I switch to first person past sometime in this chapter, mostly because I'm sick of the present tense.
"What's going on?"
"Panacea, is she awake?"
Two voices reach past the blinding light that's lancing through my head like a soulsteel needle in the temple. No, two of them, one in each. I smell animal fat, and blood baked into skin over years and years, and a thousand other tiny scents of oil and machinery.
I hum as another wave of warmth washes through me, and reflexively exhale another cloud of power, drawing another, larger, cloud from the warmth I'm pressed against before it too flows in. I try to do it again, let the cool breath bring me more warmth, but it doesn't work.
"Skitter, what are you doing?"
I ignore the voices, just like I ignore the other one, the one that's whispering secrets in my inner ears, telling me about. . . things. Things that make my ears hurt and my brain numb. It says one last thing about fires and houses, and then I tune it out completely. But the two voices outside aren't stopping, like the inside voice stopped. In fact they're louder now than they were previously.
"Is that blood?"
An oppressive weight pushes down on me, weighing heavily on my shoulders.
"Skitter, I think you need to get up now."
"Fine." I mutter, and straighten my limbs one at a time, eyes still clamped tightly shut against the beating Sun. Arms go first, then I put my hands on the ground behind me to lift my body enough to fully extend my legs. "That's better."
I roll my neck to work out a kink, and finally open my eyes.
Glory Girl is standing right in front of me, her white minidress billowing around her in the slight breeze, blue eyes narrowed at. . . me?
Beside her, Clockblocker has a hand on her arm, holding her away. "You've got a little something." He says, and taps his visor with his free hand.
I scrape my arm across my face, and notice that the blue fabric is stained darker. Am I bleeding? I feel my face more thoroughly. No bleeding, but where did the blood come from?
And why hadn't I noticed it before he pointed it out?
"Would you mind helping me up? My leg's asleep." A girl's voice asks from behind me. I turn around to help her, but there's a blur of white cloth and yellow hair, and Glory Girl helps her sister to her feet with the too-careful movements of a powerful Brute dealing with something precious.
"Stay away from her." She hisses at me, and the pressure intensifies. Oddly, I'm not feeling any of the awe and terror described on the paranet, just a detached impression that I should be frightened of her.
Blood is dripping slowly down Panacea's arm from a pair of tiny puncture marks near her elbow, making a pattern the same color as the icon on her chest.
Oh. My jaw aches with the reminder that I'd just latched my mouth around someone else's arm and sucked her blood to heal myself. At least I'm pretty sure I didn't take too much, because my stomach doesn't feel full, so as long as I wasn't hurting her when I did it, it's almost like I just grabbed her hand too tightly and cut her with my nails. Actually, I didn't have as large a breakfast as I'm used to, and my stomach growls at me when I think about it, but I put that aside to check on the girl that had just healed me. "Is she all right?" I ask.
Panacea nods. "Fine, yes! I'm fine, really fine." She steps out from Glory Girl's supporting arm. "But I really should be going back to the hospital."
Glory Girl looks at me, and the raw anger in her gaze burns off the last of the fuzzy good feelings, leaving me filled with cold again. "What's your problem?" I ask.
"My problem?" She parrots at me, and takes a step forward, finger outstretched to point at her sister. "My problem is that you took a bite out of my sister!"
Clockblocker slides between her and me, arms raised. "Calm down."
"I wasn't fully awake." I protest, but I can't help but feel a stab of guilt at causing a selfless hero like Pancea harm, even without meaning to, and try to make apologies. "I'm sorry for doing it, though."
Glory Girl suddenly stops her advance, and backpedals briefly before glaring impotently at the visored hero as he raises his hand in front of himself. He says, "Nobody got hurt. This isn't some old comic where the heroes have to fight because of some little misunderstanding."
"She took a bite-"
"Pinpricks." Clockblocker declares. "Panacea would have stopped her if it were serious, wouldn't you?"
Panacea tilts her head while she looks at me. "You healed better after you bit me. That's a good enough reason, I suppose." She shifts her attention to her sister, then looks at Clockblocker. "Which of those is accurate?"
He points to one of the semitransparent clocks drifting around his grey costume, and Panacea blinks. "That long? Sister, I'm afraid I need a ride to the hospital, can you give me a lift so I won't be late?"
Glory Girl's expression softens, and she grabs her sister under the arms, braces and flies off. I can't help but notice that she shoots me one last dirty look before she leaves, though.
Clockblocker leans his head back to the sky and lets out a sigh audible through his visor as soon as they disappear over the urban skyline. "That could have turned nasty. Are you all right?"
"Yes. I feel fine." I say, and look down at my costume. There are tears everywhere, but nothing important is showing. "I need a cape."
"Something to talk about with your PR agent." Clockblocker says, and claps me on my back. "Good to see you not liquefied by a blast wave, we were all very worried about you for a while there. Now come on, there've been a few calls the other Wards had to take in the past few minutes, and we're handling a. . ." He pulls a phone out of an unclipped belt pouch, and checks. "We're helping to stop gawkers from getting into a high school. Something about some guys corpse and a missing person case. Want to come with?"
I remember that the Wards go to Arcadia High School, a much newer, better funded one in the southern part of the city. "In Arcadia High? I never would have thought that would happen there. Don't you have security cameras and robot guards, or something?"
"I wish." Clockblocker says. "But it's not the one you'll be going to, it's the other one, on the north end. I take it you're the type to recover after a nearly fatal injury?"
"I don't think I can take any more excitement." I admit.
Clockblocker waves it off. Give it time. You'll get four hours of sleep a night like the rest of us soon enough. I'll call you a heli to take you back to headquarters."
The helicopter lands on the roof of the parking garage, on the other end from one we'd come in on. As Clockblocker helps me strap in, he says. "You aren't going to freak out as soon as I leave, are you?"
"No. I'm fine." I'm looking down at the gas station, the husk of the minivan, and the way the pavement is torn up and everything nearby is shredded and scorched. "It's just. . . Things have changed so fast. I'm not sure they've caught up to me yet."
"They probably haven't." He says. "But you won't be alone with they do, and that's the important thing, right?"
"Right." I smile back, because that's what you're supposed to do when someone reassures you, and Clockblocker gives the signal to take off to the pilot. Then the shite PRT helicopter takes off, and carries me out over the bay, to where the Wards headquarters is located. The bright morning light catches on the ferry, and I'm struck with a sudden thought.
"A missing person?"
But I'm not given any more time to think about it, because a man in bulky powered armor is standing by the landing zone, carrying a manila folder. Armsmaster, one of the most senior capes in Brockton bay, and a Tinker specializing in inventions with multiple uses, cuts an imposing figure.
He's tall, broad shouldered, and carries a high-tech halberd with him everywhere he goes. While most Tinkers prefer to hang back and fight from range with their gadgets, Arsmsmaster, as his name suggests, prefers to handle things personally.
I exit the helicopter and step out of the way, expecting him to take my seat for a trip back to the city, but he only fixes me with the blue visor on his helmet, then turns, and gestures for me to follow him.
He leads me past the entry doors and into the lone elevator. Once the doors to that close behind us, he presses a button. The same floor that Director Piggot had interviewed me in.
The Protectorate is the most massive superhero organization in the world, spanning North America in its entirety. When you buy a Protectorate poster, Armsmaster is there, not in the middle, but he stands shoulder to shoulder with heroes like Alexandria, his dark blue armor managing somehow to be both regal and intimidating at the same time. Now that I'm seeing him in person, I can tell that it's in how he stands. This is a man who knows for a fact everything that he is capable of.
He's smart, yes, that goes hand in hand with being a Tinker on his level, but he's canny too. I'm sure that taking me to this room, past all the doors marked 'interogation', isn't a coincidence. He walks down the hall and to the door on the end, and opens it smoothly, confidently, and motions for me to sit.
There's only one chair.
"Your name is not available on the summary and evaluation I've been given. Can you tell me why?" He asks me.
"The director said something about not needing that."
"If you want to claim you come from an abusive home, then yes." Armsmaster doesn't sit, instead simply standing at the other end of the table, facing me. "The PRT and the organizations it supervises are not allowed to return a minor to a situation where they have been physically abused, and must notify relevant authorities if possible. We also," he stresses, "prefer to persuade teenaged rogues to join the Wards program, so they don't get killed or injured trying to do the right thing."
I fidget in my seat.
"But Uber and Leet changed the way they work, so I suppose I can't blame Aegis too much. They've never split up before, and I hope you'll accept my apology for Shadow Stalker's actions as well, she's. . . enthusiastic."
"She was just as surprised that my power didn't work as I was." I say. "I've got an inner reserve that I can spend to do things, and I didn't realize that I didn't have enough left, so. . ."
"So you tried to use your power instead of dodging and using your power." Armsmaster concludes. His helmet covers his face from his nose up, so I can see that he's serious when he says, "What have you learned today?"
That being a superhero hurts when you mess up, and that Uber doesn't want anyone he fights to end up seriously injured or dead, I think, but no. A man like Armsmaster doesn't just ask questions like that for a witty answer, so I think for a moment, then say, "Not to rely on my powers."
"Very good." He nods, and smiles a little from within his neatly trimmed beard. "Powers can fail you at the worst of times, or go out of control, but personal skill will stay with you until your body gives out." Armsmaster sets his halberd down on the table, finally relinquishing his weapon, but an instinct I didn't know I have almost screams that he's still just as dangerous. "Before we go any further, do you need to clean up, get a snack?"
"I ah, already ate." My jaws ache again, and I flush at the memory of the sweet sticky liquid on my tongue. "And I'm fine. It's just been a busy day."
"It has, hasn't it?" he says under his breathe, then claps his hands together. "So. Before I have you fill out these forms, you should know that I have been assigned as your Protectorate sponsor. Your performance will reflect on me, and mine on you."
Armsmaster's performance is reflecting on me? Me? That's a heady thought.
He must be able to see through tinted lenses, because the veteran cape reacts as if I wasn't wearing a full face mask. "No pressure, right?"
"No pressure." I gulp, and a thought strikes me. I can feel my face pale as the blood rushes from it. "When can I call home? My dad- It's been a week since I talked to him!"
The blue clad cape pulls a cell phone out of a slot on his armor, and hands it to me. "Here. It's normally for leaving with witnesses, but I understand that family can be important."
I give him a rushed, "Thank you", and then I punch in the familiar number of my home's phone. It rings five times, then there's a click.
"Hey, this is Danny!" My father says, and I open my mouth to tell him I'm fine, that I'm not hurt, or running away, but the recording continues. "I'm not here at the moment, but if you leave me a message after the tone, I'll call you back when I get home."
"Hey dad, it's me." My throat is dry, and the words have to be forced out. There's something different about talking into a recording device that makes me lose my train of thought, and mess up. "I'm all right, and I didn't mean to- I mean I just had some trouble at school, and I'm fine now. The Wards picked me up before the snow got to me, and I've just. I'm OK. If you call back then Armsmaster can, no?"
The Tinker shakes his head, then points to me. "He's letting me borrow this phone for a while, so you can call me and we can talk as soon as you get off-"
"End of memory. Please press one for more options." The answering machine says mechanically, and I hang up."
"You're crying. Tissue?" Armsmaster holds out a paper tissue. I take it and wipe my eyes.
"I'm all right, really." I tell him, and he nods.
"I'm sure you are. Now tell me," Armsmaster puts his hands on the table's edge, and leans over. "That isn't the message you leave at an abusive household, so that happened somewhere else."
I stop moving, even my breathing. "I'd rather not talk about this."
"You said that physical abuse was indirectly related to your gaining your powers, your trigger event. Further, Panacea called in a report where she theorized that your powers have a 'survival' focus, indicating the abuse was of a level where you feared for your life."
"I-" My words are ignored, and Armsmaster asks his question.
"Where did the abuse occur?"
"I don't want to cause trouble." I say. "Can't it just be done with?"
Armsmaster stands back up to his full height, and I can see myself in his reflective visor. "Trouble has been caused. All the remains, Skitter, is justice. That is what being a hero means, punishing the guilty for their crimes against the innocent."
I can't respond to that. "I thought heroes protected the innocent."
"In an ideal world, yes." Armsmaster nods. "It would be wonderful to do that, but this is not an ideal world, and until it is, until the gangs are off the streets, the Endbringers are destroyed, and corruptions is purged, there will be justice for suffering."
His voice rings in the nearly empty room, though he hasn't raised it above his previously conversational tone. "Now tell me what happened, and I'll do what I can."
He's a hero, and he wants to help. I can understand what he's saying. Revenge is wrong, but so is what happened to me. I nearly died because the bullies went too far. Can I really build a life as a hero, if I let them get away without learning their lesson? Shouldn't someone teach them that what they did is wrong?
"Will you let whoever it is do this to someone else?" Armsmaster asks me, and I know what I have to do.
"I thought it was getting better this fall. . ."
Telling Armsmaster what's been happening at school is the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm tempted to leave things out, to gloss over the worst of it as I do with my dad, but I keep going until the very end.
Through the daily torments, the 'accidental' hits and scrapes, the childish pranks that ruined homework and projects, the whisper campaigns that followed me as I moved around the building, the locker.
Through all of it, Armsmaster keeps his gaze on my face, as if he could somehow keep me talking just by sheer force of will. Maybe he did, because I find myself telling him about how things had gotten better after Emma started to become friends with me, winter break, and the hand on my back that shoved me into the decomposing filth that was piled high in my locker.
"And then there's darkness." I finish. "A voice, or a vision, and the next thing I know I'm wandering out of the ship graveyard, and I can't feel the cold."
"Could you please repeat the names, Skitter?" His voice has the same intensity that persuaded me to tell him about the bullying, and I respond automatically, unable or unwilling to resist in my mentally exhausted state.
"Emma Barnes, Madison Clements, and Sophia Hess."
Armsmaster nods, slowly. "Yes, that's what I thought I heard. Rest assured, the problem will be taken care of, and you will not have to deal with them again."
Armsmaster straightens up. "A court case would be public, drawn out, and would destroy whatever degree of a secret identity you want to maintain. You don't exactly match your yearbook picture." He flashes a wry smile at you, then keeps talking.
"Madison Clements and Emma Barnes will be barred from attending Arcadia High in the fall semester, due to academic misconduct. A friend of mine has discovered several discrepancies in their calculus scores that will warrant an investigation."
I notice that he only mentioned two of the three, but he continues after a momentary pause. "Sophia Hess' situation is out of my hands."
My gut begins to twist itself into knots as I imagine what Sophia's reaction would be to her two chief helpers being surrounded by scandal. "What do you mean, out of your hands?"
"Exactly that." He grunts. "The director has issued standing orders about the kind of situation she's in, and the PRT has the legal right to enforce that order."
"Oh." I say, and stop. So it's just someone else, higher up the ladder, taking control. That's all right. "You said something about maybe not wanting a secret identity?"
"You'll have to have one, at least to go to school with, but it doesn't have to be your legal name." He explains. "But I've seen Wards who preferred not to be their normal selves. Being a cape can act as a stress relief mechanism during the teenage years, but most Wards I've met used their out of costume selves as the recreational aspect."
"What about you?" I ask. "How do you handle two lives?"
Armsmaster's mouth quirks up into the smile I've seen on dozens of posters and interviews, and he says, "Friends. Nothing makes friends like cape fights."
I think I like the sound of that.
"Of course there's no need to make decision about that now. Most Wards graduates recommend just 'letting whatever happens, happen'." Armsmaster opens the manila folder, reaches inside, and pulls out a small stack of papers, and a pen. He slides the papers along the table to rest in front of me. "Legally, you aren't allowed to sign any of these without your guardian present, so just read through them tonight, and I'll send a copy to your father as well. The ABB have gone silent, and E88 is still recovering from last week's crackdown, so I should be able to divert a patrol to drop by the docks, and make sure he checks his answering machine when he gets home."
"That would be great." I say, and manage a smile.
Armsmaster smiles back. "Just call it a signing bonus. It's always good to have someone on the team." He holds out his hand, and I shake it. "Welcome to the Wards, Skitter."
"All I have to say is that people like that really get on my nerves." Shadow Stalker says as the elevator opens, and the Wards stream into their headquarters.
I set the notepad I was writing in down on the table, and close it out of habit as the black-clad Ward approaches, but she slips past me without acknowledging my presence at all. Once again, I can't help but feel something familiar about her, this time her attitude. I turn to follow her as she moves into a room. She has the same attitude that the girls who bullied me had, sure that she's above everyone else, willing to exercise that surety with vicious enthusiasm, and a bully to her rotten core.
Which isn't normally the way I'd think things, but there's something about Shadow Stalker that just puts me on edge.
"I know that look." Aegis sits down in a chair on the other side of the table, and turns on the monitor bank.
I blink, startled out of my thoughts. "What look?"
He shrugs. "The one with the drama."
"This is a drama free zone!" Clockblocker shouts from the small kitchen installed into the far corner.
Next to him, Kid Win opens the microwave and starts a bag of popcorn. "Besides, it's your first day on a superhero team, and unless I'm remembering things wrong, there shouldn't be a mopey bone in your body."
I have the feeling that Aegis is rolling his eyes behind his mask as he turns the screens to play local news. "He really means it." He mock whispers. "He's keen on the whole 'relaxing' thing, as long as nothing else is going on."
"I heard that!"
"Sure, sure." Aegis says. "Anybody seen Gallant and Vista? Shadow Stalker opted out, but they're going to miss the news if they don't hurry up."
As the team leader fiddles with the volume, Clockblocker sits down on the seat to my left. "Hey."
"You handled yourself pretty well for a rookie." He drawls dryly. "It's almost like you're some kind of spy, sent here to infiltrate our ranks and report back to your undead master."
"I, what?" That came completely out of left field. "No! I'm not trying to do anything like that at all!"
Clockblocker bursts out laughing. "I know, I know, but you should have seen the look on your face!" He stops laughing, abruptly becoming serious. "I should have seen the look on your face."
I respond, "I don't think I did too-"
But the volume on the television suddenly rises, and Aegis interrupts, voice taught with excitement. "Quiet! Skitter, you better watch this!"
I turn my head to look at the screen, and sit bolt upright in my chair. "Is that?"
"You?" Aegis says. "It is. You're pretty good."
The lithe figure in a blue armored bodysuit is almost dancing around an armored man's punches, always barely out of reach, though her return blows are ineffective, at best. Several times it almost looks like the armored man has her, but my eyes widen as black fire erupts into an aura around the cape, and she slips into black smoke, reforming and attacking immediately.
I recognize that armor, the way Wards unconscious on the ground. "That's Uber." I say. "Is that really what I look like?" I flinch when the screen-me makes a grab at Uber's leg, and gets kneed in the face for her trouble, but the image isn't that good because, by that time, the illusory fire is pouring grey smoke into the air, blocking the picture.
"And that's all we've seen of who might be the newest member of Brockton Bay's junior Protectorate team, the Wards-"
Aegis turns off the television. "I counted enhanced reflexes, momentary shapeshifting, and temporarily enhanced strength." He says. "Clockblocker?"
"Shadows reach towards you, and you can heal by sucking blood." He says. "You might want to add that to your notebook." I start, and he leans back, putting his hands over his face. "Armsmaster gave the rest of us notebooks too, last week. For keeping track of what your powers do in different situations, right?"
I hear footsteps, and they're too light to be anyone other than Vista's. "Hey."
"Hay is for horses." Vista grumbles, and space warps in front of her, looping space to let her walk around the table without turning. The youngest member of the Wards lays down in a beanbag chair by the television. Face first. "Saccharine warning." Her voice is muffled by the fabric, taking the sting out of her words.
"Clockblocker just said that, though." Aegis quips lightly. So this must be the way the Wards normally are. It feels nice, to be around people so at ease with each other.
Clockblocker stands up, leans over the table, and growls in a deep voice. "Nay."
Everyone cracks up, even me. I can't help it.
Kid Win's hoverboard slides across the floor at waist height, and space warps again to let Vista grab a big handful of popcorn as she rolls over.
Aegis looks at my notebook. "If you don't mind sharing what you've got so far, I'd like to get your powers in my head, get them circulating, even if what you know may not be your limits. I don't want to interrupt whatever Gallant thought was important enough to miss this for when he brings it in."
That makes sense, but still. . . "I don't know much, but my power seems focused on staying alive." I open the notebook to the first page, and flip pages as I name the effects I've noticed. "I have a sort of inner energy I can feel that lets me do things, that's what made me get hit when Shadow Stalker attacked, I thought I had enough left and didn't. When I use too much, it bleeds out in an illusory fire.
"I can turn into smoke for an instant, or a little longer, and I reappear just outside reach when I do. I can use my power to just be better at not being hit, too, but you already know all this."
"I don't." Vista reminds me. "I didn't even get to see you fight Uber, because he hit me from behind."
"I don't have to use anything to have shadows hide me, and I think I can jump a whole lot better, with another way to use my power." I finish. "That's all I've got. I think I'm a Breaker."
"You're stupid hard to hurt." Vista says through a mouthful of popcorn, then grabs some more from the bowl.
I flinch at the memory, just a little. "Right. I'm hard to hurt, so Brute too."
"I've got an idea," Clockblocker leans forward. "Really mine and Panacea's, but what if you're a Trump, and your ability was for helping you survive?"
"That would work." I nod, and write that down as well. "It's as good a shot as-
The elevator door dings again, and Gallant strides into the headquarters like he owns the entire building. "We've got clearance to eat at Fugly Bobs on Friday." He says, hands shoved into his waistband.
"But we eat there all the time?" Aegis asks.
"Not in uniform we don't." He shoots back.
"In uniform?" I ask. Capes eat at Fugly Bon's in uniform? "I'm not sure I-"
"If everybody doesn't come with, Panacea will feel really awkward." Vista sinks deeper into her beanbag chair as she says this.
Clockblocker perks back up. "Oh? Is someone else coming, besides Panacea?"
". . . Glory Girl." Gallant admits, after a long pause. When no one else speaks, he continues. "It may be a date."
Clockblocker surges to his feet and slaps the silver-armored teen on the back. "Congratulations! It's about time you got the nerve up."
Vista slumps further into her beanbag chair, and crams her mouth full of buttery popcorn, staring resolutely at the news anchor silently talking to a frozen background of black smoke. The label in the corner of the screen says that it's a real news channel, not one of the 'cape news' programs. They're surely showing the same thing, I realize. It feels odd to know that, after so long watching them, I must be on them.
"So what do you say?" Aegis asks me, shocking me out of my introspection.
"To coming to Fugly Bob's with us in a few days, you know, as a Ward?" He explains. "It may be a little premature, I know it takes a few weeks to get the paperwork cleared up the chain, but really, as far as it goes with me? You were a member as soon as you said you weren't going to just wait back here."
Staring at the lenses of his mask in disbelief, I slump back into my chair, stunned. "Just like that?"
"Just like that." He nods, and waves his hand dismissively through the air. "Being on this team isn't something I have to do, I mean that I'm not in it for the trust fund and fame. This is something that's worthwhile, something worth doing."
Kid Win slides another bowl of popcorn onto the table, and sits down in the seat Clockblocker vacated. "Right." He says, and pulls up the bottom of his mask, tossing a kernel in his mouth absently. "It's all about attitude. You put your safety on the line for some people you'd barely met. That shows you're a good person. Everything else?"
Aegis tilts up his own faceplate to grab some popcorn as he complete's Kid Win's sentence. "We can work it out."
I ought to do something, I realize. I need to say something, do something to build some bonds with the people that are, spectacularly, considering me their friend. "I was only trying to help." I stall for time, wracking my brain for what I could do to reciprocate that trust. I look at Clockblocker, who's dragged Gallant into a corner and is offering advice to the other hero, who's visibly not paying attention, stealing glances at Vista every few seconds.
I want to be a hero, and here they are. "I just want to get above it all, out of the, the pettiness, I suppose." I say. "I just reacted before, and now I can do something, so it should be a good thing, right?"
" It's why I call myself Aegis." Aegis agrees. "We're shields to protect the people that can't protect themselves."
"Well I call myself Kid Win because I'm awesome." The Tinker says, and I burst out laughing.
The atmosphere is relaxed enough that I think nothing of pulling up the bottom part of my mask as well, though it's uncomfortable bunched up around my nose, I can no longer resist the smell of the buttery goodness that is fresh popcorn.
Not one of us at the table speaks for the next few minutes, as we listen to Clockblocker offer his teammate ever more unlikely relationship advice, and I adjust how my mask sits every few bites, since it keeps wanting to slide back down into my mouth.
"That's about typical, really." Kid Win says to break the silence.
"Wha-" My mask slides down again, and I jerk it back up. "What is?"
"The mask." He explains. "They work best when they're not the stretchy one-size-fits-all kind, and face plates offer more protection anyway."
I grumble. "That isn't helping in the short them, though."
"Well," Aegis says. "How about- this." He drops something on the table, and it takes a second for me to recognize it. A pool of red fabric, with single shaded lens showing. I glance up at his unmasked face, then back to take a better look.
"I'm Carlos." He grins, and pulls his long black curly hair out of a hair compression cap.
Another bundle of fabric and plastic hits the table, this one a brighter red and gold. Kid Win laughs, and runs his fingers through his brown hair to straighten it. "Chris." He introduces himself. "And the girl sulking on the chair is Missy."
"Bite me." She replies laconically, but throws her emerald colored domino mask onto the table to join the growing pile.
I look at Gallant and Clockblocker, who's conversation has shifted into a spirited discussion about whether or not Glory Girl's parents would try to kill him to 'test him out'.
I'm not prepared to do this, mentally, but I'm backed into a corner. It wouldn't be fair not to show my own face after all this. It isn't a big deal, I tell myself as I pull the stretchy mask over my head, and remove the compression cap over my own hair, which is at least longer and better taken care of than Aeg- Carlos'. I've fought supervillains, though one was really more a drug dealer, and another was Uber. Just introducing myself to my teammates isn't anything special.
I wish my dad were here, that I'd told him what I'm planning first, but he's always told me that friends make things better, and he was right before. At least I know the Wards are the good guys.
"My name is Taylor Hebert." I say, and a load I didn't know I was carrying vanishes from my stomach like a vanished stone.
Behind me something drops to the floor, and the harsh sound of metal rings through the room. Clockblocker and Gallant quiet as Sophia Hess, the orchestrator of the bullies that had turned school into my daily hell, says, "You've got to be fuckingjoking."
Now wonder Shadow Stalker had seemed so familiar. Sophia Hess, Shadow stalker? I'd never have believe it before now. The petty minded vicious girl that had bullied and hurt me for nearly two years was behind me.
My thoughts turn immediately to escape. Don't show weakness; don't let her know she's impacting me at all. I need an excuse to leave, not to be here anymore, with her. My father's on his way, Armsmaster said he'd have him brought over. I can just leave and wait for him out front.
You never show a bully your back. I stand, but wobble as I do so, steadying myself by grabbing the bowl of popcorn on the table. As soon as my fingertips brush against the golden kernels they blacken, rotting and falling apart in a wave of decay, and leave the bowl full of slimy mold.
"Still ruining everything you touch, aren't you?" Emma says. "You know they found the man you killed in your locker? He was drained dry from what I saw, so it won't take long before they put the pieces together."
"Shadow Stalker!" Aegis shouts, and slams his hand on the table, making an ear-splitting crack to emphasize his words. "That was uncalled for. No matter what kind of history you two have, you're teammates now. Apologize."
Someone stood up for me? A glimmer of faint hope rises in my chest, stupid hope, I know.
"I'm sorry." She doesn't sound sorry at all, instead using the too-sincere voice that I've heard too often from the other bullies, but the hurt is fresh when Sophia uses it. She usually prefers more physical putdowns. But it's a familiar play, so the sting is only for a moment, no matter how deep it cuts. There are only so many times 'poor Taylor, I heard her history paper was missing its citation page', can make me flinch.
But then the spite flows back into her voice, the saccharine tone forgotten. "I'm sorry I worried about you. Fuck, I thought you were somebody who lived in the real world, after you fought Uber, but no- it's just boring Taylor. And a night in a locker really screw you up so much you triggered? God you're pathe-"
The lights explode.
Shards of glass and plastic from ruined monitors and overhead fluorescents spray over the room, leaving me in the middle of a circle of gleaming shards. "Three days." I grind out. It's all I can do to hold back the double tone creeping into my voice. My reflection in one of the larger shards of glass glows with the light shining out of my crimson eyes, the sole points on my face not covered in shadows.
"What?" Sophia says, and I can feel the hidden fear in her voice. I fixate on that, the honest reaction that I've dragged out of her.
"Skitter- Taylor." Kid Win speaks up from next to me, having not moved from my side, but palming his laser pistol under the table. "Just stay calm and we can get this sorted out properly. Nobody thinks you killed the man in your locker- I mean-"
"I was in that locker, surrounded by filth and blood, for three. Days." I bite out. My hands twitch with newly discovered instincts, and my tongue touches extended canines.
"Cry me a river." Sofia says. "Can't you even control your powers? You're a menace. They have the body you stuffed in your locker in the morgue downstairs, and any time now they'll haul you off in-"
Aegis slams his hand into the table again, and the thick glass spiderwebs as another echoing BOOM of sound cuts off the speakers. "Shadow Stalker, if you say one more word you are off my team, no matter what Piggot says!"
My power, the flood of ice inside me, is trying to get out, to be used in ways that I half-remember, but know that I can't use. I'm better than her, I'm going to be a hero no matter what happens, and Armsmaster already told me that Sophia is going to be taken care of. I've held on for a year and a half, I can stand another few minutes around her, no matter how many lies she spouts.
But a cold spark leaks past my self control, settles into the same space that makes me dodge better, and as it burns a new pattern into my mind I know- I just know, that she isn't lying about the body. "I could have." The words slip out in a whisper, and I turn wide eyes on Vista's own, where she stands pressed against the wall. "I don't remember."
Clockblocker and Gallant have left their corner, and are quickly closing the distance. "Nobody say anything." Clockblocker says. "No matter who said what, nobody is getting arrested, nobody is getting thrown out, and nobody is going to haul anyone off."
Still reeling from the shock and trying desperately to stop thinking about how I may have killed a man to drain his blood, to heal myself in the fugue state I'd been left in when I escaped the locker, I still notice the door next to the elevator slam open through the haze of foggy self-recriminations.
Armsmaster stands in the doorway, halberd lowered with lightning sparking around the head, backed up by three other members of the Protectorate. Beneath his visor, his mouth is pressed into a thin line.
He's here for someone, and we all know it.
After a terse moment he flicks his head, and his backup steps into the room behind him. Battery, a woman who can store her body's energy, then release it all at once. Velocity, a speedster that traded strength for speed. Triumph, who can project waves of penetrating force from his mouth.
The four capes present an imposing line in the red emergency lights.
At last, Armsmaster speaks the words that seal my fate. "Skitter, we have someone for you to see downstairs."
Downstairs, where the corpse is.
"No." I whisper. "No, no, no!" My whisper grows to a scream, and the Protectorate capes double over, clutching at their ears, but Armsmaster rips off his helmet and lunges for me, hand extended. I leap back, power flooding my legs as I move in an effortless dodge out of his reach, sailing back fifteen feet, out the window, and into empty space.
As I fall, I see Kid Win on his hoverboard, soaring out the window, silhouetted against the stormy sky by the red glow of his antigravity.
Then I hit the freezing water, and I realize that at least the Protectorate will probably cover up that I was a murderer. No need to lay guilt on the dead, after all.
Why had I thought I could be a hero?
And then the cold takes me, and my eyes drift closed.
A girl in a white and red dress hummed to herself as she bustled about her lab. Well, she'd borrowed it from a local high school, but everyone in it was just so rude to her that she'd forgotten why she'd come in the first place!
Of course, once she'd thoroughly ruined her dress, the girl had remembered. She needed to give Jack a birthday present!
So she hurried about the lab, hardly suitable- as it was a chemistry lab, but what could she do?
Darn it to heck and back, but she'd almost forgotten about her Jack's birthday! Just because she'd made a new friend didn't mean she had to forget about her old ones! A dainty hand slams into the table, and she has to grab the counter to stop the wobbling in her stool.
"Easy, easy." She calmed herself down, and wiped her hands on the hem of her once pristine dress. "I need to remember to pick up more aprons; they're no good when the crusties get in." Her singsong voice echoed through the empty tile hallways, and she noted with satisfaction that her main helper wrote it down on his notepad. So nice of him, even if he did need replacing soon, she thought with remorse.
The school was spotless, save for the hall outside the advanced chemistry lab. In there, hundreds of lockers had their doors and walls torn off. The hooks were occupied. A palette was loaded high with chemicals from the town's lone supermarket, and outside the fire exit lay a mound of furred bodies, a present from her big sister.
"So lucky, lucky, lucky, that they love me love me!" She chirps, and picks up a waste laden tray, slopping it through a hole her sister had made in the wall to the room next door. She'd put a mailbox in the gap (which had barely fit!), and since it opened and closed she could call it the disposal shoot.
The tray was set down on the standalone counter, and she made sure to wash her hands on the inbuilt sink, which still worked mostly fine even if she was using it as a drain. She wouldn't need to, but she was rushed, which meant her materials weren't able to get good and dried out, again because she'd forgotten Jack's birthday.
It was nearly unforgivable, forgetting your family's important days like that, but everyone could be forgiven! She'd just gotten a second chance herself because of her new friend, and now she could let everyone else have theirs too. "Just think," she smiled at her current project. "Soon you'll be all kinds of useful, not dull like you were before, and won't that be nice?"
Her project opened its mouth in a soundless groan, and the cute little words she'd written in dramatic loops on her forehead, chest, stomach, and hands glowed red. "I knew you'd agree sooner or later."
The few dozen students who had been outside, having physical education, when she'd come calling with big sister were beginning to scream again, "and I so dislike noise when I'm trying to work, don't I?"
Her helpers, already there were a few dozen, nodded dutifully. A clap of the hands attracted the attention of her wonderful helpers, so much longer lasting than her old ones. "Then go tell them to be quiet, I'm working over here, and if they're going to be mean and try to spoil my present. . . " She trailed off, and leveled a finger at the loudest bound captive outside the window.
"Never mind. I'll do it myself."
There was more screaming, louder than before, but after a minute or two it began to get quieter. Then it stopped completely, leaving only muffled moans, broken by the girl's cheerful voice as she sang under her breathe. ". . . Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. . ."[/i]
Her helpers shuffled back in, and handed back her needle, and an empty spool. "Hm." The girl said, and frowned at the used supplies. "Are we out already?"
Her main helper nodded twice, once for each head.
"Sugar." The girl swore, and bit her lip in thought. "But, all right. Run on down to the supermarket, then, and hurry! There's only four hours left until midnight!"
Then she stepped back down from her stool, away from the table, and into the middle of the room.
Outside, fifty-four people lay in the grass in a line, bound and rendered mute.
When a flash of crimson light surged out of the classroom's two windows, and a procession of their former friends dragged another dozen of them inside, they screamed regardless.
Bonesaw waited until she was done with her snack before she wiped her mouth primly, and finished singing. "Ashes to ashes, we all fall down." She looked around, and motioned for her new helpers to put her next projects on the tables before she smiled, and it was the smile of a girl who was having the time of her life. "That was a nice break, but I guess it's back to work!"
Uncle Winters was right, this was loads of fun!
I drifted low in the water, past the violently churning swells and waves and deep, deep down where no sunlight shone. I closed my eyes as a reflex, to properly think, and focussed inward, falling deeper and deeper into a restful state until my back touches the silty bottom of the bay. When my eyes open again, I had reached a decision on how to achieve my current goals.
I needed to get out of the bay.
Estimating that I had used perhaps half of my air, I gathered my feet under me and leaped, propelling myself in great bounds through the murky, storm-tossed water until I reached the shallows, where I was tall enough to take in enough air not to drown.
Immediate safety concerns taken care of, I turned my thoughts back to the situation at hand. On second thought, it seemed unlikely that I had killed my father, and Armsmaster's helmet was widely known to contain a communications system, and an interview with a new cape would certainly have someone fact checking, and helping analyze data.
I nodded to a slender boy with long black hair sitting underneath a nearby bridge. He nodded back.
Since my escape from the locker my senses were sharper, my eyes better suited to picking out details, so I had reasonable cause to believe that my father was not dead. After all, if my father were missing, his coworkers would notify the police, who would have put out an notice that Armsmaster's helper would have had access to, and I would have noticed a reaction to that sort of news.
So, since I didn't kill my father, I was most likely not the reason he had come in, and my father was most likely downstairs, perfectly fine. That meant that Armsmaster must have come for Sophia, Shadow Stalker. Wards aren't supposed to use lethal force, and using an automobile as a mele weapon on the top floor of a parking deck seemed like lethal force to me.
Shadow Stalker went too far in the middle of the day, which likely meant she'd be hung out to dry, and probably taken in for questioning.
If she was a flight risk then that would explain the backup. Conclusion? I could probably go back to the oil rig the Wards and Protectorate use as their base, and be forgiven, but I don't need to.
Forgiveness could wait a while. Now that I was in what I recognize as one of the badder parts of town, I may as well look around for any gang activities that I can get rid of. Gangers, from what I've observed of their behaviours, were little more than organized bullies, and getting rid of the abuse of powers in Brockton Bay was. . . important, somehow.
The boy beneath the bridge was dry. He'd likely been there since before the storm began. He's looking back at me, eyes disinterested and lacking passion.
I wade further out of the water, examining him. Can I help him? Can I help others by driving him out of town? I need more information. "Hello." I say.
He replies. "It's wet."
Neither of us spoke.
"I just thought you should know." He continues after the silence. "Most people don't enjoy being wet."
I didn't care about being wet one way or the other, which would have surprised me if I wasn't feeling so. . . worn out. "I don't mind it." I say.
Silence passes between us again, and I join the boy in looking out over the bay, at the oil rig.
"I have an apartment. Want to come with?" He asks, and I nod.
Sleeping on the ground wouldn't be the best option, so I say "yes" after some consideration.
He held out a hand, and helped me climb up the artificial bank beneath the bridge. I debated just jumping for a moment, but decided that demonstrating my powers without a mask would be counterproductive, if I wanted a secret identity. Burning bridges would be a bad thing, and that would be a burned bridge, I knew.
That line of thought brought up another, I realized as I dried out beneath the bridge, with the slender boy, who seemed about my age. I wasn't wearing my mask, having left it on the Wards' dining table.
But that probably wasn't as much of a problem as it seemed at first. As long as I changed my costume's final design, and I wasn't planning on wearing a stock costume forever anyway, I could be anyone at all.
That was the point of wearing a costume, after all.
"Where's your place?" I ask, and he shrugged.
"Do you want to leave now?"
"There's no point in waiting."
The stranger nodded, then stepped back out into the torrential rain. He had to raise his voice to be audible over the clouds slapping the city in walls of water. "I thought you'd be more curious about why I'm out here, though."
I considered why I hadn't wondered that, and reach an answer by the time we were halfway down the block. "It had already happened, so it wasn't as important as what hasn't happened yet." I say. "You can't change the past, only the future, so that's what you should worry about."
The boy paused, just stopped in the middle of the block and stared at me.
"I," He said slowly, enunciated every word. "Was waiting to see if anyone accidentally tripped off the outside of the Protectorate's headquarters."
Then he started walking again, and I followed alongside him.
As we traveled through town, I made out what I could of the buildings through the rain. Mostly warehouses, mostly abandoned. That put me in the northern section of town, up passed the boardwalk, and the touristy market, and into the dead territory that I remember the Merchants had laid claim to.
I made a mental tally of the area's weakest gang.
It's lead by Skidmark, a Shaker who could define a zone of 'less' and 'more' force by pointing his arms. I had fought him with Clockblocker recently, and he was presumably in custody.
Likewise for Squealer, a Tinker focusing on vehicles, and with a complete lack for subtlety and economy of space.
Until I'd met him myself, I didn't know about Trainwreck, but he was likely a Tinker as well, probably something to do with his mechanical limbs.
Other local gangs are the ABB and Empire Eighty-Eight, both of which were massively more powerful and effective than the Merchants. The ABB were an all Asian gang, lead by Lung and his leiftenent, Oni Lee. Empire Eight-Eight (E88 for short) was a white supremacist group lead by Kaiser, and had numerous other parahumans on their rolls.
In my eyes, the lot of them didn't need to be in this city.
I'd need to get rid of them all, in time, but it would be best to start with the Merchants. They'd be weakened by the loss of their leadership, however temporary, which made this sudden rainstorm the perfect cover to begin taking out the rank and file.
I was reminded of the perils of thinking so deeply while walking in the pouring rain when my leg slips out from under me, and I slam headfirst into a lone abandoned shopping cart, sending it flying along the rain slick ground and through a shop's glass pane door.
"Oops." I muttered, and climbed back to my feet none the worse for wear. "I didn't mean to do that."
The boy helps me to my feet again. "Not my fault."
I looked around for anyone who might have seen the vandalism, but saw no one. A glimpse of purple caught my eye, though.
Yes, that was exactly what I thought it was, a gang sign on the wall beside the door. "Merchants."
"Really?" The boy said, and pulled his hair out from in front of his face to get a better look. After a few moments, he deftly reaches through the hole in the glass door, turns the latch, and pushes it open. "Jackpot!"
"Why are you going inside?" I asked him.
He turned back to look at me as if I were speaking nonsense words. "Because the door's open, so I may as well enter?" Then he turns back to the small store's insides, and begins rustling through a stack of boxes, pulling off lids and peering inside one by one.
That. . . made a twisted kind of sense, I supposed. If someone was going to get blamed for breaking and entering, regardless of who the someone is, then having committed one should they not commit the other? Shaky logic.
"Or maybe it's just because It's forty degrees out, and pouring rain?" He calls out onto the street.
. . . I forgot that I didn't feel cold like a normal person any more, which was, logically, kind of awesome.
"All right. I'm done changing." He walked back out of the store carrying a cardboard box, and wearing a poncho. Wait-
"You were changing? Of course, into dry clothes." I realize as we again begin walking. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He flashed a grin at me. "In case you wanted to watch."
When my expected embarrassment failed to appear, his grin widened. "The name's Alec."
There are dozens of Taylors, so what could it hurt? "Mine is Taylor."
"We're almost there. Just one more block." He said. It was a small one, so it only took a minute to cross, and then I stepped out of the rain, and into Alec's apartment.
He threw open the door, and it hit the wall behind it with a thump, revealing a warm, richly decorated living room, with two armchairs and a small television. The mantle over the fireplace on the opposite wall had odd clumps that hadn't been dusted in a long time, as if a great deal of pictures had been removed. Actually, as I stepped inside, there were a lot of discolored patches on the walls. "Just sit down wherever. I think I've got some clothes in your size." He said after looking me up and down, then walked into a separate room. "And don't open anything up, there are things that I'd rather not show some random girl that climbed out of the bay, even if you are wearing spandex."
Soon I was drying off in front of the fireplace, feeling the heat of the orange flames soak into my skin, having changed in the apartment's bathroom as soon as Alec brought a spare change of functional, if slightly small, clothes. Pants and a collared shirt, both white.
"Dinner?" He asked from another room, presumably the kitchen.
Eating is an important part of keeping my body in good condition, even if it does take an unnecessary amount of time, so I agreed. "That would be a good idea."
Alec, having re entered the main room, rubbed his hands together to warm them as he joined me in front of the fireplace. "No preference?"
"Huh." He grunted, before grabbing a towel that was still mostly dry and wringing the moisture out of his own locks. His hair was almost as well taken care of as mine was, I noted. "Then you're in for a treat. I've found the most magnificent recipes, and you should prepare yourself- no, brace yourself for the culinary masterpiece that will be unveiled in the next half hour."
He looked me in the eyes, bending over only slightly. He was fairly short, and I was tall, even sitting down. "Thick slices of sausage, tangy tomato sauce, and heaps of cheese all baked over a low flame."
I put the clues together. "You ordered pizza."
Alec smirks. "Dominos."
Dinner was filling, warm, and required none of the messy cleaning up that I remembered so well. But the fire still managed to go out before I ate the last slice.
"Here." I blinked when my host tossed a pair of mirrored black wraparound sunglasses at my face. "You've got an eye thing." Sure enough, when I looked at myself in the reflective plastic lenses I could see two glowing red rings surrounding my pupils. I put on the glasses, and Alec relaxes somewhat, vindicating my decision.
"Thank you." The response was wooden, meaningless without the emotional context normally attached to it, but I obeyed the societal norm. "I don't think I can feel many emotions right now." I explained, to mollify my host.
He didn't seem to care, though, instead turning on the small television and settling down with the remote. "And the entertainment of the night is-" he stopped talking, and I turned from the fire's embers to see what's distracted him. ". . . The hell is that?"
It took a moment, but I reached a conclusion before he spoke again. "It seems to be a corpse, or half of one."
"Why is on my TV? Doesn't the watershed start at nine down here? It's only seven!"
"It does start at nine." I said. "Turn the channel."
He smirked, but does so. "Can't take a little blood and guts?" He taunted me.
"Static, keep flipping." I said. "But I'm-"
I stopped. I was going to say that it did, but really. . . "It's just bits of what used to be a person." I murmured, half to myself. "I don't see why I should care either way."
Alec had turned the channel back to show the corpse. "It's the same picture, not even a news show." He said. "There's nothing else on either, all static."
We sat for a while, just ignoring the rain beating of the street outside, and then the light overhead fizzles, and goes dark with a puff of smoke.
"I think, I hazarded a hypothesis, "that my power is interfering with delicate electronics."
He looked askance at me in the light of the television. "And you didn't mention this earlier, why? Never mind- you're obviously a new cape. Stupid question. The important question is, what are we going to do now"
An idea formulated in the recesses of my mind, hazy connections being made and discarded in a flurry of mental gymnastics. I wanted to clean up the streets, that's a good way to put my goal, yes. I wanted to clean the gangs off the streets.
Why not start now?
"This is a terrible idea." Alec muttered at me as we walked down the streets of the docks, headed deep into the territory claimed by the Merchants.
"It makes perfect sense." I defended myself. "Skidmark, Squealer, and Trainwreck are all in custody, so the best time to strike their mundane members is in the present." I had to raise my voice to be heard over the pouring rain as we moved through the dark streets, lit only by the occasional streetlight that wasn't broken.
"It's dangerous. Druggies are crazy, and they don't play by normal rules." He snaps back.
The mental connection flipped, and I said, "You're afraid."
"I am not!" Alec quickened his pace to get in front of me, then pokes my side with a scepter. I was fairly sure he made it out of a lead pipe.
"If you don't feel safe fighting drugged up hobos, you are more than welcome to go back to your apartment." I offered, but knew he wouldn't accept. The kind of teenager with a renaissance fair outfit in his closet. He was wearing it now, under a parka. Tights, tall leather boots, and a ruffled shirt. He'd lent me a plain white mask, said it was his spare, and I was wearing my basic costume. Minus a few cuts in the abdomen, and the entire left arm, it was still in one piece.
"Of course I'm coming with you!" He snorted, somehow making it sound refined. "But we need a better plan than barging in through the front door of the warehouse, demanding they all surrender, and hoping they don't shoot us to death."
"That's a perfectly reasonable plan." I said dryly. "But you're missing something."
The warehouse Alec assured me was a gathering place for Merchants loomed overhead, and Alec sighed, and stood back to let me knock. "Is it the part where we don't get shot, because I'm rather taken with that part. Why am I even here anyway?"
"You were bored." I said, and raised my hand while pulling the cold flow of power to move first one way, then another, just like I had in my fight with Uber. Interestingly, only a little came quickly, the rest moved more slowly than the first group, and my power's overt aspects failed to trigger.
Alec caught my arm, and stepped in front of me. "Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me." He said, and then rapped on the door with his scepter and shouted at the top of his lungs, "HE-LLO!"
A slat in the door slid back, revealing two bloodshot eyes. "The fuck do you want? We're busy."
Alec grinned, and bounced up and down. "I want to buy something, at a. . .bulk rate."
"Well come on in, then, mister high roller!" The man behind the door oiled, and with a click, the door was open.
Alec grinned, and I could see his smile take on a sinister slant as he twirled his scepter on his hand. "Ladies first." He said, and motioned me inside.
I stepped past him, and he closed the warehouse door behind me, closing us in the gloomy warehouse with a final click. A click that was echoed by the half dozen handguns pointed at us by an equal number of men.
"Well, well, well." The man who had been at the door bared his rotten teeth in a parody of a grin. "The valued customer brought his escort, and what a looker she is. I think," He tilts his head as if thinking; "I think our prices just went up, if you know what I'm talking about."
"There's no need to point weapons around. But you'll have to ask my friend about that, I don't speak for her." Alec waved his scepter disarmingly through the air in front of him, stepped up beside me, and whispered in my ear. "They're all yours."
I looked around the dingy room, empty save for dusty boxes used as improvised tables to hold plastic baggies, bins, and boxes. Then I considered the shaky aim of the men not ten feet in front of me. I should be afraid, I realized, afraid of messing up and getting shot, getting killed.
But I wasn't.
Fear had no hold on me, because I had a goal.
And these men, with needlemarks up their arms, their shaky hands and bloodshot eyes and the countless others like them, were leeches on Brockton Bay, leaches that were trying to bleed the people of it dry.
They would not.
The overhead lights burst into a spray of hot glass.
Six handguns barked, and three sparked from their chambers, illuminating the room in flashes of orange light as the drug dealers fired, emptying their magazines into the wall behind where I once stood, but I've already moved, my body effortlessly slipped around their lines of fire until the weapons fell silent.
Alec held up a cigarette lighter to my right, the light from its feeble flame just barely illuminating the eight of us and the shoddy plywood and oil drum tables the Merchants were standing in front of.
"Surrender." I gave them one last chance, and felt my voice slipping into the odd two-tone resonance that I'd fought to keep the Wards from noticing. I didn't fight it this time, and let my words reverberate in my throat. "Leave this city, and never do harm here again."
One looked at another, the one with the longest beard, the greasiest hair. Greasy hair spat on the floor, and pulled a knife out of his belt and holds it low in front of him, point up. The others followed his lead, drawing an assortment of knives, pipes, and a lone machete. Greasy leered, "I'll show you harm, you little- AGH!"
He was interrupted by his arm suddenly seizing up for no apparent reason, and the force of his spasm drove his knife hand up, burying the blade into the meat of his shoulder with a sudden SHUNK!
"MY SHOULDER! MY SHOULDER!" He screamed as he rolled around on the ground.
There was a moment of stunned silence on behalf of everyone present.
"Well. That certainly explains why you had a costume ready to go." I commented dryly.
Alec tilted his head, and I got the impression that he was raising an eyebrow behind his mask. "You mean you didn't immediately think I was a parahuman?"
"I thought it was less likely than being in a play." I felt the need to defend my position. "You might also have had special interests."
One of the Merchants tried to interrupt us, snatching a bottle off of a nearby table and throwing it at Alec, who sidestepped it neatly. "Sorry." He said. "I completely forgot about you." Another lunge for a bottle was thwarted when the Merchant doubled over suddenly, slammed his head into the makeshift tabletop and slumped to the floor.
"Anyone going to interrupt me?" He said, holding his scepter in front of him threateningly.
The plywood board, disturbed by the Merchant's impact, fell on top of him with admirable timing, but the remaining four Merchants rushed at us, screaming obscenities and raising their weapons. Three rushed me, and the one with the machete tripped on his way to Alec.
I turned away from a wild strike with a length of pipe, then grabbed another's knife arm, wrenching him to the side and out of my way as I stalked forwards toward the third. The first stabbed at me with the knife again, but I was outside his range with a quick step. It was almost like stepping out of the way of their gunfire, my body simply taking the actions that would insure I was not hit.
I almost broke free of Trainwreck's mechanical grip. How strong was I?
An aura of black fire burst into existence around me, and the first two gangers yelped in surprise, drawing back in fear and aborting their attacks as they scrambled away, apparently afraid of the flames. I swung my fist underhand with all my strength, and it hit the gut of the third so hard that he crumpled around it.
He threw up on the front of my just cleaned costume, but I paid the sick no mind. It crumpled into dust after a moment under the black flames, coating its fallen originator as it fell from my costume to the floor.
I heard a sharp crack of sound, and an impact on my back shoved me to the ground.
"Yeah! How you like that you smug . . . little. . . shit." The Merchant whom Alec had made headbut a table had recovered, and reloaded his gun, and I felt my back as I stood back up. The semi-rigid carapace built into the suit's chest had been pierced, by my skin was not. Interesting.
I picked up a piece of plywood from where it sat on a quartet of old oil barrels, and felt the cold fire flood my arm as I hefted it one handed. Then I threw it at the remaining gunman, knocking him back into another table, which collapsed on top of him.
Alec must have taken care of another of the thugs, because only one remained standing.
"I surrender!" He pleaded, and dropped his knife, then kicked it away. I looked him in the eyes, and what he saw there must have frightened him. Because he whispered, "Mercy."
I could have killed him. Let his death serve as a warning to all the others like him, but I was already planning on cutting a swathe through his compatriots a mile wide.
I could have let him go. Let him spread word of my judgment, but my earlier reasoning applied to that as well, and there would be no guarantee that he wouldn't revert back to old habits.
It wouldn't make sense to kill him, I realized. I didn't want to be another bully, destroying everything that wasn't mine, but I couldn't just let him go either. Blood dripped onto my face as I stepped forward, looming over the man as he scrambled backwards in the dim light, and I remembered a warmth in my mouth, a rejuvenating breathe taken from someone that did not resist, refueling me, refilling
I grabbed his face and hauled him to his feet, then breathed in.
He convulsed, then went limp, still breathing, but unconscious. "That's convenient." I said, and went to the next moaning body, my reserves of the cold energy didn't feel full yet.
"Want to keep going?" Alec asked giddily, and I glanced at him where he stood by a table, a stuffed bag on his shoulder that I remembered being on the floor in the back of the room earlier. "This is more fun than I thought it would be."
Four warehouses later, I had five more bullet holes in my uniform, and Alec had decided it was time to stop for the night. "It's past midnight." He said while leaning against the wall of a run down supermarket. "And I'd like to get some rest, before I start making stupid mistakes- that last place, the hobo on PCP nearly got me with the table."
I considered for a moment.
True, Alec had been getting slower all night, his use of his power more sluggish, and I could tell that he'd been responding a fraction of a second slower than he had at the first warehouse. He hadalmost gotten his head caved in by a homeless man in the last stash site we'd raided, a small tea shop. The waitress, in particular, was especially vicious.
I could have continued on my own, but Alec was the one who knew where the Merchants were basing themselves. I wouldn't be able to act as effectively without him. I also had a much higher chance of surviving an encounter with a hostile parahuman with the odds in my favor. The fight with Uber springs into my mind. As soon as I ran out of power, he would have thrashed the floor with me, and held me, Vista, and Gallant hostage for Leet's release. While, to the best of my knowledge, Uber and Leet rated as less malevolent than the average fast food worker, the principle still stood.
Being overpowered, or stalled until I ran out of power and means to replenish it, and then taken hostage or killed would notbe productive.
"I agree." I said. "We should head back to your apartment."
Without another word, Alec stretches, picks up his panapoly, and begins the walk home. As I followed, I observed that his parka is inflated outwards like a balloon, struggling to hold all of his gains within. "Those are likely stolen goods." I said.
"If I left it, someone else would have taken it instead." He said. "And destroying legal tender is a crime."
"What?" I'd never heard that before.
"True, it's the property of the treasury, or something like that."
The rain's let up somewhat, so since we were only a few feet away from each other we didn't have to raise our voices, though Alec shied away from actually coming within arms' reach. Apparently he was wary of the black flames and smoke rising from my body. "That's interesting."
"Yeah." Alec replied laxly. "Figure I should have a new name, you know?"
I replied shortly as well. "Yes. A secret identity is a valued resource, as New Wave has shown." New Wave, a pair of nuclear families formerly known as the Brockton Bay Brigade, went public with their secret identities, to show that parahumans should play by the same rules as everybody else. Within the week, one of their members had been murdered, and the others had been hounded from their jobs by the media.
"I heard about them. Don't they have kids our age?" Alec mused.
I nodded in response. "Panacea and Glory Girl are siblings, and the other family has a pair that are adults now."
After a few minutes' walk, Alec said, "I'll go by Regent."
"Regent?" I mulled it over. "The person in charge while royalty is not?"
"That's it!" He smiled under his mask, and then took on an effected tone, like an old man speaking mysterious wisdom. "They also tend to not like giving power back when the king returns."
"I think my powers are messing with my mind." I changed the subject casually. "I seem to be handling multiple brushes with death without significant emotions, or any at all."
"Nah." Alec, Regent, scoffed, and waved an overly puffy arm from within his parka. "You're probably just in shock, I know I was the first few times I beat a few people half to death."
"Shock does not normally last for twelve hours." I said. "At least I don't think it does."
"Hmph." Alec snorts. "You seem fine to me." Then he stopped, and we climbed up the steps to his apartment. When we reached the door, he tried to get to his keys to unlock it, without dropping any of his bags.
"Do you want me to hold some of those?" I volunteer, and he flashes a heart melting grin at me. At least, I'm fairly sure it would be heart melting if my emotions weren't as dead as someone shot in the heart. Someone who wasn't me.
"Thanks, ah- what's your cape name?" He held out a hand, and I grabbed hold of the three bags in it, having to struggle since my strength had returned to normal.
I debatet giving him the same name I'd given the PRT, Armsmaster, and the Wards, but in the end I couldn't think of another name to give. "She Who Skitters in Shadows, Skitter's fine though."
"Appropriate." Regent grunts, and shoulders the door to unstick it from its jam. "I can barely see you now that the fire's dying down."
"It is, isn't it." I said, and tried not to think of looming shadows with hateful masks.
Tried and failed.
"Come on, don't stand in the rain." Alec said, and it was Alec, because he'd taken off his mask. "Or do stand in the rain, and catch cold for all I care."
I came inside. Alec clapped his hands together, then showed me to the couch. "It's not that I'm afraid that if I invite you to share, I'll wake up drained dry," he explained. "It's just that I'd rather not end up drained dry by the creepy vampire cape."
I was not irritated. At all. I wish that was annoying, but it wasn't that either.
"Tomorrow, if the rain keeps up the cover, we can hit some of the other places I know about!" Regent enthuses.
As I lay awake on the couch, a heavy blanket draped over me, I stare at the fresh lightbulb that had been screwed into the socket overhead. I'd decided to go home tomorrow, but should I?
Going home would put an end to my activities, stop the progress I was making in reducing the Merchants' operations. In addition, I had yet to find one of their production plants, only distribution centers, and because of the lateness of the night, there wasn't any of their product left. I had only managed to take out some of the middle men, which wasn't going to make a significant dent in their operations.
If I gave just one more day before going home, I'd have a chance to find one of the places that made the drugs the Merchants' peddled.
That would be significant.
I remembered something that I'd forgotten, the cell phone Armsmaster gave me. I retrieved the slim device from a pocket in my suit, from where it lay draped on a chair in front of the embers of the fire we'd rekindled earlier. Punching in my father's number was simple, easy, and I did so without hesitation.
"Taylor?" My dad's voice was tinny over the speaker, but the concern was blatant. "Taylor, is that you?"
"Are you all right?" He gasps, and I smile, reflexively. There's no emotion behind it, but there should be.
"I'm not fine, but I'm handling." I replied. "I'm sorry I missed you at the Protectorate Headquarters, but I had to get away."
"Get away from what? Taylor, you were gone for a week, and I heard something about you jumping off the rig, what happened?"
I cleared my throat. "I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to tell you."
"There was a police cordon around school!" Danny said. "Just, just tell me if you're hurt."
"I'm not hurt," I say truthfully. He'd cope better until I can return if I could give him some good news. "I just don't want you to see me like this." Like my heart's been replaced with a rock.
The line is silent for almost half a minute, but when he spoke again my dad was noticeably calmer. "Don't do anything to get yourself hurt, Taylor. Are you safe?"
"I won't, and I am." I replied.
"Whatever's happened, I'm here for you, understand?" He asked.
I nodded. "I do understand. Thank you."
"I'll let you get to sleep then. Just- call me tomorrow too?"
"I'm not sure-"
"I know you don't want me to see something, or know about something," He interrupts me. "And you're probably just doing it because you don't think I can help, and you don't want me to go through the pain I do when you're in trouble, and I can't make it better for you, but just having you disappear like that. . . not knowing you're safe makes me worry so much, and it hurts worse than you can know."
I was struck at how well my dad knew me.
"You're only fifteen, and I'm not naive enough to ignore some of the signs, over the past few months. I'm here for you, just let me help."
"I'm not sure you can." I whisper.
"But you'll call?"
"I'll call. I promise."
"Good night, Taylor."
And so I fell asleep, determined to spend just one more day being an active hero, before going home to my father.
I slept in the next day, and so did Alec. But by noon we were both moderately awake, though the rain hadn't ceased, instead intensifying even more. Inside the hour, it had gotten so bad that the streets outside were as dark as twilight, covering the streets in nearly an inch of quickly flowing foul water as the storm drains overflowed. The rumbling bass echoes of thunder rolled through the city, and Alec and I both knew that going out in this weather was nearly suicidal.
It was during one such boom that someone knocked on the door. Once, twice, three times he knocked firmly.
I glanced at Alec from where I was washing a pan in the sink, and he glanced at me from his makeshift soda pyramid at the half table. "It's your place." I deferred, and double checked that I hadn't left a piece of my costume on by accident. I hadn't.
"Point." He admitted, and went to the entrance hall.
Five minutes passed, during which the door stayed open, and then Alec came back into the kitchen.
"Taylor," He said, voice somber, and he waved a tall, lean man in a black skintight super suit into the room with him. A white snake design coiled around from his head, wrapping around his body multiple times before terminating at his left foot. "This is Coil, he says he has an offer for us."
"An offer?" I asked, while I wracked my memories of trawling the Paranet for a mention of a cape named Coil. Nothing came to mind.
"I have been very discrete." Coil says, and his voice is smooth, disarming. "And I would like you two for something I'm putting together, a team. He folded his hands behind him, seemingly unknowing that behind him, Alec had slid a cutting knife free of the block, and was holding it up his sleeve.
I got the impression that he was looking me straight in the eyes when he said, "A team of heroes, independent of government control."
"Why would government control be an issue?" I asked.
Coil didn't move, except to speak. "The Parahuman Response Teams oversee the Wards, even the Protectorate, correct?" He said, like he was a teacher lecturing a class on some pivotal piece of information
"Yes." I knew that, everyone knew that. "The PRT acts as oversight, stopping capes that go too far either way before they become too great a threat."
"They also," Coil interrupted, "run the entire legal system where it applies to parahumans. Oh, the judge, or in the case of a jury trial, the jurors, are hardly wearing uniforms, but the rest of them? The extra bailiffs with their foam sprayers, the armed troopers that guard the prisoners after they've been sentenced guilty- and it is nearly always guilty on all counts, the prison the truly dangerous ones are sent too?"
He stopped, and I knew what he was going to say before he did. "All run, all trained and paid for by the PRT."
"I don't understand why that would be a problem." I said. As I'd been listening, I remembered the previous night. When I'd drawn on my power, it had felt like there was a deeper layer, that wasn't as 'moving', for lack of a better word, as the rest of it. I carefully drew out a modicum of the slowly flowing power, and I was right, it was more ice than crackling lighting. I pulled more, feeling that I had about three times as much of the less subtle power as the icy part remaining, then moved what I'd drawn out in the same way that had let me tell that Sophia wasn't lying to me back at Wards HQ.
There was no slight pain, no blood dripping in a ring from my forehead, no aura of black fire and smoke.
I had a stealth mode, and I should be able to tell if Coil were telling me any lies.
Coil's answer jolted me from my discovery. "I apologize, I tend to wax on the subject at times. Why does government control of your potential superhero career matter to you- oh don't be alarmed." He held up a hand. "I saw you on the news yesterday, very nice for a first try."
"If you have a point, please make it quickly." I said with a glance at the sky, in which the clouds were slowly clearing.
"The PRT has direct oversight over the Wards program." He said, as if expecting the news to have a great impact. Beside me, Regent nods agreement. "They will tell you what methods and targets are acceptable, and you will be forced to follow them."
That would be inconvenient, I realized. I'd have to follow along, unable to choose how quickly to clean up the streets. They may even, and I balk at the very idea, tell me not to go on the offensive at all, instead only reacting to people like Uber and Leet, 'harmless' villains, not the people really hurting the city.
"I see you've realized what you would have to give up. Where there is a beurocracy over your head, you will find people who will exert power just because they can. And what better way than to stop you from growing to the best of your abilities, ah, what may I call you?"
"Skitter." I said, and lost myself in thought again, weighing whether or not the oversight in the Wards program would be a bad thing. Points had already been made against it, but in the Wards I would have access to experienced capes, and be trained by people who had already done what I was planning to do. You could put up with things for their long term payoff, and while Coil may be right about the government influence on the Protectorate, bringing all the tangles of corruption and petty power struggles with it, well.
Better if I began identifying the abusers of power in the system as soon as possible. You could always leave later, in the event that I can't stand the corruption.
"I don't think I would like to agree to anything like joining an independent team at this time." I said, and for the briefest of instants I saw something wrong, something different.
I was sure, for a moment that Coil's face was angled differently. But no, it was only the light hitting the white snake on his head at a different angle.
"I'll admit I didn't come expecting to make my case to you as well today, Skitter." Coil said. "I'll be in touch when I know how to meet your needs." I realized that I haven't gotten a single confirmation of falsehood from my power in the entire conversation. No lies, no manipulations. He really was just making his case.
He also wasn't lying when he said he'd be back as soon as he had leverage.
He turned, and walked down the steps, slowly and deliberately looking up and down the street before turning right and going down the sidewalk.
Right before he passed out of sight, the masked man paused, and looked up at the sky.
The rain turned into a torrent of stale, brackish, foul-smelling water in an instant, once again growing into a thunderstorm, darkening the city streets like it wasn't daylight. I wondered what time it was, and my power told me. Just after lunch, twenty-four hours since I tumbled from the oil rig.
I began to wonder, as I closed the door, if there was anything the frigid lightning that was my power couldn't do. I could turn into an immaterial smoke form for an instant, slide between gunshots, leap fantastic distances, casually pick up lumber I couldn't have lifted with both hands in one. Even in my deadened state, I knew that not knowing the extent of my powers was a bad idea, and a foreboding feeling washed over me.
I needed to find out whatever I can about my power as soon as possible. Ideally I could just find out with everyone else in training sessions with the Wards, but what could I use now?
"How many more Merchants' meeting places do you know about?"
"And that makes another four today." Regent said.
He looked down at his hand, wrapped tightly around his scepter, and unclenched his fingers, massaging them with his other. He pointed it outwards again, sweeping the stirring Merchant in front of him to the ground as his leg jerked up, knocking him off balance for the final time.
Regent ignored the sound the drug dealer's skull made when it hit the hardwood floor. He'd be fine. Probably.
He looked across the room, and leaned on the table in front of him. The tables in this warehouse were real tables, the folding kind where the legs collapsed back under the body. Skitter hadn't broken any of them so far. She hadn't broken any of the gang members either, which surprised Regent as much as anything else.
Skitter was strong when she wanted to be, not parahuman strong, but judging from the bruises he'd seen on the last three places he'd brought her tonight, she was doing at least as much harm as his fancy lead pipe was.
Maybe he ought to put something inside it, he thought. Perhaps a taser would make sense, it would be just the kind of cheap trick to make fights as short as possible.
He didn't want to work, but kicking- he meant raiding the Merchants while they were down had netted him enough to think about getting some decent body armor with his take of the proceeds. Oh yes, his take.
He hadn't told Taylor yet, but he was holding onto a good portion for her. He did the math again as he watched the girl in the dark blue super suit smash her closed fist into yet another of the dirty men, one who didn't know when to lay down and get up, or just high.
Regent leveled his scepter again, and the still standing man, definitely some kind of substance abuse going on, slammed his head forwards, into Skitter's next punch. Fifty-fifty split for the two of them, and then half of her's as a finder's fee, he'd decided that was fair. 25/75, in his favor. Yeah, he had enough for some nice bullet resistant stuff, maybe even second generation Tinker offshoots, like the PRT used.
Like the suit Skitter was using, not quite bulletproof, but good enough for whatever junk guns the Merchants had scrounged up. A handful of tiny puncture marks showed the four times she'd been shot in the back over that night and the previous two days, showing clear skin beneath.
On the other hand, maybe it was less the armor, and more that Taylor was fucking bulletproof. Maybe it was a little of both? Who knew?
He'd just look it up on the internet later. Parahumans Online probably had a topic, and the search bar worked wonders if you actually knew how to use it.
"Regent, toss me some ties? I ran out." Skitter asked, and he pulled a handful of plastic zip ties out of a pocket on his parka, tossing them to her underhanded.
She was more than willing to secure all of the Merchants herself, so he let her. No point in fighting over who got to manhandle diseased homeless people. Yeah, that was an experiment he had no desire to remember. What had he been on when he had that brilliant idea?
He shook his head to clear the lingering tactile memories of grime, dirt, sweat, and worse things besides, Alec- or as he'd labeled himself, Regent- moved to the important part of the evening. Looting the lucre.
Product went in one bag, money in another, and any maps or important looking notes went in his pockets, for future examination. Now all he had to do was grab their wallets, and-
"Pass me the drugs." Skitter said dispassionately, but then again, he'd known her for a little over two days now, and she'd emoted less than, well. . .
It was like her heart was a rock.
Regent sighed, then tossed it across the table. One of these times she was going to forget that step, he thought as she walked to the toilet in back room of the dilapidated shop, then flushed enough product to triple his take for the night down. At least she didn't mind him keeping the money. That was where he drew the line. Well, there and cape fights. If, for some reason, the Merchants managed to scrounge up some cape muscle, he letting her handle it without any (obvious) assistance on his part. His power wasn't the most offensive kind, and he was perfectly aware that most capes would wipe the floor with him in a fair fight.
That was why he was comfortable hiding behind the bulletproof girl, letting her take the risks in the sights of the gangers. If anyone was getting killed in the middle of a rainy night by a drugged up hobo, it wasn't going to be him.
And the rain, how could he forget about the rain?
He secured his latest bag to a carabiner on the inside of his parka, and joined Skitter as she left the building. As he and his faintly burning companion stopped, he peered at the street signs, double checking his bearings. "Up to the Trainyard next, I think." I shouted over the pouring rain. "I don't think there are any more in this area, so it's the Ship Graveyard or there."
It was already twelve midnight, and it had been three days since he'd found her coming out of the bay. He still hadn't asked why she'd jumped out of the window at the Protectorate's headquarters like that. But he didn't really care, whatever the answer was.
Ahead, he could see Skitter holding her small phone to her ear beneath a pawn shop's awning.
"-Fifteenth and Wilson, more Merchants. I am fine, yes. Moving to the next." A click, and the phone closed.
"You know, last night, when you called your dad again?" Regent asked. "When you passed me the phone, I really didn't expect to end up talking to Miss Militia."
"I didn't either." Skitter shrugged, and Alec spared a moment to gather his thoughts again.
"Yeah, you want to know what she told me?"
"I suspect you will tell me regardless."
Regent blinked. "Was that a joke?"
"No." Skitter replied.
". . . She told me that your dad said to give you space, so she'd give you time to get out of this funk you're in." And that she'd blow off his kneecaps if, later on, Skitter regretted anything happening he could have reasonably prevented. "But are you sure you don't want to go back instead? It's past midnight, and I'm usually asleep by now."
She paused, and he held a hand to his face in an approximation of a yawn. The crimson raindrops pouring in buckets from the sky hit his parka, and shattered into normal water, just like what happened when the uncanny rain hit anything else. "We still haven't found their production center." She said.
"We can coordinate better tomorrow. Maybe you can call your teammates in the Wards and set something up." He suggested. Maybe she was get the hint?
Skitter nodded, and Regent smiled slightly in relief.
His kneecaps were safe.
On their way back to his apartment, he most especially didn't think about a man in a black suit with a snake design on it, and an offer.