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Chapter Text

There was a knock on the stall door, and it was just like any other strike, bang, or thump that had ever been inflicted on any solid plastic surface that Taylor sat behind.

She didn’t respond. A biography about the formation of the Triumvirate lay on her lap. She was peripherally aware that it was open to a page about Legend’s teenage foibles. But it was her lunch that currently dominated her visual field, and her attention.

She’d eaten a pita wrap every single day since her mother’s death.

There were other food places on the way to school: all manner of vending carts, bakeries, cafés and grocery stores. The Greek sandwich shop wasn’t cheap. The quality of its fare left much to be desired. Yet each morning her shoes led her there as if possessed by some foot fetishist spirit, and she’d spend her meagre savings on a value meal. She would discard the drink and cup of soup—hydration was for winners—and tuck the wrap away in her hoodie pocket, where it would gradually sustain more and more damage as the day went on.

Perhaps she gravitated to the things because they reminded her of the frailty of her own exterior, so unlike the scrappy obduracy of hard taco shells or the pillowy robustness of burger buns. She peeled open the tortilla sleeve to inspect its innards.

Bland, stringy chunks of day-old white chicken breast. Lettuce leaves that had more in common with moth wings than any kind of vegetable. At the sight, she felt an ineffable sadness radiate out from her core. It was her entire life enveloped in flatbread.

She rewrapped the roll and took a bite. Mushy.

Outside her stall, girls giggled. The knocking resumed.

’Tis some visitor,” Taylor muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—only this and nothing more.”

“Oh my god, it’s Taylor!”

This voice was shrill as a raven’s. Or a hagraven’s? Taylor couldn’t identify which girl it belonged to, but she knew it couldn’t be Emma because Emma didn’t believe in religion. It was one of the many personal convictions the girl had shared under the covers while Taylor was still spelunking in the cavernous depths of mother’s-death-induced depression. Taylor had cried for a week; she’d wanted so badly to believe in an eternal paradise where the deceased could dwell forever in peace amongst their brethren, but Emma had shown her incontrovertible evidence in the form of Wikipedia articles that heaven was at best a shared delusion and at worst a lie manufactured by the Church to profit off of human insecurity.

It had been a painful revelation, but a necessary one, as even now Emma continued to prove time and time again that there was no God.

Eventually the chattering and giggling ceased. Taylor pushed the door open gingerly, only to find nobody present. The other stalls were all occupied and the people within emitted muffled moans. Taylor had long grown inured to sounds of agony (from chronic night terrors), so she ignored the noises just as she ignored the desperate pounding of fists against the partitions.

Open bottles and cans littered the floor. Pools of liquid fizzed beneath the treads of Taylor’s shoes, eliciting a squeak of indignation from the ghostly deviant inhabiting them. She approached the sink without bothering to avoid the puddles in her path. Their presence comforted her: they brought to mind long walks through the rain, which she still indulged in on occasion. Her first date had taken place in a thunderstorm. She’d been twelve and he’d been thirteen, and they’d held hands as they raced full-tilt for the nearest shelter. She still thought about that sometimes—still wondered how things might have been different if he had kissed her, or if she had kissed him. But at the time all she could focus on had been the water sloshing through the intersecting triangular brackets of the pavilion, drenching her tank top and seeping through her tangled hair.

The rain had stopped. Time had passed. The boy had gone to Arcadia. He’d written back exactly once.

Her scalp itched at the memory of carbonic acid. She regarded her reflection in the mirror. After a moment’s examination, she declared her appearance below average. The conclusion was born not of whimsy or any real rancour, only an understanding of statistics and the knowledge that she resided in the lower fiftieth percentile when it came to attractiveness. What was life, after all, if not ceaseless struggle against a beanpole body caught in transit, ever on the cusp of maturity yet never quite able to reach the physical ideal she aspired to as a result of childhood exposure to fashion magazines that had irrevocably warped the way she saw herself and her peers?

She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around.

A woman in a suit and fedora stood there. She whacked Taylor’s pita wrap out of her hand and Taylor’s eyes followed the arc of her lunch into the dingy bathroom wall. While she was distracted, the woman snatched the biography from her grasp.

“This is a first edition,” the woman informed her in a severe tone, pointing to the spine. She showed Taylor the inside cover. “It was autographed by Alexandria herself.”

Taylor looked blankly at the mass of illegible curls.

“It would have gotten ruined by the drinks. You’d do well to take better care of your literature.” The woman paused, looking past Taylor to her backpack on the toilet cistern. “And your art projects.”

She said something else, but Taylor wasn’t listening. She was gazing at the far corner of the bathroom where the pita wrap had concluded its journey. Shreds of lettuce and chicken chunks were strewn over the tiles. Tears welled up in her eyes, unbidden.

The woman nodded at her, approving of the reaction. “I recommend dust jackets. Door.”

A white rectangle expanded in front of the sink and the woman disappeared through it.

“That was a library book,” Taylor whispered.

Chapter Text

“Tee-tee,” Bug said.

“Bug.” Tattletale made a show of circling the other girl.

She was bolder than when they’d met the night before—stood straighter, made eye contact. There was a surety to her movements, a certain whip to her wavy-curly black hair, that Tattletale hadn’t seen in the nervous, cringing girl they’d rescued from Lung. It was almost as if she’d accelerated through several arcs’ worth of development and through strife had emerged with higher self-esteem.

Tattletale felt lost, for reasons she didn’t quite understand. “You look different,” she said.

“I suppose it’s safe now to disclose a key feature of my power.” Bug crossed the rooftop so that she wouldn’t have to raise her voice over the wind buffeting her hair. “I project a younger version of myself who controls arthropods.”

Tattletale’s eyebrow rose at that, but for some reason her power didn’t detect any lie. It was suspicious enough that Bug was revealing anything before they’d even made any offer. However, Tattletale had grown so dependent on her own power that she was no longer able to trust her regular human instincts, and it was not strange to her anymore that there were individuals she couldn’t get a read on. This, she'd discovered, was a trait unique to tall skinny girls she met on the Boardwalk.

“All cards on the table,” Bug said, “the projection can get unruly at times. I’m working on it. If you see it around, acting independently of my apparent input, it's because the projection has subsumed my thoughts and personality. The process should be complete by the end of the week. Don’t be alarmed if I’ve changed in numerous conspicuous ways.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Again, no deception. Concerning, but she’d cross that bridge when they got to it. “Well, I said we owed you one.”

Tattletale handed her a green plastic lunchbox.

Revulsion flashed across Bug’s face, and she held the box at arms' length.

“Something the matter?” Grue looked concerned.

“I just,” Bug said. “I didn’t expect it to be Eidolon, that’s all.”

Tattletale frowned down at the holographic image of the cloaked hero. Belatedly remembering that she was behind on her thinker-approved daily exercise routine, she raised her other eyebrow.

Grue folded his arms. “I told you we should have gotten the Alexandria box.”

“Yeah, the midair Escher pose? Pretty hot,” Regent said, and Bug nodded in agreement.

“This was the only one on eBay.” Tattletale waved a hand. “Besides, Alexandria’s overrated.”

Bug rounded on her sharply. “Excuse me?”

“Just open it,” Grue urged, gesturing at the lunchbox.

Bug glowered at Tattletale a while longer, then undid the clasps and opened the box without much enthusiasm. She glanced at the stacks of cash inside before snapping it shut again. “Thanks,” she said mechanically.

“Try not to seem too impressed,” Regent advised.

Tattletale studied her. Pointless as she was still flying blind. “Are you used to getting stupid amounts of money in unmarked bills or is it something I said?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

Bug abruptly turned and walked to the edge of the rooftop, facing the skyline. Her tall figure, clad in storebought chitin, stood stark against the afternoon light. Somehow, she managed to exude a sense of deep longing.

“Alexandria is beautiful, strong and unrelentingly pure,” she said finally. She hesitated, then added, “Of heart. She’s a beacon of hope for humanity as a whole. We would all be lost without her.”

She turned back to them, and her entire demeanour seemed to darken.

“Eidolon is a schlubby mess that no one likes, and is likely responsible for all ills in the world, up to and including the Endbringers. But that is just conjecture, as I am not a precog or else in possession of any confidential data that would allow me to formulate conclusive theories about cataclysmic threats.”

“What’s your point?”

She met Tattletale’s eyes and tilted her head.  “If you want me on the team, you're going to need to offer better incentives.”

“How much are you talking?” Grue asked. “Because we, uh, make considerably more than this. In case that wasn’t clear.”

“I don’t care about money,” Bug said.

“You're not serious.” Tattletale’s jaw dropped open. “Jesus, you're serious.”

Bug raised her chin. “As cancer.”

“The hell is so special about that lunchbox?”

“The collectible Alexandria lunchbox has been out of production for years,” Bug explained. “The emblem on her chest lights up and plays her theme from Protectorate Pals in chiptune when you press it. The original version, not that awful generic remixed dreck from the fourth season onwards. I had one myself, but the battery inexplicably ran out and there was no way to recharge it. This, too, was probably Eidolon’s fault.”

Tattletale had to admit she wanted it now.

“Also, it’s double-insulated and the partitions inside can be adjusted to form a maximum of nine compartments, or removed altogether. No other Protectorate hero lunchbox has this feature, which is further proof of their inferiority as capes and as people.”

“Okay, Alexandria fangirl,” Tattletale said, flexing both eyebrows. “We’ll see. Our boss should be happy to source for one in mint condition if the next job goes well.”

“Oh,” Bug said under her breath. “He’d better be.”

Tattletale came dangerously close to pulling a facial muscle. “I never said the boss was a ‘he’.”

“I use ‘he’ as a gender neutral pronoun.”

“See? It’s the default.” Regent elbowed Grue, who shoved him back.

Everything squared away, they climbed back down to the ground together and made their way through the alley.

“The boss is probably also black,” said Bug.

They all looked at her, and she rolled her shoulders in an emphatic imitation of a shrug.

“But that’s just conjecture.”

Chapter Text

September 2006

“So that’s when I told him, ‘maybe if you weren’t a worthless piece of garbage with a disgusting combover and no long-term prospects, women would want to suck your cock for reasons other than job advancement’,” said Taylor’s mother. She speared a piece of lasagna with her fork. “And the next day, he comes back with a shaved head. Can you believe it?”

“Of course, honey,” said Danny from across the table. “But you would never do anything like that, right?”

Annette snorted and swallowed a mouthful. “How do you think I got a full professorship? I’m gonna have to ride him hard for tenure, that’s for sure. Hey, which one of you numbnuts cooked dinner?”

“I did,” Taylor piped up proudly.

“It tastes like the inside of a mule’s anus,” Annette informed her. “Your grandma cooked better than this, and she couldn’t tell the difference between pesto and manure.”

“Isn’t that because she ate both on a regular basis, dear?” Danny asked.

“Don’t talk shit about my mother.” Annette smirked. “But yeah, she totally did.”

When they finished dinner, Annette grabbed her phone and walked into the kitchen. It was the only place in the house that had signal.

Taylor followed her, her arms piled high with dirty dishes. There was no more space in the sink, or on the counters, so she set them on top of the cabinet.

“I’m going to marry Emma,” Taylor said without preamble. “She’s going to be a model, and I’m going to be a famous writer and we’re going to live together in a mansion.”

Annette looked up from her texting, annoyed to see that Taylor was picking through the periodical rack on the cabinet instead of washing up.

“That girl’s going to break your heart,” she said, prying the Playboy magazine from her daughter and replacing it with the Gloria Steinem exposé tacked to the fridge. At Taylor’s confused expression, she sighed. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t give a chigger's turd what happens to you, but I made a promise to someone that I was gonna leave this world a slightly less crappy place than it was. Come with me.”

She took Taylor to the solitary computer in their living room and turned it on. The screen flared to life. In a practised gesture, Annette clicked away a flurry of pop-ups and typed into the search engine. Soon, the page filled with promotional images of a certain black-costumed Protectorate leader.

“Alexandria—now there’s a woman’s woman.”

“Oh,” Taylor breathed. “She’s pretty.”

“Pretty?” Annette motioned with the mouse. She brought up the next few pages of images. Posters became fanart, and fanart became beyond graphic. “Look at her. She’s probably got kegels like a jackhammer. She could crush a skyscraper between those thighs. No, you little accident of nature, Alexandria is hot.”

Taylor’s eyes continued to widen. She took the mouse from her mother and clicked the print icon. Over long minutes, their cheap printer sputtered out sheets of images.

Annette was about to snatch them up when her phone began to beep. “Motherfuck. I forgot to refill my AZT prescription. Hey! Danny! Pharmacy run!”

“She’s really beautiful,” said Taylor, as her father hurried over, “but I think I’m still going to marry Emma.”

“You’re adopted,” Annette said.

***

Later that night, Annette tossed and turned.

When she woke, she tugged her hand out from under the covers and blinked, flexing her fingers. She’d been dreaming of her stint in prison.

She looked around the dark bedroom. Beside her, her husband snored, hogging the blankets as usual. She gave him a hard shove, and he rolled out of sight with a grunt. He could enjoy them on the floor.

The ache below her waist wasn’t dissipating. She slipped on her moccasins as she got out of bed, and padded downstairs to the living room.

She kicked aside books to get to the computer desk. Her hands fumbled over the knickknacks littering the tabletop. Once her eyes had adjusted to the gloom, she realised there was no point searching. 

The print-outs were gone.

Her daughter must have taken them to bed. With a disappointed huff, she headed to the kitchen, retrieved a pitcher of water from the fridge and poured herself a tall glass.

Chapter Text

This is what menstrual blood smells like:

Take a steaming McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish burger patty and grind it into a paste. Submerge it in a brew of sweat, liquid copper and unpasteurised breast milk. Let it steep for an hour or so. Reheat it in a pan, then pour it down your pants.

Notice anything? It’s just chemicals. Basically a metal-laced gumbo. There is nothing truly alien about it, nothing more disgusting than shaking up the bottle of condiments and incongruous edible fluids your friends pass around during Truth or Dare. You don’t even have to drink it.

It’s not that bad when you get used to it, and most girls get used to it.

But leave that mixture alone for a few days, weeks, months, and it begins to congeal and ferment. Those chemicals break down. They get taken over by something new and strange and uniquely horrible.

Taylor remembers the pie chart from science class; she knows that air is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other gases. There are some fiddly little digits after decimal points, but at this moment she doesn’t concern herself with them. She wonders what percentage of oxygen she is inspiring now, and if it’s higher than the percentage of decomposing gumbo vapour. Her estimates fluctuate as time passes, but remain discouraging.

Like with pain, you don’t die from a smell—you only wish you would.

Taylor decides she should stop thinking about science. She reads herself the poems she’s committed to memory instead.

She reads: If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues...

She reads: Blood has been harder to dam back than water./Just when we think we have it impounded safe/Behind new barrier walls (and let it chafe!),/It breaks away in some new kind of slaughter.

She reads: In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed.

She reads for what feels like hours, getting lost inside the archives of her own head. Around her the locker constricts, unseen creatures crawling and buzzing in time with her breaths. Her temples pulse and her vision blurs, with tears or perspiration.

And suddenly, the door swings open. A gust of cool air blasts Taylor in the face. She gasps and heaves, taking in greedy gulps, wanting desperately to just collapse—but a besuited woman in a fedora blocks her way.

The woman blots out the lights of the corridor. Her gloved hand holds a baggie of crystalline white powder. She opens it and dumps its contents on the floor. She removes a pair of tweezers from her jacket pocket, reaches over Taylor’s shoulder, and with surgical precision unsticks something white and flappy from the wall. It looks like a pad, barely used, only dirty from brushes with neighbouring products. The woman slips the filthy thing into the empty baggie and turns to leave.

Before she does, the woman meets Taylor’s eyes for the first time. She looks at her watch and makes an annoyed sound. Then she slams the locker door shut, leaving Taylor alone once again in the hot reeking darkness.

 

***

 

“It's nice,” Rebecca said.

“Is that all you can say?” Contessa said, a teasing edge to her voice. “Most brilliant woman in the world: it’s nice?”

Rebecca looked up at Contessa’s face and noticed the tinge of a blush. “It's really, really nice. I love how it's not a straightforward outline. Highlights and shadows—like the Jesus toast.” She leaned forward under the guise of inspecting the patch, then lifted her head. “Except with more of a fade. There are midtones and everything, makes it look three-dimensional. Why is it inverted?”

“I'm going to see it a great deal more than you,” Contessa said, sitting up on the bed. “I might as well see it correctly.”

“It’ll be weird, kissing my own face upside-down.”

Contessa’s blush only deepened, and Rebecca delighted inwardly.

“The spider superhero from that film we watched on Dalet didn’t have too much trouble.”

“Don't talk to me about spiders.” Rebecca gave an exaggerated shudder. “So is it permanent? Wouldn't want you to get distracted, scratching away during a mission.”

To Rebecca’s immense disappointment, Contessa tugged her boyshorts back up over her hips. The image of Alexandria’s visored face was emblazoned on the front of the cotton. It matched the portrait drawn in hair beneath it, in all but colour and orientation.

Contessa’s arms reached around Rebecca’s back, and Rebecca allowed herself to be pulled down on top of the other woman. They lay like that for a while, heartbeat to heartbeat, just appreciating the solid warm presence of each other.

“I gave Legend step-by-step instructions,” Contessa said, her breath hot on Rebecca’s skin. “Then I used Slug to erase his memory of the procedure. With his consent, of course.”

“Of course.”

 

***

 

Rebecca Costa-Brown stood in the second cubicle of the second-floor girl’s bathroom at Winslow High.

After any PRT publicity talk, she liked to take the opportunity to gather opinions on the ground. Did the students enjoy her humorous anecdote about the quantity of paperwork? Did they think she was hip? Sure enough, between boys, music and makeup, her assembly was all the kids wanted to talk about. She adjusted her collar and tie, waiting for the topic of discussion to move towards herself.

“She’s so… I don’t know, untouchable.”

Rebecca grinned and puffed out her chest. Chief Director or costumed superheroine, she always did radiate an aura of professionalism.

“Yeah, but she’s like, so fake. You can hear it.”

“Oh my god, yeah. I thought I was the only one.”

“I bet she’s smooth as a Barbie doll down there.”

A chorus of giggling.

Rebecca’s grin dropped away.

This was what the younger generation thought? That she didn’t seem human enough? Normally, she would dismiss this kind of talk as bathroom bants. But Contessa had recently told Rebecca off for nearly blowing her cover, after she'd pulped one too many hands while shaking them. It wasn’t her fault, she’d argued. Sometimes people wanted to do that grab-and-pull dominance game.

Nevertheless, she couldn’t afford to waste Contessa’s time again.

After flushing the toilet, Rebecca fished a sanitary pad from her purse. She kept it not for herself, but in case she needed to show another woman a courtesy. She tore open the wrapper as loudly as she could, which wasn’t very loudly because it was made of flexible plastic. She ripped the tape off and flapped the pad’s wings to compensate. Then, because it would demand too much effort to reproduce the sounds using Foley techniques, she put the pad on normally.

Finishing touches. She took her lipstick out, unscrewed the tube and daubed a little on a scrap of toilet paper. Then she rubbed that scrap on the toilet seat, leaving a conspicuous red smear. The shade was off—too oxygenated—but it would do in a pinch. She left the lipstick-streaked scrap to float in the toilet.

The group of girls chatting outside turned to stare as soon as they saw her leaving the cubicle. She gave them a cordial nod.

“Whoo! Reproductive functions, am I right, ladies?” she said.

They glanced at each other and shifted their weight, nervous. Rebecca smiled wanly, and made a gesture southward to clear up lingering confusion.

“I keep thinking my time’s up and I’m never going to have it again,” she explained, “and then boom, mucho cramps. At least there’s no better reminder that it's all copacetic down there. Uterus, more like youths-r-us.”

She stopped. Behind her, a girl was entering a stall. Her stall.

Preventing the end of the world was Rebecca’s job. Stopping crime, as well as practising kung fu and bullying unpopular teens, was her hobby. Analysing the way people communicated was her passion. She dedicated a fair portion of brain activity to understanding the warp and weft of words in dozens of languages, dissecting dialects, examining every element from sentence structure to diction down to intent. Cells were the building blocks of life, but words were the building blocks of society.

Projections of demographic trends flashed through her mind, and she knew exactly what to say.

“Ayy lmao,” she called, garnering herself the full attention of the group of girls. A delicious frisson ran through her. “Whomst’d’ve the fucc experiences regular human biological processes?”

She raised her hand. No one else did. Probably just shy. She shrugged and spun around to face the door. Due to her earlier ingenuity, she didn't even have to fake the slight waddle as she walked stiffly out of the bathroom. She stood outside, just next to the door, and listened in.

Silence.

This is okay, she told herself, after a minute had elapsed. It’s just... a caesura. They’re just stunned by my grasp of their slang.

Passing teens looked at her curiously as she flattened her back against the wall. She paid no heed to them.

At last someone inside the girls’ bathroom spoke, in an awed whisper:  “She living in 2018 while we all stuck in 2011.”

Rebecca Costa-Brown took a few steps forward, until she was standing in the middle of the corridor and throngs of students were parting around her. The pad crinkled with her movements. She’d have to find another bathroom in this school to dispose of it.

But first, she permitted herself a dab.

Chapter Text

Taylor inhaled.

At the apex of each breath, a sharp pain lanced through her chest. It was like being bisected over and over, punished for even trying.

Had to breathe. If she didn’t breathe, she would die. She knew she would. It wouldn’t be shattered ribs that killed her, or punctured lungs, or internal bleeding from being slammed into a shelter. It would be lack of oxygen. Twenty-one point something percent.

Lying there on her back in a pool of filthy, freezing water, she imagined herself a small-time armed robber, holding up a gas station. This is a stickup, she’d bark, maybe with her swarm buzzing around her for effect. Gimme all your oxygen, put it in the lungs, NOW!

She laughed at the image. The laugh turned into a ragged cough, then a sputter. Her body seized in mute protest, and she could feel her organs wring themselves out and squeeze through the slats of her ribs, leaving behind only a wet pulsating ache.

Even after all that, she barely made a splash.

The pain was good, though. Pain reminded her she wasn't a corpse yet, insofar as nothing else in her life ever did. She just wished she could feel anything below the waist.

Where were the other Undersiders? They may not have liked her much, but if she considered that a mark against them, she’d have no one left.

One of Bitch’s dogs was nearby. Her bugs converged on him, and she determined from rigorous examination of auditory and tactile data that he was dead. Bitch herself was nowhere to be found.

Taylor choked down a sigh. Bugs were virtually useless here, no more than a dull, scattered flicker at the edges of her consciousness. Flies could land on people and tell her where they were in relation to her and—what? Give them an infection? Most people around her right now were heavily wounded or dying. Her armband hadn’t been working since she last saw Leviathan with her own eyes minutes ago.

Her S-Class survival kit floated mere feet away. Inside were the medical supplies she’d managed to pack in the scant few minutes of warning she and her father had received. If she could just reach it, she’d be able to get out the box of band-aids. She’d be able to patch up her ribs before they crumbled to dust. Maybe even fix her spine?

A mass of bugs gathered on one side of the kit. They couldn’t find purchase on the slippery plastic, but they could push it towards her. Slow work, when there were so many other bodies and structural debris jostling it in the wrong directions.

She blinked the salt out of her eyes the best she could and focused on the darkened grey sky above her, looking for a black splotch. Her heroine wasn't here—she’d followed Leviathan to another part of the city.

It was sad, Taylor thought, that she would perish before she’d ever gotten to personally meet the one woman who had inspired her to—to do things, like inspire air, and sit in bathroom stalls eating pitas, and make working calculators in Visual Basic, and prefer tea to coffee, and read a maximum of two named books. It was so sad.

She prayed anyway.

Alexandria, play Despacito.

***

There were no windows in the conference room, but they’d all agreed that the screensaver on the wall should display the generic New York City skyline at perpetual dusk. Doormaker had to switch between New Yorks on alternate earths to ensure the view remained constant as long as the room was in use, but then that was what they kept him around for. They generally only used it for twenty minutes or so at a time anyway, excluding movie nights and orgies.

Today they were gathered for a meeting. However, Alexandria believed in starting a few minutes late—not to assert dominance, establish a more laid-back atmosphere, or allow stragglers time to arrive, but because she wanted to talk to Contessa, and saying that she believed in starting late lent her regular tardiness a veneer of legitimacy that no one questioned.

She called all the meetings, so she got to do that.

Alexandria pinched her fingers together, like a duckbill or Italian stereotype, and jabbed them upwards into her right hand which was curled into an ‘O’. She pantomimed meeting resistance, before explosively forcing her hand and the rest of her arm through the imaginary surface tension.

Once through, her left hand slowly clenched into a fist.

Contessa watched this demonstration, her expression filled with doubt.

“Then you put the other one through,” Alexandria finished, leaning back into her vinyl chair.

“Rebecca, you have more orifices than common sense,” Contessa said.

She scoffed. “I’m pretty sure I have more than nine common sense. Can we try it, though? If I do it to you at the same time, we’ll be an ouroboros.”

“Maybe later.”

“Come on.” She threaded her arm through Contessa’s. “You said you were cold.”

“There are other options that don’t involve turning you into a glove.” Contessa gestured with her free arm, and the temperature in the conference room rose accordingly. “Besides, you’d pulverise my hand.”

“Oh,” Alexandria said, crestfallen. “Really?”

“Yes. I preferred the Human Centipede plan anyway.”

Alexandria visibly brightened.

With her girlfriend placated for the time being, Contessa glanced across the table. Legend was working his way through a crossword puzzle. His brow was furrowed in concentration, which she seized the opportunity to break.

"Remember the time we all got together for 'Cauldron Games Night'," she said, with air-quotes, "and Legend sh—"     

"I didn’t," Legend interrupted, not looking up from the newspaper. "We're not doing this. That didn't happen and you're disgusting for even imagining it."

Contessa lowered her fingers, raising her eyebrows at an equally irritated Number Man. "You must admit, it is shaped like a plunger.”

“I don’t know what kind of plungers you’ve been using,” Number Man said icily. He pushed his spectacles up his nose and continued swiping at his tablet screen. “So, is there a real reason we’re having this meeting, or is this simply another one of those ‘I know you know I know’ Alexandria meetings that can be summarised in half a page and disseminated via e-mail?”

Alexandria glared at him, and looked to Contessa for support. Contessa offered her the supportive smile her power advised her to present.

“I’m just saying. We know.”

She scowled. “Does anyone else have any comments before we begin?”

Legend raised his hand. “I have something to say.”

“Go on.”

“Sometimes,” Legend said, setting his pencil down and putting an arm behind his head, “it all feels like too much. Just... this insurmountable burden on my shoulders. Fighting a war of attrition against not only monsters, but human nature. In case there’s any confusion, I’m referring to you people. You people are just terrible. I don’t know exactly what you’ve been up to, but it’s probably ethically questionable, and I wish you’d keep me in the loop so I would feel vindicated in my outrage.” He sighed, two fingers skimming the rim of his empty cup. “But then I think to myself, at least I’m not David. And it gets easier.”

Contessa, Alexandria, and the Number Man nodded their agreement.

“Where is he, anyway?” Alexandria asked. “This was mandatory.”

Contessa concentrated. “According to my model of him, volume-snorting cocaine off the bare stomachs of two beautiful women in a doomed attempt to alleviate his crippling depression.”

Alexandria shook her head in unsurprised disappointment, then shrugged. “Well, we have a quorum, so—”

Suddenly, everyone’s mobile devices issued an alert sound effect.

She sighed. No one else did.

“Leviathan is attacking Brockton Bay.” Legend held up his screen as it flashed a big red exclamation point. “I guess we should go.”

He walked out of the room, but Alexandria lingered. Her splayed fingertips brushed the portal, as she brooded against the backdrop of the permanently silhouetted skyline.

“Brockton Bay? I thought we condemned that city already,” Number Man said absently, frowning at his own phone.

“I said that because you kept e-mailing me those cursed comics while you were there doing Coil’s taxes,” Contessa said, standing up. “When I discovered their true provenance, I had Japan condemned instead.”

Number Man’s eyes widened a fraction. He reached for his tablet, no doubt hoping to do damage control. “The entire country of Japan?”

“Yes. You would know if you checked the fridge on a regular basis.”

“I checked it this morning. I didn’t see any memo. Just unflattering candid photos of Scion and reminders not to eat the Jell-O.”

“As it appears I am not just the only person in this room with a perfect memory, but also the only person with a memory not made of literal Swiss cheese,” Alexandria said, as Contessa came up behind her to fix her cape. “—I shall deign to repeat myself. The contents of the dishes are not ‘Jell-O’. They’re potent strains of mutagenic bacteria. Secret family recipe, passed down for generations, so on and so forth. If you keep consuming them, there won’t be enough to feed to the C53s.”

“Ah,” Number Man said. “That explains the rather troubling bout of diphtheria the other day.”

“Are you not vaccinated?” she asked with momentary concern. She turned her head to receive a kiss from Contessa, who was predictably using minor costume adjustment as a pretext to grope Alexandria’s chest.

“King staunchly believed that vaccines caused autism. It was one of the reasons he had to be put down.” Number Man watched Contessa honk away like she was gridlocked on the I-90, before continuing, “Perhaps if you wrote something like ‘original colonies, do not steal’ on a sticky note, we—”  

“I knew it!”

They turned.

Legend burst in from the hallway, brandishing the foam cup he’d pressed up against the wall. He’d been listening in on them and filtering the conversation through a portable lie detector painstakingly built to resemble a teabag. “You are experimenting on human subjects!”

“Oh, dear,” Number Man said.

“Rats,” Alexandria said.

Legend placed his face in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers, he noticed the skyline, and zoomed over to stand in front of it. “I have to go back to my husband, knowing that I’m complicit in these atrocities,” he said. His voice was hard and gruff with despair. “How am I supposed to explain to my child—”

“What are you going to do about it?” Contessa cut in, her fingers still firmly emplaced.

Legend started, accidentally crushing the teabag. Under their collective cold stare, he shifted his weight. “Ask me later,” he mumbled. “I need to go boil some water.”

***

Taylor exhaled, and the breath rasped through her chest like a Joker card against the spokes of a rusted bicycle wheel.

The Triumvirate had been chasing Leviathan around the city for at least half an hour, trying to get him to stay still so they could collect the pure potable water cascading from his afterimage and sell it to the needy at an exorbitant price. The water had to be caught in pails before it could hit the ground and become contaminated.

They weren’t coming for her. No one was.

At least she had the survival kit now. She dismissed the bugs and clutched the cold plastic to her chest with one arm, struggling to undo the clasp with her blunt fingernails.

Before she could, a pale hand plucked it from her grasp.

“Limited edition Alexandria plasters,” a bored voice said. “Where did you get these?”

She looked up and saw that the hand was attached to a suited woman in a fedora. Her lower body wasn’t visible beyond the boundaries of the white rectangle, like she was leaning out from another room. The woman flicked a hand over the medical supplies in the open box.

“The bandaids?” Taylor gasped out, her arm flailing weakly. “CapeCon, ‘05. Could I have it back, ple—”

The survival kit disappeared from Taylor’s view.

She made a feeble grab for it, but the woman caught her arm. She picked Taylor up, not roughly but forcefully, and dragged her to her feet.

Taylor couldn’t stand on her own, so she let the woman support her. She leaned against her solid form. Dark locks tickled the sides of her ears. “Mother,” she whispered, and buried her face in the woman’s shoulder.

“You’re adopted,” the woman said. “Close your eyes.”

Taylor obeyed, knowing in her heart that there was truly nothing left.

A dizzying whoosh of motion, and she opened her eyes to find herself on a bed in some kind of hospital. The woman was gone.

Almost immediately, a nurse and a man in a PRT uniform strode up to her side.

“What’s your name?” the nurse asked briskly.

“I’m… I’m Skitter,” Taylor answered. The name they’d chosen for her.

“Are you a villain?”

“Wh-what?” She swallowed hard, tasting iron at the back of her throat. “Huh?”

“Villain,” she repeated. “Yes or no?”

A pause followed, one thick with shouting and electronic beeps from nearby machines and impatient noises.

Taylor fought to clear her mind. Hero or villain? She couldn’t think of herself as a person who accomplished anything at all, good or evil. She was just a lump of meat-stuffed dough submerged in boiling water, only rising to the top when she was done. “Pieróg,” she answered finally.

The PRT officer tapped at his Blackberry with a small frown. Then he shrugged, apparently deciding the colour scheme was enough, and wrenched her arms to her sides.

Manacles snapped shut around her wrists.

***

“Look, the fact of the matter is Chuck Palahniuk wrote the greatest story of all time,” Legend said, tapping the matte surface of the conference table. “And I’m not referring to Fight Club. Ask your power which one. If you’d brought the candles like I requested, none of that would have happened.”

Contessa paused to ask, and shook her head. “It would have been worse. You would be telling me now that I should have brought carrots and petroleum jelly.”

Legend thought for a moment. Then another. Then several more moments. He squirmed a little in his seat. “You should have,” he said. “At least I could pare a carrot down to size.”

The Number Man folded his arms and leaned back, looking absurdly pleased with himself.

Chapter Text

The Number Man stepped into the spacious white kitchen. He yawned, hand going up to cover his mouth. While it was there, he rubbed at the stubble that had grown overnight. He needed a new razor. Contessa kept appropriating his for reasons that apparently weren’t related to personal grooming, but he’d known better than to ask.

Alexandria was already there, sitting at the counter island. She raised her eyes from her laptop, took in his cowlick and crooked pocket protector. “Well, you look a mess,” she said, and unabashedly let her eyes drop to his massive unbounded set. “Didn’t get much sleep?”

“Bad dream.” He picked up the newspaper someone had left on the table and idly flipped through to the puzzles section. He completed the sudoku in a blink, but the crossword below it caught his eye. Whoever had done it had just shaded in the remaining boxes whenever their answer didn’t have enough letters. Christ, he thought. Stick to word search if this is too advanced for you.

“Mm. Same,” said Alexandria, seeing his suppressed grimace. “They missed almost two thirds of the clues, the buffoon.”

They shared knowing looks. David.

The Number Man retrieved a carton of chocolate milk from the fridge.

Alexandria’s laptop screen lit up in the black and dark blue of Parahumans Online, the only forum currently in existence. She flitted through hundreds of tabs, skimming threads. Every now and then she’d smash out a reply, though not literally smash it like her last twelve keyboards. She'd made the switch to membrane keyboards, at least. Back when she used mechanical, people from other earths thought their villages were being carpet bombed.

"So tell me about this nightmare of yours,” she said. “I didn't take you for a dreamer."

"I wish I had as much control over my subconscious as you seem to think is possible," he replied wryly. He poured himself a glass of milk.

Over her shoulder, he watched her fingers blur over the keys and the words drum to life in the comment box: Here's the thing. You said an "independent is a rogue." Is it in the same family? Yes. No one's arguing that. As someone who is a cape scientist who studies rogues, I am telling you, specifically, in cape science, no one calls independents rogues.

"My Corpus Hypercubus was missing from my office,” he said at last.

“In the dream?”

“Yes. In its place was the original White Crucifixion.”

“Oh,” she said. “Chagall.”

“Fucking Chagall, Rebecca," Number Man said, throwing his usual reserve to the wind. "A man to whom ‘visually appealing composition’ meant throwing darts at a canvas to decide where the elements would go. To say nothing of the pastiche cubism. I deliberately chose a painting where meaningless spiritual iconography could be overlooked by masterly execution."

You said an independent is a rogue, which is not true unless you're okay with calling all members of the rogue family rogues, which means you'd call vigilantes, predators, and other parahumans rogues, too. Which you said you don't. It's okay to just admit you're wrong, you know? Alexandria punctuated her comment with a gif of herself swinging a skyscraper like a baseball bat and demolishing a city block on her follow-through alone, and hit post.

"Oh no," she said with perfunctory sympathy. “And the Golden Mean print?”

The Number Man shrugged a shoulder. He'd never cared for it. Contessa had put it up along with an ivory abacus, a sculpture of a Klein bottle, and a motivational poster featuring Bertrand Russell’s famous suicide quote in a geometric typeface on a galaxy background when she recruited him. To make the room more math-themed, presumably. The Klein bottle was fun during tax season.

"But perhaps the worst part," he continued, voice rising slightly, "worse than the interior décor, was that I was back in the 9. Have you ever met the Slaughterhouse 9? They're abominable people. They’re subpar at karaoke, they’ve only read one Vonnegut novel—Galápagos—and no one ever replaces the toilet paper when the roll is empty. They also do this thing where they cut in front of you in corridors and then walk at the exact same speed you were walking, and they don’t walk single file.”

Alexandria brushed a strand of hair out of her right eye.

"I’d much rather be here doing real work.” He shook his head, banishing the memory, and continued. “There I was, in my old costume, still smelling of blood and fabric softener. I was sitting in the old camper, the windows blacked-out. I couldn’t see anything. But I could hear breathing. And—”

He broke off.

Something warm and wet slithered across the left side of his face, starting from the cheek and trailing its leisurely way to the chin. Like someone had taken a sodden washcloth—the soft kind made for sponge baths—and screwed it up into a narrow wad before dragging it along his jaw with excruciating tenderness. The contact grew bolder, gaining muscle behind it, reversing direction. Then a line of toothed edge darted out and rasped against the stiff bristles it found there. As it did, a hot draft laved over his already slick, tingling skin. The edge suddenly retreated and was soundly replaced by the slimy mass, which continued lapping in tight but lazy circles as if it had never ceased.

Eventually, it removed itself.

It took all of Number Man’s discipline, all his training, all his disdain for overt displays of emotion, not to shudder. He turned his head instead, and there was Jack Slash, in his goateed glory, wearing nothing but bedroom eyes and an unapologetic smirk.

Jack licked his lips, savouring the taste.

"That," Number Man said. "That happened. In the dream."

"Don't worry about it," Alexandria said, waving a hand. "You're just in time for…"

NO-SHAVE NOVEMBER WITH KNIFE AND NUMBERS

There are many types of unions. Unions of love, unions of brotherhood, unions of necessity. So many, and so fine the line between, that often it is difficult to discern which is which.

Watch with bated breath as Jack Slash's tortured tongue inches ever closer to his slumbering lover's stubble, and tell me, do you know what it shall become? What the payoff of the momentary union will be? What the relief could mean? The questions intertwine, and no one answer presents itself.

Tell me, as contact is made, as a slow and soft scraping commences, who the true beneficiary of the arrangement is. Jack may gain a lapse of itchiness, yes. But the Number Man's fitful dreams of hyperbole and hyperbola suddenly collapse down into a singular sweetness. A lover's caress, tongue or no, echoes in the mind.

And as Jack rolls over to fall asleep himself, one final question must be asked.

When you find yourself adrift,

Whose stubble will you lick?

***

"hey can i lick your stubble my tongue is itchy and i don't wanna get up" jack asked

"yeah sure whatever" the number man mumbled, rolling over

jack lick

his tongue no longer itch

***

Kurt was asleep. Then his face felt like it was toes being crawled over by an unexpected slug as he got the morning paper.

He woke up at once shouting, "What the fuck!"

But it was only Jack licking his chin.

"What!" he exclaimed.

"My tongue was itchy. I didn't want to get out of bed and I knew you have stubble by this hour, so..."

"What the fuck?!!"

"Also, Contessa came in through the window and is sitting in the armchair in the corner glaring at me. Figured I'd give her a show and remind you both who's in charge."

Then Contessa threw Jack out of the window by the seat of his boxers.

"So," Kurt said.

"What?"

"Is your tongue itchy?"

Then Contessa threw Kurt out of the window too.

***

Jack Slash was a lad of few thoughts and fewer understandings involving personal space or what was and wasn't creepy. So, after a healthy dose of pineapple to help a few things taste better, he came to the issue of having an itchy tongue and nothing to scratch it with. Considering his collection of knives, you may think his mind would turn right to that, but no. Knives are not made for scratching, you fucking simpleton. They are made for cutting, and Jack enjoyed his tastebuds despite Shatterbird's attempts at cooking. 

No, he needed a cleaner solution.

The Number Man was not known for his cleanliness, but he did keep his beard up to snuff. Jack moseyed over to the bed where he was sleeping off last night's machinations. His tongue unrolled itself from his mouth in a manner rather vile. He leaned over the bed slowly, so as not to disturb it. His neck swiveled down to the face, his hot breath coming out in puffs.

Liiiiiiiiiiiiiick!

"Refreshing."

 Chartic

***

Number Man scratched along his jawline. The scritch-scritch of his stubble made Jack's tongue tingle that much more.

"Why are you staring at my chin."

"Mm. No reason. Just. Hmmm. Can I lick you?"

"You know you can."

"It still feels weird not to ask," Jack said through a tongueful of sweet rasping stubble, scratching away the itch that would only return when he stopped.

***

Dear Peri,

I am happy to receive a message from you. In this day and age, it is far too rare to exchange formal letters.

However, I apologize, I cannot acquiesce to your humble request. I have a Fan Service post to write. This piece of fiction is by the author Pericardium. I have had the most wonderful idea on how to elaborate on Alexandria’s family recipes. The jell-o of the soul, meant for somewhat-human experimentation. Agar is better for gelatin anyway, probably.

Yours, Harbin

***

jack and number man were in the parking lot looking for the car

"my tongue is very itchy" jack said

"i know what will help" number man said seductively

he opened jack's mouth and pushed his chin inside

the stubble scratched jack's tongue

he took it back out

"ok nice but where's the fucking car" jack said

***

It had been two days since they killed King, and Jack’s tongue was driving him crazy. He suspected it was an aftereffect of King’s blood splashing into his mouth. It probably happened sometime during all of the stabbing.

Kurt sat next to him. He’d refused to take a cushion or raise the seat, so he was driving by the grace of his powers, using numbers to avoid getting them into a head-on collision. Not for the first time, Jack held back the need to tell him that numbers didn’t work that way. Knowing that one plus one didn’t equal seven didn’t make you a good martial artist, no matter what Kurt had done over the past year.

“Dude, let me lick your face,” Jack said, the words spilling out as the thought entered his mind.

Kurt turned to him, his gaze severe through the horn-rimmed glasses he wore. “Why?”

“You’ve got some stubble over your lips. My tongue itches. Come on, dude.” Jack used his averagest pleading voice for this, knowing his best one would make Kurt suspicious.

“Use your fingernails. Or a carpet.”

“No, dude, your stubble. It would be perfect. You know numbers, I know edges. Your stubble is perfect.”

“It would be gay.” Kurt’s voice was resolute.

His point was also salient. It would be gay. Jack mentally recalibrated for a second. Then he saw it, a path to victory, steps he could clearly take. He almost felt like another person.

“What you’re saying is, you’re too scared to get licked? That’s gay.”

“Being licked by a boy is gay,” Kurt said.

“What if some dude runs up to you, licks your face, and runs away? Are you gay then?”

“No.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Because I don’t want him to.”

“So what you’re saying is that consent is gay.”

“What? I

“I know it’s nineteen eighty-seven, Kurt, but don’t you think that’s disrespectful to survivors of traumatic experiences?”

“Fine.” Kurt turned the steering wheel, pulling them onto the side of the road.

Jack leaned in, and as his tongue brushed over Kurt’s upper lip, he realized the problem in his calculations.

Twelve-year-old stubble was soft. The itch was still there.

God damn it.

A thought came to him.

“So the alveolar ridge is rough,” Jack started.

— PitaEnigma

*** 

"I win again!"

"How the fuck does the power of knives let you beat me at poker?"

"Well, I guess they give me—"

"An edge, yes, excellent point. Let's get this over with... what's the forfeit?"

"Let's see... the first spinner—my one—points to my tongue, while the second one—yours—points to your chin, so—"

"You are not licking my chin."

"Agreed, there's too much stubble in the way. Though I could fix that pretty quickly..."

"For fuck's sake, Jacob, it's No Shave November, do you have any shame?"

"No."

"Of course you don't! What's with you and licking things? In any reasonable world, you should have cut your own tongue off by now."

"I have impressive control and—"

"You cut the knives, somehow, and literally spit razorblades afterwards. I'm not letting that thing anywhere near my face."

"That's my prize though, stop being so belligerent. I'll tell you what. Since you're my friend, I'll make you a deal: we play one more game. If you win, I get nothing. If I win, I get three licks."

"That seems reasona—"

"Of Snap."

"Fuck you."

"We can do that either."

"No, I'm out of here, I'm done. I'd rather go another round with King."

"I'm sad to hear that and wish you the best. First though, I require an exit fee..."

"What do you me—oh. Ugh. Get it over with. Then drop me at the nearest bar that'll let me get blind drunk."

***

Chapter Text

“What does cocaine smell like? Happiness.” — Confucius

Coil tried to breathe. He succeeded only barely.

Not for the first time, he questioned the wisdom of a mask that, besides partially obscuring his vision, impaired respiratory functions. It wasn’t sandpaper—in fact, it was some of the finest weave money could buy—but now that he’d noticed that it was there, he couldn’t unnotice. The better part of the afternoon had been wasted twitching his nose and resenting how the fabric chafed against his cheeks.

He needed a distraction. Or perforations. Whichever came first until the latest iteration of his costume arrived.

His phone buzzed, right on cue.

>InfosecLover: job’s done

>NotCoil: Complications?

>InfosecLover: nada

>NotCoil: Good. See me at 5.

He watched the ticks turn blue and started to put his phone away. It buzzed again.

>InfosecLover: send quaaludes

Coil brought up the icons panel. His thumb hovered between the syringe and alembic, and finally pecked at the pill capsule. It was crucial that he present himself as something of a cool uncle to these youths to solidify their trust in him.

After a moment’s consideration, he added a dizzy face.

Tattletale arrived on time with the other Undersiders in tow. They seemed more restless than usual, fidgeting, their bloodshot eyes twitching without focusing on anything in the office.

But the most recent addition to the team remained silent, almost unnaturally still. He thought he recognised her from somewhere. He leaned in for a closer look—again difficult because of his mask. At least she wasn't wearing one. Wavy black hair to the shoulders, bushy eyebrows, coke-bottle glasses with black frames, and a fat rubbery schnoz that eclipsed most of her face. No, despite her striking elegance, he'd never seen her before in his life.

All the same, he hoped she wasn’t sweeping her bugs through the base while secretly plotting to subvert him. If she was—well. He had no intention of acceding to her demands. He didn't give teenagers opiates no matter how talented they were. And she was talented. If his sources were to be believed, the Undersiders' latest bank robbery had taken all of two minutes. She'd apparently walked in and cleaned the place of money all on her own before the other Undersiders had even stepped out of their base.

This speed, unfortunately, made her less useful to him.

“Undersiders,” he greeted, holding up a hand. The other reached for the knob on his desk drawer.

The team visibly flinched as he opened it, whatever dissatisfaction they had been keeping under wraps unfolding in the space of a heartbeat. Tattletale stepped forward.

“If you flip so much as a fucking nickel,” she said, “I will personally destroy everything and everyone you’ve ever loved.”

Inside the drawer, Coil’s fingers closed around a velvet coinpurse. He scowled. He’d spent at least eight afternoons practising that trick to get the timing down perfectly, with the patter and everything; she had damned well appreciate it. But before he could issue a warning, Grue stepped in front of the girl.

“She apologises,” he said, giving her a tired glare that she only returned. “It’s been a… challenging day for all of us.”

“Ah,” said Coil. He leaned back into his recliner, but the tension didn’t leave his shoulders. “Tattletale informed me that all went smoothly at the bank.”

“Kinda hard for it to go sour,” Regent said. “Weak-ass PRT response, Wards down for the count. Plus, you know, the fact we’ve robbed it twice a week for the past three months.”

“I was talking about the withdrawal,” said Grue.

Regent grimaced. “Oh yeah. That really sucks.”

Coil basked in one reality while performing the coin trick again in this another to occupy the silence. Taking over the Merchants had been his most brilliant idea yet. The Empire Eighty-Eight or the ABB wouldn't have given him this much control over the Bay. He even had Eidolon himself in his pocket, much to his delight. The man's weakness for powdered goods had been a well-guarded secret until he'd sought Coil out and requested access to his stash. Coil had given him the first hit for free, as was his policy, but subsequent bags had to be paid for in bank robberies.

With constant crime distracting the PRT, the Wards and Protectorate had fallen to the rash—or rather, the staggered and meticulously coordinated waves of abductions, and Coil had been free to scheme to his heart's content. He'd get the Bay's strongest parahumans hooked on various narcotics. Then he'd send them out on rotation to rob the same bank as a distraction for yet more kidnappings.

Meanwhile, a steady diet of laundry detergent pods kept his pet compliant enough to feed him an intravenous stream of decimals that may have meant something but that he mostly cherished for reminding him of the day he won the national pi recitation bee in his teenage years. He dreaded the day she discovered sig figs.

In this reality, Tattletale ranted at Grue about now being able to taste colours. Coil raised a quarter and prepared to flip it.

"Tails," Regent guessed.

Coil made it turn up heads.

***

Dungeon design was a lost art.

That wasn’t to imply that Coil cared what his underground prison looked like. In fact, for all he valued appearances, aesthetics mattered very little to him. However, art was fundamentally a form of problem-solving, and Coil was nothing if not a problem solver.

He turned the corner, passing two more rows of mostly empty cells. His footsteps alternated between muted thuds and solid clumps—long stretches of the floor were differently textured so that he could navigate even in darkness. Cells were spaced far apart, broken up by decorative blocks of appropriately intimidating vents and turbines. He could not risk prisoners relaying messages via powers, or Morse code, or styrofoam cups connected to each other by strings.

Accord might have had the reputation for putting excessive amounts of thought into ultimately hollow pursuits, but he didn’t have the monopoly.

At the end of a long row of cells, Coil spoke.

“I want to tell you the parable of Clyde Compassion.”

There was no reply, save for some muffled noises and half-hearted scraping. Coil made his way towards the source.

“You may not have heard of him, what with you being of rather more advanced age than myself—but his column Dear Clyde had children’s magazines flying off the racks. I respected him enough to seek his counsel.”

As the walkway guided him through the gloom, whirring fans took the edge off the dank air. He continued, “The details of why I was writing to an anthropomorphic crocodile for advice are irrelevant. All you need to know is that his suggestions were at best worthless and at worst actively harmful. Who tells a ten-year-old boy to negotiate a peace with another ten-year-old boy? Who urges him to communicate his feelings to his guardians? A sham reptile, that’s who. I am convinced he didn’t even have a degree in pediatric therapy as he claimed.

“While I don't remember the contents of the second letter, it was something suitably passive-aggressive. I sealed it inside the envelope by applying water to the adhesive. Then I slathered four kinds of glue—twist-tube, glitter, Elmer’s and hydraulic cement— over the envelope and allowed it to dry. This was reinforced by scotch tape, double-sided tape, masking tape and duct tape. I proceeded to encase it in several dense layers of raised stickers. The result? A letter virtually fossilised in amber.”

He let out a low, dark chuckle. “I imagined that he would struggle to open the envelope without tearing the missive within, only to crumple in despair at his inadequacy. And that his editor would fire him for it.”

His voice climbed a few octaves in shrill mockery of an agony aunt’s hypothetical boss.“You had one job, Clyde! I told you to order an industrial letter opener, but you didn’t listen! Now you’re dead, crocodile.”

At last he reached his destination, one of the corner cells. He smiled mirthlessly at its occupant. “He never wrote me back.”

On the floor in front of him, bound in steel shackles, iron chains and other metal restraints, was a woman known only by the name of Doctor Mother.

Coil lowered himself to the ground, not kneeling—never kneeling—and undid the mithril gag around her mouth.

“I can’t—” Her voice was rough with disuse. She coughed through another false start, cleared her throat, and spoke again. “I cannot think of any moral to this story whatsoever. I am utterly at a loss.”

“That young boy,” Coil said, meaningfully, “was me.”

He saw her lips part and close again. He counted it a victory.