watch?  I didn’t want anything that would ruin Brian’s mood or remind him what had happened, so horror was probably out, I was sick of the high intensity stuff, but I couldn’t stand romance or bad comedies.

“Going back to the earlier topic,” Brian said, “The subject of leadership, being in charge…”

I winced.

“You took over today.  Are you wanting that to be a permanent thing?”

I turned around.  “No.  Not permanent.  Just until-” I stopped short.  How to put it?

“Until?”

“When I was getting really obsessive about what I was doing, when I was losing sleep and making mistakes, I deferred control.”

“To Trickster,” Brian said.  I could see a shadow pass over his expression.

“Yeah.  And that’s a bad example because it didn’t work.  It’s just that we both know you’re not getting enough rest.  So maybe I can pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Brian sighed.  He didn’t look any happier.

“I don’t want to make you unhappy,” I said.  “I’m not wanting to oust you, or co-opt your role permanently or completely.  You were the leader, even if we didn’t really establish an official title over it.  But we can divide the duties for the time being.  Tattletale handles the information angle of things, I maybe keep Bitch reined in and handle the spur of the moment calls, while you handle Regent and Imp and all the rest.”

“Which is less than it sounds like, especially when you and Tattletale contribute on ‘the rest’ in little ways.”

“No-” I started, then I sighed.  “Maybe, yeah.  I don’t want to come off as manipulative or anything.  Like I said, I don’t want you to be unhappy, but at the same time I do want the whole team to get by in the meantime.”

“You don’t sound manipulative,” he said.  His fork hit the plate with a clatter.  “Jesus, this sucks.  I know you’re right.  I know this is for the good of the team, and if I could just get over this shit-“

“It’s not that easy.  Don’t do yourself a disservice and expect too much.”

“My whole life, I’ve been bigger than my peers, I’ve been stronger than most.  Spent my time around pretty powerful guys.  Boxers, martial artists, other criminals.  I didn’t have many friends, but they were the people who were around me, you know?  And they were the types to go after you if you show any weakness.”

“You get shot, nobody’s going to call you a wimp.  I don’t see why it’s different if the damage is mental or emotional instead of physical.”

“I know, but you’re not getting it.  I was the type to go after someone if they showed a vulnerability.  Wasn’t until I’d had my powers about a year, Aisha tells me I was being an asshole, just like one of her stepdads used to be.  So I tried to be better, but I always wanted to protect her, always wanted to help others.  Teach you and Alec to fight, step up and take charge when a situation demanded it.  Sometimes when a situation didn’t.”

“Yeah.”

“So it isn’t just about me trying to adjust.  Christ, it’s me having my world turned upside down.  It’s others protecting me, others helping me, others covering me in a fight, others taking charge.  Aisha’s the one fixing things for me.  And you-“

“Me?”

“This thing with Coil.  Don’t think I’m so obsessed with what’s going on with me that I don’t see it.  It’s like a burden’s fallen from your shoulders.  You’ve got concerns, but you’re more relaxed.  You’ve got hope that you didn’t have twelve hours ago, and it’s dramatic enough that your posture’s changing.  Even since we left the mall, it’s like you’re slowly convincing yourself that this is over, Coil’s going to follow through, we’ll move on to taking care of our territories and everything works out in the end.”

I folded my arms.  “I don’t think that.  Like I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You say that, you tell yourself that, but I don’t know that you’re feeling it.  I’m worried you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment, and that you’ll be affected enough that you won’t be able to deal when it happens.  But I’m mostly worried that all that will happen and I won’t be in a position to help because I’m distracted by my own shit.”

“You don’t have to take up all the slack.  We have other teammates.”

“Lisa isn’t exactly a heavy hitter, and let’s not fool ourselves into believing that Alec, Rachel or Aisha are going to offer any meaningful emotional support.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ve managed this far.”

“More or less.  Problem is, ‘managing’ is fine, up until we don’t manage, if that makes any sense.  Then it’s over.”

I sighed.  “How did Genesis put it?  There’s no use in getting worked up over it if we can’t plan around it or do anything to change it.  So we’ll each do our own imperfect jobs of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves, and be as ready as we can for whatever comes up.”

He sighed.

“We’re not perfect.  We’re flawed people, and as much as I want to help you in every way I can, I know I can’t.  I don’t- I’m not good at this.  I don’t know how to act, or what to say.  But I like you.  I care about you.  I’m going to do my best, even if I know it’s not good enough.  And I won’t expect any more of you.”

He nodded, but he looked glum.

“No hard feelings?”

He shook his head.  He didn’t look happy.

“I won’t be leader forever.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Might be better that you keep the job, even if I do bounce back eventually.”

“Except I don’t want the job.”

“That might be why you should take it.  I don’t know.  Can we drop the subject?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Just… heavy topics, with lots of ramifications.  And it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts.  I’d rather talk along the lines of what you said before, about taking care of each other.”

“And taking care of ourselves,” I said.  “Getting enough sleep, eating right.”

“Okay,” he said.  There was a pause.  “I slept well the other night.”

“Then stay over.  There’s nothing pressing coming up, so we’ll watch movies until we fall asleep.”

He smiled a little, and for the first time in a long time there was a glimmer of that expression that had gotten my attention in the first place.

I put three DVDs into the drive so I could use the remote to play the next movie without having to get up, then pulled off the armor panels of my costume before settling into bed.  My back pressed against his chest, and I could feel his breath against my hair.

I felt so self conscious that I could barely keep track of what was going on.  I was thinking every unromantic thought there was: worrying if I had body odor from being in costume and running all day, wondering if I should get up to go to the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to go as desperately as I had the other morning.

I felt his hand on the zipper at the back of my costume, lowering it an inch, then stopping.  A fingertip traced from the ‘v’ where the top of my costume parted, all the way up to the the nape of my neck, then back down.  I could feel his fingers on the zipper, felt every tiny hair on my body standing on end.

A million thoughts raced through my head at once.  All put together, they amounted to a mumbled, “Um.”

There was no response from behind me.  I could hear him breathing, I could feel the warmth of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back.  He was waiting for me to make my decision, and the thing that loomed largest in my mind was the sensation of his fingers on the tiny tag of the zipper, strong, insistent, there.

Any confidence I’d picked up in the past weeks or months fled.  I felt as vulnerable as I had in early April, brought to tears in front of my worst enemies.  Except this… wasn’t wholly negative.  Not entirely: I still felt acutely aware of every vulnerability, I thought of every part of myself that I tried to ignore when I looked in the mirror in the same way I might see my life flash before my eyes before I died.

Again, thinking that way.  Why couldn’t I think in a more romantic way at a moment like this?  Was I broken in my own way?

“Let me get up and turn off the lights?” I asked.

His power blanketed the room.  I could feel the phantom touches of it on against the thin fabric of my costume and my bare face, leaving me blind and deaf as we were plunged into darkness.

As was plunged into darkness; he could see just as well.  This totally wasn’t what I’d wanted.

“That’s not fair,” I murmured.

He placed one hand on the side of my head to get me to turn his way, then pressed his lips against mine.

I didn’t protest any further.

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Interlude 14

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Lift!” Sierra grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next?” Jay asked.

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

It creeped her out.

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

“Okay.”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s more than there used to be.”

“O’Daly clan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead.

“Yeah,” Sierra confirmed.

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

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

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

“Not easy.”

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

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

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

“You want dinner?”

Sierra pressed her hands together in a pleading gesture.

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Another part of her was scared to.

She dialed another number instead.

“Yes?” the voice was deep.

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

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

“One moment.”

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

“Sierra?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Well?  What do you want?”

“Checking up on you, moron.”

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

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

“Is that it?” Bryce asked.

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

“Hurts.”

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

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

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

“Ask Tattletale about it?”

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

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

“Jaw gave me some painkillers,” Bryce said.

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

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

“Okay.  What have you been doing?”

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

“I know who they are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Bryce hung up.

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

She waited a minute, then called the same number.

“Yes?”  Again, Jaw’s deep voice.

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

“The boy is learning.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

“Nothing too serious?  As punishment goes?”

“Nothing serious.  It will build character.”

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

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

All of downtown?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Progress?”

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

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

“The kids?”

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

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

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

“That’s cold.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, well, well.”

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

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

“Jay.  You weren’t invited here.”

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

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

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

“Skitter gave us permission.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

There are kids here, Sierra thought.

“Stupid,” she spoke without thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

“Evict us?

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

“Why?” Sierra asked.

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

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

“Skitter bought it.”

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

The argument was feeble, and she knew it.

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

“Leaving us to clean up the mess?”

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

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

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

Don’t show fear, Sierra prayed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Yan asked, raising her voice.

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

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

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

“Choose!”

“My hand.”

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

Sierra started raising her hand, then stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call it off or I shoot!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You took on the Nine and won?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought you would have left,” Skitter said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hand or knee?” Skitter asked.

“Fuck you!”  Yan shouted.

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

She’d been bitten, more than once.

“Shaggy-hair, hand or knee?”

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

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

“And Mr. Accent.  Hand or knee?”

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

“Both, then,” Skitter said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll handle that tonight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crying?

Sierra hesitated.  What was she supposed to do here?

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

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

Sierra nodded, “I remember.”

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

“Those three… are they going to die?”

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

Facing down the Nine.  Sierra shivered a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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