The screaming started again, so I used my power to silence it. In its absence was the buzzing of countless flies, the smell of rot and decay that even after weeks I couldn’t get used to. The feel of air was thick like syrup, so humid I could cut it with a knife and fork, scrape off the mold and rot, and have breakfast.
One of the PRT officers had her helmet off, smoking a cigarette. I wandered over to sit next to her. I should’ve known her name, but I didn’t.
“Sucks,” she said simply, taking a long drag as she looked impassively over the scene.
“She’s on the way though. Five minutes.”
There was the squick of floorboards as Tattletale wandered in, a grimace on her face. She sat down on the other side of the officer and bummed a cigarette. “Sucks.”
“Since when did you smoke?” I found myself asking.
“About ten seconds ago,” the supervillain replied, deadpan. “At this rate Jack’ll get me long before anything else. Fuck it.”
After those first few days, the chaos and devastation of the Nine had settled in, and become almost alarmingly routine. A torture here and there, several near-misses for the heroes, but nothing big, nothing major.
More footsteps. Glory Girl and Panacea coming in through the front door. They both gave Tattletale a glare before Panacea went over to the victims and Glory Girl came our way.
“Sup,” I said simply as she hovered down into the last seat at the kitchen table.
“Just being a glorified taxicab, you?”
“‘Glorified’, really?” Tattletale said with an eyeroll.
Glory Girl’s response was interrupted by abrupt screaming. I sighed and walked over into the living room. Panacea was kneeling in the center of the mess, by what I assumed were the three victims’ heads.
“Need more time?” I shouted over the cries for help.
I Clockblocked the family again. “You doing okay?” I asked her. Panacea’s hood was down, and I could see her eyes following the maze of blood vessels and nerves and god knows what else filling the room.
“I’m here,” she finally said, eyes meeting mine. That was the weird thing with Panacea. When most people looked into an opaque visor to look someone in the eyes, they always missed. Some people too high, others too low. Not Amy Dallon, though. It was a little thing I’d noticed.
“You need any help? Beats being the third wheel for Tattletale and GG.”
Her eyes darted away for a second. Right, the bank thing. Before I could mutter an apology she nodded. “Sure, thanks Clock.”
“No problem.” I knelt next to her, next to the...trunk?...where flesh branched out like vines along the ground, vines that were pulsing and throbbing seconds ago. It was hard to find a spot where I didn’t have a boot or a knee in something.
“How are you?” she asked; I got the impression it was more to fill the time than out of any concern.
“I’m… okay I guess,” I replied with a shrug. Almost a week into it, and so much had gone on. The Nine had become almost secondary to frenzied research on my laptop, an awkward visit to the PRT's doctor, and general terror at what was definitely the more stressful part of my life now.
Everything about becoming a girl was terrifying. Growing up, we hadn't exactly been made of money, and when the neighborhood had become infested with the spread of the neonazis, we'd been unable to move. Neither, unfortunately, had the gay couple a few blocks down the street. I remembered my parents sending me to bed, and listening to hushed words in the living room about what to do.
It was part of why I'd joined the Wards after triggering, and part of why I knew if I was going to transition I'd need to be careful.
If I even wanted to transition. The doctor had given me pills, told me risks I couldn't remember, said something about it being reversible within a couple months. Then the alarm had gone off and she'd run downstairs, to deal with the latest batch of casualties.
But it was reversible, which meant I could experiment. Which meant–
"Clock," Panacea said. "How is your hand?"
"Everything's working fine?"
"Lemme see." She held out her hand, covered in red from the victims from before I'd frozen them for her.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, no it's fine," I replied quickly. It wasn't fine, but I couldn't get out of it without being weird. Of course she'd check in, it was a hand grown in minutes, right after we'd discovered the Nine here, and right after she'd dealt with Tattletale… okay yeah, maybe getting a checkup wasn't such a bad idea.
I pulled off my glove, held the hand out, and she grabbed it. Nothing felt different, of course, but it seemed that way.
"Everything… seems fine," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Although…"
"Although?" I asked. She raised an eyebrow, giving me a look. She knows, oh god oh fuck.
"Your hormones are off."
Oh god shit Jesus fuck!
"I uh," I managed. "Well. Of course they are, being around a cute girl like you!"
I didn’t need to see her expression to know that lie hadn’t landed.
“Listen, just… don’t worry about it,” I said. She continued staring at me flatly. “It’s fine.”
The sound of screams erupted, the family tree’s Clockblocking wearing off, and I yanked my hand away. “C’mon, we gotta help these people or whatever.”
“Yes,” she replied tersely, finally breaking her stare to go work on the victims. I breathed a sigh of relief as she stuck her hand into the mess of flesh and bone and guts.
“Hey kiddo,” a voice said behind me said. Tattletale, with that ever-present smirk. How long had she been there?
“We should go,” she said, ignoring my question entirely. Alright then. Still, if it meant getting away from Panacea before she took it upon herself to offer a quick fix… Tattletale headed for the front door, and I followed behind her, giving Glory Girl an upnod as she rooted through the kitchen cabinets for something. Then we were back outside, in the hundred-degree heat, our shoes splashing through ankle-deep sidewalk water. A handful of PRT troops were standing guard, the motorcycle we’d more-or-less claimed parked next to their purple-and-black confoam van.
“You’ve been making progress,” she said quietly as we hopped on the bike. The thing we hadn’t been talking about.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Tattletale,” I replied, punctuating it with an attempt at kickstarting the bike. It started the first try, my first stroke of good luck for… a while, really. Of course it would be for something stupid.
Before she could respond, I took off. In this area I couldn’t exactly floor it, not with all the water and debris still everywhere. Leviathan had torn directly through the neighborhood, half the houses had been destroyed in the battle and the other half beaten down by the hurricane that followed in his wake.
“I don’t even get a thank you?” she shouted in my ear to be heard over the engine.
“Tattletale, can we not do this right now?”
“That doesn’t sound like gratitude to me.”
“Gratitude for what? For sticking this stupid fucking idea into my head?” I snapped back. “What am I supposed to do, become Lady Clockblocker? Nobody would take me seriously, and in case you didn’t notice, we’ve got bigger fucking problems right now.”
“Problems you can’t fix.”
“Yeah, because I’m stuck babysitting you.”
“You still think you’re the one doing the babysitting?” she laughed. “Do you seriously think the PRT put us together just because you’re not cleared for combat?”
“I think this conversation is pointless.”
“You want to ask her, don’t you?”
“Ask her what, exactly?”
“You want to ask her to turn you into a real girl, don’t you?”
“No,” I said, and I wasn’t lying. The thought had crossed my mind, but… but that meant talking to someone who wasn’t a dispassionate doctor, or a supervillain who already fucking knew. With New Wave collapsing, Glory Girl had already joined the Wards, and her sister would be sure to follow. The last fucking thing I wanted was a teammate who Knew.
I didn’t hear a response from Tattletale. I kept riding down the streets, towards the highway that was elevated enough to stay dry, and cleared of wreckage so people could actually get into and out of downtown without spending hours slogging through muck.
“It’s nothing but a kink,” I finally said, more to myself than her. “That’s all it is. I’m not doing anything with it.”
“Wow, keep saying that and maybe you’ll believe it eventually. I can read minds, dipshit.”
I ignored the jab and the lie about her power. Mindreading wasn’t a thing, right? I distinctly remember reading something about that in Parahumanity 101… right next to the bit about how trying your best and studying hard could give you powers. Okay, maybe not the best source to rely on.
“Why are you doing this?” I said, more to get off the mindreading than anything else. “Why do you want me to be a girl so fucking much?”
“I just think it’s interesting, that’s all.” I could hear her grin in her voice.
There was the faint sound of an angry sigh behind me. “When have I ever lied to you, Clockblocker?”
“You want that chronologically or alphabetical,” I muttered. “Whatever.” Asshole.
Just a fetish. A kink thing. I could be a boy and like dressing up, right? Perfectly normal. Okay, kinda normal. Weird as fuck, but at least it wasn’t a feet thing. At least the crossdressers kept their shit off PHO instead of starting flamewars in the somehow-not-locked “Protectorate ENE Foot Ranking Megathread #22”.
Slowly, the internet trickled into my phone. They’d set up temporary internet, satellite connections that were slow as hell at the best of times, and only a small chunk of that was set aside for “non-essential” things, like the non-classified wifi in the Wards cave. Sure, I could have done this on the console machines… and then have a very awkward conversation with the IT guy? They’d probably drag Piggot into it, with my luck.
In any case, it didn’t seem to matter. Every search seemed to go to a dead end, either on some tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist’s webforum-based rant, generic press release nonsense from the PRT or some other corporate team, or… porn. A lot of porn. Thirsty fans really wanted fanart of Alexandria’s dick, or genderbent Assault’s dick. Or the Simurgh’s dick.
There was so much of it, a terrible part of me couldn’t help but wonder if this was… licensed, or something. Like the Image department was just collecting royalties from fanartists putting obscenely oversized gentleman sausages on their beloved Protectorate members. I mean, definitely not, but it was worth a laugh.
But as far as I could tell, actual… trans capes? It wasn’t like there was a list or anything. I’d been hoping for… I didn’t know. Everyone went on about how Legend had brought gay rights forward, but at least from the little corner I was dealing with, it didn’t feel that way. It was just nonsense about some PRT department in Whogivesafuck changing their policy to let interns be trans, or some such.
There was a cape down in Maryland on some corporate team, rumors about a birdcaged villain from Denver, a Ward in Seattle, another one in Portland who’d been… sent away on punishment detail after coming out at a pride parade? Yikes. And apparently one of Canada’s, like, five capes was trans.
A handful of capes I’d never heard of, and about fuckall information that could help me. Nice.
To be fair, after going through ten pages of death threats, porn, and death threats in porn form, I sure as fuck didn’t want to be a part of that either. And yet, I was beginning to suspect, if I actually wanted to do this, I’d… I’d have to do it publicly, in a city infamous for its bigotry, that was currently working its way through S-class threats like Alabamans going through their family tree after having a little too much moonshine at the hoedown. Or…
There was a knock at the door. I put away the thoughts of existential dread and poked my head out. Flechette, clearly just back from a patrol, given the mud on her costume and the fuckoff huge crossbow casually slung over one shoulder.
“You busy?” she asked.
“Uh…” I glanced down and locked my phone screen. “Not really, what’s up?”
“Need someone to talk to. Your girlfriend’s not around right?”
“She’s not my girlfriend. Who’s saying… whatever, just… c’mon in I guess?” I stepped back, and she walked in, taking a look around before stealing my desk chair.
“What’s the deal with Shadow Stalker?” she said as soon as I closed the door. Jumping right into it, I guess.
“What about her? She’s…” I paused. “Lemme guess. She did some sketchy borderline shit on your guys’s patrol that really got you worried?”
“She does that. They were supposed to do something… and then Leviathan, and now the Nine. Can’t exactly afford to lose her right now.”
Flechette was quiet for a few moments before asking another question. “So what did the hoverboard guy do?”
“Huh? Kid Win?”
“The guy we replaced. If they let her stick around…” She trailed off, giving me a look.
I found myself looking away, a knot forming in my throat. “He… he asked to go.” I realized I hadn’t… really had time to process all that, what with everything going on. “I don’t know why. He didn’t tell me, even though, like, we’re best friends. Were best friends, I guess.”
“Oh…” She gave me an odd look. “That sucks.”
“Thanks,” I said, not really feeling it.
“There was something else,” Flechette said, clearing her throat. Her tone shifted, less… terse, for lack of a better word, as she continued. “I saw a cape, I think she was a rogue? I’d look her up but the system still thinks I’m in Queens, so my login is useless…”
“What’d she look like?”
“Had a costume like an old doll, stuffed animals…?”
“Oh, that’s Parian. I thought she would have gotten out of here when the Nine came, huh.” I shook my head. Only an idiot would willingly stay in a city with the Slaughterhouse Nine. “She does a lot of mascots, reading for the kids, that sort of thing. Why?”
“Spoke to her on patrol after Shadow Stalker fu—after we split up. Just curious is all.”
“Find anything out?”
“She said the Empire was harassing her. That’s the Nazis, right?”
“Yup. Welcome to Brockton.”
“Wild that you guys have actual Nazis just strolling around.”
“Yup.” My voice was a little more terse than intended there. Mention you’re from Brockton and inevitably you’d have to explain why decades of institutional racism in the police force led to minorities being dragged out of their homes and impaled by a giant metal werewolf.
There was a reason Carlos and Sophia always got other Wards to do the talking-to-cops part of the job.
“She’s handling them though?” I asked, breaking an awkward silence I hadn’t realized had settled.
“As best she can, but she said she’s worried. She said she’s got people she’s looking after, but…”
“But she’s one cape in a ruined city filled with neonazis and serial killers, yeah.”
“Yeah,” Flechette repeated.
Normally, I would have suggested joining the Protectorate as a solution, but right now we had to deal with Nazis and the Nine, and from what Flechette had said, it seemed she hadn’t had to deal with the latter just yet.
“Lily, by the way,” Flechette said, offering a hand. It took me a second to realize what was going on and return the handshake.
“Dennis.” For now, anyway.
“I was going to make fried rice, you want any?”
I wasn’t hungry. But I’d been living off energy bars and cafeteria slop for weeks, and… I glanced down at my phone. And it’d be nice to distract myself for at least a few minutes.
“Sure,” I finally said, tossing the phone on my bed and heading out.