Gestation 1.1

Brief note from the author:  This story isn’t intended for young or sensitive readers.  Readers who are on the lookout for trigger warnings are advised to give Worm a pass.

Class ended in five minutes and all I could think was, an hour is too long for lunch.

Since the start of the semester, I had been looking forward to the part of Mr. Gladly’s World Issues class where we’d start discussing capes.  Now that it had finally arrived, I couldn’t focus.  I fidgeted, my pen moving from hand to hand, tapping, or absently drawing some figure in the corner of the page to join the other doodles.  My eyes were restless too, darting from the clock above the door to Mr. Gladly and back to the clock.  I wasn’t picking up enough of his lesson to follow along.  Twenty minutes to twelve; five minutes left before class ended.

He was animated, clearly excited about what he was talking about, and for once, the class was listening.  He was the sort of teacher who tried to be friends with his students, the sort who went by “Mr. G” instead of Mr. Gladly.  He liked to end class a little earlier than usual and chat with the popular kids, gave lots of group work so others could hang out with their friends in class, and had ‘fun’ assignments like mock trials.

He struck me as one of the ‘popular’ kids who had become a teacher.  He probably thought he was everyone’s favorite.  I wondered how he’d react if he heard my opinion on the subject.  Would it shatter his self image or would he shrug it off as an anomaly from the gloomy girl that never spoke up in class?

I glanced over my shoulder.  Madison Clements sat two rows to my left and two seats back.  She saw me looking and smirked, her eyes narrowing, and I lowered my eyes to my notebook.  I tried to ignore the ugly, sour feeling that stewed in my stomach.  I glanced up at the clock.  Eleven-forty-three.

“Let me wrap up here,” Mr. Gladly said, “Sorry, guys, but there is homework for the weekend.  Think about capes and how they’ve impacted the world around you.  Make a list if you want, but it’s not mandatory.  On Monday we’ll break up into groups of four and see what group has the best list.  I’ll buy the winning group treats from the vending machine.”

There were a series of cheers, followed by the classroom devolving into noisy chaos.  The room was filled with sounds of binders snapping shut, textbooks and notebooks being slammed closed, chairs screeching on cheap tile and the dull roar of emerging conversation.  A bunch of the more social members of the class gathered around Mr. Gladly to chat.

Me?  I just put my books away and kept quiet.  I’d written down almost nothing in the way of notes; there were collections of doodles spreading across the page and numbers in the margins where I’d counted down the minutes to lunch as if I was keeping track of the timer on a bomb.

Madison was talking with her friends.  She was popular, but not gorgeous in the way the stereotypical popular girls on TV were.  She was ‘adorable’, instead.  Petite.  She played up the image with sky blue pins in her shoulder length brown hair and a cutesy attitude. Madison wore a strapless top and denim skirt, which seemed absolutely moronic to me given the fact that it was still early enough in the spring that we could see our breath in the mornings.

I wasn’t exactly in a position to criticize her.  Boys liked her and she had friends, while the same was hardly true for me.  The only feminine feature I had going for me was my dark curly hair, which I’d grown long.  The clothes I wore didn’t show skin, and I didn’t deck myself out in bright colors like a bird showing off its plumage.

Guys liked her, I think, because she was appealing without being intimidating.

If they only knew.

The bell rang with a lilting ding-dong, and I was the first one out the door.  I didn’t run, but I moved at a decent clip as I headed up the stairwell to the third floor and made my way to the girl’s washroom.

There were a half dozen girls there already, which meant I had to wait for a stall to open up.  I nervously watched the door of the bathroom, feeling my heart drop every time someone entered the room.

As soon as there was a free stall, I let myself in and locked the door.   I leaned against the wall and exhaled slowly.  It wasn’t quite a sigh of relief.  Relief implied you felt better.  I wouldn’t feel better until I got home.  No, I just felt less uneasy.

It took maybe five minutes before the noise of others in the washroom stopped.  A peek below the partitions showed that there was nobody else in the other stalls.  I sat on the lid of the toilet and got my brown bag lunch to begin eating.

Lunch on the toilet was routine now.  Every school day, I would finish off my brown bag lunch, then I’d do homework or read a book until lunch hour was over.  The only book in my bag that I hadn’t already read was called ‘Triumvirate’, a biography of the leading three members of the Protectorate.  I was thinking I would spend as long as I could on Mr. Gladly’s assignment before reading, because I wasn’t enjoying the book.  Biographies weren’t my thing, and they were especially not my thing when I was suspicious it was all made up.

Whatever my plan, I didn’t even have a chance to finish my pita wrap.  The door of the bathroom banged open.  I froze.  I didn’t want to rustle the bag and clue anyone into what I was doing, so I kept still and listened.

I couldn’t make out the voices.  The noise of the conversation was obscured by giggling and the sound of water from the sinks.  There was a knock on the door, making me jump.  I ignored it, but the person on the other side just repeated the knock.

“Occupied,” I called out, hesitantly.

“Oh my god, it’s Taylor!” one of the girls on the outside exclaimed with glee, then in response to something another girl whispered, I barely heard her add, “Yeah, do it!”

I stood up abruptly, letting the brown bag with the last mouthful of my lunch fall to the tiled floor.  Rushing for the door, I popped the lock open and pushed.  The door didn’t budge.

There were noises from the stalls on either side of me, then a sound above me.  I looked up to see what it was, only to get splashed in the face.  My eyes started burning, and I was momentarily blinded by the stinging fluid in my eyes and my blurring of my glasses.  I could taste it as it ran down to my nose and mouth.  Cranberry juice.

They didn’t stop there.  I managed to pull my glasses off just in time to see Madison and Sophia leaning over the top of the stall, each of them with plastic bottles at the ready.  I bent over with my hands shielding my head just before they emptied the contents over me.

It ran down the back of my neck, soaked my clothes, fizzed as it ran through my hair.  I pushed against the door again, but the girl on the other side was braced against it with her body.

If the girls pouring juice and soda on me were Madison and Sophia, that meant the girl on the other side of the door was Emma, leader of the trio.  Feeling a flare of anger at the realization, I shoved on the door, the full weight of my body slamming against it.  I didn’t accomplish anything, and my shoes lost traction on the juice-slick floor.  I fell to my knees in the puddling juice.

Empty plastic bottles with labels for grape and cranberry juice fell to the ground around me.  A bottle of orange soda bounced off my shoulder to splash into the puddle before rolling under the partition and into the next stall.  The smell of the fruity drinks and sodas was sickly sweet.

The door swung open, and I glared up at the three girls.  Madison, Sophia and Emma.  Where Madison was cute, a late bloomer, Sophia and Emma were the types of girls that fit the ‘prom queen’ image.  Sophia was dark skinned, with a slender, athletic build she’d developed as a runner on the school track team.  Red-headed Emma, by contrast, had all the curves the guys wanted.  She was good looking enough to get occasional jobs as a amateur model for the catalogs that the local department stores and malls put out.  The three of them were laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world, but the sounds of their amusement barely registered with me.  My attention was on the faint roar of blood pumping in my ears and an urgent, ominous crackling ‘sound’ that wouldn’t get any quieter or less persistent if I covered my ears with my hands.  I could feel dribbles running down my arms and back, still chilled from the refrigerated vending machines.

I didn’t trust myself to say something that wouldn’t give them fodder to taunt me with, so I kept silent.

Carefully, I climbed to my feet and turned my back on them to get my backpack off the top of the toilet.  Seeing it gave me pause.  It had been a khaki green, before, but now dark purple blotches covered it, most of the contents of a bottle of grape juice.  Pulling the straps around my shoulders, I turned around.  The girls weren’t there.  I heard the bathroom door bang shut, cutting off the sounds of their glee, leaving me alone in the bathroom, drenched.

I approached the sink and stared at myself in the scratched, stained mirror that was bolted above it.  I had inherited a thin lipped, wide, expressive mouth from my mother, but my large eyes and my gawky figure made me look a lot more like my dad.  My dark hair was soaked enough that it clung to my scalp, neck and shoulders.  I was wearing a brown hooded sweatshirt over a green t-shirt, but colored blotches of purple, red and orange streaked both.  My glasses were beaded with the multicolored droplets of juice and soda.  A drip ran down my nose and fell from the tip to land in the sink.

Using a paper towel from the dispenser, I wiped my glasses off and put them on again.  The residual streaks made it just as hard to see, if not worse than it had been.

Deep breaths, Taylor, I told myself.

I pulled the glasses off to clean them again with a wet towel, and found the streaks were still there.

An inarticulate scream of fury and frustration escaped my lips, and I kicked the plastic bucket that sat just beneath the sink, sending it and the toilet brush inside flying into the wall.  When that wasn’t enough, I pulled off my backpack and used a two-handed grip to hurl it.  I wasn’t using my locker anymore: certain individuals had vandalized or broken into it on four different occasions.  My bag was heavy, loaded down with everything I’d anticipated needing for the day’s classes.  It crunched audibly on impact with the wall.

“What the fuck!?” I screamed to nobody in particular, my voice echoing in the bathroom.  There were tears in the corners of my eyes.

“The hell am I supposed to do!?”  I wanted to hit something, break something.  To retaliate against the unfairness of the world.  I almost struck the mirror, but I held back.  It was such a small thing that it felt like it would make me feel more insignificant instead of venting my frustration.

I’d been enduring this from the very first day of high school, a year and a half ago.  The bathroom had been the closest thing I could find to refuge.  It had been lonely and undignified, but it had been a place I could retreat to, a place where I was off their radar.  Now I didn’t even have that.

I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do for my afternoon classes.  Our midterm project for art was due, and I couldn’t go to class like this.  Sophia would be there, and I could just imagine her smug smile of satisfaction as I showed up looking like I’d botched an attempt to tie-dye everything I owned.

Besides, I’d just thrown my bag against the wall and I doubted my project was still in one piece.

The buzzing at the edge of my consciousness was getting worse.  My hands shook as I bent over and gripped the edge of the sink, let out a long, slow breath, and let my defenses drop.  For three months, I’d held back.  Right now?  I didn’t care anymore.

I shut my eyes and felt the buzzing crystallize into concrete information.  As numerous as stars in the night sky, tiny knots of intricate data filled the area around me.  I could focus on each one in turn, pick out details.  The clusters of data had been reflexively drifting towards me since I was first splashed in the face.  They responded to my subconscious thoughts and emotions, as much of a reflection of my frustration, my anger, my hatred for those three girls as my pounding heart and trembling hands were.  I could make them stop or direct them to move almost without thinking about it, the same way I could raise an arm or twitch a finger.

I opened my eyes.  I could feel adrenaline thrumming through my body, blood coursing in my veins.  I shivered in response to the chilled soft drinks and juices the trio had poured over me, with anticipation and with just a little fear.  On every surface of the bathroom were bugs; Flies, ants, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, earwigs, beetles, wasps and bees.  With every passing second, more streamed in through the open window and the various openings in the bathroom, moving with surprising speed.  Some crawled in through a gap where the sink drain entered the wall while others emerged from the triangular hole in the ceiling where a section of foam tile had broken off, or from the opened window with peeling paint and cigarette butts squished out in the recesses.  They gathered around me and spread out over every available surface; primitive bundles of signals and responses, waiting for further instruction.

My practice sessions, conducted away from prying eyes, told me I could direct a single insect to move an antennae, or command the gathered horde to move in formation.  With one thought, I could single out a particular group, maturity or species from this jumble and direct them as I wished.  An army of soldiers under my complete control.

It would be so easy, so easy to just go Carrie on the school.  To give the trio their just desserts and make them regret what they had put me through: the vicious e-mails, the trash they’d upended over my desk, the flute –my mother’s flute– they’d stolen from my locker.  It wasn’t just them either.  Other girls and a small handful of boys had joined in, ‘accidentally’ skipping over me when passing out assignment handouts, adding their own voices to the taunts and the flood of nasty emails, to get the favor and attention of three of the prettier and more popular girls in our grade.

I was all too aware that I’d get caught and arrested if I attacked my fellow students.  There were three teams of superheroes and any number of solo heroes in the city.  I didn’t really care.  The thought of my father seeing the aftermath on the news, his disappointment in me, his shame?  That was more daunting, but it still didn’t outweigh the anger and frustration.

Except I was better than that.

With a sigh, I sent an instruction to the gathered swarm.   Disperse.  The word wasn’t as important  as the idea behind it.  They began to exit the room, disappearing into the cracks in the tile and through the open window.  I walked over to the door and stood with my back to it so nobody could stumble onto the scene before the bugs were all gone.

However much I wanted to, I couldn’t really follow through.  Even as I trembled with humiliation, I managed to convince myself to pick up my backpack and head down the hall.  I made my way out of the school, ignoring the stares and giggles from everyone I walked past, and caught the first bus that headed in the general direction of home.  The chill of early spring compounded the discomfort of my soaked hair and clothes, making me shiver.

I was going to be a superhero.  That was the goal I used to calm myself down at moments like these.  It was what I used to make myself get out of bed on a school day.  It was a crazy dream that made things tolerable.  It was something to look forward to, something to work towards.  It made it possible to keep from dwelling on the fact that Emma Barnes, leader of the trio, had once been my best friend.

Gestation 1.2

My thoughts were on Emma on the bus ride home.  For an outside observer, I think it’s easy to trivialize the importance of a ‘best friend’, but when you’re a kid, there’s nobody more important.  Emma had been my ‘BFF’ from grade one all the way through middle school.  It hadn’t been enough for us to spend our time together at school, so we had alternated staying at each others houses every weekend.  I remember my mother saying that we were so close we were practically sisters.

A friendship that deep is intimate.  Not in the rude way, but just in terms of a no-holds-barred sharing of every vulnerability and weakness.

So when I got back from nature camp just a week before our first year at high school started, to find that she wasn’t talking to me?  That she was calling Sophia her best friend?  Discovering that she was now using every one of those secrets and vulnerabilities I had shared with her to wound me in the most vicious ways she could think of?  It was crushing.  There’s just no better way to say it.

Unwilling to dwell on it any longer, I turned my attention to my backpack, setting it on the seat beside me and sorting through the contents.  Grape juice had stained it, and I had a suspicion I would have to get a new one.  I had bought it just four months ago, after my old one had been taken from my locker, and it had been just twelve bucks, so it wasn’t a huge issue.  The fact that my notebooks, textbooks and the two novels I’d shoved into my bag were wet with grape juice was more troubling.  I suspected that whichever girl had been holding the grape juice had aimed for the open top of my bag as she poured it.  I noted the destruction of my art project – the box I’d put it in was collapsed on the one side.  That bit was my fault.

My heart sank as I found the notebook with the white and black speckled hardcover.  The corner of the paper was soaked through with as much as a quarter of each page stained purple.  The ink had diluted and the pages were already turning wavy.

That notebook was – had been – my notes and journal for my hero career.  The testing and training I’d done with my powers, pages of crossed out name ideas, even the measurements I was using for my costume in progress.  After Emma, Madison and Sophia had stolen my last backpack and stuffed it in a wastebasket, I had realized how big a danger it was to have everything written down like that.  I had copied everything over into a new notebook in a simple cipher and wrote it bottom to top.  Now that notebook was spoiled, and I was looking at having to copy some two hundred pages of detailed writing into a new notebook if I wanted to preserve the information.  If I could even remember what was on all of the ruined pages.

The bus stopped a block away from my house, and I got off, trying to ignore the stares.  Even with the gawking, the knowledge that my notebook was ruined and my general nervousness about missing afternoon classes without permission, I felt better as I got closer to home.  It felt worlds better to know I could drop my guard, stop watching my back and that I could take a break from wondering when the next incident would happen.  I let myself into the house and headed straight for the shower, not even removing my backpack or taking off my shoes until I was in the bathroom.

I stood under the stream with my clothes on the floor of the tub, hoping the water would help get the worst of the juice out.  I pondered.  I don’t know who said it, but at one point I had come across this notion about taking a negative and turning it into a positive.  I tried to take the day’s events and turn them around in my head, to see if I couldn’t find a more positive twist on it.

Okay, so the first thing that came to mind was “Yet another reason to kill the trio.”  It wasn’t a serious thought – I was angry, but it wasn’t like I was going to actually kill them.   Somehow, I suspected that I’d hurt myself before I hurt them.  I was humiliated, frustrated, pissed, and I always had a weapon available – my power.  It was like having a loaded gun in your hand at all times.  Except my power wasn’t that great, so maybe it was more like having a taser.  It was hard not to think about using it when things got really bad.  Still, I didn’t think I had that killer instinct in me.

No, I told myself, forcing myself back to the subject of positive thinking.  Were there any upsides?  Art project wrecked, clothes probably unrecoverable, needing a new backpack…  notebook.  Somehow my mind fixated on that last part.

I cranked the shower to off, then toweled dry, thinking.  I wrapped the towel around me, and rather than head to my room to get dressed, I put my wet clothes into a laundry hamper, grabbed my backpack and headed downstairs, through the kitchen and into the basement.

My house is old, and the basement was never renovated.  The walls and floor are concrete and the ceiling was exposed boards and electrical cords.  The furnace used to be coal fueled, and there was still an old coal chute, two feet by two feet, where the coal trucks used to come by to unload the winter’s supply of coal for heating the house.  The chute was boarded up, but around the time I was copying my original ‘superpower notebook’ over in code, I had decided to play it safe in all respects and start getting creative with my privacy.  It was then that I’d started using it.

I removed one screw and removed the square wooden panel with the peeling white paint that covered the low end of the coal chute.  I retrieved a gym bag from inside and put the panel back in place without screwing it back in.

I emptied the contents of the gym bag on the disused workbench that the house’s previous owner had left in our basement, then opened the windows that were at the same level as the driveway and front garden.  I closed my eyes and spent a minute exercising my power.  I wasn’t just grabbing every creepy crawly in a two block radius, though.  I was being selective, and I was gathering quite a few.

It would take time for all of them to arrive.  Bugs could move faster than you thought when they moved with purpose in a straight line, but even so, two blocks was a lot of ground for something so small to cover.  I busied myself with opening the bag and sorting out the contents.  My costume.

The first of the spiders started coming in through the open windows and congregating on the workbench.  My power didn’t give me a knowledge of the official names of the bugs I was working with, but anyone could recognize the spiders that were crawling into the room.  These were black widows.  One of the more dangerous spiders you could find in the States.  Their bite could be lethal, though it usually wasn’t, and they tended to bite with little provocation.  Even under my complete control, they spooked me.  At my request, the dozens upon dozens of spiders got into place on the workbench and began drawing out lines of webbing, laying the lines across one another, and weaving them into one work.

Three months ago, after I’d recovered from the manifestation of my powers, I had started to prepare for the goal I had set for myself.  It had involved an exercise routine, training my power, research, and preparing my costume.  Costumes were harder than one might think.  While members of official teams surely had sources for that stuff, the rest of us were left to either buy costumes, put them together piecemeal with stuff bought from stores or make them from scratch.  Each option had its problems.  If you bought a costume online, you ran the risk of being traced, which could blow your secret identity before you’d even put a costume on.  You could put a costume together with stuff bought from stores, but very few people could do that and look good.  The final option, putting a costume together yourself, was just a hell of a lot of work and you could run into the issues of the prior two options – being traced or winding up with a lame costume – depending on where you got your materials and how you went about it.

In the second week after I’d figured out my powers, when I still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, I had come across a segment on the discovery channel about a suit that was made to withstand attacks by bears.  That segment talked about how the suit was made of synthetic spider silk, which had inspired this particular project.  Why go synthetic when you can produce with the real thing?

Okay, so it had been harder than that.  Not just any spider worked, and the black widow spiders themselves were hard to find.  They weren’t typically found in the northeastern states, where it was generally colder, but I was fortunate that that key element that made Brockton Bay a tourist destination and a hotspot for capes also made it a place where black widow spiders could live, if not thrive.  Namely, it was warm.  Thanks to the surrounding geography and the ocean bordering us on the east, Brockton Bay had some of the mildest winters you could find in the Northeastern States, and some of the most comfortably warm summers.  Both the black widows and the people running around in skintight costumes were thankful for that.

With my power, I had ensured the spiders could multiply.  I’d kept them in safe locations and fattened them on prey I directed straight to them.  I had flipped that mental switch that told them to breed and lay eggs as if it was summer, fed more prey to the hundreds of young that had resulted and had earned countless costume spinners for my trouble.  The biggest issue had been that black widows are territorial, so I’d had to spread them out to ensure they didn’t kill each other when I wasn’t around to control them.  Once a week or so, on my morning runs, I rotated the locations of the local spiders so I had a fresh supply all filled with proteins for the production of the essential materials.  This ensured that the spiders were always ready for working on the costume in the afternoon, after school.

Yeah, I needed a life.

But I had a badass costume.

It wasn’t a great looking costume, just yet.  The fabric was a dirty yellow-gray.  The armored sections had been made out of finely arranged and layered shells and exoskeletons I’d cannibalized from the local insect population and then reinforced with dragline silk.  In the end, the armored parts had wound up dark mottled brown-gray.  I was okay with that.  When the entire thing was done, I planned to dye the fabric and paint the armor.

The reason I was so pleased with my costume was the fact that it was flexible, durable, and incredibly lightweight, considering the amount of armor I had put on it.  At one point I had screwed up the dimensions of one of the legs, and when I tried to cut it off to start fresh, I had found I couldn’t cut it with an x-acto knife.  I had needed to use wire cutters, and even that had been a chore.  As far as I figured, it was everything a superhero wanted for a costume.

I wasn’t exactly willing to test it out, but I harbored hopes that it was bulletproof.  Or at least, that the armored sections over my vital areas were.

The plan was to finish my costume over the course of the month, then as the school year ended and the summer began, I would take the leap into the world of superheroics.

But the plan had changed.  I took off my towel and hung it from the corner of the bench, then began pulling on my costume to test the fit for the hundredth time.  The spiders obediently moved out of my way as I did so.

When I had been standing in the shower, trying to find the good aspects in the day’s troubles, my thoughts had turned to my notebook.  I had realized I was procrastinating.  I was constantly planning, preparing, considering all of the possibilities.  There would always be more preparations, more stuff to study or test.  The destruction of my notebook had been the burning of a bridge.  I couldn’t go back and copy it into a fresh book or start a new one without delaying my game plan for at least a week.  I had to move forward.

It was time to do it.  I flexed my hand inside the glove.  I’d go out next week – no.  No more delays.  This weekend, I would be ready.

Gestation 1.3

My training schedule consisted of running every morning and every other afternoon.  In the process, I had picked up a pretty good knowledge of the east side of the city.  Growing up in Brockton Bay, my parents had told me stuff like “stick to the Boardwalk”.  Even on my runs, I had scrupulously stayed on the Boardwalk and avoided the bad part of town.  Now it was Sunday night and I was in costume and breaking the rules.

I had dyed and painted the costume on Friday, bought temporary costume pieces (belt, the straps for the mask and the lenses) on Saturday and finished the most necessary details over the course of my Sunday afternoon before heading out for the evening.  The costume wasn’t complete yet, lacking the full extent of the armor paneling I had planned out, but the armor covered the most essential areas – my face, chest, spine, stomach and major joints.  The mask design featured dull yellow lenses, the only color on the black and gray costume, as well as sections of armor designed to imitate a bug’s mandibles while simultaneously protecting my jaw.  The mask left my hair free, which did leave the back of my head more vulnerable, but that was just one of the sacrifices I’d had to make to go out in an unfinished costume.

It was just after midnight, and I was crossing the line between one of the nicest parts of town and the part of town where the crack whores and gangsters lived.  The distance between the two was thinner than one might think.

The Boardwalk was where the tourists came.  Running north-to-south along the beach, there were shops that sold dresses for over a thousand dollars, cafes with ludicrously expensive coffees and stretches of wooden walkways and beaches where tourists could get a great view of the ocean.  From pretty much any point on the Docks, you could see one of Brockton Bay’s landmarks, the Protectorate Headquarters.  Besides being a marvel of architectural design with its arches and towers, the PHQ was a floating base of operations that a squadron of local superheroes called home, outfitted with a forcefield bubble and a missile defense system.  There had never been occasion for either to be used, but I had to admit, it made you feel safer.

If you headed west from the Boardwalk, away from the water, you found yourself in the area the locals just called the ‘Docks’.  When the import/export business in Brockton Bay had dried up, there had been a whole lot of people who were suddenly out of work.  The richest and most resourceful people in town had managed to make more money, turning the city’s resources towards tech and banking, but all of the people who had been employed on the ships and in the warehouses had few options left to them.  They faced leaving Brockton Bay, sticking around while scraping up what little work they could or turning to more illicit activity.

This all contributed to the boom in the local supervillain population.  The potential for big money coupled with the number of eager-to-please mooks and henchmen made it the city to be for the villains in the late 90s.  It took a few years for the hero presence to establish and organize themselves, but they did, and there was something of an equilibrium now.  As far as cape population went, Brockton Bay wasn’t in the top 5 cities in the U.S., but it was probably in the top ten.

Just moving from one block to the next, you could see the change in the area.  As I made my way into the Docks, I could see the quality of my surroundings decline steeply.  There were enough warehouses and apartments in the area for even the most destitute to find shelter, so the only people on the streets were unconscious drunks, whores and gang members.  I steered clear of any and all people I saw and ventured further into the area.

As I walked, I was using my powers to draw a swarm together, but kept them out of the way, moving just over the nearby rooftops and through the interior of buildings.  Anyone paying attention to the local cockroach population might think something was up, but there weren’t many lights on.  I doubted most of the buildings here even had power.

The lack of lights in the area was what made me stop and draw myself against the side of a building when I saw a spot of orange in the dark street ahead.  The orange was the flame of a lighter, and I was able to make out several faces around it.  They were Asian, some wearing hoodies, others wearing headbands or long sleeved shirts, but all wore the same colors.  Red and green.

I knew who these guys were.  They were members from the local gang that left the tags ‘Azn Bad Boys’, ABB for short, all over the East end of the city.  More than a few went to my school.  As far as the criminal element in Brockton Bay went, they weren’t small potatoes.  While the typical gang members were just Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese forcibly recruited from Brockton Bay’s high schools and lower class neighborhoods, the gang was led by a couple of people with powers.  Gangs didn’t tend to be that racially inclusive as far as who joined, so it said something that their leader had the ability to draw in members from so many different nationalities and keep them in line.

The street was unlit, so my ability to see was dependent on the moon and the few indoor lights that were still on and shining out onto the sidewalks. I started actively looking for their boss.  There were more gang members coming out of a two-story building, and they were gathering in the street.  They didn’t have the atmosphere of people who were just hanging out, either.  They were expressionless or scowling, and they weren’t talking.

I spotted their boss as the gang pulled away from the door of the building to give him room.  I only knew about this guy from what I had heard on the news and read online, but I recognized him immediately.  He was a big guy, but not so big that he would send people running when he walked down the street, like some people with powers were.  He was a little over six feet, though, which put him head and shoulders above most of the gang members.  He had an ornate metal mask over his face, and wasn’t wearing a shirt, despite the chill.  Sprawling tattoos covered his body from the neck down, all depicting dragons from Eastern mythology.

He went by ‘Lung’, had successfully gone toe to toe with whole teams of heroes and had managed to keep himself out of jail, as evidenced by his presence here.  As for his powers, I only knew what I could scrounge up online, and there were no guarantees there.  I mean, for all I knew, he could have misled people about what his powers did, he could have a power he was keeping up his sleeve for an emergency, or he could even have a very subtle power that people couldn’t see at work.

The information online and in the papers had told me this: Lung could gradually transform.  Maybe it was based on adrenaline, his emotional state, or something, but whatever it was, it made his powers more potent the longer he was in a fight.  He healed at a superhuman rate, got stronger, got tougher, got bigger, and he grew armor plating complete with blades at each fingertip.  Rumor had it that he even grew wings if he fought long enough.  If that wasn’t enough, he was a pyrokinetic, which meant he could create flame out of thin air, shape it, intensify it, and so on.  That power apparently got stronger as he transformed, too.  As far as I knew, there wasn’t an upper limit to how strong he could get.  He only started returning to normal when there was nobody left to fight.

Lung wasn’t the only one with powers in the ABB.  He had a flunky, a scary sociopath called Oni Lee, who could teleport or create doubles of himself – I wasn’t a hundred percent sure on the details – but Oni Lee had a distinctive look, and I didn’t see him in the crowd.  If there was anyone else with powers that I needed to watch out for, I hadn’t seen or heard anything about them in my research.

Lung began talking in a deep, commanding voice.  I couldn’t make out the words, but it sounded like he was giving instructions.  As I watched, one of the gang members drew a butterfly knife from his pocket, and another of them put his hand on his waistband.  Between the gloom and the fact that I was standing half a block away, I couldn’t see well, but a dark shape stood out against his green t-shirt.  Chances were it was a gun handle.  My pulse sped up a bit as I saw the gun, which was silly.  Lung was more dangerous than fifty people with guns.

I decided to move away from where I was and find a better vantage point to monitor their conversation, which seemed like a good compromise between my curiosity and my self preservation.  I slowly backed away from where I was, glancing over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, and then circled around the rear of the building I was lurking beside.

My investigation paid off.  Halfway down the alley, I saw a fire escape that was leading up the back of the building that Lung and his gang were standing in front of.  The feet of my costume had soft soles, so I was nearly silent as I ascended.

The roof was covered in gravel and cigarette butts, which made me think I wouldn’t be nearly so quiet walking over it.  Instead, I walked on the raised outside lip of the roof.  As I neared the part of the roof directly above Lung and his gang of ‘Azn Bad Boys’, I crouched and crawled forward on my stomach.  It was dark enough that I doubted they would see me if I jumped up and down and waved my arms, but there was no reason to be stupid.

Being at the top of a two story building when they were on the ground floor made it hard to hear them.  Lung had a strong accent, as well, which meant I had to wait until he had spoken a few sentences before I could figure out what he was saying.  It helped that his mooks were utterly, respectfully silent as he spoke.

Lung was snarling, “…the children, just shoot.  Doesn’t matter your aim, just shoot.  You see one lying on the ground?  Shoot the little bitch twice more to be sure.  We give them no chances to be clever or lucky, understand?”

There was a murmur of assent.

Someone else lit up a cigarette, and then leaned over to light a cigarette for the guy next to him.  In those moments that his hand wasn’t cupped around the flame, I could see the gathered faces of just a dozen or so of the gangsters gathered around Lung.  In hands, waistbands and holsters, I could see the dark metal of guns reflecting the orange flame.  If I had to hazard a guess, all of them had weapons.

They were going to kill kids?

Gestation 1.4

I felt a chill.  A part of me really wished that I had thought to get my hands on a disposable cell phone.  I didn’t have a utility belt, but the spade shaped section of armor that hung over my spine hid a set of EpiPens, a pen and notepad, a tube of pepper spray meant to hang off a key chain and a zippered pouch of chalk dust.  I could have fit a cell phone back there.  With a cell phone, I could have alerted the real heroes about the fact that Lung was planning to take a score of his flunkies to go and shoot kids.

At least, that’s what I had heard.  I was in a state of disbelief, turning the words around in my head to think of a different context that would make sense of it.  It wasn’t so much the fact that he would do something like that.  I just had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that anyone would.

Lung answered a question for one of his gang members, lapsing briefly into another language.  He grabbed one of his minion’s arms and twisted it to an angle where he could get a look at the guy’s watch, so I guessed it had something to do with their timing or when they were leaving.  The gang member who’d had his arm twisted winced as Lung let it go, but didn’t complain.

What was I supposed to do?  I doubted I could find any place in the Docks that would be willing to let me inside to use their phone.  If I headed to the Boardwalk, I wasn’t sure I would find any places that were still open, and I didn’t have change for a payphone. That was another oversight I would have to correct for the next time I went out.  Cell phone, spare change.

A car pulled up, and another three guys dressed in gang colors got out and and joined the crowd.  Shortly after, the group – twenty or twenty five in total – started walking north, passing below me as they walked down the street.

I was out of time to consider my options.  As much as I didn’t want to face it, there was really only one option that I could have no regrets about.  I shut my eyes and focused on every bug on the neighborhood, including the sizable swarm I had gathered on the way into the Docks.  I took control of each of them.

Attack.

It was dark enough that I could only tell where the swarm was with my power.  That meant I couldn’t even tune out the swarm if I wanted to have any idea about what was going on.  My brain was filled with horrendous amounts of information, as I sensed each bite, each sting.  As the thousands of insects and arachnids swarmed over and around the group, I could almost see the outlines of each person, just by sensing the shapes of the surfaces the bugs were crawling on, or the areas the vermin wasn’t occupying.  I focused on keeping the more venomous types at bay for the time being – I didn’t need any allergic thugs going into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting or getting serious complications from the bite of a brown recluse spider.

I sensed the fire through the swarm before I realized what I was looking at with my eyes.  My power told me of the bugs’ recognition of the heat, but I didn’t even have time to devote conscious thought to block out the instincts the fire set in motion before the damage was done.  The primitive thought processes of my bugs were reduced to confused impulses to alternately flee and to pursue the heat and the light they so often used for navigation.  Many bugs died or were crippled by the heat.  From my vantage point, I could see Lung lashing out with streams of fire from his hands, directing them at the sky.

I suppressed a laugh, feeling heady with adrenaline.  Was that all he could do?  I directed the swarm to gather, so those who weren’t already biting and stinging were in the midst of the gang.  If he wanted to turn his flames on the swarm, he would have to set his own people on fire.

The heated air and the smells gave me enough information, by way of my insects, to tell where Lung was in the crowd.  I took a deep breath, and then sent in the reserves.  I took a share of the venomous types I’d held at bay and directed them to Lung.  A handful of bees, wasps, a number of the more poisonous spiders, like black widows and brown recluses, and dozens of fire ants.

He healed fast when his power was working.  Everything I’d read online said that people with healing abilities would shrug off the effects of poisons or drugs, so I knew I’d have to pump him full of enough venom to overwhelm that aspect of his power.  Besides, he was a big guy.  I judged he could take it.

From the information that I could glean from my bugs, Lung already had maybe a quarter of his body covered in armor.  Triangular sections of metallic plating were piercing through his skin, where they would continue to grow and overlap until he was nigh impenetrable.  If they weren’t already, his fingertips and toes would become like blades or metal claws.

I felt a sadistic glee as I organized the attack on Lung.  I directed the flying insects to attack his face.  With distaste, I focused the crawling ants and spiders on… other vulnerable areas.  I did my best to ignore the feedback that I got from that particular attack, as I most definitely did not want the same kind of topographical map that the swarm had provided just a minute ago.  Lung was bad news, and I needed him out of action as soon as possible.  That meant delivering the hurt.

Rationale aside, I did feel a stab of guilt about taking pleasure in someone else’s pain.  I quieted that moment’s remorse by reminding myself that Lung had spread tragedy, addiction and death to innumerable families.  He had been planning to kill kids.

Lung exploded.  No metaphor there.  He detonated in a blast of rolling fire that set his clothes, several pieces of litter and one of his gang members alight.  Almost every bug in his immediate vicinity died or was crippled by the wave of extreme heat.  From my vantage point on the roof, I watched as he turned himself into a human bomb a second time.  The second explosion turned his clothes to rags and sent his people fleeing for cover.  He stepped out of the smoke with his hands burning like torches, the silvery scales that covered nearly a third of his body reflecting the flame.

Damn, damn, damn.  He was fireproof?  Or skilled enough at using fire to superheat the air around him without burning himself?  The meager scraps of clothing that covered him were burning away, and fire licked and danced around his hands without him seeming to care.

He roared.  It wasn’t the monstrous roar one might expect, but a very human sound of rage and frustration.  As human as it sounded, though, it was loud.  All the way down the street neighborhood, lights and flashlights flickered on in response to the explosions and the roar.  I even saw a few faces peering through windows to see the action.  Idiots.  If Lung’s next attack shattered any glass, they could get hurt.

From where I was crouched on the side of the roof, I directed some of the more harmless insects to attack Lung.  He lashed out with fire the moment they started crawling on him, which I had more or less expected.  He was managing to kill the majority of the bugs with each burst of flame, and knowing what I did about his powers, I knew his flames would only get bigger, hotter and more dangerous.

In a typical fight, you figure someone would get weaker as the fight dragged on.  They would take their lumps, get tired, exhaust their bag of tricks.  With Lung, it was the opposite.  I found myself regretting that I had used only a relatively small number of the more venomous bugs, because it was becoming clear that what I’d used wasn’t having much effect.  He had no idea where I was, so I figured I still had the upper hand, but my options and the number of bugs in my swarm were running out.  Despite my earlier glee, I wasn’t sure I could win this anymore.

I hissed through my teeth, all too aware that time was running out.  Before long, Lung would set fire to the city block, become immune to bites and stings in general, or destroy my entire swarm.  I had to get creative.  I had to get meaner.

I focused my attention on a lone wasp, and piloted it around Lung’s back, up behind his head and then had it circle around to his face and straight at his eyeball.  The wasp touched his eyelash, and he blinked before it could hit the target.  As a consequence, the stinger only sank into his eyelid, prompting yet another explosion of fire and a scream of rage.

Again. I thought.  A honeybee this time.  I wasn’t sure if he eventually got armor plated eyelids, but maybe I could use the stings to make his eyes swell shut?  He wouldn’t be able to fight if he couldn’t see.

The bee struck home this time, sinking his stinger into the ball of Lung’s eye.  It surprised me in that it didn’t stick or kill the bee, so I had the bee sting again, and this time the barbs let it stick in the skin at the corner of his eye, at the side of his nose.  The bee died that time, leaving some tiny organs and a venom sac hanging from the stinger.

I expected him to explode again.  He didn’t.  Instead, he set himself on fire, head to toe.  I waited a moment, poised to attack with the next wasp to attack the moment he dropped his guard, but as the seconds passed, I realized he wasn’t planning on extinguishing himself.  My heart sank.

Surely he was burning up all of the oxygen in his vicinity.  Didn’t he need to breathe?  What the hell was the fuel source for his fire?

Standing in the street, he turned around, searching for me, with the flames that licked and rolled over his body casting light where there had been only gloom.  Abruptly, he hunched over.  I wondered if – I hoped – the various toxins and venoms in his system had done the trick.  Then his back separated into two.  A meaty looking gap appeared along his spine, followed by an eruption of long metallic scales all down the gap.  After bristling for a few moments, the scales lay flat like dominoes falling.  He stood and stretched, and I could swear he was a foot taller, now with an armor plated spine.

Still on fire, head to toe.

If the ‘constantly on fire’ thing had tipped the balance of the fight to futile, watching Lung grow and look stronger than ever had pushed me to the point of being spooked.  I started thinking about an exit strategy.  Rationally, I figured, Lung’s men were scattered to the four winds and they were probably in pretty rough shape.  Whatever Lung had been planning for tonight, chances were he wasn’t going to be able to carry out whatever plans he’d had after this debacle.  I had more or less accomplished what I needed to, and I figured I could run and find a way to contact the PHQ just in case.

That was the rational perspective.  Justifications aside, I just wanted to leave, right then.  If things dragged on and I stayed put, there was a very real chance that Lung would give evidence to the rumor that he could grow wings, at which point I would be spotted for sure.  I wouldn’t be able to beat Lung at this point, anyway, which left only a graceless retreat as the remaining option.

Lung had his back turned to me, so I lifted myself up, slowly.  Crouching, I backed up to retreat to the fire escape, watching Lung carefully as I set foot on the gravel of the roof.

As if a gunshot had gone off, Lung whirled around to stare at me.  One of his eyes was just a glowing line behind his mask, but the other was like an orb of molten metal.

A victorious roar filled the air, less human than the outcry he had made earlier, and I felt a kind of resignation.  Enhanced hearing.  The package of powers the bastard got from his transformation included superhuman hearing.

Gestation 1.5

You don’t properly appreciate what superhuman strength means until you see someone leap from the sidewalk to the second floor of a building on the far side of the street.  He didn’t make it all the way to the roof, but he came to a point maybe three quarters of the way up.  I wasn’t sure just how Lung kept from falling, but I could only guess that he just buried his fingertips into the building’s exterior.

I heard scraping and crunching as he ascended, and looked to my only escape route.  I didn’t harbor any delusions as far as my ability to get down the fire escape before Lung came over the top of the roof and deduced where I’d run off to.  Worse, at that point he could probably just beat me to the street level by jumping off the roof, or even just shoot fire at me through the gaps in the metal while I was halfway down.  The irony of the fire escape being anything but didn’t escape me.

I wished I could fly.  My school offered the choice between Chemistry, Biology and Physics, with Basic Science for the underachievers.  I hadn’t picked Physics, but I was still pretty sure that no matter how many I could gather together, jumping off the roof with a swarm of flying insects gripping me would be just as ineffective as the 9 year old superhero wannabes you heard about in the news, jumping off ledges with umbrellas and bedsheets.

For the time being, I was stuck where I was.

Reaching inside the convex armor that covered my spine, I ran my fingers over the things I had buckled in there.  The EpiPens were meant to treat anaphylactic shock from allergic reactions to bee stings and the like, and likely wouldn’t do a thing to Lung, even if I could get close enough and find a point to inject.  Worst case scenario, the injections would supercharge his power by prompting a surge of whatever hormones or endorphins fueled his power.  Not useful, dangerous at best.  I had a pouch of chalk dust that was meant for climbers and gymnasts, I had seen it in the sports store when I was buying the lenses for my mask.  I had gloves and didn’t think I needed the dryness and extra traction, but I had gotten the idea that it could be useful to throw at an invisible enemy, and bought it on a whim.  In retrospect, it had been kind of a dumb purchase, since my power let me find foes like that with my bugs.  As a tool against Lung… I wasn’t sure if it would explode like regular dust could when exposed to flame, but fire didn’t hurt him anyways.  Scratch that option.

I tugged the little canister of pepper spray free from my armor.  It was a black tube, three inches long, not much thicker around than a pen, with a trigger and a safety switch.  It had been a gift from my dad, after I had started to go on my morning jogs for training.  He had warned me to vary my route, and had given me the pepper spray for protection, along with a chain to clip it to my belt loop so it couldn’t be taken and used against me by an attacker.  In costume, I had opted not to keep the chain for the sake of moving quietly.  Using my thumb, I flicked the safety off and positioned the tube so I was ready to fire.  I crouched to make myself a smaller target, and waited for him to show himself.

Lung’s hands, still on fire, were the first thing to show up, gripping the edge of the roof hard enough to bend the material that covered the roof’s raised lip.  His hands were quickly followed by his head and torso as he hauled himself up.  He looked like he was made of overlapping knives or spades, smouldering yellow-orange with the low temperature flame.  There was no skin to be seen, and he was easily seven or eight feet tall, judging by the length of his arms and torso.  His shoulders alone were three feet across at the very least.  Even the one eye that he had open looked metallic, a glowing, almond shaped pool of liquid-hot metal.

I aimed for the open eye, but the spray fired off at a sharp angle, just glancing off his shoulder.  Where the spray grazed him, it ignited into a short lived fireball.

I swore under my breath and fumbled with the device.  While he brought his leg over the edge, I adjusted my angle and shot again.  This time – with a small tweak of my aim mid-shot – I hit him in the face.  The ignited spray rolled off of him, but the contents still did the trick.  He screamed, letting go of the roof with one hand, clutching the side of his face where his good eye was.

It had been vain to hope that he would slip and fall.  I just counted myself lucky that however metallic his face looked, there were still parts of it vulnerable to the spray.

Lung hauled himself over the edge of the roof.  I had him hurting… I just couldn’t do anything about it.  My bugs were officially useless, there was nothing left in my utility sheath, and I would hurt myself more than I hurt Lung if I attacked him.  Making a mental note to pick myself up a concealable knife or baton if I managed to live through this, I bolted for the fire escape.

“Muh… Motherfucker!”  Lung screamed.  With my back turned, there was no way to see it, but the roof was briefly illuminated before the wave of flame hit me from behind.  Knocked off balance, I skidded on the gravel and hit the raised lip of the roof, just by the fire escape.  Frantically, I patted myself down.  My costume wasn’t on fire, but my hair – I hurriedly ran my hands over it to make sure it hadn’t been ignited.

Small mercies, I thought, that there was no tar used on the roof.  I could just imagine the flames igniting the rooftop, and just how little I’d be able to do if it happened.

Lung stood, slowly, still covering part of his face with his hand.  He walked with a slight limp as he approached me.  Blindly, he lashed out with a broad wave of flame that rolled over half the roof.  I covered my head with my hands and brought my knees to my chest as the hot air and flame rushed over me.  My costume seemed to take the brunt of it, but it was still hot enough I had to bite my lip to stop from making a sound.

Lung stopped advancing, slowly turning his head from one side to another.

“Cock.  Sucker,” he growled in his heavily accented voice, his cussing interrupted by his panting for breath, “Move.  Give me something to aim for.”

I held my breath and stayed as still as possible.  What could I do?  I still had the pepper spray in my hand, but even if I got him again, I was running the risk that he would lash out and bake me alive before I could move.  If I moved first, he would hear me and I would get knocked around by another blast of flame, probably before I could get to my feet.

Lung moved his hand from his face.  He blinked a few times, then looked around, then blinked a few more times.  It was a matter of seconds before he could see well enough to make me out from the shadows.  Wasn’t pepper spray supposed to put someone down for thirty minutes?  How was this monster not an A-Lister?

He suddenly moved, flames wreathing his hands, and I screwed my eyes shut.

When I heard the crackling whoosh of the flame and wasn’t burned alive, I opened my eyes again.  Lung was firing streams of flame, aiming for the edge of the roof of the adjacent building, a three story apartment.  I looked to see what he was aiming at, but couldn’t make anything out in the gloom or in the brief second of light Lung’s flames afforded.

With no warning, a massive shape landed atop Lung with an impact I could swear people heard at the other end of the street.  The size of a van, the ‘massive object’ was animal rather than vehicle, resembling a cross between a lizard and a tiger, with tangles of muscle and bone where it ought to have skin, scales or fur.  Lung was now on his knees, holding one of the beast’s sizable claws away from his face with his own clawed hand.

Lung used his free hand to strike the creature across the snout.  Even though he was smaller than the beast, the impact made it rear back.  It took a few short steps back in reaction, and then rhino-charged him off the edge of the roof.  They hit the street with an audible crash.

I stood, aware I was shaking like a leaf.  I was so unsteady on my feet, from the mixed relief and fear, that I almost fell over again as two more impacts shook the roof.  Two more creatures, similar to the first in texture, but slightly different in size and shape, had arrived on the rooftop.  These two each had a pair of riders.  I watched as the people slid off the backs of the animals.  There were two girls, a guy, and a fourth I identified as male only because of the height.  The tall one approached me, while the others hurried to the edge of the roof to watch Lung and the creature duke it out.

“You really saved us a lot of trouble,” he told me.  His voice was deep, masculine, but muffled by the helmet he wore.  He was dressed entirely in black, a costume I realized was basically motorcycle leathers and a motorcycle helmet.  The only thing that made me think it was a costume was the visor of his helmet.  The full-face visor was sculpted to look like a stylized skull, and was as black as the rest of his costume, with only the faint highlights of reflected light on the surface to give a sense of what it was.  It was one of those costumes that people put together out of what they can scrounge up, and it wasn’t half bad if you didn’t look too close.  He reached out a hand towards me, and I leaned away, wary.

I didn’t know what to say, so I stuck to my policy of not saying anything that could get me into a worse situation.

Withdrawing his hand, the man in black jerked his thumb over one shoulder, “When we got word Lung was aiming to come after us tonight, we were pretty freaked.  We were arguing strategy for the better part of the day.  We eventually decided, fuck it, we’d meet him halfway.  Wing it.  Not my usual way of doing things, but yeah.”

Behind him, one of the girls whistled sharply and pointed down at the street.  The two monsters the group had been riding on bounded across the roof and leaped down to the street to join the fight.

The guy in black kept talking, “Wouldn’t you know, his flunky Lee is there with a half dozen guys, but Lung and the rest of his gang are nowhere to be found,” he laughed, a surprisingly normal sound for someone wearing a mask with a skull on it.

“Lee’s no slouch in a fight, but there’s a reason he’s not leader of the ABB.  He got spooked without his boss there and ran.  I guess you’re responsible for that?”  Skull-mask waited for a response from me.  When I didn’t offer one, he ventured towards the edge of the roof and looked down, then spoke without turning to look at me, “Lung is getting creamed.  The fuck you do to him?”

“Pepper spray, wasp and bee stings, fire ants and spider bites,” the second of the girls said, answering the question for me.  She was dressed in a skintight outfit that combined black with a pale shade of blue or purple – I couldn’t tell in the dark – and her dark blond hair was long and windblown.  The girl grinned as she added, “He’s not holding up too well.  Gonna feel a helluvalot worse tomorrow.”

The man in black suddenly turned to look at me, “Introductions.  That’s Tattletale.  I’m Grue.  The girl with the dogs-” he pointed to the other girl, the one who had whistled and directed the monsters.  She wasn’t in costume unless I counted a plaid skirt, army boots, a torn-up sleeveless T-shirt and a hard plastic, dollar-store rottweiler mask as a costume. “-We call her Bitch, her preference, but in the interests of being P.G., the good guys and media decided to call her Hellhound instead.  Last and certainly least, we have Regent.”

I finally caught up with what he was saying.  Those monsters were dogs?

“Fuck you, Grue,” Regent retorted, with a chuckle and a tone of voice that made it clear he wasn’t really that offended.  He was wearing a white mask, not quite as decorative or made up as the ones I associated with the carnivals in Venice, but similar.  He’d placed a silver coronet around his short black curls, and wore a ruffled white shirt with skintight leggings tucked into knee-high boots.  The outfit was very renaissance faire.  He had a build that made me think more of a dancer than a bodybuilder.

Introductions done, Grue looked at me for several long moments.  After a few seconds, he asked me, “Hey, you okay?  You hurt?”

“The reason she’s not introducing herself isn’t because she’s hurt,” Tattletale told him, as she continued to lean over the edge of the roof and watch whatever was going on at the street level, “It’s because she’s shy.”

Tattletale turned around and it looked like she was going to say something else, but she stopped, turning her head.  The smile she’d been wearing faded, “Heads up.  We’ve gotta scram.”

Bitch nodded in response and whistled, one short whistle followed by two long ones.  After a brief pause, the building was suddenly rattled by impacts.  In just moments, the three creatures of hers leaped from the alleys to either side of the building and onto the roof.

Grue turned towards me.  I was still standing on the opposite end of the roof, by the fire escape. “Hey, want a ride?”

I looked at the creatures – dogs?  They were bloodied, snarling creatures out of a nightmare.  I shook my head.  He shrugged.

“Hey,” Tattletale said to me, seating herself just behind Bitch, “What’s your name?”

I stared at her.  My voice caught in my throat before I was able to get the words out, “I don’t… I haven’t picked one yet.”

“Well, Bug, a cape is gonna show up in less than a minute.  You did us a solid by dealing with Lung, so take my advice.  Someone from the Protectorate shows up, finds two bad guys duking it out, they’re not going to let one walk away.  You should get out of here,”  She said.  She flashed me a smile.  She had one of those vulpine grins that turned up at the corners.  Behind her simple black domino style mask, her eyes were glittering with mischief.  If she had red hair, she would have made me think of a fox.  She kind of did, anyways.

With that, they leaped over my head, one of the three beasts hitting or stepping on the fire escape on the way down, eliciting a screech of metal on metal.

When I realized what had just happened, I could have cried.  It was easy enough to pin down Regent, Tattletale and Bitch as teenagers.  It wasn’t much of an intuitive leap to guess that Grue had been one too.  The ‘children’ Lung had mentioned, the ones I had gone to so much effort to save tonight, were bad guys.  Not only that, but they had mistaken me for one, too.

Gestation 1.6

I heard the cape arrive on his souped up motorcycle.  I didn’t want to be seen fleeing the scene of a fight, and risk being labeled one of the bad guys by yet another person, but I wasn’t about to get closer to the street either, in case Lung was feeling better.  Since there was nowhere to go, I just stayed put.  Just resting felt good.

If you’d asked me just a few hours ago about how I thought I would feel meeting a big name superhero, I would have used words like excited and giddy.  The reality was that I was almost too exhausted to care.

It looked as though he flew up onto the roof, but the six-foot long weapon the man held kind of jerked as he landed.  I was pretty sure I saw the tines of a grappling hook retreating back into the end of the weapon.  So this was what Armsmaster looked like in person, I thought.

The largest superhero organization in the world was the Protectorate, spanning Canada and the States, with ongoing talks about including Mexico in the deal.  It was a government sponsored league of superheroes with a base in each ‘cape city’.  That is, they had a team set up in each city with a sizable population of heroes and villains.  Brockton Bay’s team was officially ‘The Protectorate East-North-East’, and were headquartered in the floating, forcefield-shrouded island that you could see from the Boardwalk.  This guy, Armsmaster, was the guy in charge of the local team.  When the core group of the top Protectorate members from around Canada and the States assembled in that classic ‘v’ formation for the photo shoots, Armsmaster was one of the guys in the wings.  This was a guy who had his own action figures.  Poseable Armsmaster with interchangeable Halberd parts.

He really did look like a superhero, not like some guy in a costume.  It was an important distinction.  He wore body armor, dark blue with silver highlights, had a sharply angled v-shaped visor covering his eyes and nose.  With only the lower half of his face exposed, I could see a beard trimmed to trace the edges of his jaw.  If I had to judge, with only the lower half of his face to go by, I’d guess he was in his late twenties or early thirties.

His trademark and weapon was his Halberd, which was basically a spear with an axe head on the end, souped up with gadgets and the kind of technology you generally only saw in science fiction.  He was the kind of guy who appeared on magazine covers and did interviews on TV, so you could find almost anything about Armsmaster through various media, short of his secret identity.  I knew his weapon could cut through steel as though it was butter, that it had plasma injectors for stuff that the blade alone couldn’t cut and that he could fire off directed electromagnetic pulses to shut down forcefields and mechanical devices.

“You gonna fight me?” He called out.

“I’m a good guy,” I said.

Stepping closer to me, he tilted his head, “You don’t look like one.”

That stung, especially coming from him.  It was like Michael Jordan saying you sucked at basketball.  “That’s… not intentional,” I responded, not a little defensively, “I was more than halfway done putting the costume together when I realized it was already looking more edgy than I’d intended, and I couldn’t do anything about it by then.”

There was a long pause.  Nervously, I turned my eyes from that opaque visor.  I glanced at his chest emblem, a silhouette of his visor in blue against a silver background, and was struck with the ridiculous thought that I had once owned a pair of underpants with his emblem on the front.

“You’re telling the truth,” he said.  It was a definitive statement, which startled me.  I wanted to ask how he knew, but I wasn’t about to do or say anything that might change his mind.

He approached closer, looking me over as I sat there with my arms around my knees, he asked, “You need a hospital?”

“No,” I said. “Don’t think so.  I’m as surprised as you are.”

“You’re a new face,” he said.

“I haven’t even come up with a name yet.  You know how hard it is to come up with a bug-themed name that doesn’t make me sound like a supervillain or a complete dork?”

He chuckled, and it sounded warm, very normal, “I wouldn’t know.  I got into the game early enough that I didn’t have to worry about missing out on all of the good names.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  I suddenly felt awkward.  I don’t know why, but I admitted to him, “I almost died.”

“That’s why we have the Ward program,” he said.  There was no judgement in his tone, no pressure.  Just a statement.

I nodded, more to give a response than out of any agreement with the answer.  The Wards were the under-eighteen subdivision of the Protectorate, and Brockton Bay did have its own team of Wards, with the same naming convention as the Protectorate; The Wards East-North-East.  I had considered applying to join, but the notion of escaping the stresses of high school by flinging myself into a mess of teenage drama, adult oversight and schedules seemed self-defeating.

“You get Lung?” I asked, to change the subject from the Wards.  I was pretty sure that he was obligated to try and induct new heroes into either the Protectorate or the Wards, depending on their age, to promote the whole agenda of organized heroes who are accountable for their actions, and I really didn’t want him to get on my case about joining.

“Lung was unconscious, beaten and battered when I arrived.  I pumped him full of tranquilizers to be safe and temporarily restrained him under a steel cage I welded to the sidewalk.  I’ll pick him up on my way back.”

“Good,” I said, “With him in jail, I’ll feel like I accomplished something today.  Only reason I started the fight was because I overheard him telling his men to shoot some kids.  Only realized later that he was talking about some other villains.”

Armsmaster turned to look at me.  So I told him, walking him through the fight in general, the arrival of the teenage bad guys, and their general descriptions.  Before I finished, he was pacing back and forth on the roof.

“These guys.  They knew I was coming?”

I nodded, once.  As much respect as I had for Armsmaster, I wasn’t in much of a mood to repeat myself.

“That explains a lot,” he said, staring off into the distance.  After a few moments, he went on to explain, “They’re slippery.  On those few occasions we do manage to get in a toe to toe fight with them, they either win, or they get away more or less unscathed, or both.  We know so little about them.  Grue and Hellhound were working on their own before they joined the group, so there’s some information there, but the other two?  They’re nonentities.  If the girl Tattletale has some way of detecting or tracking us, it would go a long way towards explaining why they’re doing as well as they are.”

It kind of surprised me to hear one of the top level heroes admitting to being anything less than perfectly on top of things.

“It’s funny,” I said, after a few moment’s thought, “They didn’t seem that hardcore.  Grue said they were kind of panicking when they heard Lung was coming after them, and they were casually joking around while the fight was going on.  Grue was making fun of Regent.”

“They said all this in front of you?” he asked.

I shrugged, “I think they thought I was helping them out.  The way Tattletale talked, I think she thought I was a bad guy too or something.”  With a touch of bitterness, I said, “Dunno, I guess it was the costume that led them to that assumption.”

“Could you have taken them in a fight?” Armsmaster asked me.

I started to shrug, and winced a little.  I was feeling a little sore in the shoulder, where I’d tumbled on the roof after being blasted by Lung’s flames.  I said, “Like you said, we don’t know a lot about them, but I think that girl with the dogs-”

“Hellhound,” Armsmaster said.

“I think she could have kicked my ass on her own, so no.  I probably couldn’t have fought them.”

“Then count it as a good thing that they got the wrong impression,” Armsmaster said.

“I’ll try to look at it that way,” I said, struck by how he easily he was able to employ the whole ‘take a negative and turn it into a positive’ mindset I’d been trying to maintain.  I envied that.

“That a girl,” he said, “And while we’re looking forward, we need to decide where we go from here.”

My heart sank.  I knew he was going to bring up the Wards again.

“Who gets the credit for Lung?”

Caught off guard, I looked up at him.  I started to speak, but he held up his hand.

“Hear me out.  What you’ve done tonight is spectacular.  You played a part in getting a major villain into custody.  You just need to consider the consequences.”

“Consequences,” I muttered, even as the word spectacular rang in my ears.

“Lung has an extensive gang throughout Brockton Bay and neighboring cities.  More than that, he has two superpowered flunkies.  Oni Lee and Bakuda.”

I shook my head, “I know about Oni Lee, and Grue mentioned fighting him.  I’ve never heard of Bakuda.”

Armsmaster nodded, “Not surprising.  She’s new.  What we know about her is limited.  She made her first appearance and demonstration of her powers by way of a drawn out terrorism campaign against Cornell University.  Lung apparently recruited her and brought her to Brockton Bay after her plans were foiled by the New York Protectorate.  This is… something of a concern.”

“What are her powers?”

“Are you aware of the Tinker classification?”

I started to shrug, but remembered my sore shoulder and nodded instead.  It was probably more polite, too.  I said, “Covers anyone with powers that give them an advanced grasp of science.  Lets them make technology years ahead of its time.  Ray guns, ice blasters, mechanized suits of armor, advanced computers.”

“Close enough,” Armsmaster said.  It struck me he would be a Tinker, if his Halberd and armor were any indication.  That, or he got his stuff from someone else.  He elaborated,  “Well, most Tinkers have a specialty or a special trick.  Something they’re particualrly good at or something that they can do, which other Tinkers can’t.  Bakuda’s specialty is bombs.”

I stared at him.  A woman with a power that let her make bombs that were technologically decades ahead of their time.  No wonder he saw it as a concern.

“Now I want you to consider the danger involved in taking the credit for Lung’s capture.  Without a doubt, Oni Lee and Bakuda will be looking to accomplish two goals.  Freeing their boss and getting vengeance on the one responsible.  I suspect you’re now aware… these are scary people.  Scarier in some ways than their boss.”

“You’re saying I shouldn’t take the credit,” I said.

“I’m saying you have two options.  Option one is to join the Wards, where you’ll have support and protection in the event of an altercation.  Option two is to keep your head down.  Don’t take the credit.  Fly under the radar.”

I wasn’t prepared to make a decision like that.  Usually, I went to sleep at eleven or so, waking up at six thirty to get ready for my morning run.  At my best guess, it was somewhere between one and two in the morning.  I was emotionally exhausted from the highs and lows of the evening, and I could barely wrap my head around the complications and headaches that would come from joining the Wards, let alone having two insanely dangerous sociopaths coming after me.

On top of that, I wasn’t so ignorant as to miss Armsmaster’s motives.  If I opted to not take the credit for Lung’s capture, Armsmaster would, I was sure.  I didn’t want to get on the bad side of a major player.

“Please keep my involvement in Lung’s capture secret,” I told him, painfully disappointed to have to say it, even as I knew it made the most sense.

He smiled, which I hadn’t expected.  He had a nice smile.  It made me think that he could win the hearts of a lot of women, whatever the top two-thirds of his face looked like.  “I think you’ll look back and see this was a smart decision,” Armsmaster said, turning to walk to the other end of the roof, “Call me at the PHQ if you’re ever in a pinch.”  He stepped off the edge of the roof and dropped out of sight.

Call me if you’re ever in a pinch.  He’d been saying, without openly admitting, that he owed me one.  He would take the lion’s share of the credit for Lung’s capture, but he owed me one.

Before I was all the way down the fire escape, I heard the thrum of his motorcycle, presumably carrying Lung towards a life of confinement.  I could hope.

It would take me a half hour to get home.  On the way, I would stop and pull on the sweatshirt and jeans I had hidden.  I knew my dad went to sleep even earlier than I did, and he slept like a log, so I had nothing to worry about as far as wrapping up the night.

It could have gone worse.  Strange as it sounds, those words were a  security blanket I wrapped around myself to keep myself from dwelling on the fact that tomorrow was a school day.

Interlude 1

“We don’t know how long he had been there.  Suspended in the air above the Atlantic Ocean.  On May twentieth, 1982, an ocean liner was crossing from Plymouth to Boston when a passenger spotted him.  He was naked, his arms to his sides, his long hair blowing in the wind as he stood in the sky, nearly a hundred feet above the gently cresting waves.  His skin and hair can only be described as a burnished gold.  With neither body hair nor clothes to cover him, it is said, he seemed almost artificial.

“After a discussion including passenger and crew, the liner detoured to get closer.  It was a sunny day, and passengers crowded to the railings to get a better look.  As if sharing their curiosity, the figure drew closer as well.  His expression was unchanging, but witnesses at the scene reported that he appeared deeply sad.

“‘I thought he was going to crack his facade and cry any moment’, said Grace Lands, ‘But when I reached out and touched his fingertips, I was the one who burst into tears.’

“‘That boat trip was a final journey for me.  I had cancer, and I wasn’t brave enough to face it.  Can’t believe I’m admitting this in front of a camera, but I was going back to Boston, where I was born, to end things myself.  After I met him, I changed my mind.  Didn’t matter anyways.  I went to a doctor, and he said there was no sign I ever had the disease.’

“‘My brother, Andrew Hawke, was the last passenger to make any sort of contact with him, I remember.  He climbed up onto the railing, and, almost falling off, he clasped the hand of the golden man.  The rest of us had to grab onto him to keep him from falling.  Whatever happened left him with a quiet awe.  When the man with the golden skin flew away, my brother stayed silent.  The rest of the way to Boston, my brother didn’t say a word.  When we docked, and the spell finally broke, my brother babbled his excitement to reporters like a child.’

“The golden man would reappear several more times in the coming months and years.  At some point, he donned clothing.  At first, a sheet worn over one shoulder and pinned at either side of the waist, then more conventional clothes.  In 1999, he donned the white bodysuit he still wears today.  For more than a decade, we have wondered, where did our golden man get these things?  Who was he in contact with?

“Periodically at first, then with an increasing frequency, the golden man started to intervene in times of crisis.  For events as small as a car accident, as great as natural disasters, he has arrived and used his abilities to save us.  A flash of light to freeze water reinforcing a levee stressed by a hurricane.  A terrorist act averted.  A serial murderer caught.  A volcano quelled.  Miracles, it was said.

“His pace increased, perhaps because he was still learning what he could do, perhaps because he was getting a greater sense of where he was needed.  By the middle of the 1990s, he was traveling from crisis to crisis, flying faster than the speed of sound.  In fifteen years, he has not rested.

“He has been known to speak just once in thirty years.  After extinguishing widespread fire in Alexandrovsk, he paused to survey the scene and be sure no blazes remained.  A reporter spoke to him, and asked, ‘Kto vy?’ – what are you?

“Shocking the world, caught on camera in a scene replayed innumerable times, he answered in a voice that sounded as though it might never have uttered a sound before.  Barely audible, he told her, ‘Scion’.

“It became the name we used for him.  Ironic, because we took a word that meant descendant, and used it to name the first of many superpowered individuals – parahumans – to appear across Earth.

“Just five years after Scion’s first appearance, the superheroes emerged from the cover of rumor and secrecy to show themselves to the public.  Though the villains followed soon after, it was the heroes who shattered any illusions of the parahumans being divine figures.  In 1989, attempting to quell a riot over a basketball game in Michigan, the superhero known to the public as Vikare stepped in, only to be clubbed over the head.  He died not long after of a brain embolism.  Later, he would be revealed to be Andrew Hawke.

“The golden age of the parahumans was thus short lived.  They were not the deific figures they had appeared to be.  Parahumans were, after all, people with powers, and people are flawed at their core.  Government agencies took a firmer hand, and state-“

The television flicked off, and the screen went black, cutting the documentary off mid sentence.  Danny Hebert sighed and sat down on the bed, only to stand just a moment later and resume pacing.

It was three fifteen in the morning, and his daughter Taylor was not in her bedroom.

Danny ran his hands through his hair, which was thinned enough at the top to be closer to baldness than not.  He liked to be the first to arrive at work, watching everyone arrive, having them know he was there for them.  So he usually went to bed early; he’d turn in at ten in the evening, give or take depending on what was on TV.  Only tonight, a little past midnight, he’d been disturbed from restless sleep when he had felt rather than heard the shutting of the back door of the house, just below his bedroom.  He had checked on his daughter, and he’d found her room empty.

So he had waited for his daughter to return for three hours.

Countless times, he had glanced out the window, hoping to see Taylor coming in.

For the twentieth time, he felt the urge to ask his wife for help, for advice, for support.  But her side of the bed was empty and it had been for some time.  Daily, it seemed, he was struck by the urge to call her cell phone.  He knew it was stupid – she wouldn’t pick up – and if he dwelt on that for too long, he became angry at her, which just made him feel worse.

He wondered, even as he knew the answer, why he hadn’t gotten Taylor a cell phone.  Danny didn’t know what his daughter was doing, what would drive her to go out at night.  She wasn’t the type.  He could tell himself that most fathers felt that way about their daughters, but at the same time, he knew.  Taylor wasn’t social.  She didn’t go to parties, she wouldn’t drink, she wasn’t even that interested in champagne when they celebrated the New Year together.

Two ominous possibilities kept nagging at him, both too believable.  The first was that Taylor had gone out for fresh air, or even for a run.  She wasn’t happy, especially at school, he knew, and exercise was her way of working through it.  He could see her doing it on a Sunday night, with a fresh week at school looming.  He liked that her running made her feel better about herself, that she seemed to be doing it in a reasonable, healthy way. He just hated that she had to do it here, in this neighborhood.  Because here, a skinny girl in her mid-teens was an easy target for attack.  A mugging or worse – he couldn’t even articulate the worst of the possibilities in his own thoughts without feeling physically sick.  If she had gone out at eleven in the evening for a run and hadn’t come back by three in the morning, then it meant something had happened.

He glanced out the window again, at that corner of the house where the pool of illumination beneath the streetlight would let him see her approaching.  Nothing.

The second possibility wasn’t much better.  He knew Taylor was being bullied.  Danny had found that out in January, when his little girl had been pulled out of school and taken to the hospital.  Not the emergency room, but the psychiatric ward.  She wouldn’t say by whom, but under the influence of the drugs they had given her to calm down, she had admitted she was being victimized by bullies, using the plural to give him a clue that it was a they and not a he or a she.  She hadn’t mentioned it – the incident or the bullying – since.  If he pushed, she only tensed up and grew more withdrawn.  He had resigned himself to letting her reveal the details in her own time, but months had passed without any hints or clues being offered.

There was precious little Danny could do on the subject, either.  He had threatened to sue the school after his daughter had been taken to the hospital, and the school board had responded by settling, paying her hospital bills and promising they would look out for her to prevent such events from occurring in the future. It was a feeble promise made by a chronically overworked staff and it didn’t do a thing to ease his worries.  His efforts to have her change schools had been stubbornly countered with rules and regulations about the maximum travel times a student was allowed to have between home and a given school.  The only other school within a reasonable distance of Taylor’s place of residence was Arcadia High, and it was already desperately overcrowded with more than two hundred students on a list requesting admittance.

With all that in mind, when his daughter disappeared until the middle of the night, he couldn’t shake the idea that the bullies might have lured her out with blackmail, threats or empty promises.  He only knew about the one incident, the one that had landed her in the hospital, but it had been grotesque.  It had been implied, but never elaborated on, that more had been going on.  He could imagine these boys or girls that were tormenting his daughter, egging one another on as they came up with more creative ways to humiliate or harm her.  Taylor hadn’t said as much aloud, but whatever had been going on had been mean, persistent and threatening enough that Emma, Taylor’s closest friend for years, had stopped spending time with her.  It galled him.

Impotent.  Danny was helpless where it counted.  There was no action he could take – his one call to the police at two in the morning had only earned him a tired explanation that the police couldn’t act or look for her without something more to go on.  If his daughter was still gone after twelve hours, he’d been told, he should call them again.  All he could do was wait and pray with his heart in his throat that the phone wouldn’t ring, a police officer or nurse on the other end ready to tell him what had happened to his daughter.

The slightest of vibrations in the house marked the escape of the warm air in the house to the cold outdoors, and there was a muffled whoosh as the kitchen door shut again.  Danny Hebert felt a thrill of relief coupled with abject fear.  If he went downstairs to find his daughter, would he find her hurting or hurt?  Or would his presence make things worse, her own father seeing her at her most vulnerable after humiliation at the hands of bullies?  She had told him, in every way except articulating it aloud, that she didn’t want that.  She had pleaded with him, with body language and averted eye contact, unfinished sentences and things left unsaid, not to ask, not to push, not to see, when it came to the bullying.  He couldn’t say why, exactly.  Home was an escape from that, he’d suspected, and if he recognized the bullying, made it a reality here, maybe she wouldn’t have that relief from it.  Perhaps it was shame, that his daughter didn’t want him to see her like that, didn’t want to be that weak in front of him.  He really hoped that wasn’t the case.

So he ran his fingers through his hair once more and sat down on the corner of the bed, elbows on his knees, hands on his head, and stared at his closed bedroom door.  His ears were peeled for the slightest clue.  The house was old, and it hadn’t been a high quality building when it had been new, so the walls were thin and the structure prone to making noise at every opportunity.  There was the faintest sound of a door closing downstairs.  The bathroom?  It wouldn’t be the basement door, with no reason for her to go down there, and he couldn’t imagine it was a closet, because after two or three minutes, the same door opened and closed again.

After something banged on the kitchen counter, there was little but the occasional groan of floorboards.  Five or ten minutes after she had come in, there was the rhythmic creak of the stairs as she ascended.  Danny thought about clearing his throat to let her know he was awake and available should she knock on his door, but decided against it.  He was being cowardly, he thought, as if his clearing of his throat would give reality to his fears.

Her door shut carefully, almost inaudibly, with the slightest tap of door on doorframe.  Danny stood, abruptly, opening his door, ready to cross the hall and knock on her door.  To verify that his daughter was okay.

He was stopped by the smell of jam and toast.  She had made a late night snack.  It filled him with relief.  He couldn’t imagine his daughter, after being mugged, tormented or humiliated, coming home to have toast with jam as a snack.  Taylor was okay, or at least, okay enough to be left alone.

He let out a shuddering sigh of relief and retreated to his room to sit on the bed.

Relief became anger.  He was angry at Taylor, for making him worry, and then not even going out of her way to let him know she was okay.  He felt a smouldering resentment towards the city, for having neighborhoods and people he couldn’t trust his daughter to.  He hated the bullies that preyed on his daughter.  Underlying it all was frustration with himself.  Danny Hebert was the one person he could control in all of this, and Danny Hebert had failed to do anything that mattered.  He hadn’t gotten answers, hadn’t stopped the bullies, hadn’t protected his daughter.  Worst of all was the idea that this might have happened before, with him simply sleeping through it rather than laying awake.

He stopped himself from walking into his daughter’s room, from shouting at her and demanding answers, even if it was what he wanted, more than anything.  Where had she been, what had she been doing?  Was she hurt?  Who were these people that were tormenting her?  He knew that by confronting her and getting angry at her, he would do more harm than good, would threaten to sever any bond of trust they had forged between them.

Danny’s father had been a powerful, heavyset man, and Danny hadn’t gotten any of those genes.  Danny had been a nerd when the term was still young in popular culture, stick thin, awkward, short sighted, glasses, bad fashion sense.  What he had inherited was his father’s famous temper.  It was quick to rise and startling in its intensity.  Unlike his father, Danny had only ever hit someone in anger twice, both times when he was much younger.  That said, just like his father, he could and would go off on tirades that would leave people shaking.  Danny had long viewed the moment he’d started to see himself as a man, an adult, to be the point in time where he had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t ever lose his temper with his family.  He wouldn’t pass that on to his child the way his father had to him.

He had never broken that oath with Taylor, and knowing that was what kept him contained in his room, pacing back and forth, red in the face and wanting to punch something.  While he’d never gotten angry at her, never screamed at her, he knew Taylor had seen him angry.  Once, he had been at work, talking to a mayor’s aide.  The man had told Danny that the revival projects for the Docks were being cancelled and that, contrary to promises, there were to be layoffs rather than new jobs for the already beleaguered Dockworkers.  Taylor had been spending the morning in his office on the promise that they would go out for the afternoon, and had been in a position to see him fly off the handle in the worst way with the man.  Four years ago, he had lost his temper with Annette for the first time, breaking his oath to himself.  That had been the last time he had seen her.  Taylor hadn’t been there to see him shouting at her mother, but he was fairly certain she’d heard some of it.  It shamed him.

The third and last time that he had lost his temper where Taylor had been in a position to know had been when she had been hospitalized following the incident in January.  He’d screamed at the school’s principal, who had deserved it, and at Taylor’s then-Biology teacher, who probably hadn’t.  It had been bad enough that a nurse had threatened to call for a police officer, and Danny, barely mollified, had stomped from the hallway to the hospital room to find his daughter more or less conscious and wide eyed in reaction.  Danny harbored a deep fear that the reason Taylor hadn’t offered any details on the bullying was out of fear he would, in blind rage, do something about it.  It made him feel sick, the notion that he might have contributed something to his daughter’s self imposed isolation in how she was dealing with her problems.

It took Danny a long time to calm down, helped by telling himself over and over that Taylor was okay, that she was home, that she was safe.  It was something of a blessing that, as the anger faded, he felt drained.  He climbed into the left side of the bed, leaving the right side empty out of a habit he’d yet to break, and pulled the covers up around himself.

He would talk to Taylor in the morning.  Get an answer of some sort.

He dreamed of the ocean.

Insinuation 2.1

I woke to the muffled sound of the radio in the bathroom.  Reaching over to my alarm clock, I turned it around.  6:28.  Which made today a weekday like any other.  My alarm was set for six thirty, but I almost never needed it, because my dad was always in the shower at the same time.  Routines defined us.

As a wave of fatigue swept over me, I wondered if I might be sick.  It took me a few moments of staring up at the ceiling to remember the events of last night.  Small wonder I was tired.  I had gotten home, snuck inside and gone to bed at close to three thirty, just three hours ago.  With all that had happened, I hadn’t slept those full three hours, either.

I forced myself out of bed.  As a slave to my routine, it would be wrong to do otherwise.  I made myself change into sweats and walk down to the kitchen sink to wash my face, fighting to keep awake.  I was sitting at the kitchen table, pulling on my sneakers, when my dad came downstairs in his bathrobe.

My dad is not what you’d call an attractive man.  Beanpole thin, weak chin, thinning dark hair that was on the cusp of baldness, big eyes and glasses that magnified those eyes further.  As he entered the kitchen, he looked surprised to see me there.  That’s just the way my dad always looked: constantly bewildered.  That, and a little defeated.

“Good morning, kiddo,” he said, entering the kitchen and leaning down to kiss the crown of my head.

“Hey, dad.”

He was already stepping towards the fridge as I replied.  He looked over his shoulder, “A little glum?”

“Hunh?”

“You sound down,” he said.

I shook my head, “Tired.  I didn’t sleep well.”

There was the slap of bacon hitting the frying pan.  It was sizzling by the time he spoke, “You know, you could go back to bed, sleep in for another hour or so.  You don’t have to go on your run.”

I smiled.  It was equal parts annoying and sweet, that my dad hated me running.  He worried about my safety, and couldn’t turn down a chance to drop hints that I should stop, or be safer, or join a gym.  I wasn’t sure if he’d worry more or less if I told him about my powers.

“You know I do, dad.  If I don’t go today, it’ll be that much harder to make myself get up and do it tomorrow.”

“You’ve got the, uh…”

“I’ve got the tube of pepper spray in my pocket,” I said.  He bobbed his head in acknowledgement.  It was only moments later that I realized I didn’t have it.  The pepper spray was with my costume, in the coal chute in the basement.  I felt a pang of guilt at realizing I’d lied to my dad.

“O.J.?” he asked.

“I’ll get it,” I said, heading to the fridge for the orange juice.  While I was at the fridge, I also grabbed some applesauce.  As I returned to the table, my dad slapped some french toast on the frying pan to join the bacon.  The room filled with the aroma of the cooking food.  I helped myself to the applesauce.

“You know Gerry?” my dad asked.

I shrugged.

“You met him once or twice when you’ve visited me at work.  Big guy, burly, Black Irish?”

Shrugging again, I took a bite of french toast.  My dad was part of the Dockworkers Association, as the Union spokesperson and head of hiring.  With the state of the Docks being what they were, that meant my dad was pretty much in charge of telling everyone that there were no jobs to be had, day after day.

“Rumor’s going around he found work.  Guess with who.”

“Dunno,” I said, around a mouthful of food.

“He’s going to be one of Über and Leet’s henchmen.”

I raised my eyebrows.  Über and Leet were local villains with a video game theme.  They were pretty much as incompetent as villains could be while staying out of jail.  They barely even rated as B-list.

“They going to make him wear a uniform?  Bright primary colors, Tron style?”

My dad chuckled, “Probably.”

“We’re supposed to talk about how the powers thing has influenced our lives in class today.  Maybe I’ll mention that.”

We ate in silence for a minute or two.

“I heard you come in late last night,” he said.

I just gave him a small nod and took another bite of french toast, even as my heart rate tripled and my mind searched for excuses.

“Like I said,” I finally opened my mouth, looking down at my plate, “I just couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t get my thoughts to settle down.  I got out of bed and tried pacing, but it didn’t help, so I stepped outside and walked around the neighborhood.”  I wasn’t totally lying.  I’d had nights like that.  Last night just hadn’t been one of them, and I had gone walking around the neighborhood, even if it was in a different way than I’d implied.

“Christ, Taylor,” my father answered, “This isn’t the kind of area where you can walk around in the middle of the night.”

“I had the pepper spray,” I protested, lamely.  That wasn’t a lie, at least.

“What if you get caught off guard?  What if the guy has a knife, or a gun?” my father asked.

Or pyrokinesis and the ability to grow armor plating and claws?  I felt a little knot of ugliness in the pit of my stomach at my father’s concern for me.  It was all the more intense because it was so justified.  I had almost died last night.

“What’s going on, that has you so anxious you can’t sleep?” he questioned me.

“School,” I said, swallowing around a lump in my throat, “Friends, the lack thereof.”

“It’s not better?” he asked, carefully stepping around the elephant in the room, the bullies.

If it was, I wouldn’t be having problems, would I?  I just gave him a one shoulder shrug and forced myself to take another bite of french toast.  My shoulder twinged a little as it made the bruises from last night felt.  As much as I didn’t feel like eating, I knew my stomach would be growling at me before lunch if I didn’t.  That was even without accounting for the energy I burned running, let alone the escapades of last night.

When my dad realized I didn’t have an answer for him, he resumed eating.  He only had one bite before he put his fork down again with a clink on the plate.

“No more going out in the middle of the night,” he said, “Or I’m putting a bell on the doors.”

He would, too.  I just nodded and promised myself I would be more careful.  When I had come in, I had been so tired and sore that I hadn’t given any thought to the click of the door, the rattle of the lock or the creaks of floorboards that were older than me.

“Okay,” I said, adding, “I’m sorry.”  Even with that, I felt a twinge of guilt.  My apology was sincere in feeling, but I was making it with the knowledge that I would probably do the same thing again.  It felt wrong.

He gave me a smile that seemed almost like an unspoken ‘I’m sorry too’.

I finished off my plate and stood up to put it in the sink and run water over it.

“Going on your run?”

“Yeah,” I said, put my dishes in the beaten up old dishwasher and bent down to give my dad a hug on my way to the door.

“Taylor, have you been smoking?”

I shook my head.

“Your hair is, uh, burnt.  At the ends, there.”

I thought back to the previous night.  Getting hit in the back by one of Lung’s blasts of flame.

Shrugging, I suggested, “Stove, maybe?”

“Be safe,” my dad said, emphasizing each word.  I took that as my cue to go, heading out the side door and breaking into an all out run the moment I was past the chain link gate at the side of the house.

Insinuation 2.2

The run had helped to wake me up, as did the hot shower and a cup of the coffee my dad had left in the pot.  Even so, the fatigue didn’t help the feeling of disorientation over just how normal the day seemed as I made my way to school.  Just a matter of hours ago, I had been in a life and death fight, I had even met Armsmaster.  Now it was a day like any other.

I felt a bit nervous as I got to homeroom.  Having basically skipped two classes the previous Friday, failing to turn in a major assignment, I figured that Mrs. Knott probably knew already.  I didn’t feel relieved when Mrs. Knott glanced up at me and gave a tight smile before turning her attention back to her computer.  That just meant the humiliation would be redoubled if and when class was interrupted by someone coming down from the office.  A part of me just wanted to miss this class too, just to avoid the potential humiliation and avoid drawing attention.

All in all, I felt anxious as I made my way to my computer, which kind of sucked because Computer class was one of the few parts of the school day I didn’t usually dread.  For one thing, it was the one class in which I was doing well.  More to the point, neither Madison, Sophia nor Emma were in this class, though some of their friends were.  Those girls didn’t usually feel the need to harass me without the trio around, and I was further removed from them because I was in the advanced stream of the class.  A good three quarters of the people in the room were computer illiterate, being from families that didn’t have the money for computers or families that didn’t have much interest in the things, so they practiced typing without looking at the keyboard and had lessons in using search engines.  By contrast, I was in the group that was learning some basic programming and spreadsheets.  It didn’t do a lot for my already geeky reputation, but I could deal.

Mrs. Knott was a tallish, broad shouldered and strong jawed woman.  She kind of looked like a caricature of a transvestite with her long blond hair and trying-too-hard-to-be-girly dress and blouse.  You just had to imagine her with stubble on her chin or hairy legs and she was the image of a man doing a very bad job at passing as a woman.  She was an alright teacher though; she was usually content to give us advanced students an in-class assignment and then focus on the more rambunctious majority for the rest of the class.  This suited me just fine – I usually wrapped up the assignment in a half hour, leaving me an hour to use as I saw fit.  I had been recalling and going over the events of the previous night during my morning run, and the first thing that I did when the ancient desktop finished its agonizing load process was to start digging for information.

The go-to place for news and discussion on capes was Parahumans Online.  The front page had constant updates on recent, international news featuring capes.  From there, I could go to the wiki, where there was information on individual capes, groups and events, or to the message boards, which broke down into nearly a hundred sub-boards, for specific cities and capes.  I opened the wiki in one tab, then found and opened the message board for Brockton Bay in another.

I had the sense that either Tattletale or Grue were the leader of the group I had run into.  Turning my attention to Tattletale, I searched the wiki.  The result I got was disappointingly short, starting with a header reading “This article is a stub.  Be a hero and help us expand it.”  There was a one sentence blurb on how she was a alleged villain active in Brockton Bay, with a single blurry picture.  The only new information for me was that her costume was lavender.  A search of the message boards turned up absolutely nothing.  There wasn’t even a hint as to what her power was.

I looked up Grue.  There was actually information about him, but nothing detailed or definitive.  The wiki stated he had been active for nearly three years, dealing in petty crimes such as robbing small stores and doing some work as an enforcer for those who wanted a little superpowered muscle along for a job.  Recently, he had turned to higher scale crime, including corporate theft and robbing a casino, together with his new team.  His power was listed as darkness generation in the sidebar under his picture.  The picture seemed crisp enough, but the focus of it, Grue, was just a blurry black silhouette in the center.

I searched for Bitch, next.  No results.  I did another search for her more official title, Hellhound, and got a wealth of information.  Rachel Lindt had never made any real attempt to hide her identity.  She had apparently been homeless through most of her criminal career, just living on the streets and moving on whenever police or a cape came after her.  The sightings and encounters with the homeless girl ended around a year ago – I figured that was when she joined forces with Grue, Tattletale and Regent.  The picture in the sidebar was taken from surveillance camera footage – an unmasked, dark haired girl who I wouldn’t have called pretty.  She had a squarish, blunt-featured face with thick eyebrows.  She was riding atop one of her monstrous ‘dogs’ like a jockey rides a horse, down the middle lane of a street.

According to the wiki entry, her powers manifested when she was fourteen, followed almost immediately by her demolishing the foster home she had been living in, injuring her foster mother and two other foster children in the process.  This was followed by a two year series of skirmishes and retreats across Maine as various heroes and teams tried to apprehend her, and she either defeated them or successfully evaded capture.  She had no powers that would have made her any stronger or faster than the average Jane, but she was apparently able to turn ordinary dogs into the creatures I had seen on the rooftop.  Monsters the size of a car, all muscle, bone, fang and claw.  A red box near the bottom of the page read, “Rachel Lindt has a public identity, but is known to be particularly hostile, antisocial and violent.  If recognized, do not approach or provoke.  Leave the area and notify authorities as to her last known location.”  At the very bottom of the page was a list of links that were related to her:  two fansites and a news article relating to her early activities.  A search of the message boards turned up too many results, leaving me unable to sift through the crap, the arguments, the speculation and the villain worship to find any genuine morsels of information.  If nothing else, she was notorious.  I sighed and moved on, making a mental note to do more investigation when I had the time.

The last member of the group was Regent.  Given what Armsmaster had said about the guy being low profile, I didn’t expect to find much.  I was surprised to find less than that.  Nothing.  My search on the wiki turned up only a default response, “There are no results matching this query.  32 unique IP addresses have searched the Parahumans.net Wiki  for ‘Regent’ in 2011.  Would you like to create the page?”  The message board didn’t turn up anything else.  I even did a search for alternate spellings of his name, such as Regence and Recant, in case I had heard it wrong.  Nothing turned up.

If my mood had been on the sour side as I got to homeroom, the dead ends only made it worse.  I turned my attention to the in-class assignment, making a working calculator in Visual Basic, but it was too trivial to distract me.  The work from Thursday and Friday had already given us the tools to do the job, so it was really just busywork.  I didn’t mind learning stuff, but work for the sake of doing work was annoying.  I did the bare minimum, checked it for any bugs, moved the file to the ‘completed work’ folder and returned to surfing the web.  All in all, the work barely took fifteen minutes.

I looked up Lung on the wiki, which I had done often enough before, as part of my research and preparation for being a superhero.  I’d wanted to be sure I knew who prominent local villains were and what they could do.  The search for ‘Lung’ redirected to a catch-all page on his gang, the ABB, with quite a bit of detailed information.  The information on Lung’s powers was pretty in line with my own experience, though there was no mention of the super-hearing or him being fireproof.  I debated adding it, but decided against it.  There were security concerns with my submission being tracked back to Winslow High, and then to me.  I figured it would probably be deleted as unsupported speculation, anyways.

The section beneath the description of Lung and his powers covered his subordinates.  He was estimated to have forty or fifty thugs working for him across Brockton Bay, largely drawn from the ranks of Asian youth.  It was pretty unconventional for a gang to include members of the variety of nationalities that the ABB did, but Lung had made it a mission to conquer and absorb every gang with Asian members and many without.  Once he had the manpower he needed, the non-Asian gangs were cannibalized for assets, their members discarded.  Even though there were no more major gangs in the east end of town to absorb, he was still recruiting zealously.  His method, now, was to go after anyone older than twelve and younger than sixty.  It didn’t matter if you were a gang member or not.  If you were Asian and you lived in Brockton Bay, Lung and his people expected you to either join or to pay tribute one way or another.  There had been local news reports on it, newspaper articles, and I could remember seeing signs in the guidance counselor’s office detailing where people who were targeted in this way could go for help.

Lung’s lieutenants were listed as Oni Lee and Bakuda.  I already had some general knowledge about Oni Lee, but I was intrigued to see there were recent updates to his wiki entry.  There were specific details on his powers:  He could teleport, but when he did so, he didn’t disappear.  As he teleported, his original self, for lack of a better term, would stay where it was and remain active for five to ten seconds before disintegrating into a cloud of carbon ash.  Essentially, he could create another version of himself anywhere nearby, while the old version could stick around long enough to distract or attack you.  If that wasn’t scary enough, there was an report of him holding a grenade in his hand as he repeatedly duplicated himself, with his short lived duplicates acting as suicide bombers.  Topping it all off, Oni Lee’s wiki page  had a similar red warning box to the one that Bitch/Hellhound had on hers, minus the bit about his public identity.  From what they knew about him, authorities had seen fit to note him a sociopath.  The warning covered the same essential elements: exceedingly violent, dangerous to approach, should not be provoked, and so on.  I glanced at his picture.  His costume consisted of a black bodysuit with a black bandoleer and belt for his knives, guns and grenades.  The only color on him was an ornate Japanese-style demon mask, crimson with two green stripes down either side.  Except for the mask, his costume gave off the distinct impression of a ninja, which just added weight to the notion that this was a guy who could and would slide a knife between your ribs.

Bakuda was a new entry, added to the ABB wiki page just ten days ago.  The picture only showed her from the shoulders up, a girl with straight black hair, large opaque goggles over her eyes and a metal mask with a gas mask styled filter covering the lower half of her face.  A braided cord of black, yellow and green wires looped over one of her shoulders.  I couldn’t pinpoint her ethnicity with the mask and goggles, and her age wasn’t any easier to figure out.

The wiki had a lot of the same details Armsmaster had mentioned to me.  Bakuda had essentially held a university ransom and she did it with her superhuman ability to design and fabricate high tech bombs.  There was a link to a video titled ‘Bomb Threat @ Cornell’, but I didn’t think it wise to play it in school, especially without headphones.  I made a mental note to check it out when I got home.

The next thing that caught my eye was the section heading titled ‘Defeats and Captures’.  I scrolled down to read it.  According to the wiki, Lung had apparently suffered a number of minor defeats at the hands of various teams, ranging from the Guild to the local teams of New Wave, the Wards and the Protectorate, but consistently managed to evade capture until last night.  A blurb read, ‘ Armsmaster successfully ambushed and defeated the leader of the ABB, who was weakened from a recent encounter with a rival gang.  Lung was taken to the PHQ for holding until the villain’s trial by teleconference.  Given Lung’s extensive and well documented criminal history, it is expected he will face imprisonment in the Birdcage should he be found guilty at trial.’

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  By all rights, I should have been angry that Armsmaster took the credit for the fight that could have cost me my life.  Instead, I felt a building excitement.  I felt like shaking the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me and point to the screen, saying, “Me, I made that possible!  Me!”

With a renewed enthusiasm, I switched tabs to the message board and began looking to see what people were saying about it.  A post by a fan or minion of Lung threatened violence against Armsmaster.  There was a request by someone asking for more information on the fight.  I was given pause by one post that asked whether Bakuda could or would use a large scale bomb and the threat of potentially thousands or hundreds of thousands dead, to ransom Lung back.

I tried to put that out of my mind.  If it happened, it would be the responsibility of heroes better and more experienced than I.

It struck me that there was one person I hadn’t looked for.  Myself.  I opened up the advanced search page for the Parahumans.net message board and did a search for multiple terms.  I included insect, spider, swarm, bug, plague, and a mess of other terms that had struck me when I had been trying to brainstorm a good hero name.  I narrowed the timeframe of posts to search for posts made within the past 12 hours and hit Search.

My efforts turned up two posts.  One referred to a villain called Pestilence, active in the UK.  Apparently Pestilence was one of the people who could use ‘magic’.  That is, he was if you believed magic was real, and not just some convoluted or deluded interpretation of a given set of powers.

The second post was in the ‘Connections’ section of the message board, where rescued damsels left their contact information for their dashing heroes, where conventions and fan gatherings were organized and where people posted job offers for capes and the cape-obsessed.  Most were cryptic or vague, referring to stuff only the people in question would know.

The message was titled, simply, “Bug”

I clicked it and waited impatiently for the outdated system and overloaded school modem to load up the page.  What I got was brief.

Subject: Bug

Owe you one.  Would like to repay the favor.  Meet?

Send a message,

Tt.

The post was followed by two pages of people commenting.  Three people suggested it was something important, while a half dozen more people decried them as tinfoil hats, Parahumans.net’s term for conspiracy theorists.

It was meaningful, though.  I couldn’t interpret it any other way; Tattletale had found a way to get in contact with me.

Insinuation 2.3

I didn’t have any time to contemplate the message I’d received from Tattletale.  The bell rang and I had to hurry to properly log off and shut down before heading to my next class.  As I gathered my stuff, I realized I had been so caught up in researching on the villains I’d met last night and in Tattletale’s message that I had forgotten to worry about getting into trouble for skipping class.  I felt a kind of resignation as I realized I would have to face the music later in the day, anyways.

Madison was already in her seat as I got to the classroom.  She had a pair of girls crouching by either side of her desk, and all three of them broke into giggles as they saw me.  Bitches.

My seat of choice was the far right, front row, closest to the door.  Lunch hour and immediately after school was when the trio tended to give me the hardest time, so I tried to sit as close as possible to the door, for a quick escape.  I spotted a puddle of orange juice on the seat, with the empty plastic bottle lying just underneath the chair.  Madison was going for a two for one.  It was both a ‘prank’ and a reminder of how they had doused me with juice and soft drinks last Friday.  Irritated, I carefully avoided looking at  Madison and took an empty seat a few rows back.

Mr Gladly entered the room, he was short and young enough you could almost mistake him for another high school student.  It took a few minutes for him to start the class, and he immediately ordered us to break into groups of four to share our homework with one another and to prepare to share it with the rest of the class.  The group that had the most to contribute would win the prize he had mentioned on Friday, treats from the vending machine.

It was stuff like this that made Mr. Gladly my least favorite teacher.  I got the impression he’d be surprised to hear he was anyone’s least favorite teacher, but that was just one more point against him in my book.  I don’t think he comprehended why people might not like him, or how miserable group work was when you didn’t identify with any of the groups or cliques in the school.  He just figured people liked doing group work because it let them talk and hang out with their friends in class.

While the class got sorted, I figured I’d avoid standing around like a loser with no group to join and get something else out of the way. I approached the desk at the front of the room.

“Mr. Gladly?”

“Call me Mr. G.  Mr. Gladly is my dad,” he informed me with a sort of mock sternness.

“Sorry, uh, Mr. G.  I need a new textbook.”

He gave me a curious look, “What happened to your old one?”

Soaked with grape juice by a trio of harpies.  “I lost it,” I lied.

“Replacement textbooks are thirty five dollars.  I don’t expect it now, but…”

“I’ll have it for you by the end of the week,” I finished for him.

He handed me a textbook, and I looked over the room before joining the only group with room for more: Sparky and Greg.  We had been in a group several times before, as the leftovers when all the friends and cliques had banded together.

Sparky had apparently picked up his nickname when a third grade teacher used it in an ironic sense, and it had stuck, to the point where I doubted anyone but his own mother even knew his real name.  He was a drummer, long haired, and was so out of touch with reality that you could stop talking in the middle of a sentence and he wouldn’t notice.  He just went through life in a daze, presumably until he could do his thing, which was his band.

Greg was just the opposite.  He was smarter than average, but he had a way of saying every thought that came into his head – his train of thought didn’t have any brakes.  Or tracks.  It would have been easier to be in a group with just Sparky and essentially do the work by myself than it would be to work with Greg.

I got my share of the homework out of my new backpack.  Mr. Gladly had asked us to come up with a list of ways that capes had influenced society.  In between the various steps of my getting ready for my first night out in costume, I had taken the time to fix up my art project and had come up with a fairly comprehensive list for Mr. Gladly’s homework.  I had even used newspaper and magazine clippings to support my points.  I felt pretty good about it.

“I didn’t get much done,” Greg said, “I got distracted by this new game I got and it is really really good, it’s called Space Opera, have you played it?”

A full minute later he was still on the same topic, even though I wasn’t playing any attention to him or giving him any feedback on what he was saying, “…you have to understand it’s a genre, and it’s one I’ve really been getting into it lately, since I started watching this anime called – Oh, hey, Julia!”  Greg broke off from his monologue to wave with enough energy and excitement that I felt a little embarrassed to just be sitting next to him.  I turned in my seat to see one of Madison’s friends coming in, late.

“Can I be in Madison’s group?” Julia asked Mr. Gladly.

“That wouldn’t be fair.  Greg’s group only has three people.  Help them,” Mr. Gladly said.

Julia walked over to where we were sitting and made a face.  Just loud enough for us to hear, she muttered a disgusted, “Ew.”  I felt much the same about her joining us.

It was downhill from there.  Madison’s group moved so the four of them were sitting right next to our group, which let Julia talk with them while still sitting with us.  The presence of all the popular and attractive girls in the class just got Greg more wound up, and he began trying to insert himself into their conversation, only to get shut down or ignored.  It was embarrassing to watch.

“Greg,” I said, trying to distract him from the other group, “Here’s what I did over the weekend.  What do you think?”

I handed him the work I had done.  To his credit, he gave it a serious read.

“This is really good, Taylor,” He said, when he was done.

“Let me see,” Julia said.  Before I could stop him, Greg dutifully handed my work over to her.  I watched her glance over it, then toss it onto Madison’s table.  There were a few giggles.

“Give that back,” I said.

“Give what back?” Julia said.

“Madison,” I said, ignoring Julia, “Give it back.”

Madison, cute and petite and crush of choice for half the guys in our grade, turned and managed a combined look and tone of such condescension that a grown man would have flinched, “Nobody is talking to you, Taylor.”

That was that.  Short of running to the teacher and complaining, I wasn’t going to get my work back, and anyone who considered that an option has clearly never been in high school.  Greg looked between me and the girls with a kind of panic before settling into a funk, Sparky had his head down on his desk, either asleep or close to it, and I was left fuming.  I made an attempt at trying to to salvage things, but getting Greg to focus was impossible, as he constantly tried to apologize and made lame attempts to convince the other group to give my work back.  Our time ran out, and Mr. Gladly picked out people from each group to stand up and go over what they had come up with.

I sighed as Mr. Gladly picked Greg to do our group’s presentation, and was forced to watch Greg botch it badly enough that Mr. Gladly asked him to sit down before he was finished.  Greg was one of those kids I always figured made teachers groan inwardly when they raised their hands in class.  The sort of kid that took twice as long to answer as anyone else, and was often only half-right or so off-tangent that it derailed the discussion.  I couldn’t imagine what had possessed Mr. Gladly to pick Greg to do our group’s presentation.

What made things worse was that I then got to watch Madison rattle off my very impressive sounding list of ways capes had changed the world.  She cribbed almost all of my stuff; fashion, economics, Tinkers and the tech boom, the fact that movies, television and magazines had been tweaked to accommodate cape celebrities, and so on.  Still, she got it wrong when explaining how law enforcement had changed.  My point had been that with qualified capes easing the workload and taking over for most high profile crises, law enforcement of all stripes were more free to train and expand their skill sets, making for smarter, more versatile cops.  Madison just made it sound like they got a lot of vacation days.

Mr. Gladly named another group as the winners, by virtue of the sheer number of things they had come up with, though he made a point of saying the quality of Madison’s work was nearly good enough to count.  From there, he moved on to his lecture.

I was steamed and I could hardly focus on the lecture, as my power crackled and tugged at my attention from the periphery of my consciousness, making me acutely aware of every bug within a tenth of a mile.  I could tune it out, but the extra concentration that took, coupled with the anger I felt towards Madison and Mr. Gladly, was distracting enough that I couldn’t focus on the lecture.  I took a cue from Sparky and put my head down on the desk.  Being as exhausted from the previous night’s activity as I was, it was all I could do to keep from dozing off.  Still, spending the class half asleep made it go by faster.  I was startled when the bell rang.

As everyone gathered their things and began to file out, Mr. Gladly approached me and quietly said, “I’d like you to stick around for a few minutes, please.”

I just nodded and put my books away, then waited for the teacher to finish negotiating where to meet the prize winners from the class contest so he could pay for their prizes.

When it was just me and Mr. Gladly in the classroom, he cleared his throat and then told me, “I’m not stupid, you know.”

“Okay,” I replied, not sure how to respond.

“I have something of an idea of what goes on in my classroom.  I don’t know exactly who, but I know some people are giving you a pretty hard time.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I saw the mess left on your usual seat today.  I remember a few weeks back when glue was smeared on your desk and chair.  There was also the incident that happened at the start of the year.  All of your teachers had a meeting about that.”

I couldn’t meet his gaze as he brought that last event up.  I looked at my feet.

“And I’m guessing there’s more that I don’t know about?”

“Yeah,” I said, still looking down.  It was hard to explain how I felt about this conversation.  I was gratified, I think, that someone had brought it up, but annoyed that that someone was Mr. Gladly.  I felt kind of embarrassed too, like I had walked into a door and someone was trying too hard to make sure I was okay.

“I asked you after the glue incident.  I’m asking you again.  Would you be willing to go to the office with me, to talk with the principal and vice principal?”

After a few moments of consideration, I looked up and asked him, “What would happen?”

“We’d have a discussion about what’s been going on.  You would name the person or people you believe responsible, and each of them would be called in to talk to the principal, in turn.”

“And they’d get expelled?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

Mr. Gladly shook his head, “If there was enough proof, they would be suspended for several days, unless they’ve done something very serious.  Further offenses could lead to longer suspensions or expulsion.”

I gave a rueful chuckle, feeling the frustration welling up, “Great.  So they might miss a few days of school, and only if I can prove they were behind it all… and whether they get suspended or not, they feel a hundred percent justified in whatever else they do to the rat for revenge.”

“If you want things to get better, Taylor, you have to start somewhere.”

“That isn’t a starting point.  It’s shooting myself in the foot,” I said, pulling my bag over my shoulder.  When he didn’t immediately respond, I left the classroom.

Emma, Madison, Sophia and a half dozen other girls were standing in the hall, waiting for me.

Insinuation 2.4

“Nobody likes her.  Nobody wants her here,” Julia said.

“Such a loser.  She didn’t even turn in the major project for art, last Friday,” Sophia responded.

“If she’s not going to try, then why is she even coming to school?”

Despite the way the conversation sounded, they were talking to me.  They were just pretending to talk to one another.  It was both calculating in how they were managing plausible deniability while at the same time they were acting totally juvenile by pretending I wasn’t there.  A blend of immaturity mixed with craftiness in a way only high schoolers could manage.  I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it, if it hadn’t been at my expense.

The moment I had left the classroom, Emma, Madison and Sophia had crowded me into a corner, with another six girls backing them up.  I was unable to squeeze past them without getting pushed or elbowed back, so I couldn’t do much more than lean against the window, listening while eight of the girls were rattling off an endless series of taunts and jibes.  Before one girl was even finished, another started up.  All the while, Emma stayed back and stayed quiet, the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t meet the eyes of any of the other girls without them barking a fresh torrent of insults directly to my face, so I just glared at Emma.

“Ugliest girl in our grade.”

They were barely thinking about what they were saying and a lot of the insults were wildly off the mark or contradictory.  One would say I was a slut, for example, then another might say a guy would puke before he touched me.  The point wasn’t being witty, being smart or being on target.  It was more about delivering the feeling behind the words over and over, hammering it in.  If I’d had just a moment to butt in, maybe I could have come up with retorts.  If I could just kill their momentum, they probably wouldn’t get back into the easy rhythm again.  That said, I couldn’t find the words, and there weren’t any openings in the conversation where I wouldn’t just be talked over.

While this particular tactic was new to me, I’d been putting up with stuff like this for a year and a half, now.  At a certain point, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to sit back and take it, when it came to most things.  They wanted me to fight back, because everything was stacked in their favor.  If I stood up for myself and they still ‘won’, then it only served to feed their egos.  If I came out ahead in some way, then they got more persistent and mean for the next time.  So for much the same reason I hadn’t fought Madison for the homework she had taken from me, I just leaned against the wall next to the window and waited for them to get bored with their game or get hungry enough to leave and go have their lunches.

“What does she use to wash her face?  A Brillo pad?”

“She should!  She’d look better!”

“Never talks to anybody.  Maybe she knows she sounds like a retard and keeps her mouth shut.”

“No, she’s not that smart.”

No more than three feet behind Emma, I could see Mr. Gladly leaving his classroom.  The tirade didn’t stop as I watched him tuck a stack of folders under one arm, find his keys and lock the door.

“If I were her, I’d kill myself,” one of the girls announced.

Mr. Gladly turned to look me in the eyes.

“So glad we don’t have gym with her.  Can you imagine seeing her in the locker room?  Gag me with a spoon.”

I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but I know I didn’t look happy.  No less than five minutes ago, Mr. Gladly had been trying to convince me to go with him to the office and tell the principal about the bullying.  I watched him as he gave me a sad look, shifted the file folders to his free hand and then walked away.

I was stunned.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around how he could just ignore this.  When he had been trying to help me, had he just been covering his own ass, doing what was required of him in the face of a situation he couldn’t ignore?  Had he just given up on me?  After trying to help, in his own completely ineffective way, after I turned his offer for help down twice, he just decided I just wasn’t worth the effort?

“You should have seen her group fail in class just now.  It was painful to watch.”

I clenched my fist, then forced myself to relax it.  If we were all guys, this scenario would be totally different.  I was in the best shape of my life.  I could have swung a few punches from the very start, caused a bloody nose or two, maybe.  I know I would have lost the fight in the end, getting shoved to the ground by force of numbers and kicked while I was down, but things would have ended there, instead of dragging on like they were here.  I’d hurt physically for days afterwards, but I’d at least have had the satisfaction of knowing some of the others were hurting too, and I wouldn’t have to sit through this barrage of insults.  If there was enough damage done, the school would have to take notice, and they wouldn’t be able to ignore the circumstances of a one-against-nine fight.  Violence gets attention.

But things didn’t work that way here.  Girls played dirty.  If I decked Emma, she would run to the office with some fabricated story, her friends backing up her version of events.  For most, ratting to the faculty was social suicide, but Emma was more or less top dog.  If she went to the principal, people would only take things more seriously.  By the time I got back to school, they would have spread the story through the grapevine in a way that made me look like a total psycho.  Things would get worse.  Emma would be seen as the victim and girls who had previously ignored the bullying would join in on Emma’s behalf.

“And she smells,” one girl said, lamely.

“Like expired grape and orange juice,” Madison cut in with a little laugh.  Again, bringing up the juice?  I suspected that one had been her idea.

It seemed like they were running out of steam.  I figured it was just a minute or two before they got bored and walked away.

It seemed Emma got the same impression, because she stepped forward.  The group parted to give her room.

“What’s the matter, Taylor?”  Emma said, “You look upset.”

Her words didn’t seem to fit the situation.  I had maintained my composure for however long they had been at it.  What I’d been feeling was more a mixture of frustration and boredom than anything else.  I opened my mouth to say something.  A graceless “Fuck you” would have sufficed.

“So upset you’re going to cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?” she asked.

My words died in my throat as I processed her words.

Almost a year before we had started high school, I had been at her house, the both of us eating breakfast and playing music way too loud.  Emma’s older sister had come downstairs with the phone.  We’d turned down the music, and my dad had been on the other end, waiting to tell me in a broken voice that my mom had died in a car accident.

Emma’s sister had given me a ride to my place, and I bawled the entire way there.  I remember Emma crying too, out of sympathy, maybe.  It could have been the fact that she thought my mom was the coolest adult in the world.  Or perhaps it was because we really were best friends and she had no idea how to help me.

I didn’t want to think about the month that had followed, but fragments came to mind without my asking.  I could remember overhearing my dad berating my mother’s body, because she’d been texting while driving, and she was the only one to blame.  At one point, I barely ate for five straight days, because my dad was such a wreck that I wasn’t on his radar. I’d eventually turned to Emma for help, asking to eat at her place for a few days.  I think Emma’s mom figured things out, and gave my dad a talking to, because he started pulling things together.  We’d established our routine, so we wouldn’t fall apart as a family again.

It was a month after my mom had died that Emma and I had found ourselves sitting on the bridge of a kid’s play structure in the park, our rear ends cold from the damp wood, sipping coffee we’d bought from the Donut Hole.  We didn’t have anything to do, so we had just been walking around and talking about whatever.  Our wandering had taken us to the playground, and we were resting our heels.

“You know, I admire you,” she had said, abruptly.

“Why?” I had responded, completely mystified about the fact that someone gorgeous and amazing and popular like her could find something to admire in me.

“You’re so resilient.  After your mom died, you were totally in pieces, but you’re so together after a month.  I couldn’t do that.”

I could remember my admission, “I’m not resilient.  I can hold it together during the day, but I’ve cried myself to sleep for a straight week.”

That had been enough to open the floodgates, right there.  She gave me her shoulder to cry on, and our coffee was cold before I was done.

Now, as I gaped at Emma, wordless, her smile widened.  She remembered what I had said, then.  She knew the memories it would evoke.  At some point, that recollection had crossed her mind, and she had decided to weaponize it.  She’d been waiting to drop it on me.

Fuck me, it worked.  I felt the trail of a tear on my cheek.  My power roared at the edges of my consciousness, buzzing, pressuring me.  I suppressed it.

“She is!  She’s crying!”  Madison laughed.

Angry at myself, I rubbed my hand over my cheek to brush the tear away.  More were already welling up, ready to take its place.

“It’s like you have a superpower, Emma!” one of the girls tittered.

I had taken off my backpack so I could lean against the wall.  I reached to pick it up, but before I could, a foot hooked through the strap and dragged it away from me. I looked up and saw the owner of the foot – dark skinned, willowy Sophia – smirking at me.

“Oh em gee!  What’s she doing?” one of the girls said.

Sophia was leaning against the wall, one foot casually resting on top of my backpack.  I didn’t think it was worth fighting her over, if it gave her an opportunity to continue her game of keep-away.  I left the bag where it was and shoved my way through the gathered girls, bumping an onlooker with my shoulder hard enough to make him stumble.  I ran into the stairwell and out the doors on the ground floor.

I fled.  I didn’t check, but chances were they were watching from the window at the end of the hallway.  It didn’t really matter.  The fact that I had just promised to pay thirty five bucks of my own money for a World Issues textbook to replace the one that had been soaked with grape juice wasn’t my top concern.  Even if it was pretty much all the money I had left after buying the pieces for my costume.  My art midterm was in my bag as well, newly repaired.  I knew I wouldn’t get any of it back in one piece, if at all.

No, my primary concern was getting out of there.  I wasn’t going to break the promise I had made to myself.  No using powers on them.  That was the line I wasn’t crossing.  Even if I did something utterly innocuous, like give them all lice, I didn’t trust myself to stop there.  I didn’t trust myself to keep from offering blatant hints that I had powers or spoiling my secret identity just to see the looks on their faces when they realized the girl they had been tormenting was a bona-fide superhero.  It was something I couldn’t help but daydream about, but I knew the long term ramifications would spoil that.

Perhaps most important, I rationalized, was keeping the two worlds separate.  What use was escapism, if the world I was escaping to was muddled with the people and things I was trying to avoid?

Before the thought of going back to school had even crossed my mind, I found myself wondering what I was going to do to fill my afternoon.

Insinuation 2.5

If you looked at Brockton Bay as a patchwork of stellar and squalor, upper class and lower class with no middle ground, then downtown was one of the nice areas.  The streets and sidewalks were wide, and that meant that even with skyscrapers in every other lot, there was a great deal of blue overhead.

Following my retreat from school grounds, I hadn’t been sure what to do.  My dad worked an unreliable schedule, so I couldn’t spend the rest of the afternoon at home unless I wanted to risk having to explain what I was doing home on a school day.  I didn’t want to hang around the general area of my school, so that had left me the options of the half-hour walk to downtown or a trip to the Boardwalk.  Between my morning runs and the previous night’s escapades, I had seen enough of the Boardwalk, so I’d decided to head downtown.

I didn’t want to dwell on the subject of school or Emma, so I turned my focus to the recent message from Tattletale.  She wanted to meet, presumably to repay the favor she felt she owed me.  I considered the possibility that it was a trap, but I couldn’t imagine any angle where it would be.  She just didn’t have any reason to go after me.  The worst case scenario was that it wasn’t Tattletale, but that wasn’t the impression I’d had.  What she said in the message seemed to flow with what I had seen of her last night.  I would be careful, nonetheless.

It was perplexing.  These guys were, in large part, virtual unknowns.  From what I knew of Grue and Hellhound, they were both marginally successful B-list villains who had been barely scraping by.  Now both were on a team that was pulling high profile heists and confounding even the likes of Armsmaster.  The two of them seemed totally different in methodology and style, and if I was remembering right, both Grue and Hellhound had lived in different cities prior to teaming up and setting roots in Brockton Bay.  That raised the question: who or what had drawn these four very different individuals together?

It was possible that Tattletale or Regent were the uniting factors, but I couldn’t really imagine it, having seen what I did of their group dynamic.  Grue had poked fun at Regent rather than treat him like a leader, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it,  the more I imagined Tattletale uniting that group of unconnected people with powers, the harder I found it to picture.  In fact, when I thought about it, hadn’t Grue said they had fought for a considerable amount of time over how to deal with Lung?  It didn’t really sound like they had any leadership worth speaking about.

It wasn’t hard to sympathize with Armsmaster.  The whole scenario there was just bizarre, and it was made worse by the fact that there were practically no details as far as Tattletale or Regent went.  Information, it seemed, was a major factor when dealing with capes.

The streets were busy with people on their lunch break.  Businessmen and businesswomen were heading to restaurants and fast food places.  My stomach growled as I passed a line of people waiting their turn at a street vendor.  I checked my pockets and winced at the realization that I didn’t have enough for even a hot dog.  My lunch had been in my backpack.

I stopped myself before I could finish that train of thought and put myself into a worse mood by dwelling on what had happened at school.  Still, as I thought back to the circle of villains and Tattletale’s message, the amusing thought crossed my mind that I could ask them to repay the favor by buying me lunch.  It wasn’t a serious thought, but the ridiculousness of the mental image – me eating a burger with a group of supervillains – put a dumb smirk on my face.  I was pretty sure I looked like a moron to anyone on the street who happened to glance at me.

As I thought on it, though, the notion that I might actually consider taking Tattletale up on her offer of a meeting nagged at me.  The more I thought on it, the scarier the idea got, and the more it seemed to make sense.

What if I did take them up on the offer?  I could meet them, talk with them, see what they had to offer, and all the while, fish for information.  If I got anything worth sharing, I could turn around and give it to Armsmaster so he could use it against them.  Just going by what Armsmaster had said about these guys and the scarcity of information on them, it would be a pretty major coup for the good guys.

Okay, so they would likely see my ploy as a monumental betrayal if and when I pulled it off.  I would be making enemies.  That said, I suspected that when it came out that I was a hero and not a villain, they would count it as such regardless.  Didn’t it make sense to leverage as much information as I could from them before they caught on, as far as their misconception went?

I turned around and headed in the direction of the public library.  It was only a few blocks away.

The library was busy, which made sense, given the number of offices and businesses around, the number of people wanting some quiet during their lunch hour, and people doing research or casual browsing they couldn’t do at their workplaces.  I would have included Brockton Bay’s biggest and fanciest high school, the nearby Arcadia High, in that generalization, but I doubted many students were spending their lunch breaks at the library.

The Central Library looked almost more like a museum or art gallery than anything else, with tall ceilings, pillars and massive pieces of artwork hung to frame the hallways between the major sections of the building.  I headed up to the second floor, where there were about twenty computers and a line of people waiting their turn to use them.  I anticipated a fifteen or twenty minute wait, but as the clock approached one o’clock, people headed back to work and the line rapidly thinned out.  A free computer came up within a few minutes of my joining the line. I let the person behind me go on ahead, waiting a bit longer so I could get a station with a little more privacy.

By the time I sat down, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write.  I found the message with the search function and clicked on the username ‘Tt’.  A drop down menu appeared, and I chose ‘send private message’.  It gave me the option of making an account, signing in with an already existing account, or sending the message as an anonymous guest.  I chose the last option, then typed:

Subject: Re:Bug

Bug here.  Would like to meet, but want proof you are Tt.  I’ll reciprocate if needed.

I didn’t send it right away, taking a moment to consider.  Getting decent proof would prevent any potential problems like the message turning out to be a trap laid by, say, Bakuda.  Leaving the burden of proof on Tattletale and leaving it up to her to decide if she wanted verification I was indeed ‘Bug’ meant I didn’t have to worry about coming up with exactly how one might prove their identity.  I reread it twice over, then sent the message.

The reply came only two or three minutes later.  It was fast enough that I couldn’t imagine Tattletale taking the time to check and double check every aspect of her message the way I had mine.  Was that recklessness on her part, or just the benefit of experience?

I closed the tabs I had opened in the meantime and checked to see what she had written.  It was a private message, from her to me, and it set my fight or flight instincts in high gear:

Subject: re:Bug

Proof?  Last night you didn’t say anything until I asked your name.  Big guy had a mess of nasty bites and you pepper sprayed him and I told my pal G that when he asked.  Good enough?

G R and me will meet you at the same spot we crossed paths last night, k? Don’t have to get gussied up if you catch my drift. Rest of us will be in casual wear.

If we meet at 3 will that give you enough time to get there from library with everything you need?  let me know

Ta ta

My heart pounded.  She knew where I was, and she was letting me know.  Why?  More to the point, how?  Had I unwittingly entered an online exchange with a savvy hacker?  I knew my way around computers, my mom had made sure I had one since before I could read and write, but I would be lying if I said I could tell if I was being hacked or do anything about it.

I would have interpreted the casual mention of my location as a veiled threat if it didn’t run contrary to everything else in her messages to me.  Besides – Tattletale was talking about meeting me in casual clothes.  I took that to mean they wouldn’t be in costume.  I couldn’t understand why, but at the same time, it was hard to imagine her threatening me with one breath just a sentence after she’d offered to meet me in a way that made her totally vulnerable.

Tattletale had unwittingly raised the stakes for my scheme.  My primary goal was to gather information on them, and here I was getting a chance to see them with their masks off.  It was too good to be true, which made me wonder what kind of safeguards they had in place to protect themselves.

I just had no idea what I would be getting into.

The screensaver came up while I stared at the monitor with thoughts racing through my head.  The words ‘BROCKTON BAY CENTRAL LIBRARY’ scrolled across the screen in varying colors.

If I went, best case scenario, I could get enough information to turn them in.  I’d get mucho cred from the good guys and respect from an international celebrity.  If I’d judged Armsmaster right, I’d get even more brownie points if I gave him the info and let him – or helped him – make the bust.  On the flip side of the coin, the worst case scenario was that it was a trap, or they’d figure out what I was doing.  It would mean a fight, maybe a beating.  There was an outside possibility I could get killed, but somehow that didn’t concern me as much as it maybe should have.  Part of the reason for my lack of concern, I think, was that the possibility existed any time I went out in costume.  That, and from my interactions with them last night, I didn’t get a ‘killer’ vibe from them.

On the topic of the status quo… if I didn’t go, what would happen?  This particular window of opportunity would likely pass, as far as being able to get the dirt on Tattletale and her gang.  That was okay, as I thought on it.  It was a high risk, high reward venture anyways.  Taking that path would mean turning down the meet, then killing time for the rest of the afternoon, trying to avoid dwelling on the fact that I had missed two straight afternoons of classes and might, maybe, miss more.  It was depressing to think about.

“Excuse me?”

Startled, I looked up.  A middle aged woman in a red jacket stood just behind me.  As I met her eyes she asked, “Are you done?”  She gestured at the computer, where the screensaver was still scrolling.

Heady with the relief that she hadn’t been, irrationally enough, Tattletale, I smiled and told her, “Give me thirty seconds.”

Subject: Re:Bug

See you at three.

Insinuation 2.6

I showed up in costume.  I didn’t care if they thought it was rude or paranoid, I would rather be capable of surviving having a knife pulled on me than play nice.

I had caught a bus from the library to my house and put my costume on under my clothes.  Most of the armor panels of my costume were separate pieces, held in place by straps that ran into slits in the fabric of the costume.  Not all of them were, though.  I’d made some of the armor part of the bodysuit, I’d made narrow, rigid sections of armor running along the center of my chest, back, shins, wrists, hips and the tops of my shoulders. so that when I strapped the larger pieces on, grooves on the underside of the armor would fit over them and help keep them from flopping around.  I checked myself in the mirror before I left, and didn’t think anyone would notice unless I held a strange posture and they were paying a great deal of attention to what I was wearing.  I wore loose fitting clothes over the costume, – one of my larger pairs of jeans and a sweatshirt, and even with that, I felt painfully conspicuous

I changed much the way I had the previous night, finding an empty alley, quickly pulling on my mask, pulling off my outer clothes, and stuffing the clothes into one of my dad’s old backpacks.  I’d hidden the backpack before I went patrolling last night, but today, I opted to take it with me.  I headed out the other end of the alley.

When I was a short distance away from the site of last night’s brawl, I sent a dozen flies out to scout.  I focused on what they were sensing.

Bugs, it probably goes without saying, sense things in a very different way than we do.  More than that, they sense and process things at a very different speed.  The end result was that the signals my power were able to translate and send to me in a way my brain could understand were muted.  Visual information came through as ink blot patches of monochrome light and dark, alternating between fuzzy and overly sharp.  Sound was almost painful to focus on, breaking down to bass vibrations that made my vision distort and high pitch noises that weren’t unlike nails on a chalkboard.  Multiply that by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, and it was overwhelming.  When my power was new to me, I hadn’t been able to hold back. The sensory overload had never actually hurt me, even at its worst, but it had made me flat out miserable.  These days, I had that part of my power turned off a good ninety nine percent of the time.

My preferred method of sensing things through my bugs was touch.  It wasn’t that their sense of touch translated much better than the hearing or sight part of things, but had more to do with the fact that I could tell where they were in relation to me.  I was acutely aware when they were very still, if they were moving, or if something else was moving them.  That was one thing that translated well.

So as I sent the bugs out to scout, the twelve sets of compound eyes first identified the trio as blurry silhouettes atop a larger, more defined shadow, backlit by a flare of white that had to be the sun.  I directed the flies closer, towards the ‘heads’ of the figures, and they touched down on skin. None of the three were wearing masks, which I deemed reason to believe Tattletale had been telling the truth.   They weren’t in costume.  There was no guarantee that the three were really Tattletale, Grue and Regent, but I felt confident enough to head around to the fire escape and climb up to the roof.

It was them, no doubt.  I recognized them even without their costumes.  Two guys and a girl.  The girl had dirty blonde hair tied back into a loose braid, a smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose and the same vulpine grin I recognized from the night prior.  She wore a black long sleeved t-shirt with a grafitti-style design on it and a knee length denim skirt.  I was surprised by the bottle-glass green of her eyes.

The smaller and younger of the two guys – about my age – was undoubtedly Regent.  I recognized the mop of black curls.  He was a good looking guy, but not in a way that would make me say he was handsome.  He was pretty, with a triangular face, light blue eyes and full lips pulled into a bit of a scowl.  I pegged him as having French or Italian heritage.  I could see where he would have girls all over him, but I couldn’t say I was interested, myself.  The pretty boys – Leonardo Decaprio, Marcus Firth, Justin Beiber, Johnny Depp – had never done it for me.  He was wearing a white jacket with a hood, jeans and sneakers, and was perched on the raised lip at the edge of the roof, a bottle of cola in hand.

Grue was startling in appearance, by contrast.  Taller than me by at  least a foot, Grue had dark chocolate skin, shoulder length cornrows and that masculine lantern jaw you typically associated with guy superheroes.  He wore jeans, boots and a plain green t-shirt, which struck me as a bit cold for the spring.  I did note that he had considerable muscle definition in his arms.  This was a guy who worked out.

“And she arrives,” Tattletale crowed, “Pay up.”

Regent’s scowl deepened for a second, and he fished in his pocket for a wad of bills, which he forked over to Tattletale.

“You bet on whether I would show up?” I ventured.

“We bet on whether you would come in costume,” Tattletale told me.  Then, more to Regent than to me, she said, “and I won.”

“Again,” Regent muttered.

“It’s your own fault for taking the bet in the first place,” Grue said, “Even if it wasn’t Tattle, it was a sucker bet.  Showing up in costume makes too much sense.  It’s what I would do.”  He had a nice voice.  It was an adult voice, even if his appearance gave me the sense of a guy in his late teens.

He extended his hand to me, “Hey, I’m Brian.”

I shook his hand, he wasn’t shy about shaking my hand firmly.  I said, “You can call me Bug, I guess.  At least, until I come up with something better, or until I decide this isn’t an elaborate trick.”

He shrugged, “Cool.”  There wasn’t the slightest trace of offense at my suspicion.  I almost felt bad.

“Lisa,” Tattletale introduced herself.  She didn’t offer me her hand to shake, but I think it would have felt out of place if she had.  It wasn’t that she seemed unfriendly, but she didn’t have the same aura of geniality about her that Grue did.

“I’m Alec,” Regent informed me, with a quiet voice, then he added, “And Bitch is Rachel.”

“Rachel is sitting this one out,” Grue said, “She didn’t agree with the aim of our meeting, here.”

“Which raises the question,” I cut in, “What is the aim of this meeting?  I’m a little weirded out with you guys revealing your secret identities like this, or at least, pretending to.”

“Sorry,” Grue… Brian apologized, “That was my idea.  I thought we would make a token show of trust.”

Behind the yellow tinted lenses of my mask, my eyes narrowed, flicking from Lisa to Alec to Brian.  I couldn’t draw any conclusions from their expressions.

“Why, exactly, do you need my trust?” I asked.

Brian opened his mouth, then closed it.  He looked to Lisa, who bent down and picked up a plastic lunchbox.  She held it out to me.

“I said we owed you.  All yours, no strings attached.”

Without taking the box, I tilted my head to get a better look at the front, “Alexandria.  She was my favorite member of the Protectorate when I was a kid.  Is the lunchbox collectable?”

“Open it,” Lisa prompted me, with a roll of her eyes.

I took it.  From the weight and the motion of the contents inside it, I immediately had a pretty good idea of what it was.  I undid the clasps and opened the box.

“Money,” I breathed, caught off guard by suddenly having so much in my hands.  Eight stacks of bills, tied with paper bands.  Each of the paper bands had a number written on it in permanent marker.  Two fifty each…

Lisa answered before I had the number totaled up in my head, “Two grand.”

I closed the box and did the clasps.  With no idea what to say, I stayed silent.

“You have two choices,” Lisa explained, “You can take that as a gift.  A thank you for, intentionally or not, saving our ass from Lung last night.  And maybe a bit of incentive to count us among your friends when you’re out in costume and doing dastardly deeds.”

Her grin widened, as if she’d said something she found amusing.  Maybe it was the irony of a villain talking about ‘dastardly deeds’, or how corny the phrase was.  She elaborated, “Between territory disputes, differences in ideology, general power struggles and egos, there’s a rare few people in the local villain community who won’t attack us on sight.”

“And the second option?” I asked.

“You can take this as your first installment in the monthly allowance you’re entitled to as a member of the Undersiders,” Brian spoke up, “As one of us.”

I shifted my gaze between the three of them, looking for the joke.  Lisa still had a bit of a smile, but I was getting the impression that was her default expression.  Alec looked a little bored, if anything.  Brian looked dead serious.  Damn.

“Two thousand a month,” I said.

“No,” Brian cut in, “That’s just what the boss pays us, to stick together and to stay active.  We make, uh, considerably more than that.”

Lisa smirked, and Alec chuckled as he swished the contents of his coke bottle.  I made mental note at the mention of this ‘boss’.

Not wanting to get sidetracked, I quickly thought through the earlier part of our conversation in the context of the job offer.

I asked, “So Bitch didn’t come because she was against the, er, recruitment?”

“Yeah,” Alec said, “We voted on it, and she said no.”

“On the plus side, the rest of us voted yes,” Brian hurried to add, giving Alec a dirty look, “She’ll come around.  She always votes against adding new members to the group, because she doesn’t want to divide the money five ways.”

“So you’ve done this recruiting thing before,” I concluded.

“Uh, yeah,” Brian looked a touch embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck, “It didn’t go well.  We tried with Spitfire, and she got scared off before we even got to the job offer.  Our fault, for bringing Rachel along that time.”

“And then she got recruited by someone else,” Alec added.

“Yeah,” Brian shrugged, “She got snagged by Faultline before we got a second chance.  We’ve made an offer to Circus, too, and she told us in no uncertain terms that she worked alone.”

“Taught me a few new curse words while she did it, too,” Alec said.

“She was pretty vocal about how she flies solo,” Brian admitted.

“So you’re going the extra mile, with no costumes as a show of trust and a cash bonus up front, to get me to join,” I said, as the pieces came together.

“That’s the gist of it,” Brian agreed, “Long and short of it is, especially with Lung taken out of action and the ABB diminished by his being gone, there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving over territory and status among the various gangs and teams.  Us, Faultline’s Crew, the remaining ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, the solo villains, and any out of town teams or gangs that figure that they can worm in and grab a piece of the Bay.  If it comes down to it, we want firepower.  We haven’t screwed up a job yet, but the way us three figure it, it’s only a matter of time before we end up stuck in a fight we can’t win, with Bitch as the only one of us who can really dish out the hurt.”

“I just don’t get why you want me,” I said, “I control bugs.  That’s not going to stop Alexandria, Glory Girl or Aegis.”

“You fucked up Lung,” Lisa shrugged as she spoke, “Good enough for me.”

“Um, not really,” I replied, “In case you missed it, you’re the ones who stopped him from executing me last night.  That just goes to prove the point I was making.”

“Honey,” Lisa said, “Entire teams of capes have gone up against Lung and got their asses handed to them.  That you managed as well as you did is fantastic.  The fact that the asshole is lying in a hospital bed because of you is the icing on the cake.”

My reply stopped before it even left my mouth.  I only managed a dumb, “Hunh?”

“Yeah,” Lisa raised an eyebrow, “You do know which bugs you had biting him, right?  Black Widow, Brown Recluse, Browntail Moth, Mildei, Fire Ants-”

“Yeah,” I cut her off, “I don’t know the official names, but I know exactly what bit him, what stung him and what the venoms do.”

“So why are you surprised?  A couple of those bugs would be fucking dangerous if they bit just once, but you had them bite several times.  Bad enough, but when Lung came into custody they had him checked over by the docs, and the idiot doctor in charge said something like, ‘Oh, well, these do look like bug bites and stings, but the really venomous ones don’t bite multiple times.  Let’s arrange to check on him in a few hours’.”

I could tell where the story was going.  I put my hands over my mouth, whispering, “Oh my god.”

Tattletale grinned, “I can’t believe you didn’t know.”

“But he regenerates!” I protested, dropping my hands, “Toxins aren’t supposed to be even one percent as effective against people who heal like he does.”

“They’re effective enough, I guess, or his healing stopped working somewhere along the line” Lisa told me, “By the time they got to him, the big guy was just beginning to suffer from large scale tissue necrosis.  His heart even stopped a few times.  You do remember where you had the bugs bite him?”

I closed my eyes.  I could see my reputation going down the tubes.  One of the spiders I had been using was the brown recluse.  Arguably the most dangerous spider in the United States, more than even the black widow.  A single bite from a brown recluse could make a good chunk of the flesh around the bite blacken and rot away.  I’d had my bugs biting Lung in the more sensitive parts of his anatomy.

“Let’s just say that even with the ability to heal several times faster than your average person, Lung is going to be sitting down to use the toilet.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Brian stopped Lisa before she could go on, “Lung is going to recover, right?”

With the look Brian was giving Lisa, I thought she might lie, regardless of the truth.  She shrugged and told me, “He’s already recuperating.  Slowly, but he’s on the mend, and he should be in good working order in six months to a year.”

“You’d better hope he doesn’t escape,” Alec said, his voice still quiet but bemused, “Because if someone made my man bits fall off, I’d be out for blood.”

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose, “Thank you for that, Alec.  Way you two are going, our potential recruit is going to run off to have a panic attack before the idea of becoming an Undersider even crosses her mind.”

“How do you know this?” I asked, within a heartbeat of the thought crossing my mind.  When Brian turned my way with an expression like he thought he had said something to offend me, I clarified, “Tattletale, or Lisa, or whatever I’m supposed to call you.  How do you know this stuff about Lung… or about the fact that I was at the Library, or that the cape was on his way, last night?”

“Library?” Brian interjected, giving Lisa another dark look.

Lisa ignored Brian’s question and winked at me, “Girl’s gotta have her secrets.”

“Lisa’s half the reason we haven’t failed a job yet,” Alec said.

“And our boss is a large part of the rest,” Lisa finished for him.

“So you say,” Brian grumbled, “But let’s not go there.”

Lisa smiled at me, “If you want the full scoop, I’m afraid the details on what we do only come with team membership.  What I can tell you is that we’re a good group.  Our track record is top notch, and we’re in it for fun and profit.  No grand agenda.  No real responsibility.”

I pursed my lips, behind my mask.  While I had picked up some info, I felt like I had a lot more questions.  Who was this boss they mentioned?  Was he or she setting up other teams of highly successful villains, in Brockton Bay or elsewhere?  What made these guys as effective as they were, and was it something I could steal or copy for myself?

It wasn’t like I was signing the deal in blood or anything.  I stood to gain so much.

“Alright then, count me in,” I told them.

Insinuation 2.7

As I agreed to join the Undersiders, there was some whooping and cheering.  I felt a touch guilty, for acting under false pretenses.   I also felt pleased with myself, in an irrational way.

“Where do we go from here?” Lisa asked Brian.

“Not sure,” Brian said, “It’s not like we’ve done this before.  I suppose we should let Rachel know, but she said she might work today.”

“If the new girl is okay with it, let’s stop by our place,” Lisa suggested, “See if Rache is there, celebrate the new recruit and get her filled in.”

“Sure,” I said.

“It’s just a few blocks away,” Brian said, “But we would stand out if you came with in costume.”

I stared at him for a moment, not wanting to comprehend his statement.  If I took too long to respond, I realized, I would ruin this plan before it went anywhere.  Whatever the case, I could have kicked myself.  Of course this was the natural progression of events.  Joining their team would mean I would be expected to share my identity, since they already had.  Until I did, they wouldn’t be able to trust me with their secrets.

I could have blamed the lapse in judgement and foresight on my lack of sleep or the distraction of the events earlier in the day, but that didn’t change matters.  I had maneuvered myself into a corner.

“Alright,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.  I hoped.  “This costume is kinda uncomfortable under clothes.  Can I get some privacy?”

“You want an alley, or…” Lisa asked, trailing off.

“I’ll change here,  just take a minute,” I said, impulsively, as I glanced around.  The buildings on the street were mostly one and two stories tall, with the only buildings taller than the one we were on being the one half a block away, and the one right next to us. There weren’t any windows on the building next to us with a great angle for seeing me change, and I doubted anyone on the distant building could see me as more than a figure two inches tall.  If someone could see me change out of costume and make out enough details to identify me, I’d be surprised.

As the three of them headed to the fire escape, I pulled out the clothes I’d stuffed into the backpack.  Armor panels aside, my costume was essentially one piece, with the exceptions being the belt and the mask.  I kept the mask on as I undid the belt and peeled off the main costume.  I wasn’t indecent – I was wearing a black tank top and black biking shorts underneath, in part for extra warmth.   Silk wasn’t the best insulator on its own.  I stepped into my jeans and pulled on the sweatshirt, then rubbed my arms and shoulders to brush off the mild chill.  I put my costume and the plastic lunchbox in my backpack.

I felt a stab of regret at not having chosen better clothes to wear than a loose fitting sweatshirt and jeans that were too big for me.  That regret quickly turned to a pang of anxiety.  What would they think when they saw the real me?  Brian and Alec were good looking guys, in very different ways.  Lisa was, on the sliding scale between plain and pretty, more pretty than not.  My own scale of attractiveness, by contrast, put me somewhere on a scale that ranged from ‘nerd’ to ‘plain’.  My opinion of where I fit on that scale changed depending on the mood I was in when I was looking in the mirror.  They were cool, confident, assured people.  I was… me.

I stopped myself before I could get worked up.  I wasn’t regular old Taylor, here.  In the here and now, I was the girl who had put Lung in the hospital, accidental as it was.  I was the girl who was going undercover to try and get the details on a particularly persistent gang of supervillains.  I was, until I came up with a better name to go by, Bug, the girl the Undersiders wanted on their team.

If I said I made my way down the fire escape filled to the brim with confidence, I’d be lying.  That said, I had managed to hype myself up enough to get myself down the ladder, mask still on, costume in my bag.  I stood before them, glanced around to make sure nobody else was around, and then pulled off my mask.  I had a few terrifying heartbeats where I was half-blind, their facial features just smudges, before I put on the glasses I’d had in my bag.

“Hi,” I said, lamely, using my fingers to comb my hair back into order, “I guess it wouldn’t work if you kept calling me Bug or new girl.  I’m Taylor.”

Using my real name was a big gamble on my part.  I was afraid it would be another thing I would be kicking myself for five minutes from now, much like the realization that I’d have to go uncostumed.  I rationalized it by telling myself that I was already in this wholesale.  Being truthful about that one thing might well save my hide if any of them decided to do some digging on me, or if I ran into someone I knew while in their company.  I figured, hoped, that by the time this whole thing was over, I could maybe pull some strings with someone like Armsmaster and avoid having them leak my real name.  Not impossible to imagine, given the level of security around some of the prisons they had for criminal parahumans.  In any event, I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

Alec offered the slightest roll of his eyes as I introduced myself, while Brian just grinned.  Lisa, though, put one of her arms around my shoulders and gave me a one-armed squeeze of a hug.  She was a little older than I was, so she was just tall enough to be at the perfect height to do it.  What caught me off guard was how nice the gesture felt.  Like I had been needing a hug from someone who wasn’t my dad for a long time.

We walked deeper into the Docks as a group.  While I had lived on the periphery of the area my entire life, and while most people would say the neighborhood I lived in was part of the ‘Docks’, I had never really been in the areas that gave this part of the city such a bad reputation.  At least, I hadn’t if I discounted last night, and it had been dark then.

It wasn’t an area that had been kept up, and kind of gave off an impression of a ghost town, or what a city might look like if war or disaster forced people to abandon it for a few years.  Grass and weeds grew between slats in the sidewalk, the road had potholes you could hide a cat in, and the buildings were all faded, consisting of peeling paint, cracked mortar and rusty metal.  The desaturated colors of the buildings were contrasted by splashes of vividly colored graffiti.  As we passed what had once been a main road for the trucks traveling between the warehouses and the docks, I saw a row of power lines without wires stretching between them.  At one point weeds had crawled most of the way up the poles, only to wither and die at some point.  Now each of the poles had a mess of dead brown plants hanging off of them.

There were people, too, though not too many were out and about.  There were those you expected, like a homeless bag lady with a grocery cart and a shirtless old man with a beard nearly to his navel, collecting bottles and cans from a dumpster.  There were others that surprised me.  I saw a woman that looked surprisingly normal, in clothes that weren’t shabby enough to draw attention, herding four near-identical infant children into a factory building with a faded sign.  I wondered if they were living there or if the mom was working there and just couldn’t do anything with her kids but bring them with her.  We passed a twenty-something artist and his girlfriend, sitting on the sidewalk with paintings propped up around them.  The girl waved at Lisa as we walked by, and Lisa waved back.

Our destination was a red brick factory with a massive sliding metal door locked shut by a coil of chain.  Both the chain and door had rusted so much that I expected that neither offered any use.  The size of the door and the broadness of the driveway made me think that large trucks or small boats would have been backed up through the entryway back in the factory’s heyday.  The building itself was large, stretching nearly half the block, two or three stories tall.  The background of the sign at the top of the building had faded from red to a pale orange-pink, but I could make out the bold white letters that read ‘Redmond Welding’.

Brian let us in through a small door on the side of the building, rather than the big rusted one.  The interior was dark, lit only by rows of dusty windows near the ceiling.  I could make out what had been massive machines and treadmills prior to being stripped to their bare bones.  Sheets covered most of the empty and rusted husks.  Seeing the cobwebs, I reached out with my power and felt bugs throughout.  Nobody had been active in here for a long time.

“Come on,” Brian urged me.  I looked back and saw that he was halfway up a spiral staircase in the corner.  I headed up after him.

After seeing the desolation of the first floor, seeing the second floor was a shock.  It was a loft, and the contrast was startling.  The exterior walls were red brick, and there was no ceiling beyond a roof and a skeleton of metal girders overhead to support it.  In terms of general area, the loft seemed to have three sections, though it was hard to define because it was such an open layout.

The staircase opened up into what I would have termed the living room, though the one room alone had nearly as much floor space as the ground floor of my house did.  The space was divided by two couches, which were set at right angles from one another, both facing a coffee table and one of the largest television sets I had ever seen.  Below the television set were a half dozen video game consoles, a DVD player and one or two machines I didn’t recognize.  I supposed they might have a TiVo, though I’d never seen one.  Speakers larger than the TVs my dad and I had at home sat on either side of the whole setup.  Behind the couches were tables, some open space with rugs and shelves set against the walls.  The shelves were only half filled with books and magazines, while the rest of the shelf space was filled with odds and ends ranging from a discarded shoe to candles.

The second section was a collection of rooms.  It was hard to label them as such, though, because they were more like cubicles, three against each wall with a hallway between them.  They were a fair size, and there were six doors, but the walls of each room were only eight or so feet tall, not reaching all the way up to the roof.  Three of the doors had artwork spray painted on them.  The first door had a crown done in a dramatic graffiti style.  The second door had the white silhouette of a man and a woman against a blue background, mimicking the ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ washroom signs that were so common.  The third had a girl’s face with puckered lips.  I wondered what the story was, there.

“Nice art,” I said, pointing at the door with the crown on it, feeling kind of dumb for making it the first thing I’d said as I entered the room.

“Thanks,” Alec replied.  I guess that meant it was his work.

I took another second to look around.  The far end of the loft, the last of the three sections, had a large table and some cabinets.  Though I couldn’t take a better look without crossing the whole loft, I gathered that their kitchen was in the far end of the loft.

Throughout, there was mess.  I felt almost rude for paying attention to it, but there were pizza boxes piled on one of the tables, two dirty plates on the coffee table in front of the couch, and some clothes draped over the back of one of the couches.  I saw pop cans – or maybe beer cans – stacked in a pyramid on the table in the far room.  It wasn’t so messy that I thought it was offensive, though.  It was mess that made a statement… like, ‘This is our space.’  No adult supervision here.

“I’m jealous,” I admitted, meaning it.

“Dork,” Alec said, “What are you jealous for?”

“I meant it’s cool,” I protested, a touch defensively.

Lisa spoke before Alec could reply, “I think what Alec means is that this is your place now too.  This is the team’s space, and you’re a member of the team, now.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling dumb.  Lisa and Alec headed to the living room, while Brian walked off to the far end of the loft.  When Lisa gestured for me to follow her, I did.  Alec lay down, taking up an entire couch, so I sat on the opposite end of the couch from Lisa.

“The rooms,” Lisa said, “Far side, in order of closest to farthest, are Alec, bathroom, mine.”  That meant Alec’s room was the one with the crown, and Lisa’s door had the face with the puckered lips.  She went on, “On the side closer to us, Rachel’s room, Rachel’s dogs’ room, and the storage closet.”

Lisa paused, then glanced at Alec and asked, “You think she-”

“Duh,” Alec cut her off.

“What?” I asked, feeling lost.

“We’ll clean out the storage closet,” Lisa decided, “So you have a room.”

I was taken aback.  “You don’t have to do that for me,” I told her, “I’ve got a place.”

Lisa made a face, almost pained.  She asked me, “Can we just do it anyways, and not make a fuss?  It’d be a lot better if you had your own space here.”

I must have looked confused, because Alec explained, “Brian has an apartment, and was pretty firm about not needing or wanting a room here… but he and Lisa have been arguing regularly because of it.  He has nowhere to sleep but the couch if he gets hurt and can’t go to his place, and there’s no place to put his stuff, so it gets left all over.  Take the room.  You’ll be doing us a favor.”

“Okay,” I said.  I added, “Thank you,” as much for the explanation as for the room itself.

“Last time he went up against Shadow Stalker, he came back here and bled all over a white couch,” Lisa groused, “nine hundred dollar couch and we had to replace it.”

“Fucking Shadow Stalker,” Alec commiserated.

Brian came back from the other end of the loft, raising his voice to be heard as he approached, “Rache’s not here, and neither are her dogs.  She must be walking them or working.  Dammit.  I get stressed when she’s out.”  He approached the couches and saw Alec sprawled on the one.

“Move your legs,” Brian told him.

“I’m tired.  Sit on the other couch,” Alec mumbled, one arm over his face.

Brian glanced at Lisa and I, and Lisa scooted over to make room.  Brian glared down at Alec and then sat between us girls.  I shifted my weight and tucked one leg under me to give him room.

“So,” Brian explained, “Here’s the deal.  Two grand a month, just to be a member of the team.  That means you help decide what jobs we do, you go on the jobs, you stay active, you’re available if we need to call.”

“I don’t have a phone,” I admitted.

“We’ll get you one,” he said, like it wasn’t even a concern.  It probably wasn’t. “We generally haul in anywhere from ten grand to thirty-five grand for a job.  That gets divided four ways… five ways now that you’re on the team.”

I nodded, then exhaled slowly, “It’s not small change.”

Brian nodded, a small smile playing on his lips, “Nope.  Now, how on the ball are you, as far as knowing what we’re up against?”

I blinked a few times, then hedged, “For other local capes?  I’ve done research online, read the cape magazines religiously for a few years, more since getting my powers… but I dunno.  If the past twenty four hours have taught me anything, it’s that there’s a lot I don’t know, and will only find out the hard way.”

Brian smiled.  I mean, really smiled.  It made me think of a boy rather than a nearly-grown man.  He replied, “Most don’t get that, you know?  I’ll try to share what I know, so you aren’t caught off guard, but don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anything you’re not sure about, alright?”

I nodded, and his smile widened.  He said, through a good natured chuckle, “Can’t tell you how much of a relief it is that you take this stuff seriously, since some people -” he stopped to lean over and kick the side of the couch Alec was lying on, “-need me to twist their arms to get them listening, and some people,” he jerked his thumb over his right shoulder, “think they know everything.”

“I do know everything,” Lisa said, “It’s my power.”

“What?” I said, interrupting Brian.  My heartbeat quickened, though I hadn’t exactly been relaxed to begin with, “You’re omniscient?”

Lisa laughed, “No, no.  I do know things though.  My power tells me stuff.”

Swallowing hard, hoping I wasn’t drawing attention by doing so, I asked, “Like?”  Like why I was joining their team?

Lisa sat forward and put her elbows on her knees, “Like how I knew you were at the library when I sent me the messages.  If I felt like it, and if I had the know how, I’m sure I could have figured it out by breaking into the website database and digging through the logs to find the address you connected from, but my power just let me skip that step like that.” She snapped her fingers.

“And why exactly did you mention you knew where she was?” Brian queried, his voice a touch too calm.

“I wanted to see how she’d react.  Messing with her a little,” Lisa grinned.

“God dammit-” Brian started, but Lisa waved him off.

“I’m filling the newbie in,” she waved him off, “Yell at me later.”

Not giving him a chance to reply, she turned to me and explained, “My power fills in the gaps in my knowledge.  I generally need some info to start from, but I can use details my power feeds me to figure out more stuff, and it all sort of compounds itself, giving me a steady flow of info.”

I swallowed, “And you knew that a cape was on the way last night?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Call it a well educated guess.”

“And you knew the stuff about what happened in the PHQ the same way?”

Lisa’s smile widened, “I’ll admit I cheated there.  Figuring out passwords is pretty easy with my power.  I dig through the PHQ’s digital paperwork and enjoy a little reality TV by way of their surveillance cameras when I’m bored.  It’s useful because I’m not only getting the dirt from what I see, hear and read, but my power fills in the details on stuff like changes in their routine and the team politics.”

I stared at her, a good part of me horrified that I’d gotten into an undercover situation opposite a girl with superpowered intuition.

Taking my silence for awe, she grinned her vulpine smile, “It’s not that amazing.  I’m really best with concrete stuff.  Where things are, timing, encryption, yadda yadda.  I can read something out of changes in body language or routine, but it’s less reliable and kind of a headache.  Enough information overload without, you know?”

I did know, her explanation echoed my own thoughts regarding my ability to see and hear things through my bugs.  Still, her words didn’t make me feel that much better.

“And,” Brian said, still glowering at Lisa, “Even if she knows a lot, that doesn’t mean Lisa can’t be a dumbass sometimes.”

Lisa punched him in the arm.

“So what are your powers then?” I asked Brian and Alec, hoping for a change in topic.

They didn’t get a chance to tell me.  I heard barking from downstairs.  A matter of heartbeats later I was standing, three paces from the couch.  Three snarling dogs had me backed against the wall, drool flying from their mouths as their teeth gnashed and snapped for my hands and face.

Insinuation 2.8

“Call off your dogs!” Brian shouted.

The largest of the dogs, an ugly Rottweiler or a mutt with strong Rottweiler blood, seized my wrist in its jaws.  My knees almost buckled in response to the pain, which only worsened when it abruptly snapped its head to one side and wrenched my arm.  I fell, and in a heartbeat, the other two dogs – a German Shepherd and a hairless terrier with a missing ear and eye – were on me.

The German Shepherd set to barking and snapping at my face, occasionally catching the hair that hung in front of my face to pull at it.  The other started raking at me with its claws and nipping with its teeth, trying to find somewhere on my legs, body or backside that it could set its teeth into.

While those two were at it, the Rottweiler still had my wrist in its teeth, and it began pulling, as though it wanted to drag me somewhere.  I grit my teeth at the pain and tried to think something I could do that would amount to more than curling up into a fetal position to protect my arms, legs and face.

“Call off the fucking dogs!” I heard Brian bellow, again.

A tooth or claw scratched my ear.  I think that’s what spooked me, because my composure broke and I cried out.

Just a second or two later, a much longer span of time than it sounds like when a pack of dogs is tearing at you, there was a whistle.  Hearing the noise, the dogs abruptly backed off.  The one eyed terrier offered one hostile bark followed by a long growl even as it walked away, as if it still had enough mean left in it that it had to let it out somehow.

Lisa and Alec helped me to my feet.  I was shaking like a leaf.  One of my hands gripped the forearm of my other arm, as much to stop the worst of the trembling as to cradle the injury.  I had tears in the corners of my eyes and I was clenching my teeth so hard my jaw ached.

On the opposite side of the room, Brian was rubbing the back of one of his hands.  The three dogs were sitting in a neat line ten feet away from a girl who was lying on the ground. The girl had blood running from both of her nostrils.  I recognized her from the picture I had seen on her wiki page.  Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  Bitch.

“I fucking hate it,” Brian growled at the girl, putting emphasis on the swear, “When you make me do that.”

Bitch propped herself up a bit, half against the wall opposite me, so she had a better view of the room.  A better view of me.  Seeing her in person just confirmed my impressions of her from her picture online.  She wasn’t attractive.  An unkind person might call her butch, and I wasn’t feeling particularly kindly towards her.  Most of her features looked like they would have been better fit on a guy rather than a girl.  She had a square face, thick eyebrows, and a nose that had been broken more than once – maybe broken again just a moment ago, given the blood trickling from her nostrils.  Even as far as her physical build went, she was solidly built without being fat.  The trunk of her body alone was bigger around than mine was with my arms down at my sides, just by virtue of having a thicker, broader torso and having more meat on her bones.  She was wearing boots, black jeans with tears all over them, and a green army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt.  Her auburn hair was cut shortish.

I took a deep breath.  Then, speaking slowly so I wouldn’t stumble over my words or let a tremor into my voice, I asked “Why the fuck did you do that?”

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she licked her upper lip clean of blood and smiled.  It was a mean, smug sneer of a smile.  Even though she was the one lying on the ground with a bloody nose, she somehow had it in her head that she’d beat me.  Or something.

“God fucking dammit!” Brian was shouting.  He went on to say something else, but I didn’t really hear it over the buzzing of my power in my ears.  I realized I was clenching my fist, and habitually forced myself to relax it.

Then, like I had done so many times over the past few days and weeks, I searched for a reason to justify why I was backing down.  It was almost reflexive.  When the bullies got on my case, I always had to take a moment to collect myself and tell myself why I couldn’t or shouldn’t retaliate.

For a few moments, I felt adrift.  Around the same time that I realized I couldn’t find a reason to back off, I realized I had already wrenched free of Lisa and Alec’s support and crossed half of the room at a run.  I reached for my bugs and realized I’d been using my power without thinking about it.  They were already gathering at the stairs and by the windows.  All it took was a thought, and they started flowing into the room in greater numbers.  Cockroaches, earwigs, spiders and flies.  Not as many as I might have liked, I hadn’t been using my power for long enough to gather those from further around the neighborhood, but it was enough to count.

Bitch saw me approaching and raised her fingers to her mouth, but I didn’t give her a chance to signal her animals.  I kicked for her face like I might kick a soccer ball, and she aborted the whistle to cover her head with her arms.  My foot bounced off of one of her arms and her entire body recoiled as she flinched.

Because I hadn’t slowed down before reaching her, I had to use my hands to stop myself from running into the wall.  A line of red hot pain ran down my arm at the impact, starting at the point where the Rottweiler had bitten my wrist.  Reminded of the dogs, I glanced to my right, and saw the largest of them standing, ready to come to his master’s aid.  I brought a large share of my bugs in between myself and the beasts.  The last I saw of them before the swarm blocked most of my view, the dogs were rapidly backing away from the swarm, startled.

Finding myself standing over Bitch, braced against the wall, I pressed the attack.  Her arms were covering her face and chest, but I saw her exposed ear as a target and brought my foot down on it.  Her head bounced against the floor, and blood bloomed from the top of her ear.  The sight of the blood almost stopped me, but I knew that backing down now would give her a chance to set them on me again with a whistle.  My toe found her exposed stomach, and as she drew her knees upward to protect her belly, I aimed a sharp kick between her legs.  I managed to get kicks to connect firmly with ribs three times before she brought an elbow down to protect it.

I didn’t get a chance to do any more damage, because the dogs had gotten over their fear of the bugs and were closing in, circling around me and Bitch as the swarm extended.  I abandoned my assault on Bitch to step away and face them.  I knew I could set my bugs on them, but something told me the dogs weren’t about to yelp and run away while their master was being hurt.  I might have the swarm attack them, but if the pain of the bites and stings didn’t stop them, they’d attack me and I’d be in the same situation I’d been in a minute ago.  I doubted Bitch would call them off a second time.

A shadow fell over my vision, like a jet black curtain sweeping in front of me, blocking my view of half the room and the dogs.  It dissolved into wisps of black smoke a second later, and I was startled to see Brian right in front of me, between me and the dogs.

“Enough,” he intoned.  The little one-eared cyclops of a terrier snarled at him in response.

There was a sound I didn’t recognize.  It was only when Bitch tried again, more successfully, that I realized the first sound had been a weak attempt at a whistle.  The dogs looked to their master and then retreated, still edging away from the swarm.  I backed away a little as well, being careful to keep Brian between myself and the mongrels.

Bitch coughed, then raised her head to look me in the eye.  She rubbed her ear with one hand, and her palm was red with blood as she pulled it away.  As the German Shepherd approached her, she rested the same hand on its head.  The other two dogs moved closer to her, as if they could protect her, but their attention was fixed entirely on me and Brian.

When a good few seconds had passed and Bitch had made no further overtures of aggression towards me, I sent an instruction to the swarm to make their exit.  I could see Brian visibly relax as they faded into the cracks.

“No more fighting,” he said, his voice calmer, “I’m directing that at you, Rachel.  You deserved whatever Taylor gave you.”

She glared at him, coughed once, and then glanced at the other two before turning her angry gaze to the floor.

“Taylor, come sit down.  I promise we’ll-“

“No,” I interrupted him, “Fuck this.  Fuck you guys.”

“Taylor-“

“You said she wasn’t cool with me joining.  You never said she was pissed off enough to try and kill me.”

Bitch and Brian started speaking at the same time, but Brian stopped when she started coughing.  As her coughing fit subsided, Bitch looked up at me and snarled, “If I ordered them to kill you, Brutus would have torn out your throat before you could scream.  I gave them the hurt command.”

I laughed a little, just a little more high pitched than I would’ve liked, “That’s great.  She has her dogs trained to hurt people.  Seriously?  Fuck you guys.  Count this as another failed recruitment.”

I headed for the stairs, but I didn’t get two steps before that curtain of black appeared again, blocking my way.  Brian’s powers in the wiki had been listed as darkness generation.  I knew where the stairs and the railing for the stairs was, so I put my hand in front of me to make sure I wasn’t walking into an opaque forcefield, and on finding it to be more like smoke, I kept moving.  As I entered it, the blackness slithered over my skin, oily with a weird consistency to it.  Combined with an absolute lack of light that left me unable to tell whether my eyes were open or shut, it was ominous.

As my hands made contact with the railing, a pair of hands settled on my shoulders.  I wheeled around and knocked them away, my voice raised as I half-shouted, “Back off!”

Except the words barely reached me.  The sound echoed as if from a distant place, and had a hollowness to it that made me think of someone shouting from the bottom of a deep well.  The darkness didn’t just block off the light.  It swallowed up noises as well.    I’d let go of the railing when I turned to face the other person in the darkness, and I had a moment’s panic when I realized I couldn’t tell where the stairs were anymore.  The texture of the darkness was inconsistent, making it hard to identify the full scope of my movements.  I was reminded of those times I had been underwater and lost track of which direction the surface was.  I could tell which way was up, sure, but that was about it.

Sensory deprivation.  When those two words came to my mind, I felt myself relax some.  Brian’s power mucked with your senses… Sight, hearing, touch.  I wasn’t limited to those three.  Reached out with my power, I identified where all of the bugs in the loft and the factory below were.  Using them to ground myself like a sailor might use the constellations, I figured out where the stairs should be and found the railing.  The hands hadn’t grabbed for me again, so I hurried down, down the stairs and out of the oppressive darkness.

I was only a few paces from the door when Brian called for me, “Taylor!”

When I turned to face him, I saw he was alone.

“You’re going to use your power on me again?” I asked, wary, angry.

“No.  Not in the open, not uncostumed, and not on you.  It was stupid of me to do it in the first place.  I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted to stop you from bolting.  I can barely tell it’s there, so I forget how it can affect other people.”

I started to turn away, ready to walk, but Brian took a quick step in my direction, and I stopped.

Brian tried again, “Look, I’m sorry.  About using my power on you, about Bitch.”

I cut him off before he could get any further, “You don’t have to worry.  I won’t tell anyone what you guys showed me tonight, I won’t be attacking you guys if I run into you in costume.  I’m pissed, but I’m not that pissed.”  I wasn’t sure how much of that was a lie, but it seemed like the thing to say.

When he didn’t say anything in response, I added, “You guys offered me a choice.  I could take the money and go, or I could join.  Let me change my mind.  After what your teammate just did, you owe me that much.”

“If it were up to me, I’d kick Bitch out and keep you,” Brian spoke.

His words were like a bucket of water in my face, waking me up.  I’d been pissed, furious, and why?  Because I’d felt betrayed and disappointed.  The irony of that, given my whole reason for being there in the first place, didn’t escape me.  I wouldn’t have been as disappointed and betrayed as I was if I didn’t enjoy their companionship on some level.  Here Brian was, expressing similar sentiments from the other side of things.

I let out a long sigh.  I guessed, “But you won’t?”

“It’s complicated.  As much as I want you on the team, we count on the boss for our allowances, information, equipment and for fencing anything we steal.  We count on her to deploy our heavy hitters.  We’d lose all that if we kicked her out.”

“I became a-” I almost said superhero, “cape to get away from that shit, from assholes like Bitch.”  There was also the fact that Tattletale spooked me, but I couldn’t say that out loud.

“Come back inside, Taylor.  Please.  I personally guarantee I won’t let her pull another stunt like that or I’ll quit the team.  You’re hurt, you’re bleeding, your clothes are ripped, and you left your bag with the money upstairs.  I’m trained in first aid.  At least let us patch you up, get you in some new clothes.”

I glanced down at my arm.  I had my right hand clasped around my other wrist, and there was blood on the sleeve of my sweatshirt.  And my costume was still upstairs?  Fuck.

“Fine,” I sighed, “But just so you know, I’m only coming back because she doesn’t want me to.  I quit, she wins, and I’m not fucking having that.”

Brian smiled and opened the door for me, “I’ll take what I can get.”

Insinuation 2.9

As Brian and I returned to the loft, I felt more than a little apprehensive.  It wasn’t just that I was going to be around Bitch again, but I was also having to face Lisa and Alec.  After shouting and talking about quitting the team, I was turning around and going back.  A part of me wanted to apologize, but a larger part of me felt I shouldn’t.  I had been justified in everything I had said and done, right?  Maybe it was just because I wasn’t used to violence or raising my voice.

As I’d feared, there was a bit of an awkward silence as we reached the top of the stairs.  Bitch was sitting in a chair beside one of the tables, her dogs nowhere to be seen.  As she saw me, she scowled, but didn’t say anything.  Alec grinned as I came back, but I couldn’t decide if it was because he was glad or if it was at my expense.  I didn’t know him well enough to guess either way.

“Glad you came back,” Lisa told me, a bit of a smile on her face, “Alec, can you go get the first aid kit?  It might be in the storage closet.”

While Alec did that, Brian sat me down on the arm of the couch and I pulled off my sweatshirt to get a better look at the damage.  I pulled the bottom of my tank top up around my ribs to get a look at where one of the dogs had been gotten at my stomach and back.  My clothes had taken most of the damage, and I’d only suffered three or four shallow-ish scrapes.  There was bruising and some raw areas where I felt tender, but I figured I’d recover from that in a day or two. I had a cut on my ear, which would be harder to hide, but I was pretty sure I could keep the incident from my dad without him raising hell.

There was only one spot of real damage, a puncture where it looked like a fang had buried itself deep in the top of my forearm and then dragged an inch or so down towards my wrist as it made its exit.  The area around it was already turning colors with bruising.  I wasn’t sure how deep the puncture was, but I was pretty sure it should have been hurting more than it did.  The blood from the injury had trickled down my arm, and was still welling out.

“Christ,” I said, mostly to myself.

“That was awesome, you know,” Alec told me, as he returned with the first aid kit, “I didn’t think you had it in you to kick someone’s ass.”  I glared at him, but he just sat on the back of the sofa, his legs kicking like an excited kid.

“I think we’re going to clean that and stitch it.  Tattle’s power should give us a better sense of whether stitches are necessary,” Brian said, quietly.

“Alright,” I agreed.

I would hardly describe getting stitches as a bonding experience, but Bitch more or less stayed quiet throughout the process.  We were both sat down and told to sit still while Brian both cleaned and sewed up the hole in my arm and the tear my kick had made in Bitch’s ear.  Brian insisted I take two Tylenol, though the pain was still limited to a mild ache in my arm.  I grudgingly obliged.  I’d never liked taking pills, and never felt they made a real difference.

“You have first aid training?” I inquired, to make conversation and break the tense silence.

Alec complained, “We all do, Brian made us all take a comprehensive class less than a week after we were gathered as a team.  Such a pain in the ass, believe me.  He’ll make you do it too.”

“I already did,” I admitted, “One of the first things I did.”  I jumped a little at a snarling from my left, but it was just Rachel cussing as Lisa taped a cotton pad to her ear.

Brian just looked at me and flashed that boyish smile again.  I looked away, embarrassed that a guy like him would get pleased like that on my account.  He got up to head to the bathroom, garbage from the bandages, sutures, cotton swabs and ointments in his hands.

With Brian gone and Lisa absorbed in trying to patch up Bitch’s ear, I was left with Alec.  To make conversation, I said, “Alec.  You were going to tell me what you do.  You go by Regent, right?”

“The name is a long story, but what I do is this.”  He looked over his shoulder at Brian, who was returning from the washroom with a damp washcloth in hand.  Brian, mid-stride, stumbled and fell onto the floor.

“Way to look good in front of the new girl, gimpy!” Alec mocked his teammate, laughing. Grateful for the break in the tension, I couldn’t help but laugh too.  While Alec continued laughing, Brian got to his feet and ran up to the smaller boy, at which point he got Alec in a headlock and began punching him in the shoulder repeatedly.  This abuse only made Alec laugh harder in between his cries of pain.

Lisa turned to me, smiling at the prank and play fighting between the boys, “It’s a bit complicated to explain, but basically, Alec can get into people’s nervous systems.  This lets him fire off impulses that set off reflexes or make body parts jerk into motion.  It’s not a dramatic power, but with timing, he can make someone fall over midstep, drop something, lose their sense of balance or pull the trigger on a gun.”

I nodded, absorbing the information.  It sounded very underwhelming to me, but I was willing to admit I could be underestimating it.

“Well,” I said, after a long pause, “I think I pretty much get what everyone can do, then.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but Bitch can turn those dogs into those freakish monsters I saw the other night?”

Sitting a few feet away, Bitch muttered, “They aren’t freakish.”

Lisa answered my question, ignoring her. “Rachel can do it with any dog, actually,” she said, stressing the name, “And no codenames when we’re not in costume, ‘kay?  Get in the habit of using the right name at the right times, and it’s that much harder to slip.”

It was hard to think of Rachel by her real name.  Bitch seemed really fitting given the stunt she had pulled.  I apologized to Lisa, “Sorry.”

Lisa gave a small nod in response, then told me, “She can use her power on any dog, but only Brutus, Judas and Angelica are trained well enough that they’ll listen to her when they’re pumped up.”

Ah, so that was it.  “And Brian makes that oily darkness that screws up your hearing.  The Parahumans wiki said it was darkness generation.”

Brian smiled, “I put that into the wiki myself.  It’s not wrong, but it does catch people off guard when they think they know what you can do, and there’s something more to it.”

Lisa added, “It’s not just hearing.  It also cuts off radio signals and dampens the effects of radiation.”

“That’s what her power tells her, anyways.  I haven’t had much chance to test that part of things.  I get by as is,” Brian said.  He turned his hand palm up and created a handful of the darkness.  It was like smoke, but so absolutely black that there was no texture to it.  It was like someone had taken a scalpel to reality and the blackness was what was there when everything else was gone.  I couldn’t even gauge the dimensions of it, unless I looked at it from a different perspective.  Even then, with the way the darkness shifted and billowed like smoke, it was hard to judge the shape.

More of it just kept pouring from his hand, climbing upwards to cover the top of the room.  As the light from the windows near the upper edges of the room and the florescent bars on the ceiling was cut off, the room got a great deal darker.

He closed his hand into a fist, and the darkness thinned out and disintegrated into strands and tatters, and the room brightened again.  I looked at the light coming in from the windows and was surprised it wasn’t later.

“What time is it?”  I asked.

“Nineteen minutes before five,” Lisa said.  She didn’t look at a watch or a clock as she said it, which was unsettling.  It was a reminder that her power was constantly available to her.

Brian asked me, “Do you have somewhere you need to be?

“Home, I guess,” I admitted, “My dad will wonder where I am.”

“Call him,” Lisa suggested, “Now that the introductions are over with, you can just hang out for a bit, if you want.”

“We could order pizza,” Alec suggested.  Then when Lisa, Brian and Bitch all made faces, he added, “Or maybe everyone’s sick of pizza and we could order something else.”

“Stick around?” Brian made it a question.

I glanced at Bitch.  She was sitting on the table behind one of the couches and looking like a mess, with a bloody bandage over one ear, blood smeared below her nose and lip, and a bit of green around the gills that suggested she was feeling a little worse for wear.  With her in that state, I didn’t feel particularly threatened.  Staying meant I could work to get things more copacetic and maybe dig for a bit more information.  I’d also missed socializing with people – even if it was under false pretenses with a group that included an apparent sociopath.  It had been a sucky day.  Just chilling out sounded good.

“Okay,” I decided, “Yeah, I think I’d like to.”

“Phone’s in the kitchen if you want to call your dad,” Lisa said.

I looked over my shoulder as I headed across the loft.  The others got settled on the couches, with Alec turning on the TV while Lisa and Brian took a second to clean up.

I found the phone and dialed my dad.

“Hey dad,” I said, when I heard the phone being picked up.

“Taylor.  Are you alright?”  He sounded worried.  It was unusual, I supposed, my not being home when he got back from work.

“I’m fine, dad.  Is it cool if I hang out with some people tonight?”

There was a pause.

“Taylor, if there’s anyone that’s making you make this call… the bullies or someone else, tell me everything is fine.  If you’re not in trouble, tell me your mother’s full name.”

I felt momentarily embarrassed.  Was it so unusual for me to hang out with people?  I knew my dad was just trying to keep me safe, but it was bordering on the ridiculous.

“Annette Rose Hebert,” I told him, “Really dad, it’s cool.”

“You’re really okay?”

My gaze roved over the kitchen, taking in the details, as I gave him my assurances.

“Better than ever.  I kind of made some friends,” I said.

My eyes settled on their dining room table.  There was a stack of money, wrapped with a paper band just as the money in the lunchbox had been.  Beside the money, plain as day, was the dark gray metal of a handgun.

My attention caught by the gun, I only barely caught my dad’s question.  “What are they like?”

“They seem like good people,” I lied.

Interlude 2

There were very few things, in Victoria Dallon’s estimation, that were cooler than flying.  The invisible forcefield that extended a few millimeters over her skin and clothes just made it better.  The field kept the worst of the chill from touching her, but still let her feel the wind on her skin and in her hair.  Bugs didn’t splat against her face like they did against car windshields, even when she was pushing eighty miles an hour.

Spotting her target, she whooped and plunged for the ground, gaining speed where anyone else would be slowing down.  She hit the asphalt hard enough to crack it and send fragments of it into the air, touching ground with her knee and foot, one arm extended.  She stayed in that kneeling position for just heartbeats, letting her platinum curls and the cape that was draped over one of her shoulders flutter in the wake of air that had followed her descent.  She met the eyes of her quarry with a steely glare.

She’d practiced that landing for weeks to get it right.

The man was a twenty something Caucasian with a shaved head, a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and work boots.  He took one look at her and bolted.

Victoria grinned as he disappeared down the far end of the alley.  She rose from her kneeling position, dusted herself off and ran her fingers through her hair to tidy it.  Then she raised herself a foot off the ground and flew after him at an easy forty five miles an hour.

It didn’t take a minute to catch him, even with the head start she had given him.  She flew just past him, grazing him.  An instant later, she came to a dead stop, facing him.  Again, the wind made for a dramatic flourish as it stirred her hair, her cape and the skirt of her costume.

“The woman you attacked was named Andrea Young,” she spoke.

The man looked over his shoulder, as if gauging his escape routes.

“Don’t even think about it, fugly,” she told him, “You know I’d catch you, and trust me, I’m already pissed off enough without you wasting my time.”

“I didn’t do anything,” the man snarled.

“Andrea Young!” Victoria raised her voice.  As she shouted, she exercised her power.  The man quailed as though she’d slapped him.  “A black college student was beaten so badly she needed medical attention!  Her teeth were knocked out!  You’re trying to tell me that you, a skinhead with swollen knuckles, someone who was in the crowd watching paramedics arrive with an expression bordering on glee, you didn’t do anything!?”

“I didn’t do nothing worth caring about,” he sneered.  His bravado was tempered by a second look over his shoulder, as though he’d very much like to be elsewhere right that moment.

She flew forward, her fists catching him by the collar.  For just a moment, she contemplated slamming him up against a wall.  It would have been fitting and satisfying to shove him hard enough against the brick to crack it, then drop him into the dumpster that sat at the wall’s base.

Instead, she pulled up a little, bringing the two of them to a stop.  They were now just high enough above the ground that he’d feel uncomfortable with the height.  The dumpster, mostly empty, was directly below him, but she doubted he was paying attention to anything but her.

“I think it’s a safe bet to say you’re a member of Empire Eighty-Eight,” she told him, meeting his eyes with a hard stare, “or at least, you’ve got some friends who are.  So here’s what’s going to happen.  You’re going to either tell me everything the triple-E’s have been up to, or I’m going to break your arms and legs and then you’re going to tell me everything.”

As she spoke, she ratcheted up her power.  She knew it was working when he started squirming just to avoid her gaze.

“Fuck you, you can’t touch me.  There’s laws against that shit,” he blustered, staring fixedly over one shoulder.

She turned up her power another notch.  Her body thrummed with current – waves of energy that anyone in her presence would experience as an emotional charge of awe and admiration.  For those with a reason to be afraid of her, it would be a feeling of raw intimidation instead.

“Last chance,” she warned him.

Unfortunately, fear affected everyone differently.  For this particular asshole, it just made him dig in his heels and become obstinate.  She could see it in his body language before he opened his mouth – this was the sort of guy who reacted to anything that spooked or unsettled him with an almost mindless refusal to bend.

“Lick my hairy, sweaty balls,” he snarled, before punctuating it with a spat, “Cunt.”

She threw him.  Since she could bench press a cement mixer, though it was hard to balance something so large and unwieldy, even a casual toss on her part could get some good distance.  He flew a good twenty five or thirty yards down the back road before hitting the asphalt, and rolled for another ten.

He was utterly for still for long enough that Victoria had begun to worry that he’d somehow snapped his neck or broken his spine as he’d rolled.  She was relieved when he groaned and began to pull himself to his feet.

“Ready to talk?” she asked him, her voice carrying down the alley.  She didn’t move  forward from where she hovered in the air, but she did let herself drop closer to the ground.

Pressing one hand against his leg to support himself as he straightened up, he raised his other hand and flipped her the bird, then turned and began to limp down the alley.

What was this asshole thinking?  That she would just let him go?  That, what, she would just bend to his witless lack of self preservation?  That she was helpless to do any real harm to him?  To top it off, he was going to insult her and try to walk away?

“Screw you too,” she hissed through her teeth.  Then she kicked the dumpster below her hard enough to send it flying down the little road.  It rotated lazily through the air as it arced towards the retreating figure, the trajectory and rotation barely changing as it knocked him flat.  It skidded to a halt three to five yards beyond him, the metal sides of the dumpster squealing and sparking as it scraped against the asphalt.

This time, he didn’t get up.

“Fuck,” she swore, “Fuckity fuck fuck.”  She flew to him and checked for a pulse.  She sighed, and then headed to the nearest street.  She found the street address, grabbed her cell from her belt and dialed.

“Hey sis?  Yeah, I found him.  That’s, uh, sort of the problem.  Yeah.  Look, I’m sorr- ok, can we talk about this later?  Yeah.  I’m at Spayder and Rock, there’s this little road that runs behind the buildings.  Downtownish, yeah.  Yeah?  Thanks.”

Victoria returned to the unconscious skinhead, checked his pulse, and listened intently for changes in his breathing.  It took a very long five minutes for her sister to arrive.

Again, Victoria?” the voice disturbed her from her contemplations.

“Use my codename, please,” Victoria told the girl.  Her sister was as different from her as night was from day.  Where Victoria was beautiful, tall, gorgeous, blonde, Amy was mousy.  Victoria’s costume showed off her figure, with a white one-piece dress that came to mid-thigh (with shorts underneath) an over-the shoulder cape, high boots and a golden tiara with spikes radiating from it, vaguely reminiscent of the sun’s rays or the statue of liberty.  Amy’s costume, by contrast, was only a shade away from being a burka.  Amy wore a robe with a large hood and a scarf that covered the lower half of her face.  The robe was alabaster white and had a medic’s red cross on the chest and the back.

“Our identities are public,” Amy retorted, pushing the hood back and scarf down to reveal brown frizzy hair and a face with freckles spaced evenly across it.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Victoria replied.

“You want to talk about principles, Glory Girl?” Amy asked, in the most sarcastic tone she could manage, “This is the sixth – sixth! – time you’ve nearly killed someone.  That I know about!”

“I’m strong enough to lift a SUV over my head,” Victoria muttered, “It’s hard to hold back all the time.”

“I’m sure Carol would buy that line,” Amy said, making it clear in her tone she wasn’t, “But I know you better than anyone.  If you’re having trouble holding back, the problem isn’t here -” she poked Victoria in the bicep.  “It’s here-” she jabbed her sister in the forehead, hard.  Victoria didn’t even blink.

“Look, can you just fix him?” Victoria pleaded.

“I’m thinking I shouldn’t,” Amy said, quietly.

“What?”

“There’s consequences, Vicky.  If I help you now, what’s going to stop you from doing it again?  I can call the paramedics.  I know some good people from the hospital.  They could probably fix him up alright.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Victoria said, “That’s not funny.  He goes to the hospital, people ask questions.”

“Yeah, I’m well aware,” Amy said, her voice hushed.

“This isn’t, like, me getting grounded.  I’d get pulled into court on charges of aggravated assault and battery.  That doesn’t just fuck with me.  It fucks with our family, all of New Wave.  Everything we’ve struggled to build.”

Amy frowned and looked at the fallen man..

“I know you’re not keen on the superhero thing, but you’d really go that far?  You’d do that to us?  To me?”

Amy pointed a finger at her sister, “That’s not me.  It’s not my fault we’re at this point.  It’s you.  You’re crossing the line, going too far.  Which is exactly what people who criticize New Wave are scared of.  We’re not government sponsored.  We’re not protected or organized or regulated in the same way.  Everyone knows who we are under our masks.  That means we have to be accountable.  The responsible thing for me to do, as a member of this team, is to let the paramedics take him, and let the law do as it sees fit.”

Victoria abruptly pulled Amy into a hug.  Amy resisted for a moment, then let her arms go limp at her sides.

“This isn’t just a team, Ames,” Victoria told her, “We’re a family.  We’re your family.”

The man lying just a matter of feet away stirred, then groaned, long and loud.

“My adoptive family,” Amy mumbled into Victoria’s shoulder, “And stop trying to use your frigging power to make me all squee over how amazing you are.  Doesn’t work.  I’ve been exposed so long I’m immune.”

“It hurts,” the man moaned.

“I’m not using my power, dumbass,” Victoria told Amy, letting her go, “I’m hugging my sister.  My awesome, caring and merciful sister.”

The man whined, louder, “I can’t move.  I feel cold.”

Amy frowned at Victoria, “I’ll heal him.  But this is the last time.”

Victoria beamed, “Thank you.”

Amy leaned over the man and touched her hand to his cheek, “Slingshot break to his ribs, fractured clavicle, broken mandible, broken scapula, fractured sternum, bruised lung, broken ulna, broken radius -“

“I get the point,” Victoria said.

“Do you?” Amy asked.  Then she sighed, “I wasn’t even halfway down the list.  This is going to take a little while.  Sit?”

Victoria crossed her legs and assumed a sitting position, floating a half foot above the ground.  Amy just knelt where she was and rested her hand on the man’s cheek.  The tension went out of his body and he relaxed.

“How’s the woman?  Andrea?”

“Better than ever, physically,” Amy replied, “I grew her new teeth, fixed everything from the bruising to the scrapes, and even gave her a head to toe tune-up.  Physically, she’ll feel on top of the world, like she had been to a spa and had the best nutritionist, best fitness expert and the best doctor all looking after her for a straight month.”

“Good,” Victoria said.

“Mentally?  Emotionally?  It’s up to her to deal with the aftermath of a beating.  I can’t affect the brain.”

“Well-” Victoria started to speak.

“Yeah, yeah.  Not can’t.  Won’t.  It’s complicated and I don’t trust myself not to screw something up when I’m tampering with someone’s head.  That’s it, that’s all.”

Victoria started to say something, then shut her mouth.  Even if they weren’t related by blood, they were sisters.  Only sisters could have these sorts of recurring arguments.  They had gone through a dozen different variations on this argument before.  As far as she was concerned, Amy was doing herself a disservice by not practicing using her powers on the brain.  It was only a matter of time before her sister found herself in a situation where she needed to do some emergency brain surgery and found herself incapable.  Amy, for her part, refused to even discuss it.

She didn’t want to raise a sensitive issue when Amy was in the process of doing her a major favor.  To change the subject, Victoria asked, “Is it cool if I question him?”

“Might as well,” Amy sighed.

Victoria tapped the man a few times on the forehead to get his attention.  He could barely move his head, but his eyes lolled in her direction.

“Ready to answer my questions, or do me and my sister just walk away and leave you like this?”

“I… sue you, he gasped out, then managed an added, “Whore.”

“Try it.  I’d just love to see a skinhead with a few broken bones go up against a superheroine whose mom just happens to be one of the best lawyers in Brockton Bay.  You know her, right?”

“Brandish,” he said.

“That’s her name in costume.  Normally she’s Carol Dallon.  She’d kick your ass in court, believe me,” Victoria said.  She believed it.  What the thug didn’t understand was that even if he lost the case, the media circus that would be stirred up would do more damage than anything else.  But she didn’t need to inform him of that.  She asked him, “So do I get my sister to leave you as you are, or are you willing to trade some information for relief from months of incredible pain and a lifetime of arthritis and stiffness in your bones?”

“And erectile dysfunction,” Amy said, just loud enough for the thug to hear her, “You fractured your ninth vertebra.  That’s going to affect all nerve function in extremities below your waist.  If I leave you like you are, your toes will always feel a little numb, and you’ll have a hell of a time getting it up, if you know what I mean.”

The skinhead’s eyes widened a fraction, “You’re fucking with me.”

“I have an honorary medical license,” Amy told him, her expression solemn, “I’m not allowed to fuck with you about stuff like that.  Hippocratic oath.”

“Isn’t that ‘do no harm’?” the thug asked.  Then he groaned, long, loud and with the slightest rattle in his breath, as she removed her hand from his body.

“That’s just the first part of it, like how freedom of speech and the right to bear arms is just the first part of a very long constitution.  It doesn’t look like he’s cooperating, Glory Girl.  Should we go?”

“Fuck!” the man shouted, then winced, tenderly touching his side with one hand, “I’ll tell you.  Please, just… do what you were doing.  Touch me and make the pain go away, put me back together.  Fix me?”

Amy touched him.  He relaxed, and then he started talking.

“Empire Eighty-Eight is extending into the Docks on Kaiser’s orders.  Lung’s in custody, and whatever happens, the ABB is weaker than it was.  That means there’s territory for grabs, and the Empire sure ain’t making progress downtown.”

“Why not?” Victoria asked him.

“This guy, Coil.  Don’t know what his powers are, but he’s got a private army.  Ex-military, all of ‘em.  At least fifty, Kaiser said, and every one of ‘em has top notch gear.  Their armor’s better than kevlar.  You shoot ‘em, they’re back up in a few seconds.  ‘Least when you shoot a pig, you can be pretty sure you broke a few ribs.  But that’s not the fucked up thing.  These guys?  They’ve got these lasers hooked up to the machine guns they carry around.  If they don’t think bullets are doing it, or if they’re after people who are behind cover, they fire off these purple laser beams that can cut through steel.  Tear through any cover you’re standing behind and burn through you too.”

“Yeah.  I know about him.  His methods get expensive,” Victoria said, “Top of the line soldiers, top of the line gear.”

The thug nodded weakly, “But even with money to burn, he’s fighting us over Downtown territories.  Constant tug of war, neither of us making much headway.  Been going on for months.  So Kaiser thinks we should take the Docks now that the ABB are on the outs, gain some ground somewhere easier.  Don’t know any more than that, as far as his plans.”

“Who else is up to something?  Faultline?”

“The bitch with the freaks in her crew?  She’s a mercenary, different goals.  But maybe.  If she wanted to branch out, now would be the time to do it.  With her rep, she’d even do alright.”

“Then who?  There’s a power vacuum in the docks.  Kaiser’s declared he wants to seize it, but I’m willing to bet he’s warned you about others making a play.”

The skinhead laughed, then winced, “Are you dense, girl?  Everyone’s going to make a play.  It’s not just the major gangs and teams that are looking for a slice of the pie, there.  It’s everyone.  The Docks are ripe for the taking.  The location’s worth as much money as you’d get downtown.  It’s the go to place if you want to buy black market.  Sex, drugs, violence.  And the locals are already used to paying protection money.  It’s just a matter of changing who they pay to.  The Docks are rich territory, and we’re talking the potential for a full scale fucking war over it.”

He looked up at the blond superheroine and laughed.  Her lips set into a firm line.

He continued, “You want to know my guess?  Empire Eighty Eight is going to take the biggest slice of the Docks, because we’re strong enough to.  Coil’s going to stick his thumb in just to spite us, ABB is going to hold on to some.  But you’re also going to have a bunch of the little guys trying to take something for themselves.  Über and Leet, Circus, the Undersiders, Squealer, Trainwreck, Stain, others you’ve never heard of?  They’re going to stake out their ground, and one of two things is going to happen.  Either there’s war, in which case civilians get hurt and things get bad for you, or there’s alliances between the various teams and solo villains and shit gets even worse for you.”

He broke into laughter yet again.

“Come on, Panacea,” Victoria said as she stood up, touched ground with her boots and brushed her skirt straight, “We’ve gotten enough.”

“You sure?  I’m not done yet,” Amy told her.

“You fixed the bruises and scrapes, broken bones?”  Everything that could get her in trouble, in other words.

“Yeah, but I didn’t fix everything,” Amy replied.

“Good enough,” Victoria decided.

“Hey!” the skinhead shouted, “The deal was you’d fix me if I talked!  Did you fix my cock?”  He tried to struggle to get to his feet, but his legs buckled under him,  “Hey!  I can’t fuckin’ walk!  I’ll fucking sue you!”

Victoria’s expression changed in an instant, and her power flooded out, blindsiding the thug.  For an instant, his eyes were like those of a panicked horse, all whites, rolling around, unfocused.  She grabbed him by the shirt collar, lifted him up and growled into his ear, her voice just above a whisper, “Try it.  My sister just healed you… most of you, with a touch.  Did you ever wonder what else she could do?  Ever think, maybe, she could break you just as easily?  Or change the color of your skin, you racist fuck?  I’ll tell you this, I’m not half as scary as my little sister is.”

She let him go.  He collapsed in a heap on the ground.

As the two sisters walked away, Victoria pulled her cell phone out of a pouch on her belt with her free hand.  Turning to Amy, she said, “Thank you.”

“Play safe, Victoria.  I can’t bring people back from the dead, and once you’ve gone that far…”

“I’ll be good.  I’ll be better,” Victoria promised as she dialed with one hand.  She put the phone to her ear, “Hello?  Emergency services?  Requesting special line.  New Wave, Glory Girl.  Incapacitated criminal for you to pick up, no powers.  No, no rush, I can hold.”

Looking over her shoulder, Victoria noted the thug, still floundering and half-crawling, “He’s not going to get up?”

“He’ll be numb from the waist down for another three hours.  His left arm will be iffy for about that long, too, so he’s not going to move unless he can drag himself somewhere with just one limb.  He’ll also have numb toes for a good month or so, too,” Amy smiled.

“You didn’t actually…”

“No.  Nothing was broken, and I didn’t screw up anything, beyond a temporary numbness.  But he doesn’t know that.  Fear and doubt will complete the effect, and the suggestion becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.”

“Amy!” Victoria laughed, hugging her sister with one arm, “Weren’t you just saying you weren’t going to mess with people’s heads?”

Agitation 3.1

Tuesday morning found me running again, first thing.  I woke up at my regular time, apologized to my dad for not having breakfast with him, and headed out the door, hood of my sweatshirt up to hide the mess of my uncombed hair.

There was something appealing about being out and about before the city had woken up.  I didn’t usually get out quite this early, so it was a refreshing change.  As I headed east at a brisk jog, there were no cars or people on the street.  It was six thirty in the morning, and the sun had just finished rising, so the shadows were long.  The air was cool enough for my breath to fog.  It was like Brockton Bay was a ghost town, in a good way.

My training regimen had me running every morning, and alternating between more running and doing other exercises in the afternoons, depending on which day of the week it was.  The primary goal was to build my stamina.  In February, Sophia had goaded some boys into trying to catch me, I think the goal had been to duct tape me to a telephone pole.  I had escaped, helped mostly by the fact that the boys hadn’t really cared enough to run after me, but I found myself winded after having run just a block.  It had been a wake-up call that came about just when I was starting to think about going out in costume.  Not long after, I had started training.  After a few starts and stops, I had settled into a routine.

I was more fit, now.  While I could hardly say I was heavy, before, I’d had the unfortunate combination of a slight bulge for a belly, small breasts and broomstick-thin arms and legs.  It had added up to me looking something like a frog forced to stand up on its hind legs.  Three and a half months had burned away the body fat, leaving me very lean, and had given me the stamina to run at a steady jog without leaving me panting for breath.

I didn’t aim to just jog, though.  I steadily increased my pace with every block I ran as I headed towards the water.  By the fifth block, I was running.

My general approach was not to get too worried about counting the miles or measuring the times.  That just felt like it was distracting me from my own awareness of my body and its limits.  If it felt too easy, I just pushed myself a step further than I had the previous day.

The route I took varied every day, at my father’s insistence, but it usually took me to the same place.  In Brockton Bay, going east took you to one of two places.  You either ended up at the Docks, or you ended up at the Boardwalk.  Because most areas of the Docks were not the sort of place that you just breezed through, given the vagrants, gang members and general crime, I stuck to main roads leading past the Docks and to the Boardwalk.  It was usually close to seven by the time I got to the bridge that went over Lord Street.  From there, it was a block to the Boardwalk.

I slowed down as the sidewalk ended and the wooden platform began.  Though my legs were aching and I was out of breath, I forced myself to keep a low and steady pace rather than just stop.

Along the boardwalk, people were starting their day.  Most places were still closed, with the top notch security systems, steel shutters and iron grates protecting all of the expensive stores, but there were cafes and restaurants opening up.  Other stores had vans parked in front, and were busy loading in their shipments.  There were only a few people out and about, which made it easy to find Brian.

Brian was leaning on the wooden railing, looking over the beach.  Balanced on the railing next to him was a paper bag and a cardboard tray with a coffee in each of the four pockets.  I stopped beside him, and he greeted me with a broad smile.

“Hey, you’re right on time,” Brian said.  He looked different than he had when I saw him on Monday.  He was wearing a sweater under a felt jacket, his jeans didn’t have any rips or tears in them, and his boots were shined.  On Monday, he had given me the impression of a regular person who lived at the Docks.  The fashionable, well fit clothes he wore today made him look like someone who belonged on the Boardwalk alongside the customers who shopped in stores where nothing cost less than a hundred dollars.  The contrast and the ease with which he seemed to make the transition was startling.  My estimation of Brian rose a notch.

“Hey,” I said, feeling just a touch embarrassed at having taken so long to respond, and feeling painfully under-dressed in his presence.  I hadn’t expected him to dress so well.  I hoped my being out of breath was enough of an excuse for the delay in response.  There was nothing I could do about feeling unfashionable.

He gestured towards the paper bag, “I got donuts and croissants from the cafe over there, and a coffee if you want it.”

“I want,” I said, then I felt dumb for the awkward lapse into caveman speak.  I blamed the early hour of the day.  To try and save face, I added, “Thanks.”

I fished out a sugar-dusted donut and bit into it.  I could tell right away that it wasn’t the kind of donut that was mass produced at some central factory and delivered overnight to the shops for baking in the morning.  It was freshly made, probably right at the store a block away, sold right out of the oven.

“So good,” I said, sucking the sugar from my fingertips before reaching for one of the coffees.  Seeing the logo, I looked over at the cafe and asked, “Don’t coffees there cost, like, fifteen dollars a cup?”

Brian chuckled a little, “We can afford it, Taylor.”

It took me a second to process the idea, and as I made the connection, I felt like an idiot.  These guys were raking in thousands of dollars on a given job, and they had given me two thousand dollars up front.  I wasn’t willing to spend the money, knowing where it came from, so it was just sitting in the cubbyhole I kept my costume in, nagging at me.  I couldn’t tell Brian that I wasn’t spending it, either, without risking having to explain why.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, eventually.  I leaned my elbows on the wooden railing beside Brian and stared out over the water.  There were a few diehard windsurfers just getting ready to start the day.  I guess it made sense, since there would be the occasional boat going out on the water, later.

“How’s your arm?” He asked.

I extended my arm, clenched my fist and relaxed it to demonstrate, “Only hurts when I flex it.”  I didn’t tell him that it had been hurting badly enough to cost me some sleep last night.

“We’ll leave the stitches in for about a week, I think, before we take them out,” Brian said, “You can go to your doctor and have him do it, or drop by and I’ll take care of it.”

I nodded.  A turn of the salt-water and seaweed scented wind blew my hood back, and I took a second to push my hair out of my face and pull my hood back up.

“I’m sorry for Rachel and that whole incident last night” Brian said, “I wanted to apologize sooner, but I figured it would be a bad idea to bring it up while she was in earshot.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was, but it wasn’t really his fault.  I tried to put my thoughts into words, “I think… well, I guess I expected to have people attack me from the moment I put on a costume, so I shouldn’t be surprised, right?”

Brian nodded, but didn’t say anything, so I added, “It caught me a little off guard that it came from someone that’s supposedly on my team, but I’m dealing.”

“Just so you know,” Brian told me, “Just from what I saw after you left last night and as people were waking up this morning, Rachel seems to have stopped protesting quite as loudly or often about the idea of having someone new join the team.  She’s still not happy about it, but I would be surprised if there was a repeat performance.”

I laughed, a little too abruptly and high pitched than I would have liked, “God, I hope not.”

“She’s kind of a special case,” Brian said, “I think that growing up the way she did kind of messed her up.  No family, too old and, uh, not really attractive enough to be a good candidate for adoption.  I feel bad saying that, but that’s the way those things work, you know?”  He glanced over his shoulder at me.

I nodded.

“So she spent a good decade in foster care, no fixed place to live, fighting tooth and nail with the other foster kids for even the most basic luxuries and possessions.  My guess?  She was screwed up before she got her powers, and with things happening the way they did, her powers pushed her into the deepest end of the antisocial pool.”

“Makes sense,” I said, then I added, “I read her page on the wiki.”

“So you’ve got the gist of it,” Brian said, “She’s a handful to deal with, even for me, and I think she actually considers me a friend… or as much a friend as someone like her can have, anyways.  But if you can at least tolerate her, you should see we’ve got a pretty good thing going with the team.”

“Sure,” I said, “We’ll give it a shot, anyways.”

He smiled at me, and I dropped my gaze, embarrassed.

I spotted a crab scuttling across the beach almost directly below us.  I reached out with my power and stopped it in its tracks.  Though I didn’t need to, I extended my finger and pointed at it, then waved my finger lazily as I made the crab follow where my my index finger was pointing.  Since Brian and I were both leaning over the railing, and there was practically nobody on the Boardwalk that wasn’t busy with work or getting their store opened for the day, I was pretty certain nobody else would figure out what I was doing.

Brian saw the crab dancing in circles and figure eights and smiled.  Conspiratorially, he leaned closer to me and whispered, “You can control crabs, too?”

I nodded, feeling just a bit of a thrill at how we were huddled like this, sharing secrets while the people around us were totally in the dark.  I told him, “I used to think I could control anything with an exoskeleton or shell.  But I can control earthworms too, among other things, and they don’t have shells.  I think all it takes is that they have to have very simple brains.”

I made it run in circles and figure eights for a short while longer, then released it to go about its business.

“I should bring the others their morning coffee before they come looking for me.  Want to come with?” Brian asked.

I shook my head, “I gotta get home and get ready for school.”

“Ah, right,” Brian said, “I forget about stuff like that.”

“You guys don’t go?”

“I take courses online,” Brian said, “My folks think it’s so I can hold a job to pay for my apartment… which is kind of true.  Alec dropped out, Rachel never went, and Lisa already applied for and tested for her G.E.D.  Cheated using her power, but she has it.”

“Ah,” I said, my focus more or less dwelling on the idea that Brian had an apartment.  Not the fact that Grue the successful supervillain had an apartment – Lisa had mentioned that to me – but that Brian the teenager with parents and schoolwork to focus on did.  He kept changing my frame of reference for trying to figure him out.

“Here, a gift,” he said, as he reached into his pocket and then extended his hand.

I felt a moment of trepidation at the notion of accepting another gift.  The two grand they had given me was a weight on my conscience already.  Still, it would look bad if I didn’t accept.  I made myself put my hand under his, and he dropped a key with a short beaded chain looped through it into my palm.

“That’s to our place,” he told me, “And I mean that.  Ours as in yours too.  You’re free to come by any time, even if nobody is there.  Kick back and watch TV, eat our food, track mud on our floor, yell at the others for tracking mud on the floor, whatever.”

“Thank you,” I said, surprising myself by actually meaning it.

“You going to come by after school, or should I meet you here again tomorrow morning?”

I thought on it for a second.  Last night, not long before I’d left, Brian and I had gotten to talking about our training.  When I had mentioned my morning runs, he had suggested meeting me regularly.  The idea was to keep me up to date, since I wasn’t living at the group’s hideout like Lisa, Alec and Rachel were.  It had made sense, and I’d agreed.  It didn’t hurt that I liked Brian the most of anyone in the group.  He was easier to relate to, somehow.  That wasn’t to say I didn’t like Lisa, but just being around her made me feel like I had the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.

“I’ll come by later,” I decided aloud, knowing I might chicken out if I didn’t commit somehow.  Before we could get caught in another thread of conversation, I gave him a quick wave and started my run back, the key to their place clenched in my hand.

Heading back home and preparing for school left me with a gradually increasing feeling of dread, like a weight sitting on my chest.  I’d been trying not to think of Emma’s taunting and my fleeing from the school with tears on my face.  I had spent an hour or two tossing and turning in bed, the event replaying over my head while the throbbing of my wrist jarred me awake every time I started to drift off.  Beyond that, I had been pretty successful in avoiding thinking about it.  Now that the prospect of going back was looming, though, it was impossible not to dwell on the subject as I headed home, got ready and caught the bus.

I couldn’t help but dwell on the coming day.  I still had to face the consequences of missing two afternoons.  That was a biggie, especially since I had missed the due date for handing in my art project.  I realized my art project had been in my bag, and the last time I had seen my bag had been when Sophia was standing on it, smirking at me.

There was also the issue of going to Mr. Gladly’s class.  That usually sucked enough, what with Madison being in that class and my having to do group work with the likes of Sparky and Greg.  Knowing that I had to sit there and listen to Mr. Gladly teach when I’d seen him blatantly turn his back to me when I was being bullied… that sucked more.

This wasn’t the first time I’d needed to psych myself up to going to school.  Deceive myself into going and staying.  The worst days had been back in my first year at high school, when the wounds of Emma’s betrayal were still fresh and I wasn’t yet experienced enough to anticipate the variety of things they could come up with.  Back then, it had been terrifying, because I hadn’t yet known what to expect, didn’t know where, when or if they would draw the line.  It had been hard, too, to go back in January.  I’d spent a week in the hospital under psychiatric observation, and I’d known that everyone else had heard the story.

I stared out the window of the bus, watching the people and the cars.  On days like this, after being publicly humiliated, getting myself to the point where I was willing to walk through the door was about making deals with myself and trying to look past the school day.  I told myself that I would go to Mrs. Knott’s computer class.  None of the Trio would be there, it was usually pretty easygoing, and I could take the time to browse the web.  From there, it was just a matter of convincing myself to walk down the hall to Mr. Gladly’s class.

If I just made myself do that, I promised myself, I would give myself a treat.  A lunch break spent reading one of the books I’d been saving, or a rare snack bought from the store after school.  For the afternoon classes, I’d inevitably come up with something else to look forward to, like watching a TV show I liked or working on my costume.  Or, I thought, maybe I could just look forward to hanging out with Lisa, Alec and Brian.  Outside of the part where I nearly got mauled by Bitch’s dogs, it had been a nice night.  Thai food, five of us lounging on two couches, watching an action movie on a huge entertainment system with surround sound.  I wasn’t forgetting what they were, but I rationalized that I had no reason to feel bad about spending time with them when we were – for all intents and purposes – just a group of teenagers hanging out.  Besides, it was for a good cause, if it meant they relaxed around me and maybe revealed secrets.  Right?

As I got off the bus, a pair of old notebooks in one hand, I just kept all that in mind.  I could relax in Mrs. Knott’s class, and then I just had to sit through three 90 minute classes.  Maybe, it occurred to me, I could try and find and talk to my art teacher over the lunch break.  It would mean staying out of the trio’s way, and I could maybe work something out as far as doing another project or at least not getting a zero.  My marks were okay enough that I could probably manage a passing grade with a zero on the midterm project, but still, it would help.  I wanted to do more than just pass, especially with all this crap I had to put up with.

Mrs. Knott arrived at the classroom around the same time I did, and unlocked the room to let us file in.  As one of the last of fortyish students to arrive, I’d wound up at the back of the crowd.  While I waited for enough space to open up at the door, I saw Sophia talking to three of the girls from the class.  It looked like she had just come from her track practice.  Sophia was dark skinned with black hair normally long enough to reach to the small of her back, though she currently had it in a ponytail.  I couldn’t help but resent the fact that even with her being sweaty, dusty, and a notorious bitch, pretty much every guy in the school would still pick her over me.

She said something, and all of the girls laughed.  Even though I knew, rationally, that I probably wasn’t on the list of their top five things to talk about and that they likely weren’t talking about me, I felt my heart sink.  I moved up towards the jam of students waiting to get into the door, to break the line of sight between myself and the girls.  It didn’t quite work.  As a group of students entered the room, I saw Sophia looking at me.  She made an exaggerated pouting expression, drawing one fingertip in a line from the corner of her eye down her cheek like a mock tear.  One of the other girls noticed and chuckled, leaned closer to Sophia as Sophia whispered something in her ear, then they both laughed.  My cheeks flushed with humiliation.  Sophia gave me a final smirk and turned to saunter away while the other girls filed into the classroom.

Kicking myself even as I did it, I turned away and walked back down the hall towards the front doors of the school.  I knew it would be that much harder to go back tomorrow.  For one and three-quarter school years, I had been putting up with this shit.  I’d been going against the current for a long time, and even though I was aware of the consequences I’d face if I kept missing school like this, it was so much easier to stop pushing so hard against the current and just step in the other direction.

My hands jammed into my pockets, already feeling an ambivalent sort of relief, I caught the bus back to the docks.

Agitation 3.2

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bus line that ended at the old ferry put me only a fifteen or twenty minute walk away from the loft that Lisa, Alec and Bitch called home.  I could be spending a fair bit of time there before I gathered enough information or earned enough trust from them to turn them in to the authorities, so the convenience was nice.

It was a nice day, if a bit windy.  The air was crisp and cool, the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue that was reflected in the ocean, and the sand of the beach sparkled in the light of the sun.  Tourists were already crowding the railings or migrating to the beach, pinning down the corners of their beach blankets under picnic baskets and shopping bags.  It was too cold to go in the water but the view was spectacular.  I enjoyed it for a few moments before venturing into the crowd.  I walked with my hands in my pockets, as much to protect the stuff in my pockets as keeping the worst of the chill out.

Living in Brockton Bay, you learned stuff like that.  How to protect yourself, what to watch for.  I knew that the Vietnamese teenagers who were leaning against the railing of the boardwalk were members of the ABB, even if they weren’t wearing their gang colors, because the only Asian kids in Brockton Bay that had that much swagger were already part of Lung’s gang.  I knew the tattoo on the arm of the guy lifting boxes into the florist’s van that read ‘Erase, Extinguish, Eradicate’ meant the guy was a white supremacist because it had the letter E repeated three times.

The man in the uniform who was talking to a shop owner wasn’t a cop or security guard, but one of the enforcers the merchants of the Boardwalk hired to keep the undesirables from making trouble.  They were why the Boardwalk didn’t have beggars, addicts, or people wearing gang colors hanging around.  If your presence offended or worried the tourists, they would step up to scare you off.  If someone shoplifted or panhandled in the Boardwalk, they ran the risk that one or two enforcers would drag them behind one of the shops and teach them a lesson.  Anything more serious than shoplifting or panhandling, well, there was always someone on duty in the floating base of the Protectorate Headquarters.  Any of the store owners or employees could call the likes of Miss Militia, Armsmaster or Triumph in, given a minute.  The tourism revenue the Boardwalk picked up earned a lot of goodwill from the government and government sponsored capes.

I headed off the boardwalk and into one of the alleys leading into the Docks.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw one of the uniformed enforcers staring at me.  I wondered what he was thinking.  Good kids didn’t hang out in the Docks, and I doubted I looked the part of a guileless tourist.

The abandoned factories, warehouses and garages of the Docks all blended into one another very quickly.  The colors of the building exteriors weren’t different enough from one another to make buildings recognizable, and the people or piles of garbage that I had been unconsciously noting my previous visit had all shifted locations or been replaced.  I found myself glad for the artistic graffiti and the row of weed-entangled power lines that I could use as landmarks.  I did not want to get lost.  Not here.

As I arrived at the foot of the huge factory with the Redmond Welding sign, I found myself wondering whether I should knock or just go on up.  I didn’t have to decide – the door opened just a second after I’d come.  It was Brian, and he looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

“Hey,” he said, “Lisa said you’d arrived.  I thought you had school.”

It took me a few seconds to get my mental footing.  Any demonstration or mention of Lisa’s power kind of had a way of doing that to me, and that was on top of having a conversation sprung on me without a chance to prepare.  “Changed my mind,” I said, lamely.

“Huh.  Well, come on up.”

We headed upstairs.  I saw Brian was wearing different clothes than what he had been wearing earlier in the morning.  What he was wearing now bore a closer resemblance to his clothes from the day before – a green sleeveless t-shirt and black slacks with a lightweight fabric, like yoga pants or something.

Alec was waiting, leaning against the back of a couch, as we entered the living room.  He was wearing a t-shirt with some cartoon or video game character on it and basketball shorts.  He stood straight as he noticed us.

“Alec and I were sparring,” Brian told me, “Lisa’s on the phone in the kitchen.  Rachel and her dogs are in her room.  You can watch us, if you want, but no pressure.  Feel free to use the TV, put on a DVD or play a video game.”

“Don’t save over any of my files, dork,” Alec said.  He’d started with the ‘dork’ thing last night.  It wasn’t exactly malicious, but it grated.

“My name is Taylor, not dork, and I wouldn’t do that,” I told him.  Turning to Brian, I said, “I’ll watch, if it’s cool.”

Brian smiled and nodded, while I moved to kneel on the couch and watch them over the back of it.

As it turned out, it was less of a ‘sparring’ session than an attempt on Brian’s part to give a less than fully committed Alec some basic lessons on hand to hand fighting.

It was one-sided, and not just because Alec wasn’t trying very hard.  Alec was a very average fifteen year old guy in that he had little muscle worth speaking about.  Brian, by contrast, was fit.  He wasn’t big in the sense of a bodybuilder or someone who exercised just to pack on muscle like you saw with some of the people just out of prison.  It was a little more streamlined than that.  You could see the raised line of a vein running down his bicep, and the definition of his chest showed through his shirt.

Besides the difference in raw physical power, there was also the age and height gap.  Alec was two or three years younger and nearly a foot shorter.  That meant Brian had more reach – and I’m not just referring to the length of his arms.  When he stepped forward or backward, he moved further.  He covered more ground, which put Alec on the defensive, and since Brian was stronger, that put Alec in a bad position.

Brian stood without much of a fighting stance, hands at his sides, bouncing just a little where he stood.  Twice in a row, I watched Alec swing a punch, only for Brian to lean out of the way.  The second time Alec’s arm flew by, Brian leaned in and jabbed Alec in the center of his chest.  It didn’t look like much of a punch, but Alec still sort of woofed out a breath and stepped back.

“I keep telling you,” Brian said, “You’re throwing punches like you’d throw a baseball.  Don’t bring your arm so far back before you punch.  You’re just broadcasting what you’re about to do and it doesn’t add enough power to the hit to be worth that.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?”

“Look at how I’m standing.  Arms up, bent, then I just extend my arm, wrist straight.  Fast enough that whoever I’m hitting generally can’t step out of the way, so they’ve got to either take it or block it.”

“But you weren’t standing like that ten seconds ago when I was punching you,” Alec complained.

“I left an opening to see if you would take advantage of it,” Brian replied.

“And I didn’t,” Alec noted with a sigh.

Brian shook his head.

“Well fuck this then,” Alec said, “If you’re going to go easy on me and still kick my ass, I don’t see the point.”

“You should learn how to fight,” Brian said.

“I’ll do like I have been and bring my taser,” was Alec’s response, “one poke and they’re out cold.  Better than any punch.”

“And if the taser breaks or you lose it?” Brian asked.  He needn’t have bothered.  Alec was already sitting himself down in front of the TV, remote in one hand and game controller in the other.  Brian’s disappointment was palpable.

“Mind giving me a few quick and dirty pointers?” I asked.

Alec sniggered, Beavis and Butthead style.

“Grow up, Alec,” Brian said, “If you want to quit, fine, but don’t be a dick.”  He turned to me and flashed that boyish smile.  Then we started.

I knew he was going easy on me, but he was still a damn tough teacher.

“Make two fists.  No, don’t wrap your fingers over your thumbs.  You’ll do more damage to your hands than you will to the person you’re hitting, if you do that.  That’s better.  Now jab at me, okay?”

I tried to emulate what he’d been describing to Alec.  Arms up, bent, and extending my fist with a snap.  He caught my right hand in his left.

“Okay, now you’re going to do two things different.  Step into the jab so you’ve got your body’s momentum behind the hit, on top of your arm’s power.  Second, I want your left arm up as you’re jabbing with your right, and vice versa.  If I see the chance, I’m going to pop you one on the shoulder or ribs, so be ready to fend me off.”

I winced at the idea, but I played along.  I jabbed, he stepped away, and he jabbed me in the shoulder.  He didn’t hit as hard as he could have – I think he only hit as hard as it took to make it hurt and drive the lesson home, but I suddenly felt a stab of sympathy for Alec.

Things continued in that vein.  Brian didn’t stay on one topic for long.  When I started struggling with something, he shifted gears to another area that complemented or built on what I was having problems with.  When I failed for the fifth time to fend off his retaliatory jabs at my shoulders and ribs, he started talking about posture.

“Rest your weight on the balls of your feet.”

I tried it, then told him, “I feel like I’m going to tip over backwards if you hit me.”

He bent down to check, and I lifted my toes two or three inches off the ground to demonstrate how I had my weight balanced on my heels.

“No, Taylor.  The balls of your feet.  He raised his bare foot and pointed at the padded part between his toes and the bridge of his foot.

“How is that a ball?” I asked, raising my own foot to point at the vaguely spherical part of the foot where the ankle met the ground, “this is the only part that looks ball-like.”

“You guys are so lame,” Alec chimed in, without turning around.  Brian swatted him in the back of the head.

We moved on from posture, Brian’s recommendations on balancing did help,  to self-defense again.  From there, we changed topics to the mental side of things, both for me and my opponent.

“So I throw a punch like I’m aiming to put my fist through them?” I confirmed.

“Right,” Brian said, “Instead of just trying to make contact with the point where your hand meets their body.”

“What about when they’re attacking me?”

“Best bet?  Don’t give them a chance.  Stay aggressive and keep them on their heels.  If neither of you have formal training, then that’s going to give you the best odds.  They won’t be able to turn the tables on you unless you make a mistake or they can guess what you’re going to do as you do it.  Which is why you mix it up.  Rights, lefts, punches, jabs, elbow, knee, kicks and if you’re bigger and stronger than them, you can try tackling them to the ground.  With all of that, you stay on them until they aren’t in a position to fight back.”

“Are you formally trained in anything?” I asked.  I suspected he was, since the only other way for him to know as much as he was demonstrating was to have actually been in a good number of fights, and I wasn’t thinking that he seemed the type to fight without reason.

“Ehhh,” he hedged, “Some.  My dad was a boxer when he was in the service, and he taught me some when I was little.  I moved on to other stuff on my own – Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga – but nothing really held my interest.  I only took a few weeks or a month of classes for each.  I know enough and keep in shape, which is enough to hold my own against anyone who isn’t a black belt in whatever, which is the important thing, I think.  Keeping up with the more serious martial artists is a full time job, and you’re still going to run into people who are better than you, so I don’t see the point in stressing too much over it.”

I nodded.

We moved on to key areas to attack.

Brian pointed to the body parts in question as he explained, “Eyes, nose, temple, chin and throat are the areas above the shoulder.  Teeth or ears if you can hit hard enough.  I can, you can’t.”

“Sure,” I said.  I wasn’t offended by his bluntness.  He was stronger than me, so he had more options.  Tip toeing around it didn’t do either of us any favors.

“Below the shoulders, diaphragm, kidney, groin, knee, bridge of the foot, toes.  Elbow is a good one if you can do anything with it,” he took my wrist in his left hand and my shoulder in his right, extending my arm straight as he brought his knee up to gently tap the outside of my elbow.  I could see how he would have screwed up or broken my arm if he’d done it full strength.  He went on, “But in my experience, it doesn’t come up often enough to worry about.”

It was a little disquieting to hear Brian methodically describing how to break a human being.  I saw him as a nice guy, if I ignored his career choice.

Not entirely by accident, I changed the subject, “I was thinking about investing in a weapon for hand to hand.  When I was fighting Lung, fists were no good and I found myself really wanting a knife or a baton or something.  Don’t know if they would have been any good against his armor, but you know…” I trailed off.

Brian nodded, “Makes sense.  You don’t have a lot in the way of upper body strength, no offense.”

“None taken.  I tried to get something like a push-up routine going, but I got sick of it fast.  At least with running, there’s that sense of going places, you get the scenery.”

“Push-ups get repetitive, yeah.  Well, the boss is good about supplying us with gear.  Lisa’s the one who talks to him, she’s talking to him right now, in fact.  Put in a word with her if you want something like that.  It’s untraceable too, so the good guys aren’t going to be tracing any serial numbers or whatever from your weapon back to your purchase.”

The fact that Lisa was talking to their boss made me very curious, all of a sudden.  That said, I couldn’t really traipse in to eavesdrop without being suspicious.  Instead, since Lisa was out of earshot, I thought I’d seize the opportunity to ask, “So who is this boss of ours?”

Brian and Alec exchanged a look.  When they didn’t immediately say anything, I wondered if I’d pushed it too far.  Had I been too nosy?

“Figured you’d ask,” Brian said, “Thing is, we don’t know.”

“What?” I asked, “We have an anonymous sponsor?”

“It’s really fucking weird, yeah,” Alec said, then he hammered a button on the game controller, “Boom!  Triple headshot!”

“Alec, stay focused,” Brian sighed the words, with a tone suggesting he didn’t expect to be listened to.

Alec bobbed his head in a nod, his eyes not leaving the television, before adding, “It’s weird but it’s basically free money, a good team, contacts, access to everything we need for stuff, and pretty much no drawbacks.”

Lisa knows, I think,” Brian grumbled, “But she says that when she joined the Undersiders, she made a deal that she was going to keep quiet on the subject.  I’m not sure if that means she knows who he is or if it’s just to keep her mouth shut if her power tells her.”

“So let me get this straight,” I said, “This guy gathers you all together, offers you a salary and what?  Doesn’t ask for anything in return?”

Brian shrugged, “He asks us to do jobs, but most of the time it’s stuff we’d do anyways, and if we say no, he doesn’t make an issue of it.”

“What kind of jobs does he ask us to do?” I asked.

Lisa’s voice just behind me startled me, “This.  Pull up your socks, boys and girl, because we’re robbing a bank.”

Agitation 3.3

“No,” Brian intoned, “Such a bad idea.”

Lisa still had the phone in her hand.  Bitch had arrived just behind her, and stood in stark contrast to Lisa’s jeans, sweater and tight ponytail, with an army jacket, and virtually no attention paid to her hair.  The littlest of the dogs, the one-eyed, one eared terrier, trailed after her.

“Come on,” Lisa wheedled, “It’s a rite of passage for dastardly criminals like us.”

“Robbing a bank is moronic.  We’ve been over this,”  Brian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, “You know what the average haul is for hitting a bank?”

Lisa paused, “Twenty thou?”

“Exactly.  It’s not millions like you see people getting away with in the movies.  Banks don’t keep a lot of loose cash on hand, so we’d be pulling in less than we would for most other jobs.  Account for cost and the fact that this is Brockton fucking Bay, where banks have a little more reason to keep the amount of cash in their vaults to a minimum, and we’d be bringing in twelve to sixteen thou.  Divide five ways and it’s what, two or three thousand bucks each?”

“I could do with an extra three thousand dollars to spend,” Alec said, putting down his game controller and shifting his position on the couch to follow the conversation better.

“On what?” Brian asked.  When Alec shrugged, Brian sighed and explained, “It’s a horrible payoff for the amount of risk involved.  There’s three big superhero teams in this city.  Figure there’s another dozen heroes that fly solo, and we’re almost guaranteed to get into a fight.”

“So?” Bitch spoke for the first time, “We win fights.  We won before we had her.”  She raised her chin in my direction as she said that last word.

“We won because we picked our battles.  We wouldn’t have that option if we were cooped up in the bank and waiting for them to come to us, letting them decide how and where the fight happened.”

Lisa nodded and smiled as he spoke.  I thought for a second that she was going to say something, but she didn’t.

Brian continued, getting pretty passionate as he ranted, “We won’t be able to slip away like we have when things got a little out of control in the past.  Can’t avoid the fight if we want to get away with anything worth taking.  The bank is going to have layers of protection.  Iron bars, vault doors, whatever.  Even with your power, Lise, there’s a limit to how fast we can get through those.  Add the time we have to spend managing hostages and making a safe exit, and I pretty much guarantee that there will be time for a cape to get wind of the robbery and slow us down even more.”

Alec said, “I kind of want to do it anyways.  Hitting a bank gets you on the front page.  It’s huge for our rep.”

“The runt is right,” Bitch said.

Brian grumbled, “Not fucking up is better for our reputation in the long run.”  His deeper voice was really good for grumbling.

Alec looked at me, “What do you think?”

I’d almost forgotten I was a part of the discussion.  The last thing I wanted was to rob a bank.  Hostages could get hurt.  The fact that it would potentially put me on the front page of the paper wasn’t a high point, either, if I ever wanted to drop the supervillain ruse and become a hero in good standing.  I ventured, “I think Brian makes a good case.  It seems reckless.”

Bitch snorted.  I think I saw Alec roll his eyes.

Lisa leaned forward, “He does make good points, but I have better ones.  Hear me out?”  The rest of us turned our attention to her, though Brian had a frown that made it seem like it would take a lot to convince him.

“Ok, so Brian said similar stuff before, before we hit that casino a few weeks ago.  So I was kind of expecting this.  But it’s not as bad as it sounds.  The boss wants us to do a job at a very specific time.  I got the sense he was willing to offer a fair bit if we went the extra mile, and I negotiated a pretty good deal.

“The bank robbery was my idea, and he liked it.  According to him, the Protectorate is busy with an event on Thursday, just outside of town.  That’s part of the reason the timing is so important.  If we act then, there’s almost no chance we’ll have to deal with them.  If we hit the Bay Central, downtown-“

“That’s the biggest bank in Brockton Bay,” I interrupted her, half-disbelieving.

“So everything I said about them having security and being careful is doubly true,” Brian added.

If we hit the Bay Central, downtown,” Lisa repeated herself, ignoring us, “Then we’re hitting a location just a mile away from Arcadia High, where most of the Wards go to school.  Given jurisdictions, New Wave won’t be able to jump on us without stepping on the Wards’ toes, which pretty much guarantees we go up against the team of junior superheroes.  With me so far?”

We all nodded or murmured agreement.

“Figure that’s happening in the middle of the school day, and they won’t all be able to slip away to stop a robbery without drawing attention.  People know the Wards are attending Arcadia, they just don’t know who they are.  So everyone’s constantly watching for that.  Since they can’t have all six or seven of the same kids disappear from class every time the Wards go off to foil a crime without giving away the show, chances are good that we’d go up against a couple of their strongest members, or one of the strongest with a group of the ones with less amazing powers.  We can beat them.”

“Okay,” Brian begrudged, “I’ll accept that we’d probably do alright in those circumstances, but-“

Lisa interrupted him, “I also got the boss to agree to match us two for one on the haul.  We bring in fifteen grand, he pays us thirty.  Or he gives us enough money to bring our total up to twenty five, whichever is more in the end.  So we could walk away with two thousand dollars and he’d pay us twenty three thou.  So as long as we don’t wind up in jail, we’re guaranteed five thousand dollars apiece, bare minimum.”

Brian’s eyes widened, “That’s insane.  Why would he do that?”

And,” Lisa grinned, “He’ll cover all our costs, just this once.  Equipment, information, bribes if we want ‘em.”

“Why?” I echoed Brian’s earlier question, disbelieving.  Lisa was throwing around sums of money that I couldn’t even wrap my head around.  I had never even had more than five hundred dollars in my bank account.

“Because he’s sponsoring us and it stands to reason he doesn’t want to fund a team of nobodies.  We manage this, we won’t be nobodies.  That, and he really wants us to do a job at that particular time.”

There was a few moments of silence as everyone considered the deal.  I was frantically trying to think of a way to try to convince these guys it was a bad idea.  A bank robbery could get me arrested.  Worse, it could lead to me or a bystander getting hurt or killed.

Brian beat me to it, “The risk to reward still isn’t great.  Five grand each for hitting what may well be the most fortified location in Brockton Bay and an almost guaranteed confrontation with the Wards?”

“Second most fortified location,” Lisa countered, “The Protectorate Headquarters is the first.”

“Fair point,” Brian said, “But my argument stands.”

“It’ll be more than five grand for each of us, I guarantee you,” Lisa told him, “It’s the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  It’s also the hub of cash distribution for the entire county.  Said cash gets transferred in and out by armored cars on a regular schedule-“

“So why don’t we hit one of the cars?” Alec asked.

“They have ride-alongs or aerial cover from various members of the Wards and the Protectorate, so we’d be caught in a fight with another cape from minute one.  Same problems that Brian’s talking about, as far as getting caught up in a fight, difficulty accessing the money before shit goes down, yadda yadda.  Anyways, the Brockton Bay Central has cars coming in twice a week, and leaving four times a week.  We hit on a Thursday just after noon, and it should be the best day and time for the sheer size of the take.  Only way we’re getting away with less than thirty thousand is if we fuck up.  With what the boss is offering, that’s ninety thou.”

She folded her arms.

Brian sighed, long and loud, “Well, you got me, I guess.  It sounds good.”

Lisa turned to Alec.  There wasn’t any resistance to be found there.  He just said, “Fuck yeah, I’m in.”

Bitch didn’t need convincing any more than Alec had. She nodded once and then turned her attention to the scarred little dog.

Then everyone looked at me.

“What would I be doing?” I asked, nervously, hoping to stall or find holes in the plan that I could use to argue against it.

So Lisa outlined a general plan.  Brian made suggestions, good ones, and the plan was adjusted accordingly.  I realized with a growing disappointment and a knot of anxiety in my gut that it was almost inevitably going to happen.

Arguing against the bank robbery at this point would hurt my undercover operation more than it helped anyone.  With that in mind, I began offering suggestions that – I hoped – would minimize the possibility of disaster.  The way I saw it, if I helped things go smoothly, it would help my scheme to get info on the Undersiders and their boss.  It would minimize the chance that someone would panic or be reckless and get a civilian hurt.  I think I would feel worse if that happened than I would about going to jail.

The discussion went on for a while.  At one point, Lisa got her laptop, and we debated entrance and exit strategies while she sketched out a map of the bank layout.  It was uncanny, seeing her power at work.  She copied a satellite image of the bank from a web search into a paint program, then drew over it with thick bold lines to show how the rooms were laid out.  With another search and a single picture of the bank manager standing in front of his desk, she was able to mark out where the manager’s desk was.  That wouldn’t have been too amazing, but without pausing, she then went on to mark where the tellers were, as well as the vaults, the vault doors and the enclosed room that held the safe deposit boxes.  She noted where the fuse box and air conditioning vents were, but we decided we wouldn’t mess with either of those.  That stuff was cool in the movies, but it didn’t do much good in real life.  Besides, this was a robbery, not a heist.

While we worked, Alec got restless and went to make an early lunch. Of the four of us, I got the impression he had the least to contribute, at least strategically, and that he knew it.  I wasn’t sure if he just didn’t have a very tactical mindset or if he just didn’t care that much about the planning stage of things.  My assumptions led to the latter, as he seemed more willing to go with the flow than Brian or Lisa.

He brought us a plate of pizza pockets along with assorted sodas, and we ate as we wrapped up the plan.

“Alright,” Brian said, as Lisa shut her laptop, “I think we have a general idea of what we’re doing.  We know how we get in, we know who does what when we’re inside, and we know how we want to get out.  Keeping in mind that no plan survives contact with the enemy, I think the odds are still pretty good.”

“So, the enemy,” I said, resisting the urge to wince at the realization that I would be up against good guys, “My only experience fighting in costume… or even just fighting, is against Lung, and that didn’t go well.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Brian said, “You did better than most.”

“I’ll rephrase,” I said, “It could have gone better.  We’re going up against the Wards and they aren’t pushovers.”

Brian nodded, “True.  Let’s talk strategy and weaknesses.  You know who the Wards are?”

I shrugged, “I’ve researched them.  I’ve seen them on TV.  That doesn’t mean I know the important stuff.”

“Sure,” he said, “So let’s go down the list.  Team leader: Aegis.  You’d think he has the standard Alexandria package, flight, super strength, invincibility, but that isn’t exactly right.  He does fly, but the other two powers work differently than you’d expect.  See, he isn’t invincible… he just doesn’t have any weak points.  His entire biology is filled with so many redundancies and reinforcements that you just can’t put him down.  Throw sand in his eyes and he can still see by sensing the light on his skin.  Cut his throat and it doesn’t bleed any more than the back of his hand would.  The guy’s had an arm cut off and it was attached and working fine the next day.  Stab him through the heart and another organ takes over the necessary functions.”

“Not that we’re stabbing anyone through the heart?” I made it a hopeful half-question, half-statement.

“No.  Well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stab Aegis through the heart just to slow him down.  If you did it with something big enough.  The guy’s like a zombie, he gets back up within seconds of you beating him down, keeps coming at you until you’re too tired to fight back or you make a mistake.”

“And he’s super strong?” I asked.

Brian shook his head, “Lisa, want to field this one?”

She did.  “Aegis isn’t strong, but he can abuse his body in ways that makes it seem like he is.  He can throw punches hard enough that they’d break his hand, mangle his joints and tear his muscles, and his body just takes it.  He has no reason to hold back, and he doesn’t need to waste any time protecting himself from you. He can also draw on adrenaline… you’ve heard stories like how little old grandmothers lifted cars off the ground to save their grandkids?”

I nodded.

“That’s adrenaline at work, and Aegis can do that for hours at a stretch.  His body doesn’t run out of steam, he doesn’t get tired, he doesn’t exhaust his reserves of adrenaline.  He just keeps going.”

“So how do you stop him?” I asked.

“You don’t, really,” Brian said, “Best bet is to keep him occupied, keep him sufficiently distracted or stick him somewhere he can’t escape.  Trap him in a dumpster and throw it in the river, you can get a few minutes of relief. Which is all harder than it sounds.  He’s the team captain, and he isn’t stupid.  Rachel?  Sic your dogs on him.  A two ton canine or two should keep him out of our hair until we’re ready to run.”

“I don’t need to hold back?” Bitch asked, her eyebrow quirked.

“For once, no.  Go nuts.  Just, you know, don’t kill him.  Alec?  You’re the backup there.  Keep an eye on Aegis, see if you can’t use your power to throw him off.  Buy enough time for a dog to get its jaws on him and he’s probably out of action.”

“Sure,” Alec said.

Brian extended two fingers and tapped the second, “Number two.  Clockblocker.  Let it be known, I fucking hate people who mess with time.”

“He stops time, if I remember right?” I inquired, as much to stay in the conversation as to get the clarification.

“More specific than that,” Brian said, “He can stop time for whatever he touches.  The person or object he touches is basically put on ‘pause’ for anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Only good thing is that he doesn’t control or know how long it’s going to last.  But if he gets his hands on you, you’re out of action.  He’ll either stand next to you and wait until you start moving, then touch you again, or he’ll just tie you up in chains and handcuffs so that when his power wears off, you’re already in custody.”

“Long story short, he touches you, you’re boned,” Alec said.

“The upside is that whoever he touches is also untouchable.  Can’t be hurt, can’t be moved.  Period.  He uses that defensively, and he can do stuff like throw paper or cloth in the air and freeze it in time, making an unbreakable shield.  You don’t want to run into something that’s frozen.  A car that drove into the side of a piece of paper that Clockblocker had touched would be cut in two before it budged the paper.”

“Noted,” I said.

Brian continued, “The third heavy hitter on the Wards is Vista.  You know that myth about how the capes that get their powers young are exponentially more powerful?  Vista’s one of the kids who keeps the myth alive.  Clockblocker is sort of a one trick pony, his trick involves screwing with one of the key forces of our universe, but it’s just one thing.  Vista also messes with physics on a fundamental level, but she’s versatile.

“Twelve years old, and she has the power to reshape space.  She can stretch a building like taffy, so it’s twice as tall, or squeeze two sidewalks closer together so she can cross the street with a single step.”

“Her weakness,” Lisa added, “Is the Manton effect.”  She turned her full attention to me, “You know what that is?”

“I’ve heard it mentioned, but I don’t know the details.”

“Wherever our powers come from, they also came with some limitations.  For most of us, there’s a restriction about using our powers on living things.  The reach of powers generally stops at the outside of a person or animal’s body.  There’s exceptions for the people with powers that only work on living things, like you, Alec and Rachel.  But the long and short of it is that the Manton effect is why most telekinetics can’t just reach into your chest and crush your heart.  Most people who can create forcefields can’t create one through the middle of your body and cut you in two.”

“Narwhal can,” Alec cut in.

“I said most,” Lisa said, “Why these restrictions exist is a question nearly as big as where we got our powers in the first place.  The capes that can get around the Manton effect are among the strongest of us.”

I nodded, slowly.  I wondered if that had something to do with why Lung didn’t burn himself, but I didn’t want to get further off topic, “And Vista?”

“Vista can stretch and compress space.  She can also do funny things with gravity.  Thing is, the Manton effect keeps her from stretching or compressing you.  It also makes altering an area a lot harder for her if there’s more people in that space.  So if all of us are in one room, chances are she won’t be able to affect the whole room.”

But,” Brian added, wiping a string of cheese from the corner of his lip, “Every time we’ve run into her, she’s been faster and overall more powerful with her power, and she’s had new tricks.  Every second she’s on the battlefield is a second things become harder for us.  We take her down sooner than later.  Aegis, Clockblocker, Vista.  Those are the ones we’re most likely to run into, and whoever else winds up coming, they’re the ones we have to deal with, or we’re fucked.

“Let’s quickly go through the rest.  Kid Win.”

“Tinker,” Lisa said, “Flying skateboard, laser pistols, high tech visor are staples for him.  Expect something new, depending on what he’s come up in his workshop.  He’s mobile but not that threatening.”

“Triumph?” Brian said.

“He turned eighteen and graduated to the Protectorate.  Don’t have to worry about him,” Lisa said.

“Gallant.”

“Glory Girl’s on and off boyfriend, he pretends to be a Tinker in the same vein as Kid Win, but I think he just runs around in secondhand armor with a fresh paint job.  His thing is these blasts of light.  Getting hit by one feels like a punch in the gut, but the blasts also mess with your feelings.  Make you sad, make you scared, ashamed, giddy, whatever.  Not that bad unless you get hit by a bunch in a row.  Don’t.”

“That just leaves Shadow Stalker.  Bloodthirsty bitch,” Brian scowled.

Alec explained to me, “She’s got it in her head that Brian is her nemesis.  You know, her number one enemy, her dark opposite.  She’s been going after him every chance she gets.”

“She was a solo hero,” Tattletale said, “Vigilante of the night, until she went too far and nearly killed someone, nailing him to a wall with one of her crossbows.  The local heroes were called in, she got arrested, and made some sort of deal.  Now she’s a probationary member of the Wards, with the condition that she uses tranquilizer bolts and nonlethal ammo for her crossbow.”

“Which she isn’t,” Brian growled, “At least, not when she comes after me.  That arrow she shot through my side had a fucking arrowhead on it.”

Tattletale shook her head, “Her powers and Brian’s sort of have a weird interaction with one another.  Shadow Stalker can sort of transform.  She becomes extremely lightweight, can pass through glass and thin walls and she’s nearly invisible.  Only thing is, while she and the stuff she carries are all wispy in her transformed state, the stuff she shoots with her crossbow only stays that way for a half second.  Then the effect wears off and it’s a regular arrow flying towards you. So she can leap between rooftops, almost impossible to see, hard to even touch, and all the while she’s shooting very real arrows at you.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Her power doesn’t work well while she’s inside Brian’s darkness, for whatever reason.  She isn’t as fast or agile, he can see her better, and she can’t see him in the darkness,” Tattletale told me, “So it becomes something of a very intense game of tag, with one very fast person that’s essentially blind and deaf but carrying lethal weapons, while Brian, the other, is trying to take her out without getting shot.”

“Let’s avoid that,” Brian said, “It’s too time consuming and she may want to use that kind of scenario to delay us.  Just don’t get shot, and if you see her or see the opportunity, inform the team and do your best to take her down without losing sight of a priority target.

“So that’s the plan, then?” I said, “So many maybes.”

“That’s the way these things go, Taylor,” Brian said, his tone a bit terse, “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of covering all the bases.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to sound like I was criticizing your plan-” I said.

“Our plan,” Brian interrupted.

I didn’t want to think of it that way.  Instead, I said, “I’m a touch nervous, is all.”

“You don’t have to come,” Bitch said, her tone a touch too casual.

“In all seriousness,” Brian told me, “If you’re having second thoughts…”

“I am,” I admitted, “as well as third thoughts, fourth thoughts, and so on.  But I’m not going to let that stop me.  I’m coming with.”

“Good,” Brian replied, “Then we’ve got the rest of today and tomorrow to prepare.  Taylor?  You can meet me on your run first thing.  I’ll have a cell phone for you.  You can text Lisa with anything you think you’ll need, like those weapons you were talking about.  Look up models and brands ahead of time if you want something specific.”

“What’s her number?” I asked.

“I’ll put it in the phone before I give it to you.  Lisa?  You confirm the job with the boss, talk to him about the other stuff.”

“Got it.”

“So unless there’s anything else, I think we just planned a bank robbery before noon,” Lisa said with a grin.  I looked at the digital clock displayed under the TV.  Sure enough, it was half past eleven.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a good thing.

Agitation 3.4

“I’ll be there.  Yes-” I saw a light in the living room window and put my hand over the lower half of my cell phone while I briefly investigated.  Damn, my dad was home.  I put the phone to my ear, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to run.  No.  No.  Look-“

As I heard the front door open, I snapped the phone shut and jammed it into my pocket.  I’d apologize for hanging up later.  I definitely didn’t want my dad to see the phone.  I didn’t think he would stop me from owning one, but ever since my mom’s death, cell phones had carried strong negative connotations.  That, and I’d have to explain where I got it and how I’d paid for it.

Brian had given me three identical cell phones – all disposables – first thing in the morning, and I’d decided to go with him to the loft rather than head to school.  The way I figured it, I didn’t have much of a chance of focusing on classes with Thursday’s bank robbery occupying my attention on top of the stress of just being there and waiting for the other shoe to drop as far as my skipped classes.  Besides, I rationalized, it didn’t make a lot of sense to go if I knew I would be skipping again to go rob the bank.  I’d promised myself I would go the day after tomorrow.  Face the music.

I’d spent the day with the group.  Rachel had been out of the apartment, the others weren’t specific on why and I wasn’t interested enough to risk looking too curious by asking.  So it had just been me, Brian, Alec and Lisa.  We’d hammered out the fine details of the robbery and I had decided what weapons I wanted Lisa to ask the boss for.  I had elected for both a combat knife and a telescoping police baton.  The knife would serve for emergencies and those people who were just too tough to hurt with the baton.  The baton, twenty one inches long when fully extended, was for more general use, offering more clout than I’d otherwise get with my fists.  Lisa had promised I would have them for tomorrow.

After that, we kind of avoided the subject of the robbery, by some unspoken agreement.  It wouldn’t do to overthink it or risk getting too nervous.  Either way, I had felt a need to burn some nervous energy, so I had helped clear out the storage closet around lunchtime, with Lisa and Brian’s help.  We’d sorted out the stuff, found a place for it all, and set up the room with odds and ends they had lying around.  The stuff included an extendable clothes rack, a dresser, an inflatable mattress and a bedside table with a lamp attached.  It was enough space for me to keep some toiletries, a spare change of clothes or two, my costume and my equipment.  Lisa spent a lot of time talking about what I could do to make the space my own, what I could buy, how I could decorate, but I was happy enough with what we had there.  I kind of liked that it was a bit spartan, because it sort of fit with how I didn’t plan to be around that long while still feeling weirdly appreciative at being accepted as a part of the group.

Having tired ourselves out, we’d all collapsed on the couches and watched some of Alec’s movies from Earth-Aleph, the alternate Earth that our Earth had been communicating with since Professor Haywire tore a hole between realities.  Media was one of the few things that could be traded back and forth through the hole.  Long story short, you could get books, movies and DVDs of TV shows from the other world, if you were willing to accept the price tag. The benefit? I got to spend the afternoon seeing how the other universe had handled episodes one and two of the Star Wars films.

Fact: they were still pretty disappointing.

By the time my dad got in, I had pork chops defrosted, dusted with lemon and pepper and sitting in a frying pan, with vegetables in the microwave.  Cooking was sort of something you started doing when you had only one parent, unless you really, really liked takeout.

“Heya,” my dad greeted me, “Smells good.”

“I started dinner a bit early because I have somewhere I want to be, tonight, If that’s cool?”

He tried to hide it, but I could see a bit of disappointment.  “Of course,” he said, “Your new friends?”

I nodded.

“Let me get changed and then I’ll ask you all about them,” he promised as he headed upstairs.

Great.  I hadn’t had to answer these questions last night because my dad had been working late.  My mind started racing to anticipate questions and come up with plausible details.  Should I use their real names?  Or at least, the names they had given me?  I wasn’t sure if that would be a breach of trust.  I decided to use their real names for much the same reason I’d decided to use my own with them.  It just prevented disasters if my dad ever happened to meet them, which was a terrifying thought, or if they called for me.

I didn’t need to worry about my dad hearing about four kids being arrested, all of whom had the same name as my ‘friends’, since most or all of them were minors and their names would be kept from the media under the law.  I was also under the impression that the courts didn’t always unmask capes when they arrested them.  I wasn’t entirely sure what was up with that.  It seemed like something to ask Lisa about.

By the time my dad had come back downstairs, I’d resolved to try and keep my lies as close to the truth as possible.  It would be easiest to keep everything straight that way.  That, and I hated lying to my dad.

My dad had changed out of his dress shirt and khakis, into a t-shirt and jeans.  He mussed up my hair and then took over the last bit of the cooking.  I sat down at the table so I could talk to him.

“So what’s going on?” he asked.

I shrugged.  I hated feeling this tense around my dad.  He’d never bugged me about the bullying, so I’d always been able to come home and sort of let my guard drop.  I couldn’t do that now, because I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop as far as my skipped classes, and my new ‘friends’ brought a whole mess of secrets and lies into the mix as well.  I felt like I was on the verge of a terminal breach of trust.  One mistake or a single concerned phone call from the school, and my dad would probably flip, and things wouldn’t be the same between us for a long time.

“Are you going to tell me their names?” he asked.  He set the food on plates and brought it to the table.

“Brian, Lisa, Alec, Rachel,” I confessed, “They’re alright.  Get along with most of them.”

“Where did you meet them?  School?”

I shook my head, “I wanted to get away from school for a bit, so I caught a bus downtown to catch a bit of a break.  I ran into them at the library.”  Partial truths.  You couldn’t really catch a bus downtown and back during the lunch break – I’d tried, when I was avoiding the trio – but I doubted my dad would research that.  I did sort of cross paths with the Undersiders at the library, though.

“They go to the library at lunch?  What are they like?”

“Brian’s pretty cool.  He’s the one I’ve talked to the most.”

“A boy, eh?” My dad wiggled his eyebrows at me.

“Dad, stop!  It’s not like that,” I protested.  I doubted Brian had the slightest interest in me, not least because I was two or three years younger than him.  Besides, well, I was me.  I opted not to mention the age difference to my dad.

Changing the subject, I said, “Lisa’s alright too.  Really smart, though I haven’t talked to her all that much.  It’s nice being able to hang out with another girl again, even if she’s pretty different from me.”

“If she’s smart, she can’t be that much different from you.”

I could’ve kicked myself.  I couldn’t explain she was a bad guy, while I was an aspiring superhero, or exactly how she was ‘smart’.  I’d talked myself into a minor corner where I didn’t have an answer ready, and I needed to avoid doing that.  Fumbling for an answer, I said, “She’s only a year older than me, and she’s graduated high school already.”  That was the truth. She cheated, but she did technically graduate.

My dad smiled, “Impressive.  Tell me they’re all excellent students that can serve as good role models for you.”

I could have choked.  Good role models?  Them?  I kept my composure and limited myself to a little smile and a shake of the head, “Sorry.”

“Alas.  What about the others?”

“Alec is the youngest, I think.  Kinda hard to connect with.  He’s an amazing artist, from what I’ve seen, but I don’t really see him draw.  It seems kind of hard to get him interested or involved in anything.  He always looks bored.”  As I said the words aloud, I realized they weren’t exactly true.  The two times I’d seen Alec react to anything had been when he’d played his little prank on Brian, tripping him, and after Bitch and I had been fighting.  A streak of schadenfreude to his personality, maybe.

“And the last one?  Rita?  Rachel?”

“Yeah, Rachel.  I don’t get along with her.  I don’t like her.”

My dad nodded, but didn’t say anything.  I was halfway expecting the typical parental line of ‘maybe if you try to show interest in things she likes’ or some other inane advice.  My dad didn’t pull that on me, he just took another bite of pork chop.

I elaborated a bit, to fill the silence, “She wants things her way, and when she doesn’t get that, she gets mean.  I dunno.  I get enough of that at school, you know?”

“I know,” my dad said.  It was a good lead-in for him to question me about what was going on at school, but he didn’t take it.  He stayed quiet.

I felt immensely grateful, right then.  My dad was respecting the boundaries I’d set, not pushing, not digging for more.  It made this conversation so much easier that it might otherwise have been, and I knew it couldn’t be that easy for him.

I felt like I owed him something for that.  Sighing, I admitted, “Like, at school.  The, uh, the people who’re giving me a hard time?  They sort of ganged up on me on Monday.  Just, you know, taking turns insulting me.  It’s why I needed to get away and went downtown.”  I felt embarrassed, saying it, because it was humiliating enough to live through without having to recap it, and because it felt so disconnected from the rest of the conversation.  But if I didn’t say it right then, I don’t think I would’ve been able to.

My dad sort of went still.  I could see him compose himself and choose his words before he asked, “Not to diminish how much it sucks to get put down like that, but they didn’t do anything else?”

I raised my eyebrows in question as I chewed.  They had, kind of, but I couldn’t really say ‘They used Mom’s death to fuck with my head’ without having to explain the Emma thing.

“Anything like what happened in January?” he asked.

I lowered my eyes to my plate, then shook my head.  After a few moments I said, “No.  January was a one time thing.  They’ve pulled smaller ‘pranks’ since then, hassled me, but no repeat performances on that front.”  I made air quotes with my fingers as I said ‘pranks’.

“Okay,” my dad said, quietly, “That’s a relief to know.”

I didn’t feel like sharing any more.  You’d think I would feel better, after opening up, but I didn’t.  I felt frustrated, angry, awkward.  It was a reminder that I couldn’t have a real conversation with my dad like I used to be able to.  More than anything, I felt guilty.  Part of the guilt was because I’d apparently let my dad think that every time I was bullied, it was like it had been that day, nearly four months ago, when things had been at their worst.  I stabbed at a bit of fat with my fork.

“When were you going out?” My dad asked.  I glanced at the digital clock on the stove and noted the time.

I was glad for the excuse to escape, “Now?  Is that okay?  I won’t be long.”

“Meeting your friends?” he asked.

“Just going to meet Lisa for coffee and conversation, away from the rest of the group,” I told him as I stood up and moved my plate to the sink.  The lie was heavier on my conscience after the open disclosure I’d just had with him.

“Here, wait,” he said.  He stood up and fished in his pocket for his wallet.  He handed me a ten, “For the coffee.  Sorry I don’t have more.  Have fun?”

I hugged him, feeling painfully guilty, then headed to the back door to pull my shoes on.  I was just opening the door when I barely heard him say, “Thank you.”

“Love you, Dad.”

“I love you too.  Be safe.”

I shut the door, grabbed the gym bag I’d stashed under the back steps and headed around the house at a light jog.  I held the gym bag low so my dad wouldn’t see me carrying it.

I took the same general route I took on my morning runs, heading east, towards the Bay.  This time, though, instead of turning up towards the Boardwalk, I headed south.

Back in its heyday, every inch of the city had been a bustling metropolis.  Ships were coming and going at all hours, trains were coming through to deliver goods to be shipped overseas and the city teemed with people.  The northern end of the bay – especially the area close to the water – was all about the industry.  Ships, warehouses, factories, railroad and the homes for everyone who worked those jobs.  You also had the ferry running across the bay itself.

The ferry was my dad’s pet project.  Apparently, it had been one of the first things to go when the import/export dried up.  With the ferry gone, the Docks had sort of been cut off from the rest of the city, unless you were willing to drive for an extra half hour to an hour.  My dad held the opinion that the lack of that transportation to the rest of the city was why the Docks had become what they were today.  He believed that if the ferry were to start running  again, jobs would be created, the people in the low income neighborhoods would have more access to the rest of the city, and the low-class, high-class, no-middle-class dynamic of Brockton Bay would smooth out.

So when I’d been trying to think of a place that was fairly private but easy to find, I thought of the ferry.  I could probably thank my dad for the idea.

I approached the station and found a disused restroom to change into my costume.

The building and the ferry itself were well kept, at least on the outside, which was one of the reasons my dad felt it would take so little effort to get things going again.  Still, that wasn’t the city’s issue.  They didn’t want to provide the addicts and the gangbangers easy access to to the rest of the city, all the while paying to provide the service, for mere hopes of maybe getting improvements for the future.  So the city kept the station and the ferry looking pretty for any tourists that wandered far enough south from the Boardwalk and maintained eternal ‘temporarily out of service’ and ‘coming soon’ signs up around the building and in the brochures.  Aside from the regular replacements to keep them looking new, the signs hadn’t been taken down in nearly a decade.

I ignored the doors to the station’s interior, and instead headed up the stairs to the outdoor patio that overlooked the bay.  There were some large panes of glass to break the wind, and stone tables and benches for those wanting to sit to eat.  It was one of the best vantage points for seeing the PHQ in all its splendor.  The headquarters was a series of arches and spires mounted on a retrofitted oil rig.  Even the platform it was built on was beautiful, though, with hard edges and sweeping lines.  The entire thing was lit up by tinted spotlights and set against a faint corona of shifting colors, like the aurora borealis trapped in the shape of a soap bubble.  A forcefield, forever on, shielding the people who watched over Brockton Bay.

“Wasn’t sure if you would show up,” a male voice broke the silence.

I turned to face Armsmaster, “I’m sorry.  I had to hang up on your receptionist.  Real life called.”

He looked somehow different than the first time I’d met him.  His lips were set in a hard line, his feet set further apart.  His arms were folded across his chest with his Halberd in one hand, the pole resting against his shoulder.  It conveyed such a different attitude that I momentarily wondered if he was the same person under the suit.

“I need to call in a favor.”

Agitation 3.5

“A favor,” he answered me, as if he needed to say it out loud to himself to believe it.  The tone gave me pause.  Had I misread him, that first night, when I gave him credit for Lung and assumed he was grateful?

“Yeah,” I tried to sound confident, “But I should explain things first.  First off, the Undersiders offered me a spot on their team.  I took it.”

His reaction was subtle.  His chin rose a fraction, he shifted his weight fractionally, and  the grip of his armored gauntlets tightened enough on his Halberd to make a faint metal-on-metal screech.

“I think you’d better start making sense, fast,” he spoke in a calm voice, even as his body language was making me want to back away.

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves, “I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the conversation we had last Sunday.  It seemed odd how you accepted I was a good guy as fast as you did.  Would I be right in guessing you either have a lie detector built into your helmet or some power that works more or less the same way?”

He didn’t hurry to give me a reply, taking a few moments before telling me, “Lie detectors can be fooled, even mine.”

“Well, tell me if anything sets an alarm ringing, or if your instincts tell you I’m lying.  I was a good guy then, I’m a good guy now.  I joined the Undersiders because you said you were having trouble getting info on the guys.  Now I know their faces, I know the names they’re using, I have a pretty good idea about what their powers do, and I know where they’re living.”

His posture relaxed.  He slapped the pole of his Halberd against his back and it snapped into place.  “If that’s the case, then you’ve done us a great service.  Would you be willing to come to the Protectorate Headquarters and present that information to the team?”

My heart leapt.  Meeting the local Protectorate, with Miss Militia, Triumph, Velocity, Dauntless, Battery and Assault?  I could imagine seeing their reactions to everything I’d found, telling them about my fight with Bitch, maybe about my part in the fight with Lung, if Armsmaster was cool with that.  Hearing their stories in turn.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” his response was so quick it was very nearly an interruption.  His tone and posture were both hostile again in a flash.  I was glad he wasn’t still holding his Halberd, because I think he might have pointed it at me.

“There’s one more thing I need to find out for you,” I said, raising my hands in a sort of surrender.  I needed to find out who their boss was.  I couldn’t tell him that, though.  The less he knew, the less likely Tattletale would know I told him anything.  At least, I was hoping that was the case.

“So tell me what you know and then go find that last detail.”

“I can’t,” I answered for the second time in ten seconds, hating myself for doing it.

“You’d better have a good reason, or I’m dragging you to the PHQ and we’ll see how well you tease when you’re in front of the entire team.”

Which would be a disaster.  I swallowed hard, “What if I told you there was a spy in the PHQ?”

“You’d be setting off the lie detector.  Try again.”

I bit my lip.  I’d been hoping that phrasing it as a question would throw it off.

“There’s something at play that’s for all intents and purposes, a spy in your ranks.”

“Mostly true.  What is it?”

“I can’t be any clearer without them figuring out I told.  Just my being here is really risky.”  If word got out as to how Lisa’s power worked, I was almost positive she’d know how.

He stared at me for several long moments, “The Tattletale girl.”

Armsmaster had come to the conclusion more or less on his own.  I hoped that was enough to keep Tattletale from drawing a connection to me.  Still… fuck.

He stared off towards the PHQ for a few long moments.  Without looking at me, he asked, “So you’re not willing to provide any concrete information.  Why did you call me?”

“They’re planning something.  They want me to help them.  I do this, maybe one or two other jobs, I’m sure I can get that last essential detail, and you’ll have what you need to capture these guys.”

He didn’t reply.

So I asked my favor, “I need to know that if things go sour or if I need to sabotage their plan, I’ll have you to pull my ass out of the fire and keep me out of jail.”

“What are they planning?”

“I can’t say,” I admitted.  If I told him, Lisa might know I’d ratted the team out from any changes in the response time, extra guards or whatever else.  However justified my silence was, I could see Armsmaster getting increasingly irritated.

“Is it murder?  Is someone going to get hurt?”

“No,” I said, “I’m pretty sure no civilians are going to get hurt, unless things go really wrong, which is something I’m hoping to prevent.”

He frowned, then stopped gazing out the window to look straight at me. “I’m not giving you any protection.”

I clenched my fists at my sides, “This is the only thing I need, and you’ve got them!”

“You’re a stupid girl,” Armsmaster said.  He gave me a moment to let the words sink in.

“I-“

He didn’t give me a chance to speak.  He bowled over me, his voice rising as he spoke, “You’re asking for my permission to carry out a major crime.  At least, I assume it’s a major crime, because you wouldn’t be asking otherwise!  You want me to stand by so you can play your little spy game with a team that has two murderers on it!”

Two?  I could believe that Rachel had maybe killed someone at some point, manslaughter if nothing else, but who else would?  Eyes wide, I asked him, “Who-“

I didn’t get to finish my question.  Armsmaster talked over me until I shut my mouth and listened.  “Do you think you’re clever?  In the real world, undercover cops have handlers.  They have someone to report to, someone that can call in backup at any time.  You?  You’re a middle schooler with delusions of grandeur.”

“I’m not in middle school.”

“Oh, well,” he crossed his arms, “I stand corrected on all counts.” The sarcasm in his voice was palpable.

I protested, “And if I did have back-up or a handler or anything like that, they’d know.  The way I’m doing this is the only way this could work.  Use your lie detector, you’ll know I’m telling the truth about this.”

“I know you believe you’re right.  That doesn’t make it god’s honest truth.”

There was something about hearing all this from Armsmaster that made it twice as hard to take.  I opened my mouth, but my brain just couldn’t piece together a coherent response.  I shut my mouth again.

“Abandon this charade, little bug girl, before you bite off more than you can chew.  Tell me what you know, right now, then go home.  I don’t care if you put your costume away for good or if you sign up for the Wards, but don’t go on with the solo act.  That’s my recommendation.”

That stung.  I tried again, “I gave you Lung, full credit.  You can’t give me the benefit of a doubt?”

“You gave me a dying man!” Armsmaster bellowed, startling me, “That was on my shoulders!  I had to put up with two days of losing command of my team, two days where they confiscated my Halberd and power armor!  I was interrogated, all my equipment taken apart and checked!  All because you couldn’t resist using your bugs to give that man a fucking near-lethal dose of poisons!”

His attitude from the beginning of this meeting had been hostile.  Now I understood why.  I held my ground.

“That’s not my fault,” I told Armsmaster, my voice strained with anger.  I gave voice to a suspicion that had been nagging at the edge of my consciousness since I’d heard about Lung being hospitalized, “I didn’t dose him with enough venom to kill him.  What I think is that the tranquilizers that you pumped into his system knocked out his ability to heal, which is what let the poisons do as much damage as they did.”

We glared at each other, as much as people can exchange glares when they can’t see one another’s eyes.  Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine the expression on his face.

“If you contact me again, you’d better be prepared to answer every question I have.  Beyond that, I’m not condoning anything about what you’re trying to pull.  You’re on your own.”

I would have been happy to storm off, or offer my own angry parting words.  Except there was something else I needed from him.  On the assumption that he’d take me up on my offer, I thought I’d ask as a last, minor favor.  Now I was put in a situation where I might have to beg a man I really wanted to punch in the face.

“I-” I paused, trying to find the words, “I’m asking you to please not tell anyone we met tonight.  No records, on paper or computer.  Don’t do anything different because of what you learned tonight.  I know I can’t make you.  I don’t have anything to offer you, besides the information I’m going to get.  But if these guys get wind that I met you, it’s going to go really badly for me.”

“You made your bed.  You have to lie in it.”

“No,” I shook my head, furious he was being so mule headed.  My fists clenched, “Don’t toy with me here.  Maybe you don’t agree with what I’m doing, but I started this because I wanted to do you a favor.  The least you could do is not screw with me on this, and get me hurt or killed because your fucking rep got a smudge on it.”

I regretted my words as soon as they left my mouth, but I could hardly take them back.

“Fine,” he decided, then dismissed me, “You can go, now.”

It was a dick move, that last bit, because I was following his order if I listened and it made me look bad if I didn’t.  Still, if there was any upside to the bullying I’d endured out of costume, it was that I could handle the little maneuvers of bullies and assholes when I was in costume, too.  I left and didn’t think twice about it.

I was pissed, and it was a lot easier to be pissed at Armsmaster than it was to be angry with myself.  This hadn’t gone the way I’d planned.  I didn’t even know if that ‘fine’ of his was an agreement to do as I’d asked, or if I was royally screwed the next time I went to meet with the Undersiders.  There were two ways I could respond to this.  I could either drop the plan and put away my costume like Armsmaster wanted, or I could pull off the undercover gig and prove him wrong.

Fuck it.  I was going to rob the hell out of that bank.  I’d win the trust of the Undersiders, I was going to figure out who was running the show, and then I was going to hand over all of the info.

To Miss Militia, I was thinking.  Not Armsmaster.

 

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Agitation 3.6

“Think of it as a game,” Lisa said, “A high stakes variant of cops and robbers.”

A steady downpour of rain thrummed against the outside of the van Lisa was driving.  The rain drowned out all other noise of the traffic around us and muted our view of the surroundings, making the interior of the car an island in the midst of downtown.  Traffic was at a deadlock, so bad that Lisa had put the van into park and turned off the engine.  To break the silence, I had asked Lisa why some villains didn’t get their secret identities revealed when they got caught, and I’d apparently stumbled into one of her favorite topics.  I supposed it was good that she was in a mood to talk, because I wasn’t.

“I think,” I ventured, “That it’s a little closer to real cops and robbers than the schoolyard game.”

“No, no.  Hear me out.  Grown adults running around in costume?  Making up code names for themselves?  It’s ridiculous, and we know it’s ridiculous, even if we don’t admit it out loud.  So there’s capes like you and me, where we go out in costume and it’s fun.  Maybe we have some agenda or goals, but at the end of the day, we’re getting our thrills, blowing off steam and living a second life.  Then there’s the crazies.  The people who are fucked up in the head, maybe dangerous if there’s not something or someone to help keep them in line.  The people who take it all too seriously, or those guys you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of, even if they didn’t have powers.  Lung, Oni Lee, Heartbreaker,” she paused.  “Bitch.”

I nodded.

“And there’s the monsters.  The really dangerous motherfuckers, who are barely human any more, if at all.  The Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog-“

“The Endbringers,” I interjected.

Lisa paused, “Right.  But you have to understand, ninety percent of what goes on when you’re in costume?  It’s the first group.  Adults in costumes playing full contact cops and robbers with fun-as-fuck superpowers and toys.  This mindset applies to the people without powers too.  Way I see it, having a local team of superheroes is like having a sports team.  Everyone’s rooting for them, they make for great media that isn’t about wars or the water crisis or whatever, there’s merchandising and tourists… all good shit that the local government loves.  But what good is having a team if there’s no competition?”

“Which is where we come in,” I figured out where she was going.

“Exactly.  At the end of the day?  We’re not doing much harm.  Property damage, theft.  A few civilians get hurt if they don’t move out of the way fast enough.  But insurance payouts cover that stuff, and people aren’t that much worse off.  The property damage is covered and the injured bystander has a great story to tell at the water cooler.  The city gets revenue in an indirect way, from merchandise, tourism and the rising property that come with being an exciting city.

“Compared to the psychos and the monsters out there, it’s almost in the city’s interests to keep us in circulation.  Far as I see it, we’re not that much better or worse than the so called good guys.  We face more risk at the end of the day, with the possibility of jail time and physical danger, but we get a better payoff.  We just took the path that was higher risk, higher reward.”

“I’m not sure,” I said, carefully, “That I buy all that.”

“No? Then why don’t they send people like Über straight to the Birdcage after his trial, like they are with Lung?  The amusing but relatively harmless villains get a regular jail cell, they inevitably break out before the trial concludes, and the cat and mouse game starts again.  Sure, there’s the three strike rule, and he’ll get sent to the Birdcage eventually, but the people in charge have to maintain some plausible deniability.”

I didn’t think there was a way I could argue against Lisa’s theory without giving too much of my own perspective away.  I just kept my mouth shut and turned my new knife over in my hands.  Direct from our anonymous ‘boss’, it sported a blade a little over six inches long and a textured handle with three symmetrical indents on each side, for grip.  According to Lisa, it was strong enough to use as a miniature crowbar, if I had a mind to.  My extendable combat baton was tucked away in the panel of my armor where I kept my pepper spray.

“But the real evidence to my ‘cops and robbers’ theory,” Lisa continued, “Is the reaction you see when someone crosses the line.  You’ve heard about it happening.  Someone finds out another cape’s secret identity, goes after the cape’s family.  Or a cape wins a fight and decides his downed opponent isn’t in a state to say no if he’s feeling lusty?  Word gets around, and the cape community goes after the fucker.  Protecting the status quo, keeping the game afloat.  Bitter enemies call a truce, everyone bands together, favors get called in and everyone does their damndest to put the asshole down.”

“Like we do with the Endbringers,” I said.  I sheathed my knife.

“Holy fuck,” Lisa said, slapping the sides of the steering wheel with her hands.  I think if the van had been moving, she would have hit the brakes for emphasis.  Traffic was starting to move, though, so she started up the car and put it into gear, “Twice, you bring up the Endbringers in as many minutes.  You’re being morbid.  What’s going on?”

I stared out the window at downtown Brockton Bay, hundreds of people with umbrellas and raincoats, a few intrepid individuals bolting down the street with a briefcase or newspaper over their head, to ward off the downpour as they made their way to or from their work on their lunch hours.

It was hard to talk to Lisa, as much as I liked her as a person.  I felt like I was walking on eggshells.  If I said something, would that give her the puzzle piece she needed to figure me out?  I had been lucky so far, but relying on luck sucked.  I was counting on this ruse continuing, whether it was because I enjoyed the temporary companionship of Brian, Lisa and Alec, or because I wanted to get Grue, Tattletale, Regent and Bitch carted off to jail and prove Armsmaster wrong.  I was aware how paradoxical those two interests were.

But right now, maybe for the first time since Bitch had set her dogs on me, I felt painfully out of place in the group dynamic.  We were robbing a bank, and I was the only one who was guilty about it, apparently the only one who was worried about the safety of the bystanders and hostages.

Then there was the fact that Armsmaster had said that two members of the Undersiders were murderers, and doubt was tainting every interaction I had with these guys.  When I was smiling about a joke Alec made, was I enjoying the joke of a killer?  I liked Brian, but now I was looking back on how he had pointed out how to brutally disable someone in a fight, and I was wondering if he’d ever gone that one step further and snapped someone’s neck.  It wasn’t a hundred percent impossible to imagine that one of the secrets Lisa was so fond of keeping included murder, either.  I felt like every interaction with these guys was spoiled, now, and there was nobody I could ask to clarify the lingering questions.

Still, staying quiet now would only make her more suspicious, and if she turned the full extent of her power on me, I doubted my undercover ruse would withstand her attention.  I confessed with a half truth, “I got in an argument with someone last night.  I think it was mutual disappointment, got pretty heated, hurtful.  I guess I’m a bit angry, and my confidence is a little shaken.”

“Well, fuck them,” Lisa stated.  I raised an eyebrow in response.

She went on, “See, I know you.  Believe it or not, I like you.  Did from the time I saw you on that roof, opposite Lung.  You know how we fear the unknown?  Well, I know stuff, that’s my whole thing, and that motherfucker is one of the very few people who can spook me.  You, Taylor, stood up to him.”

In a manner of speaking, anyways.  The way I remembered it, I’d been curled up in a fetal position when the Undersiders came to my rescue.  I didn’t correct her.

“So this guy or this girl that’s got you down in the dumps?  I say fuck them.  They don’t know you.  They don’t know what you’re capable of.”

I would have stopped myself if I could have, but the irony of her statement was too rich.  I grinned, looking out the window to hide the expression from Lisa.

“I saw that.  Don’t think I didn’t.  So I’ve shaken the doldrums from you.  Good.  Now look to our left.”

“Who uses words like doldrums, anymore?” I voiced my thoughts as I obeyed her instruction.  She only chuckled in response.

As I realized what I was looking at, through the rain and the past the traffic, I swallowed hard.  It was a stone fixture six stories tall, with crenelations on the roof and balconies, stone gargoyles at the corners and iron grilles on the windows. The entryway had wide stone stairs like a courthouse, with statues of rearing horses with wild manes on either side.  The name of the institution was etched into the stone above the doors.  The Brockton Bay Central Bank.  A virtual castle.

“In twenty minutes or so, we’re going to be leaving there, tens of thousands of dollars richer, the adrenaline rush of victory pumping through our veins,” Lisa’s voice was barely above a whisper, “Now tell me.  Can you visualize that?”

Not really.

“Yes,” I tried.

“Liar,” she said.  Then she winked at me, “It’s okay.  An hour from now, you’ll be rolling in money and laughing about how pessimistic you were.  Promise.”

Lisa pulled the van around to circle the block, then pulled into an employee parking lot behind a restaurant.  As she pulled into the parking lot, bringing us right to the back corner of the bank,  I pulled on my mask.  Lisa did the same, then took a few seconds to smear her eyelids with black facepaint so they blended in with her mask.  I wasn’t so lucky as to have any final touches to apply, so I watched the rearview mirror nervously.  It felt like an eternity, but was probably closer to a minute, before Brian pulled a second van into the alley that led into the lot.  He parked his van halfway down the alley, blocking anyone else from coming through.

As I opened the car door and hopped out into the pouring rain, I managed to say the words without choking on them, “Let’s go rob a bank.”

Lisa grinned.

 

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Agitation 3.7

Grue was already out of his vehicle and halfway to us by the time Tattletale and I had shut the doors of the van.  He was using his power at a low degree over the entirety of his body.  The darkness soaked into and through the porous leather of his costume, making him look like a living shadow.  Brian had showed me how the visor had vents at the edges, to direct the effect of his power around the sides and top of his head, so it wouldn’t obscure the face.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t see through the effects of his own power – he could.  He’d explained that the vents were there to create an effect where you could see glimpses of a black-painted skull floating in the vaguely human shaped form of even darker black.  When he had the money to spend, he had told me, he was going to get a more complete costume custom made for him in the same way, to expand on the effect.

“Let’s move fast.”  His voice echoed, reverberated, with a hollowness to the sound, like something alien and far away.  He was using his power to play with the sound, “Tattletale, see to the door.  Bug, with me.”

Together with Grue, I returned to the van Lisa had been driving.  Grue grabbed the handle of the sliding door and hauled it open, then scrambled out of the way as the contents came pouring out.

I chuckled at the image of this spooky supervillain being caught off guard.  I’d packed the entirety of the van, minus the driver and passenger seats, with bugs.  As the door opened, they spilled out to pool on the wet pavement beneath the door.

“Got enough?” his voice echoed.  I thought maybe I caught a touch of humor in his tone, behind the influence of his power.

I smiled behind my mask, “Let’s hope.”

A drive earlier in the morning had given me the opportunity to gather this swarm.   It was surprising how many bugs there were in the city, hidden from sight.  At any given point in the city, I could generally draw out tens of thousands of bugs from inside walls, sewers, attics, lawns, trees and even places you would think were too clean or occupied to have any creepy crawlies lurking about, and I could do it over a matter of minutes.

These weren’t just the bugs I could draw in at a moment’s notice, though.  Traveling the city had given me the chance to be picky.  These were the good ones, each of them fast enough to keep up with me, or capable of being carried by those that were.  More than that, though, the majority of them were either durable sorts like the larger centipedes, cockroaches and beetles, or capable of stinging and biting, with bees, wasps, ants and blackflies making up their bulk.  To round out their number, I’d gathered moths, houseflies, and mosquitoes, who weren’t the best attack bugs out there, but were easy enough to get, and served to distract the enemy or bulk out the swarm.

There were three hundred and fifty cubic feet inside the rear of the van. Tattletale had told me that.  When they were packed in just tight enough that they wouldn’t damage each other or spill past the barrier and into the front seats, it added up to a pretty amazing amount of insects.  I called them out of the van and watched as their mass seemed to expand as they spread out.

We joined Tattletale at the side door of the bank. I had to admit, I admired the sheer change she was capable of pulling off when donning her costume.  Rather, I should say, I admired the effort she’d gone into as Lisa, that made her so different from her Tattletale persona.  Her mask was narrow, only really surrounding her eye sockets, covering her eyebrows, some of her nose and some of her cheekbones, but it hid the freckles on the bridge of her nose and changed the apparent lines of her face.  Her hair was down and loose, damp from the rain, in contrast to how it was always in a ponytail or braided when she was ‘Lisa’.  Her costume was skintight, beaded with droplets of water, lavender with bands of black across the chest and down the sides of her arms, legs and body.  An image of a stylized eye, only visible in the right light, given it was dark gray on black, was worked into the costume’s design.  A compact ‘utility belt’ sat diagonally across her hips, sporting a variety of compact pockets and pouches.

Regent was keeping watch, a few feet away.  From what I’d seen while we prepared, I now knew his costume was deceptive.  He still wore the hard white mask with the silver coronet, but he had shown me how the interior of the mask had foam shaped to the contours of his face, with only his mouth left free, so he could talk without being muffled.  In a similar vein, the loose white shirt he wore covered up a mesh vest that was molded to the shape of his body.  He was idly twirling a scepter in his fingers.  The scepter wasn’t purely thematic – apparently the crowned orb that topped the scepter had two electrodes built into the tines, for the taser that was built into it.  It was all about misdirection, misleading and giving the impression of vulnerability.

“The fire exit at the back is protected by a digital passkey,” Tattletale explained while she crouched at the keypad, staring at it, “Every employee has the number to get in if they need to, but that rarely happens because opening the door sets off a bunch of alarms.  That password is easy.  The interesting thing that the employees don’t even know is that the capes and SWAT teams have a special code they can put in if they need to make a quiet entrance with no alarms going off.  To do that, you punch in the regular code, 3-7-1, but you hold the one down, then press the number sign and the asterisk keys down at the same time… Voila.  Try it.”

Grue pulled on the door.  We waited in tense silence for a moment for the angry blare of the alarm, but none came.  Tattletale grinned at us. “What’d I tell you?”

Grue signaled, and we were joined by Regent and Bitch with her three dogs.  The animals were the size of small ponies, their flesh having swelled and expanded enough that their fur had split at the seams.  Muscle and bone showed beneath, and the arrangement of said anatomy wasn’t exactly typical.  The change was slow enough that you couldn’t see it if you were looking for it, but if you looked away and looked back a moment later, you could tell they were bigger, that bone at the shoulder was longer, the eyes were deeper set, and so on.  Spikes, spurs and an exoskeleton of bone growths had appeared to fill or cover gaps and grow in at places where the bone was already close to the skin.  The tail of the smallest dog – Angelica, I think Rachel called it – was twice as long as normal and prehensile, now, and the other two were well on their way.  It looked like someone had torn out a pair of human spines, the meat still hanging off them, and attached them one to the other before tacking the end to the dog’s hindquarters.

Bitch, for her part, was just wearing a jacket with a fur ruff collar and a cheap, hard plastic mask of a bulldog.  The dogs had been given the rear of the second van, allowing Bitch to work her power on them as Brian drove.  Being able to do the change more slowly meant she wouldn’t prematurely exhaust herself or the animals by rushing the job on site.

We made our way into the back hallways of the bank’s ground floor, Bitch’s dogs leading the way, my swarm pulling up the rear.  The clock had started running down from the moment we’d parked in the alleyway; that was the point where people might have thought something was up.  Now that we were inside, though, someone knew, or would know any second.

At this very moment, chances were, some guard in the room with the security cameras would be making a call to 911 and reporting a crime in progress by costumed criminals.  If Tattletale was right, the Protectorate was too far away to be called in, so they would contact the Wards.  We had five or ten minutes before trouble showed.

Each time we passed a room, Grue, Regent and I would double check it.  The first few were empty, but as we reached one room, a dog took notice, and Grue raised a hand to plunge the room into darkness.  A second later, he stepped back into the hallway, twisting the arm of a cringing thirty-something man in a gray suit behind his back.  I hadn’t even realized Grue had entered the room in the first place.

In the next room, Regent grabbed another hostage.  I caught a glance of the man, graying hair and thick around the middle with a pink dress shirt and no jacket, staring at us with eyes wide.  He opened his mouth, I think his intent was to cry for help, but broke down into coughs and sputters instead.  A second later, he keeled over and collapsed onto the floor.  He tried to climb to his feet, but his elbow buckled and he hit the ground a second time.  While he continued to struggle, Regent strode into the room with an almost lazy air, grabbed him by the collar and shoved him towards the hallway where we stood.  Defeated, Pink-shirt didn’t resist, half-walking, half-crawling forward as he joined us.  He met eyes with the other employee, but didn’t say anything.

We only passed a dozen offices, but it felt like three times that number.  Grue was on point, glancing into each room and watching for danger from up ahead, with Regent keeping an eye on rooms to our right.  That meant I was paying attention to the rooms on the left, as well as keeping an eye out by way of the swarm to our rear.  Each time I looked into an office, lunchroom or conference room, I prayed it would be empty.  I didn’t want to be any more responsible for all this than I had to.

When I saw the last office on the left was vacant, I was relieved enough that I nearly forgot my role in the next stage of the plan.

We reached the front lobby of the bank, and Bitch’s dogs charged into the room.  They were nightmarish, barking, growling and shaking themselves in a spray of bits of fur and blood as they abruptly grew another foot taller at the shoulder.  I had a moment’s glimpse of twenty or thirty bystanders and another six or so employees of the bank before the lights went out.  Grue used his power, and the room was plunged into darkness, the volume of the screams and wails dropping to utter silence in a matter of seconds.  We stood in the entryway to the lobby, and there was only nothingness where the bank lobby had been.

“Your move, Bug girl,” Tattletale said, reaching forward to put a hand on my shoulder.

I closed my eyes.  With a mental command, my bugs flooded into the room from the hallway behind us, flying and crawling over, under and around us to spread through the room.  I noted each person in the lobby as my bugs made contact with them, and left several bugs crawling on each individual.  I took five seconds to double check I’d gotten everyone, and belatedly remembered the two employees we had brought forward from the back offices.  A group of bugs returned from the darkness, brushing my skin on their way to make contact with the pair.

“Done,” I said.

Grue swept his arms forward, and the darkness parted.  We moved into the room as a group.  Pink-shirt and the younger guy collapsed to the ground as we walked.  I supposed it was Regent’s work there.  Some of Grue’s darkness clung to the surfaces of the doors and the windows, but the room was otherwise clear in a matter of moments, lit only by the florescent lights.  Everyone except for us was lying on the floor, crouched behind a desk, or huddled in the corners.  Two of Bitch’s dogs were standing in front of the main entrance, while the smallest was standing near the vault.  All three of the monsters were the size of cars, now.

“Fifteen minutes,” I called out to the room, my heart in my throat, “We won’t be here any longer than that.  Stay put, stay quiet, we’ll be gone before fifteen minutes are up.  You’ll be free to give your statement to the police and then go about your day as usual.  This isn’t a TV show, this isn’t a movie.  If you’re thinking about being a hero, don’t.  You’ll only get yourself or someone else hurt.”

I held up my hand, finger outstretched, a familiar spider perched on the tip, “If you are thinking about running, making a phone call or getting in our way, this is a good reason to reconsider.  This little creature and her one hundred sisters that I just brought into this room are under my complete control.”  I had the spider drop from my fingertip, dangling by a thread, by way of demonstration.

“She’s a black widow spider.  A single bite has been known to kill a full grown human, or put them into a coma.  You move, talk, try to find or kill the spiders I just put on your bodies, in your clothes, in your hair?  I’ll know in split second, and I’ll tell them to bite you several times.”

I stopped to let that sink in.  I looked over the room.  Forty or so people.  I saw a full grown man with a tear rolling down his cheek.  A teenager with freckles and brown curls was glaring at me with raw loathing in her eyes.  At one of the counters, a matronly bank employee was shaking like a leaf.

My taking hostages like this?  It had been my idea, so help me.  As horrible as it was, it had been necessary.  The worst case scenario was some regular schmuck in the bank pulling some stunt and getting themselves or others hurt or killed.  I couldn’t let that happen, if I was in a position to help it.  If it meant keeping them quiet and out of the way, I was willing to terrorize them.

As I saw the effect I’d had on these people, that justification felt really thin.

I was going to hell for this.

 

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Agitation 3.8

“Any trouble?” Grue asked Tattletale.

“We’re okay for now.”

We’d gone over the plan until I’d been worried I would start murmuring about it in my sleep. I joined Tattletale, Grue, Bitch and the largest of the three dogs as we headed to the sealed vault door.  Regent watched at the front doors with the two other dogs.  His power had a good enough range that he could delay any approaching opposition long enough for us to get into position.

Tattletale took hold of the stainless steel wheel that jutted out from the front of the vault and spun it, then stopped it. She repeated the process, going right, then left, then right again, for an indeterminably long time.  Just when I had the hopeful thought that maybe she wasn’t able to get in, there was a sound of something heavy shifting inside the door.

The four of us hauled the door open, and Tattletale sauntered off to where the bank manager worked. She sat herself down at the computer, putting her feet up on the corner of the desk, and began typing away.  From there, she could keep an eye on the media, watch the surveillance cameras and remotely control the door locks and alarm systems.  All with the right passwords, of course, but that wasn’t a problem for her.

Grue, Bitch and I started strapping a canvas harness onto the one dog that wasn’t standing at the front doors. I was gradually working out which was which.  I think Bitch called this one Brutus.  He was the biggest, with the meatiest body, and he had a shorter snout.  He’d been the Rottweiler, before.

He turned his massive head towards me, until the deep set eyeball was just to the left of my head.  The pupil narrowed into a dot.  There was just the bloodshot white of the eye and the yellow-gray of an iris as broad as my handspan.

I knew the worst thing to do would be to show fear or nervousness, so I was careful to breathe slowly and focus on buckling the straps and making triply sure they were fastened tight.  I was maybe being a little too firm, just to ensure the Brutus didn’t think I was weak or shy.  Not that it mattered.  I seriously doubted I could make him flinch, even with one of my weapons in hand.

With the harness securely fastened, we headed into the vault, Brutus standing at the door.  The vault was stainless steel from top to bottom with neatly banded bundles of bills organized into stacks.  The stacks, in turn, were organized by the size of the bill, all neatly set up against the wall. On the wall opposite the stacks were drawers like an elaborate filing cabinet.  They were pretty much just that.  The bank kept copies of all important documents for the local branches here, in a fireproof vault, in case of disaster.  The far end of the vault had another door, opening into an elevator that went down to the garage basement, where the armored trucks could be loaded.  It was a shame it wasn’t an option for an escape route. The door, the elevator and the garage itself were all firmly locked outside of specific times and days.

Bitch dumped an armload of bags onto the ground, and she and I got on our knees on either side of the pile and began stuffing one of the bags with cash.  She took off her mask to see what she was doing better.  Grue, for his part, withdrew a short crowbar from within the darkness that smoldered around his body.  He set to cracking open the filing drawers with the squealing noise of metal creaking and bending.

As Bitch and I filled the first bag, we buckled it closed, cinched the accompanying strap tight around it, and with mutual effort, slid it across the slick metal floor towards Brutus. Grue turned away from the drawers to grab the bag, haul it up and attach it to the dog’s harness.

It was a staggering amount of money. As Bitch and I worked, I started trying to count the money I was putting into the bag. Five hundred, one thousand, one thousand five hundred. Bitch was working just as fast as I was, so I could double that. Just taking a second to wrap my head around what the total amount would be per bag made me lose track.

We filled a second bag and slid it towards the door. Grue grunted as he heaved it up to the opposite side of the first bag and clipped it in place. While we filled the third bag, he clipped on one more – a bag filled with the contents of the first drawer he had opened.  According to Lisa’s briefing, the drawers would hold deeds, liens, insurance forms, mortgages and loan information.  Apparently our employer was willing to buy these from us.  I’d speculated about why – the most obvious possibility was that he could ransom them back to the bank.  More intriguing was the thought that he wanted the information itself for his own purposes.  Or, on a similar note, maybe there was something specific that would be found in the midst of the paperwork, and he was willing to buy it all if it meant keeping his true intentions unclear.

“I’m going to be sore tomorrow,” Grue groaned, as he recovered from strapping the bag of papers into place, “And we haven’t even been in a fight yet.”

“Sore and rich,” Bitch spoke.  I glanced at her and saw her grinning.  It was disquieting.  I’d only ever seen her sullen and hostile, so any smile would be kind of creepy.  It was worse than that.  Hers was the kind of smile you’d see from someone who had never seen one before and was trying to replicate one from what they’d read in books.  Too many teeth showing, I suppressed a shiver and focused on the work.

We slid the third bag across the floor.  Grue hooked it into the harness.

“We can’t put any more on here without it being a problem,” he decided.

“The weight is even?” Bitch asked.

“Close enough.”

Bitch stood and crossed the length of the vault to where her creature waited. She rubbed her hand on Brutus’ snout like you might see a horse owner do, except Brutus most definitely wasn’t a horse. She was rubbing her hand on exposed muscle, calcified tatters of flesh and bone hooks that jutted out of gaps and knots in the muscle. She managed to look almost affectionate as she did it.

“Go, baby. Go,” she commanded, pointing to the front door. Brutus obediently loped off to the front of the bank and sat, his prehensile tail absently coiling around the door handle.

“Hey!” Bitch called out, then whistled twice, alternating between short and long. The smallest of the dogs, who was only recognizable now by her missing eye, bounded towards us in her excitement. Some of the hostages screamed in alarm at the sudden movement.

I winced.  I didn’t want to think about the hostages. They were already heavy on my conscience, and they were constantly on the periphery of my attention, as long as I continued using the bugs I’d planted on them to keep alert for any movement or talking.

“That’s the one you call Angelica?” I asked, to distract myself. “The name doesn’t seem to fit with what you call the others.”

“I didn’t name her,” Bitch said. As the creature approached her, Bitch slapped her a few times on the shoulder, hard. It didn’t hurt the animal though – Angelica just lashed her tail in what I realized was a warped way of wagging her tail. Bitch snapped her fingers twice and pointed at the ground, and Angelica sat.

I had already partially filled a bag when Bitch rejoined me.

“She had previous owners then.”

“Fuckers,” Bitch swore.

“They were the ones who made her lose her ear and her eye?” I asked.

“What? You think I fucking did it?”  She dropped the money she had in her and and stood up, clenching her fists.

“Woah, no,” I protested, shifting my weight so I could move out of the way if she got aggressive, “Just trying to make small talk.”

She took a step toward me.  “Coward.  You know you can’t take me in a-“

“Enough!” Grue shouted.  Bitch turned on him, her eyes narrowing.

“If you can’t work over there, then take over here.”  His voice was steady, firm.  Bitch spat on the floor and did as he asked, taking the offered crowbar from his hand as they passed each other.  Grue took over the bag filling where Bitch had left off.  We quickly got a rhythm down, and four more bags were filled in a matter of minutes.

“We want to stay to load up the third dog or run for it?” I asked Grue, then added, “No use getting greedy.” I would be happy to leave as soon as possible. I wasn’t interested in the money, and I definitely wasn’t interested in going to jail for it.

“How much do we have?” he glanced over in Angelica’s direction

Tattletale answered for me, from where she stood at the door to the vault, “Forty one thousand, eight hundred. It looks like that’s as much as we’re going to get. The white hats are here, and it’s not looking good.”

We were out of the vault in a flash, and we joined Regent at the front doors, peering through the gaps in the wall of darkness.

Tattletale hadn’t exaggerated. Our opposition was lined up on the sidewalk across the street, the colors of their costumes bright in the midst of the gloom of the rain and the gray of the city.  Aegis, tan skinned, was wearing a rust red costume with a matching helmet, both with silver-white trim and a shield emblem. The cockroach, I’d come to think of him.  The boy with no weak points.

A dozen or so feet to his right was Vista, wearing a costume with a skirt, all covered in wavy, swooping lines that alternated between white and forest green. She had some body armor worked into her costume design.  Her breastplate was molded to give the illusion of a chest, but that didn’t do anything to conceal the fact that she was still young enough that I could have kicked her ass in a straight up fistfight.  If she was older than twelve, she was a late bloomer.

Clockblocker stood to Aegis’ left. He wore a white costume, skintight, with interlocking panels of glossy white body armor placed wherever they could give him protection without inhibiting his movements. I couldn’t see it through the rain, but I knew from TV that the armor had images of clocks on it in dark gray.  Some of the images on the armor were animated so they drifted across the surface, while others were fixed in place with hands ticking. His helmet was faceless, just a smooth expanse of white.

“Tattletale,” Grue growled in his echoing, reveberating voice, “You know how I say you’re a fucking dumbass sometimes?”

The three weren’t alone. Kid Win was floating in the air to one side of Clockblocker. His brown hair was damp in the rain, he had a red visor and body armor in red and gold. His feet were firmly planted on his flying skateboard, which had a ruby glow radiating from the bottom.  His hands were gripping matching guns.  Laser pistols, or something in that vein.  Kid Win was saying something to Gallant, who was standing a ways to his left.  Gallant was an older teenager in a gunmetal and silver costume that blended the appearance of a pulp science fiction hero with a medieval knight.

On the opposite end of the line was someone I didn’t know. He was big in a different way than Grue was big. The kind of bulk that made you think powers were at work. His muscle laden arms were bigger around than my thighs, and I thought he could probably crush cans between his pecs. His costume was little more than dark blue or black spandex with a diamond print. His mask was full-face, except for the eyes, and had a crystal attached to the forehead.  He was the only person standing there who didn’t have body armor.  He didn’t look like he really needed it.

“Who is he?” I asked, pointing.

“Browbeat,” Tattletale sighed, “He’s a point blank telekinetic, which means that he can move things with his mind, but only if they’re within an inch or so of his skin. He can use it to throw punches that hit like freight trains, or shield himself from incoming attacks. He’s also packing personal biokinesis, which means he’s got a kind of ability to manipulate his own body. He can heal just by concentrating on an injury, and he’s used it to bulk up. He might be capable of doing more on the fly, depending on how much he’s trained since we saw him last. He’s been a solo hero in Brockton Bay for a little while.”

“What the fuck is he doing here?” I asked.

“We crossed paths with him once, Regent and Bitch beat him. Either he’s here for revenge or he’s joined the Wards very, very recently. My power’s suggesting it’s the latter.”

“That’s is the kind of thing you’re supposed to inform us on well in advance,” Grue hissed at her, “And there’s not supposed to be six of them.”

“There’s seven,” Tattletale said, wincing as Grue slammed his fist against the wood of the door. “There’s someone on the roof.  I’m not sure who, but I don’t think it’s Shadow Stalker. Might be a member of the Protectorate.”

“There’s not supposed to be six or seven!” Grue roared in his unearthly voice “There’s supposed to be three, four at most!”

“I made an educated guess,” Tattletale spoke in a low voice, “I was wrong.  Sue me.”

“If we get out of this in one piece,” Grue spoke, his tone low and menacing, “We’re going to have a long conversation.”

I rested my forehead against the window.  An armored section of my mask clinked against the glass, “Educated guess.  It would have been nice if you had said it was an educated guess, way back when we were planning this.”

Of our group, Bitch seemed the least daunted.  “I can take them.  Just let me go all out.”

“We’re not going to fucking risk killing anyone,” Grue told her. “We’re not maiming anyone, either. The plan stands.  We have the money, we run for it.”

Tattletale shook her head, “That’s what they want. Why do you think they’re lined up like that? We bolt with the money from any of the exits, the person on the roof tackles us, incapacitates us or keeps us busy while the rest close in.  Look at how they’re sort of spaced out.  Just far enough apart that if we try to go between them, one of them can probably close in fast enough to nab us before we get away.”

“With my power-” Grue started.

“They still outnumber us. There’s at least five ways they could take one of us down while we’re running, even if they were going in blind… and Vista’s in the equation. Figure any distance we need to cover is going to be much farther than it looks, and things get ugly. It wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t so many of them.”

“Fuck,” Regent groaned.

“We can’t just stay here,” Grue said, “Sure, they’re getting cold and wet, but our odds aren’t much better if we force them to come in here after us, and if we wait too long, the Protectorate might show, too.”

“We have hostages,” Bitch said, “If they come in here, we take out one of the hostages.”  Somewhere behind us, someone moaned, long and loud. I think they’d heard her.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was a bad situation, and worse, I was afraid it was my fault. I’d warned Armsmaster something was going to happen. I could believe that he’d told the teams to be ready to go out in force. Even worse, he could be the unknown person on the roof. If that was the case, and Tattletale caught on, I was supremely fucked.

Fuck.

“We need to catch them off guard,” I didn’t realize I was speaking aloud until the words left my mouth.

“Sure, but how are we going to do that?” Grue replied.

“You guys are masters at the getaway, right?  So we change gears.  We fight them face to face.”

Agitation 3.9

I can imagine how it looked to the Wards.  One moment they were standing in the rain, waiting with a tense readiness.  The next, the front doors of the bank slammed open, revealing nothing but total darkness.  Just a moment later, eight hostages came stumbling through the darkness, out the doors and down the stairs.

Aegis’ eyes opened wide behind his mask.  He turned to look at Clockblocker, who gestured madly towards the ground.  Turning back to the scene, Aegis bellowed, “Everyone leaving the bank!  Get down on the ground now!”

He didn’t get a chance to see if they listened.  Darkness swelled at the bank’s entrance, then flooded into the street like water from a broken dam.  In seconds, the hostages were hidden from sight and the Wards were forced to retreat several paces to keep from being swallowed up.

Inside the bank, Grue mused, “That should give them a reason to think twice before blindly opening fire where they can’t see.  I’m liking this.  We ready for part two?”

“Just don’t hurt the hostages,” I said, glancing back at the thirty that were still inside.

“The ones we sent out are staying put?” Grue asked.

I felt out with my power.  The bugs I’d put on the hostages couldn’t see or hear anything, and I wasn’t sensing movement.  “They’re doing as we told them.  They ran as far as they could before your power hit them, and then they lay flat on the ground, hands on their heads.”

“Then I’m going,” Bitch announced.  She grabbed a bone spike that was jutting out of Judas’ shoulder and heaved herself up to a sitting position on his back.

“No,” Tattletale said, grabbing at Bitch’s boot, “Wait.”

Bitch glared down at her, clearly annoyed.

“That hesitation before Aegis gave the orders to the hostages… it didn’t fit.”

“If you’ve figured something out, spit it out,” Grue spoke in his echoing voice, “We need to move now, before they get reorganized!”

“Bitch, you’re going after Clockblocker.  Stay away from Aegis, got it?”

Bitch didn’t even respond, digging her heels into Judas’ sides and ducking her head to avoid hitting it on the top of the door as they raced out.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Grue growled, “She’s going-“

“They switched costumes.   Aegis is wearing Clockblocker’s costume and vice versa.”

I would have liked to see the expression on Brian’s face, but as Grue, his mask covered everything.  He just turned his skull-helmet back to the window, silent.

It dawned on me how badly that could have fucked us.  Bitch’s dogs would have attacked the person they thought was Aegis, and gotten tagged by Clockblocker instead.  In one fell swoop, we would have lost the majority of our offensive power.

“Good catch,” I told Tattletale, before raising my hands and directing a good portion of my bugs to drop from the ceiling and flow out the door.

Tattletale only grinned, before she made made her way back to the computer to continue her mad typing.  Grue and Regent headed out the doors, leaving Tattletale and I alone in the bank lobby.

For my part, I walked to the corner of the bank and peered out through one of the tall, narrow windows by the loan officer’s desk.  Tendrils of Grue’s darkness still clung to the window, but I had a pretty decent view of the battlefield.

As I watched, that view distorted, as if I was looking into a funhouse mirror, or through a drop of water.  The street, including the area with the darkness covering it, began swelling, broadening, and widening until the two sidewalks on either side of the street were more like semicircles than straight lines.  It hurt my head to think too much about how Vista’s powers worked.  Or maybe the headache I felt looming had something to do with the fact that I was sending my bugs into the area Vista had distorted.  It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that my brain was having trouble relaying my bug’s positions to me as well as it should, in that area where geometry wasn’t working quite as it should.

Either way, something was getting to me.  I raised my hands to rub my temples, remembered my mask, and sighed, folding my arms instead.

I sent my bugs through the darkness and the warped space of the street.  Each time they collided with someone inside the cloud of darkness, it took me a moment to figure out who the person was.  Grue was the first I ran into, and the easiest to identify.  Some of my bugs had tiny hairs on their bodies that could sense air currents, and the steady output of darkness around Grue generated something like a steady air current around him.  Regent was harder – I almost mistook him for a hostage – but he was wearing the hard mask over his face.  I left him alone.

I found the person I was looking for, Bitch, and tracked her movement through the darkness.  My bugs could feel the vibrations of the dogs’ footfalls on the street, the hot, moist huffs of air from Judas’ nostrils, and the smells of the dog.  His smell made a dozen instincts of mosquitoes and carrion flies kick into action, his scent was one of blood, meat and gristle, the vaguest hints of diseased flesh.  I shivered.  As Bitch and her dogs burst from the darkness, towards Aegis and Clockblocker, I had my bugs follow immediately after them.

She was going straight for Clockblocker, who was dressed as Aegis.

“No, no, no,” I muttered, “You idiot.”

At the last possible second, she changed course and went for the real Aegis.

Aegis bolted the second the dog changed course, but it was too late.  As he tried to fly out of reach, Judas leaped, nearly twice as far and high as I might have guessed something as big as he was could.  The dog’s prehensile tail wrapped around Aegis’ torso.  As they all fell, mount, rider and ensnared captive, Bitch shouted something I couldn’t hear, and Judas whipped Aegis straight down, adding the force of the throw to the momentum of the fall.

I thought I might have heard the impact from the interior of the bank.  Or maybe it was as auditory illusion and my bugs were the ones who heard it.  Either way, Aegis hit the ground hard enough to kill an ordinary person.

He wasn’t down for one second before he was on his feet again.  In the same motion he used to get to his feet, he lunged for the dog and swung a fist at Judas’ snout.  He might have connected, but Bitch was already steering her steed back into the cloud of darkness.  She flipped Aegis the middle finger before disappearing from view.

At the same time, Clockblocker was fighting off the bugs I’d sent out.    Within a fraction of a second of a bug making contact with Clockblocker or his costume, he froze it.  My power simply stopped telling me the bug was there, as if they had disappeared from the face of the planet.  In reality, they were just suspended in time.  Stuck in the air, immobile, untouchable.

But that same power could work against him, I was thinking.  I made my bugs surge forward, surround him, aiming to cover his entire body.  I was pretty sure he couldn’t disable the effects of his power, so if he wanted to freeze all of the bugs I had crawling on him, he’d trap himself in a prison of his own making.

He was good at thinking on his feet, though, or he’d faced similar tactics before, because he had an answer for that.  Clockblocker spun in a tight circle, freezing the bugs as his body rotated, so that they were only affected when the part of his body they were on was facing away from the bank.  The result was that a cluster of bugs was left frozen behind him, and he was free to dash straight towards Aegis.

While I’d been distracted by Clockblocker, Bitch had set Brutus and Angelica on Aegis.  He was fending the two dogs off, but the white pane of his helm – Clockblocker’s helm – was shattered, now, and his costume was torn with one piece of ruined armor dangling by a string of cloth at his armpit.

Brutus lunged for Aegis, but as he passed over the edge of the area Vista had distorted, he fell short.  The dog’s jaws clacked shut a foot away from Aegis’ face, spittle flying.

Aegis responded by slamming both fists, fingers interlaced, into Brutus’ snout.  The dog crashed onto its side, giving Aegis the time to take flight once more, heading straight for the sky.

Angelica followed, leaping through the air just like Judas had a minute earlier.  She missed, and hit the side of a building hard enough to make the windows around her explode in a spray of glass.  I waited for her to fall, but she apparently had no plans to do so.  She gripped the stone of the building and windowsills around her with her four claws, tensed, and leaped again from the side of the building.

If I was surprised to see that display of acrobatics from one of the dogs, I doubted there were words for what Aegis’ must have felt, just then.  Angelica seized the teen hero in her jaws and they plummeted together.

Angelica didn’t land with all four claws beneath her, and she sprawled as she hit the ground.  When she stopped, though, she still had Aegis, one of his arms and half his torso clasped between her teeth.  She whipped him around like a dog might shake a toy.  When she paused, he was still fighting her, slamming his free hand against the side of her head over and over.  Loops and strings of drool mixed with blood hung from her mouth.  At least, that’s what I thought it was, from my vantage point inside the bank, peering through gloom and pouring rain.

Clockblocker had slowed down as I started throwing more bugs in his way.  I kept them between him and Aegis, so he couldn’t close the distance and touch the dogs.  He’d responded by ducking, weaving, spinning and swatting or brushing them off with his hands, so he could freeze them without setting barriers in his own way.

Then he decided to try ignoring the swarm.  I seized the opportunity to bite and sting him twenty or so times.  The surprise and pain distracted him from his evasive maneuvers, and he wound up clotheslining himself as he froze the insects on his face while still running forward.  He went from a head on run to landing on his back with his feet still in the air.

I probably wouldn’t get a better chance.  I set the majority of the swarm on him while he was lying on the ground.

Keep them on the defensive, Brian had told me, while we sparred.  Keep them guessing, change the way you attack.

I directed the bugs to the areas where his skin was exposed, and piloted them into the gaps between his skin and his costume.

Even with innumerable insects biting and stinging him over and over, he managed to climb to his feet and return to his attempts to reach the dogs.  He knew as well as I did that he couldn’t freeze them now that the bugs had made their way inside his costume.  He’d have to rip his costume with his own strength if he did.  I doubted it was that easy to tear, either.

It was ironic.  I wouldn’t have been able to do this if he hadn’t switched costumes with his teammate.  Clockblocker’s usual costume covered every inch of his skin, like mine did.  Probably for much the same reason.

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, just loud enough that only I could hear it.  I gave the bugs a new order.

When the bugs started crawling up his nostrils with relentless intent, he managed to keep going, pulling himself to his feet and resuming his efforts to freeze the bugs while advancing towards the dogs.  He snorted to try and clear his nose so he could keep breathing, but then he was left with the problem of needing to inhale.  He couldn’t do that without bringing bugs further into his airway, so he made the mistake of opening his mouth to breathe.

When a mass of bugs forced themselves into his open mouth, he staggered and fell.  I think he was gagging, but couldn’t see or hear well enough from my vantage point to tell.

At my instruction, more bugs forced themselves under the gaps in his costume and into his ear canals.  Yet others, smaller ones, crawled in and around his eyes, using deceptive strength to try and force themselves in between and under his eyelids.  I couldn’t imagine what that felt like to him.  Everyone had probably experienced the sensation of having a lot of bugs crawling on them, but these bugs were operating with a human intelligence backing them, to penetrate his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  They were working together, with a single minded purpose, instead of mindlessly crawling where their instincts directed them.

I don’t know if it was calculated or something he did in a moment’s panic, but he used his power.  Every bug that was touching him disappeared from my reach.

Once I’d realized what he’d done, I pulled away every bug that wasn’t affected.  I didn’t want to suffocate him, and he’d effectively pinned himself to the street with his power.  The worst thing that could happen now was that he’d panic and throw up, choking on his own puke.  I could do my part to avoid that.

I’d won.  I wasn’t sure what to feel.  I felt a kind of elation mixed with the quiet horror of what I’d just done to a superhero.

I could settle that inner turmoil later and decide on a way to make amends to Clockblocker at the same time.  There were still five Wards and a stranger on the rooftop to be taken out, if I wanted to stay out of jail.

 

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

 

Agitation 3.10

Six good guys were still in action, as far as I knew.  Clockblocker was down, and posed no threat unless someone walked into his reach where he was lying down, or unless we took longer than the ten or so minutes it would take his power to release him.  Angelica and Brutus were playing a macabre game of tug of war, using Aegis as the rope.

The rest of the battlefield was chaos.  Patches of darkness covered everything, and the landscape was distorted.  In some of the areas Vista had warped, the rain wasn’t falling in a straight line.  One spot in particular had the rain moving horizontally before it dropped to help fill a massive puddle thirty feet across, where her power had made an indent in the ground.

Aegis and Clockblocker were more or less dealt with.  As Vista was the last remaining priority target,  I directed my remaining swarm towards her.  They wouldn’t reach her quickly though, as the rain bogged them down, and both puddles and distorted space forced a more roundabout route for the bugs.

Bitch, still riding Judas, came rushing out of a cloud of darkness, splashing through the huge puddle.  Kid Win and Gallant opened fire on her with laser beams and painfully bright blasts of energy.  She was moving fast and unpredictably enough that Judas only took one or two glancing hits.  The distance between her and Vista rapidly closed.

Vista raised her hand, and the surface of the street bulged upward into a short wall.  As it grew, the wall caught one of Judas’ forepaws, tripping him.  He fell, and his rider was sent tumbling head over heels.

Bitch got to her feet before Judas did, but only managed to take a single step before one of Gallant’s blasts clipped her.  I winced.  His light blasts were charged with energy that made the people struck feel a particular emotion.  Gallant could blast you with one that made you hopeless, scared, sad, ashamed…

Bitch screamed, and it was a long and primal noise, filled with rage.  I was still inside the bank, watching things unfold through the window, barely able to hear it, and it still made my skin crawl.  So he’d shot the dangerous psychopath with a blast that made her angry.  Someone would have to explain that one to me at a later date.

Whirling, still screaming, she pointed at Gallant.  Apparently that was order enough, because Judas charged at the teenager that was dressed like a science fiction Lancelot.

Bitch didn’t attack him though.  Without her dogs at her back, essentially without powers, she went straight for Vista.  She was focused enough to stay on the priority target.

Vista was ready, though.  As Bitch tried to close the distance, the roadway between her and the young heroine stretched out, until the distance she had to cover was two, three, four, five times as far.  Vista then pinched the space behind her closer together, crossed a third of a block with a single skip, and then returned it to normal.  I swore under my breath, and not just because my bugs had a lot more distance to travel.  My head was pounding again, and it was getting steadily worse.

Was someone’s power at work, giving me a headache?  There wasn’t anyone in the Wards, I was pretty sure, who could mess with your head like that.  Gallant could mess with your emotions, but he had to hit you with a light blast to do it.  The person on the roof, then?  I was fairly confident there wasn’t anyone in the Protectorate or New Wave who could affect me like this.

Bitch gave up on Vista and whistled for Judas.  The dog responded immediately, abandoning his skirmish with Gallant, who was trying and failing to stand.  A wash of darkness consumed him before he managed to pick himself up.

Kid Win opened fire on Bitch as her dog returned to her.  Given the excessive distance between them – it would have been a hard shot to make before Vista stretched the area that Bitch was standing on – meaning his aim was wildly off target.  He stopped, changed a setting, and fired a fresh salvo.  This time, the lasers came out in more of a staccato spray, like you’d expect from a machine gun.  One of the lasers caught Bitch in the center of her stomach and laid her flat.  Judas guarded his owner by hunkering over her, blocking further shots and obscuring my view of her.

Near Vista, a large figure staggered out of the darkness, shadows still clinging to him, bellowing and screaming incoherently about bugs.  He thrashed for several moments, then collapsed into a heap a short distance from Vista.  Someone that large could only be Browbeat.  Vista apparently reached the same conclusion I did, because she took a few steps closer to him, looking around helplessly for a way to help him.

An instant after I realized that I didn’t actually have bugs on Browbeat, the figure struck Vista across the side of the head, laying her flat.  I saw the briefest glimpse of Grue’s skull mask before he and Vista were covered by a fresh tide of his darkness.

“Bitch, Vista, Clockblocker, Gallant are out of action, I think,” I called across the room to Tattletale, who was still hammering away at a keyboard.  “We’ve got Aegis handled for the time being.  Not sure what happened to Browbeat, but there’s only him, Kid Win and the person on the roof to deal with, now.  We can make a break for it soon.”

“One last thing to do,” Tattletale grinned to me, “I’ll be right back.  Keep an eye on things here.”

“What?  No – Tattletale!  Dammit!” I shouted, but she was already running, heading back into the offices that we’d been through on our way to the bank.

I didn’t have time to dwell on her leaving.  Flickers of light outside the bank caught my attention.  Kid Win was flying fifteen feet above the ground on his hoverboard.  In front of him, pieces of a massive device were materializing, shimmering into existence like you saw with the transporters on Star Trek.  It was only one or two steps away from being complete, but you could tell what it was.  A gun, no less than fifteen feet long, with a barrel three or four feet across, all turret mounted on a circular platform not unlike the board he was riding.

“Shit,” I whispered to myself.  I sent my bugs after him.

He swiveled the cannon to face Judas, who was still guarding the spot where Bitch had fallen.  A bolt of light erupted from the cannon and sent Judas flying beyond my field of vision.  He fired another shot, at a greater distance, presumably at the fallen dog.  Then he swiveled and fired off two more shots in quick succession, blasting Aegis and the two dogs that were gripping him.

The dogs and Aegis were all sent flying into the wall of the office building opposite the bank.  While the dogs didn’t get up immediately, a bloody and tattered Aegis was on his feet in an instant, and in the air a moment later.  He got to a good height – maybe two or three stories up, and stayed there, likely to get his bearings and survey the situation.

As my bugs approached the Kid, he took notice and maneuvered his cannon to decimate the swarm.  I spread them out, but he simply pulled a lever and released a flamethrower-like blast of lightning and sparks, eliminating virtually all of the bugs I’d sent out into the street.  The scant few that that remained, I sent towards his face, to crawl beneath his visor and into his nose and mouth.  It wasn’t enough.

Then Kid Win aimed the cannon straight at me.

I jumped for cover the moment I realized what he was doing.  There was a muffled sound, more a very large person someone hitting a punching bag than what I’d expect a laser cannon to sound like, and the window exploded.

What was he doing?  We had hostages inside.  I turned to check, and saw there weren’t any hostages near me.  Did he know that?  Heat sensors in his visor?  Was someone watching me through the cameras and passing him info?  Damn it!  There was too much I didn’t know, and Tattletale wasn’t around to fill me in.

Grue sprinted between two clouds of darkness, raising one hand to send a blast of his power towards Kid Win, obscuring the Kid’s line of sight.  Kid Win responded by ponderously maneuvering himself and the cannon out of the top of the cloud of darkness.

I swore under my breath and sent a command for more of the bugs I had inside to drop from the ceiling and go outside to attack.  There were a good few bugs near Clockblocker, who were getting free of the time stopping effect he’d laid on them.  I added those to the assault.

My legs buckled as my headache worsened tenfold.  Worse, the response from my bugs was sluggish, like I was ordering them to move through mud.  I felt a momentary panic, but there wasn’t really anything I could do.  I grit my teeth and ordered the attack anyways, then forced myself to run for the other side of the bank, in case he could somehow detect me and shoot through the walls to hit me.

I glanced through the windows for Aegis as I passed them.  Through the rain, and the darkness that lingered on the surface of the windows, I spotted him.  His white costume was wet with rain and ridiculous amounts of blood, and he was diving straight for the bank like a human missile.  Damn it.

Inexplicably, his descent wavered, then curved.  He flew straight into the ground, full force, hard enough to crack pavement.  One of the dogs, I couldn’t tell which, had managed to extricate itself from the rubble of the shattered wall and rushed at the fallen Aegis.

Kid Win was occupied trying to do three things at once – he was maneuvering out of the way of the clouds of darkness Grue was setting in his way, making return potshots at Grue as Grue zig zagged between spots of cover and with every free moment, he was blasting hundreds of my bugs out of the air.  If my power was at full strength, my bugs probably would have reached him already, but something was interfering.  That, or I’d overexerted myself.  The bugs were slow to react, slow to move and some were slipping from my grasp, returning to their instinctive behavior.  Making matters worse, I wasn’t blind to the fact that every time I gave a command, my headache got exponentially worse.

With Kid Win occupied as he was, the dog had a clear path to Aegis.  Aegis didn’t try to run this time.  He stood his ground and reached for his utility belt.  He retrieved something that looked like a miniature fire extinguisher.

Then he pulled the pin.

For the second time in a matter of minutes, I dove away from the window.  It wouldn’t be a grenade, but the option that made the most sense-  I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears just in time.  The explosion the flashbang grenade made was enough to leave me breathless, and there was a stone wall and some fifty or so feet between us.

I chanced a careful look through the window as soon as I’d recovered, hands still over my ears.  The dog was reeling, making pained sounds, and Aegis was pummeling it, using his flight to close the distance and add more momentum to his swings.  When the dog, Angelica, I saw, looked like it was starting to recover, he grabbed two more flashbang grenades from his belt with one hand and pulled the pins with the other, dropping them to the ground just below him.

I ducked behind cover again, but they didn’t go off.  When I chanced another look, I saw the tables had turned.  Where the flashbangs had been dropped, there was a smudge of Grue’s darkness covering the ground.  Angelica was having it out with Aegis, and Regent was striding out of the darkness, in Kid Win’s direction.

I’d forgotten about Regent.  It made sense that he was working from a discreet position like I was.  He probably would have been the one to alter Aegis’ flight path.

Seeing Regent approach, Kid Win turned his turret-mounted cannon in his direction.  Before he could fire, though, Regent raised two fingers, and Kid Win lost his footing on his flying skateboard.  The cannon shifted until it was pointing straight up, as the young hero dangled from the handles, his weight altering the trajectory of the cannon.  His board clattered to the ground a few feet away.

Regent made a dismissive wave, and Kid Win let go with one hand, his fingers and arm curling backwards in a palsied fit.  Regent repeated the gesture, and Kid Win lost his grip on the controls, dropping a good twenty feet to the asphalt.

As Regent approached to stand over him, Kid Win reached for his laser pistol.  He scowled in frustration as his fingers continued to twitch and curl involuntarily, instead of closing on the handle of the gun.

With an almost relaxed air, Regent shoved the end of his tazer into Kid Win’s side.

I don’t know if it was the sense of relief, but I couldn’t help but laugh as Regent collected the fallen skateboard and began a wobbly ascent to the floating cannon turret.  He aimed and began firing at Aegis, who was forced to scramble out of the way.

“What’s so funny, psycho?”

I whirled to face the voice, and saw the freckled, brown haired hostage that had been glaring at me when we’d first taken control of the bank lobby.  After that, I saw only stars as she slammed something large and blunt into the side of my head.

 

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Agitation 3.11

I crashed into the office chair behind me and both the chair and I toppled to the ground.  The armor of my mask had taken the worst of the hit, but it still hurt as much as anything I’d ever experienced.

The girl glowered at me from behind her mop of frizzy brown hair.  In her hands she was gripping a fire extinguisher.  Behind her, past the lights that were flickering across my field of vision, I could see the hostages streaming upstairs.  It was disorienting, because the bugs I’d left on them were telling me they were still in the corner of the lobby, staying still.  I could feel one spider shift slightly as the person it was riding exhaled, then shuddered a little, even as I saw that same person stumbling and nearly falling on the stairs in their haste to get away.

I reached for the bugs, tried to tell one to move, and everything went wrong.  There were no words the words to describe it, exactly.  It was like feedback.  If my brain had been a computer, I got the feeling I’d only be getting hundreds or thousands of error messages popping up across the screen.  It was painful, too, just compounding until it felt like my brain was being used as a punching bag.

I pressed my hand to my head, wincing at the pain, and it wasn’t just from being bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher.  The headache was at near-migraine levels now, and I desperately wanted to tear off my mask and try to throw up, if only to relieve of the nausea that was welling up.  I was getting an idea of why I’d been feeling so off.

“What the fuck did you do?” I asked the girl.

“You don’t need to know that.”  She swung the fire extinguisher over her head at me, and I scrambled out of the way, grabbing the edge of a table to haul myself to my feet as I did it.

She didn’t chase me.  Instead, she reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved a cell phone.  She started to punch a number into the keypad with one hand, the other holding the fire extinguisher.  Her eyes were trained on me.

There was no way I was going to let her make that phone call, whoever she was dialing.  I went on the offense, lunging towards her as I reached into the armored compartment at my back and retrieved the extendable baton.  I pulled the trigger and flicked it out to one side.  Eighteen inches of black painted alloy with a weighted tip snapped out from the foam-grip handle.

Her eyes widened as I swung the baton, but she had the presence of mind to drop the phone and heft the fire extinguisher up to block the attack.  Her grip on the fire extinguisher wasn’t good enough for her to keep hold of it, so it clattered to the ground.  She backed away rather than risk trying to pick it up again.

The girl retreated as I advanced towards her.  I stopped when I was standing over her cell phone.  I collapsed and sheathed my baton, then bent down and retrieved the fire extinguisher.  I smashed the phone with the butt end of it.

“Shit.  I liked that phone,” she muttered.

“Shut up,” I retorted, the pain making my voice strained, harder edged, “What the fuck did you do to me?”  I pressed the heel of my free hand against my forehead, as if the pressure could help stave off the pain.

“I… don’t think I’ll tell you.”

“Who the fuck are you, and who were you trying to call?”

“Actually, it was a text, not a call, and it went through,” she said.  Then she smiled at me.

At the same moment I uttered the word ‘Who’, one of the windows at the side of the bank shattered.  A blur of white and gold slammed into the center of the lobby hard enough to send fragments of marble tile skittering over the floor to my feet, halfway across the room.

The figure straightened, dusted herself off and turned to glare at me.  Almost casually, she backhanded the marble and oak table to her left that held all of the withdrawal and deposit slips.  With that lazy swing of her arm, she annihilated the table, doing so much damage to it that nobody would ever be putting it together again.

It’s humiliating to admit, but I nearly wet myself.  I’m not sure my reaction would have been much different if she didn’t have a power that made her flat out terrifying.  Literally, that’s what her power did.  Had I done something heinous in a past life, to deserve going up against Lung on my first time out in costume, and Glory Girl on my second?

“Hey sis,” Glory Girl tilted her head to one side, to look at the brown haired girl, “You okay?”

The girl, who could be none other than Amy Dallon, Panacea when she was in costume, offered Glory Girl a beaming smile, “I am now.”

Glory Girl’s sister had been among the hostages.  Damn it.  At least I knew who she was now.  She could heal with a touch, and if what she’d done to my powers was any indication, that wasn’t the full extent of her abilities.  Glory Girl and Panacea were celebrities, even if Panacea had generally avoided the spotlight as of late.  They were among the most famous of the local heroes, arguably among the most powerful of the kid capes, they were pissed at me, and I was stuck in a room with them.

And my powers weren’t working.

Glory Girl stepped towards me, and I scrambled for Panacea.  She scrabbled for a grip at my costume, trying to grab at my glove, then at my mask,  but the moment I drew my knife, both she and Glory Girl went absolutely still.  I grabbed Panacea’s chin and maneuvered so I was standing behind her, my knife pressed to her throat.

“Count yourself lucky, bug bitch, that your costume covers your entire body,” Panacea murmured to me, “Or I’d maybe give you a heart attack.  Or cancer.”

I swallowed hard.  I wasn’t counting myself as particularly lucky at this point.

“It seems we have a stalemate,” Glory Girl said.

“True,” I replied.

“So are we just going to stand around here until reinforcements arrive for one side or the other, tip the scales in someone’s favor?”

“I could live with that.  Last I saw, my side was winning.”

“I helped Aegis out of a jam on my way in, so he’s keeping your little friends busy.  You should also know that the Protectorate is on their way from a wine and dine with Brockton Bay’s finest at the Augustus Country Club.  Can’t speak for them, but I know I’d be royally pissed if some little snots dragged me away from a chance to have the club’s chocolate mousse.”

Panacea made a little laugh, “It is good, isn’t it?” then in a lower voice, she whispered to me, “What if I fucked up your taste buds, you little terrorist?  You threaten the lives of innocents, I can go that far.  I can do anything with your biology.  Make everything you eat taste like bile.  Or maybe I’ll just make you fat.  Morbidly, disgustingly fat.”

“You can shut up now,” I tightened my grip and pressed the knife a fraction harder against her throat.  Between the stress of the moment, the pounding headache and the fact that fucking Glory Girl was standing not fifty feet away, I didn’t need little sister distracting me with nightmarish imagery.

Glory Girl spoke up, “It’s not just the Protectorate, either.  You just took a member of New Wave hostage, threatened her life.  There’s a pretty damn good chance my mom, dad, aunt, uncle and cousins will be showing up, too.  Brandish, Flashbang, Lady Photon, Manpower, Laserdream, Shielder… how are you going to manage, then?”

Fuck.  I had no reply to that.  I kept my mouth shut.  I was barely able to focus, now, as my head throbbed.  My vision was wavering around the edges, and my grip on my bugs was virtually gone.  Most had freed themselves from my influence entirely, and were buzzing around the light fixtures or crawling for darkness.  It was all I could do to stay standing and keep my hands steady.

“Drop the knife and surrender, and I’ll make sure you get leniency.”

“I’ve read up on the law enough that I know you don’t have the power to make any deals,” I said, “No go.”

“Okay.  Then I guess we wait.”

A few long moments passed.

Glory Girl turned her attention to her sister, “I wanted to go to the mall for lunch, but noooo,” Glory Girl said, “You needed to go to the bank.”

“It was either going to the bank or wind up broke for that double date you’re forcing me into.”

“Ames, the guy I’m setting you up with is a sixteen year old millionaire.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to foot the bill for dinner and a movie.”

“Could you two please shut up?” I growled.

“Do they have to?  It’s all very informative,” Tattletale joked as she sidled into the room.  She hoisted herself up to the edge of one of the teller’s stations, then greeted Glory Girl, “Hey Glory Hole.”

Glory Girl’s face twitched.

“Hey, Tattletale,” I called out, my voice a touch strained, “Not that I’m not glad to see you, but could you avoid antagonizing Alexandria Junior?”

“Eh.  You seem to have things under control.  Why not set the bugs on the prom queen?”

“Prom queen?” Glory Girl asked.

“Um,” I cut in, before either of them could say something that started a fight, “First of all, she’s invincible.  Second, again, bad idea to irritate someone who can swing a schoolbus like a baseball bat.  Third, my hostage here did something to fuck up my powers.”

“That last bit sucks,” Tattletale sympathized.  Then she took a closer look at Panacea, “Shit.  Amy Dallon?  Grue is going to kill me, for missing that.  You look different than you did when you were showing up in the news.  Are you wearing your hair differently?”

“Tattletale,” I interjected, again, “Less small talk, more problem solving.  Glory Girl said the Protectorate and maybe New Wave are en route.”

Tattletale glanced at Glory Girl, then frowned, “She’s not lying.  Let’s start with problem three, since you’re not looking so hot.  Your powers aren’t working?”

“Can’t control my bugs, got a major headache.”

“Think I know why.  Let me fix that for you,” Tattletale said.  She hopped down from the teller’s station and started to walk towards me and Panacea.

“Don’t move,” Glory Girl warned.

“Or what?” Tattletale whirled to face the girl, smiling, “You’ll beat me up?  You can’t do anything while my teammate has a knife to your sister’s throat.  Sit.  Stay.  Good girl.”

Glory Girl glowered at Tattletale, but she didn’t move.

“I think it would be better if you stayed back,” I warned her, “You get in Panacea’s reach, she’ll touch you and give you a stroke or something.”

“Can she?  Sure.  Will she?  Definitely not.  She’s all bark, no bite.”

“Try me,” Panacea taunted.  I reasserted my grip and reminded her of the knife against her throat.

“I’d really prefer to avoid tempting fate,” I said, carefully.

“Fine, fine,” Tattletale said, raising her hands in a placating gesture.  She walked over to the branch manager’s desk and opened a drawer.

“You pull a gun out of that drawer,” Glory Girl threatened, “And I’ll fucking break you.”

“Enough with the threats you can’t follow up on.  It’s not a gun,” Tattletale grinned, raising her hands again.  A keychain dangled from her left thumb.

“Keys,” Glory Girl said.

“The keys of manager Jeffry Clayton.  Type A personality, totally.  Control freak.  The kind of guy who loves to have absolute control over a meeting.”

“First of all, who cares?  Second, how do you know this?”

“Come on,” Tattletale smiled, folding her arms, “Villain 101.  You don’t give info to the hero in a gloating monologue.”

“Right,” Glory Girl agreed, “Always worth a try.”

“I’ll tell you anyways.”

Glory Girl raised an eyebrow.

“No reason not to.  Actually in my advantage to let you know.  I’m psychic.  I read his mind when we had him hostage, like I’m reading yours right now,” the lie was so smooth I almost believed it.

A flash of red caught my attention.  The red dot from a laser pointer settled on the hood of Panacea’s jacket. I looked at Tattletale, and saw that while she had her arms folded, she was holding a laser pointer that was attached to the keychain.  I watched Tattletale draw a lazy circle around the spot she’d pointed to, on Panacea’s jacket.

“Bullshit,” Glory Girl said, “The brainpower you’d need to interpret and decode someone’s unique neural patterns would need a head five times the usual size to contain it all.  True psychics can’t exist.”

“Ooh, someone’s taking Parahumans 101 at the university.  Your parents pull some strings, got you into a university course before you were done high school?”

“I think you already know the answer, I’m just not buying that you read my mind to get it.”

“Why is it so hard to believe?  Legend can shoot lasers from his hands, lasers that turn corners.  Clockblocker and Vista can mess with the fundamental forces of space and time.  Kaiser can create metal from thin air.  Conservation of mass, conservation of energy, basic laws of our universe get broken by capes all the time.  All of that is possible, but I can’t peek into your brain?”

Tattletale was still focusing the laser pointer on Panacea’s hood.  Since I was the only person in a position to see it, it could only be for my benefit.  I pulled the hood back, investigated the interior and found nothing.  But on the nape of her neck, I spotted one of my black widow spiders.

I pulled it off her gently, and felt the pain in my head worsen with the contact, the movement.  Either by impulse or by reflex as I flinched at the pain, I crushed it between my fingers.

Immediately, the pain in my head dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  The relief was so intense it was almost euphoric.  I still didn’t fully grasp what Panacea done, but I was getting a good picture of it.  She’d somehow sensed what I was doing to control the spider, then altered things so the spider wasn’t sending me the right information.  A continuous loop of the wrong information, like when thieves in the movies spliced a video camera feed to repeat the same segment over and over.  Either by accident or design, it had exponentially increased the interference every time my power reached for the arachnids in question.  All building up to a metaphorical short circuit of my power.

I could barely fathom the subtleties and delicacy that would have required to set up.

“Glory Gi-” Panacea began to speak, but I tightened my grip, and she closed her mouth.

“Shhhh,” I hissed at her.

“Scholars say you’re wrong.”

Tattletale grinned, “Scholars want me to be wrong, and their research reflects that.  Telepathy scares the everloving crap out of people, especially since the only suspected telepath out there is-“

“The Simurgh,” Glory Girl finished for her.

“Right.  And when a fucking Endbringer is your precedent, people get spooked, just like you’re spooked right now, at the idea that there’s someone standing in front of you who can find your deepest darkest secrets and tell the world.”

Tattletale was pointing to Panacea’s upper arm now.  It took me two tries to murder the spider.  Before I’d finished, Tattletale was directing me to the final one, which I’d stashed on Panacea’s ankle. I killed it by jabbing at it with my toe.  The headache was completely gone a second later.

“Which is why you call yourself Tattletale, I see,” Glory Girl was saying, “But you’re a retard.  We’re part of New Wave.  We have no secrets.  That’s the whole fucking point of our team.  Heroes with no secret identities, no secrets, full disclosure, total accountability.”

“For the record,” Tattletale said, her voice very smooth and calm, “I fucking hate it when people call me stupid.”

“Yet here the two of you are, and neither of you have powers that work against either of us.  All you’ve got is a knife, and if you use it, you both die in the most painful way I think I can get away with.”

“Oh honey, now who’s being stupid?  I’ve got the most powerful weapon of all, Tattletale purred, smiling wickedly, “Information.”

 

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Agitation 3.12

“Information,” Glory Girl repeated.

Tattletale twirled the keys around one of her fingers, “For instance, it’s not exactly public knowledge that Panacea was adopted.”

“It’s not a secret either.  It’s on official record.”

“Falsified records,” Tattletale grinned.

Glory Girl glanced at her sister.

“Let me tell you a little story.  Correct me if I’m wrong on any of the details.  Eleven years ago, just five years after capes really started showing up, there was a team operating hereabouts, calling themselves the Brockton Bay Brigade.  Lady Photon, Manpower, Brandish, Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  They wind up taking on a villain in his own home and it’s a pretty decent fight.  They beat him, and because he was a real bastard, he got sent straight to the Birdcage.”

“You can stop now,” Glory Girl said, “Point made.”

“Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the good part.  See, they found a little girl hiding in the closet.  His little girl, a toddler,” Tattletale grinned at Panacea, “Given the odds that someone with powers would have a kid with powers, and knowing how the little girl would never be able to have a normal life with word inevitably getting out about her past, they wound up taking her in.”

“We know this story already,” Glory Girl replied, her tone just a touch testy.

Whatever Tattletale was doing, I sensed it was giving us more control over the situation.  I commented, “This is new to me.  I’m sort of intrigued.”

“The point I’m getting at, Glory Hole, is that I know that one detail you two don’t.  Or at least, I’m willing to look at all the little clues that you’ve got floating around your heads and figure out that one thing that you’ve gone out of your way to avoid knowing.  Glory Hole’s curious, but she avoids the subject because her sister desperately wants her to, and Panacea…  Well, if I told her, I suspect she’d do something very stupid.”

I could feel Panacea slump in my arms.  The fight had gone out of her.

“So, Amy, you want to know who your daddy is?”

For a few long moments, there was only the sound of rain pattering on the windowsill, and the buzzing of the insects still in the room.

“It’s that bad?” I asked in a half whisper, as much to Panacea as to Tattletale.

“It’s not the man that would bother her so much.  It’s the knowing.  Every hour of every day after hearing me say his name, she would wonder.  She’s terrified she’ll start second guessing every part of herself, wondering if she inherited it from him, or if she was that way out of an unconscious desire to not be him.  Knowing as much as she does already keeps her awake some nights, but knowing his name, knowing who he is and what he did?  For the rest of her life, she would compare herself to him.  Isn’t that right, Amy?”

“Shut up.  Just… shut up,” Panacea retorted, her voice thick with emotion.

“Why?  I’m on a roll.  That’s not even the most dangerous tidbit of info I’ve picked up, here.  I know stuff that’s just as bad.”

I saw a flicker of doubt cross Glory Girl’s face.

“I’ll make you a deal, Glory Hole.  You go in the vault, lock yourself in, and I don’t speak on the subject.  I won’t say the one sentence that tears your family apart.”

Glory Girl clenched her fists, “I can’t do that.  I’m calling your bluff, and if I’m wrong, I’ll face the consequences of whatever you say.”

“Very principled.  Very self-involved too, that you think the secret and the consequences have to do with you and your overzealous nature.  They don’t.  They have to do with her.”  Tattletale directed the laser pointer at Panacea’s forehead, “You won’t be tickled pink, either, but the aftermath would be hers to deal with.  Humiliation, shame, heartbreak.”

I could feel Panacea stiffen in my grip.

“Offer stands,” Tattletale grinned, “For the next twelve seconds.  Get in the vault.”

“You’re full of shit,” Panacea spat the words.

“Then why are you so tense?” I asked.

“Eight seconds.”

Panacea abruptly tore out of my grip, so violently I had to pull the knife away to keep her from cutting her own throat against it.

Tattletale scrambled to put a desk between herself and Panacea, but Glory Girl slammed into her, carrying her across the length of the room.  They stopped just short of a wall.  Not that Tattletale got away unscathed.  Glory Girl shoved Tattletale into the wall, one hand over her mouth, and held her there.

While Panacea was distracted, I passed my knife into my left hand and gripped my baton.  I pressed the trigger while swinging it, letting the momentum of the swing draw it out to its full length.  Panacea saw me coming, but I don’t know if she realized what I was holding.  The length of metal struck her across the side of the head.  She staggered a few feet, then went down hard.

Unfortunately for me, Glory Girl saw it all unfold.

“Nobody fucks with my family!” she shouted, and her power cranked out full-bore.  My knees turned to jelly and my brain just gave up on rational thought.  Glory Girl threw Tattletale at me like a very strong child might throw a rag doll, and I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.

Tattletale’s body collided with my midsection, knocking the wind out of me.  The two of us collided with a desk, sending a monitor and a plastic box of files to the floor.  Paper and fragments of monitor scattered over the ground.

We were still reeling when Glory Girl started floating towards us.  I was struggling, unsuccessfully, to heave wheezing gasps of air into my lungs, while Tattletale was gripping one of her arms tight against her body, making little whimpering noises.

“I’m going to pull in every favor I’m owed, and put myself in debt with the local D.A. and whoever else I have to, to get you both sent to the Birdcage,” Glory Girl promised, “You know what that place is like?  A prison without wardens.  No communication with the outside world.  No escapes yet, which is pretty amazing considering it houses all of the worst and most powerful villains we’ve been able to capture.  We don’t even know for sure if anyone’s alive inside there.  It’s just a bucket where we dump scum like you, so we never have to worry about you again.”

“Bugs,” Tattletale grunted at me, almost too quiet to hear.

I didn’t catch her meaning, but I was still struggling to catch my breath, so I just shook my head at her.

“And no contact with the outside world means you don’t go fucking talking about whatever Amy wants to keep private.  I trust my sister, I trust she has a reason for keeping it to herself.”

“Bugs.  Swarm her,” Tattletale said, taking lots of little breaths as she said it.

I caught her meaning.  I reached for my swarm, and was glad to find that my power was working perfectly.  Panacea’s sabotage job had been undone when I’d killed the last of the spiders.  I set every bug I could reach on Glory Girl.

Useless.  It felt like I’d set them on unnaturally strong, slick glass.

“Idiots,” Glory Girl’s muffled voice came from the midst of the cloud of insects, “I’m invincible.”

Tattletale used her good arm to prop herself up, groaning, “First of all, I warned you about calling me stupid.  Second, no, you’re not invincible.  Not exactly.”

Then she raised her good hand from her belt and trained a small handgun on Glory Girl.

The sound was deafening.  You don’t really get a sense for how intense gunfire is from TV and movies.  As is, it was enough that it took me a few seconds to get a grip.  Just a heartbeat later, I realized my bugs had broken through.  They found flesh to latch on to, flesh to bite, sting, claw and puncture.  Glory Girl dropped like a stone and started thrashing violently.

“Help me stand,” Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Using my power like that on them took a lot out of me.”

I grabbed her good hand and helped her up.  With one of her arms around my shoulders, we hurried out of the bank, together.  She shoved the gun into one of the largest pouches of her belt.

“What-” I tried, but talking just sent me into a spasm of painful coughs.  We were down the front steps of the bank before I felt like trying again, “What just happened?”

“She’s not really invincible.  That’s just an idea she likes to put in people’s heads.  She has a forcefield around her entire body, but it shorts out whenever she takes a good hit, comes back online a few seconds later.  I knew when I saw she had dust on her costume.  Dust that her forcefield would keep off her.  Fuck, this hurts.”

“What is it?”

“She pulled my arm out of the socket when she threw me.  Can you fix a dislocated shoulder?”

I shook my head.  I knew how, generally speaking, from the first aid classes I had taken, but I doubted I had the strength to manage it, and I didn’t want to waste time getting Tattletale in a good position to fix her arm when we needed to be gone.

The fight outside the bank was still going our way.  Only Aegis was still in action, and he was hemmed in by the three dogs and Regent’s borrowed laser cannon.

Grue stepped out of the darkness near me, holding onto Bitch much the same way I was holding Tattletale.

“Let’s scram,” I said.

“Let’s,” he agreed, in his haunting voice.

“Hey G-man,” Tattletale winced, “Pop my shoulder back in?”

Grue nodded.  I helped brace Tattletale as he shoved her arm back into place.  He asked, “What happened?”

“It was Glory Girl on the roof,” I explained, then I coughed painfully a few times before adding, “Can we please get the fuck out of here?”

“You guys took Glory Girl?” Grue asked, incredulous, while Bitch roused herself enough to whistle for her dogs.

“In a sense,” Tattletale replied, at the same time I nervously pointed out, “She could be coming after us any second.”

We got on the dogs, and Regent fired a salvo of shots from the laser cannon into Aegis, hammering him into the side of a building until the wall around him collapsed.  He then paused to jam his taser into the control panel.  When the gun started to smoke, Regent made his way down, jumping the last four or five feet to land on a dog’s back.  He tucked the skateboard under one arm.

“Leave it,” Grue said.

“But-“

“Tracking device.  Assume any tinker worth a damn is going to have tracking devices in their stuff.”

“It’s true,” Tattletale answered, as Regent turned towards her.  “Sorry.”

“Fuck!” Regent swore.  He jammed his tazer into the underside of the skateboard like he had with the control panel, then threw it across the street.

We were mounted with Bitch sitting in front of Grue, mainly so he could support her, and Tattletale behind me on Angelica, her uninjured arm wrapped around me.  Regent was alone.

Grue raised his arms, and filled the street with darkness.

Angelica bolted, nearly unseating me, as she made a headlong run into the absolute darkness.  I was on a creature more than twice the size of a horse, without a saddle, and she wasn’t suited for riding in the same way a horse was.  I had one foot resting on a horn of bone that jutted from her side, while the other dangled.  My hands were gripping the straps we’d fitted her with, the only thing from keeping me tumbling backwards, head over heels, as she lunged forward at run that would probably outpace any cars on the road.  Not that there would be any cars.  The police and parahuman response teams would have the area blocked off around any potential cape fights.  To make our escape all the more terrifying, I knew the dog couldn’t see.  She was following Brutus by scent, and Brutus was going by Grue’s directions.  The blind leading the blind.

I should have been terrified, my hands cramping, unable to see or hear, knowing I could tumble off at any second, but I was elated.  Even when Angelica crashed into something hard enough to nearly knock us off, it didn’t kill my enthusiasm.  I hooted, hollered and cheered our victory, barely hearing the noise myself as the darkness absorbed it.

We’d done it.  I’d done it.  We’d escaped without killing anyone.  The only ones who’d really been hurt at all had been the Wards, Glory Girl and Panacea, and that would be fixed when Panacea came to, for sure.  Any property damage had largely been the fault of the Wards and Glory Girl.  I’d maybe made some enemies, I’d scared some innocent people, but I’d be lying to myself if I said that could’ve been avoided.  In short, things couldn’t have gone better.

Okay, they could have gone a lot better, but the way they ended up?  Pretty damn good, all in all.

Aegis would have climbed out of the rubble by now, flown up for a bird’s eye view.  If Grue was doing what we’d planned, he was filling every street and side street we passed with darkness.  Aegis couldn’t see where or if we doubled back or what streets we took, so he could only identify our location by the places where fresh darkness appeared.  If he tried to close in to get us, though, we’d be gone by the time he reached us.  All he could do was follow our general location.

Just when I thought I might not be able to hold on any longer, we pulled to a stop.  Tattletale and I slipped off of Angelica.  Someone, probably Grue, pushed a backpack into my arms.  Even working in total darkness, I managed to change into the set of civilian clothes we’d hidden away before we headed to the bank.  I was handed an umbrella and gratefully unfolded it with my stiff hands.

It was tense, waiting in the darkness, with only the feeling of the rain on the umbrella to give me a sense of the world beyond myself and of time passing.

It was a long time before the world came into view again.  Grue said his darkness faded after twenty minutes or so, but it felt like far longer than that.  As the darkness cleared away, I saw Lisa sitting on the steps at the front of a shoe store, holding aleash in one hand and a paper shopping bag in the other.  Angelica, as normal as she ever was, was on the other end of the leash, sitting patiently.  All around us were shoppers and pedestrians, each with their umbrellas and raincoats, looking around with scared expressions and wide eyes.  The sounds were refreshing after the silence of the darkness – falling rain and the murmur of conversation.

Lisa stood, and winked at me as she tugged on the leash to get Angelica following at her side.  We joined the crowd of disoriented shoppers.

Assuming things went according to plan, Alec would be dropped off next, without a dog, and he’d change into civilian clothes the same way we had.  Bitch, Brian and the two dogs would make the final stop at a storage locker near the Docks.  Inside, they would change into their civies, relax for a few hours inside, and leave the money there for the boss to pick up.  After taking a long enough break that the heroes would have abandoned pursuit, they would make their way back much as we were.

“Everyone came out of this unscathed?” I asked Tattletale in a low voice.  I was sharing my umbrella with her, so speaking together in a kind of huddle wasn’t strange looking.

“No injuries or deaths for us, for the heroes or for the bystanders,” she confirmed.

“Then it’s a good day,” I said.

“A very good day,” she agreed.

Arm in arm, we walked leisurely through downtown.  Like everyone else, we craned our heads to follow the police cars and PRT vans that were rushing to the scene of the crime with sirens wailing.  Two girls who just finished their shopping, walking their dog.

Interlude 3

The building housing the local Parahuman Response Team division didn’t really stand out. The exterior was all windows, reflective enough to mirror the mottled dark gray of the sky overhead.  Only a shield logo bearing the letters ‘P.R.T.’ marked it apart from the other buildings of downtown Brockton Bay.

Those entering the lobby would find a strange juxtaposition at work.  On the one hand, you could see the various employees in suits, hurrying in and out of the building, talking in groups.  A team of four PRT officers was on standby, each stationed at a different area of the lobby, outfitted in the best equipment money could buy.  All had chain mesh and kevlar vests, helmets that covered their faces, and firearms.  The equipment differed, however, as two of them had grenade launchers hanging from straps on their shoulders with bandoliers of various specialty ammunition across their chests, including a fire extinguishing grenade, an EMP round and various stun grenades.  The other two had what appeared at first glance to be flame throwers; were they to pull the triggers, they would eject a thick, frothing spray of foam, enough to contain all but the strongest and fastest villains.

In stark contrast to this, there was the gift shop that would be thick with youths when school ended, sporting a selection of action figures, posters, video games and clothing.  Four-foot tall pictures of the various Protectorate and Wards team members were placed at regular intervals around the lobby, each backed by bright colors.

There was a cheery tour guide waiting patiently by the front desk, smiling handsomely at anybody who happened to glance his way.  On schedule, he would introduce tourists and children to the PRT offices, the armory, the training area and the parking lot with the parahuman containment vans, showing them what it took to manage the local heroes.  For those willing to pay for the premium tour, wait up to two hours and suffer a PRT squad escort, there would be an additional stop on the tour – a glimpse of the Wards’ Headquarters.

As a beleaguered team of young heroes staggered into the lobby, however, there was no tour, only a heavyset woman with a bob.  She wore a navy blue suit jacket and skirt, and waited with a pair of stern looking men in suits just behind her.  Wordlessly, she led them through a door behind the front desk and into a meeting room.

“Director Piggot.  Ma’am,” Aegis greeted her, his voice strained.  His costume was in shreds, and was more crimson with his own blood than it was its original white.  It was bad enough his civilian identity might have been revealed, if it weren’t for the matted blood and the chunks of meat that had been taken out of him, some of the wounds nearly a foot across.

“Good god, Aegis,” her eyebrows raised a fraction, “You look like hell.  What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Punctured lung, ma’am,” Aegis rasped, “I think there’s a hole in my front and back.”  As if to demonstrate, he stuck his fingers into his chest cavity.

Director Piggot didn’t look away, but one of the men standing behind her looked a touch green around the gills, “I can take you at your word.  You don’t need to stick your arm all the way through your chest to demonstrate.”

Aegis grinned and removed his hand from his chest.

Her expression hardened, “I wouldn’t be smiling right now.”

Aegis’ grin fell.  He glanced over his shoulder at his teammates.  Gallant, Kid Win, Vista, Browbeat and Clockblocker were all wearing suitably somber expressions.

“This was a fiasco,” she told them.

“Yes ma’am.  We lost,” Gallant admitted.

“You lost, yes.  That’s the least of it.  You also caused horrific amounts of property damage.  I’m afraid any and all destruction caused by New Wave’s golden child is also your responsibility, since you invited her along.  Without my say-so.

“I invited her,” Gallant spoke up, “I’ll take the blame, and you can take the costs for the property damage out of my trust.”

Director Piggot offered him a thin and utterly humorless smile, “Living up to your name, I see?  Yes, I’m sure that’s the best way to get the message across.  Your teammates and I know who you are under the mask.  Of everyone here, myself included, you’re the one most able to handle a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.”

“I won’t deny it, ma’am,” Gallant choked out the words.

“I’m afraid I’m a believer in punishment, when punishment is due.  Taking money from someone with money to spare is not going to mean anything.  All of you will share the fees between you.  Since I can’t touch the trust funds the PRT established for you, I’ll have to settle for docking your pay.  Maybe next time, the rest of you can talk Gallant out of inviting his girlfriend along.”

The protests overlapped. “It was her sister in the bank!  She would have gone in anyways!”  “I start college next fall!”

Director Piggot simply weathered the arguments and complaints.  A more cynical person might even suggest she enjoyed hearing them.  When a minute or two passed and it was clear she wasn’t going to reply or get dragged into the arguments, the young heroes fell into a sullen silence.  She cleared her throat and spoke again.

“Kid Win.  I’m very interested to hear about this weapon you deployed on the battlefield.”

“My Alternator Cannon?”  Kid Win asked, cringing just a bit.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Piggot smiled, “The paperwork gets to be a bit much sometimes.  Maybe you know where to find the documentation from our military and science teams, for this Alternator Cannon?”

“Christ, Kid,” Aegis groaned under his breath, with his ruined voice.

Kid Win looked more upset about Aegis’ reaction than anything else, “I, uh.  I didn’t get it officially cleared, yet.  I just thought it would be better to use the cannon and do what I could to stop the robbery.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong,” Piggot told him, “Fact of the matter is, the money that was taken from the bank falls very low on my priority list.  You might even go so far as to suggest I don’t care about it.”

“Director-” Aegis started.  He didn’t get to finish.

“What I care about is the public perception of capes.  I care about ensuring that we get enough funding to keep you Wards, the Protectorate and the PRT squads paid and equipped.  Without that, everything I’ve worked to build falls apart.”

“What are you going to do?” Kid Win asked her.

“The cannon gets dismantled, first off.”

“No!” Aegis and Kid Win spoke at the same time.  Director Piggot looked briefly surprised at the defiance.

“I started on the Alternator Cannon so I’d have something to bring out in case of a Class A threat,” Kid Win said, “Getting rid of it would be such a waste.  I don’t care if I never get to use it again.  Give it to your PRT squad.  I’ll teach someone how it works.  You can mount it on one of your trucks or something.”

Director Piggot frowned, “The amount of time and money that would require, for an event that might never occur… no.  I suppose you can keep the cannon.”

Kid Win practically sagged with relief.

“But whatever the power source is, you’re removing it, and I’m keeping it under lock and key.  If a Class A threat does come into play, I’ll hand it over to you.  And the cannon still goes through the standard review process for all Tinker created material.  If it doesn’t pass the review, if you were putting people and property at undue risk with what you pulled today, I’m afraid you could face a substantial fine or jail time.”

Kid Win paled.

“Director!” Aegis grunted out the word, taking a step forward.

“Be quiet, Aegis,” Piggot snapped, “Your trying to speak with a punctured lung physically pains me, and as much as I admire standing up for your team, your one lungful of breath is wasted here.”

Kid Win turned to Aegis and offered a small apologetic smile.

“Kid Win, you’re coming with us for a disciplinary review.  Everyone else is dismissed.  The tour group is going to be coming by your quarters in an hour, and there’s likely to be more than a few reporters peering in the window.  Try to clean yourselves up for the pictures that are undoubtedly going to appear in tomorrow’s papers.  Please.”

The two men in suits marched a miserable Kid Win out the door after Director Piggot.  Kid Win shot a worried look at his team before he was taken out of sight.

“We debrief,” Aegis grunted, “Gallant or Clockblocker handles it.  You two decide.”

The team trudged out of the meeting room and made their way to their reserved elevator.  It was Tinker-designed to impress the tourists as well as be far more secure.  Interlocking sections of metal unfolded and slid apart as they approached, then closed behind them.  The ride down was so smooth that it was nearly impossible to tell the elevator was moving.

They exited into a long corridor of chrome steel.

“I’m going to have nightmares,” Clockblocker groaned, as he tenderly touched the welts around his nose and mouth, “Nightmares with lots and lots of spiders.”

At the far end of the corridor, they came to a security terminal.  Aegis pointed at Clockblocker.

“Don’t you usually do it?”

“Retina maybe detached,” Aegis admitted in his halting voice, “Don’t want to fail scan.”

Clockblocker nodded hesitantly, then leaned forward to let the terminal scan his eyes.  Steel doors clicked, then whisked open with a barely audible whirr, letting the young heroes and heroine make their way into the main area of their headquarters.

The room was roughly dome-shaped, but there were sections of wall that were able to be dismantled and rearranged on the fly.  Some had been set up to give the various team members their individual quarters, while others framed the doorways that led into the showers, the filing room and their press/meeting room.  A series of computers and large monitors were networked at one side of the room, surrounded by a half-dozen chairs.  One of the monitors was displaying a countdown to the next tourist group, while others were showing camera images of key locations in the city.  The Central Bank was one of them, a dark image punctuated by the red and blue of police sirens.

“Shadow Stalker is AWOL?” Gallant asked.

“Couldn’t make it in time,” Aegis grunted, “Told her to stay put.”

“She’s going to hate that.  Doesn’t she have this huge hate-on for Grue?” Clockblocker asked.

“Part of the reason,” Aegis grunted out the words, “I told her to stay.  Don’t need that.  I’m going to shower.  Patch myself up.  You guys debrief.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” Clockblocker saluted.  “Take care of yourself.”

“Fucking mutant dogs,” Aegis muttered, as he made his way to the bathroom.  He was stripped out of the top half of his tattered costume before he was through the door.

“Vista?  Can you go grab the whiteboard?  Grab two?” Gallant turned to their junior member.  Vista almost skipped in her rush to follow the order.

“What’s going to happen to Kid?” Browbeat spoke up for the first time, “I don’t know how all this goes.  Is it serious?”

Gallant considered for a moment, “Could be, but my gut tells me Piggy just wants to scare him.  He needs to stop testing the limits with the people in charge, or he’s going to get in real trouble at some point.”

“So, not exactly the best start to your new career, huh?” Clockblocker turned to Browbeat.

“Fuck, I wouldn’t mind so much if I knew what happened,” Browbeat stretched, and his muscles began to dwindle in size, “At least then I could figure out what to do better next time.  All I know is that I was suddenly blind and deaf, and when I tried to move, everything bent the wrong way.  Then I think I got tasered.”

Vista returned, dragging a pair of whiteboards on wheeled frames behind her.

“Hold that thought,” Gallant told their newest member, “Hey Clock, you don’t mind if I take point?”

Clockblocker was still using his fingertips to explore the raised bumps on his face, “Go for it.  I’m going to procrastinate as long as I can on the leadership thing.”

“You’re next oldest, after Carlos.  It’s only going to be what, three or four months, before you’re the senior member?”

“And I’ll hold that position for not even the rest of the summer before I graduate and pass the mantle to you,” Clockblocker smiled self deprecatingly, “No worries.  Take charge.”

Gallant took off his helmet and held it in one hand, running his fingers through his sweat-damp blond hair.  He smiled winningly at Vista as she positioned the whiteboards so everyone could see them, “Thank you.”

Gallant didn’t need to use his power to get an emotional response from the thirteen year old heroine.  She turned a bright pink.  There could be no doubt for anyone present that she had a major crush on her senior teammate.

“Okay guys,” Gallant said, “Before we get started, I think it’s important to make some things clear.  First off, most importantly, today was not a failure.  I’d even say that today was a win for the good guys, and we start establishing that here and now.”

He took a second to gauge his audience’s disbelieving reactions, then smiled.

“The Undersiders.  They’ve flown under the radar so far, but more recently, they’ve started pulling higher profile jobs.  They hit the Ruby Dreams casino five weeks ago, and now they just robbed the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  This time we were lucky enough to get in their way.  That means we finally have intel on their group.”

He turned to the whiteboard and wrote the names of their opponents.  Grue, Tattletale and Hellhound went on the first board, with lines separating the board into three columns.  He wrote Regent on the second board, drew a line and then hesitated at the fifth and last column.  “Did he name himself?  The guy with the bugs?”

“Girl,” Clockblocker corrected him, “I was talking to the hostages after the Undersiders made their getaway.  He said he was afraid to move because she was going to make it bite him.  It took me a bit to realize exactly what he meant.  Poor fella was in shock.”

“But we don’t know what she called herself?”

Nobody had any answer to that.

“Then we need to agree on a name for her, or the paperwork’s going to be inconsistent.  Suggestions for a name for the bug girl?”

“Maggot?  Worm?” Browbeat offered, “Stick her with a crappy name?”

“We don’t want to do that,” Clockblocker sighed, “Maybe if we’d won, we could get away with it, but it doesn’t look so good if the press reports that we got our asses kicked by someone called maggot.”

“Stinger, Pestilence?” Vista suggested.

Clockblocker spun himself around in the chair and punched the names into the computer, “Taken.  Stinger is some villain in California with power armor, a jetpack and homing missiles, and Pestilence is a creepy psycho in London.”

“Skitter?” Gallant put the name out there.

There was a clatter of keys as Clockblocker checked, “It’s not taken.”

“Then it’s good enough,” Gallant wrote the name up on the whiteboard, “Now we brainstorm.  This is where we recoup our losses from the day, figure out an angle so we can win next time.  So don’t hold back.  Share any detail, no matter how insignificant.”

“Grue’s power isn’t just darkness.  You can’t hear in there either.  And it feels strange too,” Browbeat spoke, “There’s resistance, like you’re underwater, but not floating.”

“Good,” Gallant wrote that in Grue’s column, “Next?”

“The mutants that Hellhound makes.  The dogs?  She doesn’t control them with her mind.  They’re trained,” Vista offered, “She tells them what to do with whistles, gestures.”

“Yes, good, I noticed that,” Gallant replied, excitedly adding another note to the whiteboard.

“The girl with the bugs… Skitter.  It’s just the opposite.  She has a lot of fine control over them,” Clockblocker added.

“Yes!”

“Also, according to the hostage I talked to, she said she can sense things through her bugs, which is how she kept an eye on the hostages.”

It wasn’t long before most columns were full enough that Gallant had to turn the whiteboards around to use the backs.

Carlos returned from the shower, wearing sweatpants and a towel around his shoulders.  He was Puerto Rican, his hair long.  His body was clean of blood, barring a few residual trickles from the mess of ragged wounds on his arms, stomach and chest.  He had clumsily stitched the cuts and gouges together, which did surprisingly little to make them easier to look at.  He sat down on a chair and added his input for the lists, which didn’t amount to too much.  He had been incapacitated for too much of the fight to have much to say.

There was an abrasive noise from the computer as every monitor suddenly flashed yellow.  The Wards hurried to pull on their masks.  Aegis grabbed a spare from a drawer by the computers.

The entrance whirred open, and Armsmaster strode in, accompanied by the winsome Miss Militia.  She wore a modified military uniform, tight enough in the essential areas to accentuate her curves, sporting a scarf around her lower face with an American  flag embroidered on it, and a similar sash around her waist.  Most arresting, however, was the large rocket launcher she held across her shoulders in the same way a weightlifter might hold a barbell.

“Armsmaster,” Gallant stood up, “Good to see you, Sir.  Miss Militia, always a pleasure.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Miss Militia’s eyes hinted at the smile behind her scarf, “We brought a guest.”

Following behind Armsmaster and Miss Militia was a teenage girl in an enveloping white robe.  Panacea.  She had an ID card on a cord around her neck, featuring her photo and the word ‘GUEST’ in bright blue letters.

“She was kind enough to volunteer to come here and patch you guys up,” Miss Militia told the young heroes, “Can’t send you home with horrible injuries and hundreds of bug bites, can we?  That would give away the show.”

She shifted the position of the rocket launcher on her shoulders, and it dissolved into a blur of green-black energy.  The energy lunged and arced around her for a few brief moments, then materialized into a machine gun.  It only held that form for a few seconds before it flickered and solidified into a sniper rifle, then a harpoon gun, and  finally settled in the form of a pair of uzis, one in each of her hands.  She barely seemed to notice, beyond the automatic action of holstering the guns.

“I wanted to thank you guys for coming to my rescue,” Panacea spoke, shyly, “And for letting Glory Girl come with you.”

Gallant smiled, then in a more concerned tone, he asked, “You two are okay?”

Panacea shook her head, “Tattletale found a way around my sister’s invincibility.  Glory Girl was bitten pretty badly, which is why I didn’t come sooner.  I think it hits you harder, psychologically, when you’re pretty much invincible but you get hurt anyways.  But we’re okay now.  She’s healed but sulking.  I- I’m alright.  Bump on my head, but I’m okay.”

“Good.”

Armsmaster was at the whiteboard, going over the points.  “I like this.  But this one…”  He tapped the column titled Tattletale, “Nearly empty.”

“None of us ran into her, and the hostages didn’t have anything to say about her,” Gallant replied.

“Panacea may be able to help there,” Miss Militia offered.

All eyes turned to the girl.

“I- A lot happened,” Panacea hedged.

“Any detail helps.”

“Um.  I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at the ground, “I got smacked across the head, but my power doesn’t work on myself, and I’m not really the type to go out in costume and get into fights, so having my life threatened, I dunno.  All that… I can’t put my thoughts in order just yet.”

“The sooner-” Armsmaster started.

“It’s fine,” Miss Militia interrupted him, “Amy, why don’t you start taking care of the Wards?  If something comes to mind, anything the Undersiders said or did, or any clues you think might help, share it afterwards, alright?”

Panacea smiled gratefully at the heroine, then turned to the group, “Who needs the most help?  Aegis?”

“I’ll live,” Aegis said, “I can be last.”

Gallant hesitantly raised his hand, “One of Hellhound’s dogs slammed into me.  I think I might have a broken rib.  Paramedics cleared me, but I want to be extra sure I’m not risking a punctured lung or something.”

Panacea frowned, then gestured to the far end of the room, “I’ll take a look at you over there?”

“Go figure, Glory Girl’s boyfriend gets special treatment,” Clockblocker grinned to make it clear he was just poking fun.  Gallant just smirked in response.

The pair went to Gallant’s alcove, and she sat him down on the bed before laying a hand on his shoulder.  She pulled her hood back and furrowed her brow.

“You don’t have a punctured lung.  You’ve got one fractured rib, but you’re not even in that much pain.  Why-“

“I lied.  I wanted to talk to you, alone,” he took her hand.

She scowled and pulled her hand back like he’d bitten her.  As if to make doubly sure he wouldn’t grab her hand again, she folded her arms.

“You know I can sense emotions,” he said, “Everyone’s emotions, like a cloud of colors around them.  Can’t turn it off.  It’s just how I see the world.”

“Victoria mentioned that.”

“So you’re an open book to me.  I know you’re scared.  No… you’re terrified, and that’s why you’re not talking.”

She sighed and sat on the bed, as far from Gallant as she could.

“I never wanted these powers.  I never wanted powers, period.”

He nodded.

“But I got them anyways, and I got international attention over it.  The healer.  The girl who could cure cancer with a touch, make someone ten years younger, regrow lost limbs.  I’m forced to be a hero.  Burdened with this obligation.  I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use this power.  It’s such an opportunity, to save lives.”

“But?”

“But at the same time… I can’t cure everyone.  Even if I go to the hospital every night for two or three hours at a time, there are thousands of other hospitals I can’t visit, tens of millions of people who are terminally ill or living in a personal hell where they’re paralyzed or in constant pain.  These people don’t deserve to face that, but I can’t help them all.  I can’t help one percent of them if I put in twenty hours a day.”

“You have to focus on what you can do,” Gallant told her.

“Sounds easier than it is,” Panacea answered, with a touch of bitterness, “Do you understand what it means, to cure some of these people?  I feel like every second I take to myself is a second I’ve failed somehow.  For two years, it’s been this… pressure.  I lie in bed, awake at night, and I can’t sleep.  So I get up and I go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  Go to pediatrics, cure some kids.  Go to the ICU, spare some lives… and it’s all just blending together.  I can’t even remember the last few people I saved.”

She sighed again, “The last person I really remember?  It was maybe a week ago, I was working on a kid.  He was just a toddler, an immigrant from Cairo, I think.  Ectopia Cordis.  That’s where you’re born with your heart outside your body.  I was putting everything in the right place, giving him a chance at a normal life.”

“What made him so memorable?”

“I resented him.  He was lying there, fast asleep, like an angel, and for just a second, I considered just leaving him.  The doctors could have finished the job, but it would have been dangerous.  He might have died if I’d left him on the table, the job half done.  I hated him.”

Gallant didn’t say anything.  Scowling, Panacea stared down at the ground.

“No, I hated that he would have a normal life, because I’d given up mine.  I was scared that I might intentionally make a mistake.  That I might let myself fuck up the procedure with this kid.  I could have killed him or ruined his life, but it would have eased the pressure.  Lowered expectations, you know?  Maybe it would have even lowered my own expectations for myself.  I… I was just so tired.  So exhausted.  I actually considered, for the briefest moment, abandoning a child to suffer or die.”

“That sounds like more than just exhaustion,” Gallant replied, quietly.

“Is this how it starts?  Is this the point I start becoming like my father, whoever he was?”

Gallant let out a slow breath, “I could say no, that you’re never going to be like your father.  But I’d be lying.  Any of us, all of us, we run the risk of finding our own way down that path.  I can see the strain you’re experiencing, the stress.  I’ve seen people snap because of less.  So yeah.  It’s possible.”

“Okay,” she said, just under her breath.  He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“Take a break.  Tell yourself it’s something you have to do, to recharge your batteries and help more people in the long run.”

“I don’t think I can.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

He turned towards her, “So what does this have to do with what happened at the bank?”

“She knew everything.  That Tattletale girl.  She said she’s psychic, and from what she said, what she knew, I believe it.”

Gallant nodded.

“You know what it’s like, to talk to people like her?  Like you, no offense?  You build up this mask, you delude yourself into thinking everything is normal, and you force yourself to look past the worst aspects of yourself… and then these Gallants and Tattletales just strip you naked.  Force you to confront it all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You said yourself, you can’t turn it off, right?  Can’t really blame you.  It’s just… it’s hard to be around.  Especially after dealing with Tattletale.”

“What did she say?”

“She threatened to talk about stuff.  Stuff worse than what I just told you, I guess.  Threatened to tell me things I just don’t want to know.  Said she’d use what she knew to ruin my relationship with Victoria and the rest of my family,” Amy hugged herself.

“My sister’s all I’ve got.  The only person with no expectations, who knows me as a person.  Carol never really wanted me.  Mark is clinically depressed, so as nice as he is, he’s too focused on himself to really be a dad.  My aunt and uncle are sweet, but they’ve got their own problems.  So it’s just me and Victoria.  Has been almost from the beginning.  That smug little monster threatened to tear my sister and I apart using yet another thing I didn’t want, another thing I had no control over.”

Gallant started to speak, then stopped.

“What?”

“Does… does this have anything to do with the, erm, rather strong feelings you have towards me?”

Panacea went still.

“I’m sorry,” he hurried to say, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she stood up and started towards the door.

“Look, if you ever need to talk…” he offered.

“I-“

“You probably won’t want it to be me, okay.  But my door’s always open, and you can call me at any hour.  Just letting you know.”

“Okay,” she replied.  Then she reached over to him and touched his shoulder, “There.  Bruises gone, ribs touched up.”

“Thank you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

“Take care of my sister, okay?  Make her happy?” she murmured, as she hesitated in the doorway.

“Goes without saying.” They rejoined the main group.

Every head in the room turned as Panacea picked up the marker by the computers.  With a grim expression on her face, she began filling in Tattletale’s section of the whiteboard.

Shell 4.1

“You actually showed up.”

I looked up from my math textbook to see Emma looming over me.  She was wearing an expensive dress that had probably been a gift to her after one of her modeling contracts, and her red hair was up in the kind of complex knot that looked ridiculous on ninety-five percent of the girls that tried to pull it off.  She could make it work, though.  Emma was one of those people who just seemed to ignore the social awkwardness and minor issues that plagued everyone else.  She didn’t get zits, any style she wore her hair or clothes in looked good on her, and she could break pretty much any social code of high school and walk away unscathed.

God, I hated her.

Mr. Quinlan had ended class fifteen minutes early and instructed us to do some self study, before leaving the room.  For most, that was a chance to play cards or talk.  I’d set myself the task of getting all the homework done before class ended, to free up my weekend.  At least, that had been the plan, before Emma interrupted.

“Funny thing is,” I replied, turning my attention back to my notebook, “You’re the only person today who seemed to notice I was gone.  If you aren’t careful, I might actually think you cared.”  I wasn’t being entirely honest there.  My art teacher had noted my absence, but that was only after I’d reminded her I hadn’t turned in my midterm project.

“People didn’t notice you were gone is because you’re a nobody.  The only reason I paid any attention to it is because you bother me.”

I bother you,” I looked up from my work again, “Wow.”

“Every time I see you, it’s this irritating little reminder of time I wasted being your friend.  You know those embarrassing events in your past that make you cringe when you think back on them?  For me, that’s basically every sleepover, every juvenile conversation, every immature game you dragged me into.”

I smiled, then against my better judgement, I told her, “Right.  I love how you’re implying you’re even remotely more mature than you were then.”

Strange as it sounds, I was actually relieved to have Emma here, getting on my case.  If this was all she was able to do to me today, it meant I probably wouldn’t have to deal with any ‘pranks’ in the immediate future.  What really ratcheted up the anxiety levels was when she ignored me and left me alone.  That was, generally speaking, the calm before the storm.

“Really, Taylor?  Tell me, what are you doing with yourself?  You’re not going to school, you have no friends, I doubt you’re working.  Are you really in a position to call me immature, when I’ve got all that going for me and you just… don’t?”

I laughed loud enough that heads around the classroom turned in my direction.  Emma just blinked, bewildered.  As much as I didn’t want the money,  I was technically twenty five thousand dollars richer than I had been thirty six hours ago.  Twenty five thousand dollars were waiting for me, and Emma was saying she was doing better than me, because she got a few hundred dollars every few weeks to have her picture taken for mall catalogs.

“Fuck you, Emma.”  I said it loud enough for others to hear.  “Get a clue before you try to insult people.”

With that said, I grabbed my stuff and strode out of the classroom.

I knew I was going to pay for that.  For standing up to Emma, for laughing in her face.  It was the sort of thing that would push her to get creative and think about how best to get revenge for that small measure of defiance.

I wasn’t that worried about skipping out of class five minutes early.  If history was any precedent, Mr. Quinlan probably wouldn’t be coming back before class ended.  He routinely left class and just didn’t come back.  Popular guesses among my classmates leaned towards Alzheimers, or even that our geriatric teacher with a sagging gut could be a cape.  I was more inclined to suspect that drugs or a drinking problem were at play.

I felt good.  Better than I’d felt for a long, long while.  Admittedly, there were painful stabs of conscience when I thought too much about the fact that I’d actually participated in a felony, or the way I’d terrorized the hostages.  Could I be blamed if I went out of my way not to dwell on it?

I’d slept like a baby last night, more due to sheer exhaustion than sound conscience, and I woke up to a day that kept surprising me with good news.

Brian had met me on my morning run, and he treated me to coffee and the best muffins I had ever tasted, while we sat on the beach.  Together, we had taken ten minutes to go over the morning papers for news about the robbery.

We hadn’t made the front page for any of the major papers, the first bit of good news.  We made page three of the Bulletin, coming behind a one and a half page story on an Amber Alert and a General Motors advertisement.  Part of the reason we hadn’t attracted all that much attention was probably because the bank was hedging about the amount taken.  While we had escaped with more than forty thousand dollars, the paper was reporting losses of only twelve.  All in all, the story had been more focused on the property damage, most of which was caused by Glory Girl and the Wards, and the fact that the darkness we’d used to cover our escape had stopped all traffic downtown for an hour.  I’d been quietly elated by all of that.  Anything that downplayed the magnitude of the crime I’d helped commit was a good point in my book.

The next mood booster was the fact that I’d gone to school.  It sounded dumb, rating that as an accomplishment when others did it every day, but I had been very close to just not going again.  Having skipped a week of afternoon classes and three days of morning classes, it was dangerously easy to convince myself to just skip one more.  The problem was, that just made the prospect of going to class again that much more stressful, perpetuating the problem.  I’d broken that pattern, and I felt damn good about it.

Okay, so I had to admit things weren’t a hundred percent perfect as far as school went.  I’d talked to my art teacher, and she was giving me until Tuesday to hand my midterm project in, with a 10% deduction to my mark.  I’d also probably lost a few marks in various classes for being absent or not handing in homework assignments.  One or two percent, here and there.

But all in all?  It was a huge relief.  I felt good.

I caught the bus to the Docks, but I didn’t head to the loft.  I made my way up the length of the Boardwalk, until the shops began thinning out and there were longer stretches of beach.  The usual route people took was driving in through a side road outside of town, but for anyone hiking there, you had to take a shortcut through a series of very similar looking fields.  My destination was just far enough away that you’d think you’d maybe missed it.

Officially, it was the Lord Street Market.  But if you lived in Brockton Bay, it was just ‘the market’.

The market was open all week, but most people just rented the stalls on the weekends.  It was fairly cheap, since you could get a stall for fifty to a hundred dollars on a weekday and two hundred and fifty to three hundred on weekends, depending on how busy things were.  The stalls showcased everything from knick-knacks handicrafts put together by crazy cat ladies to overstock from the most expensive shops on the Boardwalk, marked down to ten or twenty five percent of the usual price.  There were ice cream vendors and people selling puppies, there was tourism kitsch and there was a mess of merchandise relating to the local capes.  There were racks of clothing, books, computer stuff and food.  If you lived in the north end of Brockton Bay, you didn’t have a garage sale.  You got a stall at the market.  If you just wanted to go shopping, it was as good as any mall.

I met up with the others at the entrance.  Brian was looking sharp in a dark green sweater and faded jeans.  Lisa was dressed up in a dusky rose dress with gray tights, her hair in a bun with loose strands framing her face.  Alec was wearing a long sleeved shirt and slim fit black denim jeans that really showed how lanky he was.

“You weren’t waiting long?” I asked.

“Forever,” was Alec’s laconic response.

“Five minutes at most,” Brian smiled, “Shall we?”

We ventured into the market, where the best the north end of Brockton Bay had to offer was on display.  The worst of the north end was kept at bay by the same uniformed enforcers that you saw at the Boardwalk.

While Alec stopped at an isolated stall featuring cape merchandise, I commented, “I guess Rachel can’t exactly hang out with us, huh?”

Brian shook his head, “No.  Not in a place like this.  She’s well known enough that she’d catch someone’s eye, and from there, it’s only a short leap to figuring out who the people she’s hanging with are.”

“And if she saw that, she’d go ballistic.”  Lisa pointed to a rotund old woman carrying a fluffy dog in her arms.   It was wearing a teal and pink sweater, and was trembling nervously.  I didn’t know my dog breeds well enough to name it specifically, but it was similar to a miniature poodle.

“What?  The sweater?” I asked.

“The sweater.  The dog being carried.  Rachel would be up in her face, telling that woman it’s not the way a dog should be treated.  Screaming at her, maybe threatening violence, if one of us didn’t step in to handle things.”

“It doesn’t take much, does it?”

“To set her off?  No it doesn’t,” Brian agreed, “But you gradually learn how she thinks, what pushes her buttons, and you can intervene before a situation happens.”

Lisa added, “The big trigger for Rache is mistreatment of dogs.  I think you could kick a toddler in the face, and she wouldn’t flinch.  But if you kicked a dog in front of her, she’d probably kill you on the spot.”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind,” I said.  Then, double checking that nobody was in a position to overhear, I figured it was as good a time to ask as any, “Has she killed anyone?”

“She’s wanted for serial murder,” Brian sighed, “It’s inconvenient.”

“If the courts actually gave her a fair trial, if she had a good lawyer, I think she’d get manslaughter at worst, maybe reckless endangerment.  At least for the events that happened then.” Lisa said, her voice pitched low enough that nobody else in the crowd would pick it up, “It happened just after her powers manifested.  She didn’t know how to use her abilities, or what to expect of them, so the dog that she had with her grew into the sort of creature you’ve seen the others become, and because it wasn’t trained, because it had been abused, it went out of control.  Cue the bloodbath.  In the time since then?  Maybe.  I know she’s seriously hurt a lot of people.  But nobody’s died at her hands since we’ve been with her.”

“Makes sense,” I said, distractedly.  So that’s one.  Who was the other murderer in the group?

Alec returned from the stall wearing a Kid Win shirt.

“I like it,” Lisa grinned, “Ironic.”

We continued our roundabout walk through the market.  We were still on the outskirts, so there weren’t many people around us.  Those that were around us weren’t likely to overhear, unless we used words, names or phrases that would catch their attention.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked.

“It’s just a matter of handing the cash over to the boss later tonight.” Brian picked up a pair of sunglasses and tried them on, “He takes it, does what he needs to with the papers, and gets back to us with our pay.  Clean, untraceable.  Once we’ve picked up our share, we kick back for a little while, plan our next job or wait for him to offer us another one.”

I frowned, “We’re putting a lot of trust in him.  We’re giving him a pretty big amount of money, and we’re expecting him to come back and pay us three times that amount?  Plus whatever he feels the papers are worth?  How do we know he’ll follow through?”

“Precedent,” Brian said as he tried on another pair of sunglasses, lowering his head to examine himself in the mirror that was hanging from the side of the stall. “He hasn’t screwed with us yet.  It doesn’t make sense for him to to pull a fast one, when he’s already invested more than that in us.  If we were failing most of our jobs, maybe he’d keep the money to recoup his losses, but we’ve done well.”

“Okay,” I nodded, “I can buy that.”

I felt kind of conflicted about the ‘take it easy and wait’ plan.  On the one hand, taking a break sounded awesome.  The last week had been intense, to put it lightly.  On the other hand, it sort of sucked that we wouldn’t be out there on another job, since I’d be waiting that much longer for a chance on getting more details on the boss.  I’d just have to hope I could find something out tonight.

“Come on,” Tattletale grinned at me, grabbing my wrist, “I’m stealing you.”

“Huh?”

“We’re going shopping,” she told me.  Turning to Brian and Alec, she said, “We’ll split up, meet up with you two for dinner?  Unless you want to come with and stand around holding our purses while we try on clothes.”

“You don’t have any purses,” Alec pointed out.

“Figure of speech.  You want to do your own thing or not?”

“Whatever,” Alec said.

“You’re a jerk, Lise,” Brian frowned, “Hogging the new girl to yourself.”

“You get your morning meetings with her, I want to go shopping, cope,” Lisa stuck out her tongue at Brian.

“Alright,” Brian shrugged, “Fugly Bob’s for dinner?”

“Sounds good,” Lisa agreed.  She turned to me, eyebrows quirked.

“I’m down for Fugly Bob’s,” I conceded.

“Don’t spend so much you draw attention,” Brian warned.

We parted ways with the boys, Lisa wrapping her arm around my shoulders and going on about what she wanted to get.  Her enthusiasm was catching, and I found myself smiling.

Murderer.  I had to remind myself.  One of these three was a murderer.

Shell 4.2

“We’re updating your wardrobe,” Lisa decided, after we’d left the boys behind.

“What’s wrong with my wardrobe?” I asked, a bit defensively.

“Nothing, really.  It’s just very… you.  Which is the problem.”

“You’re not making me feel better, here.”

“You’re a cautious person, Taylor.  I like that about you.  I think it’s an essential addition to the group dynamic,” she led me to a collection of stalls where there was a lot of women’s clothing, and quickly drew three dresses from a rack.

“Brian’s cautious.”

“You and Brian are similar, but I wouldn’t say he’s cautious.  He’s… pragmatic.  You both are.  The difference between you two is that he’s been doing what he does for three years, now.  Two years of experience, before he joined the group.  So a lot of what he does is automatic.  He doesn’t give a second thought to the little things he’s done dozens of times already.  He takes a lot for granted.”

“And I don’t?”

“You’re observant, detail oriented and focused.  More than any of the others.  You watch, you interpret, and then you act with this careful, surgical precision. That’s a strength and a flaw.”

“What does this have to do with my clothes?”

“Your personality is reflected in your fashion choices.  Muted colors.  Brown, gray, black, white.  If you are wearing something with color to it, you’re wearing it under a sweatshirt, sweater or jacket.  Never anything that would stand out.  Never showing much skin.  While most people our age are picking clothes with the intention of defining an identity for themselves, fitting into a clique, you’re focused on staying out of sight and not attracting attention.  You’re being too cautious, overthinking things you don’t need to, always making the call to play it safe.”

“And you want to change that.”  I sighed.

“I’m suspicious you’re capable of surprising everyone, yourself included, when you drop your guard, start being bolder and improvise.  Not just when circumstances force you to.  I’m not just talking about clothes, you know.”

“I kind of got the drift.”

“More to the point, I’m seeing you alternate between the same two pairs of jeans every day, when you got a paycheck for two grand five days ago.  If I don’t make you buy clothes, I don’t think you’re going to.”

“My dad will wonder where I got them,” I protested, as she folded a pair of blouses over one of my arms.

“You borrowed them from me.  Or they don’t fit me anymore and I gave them to you.  Or you can keep them at our place and leave him none the wiser.”

“I don’t like lying to my dad.”

She ushered me into a curtained off area that served as a change room.  Through the curtain, she told me, “I envy you that.  But if he hasn’t figured out the reason your wardrobe has shrunk so much, chances are he’s not going to notice if you have some new clothes.”

I was halfway through pulling off my shirt when that sunk in, “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Taylor.  I’d suspect you had some problems going on even without, you know… a little bird whispering in my ear.”

I hurried to pull on the first dress in the pile, then opened the curtain, “You’re going to have to be a little more specific, before I can confirm or deny anything.”

“Not that one,” she waved at the dress, a plaid number, predominantly red and white.  Annoyed, I shut the curtain.

From the other side of the curtain, she explained, “At first I thought your dad was abusing you.  But I dropped that line of thinking pretty quick after I heard you bring him up in conversation.  It had to be a major part of your life that’s sucking, though, and if it’s not home then it’s got to be school.  Brian and Alec pretty much agree with my line of thinking.”

“You’ve talked about it with them,” I dropped my hands from the buttons of the dress and let my head thunk against the shaky plywood wall of the change room.

“It came up when we were talking about you joining the group, and we never hundred percent dropped the subject.  Sorry.  You’re new, you’re interesting, we talk about you.  That’s all it is.”

I finished doing up the buttons of the dress and opened the curtain, “Ever think I didn’t want you prying?”

She undid the top button. “What you want and what you need are two different things.  Cornflower blue is a keeper. Throw that one over the top.”  She pushed me back inside and shut the curtain.

“What I need is to keep…” I struggled to find a way of wording things that wouldn’t raise red flags for any eavesdroppers, “these two major parts of my life separate.”

“The suckish part and the non-suck part.”

“Sure, let’s go with that.”  I found a top and a pair of low-rise jeans in the pile of clothes.

“I could help make the suckish parts suck less,” she offered.

I swear my blood turned cold in my veins.  I could just see her showing up at school, taunting Emma.  I think the prospect of facing down Glory Girl again would spook me less.  I struggled to do up the top button of the jeans, which wasn’t made any easier by my agitation.  It took thirty seconds to get the button done up, and I swore under my breath the entire time.  Where in the world had Lisa found jeans that were this tight on me?  When I had them on, I opened the curtain and confronted her face to face.

“Having me try on clothes is fine,” I told her, doing my level best to keep my voice calm, “But you interfere directly in my problems, and I’m gone.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

She looked a little hurt, “Fine.”  Pouting a little, she waved a hand in the general direction of my clothes, “What do you think?”

I tried to adjust the collar.  I liked the abstract design on the right side of the shirt, but the v-neck collar came to a point near where my ribcage ended and my stomach began. “Top is cut too low, jeans are too tight.”

“You need to get used to showing some cleavage.  Like I said, be bold in your fashion choices.”

“I’d be fine with showing some cleavage if I had anything to show,” I pointed out.

“You’re a late bloomer?” she tried.

“My mom was a B-cup, and not always then, depending on the brand of bra.  And that was after she went up a partial size being pregnant with me.”

“That’s fucking tragic.”

I shrugged.  I’d been resigned to being broomstick thin and flat as a board pretty much from the point I’d started puberty.  I just had to look at the genetics on either side of my family to know what I was in for.

“And my condolences about your mom.  I didn’t know.”

“Appreciated.”  I sighed. “I’m vetoing the shirt.”

“Fine, you’re allowed, but we’re keeping the jeans.  They show off your figure.”

“The figure of a thirteen year old boy,” I groused.

“You’re taller than a thirteen year old boy, don’t be silly.  Besides, whatever you look like, whatever your body type, there’s bound to be someone out there who thinks you’re the hottest fucking person they’ve ever seen.”

“Fantastic,” I mumbled, “There’s a sketchy pedophile out there with my name on him.”

Lisa laughed, “Go, try something else on.  But throw the jeans over the top.  I’m buying them for you, and if you never wear them, I’ll have to be content with you feeling guilty about it.”

“Find me the same jeans one size larger, and I’ll wear them,” I negotiated.  Then, before she could protest, I added, “They’re going to shrink in the wash.”

“Point.  I’ll go look.”

Things continued in that vein for a little while, with Lisa doing a little shopping for herself, too.  We stuck to talking about the clothes, and it was clear that Lisa was carefully avoiding the earlier topic.  When we finished, the woman at the cash totaled it up on a notepad and passed the slip of paper to us.  Four hundred and sixty dollars.

“My treat,” Lisa said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“A bribe in exchange for your silence,” Lisa winked at me.

“About?”

She glanced at the cashier, “After.”

It was only after we’d left the stall well behind, the pair of us laden down with bags, that Lisa elaborated. “Do me a favor and don’t go telling the gang how badly I let things slip, as far as Panacea being one of the hostages.  If they ask outright, you can say, I won’t ask you to lie.  But if they don’t ask, maybe don’t bring it up?”

“This is the silence you’re buying?”

“Please.”

“Alright,” I answered.  I would have without the gift of clothes, but I think she knew that.

She grinned, “Thanks.  Between them, I don’t think those guys would ever let me live it down.”

“Would you let them, if the tables were turned?”

“Hell naw,” she laughed.

“That’s what I thought.”

“But about our earlier conversation… last I’ll say on the subject tonight, promise.  If you ever decide you do want me to directly interfere in any of your personal stuff, just say the word.”

I frowned, ready to be annoyed, but I relented.  It was a fair offer, not pushing anything.  “Okay.  Thank you, but I’m fine.”

“Then that’s settled.  Let’s go eat.”

Fugly Bobs was fast food of the most shameless kind, sold out of a part-restaurant, part-bar, part-shack at the edge of the Market, overlooking the beach.  Anyone who lived in the area had probably eaten there once, at some point.  Anyone with any sense then waited a year to give their hearts a chance to recuperate.  It was the sort of place with burgers so greasy that if you ordered takeout, you could see through the paper bag by the time you got home.  The specialty burger was the Fugly Bob Challenger: if you could finish it, you didn’t have to pay for it.  It probably went without saying that most people paid.

Brian and Alec were already there when we arrived, and we ordered our food right off.  Lisa and I agreed to split a bacon cheeseburger, Brian ordered a portobello-beef double-decker and Alec matched him with a Hideous Bob – Fugly Bob’s interpretation of a Big Mac.

None of us were hungry, brave or dumb enough to order the Challenger.

Brian and Alec had been sitting outside so they could spot us when we arrived.  After a brief debate, we agreed to stick to the table they’d been sitting at.  It was by the window, so we could see the TV.  It was still cool enough that most people had ventured indoors.  The only others outside were some college-aged guys, and they were sitting on the opposite end of the patio, occupied with beer and the game on the TV.  The primary benefit was that we enough had privacy to talk.

“I don’t want to be a nag,” Brian said, eyeing the piles of bags, “But I did say you shouldn’t spend so much so soon after a caper.  It’s the kind of thing cops and capes watch for.”

“It’s cool,” Lisa brushed him off, “It only raises flags with the credit card companies or banks if it’s a dramatic change in a given person’s spending habits.  I buy close to this amount of stuff every week or two.”

Brian frowned.  He looked like he wanted to say something in response, but he kept his mouth shut.

“So, what comes next?” I asked.

“Dinner, then dessert,” Alec replied, his attention on the TV inside.

“I meant in terms of our,” I lowered my voice, “Illicit activity.”  A quick double-check showed the college guys at the far end of the patio were still engrossed in the game.  I couldn’t make out anything they were saying, and they were being loud, so I was pretty sure they couldn’t hear us.

“Is there anything you want to do?” Brian asked me.

“Something less intense,” I decided, “I’m kind of feeling like I jumped into the deep end of the pool without entirely knowing how to swim.  I’d prefer to get to know my powers better in the field, figure out how to deal with situations, before I’m up against people like Lung and Glory Girl, who are literally capable of tearing me limb from limb.”

“Hah.  Something easier then.”

“If Rachel was here, she’d be calling you a wuss again,” Alec commented.

“I’ll just have to be glad she’s not here, then,” I smiled.

Our food arrived, and we used extra plates to divvy up our individual side orders so we all had a little bit of each.  That left each of us a mix of fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings and deep fried zucchini on an individual plate.  The sides alone would have been more than enough raw foodstuff for a meal on its own, but there were also the burgers themselves, each large enough to take up nearly an entire plate.  Lisa and I cut the bacon cheeseburger in half, and we each took a portion.

“I guess you’re not the type that gains weight,” Lisa eyed me.

“I have to work to put it on.”

“Dammit,” she grumbled.

“If it’s any consolation,” I said, after taking a bite and wiping my mouth with a napkin, “This is going to be hell on my skin.”

“That does help,” she grinned.

Alec rolled his eyes, “Enough with the girl talk.”

“What do you want to talk about, then?” Lisa asked him.

He shrugged and took a bite of his burger.

I had a suggestion.  “I know it’s kind of cliche, but when people with powers get together, isn’t it kind of standard to share origin stories?”

Apparently, I couldn’t have picked a better way to kill the conversation.  Lisa turned away, for once without a smile on her face.  Brian and Alec gave me strange looks, not saying anything.

“What?” I asked.  I double checked there was nobody in earshot.  “What did I say?”

 

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

 

Shell 4.3

Alec, surprisingly, was the one to break the nerve-wracking silence. “Let me put it this way.  When you got your powers, were you having a good day?”

I didn’t have to think long. “No.”

“Would I be really off the mark if I guessed you were having the worst day of your life, when you got your powers?”

“Second worst,” I replied quietly, “It’s like that for everyone?”

“Just about.  The only ones who get off easy are the second generation capes.  The kids of people who have powers.”

Lisa leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table, “So if you needed another reason to think Glory Girl is a privileged bitch, look no further.”

“Why?” I asked, “Why do we go through that?”

“It’s called the trigger event,” Lisa answered me, “Researchers theorize that for every person with powers out there, there’s one to five people with the potential for powers, who haven’t met the conditions necessary for a trigger event.  You need to be pushed to the edge.  Fight or flight responses pushed to their limits, further than the limits, even.  Then your powers start to emerge.”

“Basically,” Alec said, “For your powers to manifest, you’re going to have to have something really shitty happen to you.”

“Which may help to explain why the villains outnumber the heroes two to one,” Lisa pointed out, “Or why third world countries have the highest densities of people with powers.  Not capes, but a lot of people with powers.”

“But people who have parents with powers?”

“They don’t need nearly as intense an event to make their powers show up.  Glory Girl got her powers by getting fouled while playing basketball in gym class.  She mentioned it in a few interviews she gave.”

“So you basically asked us to share the details on the worst moments of our lives,” Alec said, before taking another bite of his burger.

“Sorry,” I replied.

“It’s okay,” Brian reassured me, “It’s one of those things you only really hear about from other capes, and you only know us.  Maybe you’d hear more about trigger events if you took a university class in parahuman studies, but I doubt you’d get the full picture there.  Kind of have to go through it yourself.”

Lisa reached over and mussed up my hair, “Don’t worry about it.”

Why had I brought up origins?  It would have eventually have been my turn, and I would’ve had to share my own story.

Maybe I’d wanted to.

“Lisa said you guys were talking about me, talking about how you thought I was having a hard time, speculating on what it was,” I managed to say, “I dunno, I think a part of me wants to talk about it so you aren’t coming to the wrong conclusions.  Talk about when I got my powers.  But I don’t know that I can get into it without ruining the mood.”

“You already ruined the mood, dork.”  This from Alec.

Brian punched him in the arm, making him yelp.  Glaring at Brian, Alec grudgingly added, “Which means there’s no reason not to, I guess.”

“Go for it,” Lisa prodded me.

“It’s not an amazing story,” I said, “But I need to say something before I start.  I already said it to Lisa.  The people I’m talking about… I don’t want you to take revenge on them on my behalf or anything.  I need to be sure you won’t.”

“You want to get revenge yourself?” Alec asked.

I found myself at a bit of a loss for words.  I couldn’t really explain why I didn’t want them interfering, “I don’t really know.  I think… I guess I feel that if you guys jumped in and beat them up or humiliated them or made them tearfully apologize, I wouldn’t feel like I’d dealt with things myself.  There wouldn’t be any closure.”

“So whatever we hear, we don’t act on it,” Brian clarified.

“Please.”

“It’s your prerogative,” he said, taking a deep-fried zucchini off of Lisa’s plate and biting it in half.  She pushed her plate closer to him.

“Whatever,” Alec said.

I took a few seconds to get a few bites of my bacon cheeseburger and composed my thoughts before I began.

“There’s three girls at school that had… have been making my life pretty goddamn miserable.  Doing pretty much everything they could think of to make school suck, humiliate me, hurt me.  Each of the three had their individual approach, and for a good while, it was like they were trying to outdo each other in how creative or mean they could get.”

My heart was pounding as I looked up from my plate to check the expressions on the others’ faces.  This is who I am, I thought.  This is where I’m coming from.  When they heard about the real me, without whatever notions or ideas they’d gotten into their heads about me or how capable I was, how would they react?

“It went on for almost a year and a half before things quieted down.  Last year, around November, they… I dunno.  It was like they got bored.  The pranks got tamer, then stopped altogether.  The taunts stopped, and so did most of the hate mail.  They ignored me, left me alone.

“I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But I made a friend, one of the girls who had sometimes joined in on the taunting came to me and apologized.  Not one of the major bullies, more like a friend of a friend of the bullies, I guess.  She asked me if I wanted to hang out.  I was too gun-shy, told her no, but it got so we were talking before and after classes and eating lunch together.  Her approaching me and befriending me was one of the big reasons I could think the harassment was ending.  I never really let my guard down around her, but she was pretty cool about it.

“And for most of November and the two weeks of classes before Christmas break, nothing.  They were leaving me alone.  I was able to relax.”

I sighed, “That ended the day I came back from the winter break.  I knew, instinctually, that they were playing me, that they were waiting before they pulled their next stunt, so it had more impact.  I didn’t think they’d be so patient about it.  I went to my locker, and well, they’d obviously raided the bins from the girls bathrooms or something, because they’d piled used pads and tampons into my locker.  Almost filled it.”

“Ew,” Alec interjected, putting down his food, “I was eating here.”

“Sorry,” I looked down at my plate, poked at a piece of bacon, “I can stop, it’s cool.”

“Finish now,” Brian ordered me, if you can say he was ordering me gently.  He glared at Alec.

I swallowed, feeling a flush creeping across my face, “It was pretty obvious that they had done it before the school closed for Christmas, by the smell alone.  I bent over to throw up, right there in a crowded hallway, everyone watching.  Before I could recover or stop losing my breakfast, someone grabbed me by the hair, hard enough it hurt, and shoved me into the locker.”  It had been Sophia, I was almost positive: She was the most physically aggressive of the three.  But these guys didn’t need to know her name.

Why had I brought this up?  I was regretting it already.  I looked at the others, but I couldn’t read their expressions.

I couldn’t leave the story unfinished, after getting this far, as much as I really wanted to. “They shut the locker and put the lock on it.  I was trapped in there, with this rancid smell and puke, barely able to move, it was so full.  All I could think was that someone had been willing to get their hands that dirty to fuck with me, but of all the students that had seen me get shoved in the locker, nobody was getting a janitor or teacher to let me out.

“I panicked, freaked out.  My mind went someplace else, and it found the bugs there.  Not that I knew what they were, at that point.  I didn’t have a sense of proportion, and with all the info my power was giving me then, my brain didn’t know how to process it all.  As far as I knew, all around me, in the walls of the school, in the corners, and crawling around the filthy interior of the locker, there were thousands of these twitchy, alien, distorted things that were each shoving every tiny detail about their bodies and their fucked up biology into my head.

I sighed, “It’s hard to explain what it’s like, having a new sense open up, but you can’t understand it all.  Every sound that they heard was bounced back to me at a hundred times the volume, with the pitch and everything else all screwed up as if they wanted to make it as unpleasant and painful to listen to as possible.  Even what they were seeing, it’s like having my eyes open after being in the dark for a long time, but the eyes weren’t attached to my body, and what they were seeing was like looking into a really dingy, grimy kaleidoscope.  Thousands of them.  And I didn’t know how to turn any of it off.”

“Damn,” Lisa said.

“When someone finally let me out, I came out fighting.  Biting, scratching, kicking.  Screaming incoherently.  Probably putting on a good show for all the kids that had come out of their classrooms to watch.  The teachers tried to deal with the situation, paramedics eventually came and I don’t remember much after that.

“I figured out what my power was at the hospital, while they observed me, which helped ground me, make me feel sane again.  Bugs are a lot easier to wrap your head around, when you realize they’re bugs.  After a week, maybe, I was able to shut some of it out.  My dad got some money from the school.  Enough to pay the bills for the hospital stay and a little extra.  He was talking about suing the bullies, but no witnesses were really talking and the lawyer said it wasn’t going to be successful without hard evidence to identify the responsible.  We didn’t have the money for it, if it wasn’t going to be a sure thing.  I never wound up telling my dad about the main group of bullies.  Maybe I should have, I dunno.”

“I’m sorry,” Lisa put her hand on my shoulder.  I felt grateful that she wasn’t pulling away or laughing.  It was the first time I’d ever really talked about it, and I wasn’t sure I could’ve dealt if she had.

“Wait, this thing with those girls is still going on?” Alec asked me.

I shrugged, “Basically.  I went back after being in the hospital, and things were as bad as they ever were.  My so called friend wasn’t making eye contact or speaking to me, and they didn’t even go easy on me after seeing my, uh, episode.”

“Why don’t you use your power?”  Alec asked, “It doesn’t even have to be that big.  A bug in their lunch, maybe a bee sting on the tip of their nose or on their lips.”

“I’m not going to use my power on them.”

“But they’re making you miserable!” Alec protested.

I frowned, “All the more reason not to.  It wouldn’t be hard to guess who was doing it if someone started using powers to mess with them.”

“Seriously?” Alec leaned back in his seat, folding his arms, “Look, you and I haven’t talked all that much, maybe we don’t know each other all that well, but, um, you’re not stupid.  Are you honestly telling me you’re incapable of finding a subtle way to get back at them?”

I looked to Lisa and Brian, feeling a little backed into a corner, “A little help?”

Lisa smiled, but said nothing.  Brian shrugged and considered for a few moments before telling me, “I’m kind of inclined to agree with Alec.”

“Okay, fine,” I admitted, “It’s crossed my mind.  I’ve considered doing something that couldn’t be traced to me, like giving them lice.  But you guys remember how I went off on Bitch after she set her dogs on me.”

“A bit of repressed anger,” Lisa said, still smiling.

“It’s the same with these guys.  You know what happens if I do something like give them crabs?  They wind up miserable, annoyed, and they take it out on me.”

“Oh man,” Alec laughed, “Crabs.  You need to do that every time we go up against another cape.  Can you imagine?”

“I’d rather not,” I made a face.  Alec’s dogged tenaciousness thus far in the conversation was giving me the impression he would be hard to convince without a good reason, so I fudged the truth a little as I told him, “While I’m controlling them, I see everything my bugs see, feel everything they feel, pretty much.  I don’t want to make a regular thing of having my bugs crawl all over sweaty crotches.”

“Awww.”

“The point I’m trying to make, if you’ll stop changing the subject, is that these girls would probably take their misery out on me, even if they didn’t know I was doing it.  I don’t trust myself to keep from retaliating, upping the ante.  You saw what happened with me and Rachel, the first time we met.  Things would escalate, I’d take things too far eventually.  Secret identity blown, or getting someone seriously hurt, like Lung was, only without the regeneration.”

“I don’t get how you can sit there and take it,” Alec said, “Get revenge, or get one of us to get revenge for you.  Go to someone for help.”

“None of those things is an option,” I said, with enough emphasis that I hoped my statement carried some finality, “There’s too much chance for things to go out of control if I take things into my own hands or have you guys do it for me.  As far as going to someone for help, I don’t trust the system.  Not after the court case, not after talking to some of my teachers.  If it was that easy, I would have dealt with it already.”

Lisa leaned forward, “Tell me it wouldn’t be awesome if we kidnapped their leader, pulled a hood over her head, dragged her into a van and dropped her off in the woods at midnight, ten miles out of town, with nothing but her skivvies.”

I smiled at the mental image, but I shook my head as I said, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s going too far.”

“They shoved you into the grossest locker ever and locked the door!” Alec looked at me like I was trying to argue the earth was square.

“Leaving her in the middle of nowhere without any clothes on is practically inviting her to be molested by the first trucker to see her,” I pointed out.

“Fine,” Alec rolled his eyes, “So we tone it down some.  Drop her off with no shoes, no cell phone, no wallet, no spare change, nothing she could use to negotiate her way home.  Make her hike it.”

“That would still be risking getting her assaulted,” I sighed, “Pretty girl walking down the side of the road at night?”

“They’ve assaulted you!”

“It’s a little different.”

“The only difference I see is that they deserve it and you didn’t.  I mean, I’m not smart like you guys are, so maybe I’m missing something.”

I shook my head, “You’re not missing anything, Alec.  We’re looking at this from two very different perspectives.  I don’t really believe in that whole ‘eye for an eye’ business.”

I was beginning to feel like I was getting control of the conversation again.  Then Alec dropped his bombshell.

“Then why the fuck are you a supervillain?”

“Escape.”  The word left my mouth almost immediately, before I’d had a chance to even think about what it meant.  I couldn’t have taken the time to think before speaking, or they might have known something was up.  Lisa almost certainly would have.

A few tense moments passed, and I chanced a look at Lisa and Brian.  Lisa was watching the dialogue, a small smile on her face, her chin resting on her palm.  Brian was kind of inscrutable, arms folded in front of him, no real expression on his face.

I explained, “I can deal with real life, if I can leave it behind for this.  Kicking ass, making a name for myself, hanging out with friends.  Having fun.”

It kind of surprised me, but I realized what I was saying was true, so I didn’t even need to worry about tipping Lisa off.  A second later, I realized I might have been a little presumptuous.  “I mean, assuming that we are frien-“

“If you finish that sentence,” Lisa warned me, “I’m going to slap you across the head.”

I felt the heat of a flush in my cheeks and ears.

“Yes, Taylor, we’re friends,” Brian said, “And we appreciate, or at least, I appreciate that you trusted us enough to share your story.”

I wasn’t sure what to say in response to that.  The fact that he’d heard it and didn’t give me a hard time, it meant a hell of a lot to me.  Only Alec was really getting on my case about it, and he wasn’t doing it in a mean spirited way.

Brian frowned.  “Don’t suppose either of you are going to share your stories?”

Alec shook his head and stretched his arms above his head before resting them on his full stomach, his silence answer enough.

Lisa, for her part, grinned and said, “Sorry.  I like you guys, but I’m going to need a few drinks before I share that particular tidbit, and I’m not legal to drink for a few years yet.”

“Doesn’t seem fair that Taylor’s the only one sharing,” Brian pointed out.

“I- I didn’t tell my story because I expected you guys to reciprocate,” I hurried to add, “Really, it’s fine.”

“You’re volunteering, then?” Lisa asked Brian, ignoring my protests.

Brian nodded, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

 

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

 

Shell 4.4

An evening crowd had started to file into Fugly Bob’s, large groups that were grabbing beers and moving tables together to accommodate their individual crowds.

As one group began dragging tables into one long row in the middle of the patio, not far from where we were sitting, Brian asked, “Want to go?  I’ll share my bit on the way back.”

There were no arguments, so we paid our bill and left.  Brian was gracious enough to carry some of Lisa’s and my bags, in addition to his own, lightening our load.  The Market itself had mostly emptied, with the various merchants and shoppers having left to get their dinners.  Only the stalls and venders that were selling food were sticking it out.  Brian apparently deemed it safe to begin.

“For background, I guess it’s important to mention that my parents split up when I was thirteen,” Brian told us, “I went with my father and my sister Aisha went with my mom.  Aisha and I kind of stayed in touch, but there’s four years difference in our ages, our interests were completely different, so there wasn’t a lot to say.  I’d send her a text message about how my day at school had been painfully dull, and a few days later, she’d send me an email about a cartoon she liked.  Or she’d ask me for advice on what to do when she got an F on a spelling test.

“We weren’t close.  It wasn’t really possible, since I was living at the south end of the city and she was up here.  But one night, I got a text from her.  Two words: ‘Help me’.  I called, but the line was busy.  To this day, I don’t know why I took it so seriously, but I got over to my mom’s place as fast as was humanly possible.  Ran out the front door, sprinted two blocks to Lord Street, downtown, and grabbed a cab.  Left the cab driver shouting for his money as I charged through the front door of my mom’s place and found my sister.

“She’d been crying, but she wasn’t saying what was wrong.  I didn’t bother asking a second time.  I gave her a hug, picked her up and started to leave.  A man I didn’t recognize got in my way.  My mom’s new boyfriend.

“I knew he was the reason she had texted me for help, from the moment I saw her reaction.  Maybe I’d suspected there was something going on even before that, from the way her emails and texts had changed in tone.  It would explain that gut feeling I’d had that made me get over there as fast as I did.  I saw her shrink back, I felt her hold me tighter, and I went cold inside.

He paused a second, just walking in silence.  I almost thought that he was done, somehow, until he suddenly turned to me.  “I think I mentioned, Taylor, that my father had been a boxer, while he was in the service?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Well my father is a hard man.  Not the kind of man that’s meant to raise a son alone.  I wouldn’t say he was abusive, but there’s never been any warmth to him, no charming anecdotes, no fatherly wisdom, no throwing baseballs in the backyard.  The extent of our bonding was in the gym, him holding the punching bag in position while shouting at me that I was doing something wrong, staying grimly quiet if my form, my timing, the raw power of my hits were all flawless.  Or we’d be in the ring, with boxing helmets and gloves on, a thirty five year old man in peak physical condition barely holding back against his fifteen year old son.  He just expected me to keep up or take the hits, and I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

“So even if I was only fifteen, I was tall for my age, I was fit, and I knew how to throw a punch.  I didn’t say a word, didn’t make a sound.  I put my sister down and beat my mother’s boyfriend within an inch of his life, my mother screaming and wailing the entire time.  When I was done, I picked my sister up and returned to the cab.  We went to my father’s that night, and we went to the police station in the morning.”

“When you throw a punch barehanded, it doesn’t leave your hands pristine.  A few good swings, you connect solidly with someone’s face, someone’s teeth, and it tears the fuck out of your knuckles.  It was at my father’s place that night, washing and cleaning my hands, when I saw it.  It wasn’t just blood leaking out of my torn up knuckles, but there was the darkness too, like wisps of really black smoke.  You hear about the trigger event, you might think it’s all about rage or fear.  But I’m a testament that it can be just the opposite.  I didn’t feel a fucking thing.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That’s my story,” he said.

“Um, I can’t think of a nice way to put this, but why aren’t you in jail, after thrashing that guy?”

Brian sighed, “It was a close call, but the guy I beat up had violated the terms of his probation by not going to his narcotics anonymous meetings and Aisha backed me up as far as us saying, well, it was well deserved.  He came across as the bad guy more than I did.  He got six months in jail, I got three months of community service.”

“And you’ve been as good as gold ever since, haven’t you?” Lisa grinned.

Brian smiled at that.  “These guys know already, but I don’t think I mentioned it to you,” he said to me, “I got into this for Aisha.  My mother lost custody of her after child services stepped in, so Aisha’s living with my father now.  Problem is, he’s not an ideal parent.  It’s been nearly three years, and he still doesn’t know what to do with a daughter, so they mostly ignore each other.  But she’s acting out, getting into trouble, and she needs someone watching over her that isn’t him and isn’t our mother.  I turn eighteen in June, and when I do, I plan to get my mother and father’s parental rights terminated and apply to become Aisha’s guardian.  To do that, I’m going to need money.”

“Thus his current, rather lucrative, form of employment,” Lisa pointed out.

Brian stuck his hands into his pockets, “My father has given me his blessing as far as my taking custody of my hellion of a sister.  My mother made it clear she’s going to fight it every step of the way.  That means legal fees.  It means paying a private investigator to get proof that my mother hasn’t kicked her habits as far as the drugs and the fucked up boyfriends.  I’ll need an apartment that’s going to pass inspection, with a space ready and set aside for Aisha.  More than anything, I’ve got to present myself as someone that’s financially secure and responsible enough to make up for the fact that the other option is Aisha’s own mother.”

“The boss is helping on that last bit,” Lisa said, “The allowance and a share of the other income Brian is getting is coming back to him in the form of a paycheck from a legitimate company, and the manager of said company is both willing and able to provide a glowing recommendation on his behalf.”

“Which I’m less than thrilled about,” Brian admitted, “It’s… convenient, I don’t know how else I’d manage it, but I don’t like being so reliant on someone I don’t know at all.  He could walk away with that forty thousand dollars, I’d deal.  But if he fucked me on this…”

“You said it earlier,” Lisa assured him, “He has no reason to.”

“True.  It doesn’t make me feel much better.”

“I think what you’re doing is very noble,” I said.

“No,” Brian almost sounded offended at the idea. “I’m just doing what I have to.  She’s family, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”  I could understand how family was a priority.

We fell silent for a minute or two, only partially because some mothers with oversize strollers had turned a corner and were walking in front of us, putting them easily in earshot.  The other reason was that there hadn’t been too much more to add to the conversation.

I was relieved when the two moms parked their strollers and stopped to look in a store window, because it let us get ahead of them.  Groups of people who take up the entire sidewalk so you have to step onto the road to go around them are a definite pet peeve of mine.  Oblivious people who block the entire sidewalk and walk slowly enough that you’re forced to dawdle, yet fast enough that you can’t walk around them?  They make me fantasize about bringing swarms of bees down on their heads. Not that I would actually do it, of course.

When we were free to talk again, I found myself struggling to think up a new topic of conversation.  I glanced at Brian, trying to gauge how he was feeling after telling his story.  Was he really okay, or was he just really good at repressing his feelings?  He looked totally normal, as relaxed as one could expect from someone who was carrying as many shopping bags as he was.

“Hey, what did you buy?” I asked him.

“Some stuff for my apartment.  Placemats, a piece of art I gotta to put in a frame.  Kind of boring.  I found a neat statue, the guy said it was a concept sculpt he did for a horror movie that never panned out.  I was thinking it had a freakish looking face, and since I’m thinking of updating my costume, I was considering using the statue as an inspiration for a new mask.  Move on from the skull.”

“You’ll have to show me,” I said.

“Actually,” he paused, “You’re the person I was most interested in showing it to.  Your costume is pretty cool, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on where to go?”

“Where?”

“For costumes.”

I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, trying to piece together what he was saying.

“Having my power is really frustrating, sometimes,” Lisa complained, “It’s like being the only person with eyes in the land of the blind.  Taylor, Brian is asking you where you bought your costume.  Brian, she didn’t buy her costume.  She made it from scratch.”

“No shit?” His eyebrows raised.

“It’s spider silk,” I said, “So it’s got a tensile strength that’s only a hair less than steel, but it’s a fraction of the weight.  It’s not as strong as kevlar, but it stretches, which means it’s going to handle regular wear and tear better than a costume made with steel, kevlar or rubber would.  Making it was kind of complicated, because of how I needed to manage the spiders and weave it, but I basically had the spiders do the work while I concentrated.”

Brian nodded, “That’s pretty damn cool.  Would you make me one?”

That gave me pause.

“I wouldn’t expect you to do it for free,” he added.

“How much are we talking?” I asked.

“Name a price.”

I thought on it.  “Two thousand?”

He chuckled, “No discount for me being a team member and a friend?”

“That is with a discount,” I said, “It takes time, long hours of having to be in general proximity to the bugs as they work, which I can’t do all the time, because my dad would see if I left them out while he was home.  Plus I have to rotate the spiders so I constantly have a fresh supply of silk, but I can’t have so many in the neighborhood that people would notice… it’s not easy.”

“If that’s the big issue, then change locations,” Lisa suggested.

“To where?  It has to be a place I’m spending a lot of time, some place with room to work, where I can keep a few tens of thousands of spiders without anyone noticing.”

“The loft?” Lisa shrugged, “Or to be more specific, the area under the loft?”

That stopped me.  It made so much sense I could have kicked myself for not thinking of it the instant Lisa suggested changing locations.

“Woah, woah, woah,” Alec cut in, “Tens of thousands of spiders?”

“If I want the work to be relatively quick,” I said, “Yeah, we’re probably talking about that much.  Especially since I suspect Brian is going to want something a little heavier. The floor under the loft could definitely work.  I mean, it’s not like a few more cobwebs will attract attention if anyone sticks their head in, right?”

Alec ran his fingers through his hair, which I took to be a sign of stress or worry.  It was a rare thing, to see him as anything but bored or half distracted.  As if to confirm my thoughts, he said, “I don’t want tens of thousands of spiders just lurking below me, making spider noises and climbing upstairs to crawl on me while I sleep.”

I tried to reassure him, “Black widows don’t tend to roam, and they’re more likely to devour each other than they are to bite you.  I mean, you wouldn’t want to provoke one-“

“Black widow spiders?” Alec groaned, “This is the point where you say you’re messing with me.  It’s cool, I can take a prank.”

“They have the strongest dragline silk you’ll get from any spider around here,” I said, “I’d love to get my hands on something better, like a Darwin’s bark spider.  They’ve got the strongest silk of any arachnid or worm out there.  It could make fabric five times as tough as kevlar.  I’d ask our boss to see about getting me some, if I thought they could survive in this mild climate.”

“You’re not kidding about the black widow spiders.”

“Remember the ones I brought to the bank robbery?  I brought them from home.”

“Fuck,” Alec said, then he repeated himself, “Fuck. And now Brian’s going to insist on that costume, so this is probably going to happen.”

“Arachnophobic?” I asked, just a little surprised his reaction was so strong.

“No, but I think anyone would be spooked by the idea of tens of thousands of black widow spiders being in the same building as them.”

I considered for a moment, “I could have cages, if it would give you some peace of mind.  It probably makes sense to have it anyways, since they’re territorial, and would kill each other when I wasn’t there.”

“We’ll work something out,” Lisa grinned, “Think you could micromanage enough to make me one too?”

It struck me that I was thinking seriously about putting together some high quality costumes for villains.  I wasn’t sure how I felt on the subject.

“I can micromanage my bugs enough to make two at once, sure… but it’s really just such a pain in the ass.  I was so relieved to be done my own costume, I’m not looking forward to the idea of doing two more.”  All true enough.  “Let me think on it?”

“One thousand five hundred,” Brian said, “I’ll go that high, now that we’ve come up with a way to maybe handle the logistics of it.  I think it’s a fair offer.”

“Okay,” I said.  Money didn’t hold any sway over me, really.  I mean, big numbers could make my eyes widen, but at the end of the day, I had no plans to spend my ill-gotten gains.

All in all, it took us maybe an hour to get back to the Loft.  I didn’t mind.  My training meant the hike didn’t tire me out much, and the company was good.

As we made our way into the building and the others headed up the stairs, I stayed behind to look at the factory area on the first floor.  If I could maybe secure some plywood to the frames where there had been treadmills, it would mean I would have several long countertops for my bugs to work on.  Add some sort of cage at the back, to house them… but where would I find the sort of grid of cages or containers that could house thousands of individual spiders?

It was something I could figure out.  Whether I settled on egg cartons or built the entire thing with the help of bug labor, I knew it was doable somehow.

The question was, did I want to do it?

I made my way upstairs, deep in thought.

“Where’s Rachel?” Brian asked, as he returned from the other end of the loft, Brutus and Angelica trotting behind him, tails wagging. “Only two of her dogs are here.”

“We’re twenty minutes later than we said we’d be,” Lisa pointed out, “Maybe she went ahead?”

“You guys get ready,” Brian directed us, “We told our employer we’d hand the cash over at some point tonight, and if we take too long, it’s going to reflect badly on us.  I’ll take care of calling Rachel to see what’s up, since it doesn’t take me as long to get my stuff on.”

Alec, Lisa and I headed towards our individual rooms.  After shutting the door, I got my costume from the bottom drawer of my bedside table.  I laid it out on my inflatable mattress, then gathered and lined up my arsenal for my utility compartment: pepper spray, knife, telescoping combat baton, notepad, Epipens, a change-purse with some spare change and a twenty inside and an unused, disposable cell phone.  Everything I’d been able to think of, for what I’d want to keep with me.

Pen, I realized.  It was a little thing, but a notepad did me little good without a pen.  I headed for the dresser and stopped short.

On top of the dresser, there was a crystal.  Except crystal was the wrong word.  It was a teardrop shaped piece of amber, polished smooth, almost a foot tall, set into a stone base so it stood upright.  Inside was a dragonfly.  The dragonfly was so large it almost didn’t fit – it wouldn’t have fit, even, if the wings hadn’t curled inward at the tips as the amber set.  Where the light from the loft’s windows touched the crystal, it cast the top of the dresser and some of the wall in deep shades of yellow and orange, with hints of dark blue where it passed through the dragonfly’s translucent wings.

There was a note beside it.  ‘Saw it, seemed very you.  Consider it a belated welcome present.  Brian.’

I was stunned.  He must have left it while I was still downstairs.  I hurried to get into my costume, found a pen in the dresser and put the contents of my utility compartment in place.  When that was done, I pulled on some jeans, a sweater and a jacket over top of the costume, finishing up with a nearly empty backpack to cover the slight hump of the armor on my back.

It was only after I was totally ready that I headed out of my room and found Brian on the couch.  While I was sure he’d be gracious either way, I was assuming he would appreciate it more if I got ready first and then thanked him, instead of the other way around.

He was still in the living room, pulling on his leather motorcycle jacket over a protective vest.

“I-uh, don’t know what to say.”

His forehead creased, “Is it okay?  I was thinking, maybe giving you a rock with a dead bug inside it wasn’t the nicest-“

“It’s perfect,” I interrupted him, “Really.  Thank you.”  I never knew what to say when getting a gift.  I always worried my thanks sounded false, forced or sarcastic, even when they were genuine.

Impulsively, I gave him the briefest of hugs.  It seemed like the only way I could make my gratitude clear.

“Hey!” a voice from behind me startled the wits out of me, “No romance in the workplace!”

I turned around to see Alec and Lisa standing in the hallway, grinning.  In Lisa’s case, grinning more than usual.

I must have turned beet red.  “It’s not, no, I was just thanking him for-“

“I know, dork.  I was with him when he bought it.”

Mercifully, Lisa changed the subject, “Any word from our resident sociopath?”

Brian frowned, “No.  Her phone is out of service, which it shouldn’t be, since I was the one who turned it on, activated it and gave it to her earlier today.  Something’s up.”

The good natured mood from moments before was gone.  We exchanged looks between us, and nobody was smiling now.

“I think…” Brian said, weighing his words carefully, “It would be a very good idea to check on the money, ASAP.”

Shell 4.5

Sunsets are always best after a spell of bad weather.  Today was no exception.  Following the day and a half of heavy rain we’d just suffered through, the sky was turning vivid shades of orange and crimson, with purple highlights on the thin clouds that were moving briskly in the strong wind.  It looked especially amazing as we approached the water of the Bay, but none of us were really in a mood to appreciate it.

It was like we were an entirely different group of people from the group of friends that had walked from the market to the loft.  There was no conversation, no joking, no bonding.  We were all thinking the same thing: that something was wrong, that something had happened.  Nobody voiced their suspicions, though, as if there was the unspoken agreement that we would only make it come true by saying it aloud.

In silence, we caught the bus at the ferry and got off at the Trainyard, the part of the Docks that sat opposite to the Boardwalk.

As a group, we walked a half block from the bus stop, around the back of a derelict building, and stripped out of our civilian clothes.  The storage facility was just a block from the Trainyard.  Just past the chain link fence,  I could see long abandoned boxcars sat like oversize, crumbling tombstones, overgrown with weeds, surrounded by discarded bottles and makeshift shelters.  The entire area was desolate, empty.  It was hard to say why the bus even came this way.  I supposed maybe there was a skeleton crew of employees maintaining the rail for the trains that happened to pass through.

We descended into the maze.  Each storage locker was only about ten feet by ten feet across, but there were hundreds of them, each one joined to the one beside it, organized into disorganized rows of ten or twenty brick shacks.  It was a common enough sight; places like this were scattered all over Brockton Bay.  Decades ago, as unemployment rates skyrocketed, people had started using the storage lockers as a place to live.  Some enterprising individuals had caught on and storage blocks much like this one had appeared in the place of dilapidated warehouses and parking lots.  It was, in an off the books sort of way, the lowest budget living accommodations you could find, a way for people who’d had apartments and homes of their own to keep their most cherished possessions and sleep on a bed at night.

But things turned sour.  These storage facilities became drug dens, gathering places for gangs and areas where the crazies would congregate.  Epidemics of the flu and strep throat had swept through these ‘neighborhoods’ of closely packed, unwashed and malnourished groups of people, and left people dead in their wake.  Some who didn’t die to sickness were knifed for their belongings or starved, and corpses were left to rot behind the closed doors of their rented storage lockers.  In the end, the city cracked down, and the lockers fell out of favor.  By then, the local industry had crashed enough that the homeless and destitute were able migrate to the abandoned warehouses, factories and apartment blocks to squat there instead.  The same general problems were still there, of course, but at least things weren’t so densely packed into a volatile situation.

That left these sprawls of storage lockers scattered over the city, particularly in the Docks.  They were largely unused, now, just row upon row of identical sheds with faded or illegible numbers painted on the doors, each with a corrugated steel roof bolted securely on top, slanted just enough that people wouldn’t be able to comfortably walk or sleep on top of them.

“We’re looking for thirteen-oh-six,” Grue spoke, breaking the silence that had hung over us for half an hour.  It took us a few minutes to find.  There wasn’t really any rhyme or reason to the layout of the lockers or the numbering.  Probably, I guessed, the lockers had been set down where there was room, and given the first number that was available.  The only reason we found the locker as fast as we did was that Brian had been here before with Rachel.  The vastness of the space and the disorganization was a large part of the reason we had stashed the money here, of course.  If we had trouble even when we knew where we were going, then someone who knew the number and got the key from us would find it even more time consuming.

While Grue fiddled with the lock, I glanced down both ends of the alley we were in.  Except for a forklift parked a short distance away, it was eerily quiet.  A ghost town, I thought.  If ghosts existed, they would reside in a place like this, where so much misery, violence and death had occurred.

“Shit,” Grue said, as the door swung open.  My heart sank.

I stood on my toes to get a look inside.  The locker housed only a broad smudge in the thick layer of dust on the floor, a single lightbulb dangling from a power cord, and a dark stain in the corner.  No money.

“I vote we kill her,” Regent said.

My eyebrows went up, “You think it was Bitch?  Would she just take the money and run?”

“If you asked me five hours ago, I would’ve said no,” Regent replied.  “I would have told you, sure, she’s a loose cannon, she’s reckless, crazy, she’s easily pissed off and she’ll hospitalize those people who do piss her off… but I’d have said she’s loyal, that even if she doesn’t necessarily like us-“

“She doesn’t like anyone,” I interrupted.

“Right, she doesn’t like anyone, us included, but we’re the closest things she has to friends or family, besides her dogs.  I wouldn’t have thought she’d throw that away.”

“She didn’t,” Tattletale spoke, “It wasn’t her.”

“Who was it?” Grue asked.  The haunting echo of his voice had an edge of anger to it.

“A cape,” Tattletale replied, almost absentmindedly, as if she was focusing on something else, “Someone who can pick locks.  That door wasn’t forced.”

“A villain?” I asked.

“A villain,” Tattletale echoed me.  I couldn’t tell if she was clarifying what I’d said or if she was just echoing my words while she paid attention to something else.  “More than one.  And they’re still here.”

A soft clapping answered her.  It was slow, unenthusiastic to the point of being sarcastic.

“Brilliantly deduced,” the same person that had been clapping spoke out.  As Tattletale whipped her head around, I took a few steps back from the storage locker, to get a better look at the two people who stood on the roof.

They were standing with one leg higher than the other, to keep from sliding off the angled roof, and both were wearing identical costumes.  The costumes sported blue man-leotards with broad belts cinched around their waists, skintight white sleeve and leggings.  Their hoods were elastic, clinging to their heads so they left only a window for the face, and each sported a single white antenna.  Of all colors, their gloves, boots and the balls at the top of their antennae were bubblegum pink.  Their faces were obscured by oversize goggles with dark lenses.

Other than their costumes, though, they couldn’t have been more different.  One of the figures was scrawny, with a weak chin and a bad slouch.  The other had a sculpted physique, broad shouldered and tall, the lines of his muscles clearly visible through his skintight costume.

“Über and Leet,” Tattletale greeted them, “I can’t tell you two how relieved I am.  For a few seconds, I thought we had something to be worried about.”

“Rest assured, Tattletale, you do,” Über proclaimed.  He was the sort of person who proclaimed, announced, broadcasted and declared.  Just like Grue’s power altered his voice to make him sound haunting and inhuman, Über’s power made him sound like the guy who narrated trailers for action movies or late night commercials.  Overdramatic, intense about everything he said, no matter how mundane.  Like someone overacting the role of a gallant knight in a kid’s movie.

I looked around for what I thought of as the snitch.  I finally spotted it as a small round shadow against the backdrop of the sunset-red sky, just above the glaring sliver of sun.  It was a camera, mounted in a golden sphere the size of a tennis ball.  It was capable of moving like a hummingbird, staying safe, always recording.  Über and Leet streamed all of their costumed activity online, so people could tune in whenever to see what they were up to. I was pretty sure they had a time delay, so events that the camera recorded would play out online in a half hour to an hour.

I could admit I had watched myself, a couple of times, which was how I knew about the ‘snitch’.  Each time I’d tuned in, I had been surprised to see there were thousands of viewers.  I’d stopped because it wasn’t feel-good watching.  They were real underdogs, struggling to succeed, which made you feel sorry for them, made you want to root for them, until they did something despicable.  Then you found yourself looking at them in a negative light, looking down on them, cheering whenever they failed.  It felt a little too much like I’d been looking at them in the same way Emma, Madison and Sophia looked at me, and that had been a major turn-off.

After spotting the camera, which was no doubt positioned to catch a view of us looking up at the two villains, our shadows long behind us, I turned my gaze back to the pair.  With my power, though, I sent a collection of flies to congregate around the camera.  It didn’t take long for the camera to start going spastic in the periphery of my vision, as if it were trying to shake them off.  I smiled behind my mask.

Leet frowned and turned to the camera, “Is that really necessary?”

“You fucked with us,” I replied, “I fuck with your subscriber base.”

Tattletale and Regent grinned and chuckled, respectively.  Only Grue stayed quiet.  He was standing very still, but the darkness around him was roiling like a stoked fire.

“What’s the theme tonight?” Regent called out, “Your costumes are so terrible, I can’t look directly at them long enough to try and figure it out.”

Leet and Über glared at him.  Their entire schtick was a video game theme.  With every escapade, they picked a different video game or series, designing their costumes and crimes around it.  One day it would be Leet in a Mario costume throwing fireballs while Über was dressed up as Bowser, the two of them breaking into a mint to collect ‘coins’.  Then a week later, they would have a Grand Theft Auto theme, and they would be driving through the city in a souped up car, ripping off the ABB and beating up hookers.

Like I’d said.  Despicable.

Über approached the edge of the roof and stabbed his finger in Regent’s direction, “You-“

He didn’t get to finish.  Regent swung his arm out to one side, and Über lost his footing.  I joined the others in stepping back out of the way as he fell face first onto the pavement at the base of the locker.

“Too bad you’re fucking with the camera,” Regent commented, tilting his head in my direction, “I would have liked to see how many hits that clip would have gotten on Youtube.”

“Give me some advance warning next time,” I told him, “Maybe a hand signal?”

We had backed away from the locker as Über fell, and we retreated another few steps as he stood.  Leet hopped down to stand beside him.

“The money,” Grue spoke, “Where is it?  How did you find it?”

“Your fifth team member led us straight to it.  Lucky happenstance, really,” Leet grinned, “As for how we found her…” he trailed off.

Grue spoke in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to the pair of villains, “They did something to Bitch, they’ve got the money.  If we don’t get a decisive victory here, our reputation is fucked.”

“No holds barred?” Tattletale murmured.

“Leave one of them in a state to be interrogated.  Make it Leet, since Über’s powers make him annoying to keep contained.  Give him a chance and he can figure out how to do anything like he’s a goddamn expert at it, and that probably extends to escaping from ropes or handcuffs.  Alright?”

“I’m game,” I answered.  I was surprised at how excited I was.  This was the sort of thing I had put on a costume to do.  Sure, the context wasn’t what I would have chosen, but going up against bad guys?

I smiled behind my mask and reached out for my bugs.

Shell 4.6

We weren’t the only ones who were discussing strategy.  As I turned my full attention to the pair, I saw Über and Leet were muttering to one another.

When they realized I was looking at them, they stopped talking.  Über wiped again at the blood under his nose and took a step forward.  “Enough talking.”

I wished there were more bugs in the area.  The storage facility made for a disappointing selection.  Bugs had to live off something, and there was little around here except pavement, concrete and brick.  That left me only cockroaches and moths that had lived off of the contents of the lockers they could access, and spiders that dwelled in the dark corners.  However lame the pair of them were, I wasn’t happy about going up against two supervillains with so little at my disposal.

I didn’t get a chance to dwell on it, because Über charged us.  I hurried to get out of his way.  Über’s power made him talented.  It didn’t matter if it was playing the harmonica, parkour stunts or Muay Thai, he could pull it off like he’d been working on it for hours a day for most of his life.  If he really focused on it, the way I understood it, he could be top notch.

In short, there was no fucking way I was going to let him get close to me.

Grue had the opposite perspective.  He stepped forward and then disappeared as darkness swelled around him.  A second later, Über stumbled out of one side of the cloud, landed on his rear end, and then did a fancy spinning kick maneuver to bring himself to his feet again.  The juxtaposition of clumsiness and technique was outright bizarre.

My bugs were gathering nearby, now, but very few of them were useful.  Somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness, I’d connected to a fledgling wasp nest hanging from a storage locker near the Trainyard.  They were more useful, but extricating them all from the nest and bringing them to my location would take a minute.  I brought the rest of the bugs into a small swarm nearby, letting the group grow until I had use of them.  Both Kid Win and Lung had obliterated my swarm when I’d attacked them, and I couldn’t risk being more or less powerless if Leet pulled a similar stunt.

Leet stepped in as Über circled around us.  Reaching behind his back, Leet retrieved what looked like an old school bomb; Round black iron casing with a lit fuse sticking out of it.  The way the light bounced off it made it look wrong, though.  Like it was a picture of a bomb instead of a real one.

Regent waved his hand, and the bomb slipped from Leet’s grip, rolling a few feet.  Leet’s mouth opened into a round ‘o’, and he bolted.  Über wasn’t far behind.

As he joined the rest of us in running for cover, Regent half turned to thrust out one hand.  Über stumbled and fell just ten feet from the armed explosive.

The blast radius was thankfully small.  The shockwave that rippled past us didn’t even make me lose my footing.  Über, though, went flying.

Leet watched his friend roll with the impact, try to stagger to his feet and fall again.  He turned to us with his face etched in hard lines of anger.

“I keep wondering when you guys are going to give up,” Tattletale grinned, “I mean, you fail more often than you succeed, you make more cash from your web show than you do from actual crimes, you’ve been arrested no less than three times.  You’re probably going to wind up at the Birdcage the next time you flub it, aren’t you?”

“Our mission is worth it,” Leet raised his chin – inasmuch as he had one – a notch.

“Right,” Tattletale said, “Spreading the word about the noble and underrated art form that is video games.  That’s from your website, word for word.  People don’t watch your show because they think you’re righteous.  They watch because you’re so lame it’s funny.”

Leet took a step forward, fists clenched, but Über called out, “She’s provoking you.”

“Damn right I am.  And I can do it because I’m not scared of you.  I don’t have any powers that are useful in a fight, and you guys don’t intimidate me in the least.  A guy who’s good at everything yet still manages to fuck up half the time, and a Tinker who can only make stuff that breaks comically.”

“I can make anything,” Leet boasted.

“Once.  You can make anything once.  But the closer something you invent is to something you’ve made before, the more likely it is to blow up in your face or misfire.  Real impressive.”

“I could demonstrate,” Leet threatened, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.

“Please don’t.  I hear the carbonized ash of geek is hell to get out of a costume.”

“You say geek like it’s a bad thing,” Über said, in his characteristically overdramatic tone, “It’s a badge of honor.”

“Among geeks, sure,” Regent replied, “But there’s clowns out there that consider being a clown to be a noble calling, while the rest of us just laugh at them.  Catch my drift?”

“Enough,” Leet growled, “It’s obvious you’re trying to antagonize us-“

“I just admitted it.  That’s not obvious.  That’s fact,” Lisa pointed out.

“We won’t be baited!” Leet raised his voice, I think it’s time for our grand reveal, our guest-“

He was cut off as Grue blasted him in the face with a cloud of darkness.  Leet stepped out of the cloud, sputtering.

“They’re laughing at you, Leet,” Tattletale heckled him, “You’re trying to be all dramatic, all intense for your viewers, and they’re just sitting at their computers, snorting over how much you suck.  Even Über is laughing at you behind your back.”

“Shut up!” Leet spat the words, glancing over his shoulder at his teammate, “I trust Über.”

“Why are you even with this guy, Über?” Regent asked, “I mean, you’re kind of lame, but you could at least accomplish something if he wasn’t fucking up half your jobs.”

“He’s my friend,” Über replied, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“So you don’t deny he’s holding you back.” Lisa pointed out.

“Shut up!” Leet roared.  Except he didn’t have a very deep voice, so it was probably closer to a screech.  He pulled out another bomb and flung it at us before Regent could make him fumble again.  We scattered, with Regent, Tattletale and I running away while Grue shrouded both himself and Über in darkness.

As I scrambled for cover, I directed my bugs to attack Leet.  He’d done something different this time, because the bomb didn’t take half the time the first bomb had before it detonated.  It caught me off guard, and I didn’t get a chance throw myself to the ground as a result.  The blast caught me full in the back.

The air and the fire that rolled over me wasn’t hot.  That was the most surprising thing.  That wasn’t to say it didn’t hurt, but it felt more like getting punched by a really big hand than what I would have thought an explosion would feel like.  I could remember Lung’s blasts of fire, Kid Win shattering the wall with his cannon.  This felt… false.

“The bombs are fake?” I asked aloud, as I picked myself off the ground.  I ached, but I wasn’t burned.

“They’re solid holograms,” Tattletale said, “Actually pretty neat, if you ignore how ineffective they are.  I guess he couldn’t make real bombs without fucking up.”

Leet snarled, though it was hard to say whether it was Tattletale’s words or the moths, wasps and cockroaches that had settled on him.  As I’d suspected, they weren’t doing much.  Even crawling for his nose and mouth, they didn’t really slow him down.  Maybe there was a downside to getting him furious, like Tattletale and Regent were intent on doing.

He whipped out two more bombs and Regent was quicker this time, snapping his hands out.  Leet recovered before he dropped the bombs, and pulled his arms back to throw them.  Regent was ready, though, and one of Leet’s legs jerked out from under him.  He fell to the ground, the bombs rolling only a few feet from him before going off.

He slammed into a door hard enough I thought he might have managed to kill himself.  Before I could approach and check his pulse, though, he began struggling to get to his feet.

“Good thing you made those things nonlethal,” I muttered, half to myself, “You’re one for four.”

Glaring at us, he reached behind his back again and withdrew a sword.

“Link’s sword?” Regent taunted him, “That’s not even from the right game.  You’re breaking theme.”

“I think I speak for everyone when I say we just lost what little respect we had for you,” Tattletale quipped.

Leet lunged for the two of them.  He didn’t get three steps before Regent made him stumble and fall to his hands and knees.  The sword slipped from his grasp and slid over the pavement before flickering out of existence.

He was only a few feet from me, too focused on Tattletale and Regent to pay enough attention to me.  I reached behind my back, withdrew my baton and snapped it out to its full length.  As he started climbing to his feet, reaching behind his back for what I realized was a thin, hard backpack, I swatted at his hand with the length of metal.  He yelped, pulling his hand to his chest to cradle it.  I hit him in the calf, just below the knee, a little harder than I’d intended to.  He crumpled.

Stepping around him, I grabbed the end of the baton with my other hand and pulled the length of metal hard against his throat.

Leet started to make strained choking noises.  He caught me off guard by bucking backward, throwing the two of us onto our backs, him on top of me.  I winced as the impact brought his weight against the bruised area of my chest where Glory Girl had thrown Tattletale at me.  I didn’t lose my grip, though.  Ignoring the one hundred and thirty pounds on top of me, I was glad for the extra leverage being on the ground afforded me.

“You okay?” Grue asked me in his echoing voice.  He stepped forward so he was standing over me.

“Peachy,” I replied, huffing with the exertion.

“Don’t pull it against his windpipe.  You’ll get tired enough that you lose your grip before he ever passes out.  Here,” he bent down and forced Leet’s head to one side, moving the baton so it was pressing against the side of Leet’s neck, “Now you’re pulling against the artery, obstructing the blood flow to his brain.  Twice as fast.  If you could put pressure on both arteries, he’d be out in thirty seconds.”

“Thanks,” I huffed, “For the lesson.”

“Good girl.  Über’s down for the count, but I’m going to go help the others make sure he’s not going to give us any more trouble.  We’re only steps away, so shout if you need a hand.”

It wasn’t fast, even with the technique Grue had instructed.  It wasn’t pretty either.  Leet made lots of ugly little sounds, fumbling awkwardly for his backpack.  I pressed my body tight against it, though, and he gave up.  Instead, he tried pressing against the bar, to alleviate the pressure.  When that didn’t work, he started scratching uselessly at my mask.

I released him when he finally slumped over.  Extricating myself from underneath him, I adjusted my mask, drew my knife and cut the high tech backpack off him.  When I’d done that, I searched him.  If we were going to interrogate him, it wouldn’t do to have him digging out some little trinket to free himself or incapacitate us.  His costume was skintight, so it was easy enough to verify there weren’t any hidden pockets or devices on him.  Just to be safe, I cut the antenna off his head and removed his belt.

The others returned with a battered and unconscious Über in their arms, his arms bound behind him with plastic wrist ties.  They dumped him beside Leet.

“Now to find out where they stashed Bitch and the cash,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, “Got any smelling salts?”

I shook my head, “No.  These guys have henchmen, don’t they?  They’ve probably got them watching over the money.  We’d likely find Bitch in the same place.”

“Close but no cigar,” a mechanical hiss answered me.

We wheeled around to see a woman in the same outfit Über and Leet were wearing.  The difference was that she wore a gas-mask style fixture over her lower face, and the lenses of her goggles were red, not black.

The woman’s mask seemed to take what she said and replay everything in a robotic, monotone hiss, “I really hoped they would take one or two of you out of the picture, or at least injure someone.  How disappointing.  They didn’t even get around to introducing their guest star for tonight.”

“Bakuda?” Tattletale was the first to put a name to the face, “Fuck me, the game their costumes were from… Bomberman?”

Bakuda stood and bowed in one smooth motion.  Regent raised his hands, but she let herself drop to her knees, gripping the roof’s edge with one hand to avoid sliding off.

“Nuh uh uh,” she waggled one finger at him, “I’m smart enough to learn from the mistakes of others.”

“You seriously left the ABB to join Über and Leet?” Regent asked, astounded.

“Not exactly,” Bakuda said.  She snapped the fingers of the hand she wasn’t using to keep hold of the roof.

Below her, the door to the storage locker opened.  Three men in ABB colors stepped out, each holding a weapon.  A gun, a baseball bat, a fire axe.

Then other doors opened, all down the corridor of storage lockers.  Thirty or forty doors, each with at least one person behind them.  Some with three or four.  All of them armed.

“Those two were cheap hires.  They just wanted a few hundred dollars and I had to wear this costume.  Guess you get what you pay for.

“Goes without saying, I’m still with the ABB,” Bakuda stated the obvious for us.  “In charge, matter of fact.  I think it’s fitting that I commemorate my new position by dealing with the people that brought down my predecessor, don’t you agree?”

She didn’t expect an answer, nor did she wait for one.  She pointed at us and shouted, “Get them!”

Interlude 3 (Bonus)

Kayden crouched by the crib, her arms folded over the edge, watching her baby’s chest rise and fall.  She felt at peace.  Aster was perfect, flawless, untainted by the chaos and the evils of the world beyond the apartment and the nursery.  Even in her waking moments, she wasn’t overly demanding, quick to reduce her wails to quiet whimpers when she heard assurances that food, company or a diaper change were on the way.  Not that she understood, of course, but she trusted her mother would provide.  Kayden couldn’t have asked for more.  Literally, there was nothing Aster could do, have or be that would make her better than she was.

In an odd way, Kayden supposed, she took refuge in Aster.  She found succor in the company of her child, in the midst of a world she had little hope for.

It took willpower to force herself to step away, to quietly step from the nursery and half-close the door behind her.  When she saw pudgy fifteen year old Theo sitting in front of the television, she was momentarily disoriented. Then she felt a stab of guilt.  She’d forgotten about the boy, in the midst of caring for Aster and her preparations for the night.

“Theo, I’m sorry,” she spoke.  The boy had been captivated by the final votes of some reality TV show, but he didn’t give a second thought to muting the TV and giving Kayden his full attention.  “I’ve been so preoccupied, I haven’t fed you.”

“It’s okay,” Theo answered her, breaking eye contact.  It wasn’t.

“Look, I’m going out-“

“In costume?”

“Yeah,” Kayden replied.  She tried to read the expression on the boy’s face, but Theo was a stone wall.  He’d had to be, really, with what he’d grown up with.

Resisting the urge to comment or push the boy to offer some commentary, criticism or support, Kayden continued, “I’m leaving you thirty dollars here on the kitchen table.  If you want to use it to order out, please feel free.  Otherwise, raid my cupboards, my fridge, or use the money to go down to the convenience store in the lobby, okay?  If you decide to rent a movie, leave it here for me to take back.  I might want to watch it.”  Kayden smiled, trying to coax a matching expression from him.

“Okay,”  Theo said, his face blank.  “When will you be back?”

In time to take you back to your dad’s, Kayden almost said.  Then she had an idea, “I might be late.  Would it maybe be okay if you spent the night?  You’d just have to check in on Aster every few hours.  Keep an ear out in case she cries?  I’d pay you for the full night’s babysitting.”

The times when Theo let a glimmer of emotion show were few and far between.  A smile, genuine, touched Theo’s face, and almost broke Kayden’s heart in the process.

“I’d love to,” Theo replied, meaning it.

“Then it’s settled.  Sorry to interrupt your show,” she said.

“It’s fine,” Theo said, just a touch too fast.  It wasn’t fine, apparently, but he would never admit it.  Could never admit it.  Kayden felt a flicker of hatred for the man who had eroded every ounce of personality and assertiveness from his son.  She would give her right hand for a smart-alec remark, rolled eyes or to be ignored in favor of a TV show.

She had to console herself that she was at least giving Theo a night’s respite from the man.  It wasn’t enough, of course, but there was so little she could do.  All she could offer were small kindnesses, little gestures of love and affection, and hope they helped.  With that in mind, Kayden took the time to get some sheets out and set up the other couch so Theo would be comfortable when he was done watching TV.

When that was done, she double checked the TV to see that she wasn’t interrupting anything, and told Theo, “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” the boy replied, in a tone that was all affectation.  The false words stung Kayden more than if Theo hadn’t said anything at all.  Tonight wasn’t the night to confront that issue.  She left the apartment, locking the door behind her.  She took the stairs up to the roof, and shucked off her bathrobe.   The garment went in the gap between two flowerboxes, where nobody would find it unless they were looking for it.

Then she stepped off the edge of the roof.

The wind ripped at her hair, blew cold against her face.  As she tumbled head over heels, seeing only glimpses of the streetlights and cars below her, she waited.  Her apartment building was fifteen stories tall, which gave her less time than one might expect.  All it would take was one second of doubt, one mistake, a momentary hesitation, and she would hit the ground.

Aster.  It was fitting that she thought of her daughter.  She always did, these days, every time she jumped.  It had become a ritual, as though she couldn’t set out to clean up the city if she didn’t remind herself why she was doing it.

Energy suffused her body.  The entire sky lit up in a brilliant, blinding flash of light.  By the time the spots cleared from the eyes of the people on the street, she was already gone, hurtling over Downtown Brockton Bay, a white trail of light following behind her.

Kayden didn’t wear a mask, but it wasn’t necessary.  With her powers active, her brown hair and eyes became a radiant white, emanating a light so brilliant it was impossible to look straight at her.  The fabric of her alabaster costume, too, radiated with a soft glow that rippled like light on the surface of the water.

Her usual routine was to patrol for an hour or two, get a sense of things, and then take action where she thought it was most appropriate.  Tonight, though, she was frustrated, and she hadn’t even begun.

A year ago, she had made the ABB a priority target.  Three to five times a week, she had carried out surgical strikes against the low level operations of the gang, interrupting shipments, beating up dealers and thugs, attacking their places of business and all the while, she had been gathering information.  That information had paid off from time to time; she had clashed directly with Lung on no less than four occasions, had encountered Oni Lee on two.  In all but one of those encounters, she had successfully forced them to retreat, to abandon whatever it was they were doing at the time.  Those were the good days.

There had been bad days too.  Most of the time, she made a point to rough up the lower level members of the gang when she’d taken them down, enough to make them reconsider their career choice.  Make them consider going to another town.  At one point, Lung had set a trap for her, and succeeded in returning the favor.  It had taken her two months to recuperate from all of her injuries.  Other days, which were somehow worse, she found herself struggling to make a difference, coming to the dawning realization that she had failed to change things.

This week had been a long series of those bad days.  When she’d read in the news that Lung had been apprehended, she’d cleared her schedule.  Kayden had taken her vacation days and called Theo about babysitting.  It had been the best chance she’d get, she thought, to clean up the ABB once and for all.  Get that scum out of her city, while they were leaderless.

Five of her seven vacation days had passed, and she’d accomplished nothing.  Less than nothing.  They were getting stronger.

Breaking her usual patrol route, she headed straight to the northern part of the city and investigated the Docks.  It was empty of ABB members, aside from two Korean girls were taking a break from turning tricks near the ferry, talking to their aged, fat, matronly pimp.   Kayden resisted the urge to take action and run them off, resisted grilling them for information.  She had done that last night with a group of dealers, and accomplished little to nothing.

The ABB was still active.  Even with their boss gone, they were more organized than they had been under Lung’s influence.  But her interrogations had failed to get any details on why.  Even broken arms and legs hadn’t hurt or scared the thugs enough to get them talking about what was going on.

This was the situation, usually, where Kayden would go to informants for information, resurrect old alliances and get help in squashing the ABB before they could get their footing again.  She had hunted down old buddies, contacts and teammates three days ago, and had been frustrated by the lack of response, the lack of enthusiasm.  Max, Theo’s father, was to blame for that.  Just as she’d left his team a more broken person than she’d been when she joined, others had gone through the same experience. With charisma and a keen sense of people, Max had convinced people from across the country to join his team.  Just as easily, he’d tore them apart without them realizing he was doing it.  Confidence broken, wracked by doubts, paranoid regarding everyone except the one man that had caused the paranoia in the first place, they’d splintered off from the team.  Not that Max minded.  There was always a fresh supply of bright eyed recruits ready to replace anyone he broke.

Now most of the gang was gone, quite possibly on a big job, and she had no idea where.  She had no idea where to find out.  Kayden grit her teeth.  This wasn’t working.  If she was going to make any headway before her vacation days were up, she had to act now.  Make a deal with the devil.

She returned Downtown.  It was hard to navigate the streets from so high up, even if they were roads she traveled on a daily basis as her uncostumed self.  From here, the buildings all looked the same, with mirrored outsides and gravel rooftops.  Twice, she circled around the top floors of the wrong buildings, looking for the logo set on the side of the building would mark Max’s building apart from the others.

The black crown against a red and yellow background.  She stopped when she saw it, cursed under her breath.  When she approached, she saw him, still in his office.  Not so unusual, he’d worked late during every night of their marriage.  He had a laptop directly in front of him, a sandwich in a paper wrapping to his right, and an array of papers spread over the desk to his left.  He swiveled around to face her as she got close to the window, smiled softly.

Damn him, he was five years older than her, pushing thirty five, and he was still the best looking man she’d ever looked in the eye.  Even the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes only made him more attractive.  He’d taken off his tie and suit jacket, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled halfway up his forearms, forcing her to note he was still working out.

He waited, his hands clasped over his stomach, the faintest expression of amusement on his face.  She knew he was capable of opening the window to his office.  He was waiting for her to ask to come inside.  It was the sort of little power game he was so fond of.

On another night, she would have tested her will against his.  To no avail, usually, but she would have tried.  It probably would have ended with her flying away, making it clear she could do without his assistance.  Tonight, though, she felt the frustration of her fruitless ‘vacation’ and brought herself to reach out and knock on the window.

Before she could rap her knuckles against it a second time, it clicked and opened upward. She navigated her way around it to make her way inside. He hadn’t seemed to move a muscle when he opened the window.  He liked little demonstrations like that.  She set foot on the carpet of the office and let the light glowing from within her fade.  Her hair stopped stirring and writhing in response to the energy rippling through it, going limp and turning brown.  Her eyes dimmed to their dark hazel color.  She could hear a click followed by the faintest of hisses as the window slowly closed behind her.

“Kayden.  It’s been a little while,” he managed to greet her and make it sound like a criticism in the same breath.  He half-turned to type on his computer, and the lights in the office adjusted to a halogen glare.  She shut her eyes briefly and basked in the glow, feeling her internal supply of energy recharge.

“Max.  Thank you for the light.”

“You’re fine, I take it?”

“I’m fine.”

“And our daughter?”

“Aster’s well,” she said, as calmly as possible, as her hearbeat pounded in her ears.  She knew he didn’t really care.  He was letting her know that he hadn’t forgotten about Aster, reminding her that he, at any time, any moment, could take custody of her baby girl.  He had the money, he had the contacts.  She’d be helpless to stop him.  She remembered to mention, “Theo’s babysitting her tonight.”

“I know.  He called a little earlier to ask if he could spend the night.  I told him that was fine.  It’ll do him good to spend time with you and Aster.  Some female influences in his life.”

Kayden answered with a curt nod.  To anyone else, this conversation would have sounded perfectly innocent.  As someone who had worked alongside Max for ten years and been married to him for one, she knew this was all negotiation.  He was making it clear he was doing her a favor, and he’d expect recompense at some point, tonight or a week from now.  It was how he was – always playing for power, for advantage, for dominance.  All the while, he was doing it in a way that you couldn’t confront.  If she called him on it, he’d play innocent and she’d look like the crazy one, the one in the wrong.  Sometimes even to herself.

“So, what can I do for you?” he leaned back in his seat.

“The ABB is lacking leadership.  Or, at least, lacking experienced leadership.  I want to take them down before they regroup.  To do that, I’m wanting to reunite our old team.”

“And you’re admitting you can’t do it without my help.”

“Yes,” it pained her to admit.

“Not interested,” he said, spinning around in his chair to face the computer.  There was a click, and the window behind Kayden began to open again.  As the air blew in from outside, a strand of hair blew across her face.  She tucked it behind her ear.

“I’ve talked to the others, but nobody that’s worked for you is willing to be the first to join me.  Some say they’re worried they’ll offend you.  Others are just spooked, or they’ve already given up.  They ask me why would a group of your rejects do any better than they’d managed as part of your team?  I’m not getting anywhere, and time’s running out.  All it would take would be one word from you, and I’d have a team of four or five people.  With that, I could root out and squash the ABB.”

Max stood up and sat on the edge of his desk so he was facing Kayden, “I don’t see it being worth the effort.  What’s in it for me?”

“The ABB would be gone, for starters.”

“They’ll be gone eventually.  I’m patient.  What else?”

“I don’t have anything else to offer you, Max,” she answered.  That was a lie, she knew… but the closest thing she had to a bargaining chip was something she would never give up in a million years.  Never Aster.

“I want you.  On my team again.”

“No.”

“You’d be my second in command.  I’d talk to the old members of the team, and get them to form a separate group to work under you.  You’d double check with me on anything you did, but other than that, you’d be completely autonomous.  Free to use your team as you see fit.”

Other than that, she thought.  As if it was inconsequential, to be checking in with him on every move she made.  “I don’t agree with the way you do things.  I don’t want to be associated with you.”

He laughed, throaty, deep, rich, while she stood there in stony silence.

“Kayden,” he said, when he’d stopped, “You’re already associated with me.  People say our names in the same breath, even when we haven’t worked together in two years.  When my name appears in the newspapers, yours is never far behind.”

“I’m working to change that.”

“And you’ll be working against that impression for decades, to no effect, I guarantee you.”

Kayden turned and looked out the window, unwilling to look Max in his brilliantly blue eyes for any longer.

He continued, and she knew he was smiling smugly at her even without looking at him, “Regardless of our different methods, we always shared the same goals.  To clean up this filthy world of ours.”

“You do it by putting drugs on the street, stealing, extorting.  I can’t agree with that.  I never did.  It doesn’t make any sense, to improve things by making them worse.”

Max smiled, “It’s ugly on the surface, but it’s more money, more power, and it gives me the leverage to really affect things.  The only people I hurt are the same people who cause the problems in the first place.”

It was a refrain she had heard often enough before.  She folded her arms.

He changed tactics, “Let me ask you – would you rather be doing things your way, failing to change things or would you rather work under me and make a difference?”

“I am making a difference,” Kayden answered, “I’m working to make this world a better place.”

“Of course,” he replied, and she didn’t miss the hint of condescension in his voice, “You left my team to go do good work, it’s just pure coincidence that it’s black, brown, or yellow criminals you target.”

Kayden frowned, “Hard to avoid, when the only notable gang of whites is yours.  Some old friends and allies of mine still work for you… I can’t go around attacking them, can I?  I’m working to improve our city, but I’m not going to beat up people I’ve been out to drinks with.”

“And in the process, you’re doing little to shake the notion that you’re a part of Empire Eighty-Eight,” Max smiled, “It’s amusing to hear you try and justify your perspective, but you’re ignoring the elephant in the room.  Cut the B.S. and tell me you don’t feel something different when you look at a black face, compared to when you look at a white one.”

Kayden didn’t have an answer to that.  It was his fault, really.  The high school baseball player she’d had a crush on when she’d been in middle school had wound up being the same person that first approached her when she started going out in costume.  Blinded by his good looks and his way with words, she’d been swayed, convinced of his way of thinking.  She’d tried to change her outlook since the divorce, but she had seen a great deal in her ten years as a member of his team.  It was impossible to look at the city now and ignore the fact that too much of what made it an uglier place to live and raise a child in could be traced back to the same kinds of people.  Sure, the whites had criminals too, but at least they were fucking civilized about it.

When no response was forthcoming, Max said, “That’s what I thought.  However our methods differ, regardless of whether you’re willing to admit it out loud, I think we share a very similar perspective.  My offer is this:  Let me prove my methods work.  Join my team, serve as my second in command for one more year.  Only person you answer to is me, and I give you a team of your own.  You can handpick your own squad from our prospective members and ex-members, though I can’t guarantee every person you name will come running…”

“Max…” Kayden shook her head.

“The final part of the deal is this.  If you aren’t satisfied with how things went when your year is up, Empire Eighty-Eight is yours.  Lock, stock and barrel, including my business, every employee, every asset, legitimate or otherwise.  I become your second in command, and I follow your orders.  You can make Empire Eighty-Eight into a humanitarian effort, sell the business, turn us all into superheroes.  I don’t care.  If I can’t impress you, then what I’m doing simply isn’t worth holding on to.”

That caught her attention.  Years ago, Kayden probably would have snapped up an offer like this without a second thought.  Being married to Max for eleven months, waking up to who he really was, it had given her perspective and caution.  She considered for a few long moments, trying to figure out the angle.  He was telling the truth, she knew.  Whatever else Max was, he wouldn’t break his word on something like this.

“Is the business failing?”  She asked.  Was she getting a booby prize?

“Thriving.  Promise.”

“What would you have me doing?”

“The same thing you did before.  You’d be my heavy hitter.  My enforcer.  If I needed you to make an example of someone, you’d do it.  Only difference between then and now is that my Empire is bigger.  Better.  You and I can make a greater impact.”

More blood on my hands.  As the thought crossed her mind, she looked at her gloved hands.  Pristine white cloth, stark in glare of the halogen lights.  She knew what he was doing, had known when she decided to come.  He found a person’s weakness, attacked it, turned it to his advantage.  He’d known she was frustrated with her efforts as a solo agent, had probably had this conversation planned out days or weeks ago, playing it out in his head, having an answer ready for anything she could say.  How could she compete with that, when she rarely looked beyond the next twenty-four hours?  It was just how she was, how she thought.

Which was probably why they were so effective as a pair, she was forced to admit.

“So I ask you again, Kayden, do you want to spend your time failing to make a name for yourself on your own, or are you willing to join me in actually changing things?  Come with me, and I guarantee you win one way or another.”

Her eyes lit up, and her hair began to turn white from the roots outward.  In moments, she was her radiant alter egoPurity.

As if in response, he picked up a letter opener and held it in front of his chest.  Blades of metal began to branch out from it, each forking out into more.  Slow at first, the network of metal swiftly encompassed his chest, then the rest of his body.  Bars, blades, tubes, sheets of the metal found their place around him.  With his power, she knew, he could bring metal to sprout from any solid surface around him, including the metal he had already created.  As readily as he could bring thirty-foot spears of iron to erupt from the ground or walls, he created a finely worked suit of armor, then embellished it with blades and curling spikes.  He finished it with an uneven crown of blades.

He extended a gauntlet, left it there for her to take.  It was the smallest gesture, he never made a move where someone could refuse him, leave him hanging, and it meant the world to her, even as she suspected it was calculated for just that effect.

Forgive me, Aster, she thought.  I’m doing this for you.

Shell 4.7

Grue raised his hands and blanketed the entire area in darkness.  It wouldn’t help much.  Even if they hesitated or got confused in the darkness, the crush of bodies would eventually stumble into us, and we’d be beaten and battered under the sheer force of numbers.  The only real advantage was that if any of them had guns, they probably wouldn’t shoot, for fear of hitting their own guys.

I felt hands seize my waist, and lashed out with my baton.  The hands let go, and the baton hit only air.  After a moment, I felt the hands grab me again, the hold gentle.  Not an enemy.  Grue, I realized.

“Sorry,” I muttered.  He could hear inside his darkness, couldn’t he?

He hoisted me up into the air, and I immediately understood his intent.  I reached up and felt brick, then found the corrugated metal of the roof.  I hauled myself up and turned around to reach for the next person, one hand gripping the edge of the roof to keep myself in place.

I found Regent and Tattletale’s hands in the darkness and helped haul them up.  I knew neither was Grue, because they were too light.  Five or six seconds long, tense seconds then passed before Grue took my hand and hauled himself up.

We climbed down the far side, and Grue banished the darkness around us.

There were three ABB gang members standing at one end of the alley we’d just entered, and a fourth, lone member on the other.  Both groups were looking the wrong way, and were standing still, which was as good an indication as any that they hadn’t noticed us.

The sheer number of soldiers we’d seen didn’t fit, and I said as much,  “What the fuck?  How many people was that?”

Grue was apparently thinking along the same lines. “The ABB shouldn’t have that many members.”

“They do now,” Tattletale glanced over her shoulder at the ABB members behind us, then back to the lone one in front who still hadn’t reacted to our approach, “Trap!  Down!”

She practically shoved me to the ground, then took cover herself.

The lone figure in front of us shimmered, then disappeared.  In his place, for just a fraction of a second, there was a cylindrical object the size of a mailbox.  Knowing what kind of devices Bakuda specialized in, I drew my legs close to my body, screwed my eyes shut and covered my ears.

The force of the explosion hit me hard enough I could feel it in my bones.  It  lifted me clear off the ground.  For a moment, it felt like I was floating, carried by a powerful, hot wind.  I hit the ground with my elbows and knees first, and they thrummed with agony at the impact.

Chaos.  The four or five storage lockers that had been closest to the canister had been  reduced to chunks of flaming brick, none any bigger around than a beachball.  Other lockers near those had doors, walls and roofs blown away.  More than one locker had been actually used, because the blast had emptied them of its contents.  Pieces of furniture, boxes of books, clothing, bundles of newspaper and boxes of papers filled the alley.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked, as he staggered to his feet.

“Ow.  I’m burnt.  Fuck!  She was expecting us,” Tattletale groaned.  However bad her burns were, they weren’t severe enough to be seen through the smoke and dust. “Set traps, had her people waiting.  Shit, we were only a half hour later than we planned.  How?”

“We have to move,” Grue urged us, “This gets ten times harder if she finds us.  Tattletale, watch for-“

“I already found you,” Bakuda called out in what could have been a sing-song voice, if her mask didn’t filter it down to a monotone, rythmless hiss.  She emerged from the smoke that billowed from the explosion site; her hood was pulled back and her straight black hair was blowing in the wind.  The lenses of her dark red goggles were almost the exact same color as the sky above her.  There were five or six thugs just a step or two behind her, a middle aged guy that didn’t look like a gang member, and a skinny boy who was probably younger than me.  I was glad to see none of them had guns, but they were all armed with weapons of some sort.

“Not that you were hard to find,” Bakuda continued, sweeping her arms out to gesture at the devastation all around her.  “And if you think this only gets ten times harde-“

Grue blasted her, shutting her up, and his darkness billowed into a broad cloud as it struck her, enveloping her group.  We took advantage of their momentary blindness to scramble for the other end of the alley.

We were only halfway down the length of the alley when there was a sound behind us, like the crack of a whip.  It struck me as deeply wrong, since we shouldn’t have been able to hear anything through Grue’s darkness.  All at once, it was like we were running against a powerful headwind.

Except it wasn’t wind.  As I looked for the source of the noise, I saw Grue’s cloud of darkness shrinking.  Debris began to slide towards the epicenter of the darkness, and the wind – the pull – began to increase in intensity.

“Grab something!” Grue bellowed.

Breaking posture and lunging to one side was like forcing myself to leap over a hundred foot chasm.  I don’t know if I misjudged, or if the effect that was pulling on me increased in strength as I leaped, but my hand fell short of the doorknob.  I missed the one on the neighboring locker as well.

I knew in an instant that even if I managed to get my hand on something, the force of the pull would yank me from it before I secured a grip.  I grabbed my knife from its sheath at the small of my back and swung it with all the strength I could spare for the next door I saw.  It bit into the wood, stopping me from being dragged backwards, or falling sideways.  The one-hundred and twenty pound body hanging off of it was too much, though, and almost immediately, the knife began to slip from the hole.

It had slowed me down enough, though.  As the force of the drag increased to the point that my body was parallel to the ground, I waited with my heart in my throat, watching the area where the knife met the door, seeing it slide out millimeter by millimeter.  The moment it slipped free of the wood, I grabbed the doorknob that had been just a few feet beside my toes.  My arm jolted painfully, but I managed to hold on and jam the knife into the gap between the door and the frame.  Even with two things to hold onto, it didn’t feel like enough.

All at once, the effect stopped.  My body collapsed to the ground at the base of the locker, and I pried stiff fingers from the knife handle and knob.  All up and down the street, massive clouds of dust rolled towards the point her device had gone off.  The parts of the lockers that had been set on fire had been extinguished, but were still smouldering enough to send columns of dark smoke into the air.

Regent had found a grip on the edge of a locker’s roof; it had either been bent prior to his getting a grip on it, or the force of the pull had bent the metal as he clung to it.  Tattletale and Grue had apparently gotten a door of a locker open, because they exited as a pair, Grue limping slightly.

“What the fuck was that?” I panted, “A miniature black hole?”

Tattletale chuckled, “Guess so.  That was brac-“

From the other side of the storage lockers, a canister arced through the air, clinked off the metal roof of a storage locker and landed in the middle of our group.

Grue was on it in a heartbeat, using his foot to slide it across the ground and into the locker he and Tattletale had just left.  Without stopping, he opened his arms wide and ushered us all away as he ran away from it.

Even with brick and concrete in the way, the blast knocked us off our feet.  That wasn’t the scary part.  As the initial blast passed, the remainder of the explosion seemed to happen in slow motion.  Shattered chunks of the brick shack drifted through the air so slowly you could barely tell they were moving.  As I watched, I could see them actually slowing down.

Then I looked forward and saw plumes of smoke in fast motion and rubble bouncing across the ground at twice the normal speed, just ten feet ahead of us.  It took me a precious second  to realize why.

We were still in the blast area.

“Hurry!” I shouted, at the same moment that Tattletale yelled, “Go!”

We lunged forward, but I could see things continuing to speed up just in front of us.  Which meant, really, that we were slowing down.  Slowing to an absolute stop.

Somehow, I didn’t think this effect would end in a matter of minutes like Clockblocker’s did.

We broke through the perimeter of the effect with what felt like an abrupt change in air pressure.  I didn’t have a chance to check to see how close we’d come to being trapped in time forever, because Bakuda was behind the row of locker, launching another salvo – three projectiles that arced high into the air, plumes of purple smoke trailing behind them.

Grue shot blasts of darkness at them, probably in hopes of muffling the effects, and gasped, “Over the lockers!”

Regent and I were up on the row of lockers first, much the same way as we’d done it when the mob had been after us.  Once Regent had climbed down to make room, Tattletale and I helped Grue up, and we climbed down the far side.

Again, on each end of the alleyway, there were members of the ABB.  They weren’t moving, which meant they either hadn’t noticed us, or they were just holographic images hiding traps.  My money was on the latter.

“Again,” I panted, “Over.”  We couldn’t risk another trap, another bomb blast too close to us.  So we crossed the alley again and climbed on top of the next row of lockers.

We found ourselves staring down at a half dozen armed members of the ABB.  Except they weren’t your typical gang members.  One of them was an elderly Chinese man, holding a hunting rifle.  There was an girl who couldn’t have been much older than twelve, holding a knife, who might have been his granddaughter.  Of the eleven or twelve of them, only three had the thuggish look to them that really marked them as members of the gang.  The rest just looked terrified.

The old man trained his gun on us, hesitated.

A thug with a tattoo on his neck spat out something in an Eastern language I couldn’t place, the phrase ending with a very English, “Shoot!”

We were down off the other side of the lockers before he could make up his mind.  Grue created a cloud of darkness over the top of the lockers, to discourage them from following.

“What the fuck?” Regent gasped.  We hadn’t stopped running or struggling since Bakuda had sicced the crowd on us.

“They’re scared, not loyal,” Tattletale spoke, not as out of breath as Regent, but still definitely feeling the effect of the last few minutes of running and climbing, “She’s forcing them to serve as her soldiers.  Threatening them or their families, probably.”

“Then she’s been working on that for some time,” Grue said.

“Since Lung got arrested,” Tattletale confirmed, “Where the fuck do we go?”

“Back over the same wall,” Grue decided.  “I’ll blind them, we cross over at a different point in case they open fire where they last saw us.”

Before we could put the plan into motion, there was another explosion. We staggered into the front wall of the storage locker we’d just climbed down from, collapsing in a heap.  My entire body felt hot, and my ears were ringing, and we hadn’t even been that close.

As I raised my head, I saw that one of the storage lockers across from us had been leveled.  Through the gap, I saw Bakuda standing astride the back of a jeep, one hand gripping the roll cage that arced over top of the vehicle.  She was saying something to the thugs in the front and passenger seats, but I couldn’t make it out over the feedback noise in my ears.  They peeled off to the right, and for just a fraction of a second, she looked at me.

I reached for my bugs and directed them towards her, but she was moving too fast.  That left me the option of spreading them out so they were in her way, in the hopes that she would run straight into them, and maybe enough would survive the bug-against-a-windshield impact to give me a sense of where she was.

“She’s going around,” I said, grabbing at Tattletale’s wrist, “We can’t go over the wall.”

“We gotta keep running,” Regent panted.  I was having trouble hearing him.

“No,” Grue stopped him, “That’s what she wants.  She’s herding us into the next trap.”

“Where do we go, then?” Regent asked, impatient, “Fight her head on?  Catch her by surprise?  If I can see her, I can mess with her aim.”

“No.  She’s got enough raw firepower to kill us even if she misses,” Grue shook his head, “We don’t have many options.  We go over this wall again, we won’t just have to deal with the thugs and the old man.  We go down either end of this alley, we’re walking face first into a bomb.  So we have to backtrack.  No choice.”

I wished there was another option.  Backtracking meant moving back toward the center of the facility, it meant prolonging our escape, and possibly running headlong into ABB troops.

We headed for the gap that Bakuda’s latest explosion had created in the lockers, and Grue filled the alley we were leaving with darkness, to help cover our escape.  The little road was empty, except for the still figures at either end.

As we started to climb over the next row of lockers, we felt rather than heard a series of explosions rip through the area behind us.  Bakuda was bombarding the cloud of darkness with a series of explosives.  I guess you didn’t need to see if you could hit that hard.

We climbed down from the lockers and found ourselves in the same place we’d been when we escaped the mob.  There were three still figures at one end of the alley, doubtlessly a concealed bomb, and the destruction caused by the explosions and the miniature black hole in a can on the other.  If we climbed over the locker, we faced the risk of throwing ourselves straight into the mob we’d fled.  We’d have the element of surprise, but we’d be outnumbered, and our firepower was virtually nil.

By unspoken agreement, we headed towards the end of the alley where the hologram-bomb had gone off, where plumes of dust were still settling.

We were greeted by the sound of guns being cocked.

My heart sank.  Twenty or so members of the ABB had guns of various sorts trained on us.  Kneeling, sitting and crouching in front of the two groups, so they were out of the way of the guns and out of sight, were thirty or so other people Bakuda had ‘recruited’.  There was a businessman and a woman that could have been his wife, a girl wearing the Immaculata school uniform, from the Christian private school in the south end of the city, about my age.  There were two older men, three older women with graying hair, and a group of guys and girls that might have been University students were standing together.  Everyday people.

They weren’t gang members, but I could think of them as her soldiers; Every one of them held a weapon of some sort.  There were kitchen knives, baseball bats, pipes, shovels, two-by-fours, chains, crowbars and one guy even had a sword that was, oddly enough, not Japanese.  There was a look of grim resignation on their faces, circles under their eyes that spoke of exhaustion, as they watched us.

Behind their assembled group, standing astride the Jeep, one foot resting on her modified jeep-mounted mortar launcher, an altered grenade launcher danging from one strap around her shoulders, was Bakuda.  All around her were boxes of her specialized grenades and mortar rounds, bolted onto the back of the Jeep, blinking with various colored LEDs.

She put her hands on her grenade launcher as she tilted her head to one side.  Her robotic voice crackled through the still air.

“Checkmate.”

Shell 4.8

I’d discovered facing down more than a dozen gunmen, thirty or so people with improvised weapons and a mad scientist with a fetish for bombs made me really, really appreciate what Bitch brought to the team.

“All of this,” Tattletale spoke very carefully, “You were toying with us.  It’s why you didn’t have your people shoot at us from the start.”

“You’re very right.” Bakuda’s mask may have altered her voice to something approximating Robbie the Robot with a sore throat, but I got the impression she tried to make up for it with body language.  She shook her finger at Tattletale like she was scolding a dog.  “But I think you, specifically, should shut up.  Boys?”

She rested her hand on the head of an ABB member standing in front of her jeep with a pistol in his hands.  He flinched at the touch.  “If the blonde opens her mouth again, open fire on their entire group.  I don’t care what the others have to say, but she stays quiet.”

Her soldiers adjusted their grips on their guns, and more than one turned the barrel of their weapons to point towards Tattletale, specifically.  Glancing at Tattletale, I saw her eyes narrow, her lips press together in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Bakuda straightened up, put a foot up on the top of the Jeep’s door and rested her arms on her knee, leaning towards us. “You’re the only one I don’t get.  Don’t know your powers.  But seeing how you and the skinny boy baited my ineffectual mercenaries, I think I’m going to play it safe and have you be quiet.  Maybe it’s a subsonic thing, altering moods as you talk, maybe it’s something else.  I dunno.  But you shut up, ‘Kay?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale give the slightest nod.

“Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle,” Bakuda hissed, examining the back of her hand.  It seemed she wasn’t just compensating for the mechanical voice with body language; she liked to talk.  Not that I was complaining.  “See, Lung taught me a lot, but the lesson I really took to heart was that being an effective leader is all about fear.  Career like ours, people are only truly loyal to someone if they are terrified of them.  Enough fear, and they stop worrying about their own interests, stop wondering if they can usurp you, and they dedicate themselves entirely to making you happy.  Or at least, to keeping you from being unhappy.”

She hopped down from the jeep and grabbed the hair of a taller, longer haired Japanese guy from a group of twenty-somethings.  Winding his hair in her hands, she made him bend over until his ear was right in front of her, “Isn’t that right?”

He mumbled a reply and she released him, “But it goes further, doesn’t it?  See, I may have inherited the ABB-“

It was almost imperceptible, but I saw a flicker of movement around Tattletale’s face.  A change of expression or a movement of her head.  When I glanced her way, though, I couldn’t guess what it had been.

Bakuda continued without a pause, “But I also inherited Lung’s enemies.  So I have a dilemma, you see.  What can I do to you that’s going to convince them that I’m worth steering clear of?  What gesture would be effective enough that it would have their people running for the hills when they see me coming?”

She wheeled around and grabbed a pistol from the hands of one of her thugs, “Give.”

She then strode forward into the midst of the crowd.

“There’s not enough bugs here.” I took advantage of the pause in her monologue to whisper under my breath, hoping the others would catch it, praying I wasn’t being too loud.  At least my mask covered my face, hid the fact that my lips were moving, “Regent?”

“Can’t disarm this many guns,” he whispered his reply. “I mean, I-“

“You.” Bakuda called out, startling us.  She wasn’t paying attention to us, though.  A Korean-American guy in a private school uniform – from Immaculata High, in the nicest part of the city – was cringing in front of her.  The crowd slowly backed away, clearing a few feet of space around the two of them.

“Y-yes?” the boy replied.

“Park Jihoo, yes?  Ever hold a gun before?”

“No.”

“Ever beat someone up?”

“Please, I never… no.”

“Ever get in a fight?  I mean a real fight, biting, scratching, reaching for the nearest thing you could use as a weapon?”

“N-no, Bakuda.”

“Then you’re perfect for my little demonstration.”  Bakuda pressed the pistol into his hands, “Shoot one of them.”

The guy held the gun like it was a live scorpion, with two fingers, at arm’s length, “Please, I can’t.”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” Bakuda might have been trying to coo or sound reassuring, but mask didn’t allow for that kind of inflection, “You don’t even have to kill them.  You can aim for a kneecap, an elbow, a shoulder.  Okay?  Wait a second.”

She left the gun in the guy’s hands and stepped away, pointing to one of her thugs, “Get the camera out and start rolling.”

As ordered, he reached for the side of the jeep and retrieved a small handheld camcorder.  He fumbled with it for a few seconds before holding it over his head to see past the crowd,  looking through the flip-out panel on the side to make sure the camera was on target.

“Thank you for waiting, Park Jihoo,” Bakuda turned her attention to the guy with the gun, “You can shoot someone now.”

The guy said something in Korean.  It might have been a prayer, “Please.  No.”

“Really?  They’re bad people, if you’re concerned about morals.”  Bakuda tilted her head to one side.

He blinked back tears, staring up at the sky.  The gun fell from his hands to clatter to the pavement.

“That’s a no.  Shame.  No use to me as a soldier.”  Bakuda kicked him in the stomach, hard enough to send him sprawling onto his back.

“No!  No no no!” The guy looked up to her, “Please!”

Bakuda half-stepped, half skipped back a few feet.  The people around them took that as their cue to get well away from him.

She didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, didn’t offer any tell or signal.  There was a sound, like a vibrating cell phone on a table, and Park Jihoo liquefied into a soupy mess in the span of a second.

Dead.  He’d died, just like that.

It was hard to hear over the screaming, the wailing, the outraged shouts.  As the crowd scrambled to back away from the scene, all trying to hide behind one another, one of the thugs fired a gun straight up into the air.  Everyone stopped.  After the shrieks of surprise, there was the briefest pause, long enough for one sound to bring everyone to a stunned silence.

It sounded like the noise you make when you rake up dry leaves, but louder, artificial in a way that sounded like it was played over an archaic answering machine.  All eyes turned to Bakuda.  She was doubled over, her hands around her middle.

Laughing.  The sound was her laughing.

She slapped her leg as she stood, made a noise that might have been an intake of breath or a chuckle, but her mask didn’t translate it into anything recognizable – only a hiss with barely any variation to it.  She spun in a half circle as she crowed, “The six-eighteen!  I forgot I even made that one!  Perfect!  Better than I thought!”

If her job was to terrify, she’d succeeded.  With me, at least.  I wanted to throw up, but I’d have to take off my mask to do it, and I was afraid that if I moved, I’d get shot.  The fear of the guns was enough to override my welling nausea, but the end result was that I was shaking.  Not just trembling, but full body shakes that had me struggling to keep upright.

“That was pretty cool.”

With those words, Regent managed to get as many wide eyed looks than Bakuda had with her laugh.  He got one from me.  It wasn’t just what he said.  It was how calm he sounded.

“I know, right?” Bakuda turned around to face him, cocked her head to one side, “I modeled it off Tesla’s work in vibrations.  He theorized that if you could get the right frequency, you could shatter the Earth it-“

“No offense,” Regent said, “Well, I’ll rephrase: I don’t really care about offending you.  Don’t shoot me though.  I just want to stop you there and say I don’t care about the science stuff and all the technobabble about how you did it.  It’s boring.  I’m just saying it’s kind of neat to see what a person looks like when dissolved down like that.  Gross, creepy, fucked up, but it’s neat.”

“Yes,” Bakuda exulted in the attention, “Like the answer to a question you didn’t know you were asking!”

“How’d you do it?  You stuck bombs in these civilians to get them to work for you?”

“Everyone,” Bakuda answered, almost delirious on the high of her successful ‘experiment’ and Regent’s attention.  She half skipped, half spun through the crowd and leaned against one of her thugs, patting his cheek, “Even my most loyal.  Bitch of a thing to do.  Not the actual procedure of sticking the things inside their heads.  After the first twenty, I could do the surgeries with my eyes closed.  Literally.  I actually did a few that way.”

She pouted, “But having to tranquilize the first dozen or so and do the surgeries on them before they woke up, so I’d have the manpower to round up everyone else?  One after the other?  Really tedious once the novelty wears off.”

“I’d be too lazy to do that, even if I had your powers,” Regent said, “Can I approach the body?  Get a better look?”

Her mood changed in a flash, and she angrily jabbed a finger in his direction. “No.  Don’t think I don’t know you’re trying something.  I’m a fucking genius, get it?  I can think twelve moves ahead before you’ve even decided on your first.  It’s why you’re standing there and I…” she hoisted herself up so she was sitting on the side of the Jeep, “Am sitting here.”

“Chill the fuck out,” Regent replied, “I was just asking.”

I could see from Tattletale’s expression that she was having the same thoughts I was.  Give the lunatic bomber a little respect.  I quietly voiced what Tattletale couldn’t.

“Tone it down a notch, Regent,” I whispered.

“Whaaattever,” Bakuda drew out the word, “Skinny boy just lost any goodwill he’d earned for appreciating my art.  Or at least being able to fake it convincingly.”  She tapped the guy with the camera on the shoulder, “You still filming?”

The man gave a short nod.  As I looked at him, I saw beads of sweat running down his face, even though it was a cool evening.  It seemed her thugs were pretty spooked, too.

“Good,” Bakuda rubbed her pink-gloved hands together, “We’ll edit out the talky parts later, then we put it on the web and send copies to local news stations.  What do you think?”

The camera-guy answered in an accented voice, “Good plan, Bakuda.”

She clapped her hands together.  Then she pointed into the crowd  “Alright!  So, you…  yeah you, the girl in the yellow shirt and jeans.  If I told you to, would you pick up the gun and shoot someone?”

It took me a second to spot the girl, at the far end of the crowd.  She looked at Bakuda with a stricken expression and managed to answer, “The gun m-melted too, Ma’am.”

“You call me Bakuda.  You know that.  Nothing fancy.  If the gun was still there, would you shoot?  Or if I told someone to give you a gun?”

“I-I think I maybe could,” her eyes flickered to the puddle that had been Park Jihoo.

“Which concludes my demonstration,” Bakuda addressed our group, “Fear!  It’s why Lung went out of his way to recruit me.  I always understood deep down inside, that fear was a powerful tool.  He just phrased it so well.  True fear is a blend of certainty and the unpredictable.  My people know that if they cross me, I only have to think about it to make the bombs in their heads go kablooie.  Boom.  They know that if I die, every single bomb I’ve made goes off.  Not just the ones I jammed into their heads.  Every single fucking one.  And I’ve made a lot.  Certainties.”

Lisa reached out and grabbed my hand, clenched it tight.

“As for unpredictability?”  Bakuda kicked her legs against the side of the jeep like a grade schooler sitting on a chair, “I like to mix up my arsenal, so you never know what you’re going to get.  But you’ve also got to keep your people wondering, right?  Keep them on their toes?  Case in point: Shazam!”

The word coincided with the start of a very real explosion that was closely followed by something like thunder, but Lisa was already pulling on my arm, pulling me away.

I saw a glimpse of chaos, of screaming people running from the place the explosion had happened in the midst of Bakuda’s own group.  The fleeing people were obstructing the view of the people with guns.

Regent stuck his arm out, swept it outward, sending ten or so people stumbling into one another, turning the crowd into a disordered mob.  I heard the too-loud roar of guns being fired, saw Regent grab the shoulder of a limp left arm, couldn’t be sure the two were connected.

Finally, there was Bakuda, still sitting on the side of the jeep.  She was either shouting something or laughing.  She was letting us slip from her grasp, her people were on the verge of killing one another in mindless panic, and she’d just killed at least one of her own people on a whim.  From what we’d just seen of her, I was willing to bet she was laughing as it all happened.

Almost without my noticing, night had fallen, and as if to invite us deeper into the maze, the light poles flickered and turned on above us.  With Grue covering our retreat in a curtain of darkness, we ran.

Shell 4.9

“Did you get shot?” I asked Regent, as the four of us dashed down the alleyway.  No answer.  So I tried again, more specific, “Regent!  Listen to me, did you get shot?”

He shook his head in a tight motion as he clutched his hand against his shoulder, “Not shot.  Used my power too much, too fast, and it backfired.  Left arm’s cramping up, spasms.  I can’t move it.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Backfired?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it!” his snarled response was all the more startling because it came from our normally placid and too-laid-back Alec.  As if to compensate for the lashing out, he muttered an apology, “Fuck.  Sorry.  This hurts, but I’ll deal.  You guys focus on getting us out of this mess.”

“Tattletale,” I was still holding her hand, so I squeezed it to ensure I had her attention, “This would be a fantastic time to do your thing.”

“Especially since you dropped the ball as far as letting us walk into that fucked up situation,” Grue growled.

“Okay,” Tattletale huffed with both the exertion of our run and her irritation, letting go of my hand to push her hair back from her face and put it behind her ears, “The big one: She’s lying.”

“About?” I asked.

“She’s not the new leader of the ABB.”

“What?  Who is?” Grue asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine.  She doesn’t see herself as the one in charge, as much as she enjoys the role.  She’s pretending.”

The ground rumbled, and we looked behind us to see debris spraying out of the darkness Grue had used to cover our retreat.

It was only because we were watching the debris that we saw the rocket blast out of the darkness.  We ducked, needlessly, as the missile arced 3 feet over our heads and continued down the alley, directly to the spot where a hologram-bomb sat.

We covered our heads as the rocket and bomb exploded, one just a second after the other.  The first explosion didn’t even ruffle our hair, though we were less than a hundred feet away.  The second, explosion, though, ripped past us with the most intense cold I’d ever felt.  Even through my costume, I could feel it.

When we opened our eyes, there was a spectacle in front of us.  The second explosion had flash-frozen the first bomb mid-explosion, had probably been what absorbed the force of the blast.  Smoke, debris and dust had been frozen into a tower of ice, easily as tall as a two story building, composed of spikes of ice and frost that radiated up and away from us.  Most of it was lit up by the lightposts that were spaced evenly across the storage facility.  It was already slowly falling apart – heavier pieces of debris were breaking through the ice that held them up, falling free and crashing through paper thin latticeworks of frost.

That same frost covered the ground and every wall that was facing the explosion site, as far as the eye could see.  It covered us.  Icicles so tiny and fine they were like eyelashes radiated from the parts of my costume that had been exposed.  There were even twists and curls of ice where Grue’s smoke had frozen.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked.  He was shielding Tattletale with his body, the ice sloughing off them in sheets as they stood.  When he saw me looking, he explained, “Tattletale’s costume exposes her skin, more than any of us.  If she’d been totally exposed-“

“No,” I answered, “No worries.  Smart.  But we should move.”

We ran.  All around us, tiny crystals of ice were drifting down, sparkling in the light.

Tattletale continued dishing the info on Bakuda, “Lie number two?  She’s fibbing about how she’s detonating those bombs she has in her people’s heads.  She said she blows things up with a thought, but she’s not wearing any external hardware on her head, and she’s  wouldn’t have someone else do surgery on her.  Too much of a control freak, too proud of her brain.”

“But you don’t know how she’s blowing the bombs up?” I guessed.

“I know exactly how she’s setting them off.  Toe rings.”

“Toe rings,” Grue said, disbelief clear in his tone, even with his warped voice.

“She’s got a ring around her big toe and the toe next to it.  When she crosses one toe over the other, contacts on the outside of the rings meet and it sends the signal.  She chooses the target with a system built into her goggles.  It doesn’t look like she’s doing anything, which is probably the effect she’s going for.  Appearances.”

“Good to know,” Grue said, “But that doesn’t help us right now.  What are her weaknesses?”

There was the crash of an explosion behind us.  The area briefly lit up, but it hadn’t hit close enough to be worth worrying about.

“Narcissistic personality disorder.  Megalomania.  She’s spent her whole life being smarter than everyone around her, even before she had powers.  Constantly praised, coddled.  But she rarely if ever heard a criticism, probably wasn’t ever knocked down a peg, and that was a big factor in her ego swelling up to neurotic levels.  Probably graduated high school years early.  My bet is her trigger event was related to this.  Passed over for a job or someone really bitched her out, and she didn’t know how to deal.”

I had something to add, “The first thing she did with her powers, only thing, before she came to Brockton Bay, was hold a University hostage.  Maybe she got some bad marks, failed a class or was passed over for a teaching assistant position.  Jarred her self image enough she snapped.”

“Something we can use, people!” Grue growled.

“The personality disorder,” Tattletale said, “Even a small victory on our end is going to get a big reaction from her.  Ego-wise, she’s got a glass jaw.  Hard to say if a win for us would mean she goes manic and blows everything up, or if she’d just crumple, but I guarantee she wouldn’t handle it well.”

Grue nodded, started to speak, but stumbled.  I did my best to stop him from falling over, but he probably weighed half again as much as I did.  He got his balance, growled, and then spoke, “How do we win?  Or how do we avoid losing?  What’s she got going on that we don’t know about?”

“The goggles.  She’s seeing heat signatures.  It’s how she kept finding us.  That ice is a blessing in disguise, since it’s probably hiding us some.  She must have a reason for using it.  Um.  Her guns are keyed to her fingerprints, so you couldn’t pick up her grenade launcher and use it against her.”

“What else?”

“That’s all that’s coming to mind right now.  If you’re going to come up with a plan, best do it fast.  I think she’s after us on the Jeep.”

“Then we’re splitting up,” Grue grunted, “I fucked up my ankle by kicking in that door when the black hole hit.  I fucked it up worse by running so much afterward.  I’m going to see what I can do, staying here.”

“What the fuck?” I breathed, “No.”

“I’ll buy you time.  You guys go.  Now!”

“No way,” I said, but he was stopping, turning around.  I tried to stop, too, but Tattletale took hold of my hand and dragged me after her.  I shouted, “Grue!  Don’t be stupid!”

He didn’t respond, turning to fire blasts of darkness at the lights nearest him, darkening the entire alley.  Slowly, he walked in the opposite direction the rest of us were going, favoring one leg.

With a whistle and a resounding crack, another rocket slammed into the tower of ice.  The entire thing toppled like a massive house of cards, with a sound of a hundred thousand windows breaking.  Even with that cacophony, I heard the squeal of tires.  I saw the blurred form of the Jeep approaching through the cloud of snow and frost that was rolling away from the collapsed tower.

Grue didn’t retreat as the Jeep barreled forward, didn’t turn away.  He bellowed at the top of his lungs, in his altered voice, “Come on!”

“Grue!” I shouted, but he didn’t react.  “Fuck!”

No bugs.  Still too few.  We’d been constantly moving, so my bugs hadn’t had a place they could congregate, and this place was lousy for them anyways, in quality and quantity.  How could I have been so goddamn stupid?  I should always be prepared, and now I wasn’t in a state to help a friend and teammate when he needed it most, because I’d assumed my bugs would be on hand.

There were only three people in the Jeep, with the person standing at the back being the very recognizable Bakuda, grenade launcher in hand.  The thug in the passenger seat had a pistol in each hand, and the driver was steering with one hand, a gun in the other.

Grue didn’t budge as the driver stepped on the gas.  Was he playing chicken against a speeding car?

“Come on!” Grue shouted, again.

“Don’t just watch!” Tattletale tugged on my arm, pulling me toward the corner, “We’ve gotta go now or there’s no point!”

It was stupid, but I resisted, grabbing at the edge of the locker to ensure I could at least stay long enough to see what happened to Grue.  See if maybe he would be okay.

Those hopes were swiftly dashed.  The car slammed into the darkness-wreathed figure with enough speed to assure me he wouldn’t be walking away from an impact.

The tires squealed and the Jeep skidded in a half-turn as it veered to a halt.  Bakuda pulled herself up to a standing position, holding on to the roll bar as she looked around, presumably for us.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged me in a strained whisper, “Let’s go!”

I realized it before she did. “There’s no damage to the car.”

Tattletale’s repeated yanking on my arm stopped as she paused to verify what I’d said.  No broken window, no dents on the hood, no dents on the bumper.

A cloud of darkness bloomed from the shadows at the side of the alley and swallowed the Jeep and its three occupants.

Two seconds later, the Jeep came roaring out of the darkness, fishtailing as the wheels struggled to get a grip on the frost-slick pavement.  The driver steered it towards us, while Bakuda loaded her grenade launcher, her focus on the cloud of darkness she’d just exited.  The guy in the passenger seat… was gone.

Bakuda aimed the grenade launcher at the darkness.

“Fuck, Grue owes me one for this,” Regent muttered.  He let go of his shoulder, raised his hand toward the Jeep, and then flung it out to one side.  As he did it, he screamed, his voice primal, raw.

The hand the driver had on the wheel moved much as Regent’s did, swinging wildly to one side.  The Jeep turned, skidded, and spun out, flinging Bakuda and the contents of a half dozen boxes of explosives onto the road of the alley.  It collided with a locker, halfway smashing through a door in the process, and spiraled to a halt with a single airbag deployed, the driver limp behind it.

Almost at the same moment the Jeep stopped, Regent started to collapse to the ground, unconscious.  I grabbed him to stop him and eased him down so he didn’t hit his head.  I looked at Tattletale, “Backfire?”

“No, but close,” Tattletale said, “After a backfire, he’s got to rest his powers.  It’s like throwing a punch with a broken hand.  He’ll be sore and probably powerless for a little while, but he’ll recover.”

“Good,” I said, staring out at the scene.  The crashed car, the frost-covered street covered with grenades and canisters, Bakuda lying still in the midst of it all.  Grue limped out of the cloud of darkness, the passenger’s gun in his hand.

“Grue!” I called out.  I ran to him, hugged him.  My relief was so intense I wasn’t even embarrassed about it.

“Heya,” his voice echoed, “I’m alright.  Only a feint.  Hard to tell whether it’s me or a blob of shadow shaped roughly like a person when the lights are out, yeah?  Fooled her.”

“Fooled me.  Scared the fucking crap out of me,” I answered, “You fucker.”

“Nice to know you care,” he laughed a little, patted me on the head like someone would a dog, “Come on.  We should restrain the lunatic, get her out of here so we can drill her on what happened to Bitch and the money.  Maybe get an idea of what’s going on with the ABB.”

I smiled behind my mask, “Sounds like a-“

I didn’t get to finish.  Everything went white, then every inch of me bloomed in a searing agony that dwarfed the worst pain I had ever felt.

Since we had trounced Über and Leet, it had been one close call after another.  Being surrounded and charged by a mob, being held at gunpoint, escaping a miniature black hole, nearly being frozen in time like bugs in amber, innumerable explosions.  We’d escaped each of the threats by the skin of our teeth, knowing all the while that all it would take was one well placed shot, and we were done, gone, out of commission.

All it had taken was one good shot.

Shell 4.10

I came to the gradual realization I could open my eyes, as though it was something I had forgotten how to do.  I tried it and regretted my decision instantly.  One of my eyes wasn’t seeing anything, even when open, and the other was out of focus, with images failing to make sense even when I could make something out.  As I screwed my eyes shut, even the pink glow of light passing through my eyelids was like fireworks exploding in my retinas.

When I tried to piece together what had just happened, my thoughts moved like molasses.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of,” a voice hissed.  It took me a few seconds to place the voice, way longer than it should have.  Bakuda.

I was beginning to hurt.  Like papercuts, but blown up to two hundred times the size, and each of those papercuts was one of my muscles.  My skin was prickling with stings that were gradually feeling more and more like a burn.  My joints throbbed as though every single joint had been torn out of its individual socket and people were banging the still-alive ends of them against the pavement in a grim rhythm.

I opened my good eye again and tried unsuccessfully to focus.  Three crimson ribbons… no.  I was seeing triple.  One crimson ribbon was extending along the side of my mask, dropping from the edge where the mask covered my nose, dropping in a straight line to touch the ground.  Where it made contact with pavement, there was a steadily growing puddle.  I realized I was bleeding.  A lot.

“Leaving me lying there with a grenade launcher in my hand and ammunition all over the fucking street was asking for it.  Fuck, just the hugging and being all relieved, as if you had actually beaten me?  You were begging to be shot.”

I wasn’t going out like this.  Not without a fight.  I could barely move, though, let alone take action.  My desire to do something was almost more excruciating than the pain that throbbed and thrummed through my entire body.  What could I do?  My mind wasn’t working as agonizingly slowly as it had been a moment before, but my thoughts were still bogged down and broken up.  Stuff I should have known without thinking about it was vague, uncertain, disjointed.  Too many thoughts were orphaned, disconnected from everything else.  I would have hit something in my frustration if I’d been able to move without everything hurting.  I settled for clenching my fists.

School.  Trouble at school?  Me?  The trio?  No.  Why was I thinking about school?  What had I been thinking about before I got frustrated?  Wanting to fight back somehow.  Bakuda, school, fighting back.  I almost groaned in frustration as I tried to connect the individual ideas, and simply couldn’t complete the thought.  I only wound up huffing out a breath, wincing at the pain that caused.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake,” Bakuda’s whirring voice announced to the night air.

Grue said something, a short distance away, I couldn’t make it out.

Bakuda replied with an absent, “Shush, don’t worry.  I’ll get to you in a moment.”

I heard something, and saw a pair of pink boots appear in front of my face, the image swimming and drifting lazily.

“Bad day?” she bent over me, “Good.  See, one of my new minions is on staff at the Protectorate Headquarters.  A guard where Lung is imprisoned, understand?  Wasn’t in a position to free him, but she got the full story from him.  I know you were the little freak that led to him getting sent there.  So you get special treatment tonight.  You get to watch what I do to your friends.  I’ll start with the boy in black, then move on to your unconscious buddies over there.  Glued them down just to be safe.  Once your friends are as good as dead, I give you to Oni Lee.  He was a very good boy when it came to the change of regime, and he’s been bugging me to give him something to play with.  What do you say to that?”

I was only half listening.  Like a mantra, I was mentally reciting the same thing, over and over.  Bakuda, school, fight back.

“Bakuda, school,” I mumbled.  Hearing how reedy and thin my own voice sounded was more terrifying than anything else that had come to my attention in the past few minutes.

“What?  Does the bug girl want to say something?”  She bent down and grabbed the armor that hung over my chest.  With a jerk, she hauled me into a half-sitting position.  Being tugged around like that was torture, but the pain helped sharpen my thoughts into a semblance of clarity.

“School.  Bakuda failed,” I answered her, my voice only marginally stronger than it had been on my last attempt.  The black-red lenses of her goggles bored into me as I composed my thoughts to speak again, trying to sound more coherent. “Smart as you think you are, failing like that?  What was it?  Second place?  Not even second?”  I managed something approximating a chuckle.

She let go of me and stepped away as if I was on fire.  As my head hit the pavement, I very nearly blacked out.  Had to fight not to.  Embrace the painKeeps you awake.

A short distance from me, Grue’s voice echoed.  I could only make out the first word.  “She’s” or “Cheese”.  He laughed.  It spooked me that I couldn’t understand him, that I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t understand him.  I wasn’t hearing as well as I should, I knew that.  But that wasn’t all of it.  What else?

The distortion.  The explosion or explosions had damaged my hearing, maybe, and I couldn’t make out his words with the effect his power had on his voice.  Just figuring that out, knowing I could figure it out, made me feel a hundred times better.

“You think so?” Bakuda hissed at Grue.  Her words were easier to make out, since her mask was reconstructing them so they were perfectly enunciated and monotone, even if it obscured it behind whirs and hisses.

She kicked me in the face with one of those pink boots.  Having to move my head hurt more than almost having my teeth kicked in.  She grabbed at my costume and dragged me several feet.  Being moved cranked all the other hurt up a notch.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a good solid nine point five.  Nothing I could do could make it hurt more, so I found the strength and willpower to reach up and grab at her wrists, for all the good it did.  She let me go and then shoved me to turn me on my side.  The movement made me want to throw up.

Seeing Grue helped ground me, as I fought the nausea and panted tiny breaths at the pain.  He was bound in a half-sitting position against a locker with what looked like lengths of sticky gold ribbon.  Where was Tattletale?

“Let’s see how smart you two are after I give tall, dark and mysterious his treat,” Bakuda threatened, “Let’s see… here.  Here’s a real gem.  Two-twenty-seven.  Now sit still.  If you even think about using your power, I’ll just shove it down the bug brat’s throat instead, set it off.  Not like you’re in a position to stop me from getting the job done, even if I’m deaf and blind.”

She removed her pink gloves and threw them aside.  Then she withdrew a set of what looked like long, narrow scissors from her sleeve.  Except they were blunt, not sharp.  Like pliers, almost.  They clicked as she closed them on the tip of what looked like an inch-long metal pill.

“No need for surgery, since this isn’t going to be long term.  What I’m going to do is slide this up your nostril and into your nasal cavity.”  She reached into the darkness that was leaking from all around him and fumbled around his face. “Just need to get your mask… helmet… off.  There.”

If Grue’s mask was off, it was hard to tell.  His head was just a roughly human-shaped blur of shadow.

She reached into that layer of darkness with one hand and pushed the capsule into the center of it all with the other.  “And in it goes… slowly, don’t want to activate it prematurely, and the effects will only be really cool if it’s deep.  See, my two-twenty-seven was something of a happy accident.  I’d taken readings of little Vista’s powers, thought maybe I could make a space distortion grenade.  Purely by accident, I cracked the Manton effect.  Or at least, whatever I’d done when I put the grenade together, it bypassed the Manton effect.  You idiots know what that is?”

She stopped and cracked her knuckles, leaving the scissor-like tool sticking straight out of Grue’s face.  “It’s that little rule that keeps pyrokinetics from boiling your blood, that limits most powers from affecting people’s bodies.  Or, depending on what theory you’re going by, it’s the rule that says your power either works only on organic, living things, or it works on everything else.

“So think about it.  A spatial distortion effect that only works on living material.  I set this thing off, and all living matter within three feet of the capsule is reshaped, warped, shrunk, blown up, stretched, bent.  It doesn’t actually kill you.  That’s the second most amazing thing about it, besides the Manton bypass.  Everything still connects to everything else.  Totally nonlethal, but it’ll make you wish you were dead every second of the rest of your miserable fucking existence.”

Don’t just lie there and watch, I thought.  Do something!

“Just click, whoosh, you’re ugly enough to put the elephant man to shame.  Wind up with a head four times the normal size, bumps like tumors all over, every feature and part the wrong shape, wrong size.  Reshapes the brain, too, but that’s usually just some mild to moderate brain damage, since I’ve got it calibrated to focus on the external features.”  She laughed.  It was that dry, repetitive, inhuman sound.  When she spoke again, she enunciated each word separately.  “Irreversible.  And.  Fucking.  Hilarious.”

I reached for my bugs, but I couldn’t draw my thoughts together enough to give them any complex commands.  I just called them to me.  That still left me to help Grue.

My utility sheath.  Slowly, as much due to my need to be discreet as to my inability to move very quickly without incredible pain, I moved my hand behind my back, reminded myself of what was there.

Pepper spray – no go.  It would burn her skin, but the goggles and mask would keep most of her face safe.  She was scraped and bloody, so maybe I could spray her body… it wouldn’t be fun on her wounds, but would that save us?

Pen and paper.  Cell phone.  Change.  No, no and no.

Baton.  I didn’t have the strength to swing it, or the leverage or room I needed to extend it.

Epipens.  Not much use, and I didn’t trust my strength or coordination as far as being able to both inject her and depress the syringe.

That was it for the contents of my utility compartment.  I let my hand go limp and dangle behind my back as I braced myself to move it, and my fingers brushed against something.

The knife sheath at the small of my back.  I’d strapped it in at the lowest point it could be on my back, while being both covered by my armor and easy to reach.

Knife worked.

There was a faint click as Bakuda adjusted the scissor-plier things and removed them from Grue’s nose.  They weren’t gripping the capsule anymore.

“This should be a show,” she gloated, standing up straight before I could figure out where to stab or cut.  Didn’t want to kill, but had to stop her.  For Grue.

My hand was still behind my back, gripping the knife handle with the blade pointing out the bottom of my hand.  I shifted my position a fraction so my angle was better.

“Hey, bug girl.  What are you up to, there?  Flopping around like a fish on dry land?  Pay attention, it’s going to look really cool when parts of his face start bulging out of that little blotch of shadow.”

I tried to formulate a response, some reply that would add sting to what I was about to do, but a wave of weakness swept over me.  Darkness began to creep in around the edges of my vision, again.  I straightened my legs in an attempt to cause myself more pain, force myself to alertness again, and it failed to push the darkness back.  Was Grue using his power?  I looked at him.  Nothing.  I was just blacking out.

I couldn’t pass out now.

Toe Rings.

With no witty reply, no quip or even an angry yell, I brought the knife down on the end of her foot.  Two thoughts struck me simultaneously.

I’d hit something hard.  Was her foot or boot armored?

Had I even gotten the right foot?  Tattletale had never said which one had the toe rings.  Or if both did.

As a wave of blackness swept in front of my vision and faded just as quickly, leaving me only dimly aware of her screams.  The nausea was welling again, and just like it was with my consciousness slipping away, the need to puke building.  I was going to throw up, but I could choke if I did it with my mask on.  If I wound up on my back, I could even suffocate.

Grue was saying something.  Couldn’t make out his words.  Sounded urgent.

The woman was screaming in my ear.  A litany of curses, threats, horrible things she was going to do to me.  Unconsciousness called to me, seductive, safe, painless, free of threats.

If it was even unconsciousness. The chilling idea that I could be dying dawned on me, gave me the briefest moment of clarity.  I focused hard on the jumble of distorted images and sounds, where I was, what people were saying and screaming at me.

The woman was rolling on the ground next to me.  As she kicked her leg, a spatter of blood marred the one lens of my mask that I could see through.  What was the woman’s name again?  Bakuda.  The very tip of the knife was still lodged in the pavement where her foot had been.  That was the hard thing I’d hit: pavement, not armor.  There was a lot of blood.  Hers.  A bit of her boot, pink and crimson.  Two smaller toes with painted nails, pink and crimson, in the midst of the mess of blood.

I tried and failed to pull the knife free, though it was only embedded a quarter-inch deep in the ground.  The effort that left me gasping for breath with big lungfuls of air.  Each breath made me feel like I’d inhaled barbed wire and hot irons were pressing against my sides.  I was praying the urge to vomit would go away, knowing it wouldn’t.

Grue.  What was he saying?  I could barely understand Bakuda with her robotic enunciation.  Understanding Grue was a dozen times harder.  Like another language.

Live knee vuh yife?  Knife?  The knife.  He needed it.

I let myself fall onto my front, face toward the ground, so I wouldn’t choke.  The knife-holding hand stayed put, but my arm bent at a bad angle, eliciting a stab of pain.  My wrist and elbow awkwardly twisted, strained to return to a natural position.  I resisted the urge to let go, kept my grip on the knife handle.

The ground gave before I did, and the knife came free.  My arm straightened, stretching out in front of me, the knife gripped in my black gloved hand.  I looked up from the knife to see a blurry image of Grue struggling under his bonds, the last thing I saw before darkness and merciful lack of consciousness claimed me.

Shell 4.11

“Hey Taylor, wake up.”  A girl’s voice.

“Taylor?”  A deeper, more adult voice, “Come on, kiddo.  You’ve done really well.”

I felt warm, fuzzy.  Like waking up in a warm bed on a cold day, all the covers in the right place, feeling totally rested, knowing you don’t have to get up right away.  Or like being six years old, having crawled into bed with Mom and Dad at some point during the night and waking up between them.

“I think she’s gradually coming to.  Give her a moment,” Someone older.  An old man, maybe.  Unfamiliar.

“I was worried she wouldn’t wake up,” the deeper male voice said.

“Could have told you she wasn’t in a coma,” the girl replied.

“The same way you’re absolutely, one hundred percent positive she doesn’t have a serious brain injury?” the old man asked. “Because narcotics can camouflage the symptoms, and if we wait too long to take action on that… well.”

“Nothing beyond what I described to you,” the girl said, just a bit testily, “Unless your equipment is faulty.  I need correct information to work with, or I get false info.”

“I assure you, my equipment may be limited, but it is in perfect working order.”

I tried opening my eyes, found everything too bright.  Foggy, like I was looking at it from underwater, but my eyes were sandpaper dry.  Something dark moved over my vision, made my eyelid flicker.  Something else tickled my cheek.  I tried to raise my hand to my face to brush at them, but my arms were at my sides, buried under sheets and I didn’t have the strength to move them.

“Hey sleepy,” the deeper voice once more.  I felt a large hand rest on my forehead, it moved to brush my hair back, reminded me of my mom and dad again.  Being a kid, being taken care of.

The old man and the girl were still arguing.  Her tone was impatient “-a concussion, severe blood loss, bruising, external and internal, plus whatever it is that fucked with her nervous system, understand?  I have no reason to lie to you.”

“All I’m telling you is that if there is something else, and complications result, it’s on you, because I’m taking your word on this.  I would rather the girl not die or wind up brain damaged, of course, but if she does, I won’t feel guilty, and I-“

“If something happens because I was wrong, and it isn’t because you gave me the wrong information or tools to work with, I’ll own up.  I’ll tell him, and your reputation will be unaffected.  Promise.”

The old man grumbled and mumbled, but didn’t say anything more.

I tried opening my eyes again.  I recognized the face.  Brian.  Lisa joined him at the bedside.

“Hey there,” she said, her tone sympathetic, “You got walloped, huh?”

“Guess so,” I replied, except I wasn’t sure I said the ‘so’ out loud.  I might have been drifting back to sleep, but another tickle at my face made me wrinkle my nose.  “What is-?”

“That, honey, is the only reason we’ve been trying to wake you up.  You’ve been using your power while you sleep, and every bug in the neighborhood has been gathering here to crawl on you.  Not all at once, not all together, but they’re adding up and someone’s going to notice.”

Brian looked across the room, ” We’ve got the windows and doors sealed with saran wrap and tape, and they’re still getting in.  Can’t take you anywhere like this, and the good doctor here needs us to clear out in case a real patient comes in.”

“What I need is a sterile work environment,” the old man groused, “One that isn’t ridden with cockroaches and-“

“We’re handling it,” Lisa snapped at him.  Then, in a softer voice, she said, “Taylor, don’t go to sleep.”

I was surprised to realize I was drifting off.  Funny.

“I know the painkillers are nice.  We gave you boatloads, since you were really hurting.  But we need you to send them away.  The bugs.”

Oh.  I dimly recalled telling my bugs to come to me not long before I passed out.  I guess I hadn’t ever told them to stop.  I guess blacking out had prevented me.  I sent an instruction, then told her, “Good as done.”  Something caught my attention. “Hmm.  Interesting music.”

“Music?”  Lisa momentarily looked very concerned.  She looked at Brian.

“Outside.  In front of the door.  An iPod, maybe.  There’s a guy, listening to music.  Maybe he doesn’t have the headphones on or the buds in his ears.  Or they aren’t plugged in to the iPod itself.  Sounds like orchestra, or pop.  It’s Latin?  Or English?  Both?  That last bit sounded Japanese.  Or Chinese.  Is it racist I can’t tell the difference?”

“You’re babbling, Taylor,” Brian said, not unkindly.

Lisa briefly disappeared from my field of vision, “But she’s right.  There’s a guy on the steps out front, listening to music.  How did you know?”

“Moth on the door.  I was so busy listening, I forgot to make her go.  I’m sorry.  I’ll… I’ll-“

“Shh.  Relax.  It’s fine.  Just send the bugs away, and you can go back to sleep.  We’re handling everything, okay?”

It was okay.  I drifted off.

I was jostled from a dream.

“Careful!”

“I am being careful.  Stop being so twitchy.  Just close the car door.”

“I’m not being twitchy.  You almost dropped her a few seconds ago.  I swear, if you drop her on her head…”

“I won’t,” the words were a bass vibration against one side of my body as much as they were a noise in my ears.  I was warm on that side of my body, too.  It smelled nice.  Like leather and shaving cream.

I started to say something, then stopped.  Too much effort.

A girl’s voice sounded not far from my ear.  “Hey there, Taylor.  Making a bit of a sound?  You waking up?”

I shook my head and pressed my cheek harder against the warm body.

She laughed.

A knocking sound.  The classic rhythm of ‘shave and a hair cut, two bits.’  The door opened a moment later.

“God, Taylor.  Is she?”

The girl – Lisa, I recognized it now – responded, “She’s okay, just sleeping.  Like I said on the phone-“

“I’m sorry to interrupt, just… I’m sorry, I’ve completely blanked on your name, but can I help you carry her inside?”

“Actually, I’m alright, and I think I’d be more likely to drop her if we tried to adjust to a two person carry.  The name’s Brian.”

“Brian, okay.  Thank you.  If you could just bring her through here.  After you called, I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I made up the sofa bed, in case we couldn’t get her upstairs, or if there was a wheelchair.  I was thinking the worst…”

“The couch is fantastic,” Lisa said, “She’s most definitely not in the worst shape she could be in, or even close to it.  She’s going to sleep a lot, and you’ll need to check on her every half hour to make sure she’s okay, for the next twelve hours.  Besides, she might want to watch TV between naps, so this looks like a perfect place to be.”

“Okay.  Good.”

I was laid out flat, and instantly missed the warmth and closeness I’d had moments before.  Then someone pulled dryer-warmed covers and a heavy comforter around me and I decided I could cope.

“Would you come through to the kitchen?  Our house is small and I’m afraid there’s nowhere to sit in our living room with the sofa bed out.  In the kitchen, we’ll be quieter.”

“But still able to see if she wakes up,” Lisa answered, “Makes sense.”

“Can I get you anything?  Tea, coffee?”

“Coffee, please,” Brian replied, “Long night.”

“Would it be okay if I asked for tea, when you’re already busy with coffee, Mr. Hebert?”

“After all you’ve done, making tea is the least I can do.  But please, call me Danny.”

If I’d been comfortable in a morphine induced haze before, I was very, very awake the moment I heard the name and realized these voices and names I recognized had no business being together.

Dad, Lisa and Brian.  At my kitchen table. I kept my eyes half-shut and hung on to every word.

“She’s okay?”

“Like I said on the phone, she’s alright,” Lisa said, “Concussion, bruising, some blood loss.  Nine stitches.”

“Should I take her to a doctor?”

“You can.  But my dad’s a doctor, and he looked her over in his clinic.  Pulled strings to get her a CT scan, MRI.  He wanted to be absolutely sure there was no brain damage before he gave her stronger painkillers.  Here.  I’ve got the bottle in one of these pockets.  There.  It’s codeine.  She’s probably going to have some major headaches, and she was moaning in her sleep about pain in her extremities.  Give her one pill four times a day, but only if she feels she needs it.  If she’s okay as is, just wean her off.  Two a day, or half a pill four times a day.”

“How much?”

“The codeine?  Four pills-“

“The CT scan, MRI, prescription.  If you just give me a second to grab my wallet, I’ll give-“

I could picture Lisa taking hold of his hand, stopping him.  “She’s a friend, Danny.  My papa would never even hear of having you pay.”

So surreal.  Hearing words like my dad’s name or the word ‘papa’ from Lisa’s mouth.

“I… I have no words.  Thank you.”

“It’s fine.  Really.  I feel guilty-“

We feel guilty,” Brian cut in.

“-for letting it happen.  That Taylor got the brunt of it.  And I’m sorry that we didn’t call you sooner.  We had to wait for Taylor to wake up and get coherent enough to give us your phone number.”

I was pretty sure I hadn’t.  Which probably made this one of those creepy Tattletale moments where she had been able to figure out something I wouldn’t have guessed she could.

“I – that’s alright.  Your other friends are okay?”

“Rachel’s more scratched and bruised than Taylor, but she didn’t get a concussion, and she’s a tough girl.  My guess is she’s sleeping soundly at home, and she’ll be up and about this afternoon.  Alec, our other friend, passed out when it happened, woke up with a bad headache, but he’s alright.  We’ve been teasing him about how he fainted, and it’s bugging the f-, uh, it’s bugging him.  As if guys never faint.”

“And you two?”

“A little worse for wear, but you could tell just by looking at us, obviously.  Scrapes, bumps, bruises.  I got burned, just a bit.  No worse than a bad sunburn.”

“Not around your eyes, I see”

Lisa laughed, so naturally you’d never think twice about it, “Yeah.  I was wearing sunglasses when it happened.  It’s that noticeable?”

“Not so bad, and if it’s like a sunburn, you’ll be fine in a few days.  Can you tell me more about what happened?  On the phone, you said something about-“

“A bomb.  You’ve seen the news?”

“Explosions across the city all night and all morning, yes.  The incident at the PHQ.   All started by one of the parahumans.  I can’t remember her name.  Sounded Japanese?”

“Bakuda, right?  Yeah, pretty sure that’s it.  We were cutting through the Docks on our way back from the Lord Street Market, and I guess we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One second, everything’s normal, then disaster.  Brian was carrying Taylor’s bags while she retied her shoes, so she was a bit behind the rest of us when it happened.  Brian and I stood up after the explosion, and Alec, Rachel and Taylor didn’t.  Taylor was the scariest to see lying there, because you could see the blood right away.”

“God.”

I opened my eyes to peek and saw my dad at the kitchen table, his face in his hands.  I swallowed a fist sized lump of guilt and shut my eyes again.

Brian’s voice.  “I feel bad about it.  I shouldn’t have walked ahead of Taylor while she was tying her shoes, or-“

“Brian.  If you had been standing beside her, you would have wound up in the same shape as her and you wouldn’t have been able to carry her,” Lisa objected. “It was my fault for suggesting we cut through the Docks.”

“I have to ask-” My dad started, “Why…?”  He trailed off, unable to find a good way to phrase it.

“We normally wouldn’t take a shortcut through that part of town,” Lisa said, “But there were five of us, and you know… look at Brian.  Would you want to mess with a big guy like him?”

“Gee, thanks, Lise,” Brian said.  Then he and my dad laughed together.

So surreal.

“I… I know it sounds strange,” my dad spoke, hesitantly, “But even after you told me it was a bomb, on the phone, I couldn’t believe it.  I thought maybe it was a mean prank, or Taylor had come across, um.”

“The bullies,” Lisa finished my dad’s sentence.

“You know?”

“She explained a lot of it, including what happened in January.  All of us made it clear we’d help if she asked, however much or little she wanted.”

“I see.  I’m glad that she found someone to talk to, about it.”

Sympathetically, Lisa answered, “But you’re disappointed that someone wasn’t you.”

If guilt caused you physical pain, I think that would have been like a shiv through my heart.

My dad, inexplicably, laughed, “Well, aren’t you eerily on target?  Taylor did say you were smart.”

“She did, did she?  That’s nice to hear.  What else did she say?”

My Dad laughed again. “I’ll quit now, before I say something that she would rather I keep private.  I think we both know she plays things close to the vest.”

“Too true.”

“There’s homemade cookies in the jar, there.  Still warm.  After I got the couch ready, I didn’t know what to do.  Had to work out the anxiety somehow, so I baked.  Make yourselves at home while I see to your tea and coffee.”

“Thank you, Danny,” Lisa said, “I’m going to go to the living room and check on Taylor, if that’s cool?”

“Please do.”

“Just gonna grab a cookie first… Mm.  Smells good.”

I shut my eyes and pretended to be sleeping.  I could hear Brian talking to my dad in the other room, something about my Dad’s job.

“So?” Lisa asked me in a quieter voice, as she climbed onto the sofa bed to lie beside me, “Does the story pass muster?”

I thought about it, “I don’t like lying to my dad.”

“So we did the lying for you.  Unless you want to tell him the truth?”

“No, but I don’t want you here.”  The mental brakes that should have stopped my lips from moving failed to keep the words from leaving my mouth.  I closed my eyes, feeling the heat of a flush on my cheeks.

“I- I’m so sorry… That came out wrong.  I’m grateful for what you did, what you’re doing.  You guys are awesome and hanging out with you has been some of the most fun I’ve had in years.  I’m so glad you’re here, and I’d like nothing better to just kick back and unwind after all that, but-“

Lisa put a finger against my lips, silencing me.  “I know.  You like to keep different parts of your life separate.  I’m sorry, but there wasn’t a way around it.  You were hurt, and we couldn’t keep you without your dad causing a stir.”

I lowered my eyes, “Yeah.”

“You’re probably going to be a little wobbly for a few days.  Your, um, brutal honesty just now was probably the concussion at work.  It’s going to influence your mood, maybe loosen your inhibitions as if you were a bit drunk.  Your memory might be a little unreliable, you might be more disorganized, or you might have extreme mood swings, like crying jags.  You might have a harder time reading social cues.  You work on getting through all that, we’ll shrug it off if you say something you normally wouldn’t.  Just… try not to let anything private slip around your dad, so nothing slips?  All of this should pass before too long.”

“Okay.”  That last part was something of a relief.

Brian joined us and sat on the corner of the bed opposite where Lisa was lying, by my feet.  “Your dad’s an alright guy,” he told me.  “Reminds me a lot of you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just said, “Thanks.”

“Even after you’ve recovered most of the way, I think we’ll go out of our way to stay out of hairy situations, at least for a little while,” Lisa said.  Brian nodded.

“I like that idea,” I replied. “So what really happened, last night?”

She moved her head so she was sharing my pillow, “Starting from when?”

“From when Alec crashed the car.  One second everything’s fine, the next, I can barely move, barely think.”

“She was playing possum.  I was busy looking after Alec, assuming you guys were watching her. At the same time, you and Brian, I guess, were assuming I’d keep an eye on her.  While we weren’t paying attention, she loaded her grenade launcher and shot you.  It should have burned you, but I think your costume saved you, there.  Your costume couldn’t do much to prevent the concussion, though.  There was some secondary effect, where it did something to your nervous system.  Like being jabbed with a Taser, but more about incapacitating you with unadulterated pain than knocking you out.”

I shivered.  Just remembering what it had felt like made me twitch, like I was hearing nails on a blackboard.

“I was farther away, and I think your body shielded Brian, or maybe his power helped, because we didn’t get hit half as hard.  It was still enough to put the two of us down long enough for Bakuda to load and fire two rounds of that gluey string crap.  Once that happened, we were pretty fucked.  Until you turned the tables.”

“I stabbed her foot,” I remembered.

“Cut off two and a half of the toes on her left foot.  One of which had a toe ring.  Brian said you pushed the knife towards him as you passed out.  He blacked out the area, managed to reach the knife, cut himself free, and then rescued the rest of us.”

“And Bakuda?”  I whispered.

“One of two bits of bad news.  She got away while Brian was getting free and helping us.”

“Fuck!” I said, a touch too loud.

Brian sounded apologetic, “You were in bad shape, I wasn’t sure what had happened to Regent, and Lisa was a little feeble from the same blast that messed you up like it did.  I could maybe have caught up to Bakuda, stopped her, but I decided making sure you guys were okay was more important.”

I nodded.  I couldn’t exactly argue with that.

Lisa continued, “I called the boss, he sent us to a doctor who has a reputation for being discreet and working with parahumans.  Been doing it twenty years.  We were worried about you.”

“Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for.  Anyways, it all more or less worked out.  The doc got the capsule out of Brian’s nose, patched you up, gave Regent an IV.  I sat and watched you while Brian went and got Rache, her dog and the money.  Only two or three thousand gone, that someone thought they could get away with grabbing from the bag before it was all counted.  Our boss sent a van and picked it up a little after midnight.  Money he gave us is already in our apartment, with more to come after he decides what the papers are worth.”

“You said it more or less worked out, and you still haven’t told me the second piece of bad news.  What aren’t you saying?”

She sighed, “I was hoping you were too out of it to ask.  You really want to know?”

“Not really.  But if I’m going to lie here for a while, getting better, I don’t want to be left to imagine worst case scenarios.”

“Okay.”  She fished inside her jacket pocket, then handed me a newspaper clipping.  Except it was torn, not clipped.  Newspaper ripping?  Across the top, in big bold letters, was the word ‘Escaped’.

When I tried to read the article, though, I found I couldn’t keep my eyes fixed on one line.  “Read it to me?”

“I’ll give you the cliff notes.  Just before she started to come after us in the Jeep, Bakuda gave the order to put another plan into action.  Bombs started going off all over the city.  Blowing up transformers to deny power to entire districts, a school, a bridge, train tracks… the list goes on.  People are freaking out.  Front page news, it’s on every channel.  They’re saying at least twenty people confirmed dead so far, with other bodies yet to be identified, and that’s not counting the four people she blew up when she was holding us at gunpoint.”

A vivid image of what had happened to Park Jihoo flashed through my mind’s eye.  He died.  He’s really dead.  I never knew him, but he’s gone forever, and I couldn’t do anything to save him.

“Here’s the second bit of bad news.  All of that?  It was one overblown distraction.  Something to keep every cape in the city busy, while Oni Lee sprung Lung from the PHQ.”

I let out a long sigh.  “Oh fuck.”

“The city is a warzone right now.  The ABB is twelve times the size of what it was two weeks ago, and Bakuda’s gone on a rampage.  More bombs are going off every few hours, but they’re not aimed at major services this time.  Businesses, tenements, warehouses, boats.  My guess is she’s targeting places the other major gangs and factions in the city hang out, or places they might hang out.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“You’d think having a third of her toes cut off would slow her down, if anything,” Brian said.

Lisa shook her head.  “She’s in a manic phase.  She’ll burn out, if she hasn’t already, and the explosions will stop in a matter of hours.  With Lung reinstated as leader, though, that doesn’t mean the ABB is going to lose any steam.  Chances are he’ll capitalize on the advantage Bakuda created for him.  It’s just a question of where, when, and how much.  Depends on the shape he’s in.”

We didn’t get a chance to talk further on the subject.  Tattletale raised a finger to her lips, and we shut up.  A few seconds later, my dad walked into the living room, holding a tray.  He put it in my lap.  Three mugs, a plate of cookies and two toasted bagels, one with jam and one with butter.

“I’ve got another bagel in the toaster, so help yourselves and ask if you want more.  Green mug is Brian’s coffee.  Tea for you girls.  Here you are, Lisa.  Woodstock mug is Taylor’s favorite since she was a kid.  Here.”

Brian chuckled a little as I accepted the mug with two hands.

“Hey!  No laughing at me while I’m like this.”

“Which reminds me, how long before she’s okay to return to be up and about?” My dad asked Lisa.

“A week, bare minimum,” Lisa replied, “Maybe escort her to and from the bathroom until you’re sure she’s steady on her feet, but beyond that, probably best if she stays in bed, stays home and takes it easy until next Saturday.”

That stopped me.  “What about school?”

Lisa nudged my upper arm with her elbow and grinned, “You got a perfect excuse not to go.  Why complain?”

Because I’d forced myself to go to school after missing nearly a week of classes, with the intention of not skipping any more, and now I was going to miss another full week.  I couldn’t say that, especially not in front of my dad.

“Okay if we stay a bit?” Lisa murmured in my ear, the moment my dad left to get the third bagel.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  The damage was done, so to speak, they were already here.  I might as well make the best of it.  I scooted over so Brian could sit on the bed, just to my left, and Lisa got up for just a second to grab the remote.  She found a movie that was only a few minutes in as she settled in on my right.

I momentarily dozed off and woke to realize my head was resting on Brian’s arm.  Even after my eyes opened and I started focusing on the movie again, I left my head where it was.  He didn’t seem to mind.  The three of us laughed at a series of jokes in the movie, and Lisa got the hiccups, which only made Brian and I laugh harder.

I saw my dad puttering about in the kitchen, probably to keep an eye on me, and our eyes met.  I gave a little wave, not moving my arm, just my hand, and smiled.  The smile he gave me in return was maybe the first truly genuine one I’d seen on his face in a long time.

The school thing?  I’d worry about it later, if it meant I could live in the present like this.

Interlude 4

A whistle.  Brutus’ ears perk up.   Already jumping off the bed as second whistle comes, just after the first.  Two whistles like that means come.  Master only asks for dogs to come to the front stairs if it is time for walkies!

Walkies are Brutus’ favorite thing!

Other dogs are bumping shoulders with Brutus in hurry to get to Master.  Turn corner too fast, claws scratch at floor to get grip.  Fall a little.  Judas hesitates, sniffs, but Angelica is ahead of Brutus now.  Bad girl.  Brutus snarls a little at Angelica, she backs away, drops behind.  Brutus is top dog.  Angelica should know that.  Brutus arrives at Master first, the way it should be.

Brutus is top dog, but Master is alpha.  Leader of this pack.  Not leader of her people-pack but that is okay.  She bends down and scratches all over Brutus’ neck and shoulders, deep, rough.  Perfect scratches because they dig through Brutus’ thick fur.  Tail is wagging so hard that back paws are slipping on floor.  Fall over and turn belly up so Master can scratch it.  She does and it is ecstasy.

Master is hurt and hurting.  Brutus knows this.  When she bends down, she is moving more slowly, she is making little sounds as she makes bigger movements like bending down and standing up.  She smells like dried blood and stress and sweat in ways she usually doesn’t.

“Angelica, Judas, stay,” Master says, “Not taking you two.” Brutus doesn’t understand but Master sounds apologetic.  Like when she was walking up stairs and accidentally kicked Brutus in chin because he was following too close behind her.  She scratches each of them in turn.  Not enthusiastic scratches.  They are happy to be scratched but they aren’t coming for walkies.  Brutus’ tail stops wagging.  Is Brutus not coming for walkies?

Master picks up leash.  “Brutus, good boy.  Walkies?”  Tail is wagging crazy hard again.  Master tells Brutus to sit, Brutus sits.  Is good boy.  Master puts plastic bags in back pocket, puts on backpack.  Backpack unusual.  Master doesn’t usually bring backpack for walkies.  Errand?

“We’re going on an errand, okay boy?” Master speaks.  Brutus’ tail wags.  Brutus was right!  Errands always interesting.  Brutus eagerly takes a few steps forward before remembering to be a good boy.  Master doesn’t like it when Brutus pulls on leash.  She puts on shoes, gets the keys that jangle, gets crinkly wrapper things she sometimes eats that Brutus can’t because Brutus is a dog.  Crinkly wrapper things go in left pocket.  She gets treats for dogs to put in right pocket, stops.  Gives treats to Judas and Angelica.  Treat for Brutus?

“Treats later,” Master says.  ‘Later’ is familiar word but meaning unclear.  Brutus feels crushing disappointment as treats go in Master’s right pocket.  Jumps up a little to remind Master she forgot to give a treat.  Master makes angry clucking noise and Brutus is sorry now.  Tail down, ears down.

“Bitch, hold up,” speaks the scentless man.  Scentless man makes Brutus nervous because he is big but he has no smell.  But he is Master’s alpha so Master stops and listens.

“You’re going out?” the scentless man asks.

“Work,” Master says.

The scentless man waits for something, then speaks again, “Are you okay?”

“Fuckin’ peachy.”  Brutus knows Master only says fuck word like that when she’s mad.

“I have a hard time believing that, to be honest.  You were in pretty rough shape when I found you with Über and Leet’s henchmen, and those guys from the ABB.”

“I’m fine now,” Master tells him.  She sounds angry.  Brutus steps forward, ready to growl to add own voice to hers, but Master tugs on leash just a little and Brutus stays quiet.

“When I found you, one of them had you tied to the ceiling by your wrists and was using you as a punching bag.”

Master breaks eye contact.  Brutus knows this is a sign that Master sees the scentless man as her alpha.  When she speaks, she still sounds angry, “I fucked up.  I was bored, restless, figured I’d walk Angelica and see if I could meet you guys where the money was.  Someone recognized me and tailed me.  I was stupid, I took my licks for it.  I’m fine now, we have the money, all is well.”

The scentless man sighs.  Sounds a little angry as he says, “It’s not… no, nevermind.  No use getting into it.  But what if someone recognizes you while you’re walking him?”

“I’ll fight back sooner, harder.  Or are you going to tell me I can’t walk my dogs anymore?”  All of a sudden, Master is tense.  Brutus can see it in her legs, hear it in her voice, feel it in her grip on the leash.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the scentless man replies, his voice quiet, slightly strained “And you wouldn’t listen even if I did.  Just… be careful.”

“I can go?”

“Go.  Enjoy your walk, both of you.”

And the tension leaves Master.  One small whistle and Brutus knows to follow.  Down the stairs and out the door into the outside world.  So many smells!  So many sounds!  So exciting!

But can’t get too excited.  Brutus is good boy.  Doesn’t pull on leash like Angelica still does.  Master always makes angry clucking noise at Angelica on walkies.

Master is walking slower.  Favoring one leg.  Brutus is eager for walkies but doesn’t pull on leash even if Master is walking slower.

So many smells!  Being in own territory is good but being on walkies is smelling whole world.  Always new things, always new things to smell about old things.  Smell this pee and know almost everything about the dog who peed.  Bitch.  Maybe in heat soon.  Lives with kids.  Pee smells like stress and eating too much grass and sleeping too much and being a fat dog.

Smell that poo to know about dog who pooed.  Hungry dog.  Hungry dog’s master probably hungry too.  Many like that here.  Not like that in Brutus’ old home.  No people or dogs there were hungry.  But Brutus remembers being unhappy.  Master was always ignoring Brutus.  Leave Brutus in basement alone all day until Brutus stop bad man who came in basement window.  Is okay now.  Brutus is happy now with new master.

Smell that pee.  Human pee.  Not as interesting.  Master whistles to remind Brutus to keep up.  No more sniffing for now.

“Brutus, sit, stay,” Master orders.  Brutus sits and stays while Master stands beside him.  Is good boy.  Gets scratched by Master.  Little female human is walking up to Brutus. Smaller than Brutus.  Pats at Brutus, pokes.  One poke in eye.  Brutus’ ears down, head down, tail between legs.  Not good scratches.  Little human laughs.  Poke again in Brutus’ side.

Brutus looks up at Master.  Pleading.  Master not saying anything so Brutus stays while being poked.  Little human grabbing Brutus’ fur on side and pulling too hard.  Like Angelica when Angelica was new to Master’s pack, biting and pulling and making Brutus bleed.  Bad memory.  Growl starts in Brutus’ throat.

“No, Brutus, off,” Master orders.  Brutus lowers head.  No more growling.  Still being poked.  Still being pulled at.

Big female human that smells like the little human arrives.  Is walking fast.  Big female stops and laughs at Brutus and little human.

“Aren’t they cute?”  Another laugh.

Master doesn’t laugh.

“Well, kids will be kids.”

Master speaks, her voice even but her body language is angry, “Watch your fucking child.”  Brutus knows watch is order for Brutus to sit and stay and bark if anyone comes… but Master is talking to big female and not giving order to Brutus.  Other word Brutus knows is fucking which means Master is mad but Brutus isn’t the one she’s saying fucking to so it is okay.

Brutus thinks maybe it’s okay to growl now because Master said fucking so he growls.  Smells fear from little human and big female.  Master doesn’t say no so it was okay for Brutus to growl.

Big female laughs but laugh sounds different than before, shrill.  Waves her hand.  Bends down to pick up little human.

“Brutus, guard,” Master orders.  Brutus quickly looks at Master and Master is pointing at little human so Brutus moves between little human and big female and growls at big female.  Big female backs away.  Brutus smells lots of fear now.  Smells sweat and stress and hears little noises of worry and fear from both the big female and little human.

Big female steps to one side and Brutus moves to stay between her and little human.  She bends down again and Brutus growls, snaps at her fingers.  Is good boy.

Big female talks to Master, “Please.  She was just doing what kids do.  She thinks all dogs are cuddly.”  Her voice is submissive, sounding like more worry and fear.

“Brutus, mouth.”  Brutus looks where Master is pointing and Master is pointing at little human.  Brutus obeys by grabbing little human’s arm and holding it in his mouth.  Is good boy.  Little human howls and tries to pull away but Brutus closes mouth a little each time and little human soon understands that arm is staying in Brutus’ mouth.

Then Master tells big female, “He’s an abused dog, you know.  Before I owned him, he was mistreated.  Until he hurt someone so badly they needed amputation.  I rescued him before he was put down.  And you just let your kid walk up to him and start clawing at him.  Do you understand what could have happened?  That he could have killed or maimed your fucking mouthbreather of a child?”

Brutus only knows his own name and word kill.  Other words don’t mean anything to Brutus.  Kill is order to attack and not stop until that thing isn’t moving anymore.  Master only gives Brutus and Judas and Angelica order to kill with squirrels and racoons and once a horse.  Big female is on knees now and fear smell is all Brutus can smell right now.  Is good to be lower than Master and showing submission.  Big woman is saying things but Brutus can’t understand because she is talking and not stopping.

“Brutus, off.  Come,” Master says and Brutus lets go of arm and walks to Master’s side.  Little human still howling.

Then Master tells big female same thing as before: “Watch your fucking child.”  Walkies begin again.  Get scratched.  Master says Brutus is good boy and Brutus is happy.  Tail wagging.

Is long walkies before Brutus and Master stop at a place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage and pee and poop.  Master knocks on door.  Man who opens door smells like blood.

Master and man talk for a while, and Brutus waits because Brutus is good boy.  Not paying attention to what they’re saying because of smells.  Bad smells.  Sounds of dogs yelping and barking from inside the door.  Then Master says “Stay” and man starts touching Brutus.  Touches like vet touches, not like Master scratching.  Feeling each part of Brutus, fingers deep in fur to massage, check.  Hands on Brutus’ private parts.  Says things that sound negative, shakes head.  Master talks some more.  Man stands and shakes her hand.

Master takes Brutus into the place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage.  Noisy.  Lots of people sitting in dark.  Smell like excitement and sweat.  Most lights are in middle of room where blood smell is strongest.

Man from door tells master, “Put him right in the gate.”  Master puts Brutus in something like kennel that smells like rage and fear.

Man talks in loud voice and all the people in room howl and make more noise.  Man says Brutus’ name.  He says kill which is a word Brutus knows.  But blood smell is so strong here Brutus can’t pay attention to much else.  So much blood from so many dogs.  So many smells.

Then the kennel is open and Brutus has nowhere to go but center of room.  Can’t go to Master because boxes are in way and there’s another dog here bigger than Brutus that smells like rage and his own blood and other dog blood and death.

Then Brutus feels it.  Master is making Brutus stronger and it hurts but it’s a good hurt.  Good hurt like when Brutus is stiff and stretches and joints snap and pop and Brutus feels better because of it.  Only this stretch doesn’t stop and Brutus keeps popping and cracking and Brutus keeps feeling better and Brutus gets bigger.  Master usually takes longer to make Brutus this strong but Brutus is in room alone with the dog that smells like blood and death and Master must know Brutus needs to be stronger.

Soon Brutus is bigger than Master and as big as car and Brutus is strong.  Bad dog that smells like blood and death is cowering.

Then Master whistles twice which is order to come and Brutus is confused because there is no way to come.  Master whistles again and calls Brutus’ name and Brutus lunges for boxes that are in the way.  Boxes break and Brutus can come to Master like a good boy.

“Brutus, guard!” Master says and Brutus goes where Master is pointing, and that is door where all the people who smell like fear are going.  To get to door and guard it Brutus uses paws to push people out of the way and grabs one person’s arm and flings her to one side like Brutus likes to fling favorite toys and person makes shrill howl.

Then Brutus is guarding door and people are running other way.  Reminds Brutus of squirrels and how squirrels run.  But people are not as fast or clever as squirrels and they don’t play unfair by running up trees.

“Brutus!  Attack!” Master shouts and Brutus obeys like a good boy.  Brutus uses paws and teeth and size to jump into the crowd of people who are running like squirrels and make them stop running.  Brutus knows it’s bad to shake people like Brutus shakes toys or shakes squirrels.  No shaking.  No chewing.  Bite arm and leg only.  No biting heads.  Using paws is okay but claws aren’t which is hard so Brutus mostly bites and slams into people with head and body to knock them over and make them stop.  Sometimes uses tail which is new and fun.  Brutus doesn’t have tail when small.

Lots of people.  Every time Brutus thinks all people have stopped moving someone runs again.  Takes a long time.  Brutus’ tongue lolls out, panting.  Tail wags and boxes break and Master makes clucking noise like Brutus did something bad.  No more wagging tail.

People lying on floor whimpering.  Smell like blood and fear.  Nobody running like squirrel anymore.

Master shouts, “No more!”  and it is word for the people and not for Brutus.  Both are words Brutus knows.  No means bad and is for things Brutus shouldn’t do.  More is what Master says when giving treats or throwing balls or filling bowls with food.  Brutus doesn’t understand because one word is bad and the other is good.  But Master is alpha and Master knows so it is okay.

Master takes jangly keys from whimpering person and picks up cage with angry dog inside that smells like blood.  Master takes cage outside and puts it in car and tells Brutus to guard the cars.  Some people leave place but Brutus doesn’t let anyone near cars.  Is good boy.  Master goes inside and gets more cages with angry dogs and puts them all in the car.  Then Master does it again.  Master gets backpack and uses ropes from backpack to tie cages together and tie cages to car.

Then Master goes inside for long time and doesn’t come out.  People are gone so Brutus doesn’t need to guard anymore.  Brutus goes to Master inside.

Master is kneeling beside cages and dogs inside smell like blood and poo.  But dogs aren’t angry, aren’t moving.  Brutus nuzzles master with nose and lies down beside Master and Master wraps her arms around Brutus’ neck.  Master hugs Brutus tight for very long time.  Brutus knows it is a long time because Brutus stops being big and becomes smaller than Master.

Cars that make howling sounds start to come from far away and Brutus makes little barks like Master taught him.  Master gets up and takes Brutus into the car and gets in other door and the car starts moving.

Master opens and eats crinkly thing from pocket.  Master gives Brutus treat then rolls down window so Brutus can stick his head out in the wind and Brutus’ tail wags because Brutus knows he was a good boy.

Hive 5.1

The place was nondescript.  A hole in the wall in the midst of a long street of hole in the wall businesses.  Everything was run down.  For every given store or restaurant you passed, you could only guess if the place was still open or not.

The pub had a sign on it reading ‘Somer’s Rock’.  There were iron bars on the windows and the curtains were drawn, but it would have been more unusual if that wasn’t the case.  It was that kind of area.  The paint on the outside was peeling, and the rust from the bars had bled onto the gray-white paint below the windows.

As we stepped inside, it became clear that Somer’s Rock was one book that should be judged by its cover.  It was dim, dingy and depressing.  The wood floor was stained the same dark gray as the counter of the bar, the curtains and tablecloths were dark green, and the only real color or brightness, if you could call it that, was the yellow light cast by ancient, burnt lightbulbs.

There were three people in Somer’s Rock when we arrived.  One was a sullen looking twenty-something girl with brown hair and a slightly wrinkled server’s uniform, who glanced at us as we came in, but made no attempt to welcome us.  There were two identical twins behind the bar in the far corner, probably her older brothers, busying themselves with washing glasses and studiously ignoring us.  One of them was wearing a dress shirt and apron, looking the part of a bartender, while the other had a black t-shirt under a Hawaiian shirt.  Besides the contrast in fashion, they were identical in height, haircut, features and expression.

A group of tables had been pulled together with chairs arranged around them, but we walked past them to a corner booth.  Tattletale, Bitch, Grue, Regent and I all arranged ourselves on the worn cushioned benches.  I was calling them that in my head, really, because they weren’t Lisa, Brian, Rachel and Alec.  We were all in costume.

As we settled in, the girl with the dour expression approached us, setting her notepad down on the table and then stared at me, the look in her eyes almost challenging.  She didn’t say a word.

“Coke?” I ventured, feeling uncomfortable under the look.

“No, Skitter,” Tattletale nudged me, “She’s deaf.  If you want something, write it on the pad.”  To demonstrate, she reached across the table, took the pad and wrote ‘tea, black’.  I took her cue and wrote down my order, then passed the note across the table to the boys and Bitch.  The girl gave me an ugly look as she walked away with our orders.

It had been a week since the incident with Bakuda.  Lisa and Brian had stopped by several times as I spent my days in bed, giving me updates on the situation as it unfolded.  At one point they had even brought Alec and Bitch, and I’d been very relieved my dad hadn’t been home at the time.  Alec and Bitch weren’t the polite houseguests that Lisa and Brian were, and I suspected their presence and personalities would have raised more questions with my dad than they put to rest.

Apparently someone at the PHQ had named my costumed self ‘Skitter’.  Lung had overheard something about it, and it had now spread through the city in the aftermath of his escape, which implied he was probably looking for me.  As a newspaper article raised our possible involvement in the bombings that had taken place, as adversaries of Bakuda, my new name had come up yet again, so it looked like it was maybe catching on.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the names I’d come up with, so I could cope.

It seemed that we had arrived a few minutes early, because the rest of the guests arrived within seconds of each other, as the server brought us our drinks.

Kaiser came through the door with a girl on each arm, blondes with measurements like Playboy models.  Kaiser wore armor head to toe, elaborately worked and topped with a crown of blades.  The leader of Empire Eighty Eight.  The twins went by the names Fenja and Menja, and were decked out in Valkyrie-style armor featuring countless little steel wings, along with closed-face helms.  Had to admit, Kaiser liked his heavy hitters.  These two could grow to be three stories tall, and they were a hundred times more durable when they were.

Purity entered a few steps behind him with several others following her.  She was dressed in a white costume without any markings or symbols on it, but the fabric glowed softly.  Her white hair and eyes glowed too, but it was more like they were made of heated magnesium than anything else.  I couldn’t look in her direction without getting spots in my eyes, and my mask had tinted lenses designed to reduce glare.

The people that had come in with Purity were other members of Empire Eighty Eight.  Krieg, Night, Fog and Hookwolf.   It was interesting to see, because as far as I’d known, while every one of them had been a member of Empire Eighty Eight at some point in time, Purity had gone solo, while Night and Fog had splintered off to form their own duo in Boston not long after.  All reunited, apparently.

That wasn’t even Kaiser’s entire team.  Aside from the rare exception like Lung reaching out to Bakuda when she’d been at Cornell, it seemed that most groups recruited new members from within their own city.  Kaiser was different.  He was one of the better known American villains with a white supremacist agenda, and people sharing his ideals were either recruited from other states or they came to him.  Most didn’t stay with him for too long, for whatever reason, but it still made him the Brockton Bay resident with the most raw parahuman muscle at his beck and call.

Kaiser sat at one end of the table in the center of the room, his people finding seats and chairs at the tables behind him.  Purity didn’t relax or order drinks, though.  She sat in a chair a few feet behind Kaiser, folded her arms and crossed one ankle over the other, settling in to watch the proceedings.  From my research online and digging through old newspaper articles,I knew Purity could create light and charge it with kinetic energy.  She was like a human flashlight, if the light from the flashlight could punch through brick walls and tear city buses in half.  As far as raw firepower went, she was up near the top of the list, a flying artillery turret.

Coil entered after Empire Eighty Eight, all the more conspicuous because he was alone.  No backup, no show of force.  He was taller than Grue, but he was thin to the point of being skeletal.  His skintight costume covered him head to toe, lacking even eyeholes or openings for his nose and mouth, and the way it clung to his skin let you see his individual ribs and joints.  The costume was black, and the only design on it was a white snake, with its head starting at Coil’s forehead, the tail extending down the back of his head, looping and winding over his entire body before finally ending at one of his ankles.  He sat at the end of the table opposite Kaiser.

“What’s his deal?” I whispered to Tattletale.

“Coil?  Can’t say as far as his powers go, but he’s one of the more powerful players in town.  Considers himself a chessmaster.  You know, like a master strategist, tactician.   Controls more than half of downtown with squads of top notch personnel in the highest end gear.  Ex-military from around the world.  If he even has powers, he’s the only one in his organization who does.”

I nodded.  Almost the opposite of Kaiser in that department.  I might have asked more, but others were streaming into the room.

Faultline.  I knew of her from my research.  She was twenty-something, and her straight black hair was in a long bristling ponytail.  Her costume was weird, approximating something like a blend of riot gear, a martial arts uniform and a dress.  Four people entered the room with her, and the two guys in the group were instantly the weirdest people in the room.  I knew them by name too.  Newter wasn’t wearing a shirt, shoes or gloves, which made it all the more apparent that his skin was neon orange from head to toe.  He had light blue eyes, dark red hair that looked wet and a five foot long prehensile tail.  Gregor the Snail was morbidly obese, average height, with no hair on his entire body.  His skin was milky white and slightly translucent, so you could see shadows beneath it where his organs were.  Like someone else might have bad acne, he had bits of shell or scales crusting his skin.  They looked almost like barnacles, but there was a spiral shape to them.

You wouldn’t have thought they were close by their body language, silence and the sheer difference in appearance, but both had matching tattoos.  Newter’s was just above his heart, while Gregor’s was on his upper arm.  It looked like the greek ‘Omega’ symbol, but upside down.  Maybe a stylized ‘u’.

The other two girls in Faultline’s group were very normal by contrast;  Labyrinth wore a dark green robe and mask with lines all over them.  Spitfire wore in a red and black costume with a gasmask.

I was surprised when Faultline deliberately walked by our table on her way to her seat, taking the long way around.  As she passed us, she looked over Tattletale and me and sneered a little before taking the chair to Kaiser’s right.

“I’m going to go before all the seats get taken, if that’s cool?” Grue spoke, and the rest of us nodded.  Grue sat between Faultline and Coil.

“What was that with Faultline and you?” I murmured to Tattletale, “History?”

“Nothing important,” she replied.

Regent leaned forward.  “She and Tattletale have been feuding a little.  Faultline upped the ante when she poached Spitfire from us when we were in the middle of trying to recruit her.  Can’t say why Faultline doesn’t like Tattle, but I know Tattletale hates it when people act like they’re smarter than her, and Faultline is smarter than her.  Ow.  Fuck, that hurt.”

Tattletale had kicked him under the table.

“They’re mercenaries right?” I asked.

Tattletale nodded, “Faultline’s crew does anything short of murder.  You can say her personality sucks, you can say her powers suck, but I’ll admit she’s very good at finding hidden strengths in the people that work for her.  See those two guys?  When it came to powers, they got a bad roll of the dice.  Became freaks that couldn’t hope to pass in normal society, wound up homeless or living in the sewers.  There’s a story behind it, but they became a team, she made them effective, and they’ve only messed up one or two jobs so far.”

“Gotcha,” I said, “Impressive.”

“Keep in mind, though, we haven’t screwed up any.  We’re 100%.”

“They’ve done something like three times as many jobs as us,” Regent pointed out.

“But we haven’t failed any jobs, is the important thing,” Tattletale stressed.

Another group arrived, and it was like you could see a wave of distaste wash over the faces in the room.  I had seen references on the web and news articles about these guys, but they weren’t the sort you took pictures of.  Skidmark, Moist, Squealer.  Two guys and a girl, the lot of them proving that capes weren’t necessarily attractive, successful or immune to the influences of substance abuse.  Hardcore addicts and dealers who happened to have superpowers.

Skidmark wore a mask that covered the top half of his face.  The lower half was dark skinned, with badly chapped lips and teeth that looked more like shelled pistachio nuts than anything else.  He stepped up to the table and reached for a chair.  Before he could move it, though, Kaiser kicked the chair out of reach, sending it toppling onto its side, sliding across the floor.

“The fuck?” Skidmark snarled.

“You can sit in a booth,” Kaiser spoke.  Even though his voice was completely calm, like he was talking to a stranger about the weather, it felt threatening.

“This is because I’m black, hunh?  That’s what you’re all about, yeah?”

Still calm, Kaiser replied, “You can sit in a booth because you and your team are pathetic, deranged losers that aren’t worth talking to.  The people at this table?  I don’t like them, but I’ll listen to them.  That isn’t the case with you.”

“Fuck you.  What about this guy?” Skidmark pointed at Grue, “I don’t even know his name, and he’s sitting.”

Faultline answered him, “His team hit the Brockton Bay Central Bank a week ago.  They’ve gone up against Lung several times in the past and they’re still here, which is better than most.  Not even counting the events of a week ago, he knows about the ABB and he can share that information with the rest of us.”  She gave Grue a look that made it clear that he didn’t have a choice if he wanted to sit at the table.  He dipped his head in the smallest of nods in response.  We’d discussed things beforehand and agreed on what details we’d share.

“What have you done that’s worth a seat at this table?” she asked Skidmark.

“We hold territory-“

“You hold nothing,” Grue answered, raising his voice, his powers warping it, “You’re cowards that hold onto the areas nobody else cares about, making drugs and selling them to children.”

“We sell to everyone, not just-“

“Find a booth,” Grue’s echoing voice interrupted him.  Skidmark gave him a look, then looked at the others sitting around the table.  All still, every set of eyes he could see behind the masks was staring him down.

“Assholes.  Puckered, juicy assholes, all of you,” Skidmark snarled, stomping off to the booth where his teammates already sat.

The serving girl picked up the fallen chair and restored it to its position at the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she walked up to the table where Kaiser’s people sat, put down her notepad and waited for everyone to write down their orders.  It struck me just why the pub had a deaf waitress.

“I’ll be taking a chair, I think,” someone spoke from the door.  Most heads turned to check out a male figure in a black costume with a red mask and tophat.  It gave me sort of a Baron Samedi vibe.  His teammates followed him into the room, all in matching costumes of red and black, differing only in design.  A girl with a sun motif, a guy with bulky armor and a square mask, and a creature so large it had to crawl on its hands and knees to get through the door.  It was hard to describe, approximating something like a four armed hairless gorilla, with a vest, mask and leggings in the red and black style its team was wearing, six-inch claws tipping each of its fingers and toes.

“The Travelers, yes?” Coil spoke, his voice smooth, “You’re not local.”

“You could call us nomadic.  What was happening here was too interesting to pass up, so I decided we’d stop by for a visit.” The guy with the top hat pulled off the first really formal bow I’d seen in my life. “I go by Trickster.”

“You know the rules, here?” Grue asked Trickster.

“We’ve been to similar places.  I can guess.  No fighting, no powers, no trying to bait others into causing trouble, or everyone else in the room puts aside all other grievances to put you down.”

“Close enough.  It’s important to have neutral ground to meet, have civilized discussion.”

“I won’t argue that.  Please, continue as if I wasn’t here.”

When Trickster took a chair and put his feet up on the table, nobody complained, though Skidmark looked like he wanted to kill someone.  The rest of the Travelers settled in a booth not far from us.  The gorilla thing sat on the floor and it was still large enough to be at eye level with its teammates.

Coil dipped his head in a nod and steepled his fingers.  When he spoke, his voice was smooth, “That should be everyone.  Seems Lung won’t be coming, though I doubt any of us are surprised, given the subject of tonight’s discussion.”

“The ABB,” Kaiser replied.

“Thirty five individuals confirmed dead and over a hundred hospitalized in this past week.  Armed presence on the streets.  Ongoing exchanges of gunfire between ABB members and the combined forces of the police and military.  They have raided our businesses and bombed places where they think we might operating.  They have seized our territories, and there’s no indication they intend to stop anytime soon,” Coil clarified the situation for all present.

“It is inconvenient,” Kaiser spoke.

“They’re being reckless,” Faultline said.  She made it sound like that was a crime on par with killing kittens.

Coil nodded, “Which is the real concern.  The ABB can’t sustain this.  Something will give, they will self destruct sooner or later, and they will likely cease to be an issue.  Had things played out differently, we could look at this as a good thing.  Our problem is that the actions of the ABB are drawing attention to our fair city.  Homeland security and military forces are establishing a temporary presence to assist in maintaining order.  Heroes are flocking to the city to support the Protectorate in regaining control of matters.  It is making business difficult.”

“Bakuda is at the center of this,” Grue joined the dialogue, “Lung may be the leader, but everything hinges on the girl.  She ‘recruited’ by orchestrating raids of people’s homes while they slept, subduing them, and implanting bombs in their heads.  She then used those bombs to coerce her victims into kidnapping more.  No less than three hundred in total, now.  Every single one of her soldiers knows that if they don’t obey, Bakuda can detonate the bombs.  All of them are willing to put their lives on the line, because the alternatives are either certain death or watching their loved ones die for their failure.  Taking her down is our ultimate goal, but she’s rigged her bombs to go off the second her heart stops, so it’s a little more complicated than a simple assassination.”

He reached into the darkness that shrouded his chest and withdrew a package.  “She videotaped the ambush she pulled on my group a week ago and left it behind when she ran.  I’ve made copies.  Maybe you’ll find it useful for getting a better understanding of her.”

Grue handed a burned CD to everyone at the table.

This was our show of strength.  The video showed everything from the point Bakuda had liquefied Park Jihoo to the second bomb she had set off in her ranks.  As the second bomb had gone off in the midst of Bakuda’s group, the camera had dropped briefly, recorded the sounds of guns going off and everything being darkened by Grue’s power, but it didn’t show us running.  It didn’t reveal our weaknesses, how lucky we’d been to get away, or how bad our circumstances had really been.  It did let everyone know what we’d been up against, let them know that we’d come out fine and had been able to attend this meeting.  That would do as much for our reputation as anything else.

I wasn’t 100% recovered from my concussion, and Alec was complaining of twinges in his arm, still, but Brian had stressed how important it was that we attend, give the illusion our team was intact, untouched. Seeing the other groups with their subtle posturing, I knew he’d been right.

“So,” Coil let the word hang in the air as he cracked each of the knuckles on his right hand individually, “We’re in agreement?  The ABB cannot be allowed to continue operating.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement from around the table, some from the various villains gathered around the room.

“Then I suggest we establish a truce.  Not just everyone here, but between ourselves and the law.  I would contact authorities and let them know that until this matter is cleared up, our groups will restrict our illegal activity to only what is absolutely essential to our business, and we will enforce the same for those doing business in our territories.  That would let police forces and military focus entirely on the ABB.  There would be no violence, infighting between our groups, grabs for territory, thefts or insults.  We band together with those we can tolerate for guaranteed victory, and we ignore those we cannot cooperate with.”

“Just saying my group won’t be getting directly involved in this without a reason,” Faultline spoke, “We won’t be going after the ABB unless they get in my way or someone pays my rates.  It’s the only workable policy when you’re a cape for hire.  And just so we’re clear, if it’s the ABB paying, my team’s going to be on the other side of things.”

“Unfortunate, but you and I can talk after this meeting is done.  I’d prefer to keep matters simple,” Coil said, “You’re okay with the other terms?”

“Keeping on the down-low, not kicking up a fuss with other groups?  That’s status quo with my group anyways.”

“Good.  Kaiser?”

“I think that is acceptable,” Kaiser agreed.

“I was talking to my group about doing something not too different from what Coil just proposed,” Grue spoke, “Yeah, we’re cool with it.”

“Sure,” Trickster said, “Not a problem.  We’re in.”

Hands were shaken around the table.

“Funny,” Tattletale murmured.

I turned away from the scene to look at her, “What?”

“Aside from Grue and maybe Faultline, everyone’s already plotting how they can use this situation to their advantage, or fuck over the others.”

I turned back to the scene, the villains sitting around the table.  It dawned on me just how much sheer destructive potential was gathered in the room.

This could get complicated.

Hive 5.2

Coil addressed the room, “Then that’s our major piece of business concluded tonight.  Anything else before we go our separate ways?  Offers, announcements, grievances?”

“I’ve got a complaint,” a man at the side of the room spoke.  Heads turned to Kaiser’s group.  Hookwolf.

He wore a mask that was little more than a piece of sheet metal cut and shaped to resemble a wolf’s features, attached to his head with straps of black leather.  He had a chain threaded through the belt loops of his jeans, sporting a heavy metal belt buckle.  The buckle featured a wolf superimposed on a swastika – the same image he had tattooed on one of his biceps.  The opposite arm simply had ‘E88′ on it.  Outside of the mask and the belt buckle, you couldn’t really say he had a costume.  He was shirtless, shoeless, and hairy.  His blond hair was long and greasy, and he had thick hair on his chest, stomach and arms.  Harpoon-like spears and metal that curled like fishhooks radiated out from his shoulders, elbows and knees, all bristling with barbs or wickedly serrated edges.

Nobody, to date, had ever escaped the Birdcage, the name that had been coined for the supervillain prison in British Columbia.  Hookwolf, though, had escaped on no less than two occasions while being transported there.  He was a killer, and thought nothing of murdering people if they didn’t fit the Aryan ideal.

He turned to look at our table, very pale blue eyes visible through the slits in his metal mask, “My complaint’s with her.”

“What’s the issue?” Grue’s voice was calm, but it looked like he was generating a bit more darkness around him than he had been, making himself look a fraction bigger.  I wondered if he knew he was doing it.

“The crazy one, Hellhound, she-“

“Bitch,” Bitch interrupted him, “Only the panty-ass heroes call me Hellhound.  It’s Bitch.”

“Don’t fucking care,” Hookwolf growled, “You attacked my business.  Set your fucking dog on my customers.  Lucky I wasn’t there, whore.”

Grue gave Bitch a long look, then he spoke to Hookwolf, “That’s the kind of risk you run, doing business in Brockton Bay.  Capes can and will get in your way, hero or villain.”

Hookwolf glared at him, “It’s a matter of respect.  You want to fuck with my business, and we’re not at war?  You let me know if you’ve got an issue, first.  Let me decide if I want to move shop.”

“You mean give you a warning I’m coming,” Bitch spat the words, “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard.  Just so you know, moving to a different neighborhood won’t be good enough.  You open up another dogfighting ring, I’ll be visiting that one too.”

Oh, that’s what she’d done.  I glanced at Tattletale, then at Grue.  I was getting the impression neither of them had known.

Kaiser spoke, “Is that a declaration of war, Undersiders?  We just agreed to a truce, if you recall.”  He was utterly calm, a stark contrast to Hookwolf.  Hookwolf was brimming with barely suppressed rage to the point that I could picture him leaping across the room and attacking us if someone so much as dropped a glass.

Grue shook his head.  I think.  I couldn’t really tell with the way his darkness shrouded him, with his back turned to us.  He answered, “Not interested in war, but I’m not going to stop my teammate from doing what she has to.”

“You mean you can’t stop your subordinate,” Kaiser mused.

Grue didn’t have a quick response to that.  I suspected he couldn’t say Bitch wasn’t a subordinate without demoting himself in the eyes of the others at the table.  Kaiser, Trickster, Faultline and Coil were all leaders.  Grue took a leadership role when needed, but he wasn’t in charge of us.  Not exactly.

Grue clasped his hands in front of him, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. “It’s not so unusual for a cape to have a pet issue.  You should know that as much as anyone.  How would your people react if you forbid them from harassing or hurting gays, Kaiser?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Exactly.  Same with her.  Word gets around that you’re someone who hurts dogs, she’ll fuck you up.  It’s kind of common knowledge here.”

“Not something I’d pay attention to.  I’m more of a cat person.”  The sardonic comment elicited a few chuckles from the room.

“I think it’s worth paying attention to if it leads to situations like this,” Grue responded, his voice firm.

“I delegate to my underlings and trust them to keep track of minor details.  Hookwolf has been out of town until recently.  He must not have heard.”

The bullshit was so transparent I couldn’t help but wonder if he was baiting us.

“I’d like to resolve this peacefully,” Grue reiterated.

Kaiser shook his head with the sound of metal edges scraping on metal, “Peace is always preferable, but I can’t let an insult like this slide.  We’ll need restitution before this can be put to rest.  Money or blood.  Your choice.”

Bitch made a sound low in her throat.  She and Hookwolf weren’t the only ones bristling.  I looked at the table where Hookwolf sat with Fenja, Menja, Night, Fog, and Krieg, and everyone there looked visibly angry.

“Then let’s sit on it until we’re freer to give the matter our full attention,” Grue spoke, “The truce is in effect, and we’ll meet again when things are more or less resolved with the ABB.”  He looked to the others at the table for confirmation.

“We will,” Coil replied. Faultline nodded.

“What do you say?” Grue asked Kaiser, “Set this aside for now?”

Kaiser nodded, once.  “Fair.  We’ll discuss the matter further at our next meeting.”

“That’s settled then.  Anything else?” Coil asked, “Issues, negotiations, requests?”

There was no reply.

Coil took that as answer enough.  “Then let’s conclude the meeting.  Thank you for attending.  Faultline, could I have a word before you leave?”

There was the sound of chairs scraping against the floor as the people at the table got up, Faultline and Coil excepted.  Skidmark’s group headed out the door to leave right away, while Kaiser and Purity walked to the table where their underlings sat with their drinks.  The Travelers loitered around their table, not quite settling in, not leaving.

Grue returned to us, but he didn’t sit.

“Let’s go.”

Nobody argued.  We stood and left Somer’s Rock.  Skidmark’s group was taking their time leaving down one end of the street, so, unspoken, we headed in the other direction, just to be safe.  There was no doubt those guys were spoiling for a fight.  They were the diametrical opposite of Kaiser, Coil, and Faultline.  Hotheaded, reckless, unpredictable.  They would start a fight, even knowing they would set every other gang in the city against them for abusing neutral territory.

We were a block away from the pub when Grue spoke, “Bitch.  Do you understand why I’m pissed right now?”

“Why we’re pissed,” Tattletale added.

“I guess.”

Grue paused, as if he was choosing his words carefully, “I want to be certain you know what you did wrong.”

“Fuck you,” she snapped, “I get the idea.  You don’t have to get on my case.”

Grue glanced at the rest of us, then looked over his shoulder in the direction of the pub.

We walked in grim silence past three different stores before he lashed out.  He grabbed Bitch by the shoulder, then pulled her backward to break her stride and put her off balance enough that she stumbled.  Before she could regain her footing, he forced her bodily into the recessed area at the front of an old bookstore and shoved her against the door, his hand gripping her throat.

I looked towards the pub.  There was nobody leaving, and nobody looking our way.  Biting my lip, I joined Tattletale and Regent in stepping inside the alcove.  I was praying Grue knew what he was doing.

For several long seconds, he just held her there, leaving her to claw for a grip on his arm and glove, kick ineffectually at his leg.  Twice, as she looked like she had enough leverage to hit him harder, he used his grip on her throat to pull her forward and then shove her back against the door again, hard enough to give her coughing fits.

She didn’t stop fighting as he spoke, his quiet voice hollow with the effects of his power, “I hate this, Rachel.  That you make me do shit like this.  That when I say things like that, I sound like everything I hate most in this world.  But that’s just the way you play things.  It’s the only time you’re willing to listen.  You hearing what I’m saying?”

Bitch jabbed at the center of his stomach, but he used the length of his arms to pull his body back enough to avoid the worst of the hit, while still holding on to her throat.  He slammed her against the door again.  “You hearing me, Rachel?”

She nodded sullenly, eyes darting in every direction but directly at him.  He eased up a fraction, and she was able to gasp in a few breaths.

“Look me in the eyes,” he intoned.

She did.  His visor was just an inch from her face, and she couldn’t actually see his eyes, but she stared steadily into the dark holes of his skull mask.  I wasn’t sure I could have, and he wasn’t angry at me.

“You made me look bad.  You made us look bad.  I’m not pissed because of what you did to Hookwolf’s business.  That’s you.  That’s your baggage, your shit.  I get that it’s par for the course with you on the team.  I can live with that.  You following?”

Another reluctant nod.  Not breaking eye contact.

I peeked around the corner to make sure this conversation was still private.  The Travelers were outside the pub now, but they were taking their time leaving.  Trickster was smoking a cigarette through the mouth-hole of his mask.

Grue went on, “You know what you did wrong?  You didn’t fucking tell us.  You let me fucking go in there and talk to those guys and get caught with my pants down.  I had to fucking defend the actions of my team without knowing what the fuck people were talking about.  It made me look weak.  It made all of us look weak.”

“You want an apology?”

“Would you mean it?  I haven’t heard a honest apology from you since I met you, and believe me, an insincere apology from you would only piss me off more right now.  So it’s your call.  You want to try?”

Bitch didn’t answer.  I could see her square her shoulders, straighten her head, a change of posture that was subtly challenging.

“Christ, Rachel.  This is your second major fuckup in the span of two weeks.  Do I need to talk to the boss and-“

“Stop,” Tattletale cut in, “My turn.”

Grue dropped his hand from Bitch’s neck and stepped away, folding his arms as he turned his back to her.  What had he been saying before Tattletale interrupted?  Do I need to talk to the boss and see if we can replace you?

If that was it, I could see why Tattletale had stepped in.

“You’re frustrated, I get it,” Tattletale spoke.  Bitch was staring in the window of the bookstore, avoiding eye contact while she rubbed her neck.  Tattletale went on, “You don’t feel like you did anything wrong, and if you had another chance to do things over, you feel like you’d do everything the same way… yet people are pissed at you.”

Bitch met Tattletale’s eyes.  Her tone was a combination of irritation and boredom, “And people are taking turns chewing me out and spewing psychobabble shit at me.”

Tattletale waited, maybe to get her composure, to figure out another approach, or to use her power to dig for information she could use.  Or maybe she was waiting to give Bitch time to think about how she wasn’t helping herself any with what she was saying.  I wasn’t sure – I couldn’t read her expression.  She wasn’t smiling or grinning like she usually did, though.

Tattletale’s tone was more exasperated as she replied, “Fine.  I’ll cut right to the point.  Both of your screwups this past week had to do with a lack of communication.  If you’d called to let us know you were heading out to the money early, maybe we could have anticipated the ambush.  If you let us know you’d messed with Hookwolf’s dogfighting ring, we’d have been more prepared tonight.  So open your mouth more.  Talk to us, let us know what’s going on.  Alright?”

Bitch didn’t respond, tension standing out on her neck, posture stiff, hands in her pockets.

“Think on it,” Tattletale suggested.

I checked around the corner again.  Trickster was still smoking his cigarette, but he was looking directly at us.  At me.  The gorilla-thing was too, but the others were looking at Trickster.  I think he was talking.  It was hard to tell.

“I think it’s time to wrap this up,” I informed the others, “Eyes on us.”

We left the nook, with only Bitch’s slumped posture giving any indication that anything had gone on.  She trailed a few feet behind the rest of us.  There was tension, and it wasn’t all directed at or coming from her.  Grue and Tattletale were walking slightly apart from one another.  He either hadn’t liked it when she cut in, or he was angry at himself, but something was bugging one or both of them.

Regent had been quiet throughout.  From what Lisa had said as she visited me earlier in the week, he was still getting twinges of pain from his arm.  I suspected his current state was a combination of painkillers and a lack of a good night’s sleep.  He hadn’t been a part of the recent dialogue, but his silence wasn’t helping the mood any either.

I didn’t like this.  This friction spoiling the camaraderie of the group, the undercurrent of tension.  I liked these guys.  Even Bitch, I dunno, I supposed it would be a stretch to say I liked her, but I could maybe respect her for what she brought to the table.

I knew it would be hard to turn on them, to pull off that grand betrayal and turn their information over to the Protectorate, once I had the information I needed… but when I thought on it, I knew I could bite the bullet and do it.  I would have less regrets in the long run.  I could even be proud of it, in the grand scheme of things, maybe.

More and more, I was seeing the day I turned that information over and said goodbye to the Undersiders as the day I wanted to transform myself.  Start transforming Skitter into a hero in the public eye, doing what I could to repair my image, and redefining Taylor into someone confident and outgoing and brave.  If I could cut ties with the Undersiders and take that plunge, I knew I could change myself.

But, strange as it sounded, I would feel worse about handing their information to the Protectorate if this sort of negativity was what I was leaving behind when I did it.  I knew it made no sense, but I wanted to be able to tell myself I’d had one successful set of friendships, before I severed ties for the sake of doing the right thing.  I could only hope that the sore feelings would fade.  Even when I’d had friends, it had just been me and Emma.  I didn’t have enough experience to really know one way or the other, as far as how groups of friends handled these sorts of sore feelings and resentment.  It sucked.

As I glanced back at Bitch, it struck me that this had to suck worse for her.  I felt a twinge of sympathy.

I knew what it felt like, to be the one alone in the midst of a group of people.

Slowing my pace until I was walking beside her, I found myself struggling to find words.  Make small talk?  I wasn’t sure how.  Reassure her?  I didn’t think I could say anything without seeming like I was siding with her on things, or opening a can of worms as far as getting the argument going again.  Adding my own voice to Grue’s and Tattletale’s would only make her feel worse, and I had my suspicions she wouldn’t stand and take it from me the same way she had with the other two.

“Hookwolf was running a dogfighting ring?” I asked her, my voice lowered, “Like, making dogs fight?”

“Fight to the death,” Bitch answered, almost inaudible.

When your only real companions or family in the world were your dogs, I could see where that hit home.  I’d never had a dog, but the way I saw things, dogs were like kids.  They were at the mercy of specific people, and if those people decided to abuse that, it was just flat out wrong.

“You stopped them?”

She turned her head my way, met my eyes.  “Made them bleed.”

I felt goosebumps prickle the back of my neck and my arms.  I wasn’t sure if I would feel better or worse if she decided to elaborate.

“Good,” I replied.

We didn’t say anything more the rest of the way back.  Probably for the best.

Hive 5.3

There was a long squeal of feedback, followed by the barely audible sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Attention shoppers.  Please be informed that stores will be closing at five-thirty this evening, in cooperation with the city-wide curfew.  Make sure to cooperate with authorities at the entrances and exits of the Weymouth shopping center, and return to your homes by six o’clock.  Thank you.”

The crowd of people that had paused in their conversation and meandering to hear the announcement started moving and talking again, like someone had paused a video and had pressed the play button to get things started once more.

I looked at my dad, “Should we go?  Beat the last minute rush?”

“Sure.  If there’s nothing else you need.”

I was due back at school tomorrow, and my dad had maybe sensed how stressed I was, because he offered to take me shopping.  It felt a little redundant after having been out with Lisa and the guys a week ago, but it did give me the chance to pick up some essentials and to spend some quality time with my dad.

In the bags my dad was holding, I had a new backpack, some notebooks, pens, a half-dozen books, and a new pair of running shoes.  The sort of stuff that I wouldn’t have bought with Lisa, because they were so boring, like the notebooks, or because they were the sort of thing I took forever deciding on, like the books and shoes.

All in all, the trip to the mall was a nice gesture, and it somehow meant more to me than Lisa treating me to a few hundred dollars worth of clothes.  Maybe because it was stuff for me.

We made our way to the exit, and I had to hold back a groan.  There was still over half an hour before the doors were due to close, but there was a crush of bodies at the exit.  Maybe half were trying to leave, but the other half were gawking.

Both inside and outside the glass doors of the mall’s entrance, there were soldiers.  Their guns were holstered, but they looked pretty intimidating anyways.  In the midst of the soldiers were two capes; Battery and Shadow Stalker.  I knew that members of the Protectorate, the Wards, and various volunteers were stationed at places where there were groups of people, especially in areas in and around the ABB’s territory.  The Wards, I supposed, were too young to handle a single location all by themselves, which was probably why Shadow Stalker was in a ‘sidekick’ role here.

I’d had a lot of time to watch the news as I was on bed rest.  Bakuda was living up to what she’d been saying about maximizing fear and panic by combining unpredictability with grim certainty.  Every day, there were reports of anywhere from one to five bombs going off, and while every single one was probably to the advantage of the ABB in some way, there was no way to tell what she’d hit next or why.  One article online had surmised that as the military and superhero presence forced the ABB into a corner, the attacks would only escalate.  Schools, malls and office buildings were all potential targets.  Justification enough for an armed presence here at the mall.

The upside was that the mall had organized major sales in pretty much every store, to keep business going.  Maybe not the brightest or most logical thing, but too many businesses and employees were getting by on a day to day basis, around here.

Getting in had been like passing through airport security, getting our bags checked, showing ID.  Nothing too bad.  It had been only Manpower from New Wave standing watch when we arrived, and there hadn’t been much of a crowd.  This was something more, two attractive, dangerous heroines, both with some controversy around them.  As much as I could understand why the heroes were here, I could tell they were slowing things down, as the rubberneckers got in the way of the people who were actually leaving.  Half of the military presence that was inside the mall was busy working to keep the crowd back from the doors and the two heroes and trying to organize people into lines.

Progress through the line was slow, but I admit, it was interesting to be able to watch Shadow Stalker and Battery going about their business from a safe perspective.

Battery was a member of the Protectorate.  When I’d been starting junior high, she’d been the head of the Wards for a brief while, and she’d soon after graduated to the Protectorate.  I could guess she was twenty-two or thereabouts now, if they didn’t fudge the graduation date or anything to make it harder to guess the hero’s real age.  Her power let her charge up as she stood still and concentrated, with every second spent charging giving her a few seconds of greatly enhanced speed, some extra strength and some electromagnetic powers.  Her costume was white and dark gray, with cobalt blue lines tracing it like you might see on a circuit board.  Inquiries about whether her teammate Assault was her boyfriend or her brother had been met with coy deflections, leading a small fraction of the local superhero fans to surmise he was both.  Any time she did something in public, you could trust the online message boards to explode with speculation and theory.

That soap-opera/paparazzi style drama had never really grabbed my attention.  Ignoring the vague possibly-maybe chance there was something going on there, I thought she was the kind of hero I could look up to.  She was nice, she worked hard, and in those inevitable situations where she found herself on TV with some asshole getting in her face about something, she handled things rather well.

Battery leaned over to cup her hand over Shadow Stalker’s ear and whisper something.  Shadow Stalker nodded and then turned to walk through the glass door to say something to the soldiers stationed outside.  Literally through the door.  As she did it she turned a little smoky, like she was made of sand and not anything solid.  It didn’t seem constructive to me.  In her shoes, I think I would have stuck to business as usual, without giving them more reason to stare – I would have used a door normally.

Maybe I was biased.  I kind of felt like I should dislike or hate her on principle, since she was Grue’s self-declared nemesis.  Lisa and Alec had explained how Shadow Stalker was a vigilante that agreed to join the Wards rather than jail, after going too far in the pursuit of justice.  She was supposed to be using nonlethal weapons, but she wasn’t.

Capes always seemed so much bigger and impressive on the news.  Once you looked past the dark gray urban-camouflage hood and cape, and the black-painted metal of her mask, Shadow Stalker was still just a teenage girl.  Only about as tall as me.  Battery was only two or so inches taller than either Shadow Stalker or myself, which meant she was still shorter than most of the men in the crowd.  Now that I had been involved in cape stuff, I felt like I could look past the costume in a way most didn’t.  They looked normal, pretty much.

“Alan,” my dad spoke, “It’s been a long time.”

I turned to look.  I should have been surprised, or shocked, but by the time I realized who we’d run into, I felt too deflated.

“It’s good to see you, Danny.  I’ve been meaning to get in touch.”

“Not a problem, not a problem,” my dad laughed easily.  He shook the hand of the red cheeked, red haired man.  Alan Barnes.  “These days, we can count it as a good thing if we’re busy.  Is your daughter here?”

Alan looked around, “She was thirsty, so I’m holding our place in line while she… ah, here she is.”

Emma joined us, a diet sprite in one hand.  She looked momentarily surprised as she saw me.  Then she smiled, “Hi Taylor.”

I didn’t reply.  A few moments of awkward silence lingered.

“We need to get back in touch, Danny,” Emma’s dad smiled, “Maybe you could come over for a barbecue sometime.  When it’s a little warmer, the weather will be perfect for it.”

“I’d like that,” my dad agreed.

“How’s work?

“Better and worse.  There’s work to be had for the Dockworkers, with cleanup, reconstruction efforts, so that’s good.”

“And your projects?  The ferry?”

“I’ve resigned myself to waiting a few more months before I start making noise again.  Mayoral elections are this coming summer, and there will be elections for the city council this fall.  I’m hoping to see some fresh faces, people who won’t dismiss some revival efforts as options.”

“I wish you luck, then.  You know my firm is there if you need us.”

“Appreciated.”

Emma turned her attention from idly watching the heroes and army at work to our dads’ conversation.  My dad saw her looking his way and decided to include her in the conversation.

“So.  Is Emma still modeling?”

“She is!” Alan smiled proudly, “And doing quite well, but that’s not why we’re here today.  We were just here for the sales,” Alan chuckled a little, “My daughter wouldn’t let me relax the second she heard about it.”

“Ah.  Us too.  Shopping, I mean.  Taylor was caught at the edge of one of the explosions, around the time this whole scene started,” my dad answered, “She’s been home for a week recuperating.  I thought we’d go shopping before she got back into the swing of things.”

“Nothing serious in the way of injuries, I hope?” Alan asked.

“I’m in one piece,” I answered, not taking my eyes off Emma.

“That’s good.  My god, you’re the third person I know who’s been affected by this anarchy.  One of my partners is in recovery from surgery.  An explosion crystallized his arm, turned it to glass.  Terrifying.” Alan told my dad, “When does this end?”

While our dads talked, Emma and I just stared at each other.

Then Emma smiled.  It was a look I’d seen so many times in the past few years.

It was the smile that had greeted me when I came back to school from the hospital, back in January, that look that let me know she wasn’t done.  The same expression she’d had when she was looking down on me, covered in juice and cola in the stall of the school bathroom.  The one she’d been wearing when I’d come out of the showers to find my clothes crammed in the toilets, both my gym clothes and regular ones.

The same smile she’d had before she reminded me of how my mom had died, in front of everyone.

The sound of the impact was like a splash of water in my face.  I felt a twinge of pain from that gouge one of Bitch’s dogs had made in my arm, when I first met her.  Still sore.

Emma fell over, bumping into her dad, who dropped the bags he was holding.  There were gasps from the crowd around us.

“Taylor!” My dad cried out, aghast.

My hand was stinging.  Outstretched in front of me, like I was reaching out to shake someone’s hand.  It took me a seconds to connect the dots.  I’d hit her?

Emma looked up at me, eyes wide, mouth open, one hand to the side of her face.  I was as shocked at what I’d done as she was.  Not that I felt bad.  A large part of me wanted to laugh in her face.  Weren’t expecting that?  Miscalculated how I’d react?

Hands seized me with an iron grip and spun me around.  Shadow Stalker.  She interposed herself between me and Emma.  Dark brown eyes glowered at me from behind her mask.

“What was that for?!” Alan protested, “Emma didn’t even say anything!”

“I’m so sorry,” my dad hurried to explain to the superheroine and Emma’s dad, “She’s still recovering from a concussion, it’s affected her mood.  I didn’t expect anything this extreme.”

Shadow Stalker scolded him, “This is not the time or place for arguments.  If your daughter is this… unwell, then that’s your responsibility.”

I felt like laughing.  Part of it was just being giddy at doing something to get back at Emma.  The other part was that this whole scenario was so ridiculously upside-down.  Shadow Stalker wasn’t really anything special.  She was just a teenage girl, lecturing my dad, an adult.  The crowd that was watching was seeing Emma as the victim, me as the bad guy.  But if you stripped away the costume, if everyone knew the real story, this would all be playing out so differently.  Emma would be the bad guy, and my dad wouldn’t be so conciliatory about this girl telling him off.

I had the presence of mind to not laugh aloud.  Maybe it was the adrenaline, the relief that flowed from what I’d just done.  Maybe it was the concussion, again, but I did find the conviction to do something else.

I pointed at Emma, turned to my dad, “You want to know why I hit her?”

Shadow Stalker put one hand on the side of my face, forced me to look at her, stopping me from talking in the process. “No.  I’m stopping this right here.  No arguments, no excuses as to why you just assaulted someone.  We’re breaking this up now.  Turn around.”

“What?” I half-laughed, incredulous, “Why?”

“Taylor,” my dad said, looking drained, “Do as she says.”

It didn’t really matter, because she forced me to turn around anyways, wrenching my arm until I did, then pulling my arms behind my back.

“Please, miss,” my dad said, “This isn’t necessary.”

Shadow Stalker bound my wrists with what I guessed was a plastic wrist-tie.  Too tight.  Then she turned to my dad, and her voice was hushed.  “Look at this crowd.  These people.  They’re scared.  A place like this, with this much suppressed panic, fear and worry, this many people close together?  I don’t care if your daughter is an idiot or just ill.  She’s proven to be volatile in a powder-keg situation.  It’s both dangerous and stupid to have her here.  You can cut off the plasti-cuffs when she’s separated from anyone she might harm.”

“I’m not dangerous,” I protested.

“Didn’t look like it to me.” Shadow Stalker shook her head and gave me a push towards the exit, “Go home and be grateful your dad isn’t having to post bail for you to sleep in your own room tonight.”

My dad held his bags with one hand so he could help usher me toward the door.  He looked over his shoulder at Alan, “I’m very sorry.  It’s the concussion.”

Alan nodded, sympathetic.  His ruddy cheeks were redder at the attention our scene had drawn, “I know.  It’s alright.  Just… maybe she should stay home from school for a bit longer.”

My dad nodded, embarrassed.  I felt bad at that.  I felt worse at being led off like a criminal, while Shadow Stalker gave Emma a hand to help her up.  Emma was beaming, smiling one of the widest smiles I’d seen her give, despite the red mark on the side of her face.  Smiling as much at the way things had turned out, I imagined, as she was at getting the chance to talk with the concerned superheroine.

We headed out to the car, away from the crowd, the soldiers and Emma.  I stood by the open passenger door for two minutes before my dad scrounged up some nail clippers to cut off the plasti-cuffs.

“I’m not mad,” he told me, quietly, after we’d settled in, as he started up the car and took us out of the parking garage.

“Okay.”

“It’s perfectly understandable.  You’re emotionally sensitive, after getting knocked around by the explosion, and she reminds you of what’s going on at school.”

“More than you know,” I muttered.

“Hm?”

I looked down at my hands, rubbed my wrists where the plastic tie had cut into them.

If I didn’t tell him now, I don’t think I ever would.

“It’s her.  Emma.”

“Oh?  What?” He sounded confused.

I didn’t have it in me to clarify matters.  I just let him think it over.

After a long pause, he just said, “Oh.”

“From the beginning. Her and her friends,” I added, needlessly.

Tears welled up, unexpected.  I hadn’t even realized I felt like crying.  I raised my glasses to rub them away, but more came streaming out.

“Stupid head injury,” I mumbled, “Stupid mood swings.  I’m supposed to be better by now.”

My dad shook his head, “Taylor, kiddo, I don’t think it’s the only reason.”

He pulled over.

“What are you doing?” I asked, wiping ineffectually at my cheek, “We gotta be home before the curfew.”

He undid our seat belts and pulled me into a hug, my face against his shoulder.  My breath hitched with a sob.

“It’s fine,” he assured me.

“But-“

“We’ve got time.  Take as long as you need.”

Hive 5.4

A huge pet peeve of mine: being asked to arrive for a specific time, then being made to wait.  Fifteen minutes was just about my limit of my patience.

My dad and I had been waiting for more than thirty minutes.

“This has to be intentional,” I complained.  We’d been asked to wait in the principal’s office a few minutes after we arrived, but the principal hadn’t been around.

“Mmm.  Trying to show they’re in a position of power, able to make us wait,” my dad agreed, “Maybe.  Or we’re just waiting for the other girl.”

I was at an angle where if I slouched in my chair just a bit, I could see the front of the office through a gap between the bottom of the blinds and the window.  Not long after we’d arrived, Emma and her dad had showed up, looking totally casual and unstressed, like it was a regular day.  She isn’t even worried.  Her dad was her physical opposite, beyond the red hair they shared – he was big in every sense of the word.  Taller than average, big around the middle, and while he could speak softly when the situation called for it, he had a powerful voice that caught people’s attention.  Emma just had a biggish chest.

Emma’s dad was talking to Madison’s mom and dad.  Only Madison’s mom was really petite like she was, but both her mom and dad looked really young.  Unlike Emma and her dad, Madison and her parents did look concerned, and I was guessing that some of what Emma’s dad was doing was reassuring them.  Madison in particular was looking down at the ground and not really talking, except to respond to what Emma was saying.

Sophia was the last to arrive.  She looked sullen, angry, an expression that reminded me of Bitch.  The woman who accompanied her was most definitely not her mom.  She was blond and blue eyed, had a heart shaped face and wore a navy blue blouse with khakis.

The secretary came to get us from the office not long after.

“Chin up, Taylor,” my dad murmured, as I slung my backpack over one shoulder, “Look confident, because this won’t be easy.  We may be in the right, but Alan’s a partner in a law firm, he’s a master manipulator of the system.”

I nodded.  I was getting that impression already.  After getting a phone call from my dad, Alan had been the one to call this meeting.

We were directed down the hall to where the guidance counselor’s offices were, a room with an egg-shaped conference table.  The trio and their guardians were seated at one end of the table, seven in total, and we were asked to sit at the other, the tip of the egg.  The principal and my teachers all came into the room not long after, filling in the seats between us.  Maybe I was reading too much into things after seeing an eerie echo of this situation just two days ago, with the meeting of villains, but I noted that Mr. Gladly sat next to Madison’s dad, and the chair next to my dad was left empty.  We would have been completely isolated from the mass of people at the other side of the table if Mrs. Knott, my homeroom teacher, hadn’t sat at my left.  I wondered if she would have, if there’d been another seat.

I was nervous.  I had told my dad that I’d missed classes.  I hadn’t told him how many, but I hadn’t wanted to repeat Bitch’s mistake and leave him totally in the dark.  I was worried it would come up.  Worried this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Worried I’d find some way to fuck it up.

“Thank you all for coming,” the principal spoke, as she sat down, putting a thin folder down in front of her.  She was a narrow woman, dirty blond, with that severe bowl-cut haircut I could never understand the appeal of.  She was dressed like she was attending a funeral – black blouse, sweater and skirt, black shoes, “We’re here to discuss incidents where one of our students has been victimized.”  She looked down at the folder she’d brought in, “Ms. Hebert?”

“That’s me.”

“And the individuals accused of misconduct are…  Emma Barnes, Madison Clements and Sophia Hess.  You’ve been in my office before, Sophia.  I just wish it had more to do with the track and field team and less to do with detention.”

Sophia mumbled a reply that might have been agreement.

“Now, if I’m to understand matters, Emma was attacked outside of school premises by Ms. Hebert?  And shortly after, she was accused of bullying?”

“Yes,” Alan spoke, “Her father called me, confronted me, and I thought it best to take this to official channels.”

“That’s probably best,” the principal agreed.  “Let’s put this matter to rest.”

Then she turned to me and my dad, palms up.

“What?” I asked.

“Please.  What charges would you lay against these three?”

I laughed a little, in disbelief, “Nice.  So we’re called here on short notice, without time to prepare, and I’m expected to be ready?”

“Maybe outline some of the major incidents, then?”

“What about the minor ones?” I challenged her, “All of the little things that made my day-to-day so miserable?”

“If you can’t remember-“

“I remember,” I cut her off.  I bent down to the backpack I’d set at my feet and retrieved a pile of paper.  I had to flip through it for a few seconds before I could divide it into two piles.  “Six vicious emails, Sophia pushed me down the stairs when I was near the bottom, making me drop my books, tripped and shoved me no less than three times during gym, and threw my clothes at me while I was in the shower after gym class had ended, getting them wet.  I had to wear my gym clothes for the rest of the morning.  In biology, Madison used every excuse she could to use the pencil sharpener or talk to the teacher, and each time she passed my desk, she pushed everything I had on my desk to the floor.  I was watching for it the third time, and covered my stuff when she approached, so on the fourth trip, she emptied the pencil sharpener into one of her hands and dumped the shavings onto my head and desk as she walked by.  All three of them cornered me after school had ended and took my backpack from me, throwing it in the garbage.”

“I see,” the principal made a sympathetic face, “Not very pleasant, is it?”

“That’s September eighth,” I pointed out, “My first day back at school, last semester.  September ninth-“

“Excuse me, sorry.  How many entries do you have?”

“One for pretty much every school day starting last semester.  Sorry, I only decided to keep track last summer.  September ninth, other girls in my grade had been encouraged by those three to make fun of me.  I was wearing the backpack they had been thrown in the trash, so every girl that was in on it was holding their nose or saying I smelled like garbage.  It picked up steam, and by the end of the day, others had joined in on it.  I had to change my email address after my inbox filled in just a day, with more of the same sorts of things.  I have every hateful email that was sent to me here, by the way.”  I put my hand on the second pile of papers.

“May I?” Mrs. Knott asked.  I handed her the emails.

“Eat glass and choke.  Looking at you depresses me.  Die in a fire,” she recited as she turned pages.

“Let’s not get sidetracked,” my dad said, “We’ll get to everything in time.  My daughter was speaking.”

“I wasn’t done with September ninth,” I said, “Um, let me find my place.  Gym class, again-“

“Are you wanting to recount every single incident?” the principal asked.

“I thought you’d want me to.  You can’t make a fair judgment until you hear everything that’s happened.”

“I’m afraid that looks like quite a bit, and some of us have jobs to get back to later this afternoon.  Can you pare it down to the most relevant incidents?”

“They’re all‘ relevant,” I said.  Maybe I’d raised my voice, because my dad put his hand on my shoulder.  I took a breath, then said, as calmly as I could, “If it bothers you to have to listen to it all, imagine what it feels like to live through it.  Maybe you’ll get just a fraction of a percent of an idea of what going to school with them felt like.”

I looked at the girls.  Only Madison looked really upset.  Sophia was glaring at me, and Emma managed to look bored, confident.  I didn’t like that.

Alan spoke, “I think we all grasp that it’s been unpleasant.  You’ve established that, and I thank you for the insight.  But how many of those incidents can you prove?  Were those emails sent from school computers?”

“Very few school email addresses, mostly throwaway accounts from hotmail and yahoo,” Mrs. Knott replied, as she flipped through the pages, “And for the few school email accounts that were used, we can’t discount the chance that someone left their account logged in when they left the computer lab.”  She gave me an apologetic look.

“So the emails are off the table,” Alan spoke.

“It’s not your place to decide that,” my dad answered.

“A lot of those emails were sent during school hours,” I stressed.  My heart was pounding.  “I even marked them out with blue highlighter.”

“No,” the principal spoke, “I agree with Mr. Barnes.  It’s probably for the best that we focus our attention on what we can verify.  We can’t say who sent those emails and from where.”

All of my work, all of the hours I’d put in logging events when remembering the events of the day was the last thing I wanted to do, dashed to the winds.  I clenched my fists in my lap.

“You okay?” my dad murmured in my ear.

There was precious little I could actually verify, though.

“Two weeks ago, Mr. Gladly approached me,” I addressed the room, “He verified that some things had occurred in his class.  My desk had been vandalized with scribbles, juice, glue, trash and other stuff on different days.  Do you remember, Mr. Gladly?”

Mr Gladly nodded, “I do.”

“And after class, do you remember seeing me in the hallway?  Surrounded by girls?  Being taunted?”

“I remember seeing you in the hallway with the other girls, yes.  If I remember, that was not long after you told me you wanted to handle things on your own.”

“That is not what I said,” I had to control myself to keep from shouting, “I said I thought this situation here, with all the parents and teachers gathered, would be a farce.  So far, you’re not proving me wrong.”

“Taylor,” my dad spoke.  He put his hand on one of my clenched fists, then addressed the faculty, “Are you accusing my daughter of making up everything she’s noted here?”

“No,” the principal spoke, “But I think that when someone is being victimized, it’s possible to embellish events, or to see harassment when there is none.  We want to ensure that these three girls get fair treatment.”

“Do I-” I started, but my dad squeezed my hand, and I shut up.

“My daughter deserves fair treatment too, and if even one in ten of these events did occur, it speaks to an ongoing campaign of severe abuse.  Does anyone disagree?”

“Abuse is a strong word,” Alan spoke, “You still haven’t proven-“

“Alan,” my dad interrupted him, “Please shut up.  This isn’t a courtroom.  Everyone at this table knows what these girls did, and you can’t force us to ignore it.  Taylor ate dinner at your dining room table a hundred times, and Emma did the same at ours.  If you’re implying Taylor is a liar, say it outright.”

“I only think she’s sensitive, especially after the death of her mother, she-“

I shoved the pile of paper off the table.  There were thirty or forty sheets, so it made a good size cloud of drifting papers.

“Don’t go there,” I spoke, quiet, I could barely hear myself over the buzzing in my ears, “Don’t do that.  Prove you’re at least that human.”

I saw a smirk on Emma’s face, before she put her elbows on the table and hid it with her hands.

“In January, my daughter was subjected to one of the most malicious, disgusting pranks I have ever heard of,” my dad told the principal, ignoring the papers that were still making their way to the floor, “She wound up in the hospital.  You looked me in the eye and promised me you would look after Taylor and keep an eye out.  You obviously haven’t.”

Mr. Quinlan, my math teacher, spoke, “You have to understand, other things demand our attention.  There’s a gang presence in this school, and we deal with serious events like students bringing knives to class, drug use, and students suffering life threatening injuries in fights on the campus.  If we’re not aware of certain events, it’s hardly intentional.”

“So my daughter’s situation isn’t serious.”

“That’s not what we’re saying,” the principal answered him, exasperated.

Alan spoke, “Let’s cut to the chase.  What would you two like to see happen, here, at this table, that would have you walk away satisfied?”

My dad turned to me.  We’d talked briefly on this.  He’d said that as a spokesperson for his Union, he always walked into a discussion with a goal in mind.  We’d established ours.  The ball was in my court.

“Transfer me to Arcadia High.”

There were a few looks of surprise.

“I expected you to suggest expulsion,” the principal answered, “Most would.”

“Fuck no,” I said.  I pressed my fingers to my temples, “Sorry for swearing.  I’m going to be a little impulsive until I’m over this concussion.  But no, no expulsion.  Because that just means they can apply to the next-closest school, Arcadia, and because they aren’t enrolled in school, it would mean accelerated entry past the waiting list.  That’s just rewarding them.”

“Rewarding,” the principal spoke.  I think she was insulted.  Good.

“Yeah,” I said, not caring in the least about her pride, “Arcadia’s a good school.  No gangs.  No drugs.  It has a budget.  It has a reputation to maintain.  If I were bullied there, I could go to the faculty and get help.  None of that’s true here.”

“That’s all you would want?” Alan asked.

I shook my head, “No.  If it were up to me, I’d want those three to have in-school suspension for the remaining two months of the semester.  No privileges either.  They wouldn’t be allowed dances, access to school events, computers, or a spot on teams or clubs.”

“Sophia’s one of our best runners in Track and Field,” the principal spoke.

“I really, really don’t care,” I replied.  Sophia glared at me.

“Why in-school suspension?” Mr. Gladly asked, “It would mean someone would have to keep a constant eye on them.”

“Would I have to take summer classes?” Madison piped up.

“There would be remedial classes if we took that route, yes,” the principal spoke, “I think that’s a little severe.  As Mr. Gladly mentioned, it would require resources we don’t have.  Our staff is stretched thin as it is.”

“Suspension’s a vacation,” I retorted, “and it just means they could take a trip over to Arcadia and get revenge on me there.  No.  I’d rather they got no punishment at all than see them get suspended or expelled.”

“That’s an option,” Alan joked.

“Shut up, Alan,” my dad replied.  To the rest of the table, he said, “I don’t see anything unrealistic about what my daughter is proposing.”

“Of course you don’t,” Sophia’s guardian spoke, “You’d feel differently if the tables were turned.  I feel it’s important that Sophia continue to attend her track and field practices.  The sports give her structure she needs.  Denying her that would only lead to a decline in her behavior and conduct.”

Madison’s dad added his own two cents, “I think two months of suspension is too much.”

“I’m forced to agree on all counts,” the principal spoke.  As my dad and I moved to protest, she raised her hands to stop us, “Given the events that happened in January, and with Mr. Gladly’s own admission that there’s been incidents in his class, we know there’s been some ongoing bullying.  I’d like to think my years as an educator have given me some ability to recognize guilt when I see it, and I’m certain these girls are guilty of some of what the victim is accusing them of.  I’m proposing a two week suspension.”

“Weren’t you listening to me?” I asked.  My fists were clenched so hard my hands were shaking, “I’m not asking for a suspension.  That’s pretty much the last thing I want.”

“I’m standing by my daughter in this,” my dad spoke, “I’d say two weeks was laughable, given this laundry list of criminal offenses these girls have committed, except there’s nothing funny about this.”

“Your list would mean something if you could back it up with evidence,” Alan wryly commented, “And if it wasn’t all over the floor.”

I thought for a second that my dad would hit him.

“Any longer than two weeks would mean these girls’ academics would suffer to the point they could fail the year,” the principal stated, “I don’t think that’s fair.”

“And my schoolwork hasn’t suffered because of them?” I asked.  The buzzing in my ears was reaching its limit.  I realized, belatedly, that I’d just given her an opening to raise my missed classes.

“We’re not saying it hasn’t,” the principal’s tone was patient, as if she was talking to a small child.  “But eye-for-an-eye justice doesn’t do anyone any favors.”

She hadn’t mentioned the classes.  I wondered if she even knew.

“Is there any justice here?” I replied, “I’m not seeing it.”

“They’re being punished for their misconduct.”

I had to stop to willfully push the bugs away.  I think they were reacting to my stress, or my concussion was making me a little less aware of what I was doing with them, because they were pressing in without my giving them the order.  None had entered the school or the conference room, thankfully, but I was getting increasingly worried that my control would slip.  If it did, instead of sort of wandering in my general direction or gravitating towards my location, the bugs would erupt into a full fledged swarm.

I took a deep breath.

“Whatever,” I said, “You know what?  Fine.  Let them get away with a two week vacation as a reward for what they did to me.  Maybe if their parents have an ounce of heart or responsibility, they’ll find an appropriate punishment.  I don’t care.  Just transfer me to Arcadia.  Let me walk away from this.”

“That’s not really something I can do,” the principal said, “There’s jurisdictions-“

Try,” I pleaded, “Pull some strings, call in favors, talk to friends in other faculties?”

“I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep,” she said.

Which meant no.

I stood up.

“Taylor,” my dad put his hand on my arm.

“We’re not the enemy,” the principal spoke.

“No?” I laughed a little, bitter, “That’s funny.  Because it looks like it’s you guys, the bullies and the other parents against me and my dad.  How many times have you called me by my name, today?  None.  Do you even know why?  It’s a trick lawyers use.  They call their client by name, but they refer to the other guy as the victim, or the offender, depending.  Makes your client more identifiable, dehumanizes the other side.  He started doing it right off the bat, maybe even before this meeting started, and you unconsciously bought into it.”

“You’re being paranoid,” the principal spoke, “Taylor.  I’m sure I’ve said your name.”

“Fuck you,” I snapped, “You disgust me.  You’re a deluded, slimy, self-serving-“

“Taylor!” my dad pulled on my arm, “Stop!”

I had to concentrate a second and direct the bugs to go away, again.

“Maybe I’ll bring a weapon to school,” I said, glaring at them, “If I threatened to stab one of those girls, would you at least expel me?  Please?”  I could see Emma’s eyes widen at that.  Good.  Maybe she’d hesitate before hassling me again.

“Taylor!” my dad spoke.  He stood up and pulled me into a tight hug, my face against his chest so I couldn’t say any more.

“Do I need to call the cops?” I heard Alan.

“For the last time, Alan, shut up,” my dad growled, “My daughter is right.  This has been a joke.  I have a friend in the media.  I think I’m going to give her a call, email her that list of emails and the list of incidents.  Maybe pressure from the public would get things done.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Danny,” Alan replied, “If you recall, your daughter assaulted and battered Emma just last night.  That’s in addition to threatening her, here.  We could press charges.  I do have the surveillance video from the mall, and a signed slip from that teenage superheroine, Shadow Stalker, that verifies she saw it happen, in what could have provoked a riot.”

Oh.  So that was why Emma had been so confident.  She and her dad had an ace up their sleeve.

“There’s mitigating circumstances,” my dad protested, “She has a concussion, she was provoked, she only hit Emma once.  The charges wouldn’t stick.”

“No.  But the case could drag out for some time.  When our families used to have dinner together, you remember me saying how most cases were resolved?”

“Decided by who ran out of money first,” my dad said.  I felt him clutch me a fraction tighter.

“I may be a divorce attorney, but the same applies in a criminal case.”

If we went to the media, he’d press assault charges just to drain our bank accounts.

“I thought we were friends, Alan,” my dad replied, his voice strained.

“We were.  But at the end of the day, I have to protect my daughter.”

I looked at my teachers.  At Mrs. Knott, who I’d even say was my favorite teacher, “Don’t you see how fucked up this is?  He’s blackmailing us right in front of you, and you can’t understand that this manipulation has been going on from the beginning?”

Mrs. Knott frowned, “I don’t like the sound of it, but we can only comment and act on what happens in school.”

“It’s happening right here!”

“You know what I mean.”

I pulled away.  In my haste to get out of that room, I practically kicked down the door.  My dad caught up to me in the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said, “I’m so not surprised.”

“Let’s go home.”

I shook my head, turning away, “No.  I need to get gone.  Going.  I won’t be home for dinner.”

“Stop.”

I paused.

“I want you to know I love you.  This is far from over, and I’ll be waiting for you when you come home.  Don’t give up, and don’t do anything reckless.”

I hugged my arms close to my body to get the shaking in my hands to stop.

“‘Kay.”

I left him behind and headed out the front door of the school.  Double checking he hadn’t followed and that he couldn’t see me, I retrieved one of the disposable cell phones from the front pocket of my sweatshirt.  Lisa picked up partway through the first ring.  She always did – one of her little quirks.

“Hey.  How did it go?”

I couldn’t find the words for a reply.

“That bad?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you need?”

“I want to hit someone.”

“We’re gearing up for a raid on the ABB.  We didn’t bother you about it because you’re still recovering, and I knew you’d be busy with your meeting at school.  Want in?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.  We’re splitting up for a bunch of coordinated attacks with some of the other groups.  You’d be with, um, one second-“

She said something, but it wasn’t directed at the phone.  I heard the bass of Brian replying.

“Every team is splitting up, bit complicated to explain, but yeah.  Bitch would be going with one or two members of the Travelers, some of Faultline’s crew and probably some of Empire Eighty-Eight.  It would do a lot for our peace of mind if you went with.  ‘specially with the tension between us and the Empire.”

I could see the bus at the far end of the street, approaching.

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Hive 5.5

Time was short, so Tattletale was in my room of the loft while I changed.

“The idea Coil proposed was that we would mix and match the members of the groups, so nobody can pull anything without their teammates being hostage to the other groups.”

“Gotcha,” I replied.  I busied myself double checking the items from the utility compartment.  Tattletale reached in and snatched the cell phone.  “Hey?”

“One sec.  I’m programming the alarm on your phone.  When it goes off, an hour from now, you call Grue.  Then again an hour later, if we’re out that long.  We’ll all be checking in with each other every fifteen minutes or so.  If someone doesn’t pick up, assume they’re in trouble.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“If you can’t pick up the phone for whatever reason, be sure to call back at the first opportunity.  Let us know you’re fine.”

“Got it.”  I hiked the cloth portion of my armor up around my waist, then began sliding my arms through the sleeves.  The cloth part was form-fitting, and all in all, putting it on was like putting on a pair of full-body pantyhose.  Not prone to tear, of course, but like the pantyhose, it always took longer than I expected.

“We’ll be using a password system every time we check in, in case you’re taken hostage and forced to answer a call.  Two parts to it.  The first part is simple, you give the other person the first letter of one of our names, the other person replies with the last.  If it winds up being a longer night, move on to other people we know.”

“So if I said L?”

“A.  How would you respond to B?”

“N.”

“Exactly.  The second part is color based.  When you’re replying to a call, name an object that’s a certain color.  Think traffic lights.  Green for go, everything is okay.  Yellow for warning, if you aren’t sure about things.  Red for stop, need help.  It lets you keep us informed without tipping off the capes that are with you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going with the group that has Faultline, Trickster, and the Traveller’s shapeshifter.  I’m betting there will be a few from Empire Eighty-Eight and some of Coil’s soldiers, too.”

“Shapeshifter?”

“That gorilla with four arms, from the other night.  Only I don’t know exactly what she is, yet, but she’s not quite a shapeshifter.  I’m hoping to get a better sense of her abilities by spending some time around her.  Ditto for Trickster.  Regent’s coming with so we’re contributing some firepower.  Kind of.”

“Don’t you and Faultline have issues with each other?”

Lisa grinned, “Yup.  It’s going to be fun, pushing her buttons, knowing she can’t touch me.”

I winced.  “Just be careful.  What’s Grue doing?”

“Another group.  All in all, we’ll be coordinating to strike three locations simultaneously with three different teams, overwhelming force.  Hit hard, hit fast, get out of there.  If you aren’t making much of a dent, don’t sweat it.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, we’ll repeat this process a few more times over the next couple of days.”

There was a knock on the door.  Brian called from the other side, “Just about ready?”

I zipped up the back of my costume and strapped my armor in place over it, then opened the door, mask in one hand, “Ready.”

Brian, like me, was costumed but didn’t have any headgear on.  “You sure you’re up to this?  You’re recovered from the knock you took to the head?”

“No,” I admitted, “Not entirely.  But I’m pissed, and I think I’ll be less okay in the long run if I don’t go out and vent somehow.”

He paused, as if he were thinking things over, “Okay.  You going to be alright dealing with Bitch on your own?”

I frowned, “I’ll manage somehow.”

“Don’t show her any weakness, or she won’t let up on you.”

“I figured as much,” I agreed.  As we headed for the stairs, I mused that maybe Bitch and I were more on the same page today.  I was pissed at life in general, feeling just a bit off kilter in a way that wasn’t one-hundred-percent the concussion.

I pulled on my mask as we headed outside.  There was a nondescript van pulled over in front of the door, blocking line of sight to the rest of the street.  Bitch and Regent were already inside, waiting.

“Hey dork,” Regent greeted me.  He was in costume, typical except for the shirt he was wearing – other nights it had been white, but it was a dark gray today.  It was still the same slightly elaborate, puffy renaissance fair style of clothing, though.

“You can call me Skitter.  I won’t mind.”

“That’s alright,” he answered.  There was a note of humor in his voice, which I took to mean he was just having fun at my expense.  I resolved to ignore him.

Bitch just stared angrily at me.  It was so intense I had to look away.  So much for being on the same page.

The interior of the van had benches on either side.  Since we were in a rush, I had only a second to decide whether I wanted to sit next to Regent – and be facing Bitch for the duration of the trip – or plop myself down next to her and the dogs.  I opted for the former, hoping I wouldn’t manage to do or say anything that would get us off on a bad start for the evening.

Tattletale sat in the passenger seat, with Grue driving.  As the van pulled onto the road, she called back to us, “Hey, Bitch, Skitter.  We’re dropping you off first, but you’re going to have to walk to the meeting place.  You might be short on time, so walk fast.  Cool?”

Bitch shrugged, “Works.”

“No complaints,” I added my own two cents.  I could see where it would be advantageous – Bitch would have time to get her dogs beefed up, and I could gather some bugs.  Besides, it gave us something to do – if we had to stand idle for a few minutes, I was pretty sure it would only increase the chances of Bitch finding a reason to pick a fight with me or one of the other villains.

Remembering my bugs, I took a few seconds to extend my powers outward and begin gathering them.  I was surprised at how far my reach was extending.  I generally measured things in city blocks – I’ve never been good at eyeballing distance – and I would say my range usually sat at around two blocks.  Today I was reaching just shy of three and a half.

“Hey Tattletale?” I asked.

“‘Sup?”

“Two questions.”

“Go for it.”

“What general direction is the spot you’re dropping me off?  Need to know where to send the bugs.”

“Northwest.”

I glanced out the tinted windows of the van to judge which direction we were going, then began giving commands to the bugs that fell within my reach.

“Second question.  Um.  My power’s a fair bit stronger today.  Not sure about technique, but I’m extending a lot further.  Any idea why?”

“Can’t say.  Sorry, I could usually try to figure it out, but I’m focusing on other things right now.  If you think it’s really crucial-“

“No,” I stopped her, “It’s not.  I’ll bug you about it later, when your attention isn’t divided.”

“Pun intended?” Regent mused.

“What?”

“Guess not.  Nevermind,” he chuckled a little.

Bitch was using her power on her dogs.  It was really my first opportunity seeing it happen from the beginning.  It was like seeing a sausage split its casing, only the casing was fur and skin.  Where the rifts appeared, it wasn’t just muscle spilling out, but spears and ridges of bone.  Some of the exposed muscle shriveled into scaly growths.  Yet they kept growing to the point the back of the van was feeling crowded.  Where did that mass come from?  Was it pulled out of thin air, or was she drawing in some kind of energy and converting it into matter?

For that matter, if my brain was a radio tower of sorts, pinging every bug for their locations on a near-constant basis and sending them instructions to override their own brains… where was the energy to keep that up coming from?

It was a little disconcerting to think about.

When Grue stopped the van to let us out, I realized why we were walking.  Our stop was a bridge with bus stations on either side.  Problem was, it seemed the ABB had decided to cut off this route – the bridge had been reduced to rubble.  Large orange and black detour signs with blinking lights barred entry to the shattered bridge, and similar measures had been used to cordon off the piles of rubble below.

Tattletale leaned out the open window and pointed, “See that tower, there?  Looks like a lighthouse?  It’s an old tourist shop that closed down a decade ago.  It’s where the Merchants – Skidmark and his crew of dealers – hung out, before the ABB expanded and forced them out.  You’re supposed to meet the others there.”

I looked and saw the building she was pointing at.  It didn’t look much like a lighthouse, but whatever.  “Gotcha.”

“Go,” Brian said, “Good luck.”

Bitch whistled for her dogs, and we headed for the stairs.  We’d have to head down, across the street and back up to get where we needed to be.

It was weird, picking our way through the rubble of the destroyed bridge to cross the street.  You didn’t usually cross the road like this, and the streets were deserted here.   The dogs seemed to like the experience though.  I saw Judas’ tail wagging as he hopped from one slab of road to another.

I pulled open the door with shattered glass panes that led to the other set of stairs, letting Bitch and the dogs through.  As she passed me, Bitch murmured, “You’re angry.”

“Yeah,” I admitted, “Bunch of stuff earlier this afternoon.  Didn’t go the way I wanted.  Assholes.”

“Should hit ‘em.  Teach them to fuck with you.”

“I did,” I answered, “Knocked one of them on her ass last night.  Part of the reason things didn’t go so hot, today.”

“Mmm.  Story of my life.”

We headed up the stairs and towards the lighthouse.  My bugs were starting to accumulate.  Our detour had given the flying bugs time to catch up to me.  Wasps, moths, houseflies, no-see-ums, a few bees and a fair few cockroaches.

I’d learned my lesson on our last outing.  I wasn’t going in unprepared and unarmed.  As they arrived, I drew the bugs close.  Selecting the best of them, I directed them under my armor – in the hollow space beneath my shoulderpads, under my belt, my elbows and wristguards, in my hair and the concave panel of armor that covered my spine.  They were there if I needed them.  I doubted anyone would notice unless I let them.

“How’d you know I was angry?” I asked.

“Dunno.  Looked that way.”

“Yeah, but you can’t see my face.”

“Way you’re standing, I guess.  You going to get on my case about this?”

“No.  Sorry,” I answered.

I decided to keep quiet for the rest of our trip to the ‘lighthouse’.  Interestingly, she almost seemed to relax as the silence lingered.  Her face lost that slightly angry expression and she reached over to scratch Brutus on the side of his neck in what seemed a very normal, casual gesture, for someone I viewed as anything but.  Or at least, it would have been normal and casual if the dogs weren’t currently the size of small ponies.

We reached the lighthouse, and sure enough, there was a group of villains waiting.

Kaiser was first and foremost among them.  He was decked out head to toe in elaborate, ornate armor with a crown of blades, but the configuration, I noticed with interest, was totally different than it had been just two days ago.  Fenja and Menja stood at either side of him.

Only one of the Travelers was accompanying our group: The girl with the sun design on her costume, red suns on black form-fitting armor.  Just behind her were two members of Faultline’s crew. Newter was hanging off the wall by his fingertips and toes, and Labyrinth was leaning against the same wall, just below him, her arms folded.  Newter was wearing tattered jeans and had dyed his hair a cobalt blue, setting off the orange of his skin.  He had cloth wrap, like you’d see a kickboxer use, wrapped around his hands and feet.

Rounding out our group were two men in matching kevlar armor, with balaclavas, visors, and tricked out assault rifles.  Each of the men had a second gun slung over their back – I thought one was another rifle, but I didn’t have a good view of the other.  I might have pegged it a grenade launcher.  Coil’s men, probably.

Fenja or Menja – I wasn’t sure which – leaned over and whispered in Kaiser’s ear.

“Arrived with less than a minute to spare, Undersiders,” he purred.  “Watches out, everyone.”

I paused – I hadn’t brought one.  Then I remembered the cell phone.  I retrieved it from the compartment, the cluster of bugs I had in there moving automatically out of the way of my hands.  If anything, they made it easier to know where my fingers should reach to grab it.

“Set time to four-forty in three, two, one… set.  The attack is scheduled to start in five minutes.  We’ll use the time to get there, get in position and decide our method of attack.”

Nobody argued.

“Move out,” he directed us.

Bitch turned her attention to Brutus, who made a groaning noise as he suddenly swelled.  Splits appeared in his skin as he grew another two or three feet taller at the shoulder, and spikes of bone erupted from his exterior.  He stretched, then shook abruptly, spraying all of us with the bloody aftermath of his sudden growth.  There were reactions of alarm and startled shouts from everyone present, with the exception of myself, Bitch and Labyrinth.  Kaiser, surprisingly, was among them, backing away several steps before he realized Brutus wasn’t attacking.

There was a bit of swagger in her posture as Bitch walked the two steps to where Brutus stood, grabbed a spike of bone and hauled herself onto his back.

It was intentional, maybe a bit immature, but she’d made Kaiser flinch.  Taking him down a notch like that, so soon after he’d assumed control of this impromptu team, it was probably more of a statement than anyone present could have accomplished with words.

As if to drive the point home, she gave Brutus a light kick in the ribs, prompting him to walk in the direction Kaiser had indicated.  Judas, Angelica and I were right behind her.  I didn’t turn to see how long it took the others to pull themselves together and follow.

Hive 5.6

However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-“

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.7

“Lung’s there,” I echoed, as much to let Sundancer and Labyrinth know as to help myself process the idea.

“He’s with Kaiser.  I can’t get to them.  Kaiser blocked the door with giant knives.”

“Ignore Lung!” I stressed.  If Kaiser wanted to go it alone, he could reap the consequences.  “Priorities are Newter and Oni Lee!  Can you get upstairs to rescue Newter?”

“I can’t ride Brutus in there, I’d have to dismount.”

“Then draw him outside!  Watch your back!”

I hung up, shoved the phone into the compartment behind my back, and drew my baton and knife.

“What are you doing?” Sundancer asked.

“Oni Lee’s a freaking assassin.  I can’t leave Bitch on her own.”

I didn’t wait another second.  I bolted for the warehouse, drawing more bugs from the surroundings to help back me up.

Bitch, still riding Brutus, came rushing out the loading bay door, Judas only a step behind.  They skidded to a stop, facing the building.  Through the hole the explosion had made in the wall, I saw Angelica climbing up the stairs.

As Angelica reached the top of the stairs, Judas lunged up and through the windows at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, trapping Oni Lee in between them.

Oni Lee barely seemed to care.  I could see him in his black bodysuit with belts and bandoleers of knives on it, his mask with the demonic face and leering, fanged, ear-to-ear grin.  He glanced at one dog, then the other, then looked out the window.

I knew his power was a hybrid between duplicating himself and teleportation.  He could teleport, but when he did, he left a body behind that could act autonomously for a few seconds.  So when I saw him glance out the window, I followed his line of sight, and saw he had already appeared just behind Bitch, half-crouching on Brutus’ back, one hand on a hook of bone to help him balance.  There was a flash of steel in his other hand as he reached around her throat with a blade.

“Bitch!” I screamed.  It didn’t matter.  At the same time as I opened my mouth, a red dot and a mist of red appeared out of the back of his head.  A split second later, another dot and spray of red appeared on his back, around his heart was.  He fell on top of Bitch’s shoulder, limp, then collapsed to the ground.

A second later, he exploded into an opaque cloud of white ash, ten feet across.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the dark silhouettes of Coil’s men lying down on the edge of the rooftop.  One had a pair of binoculars, the other was set up behind a long rifle with a prominent scope.  A sniper team.

Anyone else would be dead by now, but the fact that the body had exploded into dust meant it was just a clone, a leftover remaining behind after Oni Lee had teleported away.  He probably wasn’t remaining in one place for more than a second.  My bet was that he was appearing, immediately looking for a new target or vantage point, then making a quick exit, leaving the clone to do the deed.

I reached Bitch and cast a nervous glance over my shoulder for Oni Lee. “You okay?”

“Felt the fucking steel on my throat,” she rubbed her throat as if she was checking it was okay.  “Where’d he go?”

I saw Oni Lee for only a fraction of a second, as he fell from the roof of the warehouse, before he exploded into another cloud of white dust.  Another point for the sniper team.  Why had he been up there?  Who or what had he been trying to see?

“The snipers,” I breathed, whirling around.

Where the sniper team had been, there were four figures now.  I saw the rifle fall from the edge of the roof as the two soldiers struggled with a pair of Oni Lees.  Then, puff, the clones were gone, and there was enough white dust around them that they wouldn’t be drawing a bead on him again, even if they hadn’t lost the rifle.

But where had he gone from there?  I looked around, feeling the panic begin to set in.

Brutus made a roaring sound somewhere between a howl and a growl, not quite recognizable as either.  He reared like a panicked horse, and I saw Oni Lee drop from the side of his head, land in a crouch, and lunge for me, a knife in each hand.

I swatted at his hands with my baton, sending one knife flying through the air and breaking his stride.  It didn’t matter.  Less than a second later, he was dust.  He’d teleported.

Hands seized me from behind, in a rough nelson hold, pulling my arms out of the way as another Oni Lee materialized out of the dust in front of me, ready to capitalize on my inability to defend myself.

Knowing he wasn’t about to let go of me, I brought both my legs up in a kick at Oni Lee’s stomach.  They connected and he doubled over.

Brutus lunged forward, biting at him before he could recover.  Both the Oni Lee that was holding me and the one clasped in Brutus’ jaws turned to carbon ash, adding to the volume of the opaque, gritty white cloud that surrounded us.  As Bitch managed to get Brutus under control I saw his face.  One of his eyes was in ruins, and volumes of blood and other liquids were flowing from it.

“Fuck this,” I growled, drawing the bugs out from my costume, and retrieving the ones I’d had in the building.  I spread them around, reaching for him, hoping for some sort of early warning.

No sooner the thought crossed my mind than the silhouette of a figure appeared twenty feet to my right.  He whipped his arm in my direction, and I didn’t have any time to do much more than turn in his direction before something collided with my head.  I stumbled and fell over backwards.

In the instant I toppled over, I had the presence of mind to tuck my chin against my chest so I wouldn’t add to my concussion.  The armor covering my shoulders took the worst of the impact.

As I lay there, trying to parse what had just happened, I realized that a small knife was embedded in the armored section of my mask, cracking the lens.  A throwing knife?  I pulled it free and pulled myself to my feet.  I had enough bugs around me now that I could be sure he wasn’t attacking us.  That just raised the question of where he was.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

“Fucker stabbed me in the arm!”

If that’s the worst injury we get away with today, we can count ourselves lucky.  I headed out of the cloud that surrounded us, hoping to get a better sense of the battlefield.

I got out just in time to see Oni Lee tackling one of Coil’s snipers off the edge of the roof.  Oni Lee disappeared in a cloud of white before he hit the ground.  I was pretty sure the sniper hadn’t.

Sundancer was crumpled over, Labyrinth holding her shoulders.

This was not going well.

Oni Lee appeared thirty feet away from me, standing just to my left and behind me.  My bugs gave me a sense of his position before anything else, and I threw myself to one side.  I thought maybe I saw the shape of one of his throwing knives pass through the air where I’d been standing, but I wasn’t seeing very well with a cracked lens on my mask.

At my command, The bugs that had alerted me to his position gathered on him and began biting and stinging.

Then I noticed something weird.  More bugs popped into existence in the midst of the cloud, near Sundancer and Labyrinth.  I felt the original bugs perish as they exploded into ash.

He was taking them with him.  I don’t think he could help it.

I could track his movements.

“Bitch!  Here!” I shouted.

She lunged out of the cloud, still astride Brutus, pulling up short to avoid trampling me.

“I can see where he’s teleporting,” I told her, “Get Judas and Angelica.”

She whistled, long and piercing.  As if in response, Oni Lee appeared just a few feet away.

“Behind you!” I pointed.

Brutus whipped around, snapping and snarling, and Oni Lee had to backpedal to escape being caught in the mutant’s jaws.  He disappeared just a second later.

“Get one dog near those guys,” I pointed to Sundancer and Labyrinth, “We should join them asap.”

She nodded, whistled, and pointed.  No sooner did Judas and Angelica arrive at our sides than Judas headed off to his next destination.  Bitch offered me a hand.

I gratefully took it, letting her help me up onto Brutus’ back.

As we approached Sundancer and Labyrinth, the sidewalks on either side of us dropped out of existence, leaving only a bottomless pit where they had been.

“The fuck?” I murmured.

Then the buildings began to rise in height, some leaning over the street and joining with the others in grotesque arches and bridges.  Brickwork stretched and extended into the alleyways, closing them off.

Then windows began to shrink and warp, leaving only flat expanses of brick, concrete and stucco for the building faces.  Under our feet, the road began to shift in color, with some patches becoming paler, and others darkening.  They sharpened in definition as they settled into an alabaster white and jet back.  A checkerboard?

Brutus had to leap out of the way as one of the squares of the checkerboard suddenly rose to a height of ten feet.  As if in response, other squares began to rise and fall, each to varying, almost random heights.

I was almost dismounted as another square appeared in a wall and slid out of the side of the building in a thirty foot long horizontal pillar.

We reached safe haven, an expanse of unaffected ground, thirty feet across, with two figures in the center.  Sundancer and… Labyrinth.

“This is you?” I asked Labyrinth, awed, as I climbed down off Brutus.

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she reached out and touched the side of my chin.

The images of arches, pillars and checkerboard patterns fell away like a house of cards.

“Hallucinations,” I spoke, as Labyrinth made a waving gesture towards Bitch’s head.  She looked at me and shook her head slowly.

“They’re not hallucinations?” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You can’t explain because you can’t or don’t talk,” I realized, speaking my thoughts aloud.

Oni Lee appeared a few feet away.  I whirled and pointed, “There!”

He was stumbling, moving to avoid something that wasn’t there.  He was still there, trying to get his balance, as I felt more bugs appear at another point on the opposite side of us.  Only he appeared fifteen feet in the air, fell, and landed in an awkward position, falling over.

“Bitch!” I pointed.

She whistled and pointed to send Angelica.  Oni Lee’s response was delayed, as if he couldn’t even see her approaching, at first.  I felt more bugs pop into existence a second before she set her jaws on him.

“There!”

Bitch sent Judas next.  Oni Lee’s reaction was even slower, but he had time to throw himself onto his back, flinging two throwing knives into Judas’ face and shoulder before he disappeared.

“Over there!” I pointed as he reappeared.

Bitch didn’t even have time to give a command before there was a sound like a champagne cork being popped.  Oni Lee screamed as one of his shins exploded in a spray of blood.

I felt him reappear somewhere else, collapsing to the ground, while his predecessor endured having the kneecap on its good leg shot out.

I followed the sound of a chamber being reloaded to spot Coil’s sniper.  He was lying on his side at the foot of the building, one arm outstretched to hold his rifle steady.  His right leg was bent the wrong way.

He’d been knocked off a three story building, had a broken leg at the very least, and had still managed to retrieve, load and fire his rifle?

If he was willing to be that professional, I could damn well play spotter for him.

“There!” I pointed in Oni Lee’s direction.  On the warehouse again.

There were two more muted popping sounds, and I could see Oni Lee spin in a pirouette of sorts as a shot clipped him, before he collapsed to the rooftop.

He exploded in a cloud of ash once again.  Except I hadn’t felt him appear anywhere.

“He’s gone,” I said, “Out of my range.”

Sundancer looked up at me, one gloved hand on her shoulder.  “Good,” she managed to answer.

“You okay?”

“He gouged my shoulder.  I’ll need stitches, but it’s not the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Okay.  Uh, man, Coil’s guy,” I spoke, trying hard to organize my thoughts and priorities with the adrenaline that was pumping through me, “You going to be alright?”

“Yeah,” he rasped, then he coughed.

I’d have to take him at his word.

“Labyrinth, watch him.  Make sure he keeps breathing and that his buddy knows where he is,” I said, “Sundancer, Bitch, we’ve gotta go help Newter.”

Hive 5.8

I didn’t like leaving Labyrinth behind, after seeing her help turn the tide of our fight against Oni Lee, but I couldn’t use someone that couldn’t communicate with me.

Bitch, Sundancer and I all sat astride Brutus as he headed towards the warehouse once again.  My bugs lagged behind us.

“We should be fighting Lung,” Bitch growled, “Not helping the freak.”

“What?” Sundancer asked, “Why wouldn’t we help him?”

“His fault if he got hurt,” Bitch snarled.

“And if you got hurt?” Sundancer challenged her, “You’d want us to leave you?”

“Fuck no.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”

“We’re helping him,” I stated, firm.

“Yeah?  I’m the one telling this big lug where to go.”  She slapped her hand on the side of Brutus’ neck a few times.

I would have yelled at her, should have, maybe.  Instead, I just leaned forward until I was pressing against her back, and spoke into her ear, “We let him die, you think Faultline’s going to let it slide?  She might hurt or kill Tattletale or Regent in retaliation.”

My piece said, I leaned back and waited to see how she’d respond.  If that wasn’t enough to convince her, and I had no idea if it would be, I was ready to try jumping off Brutus’ back and seeing what I could do to help Newter on my own.

Bitch didn’t reply.  She didn’t take us around, over or through the building, either, though.  When we stopped, it was by the stairwell leading up to where Newter had fallen.

The business they had been into wasn’t prostitution or slave trading.  Long tables were arranged around the ground floor of the warehouse, with stools lined up beside them.  On those tables were shallow boxes with blocks and piles of a white powder.  Various tools – rulers, funnels, scales, measuring cups and no-name brand boxes of sealable plastic bags were arranged around each station.  Heroin?  Cocaine?  I didn’t know my drugs well enough to guess.  The center of the room had been left more or less clear, maybe so cars or trucks could pull in.

So the ‘employees’ had been wearing little to no clothing, presumably, to keep the clothes clean of the white dust.  Or maybe to keep them from pocketing any drugs for themselves.

The building rumbled with an impact, and I was reminded of the business at hand.  Was I more distracted than usual, right now?  Was it the concussion?

Bitch had been right, before – the stairwell and what I could see of the the second floor was too low for both a dog and a rider.  I hopped off Brutus’ back, stumbling a bit as I landed, then headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Newter was lying in a puddle of blood, in the midst of a bunch of thugs, who were all lying down, crawling or writhing, oblivious to my existence.

Seeing the thugs was enough to remind me of how dangerous it would be to touch Newter.  I was wearing gloves and leggings with padded soles, but would that be enough?  The dragline silk I’d used for my costume was mostly waterproof, but the weave itself was porous, and I was worried enough that touching his blood could mean a terminal overdose that I couldn’t risk it.

My approach stopped short of the puddle.  Newter had a knife wound just below his shoulderblade that traced around his side, as long as my forearm and deep enough that I couldn’t tell how bad the damage was.  He was breathing, but his breaths were shallow enough that I almost couldn’t tell.  I was here, I could bend down to touch him, but I was helpless to do anything.  Moments after I made contact with his skin, even with my gloves on, and I’d probably be on some hallucinogenic drug trip, flopping around like a fish on dry land.

Bitch and Sundancer approached from behind me, stopping at my side.

“Bitch, go downstairs, check the supplies they were using with the drugs.  Look for rubber gloves, saran wrap, anything like that.  If you can’t find anything, look in the bathroom, under the sinks.  I doubt there’ll be a first aid kit, but if you can find one, bring it.”

Bitch didn’t answer, but she headed down the stairs.  Just to be safe, as my bugs reached the building, I swept the flying ones through the rooms to help me look for first aid supplies and to keep an eye on Bitch and the rest of the building.

“What are we doing?” Sundancer asked.

“You’re staying with him.  See if you can get a response, talk to him.  I’m checking in there.”  I pointed to the office at the end of the hall.  Just in front of the door there was a gaping hole in the wall and a pile of debris – the mess Judas had made when he’d lunged through the side of the building to corner Oni Lee.

I had a dim recollection of what my bugs had sensed when they’d first entered the building and checked out the room.  I’d been more focused on the people and potential booby traps, but I remembered that it had been an office, with a desk and a curtained off area with a bed.  Maybe the bed was there so the guys in charge could take turns sleeping there, ensuring there was always someone to keep an eye on things.  Maybe it was for the half-dressed ‘employees’, for taking advantage of them or so there was a place to put the ones that accidentally overdosed while working.

Entering the office, I confirmed my suspicions about the existence of the bed.  I began stripping the badly stained sheets off.

Was it odd that this place freaked me out ten times as much as nearly getting offed by Oni Lee?  Drugs had always spooked the hell out of me.  One of the first times I’d ever ridden a bus, when I was around five or six, I’d seen a methhead freak out, making enough of a ruckus that the driver had to stop and force him off.  I’d never really gotten over that first impression, where just the idea of being around someone that was high made me sort of anxious.

It wasn’t just that, either.  In grade school and junior high, I’d had classmates drop off the face of the planet, hearing only rumors and hints from other classmates or my teachers that there were drugs involved.  Either my classmates themselves getting caught up in things, or parents or siblings dragging the kid into their mess to the point that the kid couldn’t come to school.  One as bad as the other.  Almost from the beginning, I’d had this sense of drugs as this unstoppable black hole of fucked-up-ness that swallowed in anyone close to the addict.

Yet people did it.  It was something common and profitable enough that in an area like Brockton Bay where there were as many people unemployed as not, the ABB needed a money counting machine in this very office.  Profitable enough that they had an open safe with stacks of bills inside.

My bugs weren’t doing much, so I set them the task of collecting the money.  Within a second or two of my having the thought, the mass of roaches, centipedes, pillbugs and ants flowed into the piles of money and began pushing it all off the desk or into paper bags.  Houseflies and wasps gathered on the bills that tried to fly through the air and retrieved them.  It wasn’t perfect, it was a little clumsy, but it still caught me off guard just how well they were able to coordinate for something like that, without any conscious direction on my part.

I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  I could put my bugs on autopilot and have them finish the job while I focused on more important things.  Pulling off the bedsheets, I uncovered a plastic sheet.  The kind you used when your kids wet the bed.  Doped out drug addicts, too, maybe.  The top of the plastic sheet looked kinda grody, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky.  I pulled it off the mattress, balled it up in my hands and hurried back into the hall.

“Help me,” I ordered Sundancer.  With her help, I laid out the plastic sheet, bottom side up, at Newter’s feet.  By the time we had it flat and ready, Bitch was returning.

“Found two pairs of plastic gloves and some rubber gloves under a sink,” she said, “First aid kit, too, but it feels light.”

“Open it,” I said, taking a pair of plastic gloves.  It was awkward, fitting them over my normal gloves, but I managed it.  Sundancer just pulled off her costume gloves and put on the plastic ones.  She was caucasian, I noted, pale.  “Tell me what’s inside, fast.”

“Got some tape, bandages, thermometer, safety pins, rubbing alcohol, soap…”

“Needle, thread?” I asked.

“No.”

“Gauze pads?  Big bandages?”

“No.”

With our plastic gloves on, Sundancer and I managed to haul Newter onto the plastic sheet.  The moment she let go, Sundancer winced and reached up to her shoulder, but she stopped short of actually touching it.

I turned to my teammate, “Bitch, go downstairs.  Those people who were in here took their clothes off and my bugs say they stashed the clothes in a room below us.  Find me some purses, as many as you can grab, as fast as you can grab them.”

She didn’t move, this time.  She just glared at me.

“Fucking move!” I shouted at her.  She gave me the evil eye before she left again.

“Bandages are going to be too small,” Sundancer said, as I tried to wrestle Newter’s blood-slick tail onto the plastic sheet.

“Douse them in the alcohol, use them to clean the injury of blood.  Use the dry bandages to pat it dry so the tape can stick.  Don’t be afraid to get into the wound, just be gentle.”

She nodded, and began working on it.  I grabbed the tape and began fumbling with it.  Two pairs of gloves on, and I couldn’t lift off the end of it.  I grabbed my knife and used the edge it to get the job done.  Once I had the tape, I began holding the wound closed and taping crosswise across it.

I could only hope I was doing the right things, here.  A month of weekend first aid classes had not prepared me for this.

Bitch arrived with purses and practically threw them at me.  I could have gotten pissed, but Newter couldn’t afford for me to.  I began emptying the purses onto the ground beside me and sorting through the contents.  Pens, wallets, headphones, books, tampons, pictures, receipts, more receipts, change, keys, yet more receipts…

“What are you looking for?” Sundancer asked.

The third purse turned up what I needed.  Sanitary pads.  I tore one open and pressed it to the wound, then began taping it down.  Unasked for, Sundancer grabbed another and opened it so it would be ready for me.

“Sterile, absorbent, covers more area than the bandage can,” I got around to answering her question.  “If he lives, his teammates might give him a hard time, but it’s better than nothing.”

“You didn’t tape it down all the way,” Sundancer pointed out.

“Only three sides,” I agreed, “So it can breathe.”  I only vaguely recalled some instruction on that front.  I was hoping it was right.

If I failed here, what right did I have to call myself an aspiring hero?

When the wound was bandaged as much as I could manage, the three of us bundled him up in the sheet and lifted him.  Bitch and Sundancer had an injured arm and shoulder, respectively, so they both took his head and shoulders while I took his feet  With agonizing slowness, we carried him down the stairs.  then as carefully as we could manage with a body weighing half again as much as any of us, we draped him across Brutus’ shoulders.

A bone-jarring crash nearly undid all of our hard work.  Brutus nearly lost his footing at the impact, and I know I would’ve fallen if I hadn’t already been holding onto him.

A gauntleted hand as wide across as my armspan had crashed through the wall.  The whole building shuddered as another hand punched through the brick of the wall twenty feet from the first hole.  Fingers gripped the building, and pulled the entire section of wall out in one piece.

“Go!” I shouted at Bitch, “Take him to the others!  Call Tattetale, get the number for that cape doctor, get medical attention for anyone who needs it!”

She hesitated, opened her mouth to protest.

I raised my voice, “Do not fuck with me here!”

There was a rumble outside as the removed section of wall was thrown against the ground outside, hard.

Just an instant later, a half dozen ABB members retreated into the warehouse through the hole, taking cover from the giantesses.  They saw us and stopped short, wary, weapons ready but not raised or pointed at us.

Lung followed his thugs into the room.  He was bigger than I’d seen him yet at nearly fifteen feet in height, and was covered in layers of scales that left him barely recognizable as human.  Spearlike growths stuck out of his shoulders in what I realized were the beginnings of wings.  His mask had been torn off at some point, and the features of his face had been warped by his transformation.  The shape of his skull and face were more catlike than human, and his nose and mouth were a single X-shaped opening, bristling with pointed teeth that stuck in every direction.

I could see why he usually wore the mask.

“Bitch,” I murmured, “If you don’t leave now, I don’t think you’re going to get another chance.”

“But-“

“Which do you want more?  To fight, here and now, or to make sure Faultline and the other groups don’t have an excuse to do anything to our teammates?”

I saw her hesitate.  The fact that she even had to think about it… I could have slapped her.

Kaiser strolled in, unworried, unhurried.  Lung moved like he was going to lunge for him, then stopped just in time to avoid impaling himself on the narrow blade of steel that had erupted from the ground, pointed at his heart.  I wasn’t sure if it would have penetrated his covering of scales, but if I were Lung, I don’t think I would have gambled on it either.

Fenja and Menja reduced their size to fit through the hole they’d made in the wall, then grew again as they had the headroom.  They settled at a height of eighteen or twenty feet.  Fenja carried a sword and round shield, while Menja had a spear.  Or the other way around, whatever.

In the corner of my eye, I saw Bitch hop onto Brutus, then ride in the direction of the sniper team and Labyrinth, a wrapped-up Newter lying limp in front of her.  Judas and Angelica remained behind, not far from Sundancer and I.  Their entire bodies were taut with tension, their heads low, as they glared at the new arrivals.

Lung turned to survey the room.  His men were arranged in a loose circle around him, facing us.  His eyes settled on me.

“Ooo,” he rumbled, his words were distorted by the shape of his altered mouth, but it was easy enough to guess what he’d just said.  You.

Hive 5.9

“Yeah, me,” I answered Lung, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.

“Some history?” Sundancer murmured.

“I made his crotch rot off.”

She turned to stare at me.

“Accidentally.”

“How do you-” she started, then she stopped as Lung’s growl rose in volume enough to turn her head.

Angelica and Judas advanced steadily until they were on either side of me.

“Step down, Undersider,” Kaiser spoke from the opposite end of the room, “My girls and I have this in hand.”

“Do you?” I challenged him, not breaking eye contact with Lung, “Because Lung looks like he’s in pretty good shape there.  You know how this works, right?  He only gets stronger the longer you fight him.  If you haven’t finished him off by now, you’re probably not going to.”

Lung chuckled, low and gravelly.  He craned his neck to look at Kaiser, and I shivered.  His neck alone was nearly as long as my torso and thicker at the base, tapering down to a more or less normal sized head.  What was creepier was that he’d bent his neck in a ‘u’ shape to look behind himself.  It was a movement that a gymnast would have been hard pressed to perform with their back.  It wouldn’t be long before he just wasn’t recognizable as something who had once been human.

The six of his thugs that were gathered around him looked like they were almost as scared of him as they were of us.

“What would you propose, then?” Kaiser asked me.

“Sundancer and I will help out,” I told him.  I glanced at Sundancer, and she nodded.

Lung laughed again.  “Ooo?  Ug gurr?”

Before I could figure out what he’d just said to me, he lunged straight at me, passing between two of his people, moving on all fours.

I’d sent the flying insects and wasps into the room to help Bitch search for supplies, and I directed them straight for Lung as soon as I realized what he was doing.  Too little, too late.

Then Judas intercepted him.  The pair of them rolled and tumbled, and I couldn’t tell which of them was making which snarling or growling noise.

When the momentum of Judas’ pounce had stopped carrying them across the floor, Lung managed to get his footing first, and physically heaved Judas across the main floor of the warehouse.  Judas slammed into two sets of the long tables, sending clouds of white powder billowing around him.

When Angelica made her move, Lung was ready for her.  He caught hold of her snout and foreclaw before she could do any damage and leveraged her forward momentum to throw her too, straight at Judas.  There was an almost judo or akido kind of style to the throw, except I doubted either of them were human enough for normal moves and techniques to apply.  What was more likely, I thought, that his reflexes, flexibility and strength were on a level where that sort of thing came naturally to him.

In any case, my bodyguards, if you could call them that, had been tossed aside away like they were stuffed animals.  Lung didn’t drop to all fours again as he advanced toward me.  Instead, he flexed his right hand, and my eyes were drawn to the foot-long blades that tipped each finger.

“Sundancer?” I asked, quiet, “Help me out?”

“If I used my power, I’d probably hurt you worse than I hurt him.”

“That line is getting old fast.”

Lung lunged again, and I threw myself to one side, too slow, too short a distance.

With the sound of swords being drawn out of their sheaths, a barrier of blades and spears rose up from the ground between Lung and I.  I found traction on the asphalt with my hands and feet, and I managed to half-crawl, half run away from him.

Lung started to move around the barrier of blades, only to be blocked by another bristling growth.  He roared, then leapt for the rafters up at the ceiling.  I knew what he was doing almost right away, and ran for cover – once he had a grip up there, it would be a matter of using his grip on the steel girders that lined the ceiling to jump straight at me.  I wasn’t two paces before I knew there was no cover I could get to fast enough.

Except he didn’t get that far.  A square pillar of steel  as tall and long as an eighteen wheeler speared downward from the roof, straight at him.  It caught Lung in his midsection and shoved him down into the ground, hard.  A few seconds later, the weight of the block of steel tore it from the section of ceiling it was rooted in.  It didn’t hit anyone as it dropped down but I could guess it would’ve killed someone: I could feel the impact of it striking the ground in my bones.

I looked at Kaiser.  He was standing where he’d been when he walked into the room, hands clasped behind his back.

“Fenja, Menja,” Kaiser’s order wasn’t shouted, but it could be heard across the warehouse.  If you could call it an order.

But the two eighteen-foot tall valkyries seemed to know what he wanted.  They advanced towards Lung with their weapons drawn, and Lung’s people began backing slowly away.  I felt a pang of sympathy for Lung’s rank and file, mainly for the ones who’d been coerced into this.  They’d probably seen what Fenja and Menja were capable of, earlier, but they couldn’t run without risking their boss’ wrath.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Lung wasn’t quite down and out yet, though.  He started climbing to his feet, only to have a pyramid of criss-crossing blades spear up around him.  Blades appeared under and over his arms, just beneath his armpit, behind his knee, by his groin, with dozens more rising above and around him. Before he could find his way out, he was trapped.  Buried and hidden beneath the layers of steel.

Kaiser inclined his chin, looking toward the ceiling, and I saw a shimmer.  The tip of a blade began to emerge from one of the iron girders above, revealing itself at a glacial pace.  It was no more than a half foot thick, but nearly twenty feet wide.  I wasn’t sure if it was an optical illusion from the rippling energies of Kaiser’s power or not, but I thought maybe the ceiling was sagging under the weight of it.  If he wasn’t careful, he’d bring the roof down on our heads.

Then Kaiser lowered his head to face the area where Lung was trapped and the massive sword he’d manifested in the ceiling plunged down into the pyramid in a heartbeat.  Sparks showered as the gargantuan blade sheared through the trap.

But there was more hot metal that wasn’t a result of the impact.  When I looked again, I saw Lung had avoided the blade.  The side of the pyramid closest to me glowed a white-orange, the blades curling and sagging in the intensity of the heat.  He’d softened the metal enough with his pyrokinesis that he could use his monstrous strength and push his way free.  Enough, at least, to avoid being divided in two.

Lung roared as he climbed free.  As Kaiser raised more blades around him, Lung swung his claws and shattered the metal, sending the pieces sliding across the floor.

“Aiiihurrr,” Lung growled.

“You’re an animal, Lung,” Kaiser answered him, “Even without your power making you into… this.  Go down!”  As if to punctuate his statement, a spear of solid steel erupted from the wall and slammed into Lung, carrying him to the end of the room opposite where Judas and Angelica were.  Lung managed to grip the spear and move himself so the spearpoint wasn’t pressed against his chest when it punctured the concrete of the wall.

“Your people… animals.”  Kaiser intoned.

Not six paces away from me, one of Lung’s thugs let out a raw scream and collapsed to the ground.  Dagger-like blades had pierced the tops of his feet mid-stride.  As he used his hands to break his fall, another set of blades punched through his palms.  The screams of the other thugs echoed his.  He was on his hands and knees, unable to move with his hands and feet effectively nailed to the ground.

“Kaiser!” I shouted, “No!”

“Not your business, little girl,” Kaiser told me, turning in my direction.

I took an immediate step back, fearing blades would appear under my feet.

“This is wrong,” I said, as I watched a sliver of steel sprout out of the ground and rise with a controlled speed to the base of the thug’s throat.  He was forced to arch his back and raise his head to the absolute limits to avoid getting a very unnecessary tracheotomy.  I glanced at Lung.  He was watching what was happening, but I couldn’t read his alien expression.

“Wrong?” Kaiser chuckled, “As far as I’m concerned, the moment you need to fall back on morals to argue something, you’ve already lost the argument.  This is war.”

Lung moved for Kaiser, this time.  He virtually rolled to one side to avoid an outcropping of spearpoints angled in a way that he might have run himself through on them, then resumed his charge.

One of the giantess twins stepped in, kicking Lung into and almost through a wall.  Lung bounced back almost immediately, drawing on his pyrokinesis to direct a column of blue-yellow flame at her.  The other twin intercepted the fire with her shield.

A few seconds later, she was stumbling back and away from Lung and throw her shield away to avoid having the heated metal burn her arm.

Kaiser’s team wasn’t going to win this on their own.  As much as I despised stepping in and helping him…

“Sundancer, now would be a great time to use your power.”  I spoke.  As I said the words, I called on every bug that was in the area and sent them to Lung.

“It’s not- no.  I’ll burn them.”

“Then burn them!  If you don’t use your power, I can pretty much guarantee Lung will burn them worse.”

“Doubt it,” Sundancer replied.  But she raised her hands in front of her, and there was a brilliant flare of light, only a fraction of a second, but enough to leave a black-blue spot in the center of my vision.  There was a brief roaring sound as the light faded.

I turned my focus to my bugs as another flicker of light appeared, longer and stronger than the first, again, accompanied by that faint roar.

“Hey, Skitter, was it?” Sundancer spoke.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Get back.  Way back.”

I ran for it, pulling my mask up and bringing my fingers to my mouth in the best whistle I could manage.

Two seconds later, Angelica shoved her snout between my legs.  Had it been a movie, or if I’d been Bitch, maybe, I would’ve been able to slide or jump back and land on her neck or shoulders, ride on from there.  As it was, I half-fell, half-rolled over the top of her head and only barely managed to get a grip on a spike on her shoulder.  I clung to that as she ran, praying I wouldn’t fall and get trampled.

“Angelica, stop, stay!” I called out, hoping she knew the command, that she’d listen.  She did, slowing her pace to a walk, then stopping just by the loading bay door we’d come in.  Judas caught up and walked around her, until he was just in front of us.  He was still covered in the white dust, but it didn’t seem to be having any real effect on him.  I hopped down from Angelica’s side, ready to climb on her and jostle her into action if Lung made another attempt to come after me.  I wasn’t sure I could steer her, but with the prospect of Lung chasing me, I’d rather be moving totally uncontrolled at Angelica’s speed than anything my own two feet could offer.

Sundancer had managed to get her power going.  A ball of light, larger than a basketball, smaller than a beachball, sat between her hands.

Light?  That was it?

Then I saw the floor.

The warehouse had clearly been raised above a flat expanse of asphalt, maybe an old parking lot, and the surface had cracked and been patched a fair bit over the years.  It still bore the oil stains from the old days.

Directly below Sundancer, the floor was normal.  Starting around five feet from her, though, the ground looked wet, glassy.

The asphalt was melting.

She dropped her hands, and the ball of light rose.  Like it had a mind of its own, it darted towards Lung, zipping left and right and up and down as it moved.  I saw how it rose higher as it moved over Lung’s people, who were still nailed to the floor.  At one point, it moved only ten or so feet over one of the tables, and the plastic surface of the table seemed to crumple up in fast motion, turning black and smouldering with tongues of flame.

I scattered my swarm, all too aware they weren’t doing a thing to Lung, knowing they’d just die when Sundancer got her orb to Lung.

She didn’t make it touch him, but seeing what it had done to the table, I thought maybe that was a good thing.  Lung raised a hand towards the light and I could see the heat shimmers in the air.  She pushed it a little closer to him, and his legs buckled.

Kaiser was apparently unwilling to let Sundancer steal the show, because he brought a shaft of metal out of the wall behind Lung, shoving Lung toward the orb.  Sundancer moved the ball back, but just the second or so of close proximity to the ball was enough to take the fight out of Lung.  He fell to all fours, tried to move, and found the asphalt like a molten tar beneath him.

Wasn’t he supposed to be fireproof?  Or was that immunity only to the flames he made with his own power?  Or, I thought, was that ball of light -Sundancer’s miniature sun- that hot?

I was lingering at the exit, watching and waiting to see the outcome.  My bugs were prepared and ready, lingering as close as they could get without being wiped out by the superheated air.

Even with his superhuman constitution, even with his pyrokinesis to maybe take the edge off the effect, Lung was clearly suffering.  Just a matter of time, I realized, before he collapsed.  Probably, I supposed, much longer than one would think, with his regeneration.

Then the light of Sundancer’s orb winked out.

It took me a few long moments of blinking the spots out of my eyes before I could make out the scene in its entirety.

Lung was limp, his arms dangling at his sides.  He was still bent over, and he might have fallen face first into the tar, if it wasn’t for the spear of iron that was impaling him through the heart.

“What did you do!?” Sundancer shouted.

“Obviously,” Kaiser said, “I ended it.”

“It was already over!”

I was under the impression very few people really argued with Kaiser.  Fenja and Menja joined him, one on either side of him, and neither of them were sheathing their weapons or shrinking back to a normal size.  I took that to be a very bad sign.

I was so preoccupied with watching Kaiser that I almost missed what happened next.

It started as a flash of crimson in the corner of my eye.  I looked, and I saw Lung’s wings fully unfurled.  Like the wings of a bat, only they had silvery scales where the bat had fur, and the flesh that stretched between the ‘fingers’ of the wings was the deep, dark red of blood.

Lung grabbed the spear that impaled his chest and snapped it with his claws.  He stood, and his entire midsection seemed to arrange so he stood another foot or two taller.  Taking hold of the fragment that was still embedded in his chest, he slowly slid it out.  Once it free, he cast it aside.  It clattered to the floor of the warehouse.

We were so quiet, you could hear the ringing of the steel as it settled on the ground.

“Sundancer!  Run!” I shouted, breaking the stillness.  I sent my bugs swarming to Lung.  Anything to block his vision, distract him for even a second.

The events that followed seemed to happen in slow motion.  Lung repeated what he’d been trying to do as the fight opened, only nothing seemed capable of getting in his way, now.  He was faster, stronger, more maneuverable.

He lunged toward Kaiser, using his wings to carry him effortlessly above a growth of steel blades.  Reaching Kaiser, he slammed the man into the wall.  Kaiser went limp, but Lung repeated the process, banging him against the brick of the warehouse wall a half dozen times in the span of seconds.  When he was done, he flung Kaiser away like a toy.

Fenja had to drop her spear to catch Kaiser in her arms, which seemed to be exactly what Lung wanted.  Lung did the same ‘I explode’ trick he’d done to wipe out my bugs in my first encounter with him, only it was ten times the explosion, ten times as big.  The two giantesses staggered back, which gave Lung the opportunity to dart across the floor and drive his flattened, clawed hand into Menja’s belly like a knife.

As he withdrew his claw, she collapsed.

“Nessa!” Fenja screamed.

Lung ignored her and started walking towards Sundancer and I.  Fenja rushed to her sister’s side, still carrying Kaiser.

Sundancer began forming her miniature sun once more, with increasingly frequent flickers of light and fire gathering between her hands.

“No.” Lung boomed.  He raised his bloody claw, and the flame in Sundancer’s hands dissipated, slipping out of her grasp like greased eels.

She tried once more, and again, he thwarted her with an almost casual ease.

Before she could make a third attempt, Lung blasted her with a torrent of roaring flame.  For two, three, four seconds, the fire washed over her, consumed her.

When he stopped, there were tongues of flame dancing on the asphalt around her, even her costume had fire lingering on it, but both she and her costume were untouched.

She, at least, was fireproof.  Or she’d had to be, to avoid being burned by her own power.

She wasn’t, however, invincible.  As the flames of his attack dissipated, Lung was made visible again, revealed to be standing right in front of her.  He barely seemed to care she was there as he backhanded her aside.

Then he turned his attention to me.

Just me left, really.  I swallowed hard, drew my very underwhelming knife and stood straight, facing Lung.  Please don’t burn me, please, please.  Look at this knife and see it as an insult.  An excuse to trounce me physically.

Angelica started snarling at Lung.  She took a step toward him.

“No!” I ordered her, “Back!”

The snarls ceased, and she looked at me.

“Back,” I repeated.  When I took a step toward Lung, she didn’t follow.  A powder-covered Judas stood fifteen feet away, tense, but not approaching either.  Good.  No use in anyone else getting hurt.  There was nothing else she could do.

Hell, I was almost positive there was nothing else I could do.

My bugs gathered on Lung, but as far as I could tell, there was no skin, anymore.  No flesh to bite, nothing to sting.

Lung rumbled with a rough, guttural chuckle, and let a brief flame wash over him, wiping the swarm out of existence.

I dispersed the bugs in his vicinity that hadn’t yet had a chance to touch him and get burned for their trouble.  No point.  Detrimental, almost.

Then Bitch, riding Brutus, bounded down from the hole in the ceiling and crashed into Lung.

“Bitch!” I shouted, too late, “No!”

Once he got over the shock of the initial impact, Lung used one hand to grab Bitch from where she sat on Brutus’ back, and took hold of Brutus by the neck with his other.  Heaving his arm, and Brutus, to his left side, then to his right, Lung casting the dog head over heels through the air.

Judas and Angelica began to move forward, but stopped when Lung elicited a scream of pain from Bitch.

“Nnno,” Lung rumbled.

“Stop!” I shouted, stepping forward again, “I’m the one you want, aren’t I?”

It always sounded so good when you heard it in the movies.  As I realized what I’d just said, it only sounded stupid.

He advanced toward me, carrying Bitch like a careless seven year old might carry a cat.  I backed away, but his stride was long enough for him to close the gap effortlessly.  He grabbed me and hefted me into the air, lifting me above his head so he could look up at me.

“Ug hurrrrr.”

He couldn’t talk, so I couldn’t even fall back on the tired old cliche of getting him to monologue.  Fuck.

He had my neck encircled with thumb and forefinger, two claws at my ribcage and his ‘pinky’ finger at my midsection, just below my waist.  He squeezed a fraction tighter, and I groaned.  The fabric of my costume was preventing the edges of his claws from cutting into me, but it wasn’t reinforced to stop me from being crushed.

I directed a bug into his eye.  It stayed there, wings fluttering in staccato.  It was annoying enough for him to drop Bitch and deal with it.  He didn’t give her a chance to escape, though.  Before he dealt with the bug, he shoved her against the ground and stepped on her, holding her down with his clawed foot.  That done, he used the points of his claw to pick the bug from his eye socket.

He chuckled again, low, gravelly, as he examined the cockroach impaled on his clawtip.  “Auuhh-roagh?”  Cockroach?

He lowered his arm so I was at his eye level.  Then he squeezed again, weaker than the first time.  Shook me, not as hard as he could have.

Then his arm sagged again, until my toes were brushing the ground.  After shaking me, his grip had loosened, and he hadn’t really tightened it, so I managed to get my knee against the base of his palm and shove myself backward, push myself free.  My feet touched asphalt, and I backed up a few steps.

“Hurrrrrrrr,” he rumbled.

“Don’t fucking underestimate me,” I snarled in response.

I don’t know if he heard me.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence before I had to skip backward two steps to avoid being crushed beneath him as he collapsed face first to the asphalt.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

She was picking herself off the ground.  She nodded.

“What happened?” she asked.

I sheathed my knife and reached for my cell phone with one hand.  My other hand, I extended with the palm up.  A cockroach settled on it.

“Wasn’t sure it would work, or if it’d be enough.  Took a bit of caterpillar, had a roach swab it in that pool of blood Newter left upstairs, and mashed the thing in Lung’s eye.  Big and tough as he is, a drug that strong in the mucus membranes of the eye?  So close to the brain?  Apparently it’s enough.”

Bitch folded her arms, looking down at Lung.  Then she looked up at me.

“Now what?”

It was a surprisingly apt question, coming from her.  Did we just leave him here?  He’d be all better in a matter of minutes.  There were options.  I just didn’t like any of them.

I dialed Tattletale’s phone, but it was Regent who answered.

“Hey,” he said.

“A, lemon,” I said.

“C, grass,” he replied, “You wouldn’t believe it.  We found one of Bakuda’s workshops.  The stuff she has here is crazy.”

“No time to chat.  I need to talk to Tattletale, fast.”

“She’s checking the place for booby traps.  Distractions probably aren’t a good idea.”

“It’s kind of important,” I said, looking down at Lung.

“Right.”

Two seconds later, Tattletale’s voice was on the other end, “Hey?”

“Quick question.  I have to be sure, which is why I’m calling you.  Lung heals, right?”

“Yeah.  Wait… Lung’s there?”

“Unconscious at my feet.  But I don’t know how long, so answer fast.  He heals?  He’s already healing what I did to him from last time, right?”

“Right.  He’ll heal pretty much anything, given time, provided he isn’t dead.  Lose an arm, he’d grow it back in a few months.”

“Thanks.  That’s what I needed to know,”  I said.  “Good luck with the booby traps.”  I hung up.

Then I looked down at Lung.  I drew my knife.

“Why the knife?” Bitch asked.  I think anyone else might have sounded concerned.  She just sounded curious.

“I’m ending this.”

I grabbed one of the larger spikes that framed Lung’s face and heaved it to one side so his accordion-like neck was outstretched, face upturned.

No time to be delicate about it.  I had no idea how strong the toxins in Newter’s blood were, or how fast Lung’s biology would process it.

I jammed the knife into Lung’s eye socket.  His head and consequently his eyes weren’t as large as you’d think, in proportion to the rest of his frame, but the tissue around it was tough.  I had to leverage the knife back and forth before I was able to pry his eyeball out.  It was hot to the touch as I held it in the palm of my hand, no bigger than a ping-pong ball.

The second eye was faster, though no less messy.

When I was done, I stood, sheathed my knife and backed away from Lung’s body. Shouldn’t I feel worse about this?  Shouldn’t I feel sick, or grossed out, or disturbed by the morality of it?  I didn’t even feel cold, the way Grue had described.  It just felt like something I had to do.

I glanced at the two eyeballs clasped in my hand, then put them out of my mind.  I surveyed the room.  Priorities?

I asked Bitch first, “The dogs are okay?”  If I placed them second to anyone else but her, or if I forgot to ask, I got the feeling Bitch would mind.

“They’ll heal when they turn back to normal.”

“Sundancer?” I asked.

Sundancer was lying on her side, one arm pressed against the shoulder Oni Lee had stabbed.  “I’m… okay.”

That was everyone I gave a damn about, leaving only Fenja, Menja and Kaiser.  I looked across the room and called out, “Fenja?”

The giantess nodded.

“Get your sister to a hospital, or whichever doctor your guys use.  Get your boss taken care of.”

She stood without giving me a response.  Her sister had shrunk enough for her to cradle in her arms.  Kaiser, for his part, was slung over her shoulder, limp.

“Oh, Fenja?”

She paused.

“I’ll leave it to you to make the call, but if you think Kaiser has a sense of honor, maybe point out it would be bad form to push the point on the dogfighting thing, after we dealt with Lung for him, saved his life.”

She nodded, then ducked through the opening in the wall.

I stepped toward Sundancer and offered a hand to help her up.  She flinched away.

Oh.  My hands were bloody.  I dropped the offered hand to my side.

“Let’s go,” I suggested.

Hive 5.10

“Brockton Bay 911, what is your emergency?”

“Multiple injured,” I said, glancing at the nearest street sign, “Warehouse at Whitemore and Sunset.  Send police and capes, too.  These guys are ABB members.”

There was the briefest of pauses, “That’s Whitemore and Sunset?”

“Whitemore and Sunset, yes.  Listen, the leader of the ABB, a parahuman by the name of Lung, is incapacitated at the scene, but that won’t be entirely true for long.  He’s drugged and blinded, but the drugs will be out of his system before too long.”

“You’re a cape?” she asked, “Can I get your identification?”

“I repeat,” I ignored her, “He’s drugged and blinded, but only the blindness will be a factor when the first responders arrive on the scene.  Warn them to be careful.  You can also tell them that a second parahuman calling himself Oni Lee was present but fled after being injured.  He may still be in the area.”

“I understand.  The Protectorate will be informed before they arrive on scene.  I’ve got ambulances, police and PRT teams on their way.  Can I please get your identification?”

I hung up.

“I can’t believe you carved out his eyes,” Sundancer said.  We were walking briskly back to where we’d left Labyrinth.

“He’ll heal,” I pointed out, “Eventually.”

“You blinded someone who was helpless to fight back.  That’s kind of fucked up.”

I couldn’t say much to that.  Fucked up or not, it had been necessary.  I couldn’t have dealt with it if I’d known we left him there and he got back to business as usual by the end of the day.  I’d stopped him, best as I was able.

Okay, alright, I was willing to admit that maybe the means were a little suspect.  I’d fought alongside some fucked up people, I’d maimed him.  By letting Fenja, Menja and Kaiser go I’d sort of condoned what they’d done to Lung’s men.  But in the end, it was what I’d wanted to do when I’d wanted to be a superhero.  I’d taken down a horrible person.

I just hoped the heroes could clean up the mess and get Lung behind bars for good this time.

“Hey Bitch,” I said, “Why’d you come back?”  I couldn’t phrase it better without offending her, but I wanted to know was why she’d come back when she was supposed to be taking Newter and Coil’s soldier to a doctor.

Bitch was sitting tall astride Brutus.  She seemed to get my meaning, “The other soldier said he was a trained medic.  Told me he could handle it, so I came back to fight.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Got it.”

Bitch hadn’t been lying, I saw, as we approached the rest of our group.  Newter was bandaged and awake, while the other soldier was lying down, unconscious.  Maybe drugged for the pain.

“You made it,” Newter grinned.

“Barely,” I admitted, “You okay?”

“I’m tougher than I look,” he responded, “Benefit of my, um, unique biology.”

“Cool,” I replied, feeling lame for not having a better reply, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like it was trying too hard or, worse, sound sarcastic.

“This fella says you guys probably saved my life,” Newter jerked a thumb toward the one of Coil’s guys that was awake.

“Honest, I’m having a hard time believing you’re up and talking right now,” the medic replied.

“Anyways, thanks,” Newter said, eyes moving from me to Sundancer to Bitch and back again.

“No problem,” I answered him, feeling lame for not having a better or more suitable reply.  Embarrased, I looked for a reason to change the subject.  “Look, we should get out of here in the next few minutes.  Capes, cops and ambulances are on their way to deal with the aftermath.”

“Alright,” Newter said, “But I have to ask… a small army of roaches dropped those off?”

He was smiling as he pointed to a spot near where he was lying.  A stack of paper bags were organized in a pile.

“I forgot I did that,” I admitted, “It didn’t feel right to leave the ABB’s money behind if we wound up retreating, so I had my bugs haul it out of there.  Everyone might as well take a bag.”

“We can take it?” Newter asked, “You sure?”

I shrugged in response.  The money didn’t matter much to me.  “Consider it a bonus, a thanks for helping.  It’s, um, not exactly divided to be fair, so no insult intended if any of them end up being a bag full of ones.”

“No complaints,” Newter said.  He reached out with his tail and used it encircle and pick up a bag.  Coil’s guy gave him a hand in standing up, and you could see him wince and huff out a breath at the effort.  He swayed a bit on his feet, then put a hand on Labyrinth’s shoulder to steady himself.  Sundancer grabbed a bag, and Coil’s medic/spotter grabbed two.

Labyrinth didn’t reach for one, so I walked over, grabbed one, and held it out for her.  She didn’t respond.

“I’ll hold that for her,” Newter offered.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s… pretty much normal.  For her, anyways.”

He claimed the bag, leaving three for Bitch and I, but nobody was complaining or pointing that out.

“You guys need a ride?” I asked.

Newter shook his head, then pointed to a manhole cover a ways down the road, “We’ll head back to one of our hideouts through there.  Familiar territory for me.”

“Is that a good idea, with your injury?  I mean, stating the obvious, but it’s gonna be pretty gross down there.”

He smiled, “Can’t get an infection.  My biology’s toxic to the bacteria and parasites, I think.  Never been sick, that I can remember.”

Of course.  Now I felt dumb for making Sundancer use the alcohol to sterilize him, and for going the extra mile with the sanitary pads, to ensure what I was using was clean.

“And you guys?” I asked Coil’s guy, “Ride?”

“We’ve got one, but thanks.”  The medic bent down, bound his buddy’s wrists, and then pulled the loop of arms over his head, so he was effectively giving his buddy a piggyback.  He took another second to arrange his guns, then headed through the same alley that Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had gone through before the fight started.

Sundancer was going the opposite way, so she said a brief goodbye and left.  Newter and Labyrinth were walking in the same direction as Bitch and I, so we walked together.

Labyrinth walked like she was in a daze, with Newter leading her along by the hand like she was a child.  It was interesting, not just to see that kind of interaction between them, but noting that her gloves looked like cloth, and that he was probably risking drugging her… unless she was immune.  A consequence of her ability?  He caught me looking, smiled and shrugged.

“Autistic?” I guessed.

He shook his head, “No, though we thought that, at first.  Seems she was a normal kid until her powers showed up.  Since then, she’s been off in her own little world, more or less.  A little worse right now, I think, after seeing me hurt.”

“That happens?” I asked, gesturing towards my head, unable to come up with an inoffensive and simple way of phrasing it.

He shrugged, “Sometimes getting powers fucks up your body,” he gestured to himself using his tail, which was still holding the paper bags, “Sometimes it fucks up your head.  Bad luck, but you deal with the cards you’re dealt.”

“Oh,” I replied.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  A cold, quiet horror crept up on me.  My powers had something to do with my brain.  I could remember how crazy I’d felt right after my powers showed up, that torrent of nightmare images, signals and details from my bugs.  I still had bad dreams about it.  How close had I come to being like that permanently?

He grinned, “It’s cool.  She’s really fond of us, and we’re attached to her, too.  She has her lucid moments, when she’s let us know she’s cool with the status quo.  Sure, she has bad days when she’s dead to the world, but all of our powers have drawbacks, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I echoed him, though I couldn’t think of a drawback to my power that even came close.

“I think we’re okay where we’re at.  Eh, L?  You’ve been happy since we got you out of that place?”

Labyrinth kind of stirred from her daze and looked at him.

“Yeah,” Newter grinned, ” You can tell because the stuff she does with her power is prettier, these days.”  He gestured at the manhole cover, “This is where we part ways.”

Labyrinth glanced down where he was pointing.  A moment later, a tracery of silvery lines spiderwebbed out around the manhole cover, extending and forking like veins.  As the lines met and sectioned off parts of the road, those bits of road lifted and flipped over, revealing a white marble texture on their undersides.  When sufficiently surrounded by the expanse of cracked white marble, the manhole flipped over, revealing a silvery underside, and then popped open on an unseen hinge.  A spiral stairway of more marble or ivory led down into the depths.  The white walls had a faint glow to them.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Newter replied.  When he stepped down onto the stair, it was solid under his foot. He held up the paper bags as he said, “Thanks guys.”

“Sure thing,” I replied.  “Later.”

The manhole shut behind them, and almost immediately, the white around the manhole began to fade.

I looked up at Bitch where she sat on one-eyed Brutus.  Angelica and a still-dusty Judas stood just behind her.  She offered me a hand up onto Brutus’ back.

There were a lot of drawbacks to having a mask or helmet that didn’t cover my entire head.  If I’d sat myself down and put in the extra hours to finish my mask and expand the armored sections, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten that concussion that was proving to be such a pain in my ass.

The upside, though, was that it felt awesome to have the wind blowing in my hair as we rode down the empty streets.  The perfect wind-down from that crazy adrenaline rush that had come with going up against Oni Lee and Lung within minutes of each other.  I closed my eyes and let the tension flow out of me.

We rode like that for a few minutes.  Bitch took turns and moved sorta aimlessly as she headed East, towards the water and the beaches.  Maybe she was taking evasive action in case we were being followed, maybe she just wanted to ride.  I didn’t really care.

I was a little disoriented when we finally stopped.  Brutus padded through sand as he stepped down onto the beach.  Bitch hopped down, and I followed her cue.

It was still early afternoon, so the beach was deserted, and it wasn’t the sort of beach that saw much tourist use anyways.  A concrete wall separated the beach from the roadside above us, and a yawning hole with the rusty remains of what had once been a grate marked the exit of the various storm drains beneath the Docks.  Trash, rotted leaves and one or two needles had filtered down to the sand below the drain.

“Go home,” Bitch ordered the dogs.  One by one, they filed into the drain.  I guessed they would let the transformation subside before they returned to the loft on their own.

Then Bitch pulled off her mask.  She gave me a derisive look.

“What?”

“You gonna change?  Can’t walk back like that.”

“I don’t have a change of clothes with me.  Or stashed anywhere.”

“Well.  That’s fucking stupid,” she answered me.

“I wasn’t thinking ahead when I decided to go.  Sue me,” I challenged her.

“What’re you wearing under that?”

“Tank top and stretch shorts.”

She looked around.  “It’s not that cold.”

I sighed and unstrapped my armor enough to unzip my costume at the back.  I pulled it off – far easier than putting it on – and bundled it up so all the identifiable parts of the mask and armor were hidden by fabric.  The sand was damp and clammy under my bare feet.

When Bitch reached for my face, I startled.  She put one hand on the side of my face, and for just a fraction of a second, I thought something incredibly awkward was about to happen.

Then she wrenched my head to enough of a tilt that it was almost horizontal.

“You look like someone tried to hang you.”

“What?” I asked.

She touched the side of my neck, but it wasn’t possible to see that part of myself without a mirror.  I did realize what she was talking about, after a moment’s thought.  I pulled up the side of my tank top, and sure enough, there was a red-black bruise at my stomach and waist.  Hiking up my top a bit more, I found another at my ribs.  I knew there would be another up near my armpit, and one encircling my neck.

I had a giant fucking handprint on my body, courtesy of Lung.

I let out a long groan, touching my neck where I felt tender.  “No way I can hide this from my dad.”

My good mood was dashed to the winds as we started trudging back to the Loft.  It was made all the more unpleasant because I was underdressed and barefoot, and the ground was cold under my feet.

I shivered and hugged my arms to my body as best as I could while still keeping my costume bundled up and the paper bags of money in hand.

Something warm settled over my shoulders.  I looked at Bitch as she finished draping her jacket over me.  As she drew back, her eyebrows furrowed, glaring at me, I wrangled the bags and my bundle of costume so I could get my arms through the sleeves and do up the buttons.  It was a canvas down jacket with a fur-ruff collar, but it was the wrong size for me and it was heavy.  The pockets, I found, as I tried to jam my hands in there, were filled with stuff.  A mess of plastic bags, chocolate bars, protein bars, a juice box, pellets that ground together – what I guessed were dog treats or dog food.  Not exactly cape supplies.  All in all, it was almost uncomfortable.

But it was warm.

“Thank you,” I told her, floored by the gesture.

“You needed something to cover your neck,” she looked bothered, “People would stare.”

“Doesn’t matter.  Thank you.”  I offered a smile.

“You already said that,” she switched from looking bothered to looking angry, “It’s mine, I can take it back.”

“Of course,” I said.  Then to be safe, I offered, “Do you want to?”

She didn’t reply, leaving me absolutely baffled.  Why was it that when I thanked someone like my dad for giving me a gift, it felt like it sounded sarcastic or lame no matter how I tried to say it, but the one damn time I was ninety-five percent sure I sounded as sincere as I felt, it was with Bitch, and she didn’t buy it?

Worried anything I could say would rub her the wrong way, I defaulted to silence, as I found myself doing more and more often with her.  It wasn’t a short trip, and my feet still felt the heat leeching out of them as I took each step on the pavement, but the core of my body was warm, and that was enough to keep me going.  Like that, we made our way back to the loft.

She unlocked the door and let us in.  I shouted up for Brian and Lisa, but no voices greeted me in return.  The others weren’t back yet, which made sense, since Grue would have to pick up Tattletale and Regent before they got back, and it hadn’t sounded like Tattletale’s team was close to wrapping things up when I’d called.  Bitch led the way up to the Loft, and the second I was up there, I took off the jacket and wordlessly handed it to her.  She was still glaring at me.

What could I do, what could I say?  It seemed like everything I did pissed her off, sent the wrong signal.

I returned to my room in the Loft and dug through the shopping bags I still had in there, finding a loose pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt to pull over my top.  No clean socks, sadly, but there were some covers laid out on the bed.  I grabbed some and dragged them behind me to the living room, where Bitch was watching TV.  She gave me the evil eye, but didn’t complain, as I got myself bundled up in the covers on the other couch.

She had the remote, and I was willing to let her have it.  She channel surfed relentlessly, settling on an action movie for five minutes, then started surfing again when the ads started, and didn’t go back to it.

It wasn’t too interesting to watch, but I didn’t mind.  I lay back, thinking back to the events of the day, the conversations, the tidbits of info.

I almost dozed off, when my lazy train of thought stumbled onto something that I was afraid I’d forget if I let myself go the rest of the way to sleep.  I forced myself to open my eyes and sat up a bit.

“Bitch?” I risked drawing her attention, hoping she’d calmed down a bit.  She looked at me.

“Um.  When we were talking, a little bit ago, I thanked you.  Did that sound sarcastic to you, or what?”

“You’re getting on my case again?”

“No,” I raised my hands to stop her, “Not what I was trying to do.  I’m just wondering.”

“Keep your wondering to yourself,” she snapped.  When she turned her attention back to the TV, her channel surfing was cranked up a notch.

“I’ll pay you to answer me,” I tried.

She looked at me.

“That money we grabbed.  You can keep all of it.”

Her eyes narrowed, “We’re supposed to split our take five ways.”

“We earned that, right?  The both of us?  I won’t tell the others if you don’t. And I’m saying you can have it all.  Not sure how much it is, but it’d be yours.”

“Is this a trick?”

“No trick.  Just answer my question.  You can even tell me to get lost after, I’ll go to my room and grab a nap or something.”

She leaned back, and put the hand with the remote in her lap, glaring at me.  I took that for consent.

“So, what I was asking before, when I said thanks, did you think I was sarcastic, did you think I was genuine, what?”

“Dunno.”

“You mean you didn’t know, or you can’t remember, or-“

“I said dunno.”

“Fine,” I sighed, “Whatever.  Money’s yours.”

“That easy?”

I shrugged.

“You said you’d get lost if I asked,” she pointed out.

I nodded, gathered the covers and retreated to my room.

I didn’t nap, though.  Instead, I stared up at the iron girders that framed the ceiling, deep in thought, thinking about the conversation with Newter about Labyrinth.

I was still sorting through my thoughts when the rest of the gang returned.

I ventured out of the room, still bundled in a blanket, to greet them.  Brian gave me a winning smile as he pulled off his helmet, and I got some attention for having the most noteworthy injury of the afternoon.

As Alec, Brian and Bitch started talking about their individual adventures, Lisa pulled me aside.  We wound up walking to the kitchen.  Lisa put a kettle on as she asked me, “You okay?”

“Not really hurt, ugly as this looks, and I think I’m feeling better about the school thing.”

“But you’re distracted by something.”

“I was talking to Newter.  You know Labyrinth’s kind of out of it, because of her power, right?”

“You want to know if there’s anything wrong with you, that you don’t know about?”

“No,” I shook my head, “Wait, is there?”

“Nah.  So what’s up?”

“Bitch.”

“Ahhh.”

“I’ve been thinking, but I don’t want to build up some theory in my head, make an assumption and embarrass myself.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking, and I’ll tell you if you’re wrong.”

“She’s really good at reading body language, right?  She could read Brian even when he was blurred by his darkness with a mask on.  It’s, what, some kind of minor power of hers?”

“Some of it’s natural ability.  Some of it’s, yeah, that her power adjusted how she thinks.  So she can communicate better with her dogs.”

“Right,” I glanced down the hall to where the others were talking.  Or rather, where Brian and Alec were talking and Bitch was standing there.  “That’s the thing.  What I’m thinking is… maybe when her power gave her the ability to understand dogs, it overwrote something else?  Fucked up her ability to deal with people?”

Lisa turned and got some mugs out of the cupboard.  She gave me an apologetic half-smile. “Yeah.  Something like that.”

“So, what, she can’t read expressions, or tone?”

“All the cues we give to others as a part of regular conversation?  She doesn’t get them, she probably couldn’t learn them with a year of concerted effort.  It’s not just that she doesn’t get it… the most basic interactions are messed up by the canine psychology that’s hardwired into her head.  You smile at her and ask her how she’s doing, her first thought is that you’re baring your teeth at her in anger, and she has to remind herself you aren’t.  But even after that, she’s probably wondering if you were being sarcastic, or condescending, or kind, or whatever.  She knows you aren’t shouting at her from your tone of voice, but we don’t always raise our voices when we’re angry, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And she falls back on the one thing she does get, canine behavior, because it does work on a level.  Bids for dominance, eye contact, pack heirarchies and establishing territory, all adjusted and adapted to her human life.”

“So she’s not really a sociopath.”

“No, not so much.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”  I realized belatedly, that I sounded accusatory.  Maybe I was right to.

“Because she’d leave if she heard about it, and for reasons I don’t know, the boss wants her to stick with us.  She’s spent her whole life accepting the fact that she had a shitty childhood, and it made her into a screwed up person.  Her dogs are the only thing that’s normal and right for her.  If she found out that the reason she’s so messed up is the very same thing that makes her so close to her dogs?”

She let the thought hang.

“Got it,” I replied.

“So not another word of this, please, unless it’s absolutely necessary and you’re absolutely, one-hundred percent positive she’s not going to overhear.”

“Do the others know?”

“I don’t think it would change much, and I don’t trust those two to keep a secret.  Brian is… I don’t want to say too honest.  But he’s transparent, and Bitch can read him.  Alec would forget and let it slip as part of a joke.  He doesn’t get the gravity of stuff, sometimes.”

“Okay.”

She poured a cup and stirred it, then handed me a mug of Ovaltine.  She got the other mugs arranged on a tray, and carried it through to the living room.  I stayed where I was, to think.

I was reminded of a non-fiction book I’d read where a kid got halfway through high school before his teachers realized he was illiterate.  He did it by being the class clown, by acting out.  Was Bitch the same?  The violence and hostility could be a cover to distract from her own inability to interact, at least partially.  I guessed a fair bit of it was genuine, though.  She had had a crappy childhood, she had lived on the streets and had fought tooth and nail to get by and avoid arrest.

But at the end of the day?  As awkward as I felt in day to day interactions?  She was a hundred times worse off.

Interlude 5

“This what you wanted?” the teenager with scruff on his chin and his hood up handed over the paper bag.

Broad hands with ruined, rotten brown fingernails pawed through the contents, “It is.  Here.”  The voice was slightly accented, the words and sounds very careful, as though he were not comfortable with English.

The young man reached out and his eyes widened as a fold of bills was pressed into his hands.

“This is… more than I thought it would be.”

“Are you complaining?”

The young man shook his head.

Gregor the Snail put his hands in his pockets, as if to hide the fingernails and the growths that scabbed the backs of his hands.  Each of the hard growths, which might have been shell or scale, none any larger than a silver dollar, had a prominent spiral shape to it.  As much as he could tuck his hands into his pockets, he was unable to hide his face.  He had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows or eyelashes, and the hard growths crusted his face like a terminal case of acne.  Most strange and disconcerting of all was the fact that his pale skin was translucent enough that one could see shadows of his skeleton, his teeth and the tongue in his mouth.

“As you can see,” Gregor said, without any affectation, “It would be hard for me to walk into a store and make simple purchases.  I do not like to rely on my friends for this.  Makes me feel indebted to them, and this is not good for friendships.  If you are interested in repeating this sort of transaction, being on call to run errands for me for a time, it could be arranged.”

“Really?” the guy rubbed his chin, “For how long?”

“Until I called and you were unable or unwilling to run my errand.  If this happened more than once, or if the reason was not good, I would find someone else, as I did with the last individual.”

“You didn’t hurt him or anything?”

“No.  I did not.  He decided he would rather spend the evening with his girlfriend.  I have not called him again.”

“This won’t be anything illegal?”

“No.  No drugs, no prostitutes, no weapons.”

“So you call me, I run out and grab you groceries, or clothes, or take-out, or shampoo, or whatever, and you pay me three-“

“That is four.  And I do not have hair, so you would not need to concern yourself with shampoo.”

“Right.  Sorry.  So, four hundred dollars each time?  What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  I have money, I like things to be convenient.  Only one small chance of trouble.  My first assistant, she quit because she was concerned that my enemies would use her to get to me.  I will not deny this is possible.”

“You have enemies?”

“Yes.  But there has not been a case yet where any of my assistants ran into trouble with them.”

“Have any of them run into trouble at all?”

“The last assistant, the boy with the girlfriend.  He thought he could get more money, because he could go to the police and tell them what he knew about me.  He was lucky to try this when I was in a generous mood.  I dissuaded him.  He worked for me for two months after that with no complaint.  We were not friendly, it was pure business.  I would recommend, gently, that you not try the same thing.”

“Hey.  Live and let live, right?”

“That is a good saying.”

“Okay.  I’m wanting to go to college this fall, and this is sounding a hell of a lot better than working minimum wage for fifty hours a week.  Here, my cell phone number,” he handed over his phone.

Gregor the Snail took a second to put the number in his own phone.  “I have it.  I will call.”

They parted ways.

Gregor walked down the side streets of downtown Brockton Bay with the hood of his sweatshirt casting his face in shadow.  Anyone who happened to cross his path and look beneath his hood were quick to glance away.  Embarrassed, spooked.  Those that saw him from a distance knew him as monstrous as well, but in a different way.  To them, he was simply one of the morbidly obese.  A man in his late twenties or early thirties, nearly three times the weight he should be for his five feet and ten inches of height.  His weight, he knew, was one of the rare things in this modern world that someone could use to mock him openly.

It had taken him years to come to peace with this.  With being one of the monsters.

As he came to his destination, the throbbing pulse of music reached his ears.  The club sat two blocks away from Lord Street, and there was a line extending around the side of the building.  Glowing yellow letters in an almost intentionally plain script spelled out ‘Palanquin’.

He skipped the line and headed straight for the front door.  A burly Hispanic doorman with a beard tracing the edges of his jaw undid the chain fence to let him through.

“What the hell?” one of the girls near the front of the line complained, “We’ve been waiting for forty five minutes and you let that fat fuck through like that?”

“Out of the line,” the doorman said, his voice bored.

“The hell?  Why?”

“You just dissed the owner’s brother, fuckwit,” the doorman told her, “Out of the line.  You and your friends are banned.”

Gregor smiled and shook his head.  The line the doorman had pulled was bullshit, of course, he wasn’t the owner’s brother.  But it was nice to see one of the assholes getting what was coming to them.

He had worked as a bouncer for clubs that wanted someone more exotic and attention-getting, way back when he was first getting on his feet, so he knew that the line you saw out the door was rarely an indication of how many people were inside.  An empty club could have a line of people waiting to get in, to give the right image.  Even though it was a Tuesday night, Palanquin had no such need for such deceptions.  It bustled with people.  Gregor carefully navigated the crowd of dancers and people holding drinks, until he reached a stairwell guarded by a bouncer.  As with the front door, his admittance to the stairs was automatic, unquestioned.

The upstairs balcony wasn’t filled with people, and those that were present, a dozen or so, were almost boneless in their lethargy.  Mostly girls, they lay prone on couches and in booths throughout the balcony that overlooked the dance floor.  Only three people were more or less alert as Gregor approached.

“Gregor, my boy!” Newter grinned from ear to ear.  Gregor caught the briefest flash of disgust on the face of one of the girls sitting with Newter, as she looked at him.  She was a blonde with blue lipstick and pink highlights in her hair.  Had Gregor been working as the doorman, he would have checked her ID, double checked it, then even if it did look real, he would have kicked her out anyways for being too young.  She couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

Still, that was roughly how old Newter was, and he could hardly fault the boy for being interested in someone his own age.

The other girl, dark haired, had a European cast to her features.  She showed no such distaste.  When she smiled up at him, there was no sign the expression was forced.  That was both rare and interesting.

“I brought your dinner,” Gregor said.

“Good man!  Pull up a chair!”

“The others will want their food as well.”

“Pull up a chair, come on.  I’ve got two stunning girls here, and they’re not believing me when I’m telling them about some of the cooler jobs we’ve pulled.  I need backup here, bro.”

“I do not think it is a good idea to be talking about these things,” Gregor said.  He stayed standing.

Newter reached for the bag and grabbed a sandwich from inside.  “It’s cool.  Faultline joined the conversation a while ago, so she’s obviously okay with it.  You aren’t going to tell, right, Laura?  Mary?”

Each girl shook her head as Newter asked them by name.  That let Gregor label the dark haired girl as Laura and the girl with the blue lipstick as Mary.

“If Faultline said it was fine.” Gregor said.  He took the bag back from Newter and found his own sandwich.  “Laura and Mary, I am sorry, the other sandwiches I have here are spoken for.  I could offer you some of my own, if you would like.”

“That’s okay, I’m not hungry,” Laura replied, “I like your accent.  Is it Norwegian?”

Gregor finished his first bite, swallowed, and shook his head, “I am not sure.   But I have spoken to an expert and he says the other language I speak is Icelandic.”

“You don’t know?”

“No,” Gregor replied.

His brusque answer only stalled the conversation for a moment before Newter got it going again, “Okay, bro, tell these girls who we went up against last month.”

“The toybox job?” Gregor asked, “With the Tinker black market?  There was nobody-“

“The other one.  The job in Philadelphia.”

“Ah.  Chevalier and Myrddin.”

Newter clapped his hands together, rocking back in his seat, “Told you!”

“And you beat them,” the dark haired girl said, disbelieving.

“We didn’t lose!” Newter crowed.

“It was a close call,” Gregor added his own two cents.  “Chevalier is leader of Protectorate in Philadelphia.  Myrddin leads Protectorate of Chicago.  These are people whole world recognizes.  They got positions protecting big cities in America because they are strong, because they are smart and talented.  We got the job done, as we always do, and we walked away.”

Newter laughed, “Pay up.”

Neither Laura nor Mary looked bothered as they reached into their pocket and purse, respectively, and fished out some bills.

“What was the bet?”  Gregor asked.

“I told them they didn’t have to pay if I was lying.”

“And if you weren’t lying?  They pay more?”

“No penalty.  I got company and conversation for a while,” Newter smiled.  He reached up to the back of the booth, grabbed a bag that sat there, and fished out a pair of plastic spoons and a bottle of water.  With a water dropper he retrieved from his pocket, he siphoned water from the bottle and placed a few drops in each spoon.  The final step was dipping the tip of his tongue in each drop of water.

“Lick it up,” he told the girls.

“That’s all?”  Laura asked him.

“It’s enough.  Any more and you might be out for an inconveniently long time.  That right there,” Newter pointed to the spoon with the tip of his tail, “Is a little less than an hour of psychadelic tripping.  No hangover, no side effects, it’s not addictive, and you can’t overdose on it.  Trust me, I’ve tried to make someone overdose before, combat situation, and I couldn’t make it happen.”

Mary was the first to take the spoon and pop it into her mouth.  Moments later, her eyes went wide, and she fell limp against the back of the booth.

“Hey,” Laura said, turning to Gregor.  She reached into her pocket, found a receipt and a pen, and scribbled on the blank backside of the paper.  She handed it to him.  “My number.  If you want to talk, or, you know, something else.”

She winked at him, then popped the spoon into her mouth.

Gregor blinked in a mild confusion as her head lolled back.

“Looks like you made a good impression, Gregster,” Newter chuckled.

“Maybe,” Gregor said.  He put the half of his sandwich that remained back in the paper bag, then balled up the wrapper.  After a moment’s hesitation, he crumpled the receipt with Laura’s number into the ball.  He pitched it to a trash can halfway across the room.

“Hey!  What gives?”

“I do not think she liked me because I am me,” Gregor said, “I think she liked me because I am a monster.”

“I think you’re sabotaging yourself, man.  She’s hot.  Look at her.”

Gregor did.  She was attractive.  He sighed.

“Newter, do you know what a devotee is?”

Newter shook his head.

“It is a slang term for someone who is attracted to people with disabilities, because of the disability.  I think it is about power, attraction to someone because they are weak somehow.  I think it likely that this Laura sees me as weak because of the way I look, the way I may have trouble day to day, and this is compelling to her in a similar way to how a cripple or a blind man might be to a devotee.  This does not appeal to me.”

“No way.  Maybe she likes you because of the person underneath.”

“She did not see enough of me to know who that person might be,” Gregor replied.

“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.  I’d jump on that opportunity.”

“You are a stronger person than I in many ways, Newter.  I should bring the others their dinner,” Gregor turned to leave.

“Hey, signal Pierce downstairs to send another girl or two up, will ya?”

Gregor did as he was asked, getting the attention of the bouncer at the foot of the stairs.  The bouncer, in turn, got the attention of a set of girls on the dance floor.

While the girls made their way up, Gregor turned to Newter, “Are you happy?”

“Oh man.  You’re not going into a philosophical phase again, are you?”

“I will spare you that.  Are you?”

“Dude.  Look at me.  I have money to burn, I’ve got the hottest girls in the city begging to get a taste of me.  Literally wanting to taste me!  What do you think?”

“You are happy, then?”

“Time of my life, bro.”  Newter opened his arms wide to greet a trio of girls as they reached the top of the stairs.

“I am glad.”  Gregor turned and entered the hallway at the back of the balcony.  As the door sealed shut behind him, the pounding of the music behind him dimmed.

His next stop was the first door on his left.  He knocked.

“Come in.”

The bedroom had a bed on each side, in opposite corners.  One side of the room was cluttered with posters, pictures, a bookshelf overflowing with books, an Apple computer with two CD racks towering above it, and two speaker systems.  The music from the computer speakers only barely managed to drown out the music from the club downstairs.  The girl who was lying back on the bed had a dense covering of freckles on her face and hands, and curly brown hair.  Magazines were piled in stacks around her on the bed, threatening to topple over at the slightest movement.

The other side of the room was spartan.  Nothing adorned the walls, there were no books, no computer or computer paraphernalia.  There was a bed, a bedside table and a dresser.  The only character whatsoever was a colorful bedspread and pillowcase.  Gregor knew it had been a gift from Faultline.  The owner wouldn’t have gone out to get it herself.  The resident of that side of the room was seated in the corner, staring into the wall.  She was blonde, the sort of platinum white-blond hair that rarely lasted through puberty.  Her royal purple sweater was slightly too large for her, drooping over her hands, and her pale jeans were clearly intended to be more comfortable than fashionable.

“I brought your dinner, Emily.”

“Thanks,” the freckled girl answered him.  She caught the sandwich he threw to her and began to peel open the package.

“Is she okay?” he asked, gesturing to the girl in the corner.

“Not one of her better days.”

He nodded.

“Elle,” he spoke, gently, “May I come closer?”

They had learned the hard way, that the more distant the girl was, the stronger her power.  This made her particularly dangerous when she was so lost that she might not recognize him.  Cruel irony, Gregor observed, that she had virtually no power at all when she was most herself.  It was a problem they hoped to find an answer to, someday.

The girl in the corner turned to meet his eyes.  He took that for consent, approached her, and pressed a sandwich into her hands.

“Eat,” he instructed her.

She did, almost mechanical in her movements.

After Faultline had enlisted him and Newter, a job had taken them into a high security asylum.  They had been there to question someone about the Dragonslayers, a villain group that used tinker technology stolen from the most powerful and highest profile tinker in the world for petty theft and mercenary work.  Their invasion of the asylum had not gone as well as it might have, and had led to a high-tech lockdown of the facility.  Not only did it extend their mission by several hours, but it had led to issues with one of the residents, a parahuman that apparently had to be moved regularly, lest her influence over her surroundings spread beyond the confines of her cell, making her a serious problem for the staff, other residents and unwitting bystanders.

In the end, after dealing with the dispatched squad from the Boston Protectorate and getting the information they needed about the Dragonslayers, they had recruited the girl.

He watched and waited long enough to ensure she was on her way to finishing her sandwich, then turned to leave.  Emily gave him a small wave of the hand in goodbye, and he nodded once in acknowledgment.

His final stop was the office at the end of the second floor hallway.  He peered in the window, then let himself in as quietly as he could.

Faultline, owner of Palanquin and several other cover businesses across Brockton Bay, was seated at a large oak desk.  In front of her, in the midst of ledgers, notebooks and university textbooks, was something that looked similar to a xylophone, a series of rods lined up next to one another, strapped tight to a board.

Faultline was in her professional clothes; a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black slacks tucked into shiny black riding boots with steel toes.  Her wavy black hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She wore no mask – those employees of Palanquin who ventured as far as this office were too well paid to turn on her.  Her features were perhaps too sharp to be called conventionally attractive, but Gregor knew she was certainly more attractive than Newter or himself.

As Gregor watched, she closed her eyes, then swiped her hand across the top ends of the rods.  Red and blue energy crackled, and coin-shaped pieces of wood, metal, stone and plastic fell to the desktop.  Other rods, several of which were green wood, were untouched.

“Fuck,” she muttered.  She swept the coin shaped bits of various materials into a trash can that sat beside her desk.  Glancing up at where Gregor stood just inside the doorway, she raised one eyebrow.

“I did not wish to interrupt you.”

“Don’t worry about it.  Maybe distracting me will help.”

“If you are sure.”  He approached the desk, setting the paper bag down on it, “It was seven o’clock, nobody had eaten yet.  I got us some sandwiches.”

“Thank you.  How’s Elle?”

“Spitfire said she was having a bad day, but she has eaten now.  Perhaps tomorrow will be better.”

Faultline sighed, “Let’s hope.  It’s very easy to let yourself grow attached to that girl, know what I mean?”

“Yes.”

“Fuck!” she swore, as she swiped her hand over the rods and, again, the green wood refused to be cut.

“What are you doing?”

“We’ve talked about the Manton effect.”

“The rule that prevents some powers from affecting living things.  You have been trying to remove such restrictions from yourself.”

“Without luck.  It’s a matter of time before we’re on a job, things come down to the wire, and I’m too weak, because of this arbitrary limitation.”

“I find it hard to believe that anyone who has toppled a building on someone could call themselves weak.”

“That was luck more than anything else,” she sighed, as she adjusted the positions of the rods.

“If you say so.”

“It’s not like there isn’t precedent for this.  We know for a fact that some capes who were once held back by the Manton effect have figured out a way around it, or past it.  Narwhal being the most obvious case.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a school of theory that says that the Manton effect is a psychological block.  That, because of our empathy for living things, we hold back our powers on an instinctual level.  Or, maybe, we hold back against other living things because there is a subconsciously imposed limitation that prevents us from hurting ourselves with our own powers, and it’s too general, encompassing other living things instead of only ourselves.”

“I see.”

“So I’m trying to trick my brain.  With this setup, I move from inorganic material to dead organic material to living tissues.  Green wood, in this case.  Or I mix it up so it goes from one to the other without any pattern.  If I can trick my brain into slipping up, anticipating the wrong material, maybe I can push through that mental block.  Do that once, and it’d be easier for future tries.  That’s the theory, anyways.”

She tried again.  “Fuck!”

“It does not seem to be working.”

“No kidding.  Do me a favor.  Rearrange these.  Don’t let me see them.”

He approached the desk, unstrapped the rods, shuffled them, and then strapped them in place while she sat there with her eyes closed.

“Go,” he told her.

She tried again, eyes still closed.  When she opened them, she cussed a few times in a row.

Gregor stepped around the desk, grabbed her by the throat with his left hand, and pulled her out of the chair.  He shoved her to the ground and climbed atop of her so he was straddling her, his knees pressing her arms down.  His grip tightened incrementally.

Faultline’s eyes widened and her face began to turn colors as she struggled.  She brought her knees up into his back, but one might have had more success hitting a waterbed.  The effect was the same.  Beneath his skin, which was tougher than one might guess, his skeleton, muscles and organs all sat in a sea of viscous fluids.  His skeleton, he’d learned, was more like a shark’s than a human’s.  It was a flexible cartilage that bent where bone would break, and healed faster than bone.  He’d been hit by a car and climbed to his feet shortly after.  Her kicks would not have much effect.

“I am sorry,” he told her.

Her struggles gradually became weaker.  It took some time before she started to go limp.

He waited a second longer, then released her.  She sputtered into a cough as she heaved air into her lungs.

He waited patiently for her to recover.  When she looked more or less in control of her own breathing, he spoke, “Months ago, we were talking about this subject, the Manton effect.  You mentioned how it might be possible for someone like us to have a second trigger event.  A radical change or improvement in their powers as a result of a life or death moment.  Such might explain how one broke the Manton rule.”

She nodded, coughing again.

“It would not have worked if I had warned you in advance.  I am sorry.”

She shook her head, coughed once, then answered him, her voice hoarse, “It didn’t work anyways.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What if it had worked, you big lunatic?  What did you expect me to do to you?  Cut off your hand?  Kill you?”

“I thought perhaps my hand or my arm, at worst.  I do not think you would kill me, even in a moment such as that.  You have done much for me.  Even if it proved impossible to reattach, I would not say it is a very attractive hand,” he examined the hand he’d just used to strangle Faultline, “To lose it, for something you have been working on for a long time is not a regrettable thing.”

“Idiot,” she pulled herself to her feet, coughing again, “How the hell am I supposed to get pissed at you when you say something like that?”

He stayed silent.

“Well, either that’s not going to work, or I need something that gets me even closer to death… in which case I’m scratching it off the list anyways.” She moved her chair and sat down at her desk, shoving the apparatus with the rods into the trash.  “I like being alive too much to dance on that razor’s edge.”

“Yes,” his voice was quiet.

“Thank you, by the way, for trying that” she told him, as she emptied the bag of one and a half sandwiches.  She returned Gregor’s half-sandwich to the bag and put hers aside, unopened.  “I don’t expect it was easy.”

He shook his head.

“So, returning a favor, then.  Sit down.”

He pulled a chair over and sat on the other side of the desk.

“A year ago, you agreed to give me a share of your earnings in our little group, if I put them towards answering some questions we had.”

“I remember.”

“I’ll talk to the others about this, soon, but since you were the one that paid the most, I thought it only right that I share with you first.”  She opened a drawer and retrieved a file.  She pushed it across the desk.  “This is what I’ve found, so far.”

He opened the file.  The first page was an image, high resolution, of a stylized ‘u’, or a ‘c’ turned ninety-degrees counter clockwise.  He touched his upper arm, where a tattoo identical to the image marked him.

“Whoever it is,” Faultline explained, “Whether it’s one person or many, is very, very good at covering their tracks.”

He turned the pages.  The next set of pages were pictures, crime scene reports, official files and news articles about various parahumans, each set of pages relating to a specific one.  The first was a monster of a man with a beetle-like shell covering his body.  Gregor himself was the second.

“You and Newter, you already know, aren’t alone.  On a steady basis, parahumans have been turning up across North America.  Retrograde amnesia, all marked by that same tattoo as you are on various parts of their body.  Each was dumped in an out of the way location in an urban area.  Alleys, ditches, rooftops, under bridges.”

“Yes.”  Gregor turned more pages.  Each set of pages had more individuals like him.

“Here’s the thing, though.  At first, most were strange in appearance.  As many as four out of five monstrous parahumans, if you’ll excuse the term, follow the pattern, and that number might increase if you got a chance to examine or get a decent interview with the others.  The tattoo, amnesia, their first memories are waking up somewhere in a strange city.”

“At first, you said?” Gregor asked, “This changed?”

“Turn to the red tab.”

He found the red tab that stuck out and turned to that page.  A high quality picture of an attractive redheaded girl.

“She showed up in Vegas.  The whole casino thing has bitten the dust, pretty much, since parahumans who could game the odds or cheat started showing up.  But there’s underground games, still.  She participated in a few, and had a bounty on her head in a matter of days.  She’s calling herself Shamrock, and I’d put good money on the fact that she’s got powers that let her manipulate probabilities.”

“I see.  Why are we talking about her?”

“Next page.”

He turned the page.  “Ah.”

It was a grainy surveillance camera image.  Shamrock was in the midst of changing clothes in what looked like an underground parking lot, and, though partially obscured by her bra strap, the tattoo was visible on her shoulderblade.  A stylized ‘u’.

“That’s puzzle piece number one.  Given the dates, and you’re free to look them over in your own time, going by the first sightings, the people that are showing up with these tattoos are getting less and less monstrous with each passing year.  Not always, but it’s a trend.  Then, boom, we get Shamrock.  No strange features to speak of.”

He turned ahead a few pages.

“Puzzle piece number two.  I’m afraid it’s one of those cases where things have been covered up too well for us to verify, but I’ll tell you what I heard.  Tallahassee, Florida, just three months ago, a rumor circulated about someone calling themselves the Dealer.”

“What was he dealing?”

“Powers.”

“Powers,” Gregor echoed her.

“Pay him an amount in the neighborhood of thirty five thousand dollars, the Dealer gives you something to drink, and you join the ranks of the heroes and villains in the cape community.  Powers in a bottle.”

“I see.  How does this relate?”

“Because one individual claiming to be a customer made a blog post about his transaction.  It’s near the end of that file.  In his post, he described the Dealer as having a metal suitcase filled with vials. Engraved on the inside of the lid…”

“The same symbol as the tattoo,” Gregor guessed.

Faultline nodded, “And that’s where we stand.”

“I see.  Can we track down this individual with the blog?”

“He’s dead.  Murdered by two unnamed capes less than a day after he made the post.”

“Ah.”

“What I think is that someone out there has figured out how people get powers, and they’ve made a business out of it.  But the first attempts didn’t go so well.  It could be that, if the chemistry is bad, the people who drink the stuff become like you, like Newter, like Sybill and Scarab.”

“So this person, or people.  You think they are experimenting.  They have been refining their work, and the physical changes have become smaller.”

“And this Dealer was either their salesman, or more likely, someone who stole some of their work and tried to profit from it.  The people he dealt to didn’t get the tattoos.”

Gregor’s chair groaned painfully as he leaned back.

“What is next?”

“No one’s seen or heard of this Dealer since the blog poster was murdered.  The Dealer’s either dead or gone to ground.  So we follow our other lead.  I’ve got private investigators looking for Shamrock.  I’m thinking we wrap up our contract with Coil, here, then, if we’re lucky enough that our PIs find her before the bounty hunters do, we pay her a visit. Either she can tell us something, or we can offer her a position on the team.”

“Or both,” he said.

“In an ideal world,” Faultline smiled.

Tangle 6.1

I squared off against a very thin Japanese man of Grue’s height.  He held a knife in one hand and a katana in the other.

A narrow smile crossed his face as he made his katana blade whip around himself at lightning speed.

At my command, a swarm of wasps flowed from beneath the armor of my costume and set themselves on him.  There was a moment of bewildered swatting before he started howling in pain.  Both katana and knife fell to the ground as he started using his hands to flail at the swarm.

I drew my baton and struck him across the bridge of his nose.  I wound up hitting him much harder than I intended to, as he just happened to bend forward at the same moment I swung.  As he reeled, blood streaming from his face, I lunged forward with a low swing to hit him in the side of the knee.

He crumpled to the ground and writhed, in too much pain to retaliate.  I bent down to pick up the knife, which looked cheap, and the katana, which looked antique.  I used the knife to cut the katana’s sheath from his side, then dropped the knife and kicked it into a storm drain.

With the sheathed katana in one hand and my baton in the other, I looked over the evening’s battlefield.

The building that loomed over us was a tenement, like countless others in the Docks.  Five or more apartments in an area so small it should only hold three at most.  Ten or twelve families sharing a single bathroom and shower.  That reality was ugly on its own, but word had been that the ABB was turning tenement buildings like this one into barracks for their soldiers.  That the less than enthusiastic recruits, the ones with bombs implanted in their heads, were being gathered up here so they could be watched, trained, equipped, and deployed by the ABB’s captains.

I’d balked at first.  I’d been worried that it was a ploy on Kaiser’s part to get the organized villains of Brockton Bay to attack a building full of helpless people.  Even after Tattletale had confirmed this was an ABB base of operations, I’d had my doubts.

Had my doubts, that was, until we’d attacked and ABB soldiers had flooded out of the building like ants from an anthill.  Clowns from a clown car.  A ridiculous number of people, anyways, for a building that wasn’t all that big.

We were outnumbered twenty to one, but I doubted any of us were really breaking a sweat.  There was nobody with powers fighting in the ABB’s defense, since only Bakuda was uninjured and we had an idea of where she was holed up.  That meant that all we had to worry about were their rank and file gang members, and we’d already taken out the guys with guns.

Blazing fires as tall as I was dotted the road around the tenement.  In other spots, patches of darkness lingered.  There was no power to the area and there hadn’t been any for days, probably the military’s work, and the battlefield was lit by the flame alone, giving the ongoing fight had an almost hellish appearance to it.  The faces of the ABB members contorted in pain and fear.  The villains advancing, implacable, with faces like Grue’s skeletal helmet, Spitfire’s modified gas mask with the lenses reflecting the flames and Gregor’s doughy face with barnacle-like bits of shell crusting it.

And me, I supposed.  The yellow lenses of my freshly repaired mask, mandible design framing my jaw.

I headed towards where the fight was mainly happening, and came face to face with a twenty-something man.  I immediately pegged him as one of the recruited.  Someone who wouldn’t be fighting if it weren’t for the bomb planted in his brain.  He held a baseball bat pointed at me like it was a blade.

“Surrender,” I told him, “Put the weapon down, lie on the ground and put your hands on your head.”

“N-no.  I can’t!”

“I’ve got powers.  You don’t.  In the past ten minutes, I’ve taken down people bigger than you, with better weapons, people with killer instinct, and I did it without a sweat.  I’ll tell you right now, you lost.  You’ll lose this fight.  Lie down and put your hands on your head.”

“No!”  He stepped forward, raising the bat.

I didn’t like fighting these guys.  Didn’t like hurting them.  But if they wouldn’t surrender, the next closest thing I could offer to mercy was hurting them obviously enough that their willingness to join the fight wouldn’t come into question if he wound up having to explain to Bakuda.

I set my bugs on him, hoping to distract him enough to buy me time to deliver a decisive blow.  This guy, though, he didn’t buckle.  Rather than struggle, he charged headlong through the swarm of biting and stinging insects, blindly flailing his bat in my direction.  I had to scramble backward to avoid being clubbed.  I drew my baton back, tried to decide when and how to strike.  If his bat hit my baton, he could disarm me.  If I could hit his hand, though, or catch him with his guard down…

There was no need.  Grue stepped in, almost casually, and put his fist through the poor guy’s jaw.   He crashed to the ground, the bat sliding out of his hands.

“Thanks,” I said, even as I winced in empathy for the guy that had just been knocked out.

“No prob,” the haunting vibes of his voice were at odds with his casual choice of words.  “We’re nearly done here.”

I glanced around the battlefield.  Injured and unconscious ABB members littered the ground around the building.  Though we’d been outnumbered at the outset, only a few stragglers remained.

“Tattletale!” Grue bellowed, “How many?”

“This is it!  Building’s clear!” she called back.  Following her voice, I saw her crouching on top of one of the few cars parked along the street, gun dangling from her fingers, out of the way of the fight and with deterrence in hand.

“Spitfire!” Grue called out.  “Snail!”

The two members of Faultline’s team worked in tandem.  Spitfire set about spewing a geyser of fluid out of the nozzle at the base of her mask, directing it to the base of the building, where it ignited on contact.  Gregor the Snail, in turn, reached out with one hand and blasted out a steady stream of foam at the adjacent buildings.  He’d informed us before the fight started – he could concoct a variety of chemicals in his prodigious stomach and project them in a stream from his skin.  Adhesives, lubricants and strong acids, among other things.  The one he would be using now would be something fire retardant, as we’d planned.  It wouldn’t do to burn down the neighborhood.

While Spitfire worked on burning the building to the ground, and Gregor kept the blaze contained to the one building, the rest of us spent several minutes working on disarming and moving the injured and unconscious enemies from the building’s vicinity.  Grue had supplied me with a package of dozens of plastic wrist-cuffs, and I started making use of them on the ABB members.

Grue approached me, “I ran out.  Got extras?”

I handed him a fistful of the wrist ties.

“So this thing with the ABB is almost over,” he said, “And I was talking to Fog, one of Kaiser’s people.  Sounds like he’s not going to press the issue over Bitch and the dogfighting thing, like you suspected.”

I nodded, “Good.  I don’t like them, but that’s a fight we don’t need just yet.”

Grue wrestled with a gang member with an injured leg, twisting the guy’s arms behind his back and then punching him in the kidney when his struggling made it too difficult to get the plastic handcuffs on.  The guy gave up the fight.

“You got any plans for tomorrow?”

I turned my attention away from the unconscious girl I was cuffing and looked at Grue.

“Well?” he asked.

“I’m planless.  No plan,” I fumbled my words.  Technically, I could or should be going back to school, but I still had the tentative excuse of the concussion, so I could get away with missing another few days.  After the way the meeting with the school had gone, I was glad for the excuse.

“Want to come over to my place?  I’m supposed to have a group meeting to discuss progress and whatever for this online class I’m taking, but I’ve also got my sister’s caseworker stopping by to check out my apartment in the afternoon.  I was hoping to buy some furniture and get it put together by then, but I’m tight on time and it’ll be a hell of a lot easier with two people,” he told me, “…and that was a rambling explanation.”

“I got the gist.  Yeah, I could do that.”

I had seen him smile that boyish grin of his often enough that I could picture it behind his mask.

“I’ll text you with the time and address?”

“Alright.”

He gave me a very ‘guy’ clap on the shoulder, then headed over to catch up to a guy that was trying to crawl away, a little ways down the street.

As he left, Tattletale joined me, taking a few wrist-ties from me, and helping me with others.  She was grinning.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re reading too much into it,” I told her.

“He didn’t invite me,” she gave me a sly look.

“Maybe he knows you wouldn’t have accepted.”

“Maybe he suspects I would’ve, and he wanted to spend time with just you.”

I had my doubts.  Definite doubts, about what she was implying.  I didn’t get a chance to clarify.

“Coming down!” Gregor roared.  There was a rumble as the building began to sag, followed by a crash as it started folding in on itself.  Spitfire directed her napalm breath to one corner of the building, obliterating the wood and stone there.  She swiftly backed up as the building finished its controlled collapse.

As the rubble settled, Gregor sprayed his extinguishing foam with one hand, directing the stream against the fingers of his other hand so the stream separated into a broad spray.  Where each of the droplets hit a part of the building, they swelled into a blob of foam a few feet across.  In short order, the building was covered enough that only a few traces of flame were still visible.

“We’re done, let’s move!” Grue called out, returning to where Tattletale and I were.

We scrammed, leaving the thugs tied up, while Spitfire and Gregor the Snail disappeared down a different street.

We’d broken into a dilapidated old mechanic’s shop to stash our ride, and we returned there in short order as Tattletale made a call to the authorities about dealing with the ABB members.  As the car pulled out and headed towards the water, I let myself breathe again.

Our third night like this since Bitch and I had gone up against Lung.  Each night had been easier than the last, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was me getting more comfortable with things, and how much was the fact that the ABB was falling apart under the sustained onslaught.

“I think the ABB is just about done,” Grue spoke from the driver’s seat, echoing my thoughts and his earlier statement.

“Three days and nights of pressure from the police, military, all the good guys and most of the villains in the city will do that,” I said.

Lisa commented, “It’s like I was telling you, Taylor, someone breaks those unspoken rules, the community protects the status quo.  Us villains make truce with the local authorities, we actually work together, in a way, with the cops, capes and military holding the line during the day, and taking down any ABB members who stick their heads up, while us villains do the nitty gritty stuff… In this case, it’s probably more blatant an invoking of that than any example I can think of.  Guess we can thank Coil for that.”

“It’s been a learning experience,” I added, “If nothing else, I’ve gotten a better sense of the other groups.  I didn’t think Coil’s soldiers would be quite as good as the ones I saw in action.  Meeting the members of Faultline’s crew, and the Travelers, too.  They’re not bad people.”

“I learned a lot too, in a different way,” Tattletale leaned forward from the backseat, putting her head and shoulders between the two front seats.  “I said part of the reason I wanted to go with Trickster and his shapeshifter teammate was to figure out their powers, right?  I  never shared.”

“And?” Grue asked.  One hand still on the wheel, he peeled off his helmet with the other.  It took only a second for the darkness around his face to clear up.

“And Trickster, their leader, is a teleporter.  Not just himself.  He can make anything he can see teleport.  Except there’s a special rule to his power, a restriction.  He has to swap the places of two things with roughly equivalent mass.  The bigger the difference in mass, the slower the swap and shorter his range.”

“That sounds like a pretty large drawback,” Brian said.

“He makes it work.  He had ABB members hitting their own guys, he was disarming them like it was a piece of cake.  As for the ‘shapeshifter’.”  Tattletale made finger quotes.  “Her name is Genesis.  Her power?  Remotely controlled projections.”

“She’s not actually there?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Showed up with a triceratops-bull-cyborg thing, charged through the front door, set off a trap, got blown to smithereens.  And Trickster just laughed.  Two minutes later, she’d pulled together a lady knight in shining armor and was dealing with the guys with guns.”

“Geez,” I said, “Sundancer’s got a miniature sun.  Ballistic, as Brian and I saw just last night, just needs to touch something to have it go rocketing off at a few hundred feet a second.  Doesn’t matter if it’s ball bearings or a car.  Add this new info, and well…”

“Heavy hitters,” Brian finished for me.

“We can be glad they’re on our side,” I said.

“For now,” Brian pointed out, “We still don’t know why they’re here and why they’re helping.”

He glanced at Tattletale, eyebrow raised.  She shrugged, “My power’s not telling me anything concrete.  I’m as curious as you are.”

I joined Brian in pulling off my mask.  The car, supplied by our boss, had tinted windows, so there was no stress there.  I’d have to put it on again when we made our way past the military blockade, but that wasn’t such a problem.

I lowered the sun visor above the windshield and used the mirror to examine my neck.  The bruise was still noticeable, there.  Much as Bitch had said, it looked like I’d survived a hanging.

“Mind if I stay over again, tonight?” I asked.

I saw Tattletale shrug in the backseat, through the mirror.  “It’s your place too.  You don’t even need to ask.  I think you should call your dad, though, so he doesn’t worry.”

“Yeah, call your dad,” Brian confirmed.

“Alright.”  I was going to do that anyways.

When the military barricades with flashing lights atop them came into view in the distance, we pulled into the loading area for what had once been a small grocery store, out of sight.

“Any rush?” I asked.

“We’re good,” Tattletale said, “I’m going to call Regent and Bitch, see how their group is doing.”

“Then I’ll call my dad.”

I stepped out of the car to make my call.

He picked up on the first ring.

“Hi dad.”

“Taylor.  I’m relieved to hear from you.”

So he’d been concerned.

“I’m going to stay at Lisa’s again, tonight.”

“I’d like you to come home, Taylor.  It worries me that I haven’t seen you since you left the meeting at the school.”

“I’m okay.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I’ll feel a lot better when I see that for myself.  I want to talk, have dinner and breakfast together, touch base.  I don’t want to lose touch like we did after…”

“After mom died,” I finished for him.  “It’s okay, Dad.  I just… I guess I needed a change of pace, to get away from it all for a little bit.  I already made plans for tonight.  It’d be awkward to cancel.  I’ll come home for dinner tomorrow?”

He hesitated.  “Okay, just tell me you’re going to school.”

“Yeah,” the lie passed through my lips easily, but it sat heavy on my conscience.  Disappointing him would have felt worse, though.  I tried to take the edge off the guilt by making it a half-untruth, “I didn’t go Monday.  I started going yesterday afternoon.”

“I suppose that’s better than nothing.  I’ll see you tomorrow night, then.”

“Love you, dad.”

“Love you too.”

I hung up.  It was a white lie, right?  I wasn’t really hurting anyone, and my dad would only worry more if I told him I wasn’t going to school.

Tattletale and Grue climbed out of the car as I pulled on my mask.

“All set?” she asked.

“Ready,” I answered.

She opened the hatch at the base of the grocery store, that would lead us into the tunnels that stretched beneath the barricade.

We descended into the darkness.

Tangle 6.2

There was something exhilarating about living without adult supervision.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad to death, but waking up, going for a run, making breakfast and then sitting down in front of the TV with one of Lisa’s old laptops, without feeling like anyone was looking over my shoulder to make sure I was doing everything right?  It was the life.

Since the week I had spent bedridden with the concussion, I had been twitching to get back into my running schedule again.  Even though I was staying at the loft, taking a vacation from my everyday life, I was making a point of keeping to my old routine and waking up at six thirty in the morning to run.

As it happened, that meant I was waking up two or three hours before any of the others.  Two or three hours totally on my own.  If I forced myself to ignore the thousand different things I could be stressing over, it was a period where I could enjoy a peace I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

I’d curled up on the couch with a blanket around me, a kid’s show on the TV for some low level background noise – since it was the only thing on besides infomercials, religious programming and talk shows – and I had one of Lisa’s old laptops propped up in front of me.  My habit now was to start the day by checking the local news sites, the parahumans wiki and the parahumans message boards.

The big front page scoop of the morning was a picture someone had taken with his cell phone from one of the buildings on the same street as the building we’d burned down.  Our silhouettes were visible as we stood on the street with dozens of ABB members strewn around us.  The headline? ‘VILLAINS STEP IN’.

Funny, I never really noticed the bugs when they were around me in general, but seeing the picture, there was a good number.  My silhouette wasn’t as hard to make out as Grue was in his darkness, but it wasn’t easy to make out in the cloud of bugs, either.  I had to keep that in mind – maybe I could use it.

The article beneath the picture was about the actions of the villains in dealing with the ABB.  It was mostly on target, but the tone and slant of the writing made me uncomfortable enough that I didn’t read it in depth.  From my skimming of the article, I got the impression the heroes were gearing up to make a final assault today or tonight.  Let us do the dirty work and then clean up?  Whatever.  If they wanted to deal with a cornered Bakuda, they were welcome to it.

I browsed the other news:  A tally of injuries and deaths that had occurred since the fighting started, estimates on property damage sustained from the various bombings, a brief update on a twelve year old girl that had gone missing two weeks before the ABB situation started, that was now presumed dead, and descriptions of some of the new heroes to show up in Brockton Bay to help with the ABB.  What caught my eye was a censored image in the gallery sidebar of the last news article.  I clicked it.

It was an image of Lung in his human shape, his eye sockets dark, raw and empty behind his steel dragon mask, his hand on one of his gang members’ shoulder.  It seemed like he was being led.

It was, I discovered, the image that ended the ‘Villains Step In’ article featured on the front page of the site.  I’d missed it when glancing over the article, because the flash image viewer had taken so long to load.  There was a caption beneath it.  ‘Decisive blow?  Brockton Bay authorities have turned a blind eye to local villains enforcing their own brand of justice.’

Oh man.  Was I digging myself in deeper and deeper?

That same image gallery had a long range shot of the same scene, taken without the telephoto lens, showing Lung and his flunky in the midst of the Docks and an armed squad of their men, guns drawn but not raised at anything.  That was… massively disappointing.  He’d gotten away.

“Morning,” Lisa greeted me.

I turned to see her coming from the kitchen.  Her hair was tied back in a messy ponytail, and there was still sleep in the corners of her eyes.

“Morning.  Brian said he had something to do this morning, so I grabbed you guys your breakfast today.  Sorry if I didn’t get the coffee exactly right.”

“You’re an angel,” she messed up my hair, then left to get the coffee.

I was still browsing when she returned.  She bent down, folding her arms over the back of the couch behind me and watched over my shoulder for a bit.

“Pink haired singing pirates and blind yakuza wannabe supervillains.”

I glanced at the TV, and sure enough, there was a little girl in a pink wig with a pirate costume.  I smiled and held up the remote, “You can change the channel.”

As she took the remote, my cell phone buzzed on the couch cushion beside me.

Brian had sent me a text:

finished early.  two didn’t show.  want to come @ 11am?  or I can pick you up @ loft

I glanced at the clock.  9:45.  I used the laptop to figure out the fastest bus route to his place.  It was downtown, and I could get there for eleven if I left in twenty minutes.  A bit tight, timewise, but I could pull it off.  I’d done it a few times before school, when I’d overexerted myself on a morning run and had to walk home.

I sent my reply:

Sounds good.  I’ll take the bus.

Once I’d verified the message was sent, I bolted for the washroom and cranked the shower on.  I spent an age getting the temperature tolerable, stripped out of my running clothes and jumped in, only to have the shower change abruptly from a lukewarm temperature to icewater.

Loved the loft, did not love the water heater.

I had to dance around the stream of hypothermia-inducing spray to get to the controls and attempt to coax a decent temperature out of them.  I finally settled for a bearably cold temperature, shampooed and stuck my head under.  I was shivering when I turned the water off.

I dried off best I could and bundled myself up in a second clean towel for warmth.  Having no body fat sucked sometimes.  I finished my grooming and stopped by the living room for a second to peek at the clock below the TV.  I had six minutes left to get ready.

“It’s so very you, how you use perfect punctuation and capitalization for your texts,” Lisa grinned as I headed for my room.

She was walking out of the kitchen, holding my cell phone.  I grabbed the phone from her, rolling my eyes, and headed to my room.  She followed me and let herself in.

“You two going to be an item?” she asked.

“Not the plan.  Just going over to help out a friend.”

“Come on, we both know you think he’s good looking.  Admit it,” she turned her back to me, examining the amber with the dragonfly in it, that Brian had given me.  I used that brief window of privacy to dig some underwear and socks out of a drawer and start getting dressed.

“This is you using your power?”  I asked her.

Brutus is probably aware you’re attracted to Brian.  I think the only two people who haven’t figured it out are you and Brian.”

I sighed.  “Yeah, I think he’s a very good looking guy,” I pulled some of the shirts and skirts I’d bought with Lisa out of my closet and arranged them on the bed, “Don’t you?”

“Sure.  Maybe not totally my type, but I definitely wouldn’t turn someone like him away, if I was doing the relationship thing.”

“You’re not?  How come?”

“My power kind of takes the mystery out of things.  Relationships are hard to get off the ground unless you can get the ball rolling with a healthy dose of self delusion and lies.”

“So you’re not going to date ever?”

“Give me a few years, maybe I’ll lower my standards enough to be able to overlook what my power’s telling me about the guys’ more disgusting and degrading character quirks and habits.”

“Sorry to hear.”  I replied, as I put some clothes back in the closet.  I felt bad for not being able to come up with a better response and for not being able to take the time to sympathize, but I barely had any time left to get ready.  Maybe I could jog to the bus stop.

“But the key distinction between you and I, here, is that Brian and I would kill each other before a relationship got anywhere.  You two, though?  I can see you working.”

“That your power talking?  You’re saying he actually likes me?”

“Sorry, hon.  Reading people with my power is hard, reading into their motivations or emotions is harder, and to top it off, I don’t think even Brian knows what he’s feeling, romantically.  You might have to jar him from his comfort zone before either of you get to find out.”

“You’re assuming I want to.”  I felt a bead of cold water run down the back of my neck, shivered and stopped to wring my hair again.

“Don’t you?”  She asked.  She turned her attention to my selection of clothes piled on the bed.  “You’re paying a lot of attention to what you’re going to be wearing.”

“I always do, even when I’m just going to be hanging out with you and Bitch.  I second guess and stress over the clothes I’m wearing if I’m walking to the corner store by my house to buy milk and bread.”

“Fair.  Here… Let me pick the clothes, and if anything goes wrong, you blame me, deal?” She dug through the clothes in my closet, “Jeans and… let’s see… a crop top to show off that belly of yours.”

I looked at the top, it had a thick fabric that bordered on sweaterlike, blue and gray with a sketchy sort of design of a butterfly on it, and long sleeves.  The actual body of the shirt, though, didn’t look like it would reach much past my ribcage.  “It’s still a little cold out.”

“Wear a sweatshirt or a jacket, then.  But only if you promise to take it off when you get there.”

“Fine.”  I didn’t have time to argue, and started getting dressed.

She started putting away the stuff I’d left on the bed, “Brian’s a guy who appreciates being practical.  That’s something he likes about you, and he’s said as much.  And even though I think it’s fucking fantastic that you’re going a step further to look nice, you can do that in clothes that make sense for doing light labor.  Jeans, yes.  Skirt?  Not so much.”

“Guess I wasn’t being practical just now.”  I pulled on the top and looked myself over in the mirror on the closet door.  Agreeing to this top had been a spur of the moment thing when I’d been shopping with Lisa.  Actually wearing it was something else entirely; the bottom of the top stopped an inch shy of my belly button.

“You’ve got stuff on your mind with school and your dad and romance and shit.”  She answered me.  Before I could argue there was no romance happening, she gave me a push, “Now go!  Enjoy yourself!”

I took that as my cue to hurry to the front of the loft, where I slipped on my running shoes.  I grabbed my keys and wallet from my backpack, grabbed my sweatshirt from a hook by the stairs, then headed downstairs and out the door with everything still in my hands.  As I got outside, I put my keys and wallet in my pockets and pulled on the sweatshirt.  It took a little willpower, but I left the sweatshirt open.

A relationship with Brian was, obviously, a terrible idea.  I was only expecting to be with the Undersiders for another two weeks to a month.  Any longer than that, and I’d probably assume I wasn’t going to get the dirt on their boss, at which point I’d take what I had to the Protectorate.  Assuming there was enough interest on Brian’s part for there to be a relationship in the first place, the idea of dating with no future was just depressing.  It would just wind up being salt in the wound for everyone involved.

But I was trying not to think about that.  I really didn’t need Lisa reading into my doubts and hesitations and realizing that they were at least partially based on the fact that I was planning on betraying her and the others.  If I didn’t dwell on it, it would be that much harder for me to give her any clues.

Yep.  Totally the reason I was avoiding thinking about it.  Nothing to do with the fact that I was feeling increasingly lousy and ambivalent over the idea of turning friends in to the authorities.

I ran part of the way to the bus stop, stopped when I realized I didn’t want to get sweaty, then had to run again when I got near the ferry and saw the bus at the far end of the street.  I waved for the bus to stop as it approached and got on.

The bus route I had to take to get to Brian’s was kind of a case in point for why my dad wanted to get the ferry going again.  I had to go West, transfer to a different bus, go South a ways, then hop off and walk East for five minutes to get where I wanted to be, the southeast end of downtown, where the office buildings and stores gave way to apartments and condos.

It was a stark contrast to the area where I lived.  It wasn’t perfect, honestly, and you could see things like Empire Eighty-Eight’s gang tags or broken windows here and there.  Even so, that sort of thing was as rare as finding a house without crap in the yard or a house with stuff obviously broken or run down in my neighborhood. Even the lowest step leading up to the front door of my house was rotten out, so I couldn’t boast to having one of those nice, not-embarrassing places.  If you fixed it, something else would inevitably break down, so you got used to stuff like the broken step, learned to skip up to the second one, or you entered and left through the back door at the kitchen like I did.

Brockton Bay had originally been a big trading post and port, back when America was being colonized, and some of the buildings were pretty old as a result.  What I saw when I entered the area Brian was staying was a war between the past and the present.  Older buildings had been fixed up and maintained to the point that they were attractive, mostly set up as Victorian style condos.  But where other cities might work to integrate this with the other buildings of downtown, it seemed like the city planner or developers had intended for the inclusion of tall stone or glass buildings to be jarring.  Everything looked nice, but it didn’t all look nice together.

Brian’s apartment building was one of the modern ones.  Maybe eight to ten stories tall – I didn’t count – it was mostly stone, and there was a floor-to-ceiling window behind each of the balconies.  Two little evergreen trees in pots framed the doorway.  Brian sat beside one of the trees, wearing very similar clothes to the first time I had seen him – a steel blue T-shirt, dark jeans and scuffed boots.  He was leaning back against the wall, his eyes shut, just enjoying the sun.  He’d combed out his cornrows, and his hair was tied back in a long, loose ponytail that sort of poofed out below the elastic.  A bit of hair had slipped out from the elastic and was blowing in the breeze, brushing back and forth against his cheekbone.  He seemed so unbothered by the tickling of the hair that I suspected he might be asleep.

I was surprised he was able to relax like that.  It seemed to me that kicking back like that in any urban area, even a nicer neighborhood downtown, was begging for trouble.  Okay, so maybe there weren’t muggings or homeless people hassling bystanders down here, but Empire Eighty-Eight did base their main operations somewhere in this general area, and Brian was black.

Maybe he could get away with it because he was six feet tall and fit.  Even if you gave me my knife, baton and a good enough reason, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to mess with his nap.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said, seeing if I could provoke a response.

Even before he opened his eyes, he offered me that wide, genial smile that seemed so out of place on his six foot tall frame.  It was a smile that hid nothing, as honest and unguarded as you’d expect from a ten year old finding out he’d just unwrapped the exact gift he’d wanted for his birthday.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” he got to his feet, “Figured I’d wait for you here rather than risk you coming and not knowing how to reach me while I was hauling stuff upstairs.”

“Ah.  Thank you.”

“I’ve still got two pieces of furniture in the car.  Let me grab them and we’ll head on up.”  He headed in the direction of a station wagon that was parked in front of the building.

“You have a car?”

“Rental.  Doesn’t make sense for me to own a car, especially since half the driving I’d do would be to the hideout.  It’d get stolen, in the first place, and I don’t like leaving a license plate number for people to use to track me down, if things go sour.”

I smiled at the word ‘hideout’.  “I get it.  Car bad.”

I kicked myself.  Why did I keep lapsing into caveman-speak around him?

He took it in stride, though.  “Car bad.  Expensive.”

“Says the guy who doesn’t sweat paying fifteen dollars for coffee on the Boardwalk.”

“Touche.” He popped the trunk.  There were two cardboard boxes inside, both just three or four inches thick.  One of them, though, was a square maybe three to four feet across on each side.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ll get the boxes,” he said, bending down to start hauling the largest of the cardboard boxes out of the back.  He stopped to hand me his keys.  “You close the car door behind me, and get the front door of the building?”

I watched the muscles of his shoulders moving under the fabric of his t-shirt as he lifted the two boxes out of the trunk.  His shoulders were broad, I noticed, but not in the same way you saw with people who exercised just to look buff. That kind of bulk usually looked a little grotesque to me, in a way I couldn’t define.  Brian’s body was more the product of years of regular exercise with purpose and application.  I looked at the lines of his shoulders and back and, further down, his waist and hips, as if I could make sense of it, define that point where his body was different, where it was more appealing than most.

“Um,” I said, reminding myself he’d asked me a question, “Sure.  I’ll get the doors.”

Damn it, Lisa, what did you get me thinking about?

Tangle 6.3

I opened the glass doors for Brian so he could carry the boxes of furniture in.  The thing that struck me about his apartment building was how uncluttered everything was.  No litter, no people, no noise.  There was a bulletin board just past the second set of doors, which was something I normally might have expected to be a little messy, as a rule, but even there, the individual postings were carefully spaced out, and the entire thing was sealed behind a glass pane with a single small lock.  It felt kind of sterile.  Or maybe that was just me being used to an area with more character.

I didn’t know what to say.  Not just in terms of Brian’s apartment building – I had no idea what words should be coming out of my mouth.  I didn’t have the know-how to naturally make small talk.  I usually got by with constant planning ahead on what I might say.  Problem was, I’d been distracted, not so much by Brian’s features, but by the realization that I had been looking at them.  Now that I was trying to recover, get my mental footing and plan out some conversation, all I could think was ‘Dammit, Taylor, why can’t you think of something to say?!’.

We entered the elevator, and Brian rested the boxes on the metal railing on the interior. I managed, “What floor?”

“Fourth, thanks.”

I hit the button.

We ascended, and as the door opened, I offered Brian a hand in steadying the boxes as he backed out of the elevator.  He led the way down the hall and stopped by a door while I fumbled with the keys he had given me, to find the one to his apartment.

I wasn’t sure what I expected to see in Brian’s place, but he still managed to surprise me.

The first thing I noticed was that the ceilings were high.  The apartment was virtually two stories, a fairly open concept with few walls.  The kitchen was to our left as we walked in, smallish, separated from the living room by a bar/kitchen counter.  To our right was the hall closet and the walls encompassing the bathroom and one of the bedrooms.  Directly in front of us was the spacious living room, backed by a floor to ceiling window and a glass door leading out onto a stone balcony.  A set of stairs led up to a bedroom set above and on top of the bathroom and first bedroom – I figured that was where Brian slept, going by the not-disheveled-but-not-quite-made bed that was in view from where I stood.

What threw me, I think, was how mellow the place was.  There were two bookshelves, light gray in color, in the living room.  On the shelves, I saw, there was a mix of novels, plants and older books with cracked and frayed leather spines.  The fronds of some of the plants draped down over the shelves below.  The couch and accompanying chair were a pale tan corduroy, oversized with cushions thick and deep enough they looked like you could get lost in them.  I could totally imagine curling up in that armchair with my legs tucked in beside me, a book in my hands.

Somehow I had been expecting aesthetics along the lines of chrome and black leather  Not that I associated Brian’s personality or tastes with that sort of design, but it was what I might’ve thought a young bachelor might go for.  Whether it was the softness of the colors, the little jar with stones, water and bamboo on the kitchen counter or the sepia tone pictures of trees in the front hall, the place gave me a sense of ease.

I felt a pang of envy, and it wasn’t just because Brian’s apartment was nice.  I was getting a better sense of who he was, and how we were very different people, in a respect.

Brian grunted as he set the boxes down by the front closet.  He pulled off his boots and I took that as my cue to remove my shoes.

“So, I’ve already got one bit started,” he told me, leading me into the living room, and I saw that there was a pile of light gray boards and an empty cardboard box leaning against the wall there.  “Turns out it really needs a second set of hands.  You want anything before we get started?  You prefer tea to coffee, right?  Or do you want a soda?  Bite to eat?”

“I’m fine,” I smiled, taking off my sweatshirt and putting it down on the kitchen counter.  I’d promised Tattletale I would.  Feeling very self conscious with my belly showing, I tried to distract him with the task at hand, “Let’s get started?”

The first job, the one he’d left incomplete, was a set of shelves, and we started with that.  It was, as he’d said, a job for two people.  The shelves had three columns with six shelves each, and every part interlocked with the help of wooden pegs.  It was impossible to press two pieces near the top together without ones near the bottom pulling apart, and vice versa, so we got into a rhythm where one of us would put pieces together while the other prevented everything else from coming apart.

All in all, it took us twenty minutes or so.  After we verified that everything was fitting together and lined up, Brian hauled the shelf off the floor and set it against the wall.

“That’s one,” he smiled, “You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“What do you have?”

“Here, I’ve got stuff in the fridge.  Come and take your pick.”

I grabbed a cherry coke.  Brian grabbed a coke, but mostly ignored it while he opened the next box, the square one that was nearly four feet across, and started laying out the individual pieces on the kitchen floor.  A kitchen table with stools.

As it turned out, the kitchen table was a tougher job than the shelving unit.  The legs had to be held at precisely the right angle, or the bolts jammed in the holes, or forced the table leg out of position.  Each time that happened, we wound up having to take the bolt out and start over.  I wound up holding the first table leg steady while he screwed in the bolts at the base.

Without glancing my way, he placed his hand over top of mine to adjust the angle a fraction.  The contact made me feel like someone had plucked a guitar string that ran from the top of my head down through the middle of my body.  A deep thrum deep inside me that couldn’t be heard, only felt.  I was very glad for the long sleeves of my top as goosebumps prickled my arms.

I found myself defaulting to my most basic defense, staying quiet, staying still, so I couldn’t say or do anything stupid.  Problem was, this made me very, very aware of the silence and lack of conversation.

Brian probably hadn’t given the quiet the briefest thought, but I found myself wondering what to say, wondering how to make small talk, or how to get a conversation going.  It was agonizing.

He moved in closer to get a better look as he put a nut on the bolt, and his arm pressed against my shoulder.  Again, it prompted an almost elemental reaction from my body.  Was this intentional?  Was he signalling interest through casual physical contact?  Or was I assigning meaning to something coincidental?

“Nearly done,” he murmured, adjusting his position to start screwing in the other bolt for the table leg.  His arm wasn’t pressing against my shoulder, now, but the way he was crouching, his face was only a few inches from my own.  Okay, that was worse.

“Taylor, you think you can grab that smaller wrench without moving the leg?”

I didn’t trust myself to respond without making a funny noise, so I just reached for the little wrench and handed it to him.

“That’s faster, thanks,” he replied, after a second, “Want to grab me the nut?”

I did, dropping it into his cupped hand rather than placing it there, worried about what I might do or how I’d react if my hand touched his.  I wasn’t going to survive the next three table legs like this, let alone the stools or the third piece of furniture we hadn’t even started.

“Taylor?” he asked.

He let the question hang, so I swallowed and replied, “What?”

“Relax.  You’re allowed to breathe.”

I laughed lightly at the realization I was holding my breath, which resulted in a nervous, chuckling exhalation that only added to the awkwardness I was feeling.

He was smiling, “You okay?”

What was I supposed to say?  Admit I didn’t know how to deal with being around a good looking guy?

I stared down at the ground, at the table leg I was holding.  “I get nervous when I’m close to people.  I think, you know, maybe I have bad breath, or maybe I have B.O., and I wouldn’t be able to tell, because it’s mine, so I hold my breath like that to be safe.  I dunno.”

Bravo, Taylor.  Bravo.  I imagined the slowest, most sarcastic of slow claps.  Talking about bad breath and B.O. was totally the way to go.  One of those brilliant moments that would have me cringing every time I remembered it in the next few years or decades, I was sure.

Then Brian leaned close, closing the scant inches of distance that separated us, until our noses were practically touching.

“Nope.  You smell nice,” he told me.

If I’d been a cartoon character, I was pretty sure that was the point where I’d have steam shooting out of my ears, or I’d be melting into a puddle.  Instead, I went with my first instinct, once more, and went very still.  I became aware of a heat on my face that must have been a furious blushing.

It would be hard to say whether it was a mercy or not, but Brian was distracted by the sound of a key in a lock, and the opening of the front door.

My first thought was that the girl who walked in was Brian’s girlfriend.  Then I saw her glance our way, smirk, and noted the similarity between her eyes and Brian’s.  His sister.

My second thought, or my second response, really, was hard to put into words.  It’s like, you could look at a Mercedes, and say that it was a beautiful work of art, even if you weren’t someone who paid much attention to cars.  Along similar lines, when you saw a Mercedes with a cheap flame decal pasted around the wheels, and a tacky homemade spoiler stuck on the back, it was painful and disappointing on a fundamental level.  That was what I felt, looking at Aisha.

She was beautiful, as feminine as Brian was masculine, with high cheekbones, a long neck and even though she was two or three years younger than me, she already had breasts larger than mine.  I could be convinced to chop off a finger for legs, a waist and hips like hers.

Damn, this family had good genes.

You just needed one look at Aisha to know that she was going to be drop dead gorgeous when she had finished growing up.  All that said, though, she had a streak of hair bleached and some of that bleached hair had been dyed into a stripe of purple.  It was as though she had gone out of her way to look trashy, with ripped denim shorts over neon green fishnet leggings, and a strapless top I would hesitate to even call underwear.  Any envy I felt towards her was accented by an almost offended feeling, as far as how she was spoiling what she’d been naturally given.

“Am I interrupting?” she said, her tone vaguely mocking, as she gave me a look I couldn’t quite figure out.

“Aisha,” Brian stood up, “What are you doing here?  You-” he stopped as a solid, heavyset black woman entered through the front door.  Where Aisha’s glance my way had been ambiguous, the look this woman gave me was anything but.  Disapproval, dislike.  I realized what I must look like, slightly sweaty, on the floor amid pieces of furniture, stomach showing, practically glowing with a pink blush.  I hurried to grab my sweatshirt and pull it on.

“Mr. Laborn?” the heavy woman said, “I’m afraid I expected you to be more prepared, but it seems like you’re in the middle of something.”

Brian shook his head, “Ma’am.  Mrs. Henderson.  I’m almost positive your office told me to expect you at two this afternoon.”

“That was the original time.  Aisha told me you wanted to reschedule-” Mrs. Henderson trailed off and gave Aisha a hard look.

Aisha smiled, shrugged, and hopped up so she was sitting on the end of the kitchen counter.  “What?  There’s a movie I want to see this afternoon with my friends.”

“If you’d asked, I might have said yes,” Brian told her, “Now I’m probably going to say no.”

“Not your call, bro, I’m not living with you yet,” she raised a double-set of middle fingers his way.

Brian looked like he was going to say something else, but then he stopped himself.  He sighed, then turned his attention to Aisha’s caseworker, “I’m sorry about this.”

She frowned, “Me too.  I should have called to check, given Aisha’s history of bending the truth.”  She looked at her notebook and turned a page, “If you’d like to reschedule, hmmm, I’m afraid I’ve already filled the afternoon slot, but perhaps this weekend…?”

Brian gave Aisha an annoyed look, “Since you’re already here, if you’re willing to look past the furniture we haven’t finished putting together, we could do it now.”

“If you’re sure?  What about your… companion?” she glanced at me.

My blush probably hadn’t gone away, and I suspect I blushed a little harder at suddenly being put in the middle of an awkward situation.  Probably didn’t help banish any wrong impressions she’d picked up.

“She’s a friend, she was helping me out.  Taylor, I’m not sure how long this will be.  I don’t want to waste your time, but I’d feel bad if you left so soon after coming all the way here.  If you want to stick around and take it easy, I could give you a ride back after.”

Every socially awkward part of my brain itched to take the offered escape route, make my exit, cool off.  It was hard to say why I didn’t.

“I’ll stay, if I won’t be in the way.  No plans for the afternoon.”

When Brian smiled, I realized why I hadn’t jumped on the chance to leave.

The woman gave me another close examination.  She asked me, “Are you in his online class?”

I shook my head.

“No.  You looked a little young for it.”  Then she challenged me, “Why aren’t you in school?”

“Um,” I hesitated.  Stick as close to the truth as possible.  “I was caught at the edge of one of the bomb blasts, got a concussion.  I’m missing classes until I’m totally better.”

“I see.  I’m sure that assembling furniture is what the doctor intended when he told you to rest and recuperate?”

I smiled awkwardly and shrugged.  Man, I was really hoping I wasn’t tanking this thing for Brian.

“So,” Brian spoke to Mrs. Henderson,  “You wanted to look my place over, and see the space I set aside for Aisha?  I guess this is a chance for you to check out a place before the family has scrambled to sweep everything under the rug.”

“Mmm.”  A noncommital response.  “Let’s step onto the balcony, and you can tell me about the area and the nearby schools.”

Brian led the way and held the door for the caseworker.  It swung shut behind him, leaving me with Aisha, who was still sitting on the kitchen counter.  I gave her a small smile, and received a cool, penetrating stare in return.  Uncomfortable, I turned my attention to the table and tried to see what I could do on my own, with the second leg.

“So.  You’re on my brother’s team?”

What?  I was proud of myself when I barely missed a beat.  “Team?  I know he boxes, or boxed, at least, but-“

She gave me a funny look, “You’re going to play dumb, hunh?”

“I’m not following.  Sorry.”

“Right.”  She leaned back and kicked her legs a bit.

I turned my focus back to the table leg.  I didn’t get very far before she interrupted me again.

“Look, I know you’re on his team.  Process of elimination, you have to be the bug girl.”

I shook my head, as much to deny it as in exasperation.  What the hell, Brian?

“He told me that he had powers, didn’t say what they were.  Since he has powers, he thinks there’s a chance I could get ‘em too.  Didn’t want me to be surprised.  I figured out who he was after that, saw something about some villains robbing a casino on a night he wasn’t at home, started keeping track of times he wasn’t available and it kept matching up.  Called him on it, and he didn’t do a very good job at denying it.”

Hoping to throw her off balance, I put the most convincing wide eyed expression of shock on my face that I could manage, “You’re saying your brother’s a supervillain?

She blinked twice, then said, slowly, like she was talking to someone with a mental handicap, “Yeaaaaah.  And I’m saying you are, too.  Why else would my brother be hanging out with you?”

Ouch.  That stung.

I was spared having to come up with a response and keep the charade going when Brian and the caseworker came back from the balcony.

The caseworker was saying, “…hesitant, with the waiting list.”

“She’s in the territory and she’d be entering the school at the same time as the rest of the grade nine students.” Brian replied, giving Aisha the evil eye, “And it would mean separating her from the bad influences around where she’s living now.”

Aisha gave him the finger, again.

“Mmm,” the caseworker replied, glancing from Aisha to him. “I’d like to see your bedroom next?”

“Mine?  Not Aisha’s?”

“Please.”

Brian led the caseworker up the stairs to his bedroom, which overlooked the rest of the apartment.

“Maybe I should see how you react if I shout it aloud,” Aisha suggested.  She played up an accent, “What do you call yourself, again?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Not saying?  Whatever.”  Hands cupped around her mouth as though she were shouting, she mock-shouted at a volume barely above regular speech, “Ladybug and Grue, in da house!”

I glanced upstairs, hoping that Brian and the caseworker weren’t in earshot.  The murmur of conversation up there didn’t seem to have been interrupted by what Aisha had said.

“Seems like you’d be in a lose-lose situation, broadcasting it like that,” I replied, “Either you’re right, and you tick off two people you really might want to avoid angering, or you’re wrong and you look crazy.”

“What if they already think I’m a little crazy, though?  What do I have to lose?”

“Can’t say.”  I tightened the bolt, checked the chair leg, and found it solid as a rock.  I moved on to the next one.  “What do you have to gain?”

“Come onnnn,” she wheedled, “Just admit it.”

My heart was pounding when Brian and the caseworker came down the stairs.  Aisha, for her part, pasted a wide, fake grin on her face to greet them.  Brian ushered the woman into the second bedroom, but didn’t go inside with her.  He stopped to look at me.

“Taylor, you don’t need to do that on your own.”

“It’s alright,” I said.  Glancing up at where Aisha was sitting on the countertop, I added, “It’s a nice distraction.

“Sorry.  I think we’ll be just another minute.”

It was, it turned out.  The caseworker exited Aisha’s bedroom-to-be and glanced through the bathroom, then investigated the cupboards and fridge.

Mrs. Henderson spoke to Aisha, “I’d like you to step onto the balcony for a minute.”

“Whatever.”  Aisha hopped down from the counter and headed outside.

“And,” she said, turning to Brian, “You might want your friend to step outside too.”

“I don’t really have anything to hide,” he answered, glancing my way.

“Alright.  Let me start off by saying this is better than most.”

“Thank you.”

“But I have concerns.”

You could see Brian’s expression change a fraction, at that.

“I read the documents and plans you emailed me.  You have a solid plan in mind for accounting, paying the bills, assisting with her education, possible extra expenses, clothes budget, even setting money aside for college.  In many respects, this is the sort of situation I wish for, with most of my cases.”

“But?”

“But when I look at this place, I see that you’ve made it very much yours.  The furniture, the decorations, the artwork, they seem to point to your personality, leaving very little room for Aisha’s, even in the space you’ve set aside for her.”

Brian looked a little stunned at that.  “I see.”

“Look, Mr. Laborn, we have to consider Aisha’s perspective.  She’s a serial runaway.  She clearly doesn’t see your father’s place as a home.  Extra care should be given to ensure she sees this as one.  Assuming she winds up here and not at her mother’s.”

“My mother’s,” Brian’s expression took on a more serious cast.

“I’m aware of your concerns on the subject of Aisha’s mother, Mr. Laborn.”

My cell phone buzzed once in my sweatshirt pocket.  I ignored it.

Brian sighed, sagging a little, “Is this fixable?”

“Yes.  Involve Aisha in the decoration, be willing to compromise your tastes and aesthetics to allow her to feel like this is her space too,” she said, “I know it won’t be easy.  Aisha is difficult sometimes, I’m sure we can both agree.”

I was beginning to gravitate towards that conclusion, myself.

“Yeah,” Brian nodded, “So what’s next?”

“I’ll be making a visit to her mother’s home in a week and a half, if I’m remembering right.  If you want to send me another email when you feel you’ve amended this minor problem, and the small handful of things I pointed out during the inspection, I could arrange to stop by again.”

“That would be terrific.”

“Keep in mind that I have an overflowing caseload, and I probably won’t be able to stop by until at least a week after you’ve let me know.”

“Thank you,” Brian said.

“Any questions?”

He shook his head.

“Then I wish you luck.  To apologize for the unexpected appointment time, I’ll make you a one time offer to take Aisha off your hands.  If she insists on getting herself suspended, I can maybe introduce her to some other that went down that road, while I go to this afternoon’s appointments.”

Brian smiled.  Not quite that amazing smile I’d seen so often, but a nice smile nonetheless, “I guess she’ll be missing that movie she wanted to go to.”

“Looks like,” the caseworker smiled conspiratorially.  “Keep it up, Mr. Laborn.  Aisha’s lucky to have you.”

Brian perked up a little at that.

The meeting didn’t last long after that, and a complaining Aisha was dragged off by the caseworker.  I couldn’t quite breathe a sigh of relief until they were gone.  Even then, I was uneasy, knowing how strong Aisha’s suspicions had been.

Remembering that my phone had buzzed, I reached for my cell phone to see what the message had been.  While holding down the button to unlock it, I told Brian, “Aisha knows about the Undersiders, looks like.”

“Shit.  Sorry,” he made a pained face, “If I thought you’d be running into her, I would’ve given you a heads up.  You didn’t say anything?”

“Pretended not to know what the hell she was talking about, for all the good it did.  Is this going to be a problem?”

“She promised she wouldn’t say anything to anyone… and it really bothers me that she was indiscreet enough to raise the subject with someone I hadn’t okayed.  But Aisha wouldn’t tell for the sake of telling.  I think she was probably messing with you.”

“If you’re sure,” I had my reservations, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to press him on the subject, when he was already stressed.

“Pretty sure,” he sighed.

I looked at my cell phone.  It was from Lisa.

srry to interrupt smoochfest. you two need to hurry back.  shit is going down.

I felt a bit of heat on my cheeks as I took extra care to delete the text.  When I was done, I turned to Brian.  “Lisa says something’s up.  She says to hurry back.”

“Pain in the ass,” Brian said.  “I was hoping… ah hell.  Guess we’re not going to get this stuff put together, huh?” he smiled at me.

I smiled back, “Another time.”

He gave me a hand to help me to my feet.  Was I being hopeful or observant when I noted his hand maybe lingered a half second longer than necessary on my own?

Was a part of me dreading those possibilities, hoping that it was neither hope nor accurate observation on my part?  Because I couldn’t quite tell if there was, or if I just wanted there to be a sane part of me having a say.

Fuck.  I mentally moved up my timeline.  No longer than a week, and I’d have to take what I knew about the Undersiders to the Protectorate.  I wasn’t sure I trusted myself for any longer than that.

Tangle 6.4

“Thanks to a concerted effort by members of Brockton Bay’s Wards and Protectorate teams, the local gang, the ‘ABB’, or Azn Bad Boys, has fallen.”

Brian and I had arrived at the loft just in time to catch the bulletin on the news.  Lisa, Alec, Bitch and the three dogs were gathered on the couches.

“The heroes of the hour are the young members of the Wards, Clockblocker and Vista, who played a pivotal role in managing a crisis with a superbomb, allegedly used by the supervillain Bakuda in an attempt to hold the city ransom and guarantee her safety.  While experts on the scene refused to offer hard numbers, a local cape was quoted as stating the superbomb could have had a yield of nine thousand kilotons of energy.  This device, containing power on par with conventional nuclear bombs, was fashioned with household materials scavenged from the area, after fighting in the Docks and pressure from local authorities forced the bomb’s alleged creator to relocate to a derelict boathouse just days ago.  Were it not for the efforts of the Wards, this might have been a tragic day for our nation.

“As much as we might wish for a period of somber reflection, other local villains have shown little interest in putting recent matters to rest.  Less than an hour after suspected ABB leader Lung and alleged accomplice Bakuda were brought into custody, the head offices of Medhall Corporation were assaulted by armed forces, in an altercation that drew the attention of members of local Aryan villain group Empire Eighty-Eight.  This appears to have prompted a rash of more than six major incidents in the past hour-“

Lisa muted the TV, turning around on the couch to look at Brian and me.  “I’ll give you the cliff notes.  The Travelers just hit an art gallery and an airport in the span of an hour.  Coil and Empire Eighty Eight are apparently trying to make up for lost time and are just a hair away from open warfare on the streets.  The Merchants – Skidmark’s group – are taking advantage of the chaos and trying to do what the ABB did, but with local drugheads and hobos and zero control over their situation… they won’t get far, but I’m sure they’re having a grand old looting spree.”

“So the ceasefire is over,” I spoke.  Weren’t things supposed to get better with the ABB gone?  Why did I feel partially responsible for this?

“It’s like everyone was poised at the starting line, ready to move the instant the gun fired,” Alec said.

“Except us,” Brian pointed out.

“Not necessarily,” Lisa shook her head, “Five minutes after Medhall got hit, we got a message from the boss.  He’s got a job he wants us to do, maybe our biggest yet, but the timeline’s short.  It’s why I called you here.”

Brian folded his arms.

“Here’s the thing,” she said, “Morale is down.  The city is spooked, and things aren’t calming down the way people were hoping they would.  The fact that we all dodged a bullet with this superbomb thing?  It didn’t help.”

She typed on her laptop while she talked, “Topping it off, it doesn’t look good when the local news gets wind of the fact that a large part of the fighting against the ABB was being done by villains.  Get my drift?  So with the idea that they were planning a fundraiser around now anyways, the mayor’s promoting a function to help sell the idea that it was the good guys that were the major players here.  End result?  A fundraiser-slash-celebration involving the Protectorate, Wards, the PRT forces, cops and all those guys.  Tonight.  Most of the Wards and New Wave are gonna pick up the slack in the meantime, to keep the city protected, because the mayor’s prioritizing PR here.”

“I’m not liking the direction this is going, here,” I told her.

She picked up her laptop and set it on the back of the couch, facing me and Brian.  The page showed details on the celebration, had links to ticket vendors and sported an image of a bunch of people in tuxedos and gowns.   “The Protectorate and some of the Wards are going to be there with the upper crust of Brockton Bay, their friends and family, and anyone else willing to shell out the cash for a ticket.  The boss wants us to, quote, ‘embarrass them’, unquote.”

There was something of a stunned silence.  I glanced at Bitch and Alec, and gathered from their expressions that they had already heard this.  In contrast to the situation we’d had with the bank robbery, though, they didn’t look all that keen.

Brian started chuckling.  After a bit, his chuckle became an all-out laugh.

I didn’t wait for him to finish before I said my piece, “Are you insane?  You want us to, what, crash a party, fuck with the people there and then scram before we get ourselves arrested by the-” I struggled to find the words, “By half the fucking heroes in Brockton Bay?!”

“Basically.”  Lisa said, raising her hands as if to get me to calm down, “Though it’s probably more like a third of the city’s heroes.”

“Right,” I said, “No offense, Lisa, I’m fond of you and everything, but you kind of underestimated the number of heroes that would show up to the bank robbery, too.  Don’t forget that a bunch of heroes came from out of town to help with the ABB situation, and they might stick around for the after-party.”

“True,” she admitted, “But still-“

“And the plan is to piss them off?” I asked, incredulous, “Not just them, either, but that party’s probably going to be attended by the mayor, the DA, the police chief… You’re aware that if we tried this and any of us got caught, it would pretty much be a first class trip to the Birdcage?”

“Sorry, Lise, this is a no,” Brian told her, still looking amused, “I’m perfectly cool with letting all the other groups go at it for a bit.  We did our part, and we’ve got nothing to lose in kicking back for a little while.”

“Yeah.  I don’t get the point,” Bitch said, scratching the top of Brutus’ head.

“You won’t find anyone more willing to get a little crazy than me,” Alec told Lisa, “But I’m with Bitch.  It’s a whole lot of risk, a whole lot of trouble.  For what?  Tweaking the good guys’ noses?”

“The boss is willing to pay,” Lisa said.  “With other considerations.”

“Considerations?” I asked.

“You have to understand,” Lisa sighed, “I don’t disagree with what you guys are saying, but what I can tell you is that this is a test.  The boss wants to see if we can pull this off, and if we can, we’re that much more valuable to him.  A lot more valuable.”

“Or maybe the test is whether we’re smart enough to turn down a doomed mission,” Brian pointed out.

“Maybe,” Lisa conceded, “I don’t think so, but I won’t deny that it’s possible.”

Brian asked her, “Can we turn this down?  I mean, he’s never forced us to take a job.”

“We could,” she didn’t look happy.

He frowned, “I think it’s four votes against, at the very least.  I’m assuming you’re going to vote for this plan, Lise?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Well, unless we’ve switched from a majority vote system, I guess you can tell the boss ‘thank you, but no’,” he said.  When she didn’t reply, he turned to me, “Want to see about putting that kitchen table and bedside table together?  I can treat you to a late lunch, if-“

“Two hundred and fifty!” Lisa interrupted him.

He gave her a look, “Two hundred and fifty…”

“Thousand,” she finished for him, dropping her arms to her side, almost defeated.  “Each.  Damn it.  I wanted to get you guys on board before I wowed you with the amount.  Sounds desperate when I say it like this, but I can’t let you walk away without letting you know what we’d be turning down.”

The sum gave us pause.

“Just to be clear… One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, divided five ways,” Alec said, “For this?”

“Like I said,” Lisa smiled a little, “Biggest job yet.”

“If the boss offered us a quarter million dollars each to walk up to those guys and turn ourselves in, it wouldn’t be that different a scenario,” I pointed out.

“Sure it would,” Lisa retorted, “We actually have a chance at getting through this, free and clear.”

“A very, very small chance,” I pointed out.

“A chance,” she said.  “But if we do this?  If we prove to the boss that we’re worth his while?  We move up.  We get more money, we get more equipment, information, we get a voice as far as shaping his long term plans, all of which may translate to more respect in the cape community.”

“A voice?” I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Meeting with him, discussing what we do next, and why.”

My mind started racing with the implications of this.

“I’m changing my vote,” Alec said, “This much money, it sort of solves the problem I had with the job, which was that it was sort of pointless.  A quarter million dollars is pretty pointy.”

“Two for, three against,” Lisa said.  “Bitch?”

Bitch scowled, “Let me think.”

This was a chance to meet our employer, in the not too distant future.  Question was – did I want to take it?  I’d been procrastinating, avoiding the issue, trying not to think too much about my game plan, about turning these guys in when I had the last bit of information I needed about how they ran things, about where the money came from.  Now I had to make a call.

All along, I’d been telling myself that I’d turn them in.  Give the information to the Protectorate.  But my heart wasn’t really in it.  It would mean turning on friends.  While I didn’t dislike Alec or even Bitch, my thoughts were on Lisa and Brian.  I mean, well, Lisa was my first real friend since Emma.  As for Brian, I liked him, respected him.   I hated the idea of doing to them what Emma had done to me.  Betraying friends.

I’d given up the idea of gaining respect or prestige for turning them in.  I mean, I’d committed a felony, taken hostages, attacked other heroes, nearly killed a man, then carved that same person’s eyes out a couple of weeks afterward.

And I could live with that part, with not getting credit or accolades or whatever.  I could see myself flying under the radar for a while.  Perhaps playing the role of a vigilante avoiding the attention of both hero and villain, if I was really itching to get out in costume.  Or see if maybe, just maybe, I could try for the same deal that Shadow Stalker got, become a probationary member of the Wards.  I’d initially veered away from the Wards out of concern that it would be too similar to high school… but I’d changed in the past few weeks.  Stood up to Emma twice.  Three times, if you counted the meeting.  I had a little more backbone than I’d had a month ago.  I could picture myself laboring alongside a group of junior superheroes that resented me as a kind of penance for my villainous actions, and that was a pretty big change from before I’d even gone out in costume, when the very idea of joining them was hard to process.

The problem was, going down that road was a mess of maybes and possiblies, each step a mess of potential disasters.  What if I got arrested rather than offered probationary membership in the Wards?  What if the Undersiders escaped arrest and came after me?  Or my dad?

It came down to the people that were in the room with me.  It wasn’t just that I would be betraying them like Emma did to me.  Was I brave enough to go through what I had with Emma, with having people I liked and looked up to becoming my worst enemies?

And if I didn’t choose, didn’t decide… Well, if I put it off any longer, the only difference from staying for good by choice would be a fair sized measure of self delusion on my part.  The time I’d spent with Brian made that clear enough.

“I think… I might change my vote,” I voiced the thought aloud as I formed it.

There were looks of surprise from everyone present, excepting the dogs.  Lisa, especially, rocked back a little in reaction to my statement.

It took all I had to keep my facade intact.  At the end of the day, what scared me more than losing friends and having them hate me, more than having them come after me or my dad, was the idea that I would hate myself.  That I would hate myself one, five, ten or twenty years down the line, for betraying my principles and for making a bad call with wide reaching implications.  Hate myself for taking a road that might lead me going to jail with no chance of getting bailed out by Armsmaster, or going down a path that led to me hurting someone innocent as badly as I’d hurt Lung and Bakuda.

Sticking with the Undersiders was a short term gain, sure, but long term?  I had to stick with my original plan, and try to convince myself I was doing it for the greater good.

Alec raised his eyebrows.  “Really.”

“What?” I asked.

“You’re the last person I would have expected to change your vote, dork,” he said, “You’re careful, and this is the least careful job we’ve had yet.”

“Changing my vote is provisional on whether we can come up with a plan that has a decent chance of us escaping with our skin intact,” I clarified.

“Still, you’re usually Brian’s shadow, echoing him,” Alec said.

“Thanks, Alec,” Brian frowned.  Brian turned to me, his eyebrows knitting together in concern, “You sure?”

“Not totally,” I admitted, “And I’m sorry, for not backing you up.”

“You’re a member of the team, you’re allowed your own voice.”

“What changed your mind?” The question came from Lisa.

I had to avoid tripping any alarms with her.  The safest way to go about it would be to stick with the truth, or something very close to it.

“It bugs me that I don’t know who our employer is.  There’s some real ugly possibilities, and I’d rather know sooner than later, if they were the case.”  There, truth enough.

“I admit,” Brian conceded, “I am curious.  It’s… I don’t think I’m curious enough to want to take this job.”

“If the scrawny kid is gonna do this, I’m not backing down,” Bitch said.  “I’ll change my vote too.”

“Kid?” I asked her, “Scrawny, sure, but I’m probably a year younger than you, at most.”

Lisa stopped us, leaning to one side to put herself between Bitch and I.  “We have to stay on topic, since there’s only a few hours to plan and get ready.  We have four votes for, one against.  Looks like this is gonna happen.”

Brian sighed.

“Sorry,” I murmured my second apology.

He put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s okay.”

I noticed he didn’t move his hand off my shoulder right away.

Distracting myself, I asked Lisa, “So how do we pull this off?”

She began outlining a plan.

Tangle 6.5

My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.

Fuck.

Tangle 6.6

“Surrender,” Armsmaster ordered us.

“No,” Grue retorted.

“You’re only going to embarrass yourself if you prolong this.”

“We have you outnumbered five to three, eight to three if you count the dogs,” Grue answered.  “I can see your buddy Velocity lurking over there.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?  I admit, it was clever to control the battlefield, to dictate each engagement so it occurred on your terms, and to use our own weapons against us… but those weapons no longer work.  None of your weapons work,” Armsmaster turned his head to look at where Miss Militia had Regent at gunpoint.  “Which means you can stop trying to use your power on me, Regent.  I’ve got a little blinking light in the corner of my H.U.D. telling me you’re trying something.  I’ve set up psychic and empathic shielding, to protect myself from you and Tattletale.”

I glanced at Tattletale.  He was psychically shielded against her?  How did that work?

Then I remembered.  When we’d gone up against Glory Girl and Panacea, hadn’t Tattletale said she read minds?  And now Armsmaster had bad info and was figuring he was immune.

“I don’t need to read you,” she told him, “You’re the only one with shields, so your teammates and the PRT staff don’t have any psychic shields up, and I can read them to get anything I need.  You’re not the best inventor, but like most tinkers, you’ve got a knack.  Yours just happens to be condensing and integrating technology.  Only works in your immediate presence, but still, you can stick way more technology in a space than has a right to be there… like your Halberd.”

Armsmaster frowned.  “You’re lying.”

Damn it.  I wish I could’ve told her he had a lie detector built into his helm.  But I couldn’t without explaining that I knew him.

Tattletale took it in stride, grinning, “Sure, fibbed about the reading minds bit.  Not about your weapon and power.  Let’s see… to deal with my buddy Grue, you’ve made that thing a fancy tuning stick.  Sensing vibrations in the air, translating them into images with that fancy helm of yours?”

Grue cracked his knuckles.  He’d gotten the message.  Darkness wasn’t going to do much.  Armsmaster, for his part, gripped his weapon tighter.  An unspoken threat to Tattletale.

“And the ass-end of that stick of yours is using the brass in between the floor tiles to help transmit an electrical charge to the area around you for fancy bug zapping.  Did you set that up before coming here tonight, knowing the way the floor would be put together?”

He didn’t reply.

“Guess not.  Happy coincidence that the setup you put together works as well as it does in here, then.”

Again, no reply.  She grinned a fraction wider.  She went on, “You can tell I’m lying, huh?  That’s awesome.”

Armsmaster’s weapon turned to point in her general direction.  She didn’t back down.

“So you’ll know I’m telling the truth when I say your team hate your guts.  They know you care more about rising from your position as the seventh most prominent member of the Protectorate than you do about them or the city.”

In the span of a second, the blade of the halberd broke into three pieces, reconfigured, and fired in grappling-hook style at Tattletale.  The tines closed together, forming a loose ball shape as it flew, striking her solidly in the stomach.  She crumpled to the ground, arms around her middle.

The head of the weapon reeled in and snapped back into place atop the pole.

“Bastard,” Grue spoke.

“Apparently, according to your teammate,” Armsmaster replied, seemingly unbothered.

I gathered my bugs, poising them near and above Armsmaster in case I needed them to act quickly.

Armsmaster turned his head in my direction, “Skitter?  You, especially, do not want to irritate me any more, tonight.”

The bottom of his Halberd tapped the ground, and the bugs perished.  I glanced at the floor as he did it.  Sure enough, the broad tiles had little lines of metal -bronze?- dividing them.

There was a flurry of action where Regent and Miss Militia were.  She appeared to drop the machine gun, and Regent took that chance to pull away.  He didn’t get one step before she regained her balance and dropped into a low kick that swept his legs out from under him.  Her machine gun dissolved when it was halfway to the ground, turning into a shimmer of dark green energy that arced back up to her hand.  It rematerialized into a gleaming steel machete.  Regent stopped his struggles the second she rested the point of the bladed weapon against the side of his throat.

Armsmaster watched it all unfold without twitching a muscle.  Even if he didn’t care much about his teammates, he apparently trusted Miss Militia to handle herself.

“Grue.  You’ve shown you can dismiss the effects of your power,” Armsmaster spoke, “Do so now.”

“Somehow,” Grue retorted, “I’m not seeing a major reason why I should listen.”

“Um, got a sword pressing against my neck here, guy,” Regent pointed out.

“…Not seeing a major reason,” Grue repeated himself.

Regent let out a little laugh, “Fuck you.”

Armsmaster dispassionately watched the exchange, then spoke, dead serious, “Look at it this way.  If there are witnesses, Miss Militia will have a far harder time selling the idea that she stabbed your friend in the throat in self defense.”

He glanced in the direction of his second in command, and Miss Militia gave a small nod in response.

Would she?  Probably not, I suspected.  Could we risk it?  That choice was up to Grue.

Grue glanced over at where Regent lay.  After a second, he made the darkness fade.  The people in the crowd were mostly huddled on the ground, trying to fend off the stinging and biting swarm.  The dogs lurked at the edges of the room, and Bitch was astride Angelica.  Velocity, in his red costume with the racing stripes down either side and two stripes meeting in a ‘v’ at his chest, wasn’t that far from her.  I suspected they had been squaring off.

I found Emma in the crowd.  Her dad was huddled over both of his daughters, as though he could shield them from any danger, and Emma’s mom was hugging her around the shoulders.

Somehow, that really pissed me off.

Armsmaster glanced my way, “And the bugs.”

Reluctantly, I pulled them away from the crowd.  I settled the flying bugs on the intact portions of the ceiling.  I glanced up at the bugs and sighed.  Then I glanced at Emma again.

This was really not how I wanted this to end.  Me arrested, my scheme a failure, Emma getting off scott free with a family, friends and no major consequences for all the shit she’d pulled?

“Sir,” I spoke, trying to sound confident.  Would Emma recognize my voice?  “Let me check on Tattletale.”

“You can do that once you’ve surrendered,” he spoke.  He changed his posture so his Halberd was pointed in my general direction.  I winced.  I did not want to get the same treatment Tattletale had received.  Or would he not do it with people watching?

My eyes darted in the direction of the crowd, to Tattletale, who didn’t look up to talking.  All eyes were on the scene.  Why had he gone out of his way to get an audience?  Could I use it?  What had he been so upset about, when I’d met him at the ferry?  What had Tattletale gone out of her way to stress to us about Armsmaster?

Reputation.

“I need to make sure you didn’t do any serious damage,” I spoke, just a hint of accusation in my voice.

“She’s fine.”

“I want to verify that for myself,” I said, standing.  How far can I push this?  “Please, she was surrendering and you hit her so hard.”

“You’re lying.”

“The fuck she is!” Regent joined in, “Tattletale walks up to you, ready to be cuffed, and you smacked her across the room, you fucking lunatic!”

I didn’t dare to glance at the crowd.  Armsmaster was the person we needed to get a reaction out of, here.

“Enough.  This is a fabrication,” Miss Militia spoke, her voice raised maybe a bit to carry to the rest of the room.

“Why do you think we’re so reluctant to surrender, if that’s the treatment we’ll get!?” Regent shouted, “It’s not like we’re not totally fucked!”  Miss Militia moved the machete to remind him it was there.

Armsmaster’s head turned toward me.  This was my huge gamble.  How would he respond?  If he called me out as a traitor within the Undersiders, would people buy it, would my team buy it, or would it only hurt his credibility?  He didn’t know that Tattletale would be able to tell it was truth.

“Miss Militia has a blade at my teammate’s throat,” Grue broke the silence, “I think it’s pretty clear you don’t pull your punches.”

Armsmaster turned to his teammate, “Perhaps a less lethal weapon would be more appropriate.”

Miss Militia’s eyebrows knit together in concern, “Sir?”

“Now.”  He left no room for argument.  Then, to ensure they still had control of the situation, he turned to his nearest available hostage.

Me.

I was flat on my back and couldn’t back away fast enough to escape, especially with my having to slip my arms from the straps that held the tank of containment foam to my back.  He pointed the head of his weapon at me as he strode over to me, the threat of his firing it serving to keep me subdued.  I glanced at Grue, but he was frozen, two of his teammates at the mercy of the city’s leading heroes.  Tattletale was struggling to her feet, but she couldn’t accomplish much.

Above Regent, the sword shimmered and turned into that black and green energy.  In that moment, Regent struck, drawing his knees to his chest, then kicking up and to the side to drive both of his heels into Miss Militia’s upper stomach.  A second later, he shoved both of his hands in the direction of her collarbone.

The black-green energy of her power continued to arc around her without solidifying as the contents of her stomach began violently heaving their way out of her mouth, spattering into the flag-scarf that covered the lower half of her face and overflowing onto the floor.  Regent had to roll to one side to avoid being bathed in vomit.

I took advantage of the distraction and brought every bug in the room down from the ceiling, sending a fair majority of them toward Armsmaster.  He swiped at his face to remove them, then lifted his weapon.  I grabbed for the pole with both hands before it could strike the ground, and pulled myself across the floor to situate my body between the pole and the ground.

It didn’t feel like I thought it might, the electrical charge.  As the end of the Halberd made contact with my body, it was as though someone had dropped a handful of live snakes onto my chest and they were writhing in place there, a single tendril rushing up the skin of my right arm and over my fingertips.  It didn’t hurt much at all.

And the bugs around Armsmaster didn’t die.  Very few of the ones on me, even, perished.

I’d known spider silk was insulated to some degree.  I was really glad that it was insulated enough.  Really, really glad my interference was enough to stop the energy from conducting through the area and zapping the bugs out of the air.

“Hm,” looming over me, Armsmaster made a noise of disapproval, “Not smart.”

“Bitch!  Dogs!” I hollered, “Grue!  Shadow me!”

Of all the times to lapse into caveman grammar.  Still, he smothered me and Armsmaster in darkness.

When Armsmaster managed to wrest the Halberd from my hands, I had enough bugs on him to tell he was bringing the bottom end of his Halberd down hard against the floor, away from me.  My bugs didn’t die, and continued to settle on the exposed skin of his lower face, crawl up under his visor.  The charge or whatever other stuff he had going on to direct it wasn’t conducting through the darkness.

Before he could strike at me, I headed in the other direction.  Staying in close proximity to Armsmaster wasn’t a good idea, with my power being one that worked at range, and him being the close-quarters combatant.  I felt him move away from me, clawing the bugs away from his mouth and nose, heading out the opposite side of the cloud of darkness to strike the ground, kill off the swarm I’d set on him and then turn his attention to the charging dogs.

I wasn’t two steps outside of the darkness when I had Velocity in my face.

Battery and Velocity were both speedsters of a sort, giving them the ability to move at a ridiculous pace.  They were very different kinds of speedster, though.  As I interpreted it, from all the stuff I’d read online and in the magazines and interviews, Battery could charge up and move at enhanced speeds for very short periods of time, sort of like how Bitch’s power pumped up her dogs, but concentrated into a few brief moments.  It was a physiological change, altering her biology and then altering it back before it became too much on her body.  The actual act of moving at the speeds these guys could manage was an incredible strain on the body.  There were only one or two parahumans on the planet who could manage that kind of movement without any workarounds or limitations, and Battery and Velocity weren’t among them.

Velocity, in contrast to Battery, was more like Shadow Stalker.  He changed states, and while I had no idea what this meant exactly, whether it was him shifting partially into another dimension or altering the way time or physics worked in relation to himself, I did know that it made him able to move very fast, without needing to rest like Battery did.  Fast enough that my wasps couldn’t really land on him, and those that did were dispatched before they could start stinging.

The drawback, though, was that while he was moving like that, he wasn’t hitting as hard, probably for the same reasons he wasn’t shattering his bones by hammering his feet against the ground ten times a second, getting torn to shreds by friction or running out of oxygen due to an inability to breathe.  His speed came with a reduced ability to affect the world around him and be affected by it.  He couldn’t hit as hard, couldn’t hold or move things as easily.  An effective loss of strength proportionate to how fast he was capable of moving.

So as fast as he was moving, having him hit me wasn’t much worse than getting punched by an eight year old.

Problem was, he was hitting me a lot.  His perceptions were ramped up, too, which meant he had the luxury of what must have been seconds in his own senses to see my reactions, calculate the best place to stick that next punch or kick to knock me off balance or inflict pain.  It was less like being in a fistfight and more like being caught in a gale-force wind that had every intent of screwing me over.

Velocity was forcing me to back up, stumble and overall just working to herd me in one direction – towards an open window.  Either he’d force me through and leave me hanging from the ledge, helpless to avoid arrest, or I’d have to give up or let myself be knocked to the ground instead, at which point it would be pretty much over.  Once I was down, he’d either keep up the onslaught until another cape could finish me off, or he’d turn off his power long enough to knock me over the head a few times with a chair or something.

Across the room, Grue was working with two of the dogs and Bitch to keep Armsmaster hemmed in, while one of the dogs and Regent were keeping Miss Militia out of action.

I couldn’t win this one on my own.

“Grue!” I hollered.  I got struck in the mouth three times before I could bring an arm up to fend Velocity off and speak again, “Need cover!”

He spared me a glance and a blast of his darkness.  In an instant, I was blind and deaf, with only my bugs to go by.

But Velocity was slowed down, and I had my suspicions that it wasn’t just the fact that he had to use his hands to find me before striking.  Grue had said that Shadow Stalker’s powers were somehow less effective in his darkness.  Could that apply to Velocity too?  Or was it just the extra resistance of Grue’s power versus normal air, combined with Velocity’s low strength?

My bugs were now successfully settling on him, oddly giving me a better sense of his movements than my eyes had, and I was directing them not to sting or bite, so he wouldn’t have an easy time finding them.  They began to cluster on him, and somehow I felt like that was slowing him down even more.

The onslaught had been softened, and he wasn’t half as effective at keeping me off balance, now.  He couldn’t effectively see my posture to know the optimal places to strike, so I was able to get my feet firmly on the ground.  I lashed out twice with my fists, but my hits lacked impact.  Something to do with his power, I suspected, as well as his ability to move fast enough to roll with any hits he felt connecting.

So I grabbed a weapon he couldn’t react to, my pepper spray, and directed a stream of it into his face.  Then I instructed the bugs I’d gathered on him to bite and sting.

The effect was immediate, and dramatic.  You’ve never really seen someone flip out until you’ve seen a speedster flip out.  He fell to the ground, stood, tumbled over a chair, then was up the next second, lunging for a table, blindly patting it down in the hopes of finding something to wash his eyes out with.  I felt him slow down dramatically, increasing his own strength enough to allow himself to check the cups and pitchers.

I had bugs on the table he was searching, and the only liquid there was wine.  Anticipating he would continue looking for some relief, I moved closer to the table nearest me.

Sure enough, he darted over to the same table and began searching.  I took one long step to my left, reached behind my back, and gripped the foam handle of my extendable baton with both hands.  Like a golf club, I swung it up and between his legs.

My rationale was that I needed to hamper his mobility, but I didn’t want to deliver any permanent injury, which was a possibility if I hit him in the knee or spine.  Besides, the Protectorate had top notch costume designers, and what male superhero with an expensive costume would go out without a cup?  Right?

Unless, the thought crossed my mind as Velocity keeled over, he’d foregone the cup for extra mobility and to reduce friction.

I’d find some way to make it up to him, after all of this was over with.

He pulled weakly against my grip as I brought his left arm and his right leg together, and cinched them together with a double-set of plastic handcuffs.  I then cuffed his right arm to the table in front of him.  Velocity was out of action, for all intents and purposes.

Though every impulse told me to get out of the darkness and get a look at what was going on, I stayed put, crouching and feeling out with my bugs.  With their legs and bodies serving as thousands upon thousands of tiny fingers I could use to feel out my surroundings, I got a sense of the situation.

Since doing whatever he’d done to Miss Militia, Regent had taken to standing guard over her.  He had one hand outstretched in her direction while she struggled on the floor, dry heaving now, with her limbs twitching.  Tattletale was with him, one hand still pressed to her stomach, but she was standing, watching the crowd for anyone who might step to Miss Militia’s rescue.

Which left only Armsmaster.  Except ‘only’ wasn’t the right word.  Bitch, her three dogs and Grue had Armsmaster surrounded, and even with that, I got the impression that he was in control of the situation.

He’d formed the head of his halberd into a loose ball again, and had the chain he used for the grappling hook extended partially so it could serve as a flail.  There was something of a stalemate as my teammates remained where they were, staying spaced out, just out of reach of the weapon.  Armsmaster, for his part, was standing in a loose fighting posture, holding the long pole of his Halberd as he swung the flail head in a loose figure eight.

Brutus growled at his quarry, moving a half step too close, and Armsmaster seized the opportunity.  The chain extended with a faint whirr and the flail moved with surprising quickness to collide with Brutus’ shoulder.  From Brutus’ reaction, I would have thought he’d just been hit by a wrecking ball.  Either Armsmaster was far stronger than he looked, or there was something about his weapon that was giving it a little extra oomph.  Given that he was a tinker, it could have been anything.

Armsmaster didn’t stop at felling Brutus.  As he finished giving the ball the necessary momentum, Armsmaster reversed his grip and lunged at Grue, swinging the bottom end of his weapon like a baseball bat.  Grue avoided the swing by stepping back and ducking, but wasn’t able to recover quick enough to avoid the follow-up.  Armsmaster kept moving forward, not pausing as he slapped the end of the pole back into one of his hands and rammed the midsection of the pole against Grue’s chest, hard.  Grue hit the ground with enough force that he almost bounced, and was driven hard into the ground a second time as Armsmaster brought the end of the pole down into his stomach.

Without thinking, I stepped forward out of the darkness, then stopped myself.  What help could I offer by jumping in there?

Bitch whistled for a dog to attack, but Armsmaster was already reacting, drawing his elbow against the chain to control the movement of the flail’s head.  He dropped the pole and grabbed the chain to pull the ball towards himself, caught it out of the air with his free hand and turning in a tight circle to preserve the momentum from flail-head’s flight, slammed it full force into Angelica’s ear.  Bitch had to skip back out of the way as Angelica collapsed to the ground where she’d been standing.

Without glancing down, Armsmaster put one armored boot underneath the pole as it rebounded against the ground, then kicked it straight up to chest level.  He caught his weapon in one hand and reeled in the chain.  The flail-head snapped back into a blade shape as it reconnected with the top of the pole.

Two dogs and Grue down, and he’d made it look effortless.

It struck me just what made Armsmaster a step above other tinkers, above other people with the ability to invent and perform mad science, and it wasn’t the insane amounts of training he had probably put himself through.  Tinkers tended to have a knack, a special quality specific to their work.  According to Tattletale, Armsmaster’s ability let him cram technology together and still have it work.  Other tinkers were limited in what they could carry and have access to at any given point in time, but Armsmaster?  He had a solution for every problem he’d been able to think of, without having to worry about economy of space, the weight of his hardware and the room on his utility belt, or whatever.  And w