Based on the web serial "Worm" by wildbow.
A Lighter Shade of Gray
"You guys offered me a choice. I could take the money and go, or I could join. Let me change my mind."
- Insinuation 2.8
My arm throbbed.
The scratches on my torso I could handle. Probing them with my fingertips didn't find anything that felt too deep. If they were weeping blood at all, they didn't wet my black tank top enough to make the fabric cling to my skin. My ear's cut had clotted already, and I could at least hide it with my long hair. Any knots from the dried blood would be a pain to comb out, but there were worse things in life.
Like my arm.
That fucking Bitch, I thought hotly.
The Undersiders had seemed nice, for villains. I had almost been able to let my guard slip a little and think of them as people.
My sweatshirt's sleeve was already soaked in blood. The dark fabric hid the growing stain well enough, but you couldn't ignore the thick coppery stench. It'd gotten me more than a few second sideways glances on the bus. Even the bugs needed prodding to leave me alone.
I definitely needed stitches. I probably needed antibiotics.
My dad couldn't know about either.
Thankfully, Brockton Bay University had an urgent care that took walk-ins. More importantly, it took cash. I could put some of the two grand in my backpack to good use.
With any luck, I would be home before my dad thought anything odd was up.
Walking the school campus was like a kind of waking dream. A hundred little things leapt out at me no matter which way I turned. There was the roof my family had watched Fourth of July fireworks from, back when the city could still afford to put on shows. Here the breeze caught me downwind of a flowerbed packed with bright flowers, overwhelming the nose with a pungent - and familiar - mixture of wood chips and fertilizer.
I could almost imagine turning a corner and bumping into my mom.
The wide detour I took to avoid the English Department's brutalist concrete monstrosity brought me smack dab into a large crowd. At first I suspected there might have been some protest going on, like a rally of Simurgh-victims rights activists or a Bible nut on a soapbox, but edging through the undergrads milling on the lawn brought me into sight of the police cars.
A shaded garden path between two buildings was barricade with police tape, and at the far end I could make out a gurney being loaded onto an ambulance.
Reaching out with my power, I noted something curious almost immediately. There was a large bush along the walkway, and something about its leaves and the grass below excited my bugs. My puzzlement quickly turned to queasiness. The bugs had been drawn in the same way by my injured arm.
They were reacting to blood, and a lot of it.
Someone had been attacked.
On a wild hunch, I glanced up.
Someone was crouching on a nearby rooftop. I hadn't noticed with my bugs, but in retrospect I kicked myself for not checking for anything above ground level. Plenty of parahumans could move vertically in ways even other people with powers, like me, couldn't. I needed to start thinking in three dimensions from now on. It might save my life.
That superhero on the rooftop had a genuine cape fluttering in the wind. Probably not the smartest thing to wear if you wanted to spy on a crowd. Motion drew the eye.
Had I noticed it, on an unconscious level?
No, the more important question was who the cape was looking for.
It made sense that the attacker would be in the crowd, watching his or her handiwork. Bullies like Emma and Sophia operated by the same principle. The public performance was half the joy, even if would have been smarter not to linger at the scene of the crime - in this case literally.
There was a lot of blood by that bush. Whoever attacked the victim, unless they were careful, must have gotten some of it on their skin or clothes.
Reaching out with my power, I hunted for that same scent that drove my bugs nuts. The patch behind the bush had it. My arm was the same. Several female undergrads in the crowd had an air of it to them, but different somehow. Maybe they were on their periods?
No. I need blood exposed to the-
I forced myself not to look.
A few flies planted on key points gave me an outline of the attacker and his bloodied knuckles. Male by the height, build, and lack of hair.
If he was bald, then...
"Who got attacked?" I asked a random goateed undergrad.
"Some black chick," he replied. "Fucking Nazis bashed her face in."
"They get the guy who did it?"
He snorted. "Half those pigs are probably on Kaiser's payroll."
"Someone will catch him," I promised.
"M- Hey, what the fuck's wrong with your arm?"
But I was already walking away.
I founded a nearby bathroom to change in. As I had for the bus ride to my meeting with the Undersiders that morning, I donned my costume sans my mask and put on my regular clothes over it.
For lack of a proper bandage, I bought a sanitary pad from the bathroom dispenser and applied it to my forearm. A strip of cloth ripped from my tank top held it in place. I really needed to carry more medical supplies than an EpiPen. Something else to add to my list.
I had to pull my blood-soaked sweatshirt back on before I could stuff it with toliet paper like I planned, but all worries over my costume getting bloodstains on it evaporated as I sensed my skinhead wandering away from the crowd.
I shadowed him across campus and onto Spayder Avenue, keeping back a block and a half so he wouldn't spot me. Most of the time he wasn't even in line thanks to other pedestrians. Only the bugs I'd covertly planted on his clothes kept me aware of his location.
How could I get to him?
If he cleaned off his hands, ditched his clothes, that might be it for the evidence. He might get away with beating that woman. I couldn't let that happen.
I needed to corner him, except I didn't know this off-campus area at all. Right then I wished I was like that cape back at the crime scene. Obstacles on the ground weren't a problem if you could sail over them, and traps must have been easy to set up when you could get the lay of the land at a glance.
But... maybe I didn't need to fly to do just that.
If I could use bugs to tell a person's height and gender, like I had with the skinhead and earlier with the Undersiders, maybe the same thing could work with the landscape. Spiders, flies, cockroaches, and all other manner of skittering bugs infested the storm drains and back alleys of Brockton Bay. The places where water gathered and trashed rotted under the sun were fertile ground for breeding all sorts of bugs.
I set them to work feeling out the ground. As luck would have it, between the two rows of buildings on this side of the street, there wasn't a fence or other blockade along the narrow lane that ran parallel to Spayder.
I ducked into the nearest alleyway, glanced around to confirm no one was there and no pedestrians on the street were looking my way, and pulled on my mask. I was already pulling off my sweatshirt as I broke into a sprint.
Moving parallel to the skinhead, I amassed all the bugs I could within range. It wasn't anywhere near as impressive as what I'd put together against Lung the night before, but it would do in a pinch. I kept a portion of them underground, clustering a mass of bugs at the edge of a storm drain down the street.
The first time, there were too many passersby to spring my trap. I picked up my backpack, now stuffed with my clothes and shoes, and hurried to reach my next ambush point.
When the skinhead passed the second drain, he was alone.
So I brought out the swarm.
Even hiding behind the corner of a back alley, praying to a God I didn't believe in for help pulling off an attack against a target I couldn't see with my own eyes, I heard the skinhead's scream. Thousands of flies, cockroaches, and other creepy-crawlies boiling out from nowhere must have been quite a sight.
He could have escaped if he'd charged the thinner parts of the swarm. Instead, thinking himself boxed in, he raced toward the opening I'd left him - toward the alleyway.
And toward me.
He swore as I stepped into sight, a far larger swarm backing me.
"You can come quietly with me to the police, or there will be trouble."
"...the fuck? You're a hero?"
I really needed to rethink my costume.
"You attacked that woman."
"You can't prove a goddamn thing, freak."
"So that's a yes."
He looked over his shoulder, maybe thinking that braving the swarm was the better of the two avenues open to him. I'll admit, it's awful but his fear made me smile a little. Big bad triple-E thug scared of Taylor Hebert and her lame power.
Someone cleared their throat behind me.
I looked back.
"I'm a big fan of baddie-on-baddie action," said the Glory Girl, floating about a story off the pavement. "Less work for me. But I've got dibs on this asshole."
The blonde folded her arms across her ample chest, cape fluttering on the light breeze. It was such a perfect picture that I wondered if she secretly had precision telekinesis or something to make her cape move like that.
"That gonna be problem?" she asked me, in a stiff tone.
Damn it. Every freaking time.
"I-I'm one of the good guys," I said, putting my palms up. "Yes, I know the costume is too edgy. I didn't realize that until I'd put it halfway together, and by then it was too late to change. I made it using my power. It took months, and I didn't want to restart when it'd mean waiting longer before I could get out here and help people."
I don't know what I said, but something about Glory Girl suddenly made my legs turn to jelly. I'd survived a year and a half of Emma, and five minutes with Lung, but neither had ever made me feel this terrified. Which said something. It took all I had do to stand my ground.
Then all of a sudden, the terror was gone. I sucked in a fresh breath.
"Let's say I believe you...?"
"I, uh, don't have a name yet."
"Seriously?" said the skinhead.
"Okay, hero," said Glory Girl, letting her arms fall to her side and assuming a dainty sitting position mid-air, legs crossed at her ankles. "Let's see you get some candy out of this piñata."
"I'm not talking, and you bitches can't do shit to me! I've got rights!"
"Ah, actually... I was wondering if you had a phone? I wanted to call him in for beating up that college student."
"You went patrolling without a burner phone?"
God. This fucking day.
"I only started last night."
"I'd believe it."
That touched a nerve. "Look, I may not have it all together, but I've managed to take out two supervillains so far." Stomping on Bitch totally counted.
"Uh-huh," said Glory Girl.
"Like who?" asked the skinhead.
"Ever see what Brown Recluse venom can do to a person?" I snapped. "It necrotizes flesh. A single bite makes a big patch of a person's skin blacken and rot away. Guess what happened when I sicced dozens of those spiders on Lung's man bits. Between them, the Black Widows, Browntail Moths, Fire Ants... Well, let's just say Lung will be sitting down to use the toilet."
"It's true," Glory Girl said, surprising me. "You know my sister, Panacea? The Protectorate called her in to save Lung's life. She said he was on death's door by the time she healed him. So this lady here is not someone to mess around with."
"Fuck me," the skinhead muttered.
I began slowly tightening the carpet of bugs encircling him.
"FINE! I'll talk! I'll talk!"
"Kind of weird to be the one playing the Good Cop," Glory Girl admitted as we watched the skinhead get put into the back of a squad car, "but I like your style."
"Might want to ratchet down the anti-hero vibe you've got going on."
I nodded languidly, feeling the weight of the past twenty-four hours press down on me. "It probably won't wash out all the way, but I was thinking I might be able to manage a lighter shade of gray. Or I'll just go for another color, probably red."
I glanced at the dark blood smeared across my costume's left forearm, where my still-wet sweatshirt had dirtied it. Glory Girl followed my eyes.
"Just a pro-tip, but bloodstains make cops nervous when you hand over a perp. I know you used your bugs on that creep, but-"
"It's my blood. Someone turned their Rottweilers on me."
The blonde flinched, but rallied. "Your costume's not torn."
"Wasn't wearing it."
"Taking a hit for the secret identity, huh? That sucks." She ran her fingers through her hair, and I could almost picture some gears turning inside her head. "Say, want to go meet my sister at the hospital? She could take care of those dog bites."
Yesterday, the thought of meeting Panacea the healer would've been the highlight of my month. There was a hero without equal. The girl who could save lives that no other cape could, no matter how much they might want to.
Now, given the sheer number of capes I'd met and fights I'd gotten into over the past twenty-four hours - hell, not even that long - I just nodded and went to pick up my backpack.
"It's nice to meet another hometown heroine my age. Outside New Wave, it's pretty much just Vista and that goth chick." Glory Girl added, carefully, "If I wanted to look you up, should I be checking around the university?"
I shook my head. "I was just using the clinic. I live on the North side."
"So you patrol up there? Trainyard? Docks? Boardwalk? Bueller? Bueller?"
I considered the question.
The skinhead had spilled the beans about pretty much near everything in defense of his manhood, and it lined up with some of what Tattletale had told me earlier. From the sound of things I had potentially sparked a gang war by taking out Lung. Everybody wanted a slice of the ABB's territory. He'd actually mentioned the Undersiders as one of the potential players, although I didn't see how the four of them could hold down much territory, even with their mysterious boss backing them. I'd been trying to infiltrate them and still ran afoul of Bitch. They weren't going to be recruiting more muscle anytime soon.
"The Docks," I replied. "Sounds like that's where the action is going to be. I kicked over the anthill. It's only fair I help clean up the mess."
"Cool. Here's my number is you ever want to patrol or hang out."
My heart fluttered as I accepted the card.
No, I told myself, I wasn't going to let the bullies ruin this part of my life, whether their name was Emma or Bitch. This is what superheroes did. They teamed up against the bad guys. Even if I wasn't going to join the Wards, my brief stint with the Undersiders cemented that conviction, I could still hang out with other heroes.
Even make some friends, maybe.
"Thanks," I said, slipping it into the compartment with my mace.
It was a little awkward, Glory Girl picking me up in her arms. I was a fair deal taller, and neither of us wanted to get my blood on her costume. I also had to use one hand just to gather my mane of hair together so it didn't blow in our faces.
Flying was awesome.