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Timesnatch

Chapter Text

Have you ever got the feeling like you’re missing something big, but you can’t figure out what it is? That little seed of a thought in the back of your mind, that speck of uncertainty you can’t shake?

“Clockblocker!” I said proudly, grinning behind my mask. The gasps from the press conference’s audience and the curse in my comms was all I’d needed to know that I’d made the right decision.

It was something I’d gotten used to. I think we all have those things, the little aches or thoughts that just become normal until you notice them. And then, when you do, it’s like having to think about breathing, or blinking, or that itch above your eyebrow you can’t scratch because you’re in costume.

Empty. I should’ve been on patrol, but I’d given my shift away. Instead, I was staring up at the ceiling, feeling nothing. I couldn’t wait for the day to end. And with my power, I didn’t have to. I could cheat, skip ahead minutes at a time, the shadows in the room jumping millimeters in the blink of an eye. Until I came back to red emergency lighting and the wail of sirens nearby.

But even if you get used to it, it’s still there, waiting. The errant thoughts you keep forced down lie in wait, building in strength. Biding their time, waiting until you were your weakest…

“I’m sorry.” The last words through the earpiece before I froze it, tearing my head away and leaving it floating. Everything I’d done to buy him time, every medical check-up I’d driven him to when Mom had to work a double, even my trigger event… all for nothing. Leviathan had made sure of that.

We move on, we have to. Invent coping mechanisms. Find excuses to continue. Justifications. Even when you want to give up, you can’t. If not for yourself, then for your team.

The rain falling from the sky was a macabre reminder of the reason the marble obelisk overlooked the city. Nobody else here, this late at night my only company was the streetlights illuminating the overlook. I was soaked, shivering as the wind blew, but it didn’t matter. If I’d done better, if I’d tried harder, maybe there would have been fewer names to carve. I wanted to cry, to tell them I was sorry, but the tears didn’t come.

But eventually, everyone finds that breaking point.

 


 

I’d helped out with search and rescue before. Pulling bodies out of wreckage, tagging debris to make it temporarily safe for rescuers, reassuring the survivors that everything would be okay. It was a job, just like everything else, and you got used to it. Used to the sight of bloated bodies, used to the smell of floodwaters reeking, used to the sobs of despair when you had to tell someone their family was dead.

Maybe that was why I’d shut down, when I’d gone home. There’d been so much going on, and I’d been avoiding it. I knew what had happened, of course, Armsmaster had pulled me aside, but I’d been putting off going home for too long.

The house was in tatters, floodwaters still lapping around the porch. Half of it had collapsed, the windows were shattered, search and rescue spraypainted glyphs covering the door. An X in orange spraypaint, a date at the top, and “1D” in the bottom. A red V next to it, with a slash sprayed across.

The floorboard by the front door no longer creaked. Probably the water-swollen wood expanding to remove the wiggle room, if I had to guess. I was a superhero, not an engineer. My boots—once white but now stained with brown by mud—made the broken glass crunch as I wandered down the hallways. My hands grabbed at my helmet, pulling it off. I probably should’ve worried about my civilian identity being compromised, but it wasn’t like there was anyone around, not in this neighborhood. Besides, what could they take that Leviathan hadn’t?

Wandering through the wreckage felt surreal, like walking through an alternate reality. I’d grown up here, but now it remained in an uncanny valley state. The doorway to the kitchen remained intact, the little nicks in the edge still visible. Dennis, age 3. Dennis, age 4. Dennis, age 5. It stopped at eleven, above that was only the ragged line of dirt and filth showing the high water mark.

I had to use my power to climb to the second floor, to make sure the stairs didn’t finish collapsing. Sunshine streamed own on the carpet, the hurricane-force winds having stripped the roof away. Water damage everywhere. My room was in tatters. Someone had been through, stealing the blanket off my bed, some of the clothes out of the closet. They probably needed them more than me right now, anyway.

My TV was in tatters, but… huh. I knelt down, pushing away accumulated trash and debris. My Dreamcast had survived, somehow. It probably didn’t work, what with all the damage, but… if it did, it would be nice to have something. I pulled it out, brushed the worst of the gunk off, grabbed all the cables and cartridges, and tossed it all in the green canvas sack I’d brought to grab what I could.

Ten minutes later, I’d finished digging through debris, and it was still the only thing in the bag. Part of me had wanted to take one of the few remaining family photos, something to remember my parents by, but every one I picked up, I’d set down at the last minute.

The discomfort never went away, so I turned my back on it and went back to HQ.

 


 

I had the day off, mandated by the Youth Guard, so I wandered up to the Tinker Labs. I wasn’t one, of course, but I’d held the flashlight for Armsmaster and Kid Win long enough that I knew where everything was in the cluttered-yet-clean mess of a room. It took two hours of disassembly, cleaning, and resoldering, but finally, I got the console working again. With a fevered rush, I ran down to the common room, cables and controllers streaming behind me, and plugged it into the TV. Success! Even my saved games had made it.

Part of me, however, wasn’t there. I felt my smile falter, still feeling that itch, the need to do something about it. It was the first time I’d been happy in days, but even then, there was the bittersweet tinge. The undercurrents.

I was introspective enough to know that I probably needed to talk to someone. With how hectic things had been, though, I’d been putting off the appointments with a shrink. They’d always bugged me, and the neverending patrols around the city provided a good excuse to avoid them.

Fuck, I hadn’t even told my team. Of course, that was for good reason. We’d all lost, I didn’t need to pile on to that. But maybe a bit of normalcy would help.

I found myself walking down the hall, to Chris’s room. We hadn’t talked as much lately, but I could tell he wasn’t faring well either. I knocked on his door. “Yo, Chris,” I said, raising my voice to be heard through the wood. “You remember that racing game you played at my house? The off-road one.” Rally Slayers 18, Platinum Edition, to be specific. “Well, I’ve got it hooked up to the TV in the common room, and I’m looking for volunteers to get their butts kicked, since I am, as we all know, the king of drifting.”

He didn’t answer at first. Part of me worried that he hadn’t picked up the sarcasm there at the end. Finally, though, I heard his voice, quiet through the door. “Sorry, Dennis… I’m not really in the mood.”

Come on, Chris. Please. “You sure man? You loved this one. It’s got the super cool realistic crashing and the one chick you thought was—”

“I’m just not up for it right now.”

 ...Okay. I swallowed the knot in my throat. “Hey, suit yourself, man. Just thought I should let you know. We haven’t gamed in, like, basically forever.”

“Didn’t you want to beat the campaign so you could get that last car?” He sounded irritated. Angry, even?

Had I pushed to hard? Fuck… I just… “Yeah… I guess I’ll give that a shot… see you later man.”

Chris was probably the only person I could be myself around, or at least attempt to. And I’d pushed too hard, fucked it up… and now this.

I hung my head and walked away.

 

Chapter Text

Have you ever had to tell a man his only child is dead? The only person left in his life, the only reason he kept going, gone in an instant. Two days after I’d told him his daughter—a supervillain—died a hero, Danny Hebert shot himself.

One more corpse to go with the rest.

It stuck with me, that one. It would’ve been as easy to justify it the same way as all the others, Leviathan did this , but for some reason it didn’t sit right with me. Surely, I could have said something different, broke the news better somehow. But I hadn’t, and now the blood was on my hands.

The sad thing was, that wasn’t even the most troubling thing on my mind.

“Three new Wards?” I asked.

“That’s correct, in—” Armsmaster replied, but I cut him off.

“You traded Kid Win for three random strangers?”

“Clockblocker, that’s not—”

“You don’t think we’ve lost enough?” I shouted angrily. “Dean and Carlos weren’t enough? Who’s next, are you going to send Missy to Alaska?”

Armsmaster stared up at me, his face blank. “No,” he said flatly. “Dennis. I’m sorry. This is just the way the reorganization went.”

“That’s horseshit.” I looked away, closing my eyes.

“Chris requested the transfer. Insisted I sign off.”

Oh. Fuck. We hadn’t talked since then, he’d been distant. I thought maybe it had just been me overthinking things, when he’d avoid being in the same room as me, but… but this? He was leaving, because I pushed too far.

Armsmaster was still talking, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was running out of his office, tagging the door behind me so he couldn’t follow without going through a wall.

I found myself in my room, staring up at the ceiling. My best friend, the one person in my life I didn’t have to think about what to say… hated me now?

A few hours later, I was on the roof, giving a halfhearted wave to him as he boarded the helicopter. “Keep the city safe,” he’d said to Vista and I before leaving. I’d mumbled something, I couldn’t remember.

And then he was gone, and in his place three strangers introducing themselves. Weld, Necator, Flechette. Vista introduced herself, I said “Clockblocker” and got a raised metal eyebrow from Weld. They went off to unpack, Vista went off with Stalker on patrol, I was stuck here. On-call, in case something happened. In reality, it was almost always a day stuck in an uncomfortable costume, sitting in the common room. Things were a bit different lately, with the PHQ gone, we were housing the Protectorate wherever we could. Eventually it would get sorted out, but for now, I was stuck weaving between flight cases and jumping inch-thick bundles of cables.

Everyone else had dinner in the PRT mess. I didn’t bother, just sitting up and staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to go off…

“Hey,” someone said. I glanced over to see Weld, sitting down across from me. “This seat taken?”

I shook my head. “Not hungry?”

“No need,” he quipped.

Oof. Right. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said with a smile. “I just wanted to meet everybody one-on-one.”

“You’re replacing Aegis.” My voice was flat.

“I wouldn’t word it that way, but yes. The PRT wants me in charge of the Wards here.” He paused, like I was supposed to say something to that. I remained silent, so he continued his voice full of forced optimism, “I only know everyone by their files. I’d like to fix that.”

“Okay,” I said after a pause. “What do you want to know?”

He shrugged. “Tell me about yourself, about what the files don’t say?”

I sighed. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Look man, I’m just trying to get settled. You guys have been through a lot, and—”

I didn’t need the speech. “Dennis Cooper, a.k.a. Clockblocker. Age 17. Striker 7 with time manipulation. Do we really need the icebreaker shit?”

Weld was quiet for a second. “Okay, sure. Why have you rescheduled or missed every therapy meeting for the last six months?”

“I don’t need a shrink,” I said angrily.

“The—”

“Did I stutter? Have you looked outside? This city’s a mess, and Leviathan didn’t exactly help. We don’t have time for that bullshit.”

“So that’s why you’re avoiding them, out of a sense of obligation?”

“Sure,” I said flatly. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

“...Alright. I’m not going to make you go, but please reconsider. You’re more than Clockblocker, don’t let being a cape consume that. Remember your friends and family.”

Excuse me? I stood up, my fists balled. A look of alarm appeared on Weld’s stupid metal face. Deep breath. Calm the fuck down. “Your stupid files are outdated,” I muttered angrily.

“Sorry?” he asked, confused. Then a look of realization dawned. “Oh… I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” I forced myself to say. “Just drop the shit, okay? And don’t fucking tell anyone on the team.”

“You haven’t told them?”

“No. We all lost people. I don’t need them worrying about me. The PRT’s having me emancipated. It’s fine.” He didn’t look very reassured. “Don’t fuck up your new guy pass with me, Weld.”

“They’ll find out eventually, you know that, right? I won’t tell them, but they’ll figure it out. Tell them before then, when you’re ready.”

“When I’m ready,” I agreed. So never. “We done?”

“Yeah, we’re—” I didn’t wait for him to finish, standing up and walking away. I made it all the way to my room before punching a hole in the sheetrock.

 


 

One missed call.

I dismissed the notification, for what felt like the millionth time. Dropped the phone on my tummy. Back to staring at the ceiling. It beeped again, thirty seconds later.

Message from Aunt Laura: call me

Another minute passed.

Message from Aunt Laura: dennis, please call. uncle rick and i are worried.

I turned the phone off. And then threw it at the wall. It made a nice thwack sound. Little things like that kept me going.

My dad’s brother,  his wife, and their two kids. They lived on the west coast, I couldn’t remember where. Washington? Anyway, we’d never really had the money to visit. Mom had been an only child, her parents died in New York. So really, they were the last living family I had left.

The problem, besides kicking the can down the road as far as talking to them went, was that they didn’t know I was a cape. Aunt Laura was PRT, but thanks to security clearances I didn’t have to worry there. Honestly? I didn’t want them to know, and talking meant they’d find out, somehow.

There was a knock at the door. “Clock!” Missy’s voice. I ignored her, hoping she’d wander away… “I know you’re in there.”

Fuck . “Not up for a chat right now,” I shouted back.

Instead of responding, the door warped, the gap at the base widening to become a three-foot-high opening, that Vista ducked under. “C’mon, get up!”

“What do you want?” I asked, returning my gaze to the ceiling.

“We’re going on a patrol. Let’s go… Dennis, what’d you do to your phone?”

“I threw it at the wall.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want to answer it.”

“That’s not a reason.”

“Yes it is.”

There was the sound of a foot stomping. “Well get in costume, we’re going. You need to get outdoors, this room smells super gross.”

“I’ll meet you outside?”

“Five minutes,” she ordered, actually opening the door this time to walk out.

Maybe she was right. A patrol, just like we’d been doing. A chance to actually do some much-needed good, Youth Guard be damned. I rolled off the bed, landing back-first on the carpet with a thunk . At the very least, I could get my mind off things.

As I dug around for my cleanest set of boots, I thought that fateful, clichéd line. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Text

We waded through the street, as unhappy as everyone else. The water was knee-high on Vista, and barely better for myself. It was hot, muggy, and reeked of sewage and rot, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the silence.

This had once been a good part of town. Well, relatively speaking, anyway. But now it was eerily quiet, only the sounds of our wading, and distant gunfire from time to time. The few people we saw were still, silent, waiting for us to walk past.

“So what’s wrong?” Vista asked, out of the blue. “You’ve been mopey, mopier than usual.”

“Huh?” I blurted out. She repeated herself, verbatim, stopping in the center of the lake formerly known as MLK Boulevard, hands on hips. I sighed. “It’s… nothing. I’m fine.” I gave her a smile that she couldn’t see, and I couldn’t feel.

“You’re lying.”

I shrugged, not sure how to respond to that, so I just started walking again. After a few seconds, there was the sound of splashing footsteps behind me as Vista caught up. “Clock. C’mon, man.”

“Maybe I don’t want to talk about it right now,” I said, not sure what else to do to get her off my case.

If nothing else, it shut her up for a bit, and we continued wading down the street. A few minute’s quiet, until… “I miss Kid Win.”

“Yeah… Same.”

“...” There was a muffled, angry huff . “Is your family doing okay? Still in the—”

“They’re fine,” I said flaty. “Look. Vista. Thank you, really, but I don’t really want to talk right now.”

“Sorry.” Her voice was sullen. Another few minutes of silence, interrupted only by someone on a rooftop shouting at us to ask when the power was coming back.

My earpiece cracked. It was Weld. “Clock, Vista, we have a situation here.”

“Go ahead,” I replied, a second sooner than Vista tried to reply as well. She glowered at me, like it was my fault I hadn’t known she’d wanted to do the talking.

“PRT squad seven has been stationed at… 5th and Rose. Tattletale just surrendered.”

“She what? ” I asked, incredulous. What the fuck? Were the Undersiders that desperate that… “It’s a trap. It has to be, let them know.”

“They’re aware, that’s why I want you and Vista over there ASAP. They said she’s injured. Still waiting on details.”

“...Copy that,” I said after a pause. The street ahead of us was already warping as Vista worked her magic, the sickening lurch of the terrain compacting still unsettling me after all these years. We ran, as fast as we could in the lake, each step covering a hundred feet. It was a bit bittersweet that she could do so much, I realized, given how her power worked around people.

Five minutes or so later, we came to a stop around the corner from where the PRT had been stationed. It was a bit of a commercial district, the type of place where every building shared a wall with its neighbor, except now half the shop windows were smashed and all the entrances were decorated with the now-ubiquitous search and rescue graffitti.

“Eyes out for the rest of the Undersiders,” I warned Vista, scanning the rooftops. Here, the ground was a little higher, and instead of a lake, we only had to contend with an inch or so of water along with the now-typical buckled ground and debris everywhere. We took our time, not wanting to walk into anything. I didn’t hear any fighting, which was a plus. Conversely, it was… quiet, too quiet. I was probably overthinking it.

We turned the corner, and I saw the PRT, and I realized it was too good to be true.

“Vista, get backup now!” I shouted, running forward. Blood everywhere. The members of squad seven had been torn apart . Bodies on the ground, one of their vans was on its side, a stream of fresh containment foam next to a dead trooper holding the launcher.

What the fuck.

My eyes went to our surroundings. Nobody on the rooftops, nobody in the windows, nobody in the street except myself and Vista and bodies and—

There was a groan. Someone alive! I spun around, hearing it again, mud-caked boots splashing through warm crimson-tinged water. The other van, the one with the rooftop launcher, coming from the far side. I ran around, hand outstretched in case there was something there…

Tattletale, blood running out of her mouth and down her chest, her fingers missing. Railroad spikes pinning her hands to the van. Her eyes widened when she saw me, she gargled something.

“Vista!” I shouted. “Over here!” Any thoughts of it being the Undersiders trying something faded, they wouldn’t do this to one of their own. The Nazis? Unlikely, even for them. Merchants? ...something worse? No, not here. Not in Brockton.

“Nobody’s replying,” Vista said, coming around the corner. “I even tried the—oh god.”

“We’ve got to get her down. Grab her, I’ll pull the… I’ll get her loose.” Vista grabbed the supervillain, taking the weight off her, I grabbed a spike and pulled and she screamed but it was gone. I tried not to think too much as I yanked the other one out of the sheet metal body of the van.

“Vista, keep trying to get through,” I said, grabbing Tattletale from her and letting her down to the ground. The villain tried to say something, but I couldn’t decipher the gargling. Then she jabbed a finger-stump into my chest, writing in… in blood on my armor. A number.

“Fifty-nine?” I asked, looking at her. She rolled her eyes (really?) and jabbed her finger again, going over the numeral five again, smoother, making it an…

S9.

Something worse.

“Vista.”

“They’re not answer—” I cut her off by grabbing her wrist, looking up at her.

“We need to get out of here, now.”

“Okay,” she replied, maybe sensing something in my voice, whatever it was I was glad she fucking listened for once.

I grabbed Tattletale and pulled her off the ground with something kind of like a fireman’s carry. She was a villain, but this was the Nine. We needed all the help we could get.

Reality started to warp in front of us, Vista aiming for the PRTHQ based on the direction. I followed after her, Tattletale making a gargling sound and—

Something grabbed my free hand. I glanced down. A white, inhuman hand, connected via a chain… Mannequin. The hand started to clench, and without even thinking I instinctively pulsed my power.

He froze, the Clockblocking traveling up the chain, my eyes going up to a frozen, segmented figure on the roof above us. He was stuck, but with the hand around my wrist so was I.

“Clock, let’s—oh.” Vista glanced at the hand, looked up at me. Her voice was shaky. “Clock…”

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Ever since I’d gotten my power, the scenario had been in my mind. Stuck, having to make a hard choice. Mannequin was there, it wasn’t a hard choice.

“There’s a knife on my belt,” I said, feeling hollow.

“De—Clock, I’m not sure I can—”

“Vista!” I shouted at her. “Please. Before he unfreezes. Just… can you use your power to make it extra-sharp or something?” I was pretty sure that wasn’t how her power worked, from what I knew, but hey, no harm in asking.

“...I’ll try.” She said as she grabbed the knife, more than a little of her humoring you voice in her tone. The blade was standard PRT issue, with the grip-bit redone in white at Image’s insistence. I’d seldom used it. I had to balance Tattletale on my shoulders as best I could so I could free my other hand up to pull at the armor panels on my wrist, exposing the tight-fitting layer underneath and then skin.

The villain gargled at me again, poking at one of her belt pouches. A grabbed at it… a gun. Tattletale gargled a single syllable I couldn’t understand. I handed it to Vista. Maybe she could shoot through the bone or some shit. Fuck, I didn’t want to think about that. I just wished I knew how long we had… “If he comes back, just go. Don’t wait, get out, let the team know.”

“I’m not leaving you behind.”

“Vista! I’m not fucking around, if—”

“Look away.” She grabbed my forearm, interrupting me. I looked away. I could feel the knife, resting right above where Mannequin’s hand was.

The first swipe stopped dead as it hit bone, making me flinch. I felt wetness a second before I felt the sting. It was bad, but not as bad as I was—

Vista started cutting again, and I was screaming and my eyes were squeezed shut and Tattletale was pressing my free hand against my chest to stop me from grabbing my wrist and jesus christ it fucking hurt and she was sawing at flesh, peeling bits of me off to expose bone.

I’d had people fire guns near me before, part of the job. It wasn’t the bang that made my ears ring, it wasn’t the sound of bone splintering, it was the feel of force echoing up my arm that hurt the worst, like someone was hammering inch-thick needles into my skeleton.

A second bang, more bone-splintering agony, and I was on the ground, looking up. Vista was saying something but I didn’t hear her. For a moment I forgot Mannequin was there, so focused was I on the hand I could still feel for some reason.

And then Tattletale slapped me—well, my helmet—and brought me back to reality. I looked over at my… where my hand had been. Vista had used some of my Clockblocking cord to tie a tourniquet, but it was still leaking a lot of red.

She helped me to my feet, helped me grab Tattletale and sling her over my shoulders, and I started stumbling forward,

Out of the corner of my vision I could see the street compressing, but I was focused on keeping my eyes down, wading through the deep-again water, looking for debris that might trip me up. Carrying Tattletale, and with the throbbing agony in my wrist, falling was a bad idea. Even after just a moment of stumbling, I felt tired. Blood loss. Maybe shock? I wished I remembered what they said shock was supposed to feel like.

I put that out of mind, it wasn’t important right now. I had to make it back, get us all back, warn the PRT. My hand didn’t matter, not when the Nine were around. There was crackling in my ears from the comms though, compared to the nothingness before. I heard bits and pieces of Weld’s voice, but with Vista more concentrated on getting us home rather than fixing her power’s tendency to fuck with comms, he sounded like a fax machine. I would have tried to say something back, but the controls to navigate my helmet’s basic HUD and comms system were down the road inside my gauntlet.

I barely noticed when Vista grabbed my side, holding me up, helping push me forward. I’d slowed down, wavering, my head spinning and the pain almost unbearable. Tattletale hadn’t gargled at us for a bit, or I hadn’t noticed it. Either unconscious or dead, she didn’t seem the type to willingly shut up for that long. It felt like I was about to join her.

“Dennis, come on,” Vista said, pushing me faster. “We’re almost there.”

She used my name in front of the villain. Great. I opened my mouth to say something but it felt like too much effort.

It didn’t matter. We were close, now, reality becoming less and less compressed as we neared the PRTHQ and the staff within, Vista’s power becoming less effective. I just had to keep stumbling, keep focused, ten more steps… twenty more steps… thirty steps, and it stopped entirely, and we were stumbling up the stairs, Vista pushing me, shouting for help, screaming with a tone I hadn’t heard since Leviathan.

We pushed through the doors, trailing red. PRT running towards us, more shouting. Safety. I was too busy trying to make dropping Tattletale a bit less like dropping her. A guard grabbed her from me, but I froze her in their hands to buy time for the medics.

Someone grabbed me, and I was in no condition to resist. In fact, I wasn’t in a condition to do anything. The medics would be on the way, but I wasn’t sure I’d be conscious for much longer.

Vista could be the one to break the news.

I froze myself.

Chapter Text

I unfroze, coming back to more shouting than before.

Medics were there, waiting to grab me, let me down onto a gurney, dragging me away. I didn’t resist, but… there was something off, cuts and gashes on their faces. The smell of stagnant water hit me, except I was still indoors, in the PRTHQ.

I lifted my head as they were wheeling me out of the lobby. The glass front of the building was gone. Glass everywhere was gone. The Slaughterhouse Nine had announced their arrival.

Hopefully everyone had taken shelter soon enough.

They wheeled me through hallways, my view solely of formerly-lit fluorescent panels lining the ceiling, the only light coming from red-tinted emergency lighting and bloodied interns running around with headlamps and chemical glowsticks.

The adrenaline had been wearing off, leaving me tired, making it even harder to concentrate. Behind my helmet, behind what was probably one of the few remaining intact pieces of electronics in the city, I let my eyes close. The jostling was a distraction, the stretcher tilting sideways as they carried me up a flight of stairs…

A needle poked into my good arm, and my eyes opened.

I was in the hospital, well, the glorified infirmary in the PRT complex. Dim lighting, the crunch of broken glass as people went about their business, a notable absence of beeping machines.

At some point they’d taken off my helmet, and the upper half of my costume had been peeled away, but that was it. Based on the number of people I could see moving beyond the open curtains, they had bigger fish to fry.

“Clock!” Vista’s voice right next to me made me jump. She had been sitting next to me on the floor, but was now pulling herself up, concern clear on her face.

“Hi,” I groaned. “Did you tell them?”

“Yeah, they know. Are you…?”

I looked over myself. Where my left hand had been, there was a fuckload of bandages and shit, and some IV tubes were in my other arm. Okay.

“How long was I—” I was interrupted by a woman angrily shouting from outside. “... was I asleep?”

“About an hour.” Fuck. The Slaughterhouse Nine had been running rampant for an hour already? There was a pressure on my chest, and I noticed Vista was pressing down on me. “Clock, no. Don’t get up.”

“My power, I need to—”

“You need to rest. Panacea is here, she can fix you up but you’re still going to be tired and need rest. You lost a lot of blood.”

I looked her over. She was still in costume, splattered with red that I suspected was a lot more mine than Tattletale’s. Something in her gaze I couldn’t describe. Worry, concern maybe? No.

“I’m sorry,” I said hesitantly. “I shouldn’t have tagged him. I panicked.”

“Shut up,” she replied, looking away. “Just… don’t.” She leaned over to give my chest a hug.

“I’ll try,” I wheezed, patting her back with my… stump. “Did Shatterbird… how bad is it?”

She stepped back, grimacing. “We’re still finding out. The city’s… not good, from what we can tell. We got here soon enough to warn people, they were able to get people away and seal the vault, so… just cuts and scrapes mostly.”

I nodded, feeling a little relieved. A storm of white and red robes stomped past the curtain angily, followed by a pair of guards. Panacea.

“She seems upset,” I quipped, mostly to change the topic off of mass casualties.

“They were going to ask her to heal Tattletale.”

I thought back to the aftermath of the bank robbery, when Carlos and I had switched costumes. Panacea had been there, the only one to really interact with Tattletale. Suffice it to say, I got the impression they weren’t exactly BFFs.

“Yikes,” I said.

“Yeah.”

I glanced down at my former hand. “You think she’ll, uh, come back?”

“Hopefully.”

Anything I would have replied with was interrupted by a PRT guard poking her head around the curtain. “Masks?”

I glanced around awkwardly, until I spotted my helmet hanging off a hospital monitor with a hole where the screen used to be. I one-handedly pulled it on, wincing a bit as I considered how fucking dumb I looked, half out of my costume, shirtless, wearing a fucking helmet.

The guard nodded, disappeared, and a second later Tattletale appeared, rolling in on a wheelchair. Her hands were fixed and no trace of blood was on her skin, although her costume was still more red than black or purple. She rolled up to the foot of the bed, smirking. “Ladies.”

“Oh grow up,” Vista muttered before speaking up. “Shouldn’t you be downstairs? You know, where we put villains?”

“Talking back in my household? Go sit in the corner,” Tattletale replied without missing a beat. Before Vista could reply with more than the sound of a stepped-on cat, she pivoted to me. She was about to say something, but then her mouth closed.

What the fuck was she going to say? I found myself wondering. Whatever. Not important right now. “Tattletale, I assume you’re playing nice, given…?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes dear, this isn’t some dastardly plot.” The guard had stepped back, to allow us some small measure of privacy. “One-time-only, and I’ll deny it ever happened if you talk about it… but thank you, both of you.”

Tattletale thanking us? Something was definitely going on.

“The patrol said you were surrendering,” Vista said, crossing her arms. “And then we show up, they’re all dead, and Mannequin is there?” The accusation in her voice was obvious.

“I tried to warn them, but by the time they listened it was too late and the Nine had a jammer up. Didn’t want their entrance spoiled.”

“How—” I started to speak, but she cut me off.

“Slaughterhouse Eight doesn’t ring as well. They’re recruiting. Well, ‘recruiting’, you know how it goes.”

“They wanted you,” I said flatly.

She shook her head. “The other two. Bitch and Regent.” Right. In the weeks that had followed Leviathan, the Undersiders had drawn back, with two of their heavy hitters dead they didn’t have any of the clout they’d rapidly gained.

“They’re…” Vista didn’t want to finish her sentence.

“Don’t know, didn’t stick around to find out,” Tattletale said, a hint of something kinda like sarcasm in her voice. “They sent the tin man to take care of me, I ran to the PRT. Figured even with my completely unfounded reputation as a criminal, it beat being vivisected or left as Bonesaw’s… plaything.”

I leaned my head back, closed my eyes. I was too tired for this shit. At least whatever they’d been putting in me had dulled the pain to a throb instead of a stabbing anger.

Tattletale, like Vista, apparently couldn’t handle ten seconds of silence, because she kept talking. “Why aren’t you telling them?”

She was talking to me. Oh. Fuck off, asshole. I opened my eyes, gestured for her to come closer.

“You’re just going to hit me.”

Dammit.

Vista piped up, “Not telling what?”

I could feel the satisfaction radiating off the villain. “Not telling his team that his p—”

“Tattletale, shut the fuck up,” I cut her off.

“They’re your team , Clockblocker.”

“Clock, what’s going on?”

Jesus fucking christ. “Vista, don’t encourage her. Tattletale, mind your own business.”

Clock ,” Vista was looming over me now, concerned. “What’s going on.”

I looked at Tattletale. The self-righteous bitch looked like she’d just saved a dozen puppies from a house fire. “Are you happy?” I said.

“Why are you even hiding it? You’re not protecting them.”

“We should’ve left you there,” I muttered. I didn’t actually mean it, though. Right? Whatever. Get out of my head, asshole.

“How about we make a game out of it,” Tattletale said with a grin. “You tell your team the truth, and I’ll tell you a fun fact about yourself!”

“Guard!” I shouted, hoping they’d save me from… this. The armored woman poked her head in. “Hi, can you please get rid of her?”

She nodded, wheeled the villain out to go rot in an oubliette for all I cared, leaving Vista and I alone. I took my helmet off, set it next to me in bed in case the PRT decided to wheel in Hookwolf next or some shit.

“Dennis,” Vista said, still standing next to my bed. “We’re your team, you know that right?”

I ignored the rhetorical question. “What do you think her fun fact was?”

“I don’t know, but—”

“I mean—”

There was a sound, and then my ear was ringing and warm. Vista had… she’d fucking slapped me? “Dennis, stop being like this, please!”

“Say my name louder so everyone can hear it why don’t you,” I said angrily, half-considering getting out and walking away. Even if it would be more of a crawl.

“Dennis,” she repeated in a whisper. “You’re like my big brother, I don’t want to see you—”

Fine. If she wasn’t going to fucking drop it. Fine. Okay. Fuck you, Tattletale. Should’ve left her to get fucking Bonesawed. Maybe they’d keep her around to combine with her BFF Panacea. That way she could fuck with people’s minds and bodies.

Okay, maybe that was a bit much. But still, fuck you.

“My family’s gone,” I said simply, trying to keep the anger out. “Leviathan. Dad was in the hospital, Mom had the house fall in on her.”

“...Oh. Jesus, I’m—”

“Please go away, Missy.”

“Den—” I activated my power. In a blink she’d teleported to sitting at the foot of the bed, eyes wet.

I activated it again. She was still there.

Again. Nope.

Again. Go away.

Again. There. She was finally gone.

I’d told her, just what Tattletale had wanted. Told the team what I’d been keeping from them. It felt like a bit of a letdown, like I’d been hoping for a weight off my chest. Looking for closure? I wasn’t sure.

I didn’t skip ahead anymore. I wanted to feel something, anything. They were dead, I’d almost joined them, I was sitting in an infirmary missing a hand and half my blood… why did I feel so empty?

For the millionth time, I wished I could cry. Like the tears would come, wash away grief I knew was buried under despair. Was it something wrong with me? Was I just some fucking sociopath that couldn’t feel emotions? Maybe that was why I hadn’t wanted to see a shrink, fear they’d see how fucked-up I was and pull me off active duty, pull me off the team and all I had left.

Panacea came in at some point. I kept my eyes closed, pretended to be asleep, even if it was only effective until I felt her soft hand on my arm.

“You’re awake,” she said.

I didn’t open my eyes. Just made a grunt.

“Clockblocker, I can’t help you unless you—”

“Jesus Christ Panacea, what.” I opened my eyes. Her hood was down, eyes filled with concern.

“I heard. You—”

“Unless you can fuck with my head and make me normal, drop it.”

She blinked in surprise. “Okay. Sorry. Can I fix your hand?”

“Go for it.”

“It’s a lot of biomass, should I…”  she trailed off. We’d been through the drill before.

“There’s an expired tube of ground beef in the back of the breakroom fridge,” I said with a snort. “Just take from whatever.”

She nodded, and set to work. I’d never had an injury this bad, and it was certainly weird, feeling my muscles atrophy slightly as she repurposed bits of Dennis to make into a hand. Too bad she couldn’t replace my missing costume bits while she was—

“Oh, one thing.” The healing paused, and she looked at me. “Could you make my hands a little smaller?”

“Uh.”

“I lost a gauntlet with the hand, and my old ones are a bit small,” I said with a shrug. “It sounds like it’ll be awhile before I get new ones.”

“Sure,” she said with a shrug, and I felt my leftover hand start to shrink down oh-so-slightly. I busied myself looking around. Ceiling tiles, IV bag, helmet. I sighed.

“I’m surprised Image wouldn’t give you properly-sized spares,” she said. Smalltalk. Whatever, sure.

“I didn’t want to bother them.” I mean, they had kinda fit still, just a bit tightly. I glanced over Panaceas robes. Admittedly I was a bit jealous. Compared to form-fitting armor over a skintight bodysuit, I wouldn’t have minded loose robes. That’d be weird, though. What was I supposed to be, some sort of time warlock?

Maybe if I didn’t get turned into Clockblocker-flavored jerky by the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d ask Image about it. Could just keep armor underneath, or something. They were probably really warm in the winter, too.

Whatever.

It took ten or so more minutes to regrow my hand, she gave me warnings to take it easy until my body got more blood back (yeah, sure, definitely a time for relaxing and taking a few days off). We said our goodbyes, she wandered off to fix more PRT troopers and interns, and I bullied someone into helping me down the stairs to my quarters. No sense in hogging an infirmary bed when I was fixed, right?

I didn’t bother with taking off any of my armor besides my helmet. My face hit the pillow, and finally I let myself fall asleep.

Chapter Text

It’s always an odd feeling, waking up after Panacea got her hands on you. I guess human nature had ingrained this… expectation of sorts, that after getting your ass kicked, you’d feel it the next morning. Instead, it was just a burning, starving hunger, and an empty feeling throughout my body.

Well, an emptier-than-normal feeling, at least.

I was still wearing the blood-covered armor I’d hastily tossed back on after she’d healed me. The blood had dried and started flaking away, leaving the bedspread covered in little flecks. I sat in the darkness there for a minute or three. Everything around me felt bare and foreign, with a heavy helping of claustrophobia. One of the many reasons I’d normally stayed in one of the visiting cape suites upstairs, instead of in the Wards HQ. Unfortunately, Leviathan had put an end to that.

Finally, time to get up, and hope today was better than yesterday. Careful of the slightly-ajar door into the main room that gave me just enough light to see by, I pulled off my armor, dropping it to the ground. It took a few minutes to switch into a clean bodysuit and fit my older gauntlets to the newer armor. My hands were… I vaguely remembered asking Panacea to make them smaller, and it was weird. Not just shorter, but slimmer fingers. They didn’t fit my gauntlets quite right, but too small was preferable to too large, at least.

Finally, helmet under an arm, I stepped out. The common room had little electric lanterns everywhere providing light, atop boxes and crates and hanging from ruined fixtures. All of the monitors around the room and on the wall had been blown out, replaced a laptop sitting on a crate, running a tiny version of the PRT’s dispatch system. I had to squint to see clearly. Lots of capes on patrol, more dots than we had members. I guess with the situation we had going on, that made sense.

I put it out of my mind, and instead wandered into the kitchen area, looking around for breakfast. Instead I found Flechette, one of the new arrivals, making what looked like some sort of dirty rice. Fried rice? Brown rice? Rice that had stuff in it besides rice.

She’d looked around when I’d walked in, gave me a nod. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You okay?”

I shrugged.

“Rice?”

I shook my head, and dug through a cabinet for a handful of energy bars. “No time. Thanks though.”

“Boss wanted to see you, if you’re up for it.”

“Piggot?”

“Weld.”

“Oh.”

Maybe my disappointment was too obvious. “Yeah, sorry…”

“Alright,” I sighed. “See ya.”

“Bye…” She gave me a smile before turning back to the stove.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a conversation so refreshingly short and succinct. Leaving her to her weird rice, I stuffed an energy bar into my face, tossing the wrapper on top of the precarious trash mountain the bin had become. Two more energy bars as I walked out of the headquarters and up the stairs. The rest went into armor compartments for later.

“Clock to Weld, you needed me?” I radioed as soon as I had my helmet pulled on. The stairs were busy, surprisingly so. Or rather, maybe it wasn’t that surprising, given the elevators were probably fried and the building was on generator power.

“On the roof,” was his curt reply. Whatever, dude. I finished trudging up and out onto the rooftop. It took me a few seconds to adjust to the light.

It was a bright, sunshine-filled day, and out there somewhere were the Slaughterhouse Nine. Weld was standing by the little smoker’s bench, where Tattletale of all people was lounging. They were both looking at me as I stepped over. I couldn’t help but notice her costume was surprisingly blood-free, the only sign that remained were the holes in her gloves. There was a sturdy-looking tracking bracelet on her ankle.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Clockblocker, are you feeling better?” Weld said, looking me over. I couldn’t help but notice his metallic eyes settling on my armor, and my older, less-bloodstained gauntlets. I put them behind my back, even if it made me look like a chump. Last thing I needed was explaining that situation to him.

“I’m fine. Where do you need me?”

I could barely notice him squint his eyes slightly. “Tattletale here has agreed, given the circumstances, to help us out in exchange for some concessions. You’re in charge of keeping her out of trouble and away from the Nine.”

Hold on. What?

“Weld, with, um, all due respect, I’d rather be fighting them. This is our town and you want me babysitting? Make one of the foamsluts do that shit.”

“The decision was unanimous. You aren’t to—”

“No, fuck that man,” I cut him off. This guy comes in here, invites the Nine along, and then has the steel balls to pull me off the team? Fuck you. “You know my power. I can help, and you’re benching me? What the hell?” For fuck’s sake, I’d frozen Leviathan and he was doing this?

“There is more to it than that, Clock. Things we can’t talk about in front of—”

“What, the Thinker who can practically fucking read minds?” I shouted. “You can’t mess with me like this.”

“Clockblocker, this isn’t an option.” His voice was angry. “Shut up, take the assignment, or you’ll sit downstairs on console for the foreseeable future.”

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Okay. That’s still your assignment.” He looked down at my flatly. Fuck you.

“Fine.” What else was I supposed to say?

“Good. You’ll have details soon enough.”

“Was there anything else?”

Weld shook his head, stepping away.. “That will be all.” He walked past me to the door, leaving me with Tattletale. She wasn’t even trying to hide her smile.

“Fuck you,” I grumbled at her, looking away.

“If you’re going to be guarding me, you should at least try and get along with me,” she replied. “Besides, it beats dying to the Nine, right?”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” With nowhere else to go, I sat by her on the bench. “Man, I just… this is my city, you know? And with my power, I can help. I can fight, and they have me stuck here. It’s…” I couldn’t find the right word for my frustration, so I settled for a classic. “It’s bullshit.”

Tattletale was looking at me, eyes roving up and down my armor like it meant something. “Maybe give them what they want?”

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Oh boy, time for another Tattletale moment.

“Talk to a shrink?”

“Fuck that, I’m fine.”

“We both know that’s not true.”

Do we though? I mean, I’d been through a lot, that was true. Dad’s medical issues, triggering, becoming a cape… that was just the beginning. But we were all broken, we were all fucked-up, why did they get to fight while I got sidelined? I leaned back, my helmet making a cringeworthy scraping noise against the brick. “That doesn’t even matter,” I finally said. “I can fight. They can use me. What matters beyond that?”

“Do you know who the Slaughterhouse Nine picks for recruits?” Tattletale asked. I glanced over at her. “No, really. None of them are stable. They’d probably end up fighting you.”

“Excuse me? I would never join them.”

“Sure you wouldn’t.”

“Fuck you.”

“Oh you don’t want to fuck me.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

She sighed. “Weld doesn’t like you because he sees a prankster with obvious mental health issues dodging therapists like their life depended on it.”

“I’m fine.”

“If you keep telling yourself that maybe it will become true.”

“Tattletale, has anyone ever told you to shut the fuck up?”

“You’re afraid. You already know you’re broken, it just hasn’t hit you yet. If you see a psychologist and they confirm that, now you can’t pretend everyone else is as messed up as you are.”

“We’re capes—”

“We’re all suffering, yadda yadda trigger events” she said in a singsongey voice, cutting me off. “Step one is denial. Justifications, all that bullshit.”

“Why are you even doing this?”

“I’m stuck with you for the foreseeable future, if I’m going to deal with reading your mind I’ll at least make it tolerable.”

I sighed. “Can we at least… not do this?”

“Lame. Fine.”

Five minutes in and I wasn’t sure who I wanted to shoot more, her or me. “How long is this supposed to be?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“Oh, so you don’t know?”

“I didn’t say that,” she said quickly, a bit of irritation in her voice. “I’m not your free answers box.”

“Look, I just want to know how long I have to deal with you, assuming the Slaughterhouse Nine don’t murder us or have Bonesaw fuse us into some horrifying combination of each other.”

“Hey, I’m not too thrilled about being chained to you either.”

I stood, walking around in a little circle because my legs were starting to feel restless. “So you’re a villain, half your team dies to Leviathan, the other half die to the Nine, or join the Nine. Where does that even put you?”

“Please don’t try to Tattletale me,” Tattletale said.

“I mean, jail is the obvious choice. Or you could run solo, but you’d say the wrong thing and get your head crushed. Joining another gang, maybe?”

“Seriously, you’re not good at this.”

“Or maybe it’s your chance to get out.” I grinned. “A Ward, maybe? They wouldn’t keep you in Brockton, of course. If that’s too risky, one of the independent teams. Haven?”

“Are you done?”

“What, you don’t like it when you’re on the receiving end?”

She smirked. “Not when it’s from a moron who’s making my brain cells evaporate.”

I frowned. “That’s kinda mean.”

“Did you mistake me for a nice person?”

“Sorry.” I went back to sitting next to her on the stupid bench. “I’m just… this sucks.”

“Yeah.” she was a bit quiet, I noticed. I got the impression she noticed I noticed, I couldn’t pinpoint why but… yeah. “The answer is that I don’t know.”

“Hmm?”

“What I’m going to do.”

“With what?”

“With all this. I’m a supervillain, in a war zone, surrounded by my enemies. I’m not exactly in my comfort zone. Normally that’s a good thing, but…”

“But not like this?”

“Yeah.”

I shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t know what I’m doing either.”

“It doesn’t, but thanks.” She sighed. “We lost a lot when Leviathan hit.”

“Grue and Skitter?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No you aren’t.”

“Yeah, I am. I know what that’s like. We lost teammates too, in more ways than one.”

“There was… I guess it doesn’t matter now. Skitter was… she reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“Can’t say I feel the same. I was scared of spiders as a kid. Still am.” I shuddered at the memory. Carlos had had a good idea, but we hadn’t known about her.

She was quiet for a moment, looking off the side of the building. There were sirens in the distance, but my PRT comms were quiet. “Maybe you’re right,” Tattletale finally said. Before she could continue, the door opened. Commander Calvert, one of the PRT operations folks. His eyes latched on to us right away. “Ah, there you are.”

“Hi,” I said. “What’s up?”

He held out a small folder to me. Inside, a few pieces of paper. Orders. “Those are for you, Clockblocker. Your formal assignment. I’m glad to hear you’ll be helping us with our guest.” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just nodded. He continued speaking. “If you would like to look those over, I’ll watch over Tattletale.”

I glanced between them. “Uh… sure, I guess?”

“Thank you. I’ll have her meet you… mess in ten? That will be all.”

“Alright.” I shrugged, and headed towards the door, looking at the papers. Tattletale had been opening up to me for some reason, confiding. Why? Some sort of ploy to gain my trust, probably.

Or maybe she was actually opening up. She’d lost her team, after all, and been through a lot worse than losing a hand. It was more than reasonable to want to talk to someone.

Or, more likely, it was a scheme of some sort.

Whatever.

By the time I made it to the mess hall, my eyes had looked over every page I’d been given, and none of it had made it to my brain.

Chapter Text

“This is disgusting,” Tattletale said.

“Yup.” I took another bite. Disgusting, but not in a bad way. Like greasy-ass fast food after a long day.

In the weeks following Leviathan, fresh food had been relatively hard to come by. With the occasional exception, most of the PRT—heroes included—subsided on bulk military rations and granola bars. Today, though, was taco day. Not even Leviathan or Shatterbird could vanquish taco day. They could, however, make it worse.

“Seriously, I’m not a picky eater, but this?”

“If you’re not going to…” I reached out a hand for her tray. She yanked it away.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Taco day is a PRT tradition. Every week, rain or shine, taco day will be there. Tradition is good.” I took a sip from my bottled water. “At least the taco meat is semi-fresh today.”

“Probably made of dog,” she grumbled.

Before I could defend the honor of whoever in the kitchen was in charge of dog meat procurement, we were interrupted by a newcomer. “Hi, this seat taken?” Necator asked, sitting down at our table.

“Go for it,” I mumbled through my taco, at the same moment Tattletale said, “It’s taken.”

They listened to me over the supervillain, thankfully, and remained sitting, poking at one of their tacos with a plastic fork. Suddenly they looked up at Tattletale, smiling. “Oh! Hi, I’m Necator.” They offered a hand.

“Tattletale,” Tattletale said simply, leaving the hero’s hand hanging as she choked down a bite of taco.

“Are you a new recruit?” Necator asked. They continued speaking, but their tone was different, for some reason. Quieter. “Haven’t seen you around.”

“Tattletale is one of our supervillains,” I butted in. “Bosses decided she’d be more useful outside a cell.”

“Oh,” Necator whispered, looking between Tattletale and myself. “Why don’t you have your mask?”

Oh boy. “I can’t eat through my helmet, and my mask is downstairs. She’s a Thinker and I don’t care enough to pretend she doesn’t know who I am.”

Tattletale rolled her eyes. “Clockblocker is exaggerating… slightly. Powers don’t care about that sort of thing. Contrary to the name, I keep that to myself.”

Necator set down their taco, blinking a few times. I sighed. “Didn’t your gang out, like, half the Empire a month ago?”

“That wasn’t us,” Tattletale snapped. “We don’t— didn’t —play that way.”

“Oh dear,” Necator stammered out, their tone changing yet again. What the fuck was their deal?

“Right, it was the other gang fucking with the Nazis that had the high-rated Thinker. My bad.” I rolled my eyes, taking a bite of taco. The shell crumpled, and ground beef cascaded down my armor, leaving trails of orange grease and yellow nacho cheese. “Fuck.”

I left to grab a stack of napkins and a bottle of water to get the cheese off my armor. By the time I’d reduced it to a barely-visible splot of orange and returned to the table, Necator had left, leaving Tattletale by herself. An angry-looking Assault was walking away as I sat down.

“What did you do,” I said flatly.

“Nothing,” Tattletale replied innocently.

“Tattletale…”

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “Assault asked Necator ‘what sex’ they were, they slunk off, so I told him his wife only puts up with his bullshit out of a sense of duty to the Protectorate and a growing case of Stockholm syndrome.”

I blinked. That as a lot to take in. “Uh…”

“Battery’s a sweetheart and deserves better than him.”

“Tattletale?”

“What? We can be on opposite sides and still respect each other.”

“Okay but… don’t.” I sighed. “The Slaughterhouse Nine are here, it’s really not a good time to be pushing people’s nerves.”

“Have you met me before?”

“Try? Please?”

“Fiiiiine.”

“Thank you.”

We finished in silence, tossed our trays with the pile of others in the dishpit, and headed out…

“So what now?” Tattletale asked, smirking at a PRT guard that was staring her down.

“Nothing. We sit around and wait for the Nine to finish us off.”

“Ooooor we could head out.”

“Can’t leave the PRT building.”

“Are you sure?” She was grinning.

“…Yes…”

“You were only told to babysit me and stay away from everyone’s favorite mass-murdering tourists. That means a lot of things are still on the table.”

“Okay, and?”

“And I need information if I’m going to take them down. Information you’re going to help me get.” She started walking away.

“Hold on. Hold on!” I said quickly. “So, what. We’re gonna go wander out there looking for clues? That seems like a great way to get ambushed.”

“If they wanted us dead, they’d come here. Trust me Clock, you’re just as vulnerable here.”

“That’s not exactly reassuring.”

“Okay. I know you’re not this stupid. You want to fight them, but can’t directly. This is how.”

“It’s a great way to get picked off, too,” I said, shaking my head. “Listen, you would’ve been dead if we didn’t stumble on you, and so would Vista and I if we hadn’t gotten lucky.”

Tattletale glared at me for a long second before replying, her voice flat. “This is fighting them, that’s what you want.”

“Going out there by ourselves is suicide!” I shouted, exasperated. Why didn’t she understand that?

“Okay. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I like living, so yes!”

“Are you sure?” I gave her a what the fuck are you on? look and she continued. “Any family close enough to be family is gone, your best friend was reassigned, your boss sees you as nothing but a liability… from my view, you have nothing left to risk losing.”

I was quiet for a long minute, glaring at her behind my helmet’s HUD. Who the fuck did she think she was? She wanted to go out so badly she’d blatantly dig at shit like that to try and persuade me? Seriously, I’d thought she was supposed to be more subtle than this?

Tattletale being a massive cunt aside, it was clearly a big fucking deal, at least in her opinion. Why she couldn’t just bring it up or ask like a normal goddamn person was beyond me. Whatever.

Honestly though, all that aside, a glorified patrol would be a better use of our time than console duty or standing around… If she was such a mind reader or whatever I had to wonder why she didn’t lead with that.

“Fine.”

“Thank—”

“Shut the hell up.”

 


 

We borrowed one of the PRT motorcycles, the older ones that were built to survive an apocalypse. The electronics were fried, but the engine still ran which was all that really mattered. The streets were emptier than usual, the few people we saw ducking behind corners as we passed by.

Eventually we made it out of the downtown area, into the suburbs around the city. The land was higher here, the flooding having receded weeks ago if it had ever been inundated at all. There was less fear in the air here, relatively speaking.

I pulled over by a deserted park, across the street from some sort of shopping center. Tattletale slid off the back and stretched her legs.

“Anyway…” I muttered, looking around. “Why are we here again?”

“Because the Nine stopped by just before they showed up. I think.”

“You think.” I looked around. Park, clothing outlet, boarded-up Chinese food place, grocery store… and no corpses or horror scenes. “Sure we know the same Nine?”

I glanced back at her just in time to see her finish an eyeroll. “They don’t murder and pillage everywhere they go. Even Jack Slash can see the benefit of keeping a low profile.”

“At a strip mall.”

“Ugh, just… come on.”

Why am I doing this?

We walked side-by-side across the street, Tattletale looking every which way as if the smallest thing would be some sort of clue to unlock whatever mystery she was looking for. It wasn’t the first time I’d been stuck as the Watson to someone else’s Sherlock Holmes, but somehow at least Chris managed to make me feel like I totally wasn’t useless.

We wandered into the clothing store, the kinda place I imagined middle class people who pretended they were rich would shop at. There were only one or two customers inside, and a clerk who looked up from her phone as we entered. Eyes went wide at my sight and then wider at the sight of the supervillain I was hanging out with. “It’s fine,” I said quickly, putting up a reassuring hand. She hesitated for a second, and that was when Tattletale took the moment to be helpful.

“He’s cheating on you with your roommate,” she said with faux cheer in her tone.

Oh for fuck’s sake .

I grabbed her arm and hurried her along until we were safely hidden in the men’s shoe section. “Was the fun fact really necessary?”

“Listen asshole, if you spend every waking moment with fun facts invading your mind you’ll get tired of keeping them to yourself too.”

“The name suits you, Tattletale.”

“Thanks. Clockblocker doesn’t work for you.”

“Thanks?” I wasn’t sure what the hell that was supposed to mean, but okay. “Listen, why are we—” she’d already started walking away.

“They were here a couple days ago. Jack and Bonesaw. I need to know why,” she said, hardly paying attention to me as she wandered around.

“Maybe they wanted to buy some clothes?”

“Yes, but why here?”

“Because… this is where you buy clothes?” I sighed. “Listen, I think you’re overthinking this. It’s—”

“There’s no such thing as overthinking things, Clockblocker.” She looked at me pointedly. “There’s just being too dim to see between the lines.”

“Riiiight.” I was getting a little too used to her casually insulting me, but if we were stuck together… I had to make it work, or the other option was sitting in the growing black mold infestation that was the PRTHQ, at the console listening to more teammates die. “Okay, sure. So what’s between the lines?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” she said, wandering into the ladies’ section.

… “So you don’t know.”

“No, I said that’s what we’re here to find out,” Tattletale replied as if that wasn’t exactly the same fucking thing. Whatever. No wonder her teammates got chosen by the Nine, I’d dealt with being on her “side” for barely a day and I was about halfway to going on a spree.

Tattletale paused at a rack with a selection of dresses. The cute ones, made of light fabric that looked really twirlable.

“Jealous?” she asked with a smirk, holding one up. Sunflowers printed on white.

“Not really?” I said awkwardly. It was mostly true. Sure, boys had far more boring fashion, but that was just how it was.

“Hmm.” Tattletale put the sunflower dress up and grabbed another, sky blue with white dots. It didn’t really suit her, not that I was an expert on the subject. She held it up against me, the smirk turning into a grin.

“I don’t think it goes with my armor to be honest,” I quipped, glaring at her behind my visor. Ugh, my cheeks felt hot. Was I…? No, god no , she was pretty and all but after what the Undersiders had done… nope. Why did I feel so awkward then?

Tattletale had already moved on while I was lost in thought, one arm loaded with assorted clothes as she browsed. “Sure you aren’t just here for a shopping trip?” I said, crossing my arms.

“Two birds one stone. I can’t exactly walk around in-costume all the time if we’re going to be together. Imagine what they’ll say in the papers!” Her smirk faded after a second. “All my clothes were at our HQ.”

“Oh… yeah that’s fair,” I said lamely, looking away. Way to go, Clock.

“Listen, it’s fine,” she finally said, three skirts and a pair of heels later. I’d been relegated to holding her shopping, which wasn’t embarrassing at all after I’d spotted one of the other customers taking photos. Jesus Christ, the Image department was going to murder me for this. Probably worse than they’d done for the Clockblocker stunt. At least then it was funny, this was just… sad.

My radio crackled, reminding me of the very present threat in the rest of the city. PRT squad got hit by the Nazis, who of course were taking advantage of the chaos in the city. “We should get going,” I said quietly.

“Oh? Oh. Yeah.” We made our way to the front, Tattletale paid for her shit, I pretended like that money hadn’t come from breaking probably a million laws. And of course she didn’t carry any of the bags, leaving them for me to carry. People were looking, and here I was being made her bitch while she—

While she stopped in the middle of the parking lot to stare at a moving van.

“You okay?” I asked. Tattletale didn’t respond, so I nudged her with my foot, making her jump. “Hey, you there?”

“Yeah… Just reading between the lines.”

“Oh?”

“We should go.”

“What? Wh—”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s just the next piece of the puzzle,” she said quickly. There was a hint of… was it surprise in her tone? Or maybe fear?

“Fine,” I said after a long pause. So fucking done with trying to figure out what she was on about. Later, I’d ask.

I put it in the back of my mind.

 


 

We got back just as the sun was starting to set. Hot water was back on, so after a short debriefing with Miss Militia (“Tattletale needed civ clothes, we went out, saw nothing, yes we were careful.”) I took what felt like the first shower in weeks, even if it had been just a couple days. It took a good hour to get rid of the old blood and sweat and ugh facial hair. Because what I really wanted more than anything else was to look like a ginger neckbeard. Just kidding!

Finally, I stepped out of the bathroom and into the commons, my costume’s bodysuit thrown over my shoulder and a PRT-issue towel protecting Little Clockblocker from the sinful gaze of any of my teammates. It was just Glory Girl and Shadow Stalker, chilling on the couch five feet apart doing their own things. Neither even looked up as I walked across and shut myself away in my room. Cool. I tried the light switch, and to my surprise it actually turned on! I would’ve thought that the Wards’ bedrooms would’ve been low on the totem pole of—

It was sitting on my bed. Sky blue with white polka dots. The dress Tattletale’d bought.

Why was it here.

I looked around. Nope, she hadn’t repurposed the room. Nope, nothing was missing. Nope, nobody hiding in the closet for a prank.

What the fuck?

I tossed the bodysuit over vaguely next to my armor and hung the towel up on its hook. I wasn’t stupid, she had to have put it here deliberately. It was the only thing on the bed, not the eight million other things she’d bought and I’d had to figure out how to carry on the PRT bike. Nope.

I picked it up, fingers running through the soft silky fabric looking for bugs. Electronic or otherwise—even if Skitter had died weeks ago it was still a good idea with the Undersiders. Nothing.

Why?

I sat down on the bed, still holding it in my hands. Why could I feel my heart racing? What the fuck was wrong with me?

I set the dress down, walked over to the door. Was I… no, that was stupid, she was just fucking with my head. Tattletale being Tattletale right? Yeah.

I flipped the lock, then froze the door for good measure.

Deep breath.

It was actually made of two layers, the blue fabric and then a sheer white layer underneath that made me shiver as it ran over my skin. I wasn’t sure it was fitting quite right, awkwardly tight in my shoulders and loose-ish elsewhere. A minute or so of awkward reaching behind me to do up the little ribbon-thing that cinched it above my waist.

I was wearing a dress.

The fuck?

And it didn’t feel… weird? Okay well it felt a lot weird but in different ways. Good ways. Oh god.

Listen, Dennis. It’s fine. You’re just into crossdressing. That’s cool right?

I stood shakily, and did a spin. It twirled around me oh god it twirled! and then settled back on my hips. Why did that feel so good? Fuck. What the fuck?

I looked down at myself. It looked… mostly right, actually. I’d have to deal with Little Clockblocker but that was a problem for later. Ugh. Whatever. Wait.

I’d never been bothered about that before, why was I now?

I mean, it was always something I’d avoided, even given the cape name. But… blah. I didn’t want to think about that. Maybe Panacea would…?

Shut the fuck up Dennis.

No, that was a terrible idea. She’d start asking questions, and I’d have to admit it was because I wanted to wear dresses, and… and I wanted to be pretty? Was that normal?

I slunk back to my bed, laid down on the edge of it, my fists balled up in the hem of my— of the —dress. Not mine, nope. If it was mine then that meant I owned a dress which meant I was a freak or something. I was a teenage boy. Boys didn’t get to own dresses or be pretty or cry, this was just a weird phase. Tattletale fucking with me. Right?

Why was I trying so hard to convince myself?

I remembered a conversation Chris and I had awhile back. He’d asked why I always picked a girl when character customization had come up in a video game. I’d never had an answer. It was just… a thing. Or was it?

Fuck, fuck! No, this was dumb, why was I thinking about this, I was a guy, with the exception of that one time in the shower with Carlos I was straight, this was stupid.

I was a guy.

Boy.

Male.

Ugh.

What if I… could be a girl instead? I’d looked it up on a whim once, there were pills and surgeries and shit. Alarming surgeries with helpful animations showing what happens.

Jesus fucking christ, the animations.

I mean I guess I’d be a girl? Like if it was all the same, I liked the idea and I couldn’t say why. Jealousy? I wasn’t sure.

I realized I was shivering. I was still sitting on the side of the bed, hair damp from the shower, in a dress, and at some point the air conditioning had kicked on. Hesitantly I pulled myself under the covers. Would it get wrinkled? Probably. I still wanted to keep it on, while I figured out what the actual fuck was going on with my head.

What the fuck had Tattletale done to me? And why? Sometime… tomorrow, or later, or whenever… I’d have to ask her what the catch was, why she’d do this to me, and just… hope the answer wasn’t bullshit?

I didn’t get much sleep that night, but when I finally let my eyes close, I was smiling.

Chapter Text

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.”

Fair point.

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.

“Please!”

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.

"Uhhh." 

"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?

“Kiddo?”

“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?”

“Her?”

“Amy Dallon.”

“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.

“Bullshit.”

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”.

Yeah.

Yeah, no.


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.

Jesus Christ.

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?”

“Girlfriend?”

“The villain?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

Chapter Text

Ten minutes into the briefing, and I already felt like falling back asleep.

Armsmaster droned on about patrol routes, about the latest sightings of the Nine, reminding everyone to have wills updated and on file with HR. Obviously nothing I had to worry about, and yet if I slept in I’d have Mr. Knockoff T-1000 on my ass like bus seat bubble gum.

So I sat, the only one in civilian clothes while the rest of the heroes were suited up and ready to die.

“...and Clockblocker, you know your assignment…”

“Yup.”

“Moving on, one of the PRT squads wants…”

Aaaaand back to being bored.

Eventually, everyone stood up around me, quiet murmurs as they filed out of the room. Everyone except Armsmaster, who was giving me some sort of ‘disappointed father’ look.

“How are you holding up, Dennis.” Not even enough inflection to hint at it being a question.

“I’m fine,” I said flatly, barely lifting my head up.

“Dennis.”

Can’t just let a lie go can you?

“Okay. I’m pissed off that I can help and I’m stuck here on babysitting duty watching my teammates put their lives on the line. I should be out there.”

“It’s for your—”

“Dude!” I cut him off. “You asked me how I’m ‘holding up’. I answered you. I don’t need another fucking lecture on how I shouldn’t feel how I feel. I get you have your reasons for not wanting me out there. I just think it’s bullshit.”

Armsmaster was quiet, looking at me. There was a second’s pause before he took his helmet off, setting it down with a clunk on the conference room table.

“Dennis, can I talk to you, man to man?” There was a question there, which maybe I would have appreciated if I wasn’t internally retching at being called a ‘man’. He took my lack of response as assent, and continued, “I know you don’t want to talk about this, but please. We’re all worried about you.”

I sighed. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’m fine.”

“Promise me you’ll at least hear me out. If you hear what I have to say and still disagree, I’ll personally clear you for duty.”

Just smile and nod, and finally be able to do something? “Fine.”

“Director Piggot got an email yesterday, from a PRT officer in Oregon.” Fuck. Of-fucking-course. “She claims to be your aunt?”

“She shouldn’t know I’m a cape,” I replied, weakly.

“I don’t believe she does. The email was regarding an emergency transfer request, to look for you. Dennis, I understand you’re grieving and everyone grieves in their own way. However, I strongly suggest you get in contact with your aunt before she flies into the midst of an S-Class threat looking for you.”

Jesus.

Armsmaster cleared his throat, eyes darting to the doorway before back to me. “If there’s something going on you want to talk about…”

“I don’t need a shrink,” I said, not missing the way his eyes had darted to the doorway before returning to me. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not suggesting a therapist. I’m offering you an ear. You don’t need to bottle things up. It’s clear something’s been bothering you, even before the attack.” I didn’t say anything. What was I supposed to say to that? “Please… we’ve already lost so many, I don’t want to add your name to that. Whatever’s going on, I’ll make sure you get help.”

There was an odd tone in his voice, there. A voice that took me back, to the moments after I’d triggered. After the chaos had died down in the doctor’s office, and Dad had come in. I couldn’t describe the tone, but it felt the same.

Was it safe to tell Armsmaster?

My thoughts went back to the kid I’d read about online, who’d been sent off for coming out.

“It stays between us?” I asked, a lump in my throat.

“If you want, yes.”

“I…” How could I word it, without seeming weird? Without coming across as a weirdo or something? “I don’t… I’m not…”

“Dennis…” Armsmaster’s voice tried to be soothing but failed.

The words came out before I could stop them, “Don’t call me that. I’m not… I don’t want to be Dennis.”

I could feel him looking at me, but my gaze was fixed to the conference room table. I had to stop myself from Clockblocking myself, and keep talking, “I’m not… I don’t think I’m, um, a boy, I mean.”

The silence in the room was deafening.

“Okay,” Armsmaster said finally. He sounded disappointed? Of course he’d be disappointed. Not like we had bigger things going on, and here he was dealing with… with this.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, blinking away tears that appeared for some reason. Maybe I could… Was it too late? I could just say haha got you nerd! and backtrack. What a Clockblocker move. I was about to do just that, or maybe vomit, when Armsmaster spoke again.

“Do you have a name you’d prefer?”

“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to sniffle like a little kid. Why was this so hard? “Still figuring… it out.”

“That’s okay.” That weird tone was back in his voice, but now it just made me feel worse. Reminded me of Dad, and he wasn’t… he was Armsmaster for fuck’s sake. “How about I just call you Clock?”

After a second, I shrugged.

“I’ll take that as a yes for now.” He paused to clear his throat. “I’m not an expert on this.”

“That makes two of us,” I said, giving him one of those it’s not funny but I’m gonna laugh laughs.

“Can you give me some time to do some research so I can help?”

Wow, he actually wants to help?

I wiped ineffectually at my face before looking up at him. “Just don’t go to PHO for it,” I quipped, cracking a little smile.

“I’m aware of the… content on Parahumans Online,” he replied, and without his helmet on I could see his eyes shift into a thousand-yard stare. For a moment, I was fairly certain we were on the same page. The infamous profile page of the user who’d spent several thousand dollars on fanarts of “Armsmistress” complete with her, um, ‘Halberd.’ Then Armsmaster cleared his throat and grabbed his helmet, and the moment thankfully passed. “If anybody gives you trouble, speak to the Youth Guard and I’ll back you up,” he said—no, commanded. I thought back to Assault in the cafeteria the other day.

“Okay,” I said weakly, and with that he was gone.

Of all the people I’d expected to come out to first, Armsmaster was far from the top of the list. He wasn’t even on the first page of the list, and I wasn’t sure I knew more than a page of people right now. But it had gone well? Maybe? I’d always thought of him as having maybe a bit of a stick up his ass, but…

But maybe something had changed.

 


 

I was sitting on my bed, looking up at the ceiling. There was the faint sound of music from the main room; Weld and Necator had decided to bond over their shared interest, but between them all they had was a synth and a violin.

It was an experience, to say the least. Not bad, but… alien was the best word. Listening through a closed door just made it weirder.

But all listening did was put off the inevitable.

I grabbed my work phone, and punched in the number I’d pulled off the employee directory.

Three rings.

“Sergeant Cooper speaking,” the tinny voice on the other side answered. She sounded bored.

“Aunt Laura?”

“Dennis???” she shouted, making me pull the phone back away from my ear.

“Yup that’s me.”

“Are you safe, are you—”

“I’m fine!” I cut her off. “I’m fine, really.” Fine, yup.

“We’ve been worried sick! Your phone stopped responding, and when we heard about the Nine…”

“I’ve avoided them so far.” My free hand went to my wrist. Mostly avoided them. “With Shatterbird and everything…”

“Oh honey…” There was a little pause. “Are you… with your folks…”

She trailed off, so I said it for her. “Dead?”

“...I’m sorry Dennis.”

“It’s fine.”

“Is the house okay? Safe?”

“Gutted,” I said simply.

“Alright,” Aunt Laura replied. “You’re staying at the headquarters then, right?”

Uh.

What?

“Headquarters?” I stammered. Fuck. Shit!

“When my brother-in-law calls out of the blue to ask about the Wards ‘just out of curiosity’, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to piece the clues together. Not to mention your caller ID says ‘Wards ENE’.”

Well, when you put it like that… 

I sighed. “Yeah.”

“A belated congratulations, by the way. You pissed off Image departments across the country with your name stunt.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Don’t be!” She laughed. “They were livid, ranting and raving about what they’d do if one of their Wards pulled a stunt like that. It took all my strength not to gloat that that was my nephew.”

Niece, I mentally corrected her.

“Anyway,” Aunt Laura continued, her voice growing sober. It was weird from her; she was normally the type of person to never take anything a hundred percent seriously, at least on the surface. “Your uncle and I talked, after we heard what happened, and. Well you’re an adult as far as we’re concerned so it’s your choice, but… Anna’s moved off to college so you could steal her room, and there’s plenty of space on the Wards team out here.”

“Uh…” I hadn’t ever really considered it, even though it was obvious when she said it like that. Moving. Mom and Dad were gone, Chris had fucked off to get peeled apart by the Machine Army, and half my team was dead. What was left to tie me here? Some sense of hometown loyalty? Vista and Shadow Stalker? ...Tattletale? Was I digging that low for excuses?

“Just think about it,” Aunt Laura said, interrupting my thoughts.

“Maybe. On the first part, I mean. I’ll definitely think about it.”

“Okay.”

There was a second of silence, the awkward silence where I felt like I needed to say something but I didn’t know what.

“I gotta go,” I finally said. “Patrol, sorry.”

“Stay safe, or well. As safe as you can be.”

“I will.”

“Love you, Dennis.”

“You too, Aunt Laura.”

 


 

“There you are!” I half-shouted across the cafeteria.

“Good morning sunshine,” Tattletale replied in a saccharine tone. Across the table, Commander Calvert choked on his PRT taco. “You say that like you were looking for me.”

“Shadow Stalker said you’d slithered off to the garage. I assumed she was being honest.”

“I know you Wards are a few cards short of a full deck,” she replied. “But I really shouldn’t be the one to tell you that’s not on me.”

“You need to let me know if you’re running off somewhere. I’m supposed to be babysitting you.”

Commander Calvert cleared his throat at that. “Tattletale has been working on a project for us in Operations.” There was a little pause there. “Someone should have told you, my apologies.”

For fucks sake. I got that resources were tight, but how did half the fucking PRT neglect to pass that along? Whatever. “Listen, it’s fine,” I finally said. “Just in the future could I get a heads-up?”

“Of course. In any case, I should be going. Stay safe, young man.”

Young man? I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be more pissed off by there, and unfortunately by the time I’d given up, he was already gone, leaving a… surprisingly-conflicted looking Tattletale holding half a PRT taco.

“Wow,” I said, a smile I didn’t really feel crossing my face. “Tattletale, Operations Bureau bootlicker.”

“You told Ar—”

“Working for King Big Dick of Hot Shit Mountain himself, Commander Thomas Calvert.”

“Clock—”

“So what, he’s got you doing some double-oh seven shit?”

“Actually shut the fuck up,” she finally got out, slamming her taco onto her tray.

Uh what? Had I hit a sore spot? “Yeesh, I’m just—”

“Shit like this is why he left you, just FYI!” she shouted at me, before storming out of the cafeteria.

What the actual fuck?

What the hell had I said to deserve that? She fucking dished out insults left and right, and her skin was so fucking thin that she blew up after the smallest little tease?

I could feel the eyes of the entire now-silent cafeteria on me, but it was muted by the realization of what she’d actually said. Was I really so annoying that Chris had left? That he’d rather deal with the Machine Army than his “best friend” messing around?

“Fuck,” I said to myself, not sure what to do.

“Living up to the name kid!” one of the PRT officers called out, barely containing his snickering. “Better luck next time, tiger!”

I bit my tongue, ignoring the laughter. As much as I wanted to say something back… nothing was even coming to mind, much less something I wouldn’t immediately regret. Instead, I spun around and walked away, ignoring the blistering heat in my face. Fuck him, fuck her, fuck Chris for leaving. Fuck me for making him leave.

Somehow, I held it in long enough to make it to my room.

Fuck this.