Chapter 4: Entremets
Hand trembling, Danny Hebert reached out and grabbed a fistful of Taylor's pillow, only to let out an involuntary groan of horror as he pulled loose a chunk of Victoria sponge in a decadent fondant casing.
"Why is this happening to me?!"
Danny had spent the first six months after his wife had passed convinced that he was inches away from losing it, and the two and a half years after that convinced that he'd be fine as long as he kept trucking on, as long as he could fix things in the Union, as long as he could still manage to pay the bills. And, until that afternoon, he'd been pretty sure that he was fine, even if he certainly wasn't happy - until everything had started turning into cake and he realized that he'd gone crazy.
If he'd had the spare time to keep track of the news, he probably wouldn't have come quite as close to an irreversible breakdown as he had by the time Taylor made it back that evening; as it was, she found him curled up on the floor in her bedroom, staring blankly at the wall.
"Um - Dad? I'm home." Taylor said, carefully.
Danny rolled over, and, without warning, grabbed her by the leg and squeezed, hard.
"Ow!" Taylor yelped, consternation only growing as her father burst into joyful, relieved laughter.
"You're not cake!" he said, and sprung to his feet to sieze her in a crushing hug. "Oh, thank god, you're actually real."
Taylor gingerly returned the hug, casting a wary eye over her father's shoulder at her ex-pillow, crumb-laden bedsheets, and the pile of former books which her father had apparently bitten his way into, and reflected - not for the first time - that good communication in personal relationships was more important than she gave it credit for.
"So, dad." she said, hesitantly. "The good news is that you're not crazy; the bad news is that, um, I'm a cape - I've talked to the PRT, and I'm gonna join the Wards on Monday."
They stared at each other for a full half-minute, Taylor hoping that she didn't need to consign her father to an asylum, Danny trying to reconcile the cacophony of relief, anxiety, and embarrassment that the revelation had stirred in him.
"Okay… you're a cape." Danny said, at length, voice still shaky. "And you're joining the Wards. Well, I suppose that's better than the alternative, Taylor."
And, he carefully didn't say, the more we focus on your future as a superhero, the less I'll have to confront the most embarrassing few hours of my life...
It had been an eventful weekend for the Wards of Brockton Bay.
The strangeness had started on Friday evening, when Armsmaster had literally dragged Kid Win to his lab the second that the younger tinker had arrived from Arcadia. It was only hours later, when he was needed for console duty, that the more-than-slightly baffled teen had been released back into the not-so-tender care of his teammates; while it wasn't exactly unusual for tinkers to have the kind of fugue which included forcibly requisitioning the services of others, Armsmaster's frenzied panic over a supposed 'critical vulnerability' to shaker effects hadn't made much sense to Kid Win at the time, and the Wards were still puzzling over it days later.
Then there had been the whole situation with Shadow Stalker. It wasn't unusual for Piggot to lay into the girl, given what a nuisance she tended to be on and off duty, but Friday night's lecture had been a whole new flavor of angry. Admittedly, Shadow Stalker had tried to cut off Aegis's leg in training, but that was basically par for the course when you had adaptive biology, so he still didn't know what exactly had made Piggot so furious. The real kicker came the next day, when Sophia had swanned into the Wards' ready room, out of costume and looking far more smug than she had any right to.
"Guess what, losers?" the girl had sneered at them. "I'm getting the hell out of here next week - expedited transfer to Jasper. Who knows, I might even get into some proper fights instead of dealing with the trash of the Bay."
Aegis had been amazed that she'd somehow managed to swing a transfer to Jasper, where the Wards apparently had some of the lightest restrictions of anywhere in the country - perfect for someone with anger issues and a mean streak a mile wide. Sophia had been in such a good mood that she'd even told Aegis in passing that he'd been pretty tough in their scrim, which was approximately the Sophia equivalent of giving someone a gold medal and taking them out for a night on the town. She'd made a big deal of packing her things up there and then, on the basis that she "didn't want to waste a second longer than she had to with a bunch of low-energy C-listers."
And then on Sunday, she was just gone. Miss Militia and Piggot hadn't had anything to say to the rest of them, except to tell them that they were not to discuss Sophia under any circumstances, and that any indiscretion or misbehavior would attract the harshest of consequences. And now -
"Miss Piggot's on the warpath, dude - I really, really wouldn't try it." said Aegis.
Clockblocker had been telling him about his plan for a series of fun 'get-to-know-you' pranks for their new team-member, who, if all else went well, would apparently be joining them later that week, on top of everything else. This apparently included such meaningful contributions as freezing handshakes, Vista-powered jumpscares, and custard pies, so Aegis had taken it upon himself to put the kibosh on affairs before they got too out of hand.
"Come on, man - how many times do you get to surprise someone for the first time by giving them a timeout from the universe, I ask you? Rhetorical question, obviously. It's once, and I'd miss it otherwise." Clockblocker replied.
Aegis raised a skeptical eyebrow, and Clockblocker sighed.
"Alright." he said. "No pranks on our teammate-to-be. But it's just so irritating not to know anything about them! Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we get another Stalker I may have to hire a hitman. Or an exorcist, maybe."
"It's pretty obvious who it is, guys." Vista muttered, looking up from the homework she'd been working on in the corner.
"I mean, do you know anything else, Carlos? Dean hasn't told me anything and he's been out of base for most of the weekend with Vicky, so there's no help there -"
"I said, it's obvious who it is!" Vista shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. "God, you can be deaf when you're talking trash - can't you put two and two together?"
Her older teammates stared at her, and she blushed a little.
"I mean, it's basic deduction." she continued, a little more calmly. "An never-before-seen cape with the power to turn stuff into cake makes their debut in Brockton Bay on Thursday, and turns some tinker-tech into dessert. On Friday, Armsmaster goes into a panic about making his stuff shaker-proof, and apparently cares enough about the deadline to drag Chris along for the ride. And then on Saturday, we find out that Sophia's being transferred and there's a new ward on the way - maybe you can tell me what all of that information inescapably implies, hmm?"
An incredulous grin split Clockblocker's face.
"Oh my god, we're getting the cake cape. We are getting the CAKE CAPE. We are GETTING -"
"Couldn't you have kept that little piece of thinking to yourself?" he groused to Vista, as they watched Clockblocker process his excitement. "That said, it was a good application of logic, so well done on that front."
"He was going to figure it out soon enough anyway - he's not stupid." Vista replied. "And anyway, maybe the new Ward will balance him out a bit - after all, if he freezes them, they can ice him back…"
Sophia was accustomed to dealing with bullshit. Hell, it had practically become a way of life since she'd been forced into the kiddie-pool that was the Wards program; the tranquilizer darts that she'd been saddled with just the tip of a monumental iceberg of insults to her capabilities as a hunter and as a hero.
However, and even though she'd always known that the PRT was the organizational embodiment of herd mentality, it had rankled like hell to be reamed out by the pig in lipstick herself for trying to teach Hebert how to be less of a pussy at Winslow. She didn't even know how the Director had found out about her little adventures with Emma and Madison, much less why she'd been so pissed off about them - she'd dug up the report on the locker (which Sophia's handler had promised she'd buried!) with all its juicy little details about blood poisoning and infections (Hebert had apparently lost a stone in hospital, though Sophia had no idea from where, given what a streak of nothing she was) and had gone through it with her in minute detail, with Miss Militia there for that extra hint of intimidation.
Why they gave so much of a crap about so pointless a person was anyone's guess - it wasn't like Hebert was worth anything.
Obviously Sophia hadn't given the slightest damn, because she was way beyond any of the crap they touted as "serious concerns". If they'd tried to force her into juvie, she'd have escaped at the earliest opportunity and started over as a rogue in a town somewhere else (with the dual bonuses of not having to deal with pointless parents and pointless restrictions on behavior); but they were apparently happy enough to kick her down the road to Jasper, the town where bad little Wards went to deal with their problems.
Which was absofuckinglutely perfect, as far as Sophia was concerned: fewer restrictions on what she was allowed to do, hopefully teammates that weren't as damp, and she'd even get to stay in quarters instead of having to live at home. Win win win. Why they were so keen to punt her onward rather than discipline her themselves, she neither knew nor particularly cared.
That didn't mean that there weren't things she'd miss about the Bay, of course - she was genuinely sad to be leaving Emma behind, who was one of the vanishingly few non-capes she'd ever met that really got her. Madison was alright, too, but she was a survivor, not a predator - with Emma, though, Sophia had found a comrade in arms. They'd had a cute little goodbye party on Saturday night - Sophia had even promised to keep in touch when she was gone, which was not so much rare as it was entirely unheard of, and they'd enjoyed the best part of a bottle of tequila that Emma had kept hidden from her parents. Sophia normally wouldn't have indulged - nights were for patrolling, not partying - but she was getting out of dodge in a few days, and, anyway, she wasn't planning on attacking gang members that night. She had a softer target in mind.
Mask on, costumed up, and blood pumping with adrenaline and alcohol, Sophia felt invincible. She always did, in the night - something to do with her intangibility just made the dark feel like home - but, as she gazed into the room where she knew that Taylor Hebert slept from the tree outside her window, she felt better than ever. If Taylor was going to be the reason she had to leave the Bay, she could at least give her a goodbye to remember - which is why she'd found a particularly weighty rock to lob through her window. Untraceable to her, guaranteed to keep the other girl up all night, and completely unremarkable for Brockton Bay - perfect.
Grinning wildly behind her mask, she hefted the rock, lined her arm up, and flung it at the window, managing a perfect ballistic arc to smash the central pane - where, with a wet thwap, it flopped limply off the window and sagged to the ground.
Sophia gaped, momentarily bemused at the sight; if she didn't know better, it was almost as if the rock had, at the last second, turned into -
No. That would be insane. It was clearly just reinforced glass, and the Heberts had managed to upgrade the windows in their sad little house. Still, even reinforced glass wouldn't stop a crossbow bolt, and she was angry now - so, re-emboldened, she raised her weapon, took careful aim, and fired.
She had just enough time to watch her bolt splatter uselessly against the window before her world became pain - as she flopped from her perch, she tried in vain to shift into her shadow form, only for the pain to intensify as the Taser's effect magnified before she dropped into Miss Militia's welcoming grasp.
"Who knew? I suppose that the Director was right." murmured the older hero, keeping as Sophia's consciousness faded. "Turns out you really are that stupid."
When Sophia came to, she found herself restrained - she could feel the slight current running through her cuffs - in one of the PRT's holding cells. Not an unknown situation for her, but certainly not one she'd expected.
She struggled a little, because learning how strong your restraints were was the first step of any escape, however unlikely; before she had much time to experiment, though, the cell door slid open, and Director Piggot thumped into the room, shadowed by Miss Militia.
Sophia summoned all the disdain that she could muster while being cuffed to a table.
"Congratulations, Miss Piggy - you tracked me down. Or, one of your henchmen did, anyway - not like you to do more walking than you absolutely need to. And you managed to find a cape who can make cake on demand? You must feel like Christmas came early."
"Remarkable." said the Director, face blank. "Finding herself in a hole, she decides that the best plan is to keep on digging."
"So?" Sophia said. "What are you gonna do now? Send me away, make me somebody else's problem? I can't believe you're making such a fuss over a streak of piss like Hebert -"
"You think this was ever about anything but you?" said the Director. "I despise bullies; don't get me wrong. They're weak, pointless, and parasitic - from the cursory look we had at Miss Hebert, you certainly managed to damage her prospects enough that she's gone from being a promising student to one that'll struggle to finish high school, which is a tragedy all of its own. But this is really about you, Miss Hess; and how you've managed to destroy every opportunity that I, and the PRT, have tried to give you."
"Thrown away? I've done everything I need to do to survive, and you think I've thrown shit away?"
Miss Militia gave her a look of such pity that Sophia, to her own shock, she felt the barest hint of embarrassment.
"Such a waste." said the older hero, softly. "Did you know, I was one of your strongest advocates when we first took you in, Sophia? I knew how cruel the world could be, and I've always believed in the possibility of redemption. I've even let you off the hook for playing outside the rules, with your little secret stashes and special burner phone - yes, we've found that, because once again, you are not nearly as clever as you think you are - and this is where it got us: attempted assault on a civilian by a Parahuman. I think we're done with second chances at this point, don't you?"
"Whatever you say." Sophia sneered. "Let's get to the part where you tell me to get the hell out of town. Just how badly do you think you can punish me in the day and a half I have left in this dump of a city, anyway? You won't even have the authority to do shit to me by Monday - so go ahead, drop me into a cell or whatever piece-of-crap punishment you were thinking of. I'll be some other Director's problem soon enough."
"Unfortunately for you, that's no longer an option we're willing to consider." said the Director. "For anybody else, Jasper might have been a punishment. But I realize now that, to you, it must have felt like a reward, and the time for rewards has definitively come to a close. Miss Militia, if you would?"
Obligingly, Miss Militia crossed the room, and, ignoring Sophia's protests, snapped a patch onto her lower back - it buzzed for a moment, then seemed to fade into nothing, until Sophia could barely feel the slight pressure of its presence. For the first time in months, a tiny note of panic began to chime in the back of her head.
"There are some advantages to working with a tinker who specializes in miniaturization." said the Director. "Armsmaster spent half an hour assembling this little device for you - we'll be charging his time to your trust fund, of course. That patch can give us your location on demand: it's effectively indestructible, nigh on impossible to remove, and I understand that it'll keep charge for a good fifteen years. Think of it as an investment by us in your future, if you like."
"So you can keep better tabs on me in Jasper? Big fucking deal." Sophia spat, although the tiny note was now growing into a jangling symphony of disquiet.
"Oh, no." the Director replied, matter-of-factly. "Jasper's off the table, Miss Hess. Too many people; too much latitude for unfortunate mistakes. But I think you'd be an excellent fit for Eagleton, and - would you believe it - the Director there agreed! And even better, he's happy to have you straight away - after all, they always need more recruits to deal with the Machine Army."
"You - you're sending me to Eagleton?" Sophia managed. "But - how the hell am I meant to do anything against fucking robots?"
"Oh, I'm sure that you'll do just fine, Miss Hess." said the Director, wearing a benign smile that came nowhere near to reaching her eyes. "After all, you're a predator, aren't you?"
While the PRT attempted to pull off the world's most abbreviated exercise in damage control, Taylor's power was not going unnoticed among the city's less savory (not to mention less sugary) inhabitants.
"Alright, boss." said Tattletale. "What can I do you for?"
Humor was hardly a good starting move when you were dealing with a supervillain, but she didn't think she'd done anything to provoke his displeasure of late, and she was feeling a bit insouciant.
"Charming as always." came Coil's voice down the phone. "I need to employ your observational abilities."
Curiosity, Tattletale's power chimed in. Found something interesting, but not interesting enough to summon me. Not high priority. Not about me.
She let herself relax, very slightly.
"The packages that arrived a few minutes ago." she concluded. "You want me to take a look at the contents?"
"Indeed." said Coil. "In numbered order, please."
Tattletale shrugged, and put the phone on speaker, before reaching over to open the first numbered package.
It was a tennis ball.
"It's a tennis ball." she said, a little confused.
"And your powers say?"
She looked at the tennis ball, which, her power informed her obligingly, was a tennis ball.
"Um - that it's a tennis ball?"
"Interesting." said Coil. "Pick it up and squeeze it."
Had she not known just how stunted a sense of humor her boss had, Tattletale would have thought she was being hazed - but she picked up the ball, gave it a squeeze, and gasped as she crushed a fistful of cake.
Cake, her power supplied, Thin layer of fondant icing, sponge interior, jam joining layers, high quality judging by crumb density and aroma. Was obviously a cake all along.
"Yes, I can see that!" she snapped, before catching herself. "Um - sorry, boss, power conflict. But how the hell -"
New cape - boardwalk incident - material has anti-Thinker properties, test from Coil, confirming suspicions, testing stranger abilities of material?
"Okay." she resumed her train of thought. "This is the new cape Piggot was tracking, I guess? I should have a fix on her power, now."
That wasn't strictly true, but Tattletale would rather gnaw her own arm off than admit being unable to tell that something was made of cake.
"My contacts provided me with some material from her initial tests with the PRT." Coil confirmed. "Proceed to the next package."
It was cake, for god's sake. It would smell different, look different, sit differently on a surface - her power wasn't infallible, but it certainly wasn't that fallible.
More confident of what to look for now, she opened the second box.
It contained two tennis balls.
"Now, Tattletale." said Coil. "Please tell me which of these is real, and which is transmuted."
They're tennis balls.
"I think, uh -"
She was not going to be defeated by some ridiculous high-calorie cape. She dug deeper into her power than she'd had to in weeks, and focused -
Tennis balls. Green, regulation standard, typical size, low-quality stitching indicating mass production. Slight scent from earlier off-gassing when unboxed; nylon fabric, as strands too regular for wool; effectively identical. What exactly are you looking for, here?
"I - I'm going to need a minute..."
Elsewhere, in a place that defied detection and direction -
"Is there anything else, Alexandria?"
It had been an important, sobering meeting, like always. That was just how meetings went when the fate of the world was at stake. Alexandria had lingered after, though, out of professional interest – something of a rarity for her.
"Actually, Doctor – a point of minor curiosity, which you might have some insight into from your work with the vials." said Alexandria. "I've taken a slight interest in a recent trigger – a shaker with the ability to transmute matter into a highly palatable, nutritionally optimised substance. Why would an Entity be interested in a power like that? If anything, I would have thought that food on demand would be a conflict emollient."
"An interesting question." said Doctor Mother, pausing for a moment to think. "If I were a gambling woman, I'd say that the answer could lie in earlier cycles which the entities completed. We are, despite the best of the Endbringers' efforts, still a relatively food-secure civilization, on the whole – but other societies might have been anything but. An army marches on its stomach, and I can certainly imagine how much conflict could have been stirred up by, say, a warlord with the ability to create palatable provisions on demand."
"Interesting." said Alexandria. "It would explain why the substance is so nutritionally efficient. Our latest reportage indicates resistance to food decay, as well – another point in favor of your theory."
"Is she worth anything?" asked the Doctor.
"Perhaps. Probably not." said Alexandria, shrugging. "She might do some good for the Protectorate – her powers are relatively PR-friendly. Disaster relief isn't outside the realm of possibility. But beyond that? We'll just have to see. She's certainly not worth our attention - not yet, anyway."