A/N: Whooo, here we are again! Thanks for reading, guys. Here's a... nearly 44 thousand word monster of an arc for you. I hope you enjoy. :) On a side-note, Heretical Edge now has a nice, spiffy banner and the wordpress site works for mobile ( I scrounged around and found the button to turn the mobile version on. ;) ) for those who might have been having trouble using your phones to read.

checkerboard – Aww, thank you very much. You're right in that there are plenty of fics that stick closer to canon for people who don't enjoy things being changed so much. Those people don't have to read this one. To each their own.

10-01 – Taylor

Thursday, April 28th

I was standing, my tinker-provided costume hidden beneath a simple black dress suit. For this, at the very least, I needed to be upright. I had to, even if part of me was so horrified and ashamed of myself that I almost wanted to burn this suit and then never use my powers again. Never.

They were... they were dead. Emily and Newter. They were dead because of me. Because I insisted that we step in. If I hadn't been trying to play hero, they'd still be alive. The girl who was the only reason I'd even met Faultline was dead now, because I demanded that we get involved!

And now, this was where we were: standing on the roof of the Palanquin, having our own private memorial service for Newter. Emily had been buried earlier that day in the cemetery by what remained of her family. Emily hadn't talked about them much. They weren't exactly close, as far as I could tell.

Now, well now it hardly mattered, did it?

Teddy, the nurse whose friendship with Emily was what brought me to Faultline to begin with, had gone to that funeral, and now he was here for this one as well. I couldn't bear to let myself focus on him. Not that I had much say in the matter, considering my panoptic vision took in everything anyway, but I did the best I could. I didn't want to know how much he had to hate me right now.

Our 'memorial' wasn't really much of one. We were all just staring at an urn full of ashes that was all that remained of Newter's body and Emily's costume. None of us had decided what to do with those ashes yet, so it just sat there on table in the middle of the roof while we stood away from it and stared.

Beside me, Elle was clutching onto my arm with both of her hands. Tears were falling freely down her face as she clung to me like an anchor. She didn't speak at all, and I could tell that it was taking all of her energy, all of her willpower, to keep herself here in the moment. Every ounce of her wanted to retreat into one of her fantastic parallel worlds, but she'd never forgive herself if it happened. She'd never be able to live with herself if she spaced out during the funeral, so she clung to me and forced herself to focus.

Payton and Gregor were standing on the opposite side of the upright urn. Neither were speaking, their attention focused on staring at the vessel that contained the ashes of one teammate and another teammate's costume.

Olivia was nearby, but she wasn't looking at the urn. Her attention was cast out over the city, and I could hear the girl mumbling now and then. I was trying not to pay attention and eavesdrop, but the nature of my power meant that I heard pretty much every word. She was talking to herself about all the racist pieces of shit she was going to kill.

"I will miss them," Elle finally spoke, her voice a barely audible whisper. I could hear the emotion in her voice as it shook. "They were... my friends. It's not fair. I don't want them to be dead, Taylor. I don't want it. When I wake up, after I was asleep, sometimes I think that it was just a bad dream. I get happy because it was just a dream. But it wasn't. It wasn't a dream, Taylor, it wasn't a dream and they're really gone, and I don't want them to be."

Elle was openly crying by that point, her tears staining my shoulder as she clung even tighter. "I don't want them to be gone. What if they all go away? What if they all die? What if I lose everyone?

"What if I lose you?"

I very nearly jerked myself away from her then. Lose me? Why wasn't she mad at me?! It was my fault that Emily and Newter were dead! It never would've happened if I didn't insist on getting involved. So why didn't she say anything? Why did she keep holding onto me?

"Taylor." Faultline stood in front of us. She watched me for a moment before turning her attention to Elle, her voice softening considerably. "I need to borrow Taylor for a minute, but I'll bring her back."

At first, Elle clung even tighter to my arm. But after a couple of seconds, I felt her iron-grip relax. Her voice was quiet, "Please come back soon, Taylor."

I promise I will. I thought the words directly to her through the... fuck, whatever connection it was that we had whenever I let myself start to be drawn into these alternate worlds of hers. She heard my thoughts like speech, even when I wasn't actually in the other world yet.

In spite of myself, I wondered if the symmetry between our powers was even remotely normal. I'd never heard of it, particularly for two strangers.

So why did our powers work so well together? Why did we work so well together? How else could that coordination be used? Could other people be taught to coordinate their powers to joint effects the way Elle could physically pull me inside of her other-worlds when she'd never been able to do that anyone else?

There were so many capes in the world. Surely others had found equally beneficial symbiotic combinations.

After leading me to the other side of the roof, far away from the others, Faultline turned to face me. Her voice was firm. "Stop it."

Even if my power hadn't already forced me to be mute, I wouldn't have had time to respond before she continued. "You're blaming yourself for what happened to Newter and Emily. Don't. Stop it. You don't own this team. I don't make decisions based on your whim and say-so. I make the judgment call. Me. I decided it was an acceptable risk. Neither of us had any way of knowing about the Gesellschaft capes. It happens sometimes, and yeah, it fucking sucks. But you do not throw everything away. You take what helps you, what makes you stronger, and you focus on that. You focus on what makes you better. Use it, hold onto it, and keep going.

"Whatever you end up doing though, I want you to remember, going onto that farm was my call, not yours. I am the leader of this team, not you. I make the call, and I bear the consequences. No matter what they might be. Their deaths were notyour fault. They were the fault of a bunch of Gesellschaft Nazi capes, most of whom are in prison right now."

That was when Faultline gave me a humorless predatory smile. "But they'll be out again, and when they are, we're going to deal with them. They think it's bad inside, we are going to make them pay for what happened to Newter and Emily.

"But for us to do that, I need you to cut off the blame game. I made the call, they killed Newter and Emily. Not you. So focus on getting Elle through this so that her head is back in the game. We need both of you on top of things if we're going to pull off the kind of jobs that we need to do to make those racist bastards pay when the time comes. When they think they're safe and they escaped, that's when we'll hit them. That's when we'll hit all of them. So stop blaming yourself and start focusing on the people who deserve it. Got it?"

Hesitantly, I nodded once, then again. It wasn't my fault. It wasn't my fault.

It wasn't my fault.

Tuesday, May 3rd

This was my fault.

Oh god. Oh my god. No. Someone was dead. The principal of my school was dead! She was dead because of me, because of my notebook. According to the police, whoever had killed Principal Blackwell had everything I ever wrote down about what was happening. They knew all of it, assuming they broke the code that I used to record it in, and, to be completely honest, it was kind of a shit code anyway.

So they had it all. They had it all and they were... killing, killing because of me.

What if something bad happened to Emma? I wanted her punished, I wanted all of them punished, but not killed. I didn't want them dead. I just...

I didn't know what I wanted. But not this.

Never this.

"As you can see, Detective Daley, my daughter is still in no condition to get herself a glass of water, let alone actually killanyone."

I was watching through my father's eyes as he addressed the man in the ill-fitting suit with the obvious gun-shaped lump under the right chest. Both of them were standing in the same room as my body, their voices low as if to avoid disturbing the motionless, supposedly unresponsive lump in the nearby bed.

The house we were in was near the north edge of town. It was one of several properties that Faultline owned under different aliases. At the moment, it was serving as my supposed home-away-from-home.

"Uncle Danny's right." Payton-or Candice Paupers, as she had introduced herself in this case- was playing the nurse who was a friend of the family. I could see her standing by my bed when Dad turned that way. "Taylor's not a criminal, Detective Daley. She's an innocent girl who was horribly attacked."

"I agree with both of you," the man spoke up, running a hand a bit self-consciously back over the shiny bald head that made him look like that assistant principal guy from Back to the Future. "And I'm not here to prove otherwise. The girl in that bed is a victim every bit as much as Ruth Blackwell. Unfortunately, she isn't the one whose innocence has been called into question at this point."

Damn it, I hated this. No. I loathed it. Despised it. I was not just a victim. Not anymore. Never again. I was more than that. I was better than that. Don't call me a victim. Don't fucking call me that again.

A very faint, almost unnoticed pressure told me that Payton was squeezing my hand firmly. With my vision in my father's head and focused on the detective, I could only barely feel it almost as a ghost sensation. Somehow, she knew what kind of reaction I was having and was trying to calm me down.

"Me," Dad spoke up, interrupting my train of thought. I could feel his resignation, his instinct to throw himself in front of the oncoming bus if it would protect me from more police interference. "You think I had something to do with what happened, that I either murdered that woman or paid for it to be done."

Detective Daley raised an eyebrow at that. "With all due respect, Mr. Hebert, with your financial situation, I'd be hard pressed to build a case about your ability to order a pizza, let alone a murder."

Shaking his head, the man went on. "As for doing it yourself, the cameras at the cemetery show you arriving before the time of death and leaving after it was done, and Miss Johansen has confirmed your story of speaking with her. So no, while I do have some questions about why you're not living here with your daughter, I do not believe that you either killed Ruth Blackwell or paid for it to be done."

"Then why are you here?" Dad asked, casting a glance toward me. "Why did you want to see Taylor?"

"I intend to immerse myself in this situation," Detective Daley replied. "Someone cared enough about what happened to your daughter to murder at least one person over it, and threatened more than that. I wanted to see Taylor for myself, and introduce myself to her. If you don't mind?" Waiting until my father reluctantly waved him on, the man stepped over to the bed and looked down at my body. "Taylor, my name is Detective William Daley. I want you to know that, whoever's killing in your name, I'm going to put a stop to it. What happened to you was abhorrent, but you deserve better than this."

That said, in a move that was clearly calculated to take my father by surprise in order to force a knee-jerk response, the man turned that way and asked, "Do you believe that Alan Barnes is a good man?"

"Not anymore," Dad blurted before stopping with a feeling of confusion. "I mean, what? Why? He... did what he thought he had to do to protect his daughter. I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have done whatever it took, no matter how slimy, to protect Taylor if I had the... ability to do what he did. But I don't see what that has to do with-" I felt his surprise then as he realized. "Wait, Alan? You think-"

"Let's just say that many of Mr. Barnes' actions can only charitably be called questionable," the detective replied. "Were you aware that he had saved up over six hundred thousand dollars in a bank account shared between him and his wife? Did he ever offer you any of that money as compensation?"

"He tried," Dad admitted, and this time it was my turn to be surprised and confused. "Alan wanted to pay for Taylor's treatments at the hospital. He found out I was selling the house and tried to step in."

Wait... wait... huh? Why would Emma's father do that? Why would he try to step in and save our house, even pay my hospital bills, just to stop Dad from selling our home? This didn't make any sense.

"But you refused, and sold your house anyway," Detective Daley spoke slowly, his tone quiet. "Why?"

"Stubborn and stupid," Dad replied in a quiet voice without taking his eyes off of the spot where my body lay. "I didn't want his money. I didn't want anything to do with that family after everything he did to make sure none of those girls received anything more than a slap on the wrist." There was a moment where Dad went quiet, and I could feel the emotional turmoil in him before he continued. "I wouldn't let him pay for it because I didn't want to owe him a god damn thing. If he paid off Taylor's hospitable bills, he'd start thinking that we were even, that he'd 'fixed things.' I won't let him do that this time."

"When was the last time he mentioned the money to you?" Detective Daley asked before adding, "And, if you don't mind, when was the last time he spoke to you at all, even in passing at the store?"

Dad sighed, his gaze flicking toward the quiet Payton, who was trying to stay as unnoticed as possible. If the detective wanted to talk to her privately, she'd been given enough information to hold her own and answer anything about our family connection or my treatment, but it was better not to push things.

When Dad finally spoke, he sounded tired. "Last time I talked to Alan was the day that I transferred Taylor out of the hospital. He called me to find out why I did it, so I told him she was being taken care of by a friend. He thought it was a bad idea and said if it was a problem of money, then his offer was still on the table. That's when I hung up on him. I haven't heard from the man since then."

"So you're saying that you were not aware that he withdrew that six hundred thousand dollars from his bank account only nine days before the murder of Ruth Blackwell?" The detective's tone was mild, though his eyes focused on my dad with laser-like intensity, scrutinizing every detail. "Which happened to be the day after he had a public argument with Emma that ended with her running away from him?"

If I had been confused before, now I was completely lost. Emma and her father had been fighting? About what? Had she found out about her father's attempt to pay my hospital bills and objected?

"Why would Alan take six hundred thousand dollars out of his account the day after arguing with Emma?" Dad sounded (and felt) about as clueless as I knew I was. "And what does that have to do with what's happening right now? You can't possiblythink that he had anything to do with this murder."

"There's many things that I'm capable of thinking, Mr. Hebert," Detective Daley replied. "I believe that it's possible for a man to realize that he's made a mistake that has ruined his family, and that he might wish to do absolutely anything to make up for that. I know that he withdrew more than half a million dollars, and that that money had to go somewhere. I know that he called off work for over a week before the murder, only to go into the office the day that it happened and quit his job. I know that he has not been back to that house since that morning, but that no one has any idea where he actually is. I know that people who are being crushed by guilt often do very awful things in an attempt to relieve that guilt. Their determination to make up for one crime blinds them to everything else they're doing."

My vision jumped from my dad over to the detective then, and I felt his quiet professionalism. He was feeling out my father's reaction, curious about just how he was going to react to this information.

Dad, meanwhile, let out a long, low breath, his voice growing louder with each passing word. "Let me see if I've got this. You think Alan is behind that murder? That's absurd. Alan Barnes is a lot of things, but he wouldn't pay for someone to be killed! And even if he was the type, which he isn't, why the hell would he? That's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard! I won't defend Alan Barnes against much at this point, but murder? You're wrong. He doesn't have any reason to do that, and he's not the type." "

"As I said," the detective replied in a quiet voice, "Guilt makes people do very crazy things. Things that they never would have even thought of before." He paused before adding, "In any case, we need to speak with him. Let us know if you hear from Alan at any point, would you?"

Dad was looking toward my body for a moment before finally meeting the man's gaze. "I will."

"Good," Detective Daley checked the gold watch on his wrist. "Unless there's something else you'd like to tell me, I've got another appointment with Mrs. Barnes in half an hour to discuss this same matter."

Dad promised to do so, and then the man was walking out of the house. I kept my vision with him as he strolled all the way to his car, a rather nice new sedan. He settled in and started driving, and I was about to focus on trying to pull my focus back toward my body when the radio cut out, interrupted by the sound of a ringing phone. The detective glanced toward the dashboard at the number that was displayed, then pressed a button on his steering wheel to accept the call. "You clean up that message?"

"I got most of it," a tired female voice replied. "You wanna hear it again? It's not that different from what you already had, except for a few more words. Nothing really changes."

"Let's hear it anyway," Daley replied. "You never know what might be important."

The woman agreed, and told him to hang on for a second. Then I heard the sound quality change. It was obvious that whatever we were listening to was in pretty bad shape.

"I did it. I want you to know I did it." The voice clearly belonged to Emma's father. He sounded shaken, more emotional than I'd ever heard him. It sounded like he was having a complete breakdown.

"I've done some bad things, stuff I'm not proud of, but this... oh my god. Oh, I really fucked up, Zoe. Fuck. Fuck I screwed up. God damn it! These people, the people I talked to, the guy I got to do it, he's crazy, Zoe. I—I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. I was trying to fix it. I was trying to make things better and just—everything's wrong. I gave them the money, I thought it would help but it just made things worse. I saw the news, what they showed. God, god, I can't believe what he did to her, what they did. I wanted to fix things, but not like this. I didn't think it'd be like this. When I saw what happened to her, her body... when I saw what those bastards did, what I paid them to do, I just... I just wasn't—I was wrong. But I don't know what to do. I swear, Zoe, I'm going to try to fix this. I'm going to try to put a stop to it. But you-"

His voice garbled up for a solid fifteen seconds before coming back with, "Emma, they'll leave her alone. I made that part of the deal. They won't touch Emma, they won't go near her. I promised to help them deal with-" The message garbled again, ending with a last, "-you so much. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

And then I was back in my bedroom, my panoptic view showing my father and Payton both anxiously watching me. It was obvious that they were waiting for sign of life, but all I could do was lay there, stunned.

No wonder the police thought Emma's dad had something to do with the murder of Principal Blackwell. He was—that message or whatever it was, he had to be talking about her. Who else could he be talking about? He gave... somebody money to fix 'it' and then freaked out when he saw what happened to her on the news, when he saw her body. Now he was trying to do something to stop it.

Was that what really happened? Had Emma's father actually... paid someone to... no. No, he couldn't. That message had to be wrong, didn't it? It was a mistake. It had to be.

But even if it was, that still meant that someone was using my notebook, my evidence, to go after people, to kill them. Principal Blackwell was already dead. Dead. She'd been killed because of what my notebook said, because of what I'd written. She was dead because of me.

I had to fix this.

Someway, somehow, I had to fix it.

Even if that meant coming face to face with the girls who had destroyed my life, so that I could save theirs.

10-02 – Sophia

Sunday, May 1st

"You wanted to see me, Director Piggot?"

The woman in question looked up as I entered her office, but remained silent until I had positioned myself directly in front of her desk. Even then, she waited as though making it clear that I was there at her convenience, not the other way around. I walked mechanically and stood in place, feeling nothing even as some part of my brain recognized the power play. Like I cared. Like it mattered. It was dumb.

Finally, after making me stand there for almost a minute, Piggot closed the folder in her hand and laid it on the desk while speaking up. "I assume you heard the news that Principal Ruth Blackwell is dead."

In spite of myself, I blinked up, meeting the woman's gaze for the first time since I'd entered. "What?"

Her eyebrow raised. "You haven't heard? I'm surprised. It was reported fairly heavily on the news."

"I don't watch the news," I replied simply. "It's too depressing."

"It's too depressing, ma'am." She instructed pointedly with a gleam in her eyes. The gleam of power.

I didn't break eye contact, continuing to stare into hers without blinking. "It's too depressing... ma'am."

Yeah, it was bullshit. It was stupid. I knew what she was doing. But honestly, I didn't give a damn. She could play her games. I was just... done with it. I was done getting worked up over her petty shit.

"We believe that the person responsible for her murder was doing so in a misguided search for justice," Piggot finally continued while turning the folder around to face me. She opened it up then, using a finger to slide a photograph off of the top of the pile of papers. "This was written on the nearby wall."

Frowning uncertainly, I leaned closer, taking in the photograph. It was a place near the docks, I knew that much at first glance. There were a couple police officers in the shot, near one corner, and I could see some blood on the ground. And in the center of the photo was the brick wall with the painted message that Piggot had been referring to. Four words. A name and three more.

Taylor. Everyone responsible dies.

For a moment, I felt nothing. Which was weird. I really should have felt... what, anger? Denial, maybe? Instead, I just felt... empty. It felt like the reaction that I should have had was just missing, and there was nothing left to take its place. What? What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to think?

"Is it her?" It took me a second to realize that I was the one speaking. My voice was thick with something I didn't recognize. "Did she... trigger? Did Heb-" The name caught in my throat. No. Fuck. Say her fucking name. Say it out loud like a god damn human being, Sophia. "Did Taylor do this?"

"No, on both counts," Piggot replied. "Miss Hebert is still... unresponsive. As far as we can tell, she hasn't triggered and is not at all responsible for this current situation. We don't believe that a cape is responsible at all, as the body was... murdered by mundane means, from all accounts."

"Her dad." Somehow, I managed to speak the words, getting them out in spite of the lump in my throat.

"Neither responsible, nor condoned by Mr. Hebert," Piggot spoke with a firm shake of her head. "Some people still have morals, Miss Hess. I can't say that the man would exactly lose a lot of sleep if the people who tortured his child into a coma were to never be seen again, but he didn't do this."

I didn't respond. I couldn't. My mouth opened and then shut without anything coming out. Anything that came to mind, anything that I could say just felt... ugly. Wrong. What could I say to that? What fucking words could come out of my mouth that would make what she'd said any less true?

Piggot frowned when I gave no response. Instead of pushing the issue, however, she moved on. "As I said, we believe the person responsible is an ordinary human. The police are pursuing specific leads."

"Police?" I finally managed to respond, blinking at her again. "As in the normal cops?"

"Yes, Miss Hess," Piggot's voice was hard. "As I said, if you had been paying attention, the killer was not a cape. As far as we know, they are not working for a cape either. That makes it a job for the police, not the PRT, and most certainly not the Protectorate. We are staying out of it and letting the proper investigators do their job. And when the detective in charge of the case wishes to speak with you, you will do so without exposing your identity to him. The PRT will provide adequate alibis for your time spent with us, of course. You will answer his questions and leave the investigation to the professionals. You will not pursue whoever this is. You will allow the police to do their job. Understood?"

Someone was killing the people who had let us get away with... with what happened to Taylor. I found myself staring at the graffiti in the photograph. The name. That name. Someone wanted all of us to pay.

"Miss Hess." Piggot spoke sharply, her tone annoyed. "I don't speak just to hear the sound of my own voice. I asked if you understand what I'm saying. You are not to interfere with the police investigation."

That empty feeling vanished, replaced by... fear. "Emma. Madison." I looked up. "What about them?"

Piggot paused, giving me a long look before nodding. "Okay. I suppose you deserve at least that much of an explanation. The police are taking steps, but they do not believe that Miss Barnes is in any true danger. Apparently the situation for Miss Clements is more complicated, but they're taking care of it."

The words made me double take. "What the he-" I caught myself. "What do you mean Emma isn't in danger? Why wouldn't she be in danger? She's the one that—we all just—she was Taylor's friend, all right? We all fucked her over, but it was personal for Emma. If someone's got it in for us, they've got it in for her especially. I'm one thing, I'm fucked up. But you can't just leave Emma and Madison out to-" I started in spite of myself, the fear a palpable thing.

Piggot let out a long sigh. "Stop. Just stop, Miss Hess. Be quiet. My opinion of all three of you girls aside, no one is being abandoned to be murdered. You're just going to have to trust me on that, and you are going to let the police do their job."

For a moment, she went silent, squinting at me as if deciding if she was actually going to say the next part before finally sighing. "The fact, Miss Hess, is that the police believe they already know who was responsible for this." Pursing her lips, she looked up at me and met my gaze. "Mr. Barnes."

"Emma's dad?!" I blurted in shock. "They think—you think he's responsible? That's why they don't think Emma's in danger. You guys think he snapped. What, guilt? You think guilt made him snap and just, what, start killing? What sense does that make?"

"The reasoning is not up for discussion." Piggot's voice was even sharper that time. "Let the police do their job, Miss Hess. Talk to the detective. Tell him anything he wants to know as long as it doesn't reveal your identity as Shadow Stalker. As far as the police are concerned, you are working off your debt to society by performing community service work, the same as Clements and Barnes. If you see Mr. Barnes, leave and use the emergency contact button on your phone. Do not attempt to talk him down or engage him on your own. That is not your job. Do you understand me?"

She was staring at me intently until I nodded. "Fine. Can I... go now?"

Whatever she or the police thought, I needed to check in on Emma and Madison. I had to make sure they were okay, that... that nothing happened to them. The thought of those two being killed for what we did, for what I... for what I made... it made me long for that empty feeling again.

I didn't think Piggot was going to answer at first. The woman was silent for awhile, just squinting at me as though trying to read my mind. Finally, she leaned back in her seat. "Yes," she said simply. "You can go."

Turning on my heel, I walked out of the room, physically stopping myself from sprinting. Emma's father? Her dad had—had killed—fuck. Fuck. Did Emma know? I took the phone from my pocket before making a face. Fuck, right. Emma still hadn't answered any of my texts for the past... fuck, how long had it been? She was ignoring me. That much had become obvious. Either that or she had changed phones for some reason.

I had to find her. I had to find both of them. Before something even worse happened.

Thursday, May 5th

"Fuck." My fist hit the heavy punching bag with a quick jab. "Fuck." The same fist struck the bag again with hardly a pause in between them. "Fuck." A third time, hard enough for me to feel the ache in my knuckles. Three lightning quick jabs in nearly the exact same spot, followed by a left hook as I raised my voice into a shout. "Fuck!" Finally, I spun all the away around to put my full weight and speed into the closed fist blow that struck the side of the bag while screaming, "Fuck!"

"What're you trying to do, get in your share of the cursing before Aisha uses them all up?"

The voice came from behind me, and I spun that way with a snarl of surprise, nearly slipping in the process before managing to catch myself against the bag. "Wha—shit! You-" Belatedly realizing who I was looking at, I shook my head. "Don't fucking do that, Muse. Don't sneak up on people."

"Sneak up?" Muse raised an eyebrow while leaning against the wall of the tunnel. We had made the far end of the tunnel, the spot nearest the cave-in that sealed the place off from the old ABB hideout, into a workout area. There was the heavy punching bag I was using, a speed bag, one of those old exercise bikes that had been broken until Bryce fixed it, and a set of dumbbells of varying sizes. All of it had been scavenged from the local junkyards and pawn shops, and paid for by Muse herself. I wasn't sure where she got the money, but I wasn't complaining either. Being able to work out in pretty much complete privacy was too much of a gift horse for me to shove my head down its throat.

"I didn't so much sneak up," the older girl went on with that casual tone, "as stomp my way down the tunnel about as loud as I could without causing another cave-in. You were, uhh, kind of busy."

"Busy. Yeah. What do you want? The bag?" I stepped aside from it. "Fine with me, I was done with it anyway." That said, I walked over to the latest completed part of our workout room: the metal pull-up bar that Bryce and I had welded into place across the width of the tunnel. Reaching up, I jumped to catch hold of the bar before hauling myself into a chin-up,

"Not exactly," Muse paused before crossing the space between us until she was only a couple feet away. She looked uncomfortable and uncertain. "I came down here to check on you, actually."

"Check on me?" I echoed, breathing in as I lowered myself down, then out as I pulled up again.

"You've been coming here pretty much every day, for hours, and just working out. Pushing yourself." Muse was watching me with an expression I couldn't quite read. It wasn't anger, disappointment, or shame, so fuck if I had a clue what it was. "The others haven't noticed, because it's always at a different time of day, and sometimes you don't stay long. But I did. I also noticed that you only leave when you're almost dead of exhaustion. Some days that takes three hours, other days it takes half an hour, but you've been pushing yourself to the breaking point every single day. You're killing yourself."

I almost laughed in her face by reflex. Fuck. Kill myself? No, if I wanted to do that, I'd just find Emma's dad, or whoever he'd gotten to kill Principal Blackwell, and tell him to do his worst.

I hadn't been able to find either Emma or Madison. Neither of them were living at home or anywhere that I could track down.Madison at least had responded to my text about Blackwell, letting me know she was alive with a rather blunt, 'I'm okay. Not really a good time to talk about it.'

Emma, on the other hand, I only knew was alive because Piggot told me that the police had confirmed it. She had cut herself off completely from me. Madison, likewise, never said anything beyond those few words. Neither of them were the least bit interested in anything I had to say.

Not that I could really blame them at this point.

Still, Emma's dad? He'd really snapped and just... fuck. Piggot and the police were apparently sure of their suspect, even if I couldn't understand why. I'd been told in no uncertain terms by both Piggot and Armsmaster what would happen if I tried to interfere. The words juvenile detention were used no less than nine times.

So I gave the detective guy an interview, told him what I knew about the situation, and promised to call him if anything happened or if I saw or heard from Emma's dad.

As for my mother, well, she was concerned. Concerned enough to actually ask if I was in danger, which I just laughed off before leaving the room.

It wasn't the idea of some mundane human with a murder grudge against me that was funny. No, it was the idea that I had ever not been in danger since becoming a cape that was fucking hilarious.

"I'm not killing myself," I replied darkly. "I wouldn't come here to do that."

Muse squinted at me, looking thoughtful for a moment. "You wanna talk about it?"

That time, I actually laughed, though it was humorless. I hauled myself through a couple more reps on the bar before replying, "I would rather face all three Endbringers at once while armed with just a slingshot than talk about it."

"Well, maybe you should." Muse had her arms folded over her chest as she stared up at me. "Something's eating you up, Sophia. Something's just... fucking with your head. I can see it. You're-"

"I'm not gonna talk about it," I spat back at her before releasing the bar to drop down. Then I sighed. "Not right now, okay? I... can't. It's a jumble and it's really fucked up and just... I can't. Trust me, you don't wanna hear any of this shit that's in my head."

"If you change your mind," she replied quietly, "I'm here, and I'm told that I'm easy to talk to."

My head started to shake dismissively before I stopped. "Wait, actually, I did want to say something."

She waited expectantly, but I couldn't figure out how to say what was in my head. "Look, just... this is stupid, okay? But if something happens to me, if I get... I don't know, if I have to go away, or if some shit happens and I can't be here..."

Muse's eyebrows went up. "You think you won't be able to be here?"

"I don't know." I scowled. This wasn't going the way I wanted. "Just—fuck, just if something happens, you've gotta take care of those two. Don't just, like, abandon them. Got it? You stick with them. If I'm not here, they need someone to watch over them."

"They might be better off if I wasn't around," Muse replied while flinching away from me.

"They won't be," I shot back as firmly as I could. "Just... just trust me, okay? They're both sort of fucked up. It's a fucked up I understand. I get it. I know it. If they don't get help, they'll get worse. They need a guide. They don't get one, if they get left out with just themselves... bad shit will happen. Really bad shit. If I can't be here to help, you have to promise you will be. Got it?"

The two of us met each other's gazes for a long few seconds before Muse nodded. "I got it. I promise."

We'd barely looked away from each other then before the sound of footsteps drew our attention that way. Bryce came jogging down the tunnel. "Guys! We've got a ping on one of the Scouter Gnomes!"

"A real ping, or just some homeless guys again?" I asked. "And which one?"

We had placed some of Bryce's security gnomes, upgraded with better surveillance capability, near the entrances to several of the locations that Foil had provided as potential holding places for her sister. According to her info, Lung moved his prisoners around a lot, so we'd been waiting for one of the spots we knew about to be used. If this was true, it would be the first time we'd gotten a decent hit off them.

"Real ping, trust me. I checked the camera." Bryce was practically bouncing up and down. "There's definitely gang bangers in there. They're moving some stuff in. I couldn't tell what it was, but there were a lot of trucks. So hurry up! We already lost our chance at most of those Empire fucks, I'm not gonna sit around and lose out on paying back the ABB too."

"Guess we better check it out," I agreed while tugging the bottom of my shirt up to wipe over my sweat-soaked face. Not that it did much, since the fabric itself was just as wet.

Bryce had stopped talking. He was just staring in the direction of my stomach, mouth open in a sort of gape.

Rolling my eyes, I yanked the sweaty shirt all the way off and tossed it aside pointedly. "I'm still wearing a sports bra, kid. You do have the internet, right? Pick your jaw up off the damn floor and focus." That said, I bent down to grab a clean shirt out of the backpack that I had brought with me. "Which spot was it?"

Still, annoyingly, it took Bryce a couple of seconds to answer. "Um. Uh. Oh, uh, the one with the, you know, that spot in the umm, they have, umm, sleep. You sleep on them."

I squinted that way while pulling the shirt on. "Mattress store? You're talking about the old mattress store?"

The kid's head bobbed up and down a few times. "Uh huh. That one."

"Right then." For her part, Muse sure sounded pretty god damn amused. "You sure my suit's ready?"

That was finally enough to snap Bryce out of it, mostly. "Oh, yeah. Damn straight it's ready. You're gonna kick ass. C'mon, I'll show you."

As we walked down the tunnel back toward Bryce's workshop area, I asked, "Where's Aisha?"

My answer came a second later. As we reached the open area, I found myself staring at no less than twenty imps of various materials. They had arranged themselves into an assortment of letters by standing on each other's shoulders, grabbing onto one another, and spreading out until they had created a four foot tall word directly in our path.

"Cock?" I raised an eyebrow. "Really? This is your idea of practicing with your power, huh?"

A cackle filled the room as Aisha jumped into view from behind the collection of imps. "Pay up! Pay up, pay up, pay up."

"That is not fair," Bryce complained, even as he dug into his pocket and came out with a ten dollar bill, which he reluctantly passed over to her. "Cheating."

"Hey, I said I could get one of them to say it," Aisha shot back. "You never specified how."

Rolling my eyes hard, I cuffed Bryce upside the head. "Focus. Don't you have a suit to be handing over?"

"Hells yeah, I do." Bryce practically skipped over to the spot of the room where only he and Muse had been allowed to go for the last few days. "Here we go. I fixed all the problems that popped up during those practice sessions, which meant uhh, basically rebuilding it from the ground up a couple times. But it all works the way it did before." He swept the sheet off the store mannequin that he had propped up, revealing what was basically a gleaming silver bodysuit with white armor in key locations. The mask was a helmet that looked like the one that was in that old Rocketeer movie, only silver to match the suit itself.

"Try it on," the boy urged eagerly. "I swear all the bugs are worked out this time. I quadruple checked, and I had Eesh stick a pile of imps on board and take them up high just to make sure there weren't any problems. We've got it."

"All right, give me a minute then." Muse shook her head while gathering up the costume, then took it around the corner to change.

She was back before long, fully decked out in the bodysuit and armor, with the helmet held under one arm. "Kind of tight," she remarked.

Utterly failing to look innocent in any conceivable way, Bryce shrugged. "It'll stretch. Anyway, try the gloves. I had to fix the overheating problem, but I tried to make sure they still look like ordinary gloves as much as possible. Since, you know, we want people to think that you're the one making it happen, not your equipment."

Nodding, Muse held one hand out. "Okay, here goes." Her thumb twitched slightly, and a steady stream of white smoke emerged from her palm.

After she duplicated the action with the other glove, we had a thick cloud of white smoke in the room. Aisha coughed a few times. "Use the helmet already, jeeze!"

Muse did so, pulling the helmet onto her head. There was a momentary pause before the cloud of smoke pulled away, coalescing into a single spot in the corner. As we watched, the simple cloud reformed itself into the shape of a question mark, then a sword, and finally a hand giving a thumbs up.

"Helmet controlling the shape of the smoke, check." Bryce was grinning even harder. "Okay... You see the heads up display inside your helmet? Just look at any of the smoke you've made and it'll highlight it so you can... you know. Go ahead, try it."

With a nod, Muse directed the cloud of smoke over near her feet. It hung there, forming itself into the shape of a carpet hovering a little bit off the floor. She took a breath, then carefully stepped up onto it.

Not through it, onto it. Her feet settled into the smoke and stayed there. She was standing on the hovering cloud.

"Yes!" Bryce punched the air. "I told you I could make it all work together! The density control will only affect the smoke you've got selected with your heads-up display. So you can ride your cloud in, spray out more smoke to blind one group, then spray out more smoke, shape it into a hammer and solidify that smoke to bash someone's face in! Or surround someone with the cloud form and then make it hard to trap them. I mean, it won't hold super strong people or anything. They can break it. But most people are fucking screwed, man."

"You did good, kid," I told him. Which was a bad idea, since he'd be bragging about it pretty much forever. But whatever, hehad done a good job. Especially if it held together.

"You figure out what you're gonna call yourself yet?" Aisha asked quietly. I'd noticed that she was always a bit more subdued whenever Muse practiced with the white smoke-creation, though I wasn't sure why. Maybe she had a thing about fog?

"Yeah," Muse looked toward the two of us. "I've got the perfect name. Cloudkicker."

I snorted at that. "Cloudkicker?"

"Just trust me," she replied. "If you were into watching old cartoons, you'd love it."

"Cloudkicker it is then," I waved a hand acceptingly. "Anything else we should know about, Bryce?"

"It's Churchill while we're on mission," he reminded me. "But uhh, nope. Can't think of anything. You guys should be good to go. Your comms and cameras are all patched through back here so I'll keep track of what's going on."

"Right," I found myself smiling even as I started to the side of the room where my own Hinder costume was.

"Then let's go kick some ABB A-S-S."

10-03 – Madison

Wednesday, May 4th

"And when was the last time you happened to see Taylor Hebert, Miss Clements?"

Sitting on the Dallon's living room couch, I flinched at Detective Daley's question, forcing myself not to instinctively look toward Mrs. Dallon. Instead, I raised my gaze from the floor to the man himself.

It was only the three of us here in the house at the moment, Victoria and Amy having been banished next door and ordered not to eavesdrop while Mr. Dallon was at an appointment with his psychiatrist.

Meeting the gaze of the man in the rumpled suit, I answered. "The last time I saw Taylor in person was when they were taking her out of the locker... the locker that we shoved her into." My voice shook somewhat at the last bit, but I forced myself to keep it under control. "I saw video and pictures of her later, when they were—at the hearing with the judge. But I—umm, I haven't seen her since the locker."

The man scribbled something into the simple notepad that he had pulled from an inside pocket. "What about Mr. Barnes, Emma's father. When was the last time that you saw or even heard from him?"

"Mr. Barnes?" I echoed blankly. "I think it was the day of the hearing, when he and Emma threw Taylor under the bus." I still couldn't keep the anger out of my voice entirely then. Emma and I had had a deal, we had agreed that we deserved to be punished, that we had to pay for what we did. Then just one day later, and her daddy was getting her off with what barely qualified as a swat on the wrist.

Another note was made in the pad before the man leaned back to study me. "You don't sound very happy about your situation. I would think that avoiding juvenile detention would make you grateful."

My head shook firmly. "I turned myself in for a reason. We deserved to be punished. We—we deserved worse than what happened, a lot worse. The things we did, the stuff that..." I blanched and looked away in spite of myself, feeling sick in my stomach while finishing with a simple, "We should be locked up."

Mrs. Dallon spoke up then. "How much actual danger do you think Madison is in, Detective?"

He glanced to her, and I saw his curiosity. The man clearly wanted to know what the actual connection between my family and the Dallons was. With help from one of the Brigade's contacts in the courthouse and Brandish's own legal expertise, we had faked up a contract that made the Dallons my legal custodians and caretakers while my parents were... incapable. I'd even gotten my parents to sign the pre-dated record, which... honestly had made me feel even worse than visiting them already made me. Neither of them were in any condition to make legal decisions, and I was tricking them into signing legal documents. But it couldn't be helped. I had to stay with the Brigade, and I comforted myself with the thought that if they knew everything and were capable of making the decision, they would agree.

Yeah, it was probably a pretty weak justification. But I had to tell myself something. Besides, eventually Mom and Dad would recover and I'd have to find a way to explain what had happened. Not just with me and the Dallons, but with... Trevor as well. Trevor, whom I hadn't seen since the barn.

Detective Daley was responding, and I forced myself to shake those thoughts out of my head so I could listen. "Whether the person responsible for Ruth Blackwell's death was Mr. Barnes, an associate hired by him, or an entirely unrelated party, the fact remains that a woman has already been murdered, and a direct threat was made against everyone responsible for Miss Hebert's condition. Unfortunately, that includes Miss Clements here. It's a threat that should absolutely be taken seriously. Until we have this situation under control, I strongly suggest that Miss Clements not go anywhere by herself. Stay where it's safe, don't go wandering at night, keep your phone close at hand, and report any suspicious activity. Do not dismiss anything that stands out. If you need a squad car to swing by, just ask. There's no such thing as being too careful in this situation, Mrs. Dallon. Does your house have an alarm system?"

The blonde woman gave a short nod, her expression serious as she replied. "Yes. I assure you, Detective, we won't let anything happen to Madison. She'll be safe with us."

For a moment, Detective Daley looked thoughtful. He tapped the index finger of one hand against the knuckles of his other several times indecisively before reaching into his pocket. "I'm going to give you something, Miss Clements." He extended his hand then, with something small and metal in his palm.

I took it, blinking down at what turned out to be one of those tiny flashlights that go on a keychain.

"The police department was provided with a limited number of these by Armsmaster," Daley explained. When my gaze snapped up, he smiled a little bit. "Don't worry, it's not a laser or anything. Most of the time, it's just a normal flashlight. Put it with your keys. When you want the light, press the button and hold it for as long as you need. But, if you get into any kind of trouble, if you need the police and calling 911 isn't an option, just press the button four times rapidly. Press and let go, press and let go, press and let go, press and let go. That will send an immediate alert and squad cars will be dispatched to your location, tracking the GPS in the keychain." His stare met mine. "It is not a toy."

Swallowing uneasily, I nodded. "Not a toy, got it. I'll be careful, sir, I promise."

There was more talking, more questions, but I couldn't really focus on much of it, answering mechanically whenever I was addressed. Most of my attention was taken up with one thing: guilt.

Principal Blackwell was dead. She had been murdered because of what Sophia, Emma, and I did. Because of us, because of our... evil, someone out there was taking revenge and killing people.

Who was it? I shuddered and squirmed in my seat. Could Mr. Barnes really be responsible? I had loathed the man since that moment in the PRT building when he had shut everything down, but was he really so far gone that he'd do something like this? And what about Emma? I may have been angry with her for chickening out of facing our punishment, but this was far beyond anything she'd ever do.

Eventually, the interview was over and Detective Daley promised to keep in touch and let us know how the investigation was going. Then he was gone, leaving just me and Mrs. Dallon sitting there.

I couldn't bring myself to look at the woman. My gaze was fixed on the floor. They didn't need this. The Brigade had so many problems to handle already. Donny's death, Crystal's obvious issues after everything she'd gone through while imprisoned by the Empire, and Mr. Dallon's deteriorating mental state as his clinical depression continued to get worse in the wake of the farm battle. The last thing they had needed was to find out that their newest member had so much baggage, that I had been... like that.

Eventually, the front door opened and Mrs. Pelham stepped in. She paused to look toward me, but before she could say anything, Mrs. Dallon stood up and beckoned. The two of them moved to the kitchen, where I could hear the murmur of their conversation. It didn't sound like a pleasant one.

After a few minutes of that, both women emerged. Mrs. Dallon stood nearby, while Mrs. Pelham took a seat on the couch next to me. "Madison," she spoke softly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

I closed my eyes, unable to resist the shudder that ran through me. "I... don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I know you don't—you shouldn't have to deal with this after everything-" Stopping myself from rambling, I settled on a simple, "If you don't want me to be a part of the team anymore, I underst-"

"Stop," Mrs. Pelham interrupted. Her hand found my shoulder. "Madison, no one is going to kick you off the team. You made a mistake—okay, series of mistakes. You did some bad things, awful things. But if you didn't feel truly sorry for them, if you hadn't already been horrified by what you caused, you wouldn't have triggered. You tried to turn yourself in, you attemptedto do the right thing. And since then, you've been fighting to protect people, to help them. Maybe you're not perfect, but no one is."

"But you guys have so many problems to deal with already," I protested. "You shouldn't have to-"

"We don't have to," Mrs. Dallon interrupted from where she was standing. "We choose to."

Nodding in agreement, Mrs. Pelham moved her hand from my shoulder to my arm, squeezing. "You are a part of this team, Madison. That means we don't abandon you as soon as problems pop up. I won't lie and say I'm not disgusted by what you did. I won't pretend hearing about what you helped put that poor girl through doesn't horrify me. You were awful. But you already know that, and you've been working to change it. I'm not going to take that chance away from you by kicking you off the team."

I was quiet for a few seconds. Anything I wanted to say kept getting choked up in my throat. "My brother..." I had already told them about recognizing Trevor as the person who had stolen the bomb.

"We'll help you find him too," Mrs. Dallon promised. "I've got some questions for him, especially if he was telling the truth about being connected to Coil. We may not know what that bomb they made Crystal contribute to does, exactly, but thatsnake definitely shouldn't have it."

"But for now," Mrs. Pelham pulled us back on topic, "we should talk about what happened between you, Taylor, and these other girls. Can you tell us what exactly made you want to torture this girl?"

Thursday, May 5th

I still hadn't come up with a very satisfactory answer by the next morning. The question wouldn't go away. Why had I been so obsessed with keeping Sophia and Emma's approval? I didn't know Taylor personally, we'd never even interacted before I joined in with the bullying campaign. Why had I let it get that bad? Was that just the kind of person I was, the kind of monster I was capable of being. Or was there something else behind it, something I couldn't understand? It felt like I was close, so close to understanding something about myself, about what had happened. But it kept slipping away.

From his spot beside me at the Pelham's kitchen table, Eric spoke up. "How's your Dad doing, Vic?"

Victoria let out a long sigh while taking a bite of her own cereal. "Not good," she answered in a quiet, subdued voice. "Mom wants him to take a sabbatical from the team while he gets his head on straight."

Amy, who was standing over by the fridge drinking a glass of juice, spoke up then. "Mom thinks Crystal should take a break too, but she keeps refusing. I think they were arguing about it last-" She stopped talking as the kitchen door swung open, admitting the subject of her sentence.

Crystal stood there in the doorway, eyes moving over each of us before she stepped inside. There were dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep, but she still seemed hyper alert. Nightmares, I knew from Amy and Eric. She was fine during the day, but they had both heard her thrashing and crying out in the middle of the night. Apparently she hadn't slept more than a few hours a night since her rescue.

She also wasn't blonde anymore. A few days earlier, Crystal had dyed her hair a shockingly bright pink. When asked about it, she'd just said that the creeps from the Empire had constantly called her 'Blondie', and she didn't want to be reminded of that anymore. She couldn't look at herself in the mirror without remembering their taunts. Apparently Eric was going to give her his spare hair color changer that he'd received from his tinker friend so that she could go out as Laserdream without exposing her identity.

Even then, I couldn't help but notice how pretty the pink hair looked on her. It really worked.

"You guys know that door isn't soundproof, right?" Crystal remarked while putting an English Muffin in the toaster. "I already know you were talking about me." Turning, she added, "And I know Mom and Aunt Carol think I need a break. I don't. I need to do something constructive, not sit around and mope."

Vicky was nodding emphatically. "Yeah!" She grinned, popping out of her seat to embrace her cousin firmly, pulling the other girl into a hug. "I knew you'd be okay. You just need to kick some bad guy butt and put those creeps behind bars where they belong."

I saw the way Crystal stiffened at first when she was hugged before forcing herself to relax. She gave Victoria a hesitant pat on the shoulder. "What about Aunt Becca? She's the one I'm worried about."

"Mom wanted her to stay home again," Eric answered. "But she went to work anyway. She said she couldn't just abandon her students, and that focusing on a lesson would be good for her."

Crystal nodded while taking that in before turning her attention toward me. I couldn't help but shrink a little under her attention, knowing that her capture was my fault. "You need a ride to school, right?"

Vicky's eyes rolled then before she gave a long, heavy sigh that made her rather bountiful chest heave in a way that was strangely distracting. "I still don't see why they're dragging their feet so much with letting her come to our school. Mom's calling in every favor she knows to make it happen, but they're being so damn slow."

It was Amy who answered before I could. "It's because of that Sophia girl, remember? They were all split up after what happened and she's the one that ended up at Arcadia. They probably don't want the two of them going to the same school again."

Still huffing at that, Vicky retorted, "I don't see why they let her go to Arcadia instead."

I did. That was where the Wards went. Most people suspected as much, and it had been confirmed to me as soon as our split had ended with Sophia being sent there while Emma went to Clarendon and I was left at Winslow. But telling them that would have been a pretty big violation of the rules as Mrs. Pelham had explained them when I privately confided the whole truth about Sophia with her and Mrs. Dallon. So I kept it to myself, even though the idea of protecting Sophia in any way made me feel ill.

Besides, if we had to interact with the Wards again, I didn't really believe that a Victoria who knew the truth would be able to keep it to herself, and that was a really good way to let Sophia know who I was.

Speaking of Sophia, I still couldn't believe she'd been bombarding my phone with so many messages to find out if I was all right after Principal Blackwell's murder. I'd finally felt just guilty enough to send her a message that I was okay, but that was it. I didn't want to talk to her. I didn't even want to think about her.

"I'll take you," Crystal informed me. "I need to get out of this house anyway. It's just... I need to go out."

Hesitating, I glanced to the others before lamely replying, "You don't have to. I could just take the bus or-"

"No, you can't," Crystal interrupted flatly, plucking both halves of her English Muffin out and dropping them on a waiting plate before starting to spread butter on them. "You aren't going anywhere by yourself, remember? Not until they catch whoever killed Blackwell.

"Just finish eating and I'll drop you off. It's no big deal."

"So that's my whole story," I finished a few hours later. "That's why there's someone out there killing people, trying to killme, to punish us for what we did to that girl."

Sitting a couple feet away from me on the bleachers that overlooked the track, Cassie took a bite of the sandwich she'd brought to school. "Fuck, dude. That's some heavy shit."

Iron Rain and Purity had apparently both insisted that Cassie go to an actual high school. She had chosen to come to Winslow. Which was probably one of the only times that had ever happened. I wondered if the office even had a form for someone willingly choosing this school over other possibilities.

She had also tested herself out of freshman year to join me as a sophomore. I was pretty sure she could have tested herself even higher, but she wanted to stay where I was.

Nodding a little, I bit into my own sandwich while looking down at the empty track. No one was out here at the moment. In the distance, I could see a couple students running around on the baseball field, but most were either in class or at the cafeteria. Or they'd gone off campus to eat. We had the bleachers to ourselves. Which was exactly what I'd wanted: privacy.

"Really heavy," I agreed. "It's also why I'm not supposed to run off by myself. Even to do stuff like come over to your place." Sighing, I picked up a pebble and threw it off the bleachers. "I just wish I could answer their questions. Their real questions. Brandish and Lady Photon want to know why I did what I did, what made me act that way. They want to know why I wanted Emma and Sophia's approval. I wish I knew."

Cassie snorted and shook her head. "Yeah, right. After those pictures you showed me on your phone of them, I think we both know why you wanted their approval."

I blinked, looking at her. "Huh?"

"You know," the blonde girl prompted with a wave of her hand. "Because they're both like, attractive and shit. Hell, I'm a Na—former Nazi and even I noticed that."

"Uhhhh huh?" I was still staring at her uncertainly. "What does that have to do with me?"

"Oh come on, you do not have to hide it from me. I know, the whole Nazi thing and all that, but I haven't murdered Rain yet, so..." Cassie trailed off, staring at me. "You have no idea what I'm talking about. Are you serious?"

"Serious about what?" I shook my head slowly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ooooh boy," Cassie groaned, hanging her head. "This is not a conversation you should be having with me. How the hell do you not notice how much you smicker at those girls?"

Now she had really lost me. "How much I what, now? Throw jam at them?"

"That's Smucker's," she shot back. "Smicker means to ogle someone, you know, staring at them amorously."

"Ogle them? But you said—I thought you were talking about- and we were..." I trailed off, staring at her in open confusion. A whisper that had been in the back of my head for months now was trying to shout, screaming to get my attention.

"Shit, fuck, damn it," Cassie turned on the bench. "I'm the wrong fucking person for this. You need to talk to Iron Rain or something, I don't—she said she talked to you about this already! She said you thought Laserdream was—you know..."

"A hero?" I echoed. "I talked to her about how Laserdream is the biggest hero I know, and she is."

"Not a hero!" Cassie blurted. "God damn it, look at me. Look at me. Gay. Shut up, don't say a word. Gay, gay, gay, gay gay. Girls. You fucking like girls, Captain Oblivious. You're so fucking gay you probably bleed rainbows. When the doctor puts his stethoscope on your heart, he hears Judy Garland singing about blue birds and dreams! If your eyes spent any more time practically attached to my ass when we're walking around, they could apply for common law marriage. When your Karate teacher said you were going to learn how to scissor kick, you spent the whole time trying to figure out how two girls were supposed to swing themselves around in that position. If you drooled any more whenever Seraph bends over so you can see her cleavage, the city would have a brand new lake. Gay, gay, gay, gay, fucking gay. You are so god damn gay!"

"I..." My mouth opened and then shut as realization dawned. Thoughts that I'd had. Things that hadn't made sense. Ideas and images that just wouldn't go away. Stuff that I had shut aside. All the times that I had noticed how attractive Victoria, Crystal, Cassie, and all the others were, all of it. The things I'd somehow blocked myself from realizing. It all rushed back to me at once, clubbing me over the head with the obviousness of it. As well as the implications. "Oh... oh god. I-I think you're right."

"Of course I'm right," Cassie scoffed at me. "It's pretty—wait, hey. Hey stop it, are you okay? Are you... are you... like, crying? What the hell? I'm not abandoning your or whatever. I figured it out awhile ago. I told you, I can deal with it, just like I deal with Rain."

My head shook, but no words came out for a moment. I slowly lifted my hands to cover my face, sinking in the bench as my shoulders heaved. No, no, no. It couldn't be that. Please, please. I didn't want to know. I didn't want it. I didn't want this. Wrong, wrong, it was wrong. It had to be wrong.

It wasn't. That was why I tortured Taylor. This was why I wanted Emma and Sophia to like me. It was why everything had happened, why I'd become that person.

"I'm sorry," I whispered the futile, worthless words against my hands, feeling my own tears soak into my skin in spite of every attempt I made to hold it together. "I'm sorry. Oh my god.

"Taylor, I am so sorry."

10-04 – Emma

Thursday, May 5th

I'm sure there's a more humbling job in the world than cleaning up after a bunch of sick people in a hospital, but I'd be fairly hard-pressed to actually name one right off the tip of my tongue.

A few months ago, the idea of spending several hours of an afternoon mopping up puke, cleaning bedpans, and doing the laundry for people who got every kind of bodily fluid imaginable on them would have sounded like hell on Earth. Now, it was just another day of my well-deserved probation.

"You about done for the day, Bunny?" The nurse who was my supervisor here stood at the doorway of the restroom where I had been hard at work scrubbing my hands. She had already changed out of her scrubs and into normal clothes, and was jingling her keys in one hand. "I'll give you a lift."

Seriously, what was it about me that made people want to name me after small woodland creatures? Woody, Squirrel, and now Bunny.

I shook my head at that while grabbing a paper towel out of the dispenser. "No thanks, Paula. I've already got a ride." After wiping my hands on the towel, I crumpled it up and tossed it into the garbage.

The woman looked worried for a moment, brow creasing with obvious concern. "You sure you'll be okay, sweetie? I could take you wherever you need to go, it's really no trouble at all."

I knew what she was worried about. The police had stopped by the hospital a couple days earlier to talk to me about what had happened to Principal Blackwell, and the connection they thought it had to my dad. My father, the man they thought either killed that poor woman, or paid for it to be done.

Could he have? I wanted to say no. Actually, I wanted to scream it, had almost screamed it in the face of Detective Daley when he'd told me about that my father was their primary suspect and explained their little theory. I'd wanted to kick the table over and scream at the man that my family weren't murderers. We had plenty of problems, sure, but we didn't go around hiring assassins, for fuck's sake.

But just how well did I know my father and what he was capable of? After that day in the alley, I had changed so much. I had basically tortured my old best friend into a coma. So who the fuck was I to say how much my Dad had been changed by it and what he was capable of? I didn't want him to be, I wanted to believe that he'd never, ever do it. But could I say it with one hundred percent certainty?

At first the detective hadn't wanted to talk to me at all without a parent or guardian present. But I showed him the paper that the PRT had pushed through that gave Anne legal custody of me, and let him talk to her over the phone. Apparently Armsmaster had given Anne some kind of voice synthesizer that allowed her to at least sound normal. She gave him permission to talk to me, explaining that she was 'out of town.' I wasn't sure he completely bought the explanation for why he couldn't see her in person, but the man had at least let it go. I think he was more interested in finding out what I knew.

After questioning me for about an hour, the detective had left me with both a warning to let the police know if I saw my father or any strangers, and some kind of flashlight key fob with an emergency SOS signal attached to it. Apparently it was made by Armsmaster, and I'd wondered for a moment what the man himself would think if he knew that his tools were being handed out to someone like me.

And Madison. She was back in town. According to the brief call we'd exchanged, she had actually been just fine that whole time. A friend of the family had scooped her up as soon as her parents went missing and had her stay with them, and she'd lost her phone in the rush. After that, she'd just been so worried about her mom and dad that checking her e-mail or anything like that hadn't even occurred to her. Now that they were safe (well, in the hospital, but safe enough relatively speaking), she was communicating.

Once my meeting with the detective had ended, I'd been left to cope with the news that an innocent woman, my old principal, had been murdered because of something that I was responsible for. Whoever was behind it, the situation wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for me. Ruth Blackwell would be alive if I hadn't been an evil bitch.

It was... hard, to say the least. I actually ended up going to the woman's funeral, the guilt driving me to stand there and watch as she was buried. Dead. She was dead because of me. And as much as that hurt, as much as it made me want to curl into a ball and suffer, I couldn't. That was the easy way out. It was easy to give up, to fall over and just succumb to the sick feeling in my stomach. That awful guilty feeling that tried to eat me alive, the grief that came every time I let myself focus on what had happened to that poor woman and what she had gone through was enough to bury me completely.

But I pushed on. I made myself accept that guilt. I let it punch me in the gut whenever it took the swing, and then I got up again. Because if I was going to make the guilt matter, I had to actually do something about it. I had to find out who was responsible for it and make them stop, no matter what.

I wasn't suicidal. I didn't want to die. The shit I'd done, the awful, evil little bitch that I had been definitely deserved to be punished. But not this. I didn't deserve to die, and neither had the people who either let it happen or participated. Madison didn't deserve it. Not even Sophia. If I was being completely honest with myself some part of me still missed being friends with them. A lot of the stuff we'd done together didn't have anything to do with Taylor. It was just... fun. I missed it, and pretending like I didn't wasn't going to help anything.

Regardless, neither of them, or any of those other people, deserved to be murdered by some psychopath who was using what happened to Taylor as some kind of excuse to kill and pretend it was justified.

But most of all, Taylor didn't deserve to have innocent people tortured and murdered in her name. Even if I never managed to actually do anything else for her, even if I never even talked to her again, I could fix that much. I could make this sick fuck stop tarnishing her name. No matter what that took.

First, however, I'd had to talk Anne out of locking me up in a bunker after that little discussion with the detective, which hadn't been easy. She was pretty understandably freaked out, and wanted me to come stay in the Protectorate building until everything was sorted out, until they found whoever was responsible. Only my showing her the emergency alert key fob and promising to check in every few hours to let her know I was okay had staved off that particular problem. Anne was still worried, but I made her understand that since I could call her in at any time, and she could call in the Protectorate themselves, I was actually safer than almost anyone else would be in my position.

I left out the added fact that anyone trying to get me would have to somehow do so when I could stop time at the drop of a hat and remove myself from any situation they tried to trap me in.

So now I only had to deal with all the nurses and teachers who knew something was going on and kept trying to help. "Really," I assured Paula. "I'm meeting up with some friends. It's fine, I promise."

She still looked reluctant, but nodded. "All right, Bunny, but if you need anything, anything at all-"

"I've got your cell number," I confirmed. "And your home number, and your e-mail, and I think your mother's phone number. Seriously, Paula, I think you even tried to give me your dentist's number."

The woman waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, I just want you to be safe. You be careful now."

Promising I would be, I passed the woman and headed down the hall for the exit to the parking garage. I could feel the eyes of the other nurses and a couple doctors on me, a couple of them starting to ask if I needed anything or wanted a ride. Clearly the visit from Detective Daley had made the gossip rounds.

As soon as I was out of sight of prying eyes (and prying cameras), I stopped and looked around. Once I was satisfied, I focused on my power, drawing the red tint over the world before jogging through the door and into the garage. Holding my breath, I jogged through the lot, up the exit ramp, and managed to make it all the way to the alley across the street before Ihad to let time go back to normal so I could breathe. I was definitely getting better at that whole holding my breath thing.

After reaching the alley and starting time up again, I took a burner phone that Lisa had provided from my pocket and punched in the first saved number before holding it up to my ear. The phone rang about three times before the girl herself answered. "You all done at the hospital?"

"Yup," I confirmed. "You guys ready? Are the others already there?"

"Yeah, we're all here. You sure we're ready for this? Because this is pretty much the last chance to back out." Lisa sounded almost hopeful that I would change my mind at the last second.

I knew she was worried. We were supposed to meet this secretive boss of hers today, and Lisa thought it was a bad idea. She had stressed repeatedly how much the man preferred his privacy, but I held firm. We needed to know who we were working with if this situation was going to continue. It had taken a few days, but she'd arranged a meeting, arguing the whole time that we should just leave it alone.

Maybe I would eventually wish that I'd listened to her. But for the moment, every instinct I had was telling me that we should know who we were working for. Or, failing that, at least get to talk to the man face to face. Running all of his requests or demands through Tattletale was getting pretty old.

"It's okay," I promised. "We'll just meet the man, talk a bit so we're all on the same page, and get out."

And if I didn't like what I saw, if working with this guy was as bad of an idea as Lisa's reactions were starting to make me think it was, well then we'd just have to come to a new arrangement.

"Ahem. 'A month ago, the Undersiders were circling the drain. Nobody cared who they were, and most assumed that they'd split up and be absorbed by the other gangs in the city, or just end up in prison. They were a bunch of nobodies with barely a single decent job under their belts. Now they're all anyone's talking about in the Brockton Bay forums. Why? What made the difference? One thing in particular. They dumped their old leader for a newer, hotter, younger model.'"

"Stop," I groaned, putting my head in my hands. "Please stop, god. Where do you find this stuff?"

Alec, who had been reading the comment off of his phone, shrugged at me. All of us, the whole team, were in costume, sitting in a van that had been sent by the boss to drive us out to the meeting. The van was pretty big, but Rachel had brought two of her dogs, who were taking up most of the extra room.

"It's from a thread on PHO," Alec replied, "but it's not exactly a hard-to-find sentiment, Squirrel. Like here, random news story about that train thing. Find the comments and... 'Jeeze, switching out boring old Grue for sexy Redshift really turned the Undersiders around, didn't it? Good move, guys.'"

Flinging my hands up in the cramped space of the van, I demanded, "How do they know I'm sexy? Who the hell has even seen me to make that judgment besides a couple radio deejays?"

From where she was sitting, Tyler snickered easily. "Turns out they had cameras in the radio station, sweetness. Those shock jocks put out a bunch of pictures of you showing up to make your big declaration and they've made the rounds."

"But, but, but..." I shook my head. "I'm wearing a full body costume! It's not even a very good costume, for Scion's sake!" I was still wearing the same red pants and running shoes, black shirt with the red starburst pattern on it, and the simple ski mask with the red lenses built into the eyes. I'd spent a very long time cultivating my appearance at school and for my modeling jobs. I knew I could look pretty damn hot. But I wasn't trying in this case. "I'm not doing or wearing anything special, so what the hell are they babbling about?

"Speaking for one of the babblers," Alec cut in with a raised hand. "You could probably make a paper bag look good. Actually-"

"I am not going to try to make a paper bag look good," I cut him off.

While he pretended to sulk, Tyler shrugged at me. "You do look good. And now, like it or not, you're the new face of the Undersiders."

I groaned again before sitting back against the seat. It figured. After years of trying to make a real modeling career take off and get discovered, the city decided to become obsessed with me when I didn't care anymore. There was probably some kind of word for that. Besides annoying, I meant.

Looking toward Theo, who was sitting across from me, I asked, "You wanna be the new face?"

He was shaking his head when Tyler spoke up. "He might as well be, considering half of PHO is pretty damn convinced that you two are already a couple."

I promptly choked, staring across the van at her. The exposed lower half of her face left her smirk in plain sight. "Excuse me? Why the hell would they think that? We haven't even—they don't—why?"

It was Tattletale who answered. "Never underestimate an internet forum's capacity for relationship rumors. The world wide web is a uniting force, and in this case, what it united was all the teenage girls, gossiping housewives, and guys who secretly like to listen in to that stuff but always felt like they weren't allowed to."

"We should let Judas be the new face of the team," I announced. The dog in question raised his head at the sound of his name at the exact same time that Rachel's gaze snapped up to look at me. The other girl's squint made it clear that she wasn't sure if I was being insulting or not. Knowing how quickly that uncertainty tended to fall quickly into anger, I continued. "He'd teach them to stop gossiping pretty quick."

Rachel's eyes rolled, but she gave a grunt of acknowledgment and settled a little before muttering, "He still could."

I regarded Theo for a minute. We really hadn't had that much time to interact or get to know each other yet. I knew that he had been found by one of the boss's contacts while experimenting with his power, but I really had no idea how loyal he felt to the man, or what his opinion was about... any of this. I'd tried to get him to open up, but the guy just seemed really closed off. He wasn't rude or anything, just... passive. Like he was afraid to really give his opinion about anything.

A year ago, the thought of so many people talking about me and passing some random picture of me around would have left me giddy beyond belief. Now, now I wasn't sure what I thought about it. On the one hand, I was embarrassed and a little ashamed. But I was also considering how I could use it. This was a chance to make the public see the Undersiders any way that we wanted them to. The biggest thing that people knew us for right now was rescuing a bunch of hostages from the Merchants. We were thieves with hearts of gold. What we did next could decide the entire narrative about our team for a really long time. If the public liked us... well, it opened a lot of possibilities.

But to do anything with that, I had to meet Lisa's boss first. I needed to know just what kind of man he was. And how likely he was to make problems for us.

Even as I was thinking that, the van pulled to a stop in the parking lot of a rundown gas station. The driver, who had been silent save for introducing himself as Sam, gestured. "Stand over there. They'll be here for you in a minute."

I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but the man clearly wasn't the type to answer questions. So we got out and moved to the place he had indicated. Or a few of us did. I had Alloy, myself, and Tattletale stand there. Bitch and her dogs were on the other side of the boarded up building, Nimue stayed over by the remnants of the pumps, hidden by her invisibility cloak, and Regent perched himself on the edge of the gas station's roof. I didn't care if this guy was supposed to be on our side, I wasn't just going to let my whole team stand dumbly in the exact spot that he told us to.

The van drove off as soon as we were out, and we stood around waiting for about five minutes. Just as I was about to ask Tattletale if her boss was always this late, two figures abruptly appeared in the middle of the lot between the three of us that were standing there and the pumps where the invisible Nimue was.

Both figures were in costume, and couldn't possibly have looked different. The older, taller figure was clearly a grown man. His outfit was basically a SWAT uniform, except instead of being black and gray or whatever, the whole thing was a garishly patriotic red, white, and blue. The words 'Sui Juris' were written on the pocket of the uniform, and he was carrying both a riot shield with 'Auribus Teneo Lupum' written on it, and some kind of heavily modified harpoon gun.

In contrast, the person at his side was a very young girl. At a guess considering her size, I'd put her at around nine or ten years old. She was wearing pink tights, a slightly darker pink skirt with white patterns over it, what looked like a white metallic bit of chest armor over her torso, and matching metal gauntlets that looked almost comically big for her hands. Her face was hidden behind a gleaming white mask with glowing pink eyes that was attached to the tiara that sat on top of her head.

As I stared, the girl took a quick step forward. One of her gloves slipped down, revealing a much smaller hand that she extended our way. "Hi!" She chirped brightly. "I'm Princess Wander, glad to meet you!"

"Wander," the man behind her spoke warningly. "Put your freedom fist back on."

"Aww, but da—I mean Aequitas, I dunno how to shake hands with it without crushing things yet." Quickly taking my hand in her smaller, thankfully non-crushing grip, the girl shook quickly. "I've been reading aaaaaaaall about you guys! Did you really-"

"Wander," the man, Aequitas, apparently, spoke a bit more firmly. The girl sighed and tugged on her gauntlet once more, and he focused on us. "We were told there were more of you."

I looked to Tattletale, and she nodded back at me. So I gestured for the others to come in. "I didn't know the man we were working with had other capes on his payroll."

Rather than reply, Aequitas just grunted. He waited until the others had come in before pointing at the dogs. "They really have to come along?"

Before Bitch could do more than snarl a little, I replied, "They're part of the team. They come or none of us do."

Sighing, the man waved a hand. "Do it, Wander."

"Princess Wander," the little girl corrected him, and looked dead set on not doing a damn thing until he said it.

He let out a long sigh, but finally did so. "Do it, Princess Wander. Let's get these people to the boss so we can grab the others and get something useful done."

I was about to ask what she was going to do, when the girl herself piped up again. "Don't worry! It won't hurt. You don't even feel nothin'. I'm just gonna make us all be somewhere else. You ready?"

Ah. She was the teleporter, the way they'd just popped up out of nowhere. Made sense, considering her name. And now she was going to take us back to meet the man who had put the Undersiders together, and who apparently was behind these people too.

"Ready," I confirmed after looking back at my team to make sure none of them had any objections.

Time to see who this boss was. And find out just how hard it was going to be to yank my team out of his grasp.

10-05 – Sophia

Thursday, May 5th

God, I missed using my power at times like these.

I'd had to shove that thought down throughout the entire trip from the underground tunnel. The place that Bryce's scouter gnomes had noticed the ABB creeps at was too far away to walk. Normally, I would've just taken a few quick leaps over the rooftops with my power. It wasn't flight, but being able to jump from rooftop to rooftop was sure as hell faster than jogging or taking the stupid bus.

But no, I had to pretend to be a boring, useless old human. Well, human aside from the toys that Bryce could make up. It was almost enough to make me want to pretend Aisha's antics were enough to give me a trigger event that by sheer coincidence happened to give me powers similar to Shadow Stalker.

Yeah, that was probably a bad idea. Which was why, instead, I was letting Muse use one of her new clouds to ferry me alongside herself and Aisha. The two of us were crouched down on either side of the cloud, with Muse standing up in the middle, crouched slightly like she was surfing or something. She'd even shaped part of the cloud in front of Aisha and me into grips that we could hold onto to stay on.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, we were up high. I really didn't like it. Not that Muse was bad at this shit or anything. She'd taken to it pretty quickly, actually, after an initial rough start while she got the hang of things. No, what I fucking hated was handing control over to anyone while we were up high. It made me... shit, not nervous. I didn't do nervous. I wasn't some whiny little crybaby. It made me uncomfortable. That's it.

Or maybe what was making me uncomfortable were Aisha's imps. She'd brought all twenty that she had ready, naturally. They were all piled up on a second cloud that was flying a short distance behind us, set to some kind of autopilot or something. Muse said she had it set to follow our cloud at a specific distance and speed. Which meant that, trailing behind us as we flew through the air, there was a cloud full of about twenty imps made of various materials that were constantly cackling, squealing, and cavorting around while making noises that sounded suspiciously like dirty jokes. They were dancing, hopping on top of each other to make tall, swaying stacks of themselves, and so on. It was basically like being followed around by a tiny bar full of drunk frat boys that would've fit in my closet.

Aisha, obviously, was having a blast. Even Muse seemed happier up here, less... I dunno, stiff than she'd been. She relaxed a bit and actually looked like she was having fun exploring this new power.

Finally, after entirely too long for my comfort, the clouds set down on the rooftop of a building near the mattress store that Bryce had pointed out. Aisha had (thankfully) only had to be reminded twice to silence her imps before we arrived, and the little shits were already quietly spreading out. I saw a few hopping up on top of the low wall that surrounded the roof edge while others took off to either side, sliding down a convenient fire escape on one end and a rain gutter on the other. In the street below, they would surround our target, letting Aisha see through the eyes of almost two dozen scouts at once.

The kid may be immature and pretty damn impulsive, but fuck if her power wasn't really useful.

Bryce came over the comm the second we arrived. "Scouter's still got a visual on at least one guard at the front. Dude's smoking a reefer or something, so he's not doing a very good job." He sounded pretty judgmental about smoking for a kid that had blown off his math quiz a couple days earlier so he could keep working on a costume whose entire point was to create smoke. Well, cloud, but whatever.

"You got anything useful?" I asked Aisha as we stepped off the cloud and Mu-Cloudkicker dismissed it. I had to get used to those names. Cloudkicker, Cloudkicker, Cloudkicker. Imp, Imp, Imp. Saying the wrong name at the wrong time was... yeah, that shit was bad. Which went double in my case. I had to keep track of what Sophia-me knew, what Hinder-me knew, and what Shadow Stalker-me knew, and keep them all separate. The last thing I needed was to run into Cloudkicker while I was out as Shadow Stalker and stupidly call her Muse. That was the kind of mistake that would fuck me over completely.

"One sec," Imp replied while hopping up on top of the low wall, crouching down to kneel there like a gargoyle. Cloudkicker stood nearby, cloud coiling around one arm almost like some kind of pet snake.

I had to snort inwardly at the difference in costume design between all three of us. There was me, in my padded green coveralls, combat boots, and the ski mask with the green ski goggles. Then there was Imp in her black bodysuit with the white demon face on the chest and the skull-like white demon mask that was partially covered by the hood of the green cloak. And finally, there was Cloudkicker in her gleaming silver and white costume with the Rocketeer helmet. When you put Cloudkicker, me, and Imp in a line, we looked like some kid's examples of of good, neutral, and evil costumes.

It also didn't escape me that my Shadow Stalker costume was closer to Imp's costume than Cloudkicker's.

"Kay, there's like... eleven guys in there—wait, twelve." Imp reported. "One of 'em was taking a sh—I mean, using the toilet. Eight guys, four girls. Don't see any capes unless they're laying low. No hostages either. Definitely ABB though, unless there's some other Asian gang in town. Wait, there's not, right?"

"Right," I murmured, already thinking. Fuck, Foil's sister wasn't there. I'd been hoping we could get this whole blackmail thing knocked out tonight if possible. But even if she wasn't there, at least we could beat up some random ABB creeps. That thought made me feel a little bit better already.

Imp spoke up then, interrupting my thoughts. "Wait, I thought they lost all their non-cape members."

Before I could respond, Bryce—errr, Churchill piped up through the comm, "Must've been recruiting a lot. I don't think you really tell someone like Lung no if he tells you that you're part of his gang now."

"What if you're not actually Asian?" Cloudkicker asked.

"Dude, have you seen him in full-on Savage Dragon form?" Churchill demanded. "Given a choice between arguing with him or arguing with your own damn genetics, I'd take the second one."

Shaking my head, I lamented, "I'm not even sure if I should applaud this sense of self-preservation, or point out that the entire concept of this team happens to involve us fighting him at some point."

"I'll come up with something by then," Bryce promised. "I've got ideas. For now, you should just-"

He was interrupted by the sound of a voice from below shouting, "Grab that fucking cape cunt!"

As soon as I heard it, my head snapped around to the spot where Imp had just been, a rebuke on my lips. It faded, however, as I saw the girl herself still crouched there, obviously squinting at me.

"One," she spoke up flatly. "That wasn't me. And two, I am totally being profiled here, you all saw it."

Cloudkicker had already moved to the edge of the roof, raising a hand to point down. "Look."

Moving beside her, I squinted toward the street below while repeatedly telling myself to be calm and keep it together rather than curse a few dozen times. As cathartic as it might have been, Imp and Churchill were already borderline. They needed a better example than that would've set.

So, instead, I focused on seeing what was actually happening. And what was happening was that there were suddenly a lot more people on the street just a short distance away from the mattress store than there had been a couple minutes earlier. And most of those new people were in one costume or another.

"Churchill," I spoke aloud. "Turn your gnome ninety degrees. We've got company. Cape company."

I recognized about half of the capes immediately. Three of them were from the Protectorate. There was Dauntless, Prism, and Triumph. Those three were clearly in the middle of some drawn out battle with the other capes on the street. My quickly scanning eyes picked out the massively tall, thin as a rail guy in the black tuxedo with the white mask that covered the top half of his face that we had seen in back in the mall. I'd since learned that his name was Kanjiru. His 'deal' was that he couldn't actually feel anything. Good sensation, bad sensation, pleasure, pain, whatever. He couldn't feel it. Instead, he just stored it away and could apply it to anyone he touched, transferring that pain or pleasure to them.

He wasn't alone. Spread out around him were two other new capes that I didn't know. One was a squat, heavy-set man wearing a costume that consisted of a brown bodysuit with a few black markings up the legs, and a welder's mask. His shaved head was bare aside from a tattoo of a sword that obviously started much lower on his back, rising up to show only the tip of the blade on his shiny dome.

Honestly, what the fuck was the point of a mask if you could be identified that easily? Dumbasses.

"We should get down there," Imp started to move impatiently, but stopped as I caught her shoulder. A single look made her sigh. "Yeah, yeah, stay up here until we know what's going on. I got it."

Leaving my hand where it was anyway, I returned my attention to the scene below. The other cape that I didn't know was a female wearing a full body suit that looked professionally made. It was practically painted on. The inside of her legs was white, while the outside was blue. The white stretched up over the center of her stomach on up over the middle of her chest and to her neck. The blue outside color, meanwhile, continued up over her sides and to her shoulders, including her arms. She wore a blue mask that left her eyes and short black hair exposed. She was holding a sword with a long red blade.

And finally, because this whole thing wasn't fucked enough, I could see Oni Lee. The psycho assassin son of a bitch was teleporting around while each of Prism's three selves tried to keep up with him. She kept splitting and merging, each of them trying to get the drop on the other one without much success.

She, apparently, was the 'cape cunt' that the shout had been referring to. And the shouter was the idiot with the easily identifiable tattoo on his ugly bald head. He was giving orders to the handful of standard thug gang members that were already spreading out, guns up as they tried to get a line on Prism.

Dauntless, meanwhile, was in the middle of his own pitched battle with the female ABB cape with the nice costume. He had his spear raised in one hand, thrusting it forward as a bolt of lightning shot out.

The ABB cape simply raised the red sword she was carrying, catching the lightning on the end of it before giving a wild swing that sent the electricity out toward Triumph, who had been trying to come up on her other side. He was forced into a sideways roll that took him away from the girl.

Continuing her pivot, the ABB chick released the sword, throwing it toward Dauntless. The guy brought that shield of his up defensively. Yet before the sword would have struck it, the damn thing actually transformed. Instead of a red blade, there was a god damn person there in the middle of a flying kick. At first I thought the girl had switched places with her weapon. Then my brain caught up and I realized her costume looked different. She had red where the other girl had blue, and gold where the other had white. Other than that, they looked identical. It was like a palette swap on one of those old fighter video games.

The red and gold costumed figure planted one foot against Dauntless's shield, using that as a plant to push herself up and over, kicking him in the face. In mid-spin as she was coming back down, the girl that was obviously her twin sister took a running leap that way. The blue and white costumed figure shrank and reshaped herself as she launched, becoming a blue mace that the red and gold costumed girl caught hold of and brought around and down toward Dauntless's shoulder while he was still reeling.

At the last second, the Protectorate hero managed to put his shield up into the path of the mace. But even as he countered with his spear, the twins switched places again. The mace turned back into a girl, and her sister became a long red harpoon that she used to knock the spear off course. With the spear out of the way and Dauntless back pedaling, the blue girl planted the harpoon and jumped over it. In the same instant, she shifted from her human shape into a long rapier, and the harpoon transitioned back into the red girl, catching the blue rapier and stabbing it forward to catch Dauntless in the side, drawing blood that time. They were synced up in perfect harmony. No wonder Dauntless was having trouble.

Triumph, meanwhile, let loose with one of his concussive screams. The blast struck three of the nearest ABB troops that had been trying to line up shots on Prism, knocking them to the ground.

Unfortunately, doing so left the poor guy wide open for Kanjiru to get a quick grab in. At his touch, Triumph shouted again, this time in pain. He stumbled, taking a knee before catching himself. Fighting through what had to be intense fucking agony, the guy managed to kick Kanjiru's legs out from under him, dumping the masochistic piece of shit to the ground before jerking away from him.

However, Kanjiru wasn't Triumph's biggest problem just then. Because the bald guy in the ugly brown costume was right there, punching downward with a fist that the Protectorate boy barely managed to twist away from. The guy's fist went partway through the pavement, pulverizing it.

Brute then. Good to know.

"Okay," I finally spoke after taking in all of that. It had only been a few seconds, even though it felt like longer. "Imp, make your little friends useful and attack Kanjiru and all those extra guys. We already know he can't hurt you through them. Keep him and the rest of those f—guys out of the way. The Protectorate could fight better if they didn't have to keep one eye out for the creeps with the guns."

Giving Cloudkicker a quick glance then, I gestured. "Oni Lee has to see to teleport. Blind him with your cloud and keep it on him as long as you can."

"What're you gonna do?" both of them asked, almost in unison.

"Me?" I asked while already moving to throw myself over the edge of the roof. "I'm gonna punch that piece of shit so hard he'll start speaking Spanish."

Dropping over the roof, I used a hand against the side of the building to slow my descent with the glove's wall-climbing ability. Still, I landed fairly hard, turning it into a roll before popping up into a sprint, straight across the middle of the impromptu battlefield.

Ahead of me, the handful of ABB gangsters had been joined by several more from inside, all rushing to join the party. Each of them turned toward me, but before they could do anything, a dozen imps of various materials all threw themselves into the attack. I saw a fire imp leap up and burn one poor son of a bitch across the face, just before three more made of various metals landed on top of the shotgun another thug was wielding, tearing it from his grasp while one made of wood went running up his leg to punch the fuck right where no guy ever wants a block of wood (or anything else) to punch him. Imp's soldiers were everywhere, hitting the ABB troops from every side. They had no chance to focus on me.

Which was good, because I ran right through them and toward the spot where Oni Lee and Prism were fighting. He had just teleported behind the Protectorate second-in-command, and she appeared to be helplessly focusing on the clone he had left behind, even as he came at her with one of those knives.

At the last second, however, I saw a different Prism drop down toward the man from the awning above. The one that had been left out as a sacrificial lamb vanished a second before Oni Lee would have struck her, rejoining her other-self just in time to kick Oni Lee hard enough that the man went sprawling to the ground, dropping his knife.

He fell into ash an instant later, reappearing behind Prism once more just as she split into three distinct selves. This was obviously a fight that could keep going for a long time.

Fortunately, it didn't have to. Just as Oni Lee seemed to hear my approaching footsteps and turned toward me, a thick white cloud rose up and planted itself over his eyes, blinding the man. He cursed in what was probably Japanese, twisting his head this way and that in an attempt to get it off himself.

Before he could, I was there. Planting both hands against the fuck's chest, I triggered the gloves and pumped as much electricity into him as I could. That probable-curse of his turned into a scream, and he twisted around before collapsing. He twitched once, then again, mumbling incoherently.

"Who are you?" One of the Prisms asked, obviously still a bit wary in spite of what she had just seen.

I started to respond immediately, but stopped myself and took the time to activate the voice changer that Bryce had (thank fuck) finished a few days earlier. With that done, I replied, "I'm Hinder. We're Normandy. You want our help dealing with these guys or not?"

There was a brief pause as each of the three Prisms looked first to the ongoing battle, then each other, and finally back to me. One nodded. "All right then. You took down Oni Lee. That's pretty damn impressive.

"Let's see what else you guys can do."

10-06 – Taylor

Thursday, May 5th

Mr. Gladly was dead. Another person had been killed by whoever had found my notebook. Another life violently scrubbed out because of words that I had written. Another family left to mourn because someone had chosen to use my journal as an excuse to enact sick revenge on everyone remotely connected to the bullying campaign that I had been trying to put behind me, as much as possible.

Apparently some teenagers had found the poor man's body left behind the dumpster in the back of Fugly Bob's parking lot with my name chiseled into the nearby concrete. The news had come from my father, who had called the Palanquin after Detective Daley contacted him. The man had wanted us to get the news directly from him rather than risk seeing the death on the news and being surprised by it.

God. This couldn't be happening. Of everything that I imagined when I took down those notes, hoping that someday I'd be able to present my side of the story, I never thought anything like this would happen. I never wanted people to die. Not even that trio of hideous bitches. Punished, yes. Stopped, for damn sure. But not killed. Never killed. I didn't want any of this. Whoever was doing it, they obviously didn't know me at all. They were obviously using my notebook as an excuse for their own violence.

I had to stop them. It was my responsibility. I hadn't asked them to do it, but they were using my notes.

Besides, focusing on this let me stop focusing on the fact that Emily was still dead. The girl whose nurse friend was the sole reason I could move at all, the reason I could communicate with my father, was gone. The guilt I felt at having survived while she hadn't was a constant pressure in my head. Add in the death of Newter, who I didn't have as much of a connection to, but still liked and it was... bad. I hadn't known either of them that long, but they were still my friends. Friends that I'd desperately needed, and that had now been taken away because of more stupid gang warfare. The bastards.

Faultline was working on getting us a job that would help track down every last one of those Nazi assholes who had been at that farm, all of them that had escaped. She'd enlisted Gregor and Mockshow to help, the former for his diplomatic skill and the latter for muscle. The order of that was kind of funny when you thought about it. But until they managed to come back with a lead, the rest of us had some free time. Free time that we were choosing to spend dealing with whoever was killing in my name.

"Don't worry, Taylor." Elle's hand patted mine as the two of us sat together in the back of one of several nondescript cars that Faultline kept around. I felt the pat somewhat distantly, my own vision currently showing me the entire interior of the car from every angle, along with a bit of the road outside.

Elle gave my hand a squeeze after patting it, somehow knowing my thoughts even though we weren't directly connected at the moment. "We'll stop them. We'll find them and they won't hurt anyone else."

Payton, who was in the front seat driving, agreed. "She's right. Everything the police have say this guy isn't a cape. He's just a psychopath. We'll track him down, truss him up for the cops, and call it in. It's gonna be okay, Taylor. Between the three of us, it shouldn't take long to find this guy, whoever he is."

And that was the thing. I had absolutely no idea who this person was. The police figured he was a grown man because of the strength involved and the way the bodies had been dragged around, but I couldn't think of a single adult male who would dothat kind of thing for me. Even the idea of it being Emma's father, or a man that Emma's father had hired didn't exactly sit right. It felt wrong. Emma's father might have been a jerk, but a murderer? Or willing to hire a murderer? I didn't like it. And yet I had no better explanation. There just... wasn't anyone who fit the description and actually knew me. Not that I especially wanted to think of anyone I knew as being capable of doing... this.

Clearly trying to distract me from my gloomy thoughts, Elle gave me a gentle poke in the stomach. "You almost let me forget my hat. I can't be a detective without my hat." Reaching into the backpack that sat in her lap, she groped through it for a moment before pulling out a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat that she had cajoled Faultline into procuring, plopping it down on her own blonde head and adjusting it before beaming proudly. "See? It's not just elementary, it might even be junior high!"

Inwardly, I smiled. I couldn't help it. I knew she was just being silly on purpose, trying to make me feel better. But the fact that she wanted to make me feel better, that she was being ridiculous to make me smile and distract me from my own thoughts was enough. I hadn't known her all that long, but Elle was... she had filled a hole in me that had been there ever since Emma's betrayal. She was goofy and funny and cute and... Elle. She reminded me of how to be myself, how to be the Taylor that I'd been before everything that had happened. My power's direction in combat and the suit that Faultline had secured gave me the chance to be a person again. Elle's friendship gave me a chance to be Taylor again.

"Coming up on the right in twenty seconds," Payton warned. "You guys better get ready."

As always, directing myself into Elle's head was simple beyond belief. All I had to do was think it, and my vision went from a panoramic view of the car to seeing my own body through her eyes. The hood of my jacket was up to cover my hair, and I wore sunglasses. It made me look a bit like an actress who didn't want to be recognized, though I couldn't think of any of them who looked quite as plain as I did.

"Hello, Taylor!" Elle chirped happily while leaning over my body to look out the nearby window. The street was almost empty, save for a couple of parked police cars with their top lights flashing.

A few seconds later, one of the policemen who were directing traffic away from the parking lot stepped into view, hand raised to wave us on. Elle's eyes locked with his, raising a hand to wave back at him.

And then I was watching her wave as the car that she and my body were in continued on down the street, leaving my consciousness behind inside the head of the cop who had been directing us.

I felt the man's disgust at the scene behind him. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hug his son and kiss his wife. He wanted to forget all of this had ever happened. He was thinking about quitting this job, maybe getting something easier with better hours. He could be a security guard somewhere. With his skills and education, he could probably get a job in corporate security. At least there he wouldn't have to see bodies like the one back there that the suits were going over with a fine toothed comb.

At that thought, the man reflexively glanced behind himself. In the distant corner of the lot, one of the crime scene technicians caught the look and glanced up as though to see if anything was happening. The two men locked eyes, and I used the opportunity to jump from one head to the other.

Now I felt pride. Not pride in the dead body at my feet, of course, but pride in the fact that we were going to solve the case. I felt confidence. Whoever was responsible for these murders, they weren't going to get away with it. We would analyze the body, find the mistake the killer had made, and lock them up where they couldn't hurt anyone ever again. All it took was a bit of patience and he'd be done.

Then he looked down at the corpse, and I was immediately glad that I had no control over the body that I was in, because I would have screamed immediately. I would have thrown up, and probably cried.

Mr. Gladly's eyelids had been stitched shut. Above his forehead the words, 'sees nothing' had been written in some kind of marker. His ears were folded down and stitched closed as well, and the words 'hears nothing' were scrawled across his left cheek with an arrow pointing to the nearest ear as if to make the point even more obvious. On the right cheek, the words 'says nothing' were written. Another arrow pointed to his lips which had also been stitched closed. From the impression that I was getting from the crime scene tech who was looking at the body, all of this had been done while he was alive.

He'd survived that much. The part he hadn't survived was immediately apparent, and even more horrifying. The man had been cut open, straight down the chest cavity. Where his heart should have been, there was a plastic-covered card that read, 'heartless.' Where a bunch of his other organs should have been, there was another card. This one read, 'gutless.' There was no sign of any of those organs.

I wanted to scream. No! I didn't want this! Stop it! Damn it, whoever you were, stop! Please! Stop killing people. I didn't want this, I didn't want it! Mr. Gladly just wanted people to like him. He was obsessed with being the 'cool teacher,' but he didn't... he hadn't... god damn it, please stop it.

It took me a little bit to pull myself together enough to actually pay attention to what the tech was analyzing. In the end, I finally managed it simply by telling myself that it was the only way to put a stop to this. I had to use the technician, and any of the other people at the scene that I could jump into, to get a full picture of what had happened. I would jump from head to head, keeping up with everything the police were finding out. Any clues they found, I would know about. Any evidence they analyzed, I would see as well. I needed to know what they knew, so that I could stop this psychopath.

Even if seeing this made me feel like my soul had been put through the same thing Mr. Gladly had.

An hour later, we found something. Or rather, the policemen had found something, the knowledge of which I 'borrowed' while jumping back to my own head, thankful to be away from that body.

Payton had been busy in the meantime. As my vision returned to the panoptic view of the car, I saw that the red-haired girl was now wearing a police uniform that she had conjured up from... somewhere.

Elle, meanwhile, was staring off into space while poking at something in the air that wasn't really there. At least, it wasn't there in our world. As usual, when I wasn't present, she'd let herself drift away. According to Faultline, they'd never seen Elle as anchored and connected to the world as she was when I was with her. Yet when I wasn't around or we weren't directly interacting, she still tended to lose focus and get lost in her own power. We helped each other. She was my partner, the way Emma had been.

As soon as I was oriented, my focus shifted toward my slumped over body. Thanks to the suit beneath my ordinary clothes, my arm responded immediately to my command. My hand rose to push at Payton's seat, startling the girl into a yelp before she looked back at me. "Oh, Taylor. Got something?"

I made my head nod once, already focusing on throwing my mind over to Elle. I could have used either the text-to-speech option on the special cell phone that Faultline had provided, or stumbled my way through a brief explanation using the sign language that Mockshow was teaching me. But I wasn't confident enough in my use of either of those, particularly the latter. And both would take too long.

Elle? I thought as loudly as I could to get the other girl's attention while pushing my mind partway to hers. I didn't want to fall all the way into her 'otherworld', since the two of us had a habit of getting lost when I did that. Usually it was only for a few minutes, but I was pretty sure every minute counted now.

"Hello, Taylor!" Elle, cheerful as always at my arrival, spoke aloud. Her head turned away from the window to look at my body while she stopped poking the air. "Do we know where the bad guy is?"

I think so, I sent back. Can you tell Payton to drive down by that new touristy area on the north end? The area that the mayor was trying to fix up to bring in new business. There was sand under Mr. Gladly's fingernails and in his... uhhmm... I blanched, the thought sickening me. … inside his wounds that's some of that special new sand they were trucking in last month to make that artificial beach. The cops are already canvasing the area, but there's four different motels and two whole apartment buildings to cover, and they can't really look inside places without more to go on. But we can.

Elle promptly relayed the message, and Payton shifted the car into drive. While we were going, I used the phone to ask where the police uniform had come from, my curiosity outweighing my hesitation.

"Oh, this?" Payton tugged at one sleeve while making a sharp left turn. "I had it in the trunk. Figured this might make things easier if anyone came by to ask why we were sitting around waiting for so long. And yeah, it's real. You'd be surprised what a couple hundred bucks will convince a cop in this city to misplace. Your public servants are seriously underpaid in this world. It's kind of criminal. Oh and," her hand gestured to the shoulder-mounted radio that was already crackling with voices. "It's another way to keep track of what they're up to and if they've got anything."

Before long, we reached the area that the police had mentioned. I could see two different patrol cars drive by and turn into the parking lot of the nearest motel, while another motel had a pair of cops leaving, their shaking heads making it clear that they hadn't found anything. And why would they? Unless the murderer was dumb enough to make themselves suspicious in front of a desk attendant, or literally hauled a body into the hall while the cops were there, they had no real way of finding them.

We, on the other hand, could. Though it wasn't perfect, or nearly as fast as I would have hoped. Especially since we had no way of knowing if the first building we chose would be right. If it wasn't, we were going to have to do this whole thing more than once. I found myself wishing that Payton's power actually was luck the way she played it as, because I'd just have her choose a place at random.

In the end, I chose the apartment building across the street from the motels that the police were checking. I was reasoning that whoever it was would want a place more private than a motel room.

Payton parked in the back lot, and the three of us got out together before heading into the building. A guy that was sitting out on the stoop saw the uniform that Payton was wearing and immediately hopped up to head inside. I was worried at first, but as we stopped beside the door of the apartment that he had disappeared into, my circle of vision expanded enough to reveal the man inside his apartment dumping an absurd amount of marijuana into the toilet before flushing it.

We searched the entire apartment building without any luck. I'd get close enough to an apartment door to let my vision expand to reveal as much of the interior as possible, looking for anything suspicious. It was obviously incredibly invasive, and I felt guilty every time I saw something that I shouldn't have. But, well, it was for a good cause. And in my defense, I felt mentally scarred after seeing some of the stuff I really hadn't wanted to. Nothing as bad as murder, but eesh, people.

From there, we moved to the next apartment building. This one was smaller than the last, only three stories as opposed to five. Payton parked, and the three of us started to make the rounds once more. We would walk slowly, stopping by each door long enough for me to get an idea of what was going on inside before moving on.

I was about to give up this search as pointless as well when something stopped me just as I started to move on from a dark apartment with only a few incredibly cheap pieces of furniture that made me think it was just another bachelor pad. However, just as I started to tell my body to take another step and move on to the next apartment, my vision expanded a little bit more, showing me about half of the bedroom (void of furniture save for a mattress with an old blanket) and most of the kitchenette. An ugly green refrigerator sat there, mundane and forgettable in every respect except for one.

There was a picture of me taped to the front of it.

Payton noticed that I wasn't moving on and turned back to me. "Taylor?" she asked in a quiet voice.

Silently, I pointed to the apartment door while reaching up to tug my jacket off, revealing the costume beneath. My hands extended toward Elle, who was already slipping the backpack off her shoulder. She produced my helmet, setting it into my hands before taking her own mask out to pull it on.

Elle didn't have her robe with her, there was no way to wear it without attracting attention or being obvious. However, as she unzipped the jacket that she was wearing, I saw that she had used some kind of fabric marker to write the words, 'I am Labyrinth' on the front of the simple white shirt that she wore. That was followed by a simple smiley face and beneath it was a stick figure wearing a robe, standing on top of a wall with the word, 'Me' written next to it.

By that time, Payton had produced her own mask, and drew the pistol that was part of her costume. "Ready?" she asked, one hand on the doorknob.

"Ready!" Elle chirped while I gave a simple nod.

Yes. I was beyond ready. It was time to find out who was killing people in my name, and make them stop. Principal Blackwell, Mr. Gladly, I couldn't save them. But I could stop anyone else from dying.

Just as I thought that, my vision expanded one more time. I could see the entire kitchenette, as well as the rest of the bedroom, including a large storage case or trunk of some kind that sat in a corner of the room. But there weren't clothes, knick-knacks, or even camping equipment in this particular trunk. Instead, the space was taken up by a single figure. A living figure. A person was in that case, scrunched in to fit the too-small area in what was obviously a painful position.

Julia. I recognized her immediately. The girl, one of the trio's hangers-on who was always trying to impress them, was bound and gagged in the trunk. I couldn't tell how long she'd been there, only that she'd been trapped inside the confined space and... left there. Like the locker.

Before I realized what I was doing, my foot was already kicking the door in, and I was running into the room, making a beeline for that trunk. It took less than a minute for me to undo all of the clasps that were holding it shut, yank the lid open, and haul the bound girl inside up and out of it. She was heavier than she looked, but I didn't care. Adrenaline propelled me. I couldn't go back in time and save myself from the locker, but I would never leave anyone else in that position. Not even Julia. Not even the bitches that put me in the real one to begin with. That wasn't me. That wasn't who I was.

Julia started crying anew as soon as she was hauled out. As I tugged the gag out of her mouth, she immediately began babbling about how sorry she was. With her bound arms, she couldn't grab onto me, so she just sort of collapsed against me while sobbing openly against my shoulder. She was shaking violently, snot mixing with her tears as she begged me not to let her die, going on about how she was sorry and she wouldn't hurt anyone again and how she just wanted to see her mommy and daddy again, and please, please, please don't kill her. Don't let her die. Don't leave her alone. Don't put her back in the box. She'd be good. She wouldn't ever be bad again. And on and on.

She was safe now. She wasn't dead. But we needed her to calm down. If we were going to catch whoever did this, Julia was the best chance at getting any actual information about them.

For now though, in that moment, I let myself feel a little bit happy. We saved her. We saved this psychopath's next victim. Principal Blackwell and Mr. Gladly were still gone, but Julia was safe.

It was only one win, small against the recent tide of bad news. But it was a win nonetheless.

I'd take it.

10-07 – Madison

Thursday, May 5th

"I figured this was where you'd be."

That was Amy, standing in the doorway of the empty classroom. Mr. Gladly's empty classroom. School had been over for hours by that point. Most of the lights were off, and in the distance, I could hear the steady thrumming noise of one of the janitors using the floor waxer in another hallway.

As for me, I was sitting in what had been my assigned seat. My legs were drawn up against my chest with my arms wrapped tightly around them, hugging myself while shaking a little with each breath that escaped me. My eyes were staring at the empty desk at the front of the room. Mr. Gladly's empty desk.

When I didn't respond to Amy, she stepped into the classroom and closed the door after herself before crossing over to the desk beside mine. For a second, she just stood there before sitting next to me.

For almost a minute, the two of us sat there in silence. I stared at the blackboard, peripherally aware of Amy watching me. I could almost hear the sound of the clock in the corner ticking away the seconds.

When the silence was finally broken, it took me a second to realize that I was the one talking. "He's..." I closed my eyes and let out a sigh before forcing myself to continue now that I'd started. "He's dead."

She didn't say anything at first, but a moment later I felt her hand on my arm. "I heard. I'm sorry about Mr. Gladly, Madison. I'm... sorry you had to hear about that the way you did. Rune called the burner phone that you gave her the number to. She said someone in school found out about it?"

Without opening my eyes, I nodded slightly before tucking my chin back against my knees. "Dabney. His dad's a cop. He umm, he told him. He wasn't supposed to, but-" My voice choked itself off then and I pushed my head down further, pressing my face into my legs. "But who cares? I'm... I..."

Nothing. Nothing else came out. I opened and shut my mouth a few times, but no words emerged. There was just a strangled, sad little keening noise that I wasn't sure was actually coming from me at first, while the pink flower design on the legs of my jeans soaked in the dampness from my eyes.

The hand on my arm moved down a little before squeezing. Amy's voice was quiet. "Madison, if you want to talk about it... I mean, I know I'm not your parents or anyone you're really close to, but..."

Lifting my chin just a little bit, I whispered, "I told him no one respected him." The shame hit me hard, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter. Before I knew what was happening, the words were spilling out of me in one long rush. "It was the day we met, the day I went home with you guys. He was trying to talk to me, and I told him that he was so busy making sure everyone liked him that he didn't even notice that none of us respected him. Then I walked out. I just... left, and I didn't talk to him again. Not directly. He didn't try, and I didn't let him. I was just so... mad that he ignored Taylor for so long, that he let all of us get away with everything just because he wanted us to like him. I was mad and I couldn't get over it. Now he's gone. He's dead, and it's because of what we did. What I helped do."

Shoving my legs down suddenly, I pushed myself up and walked to the front of the classroom. My hands went out to smack against the chalkboard, and fresh tears came spilling out my eyes, blinding me once again. "I wouldn't even talk to him! I want people to forgive me, but I wouldn't even talk to him? If I had, maybe we could've... I dunno, figured something out. And now he's dead. He's dead because of what we did. Someone out there is killing people, killing innocent people because of Emma, Sophia, and me. Us. Our choices. Our actions. Two people have been killed because of what we did. Not to mention Taylor. She—her life... no wonder someone wants us to pay for what we put her through."

"No," Amy said quietly from where she was sitting. "Someone is using what you did as an excuse to kill people. None of you deserve that. Nothing you did makes you deserve to die, Madison, let alone other people. It's an excuse. Trust me, I've heard a lot of rationalizations. Every time I work at the hospital I ask what people did to get injured. They've always got a reason, so I've gotten pretty good at telling when someone is really trying to find justice and when someone's just using a bullshit excuse for violence. This? This is a bullshit excuse for violence. You all deserved to be punished, yeah, but this is wrong. You aren't responsible for what this person does, because if it wasn't you guys, it would be some other reasoning, some other excuse. Other people would die. Maybe a cab driver that ripped him off. Maybe a waiter that took down the wrong order. Maybe a girlfriend who broke up with him. Someone who does this sort of thing is a sick freak and you are not responsible for what they do. He chose to fixate on what you guys did as some kind of justification for his pathetic revenge fantasy. That's not your fault." Amy had stood up from the desk by that point, and moved behind me before settling her hands on my shoulders. She squeezed a little bit. "None of this is your fault. It's his."

"What about the fact that I ruined a girl's life because I had a a crush on the other two girls that did it?" I asked, my voice bitter in spite of myself. "What about the fact that a girl is crippled now, probably for the rest of her life, because I'm a lesbian and I'm too fucking stupid to realize it? Is that my fault?"

For a moment, Amy didn't say anything. I felt her go still behind me before she let out a low sigh. Her hands tightened on my shoulders as she turned me around to face her. I didn't resist.

"How long did you know?" I asked quietly, looking up at her once we were face to face "How long did it take you to figure out that I was—that I am... that I'm attracted to girls?" It was so hard for me to say. Not because of any particular problem I had with the concept, but because of what it meant for my relationship with Emma and Sophia and the things that we had done, the things I had done.

"Basically as soon as we met," Amy admitted while meeting my gaze. "You weren't exactly subtle about it. I didn't know why you weren't, you know, open about it at first, but I figured it wasn't my place, or anyone else's, to push. After awhile, I figured out that you were repressing it, but I wasn't sure how to bring it up gently without being too embarrassing. And I definitely didn't know anything about Taylor Hebert. None of us did. Mostly we sort of just figured you'd work it out on your own, and we'd be there to help once you were ready. We... didn't want to push you on it too much. Especially after the Empire thing. We just got you back, and with your parents the condition they're in, it wasn't the right time."

"So everyone knows already?" I had guessed as much, looking back on the conversations that we'd had. Scion, I'd been completely clueless. Everything I'd said, the way I'd stared at Vicky and Crystal, and even their mothers! I'd basically been leering at them the whole time we'd known each other.

"Yeah," Amy gave a little nod. "Pretty much. We weren't really... talking that much about you, but trust me, they know. It's okay though, Madison. Trust me, after me, no one on the team is going to look at you differently for that. I umm, I had a lot to go through when I realized how I felt. See, I was... god, I was attracted to Vicky. Yeah. You think you had it bad, I'm hercousin. Adopted, sure, but still. It was... really uncomfortable at first. I didn't know how to bring it up, with my whole 'adopted from a supervillain' thing. Especially with how Aunt Carol can be sometimes. So I kind of let it get really uncomfortable and weird for awhile, until it felt like I was going to explode. But then... Mom talked to me. She knew something was wrong, so she sat me down and told me that whatever was bothering me, we could talk about. She asked if I wanted to know anything else about my biological parents, that they hadn't been able to get a lot out of Marquis about who my biological mother was besides the fact that she died of cancer, but they'd try to find out who she was if it was important to me. She just wanted to help.

"I told her it wasn't about that. And it was hard, but I told her about my feelings. I told her how I felt about girls, and about Vicky. It was as uncomfortable as you could imagine. But I did it anyway. And she listened. Because she's my mother. And after I told her, I felt better. I wasn't hiding anything anymore. I didn't have to feel ashamed. Just talking about it before I exploded, it... it meant everything. It saved me. Hiding things like that is what ruins families, Madison. If I hadn't talked about it... I don't know, things would have gotten worse. I had to talk about it. And when I did, I could move on. I even told Vicky about it and she was... okay she was a little weirded out at first, but we moved on! Honestly, I think she was mostly flattered once she got over the surprise. But if we hadn't talked about it, if Mom hadn't made me talk to her because she knew something was wrong, I... the point is, no one is going to look at you differently. We've been through it. I have a girlfriend now, a real girlfriend. You'd be surprised how many potential problems just talking about things helps. It's practically magic."

Biting my lip hard, I chanced a peek up at her and spoke in a quiet, hesitant voice. "I'm not some kind of weird, stupid freak because I didn't know how I felt?"

Amy smiled gently, hands moving to take mine before squeezing a little bit. "Nope. You're definitely not weird or stupid. A freak maybe, but you know. Welcome to the club."

Another shudder went through me. "I still did bad things just because I wanted cute girls to like me."

"Yeah," Amy nodded in agreement. "And that's bad. But it was bad before too. This doesn't make it more or less bad, it just gives you a reason for why you did it. And the fact that you did those things doesn't make the feelings you have now any better or worse. They're two different things, Madison. You did bad things, and you like girls. You could've done bad things because you were hungry, and it wouldn't make the fact that you get hungry some kind of evil, wrong thing. It's just a thing."

Finally, I couldn't help it anymore. I embraced the girl, hugging her tightly. "Thank you," I said quietly, my voice cracking a little bit. "I... I'm sorry I keep making everything complicated. I just wanted to be a hero and make things better, and then all this stuff keeps happening. Someone's killing people. Maybe they'd still be killing different people if it wasn't for us, but I am at least somewhat responsible for the targets this psychopath is choosing. So I want to stop him. Before he kills anyone else."

Amy nodded while returning my hug. "We'll help you. Whoever this son of a bitch is, we'll stop him."

"If we go to the police," I pointed out hesitantly, "And convince them to let me use my power on something that the killer used, anything they touched, maybe I can tell them something about who he is. It's... kind of a long shot, but it might help. I figured out who Kaiser was because he signed his name with the pen that I absorbed. Might get some answers, anyway."

"We'll talk to Mom about that," Amy promised. "She'll know how to contact the cops safely without exposing any of us. Trust her, Mads. She knows what she's doing."

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I straightened and took a deep breath to steady myself. "Okay. I... I'm done feeling sorry for myself. I'm ready to be useful. And I have an idea for how I can make myself really useful, but I umm, I sort of need a ride or it'll take all day."

"I can take care of that," Amy confirmed. "Where do you wanna go?"

For once, I managed a tiny smile, even as a part of me was still reeling from the horror of what had happened to Mr. Gladly. "You know how my power works. I absorb something and I learn the skill associated with it. If someone uses a knife to fight, and I absorb it, I learn how to knife-fight. If they use the knife to cook, I learn how to cook. The more stuff I have, the more choices I have. I've been doing this wrong. I've been too focused on one thing or another. I've been slow. I need to generalize. I need to make sure I have options. I need to be MacGyver, an answer for every situation that comes up.

From my pocket, I withdrew a debit card. "I've got about three months worth of allowances, plus four hundred dollars from selling a bunch of stupid crap I don't need anymore all in the account that my parents set up for me. Let's go to the pawn shop. They've got everything there, and it's stuff people have actually used, stuff they've practiced with. If I want to learn a bunch of skills all at once, that's the best way I can think of to do it. My power lets me learn skills by absorbing items? Okay then, let's see how far I can push that."

"Sounds like a plan," Amy agreed. "On one condition, though." Waiting for me to raise my eyebrows expectantly, she went on. "We call Vicky and ask her to help us.

"Because trust me, if we go on a shopping binge and don't ask for Vicky's help, she might go full supervillain."

A few hours later, and it was time to put all the results of the combined thought and effort of myself, Amy, and Vicky to the test. In the end, Amy had been right. It was Vicky who ended up coming up with the most ideas for things that I should shove in my storage space. Every little thing we looked at, Vicky had a suggestion for how it might be useful, or a situation where I might need it. She came up with so many suggestions that even the money I'd saved up hadn't been enough to cover all of it. I'd suggested making a list and coming back with more money later, but Vicky had insisted on paying for some of it. She said that the team had an expense account that covered those sort of equipment costs up to an extent. I made her call her mother, and Mrs. Dallon had made her give the phone to me to confirm that it was for the team and not a random shopping splurge, but in the end, she had agreed that the team would cover part of it. Especially if it made me more effective.

Even then, I felt bad about it, and resolved to pay them back as soon as I could figure out how. I didn't exactly have a lot of money coming in, or any way to get it. My parents had set up my allowance to automatically go into my account from theirs once a week, but other than that... I needed help.

That was for later, however. Right now, I was back in costume and out on patrol alongside Seraph, Shielder, and Laserdream. They'd tried again to convince Crystal to take the night off. But, as usual, the older girl had refused point-blank. She said she was going out regardless, that she wasn't some helpless little girl, and she could either stay with us or go on her own. In the end, Lady Photon relented. But I was pretty sure she had tried to give us a route that was as far from active gang territory as possible. We were patrolling through an area of the city that had most recently been held by the Merchants, and everyone knew they were pretty much done as a gang. Unfortunately, just because the Merchants weren't using the area didn't mean that no one was.

The first hint that the four of us weren't alone as we walked down the street together was the seven-foot tall man with six arms and gray skin that reminded me of an elephant standing in the middle of our path. He wasn't wearing a costume. But then, he didn't really need one.

"Good evening," the man spoke in a thick Russian accent. "I am afraid that you must go no further. This area of the neighborhood is off limits."

As if to verify that point, a massive wolf, whose shoulders stood about as tall as mine were, came padding out of the nearby alley to take up position beside him. And from the other side of the street, I saw a girl in a sleek black and neon green armored costume emerge from a doorway.

"Excuse me?" Seraph floated a bit off the ground, arms folded. "Who are you people and who says it's off limits?"

The gray man gave a slight bow, one of his six arms gesturing. "My apologies. I am called Gyges. My companion here is Jackal. The girl you see behind us is called Tenacity. We work for White Company. You may have heard of us."

"Merc group," Laserdream announced from beside me. "But there's not a White Company cell here in Brockton Bay."

"We are expanding," Gyges replied with a shrug. "And now, we have been hired to ensure that no capes enter this neighborhood. You must turn around and leave now."

"I got news for you, buddy," Seraph announced. "You don't get to just declare a whole neighborhood off limits. Whatever you or your employer are up to, it stops now. We've had some bad experiences with 'secret projects' around here."

The gray man didn't blink. "I will ask one more time. Leave now, for your own safety."

Unfortunately, before any of us could decide if walking away was the right thing to do, something happened to take that choice out of our hands. From one of the upper floors of the building that Tenacity had emerged from, there was the sound of shattering glass as something was pitched through the window there. And through that broken window, we all heard a voice crying out desperately for help.

Gyges heaved a long sigh while the wolf beside him seemed to grow even larger, its fur bristling with the anticipation of a fight. "Now I am afraid there must be conflict."

"Conflict?" Laserdream turned slightly to look back to the rest of us as if to make sure we didn't object, then looked back at the man. An instant later, before I'd even registered her hand moving, it was up and pointed at him, and a laser was erupting from her palm. It smacked the man in the face, sending him reeling backwards to trip over the hood of the nearby car.

"How's that for conflict?"

10-08 – Sophia

Thursday, May 5th

Okay, fighting these fucking shapeshifting twin bitches was turning out to be a gigantic pain in the ass.

The one in blue came at me, clutching her red-clothed sister in the form of an axe that she swung hard at my lower right side. I resisted the instinctive urge to slip into shadow-state, stepping into the swing instead to catch the handle against my hip rather than the blade, turning away from the incoming blow to cushion it. In the same motion, I drove the flat of my palm up to hit the bitch in the chin.

Or that's what should have happened anyway. Instead, I felt hands catch hold of both of my arms as the axe transformed into the other girl standing directly behind me. She caught my arms and, before I could react, her blue-clad sister punched me in the face. Fuck. Ow. Yeah, they definitely knew how to fight.

Over the girl's shoulder, I saw Dauntless, Triumph, and all three versions of Prism in the middle of a fight with that bald guy in the ugly costume. I already knew he was some kind of brute, which meant getting hit by him was a bad idea. Unfortunately, the guy managed to catch Dauntless with a glancing backhand that sent him tumbling. Weirdly, I saw the hole in the pavement where the superstrong creep had punched before suddenly widen as if he'd struck it again even though nobody was near it.

My confusion was answered a second later as the guy spun around and punched a nearby wall. Not only did his fist gothrough that wall, but I saw the hole in the pavement widen yet again. And, more importantly, Dauntless suddenly gave a loud cry and doubled over. There was a dent in his armor.

Triumph tried to throw himself in the way, letting out a shout that sent the brute stumbling backwards a few steps. Yet even then, all the guy had to do was lash out with his hand. He punched through the nearby wall, ripping some of the bricks out. Nearly identical damage appeared around the first hole that he'd put into the wall, and Dauntless's armor took even more punishment as the man gave another cry of pain. Obviously, whatever this guy's power was, he wasn't just an average brute. He didn't only do damage to the thing he was hitting, he did the same kind of damage to the last several things he'd hit. So even if he only managed to barely graze someone with a light tap once, he could turn and punch a wall a few times and it'd be like he was hitting the first target over and over again. That, uh, sucked.

But I didn't have time to think about that. My focus had to be on dealing with these complete bitches. Before the blue one could hit me again, I lashed out with a kick. And struck empty air, since the god damn piece of shit fucking cunt shifted into a mace just in time for the red one to shove me out of the way and catch hold of her sister. Then she was swinging the newly-formed weapon at me from behind.

Then... one of Aisha's imps, one made of copper, took a running leap and crashed into the swinging mace, knocking it off course long enough for me to recover. I used the time to spin myself into a kick that knocked the mace (with the imp attached) out of the red-clothed girl's hand and sent it flying away. Before it could clatter to the ground, the mace transformed back into the girl. To which the copper imp promptly made what sounded suspiciously like a noise of approval as it leapt up to cling to her chest.

Right, time to deal with this- I turned to find myself facing not just the girl in red, but also half a dozen random thugs with their guns out and pointed toward me. The girl herself had the nerve to give me a quick bow, mostly consisting of a slight tilt to her shoulders and a quick head movement. Then she ran toward her sister, while the men with the guns took aim and shouted something Asian at me.

"Hinder!" Bryce's pretty much frantic voice was loud in my ear. "You have forcefields, remember?"

Oh, right. Bringing both hands up with my fingers tightly closed, I muttered a quiet curse. Then I shoved one hand straight forward while shoving the other one forward and down. My fingers spread apart in the same motion, and two manhole cover sized blue forcefields appeared, one above the other.

In the next second, the gangbangers opened fire. Most of the shots went wide because, well, gangbangers. But a few actually pinged off the glowing shields, which shimmered from each impact.

"It worked. They worked." The relief in Bryce's voice was obvious. The kid sounded pretty freaked out, like he was scared or something, which... oh. Right, his sister. He was thinking about his sister. It didn't really have anything to do with me, the kid was just remembering how his sister had been shot.

A second after the ABB fucks opened fire, Cloudkicker flew down from above, coming in behind them. A wave of her gauntlets sent more of her cloud out to form a wide bar along either side of her flying platform. Before the creeps knew what was happening, she crashed into them. The solidified cloud hit the men hard enough to knock all six to the ground with various cries of surprise and protest.

I was moving out from behind the shields even before the men started to fall. They were just starting to realize what had happened when I reached the first one. As his head lifted up, I saw his mouth open to shout a warning. I didn't speak whatever language he was trying to shout in, but whatever it was, he only managed a single word before my boot connected with his face hard enough to knock the guy back down. I don't speak any of the Asian languages, but I tend to be pretty fluent in shut the fuck up.

Even as that first blow connected, I was turning to grab hold of two more thugs, triggering the electricity in the gauntlets. They collapsed to the ground, bodies twitching and spasming.

Meanwhile, Cloudkicker had landed nearby. Two of the disoriented gang members scrambled to their feet on either side of her, each turning toward their new opponent, their guns (which they had somehow miraculously managed to hold onto) raising into position as well. Before they could actually do anything with those guns, however, Cloudkicker made a quick thrusting motion with each hand, one toward each of the thugs. Two blobs of solid cloud-stuff shot out, wrapped around the guns, and ripped them out of the surprised men's hands before flying up and out of the way, far beyond their reach.

Before the suddenly-disarmed men could recover from that, I threw myself that way. My hand caught one man's extended arm and I used it as a brace to swing myself around, kicking the other man in the stomach with both feet before my weight and momentum dragged the first man off balance. As he stumbled forward, I let go, dropping into a roll against the pavement that sent me past the second man.

Cloudkicker took advantage of the first man being yanked off balance. Gesturing with one hand, she made her cloud shape itself into a fist about as big around as her entire body. The fist-cloud flew up and plowed into the poor dumbass, literally lifting him off the ground and carrying him about a dozen feet before it dissipated, dumping his thoroughly dazed body back onto the road where he lay and groaned.

Meanwhile, before I could do anything else about the guy in front of me that was still recovering from taking both of my feet to his gut, he was set upon by wood, rubber, and aluminum imps. The trio of little bastards leapt on the man. One caught hold of his finger and yanked it backwards until it snapped, while the second crawled to his shoulder and smacked him hard in the ear, and the third landed on his head, covered his eyes, and made a loud cackling noise of amusement while the man bellowed in pain.

In the distance, I could see the twin shapeshifting bitches scrambling to fight off a larger collection of imps. About a dozen of the freaky little things were climbing all over them, keeping the pair away from each other, and generally being a gigantic pain in their necks. Or to be accurate, a bunch of little pains. From what I could see, Aisha was actually managing to control them well enough that the girls couldn't get anywhere near each other. They were everywhere at once, reacting to everything the twins did. Considering she was also devoting her attention to keeping Kanjiru busy, I was officially impressed.

Unfortunately, just as I started to take a step that way, intending to deal with the weapon-shifters while they were distracted, something else happened to draw my attention. Because of course it did.

In this particular case, the interruption came in the form of a truck barreling around the corner at full speed. I barely had time to curse before Cloudkicker sent some of her cloud under my feet. It solidified and hauled me off the ground, taking me up a second before the truck went careening through the spot where I'd just been standing. A couple of the ABB fucks were caught by surprise and barely managed to dive out of the way, one of them not quite fast enough to avoid getting clipped by the passing vehicle.

The truck was pursued around that corner second later by Armsmaster on his incredibly souped up motorcycle. The Protectorate leader drew the bike alongside the truck, glanced to them, then pulled around in front as they continued to speed down the street. He put the motorcycle directly in front of the truck, almost back to its front bumper. Then the Protectorate leader hit a button on the handle of his bike. As he did, what looked like two separate tow-lines shot out from the back of the cycle, embedding themselves in the body of the big truck.

The next bit happened so quickly I could barely follow what was going on. Armsmaster spun his motorcycle away from the truck, dropping it into a slide. In the midst of that slide,the motorcycle launched what turned out to be the opposite ends of the tow lines that had been attached to the body of the other vehicle. The lines flew out to embed themselves in the wall of a nearby building. Armsmaster brought the motorcycle expertly out of the slide and upright once more as soon as both towlines were detached from it.

An instant later, the lines snapped taut. They held solidly, and the truck was ripped around into a screaming one-eighty, metal grinding and screeching in protest. The engine sputtered twice more finally giving up.

The truck finished screaming its way to a stop, and two figures piled out, stumbling as they moved. They were wearing costumes. Which meant Capes. More capes. What the serious shit? How many capes did Lung recruit? For the love of fuck, just how low were his standards for 'Asian' becoming?!

The nearest of the new arrivals was a man in dark green body armor with a black visor covering the top half of his face. It was a simple costume, yet there was obvious resources and style behind him. His companion, on the other hand, had a 'costume' that looked much less professional. It was, essentially, a pair of jeans with a red skull painted on one of the legs, a black turtleneck, and one of those President Nixon Halloween masks that had been spray painted red, though its original appearance was still obvious. He also wore what looked like a carpenter's tool belt around his waist. Both were carrying a couple bags with the PRT logo on them. What the hell? Did they actually manage to steal something directly from the PRT building? It would explain why Armsmaster himself had been sent after them.

That realization had just occurred to me when the man in the green armor opened his mouth and screamed. And when I say he screamed, it was actually more than just a scream. The unholy noise that erupted from the cape's mouth made my hands clap themselves over my ears, and both Cloudkicker and I dropped back to the ground. Her clouds vanished without her concentration, and it was all we could do not to scream along with it. Good holy fuck that was loud. Jesus, I thought Triumph's shouts were powerful. This guy's scream didn't seem to pack much, if any, concussive force behind it, but it sounded like nails on a chalkboard magnified to absurd fucking levels. I wanted to rip my own ears out rather than listen to any more of it. And it wasn't just a loud noise. Through the screaming man's open mouth, a weird green mist emerged and wrapped its way around all of us like an emerald fog. It lasted for a few seconds, then faded. A second later, the awful sound was gone as well. I didn't know what that fog did, but I was willing to bet that it wasn't just checking to see if we were ticklish.

By the time we could focus again, the man and his partner were gone. They'd used the distraction to abandon their truck and had taken off. I couldn't see any sign of them, and judging from the fact that Armsmaster wasn't going after them, I was willing to bet that he didn't know where they went either.

An instant later, a new sound came through the communicator. Aisha's voice. "Move your bossy ass!"

Cloudkicker and I both flung ourselves in opposite directions, as the reason for Imp's warning became obvious considering the scattered bullets that hit the pavement where we had just been. When we landed, it had put us right near the brute in the ugly costume. He lashed out, but failed to connect before we each managed to roll out of his reach and scramble back to our feet. In my case, my roll had brought me right next to a thoroughly unconscious Dauntless. Cloudkicker, meanwhile, came up between two slightly bruised Prisms and a very badly battered Triumph who looked like he was almost out on his feet, swaying a bit back and forth like a punch drunk boxer.

"Hah," Imp sounded, if anything, even more amused than usual. "Notice how I didn't have to explain who I was talking to? You each just figured I was referring to you. Maybe that should tell you something about-"

"Imp!" I blurted. "For the love of Scion, shut-" That was as far as I got before the brute spun my way and lashed out with a punch. I jerked backwards, throwing up one of my new forcefields. Which turned out to be a bad idea. It held (barely), but even as the man's fist struck the shield itself, I saw Dauntless's unconscious form go sliding across the ground as yet another dent appeared in his armor. Simultaneously, Triumph went down, collapsing with a cry, and one of the Prisms was thrown aside like she'd been hit by a truck. Right, fuck. Fuck me. The god damn damage sharing. I couldn't just block what he was doing, because he'd keep doing damage to everyone else he hit too.

Unless... I frowned. I had a plan, but I couldn't figure out if it was a good one, or if I just didn't care about the consequences to the Protectorate heroes if it wasn't. The question was harder to answer than it had any right to be, but I shut it aside and focused. Plan now, personal bullshit later.

"Hey!" I shouted at the brute to get his attention. "Your costume's so ugly, I bet your mother sewed it for you."

Banter was harder than some people made it look, okay?. Especially on the fly. I just wanted the guy pissed off.

Luckily (though I was seriously considering revoking my own right to use that term), it worked. The brute let out a wordless bellow while flinging himself at me. I put up a shield. The guy punched almost all the way through it, and I heard collective cries from the still-conscious battered Protectorate heroine. Triumph took the damage too, his body jerking over onto its side from the force of the blow.

Except that Dauntless's poor body didn't take any more damage, and that was exactly what I was looking for. Resisting the urge to smirk, I shrugged. "That it? Wow, Lung's really scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh?"

The idiot threw half a dozen more punches. I put up a shield for each in turn, and within a couple blows, none of the other people were reacting. I counted it out in my head. Four. Four blows. Anything he hit, it affected the previous three things he'd struck as well. If all four of those things were completely replaceable forcefields? Well, then he was wasting his time.

Prism, however, wasn't. I saw her say something to Cloudkicker, who nodded and started creating more of her cloud. While the brute was punching his way through two more of my shields, the cloud rose up around him, then covered his eyes. The man let out a frustrated yell, cursing about what he was going to do to us.

All three Prisms came at the suddenly blinded man. At the last second, they reformed into a single one, and the Protectorate's second-in-command lashed out with a temporarily superhuman punch. Her fist disappeared into the cloud around the man's face, connecting with so much force the man's head was knocked out of the cloud. Muse put it back before he could even think about recovering, let alone retaliating.

They split into three again, surrounding the blinded man while waiting for an opening in his wild flailing. As soon as one appeared, the three figures merged once more before delivering a kick that sent the man flailing backwards into a wall. He nearly landed a glancing blow in retaliation that time, but I managed to throw a shield in the way.

That went on for another few rounds like that. Prism kept splitting and reforming, using her temporary super strength to actually damage the brute, while Cloudkicker kept him blind, and I kept him from actually hitting anything important.

Finally, the big guy stumbled, shook his head like he was trying to clear it, then collapsed.

"Thank... Scion," Prism muttered, bending over to catch her breath. "And thank you."

"Yes," the voice came from behind me, and I turned to find Armsmaster there. "It looks like you and your... team were useful. What did you say you called yourselves?"

"I—Normandy," I managed, turning after answering his question. "Imp, you okay? Where are those damn twins?"

"I'm fine," Aisha replied, stepping into view with a dozen of her imps all around her. "They broke a few of my buddies and ran away like chickenshits before I could remake them. They took Even More Gay Tuxedo Mask with them."

"Tanzanite and Almandite," Armsmaster informed us. "And Kanjiru. They're long gone. And so are Vociferous and Junkdrawer." He sounded annoyed.

"But we have Bulgasari," Prism pointed out, nodding to the collapsed brute from where she was kneeling next to the still-unconscious Triumph, cradling his head gently. "And Oni Lee."

I saw a very slight smile appear on Armsmaster's face at that reminder, and he gave a little nod before touching something on his helmet. "I need medical attention for Triumph, Dauntless, and assorted non-cape criminals. I also need a pick-up for Oni Lee and Bulgasari, and a medical once over for both of them once they're fully secure."

Finally, the man directed his attention to us, speaking gruffly. "Hinder, I heard you say your name was?"

Oh boy. Okay, I knew that Armsmaster had a lie detector. He'd used it before. Now I just had to be careful about exactly how I phrased things.

"That's what I'm calling myself," I replied.

He looked me up and down. "And you're the tinker then?"

I made myself chuckle as casually as possible. "Not a lot of other ways to get all these toys."

"How long have you been active for?"

Shrugging at that, I thought quickly for how to answer it safely. Then I had it. "Imp," I nodded that way. "How long has it been since we met? I think I'd call that my first official night out like this."

Aisha returned the shrug dismissively. "Shit, I dunno, dude. A couple weeks?"

"We heard something about a smaller team starting up, but we weren't sure if you were just passing through, or making this place a permanent spot." Armsmaster looked at me, obviously considering his words. "So which is it? And what are your goals?"

"We're planning to be here for a good long while," I answered easily that time. "And mostly we just want to kick the crap out of whatever's left of the Empire or whatever they're calling themselves now, the ABB, and any other spinoff gang that make themselves into targets. We're on your side."

The man continued to stare at me for another few seconds in silence. It was enough to make me uncomfortable, and I was about to say something else when he finally inclined his head in acceptance.

"All right," he agreed. "Then I think we just have a few more questions about what happened here tonight, for the official record. And if you don't mind, I'd like to set up a time in the future to chat about your designs, maybe see if we can help each other out. You'll find that getting an outside opinion about the work you do sometimes helps. Even if we can't build off each other's work, just talking it out with another tinker can be useful. But other than that, all I can say is... thanks for showing up. You helped a lot tonight. And in a city like this, being willing to come out here, put yourselves on the line just to help people, just to do the right thing, just to do what needs to be done, all of that means a lot."

His head turned toward me then, his expression unreadable. "It means a hell of a lot."

10-09 – Emma

Thursday, May 5th

There was no sense of disorientation, or even movement. No actual physical reaction to being teleported at all, really. One second we were standing in that gas station parking lot with Aequitas and Wander—excuse me, Princess Wander , and in the next, we were suddenly... somewhere else.

I was ready. Before the teleportation had even happened, as soon as I'd confirmed that we were ready, I began to take a long, deep breath. The instant I realized we were in a new place, and before everyone managed to situate themselves, I finished the breath and held it while flipping the switch on my power.

That familiar, somehow comforting by this point, red haze settled over the world. Only then did I let myself actually look around to see where the little girl had teleported us to. Because like hell was I going to just blindly believe that this mysterious 'boss' of Lisa's was some benevolent force that we could actually trust. Not after she'd been so obviously reluctant to put us in direct contact with him.

With time frozen, I glanced at the rest of my team (including Judas and Brutus) just long enough to confirm that they all looked fine, then turned my attention to the rest of the room, and the people in it.

We were in a very large, open room with two tiers. We were standing on the lower tier in an area that looked a lot like a loading dock with crates of supplies all around, and when I looked up, I could see men frozen in mid-step all along a metal walkway. The walls as well as the floor under our feet were made of concrete, and there were various doorways on both levels leading into other parts of the base.

More importantly, the figure standing a few feet away from us, flanked by four of his mercenaries, was instantly recognizable. Considering his reclusive nature, he might not have been a few months ago before I really paid much attention to the cape scene, but now I knew exactly who he was. Coil. Coil was our big, mysterious boss, the man that Lisa had been so afraid to put us into contact with.

Nobody knew much about the man. Whether he even had powers at all or not was constantly being debated, though the most common acceptance of his power, if he had one, was either precognition or some kind of luck manipulation. Things just seemed to work out for the snake-themed villain, from not showing up to meetings that ended up being ambushed by the PRT, to his mercenaries pulling off surprising wins against long odds that no sane person would have subjected them to to begin with unless they knew they were going to win. The people who were against the idea of him having powers claimed that all this could be accomplished by him having spies inside the PRT, but others said that having that many spies at that high of a level was impossible, and that it had to be a power.

I wasn't sure who was right, but I did know that the man was dangerous. Of all the villains that I'd read up on to familiarize myself with the cape scene, Coil was the one who actually scared me the most. There were plenty of dangerous bad guys (and girls) in the city. But most of their powers, skills, attitudes, strengths, and (more importantly) weaknesses were well documented. They were a known quantity. Scary in their own right, but manageable with the right forethought. But Coil? He was practically a blank slate. Aside from the fact that he was very, very successful, and that he'd somehow managed to pull all this off, taking over a good portion of the city and then holding it against the Empire. That took power, regardless of if he was a cape or not. It took a very, incredibly dangerous man that I absolutely could not let myself underestimate. Not if I wanted to survive, and get my team out from under the man's thumb. Which I was going to do, because they were my team. Not his.

While keeping time frozen, I walked away from the spot where I had been teleported in, approaching the snake-man. For a moment, I stopped directly in front of him. I stood there, staring into the abnormally thin man's eyes through the mask that he wore. I stared, and asked myself what I was going to have to do to make him release the hold he had over my friends. How far was I going to have to go to make sure this man didn't have his claws in any of us anymore? And could I actually do it?

Eventually, I stepped away from the man and looked at the group that was assembled around him. Not only did he have four of his mercenaries, but there were two capes there as well. The first I recognized as Chariot, one of Coil's known cape minions. The other I didn't know. He wore a costume that consisted of dark red, almost black body armor, with glowing gold lines running up the leg and over the chest in a loop. There was a high tech looking gun holstered on his right hip, and a sword on his left.

Further back, on the far end of the room, I could see Trainwreck. The big, armored guy was helping another group of mercs unload more crates from what looked like one of those big shipping containers.

Walking around in a circle through this area, I checked everyone's posture. They were clearly at attention and wary, but nobody seemed like they were getting ready to immediately shoot us. The guns that the mercs with Coil had were slung over their shoulders, and Chariot wasn't even looking our way.

Finally as satisfied as I could be that we weren't about to be ambushed, I walked back to the spot we had teleported in at. We'd done some experiments, and the closer I was to where I'd started the time freeze when I came out of it, the smaller the red flash I made was when time started up again. If I was right on top of the same spot I'd been when it started, the flash was pretty much unnoticeable. Positioning myself exactly the way I'd been before using my power (hey look, a modeling skill that actually came in handy), I gulped in air, releasing time so that it could progress.

Pretending to look around for the first time along with the others, I let my gaze pass over the people above, then centered on the figure in front of us. My head inclined, and it wasn't hard to put a squeak into my voice. Just enough to sound like someone who was surprised and trying to hide it. "Coil?"

His mask moved a little, as if he was smiling. "Good evening, Undersiders. It's good to meet you."

"Wait," Regent shook his head in confusion. "You're the guy holding the purse strings? I mean, not literally. Unless walking around with a purse is something you're into, which, with your figure, you-"

"Regent," I interrupted sharply without looking away from the man. "Shut up." Focusing fully on Coil, I took a step that way, putting myself in front of the others. "I thought you already had a cape team."

"There are several teams in my employ," his reply came easily, gesturing toward Aequitas and Wander with one hand and Chariot and the other cape with the other. "The Undersiders are among them."

He looked at Aequitas. "Thank you. We'll let you know when the Undersiders are ready to leave."

"Anything for the cause of freedom, Coil," Captain Whackmerica replied. "Just remember, you keep doing your part to prepare for the revolution, and we'll keep running these little errands for you."

I swear I could actually see the man's eyes roll. "Of course. I believe the rest of your team is waiting in your quarters. They had some questions that I assured them you were more suited to answering."

"Mr. Coil?" Princess Wander piped up, waving to him excitedly. "Can I play with Wyvern, sir?"

While I was trying to figure out who she could be talking about, Coil shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid I need to have Wyvern chat with our new friends here for awhile first, Princess."

You know what? I knew the girl insisted on having the Princess added to her name. I knew she'd even refused to do what her father said until used the name. I knew it was her choice. But honestly? Hearing Coil call that little girl Princess still made my skin crawl and gave me the urge to punch him. Hard.

Without wasting another moment, the man turned on his heel. The quartet of mercenaries on either side of him separated to give us room to follow him. "Come with me, there are things we should discuss."

First, I gave the others a quick glance. Tattletale was looking at Coil, her expression as blank as she could make it, yet I could see little worry lines on her forehead. Nimue and Regent were glancing around curiously, taking in everything, while Bitch just looked like she wanted to leave (both her dogs just looked excited to be somewhere new, moving their noses around to sniff curiously). And Alloy... he was staring at Coil. Like, directly staring, as if he didn't want to take his eyes off the man for a second.

Nodding for the team to follow, I breathed out and began to trail after the already moving Coil. No sense in second guessing myself now. I'd insisted that we meet with the big boss, and here we were.

"Chariot," Coil spoke crisply, "go inform Squads Fish and Trill that they're up next. Dazed, check with Squad Nora to find out what their scouting mission turned up. I want full details before they rest."

Both Chariot and the guy in the red costume moved, so I guess I knew what the latter's name was now.

Walking together, we followed Coil through the base to a doorway at the far end, passing Trainwreck and the group he was working with on the way. Just before we passed through the doorway, I took another breath and held it while turning on my power again. Like fuck was I walking in here blind.

The room that I slipped past the frozen Coil to get into looked fairly normal. It was an outer office with a man wearing a sweater and glasses sitting behind the desk, frozen in the act of typing on the computer that sat in front of him. A short hallway behind the desk led to three doors. The one on the left was open, revealing a simple bathroom. The ones on the right and straight ahead, meanwhile, were closed.

I chose the door straight ahead first, poking my head through to see a rather luxurious office on the other side. Okay, it was obviously Coil's, and was probably where he was bringing us. The door on the right probably led to a storage room full of files or something. But just in case, I looked anyway.

It wasn't a storage room. The first thing I saw were all the computer monitors. The walls were absolutely covered in them. There were dozens of monitors all around the room, literally covering every inch of space on the three walls that the door wasn't attached to. The time-frozen screens of the monitors showed news reports, documentaries, home videos, security camera footage, and more. There were even some screens that were obviously taken from webcams of unaware subjects. Some of it was hard to really tell what the screen was showing because of the red filter over my vision, but still. We had officially upped the creep factor by about ten thousand percent. And that was before I saw the girl.

She was standing directly in the middle of the room, but the array of screens was so distracting that I'd missed her at first. I stepped over, looking at the girl directly. She looked so small standing there surrounded by all those screens. At first glance, I guessed her age at around ten or eleven. She had short brown hair, and these wide, earnest green eyes that were staring at the screens before her. At one screen in particular, actually. Turning to follow the direction of her gaze, I saw the one monitor in the bottom left corner of the room that was showing something different from all the others, an episode of Animaniacs.

I was... disturbed and confused. But I was also running out of time. Keeping my breath held, I quickly left the room and ran back to my spot. Resuming my place and position, I let time to back to normal.

"Mr. Pitter," Coil spoke as we came into the room, and the guy with the glasses looked up promptly from his computer. "How's our special guest in the subbasement doing with her little project?"

"Complaining about not having everything she needs," the man (Mr. Pitter apparently) replied. "She made another shopping list, and insists that she cannot complete the project until she gets all of it. I've run the numbers and we'll need an additional twenty-seven thousand to collect it all quietly and quickly. Twenty-seven and a half if we provide all of the M&M's and Mountain Dew that she's insisting on."

"Do it," Coil instructed. "I want her happy, and I want her productive. But make it clear that this is the last time she will see the carrot. If we find out that she's stalling, the next step is to use the stick."

That... whatever it was done, he led us down the short hall. At the end, he opened the middle door into his office and gestured for us to go inside. "Come, I'd like to discuss the next job that I have in mind."

We moved into the office, with me trying as hard as I could not to look at the other door. I was afraid that if I so much as glanced that way, Coil would immediately know that I had seen what was in there.

Bitch and her dogs immediately took up position in the left corner of the room furthest away from the ornate metal desk, while Nimue and Regent moved to the right. Alloy, Tattletale, and I stood in the middle of the room, watching Coil step over to his desk.

"I've been paying attention to the news about your team," the man began almost conversationally. "Saving those hostages, helping to take the Merchants out of play, you've impressed the public."

"Not the direction you wanted your personal gofer villains to go in?" That was Nimue, and I shot her a quick glance. The magician-tinker was leaning against the nearby wall, her posture completely relaxed.

Coil gave his head a slight shake while leaning back in his expensive leather chair. "On the contrary, I'm rather pleased with this development overall. That's why you're standing here, after all."

I didn't miss the fact that 'standing here' could mean being allowed inside the base to meet him, or still being alive to stand at all.

"You're glad a lot of the public thinks we're basically Robin Hood right now?" I asked carefully.

The man gave a brief nod. "Yes. That 'Robin Hood' impression, as you put it, is something we need to cultivate right now, while we have the chance. Which is why I've chosen your next job so carefully."

Tattletale said nothing. Her expression was unreadable when I glanced toward her briefly before looking back to the snake-man. "The next job?"

"Indeed," he straightened up a bit, tapping a button on his computer. A screen on the nearby wall lit up, showing a picture of the Ebony Estates, the most expensive hotel in the city. I'd actually been inside the place once, for a conference meeting that my dad had to go to. The place was ridiculously lavish.

"Dude, if that's our new base, you must be really pleased with our work." Regent cut in, making me want to strangle him while stamping the words 'shut up around the murderous psychopath' repeatedly into his forehead.

Coil stared at him for a moment, long enough for me to think it was time to cut our losses and run for it. Then he just chuckled. "I'm afraid not, Regent. That might be a little less of a secret than we'd prefer your location be. No, this is your target. In two days, the mayor is hosting a fundraising party here. All of his richest and most powerful friends, the movers and shakers of Brockton Bay, will be there. You are going to show up and rob them. And then you're going to give half of what you take to the poor. Specifically, the homeless population that congregate around the docks."

Tattletale finally spoke up. "That place is going to be crawling with cops and PRT, boss. Probably at least a couple capes too. We won't make it ten feet without them calling down every hero in the city on us."

"They may try," Coil replied. "But they will be at a severe disadvantage." Reaching out to his computer again, he tapped another button and spoke a bit louder. "Wyvern, come into the office, please. I'd like you to meet our new friends."

A moment later, the little girl that I'd seen in the other room stepped through the doorway. Her head tilted a little, taking all of us in before she spoke politely. "Hello. My name is Wyvern."

"Do you have anything to report, pet?" Coil asked. That crawling sensation I'd had earlier was back in full force.

"Three public mentions of you," the girl answered in what sounded like a strange tone of voice for a little girl. "One parody news show blamed you for an unliked snake-skin dress an actress wore to an award show last night. Two others genuine news reports concerning your actions in the wake of the dissolution of the Empire Eighty-Eight organization. One private mention of you inside the PRT building. Lieutenant Ecks had a conversation with Director Piggot concerning your acquisition of the device."

"Thank you, pet," Coil's slimy voice spoke again. "Now, these good people are concerned about the job I have for them. Would you assist me in allaying those fears?"

In answer, the little brown-haired girl reached up... and took her own head off.

A strangled, shocked noise escaped not just me, but several of the others. Only Tattletale didn't look that surprised.

"I'm all right." The voice came from the... the head. Wyvern's eyes were looking at us earnestly, and her hands turned the head over to show us the bottom of it.

Wires. Circuits. Computer parts. More advanced than any computer parts I'd ever seen, but computer parts nonetheless.

"You're a—you're... a... a... robot," Alloy blurted, sounding as shocked as I felt.

"An artificial intelligence within the body of an android," Coil confirmed, standing from his chair. "One created by the two most powerful and famous tinkers in the world."

It took me a second to tear my gaze away from the girl standing there with her head in her hands. "... Dragon... and Hero? She was... she was built by Dragon and Hero?"

Oh dear fuck. This little girl was a... a robot, an android? One built by Dragon and Hero, with the name of Wyvern? They practically named her after Dragon herself, for Scion's sake. Fuck, fuck, fuck! He was insane. They were going to find us and throw us all in the god damn Birdcage for messing with her!

"Yes," Coil nodded while I was freaking out, stepping around to lay his hand on her shoulder. "You can put your head back on now," he instructed before looking back to the rest of us. "My dear Wyvern here is the most advanced artificial intelligence on the planet. She was created in conjunction by both Dragon and Hero as a test, a prototype for further artificial soldiers. We... appropriated her during transit, and she has been thoroughly reprogrammed to ensure her obedience. She is going to ensure that you are not captured. She is capable of accessing every security system, every camera, every radio, every phone, everything in that hotel that could alert the authorities to what is happening. She will shut down the alarms, she will ensure that no extra capes are called, she will make certain that nothing stops you from taking everything from the mayor and his friends aside from the clothes on their backs."

"Uhh, umm," I cleared my throat, trying to get over the sight even as Wyvern put her head back on. "Even with help, that's still a risk. You're rolling the dice that we can pull it off."

"Nonsense," Coil retorted, his eyes locked on mine. "I assure you, I don't take steps like this until I'm absolutely certain that success is guaranteed.

"I abhor gambling."

Interlude 10A - PHO

Welcome to the Parahumans Online message boards.
You are currently logged in, The New Pythia
You are viewing:
• Threads you have replied to
• AND Threads that have new replies
• OR private message conversations with new replies
• Thread OP is displayed.
• Ten posts per page
• Last ten messages in private message history.
• Threads and private messages are ordered by user custom preference.

Topic: Faultline's Crew
In: Boards ► Teams ► Mercenaries
(Original Poster)
Posted On Aug 12th 2010:
Time for a new thread on this group, since the last one was getting pretty long. Don't worry, I checked with the mods, and this is kosher.

Use this thread for any further discussion about Faultline and her team of mercs. Sorry, we still don't have a better name for them than 'Faultline's Crew.' Kind of sad, but ehh.

Team leader:
Faultline - Destroys non-living material by touching it. Striker.


Gregor The Snail - Case 53, Generates liquids of various effects (Adhesives, Acid, Fire Retardant Foam, etc) that are propelled through his skin. Blaster, Minor Brute.

Labyrinth - Alters the landscape around herself. Can create walls, statues, new landscapes, even complex structures. Limitations are not very understood. Very powerful Shaker. Edit: Possible link between her powers and new cape Ariadne.

Mockshow - Animates inanimate objects, generally vehicles, traffic signs, park benches, anything found out in public. Usually gives her animated objects animal-like behavior and actions. Shaker/Master.

Shamrock - Powers appear to be luck-based, though others disagree. More data needed to be certain.

Ariadne - Many arguments over what this new cape's powers are. Tentative assignment of high thinker for combat-applied precognition and a possible, though unconfirmed mover ability for teleportation.

Former Members:

Newter - Case 53 with incredible agility and balance, possible wall-crawling ability, and bodily fluids that are powerful hallucinogenics. - Confirmed Deceased.

Spitfire - Breathes fire, and possibly controls it afterward. - Confirmed Deceased.

(Showing page 78 of 78)

Replied On May 4th 2011:

Dupris Supreme

You're entitled to be upset, just keep it to the appropriate thread and everything'll be fine. What gets people worked up is when you start blaming other teams for what the Slaughterhouse Nine does. It's not Faultline or her team's fault the Nine attacked the Gladiators right after her team beat them. For all we know, the Nine were going to attack anyway.

Trinket, Clearcut, and Depthcharge deserve to be remembered and honored. You don't do that by going into another team thread, even a merc team, and picking a fight just because that team fought yours recently. Don't forget, this team lost members recently too. Maybe it wasn't anything like the Nine, and they haven't broken up like the Gladiators, but still.

Dupris Supreme
Replied On May 4th 2011:

You're right. I'm sorry, guys. I let things get way off topic there. Seriously, you have my sincere apologies. I just get a little worked up when it comes to those murdering assholes. Sorry for hijacking the thread to rant about them. And thanks to those who talked me down. I needed it.

Anyway, on topic, is there anyone who still thinks Ariadne and Labyrinth aren't a couple? Seriously. My gaydar exploded into rainbows when I pointed it at them.

Replied On May 4th 2011:

Does it matter if they are? I swear, some people get way too obsessed with talking about cape's personal lives. Let's talk about what matters. Namely, what are the Crew going to do now? They've been pretty quiet since the fight with the Nazis. What do you guys think, are they going to go after the rest of the assholes that helped kill Newter and Spitfire?

Eternal Party Crasher
Replied On May 4th 2011:

Dupris Supreme

I'm pretty sure they're just friends/partners. It would be sweet though. Labyrinth seems lonely. I dunno, she just gives off a vibe.


Pretty sure it's a matter of when, not if. There's no way Faultline'll let that stand. And if they get Ariadne in a room with those creeps, it's all over.

Do we have any more info about what her powers are, by the way? Other than god-mode awesomeness, I mean.

Replied On May 5th 2011:


Pretty sure nobody's verified anything. Precog power seems like a safe bet. Suppose it could be something else thinker-related though.

Be pretty funny if she wasn't actually a cape at all, just that badass. Besides the teleportation (still say that could be a tinker-thing or something) has she demonstrated any other obvious powers that aren't potentially explainable with human skill?

Replied On May 5th 2011:


Look at the videos from Vegas again. NO ONE could drive like that. I don't care how skilled you are. That's a power. Precognition, it has to be. Nothing else makes sense, and you'll never convince me it does. She's a combat-precog or something so similar it might as well be the same thing.

What about Mockshow, guys? You can go on about how cool Ariadne is all you want (and she is), but Mockshow's my new favorite. I mean, come on, she can animate a semi truck and ride on top of it into battle like a war elephant! That's awesome!

Replied On May 5th 2011:
Dupris Supreme

The topic about your favorite team might not be so off-topic after all. Someone said they saw Oneway and Flyby in Brockton Bay. Maybe they're coming to settle the score with the Crew? You know, since going after the Nine is suicide.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 76, 77, 78

Topic: Travelers
In: Boards ► Teams ► Mercenaries
Caspian Dictator
(Original Poster)
Posted On Mar 1st 2011:

Fresh, new thread time! Let's fill up this thread with all kinds of stuff about the bounty hunting cape team that calls themselves the Travelers. Where will they go next? Will the PRT officially deputize them? Will people stop calling Myriad 'Oscar'? Discuss!

Team leader:

Aevum - Super speed of some kind. Mover.

Myriad - Case 53 with super strength, toughness, and durability related to her golden form. Also duplicates herself, limits unknown. Brute and Master.

Entropy - Disrupt the trajectory of any object entering his area of effect. Shaker.

Tag - Teleports himself and others with unknown limitations. Mover.

Paracosm - No idea. Seriously, people who have encountered her say she transports them into some other world where she has complete control, but we have no idea how true that is, if it's a hallucination, or what. Paracosm herself appears to be wheelchair-bound. Some people insist on calling what she does telepathy.

Possible sixth member who has never demonstrated any powers, and may simply be a driver.

Former Members:

Deimos - Manifests physical manifestations of what people are afraid of. Joined the Slaughterhouse Nine.

(Showing page 18 of 18)

King Broohaahaa
Replied On May 5th 2011:

Well I don't see any other reason why they'd be here in Brockton Bay. The mayor's niece gets kidnapped and they show up almost immediately. They weren't here for any of those big fights, and they haven't left yet. Why? Because they haven't finished their job. They're here to find Dinah Alcott, because the mayor hired them.

Replied On May 5th 2011:

King Broohaahaa

If the mayor did call them in, that's pretty much a slap in the face to the Protectorate, the PRT, the police, everyone. He's calling in outside mercs to find his niece? Why should any of us think the heroes can do their job when even the mayor doesn't believe it?

GathererOfLand (Veteran Member)
Replied On May 5th 2011:


I don't think that's a fair assessment. The Travelers have worked with the PRT plenty of times. This isn't an unusual situation. It's not like he hired a bunch of villains or something. Just because the mayor wants to give them help doesn't mean he doesn't believe in them.

And the Travelers haven't been able to find the Alcott girl either.

Paracosm (Verified Cape)
Replied On May 5th 2011:

We're definitely not trying to step on any toes around here, guys! We like to work with the authorities, not against them. We're not at liberty to talk about our purpose here, because our client wants it that way. But I promise, we are doing our best to work alongside the heroes in every way that we can.

King Broohaahaa
Replied On May 5th 2011:

Don't you dare run away without explaining what your power is!

Edit: Paracosm! Paracosm! Get back here and... I think she's gone, guys. :(

Avery's Friend
Replied On May 5th 2011:
King Broohaahaa

Did you expect anything else? Paracosm posts all the time, but she never answers questions about her power except with jokes. Clearly she doesn't want to explain it. It's probably safe that way. You do know that villains can read these threads too, right?

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 16, 17, 18

Topic: Brockton Bay Brigade - General Thread
In: Boards ► Teams ► Brockton Bay Teams
(Original Poster) (Verified Cape)
Posted On Feb 5th 2011:

We know you love us, because how could you not? We're pretty damn awesome. You guys can post any more questions or compliments in this thread now, since we blew up the old one, muahaha!

Love you guys, lemme know how we can help.

Mod Edit: Here is the Brockton Bay Brigade team list.

Team Leader:

Lady Photon - Flight, lasers, forcefields. Shaker/blaster/mover.

Manpower - Superstrength and durability. Brute.

Brandish - Manifests melee weapons made of solid energy, and can shift herself into an invulnerable, but immobile ball of light. Striker/changer.

Flashbang - Creates balls of light that explode. Blaster.

Fleur - Creates flower images on objects that she touches, and can then magnify or decrease the damage done to that object, and share the damage with every other object marked by the same flower image. Striker.

Seraph - Creates and controls solid light constructs. Often covers herself in her own light constructs to change what she looks like, and to make herself tougher. Shaker/Master/Brute/Stranger/Changer/Mover.

Shielder - Lasers, flight, and forcefields (emphasis on forcefields, weak at everything else). Blaster/mover/shaker.

Panacea - Makes concoctions that heal or provide other temporary powers like brute effects, among others. Tinker.

Laserdream - Flight, lasers, forcefields with an emphasis on lasers and flight, weak forcefields. Mover/blaster/shaker.

Archive - She seems to be able to absorb objects that come within a certain distance of her, and later project that object back out again. Other powers are hypothetical and unconfirmed, but will be added here if verified.

Former members:

Lightstar - Generated balls of light that he could detonate at will to cause concussive damage. - Confirmed deceased

(Showing page 82 of 82)

Replied On May 4th 2011:

Get out. Seriously. We don't need or want your paranoid agenda over here. The fight at the farm wasn't some false flag operation, and the Protectorate is not hiding capes and reporting them as dead just to stock up some kind of anti-endbringer army. That's absurd, and it's a slap in the face to the rest of the deceased cape's grieving team members and their families. Just shut up and leave it alone.

Anyway, now that Laserdream and Archive are safe, do you guys think they'll go out in the field any time soon? And did we ever settle on what to call the Shielder/Archive ship?

Replied On May 4th 2011:


I think people generally settled on Locker for that one. I prefer Laserdream/Archive though. They were captured for a long time, what are the odds they didn't bond a lot during that? What can we call that ship?

Replied On May 4th 2011:

(Post Edited By Mod To Remove Inappropriate Content - Reminder, you are talking about at least one minor, if not two. Keep it respectful. User has been banned for one week for this post.)

Replied On May 4th 2011:

Dude, delete that bit. The mods are gonna jump on your ass. I dunno about Laserdream, but I'm pretty damn sure Archive's a minor. Even if they weren't, that's pretty crude shit to write on PHO.

Yeesh. Anyway, I'm pretty sure DamageUncontrolled is just a troll at this point. Ignore them. As for Archive and Laserdream getting back into the field, I think we'll see them both really soon.

Replied On May 5th 2011:

I'm late for this, and I know it doesn't matter, but the Brigade has my condolences for their loss. I know I said some critical things about Lightstar in the past, but the man was a hero, and I for one would like to extend my thanks for everything he did, even if I didn't appreciate it at the time. I will try to remember this moment in the future any time I feel like criticizing other capes.

89th Firebird
Replied On May 5th 2011:

Guess you were right, Archive and Laserdream are out with Shielder and Seraph. I watched them from the roof of my apartment. They're definitely patrolling, though I don't think they'll run into anything on this side of towen.

Edit: I was wrong! Big fight going on two blocks away. I'll try to upload some pictures if I can get close enough.

Replied On May 5th 2011:
Really? Damn, dude. Is that the fight between the Protectorate, the ABB, and that unknown team?

Replied On May 5th 2011:


We have a name for that team now. Someone got close enough to hear them talking to the Protectorate. They're called Normandy. Someone should probably set up a thread for them.

Edit: done!

Anyway, looking forward to pictures. I haven't been able to get a good mental image of how Archive's powers work. It'd be nice to see photos. Or video if 89th Firebird can manage it.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 80, 81, 82

Topic: Empire 88 Defeated
In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay
Mama Bear
(Original Poster) (Moderator)
Posted On Apr 25th 2011:
Use this thread to discuss the fight between the Empire 88, the Brockton Bay Brigade, the Protectorate, Faultline's Crew, and elements of Gesellschaft that took place at the farmhouse just outside Brockton Bay. Inappropriate or disrespectful comments about the deceased will be removed and the user will be banned. Please keep the discussion civil.

Here is the final tally. Any additional updates must be verified through the PRT.

Deceased: Spitfire, Newter, Fog, Lightstar, Kaiser
Captured: Cricket, Victor, Logi, Stormtiger, Dellingr, Rache, Teiwaz.

(Showing page 42 of 42)

Legend's Sensei
Replied On May 5th 2011:

Okay, so did any of the Gessesl... gesseghn... G-Squad capes from Germany stay in town after all that went down? Besides the ones that got arrested, I mean. Are they part of Hookwolf's new Fenrir's Chosen team?

Oh, and did we ever get confirmation about whose side the Faithful were on during that fight?

The New Pythia (Unverified Cape)
Replied On May 5th 2011:
Legend's Sensei

They were helping the heroes. Iron Rain and Purity hated Kaiser as much as anyone else, if not more.

Hookwolf's team doesn't include any Gesellschaft members, but they're still in town. They won't leave until they at least try to break their teammates out.

Replied On May 5th 2011:
The New Pythia

You seem to know an awful lot about the Faithful, or you're just making it all up. Which is it?

And why haven't they just sent those Nazi bastards into the Birdcage yet?

The New Pythia (Unverified Cape)
Replied On May 5th 2011:

I know what the Faithful were doing because I'm part of their team. ;)

They can't lock up the Gesellschaft capes until they have a trial, and they can't have a trial until the German, American, and Canadian governments come to an agreement about extradition and sentencing.

Replied On May 5th 2011:
The New Pythia

Ew, you're one of those Nazi creeps? I can't believe I actually had a conversation with you yesterday. Gross. So much for believing anything you say.

Mama Bear (Original Poster) (Moderator)
Replied On May 5th 2011:
If you guys want to talk about the Faithful as a team or any of their members, you should visit this thread instead of talking about it here.

The New Pythia - See this thread for rules about verifying your identity.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 40, 41, 42

Topic: Undersiders - General Discussion
In: Boards ► Teams ► Villains
(Original Poster)
Posted On Feb 10th 2011:
I figured these guys might as well have a thread of their own, even if they're not that big of a deal yet. They've started to pull off some higher profile jobs. Let's get down to it.

Team leader:

Redshift - Teleportation, Mover.

Tattletale - We think her power has to do with learning people's secrets. Some say telepath, but that's unverified, just like all other supposed telepaths. Thinker.

Hellhound - Transforms canines into huge monsters. Master. Dogs have brute and mover classifications.

Regent - Minor body control, limited to reflexive movements like twitching, tripping, gesturing, and so on. Master.

Nimue - Makes real life magic tricks that seem to actually work. Tinker.

Alloy - Turns into metal and then grows and shrinks. Unknown limitations. Brute/Changer

Former Members:

Grue - Creates a fog of disorienting darkness that dampens other senses as well. Joined the Wards as Veil.

(Showing page 65 of 65)

Avery's Friend
Replied On May 5th 2011:
Whether you guys decide you like the Undersiders or not, the mods aren't going to move the thread out of the villains category. Because, news flash, they're still villains. They're still breaking the law, whether they're doing good things too or not.

It is kind of funny that their old leader joins the Wards, and it's the REST of the team that everyone starts seeing as more heroic though.


Whatever Tattletale does, it can't be telepathy. There's never been a single verified example of literal telepathy. It's always something else.


Wow! that's pretty cool, did your uncle get to say anything to them? I mean, sorry he was taken by the Merchants, but you said he's fine now so... did he talk to any of the Undersiders?

Replied On May 5th 2011:
All I'm saying is that usually, people who rescue hostages are considered heroes. At the very least, we should put them in the mercenary forum or something. Yeah, they've done some bad stuff, but so have a lot of the teams in that forum and they get a little more leeway.

But to contribute more than just beating my head against that wall, here's a link to some pictures that someone took of Redshift and the rest of the Undersiders hanging around an old gas station with a couple of that cape team that call themselves the People. The guy that took the pictures says it was some kind of secret meeting, and they teleported away. Pretty cool!

Replied On May 5th 2011:
Avery's Friend

I'll ask him, but he's pretty out of it at the moment. He has good days and bad days. And he's one of the better ones. Some of the people the Merchant's took are still totally fucked up. :/ Makes me wish I had powers. I'd go kick the shit out of those druggy fucks.


Ugh, I hope the Undersiders aren't friends with that Aequitas dude. Have you heard the guy talk? He's one of those sovereign citizen freaks. I bet some of those kids he's running around with are his. Can you imagine being raised by that kind of crazy?

Replied On May 5th 2011:
Post deleted by mod - inappropriate discussion. User has been permanently banned. Villains or not, you do not request those kind of pictures of any cape, let alone ones that are most likely minors.

Replied On May 5th 2011:

Uuuuuhhhkay, to ignore that and hope the mods deal with it quickly... -_-

Avery's Friend

Of course telepathy hasn't been confirmed, if every time it shows up, the excuse is 'telepathy has never been confirmed.' How else would Tattletale know all the stuff she knows?

Replied On May 5th 2011:
I'm special.

SellerOfSausage (Original Poster)
Replied On May 5th 2011:
Holy crap! Is that really Tattletale? wait, how would we know?

Aww hell with it, give us some dirt. Are you guys heroes now? Villains with hearts of gold? Dish, dish, dish.

Replied On May 5th 2011:
No proof. Rather not make it that easy. ;)

You should probably shave your beard though. It's pretty scruffy.

SellerOfSausage (Original Poster)
Replied On May 5th 2011:
Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap Holy crap.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 63, 64, 65

Topic: Brockton Bay Wards - General Discussion
In: Boards ► Teams ► Wards
(Original Poster) (Veteran Member)
Posted On Jan 1st 2011:
New thread for the new year. Go nuts.

Team leader:

Aegis - He can fly and he has an enhanced physiology that includes redundant organs and the ability to adapt to any damage that's done to him. Brute/Mover

Clockblocker - He can touch something/someone and freeze them in time for a random duration. Striker.

Gallant - He wears power armor that generates emotion-changing energy blasts. Tinker.

Chronicler - He makes partially transparent ghost-like duplicates of people that copy the actions of the original and can be redirected to new targets. Shaker/Master.

Shadow Stalker - She can make herself intangible. Breaker/mover/stranger.

Vista - She can warp and bend space, making distances shorter or longer and twisting them around. Shaker.

Veil - Basically he creates a black fog that's impossible to see through. Some people say it messes up other senses besides just sight.

See this thread for discussion about former members.

(Showing page 133 of 133)

GathererOfLand (Veteran Member)
Replied On May 5th 2011:

Actually, we do know that Aegis will graduate first. He's the team leader, and the team leader is always the oldest. That's the way it goes. When Aegis graduates, it'll go to whoever the next oldest is. Probably Clockblocker, but it might be Gallant. They don't exactly report that. But the fact that Aegis is the leader means he's the oldest.

Lee's Premier Brand Bull

*shrug* I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree then.


Nope. Read this thread for more specifics, but basically if you see the 'verified cape' badge, the mods have photographic proof of who it is. If you see one of those, the account of the person talking has been verified to be who they say they are. Not that someone else couldn't hijack that account later, but... *shrug* It's as close to perfect as we can get, probably.

Arcenic Hope
Replied On May 6th 2011:
This post has been deleted by a mod for personal attacks and the user has been banned for one week.

Replied On May 6th 2011:
This post has been deleted by a mod for personal attacks and the user has been banned for one week.

Replied On May 6th 2011:
This post has been deleted by a mod for personal attacks and the user has been banned for one week.

Mama Bear (Moderator)
Replied On May 6th 2011:
If I have to lock this thread, I will. The tragic events of last night are not an excuse for you guys to go off the rails. I've deleted several posts already, and I'm ready to hand out longer bans if you keep pushing it.

If you would like to discuss the murder like civilized people, you can find the thread for that here. Do not talk about it in this thread, and do not use this thread as an excuse to attack or vilify any member of the Wards.

The loss of such an important person is utterly tragic, but I will not allow it to turn into a witch hunt. This is a minor we're talking about, and one that has not been convicted of anything yet. Try to keep the lynch mob tendencies to a minimum.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 131, 132, 133

Interlude 10B – Laserdream

Wednesday, May 4th

Trapped. Voices gloating next to her ear, their hot breath harsh against her skin. Losing. Lost. Helpless.

Crystal Pelham jerked upward with a cry, flinging herself sideways while her hand shot out to fire a bolt of energy into the bonds that had trapped her. Even as she landed hard on the carpeted floor, the blonde girl was lifting her other hand, ready to summon more of the power to defend herself.

Carpeted floor. The thought registered with her belatedly, even as her eyes focused on the bonds she had destroyed. Her blankets. The blankets on her bed, where she'd been sleeping. In her bedroom. She wasn't a prisoner anymore. She wasn't with the Empire, with Kaiser and his collection of psychopaths.

Her sleep-addled brain had just managed to put all of that together when there was a soft knock against the bedroom door. It clicked open a moment later, and her mother was standing there in the doorway. The massive figure of Crystal's father stood just behind her. Both of them looked worried. "Crystal?"

"I'm fine," she replied automatically, the response coming without conscious thought by that point. She was already picking herself up off the floor, a quick glance at the clock confirming that it was still the middle of the night. Three in the morning, to be exact. She'd slept about two and a half hours that time.

Her parents exchanged glances before her mother came into the room. Sarah Pelham took a few steps over and embraced her tightly. Crystal flinched, her body tensing up reflexively at the embrace. She tried to stop herself immediately, but from the look on her mother's face, the woman noticed.

Damn it. Why did she react like that? It was her mom. It was a hug from her mother. She knew it wasn't a threat. She knewthat. But as soon as she was embraced, as soon as those arms closed around her, Crystal had felt trapped again. She'd felt... helpless again. And now she'd upset her mother, the last thing she'd wanted to do. A hug. It was just a stupid hug, why couldn't she just keep it together?

While Crystal was busy silently rebuking herself for her own stupid reaction, her mother took her hand and squeezed it. "Sweetie, listen, okay? We still have the sleeping pills if you think-"

"No," Crystal interrupted sharply, head shaking even as she stepped back, subconsciously giving herself room. She didn't even notice what she'd done until she saw the look on her mother's face.

Fuck. Again. She hurt her mother again. Damn it, why? Why couldn't she just... just be okay?

"No sleeping pills," she pushed on. "No pills. No medicine. I'm not taking any more drugs. You don't know what they—I'm not taking anything. I need to be clear. I need to be... I can't take pills. Besides," she added, trying to make herself sound convincing. "It was just a stupid dream. Like I said, I'm fine."

Her father came into the room then, pausing to finger the remains of her bedding with a slight grimace. "Too bad we can't really say the same about your blankets." His attempt at a joke, weak as it was.

Instead of smiling, as she consciously knew he intended, Crystal flinched. The shame at her own inability to cope, the feeling of inadequacy, the constant tension that she couldn't stop. It was all wrong.

"I'm sorry," she managed quietly, stepping over to her bed to grab the remains. "I didn't mean to."

Her father's hand fell on her shoulder, turning Crystal around before he too embraced her. It wasn't long, just a quick hug that could barely be called that. Still, even then she couldn't help the way her muscles immediately coiled, the tension in her body instantly rising while her breath quickened.

Daddy. No, don't pull away. Even as her father released her, Crystal wanted to cling to him. She wanted to hug both of her parents and beg them not to let her go. Instead, she looked away to hide her cringe.

"I'll grab the extra blanket out of the hall closet," her father announced, clearly trying to sound cheerful. "And I think the sheets in the wash are finished. Swap them in and it'll be as good as new."

"I'll do it," Crystal informed them. "You guys have work in the morning. I'm not going back to sleep any time soon anyway. I'll probably go flying or something for awhile, I need to clear my head."

Her parents exchanged glances again, and her mother spoke up a bit hesitantly. "Right now? Oh, Crissy, I'm not sure you should go out right now. It's late, and you'll be all by yourself. It's..."

"Damn it, why do people do that?" Crystal demanded, the words spilling out of her without thought. "You want me to feel like I'm safe, like I'm not helpless anymore? Then stop trying to coddle me. How many times have I gone out flying by myself? I'm eighteen years old, not three. You want me to stop feeling trapped? Then stop trapping me! You want me to believe that I can take care of myself, that I don't have to be afraid of everything? Then stop acting like I should be afraid of everything!"

As soon as she finished talking, Crystal regretted her tone. She took a breath and stepped over to embrace her mother, forcing herself to count to six before allowing herself to let go. "I'm going."

Before she could pull away completely, her mother caught her hand and squeezed it, her voice quiet, yet imploring. "We love you, Crissy. We just want to be there for you. We... we're trying to help."

"I know," Crystal acknowledged, returning the squeeze just a little bit while looking toward her mother, then her father. "I know. But you can't fix this by coddling me. You can't just lock me in my room and hope that nothing bad ever happens again. I need to figure this out. I need to get out there. I need to fight, not hide in my room and stick my fingers in my ears until I stop having nightmares.

"I love you, but my nightmares aren't just about me being safe. They're about me not being able to protect myself, not being able to defend myself. That's what I need to focus on. And until I know I can protect myself, until I know I can fight, I won't be able to sleep and everything's going to get worse.

Thursday, May 5th

"Conflict?" Laserdream glanced back to her three teammates, taking in their general state and waiting a second to see what they did. Getting no reaction, she exhaled, then snapped her hand up and released a laser shot directly into the big six-armed gray man's face. The blast of energy knocked the man backwards to fall over the nearby car even as Crystal added, "How's that for conflict?"

The werewolf, or whatever he was, was leaping toward her. But even as the wolf lunged, Seraph intervened. One of her angel-figures appeared right beside Crystal and leapt to catch onto it in midair.

Meanwhile, the girl in the black and neon green costumed was shooting some kind of laser of her own toward them. Before it had crossed even half of the distance, however, one of Shielder's blue forcefields popped up into view and the blast completely fizzled. It didn't even look like it did anything.

Seraph's conjured construct and the wolf grappled together briefly before the angel abruptly changed shape, turning into a cage that was just barely large enough to contain the enormous canine. .

"Have a timeout, Maugrim," Victoria suggested with a smirk. "Or whatever your name was."

"Uh, guys, little help?!" The cry came from Archive, and Laserdream spun that way to find the younger girl flailing. There was gray... hand holding each of her wrists. That was it, just the hands, with some kind of green energy covering the spot where they would have been attached to the arm. Before they could move, the hands, which seemed to be as strong as they would be with a full sized man behind them, turned Archive around and gave her a shove toward the nearby wall. Just before she hit, the girl conjured that absorption field of hers, going right through the wall and into the building.

"Hey, wha—mmphgnn!" Seraph abruptly had one of those gray hands around her mouth, while a second one floated up and slapped her hard enough that her focus on the wolf's cage faltered and failed. Yet another hand covered her visor, blocking off her sight as all three of them hauled Vicky backwards. Which was bad. As long as Seraph couldn't see, she couldn't redirect her constructs or make new ones. Even though the visor was something she'd created, the best she'd be able to do was disable it entirely, which would still leave the hand blocking her vision, only with it directly against her eyes by that point.

Four gray hands. The six-armed man. Crystal wheeled back around, her own hands snapping up to fire off two quick lasers that way. But the pavement where he had been was empty, the man already gone.

The White Company girl, Tenacity, let off another shot. Again, Shielder's forcefield blocked it, though she'd clearly put more power behind the blast that time since the shield shimmered from the impact.

Grimacing, Laserdream spared her cousin a quick glance. "Shielder, help Seraph, get the hands off her!" Then she launched herself off the ground. Inverting quickly in the air, she shot through the hole in the wall that Archive had left. It was small enough that she had to turn sideways as she passed through it, threading the needle before shooting into the room on the other side. A distant part of Crystal's brain was reminding her that this was somewhat similar to the way she'd ended up abducted and trapped the first time. But she forced that thought down as hard as she could while looking around quickly.

They were in the back of some kind of vintage clothing store. Vicky probably knew the owner's name. Hell, she probably knew the owner's favorite food, birthday, children's names, and alma mater.

Archive was down on her knees a few yards away, still wrestling with the hands that were holding onto her wrists. Before Crystal could intervene, the other girl rolled backwards toward a heavy wooden table laden with clothes. She kicked out with one foot, clearly activating her absorption field since her foot went right through the table leg, seeming to disintegrate a chunk of it. As the heavy table started to fall, Archive twisted herself around, forcing her arms back just far enough that the hands clutching onto her wrists were caught by the table as it fell. The thick wood slammed down onto the hands, knocking them off Madison's wrists and freeing her from their grasp so that she could roll out of the way.

As soon as the other girl was clear, Laserdream let loose at the hands before they could heave the fallen table off themselves. The lasers cut into the hands, thoroughly destroying them after a couple shots.

Both of them spared glances for one another before heading back for the hole to rejoin the other two.

As she shot back out, Crystal glanced toward Shielder just in time to see Tenacity let off another shot. The blue forcefield popped up... and shattered instantly, the protective shield collapsing.

"Either she's getting stronger or I'm getting weaker!" Shielder called over to them, his face sweating. "Last one took two shots to take it down. Pretty sure she'll go right through anything else I put up."

Victoria, meanwhile, was struggling to fight off the hands that were still covering her eyes and the wolf at the same time. The hands kept trying to shove her into the canine-cape's path, but Victoria obviously heard it coming and kicked out blindly. The energy construct that she used as a costume enhanced the strength of her blow to knock the wolf sideways into the nearby wall with a yelp of pain.

Then the girl flew straight up into the air, inverted, and slammed down face first into the ground. The impact was strong enough to almost flatten the hands covering her mouth and eyes, and they fell off, revealing Seraph's golden visor, still intact and perfect considering its construct-nature. There was, however, blood dripping out from under it. Victoria had hit the ground hard enough to bloody her nose, maybe even break it, through the protection of her own powers. Yet, rather than actually showing any pain or fear, Victoria gave a snarl of satisfaction while spinning toward the wolf. "Still wanna play?" she asked while summoning a massive sword into one hand as she leapt that way.

Shielder shouted a warning then, "Incoming!"

That time, the shot from Tenacity didn't just blow his shield apart in a single hit. It also carried on through, nearly taking out Eric himself. But Crystal had reacted instantly, catching hold of her brother before flying straight up into the air so that the blast could hit the building behind them. It did, but rather than blow through the structure like Crystal expected, the beam just fizzled, barely singing the bricks.

Tenacity adjusted her aim, firing up at them. Reflexively, Laserdream summoned her own forcefield, even though it was a very pale imitation of anything that Shielder could put up.

And yet, Tenacity's beam faltered against even that weaker forcefield the same way her first shot against Eric's had. Obviously, it wasn't just a matter of the girl putting more power behind her blasts, or getting stronger the longer she fought like Lung did. It seemed like every subsequent shot she landed against the same target was stronger. The more times she shot that same target, the more powerful her blasts were. Even if that target was technically something new like Eric's shields. Her power clearly interpreted them as all the same forcefield. Which meant that Laserdream's own weaker shields probably wouldn't last more than another hit or two.

Then there was a quiet noise of sharply expelled air, and Tenacity almost immediately stumbled to the side before collapsing, a dart sticking out of her neck.

"Tranquilizer," Archive announced, lowering the rifle that she had summoned. "I umm, I was gonna use it on the wolf, but Seraph knocked him into that building."

As if on cue, the wolf came racing back into view. Without pausing, it ran straight across the street and stopped next to the fallen woman. The canine figure shifted and transformed into the shape of a man in a skin tight gray costume as he gathered the unconscious Tenacity in his arms before darting into the building. The building where someone had already called for help.

Crystal let her brother go, allowing him to use his own power to hover in the air beside her. Then she launched herself, flying at the building like she had been shot out of a cannon. She was right on their heels. She shot through the open door, ready to defend herself, ready to fight, ready for anything.

Anything that was, except for nothing. Nothing at all. The room was empty. And a quick yet thorough inspection revealed that the entire building was empty. There was no one there, and no sign of anyone.

The mercenaries, and whoever had called out for help, had disappeared.

"So you have no idea who was in the building?"

"Or why a White Company cell has set up shop here?"

The first question came from Director Piggot. The second came from Armsmaster. The two of them were sitting with Laserdream in the former's office on the top floor of the PRT building. Crystal had come in to report what had happened, telling the others to head home so that Amy could help Victoria.

"No," she answered. "To both questions. We tried to intervene, but by the time we got into the building, there was no one there. I already told you about the capes they had."

"It's Frontier's group," Armsmaster replied. "Their last big altercation was that bit with Faultline's Crew. It's possible that's what led them here. I'll see if we can have a... chat with Faultline herself, find out if it's part of something bigger."

Crystal started to say something else, but a figure abruptly appeared, dropping down through the ceiling with weapons already raised and firing.

Armsmaster reacted instantly, spinning up from his seat and lashing out with the halberd that leapt to his hand. The razor sharp bolt that would have struck Piggot right between the eyes was thrown off course, hitting the woman in the hand instead.

Crystal, meanwhile, had already thrown herself to the floor. Hand outstretched, she shot off a laser toward the figure that she only belatedly recognized.

Shadow Stalker?!

Her laser went right through the girl as she went into her shadow form, hitting the opposite wall. Shadow Stalker gave her a look, then turned and leapt through the same wall, disappearing from sight.

Picking herself up, Crystal turned quickly toward the PRT director. "What the hell?! Why would Shadow Stalker-"

Her voice died in her throat. Piggot had fallen onto her side, her face pale. "P-poison," the woman hissed out in between desperate gasps for air. "Dart... poison..."

Eyes widening, Crystal whipped around toward Armsmaster. "She needs help! Do you have-"

Again, her voice died in mid-sentence, even as her horror and shock redoubled. Because it was immediately clear that Shadow Stalker had fired two bolts, not just one. And while the Protectorate hero had deflected the one meant for Piggot into her hand rather than her forehead, he had not been able to do the same for the one meant for him. Whether the second bolt was poison or not was immaterial, considering how deeply it had embedded itself through the man's shattered visor and into his eye.

Armsmaster... was dead.

Interlude 10C – Dinah

Monday, May 2nd

Dinah Alcott stood in front of the closed door, hand on the knob. She'd been standing in the same spot for almost five minutes. In the background, she could hear Dorothy arguing with Cassie over some obscure fact from the first world war. The two of them were always arguing about various reasoning behind why various leaders did this or that. Actually, debating with Cassie was one of the few times that Dot actually seemed to come alive and express her own thoughts. Well, sort of her own thoughts. A lot of it was stuff that Gesellschaft had instilled in her. But still, there were thoughts and opinions inside it, and Dinah had a suspicion that Cassie purposefully antagonized the woman to bring them out.

Okay. No more stalling. No more over-thinking it. Just go in and do what you have to do. Be like Gabriele. Taking a breath and letting it out, Dinah pushed the door open and stepped inside the room.

"What do you want now, Dinah?" Vanessa Muir didn't bother to look over her shoulder to check who had come in. She just knew. The older girl was sitting in a chair across the bedroom from the doorway, facing the reinforced, bulletproof window. The plate that had held her breakfast was on a table nearby.

"I want a lot of things," Dinah answered before taking a step. She picked up the plate, looking at it for a moment before focusing her attention on the other girl. "But mostly I want to be your friend again."

"My friend?" Vanessa finally looked that way, her single good eye scornful. "We were never friends, Dinah. My people kidnapped you. I was your prison guard. You were just Kaiser's project. His brand new weapon." She paused then before shaking her head. "Except you weren't, were you? You were no more a real prisoner than you were my real friend. You were with Iron Rain and Purity the whole time."

Flinching just a little in spite of herself, Dinah gave a slight nod. Seeing that, Vanessa looked away once more, returning her gaze to the window. "Kaiser thought he was using you. He thought he was using me to use you. But you were using both of us. You used him to get to me, and then you used me."

"I'm not sorry for that." Dinah spoke while fiddling with the plate in her hand. "You shouldn't say you're sorry for things you'd do again, and I would do it again. Because I needed help. The headaches were really bad, and Coil was going to take me. I needed help from someone to clear my head. That was you. I needed protection from Coil until I got my powers under control. That was Kaiser."

Seeing the look in the other girl's remaining eye, Dinah almost flinched. She set the plate down and faced her former prison guard in silence for a few seconds before continuing. "I'm not sorry for doing what I had to do to protect myself. I mean, you were right on board with kidnapping a little girl. You didn't know that I planned for it. You didn't know I had Gabriele and Kayden helping me. But you still helped keep a little girl prisoner just because Kaiser told you to. You were a better guard than someone like Hookwolf would've been. But you were still a prison guard, and you still didn't try to stop it."

"You think I could've stopped it?" Vanessa retorted sharply. "If I did anything except what Kaiser said to, I would've been in worse shape than you were. In the Empire, you do what he tells you to do."

"Kaiser's dead now." The voice didn't come from Dinah, but from the doorway where Gabriele stood. "And the Empire doesn't exist anymore. They're both gone. You don't have those excuses anymore."

Dinah watched as Vanessa scowled at the other woman, the frustration and emotion on her face readily apparent. "Why don't you just go away and leave me alone forever? That's what you're good at."

"I gave you a chance to come with us," Gabriele replied in a quiet voice as she stepped into the room.

"You left!" Vanessa's voice was suddenly a shout as she stood up. "You left us behind and ran off to play... to play hero! You and Kayden were the best people—the only people – who could stand up to Kaiser, and you ran away! You ran off to rescue everyone else and you left the rest of us behind.

"I thought you were my friend. When I was growing up, I—I wanted to be like Iron Rain. You were my hero. I was just a kid and you were this big, powerful, amazing... I wanted to make you proud of me. But you left. You left!" There was anguish in the girl's voice from emotion that had been bottled up for years. "You left, and then you told this girl everything about me so that she could manipulate me."

"You're right, I did." Gabriele nodded. "And like Dinah, I'm not sorry for that. I'm sorry you were hurt by it. I'm sorry you feel betrayed and used. But you've been being used your whole life, Vanessa. When was the last time you made a real decision of your own, an important decision? When was the last time you directed your own life, the last time you made a choice that actually matters about who you are?"

"That doesn't make you using me any better!" Vanessa's voice rose a little more. "Everyone uses me. My whole power isabout me being used. It's not for me, it's for everyone else. I can't even use it on myself. Kaiser used me, the rest of the Empire used me, Dinah used me, you used me. Nothing's changed. You lock me in here, you tell me it's for my own good, but you're still not letting me choose!"

Panting a little, the one-eyed woman went on. "You know who cares about me? Preston. He cares. Maybe we don't have the very best storybook romance, but I do know he cares about me."

"He does," Gabriele confirmed. "But he's in prison now, and you have to figure out who you are without him. You can't keep defining yourself by what others turn you into, Vanessa. What you do next, it has to be your choice. This is your life. Yours. I made my choice to leave the Empire even though I grew up in it. It took an awfully big shock to make me wake up, but I did. I realized that there are bad people of every race. It's not blacks that are shitty, or Jews that are shitty, or Japanese people that are shitty. You know who's shitty? Shitty people. That's it. They exist everywhere. Those are the people we want to stop. That's how we clean up this city, how we make it better. By dealing with the shitty people, no matter what race they are. These are my choices. It's time for you to make a few of your own."

"Oh yeah," Vanessa retorted sarcastically. "I'll make a whole bunch of choices in here." She pantomimed thinking very hard. "Hmmm, should I look at that wall, or that one? I'm still a prisoner."

Gabriele glanced toward Dinah, then shook her head definitively. "No, you're not." She stepped aside, opening the door. "We can't just lock you up forever, Vanessa. If you want to run back to Hookwolf's little gang and be used by them some more, you can. Maybe they'll even succeed at breaking Victor out of prison. Maybe. But you'll still be the kind of person that I know you don't really want to be. The person you only were because you grew up in it. The same kind of person I was, doing the same things I did, before my father was murdered and I had to really look at my life for the first time. I had the chance to make the choice about what to be, and I took it. It's only fair that you have the same choice."

Vanessa's eye moved to the door, then back to Dinah for a moment before returning to Gabriele. "You expect me to believe you're just going to let me go? Without me, Dinah can't use her power as often."

Gabriele gave a single nod. "You're right. Dinah isn't as effective without you. We would be more effective with you. We want you to join us, Vanessa. We want you to be a part of the team. But we're not going to force you. That's what Max did. Max manipulated people, used them, blackmailed them, coerced them, anything he had to do to get what he wanted. But we're not doing that, because this has to be your choice. Your decision. You have to decide who you are. Stay with us and help clean up the city, go to Hookwolf, leave the city, settle down and stop being a cape, try to break out Victor on your own, get a new partner, whatever. As long as it is your choice, we won't try to stop you. But this is something you have to decide. Not Victor. Not Kaiser. Not Dinah. Not me. Just you, Vanessa.

"So decide, once and for all. Who are you? And who do you want to be?"

Thursday, May 5th

"They're coming," Dinah announced a few nights later. She was standing on the roof of a building, watching four pairs of headlights come toward them. A quick check with her power had provided the answer. One hundred percent chance that the incoming cars were the people they were waiting for.

She glanced back toward the rest of the Faithful, all of them gathered on top of this building. They'd only just arrived barely a couple of minutes earlier, and her heart was hammering at the thought of what was about to happen, what they had to stop. If they didn't stop it, the numbers for what would happen to the city plummeted dramatically. They had to try to put a stop to this, if they could.

She wasn't Dinah right now, the girl reminded herself. Not in costume. Now, she was Pythia, a name that Cassie had helped her pick out. Her costume, provided by Gabriele, was a green bodysuit with light armor lining that was supposed to stand up against small arms fire, though it would still hurt. The costume extended up into a turtleneck that attached to a matching green mask that covered the lower half of her face. Over top of the green suit, she wore a white hood and cloak. The hood covered part of the top half of her face, which would have left only her eyes exposed if she hadn't been wearing goggles. The mask over her mouth and nose had a filtration system that would protect her from most toxins and gases, while the goggles were meant to shield her from being blinded. All courtesy of Gabriele, thanks to the woman's contacts and resources with various tinkers around the country.

"Is Hookwolf there?" The question came from the woman behind Dinah, and she turned to look that way even as Gabriele answered. "He won't be in the first wave. They'll send grunts in first to soften up the resistance. Maybe Alabaster, but the big hit won't come until they see how the defense reacts. He's not the tactical genius Kaiser was, but he's not dumb. You know how Hookwolf operates, Aset."

Aset, the name that Vanessa had chosen for herself. It was supposed to be the original name of the Egyptian goddess Isis, though Dinah was pretty sure that Vanessa had also chosen it because she found the similarity to the word 'asset,' which she was to any team that had her, to be amusing. The name was part of not only changing who she was, but also giving the PRT and the public at large reasonable doubt as to who she had been before. Sure, everyone would know, but they'd have reasonable cause not to immediately arrest her. Which, according to Kayden and Gabriele, was important to the PRT.

Vanessa's costume was different too. Now, she wore a skintight black suit with a utility belt and holster for a pistol on her right hip. Over top of the suit, she wore a dark blue chestplate. Her black mask left the lower half of her face uncovered, with white lenses over her eyes that gave off a bright glow (though that could be dimmed), and the top of her head was exposed, leaving brown hair exposed.

She'd stayed. After everything that had happened, after everything they did, Vanessa had chosen, in the end, to stay with them. She made sure to point out that it was just a test, and she might choose to leave at any time. Still, she was here. For now. This, however, would be both her first time in public under her new identity, and her first time facing her former teammates. Obviously, she sounded nervous.

By that point, the four approaching vans had all screeched to a stop right below them, across the street from the PRT building where the troops on guard duty were already coming out to investigate. There were ten of them, twice the number that would ordinarily be at the doors on an average night.

But then, this wasn't an average night. The PRT was on high alert after what had happened just under thirty minutes earlier. The word was out in spite of their attempt to keep it quiet. Someone had spilled the beans, and now it was everywhere. Armsmaster was dead and Director Piggot would soon join him. And most of the remaining Protectorate and Wards were off chasing the person they thought was responsible, one of their own people. Dinah knew better, but she also knew they wouldn't listen to her.

She'd also known, confirmed by her power, that Hookwolf and his gang of 'Chosen' would take advantage of the chaos and try to free the rest of their people. Worse, Hookwolf would probably want that kind of chaos to continue, so the odds were high that he'd make sure Piggot didn't survive her injuries. And since she was being taken care of in the medical wing of the PRT building rather than a hospital, both of the Chosen's most wanted targets were right here, just waiting for them to attack.

"Now," Kayden announced while lifting into the air. Gabriele did the same using a metal disc beneath her feet, and Cassie made her own larger disc rise up a foot into the air before waiting for Dinah to join her along with Nicholas, Dorothy, and Vanessa. Then the disc flew off after the other two women.

The Chosen thugs didn't know what hit them. They had just attacked the PRT troops when a pair of blasts from Kayden utterly demolished two of the vans they had arrived in. A second later, Browbeat dropped off Cassie's disc, landing right in the middle of three of the men. A hard elbow to the face of one put the man on the ground before the obscenely muscled boy caught the other two and hurled them away to crash against one of the other vans.

The rest of the surprised Nazi footsoldiers whirled toward the attack, but with the combination of Kayden, Gabriele, and Cassie flinging their powers around, they were quickly dispatched.

"Hold it!" The remaining lead PRT soldier came forward, his weapon raised still. "Purity, Iron Rain. What do you people want?"

"We're here, if you hadn't noticed," Kayden answered smoothly, "to help you. And I would rather you not call me Purity anymore." Her hand indicated her own changed costume. Where before it had been a simple white bodysuit, the new one was dark blue, with an actual mask that covered her entire face while leaving a fake blonde ponytail sticking out the back to throw people off even further, even if she didn't keep her powers on all the time. When her powers were active, gold designs up and down the suit would glow brightly.

"The name is Radiant. This," she indicated Gabriele beside her, "is Watershed. And like I said, we're here to help."

While the man was still clearly trying to decide if he believed her, Gabriele spoke up. "We don't have much time. The Chosen will be sending more troops any second. We'd rather work with you and watch each other's backs. And besides, a little birdie told us that your director won't live past the hour without help. We can provide that."

Kayden, or rather, Radiant, nodded. "Aset can heal Director Piggot. Give her a chance and she will save her life. Let us help you. Please. We're only here to help."

Still, the man hesitated. But there were headlights already approaching, and he finally nodded. "Do it. I'll call it in. They'll let you through. But make one wrong move, and I swear..."

"Go, Aset," Radiant ordered. "Pythia, go with her. You're not ready for a fight like this. Lovecraft and Contact," she looked toward Dorothy and Cassie respectively. "Get out of sight and stay back until they commit themselves."

Dinah—Pythia she reminded herself – was already running alongside Aset and the PRT agent that was sent along to escort them through the building to where Piggot was being taken care of. As they ran, she asked, "What happened to Panacea? Shouldn't she be here to heal the director?"

"She was on her way," the agent replied a bit breathlessly. "But they were attacked by some of Coil's men. They aren't going to make it in time. So if you're fucking with us right now..."

"We're not," Pythia assured him.

"I'll heal your leader," Aset confirmed. "But that doesn't mean she's not a vicious cunt. Lucky her, Pythia says the city gets worse if she's not around."

"No arguments here," the agent replied before pressing his hand against the pad beside the door. Then they were inside, and running past other startled personnel, who got out of the way as their escort called, "Move! Healer coming through! Out of the way!"

They reached the medical wing, skidding around the corner just in time to see one of the doctors collapse to the floor, blood spilling from the hole in the side of his head. Behind him stood two of the Chosen's footsoldiers, each of them holding silenced pistols.

One looked up, spotted them, and cursed. "Finish off the pig bitch," he spat while raising his gun. "I'll deal with them."

He opened fire, forcing their agent escort to dive out of the way. But Aset had already put a hand on Pythia's shoulder, and the two bullets that struck the younger girl's chest bounced right off of her.

"Strength," Aset spoke in a low voice before touching Dinah again, removing the invincibility and adding super strength instead.

Testing it, Pythia grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher off the wall and hurtled it. The gunman recoiled, but the metal cylinder still struck him hard, knocking the man to the floor while sending his weapon clattering away.

"Speed," Aset had a hand on Pythia again, switching her granted power once more. "Go!"

Dinah moved. In an instant, she covered the whole distance between herself and the hospital room. It was like the whole world was moving in slow motion. Even as she raced into the room, she could see the second gunman pointing his gun toward his helpless target. In another second, he'd pull the trigger.

She didn't give the man that second. Even as his finger tightened, Pythia caught the gun and snatched it out of his hand, hurtling the weapon away while it was firing.

Then their escort was there, firing a tranquilizer shot into the neck of the creep before he could recover from having his gun taken away.

Panting hard as the body fell, the PRT agent looked to Pythia. "Is she..."

"He didn't kill her," Dinah replied, raising her gaze toward Aset. "Ready?"

For a moment, Vanessa just stood there, staring at the figure in the bed. Then she gave a slight nod and stepped around the two of them, extending her hand toward Piggot. "It's not instant. But it'll stop her from dying, and it'll give your doctors time to stabilize her."

Still panting, the man nodded. "It's better than we had before. If you hadn't shown up, I'm pretty sure she'd be dead.

"So for what it's worth, thanks. I guarantee we'll remember this. And if the rest of your team out there really helps keep the rest of that garbage from raising hell around here, well... you probably just changed a lot of people's minds about you.

"Maybe you guys do deserve a second chance."