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Stronger Together

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     A mansion of some kind loomed above us, dark and twisted like a single talon rising from the landscape. We stood outside of it, in the rain, until our eldest brother was sent to call us in. 

     His face was a deformed thing, like a yard of decaying skin stretched over a round stone, and his arms stretched out before him like searchlights, pale and crooked, capped with hands filled with a thousand milky eyes. No colour adorned his form but the eyes pearling his upper limbs.

     We can do nothing but obey him, he made us so scared, so, so scared, flinching at even the memory of his fury. As we walk the halls we pass countless maids, the face of each contorted into an expression of similar dread and horror.

     Their bodies are made of glass, chipping as smiles twist upon their faces. The women beneath are screaming, we can hear them, trapped like flies in amber, a once-living thing reduced to an object of amusement. They're crying in anger and fear, beneath the glass their makeup is splotched and running, and yet we can only barely hear the tiny screams from inside the cocoon.

     We walk upstairs, the mansion is decadent to an unnecessary degree with golden door knobs and floors made of ivory, everything's so cold here. We reach his door and knock, the mahogany entrance is studded with jewels of all kinds. The wood has little golden circles inside, wedding rings from what he told us.

     "Oh come in Jean, come in!" his voice is everywhere and nowhere at once. It sounds harsh yet calming, tearful and joyous as the doors open to us.

     At the end of the endless hall, we step into our father’s office, gazing upon his terribly perfect form, slouched on a throne of marrow and flesh with our siblings at his side.     

     To his left is our brother Fear itself. Raw and primal and undiluted. His form shifts constantly, he has a big red nose and colorful wig and then he's dripping wet with bloated flesh, nothing about him stays consistent for long. His skin stays the same though, a monochrome blankness.

     To father's right is sister, she seems sad for some reason. She's always changing too, one second she's wiping away tear tracks and the next she's red faced and shifting on each foot. Despite this we know she's sad, she's staring with sympathy in her gray features.

     Father himself is impeccable, a kind and benevolent (dare we say, paternal ) expression on his face. His features seem modeled in the likeness of an ancient hero, like Charlemagne himself gazing upon his loving subjects. His eyes betray him though: two empty black pits full of endless greed. 

     " Jean-Paul?" , he asks, his lips unmoving

     "Hello father" 

      "I love you Jean-Paul, and I want you to know I'm sorry." , everything changes and suddenly we becomes I as the rooms alights into a roaring blaze of red anger and then freezes into a blizzard of icy despair. I don't know what's happening and I can't stop it, please somebody help me!

     Sister turns her head from me, her hair obscures her as brother leans forward, his monstrous form shaking in laughter. I can't– why won't they help me, why won't they– why?!

     I'll make them! I have to because he won't stop, I need to, I can’t stop, please make it stop, I’ll make it stop– my hand reaches towards sister and she jerks forward as the colours… the colours die. The whole room, the whole world is so cold I can't feel anything, anything at all. What has he done to me?!

     I look up at father and flinch, he's not him anymore. He's staring me down with a sneer that flickers for barely a second. His eyes are leaking a pure white and I reach up to him in confusion. I stop as I take in my hands.

     They're a polished gray wood, thin red strands come from the nails. These red strands fade off into the open air before stabbing into father, and my heart jumps in whatever cold facsimile of hope I can still feel… but he doesn’t even notice. He just gestures to my siblings, as the world turns and wretches away.

     The world stops turning as I land in a large room split into six different sections, each built to reflect their different occupants.

     My room is a stage of some kind, the set of a throne room with indulgent (yet comfortable) furniture and a backing painted to resemble a renaissance era Paris. 

     I'm still just a puppet, but now I'm a fair bit different than I was. My skin is still wooden, and my joints are still fitted by screws, but at least now I'm clothed and not so gray, a purple vest and white puffy undershirt almost flowing off my body.

     I turn as my neighbor skitters over to me, some kind of bug-human hybrid, like a Drider lovechild of Kafka and H. R. Geiger. Her lower half is a large glossy spider, with eight legs adorning the sides of an iridescent carapace. She wears a dark green sweater over her upper half, with sleeves for each of her four arms, joined like some cross between a flea and a praying mantis

     At the end of each arm is a hand -like structure, with a thumb on either side of the larger digits. Each of the fingers has three joints, ending with sharp claws. Her wrists have strange rimmed holes angled away from herself, strange-looking, but something tells me that they are even more dangerous than the sharpest talons.. I step back when I take in her face.

     It's composed of the same prismatic chitin, and looks like a human face with a dozen insectoid features grafted on. On both sides of her lips are a pair of barbed fangs, each jutting out from her cheeks, framed by three pairs of beautiful eyes, one golden and two an electric green.

     She tries to walk towards me, but stops when she bumps into… something. An invisible wall separates my stage from her… hive? The whole of it looks like a cabana designed by a deranged entomologist, with honeycomb structures making up the floor and walls of an insect-themed room. Even the bed and desk are insectoid, with both being supported by mantis slowly moving legs. I turn toward the other wall of my stage when I hear a thump against the other side.

     The room on the other side is far dimmer than my own, what little light there is barely lights what looks like… a gym maybe? The creature feeling around the border is far more interesting than the room he resides in.

     He's batlike in general shape, with large pointed ears on either side of his head, and huge wings emerging from his back. His skin is a pure (but somehow warm) abyss, continually leaking into his surroundings, so black I can't see his arms at all when they overlap.

     It's only when he turns can I make out his face, his jaw open, with long twin fangs on both the top and bottom, under a flat nose flared at the tip. I join him at the edge of my stage when a skittering sound comes from my right followed by another thump. 

     The bug woman is to the front of my room, behind her lies a stele, topped with a gasmask shooting frozen lightning. I shiver involuntarily as I gaze upon it, its presence filling me with dread. But the bug woman is scared of it too, I can tell somehow, and whatever part of me hates that thing is much smaller than my urge to protect her. The bat monster joins us after he checks on his neighbor.

     I hold on to the insectoid girl, she's looking at me, and somehow her name comes to my lips. She is My Queen and the Bat to my left is My Devourer. My Queen looks down at me and asks in a chirping voice.

     "My Puppeteer?" I look up and reply.

     "Yes My Queen" my own voice is strangely robotic, like it's coming from a blown out speaker. I look over her shoulder as a great beast, far larger than any of us, lumbers out of her room. 

     She's a metallic canine, or at least the outside of her is, the shimmering plates that make up her flesh are suspended together by a ghostly musculature. Her two pinpoint white eyes immediately focus toward the three of us.

     Her voice is a strong baritone and yet comes out with no movement of her maw.

     "Confusion, Location?" My Devourer speaks from behind me, his voice is an echoey hiss.

     "Unknown My Amplifier, confusion" My Devourer turns to his neighbours room, it's a large crystalline library, so impressive I don't even see our fifth until she exits it.

     She’s a completely crystalline woman and wears nothing to hide her inhuman form. Her hair is made up of thousands of blonde diamonds, underneath which two emerald eyes are lodged, blazing as they take in all within her field of view.

     "Confusion, proposition slumber?" Her voice is serene with a slight ringing to it. My Queen tilts her head at the idea, her eight eyes blinking.

     "Confusion My Peacemaker, elaboration?" My Peacemaker seems to wilt for a second and ponders, she looks down upon us.

     "Proposition, dreaming?", she states, and with that she discoperates. We are not worried, our Peacemaker is intelligent, despite her own self perception. The four of us will wait for her, trying to parse out what we can.

Lisa Wilbourn/Tattletale

     Warm… that's the best way to describe it, not just in the physical sense, but in every other sense as well. This was… really nice. Just laying here in near complete darkness, surrounded by this soft feeling of contentment. 

     Suddenly, the body behind me shifts as the hold around my middle tightens. At first I nearly jump as the arm around me made itself known, and I almost fell into a panic until I realize who’s holding me. 

     Seeming to sense my fear, Brian presses himself closer to my back, and I begin to take stock of my surroundings as my breathing grows more steady.

     My eyes still haven’t adjusted yet, so I have to use my sense of touch more than anything else. I still have my arms wrapped around Taylor, and reaching past her, I feel Rachel's arm and I think Alec was actually on top of dog master. As I moved to get up, a few things happen at once.

     Taylor whines as I moved to let her go, I was moving my arms to loosen Brian's hold when she shifted back into me, locking me between my teammates.

     Brian buries his face into my hair, and I feel his lips just barely touch my neck. I stiffened in the darkness, and try to keep from shifting too much. That’s probably an unconscious reaction, but I know if I kept squirming this tightly against him… something is bound to happen.

     I try to keep perfectly still, but Taylor seems determined to thwart me as she grinds her butt against my hips, snuffling in the contentment of a pleasant dream. Stupid teenage hormones.

     Resigning myself that I would probably remain here until the rest woke up, I wrap my arms around Taylor gently. My hand makes circles on the tight skin of her stomach, and I hear her let out a content hum. I only melt a little.

Hates her stomach, thinks it looks ugly, makes her ugly, was told to think this. 

     I squinted at the message… she thinks it looks ugly? We'll have to fix that today, she needs to know how pretty she is. I hold her just a little bit tighter at the memories of yesterday: I don't know what exactly Emma told Taylor but I'll repay it ten fold.

     I had an idea for it last night, in all honesty I'm not so sure of it anymore, most spur of the moment ideas tend to fall through like that. It had been the first thought that came when we were thinking about how to help Taylor. I gave a snort at the absurdity of it.

     The Undersiders at Winslow, all of us? Aside from the many, many logistical problems of coercing Coil into working around a normal teenager schedule, I know none of us, Taylor included, were looking forward to going back to school. It sounds so pedestrian when you put it that way, as if there wasn't a metric steaming shit- ton of personal baggage attached to it.

     I lift my head from Taylor's ebony locks, and look towards the two farthest from me. Rachel's right arm is serving partially as Taylor's pillow, while her left is wrapped around Alec's back. He's lying completely on top of Rachel, one of his arms is tucked under him while the other grips one of Taylor's hands. I start to smile when Alec turns to face me.

     Physically there's nothing different between his usual expression and the one he's wearing now. His lips aren't smiling or frowning, he has no tension anywhere in his face and yet it feels calmer.

     Alec would absolutely despise school, especially american school. Not because he's apathetic, but because he'd be bored as hell being taught something he already knows.

     Despite his outward carefree persona as Regent, Alec is exceedingly well educated. Heartbreaker saw his children as possessions, at best , and he refused to allow any of his possessions to reflect poorly on him. I look down to Rachel and my smile turns sadder.

     Without the scowl that's always on when she's up, you'd never guess how resigned she is. She hides it well, always firmly buried beneath a mountain of rage and hate but deep down she's just so fucking tired. Everybody she's ever met has either fought or abandoned her, not a single person has given her one iota of kindness.

     Her birth mother ditched her for nearly a week before CPS took her away, her first foster family decided she wasn't worth the effort, the second taught her a lot more about pain than any child should know, and no matter how the news tries to frame it I know the last one was the last straw for her. All that trauma hides how even now, Rachel loves to learn.

     She'd hate school, all the judgement and deadlines would feel like knives to her self esteem. She'd hate being taught but she'd love to learn

     Despite how she looks, her illiteracy, and her borderline dead social skills, she is far from dumb. It makes me frown how people try to frame intelligence as knowing things, Rachel might not be able to read all that well but I see it when we talk around her.

     Brian still does online classes and works out his problems by talking it out. That little quirk and Rachel's way of grunting in a way that says "I'm acknowledging and asking why" made them pretty great study partners. 

     I'd noticed the look in her eyes, how she'd hear something and light up for just a second. Even if she won't go to Winslow, maybe we could double up study materials and help her without the oppressive environment. 

     Brian rolls onto his back and I get up quietly, mind made up on polishing my plan. My absence from the bed causes a domino effect the instant I'm gone, I stare down at the four as everyone shifts.

     Taylor shivers a little at the loss of my warmth, moving just a little closer to Rachel. The dog master senses the problem and shifts Alec to lay more on her left side, he obliges unconsciously as Rachel pulls Taylor to lay on her right. 

     Despite having just moved, Brian moves to occupy my warm spot and blindly reaches for the other three, laying his arm across the two girls with his hand barely grazing Alec's hip.

     Amazingly, no one woke. 

     I actually hold my chest as Taylor forces her head into the crook of Rachel's neck. The auburn haired girl moves her hand from the small of Taylor's back to the crown of her head, giving… scratches?

Reflex, shows affection through contact, unfamiliar with human boundaries, Taylor enjoys it, enjoys praise, enjoys praise of her hair, enjoys hair being touched, being pulle-

     I cut off my power quickly, just happy that her and Taylor have mellowed out.

     It didn't cut me nearly as bad as it did the others but Taylor's betrayal nearly broke Rachel all over again. Helping out with her shelter yesterday showed her fear and anger better than words could say. 

     Her room was an absolute wreck, with clothes haphazardly stuffed into and thrown out of a duffel. Her pillow and blankets had been torn to shreds at some point and the bags under her eyes showed how little sleep she'd gotten.

     Even though I went there to try and sort out Taylor's confession with her, we hadn't actually talked much. She only barked (pun not intended) orders at me, clean this, pick that up, open kennels. I'd called Brian down to help and we managed a little headway. 

     She was calmer about it at least, didn't interrupt either of us when we brought it up anyway. She said she'd talk to Taylor when she felt like it, Brian was going to push the issue when Alec had called us back home.

     I head into my room, clean off my desk, and try to get a general outline going of what I'm going to ask of Coil.

     Brian could pass as a senior but  he wouldn't want to jeopardize any chance at getting custody of his sister. Being an actual highschooler would kill any chance of it happening.

     For a while I toyed with the idea of him being a teacher's assistant of some kind. He'd be able to monitor Taylor from a position of power and have a legitimate job if CPS got nosy. In the end though it runs into the same problems if he were a student. 

     Regular teachers already barely make enough for a single person household, tacking on a growing sibling and however less an assistant would be paid just wouldn't hold up.

     I'm definitely going to enroll myself, I'd only been a freshman for half a year before I jumped ship, but I know enough of the social intricacies to help Taylor. Alec could help with that as well, his upbringing forced him to read social politics.

     It's another hour till I can sort everything into a feasible proposal, granted ten minutes of that was getting the nerve to call the bastard. 

     "Good morning Tattletale" his voice still sends chills through the phone but it sounds satisfied. I'll have to see if there's anything Coil relevant in the news.

     "Morning boss, I have a request to make" the wording's deliberate, asking for a request implies speaking from a lower position. It's just subtle enough of a change in my speech that he might not notice the brown-nosing.

     "Oh? What might it be?"

     "I need transcripts made for me and Alec, to Winslow High.", the silence hangs in the air. If this were any less serious I'd be proud to have made him falter.

     "... I see. As Sophomores I take it?", I was expecting a lot in the way of first responses, the vast majority of which were increasingly long winded ways of saying no. 

     "Yes sir" I offered no more or less to my answers than what was sufficient. I knew he was a thinker of both the capital and lowercase t varieties, so I'd give him as little as possible to figure out why we needed schooling. I heard a deep sigh from his end as he answered.

     "The earliest I'd be able to arrange that would be next Monday and of course I expect The Undersiders to fulfil a request of my own." 

     I focused my power on the conversation. He didn't need to barter us into completing a job, if he needs a job done he'll make us do it. He didn't fish or demand for why we needed the transcripts, he's… just doing it? Why?

Has deemed it an acceptable bump in planning, is attempting appeasement, knows why you need them.

     Appeasement? He's giving the carrot instead of the stick but– what does he know? About the trigger? The new powers? How? 

     We must have really fucked up with Rachel Saturday, the run in with The Protectorate probably gave him more than enough to work with.

    "Of course boss, do you have something in mind right now?"

     "I'll have it for you by mid afternoon today.", the line went dead as I heard the others waking up.