Dennis's arms burned as he heaved aside a broken metal door. It had been part of a bomb shelter, back in the days when people still worried about bombs. The rubble above it groaned ominously. Dennis ran his finger over the debris, freezing it into place.
"You can come out now," he called into the shelter. "The coast's clear."
No response, except for the quiet sounds of someone trying desperately not to breathe too loudly.
"Don't worry, I'm a hero," he called.
A truly impressive string of curses followed. Dennis made sure to record them for posterity. Or next week. Whichever.
The rubble shifted and Dennis froze it again. "You might wanna get moving," he warned. "I can't hold this forever."
"You know, you can just leave them," Shadow Stalker said in his comm. "We've got a lot more people to help out and that guy doesn't want to be helped."
That, more than anything else, hardened Dennis's nerve. "I'm going in," he murmured, pulling out his flashlight, shining it into the darkness.
"Sure, whatever," Shadow Stalker said. "Your funeral. If you get a funeral for this. It might still count as Endbringer time. Anyway, I'm going out on patrol. See ya."
"Who's taking over for you?" Dennis asked, but she had already hung up. He swore and stepped into the bomb shelter.
A moment later, an invisible force shoved him to his knees, driving him into the shelter. The rubble crumbled behind him, collapsing the exit. He was trapped. He tried calling headquarters, but Shadow Stalker had run off halfway through her shift. He wouldn't be able to reach anyone for another hour, at least. On top of that, he'd broken his flashlight in the fall.
Blanketed in darkness, Dennis felt around for a way out. Prodding the ceiling led to a worrying rumble. He froze the ceiling, effectively sealing himself underground. He forced himself not to panic as the long, cold minutes plodded by. No use wasting his oxygen. At least the bugs crawling all over him weren't suffocating.
The bugs. Skitter.
Dennis paused, taking shallow, careful breaths. The bugs moved over him in eerily straight lines, tracking his every move.
"Can you hear me?" Dennis asked the bugs. "I could use some help down here."
More time passed as the bugs examined him. Dennis considered asking again, but he wasn't quite desperate enough to beg a supervillain for help. Not yet anyway. Finally, Dennis heard a small thump. Feeling his way around, he found a small walkie talkie with what Dennis hoped weren't spiders crawling all over it..
"Who are you?" the voice from the walkie talkie asked.
"Clockblocker," Dennis said, the spiders guiding his fingers to the right buttons. "And I take it I'm talking to Skitter?"
"You are," Skitter confirmed.
Dennis stood in the darkness awkwardly, not sure how to continue the conversation. Skitter broke the silence for him.
"This a Merchant trap?" she asked.
"I think so."
"You got your team coming?"
Dennis paused, thinking. He really didn't want to admit to a supervillain that he didn't have backup, but she seemed like his best chance for a rescue. He couldn't hold the roof up forever. He would tire eventually. Or worse, run out of air. "Not for a while," he admitted.
"I know the feeling," Skitter muttered.
Right. She had left her team behind. No one really knew why, but they weren't complaining either. No one in their right mind would complain about not having to fight an army of spiders.
"Are we just gonna talk about your feelings or are you gonna get me out of here?" Dennis demanded. Maybe not the politest way to talk to a girl with poisonous spiders crawling all over him, but it had been a long day.
"Why should I?" Skitter asked.
"I'll owe you a favor," Dennis offered. "Not-not like a nefarious favor. Just, maybe coffee or something?" he amended quickly.
There was a long pause. "Are… are you asking me out?"
"No!" Dennis insisted. "I'm just not gonna go around committing crimes for you. I'm still a hero and you're still a villain."
"Sure," Skitter said. She sounded tired, worn down. "I give you my word as a schemer and an ill doer that I will involve you in no dastardly schemes."
"No need to get all sarcastic on me," Dennis shot back.
"You got a problem with my witty retorts, Clockblocker?" Skitter snarled. When he didn't respond, she added, "Yeah, I don't blame you. They suck."
"So are you helping me or not?" Dennis ventured.
"Helping," Skitter said, "in exchange for a non-criminal favor."
Dennis sighed in relief, making sure the walkie talkie didn't catch it. "Great, so get me out of here."
"Bug girl, remember?" Skitter laughed. "We can't all be Alexandria. I can't just throw a beetle at a wall and open a hole or something. How did you get stuck down here anyway?"
"Merchant trap. I think. Heard some civilians down here, tried to help them, get buried alive."
Skitter hummed in agreement. "That does seem to be how these things go."
There was a sound above Dennis's head of shifting and creaking, then a massive thud and dirt rained down on his head.
"Okay, this could be trickier than I thought," Skitter said. "The rubble's pretty unstable. You got any visuals down there?"
"Complete darkness," Dennis reported.
"Right," Skitter declared. "You hold tight and I'll have a look around."
The bugs on Dennis marched away, but he could still hear them chittering and buzzing at the walls. He could feel himself starting to get dizzy and his fingers shook. "There's not a whole lot of air down here," he said.
"Save it," Skitter warned. "This could take a while."
Dennis swore silently and listened to the creaks and moans of wood and steel above him. Just as he started seeing bright spots in his vision, a piece of concrete fell away, revealing the cold light of dawn.
Skitter peered down into the hole, dragonflies and wasps circling her head like a fallen angel's halo. "Don't climb out just yet," she said. "It might still collapse."
"I can freeze it while I climb out," Dennis said.
He had no idea if Skitter raised an eyebrow at that, but from her tone, she definitely should have. "You think you can fit through this hole?" she asked.
Dennis didn't respond.
"Thought so." She moved away from the hole, out of his sight. "So, where is your team, anyway?"
"Why do you want to know?" Dennis asked.
"I dunno," Skitter said. "Just trying to make conversation."
"They have their own patrols," Dennis explained as neutrally as possible. "Where's your team?"
There was a long pause. "I'm not really a team player," Skitter said slowly.
"I don't believe you," Dennis said.
Another long pause. "I don't have to help you," Skitter said. "I'd probably be better off just leaving you here. I can't trust that you won't try to arrest me."
"And I can't trust that you won't try to kill me," Dennis pointed out. "The distrust is pretty mutual. So, where's your team?" He knew where her team was. At least, he knew they weren't with her. As much as he told himself that he wanted to make sure a villain didn't know how much info they had, part of him was tired, frustrated, and just wanted to lash out.
"Don't bullshit me," Skitter said tiredly. She didn't seem to be working on getting him out.
"Sorry. It's been a long day."
"It's been a long week," Skitter sighed.
"There's usually someone at HQ I can call," Dennis explained. "Shadow Stalker was on duty and she just ran off. It's another fifteen or twenty minutes until shift change."
Skitter mumbled something Dennis didn't catch and got back to work. Before long, the hole widened enough for Dennis to climb out. He stood in the street, a mere foot away from Skitter.
She was smaller than Dennis expected, only coming up to his chest, but her swarm surrounded her, adding thousands and thousands of venomous fangs to her bulk. She stepped away from him and a line of dragonflies kept the distance between them.
"Thank you," Dennis said sincerely.
Skitter inclined her head. "You owe me."
Dennis nodded. "You know, um, you could probably find a place in the Wards-"
Dennis blinked. "Are you sure? You could do a lot of good as a hero." If nothing else, Dennis would be overjoyed to never face her in battle again. He'd been arachnophobic before he met her. He didn't need his fears becoming reality.
Skitter laughed quietly. "How's Armsmaster these days?" she asked pointedly.
Dennis flinched. "So, you know about that, huh?"
"He tried to kill me," Skitter snarled. "Yeah, I noticed. Don't know if Kaiser or Fenja did, but I guess they aren't alive to tell us. Or Aegis." She shook her head. "I bet you could do a lot more good as a villain than I could as a hero."
Dennis sighed, fighting down the tight pang of grief in his chest. "I'm not interested in villainy."
"Neither was I," Skitter said sadly. "And yet here I am. You seem like a decent guy, so I'll give you a fair warning. You think you can rehabilitate Shadow Stalker. You can't. I know her. She's a lunatic. Don't turn your back to her."
"I already knew that," Dennis replied.
Skitter turned and walked away. Dennis considered trying to freeze her, but she would sense him before he got close. Besides, it would be tantamount to breaking a truce. Skitter seemed to have gotten more than enough trouble from heroes.
"Hey!" he called after her.
She stopped, but didn't turn around.
"No one should be out on their own in times like this," he said. "If you won't join the Wards, find a team that will take you. We're stronger in numbers."
She kept walking.
Dennis stared after her for a few moments. Then he shook himself and started back towards base. He had to take a long, twisting path to keep out of the worst of the flooding, debris and waste floating by in the streets.
As he walked, his mind wandered back to Skitter's words. 'You could do a lot more good as a villain than I could as a hero.' It was true that he chafed under the restrictions of the PRT, that he wanted to go out and help people, not sit in classes all day with murders and drug deals - crimes that he could have stopped - happening while he took a math quiz.
He didn't have school these days, but he felt more useless than ever. He could freeze Leviathan for a few minutes, but he couldn't save anyone from the aftermath. He couldn't stop the people who killed each other for scraps because that was all there was to eat, who filled their blood with meth or crack to forget that they had lost everything else in the blink of an eye.
He couldn't even go on a simple patrol without getting himself trapped. And then it had been a villain to save him. His own team, and Shadow Stalker was part of his team, hadn't been there to help him. Really, they shouldn't have been. But no one would have found him before he suffocated if Skitter hadn't been there.
As soon as he reached the PRT building, he strode up to Miss Militia's office. He knocked twice and she ushered him inside. She sat behind a desk piled high with paperwork, her weapon, currently a dagger, balanced on the corner. She glanced up at him.
"What can I do for you, Clockblocker?" she asked. She looked exhausted even though she didn't need to sleep. They were all exhausted.
"I owe a villain a favor," Dennis reported, staring straight ahead, not daring to look at Miss Militia.
"Oh?" Miss Militia asked. "Elaborate."
"I got trapped in a Merchant trap on my patrol," Dennis explained. "Underground, rubble collapsed. I didn't have much oxygen and the hub was down. Skitter found me and freed me in exchange for a non-criminal favor."
Miss Militia didn't speak. Dennis glanced at her. Her eyes were completely expressionless. "Thank you for telling me," she finally said. "We have three or four heroes in similar straits and they seem to think that they need to keep it secret. They aren't very good at it, of course, but it makes my life that much more difficult. You did insist that it be non criminal?"
"Yes, ma'am," Dennis confirmed.
"And she agreed?"
"Look at me, Clockblocker."
Dennis met her eyes firmly, his hands shaking behind his back.
"This is hardly an ideal situation, but it could be much worse," Miss Militia said. "We can only hope this will be resolved quickly. Do not act as though anything has changed in your interactions with Skitter unless she calls in the debt. She will almost certainly try to gain small favors, asking you to look the other way and things like that. Ignore those. No use giving her more than she already got. And keep me informed."
"What if her favor is that I not tell you something?" Dennis asked.
"Deliberately withholding information from your superiors," Miss Militia said. "We stretch those rules for capes, but you should be able to call it criminal action. Remember, you owe her a favor, not your soul."
"I'll keep that in mind, ma'am," Dennis said.
Before Miss Militia could respond, his watch buzzed. He glanced down at his phone. It was from his mother. He read the text twice, refusing to believe it.
"I need to go," he whispered. "Dad… he's-" He couldn't say it.
Miss Militia stood up, grabbed his shoulder wordlessly. He didn't try to hug her, but he did lean close. "Go," she ordered. "Take time off if you need it. We can cover for you."
He knew she was lying, knew that they needed all the help they could get, but this wasn't the time to call her out on it. He picked up his phone and punched in his mom's cell phone number.
"When?" he asked as soon as she picked up.
"Not long," his mother replied, her voice thick with tears. "Maybe a few hours ago at most. We just got here. It was in his sleep though," she offered, like that would somehow make it better. Soften the blow. "He didn't feel a thing."
A week ago, Dennis would have believed that. "I'll be there as soon as I can," he promised. "I might be able to get out of here in a couple hours if we don't have supplies coming in. Or I could ride in one of the evac choppers. Keep someone stable, they always need help with that. I'm good at that, I could-" He stopped, choking back tears of his own. "I'll be there."
"Dennis," his mother said. "I want to see you more than anything else in the world, but, well, I've seen the news. They need you in Brockton Bay."
Dennis walked as he talked, his footsteps almost unconsciously carrying him to the memorial of Leviathan's attack. He was still in costume and civilians stayed out of his way. A lot of people in costumes came by the memorial. Formally, it was Protectorate territory, but no one would have chased a villain away.
"They can manage without me for a few days," Dennis insisted, leaning back against one of the few trees in the city that hadn't been destroyed. "Miss Militia already granted leave for any Ward who wants it. I'm not gonna stay in school and wait around while you - while you bury Dad."
"No one's asking you to wait around and do nothing, Denden," his mother said firmly, using a nickname he hadn't heard since he was a toddler. "But you, you're a hero. You save lives. Go, help people."
So that was it. "I'll come by as soon as I can. I love you," Dennis whispered and hung up before she could reply. He quickly texted her 'working' so she wouldn't call back. She would spend the next few hours in a panic, but a small, vindictive part of him couldn't help but relish it. Sure, he saved a handful of strangers every once in a while, but he couldn't save his own father. His mother hated him, he was sure of it.
He groaned and hit his head into the tree then sat down in front of the memorial, tracing his fingers over the names some vandal had carved into the base. Misspelled names in a broken hand. It resonated uncomfortably.
"You again, huh?"
Dennis looked over his shoulder. Skitter stood some distance away, watching him with her head tilted.
"You got your favor?" Dennis asked.
Skitter shook her head. "No. I just like coming here sometimes. It clears my head."
Dennis bristled. "Seeing the names of the people who died to save us?" he demanded. "A reminder of everything we've lost? That clears your head?"
Skitter shrugged, sitting down next to him, far enough away that it wouldn't feel like a threat. "Reminds me what I'm fighting for."
"You sound like a hero, talking like that," Dennis scoffed. He was almost grateful for the distraction, something to take his mind off the futility of his life.
"I'm too selfish for that," Skitter said. "At least, that's what they tell me."
Dennis nodded. "You talk to your team?" he asked.
They lapsed into an uneasy silence. Dennis watched Skitter out of the corner of his eye. A few dozen spiders collected in her lap, spinning out silk, weaving it into strange and inexplicable patterns. It took Dennis a few minutes to realize that was her way of keeping calm, like playing with her hair or something. Her bugs were quiet, except for their feet and wings touching together every so often.
Skitter reached out, bugs leaping out of her way, to touch the names carved into the base of the memorial.
"Those names mean something to you?" Dennis asked.
Skitter hummed an affirmative. "Bitch's dogs," she explained. She didn't elaborate.
Dennis's watch buzzed again. He checked his phone. "Emergency. All Wards return to headquarters for briefing." He got to his feet.
"You leaving?" Skitter asked, not looking at him.
"Ward's business," Dennis said.
"Guess, I'll see around, then," Skitter said.
It wasn't the worst thing a villain had ever told him, but it sent a chill down his spine nonetheless.