Cover art by https://remnantofahero.tumblr.com/
“Hey, is this seat taken?”
Lisa glanced up from her cell phone, thumb continuing to type out the remainder of a text. A lanky girl with short red hair was hovering by her table, bearing a tray occupied by the most enormous sandwich she’d ever seen. Layers on layers of fillings were crammed between what bore some very close resemblance to either half of an entire bread loaf.
Okay, the trainwreck effect beat out any desire for solitude. She had to see what carnage would ensue from attempting to eat that monster.
“Sure, knock yourself out.”
The girl took a seat on the opposite side of the booth, placing down her tray with a grateful smile which displayed slightly bucked front teeth. Both of her hands were bandaged around the knuckles. “Thanks, pretty busy in here today. Was getting worried I’d have to try and juggle this beast standing up.”
Lisa smiled thinly, one eye on her phone. She didn’t need her power to tell her that her new dinner guest would be outgoing; talkative and willing to approach someone she didn’t know for a favour, albeit a small one.
So it wasn’t even a slight surprise when the girl extended a long arm across the table for a shake. “Corey.”
Lisa took the hand. Her grip was more gentle than she’d expected. “Lisa.”
Corey smiled again, her eyes crinkling, then sat back. She had freckles splashed all across her face and down her exposed arms. A burst of colour on her tanktop caught Lisa’s eye and she looked a little closer. It bore a rainbow design featuring the Protectorate’s Legend and some text which she couldn’t quite see.
“You like it?”
Lisa managed not to startle. She'd thought the quick glance was too subtle for her to be caught looking. She shrugged, playing it off. “Sure, I guess. Merchandise isn’t really my thing.”
“Fair enough, me neither. I just look up to Legend like a lot.” Corey picked up the mutant sandwich, sized it up, and then somehow managed to take a bite out of one end without unhinging her jaw.
Deliberate challenge, trying to see if I had an issue, has attracted negative attention for the shirt before, inspired by Legend’s example as a gay man, not a cape; queer. Observant enough to catch me looking, was looking at me already, thinks I’m cute. Focused on the food now, less interested in me than how hungry she is.
Lisa felt herself smile and hid it by looking down at her phone. No reply from Brian yet. People being attracted to her was usually followed by her power helpfully informing her of exactly how gross the things they wanted to do in bed were, or how often they picked their nose and ate it, or, well, any number of unpleasant habits, really. ‘She wants to eat that goddamn enormous sandwich’ made for a refreshing change of pace.
The next fifteen minutes went by at the table. The café wasn’t getting any less busy, and Lisa caught sight of a couple of groups hovering at the entrance and then turning away when it became clear space wasn’t freeing up. Lisa got a refill on her coffee. Brian was still taking a while to respond, but the conversation was non-urgent, so she couldn’t get too annoyed. Corey continued to work on her meal, slowly and steadily munching her way through the sandwich of myth and making impressively little mess for how many fillings were attempting to escape at any given moment.
She wasn’t sure where Corey was putting it. She looked too skinny to be able to eat like that.
“Hey, you don’t go to Arcadia, do you?” The question sounded innocent, but Lisa wasn’t so sure. A snub was lining up behind the query, waiting to pounce on an opportunity to gloat about attending Brockton Bay’s best school.
Two could play at that game. “No. I have a GED.”
“No way!” Corey lit right up. “That’s really cool! I’d never be able to study enough to pass the exams. Explains why I’ve never seen you at school, I guess.”
The enthusiasm seemed genuine, but it was probably just a good recovery. No sly bragging for you. "I suppose it does."
"So are you working then?" She grinned and gave a quick eyebrow waggle. "On the ol' career ladder?"
"Yeah, I do online work mostly." Hadn't trotted that lie out for a while, most people tended to take it at face value.
"Neat. Like, blogging? Streaming?"
Buuuut not this one. "I wish. Nah, it's pretty much tech support."
"Aw. I thought I was meeting an internet celebrity," Corey said playfully.
"Nope. Regular IT girl here." She gave her a rueful smile. "Biggest claim to fame is breaking records on time spent telling old dudes that clicking on the bright and shiny things on the internet is why they're getting viruses."
"Man, forget the capes, that's real heroism right there."
Lisa laughed. "It pays the bills while I look for something better."
"Not much on the resume?"
"Pretty much. Too little experience, and some places flat out can't hire teens."
There was a certain something to a well-crafted lie which Lisa loved. Sure, lying was ultimately a means to an end, but you had to take your fun where you could find it, and in a scenario like this which was almost risk free, she could practice her cover stories with impunity.
"Yeah, I feel that." Corey gripped the knuckles of one hand with the fingers of the other and started to work them back and forth. "I can volunteer at the place I work at, but they couldn't let me intern in the summer cause I'm only sixteen."
"What do you do?"
Corey didn't respond immediately, continuing the repetitive movement with her fingers, then swapping the grip to the other hand. A delay usually meant either an uncomfortable topic or a pause to come up with a plausible lie. Curious, Lisa let her power fill the silence.
Open person, fine talking about the subject or she'd have evaded. Apprehensive about something else, is looking at me while she thinks; apprehensive about me, apprehensive about my reaction. Volunteering is something she’s passionate about, discussing it will reveal personal information to me, volunteering is with an LGBT group; is trying to decide if she's happy coming out to a stranger. Talking about volunteering has been dealbreaker before, negative associations with coming out, has lost friendships from it, wants to be friends, wants to be honest; preparing herself for if this sours.
It all ran through Lisa's head in a matter of seconds, quickly enough that she took even herself a little off guard. Maybe she'd handed her power enough context clues to be full steam ahead, maybe she was in tune with it because she was enjoying herself.
Corey dropped both hands to the table. "I volunteer at the Queer Youth Refuge; it's a subsidiary of Brockton Bay Youth Relief, if you’ve heard of them. I try to make time for it every weekend. Reminds me how shitty a lot of kids have it, keeps me from getting too caught up in my own head." She lifted her head, straightening. Her expression was attempting to be blank but not quite succeeding, pale eyebrows downturned at the outer corners.
Lisa felt a brief swell of sympathy, minor, but sincere. Had to suck having that hanging over your head with any new acquaintance, especially in Brockton Bay, where hey, turned out that there was a not-insignificant part of the population who were willing to tolerate the presence of extreme bigots as a cover to their own more subtle bigotry.
"Sounds cool. I don't know much about them, but I've seen their leaflets a couple places. 'You're not alone', 'We're here to help', right?"
Corey smiled and nodded, relief practically pouring off of her. "You have no idea how many of those leaflets I've handed out. Even took some to the PRT building, but their tour guy took them off me. He said he'd pass them on to the Wards and Protectorate, but I'm pretty sure he just tossed them."
The skepticism reached Lisa's face before she could prevent it. Imagining anyone strolling on up to the PRT so casually was difficult, teetering on the edge of plausibility.
"Hey, don't give me that look," said Corey, though she was still smiling, the tension in her manner already a thing of the past. "Everyone seems to forget that capes are people just as much as they're heroes or villains or whatever. They have their own crap to deal with outside of the superpowers, and all of the Wards and some of the Protectorate are in the age range we offer support to."
There was a switch. Wasn't often that she heard somebody downplaying the celebrity cape culture, less often still that anyone brought villains into the mix too. Actually maybe not ever. Lisa couldn't resist nudging the subject along; this was going from a fun diversion to genuinely interesting. "So, what, if someone like Rune came up to the refuge and asked for help you'd just welcome her in?
Corey paused, and then shrugged. "We'd try to help. You don't know anyone's story without asking. Maybe Rune feels trapped in the E88, maybe she's never had anyone challenge her views, maybe she's hiding some things about herself and is afraid of what'll happen if she tells." She looked down at her sandwich, rotating the plate slowly with her index finger. "You don't just pop out into the world as a racist, you know? That kind of hatred is taught." She glanced back to Lisa again. Her lips quirked up, but the smile was a sad one. "I'd like to think that if someone reached out to me, genuinely asking for help, that I'd be able to set aside the shitty things they may have done to do what I could. If no other reason than because like, how shitty would it be to just validate their own twisted worldview by spitting in their faces?"
Wow. Naive, much? No way was Lisa leaving that one alone. "I feel like that's kind of over-optimistic, and no offense, but I find it hard to believe that you'd be willing to just forgive and forget someone for years of violence." She knew she was risking a negative reaction by being so blunt, but that was part of the fun of conversations like this. Safe was dull.
"No, that's fair." There was a brief lapse in the conversation as Corey decided to continue her assault on Mt. Sandwich, then she went on after completing the mouthful. "Thing is, people get into toxic situations all the time, capes or non-capes. Sure, they need to be held accountable for their actions, but that's not what we—BBYR I mean—are for, and if we can maybe head them off from harming others in the future by showing some human decency, that's the kind of thing that can turn a life around." Corey frowned, making a small 'tch'. "I really wish I could give you specific examples, but confidentiality is a thing. Can you trust me that I've seen it happen a couple times?"
Pushing further would be definitely inviting an argument, and Lisa found that Corey was growing on her enough that she could resist the urge to needle, so she nodded. "Sure thing." If she ever got really curious, she could do some digging with her power. Actually, that was a fun idea. She made a mental note to look into it later, once she'd given her thinker reserves a little time to recharge. She'd been using her power a lot today already and she needed to save it for if anything important came up.
They fell into a comfortable silence. Corey resumed eating. Lisa exchanged a couple more texts with Brian and one with Alec, picked up a third coffee as a reward for behaving herself and to preempt any headaches that might develop if the Undersiders needed her firing on all cylinders. That was the most frustrating part of her power, having to pick and choose what she could and couldn’t afford to use it for. She supposed the limitations prevented her from getting completely carried away on tangents, but—
A high-pitched sound came from across the table. Lisa slowly looked up from her phone, a grin beginning to spread across her face.
Corey had a hand across her mouth. Her plate was finally empty, only crumbs remaining. Damn, that was one hell of an effort. Although, it had apparently caused some side effects...
“Did you just…?”
“No!” Corey said, much, much too quickly. “Squeaky chai— hiccough! ”
Lisa snickered, falling into outright giggles as Corey’s face flushed. “Chair, huh?”
“Stop— hiccough! —laughing!”
Oh my god it sounded like a noise from a cartoon. She continued laughing. Corey looked mortified.
“You are the— hiccough! —worst! We can’t be friends now!”
Lisa sighed dramatically. “Alas for our hero, defeating the evil sandwich king but falling victim to a terrible curse in the process.”
That broke Corey. She started to giggle too, only for the giggles to be interrupted by more hiccups, which set Lisa off again, clutching at her sides. In the middle of the laughing fit, Lisa’s phone went off, and it took several seconds to get herself together enough to actually check the message.
Brian: Can you get back to the place? House meeting.
Which was code for some possible Undersiders business. Interesting.
You: Yup, omw.
She gave Corey an apologetic smile. “Friend of mine wants to meet, so that’s me.”
“Ah, no worries.” Lisa read the disappointment in her voice, even though she managed to keep it out of her expression. “Hey, uh, I know we kind of just met but you seem cool and I’d like to hang out again sometime. Not for a date or anything! But uh—”
Lisa already had a pen out and was scribbling the number for one of her burner phones, which fortunately cut off what was threatening to become babble. She handed it across the table, standing up from her seat, and Corey favoured her with another huge smile.
“Relax, motormouth,” said Lisa. “I didn’t think you meant it that way.”
Corey opened her mouth to speak and was cut off by yet another hiccup, prompting a second giggling collapse. Lisa managed to hold in the laughter this time, but continued to grin widely.
“See you around, Lisa,” Corey finally forced out, between giggles.
Lisa cocked a finger gun at her and fired it as she stepped out and away. “Later.”
Leaving the café, she found herself reflecting, gladly, that it hadn't been a date request.
That would have just made things awkward.
Brian’s house meeting had turned out to be a team discussion on the possibility of recruiting someone new. It hadn’t panned out. Too many clashes of opinion on who’d be worth approaching; in the case of Rachel clashes of opinion on hiring, period. They’d wound up parking the debate for another time, something which Lisa’s growing headache—not even a thinker headache, just a regular tension headache—had been exceedingly grateful for.
Over the next couple of weeks, Lisa found herself exchanging frequent texts with Corey, mostly through a complete lack of anything better to do. Asides from reaching out, the Undersiders were in the middle of a job, or more accurately a reverse job, since for some arcane reason Coil had paid them a good chunk of cash specifically not to undertake any activities for a few weeks. Alec, naturally, was taking the opportunity to laze around the loft playing games while Rachel did the exact opposite, spending as much time as possible out with her dogs, exercising and training them. Brian wasn’t around much either, though Lisa at least was able to get some mileage from helping him plan out how he’d eventually become Aisha’s guardian.
With petty theft and Undersiders team building off the table, there wasn’t much else to do but work on her research into the behind the scenes aspects of Brockton Bay and trawl Parahumans Online for any useful information, and Lisa could only spend so much time on the internet before going cross-eyed.
The texting made for a good alternative. Corey tended to reply inside a minute provided it wasn’t school hours, and she was good conversation about a variety of subjects, especially when it came to Brockton Bay’s social climate. Lisa’s power and effort had gone a long way towards allowing her to find her feet in the Bay, but having a local freely on tap was nice, so long as she was careful to be subtle about the questions she asked. Just like her power, overuse and abuse a contact, and their utility would swiftly dry up.
Plus, Lisa liked her. She’d known that already, of course, or she wouldn’t have bothered talking to her again. These next set of interactions just confirmed it, codified it. Anyone could fake being interesting for the length of one conversation, maybe two if they were lucky. Learning that her gut—and okay a little bit of her power—had been right about Corey being worth the effort was very vindicating.
Her phone chirped as a new text arrived.
Corey: Hey, someone just ditched on me and now I have a spare movie ticket for the Global at five. Want to come with?
Lisa checked the time. 4:02. Ouch. That was a last second rejection all right.
Did she want to come with? Although Corey had mentioned hanging out when they met, this was the first time she’d followed through with an invitation. A movie would make for a good excuse to let her brain turn off for a while, get a break and some distance from what she was working from and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. Besides, too much longer in the loft and she was going to go stir crazy.
You: Sure thing. What are we watching?
Corey: Ink Black. You heard of it?
Corey: It’s a thriller. Sound design is supposed to be godly.
You: Awesome. I’ll meet you there?
Corey: I’ll be here!
Lisa left the loft with a quick goodbye to Alec and caught the bus to a stop a block or two from the Global theater. The place had recently been refurbished, about six or so months back, a facelift for the ageing building and an upgrade to the multiplex inside. This would actually be Lisa’s first time there, since she wasn’t much for solo outings to the cinema and going with any combination of the others sounded like a disaster in the making. Corey would hopefully exceed the depressingly low bar set by the other Undersiders, though the idea of somebody losing out to the socially stunted trio was morbidly entertaining in its own right.
God she needed more friends.
It was coming up 4:35 when Lisa entered the Global. The place was pretty packed, post school crowd, and she had to take a moment to orient herself. Okay, so, picking Corey out at a glance probably wasn’t happening.
Wait she had a phone. Idiot.
You: Just arrived. Busy, huh?
Corey: Yuppers. Coming!
There, crisis averted. Lisa took a moment to scope the room out again. Her power helpfully filled in the gaps on her people watching; that one was strung out on something, she was a pickpocket looking for a mark, that guy was trying to be the cool stepdad and failing, the dude by the pinball machine was waiting for a chance to sneak into the theater, the lady with the shopping—
“Lisa!” Corey appeared from the crowd, sidestepping past a very tall man and jogging over to her. She was wearing jeans and a stripey white sleeveless top, which Lisa had to assume was her regular look at this point, as well as a satchel over her shoulder. Corey slowed as she approached, spreading both arms wide, but then hesitated right as she reached Lisa, leaning back and lowering her arms slightly. “Is it okay to hug you?”
Lisa nodded, an amused smile playing across her face. Corey snapped out of her awkward will-she won’t-she and wrapped her arms around Lisa’s shoulders for a quick squeeze. Lisa reciprocated with a brief waist hug.
Corey broke off and took a step to one side, already lit up with a huge smile. “I’m a touchy-feely kind of person but I know some people aren’t and I’m not always the greatest about remembering,” she rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. “I’m trying to be better about asking first. But! Anyway! Good to see you!”
“Yeah, you too,” said Lisa vaguely, distracted as a thought hit her out of left field.
When was the last time anyone had hugged her? A long while. Before she triggered long.
She tuned back in to Corey saying something about concessions and walking away. Lisa figured that Corey intended for her to come along, so she followed, shaking off the thought as she did so. Regardless of whether Lisa was the type of person to need tactile closeness to others, which she wasn’t, her power rendered any kind of physical affection an exercise in skeeviness.
That guy is thinking about how easily he could just squeeze harder and snap her neck.
She’s pressing up against him to get him hot and bothered for later.
They’ve got handfuls of each others’ asses.
Ech. No thanks. Lisa hadn’t picked up any questionable intent from Corey just then, but her focus had been elsewhere. Probably just as well, she didn’t want her power to force things to start on a sour note. She didn't need hugs.
They arrived at the concessions area and Corey made a beeline for the popcorn. She promptly acquired the largest bucket available and then turned to face Lisa, her free hand dropping onto her hip and a serious expression coming over her face.
“Okay crash course in concessions. The hot dogs are good, the popcorn is awesome, candy’s okay, drinks are drinks. Fries take forever and we want to get into the theater soonish so we can grab good seats. Avoid the pretzels they taste like cardboard. Get whatever you like though, my treat!”
"You sure? I have money." She didn't really care one way or the other about paying; she was more interested in probing into Corey's attitude towards money.
Corey gave a firm nod. "I invited you. Guest rules. Besides, you're basically saving me money by taking the spare ticket."
Downplaying the spend, doesn't assign much value to money, clothes are minor brand name, attends Arcadia; well-off family. Satchel is worn, well-used, takes care of her possessions, treasures gifts; birthday present. Conscious she has more than others, doesn't like splashing cash on herself, feels she should share. Voluntary work, likes to be independent, dislikes being obligated; doesn't want friends to feel they owe her.
Well, that wasn't what Lisa expected to learn. She turned away from Corey in the guise of studying the food on offer to give herself a chance to digest the new information. Money was usually a power play, a social weapon, a method of flaunting status. People who didn't care about wealth tended to be the ones who had so much that it became meaningless, any spend just a drop in the ocean, or else who grew up in the kind of privilege that meant they had no concept of what anything was actually worth. Lisa was sure that some people in that grouping had to be different, she just didn't think she'd meet any of them.
Corey kept catching her cynical side off guard. Lisa didn't like to be surprised. Being surprised usually meant she was wrong about something.
She mulled it over as she settled on a hot dog and a soda. Ferreting out the bad in someone was rarely difficult; often Lisa didn't even need the benefit of being a thinker to pull back the curtain. Assuming the good intentions of others was a great way of landing yourself in major trouble, and after her experience being 'recruited' by Coil, the last thing Lisa wanted was to expose herself to more danger. It didn't count as paranoia when she'd had a supervillain conscript her at gunpoint inside the last six months.
Maybe Corey just buried the ugly parts a little better than most. Maybe a café and a movie theater were just the wrong environments for her power to pick up anything incriminating. There had to be a reason Lisa hadn't managed to uncover anything yet.
The teller rang them up together and Corey made good on her promise to pay, promptly grabbing a handful of popcorn the second she’d put her change away. She'd piled her bucket high enough that not skimming some off the top was probably risking spillage, regardless.
They headed into the theater proper, Corey leading the way, awkwardly balancing her food and drink in one arm to hand the tickets over to the usher. Lisa held her breath the whole time, waiting for either popcorn or soda to go flying. Somehow, they didn't. From there, the two of them entered the screening area. Some early birds had taken the opportunity to secure seats, but they still managed to find a spot in the upper centre which had a good view of the big screen. Steadily, the place filled up until it was close to capacity. Someone else, another teen, wound up sitting on Lisa's left. Thankfully, they were quiet.
The movie started. Ink Black followed the story of a staff member on a cruise liner which was experiencing a slew of disappearances and later, murders. It was dark and atmospheric, and the leads were clearly pouring their hearts into their roles, though Lisa found most of the supporting cast to be pretty flat and dull. As another plus, the sound design was, in fact, godly.
That still didn't keep her from getting distracted from the movie in favour of people watching. Or rather, Corey watching. Lisa's power didn't work on fictional people, but it was surprisingly easy to infer into a writer's intentions until she started to uncover flurries of spoilers. Turned out that the killer was the captain being haunted by the spectres of his dead former crew, driving him to kill the passengers. Also the male lead was going to get together with the female lead but Lisa would have kicked her own ass if she'd needed to rely on her power to work that one out.
...She really had to stop ruining movies for herself.
Even so, Corey made for a good substitute. She had an expressive face when she wasn’t applying popcorn to it, eyes intent, lighting up during the action sequences. At times she would bite her lip, others, have both hands up to her mouth, bouncing ever so slightly in place. During the movie’s climax she bunched them into fists, twisting her wrists back and forth, like she could fight the protagonist’s battle for him.
It was quite a contrast to the loft. Alec and Rachel were a surprisingly adept heckling duo, the latter constantly calling out anything she saw as dumb with a ‘they’re fucking stupid’ and the former cracking jokes at the expense of any wooden acting or clunky plot elements. Combined with Lisa’s own habit of trying to pre-empt obvious plot twists, and she suddenly realised why Brian hated movie night so much.
The credits started to roll on a shot of the survivors in a life boat, rowing away from the sinking cruise liner. Corey remained still for a little while and then turned to Lisa with a smile.
“That was good. Did you like it?”
Lisa couldn’t answer one hundred percent honestly, so she just nodded. Corey smiled a bit wider and then gestured towards the screen.
“You wanna stay and see if there’s a stinger?”
“Nah. It ended on a good note. I don’t want to find out they ruined it after the fact with something dumb.”
Corey laughed. “Fair. All right, let’s get out of here.”
They exited together. Corey had a real spring in her step, and Lisa glanced her way, a little amused by the exuberance. Maybe it was a sugar high from all the popcorn and soda.
“You seem like you had fun.”
“I love movies,” said Corey. “That was like a solid seven out of ten. Exciting, didn’t try and be more than it needed to be. Gets dinked for cramming in a romance arc, especially between two characters who had such a good partner dynamic. Besides, Sven had way more chemistry with Winston, and what was with the whole scene where they were talking about how they got through the hold and Sven had that long lingering look on Winston when he said that it was the people he cared about? Like, come on! Queerbait, man.”
That was actually more critical analysis than Lisa was expecting from someone who’d clearly been feeling the drama so intently. “Yeah, I can see that. Think they meant the Butcher vibes with the ghost voices?”
“Hum. Maybe. The director’s supposed to be this huge cape buff, it’s why she works with tinkers so much. Wouldn’t be surprised if she got inspiration from Butcher. I mean, they were already skirting a line with that whole ‘huge monster under the water’ angle. Bet they added the explanation about it not being Leviathan in post.”
Lisa wouldn’t take that bet, since it was one of the things her power had confirmed about the script as she watched the movie. She laughed and shook her head. “Not taking that bet. Too morbid for me.”
Back out into the foyer area, Corey dumped her empty containers and returned to Lisa. “Well, thanks for coming out with me.”
“No problem. I had a good time.” Not for the reasons Corey would be thinking, but she didn’t need to know that. Decent way to burn some time, a little more practice with her power, and she’d got away from the loft for a little while.
“That’s awesome.” She yawned suddenly, failing to catch it with her hand. “Oof. Early start today. I’m such an old lady.”
Lisa grinned. Corey made a face at her.
“I should be getting back anyway,” said Lisa.
“Oke dokes. See you again soon?”
Lisa almost surprised herself by how quickly she responded with a “Sure thing.”
Not quite, though.
At a stage which Lisa, looking back, found difficult to pinpoint, hanging out with Corey became a regular part of her calendar.
A/N: Warning for some references to self-harming in here.
The estate of one Karl Eisler was in the nicer part of the Bay and wanted you to know it. The grounds were surrounded by brick walls topped with wrought-iron spikes, and an ornate gate barred entry, flanked by a pair of golden lions which were frankly just garish.
If only he paid as much attention to his security as he did the decor.
"I'm actually feeling second-hand embarrassment right now," remarked Tattletale as she typed 'BigKashKarl' onto Eisler's desktop and accessed the computer. "1324 for a gate code? EyeSeeYou for the cameras? This guy is a moron. So's his security head."
"Less gloating, more searching, Tattle," said Grue, pausing in his latest circuit around Eisler's office. The original plan had been for him to douse the estate's cameras with darkness, let the security detail think that there was a technical malfunction, and then move in under the cover he provided. Tattletale managing to pick out both the control centre for the cameras and the code for them inside thirty seconds had rendered that obsolete.
They'd worked together enough now that Tattletale could deduce how he was feeling fairly easily; Grue was professional enough to be pleased that the job was going off without a hitch, but proud and self-assured enough that he was put out that his role in his own plan had turned out to be unnecessary.
"Aw come on, Grue," Tattletale turned her head to grin at him, continuing to type without looking at the keyboard. "You think I can't snark and crime at the same time?"
Tattletale couldn't see him glowering behind his skull-faced mask, but knowing it was there was almost as good. "You can be smug when we're finished, Tattle."
She waved a hand at him in a flippant 'go away' gesture. He grumbled under his breath, which only intensified as a muffled crash came from somewhere downstairs. The secondary objective of tonight's mission was to inflict some random property damage, cover the tracks of the data theft with good old fashioned robbery. Bitch was perhaps enjoying sending her dogs crashing through all of Eisler's expensive furniture a little too much, but Tattletale couldn't begrudge her that.
It'd be downright hypocritical, given that the remains of a hideous butterfly ornament were currently decorating the paneled wooden floor alongside Eisler's desk. In Tattletale's defence, the thing was so offensively gaudy she was pretty sure she'd improved the net aesthetic appeal of the room by nudging it onto the floor.
A minute passed as Tattletale pulled as many files as she could find from Eisler’s computer, her power guiding her towards where he was storing the good stuff. He had zero organisational structure to his documents, which ironically made her job harder. How the hell did a guy who worked for half a dozen media outlets not use folders?
“Annnd we have the goods. Hold your applause,” she unplugged her USB stick from the computer and shot another grin at Grue.
He flipped over the desk with what Tattletale considered to be slightly excessive force.
They trashed the office together and then headed downstairs to rendezvous with Bitch, Regent, and the pair of dogs they’d brought along. Another loud crash made their location obvious, and Tattletale and Grue entered the destroyed remains of Eisler’s lounge. A spiky gristlebeast went charging past to enthusiastically overturn a bookshelf. Bitch was keeping the dogs small in the interests of subtlety, a little over double their ordinary size. It would leave them short on muscle if any capes were to show up, but people tended to notice giant monsters charging around the streets. Bitch had a polished wooden mask which seemed to be a demon of some description tucked under her arm. There were also dog-shaped holes in two of the walls and one window. Regent was lounging around on the remains of what had once been a very nice couch. A canvas bag filled to bursting with bills and miscellaneous valuables lay on the floor alongsides.
"You two look like you had fun," said Tattletale.
"I made two of the guards keep slapping each other," Regent chuckled. "It was great."
"Of course it was," said Grue flatly. "We have what we came for, let's move."
They exited through a side door, the same route they'd taken in, passing by a pair of unconscious and zip-tied security guards. A red light was flashing on the walkie-talkie attached to one of their belts.
Blinking means a message, guards are in communication with the security head, work in shifts. Hourly check-ins, they've missed this one, their boss knows the cameras are down; backup en route to investigate.
"We're about to have company," she told the others. "Just security, nothing to be worried about."
"Thanks," said Grue. "Follow my lead." He raised a hand and darkness enshrouded the group, leaving them in a clearing where they could see each other but nothing else. Grue strode forward confidently, his darkness parting before him. Tattletale fell in step behind and the others followed, the cloying black fog flowing back into the space they were vacating. With a glance over his shoulder to confirm they were all with him, he broke into a run. They all hurried after him.
After a couple of minutes of dashing through the night, Grue signaled them to stop, paring away his darkness to reveal that the four of them were now standing in a dingy alleyway between two tall buildings. In front of and behind them the inky blackness persisted, though Tattletale got the sense he was pushing it out a good distance in other directions, stopping anyone from tracking them just by playing 'follow the darkness'.
"I don't think anyone's on our tail," Grue looked at each of them in turn, seeking confirmation.
Regent shrugged. "My range isn't that long and your darkness fucks it up."
Tattletale made a similar indifferent gesture. Her power wasn't telling her anything either, but she didn't really have enough information to go off one way or the other. "Best I can do is that we don't have any heavy hitters following us."
Bitch was quiet for a few seconds, glancing between the two dogs. Then her head snapped up. "They smell someone."
“Heads up!” barked Grue. “Cape!”
Tattletale twisted around as a figure emerged from the darkness at the opposite end of the alleyway. They weren’t well-outfitted, rocking the sporting-goods chic look with black skintight leggings and long-sleeved top which screamed 'amateur'. About the only article to indicate cape rather than late-night jogger was their balaclava. They halted the second they saw the group, dropping into a contained but combat-ready fighting stance.
“Not that I want to be rude or anything, but I'm guessing you guys are maybe doing something you shouldn't be doing,” said the cape. Her voice was light and playful with just a little tension bubbling underneath.
Downplaying the demand by making light of it, wants to stop us but realistic about her chances against four of us. Defensive stance, concerned about getting rushed, power isn’t active, takes a moment to turn on, knows we’ll see her do it; breaker. Frustrated she didn’t prepare ahead of time, wasn’t looking to get into a confrontation, still getting used to her power; first night out as a cape. No. Not even intending to be out as a cape tonight.
"Tattle?" Grue's attention remained fixed on the cape. "Anything we need to worry about?"
"Sec," Tattletale murmured. The cape's gaze was dancing between the four of them, fists slowly clenching and unclenching.
Calming mechanism, not an aggressive one, still knows this isn’t a winnable fight, won't start anything without reinforcements; will try to play for time. Familiar movement, resembles the way Corey flexes her knuckles.
Tattletale’s heart skipped a beat. Her power picked up the thread and ran with it.
Low fighting stance makes her look shorter than she is, outfit is concealing a lot of skin to mask freckles, head is covered to hide distinct red hair. Bulkiness around the gloves, hands are bandaged underneath. Corey’s height, Corey’s build. Is Corey.
Well, that would make this a little less funny than usual.
"We're good. Regent can handle it," she kept her voice low, pitching it down to disguise the tone.
"Finally," said Regent, and Tattletale could hear the grin.
Regent took one step forward, made a casual gesture, and Corey tripped to faceplant directly into the alley wall.
Regent strode over and jabbed her with his scepter before she could rise. Corey convulsed as the taser's electricity coursed through her, then curled into a defensive ball and lay still.
"This is just a bit sad, really," said Regent, standing over her. "Have you considered a different line of work?"
"We done?" asked Bitch. One hand was resting gently on the flank of one of her dogs.
"We're done," confirmed Grue. "Let's go."
He flooded the alleyway with darkness and the four of them retreated.
Lisa tried not to think about the pang of guilt she felt for putting Corey through that. Really, it was for the best.
The text arrived two days later.
The robbery had gained some minor traction in the local news, though Lisa suspected what they'd stolen barely would have warranted a mention if it wasn't for Eisler's media connections. There was also a thread discussing it on PHO, but that had wound up locked a few pages in after descending into aimless speculation. The involvement of another cape passed without comment.
Corey: Hey, you busy tomorrow?
Lisa scrutinised the message for a good ten minutes, even allowing herself a small use of her power to dip into the motives behind it. Corey couldn't know that she was Tattletale, not from such a brief meeting with so little to go off. Lisa was positive that Corey wasn't a thinker, and without her own power, Lisa doubted she would have pegged Corey's identity so quickly. She'd have figured it out given a little more time, of course, just wouldn't have managed it immediately.
Dispirited by the setback, social person, wants some company to take her mind off it, wants to spend time around a friend; not suspicious of me.
Corey being a cape was something else that needed a whole lot of unpacking. Her power had conveyed that Cape-Corey wasn't as familiar with her abilities as she could be, but Lisa had known Corey for a couple of months now, and she'd neither seen nor intuited any sign of a trigger event. However, if Corey wasn’t a recent trigger, Lisa couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t have been involved in the scene before last night. A piece of the puzzle was missing somewhere, and that as much as anything else had Lisa pick up her phone and text back.
You: Not especially. What's up?
The response came almost instantly.
Corey: Want to hang out? I'm working on a project and it's numbing my brain. I need a distraction.
Lisa considered for a short while. The logical thing to do would be to start pulling away from the friendship, gradually go ghost so that Corey wouldn't connect an abrupt change in relations to her encounter with the Undersiders. On the other hand, having someone to spend time with outside of the group was nice. Rachel was hard work, someone she more managed social scenarios with than enjoyed them, Alec was an irritating little shit just as often as he was hilarious, and Brian was often too serious for Lisa's tastes. Corey was something different, maybe a bit on the idealistic side, but that wasn't a dealbreaker.
Besides, Lisa was good at this kind of thing. The idea of the challenge clinched her decision; she could make it into a social game, keeping the secret while enjoying the company. Figure out exactly what was going on with Corey while preventing her from doing the same.
You: I'm only a distraction? I see how it is.
Corey: Meant it only in the bet possible way. Promise.
You: Sure you did. Time and place?
Corey: I know this cool spot just outside the boardwalk. Half four sound good?
Corey: Corey has sent you a link.
Lisa brought up the website from the link and perused it. A coffee shop called Quirks promoting a 'quiet and relaxed safe space', boardwalk adjacent but thankfully not boardwalk priced. Looked cosy enough from the pictures, nothing Lisa objected to.
Well, here she went.
You: See you tomorrow.
Quirks was unassuming from the outside, tinted windows preventing anyone from getting much of a look at the interior just from the sidewalk. There was a sandwich board style sign outside the front door with various specials—mostly coffee blends—chalked across it. ‘We All Have Our Quirks’ decorated the top of the sign in elegant lilac font. Someone had spent a lot of time with the colours putting that design together.
Lisa pulled open the glass door and stepped inside. The interior was warm, the space split out into a lounge area filled with couches and chairs on one side and a more traditional coffee shop layout on the other. The walls were heavily decorated with posters, some for bands and others faux motivational. A notice board was set up by the store counter, overflowing with flyers and scribbled messages and was that?—yep, that was one of those QYR—Queer Youth Refuge—leaflets pinned up there.
She scanned the room and finally spotted Corey, sitting by a low table away off in the lounge area, nursing a glass of something thick and extremely pink.
Corey looked pretty worse for the wear. Her nose was swollen, a raw scuff mark across the tip. Both of her eyes were blackened. That didn't stop her from smiling brightly at Lisa as she approached.
"Here she is! How goes?"
"I'm doing fine. But what about you?" Lisa nodded to the bruises as she took a seat opposite her. "What happened there?" She tried to ignore the twist in her gut which reminded her of exactly who was responsible for the injuries.
"Hah, uh, yeah, it's kind of an embarrassing story," Corey's cheeks went slightly pink. "I was up late doing work and fell asleep," she mimed leaning on her elbow, propping her chin on her hand. "Slipped. Smashed my face right off my desk."
She was a pretty good liar. Someone who wasn't Lisa would probably have missed the minute inflections of guilt in her tone and manner. One part lying at all, one part lying to Lisa.
"As always, you are a genius," she teased. Corey pulled a mock-outraged face at her, then slid a menu across the table.
"They have great coffee here, you'll be happy to know," she'd picked up on the addiction annoyingly quickly. "I'm on the shakes," Corey demonstrated by leaning over her tall glass and latching on to the straw. She broke off after a few seconds. "S'good! Also, cold."
Lisa imagined that would help with the bruising. She ignored the lump in her throat. Nodded.
Corey flagged down a staff member, an early-twenties looking guy with bleach-dyed hair and several facial piercings. "Jensen! Can we get another shake and a…?"
“Black coffee over here?”
Jensen walked up, scribbling down the order on a notepad. "Can do Corey. Who's your friend?" he smiled Lisa's way, twitching the studs either side of his bottom lip.
"Lisa," she said.
"Good to meet you," he nodded to Corey. "Watch out for that one, she's a lady killer,” he winked.
"Oh fuck off, Jensen. This isn't a date." Jensen just grinned, resuming his trip back to the counter. Corey rolled her eyes. "Sorry about that. He's more interested in my lovelife than I am."
Lisa snorted. At least she wasn't the only one. Though... "Didn't he just out you?"
Corey blinked. "Oh! No, no, don't worry. I tell basically anyone I've spoken to more than once that I'm gay, so he knew you knew already."
There was a slightly awkward pause.
“Juuust occurred to me. Uh…” Corey rubbed her neck self-consciously. “You know this isn’t like, a queer-only spot, right? I have no idea if you’re straight and I’m not asking you to tell me if you are or not, I just don’t want you to feel awkward or that this is some kind of master plan to ask you out or something.”
Lisa looked at her for a second and then burst out laughing. Corey looked absolutely mortified, especially as it took Lisa a few moments to get herself back under control. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she managed. “It’s just that sounds so backwards: ‘Oh, it’s okay if you’re straight!’”
Corey stuck out her tongue. “Bah. Heteronormative,” she hesitated. “So you are straight?”
Lisa’s turn to hesitate. It’d been a while since she thought about her own sexuality; she was usually too busy getting that of others shoved into her face. "I guess I'm not sure. I have some hang-ups around the idea of getting with anyone, gender irrelevant." 'Hang-ups' was putting it pretty mildly of course; anyone she started to feel affection for, even as just a friend, immediately had any potential future developments shot down in flames by her power.
Except even as the thought ran through her head, Lisa realised that it wasn't quite true. There was someone who her power hadn't managed to uncover the dirt on.
She was sitting right there.
"That's fair enough. Not everyone sees a label they think fits, or likes labels at all. 'I don't know' is a perfectly valid answer," Corey cocked her head to the side. "You think you might be ace, maybe?"
Lisa's power thankfully filled in the gap. Ace. Asexual. Kind of? Not really? On an intellectual and occasionally physical level, Lisa felt attraction. It was her power which caused the problem. "Maybe," she forced a grin. "I don't know."
Corey laughed. "Nice."
They fell quiet. Lisa's heart was thumping. Come on, there had to be something she was missing about Corey. Had missed about Corey. For two months.
She's way too optimistic, puts too much faith in the 'goodness' of others. Which was a breath of fresh air in the pit of cynicism that was Brockton Bay.
Helps to shelter gang members, junkies, criminals. Because she sincerely believed in people, and in giving them a chance. And honestly did Lisa have a leg to stand on when it came to law breaking?
Eats way too much. Except Lisa found those culinary adventures funny, even endearing, not gross.
Doesn't always shave. Legs or pits . Oh no. How dreadful. Also Lisa lived with Rachel.
Is a cape. She got in our way. But wasn't that a Lisa problem rather than a Corey problem?
Fuck! Shit! She was so not thinking about this. Subject change, stat.
"Since we're sharing, can I ask you something?" said Lisa.
Lisa gestured across the table, to where Corey was cradling her shake like the holy grail. "Your hands. They're always taped up or bandaged. What's with that?" The other night had brought the wrappings back to the forefront of Lisa’s mind. She’d eventually put them down as just a slightly-unusual fashion accessory, given Corey wore them all the time, but then they’d helped Lisa identify her when she was ostensibly undercover.
An expression Lisa hadn't seen before flickered across Corey's face. Uncertainty. Hurt. The silence began to stretch.
"If you don't want to talk about it..." Lisa offered lamely, uncomfortably aware that her own first instinct to mentally complete that sentence was 'I'll just use my power to figure it out anyway.' Since when did she care about exploiting her ability to tease out the facts?
"No, it's okay," Corey looked down at her hands and then, in that familiar fashion, gripped her own knuckles and started to work them back and forth, back and forth. "Six, maybe seven months ago I was... I was in a bit of a bad spot," she spoke haltingly, not meeting Lisa's eyes. "I had some... things pressuring me and I didn't know how to let them out. Didn't have anyone to let them out to. And well, I uh, I pretty much just lost my shit," she laughed, ragged. "Went off on a wall, punched it like five, six times before the pain got through and I realised I'd just completely fucked up my hands. Broken bones, broken knuckles, blood everywhere," Corey continued staring downwards, continued the flexing motion. "So ah, yeah. The tape is for physiotherapy. Try to un-fuck things some," finally she looked up, managing a smile. "It's not so bad. Hurt way more before. They think I'll probably have a 80-90 percent recovery in the next three months."
Trigger event? No, hesitation is around what set her off, not that she lost her head. Something worse happened before; pressure was around her powers, about triggering. Hesitation, doesn't want to talk about her trigger, didn't—doesn’t—have another cape to discuss it with, hasn't told anyone about her powers; distrustful. Of others, of herself; only properly 'patrolled' the other night, lacks confidence in her abilities. Feels she should, but doesn't know if she can.
At some point in the middle of that, Lisa said something vaguely sympathetic, but she was still reeling, adjusting. This was a lot to take in all at once, and part of her was damn frustrated with both herself and her power that she hadn't figured any of this out sooner. Not asking the right questions, not extrapolating the right data. If it wasn't Corey, Lisa might have attributed concealing her powers to wanting to be 'normal', but seriously? This was an openly gay teenager in a city with a nazi gang. She clearly didn't give a fuck about sticking to status quo.
"Sorry," said Lisa after a little while. "That's heavy."
"Wouldn't have told you if I didn't want to." The smile wasn't so forced this time. "I'm sorry for ambushing you with my deep dark secrets."
Lisa laughed, relieved at the palpable drop in tension. "I've heard darker." Best she didn't elaborate on where, when, and how.
"Well, damn. I need to step up my game," she paused, glanced down at her hands again, back up. "And hey, um, don't get worried about me. I've worked through some stuff, in a much better spot now. Not gonna visit my wrath upon any more walls."
After a second, Lisa realised that she had felt concern building up within her, stomach beginning to knot.
This was a terrible idea. She shouldn't be getting invested, especially not into someone she'd fought less than seventy-two hours ago.
But had known for a little over two months.
And liked her unreservedly and unconditionally.
And was so fucking nice that the worst Lisa's power could dredge up was that she preferred going au naturale with her body hair.
“That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”
By the time Lisa made her excuses and left half an hour later, a sickly ache had begun to drip into her sinking heart.
Thank you T0PH4T for betaing this chapter for me!
Another day, another successful job for the Undersiders, another step towards establishing themselves as a halfway credible player in Brockton Bay.
The next task had come less than a week after the previous one, which was a break from habit for Coil. Usually their boss allowed more time for the dust to settle before sending them out again, so he had to be making some moves, shuffling a few pieces. Frustratingly, Lisa couldn’t afford any usage of her power to attempt to divine his motives; two jobs and the ongoing enigma of Cape-Corey left her so close to her limits it wasn’t even funny. Except possibly to Alec. He’d probably find Lisa’s migraines hilarious.
Maybe she was investing more time and effort into Corey than she should. Hanging out with Corey was supposed to be a break from all the demands on her power, not another source of demands. That was what she got for being completely incapable of leaving a secret alone.
Regardless, without the ability to apply thinker-juice to the question, Lisa was forced to conclude that Coil just really hated Karl Eisler. Robbing an antiques store the guy owned wasn’t quite as personal as tearing his house up but still represented a nasty hit to the wallet. In damaged and stolen goods they’d cost him tens of thousands of dollars, a figure she could infer from the sizable bounty their employer had put up for each successfully retrieved piece. The only actually challenging part of the entire job was coming up with an escape route which didn't break everything they'd stolen. Using the dogs would have resulted in the grand theft of an awful lot of pieces of formerly-valuable antiques. Entertaining as the concept of dumping a sack of broken pottery at the drop point was, it didn't quite match the financial incentives.
What Lisa was dwelling on from the job, though, was that she hadn't known the owner of the store until she'd taken a peek at some of the paperwork they were in the process of lifting. Eisler's name was all over the books, funding all kinds of 'acquisition expenses', as well as the business's payroll and bills. She figured that Coil didn’t especially care if the connection was made, given the unfettered access the theft had allowed them to the store’s ledgers, but he hadn’t gone out of his way to keep them in the loop either.
Complicating matters yet further was the fact Coil had used his power to assist them. Right before they left for the job, he’d called Lisa and simply said ‘Watch the roads.’ Lo and behold, a PRT response van containing at least one member of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene right as they were bailing out. Because of the forewarning, Grue had situated himself on watch duty and immediately blocked the van off with his darkness, and the whole team made it out easily.
Lisa knew that Coil was careful and didn’t like to leave things to chance, but was his help on this job insurance against bad luck, or a guarantee on a task he couldn’t afford to fail? So many questions, so few goddamn answers.
That decided it. Enough distractions. As soon as she was able to properly focus, she was going to figure out who the hell Eisler was to Coil.
Today she had situated herself on the loft’s couch, sitting cross-legged with her laptop at the ready and web browser open. Even without her power, gauging the reaction to their latest caper was a good place to begin her search. Alec was playing some kind of fighting game—they all tended to blur together—which was providing some ambient noise as she worked, mostly of the bloodcurdling scream, 'COMBO!' and 'KO!' variety. Brian, meanwhile, was out at the gym and Rachel, naturally, had gone to visit her personal dog shelter. As always, Lisa was careful not to jump directly to viewing reports of the Undersiders' activities, because really, getting caught gloating in the publicity of your own crimes was some Über and Leet tier villainy. Allow between one and three days, then check what was being reported. Lisa wouldn't put it past the PRT to monitor web history for search patterns, and the unwritten rules didn't necessarily apply to scenarios where the authorities were tracking a smoking gun. If it was truly, pressingly necessary to know about the fallout of a job, there were better ways than going on the internet. In any case, the antiques theft had made a bit of a stir, likely because witnesses had seen the PRT arrive on the scene and promptly fail to prevent them from making an exit.
Reading between the lines of rumours and official PRT statements, the Undersiders were beginning to seriously get under the skins of the heroes. Sure, they were small fry in the grand scheme of things, but it was egg on the Protectorate's faces to call the Undersiders out as minor-leaguers and then repeatedly fail to capture or even really inconvenience them. The fact that it was supposedly Velocity who shouldered the blame for this latest failure made the media take even more damning. When your speedster couldn't manage to chase the villains down...
The boost to their reputation was a double edged sword. More trust from Coil, more lucrative jobs. On the flipside, more danger. They had the powers and the skillsets to get around Wards, a Protectorate member or two, but what if they ran headlong into Armsmaster and Dauntless?
Well, that was a situation for Lisa to steer them away from and, if worst came to worst, for Coil to give them a second shot at.
God she hated Coil’s power. He had two attempts to catch out anything she attempted to pull, and because of how she was ninety-percent certain it worked, she might not ever know she was rumbled. Trying to glean information from realities which technically didn’t exist was pure nosebleed territory, and Lisa had given up trying after only a couple of attempts. As much as she wanted a route out, she wasn’t going to find one by crippling herself.
Lisa looked up from her laptop. Alec had set his game controller to one side and was sitting forward from his usual slouch. She arched an eyebrow at him.
“Who’s your friend, anyway?” he grinned. “You aren’t trying to recruit someone on the down low, are you?”
"Nobody and no," said Lisa, trying not to sound defensive, then immediately questioning why she'd need to be in the first place.
“Come on, Lisa. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you texting like crazy lately. Either our boss got a whole lot chattier or you’re talking to someone different.”
"I'm allowed to know people."
“So you’re saying we have to call off the ‘Lisa actually made a friend!’ party?”
Lisa flipped him off. He laughed. She shook her head and glowered. "I'm better at making friends than you are."
Something glittered behind Alec's eyes as he continued to smile. "Objectively, I can make a friend out of anybody I want."
He shrugged lazily. Not for the first time, Lisa considered what the fallout would be when the full extent of his abilities came out. Nothing stayed secret forever, and they’d eventually need to make use of him for something other than tripping people up. The further off that day, the better; the PRT would flip if they knew Alec was a high level Master. Get his hands on the wrong—or right, from the Undersiders' perspective—person, and the confidential information would start tumbling like dominoes.
Lisa was one part impressed and one part surprised by his levels of restraint. She could hardly imagine keeping her power under wraps as much as he did. Even the breaks she forced herself to take were tortuous, and that was because the alternative was spending hours in a dark room wishing for the sweet embrace of death. On the other hand, Alec’s alternative was Heartbreaker.
Alec was giving her an expectant look.
She attempted to laser her exasperation directly into his brain with her expression alone. “Ironic as this will sound, quit prying, Alec.”
“You’re right.” He almost managed to look contrite. Lisa didn’t believe it for a second. “That is ironic.” There it was.
"You're a riot, Alec,” she narrowed her eyes. “The kind with tear gas."
"Come on, dish. Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Diabolical scheming partner?" he paused, then wagged his finger. "Better not be doing any evil plotting without involving me."
"If I was, you'd be the last to know."
He laughed. "You're so sweet. And evasive. Now I'm convinced you've got the hots for someone."
"Not in a million years. Which, incidentally, is how long it's gonna take you to unfuck your gamer profiles if you don't drop it."
The smile slid off his face. "You wouldn't. "
Lisa grinned at him savagely. "Try me."
Alec held up his hands. "Fiine. Fine," the smile clicked right back into place. "I'll just have to imagine it instead. 'Dearest Lisa, my thoughts dwell fondly on our liaison under the cherry blossoms—"
He yelped as Lisa threw a couch cushion at his head. She went for another, and then her phone beeped. She reflexively went to check it, but stopped short as Alec reappeared from behind the projectile, that infuriating smile fixed right on her. He wriggled his eyebrows.
“Bet you a hundred bucks they're asking you out.”
His grin somehow got even wider. “See the fact that you haven’t just used your power and taken the bet means I know I’m right.”
Lisa scowled at him and checked her phone. There was going to be a reckoning for this later.
Corey: Hey, are you free? I need to talk to you.
She stared at the message for a few seconds. Almost without meaning it, she allowed her power to chime in.
Phrasing, need. Doesn’t fit her usual speech pattern. Not an invitation or a casual check-in, conveying importance; worry. Worried, needs to talk, open person, dislikes lying, hates concealing aspects of herself; wants to tell me something. Trusted me to talk about her hands, breaking her hands stemmed from her trigger; wants to tell me she’s a cape.
Part of Lisa wanted to grin, because this friendship was about to become very, very interesting, because this was another in the win column of Lisa’s secrets vs. those of others.
The other? The other wasn’t so excited. Lisa might have known about Corey already, but that didn’t change that this was an extension of trust, opening up to Lisa about something she’d never told anyone else. Their secret, rather than Corey’s.
Did that put a burden of responsibility on her shoulders? Was she now going to have to look out for Corey’s cape life, as well as her own?
No, Lisa could hardly be blamed if someone else chose to put their faith in her. She didn’t control that, and she didn’t own the decisions that Corey made. Why should she feel as if she owed anything to a choice that wasn’t hers?
You: Sure. Where we meeting?
"Sooooo..." Alec drawled.
“I’m going out,” she said, pointedly not looking at him.
“Have a good date!”
The second cushion beaned him square in the forehead.
Thanks once again to T0PH4T for their help beta-ing!
Corey wanted to meet on the boardwalk, which didn’t give Lisa a lot of time to get her thoughts in order as she made her way to the meetup. She told herself that it was unnecessary, she had nothing to resolve, that the pit in her stomach was anticipation and not anxiety. And if it was anxiety? Then it was rooted in the slender chance Corey had somehow busted her, nothing more.
By Brockton Bay standards, it was a chill afternoon, one last hurrah for winter before spring officially arrived. There were a decent number of people around, none much inclined to give Lisa a second glance, which suited her just fine. Best way to blend in on the boardwalk was to dress just nicely enough that the ‘security’ guys didn’t catch on you didn’t belong there, preferably toting a cup of one of those coffees which were dusted with gold flakes or something. Lisa liked spending time here; it was a great venue for low-risk, high-reward people watching. Well, less high-reward recently, because most of the occasions she'd been on the boardwalk of late were with Corey, and Lisa figured that she'd probably object to Lisa's casual ATM fraud. That bothered her less than she felt it should, but she was less hard up for cash now. Coil was a prick, but at least paid well, and the company was good.
Up ahead, the boardwalk opened out into an area which wasn't quite a plaza, but probably had aspirations of being one when it grew up. A number of planters were arrayed around the space, filled with evergeens, and a painted strip on the boards underfoot invited a winding route through the plantlife. Lisa spotted Corey almost immediately, perched on a bench with one foot tucked underneath her and the other trailing on the ground. In a pair of very few concessions Lisa had ever seen Corey make to temperature, she was wearing both a neckerchief and a hoodie, though if she wasn't wearing some kind of vest or strap top under that Lisa would suspect she'd been Mastered. Corey seemed to view sleeves as a sign of weakness.
Corey was staring off into space, and Lisa had to wave at her for a few seconds before finally catching her attention. Corey’s lips twitched upwards, and it was nothing close to her usual beaming smile, even with the bruising around her eyes having mostly faded. Lisa tried not to frown as she approached. The anxiety was unusual, but she had to bear the context in mind. For Corey, this was revealing something about herself which she hadn't told a soul and, for whatever reason, had decided that Lisa was the person to break that trend. She was exposing vulnerability and with no guarantees save her trust in Lisa that the result would be a good one. Gutsy.
“What’s up?” said Lisa.
“A few things.” Corey broke eye contact, then turned back to her, brightening artificially. “I got you a coffee!” She produced a cup from a paper bag sitting next to her on the bench and Lisa graciously accepted the blatant bribe-slash-icebreaker.
“Sounded like it from your texts,” Lisa agreed, trying not to be too obvious about looking Corey up and down. The body language, the tone of voice, the words she was and wasn’t saying, there was so much to uncover there. She didn’t need her power for that; reading people came naturally, and when that person happened to be someone who’d opened up to her about school, talked about volunteering, bared her heartfelt views on the Bay… One could call it something of an unfair advantage. Besides, Lisa had made an express commitment to herself not to use her power for Corey reasons. Not unless she really had to anyway. Or had no other pressing problems to Think around, or—goddammit she really wanted to know. Not even anything specific, just know about Corey, her best—her friend. Yeah.
Thankfully, Corey chose that moment to speak up and bolster her failing self-control. "Hey, so, you're um, you're not in a rush or anything, are you?"
Lisa withheld a frown. Right, she probably wasn’t just going to blurt out ‘by the way am cape!’, was she? "No, wouldn't have come out otherwise."
Corey nodded and looked away. She was flexing her hands, fingers bare above a pair of gloves with a now telltale bulk at the knuckles. "Right, of course. Um." Corey laughed suddenly, shaking her head. "Sorry, I must be coming across like a total weirdo. Can we just... talk for a bit? I think I need to work my way up to this."
Well, Lisa couldn't argue that without sounding like a complete bitch, and she didn’t want to piss Corey off. "Yeah, all right." Though, maybe angry Corey was the fulcrum she needed to figure out what demons were lurking beneath the surface. Hell, Lisa would even take something petty at this stage like not leaving tips (wait she did tip, dammit!). Nobody was this nice and… not gross? It wasn’t natural.
They walked for a while, chatting about everything in that very specific way where everything meant nothing at all. They'd shot the breeze before, holding meandering conversations which lasted for hours and never stayed on any fixed subject. This was different. This was talking just to fill a space, talk around the fact that Corey had invited her out here for a reason and they were mutually ducking it. Lisa did her best to suppress her impatience, as well another feeling which took a second examination for her to identify as concern. Lisa didn’t have the first idea how to deal with evasive Corey, much less Corey holding something back. It was so damn hard to keep her power on a leash.
Lisa had a sudden, horrible feeling that Corey was going to back out and not tell her at all. She was hesitating more often now, trailing off in mid-sentence, picking up and dropping random conversation threads like a neurotic seamstress. Maybe didn’t want to talk about caping; she’d certainly displayed little interest in the ‘para’ part of parahumans in the months they’d know each other.
Months. Had it really only been three months?
Crap. She’d zoned out. Lisa pinched her nose. “Sorry, mind was wandering.”
“I asked if you want to go to the maritime museum,” Corey thumbed over her shoulder, and Lisa followed the gesture up, then up a little more. The museum was situated on something of an artificial plateau, allowing it some below-ground space for some of its larger exhibits. Gleaming white stairways led up to it in a semi-circular pattern.
“I guess? But I don’t think this is why you asked me here.”
Corey’s face flickered with something like panic, she stumbled over a couple of words, then stopped, closed her eyes, opened them again. “You’re right.” She said wryly. “I’m stalling.”
“You don’t need to—”
“No, no, I really do. I’m gonna go nuts if I don’t get this off my chest." One more pause. Lisa desperately suppressed the urge to use her power. Then Corey made eye contact and spoke. "Okay so, I'm not... I'm not asking you for anything, but if I don't say this, I'll just, well, I'll feel like we're friends under false pretences and I don't want that. So um, if I can just say what I need to say and you can take it any way you want and like I said, don't feel like you have to react in a specific way o-or have to spare my feelings—"
"Corey!" the other girl jumped, shut her mouth. Lisa smiled at her, exasperation partially washed away by amusement. "Take a breath! Jeez!"
“Right. Right. Sorry." Corey laughed nervously, glanced down. After a few seconds she looked back up again. "I... I know we haven’t known each other for very long, but these past couple months have been, um, well… neat?”
It was odd seeing Corey look so anxious. Lisa supposed the secret Corey was about to share was a damn big one, but at this point Lisa was going to break if she didn’t spit it out soon. Once Lisa got past showing the appropriate level of surprise, she could get into asking about the really juicy stuff. How long had Corey had powers? How exactly did they work? Why wasn't she using them?
“I, uh…” Corey trailed off, took a deep breath. Ugh, come ooon! Was saying 'I'm a cape' really so difficult? “I really like you Lisa. You're good company, you don't bullshit, you're funny, you're l-like, so damn p-pretty—" she stuttered off into a laugh.
Lisa froze. What. What?
Corey’s mouth clapped shut, a red flush beginning to creep up her cheeks. Lisa wasn't sure she'd ever felt quite this lost for words, a chaotic swirl of contradictory thoughts spinning around her head. How had she missed that? There had to be some kind of mistake, a glitch or a blind spot in her power. She’d known Corey thought she was cute, acknowledged it and moved on, never bothering to reassess. Or—Corey was a stranger! No that was idiotic. The signs were there and they’d soared over Lisa’s head. Was she so used to the gross and obscene shit that came with attraction that she couldn’t recognise a regular crush?
Okay. She could still handle this. She got caught off guard, but that was fine, she just needed to let her down gently. “I—” she faltered, suddenly tongue-tied.
Come on, all she had to say was ‘Sorry, but no’. “Corey, u-um—” Fuck!
Lisa grasped for her power. Screw Coil, she needed something, anything to centre herself.
Pupils dilated, excited and terrified. Relieved to have spoken up, bracing for bad news, dreading laughter, instant rejection; refusal. Flustered because I am, hoping my reaction means I feel the same. Heart rate elevated, like mine. Flushed, like me—
No! Unhelpful! Fuck you power!
Lisa realised that she really was blushing. Fuck! Shit! Why didn’t this conversation have an eject button? Her heart was hammering at a thousand miles an hour, and she had far too good an idea of why.
“C-Corey, I…” this time she had to cut herself off, because she wasn’t sure if she trusted which words were about to come out of her mouth.
Abort, abort. Holy shit abort. She needed an out like yesterday because she was not dealing with the feelings that were bubbling up in her chest right now—
“Greetings cowering populace!”
Okay not exactly what she had in mind.
The voice was amplified as if from a megaphone. Lisa’s head snapped upward and there in the sky, flitting around like a paparazzi hummingbird, was a golden orb.
T0PH4T beta status = still great.
(apologies in advance for hitting post on the second half without running it by you too I am TOO EXCITE).
Heavy, pounding footfalls split the air. A murmur started up amongst the people in the museum’s vicinity, just a few handfuls shy of a crowd.
“I see that we have your attention!” announced the booming voice. It was coming from the main thoroughfare leading up to the museum plaza, close to where the boardwalk gave way to paving. Lisa, gratefully setting her emotions to the side for a moment, moved up a couple of steps on the nearby stairway. Cape business and information gathering were familiar, easy. They weren’t her racing pulse, the skipping, stuttering playback in her head of what Corey had just told her.
A bipedal robot twice the size of a man stood blocking the entrance to the area. Two sturdy legs mounted a hammerhead central unit and an upper section bristled with weaponry, one ‘arm’ consisting of a wicked-looking railgun, the other housing a blocky suite of what seemed to be missile launchers. A scrawny figure perched awkwardly atop the head, manning a control deck.
Flanking the robot were two people. One was a tall and well-built man wearing an almost indecently skintight jumpsuit and a bandana wrapped around his forehead, two long strips trailing down his back. The other was small and slim, wearing an ankle-length labcoat with one sleeve missing, revealing a dark-skinned arm. Everything beneath the elbow was enveloped by a metallic covering, and a frame of wires extended up from it, forming a meshwork around their hand. Their face was shadowed, mostly concealed by a hood.
Lisa couldn’t imagine that Über and Leet would hire a single unpowered henchman and kit them out like that. Their plus one had to be another cape, so either they’d hired a mercenary with very low standards or were expanding their cabal of losers.
“Now, if you’ll all kindly remain where you are, then this will be over before you know it.” Über's voice seemed to be routing through the mech to carry across the area. The three villains advanced, each step from the robot reverberating outward in hydraulic clanks.
Lisa hopped down from the steps. No sense drawing attention to herself. Actually, no sense getting involved in this situation at all. This was Über and Leet, not the Slaughterhouse Nine.
"Lisa," Corey murmured.
"Mm?" Laying low was the smart bet. Extra muscle aside, those two jokers weren’t the type to maim bystanders.
"Please don't freak out."
"Sure." Yeah, they'd pull off, or more likely attempt some kind of lame video-game themed heist and then—wait, freak out?
Lisa snapped her attention back to Corey. She'd pulled her neckerchief up to conceal the lower half of her face, zipped up her hoodie and raised the hood. She looked like a discount mugger.
"I meant to tell you about this but um, one soul-baring revelation at a time?" Lisa couldn’t see the awkward smile, but she knew it was there.
"You're a cape." Lisa felt it needed to be said, rather than just inferred. That made it real, real between them, not something which could be glossed over or left by the wayside later. It was weird combination of vindicating and galling to be right about the wrong thing.
Corey nodded. "I can't just sit here. They’re going to hurt people."
Lisa couldn't begrudge her for feeling that way, and honestly, those words were probably the least surprising thing Corey had said today. She returned the nod. "Be careful. There are three of them and one of you."
Two of us.
The treacherous, foolish thought snuck through Lisa's defences. Corey didn't have to do this alone. The numbers would still be against them but the day Lisa needed a numerical advantage to defeat a side including Über and Leet was the day she hung up her domino mask.
No. Even considering this was beyond stupid. She'd be throwing all the care and precautions she took to separate Lisa Wilbourn from Tattletale to the wind, she'd compromise her position with the Undersiders, she'd risk crossing the man who had recruited her at gunpoint. And she'd be revealing to Corey that she was one of the villains who'd humiliated her.
Corey took a step forward, inhaled deeply, and then began to glow.
The golden light was soft at first, growing more intense over a few seconds until her whole body was outlined by a gleaming aura. Immediately Corey’s movements seemed smoother, her stance more upright. Another step, and then she called out to the trio.
Oh christ. She sounded like a saturday morning cartoon’s idea of a hero. Lisa had to hope hope she was intentionally disguising her voice rather than feeling that was a good persona to adopt.
Über wheeled around, gasping dramatically. “Cape operatives!”
“Operative, singular.” The cape in the labcoat had a nasal voice, high pitched enough that Lisa felt confident she was female.
“Regardless!” Über set his hands on his hips, fingers framing his crotch uncomfortably closely. “You think you can stop us Protectorate—no wait—Ward—um,” he faltered, craned his neck to look up at Leet. “Little help? I have no idea who that is.”
“Nope, me neither.”
“Oh. Uh.” Über resumed where he’d left off. “You think you can stop us, random rogue? Imbecile!”
Lisa was getting a headache just watching this. She couldn’t imagine how it would feel to try and stretch her mental reserves and apply her power to the madness.
“I do!” proclaimed Corey. “For I have the power of um, justice on my side!” It would probably be coming off as less ridiculous if she had anything resembling an actual costume.
“Pah! Behold your weakness!” announced Über. “Gaze in awe at Leet’s magnificent Big Shell!”
Leet overhanded a fist-sized cube, which soared in an arc to land several feet off to the side of Corey. It slid slightly along the floor and then came to rest.
There was a long, awkward pause.
“Ahem… Gaze in awe at Leet’s magnificent Big Shell!” Über tried again. Leet, from the back of his mech, was furiously mashing buttons on a TV remote-esque device.
An electrical surge suddenly set the cube shuddering with an ominous whirring sound. Corey whirled around, tackling Lisa to the floor. As the wind whooshed from her lungs and the warmth of Corey’s aura enveloped her, a deafening crack split the air. Sheet lightning flashed overheard, followed by the repeated crackling of frying electronics. Then, shouts of pain and alarm cut through the air.
Corey pulled up into a low crouch, looking Lisa up and down, inspecting for injuries. Even with her face partially obscured, concern was written all over it.
"I'm fine," said Lisa. Elbows and back hurting from where she'd landed on the ground, maybe, but Corey's body had protected her from the blast.
She nodded, picked herself up and dusted herself off. She resumed her previous station, doing an admirable job of hiding any injuries or rattled nerves from the sudden explosion. Lisa rolled onto her side, inspecting the damage.
Several people were laid out on the floor, unconscious, with double that down but moving. Stray sparks flickered on and off, and some of the more cogent bystanders were hurriedly throwing down cellphones and other devices. Soon enough, the ground was carpeted with busted electronics. Lisa felt for her own gingerly, wary of an electric shock, but as her fingers dug it out of her pocket, found that it was unscathed. Interesting. Seemed like Corey's aura had managed to shield her from the added effects, too.
Über was still in his pose. He quickly glanced at Leet, then again, then hissed between his teeth. "Leet! Line!"
Leet jumped. "Uh, see... see now your overreliance on your technology!" He was trying to emulate Über's dramatic tone, but he lacked the voice or presence for it. "See as I, the great Leet, have disabled your petty toys with the power of my EMP device!"
The girl in the labcoat leaned over to Leet and stage whispered. "I thought it was supposed to create an electricity dome."
"Hahaha!" Leet shouted more than actually laughed. "No! Definitely! EMP!"
“I’m just saying, I saw the blueprints and—”
“You’re a blueprint!”
“Anyway!” Über neatly stepped between them both. “Longtime viewers will note that along with the debut of Leet’s Mini Gear, our dynamic duo has gained a guest star party member! Allow me to introduce Pwn—” The girl glared at him and he segued seamlessly. “—Gauntlet and her Power Glove!”
“Hand-integrated tech bracer!”
Über put a hand up to his face, concealing his mouth from Gauntlet, then stage whispered, “It’s so bad.”
Leet puffed out his chest. “Commence!”
“Operation,” Gauntlet added, glowering at Über.
Über threw himself into a twisting sideways somersault, sticking a three point landing between Leet and Gauntlet, keeping his gaze on the floor for a moment before snapping up his head to lock his eyes on Corey. The effect was ruined slightly by the bandana slipping over his eyes. He raised his hand, adjusted it with a single prod of his finger, and then returned his hand to the ground. Several seconds of silence stretched out. Über appeared to be waiting for applause.
Gauntlet cleared her throat awkwardly. “Soooo… we just gonna stand here?”
Corey brightened. “Oh, you’re finished?”
Über looked genuinely taken aback. “Uh. Yes?”
“Great!” she glanced from side to side and then launched right back into her ‘hero’ voice. “Evil doers! You should, uh, mend your ways! Think of what your abilities could do if turned to the side of good!”
“Hah! Foolishness!” Über sprang to his feet. “Our noble goal transcends mere morals!”
Lisa had died and gone to hell.
“Goals are…” Corey stopped, made a frustrated noise, and then dropped the persona entirely. “Look, you realise that your power is ridiculously awesome? Dude, you could be a brain surgeon, a therapist, heck, a musician! Save people’s lives, or just make them better.”
Über stared at her, nonplussed. Leet sneered. “What do you think this is, Doctor Mario? Guitar Hero?”
“What do you think this is?” Corey snapped back. “You can make anything! Literally!”
“Once,” interrupted Gauntlet. Leet gave her a venomous look.
“Yeah, and?” Corey threw her hands in the air. “You know what you only need to make once? A pollution remover! An auto-doc!”
“Oh my god stop talking,” groaned Gauntlet.
Lisa silently encouraged Corey to keep going. Intentionally or not, she was stalling the hell out of whatever the group had planned. The longer she delayed, the more time the white hats had to roll in. Failing that, the more likely something of Leet’s forgot how to work and then exploded.
“Gauntlet is right!” announced Über. “Enough cutscenes! Time for the boss battle!”
Corey flinched and slowly, reluctantly, raised her hands, not quite holding them in fists. "We don't need to fight."
Behind Über, Leet's Mini Gear shifted its balance, orienting itself. Aiming.
Lisa's warning was cut off by a thundering blast of sizzling white energy from the mech's rail gun. Before Corey could even move, it struck her high in the chest, flinging her backwards. Golden flames splashed out from the point of impact, flaring angrily for an instant before dying away. Corey landed on her back at the base of the museum steps. Hard.
"No!" No no, no no no. Lisa's power rushed into play without conscious thought on her part. Her body is glowing. Aura's still going, aura generated by her and her power, wouldn't be there if she was dead; injured, alive.
"Holy shit dude!” Gauntlet yelped. “You just straight-up fucking murdered her!”
"Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Leet. “I used the stun setting.”
Gauntlet did a visible double take, then turned to peer up at Leet incredulously. "You put a stun setting on a railgun!?"
It took everything Lisa had not to run over to Corey and make sure she was okay. Her power was telling her as much. She had to trust it. Had to. She couldn’t afford to blow her civilian identity for this, not in front of an audience.
“Right, well,” Gauntlet fiddled with her bracer. “On with the show?”
Leet hit a button and the mech reared up, the missile launcher arm expanding outward to reveal the rack of missiles waiting within. With theatrical flair, Leet opened up, several basketball-sized objects blasting out with a series of hollow thunks. As the projectiles soared towards a group of civilians, they burst open into huge nets, ensnaring three or four people each. After a moment, what remained of the original casing suddenly inflated, forming into canvas balloons which hoisted the entangled bystanders a good thirty feet into the air.
Lisa blinked. Hard. She supposed that if you were Leet, your designs had to become increasingly esoteric to avoid repeats of old ideas as much as possible. Actually, it was surprising he’d managed to pull off a mech without it promptly falling to pieces; Lisa figured that a nerd like him, giant robots would be the first thing he burned out his power on. Maybe it was powered by moonlight or something.
“All right!” Leet crowed. “It worked!” He froze, seeming to remember he was on camera. “Uh, just as I knew it would! Gauntlet, help me collect the fultons.”
“Okay so weird idea but how about you don’t?” Corey was back on her feet, and Lisa pretended she didn’t feel her heart leap to see it. Corey stole a quick sideways glance at her, mouthed ‘run’.
“Well, well, well!” said Über. “Seems like Goldilocks here is tougher than she looks!” He waved a hand airily over his shoulder. “Leave this to me.”
He advanced, sliding into a drilled combat stance. Corey came forward too, looking far less professional about it. Über swung a punch and Corey swayed back. Reflex, not skill. Undeterred, Über stepped forward again, inside Corey’s guard. In a flash, he caught her across the neck with a forearm and then grabbed her outstretched arm to crush her to the ground with a brutal judo-style throw. More flames spilled from underneath Corey as she landed, briefly but fiercely lashing out, forcing Über to take a quick evasive hopstep.
“Pfft, amateur,” he proclaimed, dusting off his hands. “It seems you don’t even know the very basics of CQC!”
Corey climbed back up to her feet. Über's smile slid slightly. “Well. I see I’m going to have keep putting you down until you learn your lesson.”
Lisa winced. Powers or no, Corey didn’t have the first idea of how to fight. In a sentence never before stated in cape combat, Über held a significant advantage. She needed to do something to tip the scales, or at least bail Corey out of trouble.
Options, options. With all the cells in the area except hers apparently fried, Lisa couldn’t risk calling in the Undersiders. If the Snitch caught her on camera using her phone, it wouldn’t take a genius to link that call to the sudden appearance of mutant dogs and clouds of darkness, especially since randomly picking fights with other villains really didn’t fit their MO.
Something else. Corey needed help and Lisa couldn’t provide it herself. Wait. Backup.
Lisa pulled out her phone and dialed the PRT hotline.
A clipped, professional male voice answered on the third ring. “PRT, what’s your emergency?”
It was easy to inject fear into her tone. “Th-there’s a cape fight on the boardwalk! By the maritime museum!”
The responder’s inflection changed, enthusiasm and interest picking up. “Okay miss, stay calm. Are you in a safe place?”
“I th-think so, but I don’t know if the hero will be okay!” Come on, come on, take the bait.
“Do you recognise any of the combatants?” Yes! Schmuck.
“Um, there’s this gold girl fighting the bad guys, a-and a big robot, and a man in some kind of ninja suit?”
The responder was good, Lisa just barely caught the sudden sharp inhalation. "Miss, provided you can do so without running into danger, I need you to evacuate the area immediately. Okay?"
"O-Okay—" Lisa cut herself off with a shriek, feigning a reaction to something in the background. Then she threw the phone down, stomped on it, and sent it skittering off with a kick. There, that should light a fire under the PRT's asses.
Meanwhile, Über had dropped Corey again. She’d yet to land a hit on him, and Lisa wasn’t sure she was actually able to throw a punch, what with her messed up hands. As one-sided as the fight was, she at least wasn’t looking any worse for the wear, with no visible injuries. Small wins. Behind Über, Gauntlet and Leet were securing the floating nets, the former with a grappling hook and fine lengths of wire from her bracer, the latter by clumsily snatching them out of the air with the mech.
Über turned around and the snitch descended to hover in front of him. “Citizens of Brockton Bay! If you wish your families and friends returned to you, we have a set of demands—hgk!” Corey’s foot nailed him right in the kidney. Her aura gave an answering flare, and Über's costume was left with a scorch mark where the kick had landed.
“Need a hand there, Über?” Gauntlet called over from where she was tying off her grappling lines to Mini Gear’s left leg.
Über gritted his teeth and swung around. “This is getting old,” he snarled.
Corey just shrugged. Über rushed her. She parried his first punch with her forearm, dodged back from the second, and then swung back at him with an elbow. Über caught the attack, popped out his hip, and reversed her momentum to flip her over him and land heavily several feet away.
Panting softly, Über leaned over, resting his hands on his knees for a second before straightening up and making a visible attempt to regain his composure. “As I was saying, our demands—oh my god STOP GETTING UP!” Über's voice rose an octave.
Gauntlet suddenly surged past him, propelled by her fist and divested of her balloons. Corey tried to get her hands up, but was too slow. The tinkertech-empowered punch smashed into her jaw and she went flying, completing a full revolution in the air before crashing facefirst to the ground. Gauntlet swung off to the side, cursing and bringing her hand up to her mouth, sucking on her knuckles.
Lisa’s chest clenched over and over again. A person could only take hits like these so many times and still be okay. Fuck! What was she doing?Corey, had stepped in to protect her and in return, her selfish ass was sitting here waiting for the cape cops to solve the problem. What kind of thinker was Lisa, if she couldn’t think circles around these bozos? This was her crush!—Uh. The girl who had a crush on her! She glanced over to Leet. He’d come closer to the fight, trailing a flotilla of net balloons. Über. Leet. These guys thought in video games and stupid references.
Corey levered her hands underneath herself and slowly started to rise.
“Oh no you don’t,” Über growled, marching over to her and turning her over with a kick to the ribs before placing a boot on her chest. “You are going to stay right there, little girl.”
Resisting the urge to use her power and tear that motherfucker’s self-esteem to pieces, Lisa took some careful steps towards Leet, acting the part of the disoriented bystander. When she judged herself close enough, she spoke, projecting at ‘no indoor voice’ volume.
“Idiots, they’re just making her stronger.”
Leet’s attention immediately snapped to her. “What’d you just say?”
Lisa faked a startled jump, and then a stammer. “Wh-what? N-nothing!”
“Don’t play dumb! Spit it out!” He flicked Mini Gear’s railgun out for emphasis, nearly destablising the entire mech.
She let her eyes widen. “I—her power, she—she has a—” shit what was that game Alec had been playing? “—a h-hyper mode! When she takes enough damage, she g-gets a power-up.”
“What!?” Leet screeched, nearly falling off the control platform. “Über! Stop hitting her!”
Über, one hand gripping Corey by the front of the hoodie, the other cocked back in a fist, paused. “What? Why?”
“She has a super meter!”
“Shit!” Über dropped her like she was on fire. Which she kind of was. “I mean—but of course, my good friend! Why, do her parahuman abilities not resemble those of a certain alien race from a certain animated television show, which I cannot name lest I spark another flame war on our forums?”
“What,” said Gauntlet, echoing Lisa’s own thoughts. She hadn’t expected it to work that well.
“Before your time, young Gauntlet,” said Über. “Now, provided we can carefully avoid triggering her boss rage—”
“Oh come on, this is bullshit!” burst out Gauntlet. “Who even told you her power does that!?”
“Just this random bystander who she was shielding with her body,” Leet said casually. “Wait. Hold on.”
Lisa was already running like hell.
One more time for a big thank you to T0PH4T for being a great beta!
Something like five minutes ago, Lisa told herself that she couldn't risk getting involved. She was now so thoroughly involved that the only real way she could be more involved was if she ran up and punched Über in the face. She felt a stab of frustration towards Corey, and then an immediate pang of guilt. Lisa couldn’t blame Corey because she hadn’t kept her own nose out, nobody had forced her to intervene.
The grinding of machinery signalled that Leet had got his act together enough to pursue her. Reluctantly, Lisa let her power off the leash. She was riding the line here of how much she could get away with using it, and the involuntary lapses in trigger discipline weren’t helping.
Poorly balanced due to top heavy design, lacks fine motor control, low stability; compromises on the frame to differentiate from previous technology. Left leg overcompensating for the weight of the nets and captives. Unstable, will struggle to make complex maneuvers, high turn rate to prevent overbalancing.
Run smart, not fast.
Lisa banked right as a thunk came from behind her. An expanding net soared wide left, some considerable distance from the mark. Lisa wasn't sure that she'd have been swept up even if she hadn't dodged, but she wasn't about to chance Leet's aim staying bad. She took a moment to duck behind a conveniently-oversized museum sign, grimacing as an all-too familiar ache began to throb behind her eyes. Right on cue.
How long until the PRT showed up? The answer depended almost entirely on which capes they had out on patrol and where they were when the call came in. Best case scenario could be discarded, because if there were capes on the boardwalk today the whole area would have been significantly busier for the PR parade. If Velocity was on duty, then he’d be here already. The PRT would likely scramble Wards or Protectorate from PHQ or the Rig if their patrollers were too far out to arrive in a timely fashion, but the museum plaza wasn't readily accessible by road, which put the kibosh on bringing the heroes in by van. Too many factors for Lisa to chance her power again to figure it out.
The clanking and pounding of Mini Gear's footfalls was getting closer. Right, she didn't have the luxury of time for the problem either. A fainter buzz hummed from in front and above her, and Lisa glanced up to see the snitch flitting around, camera pointing straight at her. She flipped it off for momentary catharsis. The recording created a complication; she wouldn't put it past Leet to have a direct link to the snitch's feed, which would get any attempts to hide busted instantly if she could even create enough distance to make an attempt. Change of approach, then.
Lisa pulled up into a sprinter's stance, then kicked off. The moment she cleared her cover, another thunk dissolved into an almighty crash as a freshly launched fulton demolished the sign. Good thing she was dealing with Leet and not somebody more competent. Mini Gear was in her periphery, and this time Lisa cut inward, towards the mech. It immediately halted, servos keening in protest as the sudden stop sent the entire robot into an unsteady lurch. By the time it stablised, Lisa had already bolted underneath the railgun and had swung around to the mech's rear.
"Agh! Quit moving!" Leet squawked.
In spite of herself, Lisa felt her mouth beginning to twitch upwards. Regardless of the burgeoning headache and the chance for getting clocked, making fools out of other capes was never not fun. Mini Gear started to rotate, tracking her movements, and Lisa ran with it, exploiting the awkward shuffling motion of its feet to prevent the mech from ever properly facing her.
The third time Lisa passed the back of Mini Gear, a wordless scream of frustration came from above her. "Guys! This girl knows how to circle strafe! Give me a hand already!"
"Damn! She's pretty good!" Über's voice boomed from the mech's amp. Lisa was having a hard time keeping track of where he was, only managing to grab occasional glances of him grappling with Corey's glowing form. From what she could tell he was trying to neutralise Corey with holds now, apparently wary of the so-called ‘hyper mode’. Worked for Lisa; she had no idea whether or not Corey was even hurt. Sure, visually she seemed to be shrugging off whatever Über threw at her, but maybe the damage was just being stored up to land all at once later.
Lisa completed a fourth loop. Her breathing was coming more heavily now, legs starting to burn a little. Balance issues aside, the machine wasn't going to get tired. Leet yelled with incoherent rage and the mech suddenly attempted a tight turn, much too quickly. An uneasy groan echoed from Mini Gear as the weight distribution shifted one of its feet parting company with the ground. The entire robot teetered, listing dangerously towards Lisa, further, further—then the opposite foot planted itself with a shuddering crash of splintering concrete. Heart in her mouth, Lisa rounded the leg again, mind already racing with the next step of the plan—
Until she ran face-first into a metal-sheathed fist.
Primary steel alloy, strength modestly enhanced—
She hit the ground hard. A boot appeared in the edge of her view, a white coat fluttering alongside it. Right. Three of them. Fuck.
“You know,” said Gauntlet. “Part of me is impressed with the quick thinking.”
Lisa pushed herself partway up with a hand and flashed a grin. Gauntlet’s hood had fallen back, revealing a huge pair of reflective glasses and a tight bun of curly black hair. “Thanks, I try—”
Stars exploded in front of her eyes as Gauntlet’s foot caught her in the chin, snapping her head back.
“Unfortunately for you, the rest of me is just pissed as hell someone made this even harder than it already—”
“Fuck away from her!”
A heavy impact. The wash of stars coalesced into a figure of shining gold, standing over her like a knight in gleaming armour. Corey’s body emanated that golden glow, the aura spilling out further from her until it seemed almost solid. What Lisa could see of her face was hard, set into a furious glare which blazed just as intently as the rippling flames which wreathed her.
Lisa’s face was flushed. The heat from the aura. Had to be.
Corey looked down to her. Even though her eyes were smouldering like coals, all Lisa saw in them was concern and worry. She reached out with a burning hand and Lisa took it, the grip warm but not unbearably so. In one smooth, effortless motion, Corey hauled Lisa into her arms. Lisa grimaced, the movement sending another painful jolt through her skull. Corey hustled into action with a haste and ease that belied her burden, carrying Lisa away from Mini Gear and towards the entrance to the plaza.
“Shit! Über! I told you not to hit her!”
“Then why did she go hyper!?”
Increased intensity of aura, strength, speed; deeper layer of her power. Not a ramp up effect, too sudden, engaged response, kicked in when I got hurt. Emotional reaction, partial, not direct. emotional response to seeing me endangered keying up decision to amp up her powers; she controls the aura. Control, reluctance to immediately go this far, incomplete control, lack of precision, lack—
A spike of pure agony drove right into Lisa’s forehead and she hissed.
Corey slowed. “You okay?”
“She rattled my brains but I’ll manage.” Lisa hoped. The pounding pain had already made itself right at home in her head, not to mention the tender ache across her jaw. Goddammit, that bitch better not have broken anything.
Corey set Lisa on her feet, and the sudden rush of blood to her head set her stumbling. She caught herself on Corey’s shoulder with both hands, barely keeping her balance. Corey opened her mouth to speak, but then shut it again, turning to look up into the air.
Lisa followed her gaze in time to see a red-costumed figure descending from the sky. He touched down a few metres away from them. A second cape remained in the air, aloft on a hoverboard. Aegis and Kid Win; only Wards, but they should be enough.
“You friendly?” Aegis called, maintaining a respectful distance. Corey nodded, and he rapped a fist on his chest. “Good. I’m Aegi—”
“I know.” Corey’s voice was clipped more than it was terse.
Aegis paused. “Right. We’re going to give the villains a chance to surrender then move in to rescue the civilians if they refuse. You’re already here, so we’re not going to say no if you want to help.”
Corey glanced at Lisa, immediately cluing the Wards in that she wasn’t just a fortunate bystander. Thanks Corey. “I’ll be alright. Don’t worry.”
Corey’s gleaming eyes studied her for a moment, and then she nodded. “I’m in.”
“Great,” said Aegis. “What are we calling you?” Corey shrugged, and Aegis touched a hand to his helmet’s earpiece. “Aegis to console. Engaging Über and Leet and associate with Kid Win and parahuman temporary designation Flare,” he paused for a reply, then nodded. “Okay we’re live. Flare, follow my lead.”
The three of them moved back into the plaza proper. Kid Win remained in the air, his hoverboard slowly rising and falling as he advanced. Seeing Corey walking together with the Wards put an uneasy twist into Lisa’s stomach, a sickly ache which she had a hard time placing. It just felt wrong.
“This is the Wards! Release your hostages and step away from the tinkertech!” shouted Aegis. Über and Leet appeared to have rallied, all of the floating nets now secured to Mini Gear and Gauntlet back on her feet after being bodychecked into next week.
“Never!” declared Über, to Lisa’s complete lack of surprise. Aegis put a hand to his ear again.
Then they sprang into action. Aegis rushed forward, taking flight just a couple of inches from the ground. Corey moved almost as fast while Kid Win zoomed straight into the lead, unslingling a faintly pulsing rifle from his shoulder. Mini Gear oriented to track him, then fired another fulton, which promptly missed.
“Use the damn railgun!” Gauntlet snapped. Lisa almost felt a little bad for her, then remembered she’d both opted into working with Über and Leet and also kicked her in the face.
“Can’t! It’s recharging!”
“The power supply—Über!” Leet cried out as Aegis crashed into his comrade at top speed, sending him spilling to the ground. Kid Win took advantage of the distraction, taking aim and firing off a concentrated beam of energy, shearing right through the cluster of knots keeping the nets in place. Unanchored, the balloons and the people inside immediately floated back up into the air, far above the battle. Corey ducked under a punch from Gauntlet and then shoulderbarged her with enough force to send her several feet back.
Aegis followed up after Über, scooping him off the floor and then full-body throwing him even further out.
“Heads up!” warned Kid Win. Aegis snapped back around in time to catch one of Mini Gear’s feet as Leet attempted to kick him with it. He wrestled with the mecha, pitting his overclocked physiology versus the strength of the tinkertech, fighting for position.
“Win! Do it!” roared Aegis.
Kid Win clocked another setting on his rifle and then fired. A shimmering blue projectile rocketed towards Mini Gear. The energy crackled and roared, growing larger and larger as it flew, until finally it crashed into the mech with a tiny puff of smoke and a little ‘pft’ noise.
Then the mech's railgun arm fell off.
“My god,” gasped Über from the floor. “A… a weapon to surpass Mini Gear!”
“Übeeer!” Leet screeched as Aegis began to drag the mech along the ground, gouging furrows in the concrete. “Stop quoting and fucking help me!”
Gauntlet picked herself up again. Corey moved towards her, but just as she closed the distance, Gauntlet lashed out with her tech hand. The punch landed flush and there was an instant where Lisa saw Corey rock back before they were both engulfed in an explosion of golden fire, bright enough to leave spots in Lisa’s vision. When it cleared, Gauntlet was stumbling back, clutching her smouldering arm.
“Motherfucker!” she yelped, twisting around to launch her grappling hook at Mini Gear. The grapnel bit home on Leet’s control platform, and before Corey could stop her, Gauntlet was whisked to the mech, scrambling up to her partner’s side. “Leet! Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“Not without Über!” Leet snapped back, jerking the controls wildly back and forth in an attempt to shake off Aegis, who remained stubbornly attached to the mech’s foot.
“Win! Get the civilians! Flare, give me a hand!”
Kid Win flashed a thumbs up and started to gain altitude, making a beeline for the cluster of nets floating in the air. Back on the ground, Über rushed for Mini Gear, evading Corey with some kind of martial arts move. Reaching the mech he didn’t stop or even slow down, running directly up Aegis’ back and then leaping up to join his comrades with a flourish.
Leet slammed his fist onto a button and the largest fulton yet deployed from the back of Mini Gear. As the huge balloon inflated, the mech slowly began to rise off the ground, and then shuddered to a halt. Corey had a grip on its opposite foot which, combined with Aegis, was enough to prevent the flight.
Leet was freaking out, pulling levers, mashing controls. Mini Gear was following suit, shaking and rocking back and forth like it was attempting to dance. Aegis and Corey clung on, not budging. “Crap! Get them off!”
Gauntlet looked as if she was only managing to hang on through her hook, the motions flinging her this way and that as she struggled for balance. “We are not fistfighting two brutes, Leet!”
“B-but, Mini Gear—”
“Fuck Mini Gear!” Gauntlet managed to get her feet underneath herself for long enough to hit another button. With a hideous grinding sound that set Lisa’s teeth on edge, the control panel disengaged entirely from the rest of the mech. In an instant, the three villains were hauled into the air, above Kid Win and the nets, higher and higher until they were little more than speck in the sky. Corey and Aegis were left behind, hanging onto the mech. The two of them carefully set it down and then looked at one another for a very long moment.
What rose up within Lisa then was a very potent cocktail of anticipation and dread.
T0PH4T is still a great beta!
Aegis took a step forward and started speaking to Corey, one hand on his helmet, doubtless linking in his mission control. With the fight over, his volume had dropped enough that Lisa couldn't make out what he was saying from this distance. He made a gesture up towards the still-airborne hostages and Kid Win, which Corey answered with a shake of the head. Aegis nodded in response and then took flight, rapidly ascending to join his fellow Ward in recovering the trapped civilians.
With the briefest of pauses to confirm Aegis was committed, Lisa hurried over to Corey. Trying to distance herself was already pretty much a bust when she had witnesses, Wards among them, to attest that Lisa was acquainted at the very least with the new cape. Gawkers were already arriving in the plaza, and they were bringing their cellphones with them. She had to trust to her smoke and mirrors and reputation, hope that this scenario was so incongruous to anyone's idea of Tattletale that it wouldn't even occur to anyone to make the connection. Maybe the fallout wouldn't be as bad as she feared.
For all that, Lisa still found that it worried her less than whatever brief conversation Corey had shared with Aegis.
"Well, that was pretty damn awesome," said Lisa, forcing herself to sound relaxed and just a little awed. After all, she didn't know what cape fights were like.
Corey turned around. Her aura flickered around her, flowing like molten metal. "I guess. Glad the Wards showed." The visible half of her face was almost expressionless, eyes flat.
Lisa's stomach sank. "Don't sell yourself short! If you hadn't been here, the Wards wouldn't have arrived in time." Did she sound as disingenuous to Corey as she felt saying it?
"You got hurt," said Corey, as if that was the final word on the matter.
Like Lisa needed reminding. Her jaw ached and her cheek was so tender she could practically feel the bruises forming. Add the lovely little headache simmering away and you had a great argument for a day or two in a dark room slugging painkillers. “That wasn’t your fault.” She tried a chuckle on for size. “I got myself kicked in the head.”
“I started too slow. Should have gone hard right away.”
Lisa hesitated. Self-aggrandisation wasn’t Corey’s style. Nor was folding when she was hit with a setback; that determination was one of the reasons Lisa liked her. Was the confidence just a front? Lisa was torn, simultaneously wanting to know more about Corey's power and more about Corey. "What about you? You sure you're okay?"
Something which tangentially resembled amusement went through Corey's eyes. "I'll have some bruises, but I'm fine."
"Good. That's good." Lisa took a surreptitious glance over her shoulder. The peanut gallery was expanding. "Hey, the Wards seem to have this handled. You want to take off before the PRT start locking things down?"
Corey shook her head, patting one glowing arm. "Not while I'm lit up. Kind of obvious." She slowly tilted her head to the side. "You should. Safer that way."
Lisa forced a grin. Safer? Sure. It would also give the Wards and worst case the Protectorate a straight shot at Corey. "Nuh-uh. You aren't getting rid of me that easily."
"Okay." Corey turned and went back to watching Kid Win and Aegis bringing the fultons down to the ground.
Lisa followed suit, lapsing into an uneasy silence. The Wards worked carefully and efficiently, towing the balloons out of the air and then shearing through or ripping apart the nets to free the hostages. By the time a convoy of an ambulance and two PRT vans started to edge their way into the plaza a few minutes later, the majority of the civilians had already been freed. Soon enough the area was being cordoned off, the gathering crowd firmly ushered out of the vicinity to allow the paramedics to tend to the injured. Armoured PRT troopers maintained a loose perimeter while a handful of them kept watch over Mini Gear, maintaining a respectful distance from the tinkertech. A more dressed-down officer stood by one of the PRT vehicles with a clipboard and recorder, gently interviewing the victims.
Throughout, the PRT gave Corey a wide berth. The troopers occasionally glanced at her, though it seemed business as usual for them. The civilians were much more blatant about it, many of them staring in open admiration, mixed in with the occasional curious look Lisa's way. Corey didn't appear to notice, and Lisa found herself weirdly glad of that. Corey wasn't in this for the celebrity. Actually, Lisa wasn't certain that Corey was in this at all. Provided Lisa's power hadn't been throwing her off from the start, Corey wasn't going out of her way to cape, and with such a distinct appearance, Lisa felt confident that she would have heard about someone fitting Corey's description on the Brockton Bay scene before now. The PRT hadn't had a name for her either, and they didn’t usually avoid tagging new capes.
Goddammit but she wanted to use her power. Not knowing was nothing short of infuriating. Future Lisa would hate her for it though, and she couldn't afford to be putting herself out of commission right before whichever conversation with the white hats came along.
Speaking of which, Aegis and Kid Win had finished up with the fultons. After a brief conference, they split off, Win tucking his hoverboard under his arm and heading for Mini Gear while Aegis moved straight towards Corey and Lisa. Corey's head drifted in his direction, several seconds after Lisa locked her eyes on his approach. He touched a hand to his helmet as he walked and part of the lower half retracted, revealing his mouth.
The reason for that became clear when he led with a genial smile. "Flare." He gave Lisa a brief nod before returning his attention to Corey. "Miss. Glad to see you stuck around. You really held your own back there."
"I got lucky."
Aegis chuckled. "I wouldn't call fending off three capes by yourself luck."
Corey shook her head, a flash of a glower passing across her face. "Lisa got hurt helping me." Freakin' a, Corey!
"Ah," he glanced at Lisa. "Lisa, right? We have paramedics and trained PRT first-aiders on site if you'd like to have your injuries looked at."
Or in other words, leave so the capes can talk about cape business. Lisa flashed him a sickly-sweet smile. "I'd like to stay with my friend, if that's okay."
To his credit, Aegis' expression didn't even change. "Alright. Flare, is that alright with you? I don't want to bring up anything awkward."
"Anything you have to say, you can say in front of Lisa," said Corey, voice flat.
"Understood," Aegis paused for a moment. "Sorry to ask, but would you mind turning off your power while we talk?" His PR-friendly smile was back in place. "I think it's making the officers a little nervous."
"Can't, sorry." Corey studied the flames rippling down her arm. “Have to wait for it to wear off.”
"Oh, it's a breaker state? Well, okay. It's pretty cool honestly. Looks like it let you shrug off a lot of punishment."
Corey stared at him for a few seconds, long enough for the pause to get awkward as he waited for her to elaborate. Lisa bit down on a laugh; this wasn't going how she'd expected, feared. At length Aegis glanced over his shoulder to where Kid Win was now assessing Mini Gear, running a small device up and down the mecha which left tiny blue strands in its wake. He keyed his comm. "Win. How's it coming?" Across the way, Win touched a finger to his visor and responded. Aegis smiled. "Awesome. Keep me posted." He returned his attention to the two of them. "Good news, Leet's tinkertech is being secured. Flare, I'm not sure how versed you are in cape law, but as the first responder to the situation you're entitled to a portion of the PRT bounty for retrieving the technology. Are you registered?"
Aegis must have taken those PRT-approved PR classes. Lisa wasn't sure why Corey was brickwalling him, but he wasn't showing any visible signs of being bothered by it. Instead he simply nodded. "That's fine. Would you like to? It'll only take a few minutes."
"I'm good," said Corey. Three seconds later, she absently added. "Thanks."
"Alright, in that case we can talk about the bounty later—"
"I don't want money," Corey cut him off, then frowned. "Wait. Can it be donated? Anonymously?"
Aegis' eyebrows rose. "Like to a charity? Yeah, we can arrange that."
Corey nodded fractionally. Lisa tried not to wince. As if the PRT wouldn't start drawing inferences about the new cape based on who she decided to send the money to. Though, better than giving them her bank account details. Lisa somehow doubted that Corey banked with Number Man.
Once again, Aegis looked over his shoulder, then he stepped closer to Corey, lowering his voice. "Listen, Flare. The PRT agents have this handled and I know things are pretty public at the moment. If you want, you and Lisa can catch a ride back to PHQ with Win and me, speak a bit more privately?"
"Not happening." Corey's tone remained almost completely flat. It was getting unnerving. Had someone traded her for a robot while Lisa wasn't looking?
For the first time, Aegis seemed taken aback. "Sorry, am I making you uncomfortable?"
Corey shrugged, then folded her arms. Her aura was slowly beginning to wash out at the edges.
Aegis spent a long moment just looking at her. "O...kay. So you're aware, the PRT will be releasing a statement on this. Standard procedure for cape fights. If you like we can keep your name out of it, but there were a ton of eyewitnesses and they're going to talk about you no matter what," he leaned inward. "Word of advice? If you want to have any input into your public image, you should start right away."
Corey nodded thoughtfully. "I don't care."
Lisa attempted and failed to choke back another laugh. Strange behaviour or no, she was starting to think that Corey had genuine beef with the Wards. The only reason Lisa wouldn't call it open hostility was the lack of inflection in her voice.
There was the briefest flash of irritation from Aegis before he donned an expression so carefully neutral it couldn't be anything but a poker face. "That's your prerogative. One last thing for me to mention. From your friend there, I figure you're probably a minor. Brockton Bay is a dangerous place for solo capes, even brutes like us. I really can't recommend the Wards strongly enough, and I'm not just saying that because I'm the captain," he smiled, and it was either a real smile or a damn good imitation. "It was good teaming up with you. I'd like to do it again." Aegis went into a pouch on his costume and produced a card, handing it to Corey. "Here. No pressure or anything. Just think about it?"
Corey didn't take the card, instead simply staring at Aegis' outstretched arm for several beats. Eventually she looked up. The glow in her eyes had started to fade. "Fine," she put out her hand and let Aegis drop the card into it.
He hesitated, and then drew back and simply nodded. "Good meeting you both. Let one of the agents know if you'd like to be let out. Otherwise, someone will be along in a few to take your statements. It's not mandatory by any means, so don't feel like you have to."
"Thanks, Aegis!" Lisa said brightly. She managed, barely, to keep herself from breaking out into a smug grin. No sales pitch for you, Wards. To his credit, he maintained his composed mien and gave her a nod in turn before walking away, heading for Kid Win.
Corey sighed so softly Lisa almost didn't hear her. Almost before her eyes she was shining less and less brightly. She glanced at Lisa. "Think we can get them to drop us off somewhere quiet?" Some inflection was finally returning. It seemed mostly to be fatigue.
"Probably. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to not let you unmask privately."
"Yeah." Corey stared off into space.
"Hey..." Lisa put a hand on Corey's shoulder. Warmth emanated from beneath her fingers. "You know I’m not going to tell anyone, right?"
Corey nodded, but still didn’t look her way. “I trust you.”
The words landed like a punch square to the gut. What had she really done to earn that kind of trust?
Hung out with her.
Gone to the movies.
Texted every day.
Listened to her problems.
Fuck. Lisa was a shitty person.
Luckily Corey was already looking away, because Lisa didn’t think she could have met her eyes. She took her hand from Corey’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
Corey laughed, hollow. “I think that’s the wrong way around.”
“I’m pretty sure you just saved my ass from a villain,” Lisa made herself smile again. “You’re not allowed to reject my gratitude.”
The laugh had just a little more behind it this time. “Okay, that’s fair.” She finally made eye contact again. “This has been a day, huh?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” said Lisa. Confessions. Supervillains, and not even the regular set. A whole mess of emotions. How was it that coming out the far side of an entire cape-fight hadn’t helped Lisa set herself straight even slightly?
Probably something to do with the fact Lisa had thrown herself headlong into the situation. And then Corey had reciprocated by defending her.
Lisa pulled herself from her thoughts. She needed to get her priorities right. The longer she hung around, the more holes she risked blowing in her secret identity. “Anyway, you’re looking less glowy, so let’s talk to one of those PRT guys and get out of here.” She started off towards one of the vans.
“Lisa?” Corey said quietly, halting her in her tracks.
She swallowed the boulder-sized lump in her throat and turned back. “Yeah?”
“I know that me being a cape changes things, but when there’s a second, can we finish talking about—” Corey looked down and away, took a little breath, then back up to Lisa. Her eyes were shining, and not with gold. “Us? Please? I don’t want to just… pretend like I didn’t say anything because of what happened.”
The bottom of Lisa’s stomach dropped out. Okay, this was her chance. Thanks, but no thanks. Easy. Except for the wedge it’d drive between them. Except for the closeness they’d lose. Except for imagining the look on Corey’s face.
There were a hundred reasons that rejecting her was the right answer and each and every one of them were struck down in the dirt by the very simple realisation that Lisa didn’t want to.
Screw Coil. Screw hedging. Screw her power. It’d done its worst and turned up nothing. Was Lisa really going to let something maybe going wrong fuck this up for her?
A reckless grin etched its way across her face. In three quick strides she crossed the distance between the two of them, went on tiptoes, and for the span of an eyeblink, brushed her lips against Corey’s forehead.
Lisa pulled back, heart yammering madly, and winked. “No need.”
Corey blushed until her cheeks almost matched her hair. “Cool! Awesome! Uh, is today real?”
Lisa laughed, a little wild, a little nervous. “I think so.”
Holy fuck after a leap like that she hoped so.
Hey you know that T0PH4T fellow? yeah, they're awesome.
The half hour ride in the PRT van went down as the most excruciating experience Lisa had ever had in a vehicle, up to and including the leg of her journey to Brockton Bay hitchhiking with a family of four doing Disney singalongs. None of the innumerable topics she wanted to discuss with Corey were viable while sitting three feet away from a PRT agent. After what had just passed between them, Lisa was not giving some random stranger—especially one with reason to arrest her—front row seats to the closest thing Lisa had managed to a love life in ever.
A love life. Conceptually the idea was almost alien to her. She'd never really considered that to be a problem. Before she'd had powers there had always been too much going on to worry about boys or girls or whatever. Afterwards, could you call being anti-relationships a problem when it stemmed from interested parties being exclusively and extensively skeevy?
Which to be frank made current events all the more utterly terrifying. Did Lisa even like Corey in that way? Was Lisa just hurling herself at the first person who had managed to avoid pinging off her gross-o-meter? Could it be that her feelings were little more than desperation hiding beneath a veneer of closeness? Just because Lisa and her power hadn't seen any egregious personality flaws or disgusting habits-slash-thought processes from Corey didn't mean that they were romantically compatible.
Though if that was the case, why the fuck had she kissed her?
Corey kept sliding little looks her way, and despite the fact her mouth was covered, her smile filled her gaze with warmth. The affection was clear as day in eyes all the way restored to their natural brown, and Lisa wondered how she'd ever managed to miss it. Misdirection from her power? Fixation on Corey being a cape? Wilful blindness? Yet even with question after question and doubt after doubt scampering through her head like a hamster on a wheel, Lisa found herself smiling back. With every fresh glance from Corey, butterflies exploded in Lisa’s chest, sending a giddy rush through her system. Trying to put that moment they'd shared down to simple impulsiveness rang laughably hollow in the face of that feeling. Fortunately for Lisa’s tenuous composure, Corey wasn’t trying to make conversation either. Perhaps her attitude towards the Wards extended to the PRT as a whole too.
Capes hadn’t come up much in their conversation history, which made it difficult to get a bead on Corey’s actual opinions. There was the ‘capes are people too’ perspective she’d taken when they first met and espoused once or twice since, but this was Corey. Outside of today’s events and the odd conversation about Brockton Bay’s gangs, Lisa had never seen her display open hostility towards anyone. Maybe there was a personal grudge with Aegis; Lisa’s research told her that the bulk of the Wards attended Arcadia, and she couldn’t imagine that there were many high schoolers with Aegis’ height and physique. Emotions running high, Corey could easily have just let her tact slip a little. Or well, a lot.
Eventually, the van let them out on a secluded street, roaring off the second they touched feet to pavement. Corey stepped into the recess of a boarded up doorway and Lisa took a moment to massage her temples; the headache was just about easing off, generously allowing her to fully focus on the emotional clusterfuck going on inside her brain. Corey reemerged after a few seconds sans neckerchief and with her hoodie tied around her waist. She beamed at Lisa, every part of her face lighting up. Lisa felt a flush coming to her cheeks. Fuck, fuck, oh fuck. What was wrong with her?
Okay, she just had to talk her way through this. That usually worked. “I—” she and Corey said at the same time. Lisa hesitated, then gave Corey a small nod.
“I really did mean to tell you about my powers,” said Corey, her smile fading slightly. “I just didn’t want to drop everything on you all at once.” She fidgeted with her gloves. “And, uh, I thought it was kind of more important. Like, I’m a cape who doesn’t cape, I figured you’d care more that I had a crush on you.”
The extra titbit of information was sadly eclipsed by the explosive string of curses rebounding around Lisa’s head. She scrambled for the solid, familiar ground of fact-finding. “You mean taking on three supervillains doesn’t count as caping?”
“Haha, uh, well,” Corey’s expression turned sheepish. “That was literally my second time out in costume and the only other time I smashed my face into a wall before I even used my power. Not exactly A-list material.”
Right, like Lisa needed the reminder. “And I’m guessing you’ve had them for a while.”
The smile was entirely gone now. “Since before we met and then some,” Corey murmured quietly.
Ordinarily, making somebody feel guilty about a secret she already knew would have tickled Lisa. Here, she just felt like a shithead. “You told me about breaking your hands, was that when…” she hesitated, conscious of what she was asking Corey to share.
Corey tilted her head to the side, then winced suddenly. “When I got my powers?”
Lisa nodded, a lump in her throat. Classy question, Lisa. Let’s dig into the trauma of the girl you kissed under an hour ago. Just the way to spice things up.
“No, but I guess it was related. My head was in a bad place and the powers were a lot of that. Not all, but a lot.” She looked down to her hands again, expression pained. “Powers aren’t just a magic ‘solve your problems’ button, you know?”
Lisa maintained her poker face and gave herself a hell of a lot of credit for it. No. No they weren’t. “And that’s why you don’t use them much?”
Abruptly, Corey broke into a smile. “I’m taking AP classes, intro sociology, and volunteer on weekends and every spare weeknight. You think I have time to moonlight as a glowstick?”
Lisa snorted out a laugh. “You can’t seriously be telling me you’d rather be doing homework than using superpowers.”
Corey made a face at her. “Some of us still need to graduate, smartass.” She glanced away up the street. “Hey, walk and talk? We are getting you off your feet.”
“What? I’m fine.”
“You got rocket-punched in the face.”
“So did you!” Lisa blurted without thinking and immediately regretted it.
“I’m a cape,” said Corey, grinning as she took a step closer, leaning down slightly. “You are fragile human.”
Lisa opened her mouth to protest, then Corey darted in to gently kiss her on the nose and Lisa’s brain decided to check out.
Tactile person, feels comfortable with me, wanted to reciprocate kiss; has wanted to since I kissed her—
The jolt of pain that seared through Lisa’s head was bad enough that she physically jerked back, screwing up her face, clenching her teeth hard. When she reopened her eyes a moment later, Corey had backed up a few feet, a comical combo of concern and panic on her face.
“I’m so sorry, I totally assumed because of before and I totally didn’t ask if that was okay and shit I didn’t mean to cross a line—” She stopped as Lisa held up a warding hand, index finger extended in a ‘just a sec’ gesture. Lisa closed her eyes tightly, clapping her free hand over them to block out as much of the stabbing pain from the light as possible.
“Wasn’t you,” Lisa managed after a few deep breaths. “Think everything just caught up with me at once.” She tried to reassure herself that Corey’s detachment from cape business meant she probably didn’t know what a thinker headache looked like. Lisa was already ridiculously beyond the limits of what she could handle in a single day. If she added Corey clocking she was a cape to the list, she’d hemorrhage her brain out her nose.
“Lisa, if you’re in pain, you should really be getting that checked out.”
Lisa went to shake her head and stopped herself just in time. “It’s only a headache,” she lied. The pounding across her skull had all the makings of a full blown migraine. Where was that resolution not to use thinker powers around Corey, again?
Lisa heard the scowl. “Head injuries are no joke! If you have a concussion—”
“I don’t,” her voice sounded faint even to her own ear. A sudden pang of worry shot through her. Returning to the loft by herself in this kind of condition was a tall order, and Lisa doubted Corey would be willing to let her out of her sight while she looked set to keel over. Lisa pried her eyes open and forced herself to smile through the needles that were jamming themselves into the sockets. “Really, I’m fine.”
Corey made a disapproving noise. “Do you at least live close by?”
Damn you and your well-meaning concern Corey. “Fairly,” said Lisa reluctantly.
“Let me walk you home,” Corey said immediately. Didn’t need to be a precog to see that one coming.
Lisa tried to sort through thoughts which seemed to part like molasses. Words couldn’t express what a colossally bad idea it’d be to let Corey see the loft. Even if the others wouldn’t murder her for exposing the hideout, she’d intentionally avoided letting Corey discover she had her own place. GED at 16? Just about plausible. Living on her own with the income of an entry IT job? Not an explanation Lisa was eager to attempt. “It’s a decent ways to walk. I can catch a bus, it’s fine.”
Thankfully, Corey took the hook. “Well, can I at least get you to the bus stop?”
Avoiding a sigh of relief and the urge to nod, Lisa smiled. “That works.”
“Alright then,” Corey started off, hesitated, back up a step. “You set the pace.”
Lisa laughed. “It’s a headache, not a broken leg.”
“Oke dokes,” Corey took three comically oversized strides, to the point she was almost jumping, then turned back, grinning from ear to ear. “Jeez, keep up.”
Lisa flipped her off, but couldn’t keep a matching smile from her face as she followed along after her. After she caught up, they fell in step together. Midway along the second block, Corey’s hand brushed hers, then again.
Lisa only hesitated for a moment before she took it. She kept her eyes fixed dead ahead, but her heart crept into her throat. Corey’s hand was warm beneath the glove. Her exposed fingers intertwined with Lisa’s, the digits slightly bumpy, subtly misshapen from the past damage.
And then her phone rang. Her work phone. She stopped, signalled Corey to wait, and then took the call.
“This isn’t really a good time.”
“Make time, Tattletale,” said Coil.
T0P is yet again a wonderful beta.
“I’m in company,” Lisa’s voice sounded far away to her own ears.
“Fortunately I don’t need you to talk, only listen.”
Lisa clenched the phone, the plastic softly creaking in her grip. “All right.”
“It’s come to my attention that you’ve made the acquaintance of a new cape. Under no circumstances are you to attempt to recruit them.”
Lisa blinked, attempting to parse what she’d just heard. Her association with Coil had long since primed her to expect the worst. She smothered her uncertainty. “Okay.”
“Excellent. Await instructions.”
The line went dead. Thankfully, she had a ready-made excuse to grimace and made use of it. She’d let herself be caught off guard, taken too long to respond. The hesitation was just another little titbit of information Coil had pried out of her.
“Everything okay?” asked Corey.
“Yeah. Just the boss upping my hours.”
“Right.” A sympathetic smile, bright and guileless. “Least you’re getting paid?”
Lisa returned it weakly. “Yeah.”
Corey waited patiently for her to catch up, and then when she drew level, tentatively extended out her hand.
Lisa took it.
Corey escorted her to the bus stop, and after a half hour ride with her eyes clenched shut and a half hour walk on shaky legs, Lisa was stumbling back into the loft. Alec appeared out of his room before she made it three steps towards her own, a cheshire grin on his face.
“Well well, it’s our very own TV star.”
Lisa groaned, diverting away from him and flopping facefirst onto the couch. “How bad is it?”
“Terrible, should have spent more time in makeup.”
He chuckled, and Lisa felt his weight settle on the sofa’s arm. “Seriously, you have a big ass bruise on your face. There’s good news, though.” He paused, waiting for her to ask. When she refused to take the bait, he laughed again and followed up anyway. “The camera angle was awesome. Title card material for the U&L Show.”
“Fuck you, Alec.” She pushed her face deeper into the couch cushions. Blessed darkness. “Wasn’t even one of them which hit me.”
“Highlight reel then. They had like four good moments in that whole episode. Have to show off what they did manage, right?”
“Why do you even watch that show?”
“It’s a perfect primer on how not to be a dumbass villain.”
Another laugh. “I’m not the one who got creamed by a two-bit tinker.”
Lisa raised her face up. “At least three bits.” She returned it to its berth.
“Brian’s pissed by the way,” Alec added offhandedly.
“I didn’t get involved deliberately. It just happened.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Preferable to watching Corey get the shit kicked out of her at least.
“I’m not judging. I think it was funny as hell.”
Of course he did.
“Anyway, when do we get to meet your girlfriend?”
Lisa extricated a hand from underneath herself and produced the middle digit.
Alec sighed dreamily. “Our little girl is growing up so fast.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” Not officially. People needed to talk about relationships, come to some kind of mutual agreement about what was between them. It wasn’t as simple as kissing immediately equalling dating. A kiss could mean--okay being realistic with herself it couldn’t mean many things. They’d kissed. Twice. And held hands. And thinking about those smiles from before was giving Lisa painful little chest butterflies.
Dammit. They were totally girlfriends.
A door thumped open and heavy boots stomped their way across the room. Lisa barely had time to brace herself before Rachel’s voice growled in way too close a proximity to her ear.
“What the fuck was that?”
Lisa was thankful her face wasn’t visible because she failed to keep the frustration from her expression. “Specify?”
Another growl. “Don’t be dumb. The cape shit. We agreed nobody new.”
She didn’t need this crap right now, not with a pounding headache and a million and one complicated emotions running around her head. “Okay first of all no we didn’t. Second of all, that wasn’t Undersiders business.”
A pause. “You’ve got something going on the side.”
For fuck’s sake. Lisa rolled grudgingly onto her side and found Rachel leaned over the back of the couch, glowering right into her face. “I didn’t even know she was a cape before today.”
Alec mock gasped. “Did you just admit to not knowing something?”
Rachel frowned even harder. “He’s right. You don’t do that.” Rachel’s fingers dug deeper into the couch. “Don’t fucking lie.” Thanks, Alec.
Lisa switched tack. “Okay, I suspected, but what exactly am I supposed to gain from getting smacked around in my civvies? Give me a little credit.”
Rachel’s eyes bored into hers. Lisa forced herself to keep eye contact. Now would be a very bad time to back down. “You’re always acting so smart, you tell me.”
An exasperated noise escaped her. Rachel’s glare intensified. Oops. “Nothing, Rachel. My friend was getting beaten up and even though it was a terrible idea, I went to help her.”
“So if I’m hearing this right, your defence is that it was too dumb to be planned out?” Alec gave her a shit-eating grin. “You know what? I’ll take that.”
“Hmph.” Rachel straightened up, then shook her head fiercely. “Better not be pulling anything.” She stomped off, her room’s door slamming a couple seconds later.
Lisa gave Alec the finger again then slumped back down onto the couch. If this headache didn’t kill her, then her teammates would.
Even a couple of days after the fact, Lisa was still crippled by the headaches and going kind of stir crazy. She needed more information about the fallout of Corey’s cape debut, specifically ensuring that people weren’t asking the wrong kind of questions about that one blonde bystander who’d become not-a-bystander. She certainly wasn’t going to check in on that from home though, not with the PRT and half the gangs in Brockton Bay doubtlessly sniffing around.
Without access to her powers and banged up to boot, that left Lisa needing to enlist some aid to get out of the loft and into town, and she only trusted one of three team members with escort duty. Thankfully, her explanation of the U&L fiasco had tempered Brian’s frustration with what Alec was insisting on calling ‘hijinks’. Brian had warned her about the risks of getting involved--in every sense of the phrase--with another cape, but otherwise even seemed pleased for her. Fucking Alec.
Brian left her at the library to run some errands. Lisa was relatively confident that nobody was going to pull anything there, though she was pretty burned on the safety of public spaces after what happened with Coil’s goons. She figured so long as she didn’t go wandering through the stacks she’d be all right. Taking a grateful seat at one of the computers, Lisa massaged her temples for a couple of seconds before logging in. Too much time on her feet, though at least moving her head wasn’t prompting pain-sledgehammers to the skull anymore.
Lisa got to business and started browsing cape news. Just as Aegis had said, the PRT had made a release which commended both their Wards and ‘the efforts of the independent cape we’re currently calling Flare’, as well as a warning about Gauntlet, the newest addition to Brockton Bay’s roster of villains. It was fairly sterile, taking no risks while being effusive in its praise. The article featured a video of a perfectly bland Armsmaster interview where he praised Aegis and Kid Win’s swift response and evaded almost every question about Corey.
There was the requisite stack of articles mocking Uber and Leet, a handful praising the quality of his mech, others focusing on the win for the wards. Some were more critical, pointing out that if it wasn’t for Flare, the trio of villains would have made a clean getaway, in a few cases devolving into outright ripping the PRT a new one with their criticisms. Lisa had a mild heart attack when one of those pieces made reference to a civilian getting into the line of fire and being hurt, but there was no indication from either the writer or the comments sections that anyone had a clue who she was.
Finally, she visited the cape forums, starting at PHO and working her way down to the more obscure ones. PHO was focusing on Corey/Flare and yet another in the loss column for U&L, with a side of speculation about Gauntlet and where they’d picked her up from. The pair had been on a recruitment drive recently, according to a linked thread. Weird choice of allies, but who else in Brockton Bay could a young, black tinker sign on with? Flare already had her own thread, which Lisa skimmed, noting a handful of mentions of herself as an ‘associate’ of the new cape. Fortunately, nobody was making anything more of it than that, and after a few pages, the narrative which picked up was one of Flare being out with a friend in civilian guise, and said friend trying to help Flare out.
Ironically close to the truth.
Digging a little deeper into the internet, Lisa felt a weight fall off her shoulders as more and more sites failed to draw a connection between her and a cape identity. A reprieve; she couldn’t be that stupid again, reacting emotionally to seeing Corey in danger. Her lips quirked up involuntarily. Worth being dumb once though, if that was the reward, right? Lisa was still partially convinced that her power was going to throw up some disgusting facet of Corey’s personality as soon as it came back online. She tried to shush that negativity, reminding herself of her friend’s—no she needed to be honest with herself—her girlfriend’s track record of being a genuinely good person. Which was more likely, her power overlooking something over the course of months, or Corey being one of a thousand?
Lisa realised she didn’t know. No reference points. Uncharted waters. At this point she wasn’t certain how much it bothered her any longer; they’d made it this far without a deluge of turnoffs and creepiness. Unless Corey turned out to be a controlling psycho now that they were actually, now that they’d--no, stop it Lisa--now that they were together, then Lisa couldn’t see anything she uncovered mattering. Ditching her because Corey chewed toenails or something was cowardice at best, being a judgemental asshole otherwise. Not a real dealbreaker, just hunting for an excuse to duck out.
Lisa leaned back in her chair and sighed, pushing the thoughts out of her head for a second. She was going round in circles and sooner or later her power was going to chime in and then she really would be laid up. She needed to get out of problem solving mode and take a moment to enjoy the relief of not being up shit creek. Apart from Coil’s orders, which Lisa couldn’t even begin to fathom. Keeping Corey separate from the Undersiders was unequivocally a good thing, and she’d had no intention of trying to bring her in even before what happened at the museum. On the other hand, Coil finding it necessary to give instructions about Corey was capital B bad. The last thing Lisa wanted was Corey getting entangled with anything to do with her scumbag boss.
She could feel her power wanting to get to work, fill in the gaps about exactly what the link was, and she forced it down. No, she’d pay for it in a huge way; patience now for results later, and cross her fingers that nothing happened in the meantime. No, not crossing her fingers either, not hoping that everything turned out for the best while she twiddled her thumbs. She had to ensure that Corey was safe from Coil, power or no power. What if Lisa wasn’t to recruit Corey because Coil had a plan to bring her in with death threats?
Lisa had her phone out before she even consciously thought about it. More by luck than judgement, she hadn’t destroyed her Coreyphone, just the other burner. She remembered Corey’s number by heart, of course, but it would have been awkward to try explaining why her own had suddenly changed.
You: Hey, how are things?
Corey: Going goos, better than. Are you all right? I didn’t want to bug you till you felt better.
You: Getting there. Dosed up on painkillers. Delicious painkillers.
Corey: lol. Take it easy okay?
You: I am, believe me. You’re not hurting or anything from the other day?
Corey: It doesn’t really hurt tbh? Like I get knocked sround some but the aura just kind of eats it. I’m sore but more like exercise sore than fighting sore.
Lisa hesitated. She knew her security was pretty good, but was Corey’s? This might not be a good conversation to be having by text; she shouldn’t have expected Corey to realise she was only alluding to what happened rather than spelling it out. Still, if anyone was going to Big Brother phonelines it’d be Coil, who already knew.
That was zero percent comforting, but this conversation had already started.
You: anyway feel free to message me whenever. I have a doctor’s note so I’m off work for like a week. It’s going to be boring as hell.
Corey: Should you be looking at teeny screens with a headache?
You: Probably not but I’ll go crazy with boredom if I don’t occupy myself.
Corey: I’m your headache cure? I’m flattered.
You: I think you’re my headache cause.
Corey: I’m really sorry you got hurt
She winced. She’d forgotten Corey's guilt over the headkicking.
You: It’s okay. I mean, I got to be in a real cape fight! How cool is that?
Corey: Not cool! Bad Lisa! No cape fights!
You: Okay Femscion keep your gold on.
You: Wait have you not checked your thread on PHO?
Corey: I don’t go on PHO! What are you talking about even?
You: Well I’m not saying you picked up a nickname but
Lisa let out a startled laugh. A bespectacled girl a couple seats down gave her a reproachful look. She just grinned, and the girl shrank back.
You: Relax, relax. It’s not that big a deal
Corey: THEY’RE COMPARING ME TO SCION HOW IS THAT NOT A BIG DEAL
Corey: Corey has sent you a link
Lisa opened the link and was directed to a Youtube video of ‘Movie Scream Compilation’, which she thankfully reacted quickly enough to X out of before she got kicked out of the library.
You: Could be worse
You: Could be Purity
Corey: okay wow yeah that would be worse. Please let’s not talk about nazis tho
Corey: it’s k
Corey: Look I do want to talk more about this cape stuff but idk about over the phone. It’s personal?
Lisa frowned. More of Corey’s cape hangups, but promising an answer this time at least.
You: Okay, want to meet up?
Corey: :O! OUR FIRST DATE
Lisa stared for a couple of seconds, then realised she was beginning to blush. Was that a date? She hadn’t meant to ask Corey on a date. Though, taking a moment to think, was she against the idea?
You: Sure. Thursday afternoon? Quirks?
Corey: Yesss you are converted to the church of rainbow cafe
You: just taking the safe bet
Corey: Okay, it’s a date! (omg it’s a date, it’s a DATE!)
Another smile made its way onto Lisa’s face. Maybe she wasn’t quite that excited but her heart was certainly beating a little faster.
You: Alright, see you then, talk in a bit?
Corey: Sure thing
Corey: I kind of want to sign off with love you, is that weird?
Corey: fuck I made it weird, ignore that plz
Lisa sat there staring at her phone, frozen in place. Had to say something, had to say the right something. How was she supposed to respond to something like that? Too fast, way too fast, even as a part of her thrilled giddily. Okay, okay. Just be direct. Be honest.
You: Maybe a little fast but not weird.
Corey: :) <3
Setting the phone down, Lisa sat back in her chair and let out a shaky breath. Everything was racing by her. She needed solid ground; goals, objectives. They ran through her head in a flurry, she seized on the best ones, the most important ones. Keep her identity safe. Keep Corey safe. Don’t do anything stupid.
Flawed, incomplete, but for now they would have to do.
T0PH4T is great, not just for betaing here, but writing an omake for me! (It's on Spacebattles, for the AO3 crowd)
Lisa was beginning to gain some sincere affection for Quirks, and not just because it was Corey’s favourite café. The atmosphere was chilled out, and although it didn’t often have the ambient buzz of a room full of people which got her firing Lisa could appreciate a quieter spot from time to time. Such as today, nursing a residual thinker headache. Besides, now that Lisa had got to know some of the wait staff and baristas, she found that most of them were willing to chat so long as it wasn’t busy.
In some instances, that wasn’t a benefit. Not all the employees were fun to be around, being either boring, annoying, or prone to setting off her power in ways she’d almost forgotten could happen. No such luck. One girl around her age was a particularly blatant offender, with the kind of fantasies and lascivious thoughts that made Lisa beyond glad she was still recuperating the use of her power. Lisa was trying not to make too much of it, but damn, seeing a number written on her receipt and looking up to catch bedroom eyes from across the room, she’d almost thrown up in her mouth a bit.
Fortunately that girl only worked part time, and after a couple of discreet questions, Lisa learned her schedule. No more excruciating attempts at asking her out.
Lisa had two favourites. The first was Vince, a youngish Chinese-American guy who usually made the coffee and was into cape costuming in a huge way. He had a killer Armsmaster outfit, complete with replica halberd which had Lisa almost instinctively plotting to exploit in a job. Heck, she was even tempted, in a ‘this is an awful idea’ kind of fashion, to snap a picture and ask what he thought of her Tattletale.
The second was Jensen, who’d spent Lisa’s first couple of visits with Corey feeling her out and then gone in for the kill her first solo outing. He poked fun at her remorselessly, though managed to steer clear of any truly hurtful remarks, as well as never getting offended when Lisa fired back at him. He was a bit like a grown up version of Alec, although the moment she thought up that comparison she vowed that the two must never meet. She suspected they’d learn from one another.
When Lisa stepped into the café en route to her first date—it was actually a first official date, Jesus—with Corey, it was Jensen working, and the second he saw Lisa, his eyes went round as dinner plates.
“Holy fuck your face!” He rushed over, pulling a chair of the table nearest the door. “Do you need ice or something? What the hell happened?”
Lisa smiled sheepishly. After spending most of the last week cooped up in the loft recovering, she’d failed to consider the reaction her livid bruises would provoke. “Way to make a girl feel pretty, Jensen.”
“I’m great at girls, the best really,” said Jensen, leaning this way and that to inspect her face. “Seriously, are you okay? Wasn’t gangs or anything?”
“No, nothing like that. Wrong place at the wrong time.” Über and Leet probably didn’t count as a gang, even adding Gauntlet, who was dropping further and further onto Lisa’s shitlist. As soon as Lisa got a good look at the ugly purple-blue splotch across her cheek and the similarly multi-coloured mark on her chin, she’d vowed to even the score. If they ever met in costume, Lisa was going to end her.
Jensen fussed over Lisa for a little while longer, and at one point a cold shake appeared in front of her, shrugged off with a ‘just tip me’. Luckily, he didn’t watch U&L’s show; she’d have hated trying to navigate around cape questions, not just for her own sake but for Corey’s. They were already fortunate that Corey’s aura went so far towards obscuring her identity. It was easy to overlook her frame and clothing when she was lit up in golden fire. Lisa had watched the footage, most people would struggle if they didn’t already know Corey’s identity.
The café door opened, and in came a familiar redhead. Jensen turned immediately with an application of his customer service smile, which immediately gave way to a grin which was simultaneously more friendly and more calculating. “Corey! Hell have you been taking this girl?”
Corey had started to smile, but as soon as her eyes caught Lisa’s her face crumpled. “I knew we should have got you to the hospital.” Right, this would be her first time seeing the bruises too.
Lisa pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m not made of glass, you guys. This looks worse than it is.” She wasn’t sure how true that was, just that Corey fussing over the injuries was distinctly discomfiting. When the positions had been reversed, the responsibility was much more direct than an ostensible failure of protection.
Corey puffed out her cheeks, making a disgruntled noise. “If you say so, but if you start getting light headed or weird pains or—”
“Oh leave her alone, Corey,” said Jensen. “Now, where can I get you ladies seated?”
“Comfy seats!” Corey cried.
“Corey! You even going to ask Lisa what she prefers?” Jensen chided, ‘I’m an asshole’ grin firmly in place.
“Ugh,” Corey looked at Lisa and rolled her eyes. “Lisa, would you like to sit on the old-ass wooden chairs that will probably give you splinters, orrrr the awesome sofas stuffed with angel feathers?”
Jensen smirked. “Feel like you’re not fairly representing the side of the dependable wooden—”
“Oh my god can we just go sit down.” Lisa could feel her headache starting to make a resurgence, reaffirming her commitment to preventing Alec ever discovering this place.
Duly pulling up a table, Lisa and Corey sat down together. Just as advertised, Corey wasn’t showing any ill-effects from her recent cape fight. Lisa didn’t realise how much of a relief it would be to see until she was looking Corey over, searching for signs of injury. Not a scratch on her.
How hard would they have needed to put her down if she’d actually managed to use her power the night of the burglary, Lisa wondered.
“You checking me out?” said Corey, a welcome interruption to that train of thought. Corey leaned forward on the table, propping her chin on her elbows and flashing a grin. “You have a thing for scrawny gingers?”
Lisa let out a startled laugh. “No, I have a thing for a specific scrawny ginger.”
Corey winked at her.
They made small talk for a while until Jensen arrived with drinks, then Corey straightened up, both hands wrapped around her cup. “Hey, um, about the other day,” she dropped her eyes for an instant, then firmly returned them to meet Lisa’s. “I figure you have some questions, and I do want to talk to you about it but uh,” another sideways glance, then a sigh. “Are you… okay with that? I don’t want you getting wrapped up in things because of me, like if Über and Leet decided to make a revenge attack or something and tried to get at me through you.”
Lisa kept her expression as neutral as she could as a wry twist hit her stomach. Corey not knowing about the unwritten rules didn’t come as much of a surprise, but there was cruel irony in her worrying about Lisa entangling herself in the cape scene. A little late for that.
“I don’t think capes usually target non-capes,” said Lisa carefully. “Otherwise all you’d see is kidnapped loved ones and ransom demands. Besides, you didn’t make me jump in. I chose that. Listen,” she leaned forward. “I’m happy hearing as much or as little as you feel comfortable talking about.” Because the more Corey said now, the less Lisa would have to feel guilty about uncovering with her power later. She was itching to let her Thinking off the leash and hated that the only barrier keeping her from doing so was the tail end of this migraine. Why was needing to know things so much more important than Corey’s privacy?
Lisa wanted to pin the blame on her power. The alternative shed some ugly light on her personality.
“Okay, okay. That’s good, I’m glad,” Corey smiled nervously. “How about this; I’m a cape, AMA.”
Lisa grinned. “All right. Works for me.” She considered for a moment. Making Corey uncomfortable was right out, which disqualified triggering, but Lisa would still feel better if she received major secrets from the source rather than her power. “You’ve had your powers over a year, right?”
“I’m not judging here,” Lisa lied. “But couldn’t you help more people caping than volunteering?”
Corey shook her head, hard. “Capes are half the problem in the Bay,” her expression darkened, brow furrowing. “A shitton of the people we see in the refuge are there because they got swept up in capefights, or collateral damage, or have gangs backed by capes leaning on them, and the Protectorate doesn’t do shit to help with that. They mop up the bad guys, maybe put them away every so often, then they either get broken out or replaced by new ones. Meanwhile all the crap that was going on before keeps going on and nothing changes.”
Corey fidgeted with her hands agitatedly, voice layering with anger. “There are severe underlying societal issues with the Bay because of its cape culture. We have neo-fucking-nazis in the streets swinging their dicks around because they have the biggest collection of capes in the city leading them. It’s literally life-threatening to be a minority here, and the good guys can’t even keep a motherfucking multiple murderer under lock and key. Like, fuck, how many people of colour or gay people do you have to rip to pieces before it earns you a bullet to the fucking skull instead of a failed prison escort?”
For several seconds, Lisa could only stare. Obviously people like Hookwolf were the exception rather than the rule, but arguing the point would be an eminently bad idea. She hadn’t realised how deeply Corey’s frustrations ran; maybe having the other Undersiders as her only frame of reference for caping had distorted her perspective. Not everyone was in it for the money; making fools of the opposition was an optional but highly enjoyable side benefit. “I guess that’s your sociology classes talking?”
Corey half-smiled. “A little. I study the subject because I wanted to understand more about the problems here. Try and do something about them, maybe. Big dreams. Volunteering is, well, it’s kind of like stemming the bleeding while someone else keeps cutting the person. If I were to go out caping…” she shook her head. “Wouldn’t make a difference. I don’t—you probably noticed that fighting really isn’t my thing. I can do more as Corey than Flare,” she pulled a face. “I don’t even like that name.” Her tone was attempting to be upbeat, but fell a considerable distance short of the mark.
“You did a pretty good job just stalling at the museum,” said Lisa. “You could run support, focus on protecting people.” She didn’t want Corey to be down on caping, to compartmentalise those parts of herself. Lisa wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle the persistent ‘you jackass’ vibes of concealing her own power for too long. Softening the landing zone a little would be nice.
Corey shook her head. “My power, it…” She stared down at her hands. “It’s kind of like a gearstick. First gear, second gear, whatever. The harder I crank it up, the stronger I get and the longer it lasts, but—” Corey swallowed, stilled her flexing knuckles. “My feelings get pushed down. I start enjoying getting violent, and it starts seeming like a better and better idea to crank the gearstick further and further, and I don’t know where I’d stop. If I’d stop.” She finally looked up again, blinking hard, trying to keep her eyes clear.
So much for sticking clear of uncomfortable topics. Lisa tentatively reached out over the table, gently resting a hand on Corey’s. “Hey. It’s alright. I’m sorry.”
Corey didn’t move, continued blinking at the tears. After an achingly long pause, she finally nodded. “Thanks,” she muttered hoarsely.
With the topic having hit an end so dead the conversation was about to get an epitaph, Lisa struggled back towards an alternative. “So, ah, what should the Protectorate be doing then?”
Pulling her hand away, Corey started counting off on her fingers. “Outreach. Looking at root causes. Trying to make the gangs a less appealing option, whether by targeting them or stopping them getting their hooks in so young. Education. Doing something about how ridiculously unsafe it is to be Asian in the city. Stop weaponising trauma.”
Lisa cocked her head to one side. “You’ll need to run that last one by me again.”
Corey shrugged. “The Wards. They’re bullshit. Fresh triggers are coming off the worst days of their lives. They need therapy, not being fed into the superpowered thresher,” she scowled. “Do you think someone like Vista is going to grow up well-adjusted when she’s been surrounded by capes since she was nine?”
Lisa wasn’t particularly invested in defending the Wards, still seized with that doubt which yammered that Corey would run into the Protectorate’s arms if she said the wrong thing. “Better PRT capes than the gangs,” Lisa said mildly.
“True, but it’s still bullshit. They’re giving kids the hard sell and then pretending there’s any realistic chance they’re going to do anything but join the Protectorate when they hit majority.” Corey laughed sardonically. “Oh, and just as a bonus, let’s shuffle them around from city to city so they’re isolated from their non-cape social circles, turn it into a real echo chamber.”
“You’d know better than me,” said Lisa, keeping her tone casual but internally delighting in Corey’s antipathy. Barring any drastic shifts of opinion, she wasn’t losing Corey to the Protectorate any time soon.
Corey subsided, suddenly bashful, and smiled ruefully. “Sorry. Strong feelings. Got kind of carried away there.”
Lisa waved a hand. “All good.” She let her mood show with a grin. “No need to apologise for being passionate.”
“Okay. Thanks for listening. Sorry, we got sidetracked didn’t we? Did you want to know anything—” A chirpy tune played from under the table and Corey blinked, then extricated a cellphone from her pocket, studying it for a moment. She looked over at Lisa. “You mind if I get this? Could be important.”
“Be my guest.”
Corey beamed and picked up. “How you doing old man?”
Disappointingly, the voice on the other end of the line was too muffled for Lisa to make out. Even so, as Corey laughed, Lisa found herself smiling along just watching her expression.
“You’re totally old. You’re basically a walking corpse.” Corey’s grin widened. “Uh huh. Uh huh,” she met Lisa’s eyes from across the table and reached out a hand, making little grabby motions with her fingers. Lisa’s heart record scratched for a moment, then she met Corey halfway, lacing their fingers together. Another chest-stutter. Hoo boy. Come on Lisa, pull it together—Corey started to make a drumbeat on the back of Lisa’s hand and warmth pooled in the bottom of her stomach.
“Anyway, what’s up? You hear anything about your stuff?” Corey listened, then her face fell. “What about the insurance?... Fuuuuuck. That’s so shitty, I’m sorry.” She glanced up to Lisa again and smiled gently. Lisa wasn’t sure she’d ever get tired of seeing the animation of emotions across Corey’s face.
Corey’s smile suddenly broke, and Lisa immediately changed her mind. There was something she could happily not see more of. “Nobody’s blaming you. You’re the last person who should feel guilty about this.” Thankfully her expression brightened again. “Hey, you know I’m always right. I’m a teenager, it’s our job to give adults startling revelations about life,” she broke off with a giggle. “No? Damn. Movies lied to me.”
Lisa snorted a laugh of her own and was rewarded with a beaming 100-watt smile which sent a giddy little thrill through her. God this was unfair. A smile alone shouldn’t be enough to make her feel like this. ‘Ease away from her, don’t get attached’ she’d told herself, before promptly falling head over heels for the girl.
Did Corey feel the same way, when Lisa smiled at her? Sudden tearing anxiety hit Lisa right in the gut and she forced it away just as quickly. That was a stupid thought and a stupid worry. Corey came to her, not the other way around, and Lisa trusted her power enough to believe that if any duplicity was going on, she would have figured it out.
She tuned back in, having missed a good chunk of Corey’s half of the conversation and just in time to hear “A donation of how much?” and see Corey’s eyes widen. “T-that’s awesome. Um, and you have no idea who it might have come from? Just anonymous? Okay.” Obvious relief crossed her expression and she glanced at Lisa, mouthing ‘awkward’ and then something which took Lisa a second to identify as ‘QYR’. “Well see, that’s good karma for you, right? Some bad things happened, but then something good happened back. You deserve it. … Yes you do! Trust me. Super qualified expert goddaughter opinion.”
The conversation carried a couple minutes longer before Corey squeezed Lisa’s hand. “Hey listen, I always love talking but I’m actually on a dat—with a friend,” she flushed. “With a friend. … H-hey! That’s none of your business! … Wh—No! Stop that! I take it back, you’re terrible and should feel bad.” The blush was only deepening, and while Lisa could only imagine what was being said on the other side of the line, she found a flustered Corey to be fertile ground. Lisa couldn’t help a grin from slowly spreading across her face. Admittedly, she didn’t try very hard to fight it.
Corey noticed. “Hey! You’re supposed to be on my side!”
Lisa laughed, then spoke without thinking. “Sorry, but you’re cute when you’re embarrassed.” The instant the words left her mouth, she simultaneously realised that they were true and that she was crushing like absolute crazy. Hopeless, meet one girl who didn’t weird her out, was nice, failed to have fucked up ulterior motives, respected boundaries and—okay perhaps she needed to stop second-guessing why Corey made her feel this way.
Corey pouted. “Traitor. What? Oh, my g— friend is being terrible too. You should meet her you can make a little terrible club.”
“It’s, uh,” Lisa trailed off, mouth suddenly dry. “It’s okay to call me your girlfriend. If you want.” She tried a smile, feeling the nerves written all over her face, heart a flutter.
For a second, Corey froze. Then, her smile went goofy, the edges of her mouth repeatedly quirking up, like she couldn’t quite believe what she’d just heard. “Mm? Sorry, my girlfriend just said I’m allowed to say we’re an item.” Corey squeezed again. “Meet? Well, um, that depends on Lisa.” She laughed. “Okay, sure. Talk soon? … Alright. Love you, bye!” She hung up, returned her attention fully to Lisa. “My godfather.” She explained. “My dad and him went to college together and he’s known me since I was a baby. He’s basically family.”
“You sound close,” Lisa had a lump in her throat. She hadn’t thought much about relatives for a while, not after—she hadn’t thought about relatives for a while.
Corey missed her discomfort. “Yeah. He’s awesome. He alllsooo reminded me I have a party in a couple weeks.” She bit her lip, shifting in place. “You’re one hundred percent invited, though uh, fair warning, there are going to be a ton of people there, not just my friends. My parents like to get kind of schmoozy and invite their ‘connections’ via their kids.”
Lisa watched Corey’s face whilst she spoke, searching for any sign of resentment and finding none. She didn’t mind being used like that? Just as soon as she thought she understood Corey, another curveball. “What’s the occasion?”
“Oh. Um. My birthday.” An awkward smile.
A birthday party. This girl. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Corey’s face lit right up. “We can be as open or as low key as you like about, um, us. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable or obligated.”
‘Us’. The word gave Lisa butterflies, enough to almost distract her from the topic. She was tempted to say screw it, let people say what they wanted to say, but it sounded as if the party was going to have a lot of unknown quantities. Best to get the lay of the land before making any major decisions. “I’m not sure. Can I think about it a bit?”
“Of course! And you know, if it would help you can meet my mom and dad whenever you’d like. They’re great. Totally down with the kids.”
Lisa thought of her parents. “Okay.”
Describing Corey's home as just a house was difficult when the word 'mansion' was eagerly leaping to mind. It was three stories and change, sectioned off from the street with a buzzer operated gate. The front driveway was patterned bricks, with a luxury sedan parked out front and space enough for another four or five vehicles. The area was ringed by large bushes, some of which were beginning to flower, splashes of colour peeking out from the greenery.
Lisa pulled up short of the gate, carefully taking the reins on her power and holding them tight. She was finally recovered enough to use it again and more than ever she had to keep a handle on her limitations. Any time Coil knew she was out of commission was time he could spend operating without any chance for her to pick out anything she could use. Pre-empting the bastard was hard enough as it was, and he’d made no secret of the fact he expected her to use her power on his dime and his time.
Corey hit the buzzer and then punched in a quick code on the keypad. She glanced back at Lisa with a nervous smile as the gate ground open. “Here we are. Um, I did tell my parents about us, but I banned them from being weird. Just, um,” she fidgeted with her hands. “Just let me know if they’re stressing you out or anything. They can both be kind of intense, especially when it comes to my friends.”
“What, you don’t think I can handle it?” said Lisa, grinning. She let it drop and reached out to Corey, taking her hand. She didn’t squeeze, simply rubbing her thumb across Corey’s palm. “It’ll be fine.”
Corey took a deep breath. “Right. Right. Of course it will,” she tucked her own thumb over Lisa’s and did squeeze. “Okay. Let’s head in.”
Lisa nodded, following Corey up to the front door and inside. It opened immediately into a porch corridor, tastefully wood-panelled. Corey inclined her head and stepped through a door on the right-hand side, leading through to a kitchen. “Mom!” She called. “We’re here!”
A moment later a very tall woman with sandy brown hair and considerable muscle definition stepped through the door on the opposite end of the room. Between the alert, inquisitive eyes, the relaxed yet-confident posture and the freckles, the resemblance was obvious, and became even stronger when her face lit up with a warm smile.
"You must be Lisa. I'm Corey's mom." She moved across the kitchen and produced her hand, which Lisa took reluctantly for a very firm shake. "You can call me Kim.”
Kim released Lisa's hand and looked her up and down, an appraiser's gleam in her eye. “So. You’d be the one leading my little girl astray with your devilish wiles?”
“Absolutely,” said Lisa immediately, not breaking eye contact. Corey made a high pitched noise, half squeak, half snort.
Kim grinned. “I hope you haven’t been…” She looked around conspiratorially, then leaned in close. “Smooching.”
“Mom!” Corey looked like didn’t know whether she should laugh.
Lisa had no such uncertainty and burst out laughing, making a token effort to hide it before giving up. “I plead the fifth,” she managed eventually.
“I’d call you a traitor but I have no idea why I expected anything else,” said Corey. Lisa winked at her, avoiding any sidelong glances at Kim. It would be easy to take a dip into her power, just enough of one to get a sense for whether she’d made a good first impression, whether the joking around was a trap she’d fallen for—Lisa forced the temptation away.
Come on, she knew she could handle this. She navigated normal human interactions on a regular basis without panicking or relying on her parahuman abilities. Granted, it wasn’t every day that those interactions happened to be with your girlfriend’s mom. Sheesh, even thinking it set her heart to pounding. Maybe she should have waited longer before throwing herself into meeting the family. Lisa had spent hours preparing responses to the most likely conversational pitfalls she’d anticipated, but now those lies seemed nothing short of threadbare. What if Kim pushed her about her own parents? What if there was a link somewhere that she’d failed to account for?
By the time Lisa’s smile faded, it was already a cooling corpse.
“Corey tells me you have your GED? That’s impressive for your age.”
Lisa scrambled for the solid ground. “Self-study suited me much better than high school,” technically truthful, and as an added bonus, a technical truth she’d already told Corey before.
“I suppose high school isn’t for everyone. You must have some very supportive parents.”
Thank god she had so much experience keeping a straight face. “Yeah, they helped.” Lisa didn’t trust herself to say anything more.
“Must run in the family,” Corey swept in gallantly, guilelessly, cluelessly.
“You’re a sap,” Lisa-didn’t-quite-joke. She looked back at Kim. “Corey said you’re in the police force? That sounds scary.”
Kim chuckled. “It’s been years since I ran the beat. The scary days are long behind me.”
“For the criminals, anyhow,” pipped up Corey.
The image of Kim facing down a rampaging Judas flashed through Lisa’s head, and she suppressed a shudder.
To Lisa’s great relief, the conversation diverged from there, dancing between careers, hobbies and social lives without settling on one topic for long, save for some awkward quizzing about ‘where the kids go on dates these days’ (for a mad moment, the temptation to say ‘just fighting supervillains, you know’ had been overwhelming. At some stage, Kim eventually ushered them out of the kitchen and into a lounge, pulling Corey back a couple of minutes later to help her with something.
Lisa took a moment to scan the room as she fidgeted on the couch, well-entrained habits kicking into gear. You never knew when something about the environment could prove to be an important context clue. Also, she was curious and/or nosy. The far wall was dominated by an enormous bookshelf, and a flatscreen TV overhung the sealed fireplace. Photographs, some framed and others collaged extensively decorated the rest of the walls. Corey featured in many of them, her hundred-watt smile recognisable even from a much younger face, sometimes with friends, sometimes on her own, in one plastered from head to toe in mud, another proudly grinning at the front of a group of a dozen, all holding up a rainbow flag monogrammed with 'QYR'. Kim appeared only a few times, with much more wallspace dedicated to a pale man with slicked-back red hair, almost always in businesswear, almost always in the company of important-looking suits. One photo, however, had caught him wide-eyed and dishevelled, half a bun crammed into his mouth at the kitchen table. Another, shirtless on a sunny day with a child under each arm. A third...
A slight heat came to Lisa's cheeks. A shot of the man and Kim as they shared deep eye contact, arms wound around one another, noses almost touching.
Hands landed on Lisa's shoulders and she jumped. A giggle came from behind her and then Corey's upside-down face appeared. "Aren't my parents cute?"
"I guess they are," said Lisa, recovering quickly.
Corey pulled a mock-offended face, losing what little heat it had for being inverted. "You guess? It'll do. For now." Her lips brushed against Lisa’s forehead and then she disappeared from view, reemerging as she slid around to the front of the sofa, hopping onto the seat next to Lisa. "Most of these have stories behind them if you're interested."
Lisa nodded, pulling her eyes away and refocusing. She settled on one of the larger photos, this one depicting a young auburn haired woman with her arms around the shoulders of a pair of PRT troopers. She wore a bulky flak vest similar to the troopers' armour, but with a white PRESS label stencilled across it. All three looked grimy and exhausted, but each wore a smile on their face.
Corey followed her gaze, then smiled. "That's my big sister. She's in journalism, after our Uncle Karl."
The name was a hammer blow to the chest. Lisa's breath caught. Her power rushed to supply the information which she already knew. Uncle. Familial relation. Speaking with familiarity, expecting me to know who she's referencing. Uncle common phrasing for older male family friends. Family friend; godfather. Involved in media. Her godfather, Karl, is in media. Her godfather is Karl Eisler.
Fuck, fuck, fuck!
Forget 'your girlfriend is a supervillain', how about 'your girlfriend is the supervillain who screwed over your godfather'?
“Neat,” Lisa managed, trying not to choke on the lump in her throat. “She’s outside of Brockton?”
“Canada right now. She basically gets everywhere. She’s awesome,” Corey was beaming, filled with affection. “I’d love for you two to meet sometime,” she tilted her head to one side. “You got any siblings?”
The question, so innocently posed, caught Lisa off guard, a knife in the back. “I—” She stopped, swallowed glass. “A brother. I’m not really very cosy with my family, though. You and your mom seem close.” The switch in gears was painfully obvious to Lisa but was the best she could do without screeching to a halt.
Corey’s face fell as her eyes flickered around Lisa’s face. “We’re mostly pretty good, but we’ve kind of been clashing recently. You have no idea how hard I’ve argued about the guest list for the party. Like, my own birthday and half the invites are people I barely know or people mom and dad want to butter up. It’s shitty.”
“No kidding,” said Lisa, attempting to breathe her way through the emotional maelstrom ripping across body and mind. Her eyes were even starting to well up, tears she had to fight back with everything that she had. Welcome to the combination guilt trip and emotional bodyblow, enjoy your stay! “That’s pretty controlling.”
“Really is.” She studied Lisa for several seconds, beginning to fidget with her hands. She opened her mouth, shut it again, opened, then looked off to one side. When she eventually spoke, Lisa didn’t think the words were the first ones that had been on Corey’s mind. “I’d prefer something more low key to be honest.” Corey paused and then grinned, though her heart wasn’t in it. “Well, not that low key. But you know, friends and close family.”
The problems were all too familiar. If they hadn’t been, Lisa doubted she could have focused on them at all. “You could do your own thing. Your parents don’t own you.”
Corey sighed. “I’ve thought about it. I just don’t want to hurt them. Or like, embarrass them. I know they’ve done a lot to set this all up. I can’t not show to my own birthday.”
In Lisa’s professional opinion, that was a Corey’s parents problem rather than a Corey problem, but would Corey see it that way? Lisa could tell that Corey was close with her parents, her version of clashing something minor enough that it sent a sickly backdraft through Lisa’s system.
She couldn’t untangle who her frustration was targeting. Instead, she smiled and hoped it looked more convincing than it felt. “I dunno. You could try. That would be pretty funny.”
Corey tried not to smile and didn’t succeed. “You’re terrible.”
Yeah. She was.
*blows off the dust in here*
Been a while, huh? Apologies for this big ol' delay. Being honest I am easily distracted from projects and once I lose momentum I have a tough time regaining it. This has been in my head in a state of 'I should update this!' from uh... well, basically a week after the previous update. Bear brain is not always the most cooperative.
Thanks to Photondray for being my eyes on this one and Tophat for looking over the first draft (which was five months ago, ahem >_>)
Enjoying the party would have been significantly easier if it wasn’t for, oh, almost everything that surrounded Lisa’s presence there. Social interactions were her bread and butter, and under normal circumstances suspicionless access to a whole room of Brockton Bay’s upper crust would have been a gilt-edged opportunity to dig up dirt and make useful connections. Unfortunately, such ambitions were hindered by, among other things, a red-headed ball of nervous energy.
The party—which Lisa kept wanting to refer to as a soiree—was being hosted in an upscale hotel in the heart of Brockton Bay. Lisa had practically tasted the money the second she stepped into the opulent lobby and the sensation had redoubled when she saw waitstaff handing out glasses of wine that cost more than some people made in a week. The party had the run of the hotel ballroom, an in-house DJ, tables laden with expensive buffet food, and a host of servers orbiting the gathering. The luxury on display was almost enough for Lisa to convince herself it was the source of the intense nauseous anxiety pitching and rolling in her stomach. Maybe if Corey, the genuine cause, wasn’t absolutely everywhere.
Someone who knew Corey worse than Lisa did would have said she was in her element. She wove back and forth between giving birthday greetings to well-dressed men and women and exchanging hellos and jokes with guests her own age. Amongst these, however, was where the cracks showed, where someone looking out for the signs could realise that half the teens Corey was speaking to barely knew her. It was usually the ones sticking tightly to their own parents, giving her muted greetings and plastic smiles. Each interaction was stiff and lifeless, and Corey only continued the conversations long enough to not be rude. Those Corey actually lingered around she left with obvious reluctance, usually casting a glance towards her mother or father as she did so.
To be fair, even if Lisa didn’t have a very good idea of what a genuine smile from Corey looked like, she’d spent the last two weeks providing a sympathetic ear towards her. Lisa wasn't much for listening to other people's problems, but from Corey it was oddly endearing hearing how little regard she held for her parents rolling out the red carpet. It'd be so easy for someone in shoes like hers to be spoiled, throw the toys out of the pram because her parents weren't buying her this car or that dress. Instead, she was fixed on how they were spending too much money on her, turning a family event into an excuse for social mingling. Endearing until a stray thought reminded Lisa of what she’d done to the person she was just barely daring to admit she liked. Corey's willingness to confide in her all made for a wonderful mixer to the guilt cocktail that was merrily bubbling away inside Lisa. It was the bitter kind of ironic, knife-twisting little secret she’d have been delighted to uncover, if only it belonged to somebody else.
Lisa had spent the last half hour just tracking Corey through the room, following her with her eyes while sipping listlessly at some soda she barely tasted. She wanted to be over there with her, didn’t, wanted to be anywhere but here. She didn't belong. Lisa swallowed, staring down into her drink. She should have stuck with what she had, the touchpoint friends she made around Brockton Bay who didn't know her, but were decent company and good intel. She should have known better. She sighed, glanced back up and felt her train of thought derail as as she saw Corey looking straight at her from across the ballroom. The rigid expression on Corey's face instantly melted away and she rushed over to her with undignified haste. As Corey slid up alongside her, smiling that room-lighting smile of hers, Lisa forgot for just a heartbeat what was twisting her up inside. Then, with little more than a gentle touch on her shoulder, it all came crashing back. This was why getting involved with people was stupid. The heist and the antiques theft were perfectly fine jobs before emotions and attachments showed up and ruined them. Of all the pointlessly rich people in this city, why the heck did it have to be the one related to Corey?
“Sorry for leaving you alone like that," she said, taking Lisa's hand. "If it’s any consolation I had exactly zero fun.”
“That’s okay.” Lisa wasn’t interested in parading around the place on Corey’s arm, and she’d give even odds that Corey wouldn’t have been thrilled showing her off to everyone either. There was something uncomfortably performative about treating the relationship in that way, and Lisa was too compromised to pretend to be giving a shit about people that even Corey didn’t care about.
“Hey,” said Corey softly. “Everything all right?”
Lisa blinked, refocused, saw the concern written on her girlfriend’s face, and swore internally. “Sure.”
“You just look a little out of it. I don’t want you to force yourself to stay if you don’t want to be here.”
Lisa hesitated. It was tempting indeed to take the ticket out, bail on the situation that she should have known better than to put herself in. The problem was two-pronged; it rankled to quit, sticking in her craw like a mouthful of gravel. Quitting would be an admission of defeat, and if Lisa gave that ground, she didn't know where she would regain it. Second, second… the girl across from her. There were so many ways in which Lisa could fuck this up, was already fucking this up. Corey wouldn’t care if she left, but Lisa would. One letdown was a small thing, but with everything else, it felt as if it could be the last straw for her nerves. She didn’t know how much longer she could handle the constant shittiness of being around a person who was a constant reminder of how bad she was by comparison.
Realising she was going too long without replying again, Lisa pasted a smile on. “Isn’t tonight supposed to be about you? Quit worrying!”
Slowly, uncertainly, Corey returned the smile. “‘About me’ includes you, Lisa.”
Lisa’s reply caught and died in her throat, eyes welling up with sudden emotion. She feigned a coughing fit, burying her face in the crook of her arm. Damn her. Damn her. Why did she have to care so much? Why was there nothing that Lisa could use to tear herself away? It would be easy, so easy if there was one flaw, just one goddamn flaw.
“Whoa! Easy there—do you need a drink?” Corey’s hand dropped out of hers and then settled between her shoulder blades, hovering awkwardly.
But that was the kicker, wasn't it? There were little things. Small irritations, one or two bad habits, things that might have made a bad first impression and steer Lisa away from the path she was hurtling down. Against the weight of emotions, though? Against how Lisa's heart always leaped to see Corey? Against a hundred smiles from a hundred dorky texts? Blown out of the water.
She was in love. A hopeless idiot in love.
Lisa straightened, the threat of tears assuaged for the moment. “Sorry, must have breathed in some dust or something.” That was... probably the worst lie she'd ever told.
“Okay.” Corey didn’t move her hand, gently tracing her fingers up and down Lisa’s back. Her brow was creased, worried. “Do you want to meet some of my friends? Dance? Just uh, just hang out?”
She was trying to make her feel better, well aware that something was wrong, if not the specifics. Lisa was doing a fantastic job of keeping this all under wraps. To think she prided herself on her poker face, some mastermind she wa—Lisa bit the inside of her cheek, attempting to drag herself away from the self-aggrandisation, She was making it super blatant that something was wrong, and the longer she went without diverting, the more suspicious slash concerned Corey was going to get. The better choice, if she could maintain her composure, was to come along with Corey, allay her fears by acting normal and enjoying the party. Unfortunately, Lisa wasn't sure if she could keep it steady just now, and continuing to act, well, like she was acting would be a much worse result than abandoning ship altogether. Which she wasn't going to do! She just needed to buy some time to get her head screwed all the way on.
"Just, ah, give me a few minutes?" Lisa waved a hand vaguely around. "I'm going to step out for a couple. Too many people, you know?"
Corey gave an understanding nod. "I get it. Sorry, I know this is a lot when you don't know anyone."
Lisa could only return the nod in response. Her throat had closed up too tightly for any words. Another lie, and one so easily believed, no questioning, just guilelessness. Lisa couldn't even look down on Corey's naivety, born out of misplaced trust, not foolish optimism. She put her soda down on a nearby table, managed some semblance of a smile, and then fled, striding towards the cloakroom with as much haste as she could muster without breaking into a run. She swallowed, swallowed again. It did nothing for the aching lump inside her. Lisa stumbled for the door, groping for the handle like a life preserver and ducked inside, seeking refuge among the suit jackets and fancy coats. Even a backroom like this one reeked of wealth, the floor tiled, the walls panelled with burnished wood. Behind her, the door swung closed.
Instantly the noise from both voices and her power—so difficult to suppress—muted, leaving her with her thoughts. What company. Her breaths came ragged. Lisa shut her eyes and pushed her forehead against the wall. It felt so cold against the warmth of her skin that she felt it might start to steam. She could handle this—had to handle this. She prided herself on her ability to think her way out of problems, powers or no. Just because this was a different type of problem than normal didn’t mean she wasn’t equipped to handle it.
Shyeah, like a knife to a bazooka fight.
After an indeterminate amount of time, Lisa found her breathing beginning to slow. No less sick to her stomach, but at this point she was willing to count her blessings. Was she together enough to handle the rest of the evening? She genuinely couldn't say. Maybe a little while longer, another calming exercise or two; she could check in on some side ventures on her phone—
“All right, Thomas, what’s on your mind?” She glanced up. The voice was coming from outside the room’s opposite entrance, an open archway to the hotel lobby. So much for her time alone.
“I had been meaning to ask how you were. This last month must have been hard for you.”
Her mind went ablaze as the reply sparked immediate recognition. That voice was one Lisa would have recognised anywhere.
What the fuck was Coil doing here!?
A heavy sigh. “That’s putting it mild, my man. House is still a wreck, and O’Malley’s store’s gonna be closed for a while.” O’Malley, where had she heard that name recently?
“I’m sorry to hear that. There’s been no luck with the culprits, I take it?” Hearing his voice here made Lisa’s skin crawl. Coil, acting like an ordinary person, as if he wasn’t operating a criminal empire. So out of place, so wrong.
The other man laughed ruefully. “Aren’t you the youth offender pro here, Tommy? Woulda thought you’d know better than me.”
Coil laughed too, a smooth, charming sound which made Lisa want to puke. “Unfortunately, making the arrests isn’t my responsibility.”
“Yeah, I know, but you gotta at least try to laugh about it, right? What are the odds of getting robbed twice in two weeks?”
Lisa closed her eyes and narrowly resisted the urge to slam her head into the wall. O'Malley. The antique store. That was Karl Eisler, and Coil knew him. As if this wasn’t already the last place on earth she wanted her boss to be, there was a connection between him and the man he was having the Undersiders target. The man who was only half a step removed from Corey.
“Higher than they should be, but I’m sure my colleagues are putting forth their best effort.”
His colleagues? As in, colleagues of his were looking into parahuman crime—hold on, Coil was involved with the PRT!? Shit, holy shit. Lisa’s earlier disquiet was washed away in an ice-cold wave of terror. Regardless of what he was doing here, his civilian identity being in the same place as her was an enormous risk for a man whose entire deal was mitigating every risk he ever took. If he caught wind that Lisa was here—assuming he hadn’t spotted her out already—then she became an instant security threat. Coil eliminated threats.
Eisler sighed. “Hope so. Between the house and the store, I’m gonna be pretty strapped for bankrolling the BBYR.”
“If you need anything from me, you only have to ask. That goes double if it’s for the charity.”
Lisa tried to push through the crippling fear and focus on what was actually being said. There was an opportunity here, if she could hold her nerve and avoid notice. Coil had to be here for a reason; it was too much of a coincidence and too much of a risk for him to be speaking with the man he was actively sabotaging. The jobs aimed at Eisler, meeting with him here tonight; there was an angle, there had to be.
“I appreciate it,” a brief pause. “About that, I spoke to the other guys, just informal. They’re split on adding you, said we’d need to take it to an official vote. I think they’re worried about your day job.”
Coil chuckled. How could Eisler not hear the mocking tones in that laugh? “I understand. Some will always view the PRT as the problem.”
“I keep telling them that we’d get more done if we—ah, forget it. Sorry, I know I’m preaching to the choir.”
“No need to apologise. Do you intend to table a motion at the AGM?”
There was a much lengthier pause. “I dunno man. My position isn’t great, and I gotta push out the boat on the QYR expansion. I don’t think I can sell ‘em on that and you at the same time.”
“Ah,” Lisa recognised the sudden flatness in Coil’s voice. This was no longer a discussion, it was a demand. “Well, allow me to make a proposal—” the rest of his what he said was muffled, then a moment later, both voices faded out entirely as the two of them moved away. Lisa was left with a head full of panic and even more questions.
She took a few deep breaths in the vain hope of steadying herself. All right. All right. That had—that had just happened. Coil was here, and knew Eisler. She'd just learned more about Coil's secret identity in a couple of minutes than she'd managed to uncover in the past year. Sure, it was in one of the worst possible contexts she could imagine, but she had to take the wins where she could get them. First thing: this was either Coil's main timeline or he was here twice, in order to optimise a particular conversation. Column A because it was too much of an existential headache for Lisa to contemplate that this version of her might not exist in a few minutes, column B because Coil hedged everything he possibly could. If there was a key goal he needed to achieve, he was going to use his power, period. Second thing: Eisler was the vital part of this puzzle. The robberies, Coil being present, his connection to Corey. If Lisa could unpick Eisler, then she blew this mystery—perhaps even Coil—wide open. Third thing: Lisa was in a ridiculous amount of danger. Unless she could evade both Coils for the duration of the party, he was immediately going to assume she could connect the dots about his identity. Which was a good suspicion to have, to be fair, because it was exactly what she was already doing.
Added extra, which really was so important that Lisa felt dirty classifying it—her—as anything other than priority number one: Corey was in danger too. Coil knew she was a cape. It made way too much sense that Coil had barred recruiting of his target's goddaughter, especially when he'd never previously interfered with their hiring practices. He'd known that bringing her in would be asking for disruption to his plans. He viewed her as an obstacle. Lisa had to protect Corey somehow, but just out and spilling the beans would zip both of them to the top of Coil's hitlist faster than you could say 'leaks get plugged'.
Okay, what did she know? The files they'd lifted from Eisler's computer had two flavours, personal data and financial information. Knowing Coil's general MO, the personal data was probably an attempt to find blackmail material. As for the bank details, receipts, and transaction history, well, there was a lot you could do with that. There was a lot Lisa could have done with that, if Coil had turned it over to her. He'd chosen not to. Maybe concerned that something about Eisler's business dealings would connect to his own civilian identity? If so, then he'd definitely want to avoid having the information in the hands of a thinker any longer than was required. She should have made a copy. The antiques store was simpler, a direct hit to the wallet, attacking his assets, weakening his financial position. Again it came back to money. Money that he was now struggling with to...
Fund the charity. The charity Coil wanted to be involved in.
BBYR. Brockton Bay Youth Refuge. Charity, aims to help those without resources. No resources: young people, vulnerable people. Trauma victims without other means of seeking help. Trauma, trapped, in difficult situations, in impossible situations.
Lisa blinked once, twice, staring at the wall.
Coil is trying to establish a parahuman recruitment pipeline.
If Coil paid his way onto the board of directors or inner circle or—however the BBYR's hierarchy worked, then he'd be able to dig his roots deep into the whole organisation, pluck any enticing prospects right out of therapy and into good ol' indentured servitude. He wouldn't even need to resort to doing it at gunpoint like he had with her. The right friendly faces, the right words in the ears of young people crying out for help anywhere they could get it, and they'd sign themselves away to him. By the time they realised what they'd really agreed to it would be too late. He only needed one hook.
Lisa couldn't claim that she was a saint, but knowing that she was complicit in this, something that undermined the absolute foundation of her girlfriend's passion, the simple cause of helping others that Corey dedicated every spare scrap of herself towards...
She thought she might puke.
All right. All right. All right. Focus. Plan. She was supposed to be good at that. She was good at that, when she wasn't riding the edge of panic. Back to basics. Setting aside her worry and guilt (which took the mental equivalent of a forklift), this was a golden chance to get out from underneath Coil’s thumb. She had two cards, knowing what Coil was up to and knowing half of his identity. Resources? Limited. What Lisa had been scooping off the top of the Undersiders' jobs wasn't nearly enough money to buy out Coil's mercenaries, or rather, to buy out enough of Coil's mercenaries. While he could out-bankroll her, going wallet-to-wallet wasn't going to get her anywhere. Allies? One. The other Undersiders were fun and all, but loyal? No way, no how. Rachel cared about her dogs and herself, probably in that order. Brian cared about Aisha and security. Alec cared about...nothing much at all, but 'himself' was a valid answer. It'd maybe be possible to get them onside, but that'd require time, effort and a great deal of care. Oh, and to get to them before Coil did, so walk in the park really.
It'd be better not to involve them at all if she could. Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and she'd just find herself delivered gift-wrapped to their boss.
That left her with Corey as her only guaranteed assistance, and using Corey to save her own ass felt abjectly scummy. If she knew what Lisa had done, who she really was, no doubt she'd kick her straight to the curb. Dragging her into this more than she already was—could she do that, even for her own sake? Lisa wished the answer was no.
So she was outclassed and outgunned, summary of that little thought exercise. Yippee.
Lisa took a few more breaths and then brought her phone out of her purse. There had to be something. A weakness she could exploit. Coil never exposed himself this way; she’d never even met the guy in person, and now he was in the same building!
Risk averse, power allows him to mitigate worst outcomes and maximise gains. Risk averse, wouldn’t use both timelines in the same place unless confident of personal safety. Aware I know Corey, knows Eisler, aware this party is for her. Knows I’m here.
He knew she was here.
Lisa felt the iron jaws of the trap that’d been around her for hours, and the ever-present trickle of fear opened wide into a debilitating flood.
Thanks to the guys at Cauldron for having a look over this for me!
She was fucked. She was so unbelievably fucked.
Her power continued to race at a hundred miles an hour, dozens of reference points scrambling to fill in as much detail as possible, desperately searching for any means of escaping from this situation.
Aware of my presence, accounting for my presence. Has planned around my discovering his identity, has outgoing communications tapped, has an undercover perimeter, has a plant in the hotel staff, has a plant in the guests. Believes the gain of Eisler in his pocket outweighs losing me. Doesn’t intend to lose me in the first place, intends to grab me as soon as he’s done with Eisler. Will tell the Undersiders I’m moving to work more directly with our boss, will have me tell them. Will have me threatened, sedated, tortured into compliance—
Lisa shrank away from her power before the descriptions of what Coil would do to keep her in line became too graphic. That was information she was already well aware of, something she’d come by while trying to think herself out of her pressgang predicament in the past. Not productive, not conducive to avoiding the blind panic which threatened to swallow her whole. Coil had the angles covered. She had to assume that if she made an outbound call he’d have some way of disrupting the cell signal, probably a tinkertech device. He wouldn’t have to prevent a call for very long, just long enough to order one of his goons to scoop Lisa up. Besides, who was she going to contact? An unsubstantiated report to the PRT wouldn’t go far, not least if Coil was able to leverage his position against her.
What that position was, she had no idea, and she didn’t have enough information to start trying to dig it up with her power.
She looked down at her phone again, tapped out a message, then put the cell back into her purse without sending. There was no point discarding a potential weapon just because it was unlikely to help. Lisa needed to be as flexible as possible, keep as many options open as she could. The only way she could beat Coil was to catch him off guard and force him to make a mistake, drop the wrong reality at the wrong moment.
Lisa had a small window. Coil hadn’t finished up with Eisler just yet, presenting an opportunity for her to do... well she hadn’t gotten quite that far yet. Something unexpected. Something he couldn’t possibly have planned to counter ahead of time. It would help if she knew more about why Coil had to make his play on Eisler here and now. If the BBYR board had a big meeting coming up, that would explain the sense of urgency, placing a time constraint on Coil sealing the deal. He’d also need to give a little bit of breathing room between having the Undersiders hit Eisler’s assets and making an approach, or else run the risk of being utterly blatant. That narrowed his time frame further.
Eisler sells his show on force of personality, markets himself as much as he markets the content. Can’t rearrange on short notice. Tight schedule, few openings, unable to accommodate. Busy man, values time highly, values friends and family, has to make significant effort to clear time for meetings. Coil has had to move slowly to cultivate friendship, doesn’t hold enough influence to make demands on Eisler’s schedule. Wary of Eisler’s connections, wary of overplaying hand in civilian identity and incriminating himself.
Which made sense. If Coil was PRT when out of costume that was an enormous ace in the hole, probably the biggest possible asset to his criminal enterprise. Any spotlight of suspicion shone onto ‘Thomas’ would be a huge blow to Coil’s activities; even if exonerated of wrongdoing, his future actions would be scrutinised ever more closely. Lisa massaged her temples, then turned and walked back towards the cloakroom exit. She couldn’t feel any sign of an oncoming headache yet, but she was going to need to be at tip top form. Calm, calm as she could be, as impossible as that felt right now. What Lisa couldn’t yet figure out was why, if this was so important, Coil had opted not to remove her from the playing field already. Why add an unneeded complication to his plan by letting a wildcard run around?
Lisa stopped short right as she stepped back into the ballroom, her heart stuttering at the same time. Oh. Corey.
If Lisa suddenly no-showed, Corey would panic and go looking for her. Lisa, for her part, in the now uncomfortably-less-hypothetical scenario she was abducted and forced to send an all clear, was willing to wager she’d try and put a hidden message into any contact she made. Heck, Coil might not even consider having Lisa do that until Corey was already freaking out—Lisa doubted he knew quite how close they’d become. Plus, Corey’s mom was a cop, which would put the authorities all over the missing persons slash kidnapping case immediately. Even if none of that came to anything, Eisler would be much more concerned with comforting a distraught goddaughter than dealing with Coil or the BBYR.
Lisa needed to assume that Coil had already used a reality to vanish her once already and already knew how it would have gone down. Tonight was the only time Coil would have access to Eisler, and he couldn’t afford Lisa remaining autonomous in case she clocked him during the party. Coil had to be here twice, or he’d risk failing to sway Eisler. Then after snatching up Lisa, he’d have the luxury of time both real and simulated to hit upon the right way of preventing interference from Corey.
She started up again, stomach in knots. Everything came back down to Corey. The girl she’d fallen for in spite of everything, the girl with a heart too big for her own good, and Lisa’s. How would she feel if Lisa vanished tonight, never to be seen again? It’d tear her in half.
Ultimately there was only one choice. She had to know. She had to. Not because it might save Lisa’s ass, not because her family was involved, but because Lisa owed her that much. She owed Corey whatever tiny fraction less heartbreak she could possibly give.
Maybe the blow of losing Lisa would be softened if Corey knew what a raging trash pile was leaving her life.
Lisa scanned the floor for her, swiftly picking her out amidst a small gaggle of other teenagers. She was lit up and animated, storytelling effusively with her hands. The sight sent a conflicting surge of emotions through Lisa, affection, guilt, worry, fear. This could be it, right here and now. Everything could be over between them and over for Lisa, locked up and the key tossed out.
She moved over to Corey with purpose, neatly sliding in alongside her. Two girls standing opposite gave Lisa a curious look, but she deflected with a simple smile and a nod towards Corey, who was finishing up speaking.
“...and that’s why my dad won’t do birthday cakes,” she rounded off, then glanced at Lisa, flashing her a glowing smile that seared her to the core. “Hey you!” A brief look to the others. “This is the bae.”
There were some noises of general approval.
Lisa smiled tightly, and waved half- heartedly at Corey’s friends before turning her full attention to Corey herself. “Hey, can we talk for a sec? It’s super very important.”
Corey studied her. "Sure. Someplace else?"
"Yeah, preferably. And like, uh, now if we can."
"Right," Corey frowned, but then immediately restored her smile as she turned to her friends. “Catch you guys in a few!”
Lisa set off towards the edge of the ballroom, forcing Corey to hustle to keep up and fall in alongside. An awkward silence grew between them. Corey kept glancing at her, concern mounting in her expression, while Lisa—Lisa couldn’t bring herself to meet Corey’s eyes. If she did, she’d wimp out, come up with some kind of excuse not to say something, talk herself out of doing what she knew she had to do because saying the words was too difficult. Corey nudged her gently and Lisa jumped.
"Is everything—no it's not." Corey took Lisa's arm, then her brow creased with worry.
Lisa realised that she was shaking.
“Come on,” Corey said, “let’s get you out of here.”
All of a sudden being led rather than leading, Lisa allowed Corey to steer her out of the room and into a hallway beyond. Corey cast around, then pulled open a nearby door which opened into a sizeable storage room, half-filled with chairs and collapsed trestle tables. They entered, and no sooner had Corey closed the door than she turned to face Lisa. She looked away before Corey’s searching eyes could fix on hers.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
Lisa tried to put shape to the words, tried to consider how the blow could be softened. She turned up empty. Anything she thought of amounted to slanting the truth at best, outright lying at worst. The worst part was that Lisa knew that either misdirection would work. Corey wouldn’t think to scrutinise her lies. It’d just come at the low, low price of the chance of there ever being anything resembling honesty in their relationship.
Look at her, acting as if she’d last the night.
Lisa stood on the precipice, teetering over oblivion. Breathe in. Breathe out. She faced Corey at last.
“I’m a supervillain.”
The worst part about it was that for a split second, Corey smiled. Haha, good one Lisa, you went all serious there for a second. Just a flicker, and Lisa still very nearly lunged for the lifeline, scrambled desperately, pathetically. Then it was gone, and a whole different set of emotions went across that freckled face. Confusion, shock, hurt.
Lisa plunged on. “My cape name is Tattletale. We’ve…” She almost choked on the words. “We’ve met in costume.”
“I remember,” said Corey faintly. She was beginning to tremble slightly. “You robbed Uncle Karl’s house.”
She forced herself to meet Corey’s eyes, then instantly regretted it, seeing the tears beginning to fill them, the raw and total heartbreak. She looked away. “Yeah.”
“I—holy fuck Lisa.” Her words became a sob halfway through. “Fucking—fucking why?”
“Another villain has me over a barrel.” The truth, such as it was, felt tacky and cheap in her mouth. Fighting against every instinct, she forced her stinging eyes to refocus on Corey. “If I don’t do as he says he’ll have me killed or worse.”
Corey flinched. “Who? The darkness guy? The one who tased me while you just stood there?”
Lisa swallowed glass, the image of Corey convulsing on the ground playing back in her mind. “Coil.”
Corey laughed—a broken, discordant sound. “Someone not even on your team? Really holding a gun to your head, huh.”
“He’s a precog. He doesn’t have to be there to know if I step out of line.”
Even in her formal waistcoat and suit pants ensemble, Corey still had her hands wrapped. She was gripping one set of knuckles now, and the crunching pop pop of her damaged knuckles rang out like gunshots. “Okay,” she breathed, barely at a whisper. She looked away, squeezing her eyes closed. The tears continued to trickle down her cheeks.
Lisa couldn’t bring herself to speak. What right did she have to ask for help after what she’d done? The fact was, Lisa hadn’t even cared about the robbery until she’d learned Eisler was Corey’s relative. If it’d been any other rookie hero they’d embarrassed, Lisa would have laughed right along with Regent.
Corey reopened her eyes, overflowing with pain. “Why tell me this now? Get a sudden attack of conscience?” The bitterness poured off of her in waves.
“Coil’s here tonight. He’s trying to take control of BBYR by leaning on your uncle. He’ll have me—” Lisa faltered as Corey physically jerked back.
“Have...have you just been trying to get at Uncle Karl through me all this time?” said Corey hoarsely. “Did you get ordered to date me?” she trembled from head to toe, both fists clenched.
On the edge emotionally. Power is a release valve. On the verge of activating it just for relief.
Lisa’s mouth hung open. She couldn’t—no, the very idea of using Corey in that way stole all breath from her lungs.
Actively holding self back. Completely torn over how to react. Wants to hurt me. Doesn’t want to hurt me. Afraid of what she might do.
Their eyes met. There was anger in Corey’s gaze. Agony. And something else. She was pleading, pleading with her eyes.
“No. Never. I—” Lisa faltered, took a shuddering, heaving breath. “Everything I feel for you is real.”
The confession was as much to herself as to Corey. She fought back tears of her own, heart laid bare.
For an achingly long moment, Corey stared her down.
“I believe you,” she murmured, welling up again.
Relief crashed down upon Lisa. She tucked her chin to her chest and started to sob, gasping between each as tears flowed freely. Overwhelmed as she was, she still grasped for control, battling against her emotions. Every moment she spent crying was another moment Coil could be moving to abduct her. She forced her head up. This was going to be every bit as difficult as revealing the truth.
“I know I don’t deserve to ask, but I need your help.”
Corey looked at her, and then looked away, licking her lips. She started working her knuckles again.
Lisa pressed on. “Coil’s going to come after me. It’s going to be tonight. I understand if you can’t stand the sight of me right now, but you’re the only person I can turn to.”
“Not your teammates?” Corey’s eyes stayed fixed on the wall.
“They work for Coil too. I can’t trust them.”
She still didn’t look at Lisa. “Sounds like you’ve made your bed.”
That stopped Lisa in her tracks. Coil had assembled the team, but wasn’t it telling that Lisa had never broken the boundaries between them all, that she knew she couldn’t rely on them because, were the positions reversed, she knew that they wouldn’t be able to rely on her?
“You’re right,” Lisa sighed. “Forget it, I’ll—I’ll think of something. Find a way to take care of this myself,” she exhaled, swallowed an aching lump in her throat. “If...if I don’t see you again, look after yourself. This is on me, not you. I lo—” she cut herself off and twisted away, hurrying for the door.
Lisa stopped. She glanced back over her shoulder. Corey turned her head to face her, something different in her expression. Determination.
“Do you remember the first time we met?” asked Corey.
“I told you that I wanted to believe that if someone in a bad spot came to me, I’d do what I could to help out.” She stopped kneading her hands, sticking them in her pockets. “I’m the last thing from okay with what you’ve done, Lisa, but I’m not abandoning you.”
Corey nodded to her, eyes ablaze. Fierce. Resolute.
“Let’s do this.”
Thank you to Theonewhowas for taking a look over this and helping me work out some kinks!
Warning for violence.
They embraced, feeling the tremors in one another’s bodies. Lisa never wanted to let go.
Reluctantly, though, she broke off, wiping away tears with her forearm. She—neither of them had time to spend on decompressing. They needed, badly, to talk about who and what Lisa was, but that conversation couldn’t happen now, not with Coil lurking around any given corner.
“Okay,” Lisa exhaled. “I know I have literally zero right to be asking you this, but do you trust me?”
Corey stood still. Licked her lips. Started to look to one side until she forced her eyes back. “That’s a hell of a question,” she murmured. “But yeah, I do.”
Lisa nearly lost her composure again. What had she ever done to deserve this girl? “Alright, so cliff notes: Coil’s power lets him simulate two realities at once and pick the better outcome for him. I’m ninety-something percent confident that both of Coil’s realities are here tonight so that he can try different approaches on your uncle until he hits on one that gets him what he wants.” She still couldn’t mention Eisler without an accompanying pang of guilt, but she forced it away. Later. “So we need to prepare for him doing the same thing to us and be three steps ahead,” Lisa bit her lip. “Which means I need you to do exactly what I say. Are you up for that?”
Corey slowly nodded. “I said I trust you, and I trust you,” she paused. “Not villain things?”
An inadvertent laugh bubbled up, somehow lifting a little weight from her shoulders. Lisa hadn’t realised how badly she’d needed the release of tension. “Not villain things,” she confirmed. “But your power.”
Corey winced, making Lisa uncomfortably aware of how much she was asking. Easy for her to say ‘use your power’; hers didn’t involve lighting up like a firework, undoubtedly outing her. She frowned, searching for the right words to explain. “Basically, if we fuck up Coil’s plans, he’ll drop the reality, but the only reliable way we have to do that is for you to go golden.” Lisa twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “If it helps, technically it’ll never happen. I just need you to be prepped and willing to go. If everything goes well, we don’t ever actually see any action.”
“This is all kind of confusing, but I think I get it,” said Corey.
“That’s good, because I’m about to make everything more complicated,” Lisa grinned awkwardly. “Sorry.”
“Complicated?” Corey’s mouth twitched into a smile. “My supervillain girlfriend is asking me to help her beat her supervillain boss in two different dimensions. What’s so tricky about that?” she laughed, strained.
Still struggling, humour is a defence mechanism. Afraid for her identity, much more afraid for me and her family. Trust shaken, priorities shaken, trying to contextualise our interactions, can’t help second-guessing me.
The best Lisa could do was give her something to focus on. Having a clear goal in mind would prevent her thoughts from running away with her. “Okay. Here’s the play. We might end up in a spot where I can’t give you an obvious signal. If I figure out something’s up, I’m going to name a red object, then say the last letter of one of our names. When I do that, you use your power straight away. Think of it like a warning light, red for danger.”
“If you get worried, then ask me ‘Are we good?’. If we’re not good, I’ll say ‘I guess so’, which is your cue to go golden.”
Corey nodded, then opened her mouth, hesitating for a moment before plunging in. “Isn’t that all defensive, though? Like, I don’t get all of this super well, but if Coil can junk a timeline whenever it goes wrong for him, that means he gets to try every trick he’s got over and over until something works. If you were just looking to duck him, that would be one thing but Lisa—” she broke off, running a hand through her hair. She made to clasp her knuckles, but then dropped both hands to her sides, meeting Lisa’s eyes intently. “How much danger are you in?”
Lisa grimaced. “A lot. If he can’t kidnap me he might just cut his losses and try to kill me.”
“Fuck me!” Corey spat. “Let’s just—let’s fuck him up on sight, then!”
“Can’t. I don’t know what he looks like, and if one or both of us get arrested, he’ll just snatch me afterwards. He’s got some kind of PRT ties, works for them. He can pull strings.”
Corey looked at her for a second, then turned a one-eighty, kicking the floor in frustration. “God-fucking-dammit!”
“Hey now.” Corey half-turned and Lisa touched her cheek, gently guiding her back around. “Give me a little credit. I’m in this to win, we just need to be prepared for his moves while we make ours,” she cocked a smile. “Remember, the longer this goes without anything seeming to happen, the more we’re kicking his ass. Now let’s get back out there.”
Lisa offered her hand and Corey took it. The warmth of her palm seemed to travel up Lisa’s arm and deep into her heart. Not a moment’s hesitation. In spite of everything else, Corey was still completely behind her. Together, they stepped out of the storeroom and headed back for the party. Electricity coursed down Lisa’s spine, every nerve standing on end. The fear was fading, burned away by nervous excitement. The game was afoot, and though the stakes were high, this was Lisa’s element. Finally, finally she had her chance against Coil, and it was as level a playing field as she could have hoped for, thinker against thinker. The prospect blew any fear away. Besides, what could Coil throw at her that was scarier than telling Corey her identity?
The answer merrily skipped into her mind with a blood red smile. He could kill—
No. No, absolutely not. That was not entering into the conversation. Lisa refused. She wasn’t going to let anything happen. Coil was going down, happy ending, one hell of an awkward conversation to wrap up. End of story.
“First things first,” said Lisa, hauling herself away from that line of thought. “We need to find your uncle.” Interrupting Coil mid-scheme would be the perfect opener to taking him down, set him all the way on the back foot. Sure, he’d likely drop any reality where Lisa approached him while he was speaking with Eisler, but the more she disrupted his plans, the more likely he was to make mistakes.
“All right,” Corey glanced around the ballroom as they reentered. “I don’t see him anywhere. Want me to call him?”
“Not a good idea,” said Lisa, studying the crowd. She recalled Eisler’s appearance from her prep for the robbery, but she couldn’t pick him out from the partygoers either. “Coil could be stood right next to him. We don’t want to toss the element of surprise, and—”Lisa cut herself off, shutting her mouth, then slowly breathed out, shaking her head. She forced herself to continue. Corey deserved to not be kept in the dark. “—And it might put him in even more danger.”
Corey exhaled sharply. “Right. He’s already in trouble, huh?”
“‘Fraid so.” Lisa continued to scan the area. No dice. She frowned. At this rate, they’d probably need to go out into the lobby, and the prospect made her edgy. Coil could be having her watched, and any time she was away from the centre of the party she was opening herself up to an attack. Taking Corey to the side was a necessary risk, any others she took had to be weighed carefully. Like Corey said, Coil only had to be right once.
As she searched, Lisa hunted for any sign of surreptitious observation. Any operative that Coil trusted with this kind of task had to be good, but Lisa was better and she had her power. If they couldn’t find Eisler, then clocking Coil’s agents would be a decent place to start.
“I see my mom. I could ask her if she’s seen him?”
“Hold on a sec,” said Lisa, movement catching her eye.
A suited man with bushy black sideburns and craggy, sunburnt features was walking towards them, making unerring progress across the ballroom with his eyes fixed directly on Lisa.
She nudged Corey. “You know that guy?”
“Uh, nope. No clue who he is.”
Unease trickled its way down Lisa’s back. No doubt that Lisa was firmly in his sights, and that could only mean one thing. Coil was already making his move. She studied the advancing man more closely. He had a badge pinned to his chest: STAN DARBY, EVENT STAFF. The angle was slightly off, askew.
Bulky jacket, oversized for his frame. Red-faced, sweating, handles temperature poorly, still has jacket buttoned up. Badge not sitting straight, disrupted by object in the lining. Holster. Jacket is concealing a weapon. Coil’s agent. Armed. Coming to apprehend me.
Before she could tip Corey off, the merc was on top of them. He wasn’t a big guy, but one look at him made clear that he was packing on some power. Not the kind of dude you wanted to run into in a dark alley. Or a party.
He launched into it almost before he stopped walking. “Hi, Lisa Wilbourn? I need to borrow you. Complimentary VIP upgrade.” He smiled, an obvious afterthought.
Lisa would have laughed at him for the blatant lie, but his hand was already inside his jacket. The threat was obvious to nobody except her, just Coil’s style. She’d hoped to have a little more time to make moves before the kidnapping attempts started. Coil had finished up with Eisler quickly, or else was reacting to Lisa. Tough to tell. Maybe she already sabotaged him in another reality and this was his counterplay.
The goon was giving her a significant look, shifting his weight slightly to emphasise the shoulder bearing the holstered gun.
“Ooh, nice,” said Lisa, flashing a bright smile. “Sounds rosey. Why?” Out of the very corner of her eye, Corey straightened.
Darby didn’t seem prepared for the question and glared at her. “It’s, uh, a prize draw.”
“Neat. Lead on!”
Corey’s power roared into life, prompting yells of alarm from all across the room. Darby swore, wrenching his pistol free from his holster before getting bodychecked by a Corey-shaped blur, knocking him from his feet to slide some considerable distance across the ballroom floor. Heck of a polish job. Heedless of the hubbub, Corey raced forward, pouncing onto Darby and bowling them both over, completing three entire rolls while his gun went flying.
Lisa grinned wolfishly. Thatta girl. Coil better be watching.
“I see my mom, I could ask if she’s seen him?”
Corey went on as Lisa considered. “I’ve barely spoken to Uncle Karl all night. I don’t think it would come off as weird.”
“Let’s try not to get your family wrapped up in this,” said Lisa. “If we do a circuit and still can’t find him, then we can ask her, but better not to risk him trying anything.”
Corey winced. “You think he’d do something like that?”
“I would put literally nothing past him,” answered Lisa shortly. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
They moved off together, hands brushing but not linked. Much as Lisa would have liked the reassurance, she had to keep her eye on the ball, restrict the number of data points her power had to draw from. She was already scattergunning with it, trying to outsmart Coil and preempt his ploys simultaneously.
A tiny throb of pain was settling in behind her eyes, but tonight would be an absolute success if migraines were the greatest of Lisa’s problems by the end of the evening.
What Lisa kept circling back around to, as they walked around the ballroom, was Coil’s own tendencies. His plans for handling her were unlikely to need him onsite, and in that case, he would be looking to make an exit as soon as was convenient and under the radar. To catch him out, she’d need to cut off his escape somehow, which was the difficult part. How would he try to leave? Could just be as simple as walking out the front door. She was feeling her power start to chase itself in loops and she pulled away from it before faulty insights started seeping in.
“Come on, Eisler, where the fuck are you?” Lisa muttered under her breath.
“Uncle Karl!” cried Corey.
Lisa blinked. Huh. She had another power, apparently.
Eisler was a lean black man with short, greying hair. His mirthless face showed no sign of the good cheer that must have formed his deepset laugh lines. He walked up to them both, studying Lisa for an uncomfortably long moment and then turning his attention to Corey. Karl Eisler in the flesh. Meeting someone she’d robbed twice was a little surreal, but she’d manage.
“Hey babygirl,” Eisler said distractedly, managing a smile for barely a second. “Happy birthday.”
Corey returned it, looking confused and a little concerned. “Uh, thanks. Again.”
“Mm,” he looked back to Lisa, a shadow falling over his face. “And you gotta be Tattletale.”
Ah. Right. Lisa got it now. “You know it!” she said, firing off a fingergun whilst glancing this way and that, canvassing the crowd. Come on, come on, where were they?
Suddenly, Eisler’s face twisted into a snarl. “You little punk. This all really is a game to you, huh?”
“It’s not what you think,” said Corey. “Or well, like, it is a bit what you think but not the whole thing—”
“Your girl ripped me off, Care! And she ain’t even got the nerve to look me in the eye!” Eisler’s volume was creeping up. People were starting to look over, murmuring to each other.
“No offence,” Lisa was still hunting through the sea of faces around them. “But none of us are going to exist in a few minutes’ time so I don’t really feel like wasting the good zingers on you.”
As much as Lisa hated to give the man credit, Coil wasn’t stupid. Revealing her secret identity and then pointing Eisler at her was a stupid plan, if it was actually his ‘catch Lisa’ plan. If say, however, it was a probe, burning a reality to figure out the lay of the land, then sending Eisler her way became much smarter. Lisa’s very educated guess was that Coil had already tried something and been thwarted by the prearranged signal. Now he was trying to determine just how much Corey knew, how far Lisa had been willing to go.
Irritating thing was that Corey’s reaction meant this was mission success; now he knew that Lisa spilled the beans already and could adjust accordingly. Lisa couldn’t blame Corey for acting naturally—using her godfather against her like that was dirty—but she had to get Coil to drop the reality before anything else got given away.
One of the gawkers surreptitiously passed his shirt cuff in front of his face. His lips moved. There.
Lisa walked straight at him, brushing off an angry expletive from Eisler and a startled ‘Lisa?’ from Corey. Focused on whatever comms he had taped to his wrist, the man—heavily built, sideburns, sunburned—took a couple of seconds to realise that she was heading his way. As he tried to fade back into the crowd, Lisa stepped right into his personal space, stooping a little to talk to his hand.
“Hey, Coil! It’s ya girl, Tattletale!” she did not use her indoor voice. “I sure have been enjoying all this crime I’ve been doing in your employ, while you blackmail upstanding community pillar, Karl Eisler!”
The man, whose nametag read STAN DARBY, jerked his arm back and away from Lisa. A good couple of dozen people were staring at them. Darby tried to affect an air of innocence, twirling a finger ‘cuckoo’ at his temple, but managing to look about as guiltless as a puppy in a pile of shredded shoes.
Lisa stood tiptoes. “It sure would be a shame if someone were to look into Stan Darby’s employment history and realise there’s no record of him working here and that he’s carrying two—wait no—three illegal weapons,” she turned around, calling out to the bemused pair she’d left in her wake. “Hey, Eisler! Wanna tell me where the guy that’s blackmailing you decided to hole up? He’s kind of a dick and I’m pretty sure your goddaughter could kick his ass—”
“Come on, Eisler, where the fuck are you?” Lisa muttered under her breath.
“I don’t—wait, there he is! Come on!” Corey darted off into the crowd. Lisa swore and scrambled after her, desperately trying to keep up. Being separated would be Bad News. Probably should have taken a second to tell Corey that.
Thankfully, the partygoers weren’t packed so tightly that Lisa got stuck, though she had to sidle between a couple groups, dash past a procession beelining for the dancefloor and at one stage narrowly avoid knocking over a waiter’s tray of drinks. No hands reached out of the throng to snatch her away, though she held her breath all the while, barely daring to let it out when she finally caught up to Corey, who was talking to a man Lisa recognised as Karl Eisler.
The smile he wore was forced and strained, trying not to let on that anything was wrong. Corey, in turn, was trying not to let on that she knew something was wrong. It all made for awkward viewing, and Lisa was more than happy to break up the off vibe by scooting in alongside Corey and linking arm in arm. She flashed her girlfriend a wink, and was rewarded with a bashful grin. As bad as tonight might get, the little things were worth it.
Corey recovered swiftly. “So, this is Lisa. Lisa, my uncle Karl.”
Eisler tipped her a long nod. “Heard a few things about you, Lisa. Some of them weren’t even so bad,” he chuckled hollowly, trying to give off that cool parental figure energy but hitting closer to the mark of sad dad.
Doffing an imaginary cap, Lisa shrugged. “Oh you know. I try.”
Glancing at Lisa, Corey cut to the point. “Um, Uncle Karl, I don’t want to say too much, but there’s something pretty serious going on.”
Eisler immediately went rigid, his expression flat. “S’your birthday babygirl, doesn’t get much more serious than that.”
Ugh, okay, no. There wasn’t time for pussyfooting around. “You’re getting blackmailed,” Lisa said bluntly. “Or—threatened, manipulated—let’s just go with ‘pressured’, okay?”
Looking like a deer in the headlights, Eisler glanced back and forth between them both.
“Thomas. What’s his full name? What does he look like?” Lisa thought about her unsent message. “What’s his cell number?”
Eisler swallowed thickly. “You kids don’t know what you’re getting into.”
Out of his depth, knows he’s out of his depth. Desperate for help, desperation conflicting with protectiveness and pride. Afraid of Coil, humiliated by Coil. Struggling to swallow the idea of being bailed out by two teens. Still wants the out.
“Yes we do,” said Lisa. Corey’s face twitched, and Lisa realised she might have been more snappish than necessary.
“I don’t know how you found out about any of that, but it’s best you forget it before someone gets hurt.” He turned his attention to Corey specifically. “Care. Leave this alone. Please. I don’t wanna see you mixed up in my mess. If anything happened to you—”
“Something’s already going to happen to Lisa, Uncle Karl. And that’s—that’s the same as something happening to me.”
Lisa’s heart just about stopped. She was very glad Corey was fixed on her godfather, because there was no preventing her eyes from welling up, her composure from cracking. She shielded her eyes with her hand, blinking hard. Fuck. Damn. Fuck.
By the time the blur in Lisa’s vision subsided, Eisler’s shoulders had slumped in defeat. “I’ll tell you if you tell me what you’re cooking up.”
“Absolutely not,” Lisa cut in. “Telling you the plan basically guarantees it’ll fail,” a pause. “Sorry,” she added belatedly.
Eisler gave Corey a questioning look. After a moment, she smiled sadly and nodded.
He sighed. “Guess I ain’t exactly done much to solve this on my own. Just… just be careful, Care. And you, Lisa. Thomas is a special kind of fucked up.”
Didn’t she know it.
Piece by piece, Eisler filled in the gaps on Coil. Thomas Calvert, a PRT contractor who they brought in to handle delicate situations, especially with younger capes. His history with the PRT went a ways back, though exactly how far, Eisler wasn’t certain. He and Eisler had met almost two years ago at a fundraiser for the BBYR, and they’d swiftly become friends. Calvert had supported the BBYR unreservedly over that time, expressing an interest in becoming involved with running the charity on several occasions, but proving unable to win the other directors over. He was unusually tall and slim, dark-skinned, and was wearing a very nice grey suit tonight. Also, Lisa had his cell phone number.
Once they had the information they needed, Lisa and Corey left Eisler be as he warned them one final time to be careful. Lisa, in turn, warned him to keep a low profile and avoid speaking to Calvert.
“All right, now we can make a move,” said Lisa. She and Corey had relocated to the edge of the ballroom, the better to keep an eye out for Coil. “They have valet parking in the back, I’m heading there. I need you to wait, and then follow anyone who follows me. If you don’t see anything for five minutes, come through anyway.”
“Tail the tail. Got it.”
Lisa nodded. “Ima scoot.” She kissed Corey on the cheek and walked towards another of the ballroom’s exits. The moment she stepped outside, she felt an oppressive weight upon her shoulders, stifling and sinister. This was far from safe.
She took a deep breath. Part of the plan. Part of the plan. If Lisa didn’t take the risk, Coil wouldn’t either, and they’d be locked in a stalemate which he’d inevitably win. Besides, she had Corey watching her back, and Corey was worth a hundred of Coil’s goons.
Just as she reached her second turning in the corridors, Lisa heard footsteps behind her. That had actually taken slightly longer than expected. Coil not on the ball? He should have expected her to do something; maybe he was already using his other reality for a different purpose and got caught off guard.
Lisa studied the signage on the walls. One arrow pointed the way to VALET PARKING, the other to FRONT DESK. Lisa turned towards the latter, hurrying up her pace as soon as she rounded the corner and ducking into a doorway. The ‘Staff only’ keypad was swiftly decoded after some brief scrutiny using her power, and Lisa promptly stepped into the room, propping the door ever-so-slightly ajar with her foot. With that, she angled her body behind the entrance, putting her eye to the slim opening. No more than a minute later, a thickset man with blotchy pale skin wearing suspenders and rolled up shirtsleeves came into view. He slowed just as he passed her hiding place, bushy eyebrows knitting together, and then looked back over his shoulder. The movement revealed that he had a suit jacket draped over his arm, conspicuously concealing his hand. Definitely armed.
She held her breath and continued to wait. Seconds ticked by as he stood around indecisively, starting half-heartedly forward, stopping, stepping back again, and then finally making a tersely frustrated noise and digging into his breast pocket. After a moment, he extracted a translucent radio device, which he affixed to his ear.
“I lost her. She went around a corner heading for the front entrance and—” he broke off, catching sight of something back the way he’d came. “The girl’s here. Understood.” He immediately dropped his jacket, revealing the handgun clenched in his grip, pointed back up the corridor. At Corey, following him.
With a yell, Lisa kicked the door open. Startled, the goon’s aim faltered, gun discharging but the bullet burying itself in the carpet just a few feet ahead of him. He immediately raced to correct, directing the gun at Lisa—smashed from his feet by a lit-up Corey, who simply ran the guy over. Skidding to a halt past him, she twisted back and swiftly pinned him down, stepping onto each shoulder. The merc groaned, wisely electing to remain still.
Lisa pulled the radio from his ear and spoke into it. “Nice try, asshole!”
Coil’s voice came back at her. “It’s only a matter of time, Tattletale. You can’t outmaneuver me. Your playbook is almost empty.”
“You sure about that? You so sure your guys are loyal?” Lisa bluffed. She only had a handful of Coil’s mercs maybe interested in her cash. Nothing significant enough to pull off a coup. “I’m sure not having trouble staying a step ahead of them.”
“Do you really believe that I’ll fall for such a transparent ploy?”
“Not particularly,” but the longer he was talking to her here, the more time he had a dead end reality open.
“Give up and I will consider allowing you to retain some manner of autonomy. Resist, and I’ll kill your friend and ensure you never see the light of day again.”
“Tempting offer, let me think about it for a second.” Lisa paused, then brought the device right up to her mouth. “Suck my dick.”
As she reached her second turning in the corridors, Lisa still hadn’t heard or seen any sign of pursuit. Either Coil was completely off the ball, or he was attempting some kind of play in this reality or the other. Better to assume something was afoot; she was not losing to Coil because she was preening over her own intelligence.
The valet parking was down another corridor and then through a set of fire doors, which Lisa pushed open without breaking stride. A bored-looking woman was stationed behind a long counter, leaning on it with both elbows. She straightened up as she saw Lisa approaching.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I need some keys. Name of Thomas Calvert?”
The woman looked her up and down, raising an eyebrow. “Sure. Can I get your tag?”
“Oh,” Lisa tried to appear crestfallen. “It’s my boss’s car and he didn’t give me the tag. Can you maybe…?”
The employee made an irritated noise. “No tag, no car.”
All right. Doing this the hard way then.
“Aw come on, Karen. Just help me out here and I’ll let you get right back to your Playgirl.”
“W-what?” Karen blushed.
“Hey I get it, long, dull hours, nothing much else to do. Shitty boss who gives you coupons for employee of the month. I’d find something else to occupy my time, too.”
“It’s not that bad,” said Karen unconvincingly.
“He get around to approving your overtime, yet?”
Karen scowled and shook her head.
“I’ll be out of your hair in two minutes, it’s just really important I get those car keys. Won’t tell anyone about the smut mag,” Lisa smiled winningly. “Otherwise I’m going to have to stand here until you call your manager and he’ll fold because the customer’s always right. Then he’ll reprimand you for not doing your job even though you’re following the rules exactly as written, and then—”
“Okay okay okay. I get it. Calvert, you said?”
Lisa grinned and nodded. As promised, less than two minutes later she was returning to the doors, keys in hand. Before Lisa reached the exit, Corey stepped through, hands in her pockets.
“No sign of anyone,” said Corey, frowning slightly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lisa reassured her. “If I wasn’t followed it’s because he has a separate plan.” And if she was followed, she wouldn’t have kept heading to the parking area. Hopefully other reality Lisa had pulled through in throwing Coil off the scent. “Anyway,” she took a glance around. “We need to hide. Jump out on my signal, ‘kay?”
“Sure thing.” Corey’s eyes lit up and she dove into a nearby luggage rack with a little too much enthusiasm. Lisa went ahead and situated herself behind an over-large potted plant arrangement. She was crossing all her fingers and toes that her prediction was correct, and that if Coil hadn’t had her followed it was because he was taking the opportunity to secure a safe reality.
They didn’t have to wait long. A tall man strode through the doors and Lisa instantly matched his description to Coil’s. Just behind him was a shorter, heavier fellow wearing suspenders and rolled-up shirtsleeves.
Lisa’s heart leapt, excitement and anxiety both. Called it, called it. He was trying to bail, eliminate the risk that came with both realities being situated in the same location. Except she was watching him do it. He was right there in front of her, plus one entire goon. She didn’t doubt that they both had weapons, but with the element of surprise...
Holy shit, this was actually going to work.
Coil approached the desk, producing a small coloured tag. “Thomas Calvert. I’d like to collect my vehicle.”
That was all Lisa needed to hear. She flashed Corey a thumbs up.
Corey ignited and burst from concealment, charging across the room. Coil’s goon whipped around, drawing a pistol, but before he could fire, Corey shoulderbarged him to the ground. Not breaking stride, she launched herself into a flying pounce, folding Coil in half at the waist. The two of them soared three full metres through the air, crashing down with an audible thud.
“He’s not down!” Lisa called out in warning. Corey popped back up, spinning back to rush the merc again, just barely clambering to his feet, stooping for his weapon. She scooped him up over one shoulder, then slammed him bodily into the counter, sending the pistol flying off. With the goon groaning in pain, Corey hurled him at the wall behind the desk, prompting a scream from Karen. The merc bounced off, dropping to the floor and out of sight.
Okay uh, that was definitely down. Corey wasn’t kidding when she said the aura dampened her emotions. Lisa took a note to talk about that later and then ran over towards where Coil lay, pain contorting his features, but going for something inside his jacket.
“Corey! Get Coil!”
Her head snapped around and she sprung into action, cutting right across Lisa’s field of view like a speeding car. She threw herself onto Coil, practically surfing him another few metres as a personal radio skittered out of hands.
As their momentum halted, Corey perched on Coil’s chest, a knee on each shoulder. Lisa hurried over. They had no time to lose; even if more of Coil’s men didn’t show up, Karen could be calling the cops this very moment. With Coil making a break for it, this had to be nominally his safe reality, so if Lisa could screw up his plans here, then she’d as good as won.
Right-handed, conscious of need to quickly access phone, quickly attend to contact from underlings: inner left pocket.
Lisa reached inside Coil’s jacket and retrieved the phone, mind racing a mile a minute as she worked her power overtime.
Scrupulously security conscious, complex password system, regularly changes password. Works from mnemonics, letter combinations, not numbers—
Coil suddenly lashed out with both feet, snaring Lisa’s leg between his and then wrenching down. Lisa barely had time to cry out before her face slammed into the floor, the phone jarred from her grip, skittering away. Lisa rolled to the side as her hands instinctively whipped up to her nose, feeling a warm torrent gushing from it. There was a yelp of alarm and pain and Lisa’s blood ran cold as she snapped around.
Coil had Corey by the hair, dragging her upright as he rose to his full imposing height. Her aura flared angrily, and part of Coil’s suit sleeve was scorched where he must have struck her. But powers or no, he had all the leverage, all the size, and clenched in his fist, a black-bladed knife that positively hummed with malevolent energy. Tinkertech.
“Now then,” said Coil calmly. “I believe that’s quite enough excitement.”
Frozen. Lisa stared at them. Coil’s gaze dripped malice. Corey twisted in his grasp, then stilled as he pressed the point of his blade to her neck. Lisa’s breath caught. Corey’s eyes were round, unblinking with fear.
“Miss Wilbourn, if you care for this young lady’s safety, you will return my keys, and then you will step outside. A man in my employ will be along within the next five minutes, whereupon you will leave with him—Stay. Still.” As Corey continued to squirm, Coil shifted his grasp on her into a chokehold with his forearm.
“I have no reason to trust you,” Lisa failed to keep her voice steady. Her heart was pounding out of her chest. It didn’t matter that she didn’t, he held every card and the jokers to boot. Inside just a couple of seconds, she’d lost.
“I’m not an unreasonable man, Miss Wilbourn. We can discuss this in a more appropriate venue—”
Corey jerked her head forward and then rammed it back into Coil’s nose with a wet crunch. Coil yelled in anger and pain, and then plunged his knife into her throat.
There was an explosion of golden fire. Coil was hurled from his feet, screaming in pain. Corey stood upright for just a moment, one hand drifting dreamlike to the gout of blood spurting from her neck and then her legs gave out, sending her crashing to the ground.
Lisa scrambled to her side in an instant. She blinked rapidly, mouth twitching. Desperately, Lisa clasped both hands to Corey’s neck, feeling warmth spurting underneath her palms, bile rising in her throat.
“Luh—Leesagh,” Corey choked, blood dripping from her lips.
Severed carotid, catastrophic blood loss, power keeping her conscious, power keeping her alive. Beyond medical help, bleeding out, will die within three minutes.
“No, no, no, no,” Lisa pressed down harder. Corey gripped her wrist, eyes wide, panicked. Lisa screwed up her face, tears spilling down her cheeks. “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, baby, it’s going to be okay.”
Lies and lies again. This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t real.
Not real. Not this reality. Lisa’s head snapped around to Coil, moaning softly on the floor. His arms were charred and blistered from the backlash of Corey’s power.
“Corey, Corey, look at me,” murmured Lisa. Corey’s eyes, darting to and fro, managed to focus on her. The golden hue was fading, burning away. “I’m going to get up. I need you to hold your neck and put pressure on it. Okay?”
Fresh tears sprang into Corey’s eyes and she shook her head the tiniest fraction. “Pluh—pleass—don—”
Don’t leave me.
Corey's hand fumbled at her, clumsily sliding off.
It tore Lisa apart from within to stand up from Corey’s side.
“Tattletale, Miss Wilbourn,” Coil hissed, holding up his maimed hands in supplication. “Please refrain from doing anything we will both regret,” panic flashed across his face as Lisa stalked towards him, urgency rising in his voice. “Miss Wilbourn, in my other reality, both our lives are in considerable peril. Use your power if you doubt my honesty. Allow me to leave, and this shall be an end to it, I’ll free you of your obligations, provide a sizeable cash bounty to enable you to start afresh—”
“Shut up!” Lisa screamed.
Not bluffing. Back against the wall. Honest about me being in danger, trying to play to my selfishness, self-preservation. Believes I’ll put myself first.
His adam’s apple bobbed. Lisa advanced. Breathing hard, Coil scuttled back on his elbows, but Lisa caught up to him, stomping on his shoulder to pin him to the floor. He grunted, and then howled in pain as Lisa shifted her foot and ground his scorched forearm beneath her heel.
“Miss Wilbourn,” he grunted between gritted teeth. “I understand you are upset about your associate—friend—here, but please consider the consequences of any rashness—” his breath caught as Lisa put the knife to his throat.
Her hand shook. Weasel. Bastard. Wriggling and slithering because he thought that he understood her, thought he knew what buttons to push to manipulate her.
“Tattletale, if you kill me, you’re as good as killing yourself!”
“Worth it,” she whispered hoarsely, and cut his throat.
Lisa stood over Coil and watched him choke, planting the knife in his chest for good measure.
Then she turned and rushed back to Corey’s side, dropping to her knees, clasping her hands atop Corey’s, pressed against the gaping rent in her neck.
Corey’s mouth worked without sound, tears glittering in her eyes.
Please. Please. Please. Please.
Lisa realised she was saying it too. Please don’t die. Please let this work. Please let her have been fast enough. Pleas—
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I need some keys. Name of Thomas Calvert?”
The doors burst open and Lisa and Karen both whipped around to see Corey rushing over to them.
“Ma’am! Please no running on hotel property—!”
Corey shouted right over her. “Lisa! There’s darkness all around the building!”
What? Oh fuck!
That was Coil’s next play? Lisa knew that she had to have been screwing with his plans pretty badly so far, but for him to jump to sending in the capes, that was the nuclear option. What else could he resort to if this failed? One reality would be scrambling for safety, and then the other was sending in the Undersiders.
“We have to go,” said Lisa, turning away from the desk and hurrying back to the entrance with Corey right on her heels, leaving Karen to awkwardly call after them and be summarily ignored. They rushed through the corridors, Lisa setting the pace at slightly shy of breakneck.
Motherfucker. The Undersiders. It made way too much sense, diverting any and all suspicion, turning Lisa suddenly vanishing from a missing person to an inside job. Tattletale was in the hotel the whole time; her disappearance was a simple case of going to ground while the heat died down. If she happened not to reemerge, well, caping on the wrong side of the law was dangerous, one less criminal to have to worry about. The only obstacle was her teammates’ loyalty.
Halting shortly before the exit back into the ballroom, Lisa turned to Corey.
“Can I get your phone?”
“Uh, sure,” Corey fumbled her smartphone out of her pocket and handed it over. Lisa nodded, then produced her own cell, turning off the lockscreen and giving it to Corey, who looked at her quizzically.
“That phone has information about all kinds of Coil’s dealings. I’ve got a draft message stored that spills all the beans I know of. Should be enough to nail him to the wall, especially now that we know he’s Calvert.”
“Right, but we’re taking him down, aren’t we?”
Lisa hesitated. “It’s a precaution. The Undersiders are experts at smash and grab. If Coil’s still here, he’ll probably just hide in Grue’s darkness. Can’t reach him if he does that.”
“Fuck,” said Corey, with feeling.
“If we move fast, we might still be able to get him.” Lisa took a moment, considering the situation. Even with Corey, she’d lose any fight with the Undersiders. They wouldn’t let her play mind games with them, and Corey didn’t have the brute strength to fend off multiple dogs while dealing with Regent’s tricks and Grue’s darkness. Lisa had to focus on catching Coil before he wriggled away, but the window to do so was very narrow. As soon as the Undersiders spotted her it’d all be over.
Unless Lisa didn’t go for Coil herself. Unless she was the distraction.
“Corey, listen up,” Corey tilted back her head, holding her hands interlocked. “I want you to get out on the floor and look for Calvert. The second you see Grue’s darkness in the room, go hard, even if you haven’t spotted Calvert yet. The Undersiders will be hunting for me and I know how they roll; if it looks like they can avoid a fight, they will. I’ll be the bait. It doesn’t matter if they catch me if you catch Coil.”
Assuming Lisa was correct about it being a kidnapping and not a hit. She didn’t think Coil would jump to murder while there was still a chance of successfully capturing her, but she wasn’t certain. Either way, Corey didn’t need to know.
“How hard is hard?” asked Corey in a low voice, she looked up from her hands, making eye contact.
Lisa swallowed. Corey wasn’t used to this kind of situation; her nerves had to be completely wrecked, and then here Lisa was, asking even more. “Hard as you feel you can handle.”
Corey nodded jerkily. “I’ll find him,” she promised. “Lisa, don’t do anything crazy, okay?”
Corey hugged her, leaning in to kiss her on the forehead. All too quickly, she broke away and walked through the doors back into the ballroom without a backward glance.
Lisa punched Calvert’s number into Corey’s phone and dialled.
After three rings, her call was answered. “Hello? I’m not sure I can talk right now, villains are attacking the hotel!” The voice was Coil’s, the least composed Lisa had ever heard him. He was a good actor, hell, guy had been double-agenting between supervillainy and PRT employment for years. Lisa would have admired his style and daring if he wasn’t also complete scum.
All traces of panic vanished from his tone. “Ah, Miss Wilbourn.” Lisa could hear some hubbub on the other side of the line. He was still out in the ballroom, no doubt using the crowd to mask his movements and this conversation both.
“The Undersiders, really? You’re going to set my own teammates on me?”
“You’d be surprised how amenable your former teammates were to a substantial payout and a few incriminating missives about your loyalties.”
No, Lisa considered bitterly, she was not. “I can’t fight them.”
“Oh? I’m surprised, Miss Wilbourn. You never struck me as the team loyalty type.”
“Look, I know when I’m beaten. I don’t win this. I want to negotiate.”
Coil sighed, like a parent tired of indulging their spoiled child. “No more schemes, Tattletale. It’s painfully obvious you’re playing for time. We’ll talk when you’re safely back in my base.” He hung up.
Dammit. She had hopes of keeping him talking long enough for Corey to wring his serpentine neck. Not high hopes, but hopes nonetheless.
Well, enough stalling. There was nothing else for it, time to get out there on the floor and run interference. Lisa stepped through the doors and into the ballroom, as Corey had done before her. Instantly she was hit with a wall of noise, panicked voices rising and falling, guests and staff alike huddled into a worried mass of humanity. Lisa flinched as her power started flooding her with fresh information, too fast for her to make any sense of. Clapping her hands over her ears, Lisa pressed on, eyes firmly locked on the set of double doors leading through to the lobby. Most of the partygoers had clustered in the opposite side of the room to that entrance, leaving Lisa with a more or less clear shot across the room, albeit one that was still about the maximum possible distance.
She hadn’t reached halfway before a dog the size of a small car crashed through, ripping both from their hinges and taking a chunk of wall with them too. Thick darkness began to flood through the opening and the room erupted with screams. Those brave enough to remain close immediately went scrambling for cover, only hastening in their efforts as a second slavering dog broke through the veil. In reply, a golden flare burst into life among the crowd, sending those nearby reeling back. Lisa caught a brief glimpse of Corey plunging through the throng, then reluctantly pulled her attention away. Lisa had to trust Corey would do her part while she did her own.
Lisa broke into a sprint across the dancefloor. The dogs were beginning to prowl around, pacing back and forth in front of the expanding cloud of darkness, occasionally breaking off to sniff at a nearby guest before resuming their patrol. Bitch must have given them Lisa’s scent.
Sliding to a halt an appreciable distance back from the dogs, Lisa cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled. “HEY! LOOKING FOR ME?”
Both dogs snapped around to fix her with beady eyes, glinting malevolently deep within spike-encrusted skulls.
Ah. So that was what it felt like.
“HERE BRUTUS, HERE JUDAS!” Would they take orders from her? Unlikely, but they knew her name and they knew her voice. She definitely had their attention.
Lisa was already running hell for leather as they bounded towards her, the pounding of their enormous paws thundering in her ears. She reached a set of buffet tables and didn’t even slow down, hurling herself into a full length slide. The impact of diving jarred her hip, but she still zipped straight under, punching right through the table cloth while barely slowing down. Stumbling right back up to her feet, Lisa resumed running, an almighty crash of scattered silverware signifying the dogs making short work of the same obstacle.
Hoo boy. These dogs were no Leet mechs.
Veering right, Lisa headed for the only cover she could see slowing her pursuit down. The DJ booth was rock solid and although unanchored, significantly heavier than any of the room’s furnishings. She struggled to breathe, lungs bursting with the exertion of going full gear, thanking her lucky stars that she hadn’t gone with the tight dress. Closer came the booth, closer. Out of the corner of her eye, the darkness had swelled and grown further, cutting off sight of the other half of the room. She could cut back around, but as soon as the black fog caught up to her, she was done—
A careening mass of hell dog slammed into Lisa from behind and she went airborne, completing a midair revolution before her back hit the floor with boneshaking force. Half a groan made it out of her mouth, and then one enormous paw planted itself on her chest, squeezing all the air from her lungs. The dog loomed over her, growling with a ferocity that thrummed down her spine. Huge teeth grew closer and closer, hot and fetid breath blasting her in the face, the dog’s jaws opening wider and wider.
“Brutus! Wait.” Bitch’s voice had never sounded harsher. Lisa twitched her head to the side, craning her neck.
Blackness swirled all around them now, a vortex for which this was the eye of the storm. Beyond the bulk of Brutus pinning her down, Lisa saw three figures. Bitch, Grue, Regent.
“Trying to footrace the dogs, Tattle? Really?” Regent chuckled, his humourless ‘someone else got hurt’ laugh. “Thought you were smarter than that.” He walked around Brutus’s flank as he continued. “But I thought you were smarter than trying to sell us out to the PRT too,” he leaned down close, hands on his thighs. “Guess you’re a lot dumber than you wanted us all to believe.”
Bitch was more succinct.
“Fuck you!” she kicked Lisa in the ribs. Something cracked. Lisa’s cry of pain was more of a wheeze, Brutus’s weight too much for anything more.
Anger, not apathy, treating this as personal as well as business. Selling out, a betrayal, fed a story. Approached by Coil, twisting but not rewriting the facts, suggested I’m working with Corey, falsified information about her being a Ward. Sold them on the premise that they’re turning the tables. Not even offering an especially large payout for the job.
Lisa would have been mildly offended if she wasn’t busy trying to blank out the agony in her chest.
“Stay on task Bitch, Regent. Get the zipties.” Grue’s voice was flat and emotionless. He wasn’t doing his usual trick of distorting it with his helmet and darkness, the lack of inflection was all him. He was compartmentalising, shutting off his feelings to focus on the job. And that was the guy she had the most chance of talking around.
“Brutus, off,” said Bitch, then kicked Lisa again. Brutus obediently lifted his paw away, leaving Lisa gasping for air.
She fought through the pain to get the words out. “Coil’s playing you. He’s taking me out because it’s conven—”
“Shut the fuck up!” Bitch’s boot drove into Lisa’s stomach with enough venom she slid along the floor, curling up in a protective ball.
“Yeah no. No talking,” said Regent, stooping down again and looping something around her head which Lisa realised, as he adjusted a band, was a domino mask.
Her incredulousness must have been obvious, because Regent shrugged. “Plausible deniability. You wind up dead, it’s just a botched Undersiders job.”
“Do as we say and you make it out of this alive, Tattletale,” said Grue. “But don’t test me.”
“You’d seriously kill me?” Lisa managed, directing it at Brian. He stood there, implacable. Lisa smiled thinly. “Not exactly a good example for Ais—” her head jerked to the side, jaw slamming shut with enough force to rattle her skull.
Regent tutted, lowering a hand. “Low blow, Tats. Low blow.”
Grue’s hands had tightened into fists. “One more word out of you—” he broke off, looking away to the side. “Goddammit. Regent, Bitch. Get ready for a fight.”
Bitch whistled to her dogs, which were immediately at her side. Regent shrugged lackadaisically, drawing his sceptre.
The darkness began to flicker as a light appeared within, emanating even through the thick cloud of black. Closer and closer it grew until the smoke began to sizzle and boil. Grue took a step back, raising his arms to produce more, but even as the obscuring flood poured outward, the light continued moving towards them. If anything, it sped up. Corey didn’t so much as emerge from the darkness than the darkness parted around her, burning off in the face of her inexorable advance. She blazed, her fiery aura swirling around her in a fearsome conflagration, eyes glowing molten gold from deep inside the flames.
She was dragging a man along behind her, gripping the back of his collar almost carelessly. Coil writhed, kicking and twisting and having about as much impact as a toddler trying to push over an adult.
“Let. Her. Go.” Corey’s voice was unearthly, echoing through the fire. The Undersiders exchanged glances as the dogs growled, deep and rumbling.
“That’s Coil she’s got,” said Lisa, each word sending lances of agony across her chest. “Won’t be able to pay you if he’s dead.”
“Yeah, no.” Regent swiped his hand out to the side. Corey barely moved. “Uh.” He tried again. Corey’s right arm twitched fractionally. “Shit.”
Lisa studied Corey more closely. Her body wasn’t simply emitting the flames, in places her limbs were the aura, broad stroke shapes that bled into golden fire. Was she so deep in her breaker state that Regent couldn’t properly mess with her nervous system? Was she so deep that...
“I said let her go. Now.” Back on the boardwalk, Corey had lost tone and inflection when powered up. This was worse. Here, she seethed.
Coil’s collar was smoking. Lisa’s power, after a moment’s concentration, informed her that he was suffering from burns. Severe ones.
“No,” said Grue. “That could be anyone, and you’re not in a position to negotiate,” he grabbed Lisa by the hair, making her yelp as he dragged her off the floor, scrambling for a grip on his hand. Corey rippled, her blaze burning ever brighter. “I saw you against Über. I wasn’t impressed.” He inclined his head to one side then nodded ever so slightly.
The dog burst into action, bounding at Corey like a speeding truck. She dropped Coil, took one step forward, and then flung out a foot in a snap front kick. They met in a blinding, roaring flash, and as Lisa blinked spots out of her eyes, she saw Judas’s bulk soaring back through the air, flipping backwards and landing with enough force to crack the ground beneath.
Nobody spoke. Nobody moved.
Corey’s mouth twitched into a smile.
Coil suddenly leapt into motion, jumping up to his feet and racing towards the Undersiders.
“Grue! Handle this mess and I’ll triple—” Corey was on him so fast Lisa barely saw it, seizing him by the shoulder and then slamming him down to the floor in a single violent motion.
Channeling her power harder than she ever has, leaning into the aura, leaning into the rush. Hanging on by a thread, hanging on for me. Can only keep centred on dealing with Coil, protecting me. One wrong move away from completely losing it.
This was Lisa’s fault. She pushed Corey too hard. Of course she was going to crank back the lever of her power. She cared about Lisa, cared way more than she should and way more than Lisa had any right to ask or expect. Corey had powers, but she wasn’t a cape, she didn’t use those powers, and now that they had an outlet… She’d driven Corey to the brink.
“Brian, listen to me,” said Lisa. Her heart was racing, her breath coming swift and painful. “She’s about to flip, and if she flips, people are going to die. Please call this off. Whatever Coil told you is bullshit, and I can prove it, but I can’t fix this if we’re dead.”
Grue turned his gaze from Lisa back to Corey. One foot pinned down Coil’s torso as she stared back, eyes narrowed and glittering. She raised two burning hands, the implication clear. Bitch snarled, baring her teeth. Regent tapped his sceptre nervously against his leg. Grue’s shoulders slumped.
“All right,” he began. “Let’s not do anything we’ll all regret.”
Corey’s grin grew. Bitch stiffened up.
No no no. “Rachel, wait—!”
“Brutus! Kill!” Bitch urged the dog at Corey, and then whipped around and backhanded Lisa with crunching impact. Lisa saw stars, tasted blood, felt her hair tear away in Grue’s grip, then her head cracked against the floor.
Warm. The flat surface her skull rested on was warm. Wet.
Lisa blinked once, twice.
She saw Corey stomp down through Coil’s chest. She saw Corey tip back her head and open her mouth to scream. The howl reached Lisa a moment later, distant and echoing, as if coming from the end of a long tunnel.
Lisa’s eyelids fluttered.
Regent was backing away. Corey met Brutus’s charge head on, seizing the animal by the throat, flinging it back one-handed. Bitch and Grue were yelling at each other, their voices washing over Lisa as indistinct angry noise.
She felt so tired.
She’d worked so hard. She could just… just rest... for… a... sec...ond… r...i...g...h...t…?
Chapter 17: Interlude: Corey
Huge massive huge shoutout to Theonewhowas for all their help with this chapter. It was a real struggle at times and underwent a number of rewrites, which is testament to the difficulty I was having with it as I rarely if ever rewrite. Their insight was absolutely invaluable and really helped this get to where it needed to be and ensured I was happy with it.
Bone splinters underneath her foot. She wrenches it clear. Blood sprays.
Get Calvert. Protect Lisa. Get Calvert. Protect Lisa. Get Calvert. Protect Lisa.
Calvert stares at nothing, jaw hanging slack, the hole in his chest splattered with viscera.
Her eyes fix on Lisa motionless on the floor. Protectprotectprotect—no.
Three figures up ahead. They hurt Lisa. They hurt Lisa.
Boiling rage chokes her, swallows her whole. She charges.
A dog lunges at her and is smashed aside in the same blink.
Hurt. Break. Burn.
The tall one strikes her in the gut. Headbutt. Something shatters. He drops, clutching his face. She pounds both fists together and golden fire blasts out from her, stopping an onrushing hound in its tracks.
As the blast fades, she sees the tall one trying to stand. She hurls herself at him, slamming him to the ground again. Air whooshes out of his lungs, Corey pulls back a fist—something strikes her in the back.
She snaps around. The girl. She hit Lisa. Corey bellows, lashes out with flame and fist.
Impact. Heat flashes around her hand. A thrill courses down her spine. The girl staggers, her pained yell singing sweet in Corey’s ears. She looks on greedily as the fire takes hold, but snarls in disappointment as the girl sheds her burning jacket.
Corey steps forward. Her leg twitches a little, then again. Not enough to slow her advance. The girl faces her down, teeth bared, swings. Her knuckles bounce off Corey’s face, barely moving her head. The flames roar once more, the girl recoils.
Grasps at Corey’s hand as it seizes her by the throat, lifting her from the ground.
Corey holds her struggling form aloft. Fierce triumph swells through her, urging her onward, urging her to, to—
She isn’t… she shouldn’t…
She should stop.
Her grip falters.
The girl accepts her proffered hand.
They hit it off. Laughing, chatting like old friends. Corey finds herself courting disaster with the Ultra Doom sandwich, but the company is worth the risk in her books.
She has a big stupid smile on her face when Lisa gets up and leaves. Later on, she dwells a little that Lisa’s cute as heck, but that’s ultimately whatever. Corey has lots of cute friends and she cares way more about the friend part than the cute part. Call her sappy, but the type of people Corey befriends are the type of people who have cute on the inside, y’know?
Just, uh, damn, that little splash of freckles on Lisa’s nose, haha… um, wow.
Sizzling fills the air. The girl thrashes wildly. Corey tightens her grip again.
A set of vicelike jaws clamps Corey’s chest with crushing force.
She does not crush.
Flames spill out around the beast’s mouth as she’s dragged back a step. Corey twists, dropping the girl to grip either half of its mouth in each hand, wrenching apart with all her might. There’s an earsplitting crack and the dog yelps and recoils, lower jaw hanging loose.
The girl shouts in outrage, starting forward, but the tall one is up, grabbing her by the scruff, hauling her back. One eye, wide and panicked, is visible through the broken helmet.
Before she can get too close, something strikes her between the shoulderblades, followed by an intense jolt.
Her powers aren’t on, she’s trying to puff herself up, look bigger than she is. Show confidence she doesn’t have. What is she doing? She’s not a hero, she just saw something weird going on at Uncle Karl’s. Now she’s standing here alone against a whole team of villains.
The villain in the fancy mask flicks out a hand and she trips and smashes her face into the wall. Before she can move, she’s convulsing, unable even to scream as the electricity courses through her.
Her knees go weak for a moment, but fury sends strength surging back through her system. He’ll pay. Corey whirls and throws out a kick in the same motion.
“Oh fuck—!” Her leg crashes into fancy mask’s midriff and he goes flying, plunging into the darkness beyond.
Where's the girl?
Corey begins to turn, but as she does, catches sight of Lisa again. She stops dead. Lisa still isn’t moving. Her breathing hitches. Doesn’t—shouldn’t that matter more?
But it’s them that did this to her. The very thought renews her anger. Tear them to shreds. Break them. Rip. Maim. How dare they?
She turns her baleful gaze onward.
The black shroud rushes to meet her, swallowing up everything. Where it reaches her aura, it crackles and hisses, leaving an open space around her.
She clenches her fists. Weaklings. Cowards.
Golden flames boil around her. The darkness first retreats, then flees, widening her area into a clearing. Other than blood splatters on the floor, there’s no sign of them.
Each breath seethes. She wants nothing more than to rush off after them, burn the dark away. Burn them away.
Lisa breaks off from the kiss and winks, face flushed. “No need.”
Corey’s own cheeks are red hot. “Cool! Awesome! Uh, is today real?”
Lisa laughs, and it’s something she could hear every day for the rest of her life and never get tired of.
Lisa. Lisa. Where’s Lisa.
She walks uncertainly in one direction. The dark retracts, but reveals nothing. She turns, takes a couple of steps the other way.
Her own voice sounds strange to her ears, swimming through fire. Where is she? WHERE IS SHE!?
Corey breaks into a run. Wherewherewherewhere—
An armoured man emerges from the dark, slamming the butt of his halberd to the ground in front of her. A pealing crash rings out across the room as she skids to a halt. Another one!? She raises both fists, snarling.
“Stand down!” he barks. “There are civilians here, and you’ve done more than enough damage! Have you got any idea—” he keeps talking. Corey ignores him.
Words words words, might as well be another yapping dog.
Then Corey sees her. Just past him. Lisa. Still not moving. Her head lies in a small pool of blood.
He’s in the way.
He barely gets his halberd up before she launches a shoulder tackle, sending him into a standing slide. He catches himself with the butt of the weapon, kicking up a piercing screech as it gouges a furrow in the floor before his momentum is finally stopped.
By that time, Corey has already stopped paying attention to rush to Lisa’s side. Breathing. She’s breathing. Christ, she’s still breathing.
“Flare! Last chance! Surrender, or I’ll put you down!”
Corey’s head snaps up. Still barking. Annoying. He wants a fight, she’ll give him a fucking fight.
She clenches both fists.
His mouth twitches into a set line. “Fine. We’ll do it the hard way.” He starts towards her.
A wild smile crosses Corey’s face. Bring it on.
She springs up out of her crouch, swinging fiercely at the armoured man. He sways back, pivots, shoves her past him. She stumbles, then corrects, whipping her elbow viciously back, missing again. He dances around her, nimble footwork carrying him out of range of the kick she tries next. Suddenly, she’s crashing to the ground, his halberd hooking her behind the ankle and flipping her over. She howls with rage and rises, wreathing both fists in flames and throwing punch after punch at him. Break. Destroy.
Each time, he isn’t where she punches, even as parts of his powersuit start to blacken from the heat of her fire. She steps back, growling at him, drawing deep within to gather more of her aura, thickening the flames around her body until she’s all but clad in golden armour of her own. Then she kicks off the ground, charging at him like a human torpedo. The speed catches him off guard and while he moves, she still clips his shoulder, nearly knocking him from his feet. Corey turns, pressing the attack.
The halberd traces a glittering arc through the air as it swings for her chest, biting home.
Then being thrown from his hands as the flames explode in retaliation, throwing him from his feet.
He’s up on one knee just in time for Corey’s foot to connect with his torso, blasting him across the room like he was shot from a cannon. After three full seconds of flight, he ploughs into a wall, crashing through in a shower of bricks and tortured metal screeching.
Corey throws back her head, roaring with triumph. Now to finish him off. Now… now to…
One step after the armoured man. She stops. Looks around. There’s… there’s something… she’s… she’s forgetting something?
She grins, devilish.
She plants a little kiss on her forehead.
She reaches across the table, entwining their fingers.
Corey casts about. Everything around her is fire. Warm. Fierce. Triumphant. Why would she need anything but this?
“I’m losing it. Lisa. I’m losing it. I’m losing it.”
There. There she is. Lisa. Lisa. Help Lisa. Lisa, help.
Another figure comes out of the scraps of darkness, wielding a lance and shield, advancing cautiously. There’s movement over by the hole in the wall. The armoured man is stirring.
The flames whip up, stirring. They’re ready. They’re not just ready they’re straining. They want to light the room ablaze. She wants to light the room ablaze. Burn them until there’s nothing left standing, break them until—no, no, no!
Corey clenches her jaw, steps slowly and deliberately towards Lisa. Protect her. Protectherprotect—
She doesn’t need protecting any more. She’s safe.
Corey’s the danger here.
The spearman watches carefully, readying to strike, ready to be burned to ash, ready—
She shuts it out. As she approaches Lisa, she pushes back the aura, forcing it behind her, directing the heat in the other direction.
No, no, she’ll be defenceless, she can’t—
Corey exhales and sits down next to Lisa, laying both palms flat on the ground. She looks back up to the spearman and nods ever so slightly.
It’s all that she can trust herself with right now.
They stay there in an uneasy standoff for an indeterminate length of time. Corey focuses everything she has on Lisa, gently holding her hand, supporting her head. She doesn’t look up for anything, not as she hears sirens, raised voices, shock and alarm, not as she hears the armoured man barking orders at other heroes. The flames still roar in her ears, in her mind. Hungry. Angry.
Then Corey’s heart skips a beat as Lisa’s eyelids flicker open. They fail to focus on her, but they’re open, alive.
Immediately, Corey’s babbling. “You’re okay. Lisa, everything’s going to be okay. He’s gone. Everything’s going to be okay.” She doesn’t know who the words are for.
Lisa’s lips curl a half smile. Her hand squeezes Corey’s a little tighter.
Finally, Corey looks up. The darkness has left entirely now, exposing the full extent of the destruction she has wrought. Great rents and gouges in the flooring, which in places is little more than rubble. Shattered and burnt furniture. An almost destroyed wall, masonry scattered everywhere. Blackened scorch marks, the remains of what must have been outright fires, in the more flammable areas. Shellshocked, crying people.
And one dead body. The man that she killed.
What has she done?
Tears are glittering in her fading golden eyes by the time the paramedics come rushing in to load Lisa onto a stretcher. She rises to join them, and the stretcher team halts as one, looking at her with uncertainty, then to spearman for direction.
Dauntless, his name is Dauntless. She can remember that now that the fire isn’t screaming at her to burn him to a crisp. He laid the lance down at some point, and now raises a palm towards her.
“Flare, we can’t let—”
“Corey.” Does she sound as tired to him as she does to herself?
He looks thrown for a moment. “All right. Corey. We can’t let you accompany her.”
For a split second, all the rage returns to her. Her fists clench. Her body trembles, she—she breathes in. Breathes out.
“Cuff me. Send an escort if you have to. But I go where she goes.”
He steps away to talk to the man she put through a wall, who’s looking somewhat worse for the wear.
Corey stands alongside Lisa’s stretcher and grips her by the hand again.
It’s going to be okay.
Thank you so much to Theonewhowas for helping me out with this. They did SO much to make the dialogue pop and flow right and I cannot overstate how big a help they were.
My dog passed away yesterday. This one's for you, Dibbler.
There was a soft golden glow behind Lisa's eyelids in the moments before they drifted open. She was laying on her side in bed and her head was pounding, a sickly ache which pulsed through her skull. Scattered images flickered through her mind. The Undersiders holding her down, Corey standing over her. A stretcher. The back of an ambulance.
For a second though, Lisa forgot all about any pain and discomfort. Corey was seated next to her, still faintly emanating her aura. She lit up in another sense as she saw Lisa stir, a smile of pure relief crossing her face.
“Hey,” she said hoarsely, squeezing Lisa’s hand.
Lisa tried to respond, but it took a moment for her to recall how to make her mouth move. “Hey.” The effort of speaking hurt, and she couldn’t withhold a wince.
Corey was already wearing concern on her face, but it grew a little stronger. “You feeling okay?”
The thought crossed her mind to lie, reassure her, then passed. Hadn’t there been enough lies already? “Could be better.” Once again, finding the words was more difficult than it should have been.
“You hit your head really hard,” Corey’s voice was thick with emotion. “I was scared as hell.”
Looking closer, Lisa saw that behind the residual glow, Corey’s eyes were wet and reddened, each cheek streaked with tears. “Sorry.” Lisa mumbled.
“It’s not your fault.” The conviction in her voice wavered just a little.
Her shoulders slumped. “I th-thought I’d lost you,” she whispered. “And I did s-something terrible.”
The realisation was immediate. “Coil.” Any relief she may have felt at knowing that he was gone was utterly crushed by the circumstances.
“I k… I kuh-kuh… I…” Corey buried her face in her hands and started sobbing.
Lisa instinctively tried to sit up, grimacing as a wave of dizzy nausea seized her. Her vision spiralled, her body shook, and she slumped back down again. Tasting bile, Lisa reached out ineffectually, just out of reach. She grit her teeth, prompting a fresh explosion of pain that sent stars dancing in front of her eyes. Biting back a cry of pain, Lisa rolled herself in that direction, only for her progress to brought to a sudden jarring halt, yanked back at the wrist with a metal clink.
Already knowing what she was going to see, Lisa turned her head up and back and found that her right wrist was handcuffed to the head of her bed. She closed her eyes, inhaled. Exhaled. All right. Not ideal, but not something she could do anything about right now. Being in custody paled in comparison to the pain and grief overwhelming Corey in this moment. The pain and the grief that Lisa couldn't—fucking—reach! She shifted further, twisting her cuffed arm awkwardly. Even then, Corey was just sitting too far back; Lisa's outstretched hand barely brushed her knee. Corey didn't react. Lisa's chest twisted. Could she only do so little?
"You protected me," Lisa said quietly, knowing that it wasn't nearly enough. "I'd be dead or worse if it wasn't for you."
After several agonisingly long seconds, Corey responded, muffled by her own palms. "I guess."
Lisa felt lost. Not knowing what to say was uncharted territory.
“Corey, I’m here, all right? Whatever you need—”
“Just… just don’t.” Corey remained folded over. “I-I need a minute.”
Lisa bit her lip harshly. She couldn’t bring herself to push any harder. Not with Corey like this. She’d never seen her so crushed.
Anxious for anything else to occupy herself, Lisa turned her attention to their surroundings, better late than never. The bed she was lying in was one of half a dozen in the room, situated at the end of the row. The clean white tile of the walls and floor spoke to it being an infirmary, but much more pressing than the locale was the company. Alarm crept in; she was seriously off her game to miss something so vital for so long. Damn her aching head.
Six PRT troopers were arrayed around the room, two armed with confoam sprayers, and all wearing much bulkier armour than Lisa was used to seeing, probably a countermeasure against super strength. They watched Corey and Lisa like hawks, the foamers holding their weapons readied just shy of already levelled at them both. Close enough to be uncomfortable but not so close as to be right up in their personal space was the Protectorate's Battery, staring them down with folded arms. The lines on her costume were glowing, showing that she was charged up and ready to pounce on the first sign of anything untoward.
Lisa was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was no longer wearing the domino mask Alec had forced onto her. She didn't doubt that she'd have been brought in as a person of interest from the beginning, but that little stunt had probably single-handedly landed her in custody, turning a 30% chance of getting away with it into a 0% chance. On the other hand, with what Corey had done, the best place for Lisa to be was right here. There was no way in hell that Lisa was going to leave Corey to twist while she walked off scot free. Whatever happened next, they were in it together.
Further to the far side of the infirmary were two more heroes, standing right by an exit. Dauntless and Armsmaster, the two capes Lisa had—she thought, the last couple of hours were kind of a blur—seen in the aftermath of the ballroom blitz. Armsmaster looked like he’d been on the wrong end of a Mack truck, his armour battered, dented, and scorched. In one shoulder section, a panel was torn, exposing wiring and a mesh bodysuit. Dauntless, by contrast, was pristine.
They were arguing, but trying to look like they weren’t. Frustration poured off of Armsmaster, shoulders tightly hunched, gestures curt, just shy of aggressive. Dauntless was more measured, but his head was tipped back, hands bunched. Armsmaster wanted to bulldoze over him and Dauntless wasn’t playing ball. Not only that, he wanted Armsmaster to know he wasn’t playing ball.
Superiority complex—threatened—field command—feels upstaged—embarrassment—rookie cape—
A railroad spike of pain hammered into her forehead. Lisa let out a quiet hiss and turned her eyes away from them. Her power wasn't firing great, and with her head feeling like an overfilled balloon Lisa wasn't eager to push through. Still, from the fragmented scraps of information she’d picked up in the last few minutes, she was pretty sure she had a fractured skull. Concussion, minimum. Rachel had pretty much bounced her head off a marble floor. Probably she wasn’t at any immediate risk; the PRT weren’t going to let an underaged villain die in custody, but this kind of injury was unpredictable. Things could take a sudden turn for the worse and then that’d be it.
Attempting to steer herself away from that cheery line of thought, Lisa focused on what she’d seen. It was interesting that the heroes were fighting. Maybe their disagreement could work in Corey and her favour, but it could just as easily not; they could be debating on how many counts of assault and property damage to slap them with. Of all the times to be struggling with her power, it had to be when Lisa needed it most.
Before Lisa could ruminate any further, footsteps started up in their direction. Lisa carefully looked around and Dauntless himself was walking across the room. Armsmaster remained standing by the door, body language no happier than before. Corey didn’t move until Dauntless was almost on top of them, slowly sitting up out of her slumped position, more rolling her head to the side than turning it to face him.
“Hi there,” said Dauntless. He gave a decent opening for a response, but when none was forthcoming, he continued. “Glad to have the chance to talk when things are a little calmer.” He sounded earnest, but that meant nothing. Sounding earnest was his job. At length, he glanced at Lisa. “Good to see you awake, too. Your friend here was worried.”
Lisa bit back a ‘no shit’ and smiled one of her least sincere smiles of all time. “She’s sweet like that.”
“Mm. And you’re feeling okay, both of you? If there’s anything you need, you can let me know.”
Corey shrugged. Lisa rattled her cuffed hand and winked. “Would feel much better without these.”
Dauntless laughed politely. “Under the circumstances, it’s a precaution we have to take. Sorry.”
He wasn’t, but eh, Lisa couldn’t fault him that. She wouldn’t be either. Dauntless glanced down and Lisa followed his sightline to Corey’s feet. A set of heavy manacles were locked around her ankles, joined together by a bar. Brute restraints.
Not that Lisa was (seriously) considering it, but there went the ‘bust the hell out of here, elope into the fugitive power couple life’ plan.
Dauntless looked back up. His body language was relaxed and open, which made Lisa trust him even less. The PRT was holding them, no two ways about it. The only reason he had to be friendly was that he wanted something out of them, wanted their cooperation in whatever investigation they’d undoubtedly already launched into the evening’s events.
“In any case, I’d like to talk about today. I hope that’s all right with you both.”
Lisa hid a scowl. Corey didn’t even bother shrugging this time, staring off into space. Dauntless seemed to take that as assent. “The picture we have of events is pretty messy, so it would be very helpful if you could lend a hand with filling in some of the gaps. Can you tell me a little about what happened earlier?”
Warning sirens immediately went off in Lisa’s head. She shifted, flinching as the pulsing pain in her skull redoubled, worst just above her left ear. Clenching her teeth, she tried to ignore it, doing her best to catch Corey’s eye, signal her that answering any questions would be a very, very bad idea.
Corey didn’t look at her. Then, thank god, she slowly shook her head.
Dauntless was unbothered, nodding sympathetically. “Hey, I know you’ve had a really rough couple of hours and I’m sorry to be asking questions; this must be hard for you. How about I talk you through what we think happened, and you can just chime in to correct me if I’m wrong, all right?”
Corey drew out a long sigh, staring disconsolately at her hands. “Don’t care. Do whatever.”
Taking that as invitation, Dauntless began. “So, around 4:30pm today we had an emergency call from the Grand Marshall hotel. The caller told us that the building had been swamped in a cloud of darkness, a trademark of the Undersider Grue. There was an event going on, a birthday party for Corey Creighton. You.” He broke off, exhaling gently. “I’m sorry that this happened on such a big day. The Undersiders really picked their moment, huh?” He halfway glanced at Lisa there, trying to gauge her response. She gave him nothing. She wasn’t falling for amateur hour headgames.
After allowing a little bit of time, Dauntless went on. “Shortly afterwards, the Undersiders moved into the hotel building under the cover of darkness. At this point, eyewitnesses saw you activating your power, targeting Mr. Thomas Calvert. After you accosted and subdued him, you then dragged Mr. Calvert into the cloud of darkness. While inside, you fought the Undersiders, with the exception of Tattletale here.”
Lisa interjected, widening her eyes. “Tattletale? Who says I’m Tattletale?”
He turned to her for a second, a note of amusement in his voice. “We’ve IDed you using face and body recognition with a ninety-eight percent probability. We also saw every other Undersider present in costume.”
Well, it’d been worth a shot, and it’d interrupted his flow. Lisa flashed a strained grin. “Two whole percent uncertainty? You can do better than that.”
“True, you could always just tell us.”
Lisa shut her mouth and shrugged, smiling with guileless confidence she didn’t even come close to feeling. Dauntless maintained his gaze for a couple of seconds, and then picked up right where he’d left off. “You were able to fend off the Undersiders, causing significant wounds to Hellhound’s dogs. True to form, when faced with superior firepower, they retreated.” He paused. “Well, shy our noted exception here.”—Lisa didn’t flip him off and commended herself for her restraint.—”Does that all fit so far? Anything you’d like to add?”
Corey sniffed and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her arm. Dauntless patiently stood by for her to finish, looking on expectantly. She glanced his way, then down at her feet. “I don’t have to answer your questions,” she murmured.
“Of course you don’t,” Dauntless soothed, leaning in a little. “You do have the right to remain silent.”
Corey’s head snapped back around and she fixed him with a scrutinising stare. Lisa held off from what would have been a truly vicious grin. Wrong move, good cop.
Realising the misstep, Dauntless spoke quickly. “During the fighting, at approximately 4:37pm, you used your power on Mr. Calvert, causing lethal injuries. He was pronounced dead on the scene.”
She stiffened, immediately beginning to well up. Her mouth moved soundlessly. Lisa gritted her teeth. That was what he was working up to. Tell a story, then launch a sucker punch, see if he could provoke a reaction. Lisa was tongue-tied; if she blurted out that Calvert was Coil, then she risked implicating Corey herself in some kind of hit. Regardless of what Coil had done, the PRT would nail them to the wall if they thought for a second that they’d set out to kill him in civvies.
Corey regarded Dauntless, tear-filled eyes unblinking. After a long moment, he pushed on. “Who is Thomas Calvert to you?”
She sat there like a statue, then swallowed heavily, rivulets running down her cheeks. Dauntless waited once again, dragging out an excruciating thirty seconds of absolute silence. Finally, he continued. “You both knew each other before today. She was with you when you got caught up in that incident with Über and Leet. Tattletale’s power helps her be very persuasive, we understand if—”
“Shut the fuck up.” Corey snapped. Lisa felt a surge of gratitude. Even now, she was sticking up for her.
Dauntless didn’t. “Tattletale is a known villain. Are you telling me that you went from saving people to an ugly situation like this with no influence from her whatsoever?”
“No seriously, shut the fuck up.”
He paused, taking a second to regroup. “This will all be much easier if—”
“Bullshit!” the word exploded out of her. Around the room, the PRT agents bristled, weapons rising, trained at them. Battery took a single step forward, fists clenching. Dauntless snapped a hand up, fingers outstretched.
“Okay,” said Dauntless gently “I apologise if I was being intrusive. We’re just trying to get a better handle on today’s events—”
“Oh fuck off. You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” She was utterly seething, fixing him with a glare so intense Lisa thought her power might ignite again, send her up in flames.
Dauntless paused. “We can’t help you unless you help us—”
“I want a lawyer.” Her tone was hard, harsh.
Lisa never thought she’d be so glad to hear those words.
“That may take—”
“Asshole! I want a lawyer!”
Dauntless hesitated, started to speak, broke off, then turned and walked away.
Lisa reached out and Corey took her hand, squeezing fiercely. “You are amazing,” Lisa said quietly, grinning with pride.
Corey returned the smile tightly. Her eyes still glistened. “My parents know some good lawyers. We got this.”
She said it with such conviction that Lisa almost—no, not almost.
Lisa truly believed her.
Once more, a great many thanks to Theonewhowas for supporting me in writing this chapter!
The rest of the evening passed on the edge of a knife, one sudden move or harsh word away from a flood of containment foam. Dauntless was replaced by a PRT agent, who dispassionately read them their rights, clarifying when asked that they were indeed under arrest and being detained. After her outburst of righteous anger, Corey barely moved, clinging to Lisa’s hand like it was all she had in the world. Indignation and fury poured off of her, giving way to progressively mounting sorrow as the weight of the day’s events pressed ever more heavily upon her shoulders. Lisa did the best she could, holding on tightly, making the occasional soothing noise, murmuring low assurances, but once fatigue started to set in, keeping her eyes open became harder and harder.
Corey looked over, catching her fluttering eyelids. “Hey. Get some sleep, you’re hurt.”
“M’fine.” Lisa protested unconvincingly.
“You’re not. Seriously. Go to sleep. I’ll still be here.”
“‘Kay,” said Lisa, with no intention of actually sleeping. She even hung on for a while longer, pretending not to be awake whenever Corey glanced in her direction. Then her eyes closed one too many times.
When they opened again, it was morning. Sudden fear gripped Lisa. Lost time. What could have happened while she was asleep? They could have dragged her into a jail cell; Corey could be getting grilled by an interrogator, and Lisa was frigging sleeping— she whipped her head around, Corey—Corey was right there beside her, head slumped on her shoulder. Someone had thrown a blanket over her, and the glow of her power had finally faded away. Lisa watched her sleep, the pounding of her heart slowly subsiding. Nothing had happened. They were all right. She exhaled, long and slow, rolling onto her side, navigating her cuffed wrist to allow her to regard Corey more fully. Looking at her was calming in a way that Lisa hadn't expected, a reassurance that in spite of the dangers, they'd made it through unharmed. Mostly unharmed. Alive, anyway.
Corey’s slumbering face was far from serene, twitching fitfully, mouth tugging and twisting, brow furrowed. The sight tore Lisa between reaching over to shake her awake and letting her rest. Nightmares sucked, but given the circumstances—before Lisa got knocked out, she was surrounded by Undersiders. In the brief moments she'd been awake afterwards, there were none. Corey had to be feeling that, not just fatigue, but the emotional weight. Some sleep and some distance would maybe do her a bit of good, help her handle what had happened. She’d barely used her superpowers for an entire year after she got them, and then she’d thrown herself headlong into a lethal cape fight.
Fuck. The two people Lisa knew with a body count were a sociopath and a barely-functional misanthrope, the comparison completely absurd. Corey was far from equipped to handle killing somebody, even somebody as garbage as Coil, even for Lisa's sake. The fact that it was for her sake made Lisa feel even worse. Corey didn't deserve to be put through that kind of trauma, had been getting along just fine with school and volunteering and ignoring being a parahuman. Lisa had dragged her into the mud, pulled her into the life she'd wanted to avoid. Now they were both criminals. Even if they were acquitted, their lives were never going to be the same. For Lisa, a runaway in a gang of petty thieves, that barely mattered, she'd adapt. Corey had a life, friends, a cause she genuinely believed in, a family who hadn't known she had powers. Was Lisa really a worthwhile trade for all that?
Corey suddenly jerked awake with a gasp. Her eyes were wet, looking around blearily for a moment before focusing right on Lisa. Immediately, her expression smoothed, and she managed a small smile.
"Morning," Corey murmured.
"Morning," said Lisa, finding herself suddenly breaking out into a grin at the bizarre juxtaposition. Them waking up together, almost domestic. Both being extremely arrested.
Starting to speak, Corey cut herself off, shooting a cool look at the foot of Lisa's bed. She followed Corey's eyes to see a red-clad cape standing there, Assault.
"Hey, jailbirds. Sleep okay?"
Corey's eyes narrowed. "We're not your friends."
Assault grinned. "Believe it or not, I can care about your well being without it being a ploy." Corey didn't like that one bit, jaw tightening as she clenched her teeth.
Sensing an impending blowup, Lisa interjected. "Can we skip the pleasantries? Your buddy Dauntless already burned all your goodwill."
Assault had the good grace to look a little apologetic. "Right. I get it." He moved on smoothly. "Anyway, good news for you. We got hold of the attorney you asked for and he's on his way. Be here in half an hour or so. In the meantime..." Assault stopped, stroking his chin for a moment. "Is there... anyone else you'd like us to contact?"
Sincere, sees himself in our shoes, relates to situation, was a villain—
Lisa's headache, a blessedly quiet grumble to this point, came crashing back in with a vengeance. She swore, hissing between her teeth. Ow, ow, okay, message received, powers. She refocused, realising that both Corey and Assault were looking at her askance, and sheepishly gave them a thumbs up.
Corey's concern dropped back into suspicion as she returned her eyes to Assault. "Like who?"
He shrugged. "Yesterday was very public. Your parents might appreciate knowing you're all right."
Instantly, Corey's face fell, her defiant confidence faltering. "I—" she stopped, biting her cheek, then shook her head. "Lawyer first."
"Fair enough. And you?" he addressed Lisa.
"Ha! Uh, no." The reaction produced a sidelong glance from Corey, adding to the ever mounting list of things-they-really-needed-to-talk-about-at-some-point.
“Okay. I guess I’ll let you know when the lawyer arrives, huh?”
Corey didn’t even bother answering him, turning away to signal the conversation was over. Assault lingered nonetheless. Lisa caught his eyes flickering to either side, and though it took her a moment, she realised he was eyeballing the PRT agents still stationed in the room. He leaned forward slightly, lowering his voice. “For what it’s worth, I’m sure you guys will be able to cut a deal.”
Corey made a frustrated noise in the back of her throat and looked back. “Wow. Hey Lisa, check it out, this lawyer looks just like Assault.”
Assault laughed. “Point taken. I’ll get out of your hair.” He retreated.
With a short snort of her own, Lisa lay back on the pillows. Exhaustion was already beginning to crowd at her again. That hit to the head wasn't doing her any favours.
"If you need to rest, then rest," said Corey quietly. "I'm not going anywhere without you."
With anyone else, there might have been a question of trust. Not here. Not Corey. Thus assured, Lisa closed her eyes, spending the next while drifting in and out, stirring on occasion as PRT agents moved by, but otherwise taking advantage of the opportunity for some much-needed recuperation.
At length, Corey shook her arm, properly rousing her. "Attorney's here. Let’s go."
A quartet of troopers escorted them both from the infirmary, Assault bringing up the rear. Lisa found her balance was completely shot, stumbling as she walked along, wrists now cuffed together. Corey steadied her every few steps, though her own gait was reduced to a shuffle thanks to the restraints. The short trip through a couple of corridors took far longer than it should have done, but was still over mercifully quickly. One of the agents opened a door, gesturing to the inside of a plain room furnished with a desk and three chairs. A suited man was already seated within, studying a set of papers.
"I'm required to tell you that you'll be under observation in there," said Assault, voice much flatter than his previously wry tone. "No audio, but we have a camera feed. Parahuman custody law, sorry."
"Figures," muttered Corey. She steered Lisa gently into the room, only letting go of her shoulder when she was sure Lisa was properly seated.
The door closed behind them and the man finally looked up. Though he was sitting, his height was obvious, as was his thickset frame. He was of Chinese descent and had close-cropped, moderately receding hair. His lips twitched into a half smile.
"Miss Creighton. I can't say it's good to see you, under the circumstances, but I'm glad you called me so quickly."
A little of the tension and a lot of the defiant energy drained out of Corey as she slumped down. "Thanks for coming, Andrew."
"Of course," he offered his hand to Lisa. "Andrew Zheng. I'll be representing you."
Lisa accepted it, finding his grip surprisingly gentle for how much his hand engulfed hers.
He released her, then moved his papers into a tidy stack. "All right. First and foremost, I'd like to advise you that an investigation is underway about what happened at the hotel. The PRT can and will pull in thinkers—parahumans with mental based powers, that is—to support them if they're not getting anywhere, so this is unlikely to fall through from lack of evidence, not least because they have a host of eyewitnesses and probable cause." He marked off something on the front page, then scrutinised Corey intently. "There are a lot of facts missing in the case brief I received. How about you fill me in?"
And so they did. Lisa first, then Corey, then together. Explaining who Thomas Calvert really was and how Coil's power worked. How Lisa had feared for her life and being kidnapped. Uncovering what Coil was scheming and how he was plotting against Eisler and the QYR. Telling Corey the truth, the plan they'd came up with. The contingencies which must surely have come into play. The information on Lisa's phones that connected the dots of Coil's operations and could link into Calvert. How the Undersiders had attacked, and how Lisa had known it was Coil's final throw of the dice. Corey, leaning into her power, grabbing Coil to prevent his escape and to trade him for Lisa, if it came to that. The Undersiders' violence prompting violence in turn, and the whole standoff disintegrating until Corey just barely pulled herself back from the brink.
Zheng listened, only occasionally asking questions. As they finished, he tapped all of his fingers on the desk and exhaled heavily. Corey's emotions had caught up to her a couple of times and tears were back in her eyes. Lisa held her hand in mute support.
"That's quite a series of events," said Zheng eventually. His papers had multiplied threefold as he rapidly filled them out with notes, producing endless fresh pages out a briefcase. "If Calvert is who you say he is, I'm pleased to report that you both have a very good case. Your information completely recontextualises what happened; there's absolutely no way they can stick a homicide charge." He paused, licked his lips. "That's the good news. The bad news is that there are probably a couple dozen counts of reckless endangerment with a parahuman power, on top of aggravated assault and—well, Calvert’s death is still at minimum excessive force in a parahuman altercation, and the PRT may try to contend a more severe crime.”
“Could be worse,” said Lisa, forcing a smile. Corey didn’t even seem to see it, gaze fixed at some point over Zheng’s shoulder.
“There’s also the small matter of your own considerable criminal record, Lisa.”
Zheng plucked a page out of his pile, studied it, and then replaced it. “My question to you both is how you want to present your case. If you cooperate with the PRT, provide evidence and are able to demonstrate Calvert’s villainous identity, this won’t even go to trial. They’re quite lenient on young offenders and they’ll almost certainly present you with a plea deal. However, if we don’t take that route—”
“They’re going to force us into the Wards, aren’t they?” said Corey, dull and monotone.
Zheng paused, adjusted tack. “That’s probably your best case scenario, especially if you don’t want to be separated.”
“Fuck!” spat Corey, with venom. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!”
“She’s not a fan,” supplied Lisa, reaching out to tentatively brush Corey between the shoulderblades.
“Fuck!” Corey agreed.
“I see.” Zheng’s brow furrowed. “Some of the charges will be upheld, I’m afraid. Extenuating circumstances can only stretch so far, and with the best will in the world, a man is still dead.”
“I know, all right!?” Corey shouted suddenly, lurching up out of her chair. “I fucking—I fucking know! You don’t have to keep—keep fuh— fucking bringing it up!” She raised her hands to slam them down, but caught herself halfway, clutching at her hair and slumping back into her seat.
Lisa hugged her.
For a moment, Corey didn’t react, and then all at once, she turned into Lisa’s arms and buried her head in her chest, her whole body racked with sobs. Lisa held on tight, fighting back the tears threatening to flow from her own eyes.
This was her damn fault. Her fault for not being able to come up with a better plan than pointing Corey at Coil like a weapon and hoping for the best. She’d bloodied the hands of and traumatised—maybe permanently—the person she’d somehow, bit by bit, bright smile by tender word, found herself to care more for than anyone else.
Corey trembled in her embrace.
After an eternity, Zheng spoke again. “I apologise. That was far too blunt of me.” Corey said nothing. Lisa tried to smile in acknowledgement but couldn’t even manage that much. Instead, she just nodded. Zheng went on. “If you’ll allow me to rephrase, I don’t think it’s possible for us to achieve a full acquittal, and parahuman law leverages most offences as a threat to public safety. We do have the option of contending all the charges, and I do believe we would be able to get many of them dropped.” He reviewed his papers one more time. “However, even just from your accounts of events, I’m of the opinion that the PRT will still have enough to put you both into juvenile detention if the case reaches court, and beyond that, what’s likely to be at least a year’s sentence in an adult parahuman prison.”
Corey burrowed harder into her chest. Lisa hugged her even tighter and mouthed a curse, not wanting to let on that she was bothered. She’d known that they weren’t likely to waltz off into the sunset, but hearing it from a lawyer solidified those concerns into a reality. So long, life of crime.
Corey broke off and looked up at her, eyes still swimming. “I’m not letting them split us up.”
The utter certainty of her voice put steel back in Lisa’s spine. “So, Wards?”
Corey sighed, long and hard. “I guess.” She rubbed her eyes with the back of her arm. When they reappeared, they shone with determination. “I’m reading the PRT handbook front-to-back and upside down. They put me in the Wards, I’m going to know their regs better than they do.”
Lisa smiled. There was her girl. Hard as this was, this would be, she’d do what she could to help Corey through it. She owed her that much. She owed her everything.
Zheng chuckled softly. “If you’re agreed, then I’ll proceed to build your case off that basis. Honestly, this route will make proceedings into more of a negotiation than a trial. The PRT will attempt to parlay any charges into favourable conditions for a Wards contract. As such, you should also discuss what kind of concessions you’re willing and unwilling to make. Start thinking about that; you have plenty of time to consider.” He steepled his hands. “First, though, let’s discuss witness statements.”
The legal guidance commenced in earnest as Zheng briefed them on how to provide information, what not to say, and that they could and in fact should look to him for support whenever required. Corey squeezed her hand.
Some hours later, Lisa was led out of an interrogation room by a pair of PRT troopers, statement given. Swiftly, they dropped her off in a larger holding area where a fidgeting and ill-at-ease Corey was waiting. Relief immediately rushed to her face as she saw Lisa, and she rose to give her a hug. Neither of them had been happy about speaking separately, but legally, they didn’t have a choice.
Lisa took a seat next to Corey at the bench she was occupying. Zheng politely cleared his throat.
“I need to go to my office to continue to build your case. You’re both doing an excellent job. Remember that you’re under no obligation to talk to anyone, not least if it even faintly resembles questioning. If you need anything at all, don’t hesitate to call me.”
“Can you grab me a milkshake?” said Lisa, winking.
Zheng cracked a smile. “I charge by the hour. It’d be a very expensive milkshake.”
She grinned. Corey even managed a smile. With a courteous nod, Zheng stepped out of the room, leaving the two of them not-really-alone, since Assault and two PRT troopers had remained in the neighbourhood, hovering by the only two exits. They were distant enough to give an illusion of privacy, but close enough to overhear anything said without lowered voices.
“I spoke to my parents,” said Corey, after a few minutes of nothing. Lisa winced.
“How are they taking all this?”
Corey wobbled her hand from side to side. “Kind of supportive, kind of not. They’re paying for the lawyer, but yesterday was pretty crazy. Lots of unanswered questions. They were holding some things back over the phone. Think they’re upset that I never told them I have powers.”
“Ah… that’d do it.”
Corey gave a little shrug. “Was my decision.”
An awkward silence fell between the two of them. There was a little more still left unsaid. From the moment Lisa confessed to now, there hadn’t been a slow enough, safe enough moment to bring it up again. At this stage, though, even the presence of the troopers was just an excuse. The longer Lisa said nothing, the longer she held off explaining herself, the more this would fester. Lisa was—had been—a villain. That hadn’t just gone away while they were in custody.
Time to rip off the bandaid.
“We need to talk, don’t we?”
Corey turned her head in Lisa’s direction. Lisa couldn’t read her expression. She nodded slightly. Lisa returned it, swallowing nervously.
Just be honest, Lisa.
“I… came to Brockton Bay after running away from home. My parents were garbage.”
Corey blinked, taken aback by that right out of the gate. “I’m sorry,” she said, with feeling.
Lisa had long since convinced herself she was done feeling upset over her parents, but to her surprise, the small sentiment made her feel a little better. “Thanks. After I left, I was already kind of rolling on petty crime. Pickpocketing, skimming, ATM fraud.”
Though frowning at first, Corey’s face softened. “I’ve heard it can be really rough for runaways. It’s one of the reasons the BBYR exists.”
Lisa looked away. “I ah... I think I might have stayed at their hostels a couple of times. I don’t really remember.”
Corey nodded sympathetically. Lisa stayed quiet, breathing in and out, doing her best to stay calm. This wouldn’t be the dealbreaker, right? This wouldn’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back and made Corey finally say enough was enough, and give up on her?
Lisa plunged onward. “After a few months on the Boardwalk, Coil cornered me. Had his goons hold me up at gunpoint while he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Then came the Undersiders.” She broke off to study Corey fearfully for a reaction, a rejection. All she received was a nod. Go on. Lisa started to look away, but then steeled her nerve and persisted, not breaking eye contact.
Seconds dripped by as Lisa tried to figure out what to say. She bit her lip, shook her head, and then took the plunge. “I didn’t set out to be a villain, but I’d be lying if I said that being on the team wasn’t fun. Using powers. Dodging the heroes.”
Corey’s voice was laden with accusation. Lisa hesitated. “We tried not to do that.”
“Stealing isn’t victimless, Lisa!” she wasn’t quiet, and the PRT agents stirred.
“You kids behaving over there?” Assault called. “I’d hate to have to separate you again.”
“Talking through some things,” Corey replied, jerking a hand dismissively.
“If you say so.”
After letting the troopers settle, Corey went on, voice lowered but tone hard.
“Tell me honestly, Lisa. If it hadn’t messed with me specifically, would you even care? Would you be regretting what you did at all? ”
Lisa’s breath caught. “I…” she torqued off an instinctive affirmation, stopped to think, really think about her answer. “No,” she said. “It’s not how I thought about caping. It was cops and robbers, trying to enjoy what I could while having a gun pressed to my head. Hell, half the time we were hitting ABB fronts.”
“And you never thought that you could maybe go straight? You had information on Coil.”
She shook her head. “Not enough, and if I couldn’t pull it off, he’d have locked me up and thrown away the key. I couldn’t risk it on my own.” Corey flexed her knuckles. Lisa continued. “I get I’ve done some shitty things, but I got dealt a shitty hand and I made the best of it. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a nice, well-off family, Corey. Not all of us manage to hide our triggers.”
Corey flinched, and for a second, Lisa thought she might have gone too far. Instead, Corey tipped her head all the way back, closing her eyes.
“Yeah. Suppose you’re right.” She shook her head and straightened back up. “I’m… gonna take a bit before I’m okay with everything you’ve done, but I forgive what there is to forgive from me.”
Gratitude surged through Lisa. She felt like crying and laughing and cheering. She threw her arms around Corey, then kissed her on the forehead.
“You are the absolute best person I know. I love you.” The words spilled out of her mouth and her eyes widened. Wait. Oh god. Did she just say that?
Corey’s smile lit up what felt like the whole world.
“I love you too.”
"Coming up on 32nd and Baker. Anything we should look out for, Console?”
Lisa glanced up at the holographic map of the city hovering over the sizeable suite of monitors in front of her, and then hit a button. “Smooth sailing, Envoy,” she said, angling her head towards the microphone built into the workstation.
“Lame,” said a second voice, low-pitched, female where the first had been male. “Can’t you give us a mugging or something?”
Lisa snorted, keying the intercom again. “Yeah I’ll just get right on my crime-summoning mmph—!”
She was cut off as a presence darted in from behind her shoulder and smooched her firmly on the lips. Lisa made a startled noise and jerked back, breaking the kiss, leaving her looking into Corey’s face, unabashedly wearing a broad, vulpine grin.
“Console, say again? Are you—Y’Allah! Quit PDAing on the radio!”
Corey leaned over to the console and pushed the button. “Never.”
“Fuu—eff off, Starheart.”
There was a world weary sigh from the first voice. “Continuing our patrol route now. Let’s keep it professional, people.”
Shooting Corey a glare which she knew was a little too flustered to be any true deterrent, Lisa spoke into the microphone. “I hear you, Envoy. Speak to you in half an hour.”
She let the button go and continued glowering, even as a smile threatened to break straight through her scowl. “Mid status report? Really?”
Corey’s self-satisfied expression didn’t fade. “Envoy needs reminding we’re kids, not private military, and I wanted to greet my girlfriend properly.”
“Well…” Lisa feigned reluctance. “I suppose that was a pretty decent greeting.”
“I thought that throwing you over my head then catching you on the way down might be a bit much.” A mischievous gleam was in her eyes. “I can still do that, if you want.”
Flashing a grin, Lisa shook her head. “Tempting, but no thanks.”
“Coward,” said Corey, resting her arms on the back of Lisa’s chair. “Get off any time soon?”
Tilting her head all the way back and getting an upside down view of Corey in the process, Lisa pulled a face. “Another hour and a half to go.”
“Lame as fuck.”
Lisa laughed. As much as she’d wanted to stay away from the front lines when she first started out with the Undersiders, taking that role for the Wards was pretty dull. Turned out that after getting a taste of life in the fastlane of heists and evading the heroes, being stuck cooling her heels sucked. They hadn’t had so much as a PR patrol at this stage of their probation, and the PRT weren’t willing to give Lisa the kind of resources she would need to play mission control. She wouldn’t have trusted herself with those resources either, but that was besides the point.
At least Lisa still had her favourite person. She gave Corey her best puppy dog eyes. “This is pretty boring. Keep me company?”
“Sure. No action?”
Lisa snorted. “I mean, even if there was, I’d only tell them to observe and call for backup.” She caught Corey starting to frown. “Which is fine!” she added hastily. Corey stuck out her tongue. Lisa shrugged. “It’s just dull. And sure, maybe they shouldn’t have them diving into full-on cape fights like in Brockton, but they need at least a little experience of the real deal if they’re going to be Protectorate heroes.”
“Oh god, they got to you!” Corey widened her eyes exaggeratedly, holding up her hands—no longer taped as of a month ago— in a warding gesture. “You’re a PRT shill now!”
“Har de har,” said Lisa. “Speaking as a former villain, my dastardly deeds would have been much easier if I hadn’t had to deal with the Wards.”
Corey hesitated, the playfulness fleeing from her face. Worry caught in Lisa’s throat. They bantered and teased so easily that she slipped up around certain topics. Her and the Undersiders had joked around about crimes all the time, and that tended to be habit forming. The gap wasn’t one that her and Corey could bridge overnight.
The silence became unbearable. “Sorry,” said Lisa.
Corey shook her head leadenly. “No it’s fine.” She continued, filled with resignation. “I guess I can do some homework.”
Great. Lisa left that one to die, scolding herself for letting her tongue outrun her brain. Corey sloped to the beaten leather sofa a couple of metres back from Lisa’s chair, retrieving her satchel. Lisa traced her steps, swivelling her chair around, and her power started filling in some of the gaps.
Stressed. Struggling. Not adapting well to new environment. Not able to focus like she wants. Inability to concentrate, homesick, worries about parents, worries about me. Dislikes power training. Dislikes her powers even more than before. Fearful, terrified of losing control. Hates what she did to Coil. Hates that she wanted to do it.
That was...that was a lot. Too much for Lisa to bring up right after crashing the conversation into a ditch. It was a snarled, tangled knot of issues that could only be picked apart with care and time, daunting even if Lisa was at her best, which, in adjusting to her new life as one of the white hats, she assuredly wasn’t.
Kicker was, Lisa had spent months running and hiding, ducking out on her emotions and concealing the truth. For all the reasons that she’d had, withholding the truth had nearly been the end for them in every sense of the word. She was through with that. No more secrets.
Well. From Corey, anyway.
Start small. If Lisa nudged the talk along, Corey would open up, she just had to ensure she wasn’t forcing anything. There was a difference between her talking because she felt comfortable and her talking because she felt obligated.
“How’s school?” Lisa ventured.
“School’s…” Corey sighed, looking off away. “Tough. It’s tough. Still. Still tough.”
Barring a miraculous 180, Lisa hadn’t expected anything different, but that wasn’t the point. Left to her own devices, Corey would keep everything bottled up in an attempt to keep Lisa from worrying, so she had to prompt her. “Want to vent?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Fuck.” Corey flopped onto the sofa. “Like, I knew this was gonna be hard but—I guess maybe I kinda didn’t. Fuck!” she laughed, a jagged sound that carried no warmth or cheer.
“It’s a lot all at once. You’re allowed to take some time to adapt.”
“I’ve had some time.” Corey started to sprawl, stretching her gangly limbs out, one arm draped across the couch’s backrest, the other trailing on the floor. She made a satisfied huff of released tension. “Three months is long enough to acclimatise.”
Lisa shook her head, the edges of her mouth quirking up. Everything had to be a million miles an hour, didn’t it? “Yeah, to one of the Wards, a new school and city, and moving out from your parents. Not all three.”
Corey groaned. “I know you’re right. I know that’s totally reasonable, but my feelings just—like, they don’t care. I try to tell myself that my grades slipping some is natural, but then I start beating myself about it anyway. Knowing why I’m lonely in the student lodging doesn’t stop me feeling that way.”
A couple of simple remarks, but more than enough to wipe the smile off Lisa’s face. “I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.” Since she already had her GED and in the interests of preventing suspicion with two new transfers at the same time as two new Wards, the PRT hadn’t sent Lisa to school with Corey. Still gave her study and homework to do though. Bastards. “At least it’s only another couple weeks?”
“I’m bombing my finals so hard it’s going to leave craters. I’m totally going to have to repeat.”
“Hey, hey.” Not bothering to glance back at the console, Lisa got up and walked over to her. She leaned over Corey, putting one hand on either shoulder. Tension was bunched up beneath the skin, though Corey relaxed fractionally as Lisa looked down into her eyes. “You’re not going to fail. You’re working really hard and I know you know the material. If you don’t ace the tests, who cares? You’ll have the summer to rest and get your head back where it needs to be, and then you’ll nail it next year.” Lisa tapped Corey on the nose and winked. “So quit worrying!”
A slight smile broke through Corey’s gloom. “I’ll try, no promises.”
Lisa straightened up with a nod. Corey wouldn’t be Corey without caring a whole damn lot about everything, and trying to make her promise not to worry was sketchy at best. Corey gave another small sigh, then started to speak, but was cut off by a foghorn-like alarm, which emitted three long honks.
Great, the mask-up signal, right as Corey was about to share. Her shutters immediately came down, a shadow falling across her face as she sat up. Wordlessly, she dug a hand into her satchel and extracted her mask, which she regarded between her hands for several long seconds. Lisa swallowed, pulling her own domino mask out of her pocket and donning it.
Corey slowly shook her head, and then finally tugged the mask on. It was white on blue, covering much of her face but leaving her mouth and chin exposed and her hair free. The full ensemble looked good on her, and even better when lit up even a little by her power.
Only, Lisa knew that she hated the costume and hated applying her glow to it even more. Lisa knew that after their introduction to the public, back in the dressing room at the venue, Corey had unmasked with trembling hands, puked, then burst into tears.
Lisa reached back over and rested a hand on her shoulder. After a second, Corey covered it with her own.
A couple of minutes passed unmoving before the muffled sound of voices reached them from next door. The alarm gave a lot of warning. One voice was calm and measured, while the other was all over the place, bouncing up and down in pace and volume both. After a brief conversation that wasn’t quite audible through the sound-absorbent door to the console room, the handle turned, and a muscular black man stepped inside. He wore a sleeveless silver costume stencilled with leafy patterns, and his mask was mocked up to resemble a bascinet. Hedge Knight, the second-in-command of the Columbus Protectorate. He gave the two of them a courteous nod, then ushered his companion in after him.
“This is where the Wards monitor each other’s patrols,” he explained to the teenaged girl trailing in his wake, who was wearing one of the plain white domino masks reserved for guests and ‘just in case’ situations. The girl’s clothes were ill-fitting and had seen a lot of use and abuse, ripped jeans and a threadbare black hoodie. Her eyes just barely peeked out behind the floppy dark fringe of her hair, contrasting her pale skin.
“Neat,” she said, one hundred percent of her attention on the two of them. “When do I get to try it?”
“‘Properly understand the risks of your power in order to mitigate them’, right.” She recited the words in a flat monotone just shy of disrespectful, since Lisa suspected they were Hedge Knight’s own.
“Correct.” He seemed unaffected by the sass. Knight exuded the kind of composure that made Lisa itch to attempt to crack, but resisted, given that her good behaviour was not just requested but required. Knight went on, gesturing to her and Corey. “This is Starheart and Gumshoe. They’ve been with us for around three months.”
“I do live in this town, you know. I follow cape news.”
“That doesn’t mean we’ve met,” said Corey, a touch snappishly.
Figments of a smile came and went on the girl’s face. “Spose not. I’m Glitch.”
“You can’t introduce yourself as something new every time you speak to somebody, Jinx. It’s going to cause confusion,” said Knight mildly.
“I wasn’t feeling that one,” said Glitch.
“The codename is only temporary at this stage. You’ll discuss your actual branding with Image.”
“So it doesn’t matter if I switch it around then.”
Hedge Knight didn’t sigh, but Lisa could tell that he wanted to. “Confusion, as I said. Regardless. Starheart, Gumshoe, Glitch here is joining the Wards. We’re running through orientation at the moment.”
Glitch raised a hand. “Bi.”
“No, we aren’t leaving quite yet.”
Corey cracked a very small smile.
Knight’s watch suddenly beeped, and he checked it, then double-taked and checked it again. “Ah… sorry about this, Glitch, but I need to make a quick call. Is that okay with you?”
Surprise, swiftly hidden, flickered across her face. “Uh, yeah, sure dude, you’re in charge, aren’t you?”
Feels nervous, uncertain of self. Masking insecurities with a persona. Used to defense mechanisms, expecting the other shoe to drop, watching for the catch. Feels this is a loaded deal. Feels she didn’t have another option. Has taken loaded deals—
Lisa reeled her power back before it ran across something truly privacy-violating, diverting her attention to the console’s holographic map. She was trying to do better about not digging up every bit of dirt on everyone she met, not least because the PRT had made it clear they’d take a very dim view of her thinkering people’s personal baggage.
She still managed to discover that one of the Protectorate had an entire room of his house dedicated to glass unicorns, but he was a grown man, he could like what he liked.
Hedge Knight, quiet for a moment, shook his head. “I’m not going to leave you alone with people you just met without asking.”
Glitch was prepared this time, not showing even a chink in her cool demeanour. “Sure, sure. Do whatever.”
Knight nodded. “Take a moment to get acquainted. Look after her, you two.” He stepped back out of the room.
Glitch instantly turned back to them and, with a brief once over, pulled her mask right off. “Hi.”
“...Hey.” Corey gave her a hard look.
She shrugged. “It’s not like you wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street now.”
“It’s about the social game,” said Lisa.
She considered. “Fuck that.”
Corey laughed. Lisa smiled, slightly. The girl shrugged again. “Anyway we’re going to be teammates and I’m not wearing this thing 24/7. Itches like crazy.” She stuck out her hand. “Crystal. Chrissy, if you want.”
Corey accepted the shake, but made no move to unmask. “Starheart.”
“She doesn’t like sharing her identity right away,” supplied Lisa. “I’m Gumshoe.” Personally she didn’t care all that much, but would feel bad not showing solidarity with her girlfriend. It’d taken the lion’s share of these last three months for Corey to finally feel comfortable unmasking around all the other Wards. She still refused to allow almost anyone from the PRT or Protectorate to see her face.
“I get that,” said Chrissy. “I just don’t see the point. ‘Specially for me. I’m gonna be living here a while.”
Okay, but did it really count as digging into someone’s baggage if they just pushed it into your face as soon as you met them?
“They’re putting me up, too,” said Lisa casually.
“Heroes or the street. Pretty easy choice.” Corey bristled, but Chrissy didn’t seem to notice. “Anyway, you two are actually the ones I wanted to meet most. You’ve barely showed up since they introduced you. Are you guys like, in the doghouse?”
Lisa and Corey exchanged glances. Officially, Corey needed better control and Lisa’s power wasn’t suited to fieldwork. Unofficially, the Wards had all been briefed immediately that they were on probation.
“I can’t patrol until they trust me,” said Corey blandly.
“Snap,” added Lisa.
“Oh, huh. Okay. I thought you might’ve big time botched something important—” she cut herself off with a snap of the fingers. “Botch! That’s perfect! Hah!” she beamed, then seemed to remember the conversation topic. “So you’re both a pair of baddies, huh? Must be pretty awful, they don't mind Bandersnatch faking like he's gonna bite villains' heads off—”
Corey stepped forward with enough force it echoed. “Shut. Up.”
A dangerous smile quirked Chrissy’s lips, but as they began to shape words, there was a knock on the door. Chrissy carelessly tugged her mask back on, slightly askew. Hedge Knight reappeared. “Ready to go, Glitch?”
“Botch now!” she chirped.
Yet again exhibiting extraordinary patience, Knight simply nodded. “Botch. I like that one.”
“I am a genius.”
“All right. Let’s get going. Thank you for that, you two.”
Lisa waved. “Later, Bitc—Botch! Botch. I said Botch.”
Knight exited, a chuckling Botch in tow.
They both stood there for a second, and then Corey exhaled, and like every ounce of her energy went with the breath, she flopped over the back of the sofa and lay face down on the cushions.
“I’m an asshole,” she muttered.
Lisa sat down on the floor, putting her back against the couch. “She pushed a button. I should know, I push buttons.”
Twisting her head so that her cheek lay flat on the cushion, Corey hissed a sigh. “I didn’t have to react like that. I’m just—I keep trying to tell myself that I’m not a bad person, but I fucking killed someone, Lisa. I crushed him. That’s worse than anything you ever did. I don’t deserve to get upset over—”
“Hey, no.” Lisa shifted, twisting and kneeling up off the ground so she could rest a hand on each of Corey’s shoulders. “It’s not a contest, all right? And you sure as hell deserve to feel anything you want to feel.”
Corey shifted, breaking Lisa’s grip. “I killed someone,” she repeated.
Responses cycled through Lisa’s head as she knelt there, hands bunched to her chest.
‘He deserved it.’
‘You did what you had to do.’
‘He’d have done the same to us.’
She spoke none of them.
“What happened, happened,” she said, at length. “We can wish it went down differently, but we can’t change it. Killing him doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you somebody who made a mistake. I made mistakes too. I could have handled things better that night. I could have been smarter and avoided putting you in that position. I could have been happy with dodging him and calling it a draw. I didn’t. I wasn’t.” At some point, Lisa didn’t know when, she’d risen to her feet, started to stride back and forth. “Yeah, we both fucked up, but we’re still here. We’re here, not dead or arrested in jail. We got a second chance. So, we can let what we did drag us down, let ourselves drown under that weight, and waste that chance, or we acknowledge our mistakes, pick ourselves back up, and we do better.”
For a very, very long time, Corey just looked back at her. Second after second dragged past, Corey’s glistening brown eyes locked on hers. Lisa’s power crowded in, desperate to fill the void with information, illuminate what lay beyond that look. She refused to lend it her ears. She refused to know. She was afraid to know.
Corey stood. Those soulful brown eyes of hers glistened. She shuddered, the world’s tiniest sigh.
“We do better,” she whispered, scooping Lisa up into a fierce hug, bridal style. “Both of us.”
Lisa giggled in relief, looping her arms around Corey’s neck. A thousand emotions flooded through her, but burning through them all was adoration, love. “Of course. What would I do without my knight in shining armour?” Corey snuffled a laugh that was halfway sob, and Lisa sobered.
Meaning it more than she’d ever meant another word, Lisa leaned her head close to Corey’s ear and spoke.