Summary: Winter raged around Taylor, who was sealed in her locker at freezing temperatures. The cold doesn't bother her anyway.
Brian asked why I had been so intense in training and exercise these last few days. I didn't answer him until the end of the week, when we'd have a full 'team' meeting again. I'm... surprised how easy they are to get along with. Even Rachel seems to be mostly okay, though her demeanor is at absolute best gruff and usually downright surly.
But she's been invaluable when it came to get my Ice Wolves right. Her knowledge about dogs and their behavior, which did include Wolves because apparently, to her dogs are dogs, even if they are huge, scary and likely to eat your face. Apparently my description of wolves as all of that echoed her, except she said it with fondness while I maintain a healthy... respect for wolves and large dogs in general.
What? Just because I'm sure I can beat the crap out of any wild animal that comes at me doesn't mean I actually want to do it.
There's only one kind of animal I want to put down, and it wears red and green.
I've talked with Alan, Emma was pulled out from school for the time being. From what he told me, she's apparently getting treatment for PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She's been hurt so badly.
If I had been there for her from the start, if I hadn't been feeling so sorry for myself that I couldn't see past my own damn nose, this wouldn't be a problem at all.
But I can't do anything for her. I don't know how to help her. I'll be there for her, I'll be the rock she needs me to be, hell I'll be a goddamn iceberg she can use as an anchor if need be.
Even a brief conversation with Lisa had reaffirmed my conviction - I helped Alan push Emma into therapy, I insisted on it and I attended the first session and held her hand through most of it, and it ate at my heart that I even had to do it, it pissed me off, it really pisses me off. I've been training harder than ever all week.
All week, I've had a very busy schedule. I ran and performed exercises with Brian in the mornings, I went to school, I visited Emma when we were both available and I performed quick patrols. Three times I performed longer patrols where I found nothing, but on Monday and Wednesday I cut them short after dealing with street drug peddlers both times.
Saturday broke my routine, I spent most of the morning with Emma, until she had to leave for a session. She liked her therapist. I'm not entirely sure I like the woman, myself - she doesn't seem to like me either.
As soon as she left, though, I left myself. I had a very specific destination in mind, the place at the boat graveyard where I'll meet Lisa, Brian, Alec and Rachel.
They were there.
"You've been very tense and angry all week," Lisa said, dispensing with courtesies. "Spill, hero, what's got your panties in a bunch?"
I sighed. "I have a goal now," I said.
Lisa frowned. "Wasn't your goal to be a hero?" she asked, her arms crossing and her face losing all traces of smug self satisfaction.
"It was," I admitted. "I've got another one, more personal, now."
"Well?" Alec asked, "What've you got for us?"
"The ABB hurt my best friend," I said. I won't give them more than that. But they need to understand. "I want to hurt them back."
Brian shook his head. "That's... that's kind of a bad idea," he admitted. "Look, I get you're pissed, but-"
"I don't care," I admitted freely. I know it's a bad idea. The ABB's leader is famous for stomping the entire Protectorate team in his first showing in Brockton Bay. He's also famous for, ironically, losing at least once to every faction. Well, losing is a bit of a misnomer - he was forced to retreat. He still stood undefeated in actual combat.
I'll have to change that if I want to crush his gang. I'll have to be a Dragonslayer in order to achieve my goal.
"You're suicidal," Alec said, though his tone was jovial. "Or crazy. One or the other."
"Delusional, more like it," Brian said, "I'm not trying to be an ass about this, but it's the truth."
"You're serious," Lisa said. "Shit," she muttered. "You're not going to listen to me even if I tell you that you're just going to get yourself killed."
"I don't care," I stated, again. "They hurt my best friend. They nearly broke her. She became a hateful monster because of what they did. So I'm taking revenge for her. She can't fight them. I can."
"Fuck," Lisa muttered. "This friend, she's more than a friend to you, isn't she?"
"She's my sister in all but blood," I replied.
"And whatever it is, you're certain it's your fault it happened, because fuck of course it is," Lisa shouted, bringing her hands up to massage her temples as she began to rentlessly pace, her thick soled shoes making noticeable splashing sounds on the humid ground. Huh. I hadn't realized it'd rained earlier today.
I looked around.
Alec seemed amused for some reason. Brian looked uncomfortable. Rachel... Rachel was merely sitting on what I think used to be a chunk of a ship's hull but was now nothing more than flat metal sticking from the ground. I'm not entirely sure what goes through her head.
"Well, the only thing I can do here is at least try to get you to stop for a second and think. Look, listen,"
I began to protest, but she moved faster than I thought possible and put a finger up to my lips, I went crosseyed trying to look at it, it was a very uncomfortable feeling. She then used that finger to push my glasses up into proper position and then grabbed at one of my cheeks and pulled it.
"I said listen, so shut up and listen," she said.
Her tugging on my cheek was beggining to hurt, but she let go just then.
"This is the score as it is. You can beat Lung as you are right now. But the problem is that the only way you have of doing so right now? It's very, very lethal. Because you cannot, and I repeat CANNOT, afford to fight a battle longer than thirty seconds against him. Once he starts to ramp up, you're toast. His heat can't melt your ice, but he can cut through steel and I don't think your ice will give him much more pause, once he gets going. Plus, he's fast as shit, too, so I can already tell you that you won't even be able to get away."
I frowned. "I don't-"
"This is important, just listen to me okay?" she said, silencing me again. "Okay. I'll help you. Fuck it, I'll help you take down the ABB, I'll help you subdue Lung, I'll even call the PRT myself and have them bring goddamn Armsmaster along so we can be sure Lung gets put away. He's an asshole, but he does his job in exemplary fashion," Lisa said, grabbing at both of my cheeks this time and pulling me down a bit so we were eye to eye. "Now, though? Right now Oni Lee will cut you up and serve you for breakfast. You can't take them right now. You can't afford to piss them off any more than you already have. They probably already know that you're patrolling their territory, but their street level operations are numerous enough that they barely notice it."
"So I've been doing nothing, basically?" I protested. "I've-"
"You've been doing more than the Protectorate does, if it'll make you feel better," Lisa said. "They patrol, sometimes, but they tend to stay away from non-cape crime. The Wards sometimes slip by and manage to bag a common criminal, and Shadow Stalker has a bit of a reputation for screwing up low level thugs."
Shadow Stalker. Sophia. That bitch that I owe Emma's continued existence to. Fuck, now I don't know how I should feel about her.
"She's a very scummy person," Lisa supplied, "but she's at least got the right targets in mind."
Fuck you, Lisa, I'm not a right target!
Calm down, Taylor. I let myself sink a little bit into the cold to let myself think more clearly. Of course she's saying that, she doesn't know that she's Sophia Hess, dumbass. Calm down, calm down. Breathe, in, breathe out.
Okay. I think I've got it.
"You're going to help me?" I asked, trying to focus back on my mission. I have to focus on my mission, right now. Leave your personal feelings about a heroine that could prove to be useful for later, Taylor, you've got shit to do.
"Yes," Lisa said, "but I want to make a few things clear. If you go out half cocked like this? You, me, Brian, Alec and Rachel? We're all dead. They'll get you, they'll torture our names out of you, they'll find us and they'll torture and kill us too," she said.
I can feel my muscles twitch involuntarily. "I'm not-"
"I'm not saying you're weak," she cut me off, glaring straight into my eyes. "They're strong, hero. Very strong. The ABB only has two capes, with rumors of a possible new recruit, and they're still keeping the Empire, with all fifteen or so of theirs, in check. Do you get where I'm going?"
I frowned. I get it. They're strong. Lung's a motherfucker, I know this, can we please stop focusing on how strong they are and start focusing on how to take them down instead?
"I also won't help you break the rules to get to them, so you'll have to take them on in either a straight fight, or find some way to get someone else to help you with that," she said.
The rules. I think she's talking about the unwritten rules. The Rules that prevent escalation. Then again, do I care about that?
I don't know. I don't know if I want to rock the boat that much, my problem is only with the ABB, but it'd probably make life real difficult for me if I broke the rules.
It would put Emma in danger again, simply from association with a rule breaker, I think. Hell, it would put Lisa and Brian in danger. I'm not sure I mind Alec and Rachel being in danger, but Lisa and Brian have been nothing but helpful, I can't do that to them. And, well, it wouldn't be very heroic to put people in danger, no matter how criminal they are, for my own selfish gain. I also don't have proof that they're criminals, is assuming they are bad too?
Whatever, now's not the time.
"So those are my conditions for helping. Can you deal with that?"
Irrationally, I got an impulse to tell her that if she wouldn't help me do it my way, I would find someone that would. I quickly squashed that errant thought and instead let myself sink down into the cold. "Yes," I said, my tone almost as frigid as I was inside. "I think it's for the best. I'll train. I'll become strong. And I'll defeat them out in the open to humiliate them. You've got a good idea."
"You're crazy," Alec muttered. "You think you can take an entire gang on your own?"
"She's not on her own," Brian answered. "We'll help her. I'll help, Lisa already said she would."
"I'm in," Rachel said. "I'll help you with the ABB," she said, her eyes narrowing into a glare as she met my stare, "if you help with Hookwolf's dogfighting rings."
I could feel my own disgust at the very idea of such a thing. I've never been one for pets. Not really. But there's something that's inherently evil about twisting poor animals into blood-lust addled beasts that cared only for attacking and killing one another, and all of it done at the behest of madmen to entertain themselves and each other.
I nodded, slowly. I get it. If she wants to eliminate them, she's absolutely going to need cape support. I'm not sure how well I'd do, as an ice user, against a guy who is literally made of metal blades. But if I can do something, I'll help. Not only because she's helping me in return, but also because it's the right thing to do.
Apparently, they know me well enough to not ask me for help in anything that I can't see as vigilante, if not outright heroic, work.
"Ah, whatever, I'll help too," Alec said, shrugging. "Way I figure it, this'll put us in the big leagues, and maybe we'll start seeing more dough roll our way."
"What's he talking about?" I asked. No, seriously. What does he mean? Put them in the big leagues?
"Well, Taylor, I'm pretty sure you're already aware that we're criminals, right?" Lisa asked. "Well, I had planned on telling you to this way later, once you were sure we can be trusted, so that we could trust you in return, but you've certainly sped up my plans quite a bit."
"What... what are you talking about, Lisa?" I asked, frowning involuntarily. I schooled my facial expression into one of careful neutrality.
"Well, you know me by that name," Lisa said, "but most people refer to me as Tattletale," she explained. "I am a Cape, Taylor."
"You're a cape," I muttered, "this is your gang, then?"
"No," Lisa said. "I'm not the leader here."
"That'd be me," Brian said. "I go by Grue," he explained. "Rachel goes by Bitch, and if you've got to legally stay PG, she goes by Hellhound, but since we're not the PRT," he said, shrugging, "Last, and very much least, is Regent over there."
"Do you always gotta do that?" Alec asked, frowning at Brian.
"You can take it, that makes you an acceptable target," Brian said.
"I guess," Alec said. "Is that a compliment? Because it feels like a backhanded compliment."
"It's both a compliment and an insult," Lisa said. "Well, Taylor... nice to meet you, we're the Undersiders."
"We do corporate espionage, small scale heists and we also run from our enemies, a lot," Grue stated, a note of humor in his tone. "We're Supervillains."
"Villains," I muttered. "You're all villains. I've been working with villains. I've revealed my identity to villains," I muttered, bringing my hands to my face. "Goddamn, I'm the greatest failure as a hero this entire fucking city has ever seen," I admitted as I let myself fall to the ground. I don't care that I'm getting my pants wet, I'll freeze the water and get it out later. "Fuck," I muttered, "I'm such a moron, I should've know."
"You probably should have, we weren't being very subtle," Lisa admitted. "But hey, that's what you've got us for. I'm a Thinker. I'm pretty much psychic. Grue makes darkness. Regent screws with nervous systems. Bitch makes huge monster dog things. You make ice. I think between all of us we can make a pretty convincing image of Hades for a haunted house or something," she said, chuckling.
"You know, I hadn't noticed that," Regent said. "You think we could charge people to try it?"
"Let's think about frivolous uses for our power when we don't have a potential ally waffling about her alliance with us."
"I'm not a villain, I - I can't-" I began, shaking my head. "I can't ally with you guys, I want to be a hero."
"Don't be stupid," Lisa said. "Ask yourself a question, Hero. Do you want to actually do good, or just be called a do-gooder?" she asked.
I looked up at her. "What does that mean?"
"What it means is that the people with the 'hero' label in Brockton Bay are all sitting pretty in their armored fortress while the rest of the city is getting choked by the gangs. Despite all the power and technology they possess, you never hear about, say, Dauntless cleaning up the streets he grew up in, do you? The Protectorate only cares about how the public perceives it. They're always in one PR function or Press Conference or another, they're never actually in the streets, keeping all of us safe."
I... can actually see where she's coming from. Sure, you get to hear about the Protectorate's capes pretty often, PHO's local subforums won't shut up about whether Dauntless or Armsmaster are cooler, people all over the USA can't stop gushing about the patriotic heroine Miss Militia, Velocity was often brought up as one of the fastest speedsters out there, etcetera.
But... come to think of it, Dad watches the news all the time, and all I ever hear about the Protectorate is how they get into cape fights but never arrest anyone. It's always 'the villains managed to slip away', or something about how they prioritized civilian lives over capturing the one putting them in danger, stuff like that.
"I think you get it," Lisa said. "The Protectorate is happy with the status quo. If they start removing Criminal Capes from the city, the reason for them to exist disappears as well, right? And nobody would ever pay them unless they were absolutely necessary. So the PRT and Protectorate are trying to keep the gangs as dangerous as possible, so that the government has no choice but to employ them."
Fuck. "Really?" I asked, already feeling a cold that didn't come from my power. I look up to those people. Hell, I've bought underwear with the leader of the Protectorate ENE, Armsmaster's, logo on it! I've been caught up in the hero worship of people who do just as much to help the city as the villains do!
"Pretty much, yeah," Lisa finished. "I'm not about to claim that we're good people doing good for everyone else. We benefit from the status quo, too. We don't hurt people, we just cause a small bit of property damage and steal, mostly from very, very evil people anyway," she added. "Nobody gets hurt. Sometimes we fight the heroes and justify their existence to the people. They mostly leave us alone in return."
"Why?" I asked. "Why do something like that?"
"Think of it as a game of cops and robbers," Lisa said. "Except we make really large amounts of money off of it, and sometimes we get to embarrass the other players. We make it so the people keeps trusting the Protectorate to defend them, so that they have enough money to actually do so when something rolls around that they are actually in a position to fight against fully."
I think I get it. "So they're keeping the status quo so they have funding to, say, fight off the Slaughterhouse Nine if they drop by?"
"Not that they'd succeed," Lisa stated. "But that's the idea, pretty much. Essentially, the gangs and villains are a necessary sacrifice to keep Brockton Bay safe from the stuff that's even worse out there," she admitted. "Besides, because of how they operate, we've got a better chance of being saved by the Empire or the ABB than the Protectorate if Jack Slash and crew drop by for coffee."
"That's kinda depressing," Alec said from where he sat, "and kinda pathetic. Man this city is a fucking shithole."
"It might be," Brian said, glaring at him, "but it's our shithole."
Alec laughed. "I guess it's my shithole now, too, since it's where I keep my stuff."
"Hell, we've all come to the decision to stick around in case of Endbringer," Lisa said. "So you see, Taylor? We're not bad people. We're villains. We steal. But we're not looking to hurt anyone and what we do only hurts companies that barely feel the loss."
"I..." I don't know. I can't accept it, just like that. I never knew, never understood, the complexities of the cape world, and I've got a feeling that most people who see it from the outside don't understand it either. I was completely ignorant until just now, about how it even started to work, and I'm not sure I like at all how it works. "I can't be part of your team. I won't be a villain."
"We're not asking you to be," Brian said. "We wouldn't make you do villain work. We don't want another team member, we want an ally."
"But I'm a hero," I'm confused about what he could possibly want from me in an alliance, considering I refuse, categorically, to perform criminal acts for profit.
"Lisa told you that we hit other criminals," he explained. "Sometimes this causes gangs and their capes to come after us. Nonpowered individuals are easy, but the heaviest hitter on our team is Bitch, and getting into fights with strong capes puts her dogs in very real danger."
Rachel growled. "We can fight," she said. "We can fight anyone you put us up against."
"You know perfectly well that there are opponents that can and will kill your dogs, Rache," Brian said. "Your dogs are strong, very strong, don't get me wrong, but they're also very important to our operations, and we can't risk jeopardizing them in fights."
She seemed oddly conflicted, from where I stand. On the one hand, she seems pleased that her contributions to the team are being recognized, while at the same time looking a bit doubtful about how genuine that appreciation is. On the other hand, she resents the implication of weakness or fragility. I can only even get that much because when I'm sunken into the cold, I can mostly ignore my own emotional projecting and focus on trying to decipher what her face hides.
"He's right," Lisa stated. "it's not a matter of strength. It's a matter of convenience. We lack heavy range. We lack flight capabilities for at least one of us, for air surveillance and recon and fighting fliers. Put simply, Taylor here fills the gaping hole in our lineup for fighting in cape conflicts, especially in this city. We're well equipped for handling the Wards and can mostly deal with the Protectorate, but the Empire has too much firepower for us, and while we can handle Oni Lee and might be able to take down Lung if we catch him unaware, both at the same time would trounce us."
"What are you getting at?" I asked.
Brian looked at me for a moment. "We'll help you with the ABB. In return, we want you to help us if we get into cape fights. We won't call you in against the Protectorate or the Wards unless you want us to, but... if we get in trouble with, say, the Empire or the Merchants or the ABB, we'll throw you a call, and you'll act like an indie hero who happened to be in the area. Mostly, we'd be okay with you covering our escape, but getting a few wins under our belt with you conveniently failing to catch us should help your credibility too. Don't worry about us 'slipping away', we've escaped from literally everyone in the city at least twice, we're considered the Masters of Escape around here."
"And that's the lamest title ever," Alec admitted.
"We should be fighting instead," Bitch said, frowning.
I don't know what to say.
"Can I get back to you on that?" I asked, looking at Brian.
He smiled. "Yes," he said, "please, think about it."
Lisa broke into a smile. It was her usual, almost vulpine, smile that was full of smugness. "Well, Hero, here's a freebie for you that my power gave me. You can fly," she said.
"W-What?" I asked. I've barely mastered skating on my own ice heels, sliding along the ground. And by that I mean I no longer fall flat on my face every five feet. "What do you mean?"
"You telekinetically control ice," Lisa said. "Your armor is made of ice. Just lift it, and you'll lift yourself with it."
Oh fuck, I'm so fucking stupid. How the hell did I not figure that out?!
Brian chuckled. "Don't worry, she makes us all feel dumb sometimes, when she points out the blindingly obvious."
"No fucking shit," Alec muttered.
No shit indeed.