Part Eleven: Endbringer Shenanigans
[A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
[A/N 2: In this fic, the Wards as a whole have not unmasked to Panacea.]
Amy Dallon enjoyed being flown to school by her sister. How could she not, after all. And being carried bridal-style merely served to fuel her secret fantasies a little more. There was just the one little irritating aspect; the fact that when Vicky touched down in the Arcadia forecourt and set Amy on her feet, all the attention was on her, like she'd just performed some amazing feat. Instead of flying her sister to school, like she did every. Freaking. Day.
Of course, Vicky enjoyed the hell out of the attention. She was New Wave's golden girl, and she damn well knew it. Amy didn't resent her for this … exactly … but it would've been nice for her accept that other people deserved the limelight once in a while. The worst bit was, Vicky was never mean about it. Just … 'yeah, this is me. I'm just this good'.
As they descended toward Arcadia, she could see Vicky's fan club starting to gather. Some were content to admire Amy's sister (or so Amy assumed) but most wanted … more. She could see it in their eyes. The guys wanted to be Vicky's boyfriend, more than one girl wanted to be her girlfriend, and none of them had the slightest chance. She knew this because she was closer to Vicky than anyone except maybe Dean, and even she didn't stand a chance.
And then, just as Vicky came in for a picture-perfect landing where her feet just settled on the ground (this being one of her two modes of landing, the other involving three points of contact and cracks in the concrete), there was an interruption. A blur came lancing down out of the sky along with a dopplering "oooOOOooo!" There wasn't even the sound of an impact on the pavers as the blur stopped and became a teenage boy, casually cradling a girl in his arms.
Vicky stared. "Bullshit," she declared, almost forgetting to let Amy down onto her feet. "That doesn't happen. You don't get to land that fast and not break anything. I should know."
The guy smiled happily at her as his own passenger regained her feet. "Hello, Glory Girl! Hello, Panacea! It is good to meet more superheroes. I did not break the pavement because I did not want Taylor to be in trouble for her first day at Arcadia. It looks like a very nice school."
While Vicky was apparently trying to get her head around that, Amy strolled forward. "I saw you on TV, didn't I?" she asked. "Aren't you the one who killed the Slaughterhouse Nine?" He certainly looked the same as the kid who'd effortlessly tossed a van fifteen hundred miles to wipe out the most feared villain gang in the United States. What the street sign had been about, she had no idea. Maybe to put a stake through Jack Slash's black heart.
"Yes, Panacea," the teenager said, sounding the happiest anyone had ever been to meet her who didn't need healing. "They were a danger to Taylor Hebert's physical and emotional well-being, so I decided to kill them. It was not difficult. My sister told me where they were, and my big brother helped me perform the shots correctly." He peered more closely at her. "You look unhappy. Is there someone who is a danger to your emotional well-being?"
Oh, god. If only you knew. Amy had to give him props; he was the first person who had actually said that on their first meeting. Usually everyone was "oooh, you're so wonderful for healing all those people," so he was ahead of the game there. The weirdest thing was, she didn't even feel offended at the personal question.
"Zach, leave Panacea alone," said the girl who'd been with him. She gave Amy an apologetic look. "Sorry, he's only got a vague idea of personal boundaries."
Amy chuckled. "I can see that. But it's okay. Sometimes questions like that need to be asked." She paused. "Uh … aren't you worried that he might be outed, not wearing a mask or anything?"
"Oh, everyone has heard my name," Zach assured her. "If anyone tries to harm Taylor or her father, I will stop them."
The girl—Taylor?—nodded. "He really will," she confirmed. "Let's just say, he's fast on his feet."
"But what about his family?" asked Vicky bluntly. She turned to face Zach. "You can't protect everyone all the time. What if someone gets to the people you love?"
Amy knew exactly what this was all about. She hadn't really known Aunt Jess before the young woman was murdered by an Empire wannabe, but Vicky had been close to her. She and Vicky couldn't help but be public capes—the adult members of New Wave had chosen that for them before they'd even gotten powers—but other people still had that choice.
Taylor snickered. "I truly pity anyone who succeeds in finding his family. They're about as powerful as he is. Maybe more so." She checked her watch. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got all these admission papers to get checked over. Zach, do you know where the main office is in the building?"
"Yes, Taylor. I do." Effortlessly, the boy scooped Taylor up in his arms. "It was nice meeting you, Glory Girl, Panacea. Perhaps we can talk more about your emotional well-being later." It seemed almost as though he began to take a step, then the pair was gone. There wasn't even a rush of wind.
"Well, damn." Vicky bent over and examined the pavers where Zach had landed.
Amy could tell from where she was that they weren't even cracked. And for all that he had to have covered the ten yards to the doors in less than a thirtieth of a second so as not to even blur in Amy's sight, there were no acceleration marks to be seen.
"What do you think?" asked Vicky. "Teleportation with visual effects?"
Amy rubbed her chin. "I dunno, but he seems like a nice boy. That Taylor girl's certainly got him wrapped around her little finger. And if he offed the Nine, then there's not many people who could mess with him."
"Pfft, as if." Vicky snorted as they started into the building. "I figure I could take him, easy peasy."
Amy raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure we're talking about the same guy? Because I didn't get that impression at all. He's got Mover powers up the wazoo and maybe some kind of weird Blaster ability. Who knows what else he's got? At the very least, we should be careful around him until we've got a better idea of what he's about."
"Uh huh." Vicky's tone was careless. "And I still say he's a poser."
Glancing across, Amy caught a secret little smirk on her sister's face. "Nope. Don't do it."
"Don't do what?" Vicky tried for 'injured innocence' and failed utterly.
Amy gave her a very unimpressed look. "Whatever it is you're thinking, just don't. Bad idea."
Vicky spread her hand on her chest. "Hey. This is me."
"Yes, it is," Amy said patiently. "And normally you're smarter than this. But something about this Zach guy has flipped your switch."
"So what if it has?" Vicky stuck out her chin. "I can still take him."
The argument lasted all the way into home room.
Whoever had arranged for my exit from Winslow had clearly been to Arcadia as well; we managed to clear the paperwork in about five minutes, which was about fifty-five minutes shorter than I'd expected. The secretary was accommodating, even to the point of saying that Zach could sit in on the classes if he wished. Which was good, because I wasn't totally sure that I could explain the concept of 'emotional support Endbringer' in a way that people would understand.
I remembered something else as we hurried along the hallway in (I hoped) the direction of my new home room. By my watch, the bell was about to go but we could still make it on foot instead of resorting to Zach's near-instantaneous speedster trick. I couldn't depend on him for everything, after all. (Getting him to carry my books until I could buy a backpack didn't count.)
"Uh, one thing," I said as I double-checked the map against a corridor marking. We seemed to be on track. "If you recognise any of the students as Wards, please don't call them by their superhero names. Outing a Ward for no good reason would be unfair to them."
"Oh," he said. "Was it unfair when I outed Sophia Hess as Shadow Stalker?"
I was about to say Fuck, no, but then I reconsidered. "Saying that to the wrong person could get her family hurt. But telling the Chief Director about what one of the Wards was doing was the right thing. If you think you should out a cape, ask me first, okay?"
"Yes, Taylor," he said happily. "I will do that."
"Good." I rechecked my handy map and looked at the door we'd arrived at, just as the bell rang for home room. "This looks like the right place to me. Does it look right to you?"
"Yes, Taylor," he said, and opened the door for me. "This is the right place."
"Thank you," I said, both for the gesture and the confirmation. Walking on in, I looked over my new home room. A couple of dozen students and one teacher looked back at me. "Uh, hi?" I tapped my map. "I'm Taylor Hebert. I just transferred in. I think this is my home room class?"
"Ah, yes." The teacher was an older man, on the skinny side with bifocals and wispy grey hair encircling an extremely aggressive case of male pattern baldness. "I was told that you'd be coming in. I'm Mr Holden. And this is …?"
As his attention switched to my companion, Zach chose this moment to step forward. "Good morning, Mr Holden," he said warmly. "My name is Zachary. I will be accompanying Taylor in her classes at Arcadia."
Just for a moment, I caught the edge of Zach's influence, then it died away again. Mr Holden blinked, then nodded. "Well, yes," he said. "That seems to be in order. Taylor, Zachary, feel free to find desks and we'll proceed to roll call."
There were a couple of empty desks down toward the back, and I took one while Zach took the other. He handed me my books and I stashed them in the desk for the moment. It was quite a liberating feeling to know that nobody was going to be pouring orange juice or glue on my chair, and I allowed myself to relax with a sense of achievement.
As the roll-call went on, I noticed a few of the kids around me sneaking peeks at me and Zach. Finally, the nearest one leaned over toward me. He was a redhead, but I tried not to hold that against him. Unless he was somehow related to Emma, I wasn't going to have a problem with him.
"Hi!" he whispered. "Where'd you transfer in from? Winslow?"
I blinked. Was it that obvious? "Uh, yeah. Good guess."
He grinned engagingly. "Not a guess. I saw the news footage from yesterday. Your friend's kind of famous."
Zach leaned forward slightly and lowered his tone, though I could still hear him perfectly. "My name is Zachary, but my friends call me Zach. It is good to meet you, Dennis."
"Hey, it's good to meet you too, buddy." Dennis gave us both a grin that gave me the impression that he could be a smartass, then he paused. "Hey—"
At the head of the classroom, Mr Holden cleared his throat. "Dennis, I understand that you're curious about our newcomers, but perhaps the time to satisfy that curiosity will be after class is done? Very well, everyone please get out your English books. Taylor, over the Christmas break I have had the class doing a report on Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Are you perhaps familiar with that book?"
I paused for a moment, fully aware that I was about to show off, but I couldn't resist. "Chapter One," I quoted. "Out to Sea. I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale."
I paused there, and Mr Holden began clapping. A moment later, he was joined by all the kids in the class, including Dennis. "Well, that was moderately unexpected," he said after the applause had died away. "I presume you don't have the entire book memorised?"
"Well, no, sir," I conceded. "Just most of the first page. My mother was an English professor, you see. She taught me to read from the classics."
"So I see." He nodded in approval. "Do you feel up to presenting a verbal report before everyone else presents their written reports?"
"I, uh, sure." I glanced at Zach and he gave me an encouraging smile. This was something else I had to do for myself, but it was nice to have him there for moral support anyway.
Standing up, I went up to the front of the class, doing my best to recall the thread of the plot and how it all ended. When I got there, I stood looking for any sign of disdain or rejection, and found none. No vicious little smiles, no cupped hands full of pencil shavings. I had made a good impression and they wanted to see what I would do next.
It was a really weird feeling, but one I could get used to.
I cleared my throat. "Okay, then. The first thing you have to understand about Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, is that he's not an everyday person. He's a genius. Here is a man who figures out that symbols on a page actually mean something and teaches himself how to read and write French, just from books. The next thing is that …"
The email popped up in her inbox, looking entirely innocuous with a header that read, Result of Investigation into Incident #9195/01/03/11.
Despite the dryness of the wording, she felt her pulse quicken. 'Incident #9195' was the internal PRT reference to the reported slaying of the Slaughterhouse Nine by the terrifyingly capable individual known only as 'Zach'. Automatically, her hand guided the mouse and she clicked the icon to open the mail. The Chief Director may be signing off on it, but I still want to make sure.
The report was dry military-speak, which she still understood fluently, all the way down to being able to read the hidden meaning behind the phrasing. The PRT team had gone to the areas indicated as being hit by Zach's impromptu missiles. At the smaller crater, they found bits and pieces which may possibly have once been a motor vehicle of some sort, and the carbonised remains of one William Manton. This was established without a doubt because there was an intact hand; the carbonisation ceased at the wrist, showing a tattoo of a white swan, and leaving the fingerprints entirely intact.
Why Zach had targeted the man, Emily did not understand one hundred percent. But of equal curiosity: why had the one man who had known more about how powers worked than God Himself been sitting in a vehicle within mere miles of the Slaughterhouse Nine? That in itself was what she called 'cause for reasonable suspicion'.
The larger crater had once been a building of some sort. Now, nothing larger than a man's fist remained. Just as in the smaller strike site, just enough remains had somehow survived to identify each member of the Nine, save Burnscar.
Bonesaw's left hand, complete with under-nail injectors and razor claws.
Shatterbird's head, mostly encased in glass.
Mannequin's carapace, wrapped around a tree half a mile away, still containing parts of the once-heroic Tinker.
Jack Slash's right hand, again with fingerprints intact, nailed to the same tree with a large knife.
And nearby, the bodies of Crawler and Hatchet Face, who seemed to have killed one another.
The pictures could have been far more gruesome than they were; but even if they had been, she still would have looked. It was her job to look. As it was, a human head or a severed hand barely even raised a twinge.
By the time she was finished perusing the report, she was satisfied.
The Slaughterhouse Nine was done and gone. There was now an ongoing search for Burnscar but in the absence of her teammates, capturing or killing her would be much much easier. With a rare smile on her face, she closed the email and began to compose one of her own.
Mr Hebert, it read. Upon investigation, the claimed destruction of the Slaughterhouse Nine has been verified. Please reply soonest with preferred method of reception of reward.
Emily Piggot (Director)
Parahuman Response Teams
"Well, now I know why you transferred from Winslow," Dennis observed with a grin as we left the classroom at the end of the period.
I shot him a suspicious glance, but he didn't seem to have a mean-spirited air about him. "And why do you think that is?" I asked cautiously.
"Because you can read and write, duh." He laughed at the look on my face. "Oh, come on. You haven't heard the jokes about Winslow?"
"Heard them, no. Lived them, yeah." I poked my tongue out at him. "And to be honest, you're not totally wrong about some of the kids there. I knew this one guy in World Affairs who I'm certain gets stoned before he comes to class. And he's not even a Merchant. That I know of, anyway."
Dennis stopped in his tracks, staring at me. "He gets stoned. And nobody does anything about it."
"Well, yeah." I shrugged. "He spends most of the class so spaced out he might as well be putting the moves on the Simurgh."
"And the teachers don't … do anything about this?" He couldn't seem to get his head around the idea.
I snorted in derision. "Do what? The teacher's one of those guys who's trying so hard to be cool around the kids, he doesn't pay attention to anyone who's not in the popular crowd. And he certainly doesn't notice anything they do to anyone else. Seriously, I've had my assignments stolen and handed in by other girls, and he didn't even notice the difference in handwriting. These are the same girls who put juice or glue on my chair, or tip pencil shavings over me while he's in the room, and he doesn't see a thing."
"I can't even …" Dennis turned to Zach. "She's pulling my leg, right?"
"No, Dennis, she is not." Zach's voice was more serious than usual. "When I first met Taylor, she had just been stuffed into her own locker with a large amount of noxious material. From their prior performance, the school authorities would have done their best to blame Taylor for her own misfortunes. That was yesterday." His tone perked up. "Now we are at Arcadia. Arcadia is a much nicer school."
Dennis raised his finger. "Wait a minute. I don't recall telling you my name. How do you know it?"
Zach smiled. "We have met before. I learned your name then."
"… oh." Dennis' finger went down again. "Okay, yeah, that makes sense. So anyway, what do you guys have next?"
I checked my class schedule. "It looks like … Math, with Ms Partridge. Is she okay?"
"Yeah, she's pretty good. Always willing to help you out. I've got a buddy who's got this number disorder thing going on, he can't do math in his head? She's really patient with him and suggests exercises for him to do."
That sounded about a thousand percent better than Mr Quinlan already, and my math skills were reasonable enough to get by. "Sounds good to me. Are you going that way?"
"Nah, sorry. I've got Physical Education. Gotta keep this bod lookin' awesome somehow, right?" He mimed finger-guns at me.
"Right," I murmured, carefully not looking at Zach. They didn't even have to stand side by side for anyone to know who had the more impressive physique; but then, Zach had kinda cheated. "I'll, uh, see you at lunch, I guess."
"See you then, Taylor. Later, Z-Man. I'll save you seats!" And with one last wave, he disappeared into the swirling throng that was the Arcadia student body.
"Well, he seemed nice," I said absently, pulling out my map to see which way we had to go to get to Math class. So far, I'd been at Arcadia for one class and my social interactions had been … positive? It felt weird. Nobody was ostracising me or picking on me.
"He was curious about you and myself," Zach observed. "But yes, he is naturally a nice person. Once he gets to know you better, he may play mild pranks upon you. These are not intended in a mean spirit, and he welcomes retaliation."
I frowned, distracted from the map. "That seems … a very thorough analysis of his personality. Did your sister tell you all that?"
"Yes," he said cheerfully. "That was the Ward known as Clockblocker. You told me not to use his superhero name where people could learn of his real identity."
That was the point when I nearly facepalmed. I certainly felt like it; Zach had been calling Dennis by his name right in front of me and I hadn't thought it was weird. "Welp, call me Captain Oblivious," I muttered. "I didn't even pick up on that when he asked how you knew his name."
"I believe I will keep calling you Taylor." Zach either didn't see my exasperated glance or pretended to not notice it. "It is good that you are making friends."
"Yeah, I'm still getting used to that bit myself. Okay, I think Math class is … this way."
Feeling a little better about this whole Arcadia thing now that I'd established friendly contact with the locals, I led the way off down the corridor.
"Hey, there they are!"
Amy looked around from the wrap she'd been about to take a bite out of. "Who?"
"The girl, whatserface, Taylor. And her boy toy, the Mover." Vicky was on her feet by now. Amy fully expected to see her start to wave her arms and beckon them over.
"His name is Zach, and he's not her boy toy," Amy said. "They're just friends. You can tell it a mile away. Anyway, leave them alone. They probably want to just sit and decompress while they eat lunch."
"So they can sit with us." Vicky didn't need superstrength or an invincible force field, Amy reflected, to be relentless in her aims. She could be that way all by herself. "Oh, hey, cool. They're coming this way."
"Sit down," hissed Amy. "You're embarrassing the both of us." She tugged on Vicky's sleeve, which achieved exactly nothing. Against her own better judgement, she turned her head to watch as Taylor and Zach did indeed come in their direction … right up until they stopped at another table to speak to another student, one with red hair.
"Aww," said Vicky, visibly slumping. "They're not coming over here."
"Well, why would they?" asked Amy pragmatically. "You told Zach his powers shouldn't work that way about one second after you met him. They've clearly met other people in Arcadia who don't try to tell him how to use his powers. Good luck to them." Idly, she wondered exactly how much money Zach had earned from executing the Nine in the way he did. It had to be quite a bit, by now.
It was as though Amy's words were sliding off Vicky's force field like raindrops. "Well, if they're not gonna come over here, we can go over there. C'mon, Ames." Standing up, she grabbed her tray.
"Vicky! Seriously, what the hell's wrong with you?" But by now, Amy thought she knew. Vicky enjoyed her status as the local Alexandria package. Others could fly, but she was the only one who could fly and tank a big hit and deliver a smackdown in return. Zach could apparently fly and he could definitely deliver a big hit from a lot farther away than Vicky could ever consider throwing something, so all that remained was seeing how tough he was.
Amy just hoped her sister wasn't about to haul off and punch the guy for no good reason. Vicky had always had a little bit of a temper, and when she got ticked off and there was nobody around to rein her in, she broke … people. Five times now, Vicky had called her in to deal with someone who might otherwise die or at least be seriously hospitalised, all because her temper had gotten the better of her. With a sigh, Amy grabbed her own tray. May as well stay close and try to defuse the situation if it looks like getting out of hand.
As she got there, Vicky was just plonking herself down next to Zach and Taylor, opposite the redheaded boy. "Hi there," Vicky purred.
"Hello, Glory Girl," Zach said with exactly the same amount of enthusiasm as he had when he'd first met them. "Hello, Panacea. Are you having a good day?"
"As good as it gets, I suppose," Amy replied, a little amused. "How are you finding Arcadia?"
Zach smiled. "I am finding it quite pleasant. All of the people are being nice to Taylor, and I am learning things. What do you think, Taylor?"
Taylor made a noise of mild aggravation. "I'm thinking that I was so distracted by everyone being nice that I'd forgotten that you've actually got to line up in the cafeteria. Sorry guys; we're going to have to get up and go stand in line for awhile."
"It is alright, Taylor," Zach said, standing up. "I will get the food for both of us."
Amy saw an odd expression pass briefly over the girl's face. "Well, okay," she said. "If you really want to." She dug in her pocket for her purse.
"You know that I do not offer to do these things if I do not want to." Zach's assurance was about as rock-solid as anything Amy had ever heard.
"Well, that's true," murmured Taylor. She handed Zach some money. "Could you please get me—"
Zach flickered. He now had an overloaded tray in his hands. No; two trays. Dropping the bottom one off in front of Taylor, he passed items over onto it. "One banana, one pita wrap, one orange juice. Is this what you were going to ask me for, Taylor?"
Amy's jaw dropped. She'd seen him run into the school with Taylor, but to infiltrate the lunch line and get two trays' worth of food in less time than it took to blink was a whole new level of speed.
To top it all off, Taylor didn't even seem surprised. In fact, she sighed slightly. "You asked your sister what I was going to order, didn't you?"
"Yes, Taylor, I did." Zach seemed very pleased with himself. He placed some coins on the tray, then sat down. "Here is your change. I did see other food that Winslow does not serve while I was at the counter but I did not know if you would like it, so I did not get it."
"Okay, next time I go through the line." Taylor picked up the pita wrap. "Thank you, Zach. I do appreciate this."
"You are very welcome, Taylor."
"Wait, how did—" Vicky seemed to be having trouble assembling sentences. "That was—I can't—how fast can you move?"
Zach looked her dead in the eye as Taylor took a bite from the pita wrap. "How fast do you need me to be able to move, Glory Girl?"
"That's not how it works. That's not how it works at all."
"Wow, this is a good wrap," Taylor said, giving the food an appraising glance. Then she looked over at Vicky. "Actually, when it comes to Zach, that does seem to be the way it works. He can do what he needs to do."
"Powers don't work that way," Vicky maintained stubbornly. "You get what you get, and there are always limits. If you could just do what you needed, without worrying about where it's coming from, the cape scene would be a lot more chaotic."
"I guess most powers probably don't work that way." Taylor opened her orange juice and took a sip. "But Zach's do. I've seen him do things that would make your hair go curlier than Panacea's."
Amy considered her own frizzy locks, then compared them to Vicky's wavy blonde hair. "Such as?" she asked, beating her sister only by a second or so. She was really enjoying this conversation, she realized. Normally, Vicky dominated whatever table she was sitting at. But Zach and Taylor between them were comfortably holding their own.
Taylor took another bite of her wrap, then washed it down with orange juice. "Zach doesn't boast. It's not his way. But I was right there when he threw a PRT van fifteen hundred miles and wiped out the Nine. He also ran nine blocks, carrying me, in less time than it took me to say the word 'fast'. And oh yeah, he took Miss Militia's weapon away from her and didn't give it back until she asked nicely."
"Don't forget how he bi—uh, pimp-slapped Assault so hard he landed in Boston," Dennis put in unexpectedly. "That was on the news, too."
"Thanks, Dennis," Taylor said with a smile. "I'd almost forgotten that."
It wasn't often Amy got to see Vicky at a loss. She loved her sister dearly (perhaps too dearly) but it was highly amusing to watch her try to regain her conversational footing. Amy could almost see the steam leaking out her ears.
"You can't just take Miss Militia's weapon away from her!" Vicky said accusingly. "It's her power!"
Taylor smirked slightly. "Funny, that's almost exactly what she said, too."
Vicky looked from Taylor to Zach, and Amy saw her expression firm up. "Okay, fine, smart boy. How strong are you?"
"I am very strong, Glory Girl," Zach said simply. "My brothers and my sister are all strong, and so I am as well."
Which reminded Amy of Taylor's mention of Zach's sister earlier. She wondered what the reference to 'you asked your sister' actually meant. Taylor had already mentioned that the rest of Zach's family was at least as powerful as him; Amy wondered why she hadn't heard of them if Zach was so free with his powers.
"Yeah, right," snorted Vicky. "You wanna prove it? Let's arm-wrestle, right here and right now."
"Uh, I don't think that's a great idea—" Dennis began.
He stopped talking as Vicky whipped her head around to glare at him. "Did I ask for your opinion? No? Then sit back and watch the master at work."
Amy cleared her throat. "Uh, Vicky, you might actually break the table like you did with Uncle Neil that one time."
"Do not worry, Panacea," Zach said in that same upbeat tone he used almost all the time. "She will not break the table. I will make sure of that." He pushed his tray aside.
Amy turned to Taylor, who had just finished off her pita wrap with every indication of enjoyment. "This is a bad idea. You can see that, right? Why aren't you saying anything?"
"Hey, whoever wants to take Zach on deserves whatever they get," Taylor said serenely, picking up her banana and beginning to peel it. "If he says the table won't break, it won't break."
Seeing her so calm eased Amy's worries a little. Not much, but a little. "Uh, Vicky, you know you can sometimes go over the top just a bit …"
"I do not, Ames." Vicky's tone was positively snappish. "Now butt out. I'm working, here."
She arranged herself across the corner from Zach, elbow firmly on the table, and held up her hand challengingly. Zach moved around so that he was in the correct position, placed his elbow next to hers, and they clasped hands. "Ready to get your ass whooped?" she asked.
"I am ready for this contest," Zach replied with a smile. "Taylor?"
With a total lack of excitement, Taylor said, "Three, two, one, go." Then she took a bite out of her banana.
Immediately, Amy saw Vicky throw her all into pushing Zach's arm over. Vicky's hand clenched so hard the tendons showed, every muscle in her forearm went into high definition, and a light sheen of sweat sprang out on her forehead.
Zach's hand moved maybe an inch.
The table quivered, and Amy prepared to leap out of the way of flying shards of plastic. But nothing more happened. Zach seemed to flex slightly and regained half an inch of ground.
"Panacea, I asked you earlier about dangers to your emotional well-being." Zach's tone was as casual and light as if they were strolling down the Boardwalk together. "Your happiness is important to your health and well-being. Are you truly happy where you are?"
"Stop … talking … to … my … sister … and … arm-wrestle … me," gritted Vicky. She threw another titanic effort into the contest, and managed to budge Zach's hand an inch or so. The table quivered again. Amy saw ripples in a plastic bottle of water on a nearby table.
"Glory Girl, do you not care about Panacea's emotional health?" asked Zach. His muscles didn't even seem to be straining, but he eased Vicky's hand back to near vertical again. "She is your sister, and she is under a lot of stress."
"You're … trying … to … put … me … off … my … game," snarled Vicky. Her lips were pressed tightly against her teeth. "It's … not … gonna … work." Where her hand was clenched around Zach's, her knuckles were white.
"I am not attempting to put you off your game." Zach wasn't even breathing hard yet. "I am merely conversing with your sister while we undertake this contest. Are you enjoying the contest?"
Already, Amy could see the writing on the wall. "Vicky, give it up," she advised. "You're not gonna win this one. And Zach … yeah, I guess my emotional well-being could do with a shot in the arm." She didn't even know why she was saying that, opening up to a near-complete stranger, but it seemed the right thing to do.
Vicky's only reply was a grunt of effort. The table quivered again but held.
"Tell me, Panacea," Zach said. "Would you be happier if you could choose not to be Panacea?"
Amy's attention was suddenly focused more tightly than one of Crystal's lasers. "What do you mean?" she asked tautly. "Just stop … healing people?" She couldn't imagine it. Healing people was part of her life. By now, it was part of her identity. She was Panacea; Panacea was her.
"Don't be … stupid," panted Vicky, throwing another tremendous effort into moving Zach's arm. This time, she managed to budge it all of two inches. "Ames is … happy … as a … hero. It's what … she does."
Zach looked at Amy, and she could almost feel those brilliant green eyes boring into her soul. Certainly looking deeper into her than anyone had before. She felt herself starting to blush. "Are you happy, though, Amelia Claire? Is this what you really want to do?"
This was the first time he'd called her something other than 'Panacea', and it took a moment to notice the name he'd actually used. "What?" she asked, even as a deeply buried memory pinged. "What did you call me?"
"I called you by your name, Amelia Claire." Zach looked at Taylor. "Do you believe this contest has gone on long enough?"
Taylor had finished her banana and was sipping at her orange juice. With an off-hand gesture, she nodded. "Sure, go ahead."
"Alright, Taylor." Zach looked Vicky in the eye. "You are very strong, and you are a hero, so I will be careful not to hurt your arm." Then, as inexorably as the passage of time, he moved his arm over, pressing hers down toward the table. The quivering of the table grew stronger, and Amy heard other tables shaking and juddering on the cafeteria tiles. On Vicky's face, the look of determination gave way to one of complete disbelief as her every effort was nullified. The sound of her knuckles hitting the table was audible in the relative silence.
"Thank you, Glory Girl," Zach said brightly as he released her hand. "Thank you, Panacea, for the conversation. Perhaps we will speak again tomorrow?"
Amy nodded. She was intrigued about where the talk had been going, and definitely wanted to see it all the way through. "You know, I think we will." She looked at Vicky, who was shaking her hand out while glaring at Zach. "Are you okay?"
"What the hell was that?" demanded Vicky. "How did you do that?"
"Well, it's like this," drawled Taylor, her face alight with secret amusement. "There's always a bigger fish. You wouldn't expect to win an arm-wrestling contest against Behemoth, would you?"
"Well, no," muttered Vicky. "But that's because he's Behemoth."
"And there's people who aren't as strong as Behemoth but stronger than you." Taylor shrugged. "Zach's one of them."
"I still think he cheated," groused Vicky.
"Like you weren't using your super-strength," retorted Amy; in return, Vicky poked her tongue out at her.
"Wait a minute," said Dennis, looking around. "Glory Girl arm-wrestling someone in the cafeteria should've had half the lunch crowd gathered around the table, making bets. What gives?"
A moment later, Amy realized he was right. People were still sitting, chatting, eating their lunches. This should've been a huge deal, and nobody even seemed to have noticed. "You're right. Okay, what's going on here?"
Zach shrugged expressively. "Perhaps they realized this was a private contest, and decided not to bother us?"
"I suppose." Looking around at the rest of the people in the cafeteria, Amy figured it was as good an explanation as any. Also, once Vicky got over smarting at her loss, she would be able to take some consolation in the fact that nobody had seen her beaten so easily. Amy put out her hand. "It was nice to meet you. See you around."
"It was also very pleasant to meet you too, Amelia." And there he was, using her name again.
He shook her hand almost formally, and she got a look at his biology. Just for a split second, her power stuttered, trying to get a read on him, then it all stabilized. He was perfectly normal for a cape, even if she couldn't locate his corona pollentia at first. She'd read that sometimes they were hard to find, though this was the first time she'd had that particular problem.
"Thanks. See you guys tomorrow?" Amy made sure to include Taylor and Dennis in her question.
"Sure," said Taylor with a grin. "I'm not used to eating lunch in the cafeteria, but I'm sure I'll manage."
Amy wasn't quite sure how to take that one, but she figured she'd find out tomorrow. "Come on, Vicky," she said as she got up from the table. "It's nearly time to go back to class and I want to hit the restroom."
"Coming," her sister grumbled. She followed Amy out of the cafeteria, still massaging her wrist.
"Want me to look at that?" asked Amy.
"No, I'm fine." Vicky flicked a glare back over her shoulder. "I still don't know how he did that."
Amy shrugged. It didn't hold any particular mystery for her. "Maybe he's just stronger than you thought he was?"
"Not that," Vicky growled. "I tried to flare my aura halfway through to put him off his game, and …"
"What?" asked Amy. "What happened?"
"Nothing." Vicky gritted her teeth. "It was like he didn't notice, Taylor didn't notice, Dennis didn't notice, you didn't notice …"
"I'm immune, remember?" But Amy knew that wasn't quite true. She could still feel the aura; it just didn't affect her like it did everyone else. If Vicky had tried to use her aura and she didn't feel it, that meant Zach must have shut it down altogether.
Which was quite impressive, to say the least. Zach seemed like a man of many talents. She found herself looking forward to their next conversation …
… even if Vicky wasn't.
As we headed back to class ourselves (Zach taking a lightning detour to my desk to grab my World Affairs book and writing materials) I looked at him with a calculating gaze. "Okay, so what was that all about?" I asked. "And don't bother asking me what I mean. You know what I mean."
Zach nodded. "You are asking why I provoked Glory Girl into a contest of strength that she would inevitably lose, and why I kept everyone around from noticing that anything of interest was going on?"
"And the Panacea thing. Why did you address her by name? And is her middle name really Claire?"
"Yes, Taylor, it is." He smiled. "I did all that because both Victoria and Amelia Dallon are potential dangers to your physical and emotional well-being. Amelia is under a considerable amount of stress, not helped by her sister failing to see any of it. So I set up a situation where I could teach Glory Girl a little humility without harming her or anyone else. At the same time, I spoke to Amelia about what she truly wanted out of life. This is because nobody else will. Everybody assumes they already know."
With that, the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place for me. "And you made sure nobody around us saw or anything out of the ordinary, so that she would open up to you."
"That is correct, Taylor." He beamed at me, clearly pleased. "Thank you for not speaking up at the time."
"That's okay. I figured you had a reason." I tilted my head as something occurred to me. "And Dennis? Was he there to, well, witness the whole thing?" I was sure that he'd be spreading it around the Wards as soon as he went on duty. Possibly with embellishments.
"Actually, no." Zach shrugged. "Unless my sister had a hand in it, his presence there was purely fortuitous. Sometimes, accidents just happen."
I grabbed his arm—the one not carrying my books—and hugged it to my side. "Not around you, they don't."
"Not very often, no," he agreed cheerfully.
Side by side, we went to class.
End of Part Eleven