Chapter 1: Intersection 1.1
Alec Merceau/ Regent
I'd like to say I've felt worse than this, that Lung and his pet tinker didn't have shit on what dear old dad put me through, but that be a fucking lie.
Don't get me wrong, dad put me, Cherie, Roman; he put all of us through the wringer. But this was pure goddamn agony, I can't breath, I can barely think, I'd wish this toxin would just hurry up and kill us already.
Dad mixed me up all inside, couldn't tell when my happiness was my own or whether or not I was actually scared of him, but through it all he never laid a hand on me, not that he needed to.
Now though? I wish that fucker had beat me, at least this pain wouldn't be so fucking clear if he had. I think I lasted the longest though, didn't start screaming until the shocks hit us.
Y'know I thought we were in the clear that night? When Taylor helped us bring down the dragon of the bay, I felt sheer fucking relief that I wasn't gonna be made into barbeque. Didn't even know about that Bakuda bitch until she flooded our hideout with gas a week later.
By then, Taylor was on board, another Undersider, she was a stick in the mud sure and we had to split the money a bit more, but she was just another body I could toss in my way if needed. I turn my head to look at her now, and even I'm starting to feel guilty.
We're stuck somewhere underground, deep too if no one can hear us. Taylor to my right and Grue to my left, all five of us in our own little circle of hell, and it just keeps getting worse.
Taylor's eyes are bleeding as she shakes and seizes on her table, there's a spider of some kind on her face. She's trying to get that bug to kill herself I think, I can't say I blame her. The spider keeps falling off the table though, she can't keep it under control before gas mask bitch jolts us again.
This electricity flowing into us isn't normal, something in it is fucking with our powers. I'd know or I would've just tried to control the bitch at the switchboard. After the first few subtle spasms though, she started pumping us full of juice.
"Okay rats, I'm moving on to test number six for the night, if you survive then that'll be it for the day!" She yelled over our screams as she walked over to the center of our arrangement, a strange box-like contraption in her hands.
I tried to focus on her, the nerves shooting beneath her skin, but just as I'm getting a grip on a limb, I scream as I'm zapped by the strange lightning.
She connects the various cables and switches of her box to the spire connecting the five of us and steps back behind her shielding.
"Okay test number six is a go, any probably last words?!" Bakuda yells.
"FUCK YOU!" I applaud Lisa for her choice in words, I couldn't have said it better myself if I could.
I hear a switch and my world is indescribable agony, everything before was just a shadow of this feeling. I can feel every nerve in my body screaming in pain, my head, my arms, my everything feels like it's gripped in the devil's hands.
. It's not just the pain though, I can see him when I close my eyes. I can feel his creeping power as I try not to cry, I haven't cried since he made me and some fucking how he's here. He's found me, he'll kill me, and he tricked me.
I thought I was immune, but I can feel it, fear of him, sorrow of my dying friends, and the happiness that I'm finally going to just stop living. These emotions, these fears and desires aren't mine, they can't be, they're too not me.
Laughter bubbles to my left, I turn and see Brian laughing in a fit of hysteria, his eyes are screaming for his chuckles to die down. I turn as I hear sobbing to my right, Taylor's bawling her eyes out, the spider is tearing its own limbs off. I hear Tats and Bitch screaming in fear and pleasure as Nikos is clapping his hands in delight.
I turn to him and scream
"LET GO OF THEM YOU BASTARD!"
Who will take care of Aisha?
What'll dad do without me?
My heart stops and four identical flatlines meet my own.
I clenched my power around nerves I've never felt before
This sucks, understatement of the year I know, but this is the goddamn worst. She's been at this for hours and she's not slowing down at all, I turned to Brian on my right and curse him.
I would have made it out too, if he hadn't stopped me. We'd been back at base having just a typical "get to know the new girl" day when the goddamn bomb went off. It wasn't like what she did at Cornell, there wasn't a boom or hiss, nothing; just a fast acting drowsiness.
I tried to get out when it first started to hit, my power telling me exactly what was happening. But like a fucking idiot, instead of yelling for us to get out, I bolted for the exit.
I couldn't blame Grue but goddamn did I want to. He'd stopped me and demanded an answer for my sudden jog, but by the time I answered Bitch and Regent had already hit the floor and we weren't far behind.
Appealing to her sense of pri-
AH, FUCK! I'm barely catching flashes of what my power supplies before the zap cuts it off.
Unique electro-stimulation to the gemm-
Another jolt hits me but pales in comparison to the growing thinker headache I'm developing. Each of these half-uses is hurting me more than the regular ones and it's beginning to kill me.
I try to laugh before I get caught in another scream, if I got an aneurysm and died right now that be a fucking blessing. It's painfully obvious though that whatever poison she's created is meant to keep us on the brink of living and no further.
Neurotoxin was devised to work in tandem with-
And another fucking cutoff, that last part was interesting though, work with what exactly? The gray lightning pulsing through us, the sleeping gas she used back at the hideout, or whatever shit she hasn't told us?
My power couldn't supply me with anymore despite my prodding, everytime I tried it would cut off quicker than the last. I was still hoping on that aneurysm though so I kept pushing.
Coil liked to tell me about this, being used as a lab rat to test new concoctions and drugs to keep me as a docile power on demand. This was probably worse though, just a lab rat and a tinker, might've been the ABB recruitment pitch if this psycho was in charge.
"Okay rats, I'm moving on to test number six for the night, if you survive then that'll be it for the day!", speak of the devil and she shall appear.
This might've well have been apart of the torture, listening to this self aggrandizing bitch warn us about the next round of chemical agony. I looked at Rachel on my left and tears began to roll much quicker.
Bitch wasn't thrashing or screaming, she was whimpering; shrinking in on herself like an abused animal.
"Okay test number six is a go, any probably last words?!"
It doesn't take me a moment to scream out in a fleeting moment of lucidity.
"FUCK YOU!" at my taunt Bakuda flicks a switch and dear god, words fail this feeling. I'm screaming and thrashing harder now but between my blinks I see him. I see Reggie.
AH FUCK I DON'T EVEN CARE ANYMORE, I'm going insane, he's dead, he's gone, and yet I can't help but want to believe he's here somehow.
That all ends when I notice his wrists, leaking blood to the floor in alarming amounts. He notices and looks up at me sullenly and points to Brian.
"No" I mumble, he's bleeding too, they all are, the same tear tracks Reggie has marring their skin. This can't be real I had to have noticed them, they weren't depressed, I could've
Who'll save the dogs?
My heart stops and four identical flatlines meet my own
My heart flutters back to life and my power whispers in my mind
Play dead, wait for darkness.
Woulda joined The Wards if I'd known I'd end up here, strapped to a table being fed a cocktail of tinker made chems; getting thousands of volts shot through me every other second.
I can see it now, our bodies, in costume, winding up on the shore of the bay, a perfect statistic on why to join The Wards. I didn't want to think it, I tried to think pragmatically, to think about what I knew right now.
There wasn't a way out of here, none of us could break out of these straps, and even if we could, Bakuda would just blow the room. That meant we'd have to bide our time, wait for the bitch to get cocky. Good thing I was strong enough to stay lucid. Sure, I screamed and kicked like hell but more importantly, I would stay in control of myself when I needed to.
I would stay calm, find a way out of this eventually, free my team, and escape. I needed to, I had to. If we couldn't break out tonight, we'd break out tomorrow, if not then, then later.
It sounds silly, "stay positive", but it works. If you focus on what little good there is, you can't focus on how fucked the situation is.
The darkness flowing beneath my clothes won't rise past the hem of my shirt, it dissipates too quickly for me to shield us from Bakuda's view. It wouldn't stop the pain, but it would probably piss her off into doing something stupid.
I turn to look at Alec on my right, he's not kicking as much as the rest of us but damn is he screaming. I saw the way he focused on the windowed little room opposite our chamber, he was probably aiming to get her to trip up, but why? His power wouldn't do much but piss her off, maybe that was the point?
I should've known it had been too easy, that beating Lung wasn't the end of it, but how was I supposed to know about her?
Excuses, that's all it was… I should've done better, I was the damn leader and yet here we were, dying like two bit crooks. With each passing moment, it was getting harder and harder to keep my head above water.
"Okay rats, I'm moving on to test number six for the night, if you survive then that'll be it for the day!", I gripped the underside of the table firmly, this was gonna hurt.
I manage to glance over at Tats, she's looking at Bitch who I can't really see. When she turns her head back, I can see the hate in her eyes for Bakuda, I hope Rachel's okay.
"Okay test number six is a go, any probably last words?!", Lisa tries to wrench herself upwards as she screams.
"FUCK YOU!", I try to stay as still as I can manage, bracing myself for whatever contraption she's hooked up. She flips a switch and I know now there wasn't any bracing for something like this.
My vision turns white as I scream louder than I ever have, this pain is all consuming, far beyond the point you can feel anything else. I blink away the stars in my eyes and scream out in anger.
The room is filled with fucking scum, addicts and drunks everywhere, some lying down in their own piss while others are loudly arguing or getting high.
Fuck, one's leaning over Regent, brandishing a broken bottle as a weapon. Alec, fuck, Alec looks terrified. The druggie licks his lips and leers at my friend, the spots of injection in his arms begin to open and close, like a suckling mouth.
Regent wasn't a good guy, he'd probably seen worse but right now he's staring into my eyes, his face glistening with tears, he shouldn't see this.
Tats screams from my left and I see she has her own piece of trash undressing her with his eyes. They'll kill them, the darkness calls to me and I feel it's tugging to let it out.
I'LL KILL THEM
they shouldn't see this
I'LL KILL THEM
The darkness sputters and falls to the floor much heavier than it should, it fills the floor before another shock stops my heart.
What'll dad do without me?
Will I ever be free?
Four Identical flatlines meet my own
My heart burns and twitches back to life as a voice whispers in my mind.
Play dead, wait for my signal, then cover the room
I'm going to die here. It's not as hard to think about anymore, at first I couldn't bring myself to focus on that. Though, at first, it didn't hurt this bad, it didn't feel like burnt cigarettes inside my veins.
I screamed at first too, screamed in anger and hate, but after getting shocked enough, all I wanted it to do was stop hurting.
I tried to shrink in on myself, make myself smaller, less threatening. Nothing worked, she kept on flicking switches, laughing; killing us.
Wasn't even fair, no chance to fight, no chance to win, just one minute I'm grooming Brutus and the next I'm dying underground. Chickenshit was too scared to fight us fairly so she cheated.
I hadn't been scared since Rollo… I tried to believe I wasn't scared now, but I hate lying. Right now, I'm fuckin' pissed, fuckin' tired, but above all I'm fuckin' scared. I'm scared for me, for whiny Regent, for chatty Tattletale, I'm even scared for the runt we picked up, Taylor.
They aren't my friends, I didn't get to have those growing up. What they are, is my pact, we stick together, we fight and die together.
But this wasn't a fight, wasn't even a massacre, this was just an experiment to this bitch. I hated being toyed with, back in foster care, back with Rollo, back before I met the rest of the Undersiders, even when I met that snake Coil.
This was worse though, I didn't feel like I was being toyed with, I felt like I was nothing. Just a step for Bakuda to walk over, not worth looking at twice. I think that's why I started to cry, that I'd just be a fuck up from birth to trigger to death, just one massive fuckin' oops.
"Okay rats, I'm moving on to test number six for the night, if you survive that'll be it for the day!", god she would just not shut the fuck up, would she? I sank in further, waiting for death to come and take me already.
I heard her footsteps behind me as she hooks up whatever fuckin' tech she planned to kill us with, doubt it'll be quick. I look up as she walks behind me, I try to manage a snarl, but it probably came out as a whimper.
She walks back behind the safety of whatever the fuck her shieldings made out of and asks a dumb fucking question.
"Okay test number six is a go, any probably last words?!", she taunts, Lisa says something I can't hear before a heavy flick of a switch welcomes the pain.
Words are usually a fuckin' waste of breath and this feeling is a good example. Words don't work in putting something meaningful to this, it hurts worse than anything I've ever felt, worse than anything I'll hopefully ever feel. I only opened my eyes when I heard running water.
I look up but I don't see any, I look over to Taylor and I think I see a thin sheen over the floor. The thin layer keeps rising, I wait for it to touch me but it never does.
It did however, reach my teammates, the water slowly rising over their forms as the tables began to float up with them. They're screaming, oh god they're screaming. It's not like before, these aren't screams of pain, they're screams of fear.
I'm struggling against the fuckin' straps when the water raises them up to the roof, Lisa is trying to hold her breath but I don't know how long that'll last. Taylor is bubbling up air and gasping for breath as she begs me for help.
No, no, NO, I can't fucking get out, I can't fuckin' help, I need to, I've got to get up. I can feel my clothes fill out more as I struggle, the leather of the bonds begins to fray, before the pain finally takes my heart out.
Will I ever be free?
Four identical flatlines meet my own.
My heart burns as it starts up; a voice whispers in my mind.
Play dead, wait for my signal, bulk up, and grab her
Goddamnit, not the most intelligent thought, but goddamnit. Thought my hero career or otherwise would've been longer than this, but no, here I am barely a week into my foray as an undercover Undersider and I'm already going to die.
It's tough to dwell on but I don't see a way out of this, there's no bugs down here, the entire place has been sanitised too thoroughly. What little bugs I can feel above us leave my control with each jolt, so all in all? We were pretty much fucked.
I'd cry if I could, I'd kick and rage, and bring this single widow over to Bakuda, let it inject all of its venom into the tinkers veins, but I can't. I barely got the spider to wobble out of my hair before the power-disrupting lightning hits us. I'd thought of killing myself earlier, using my flatline to get Bakuda angry, maybe even angry enough to make a mistake, buy the others an opportunity to escape.
Being down here, on the brink of death, really puts things in perspective. I'd barely known the Undersiders a week, but I already considered them my friends. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't naive, I knew they were villains, I knew at least one of them had killed, but I knew they weren't as bad as their labels.
Rachel was abrasive to say the least, blunt and fierce, but after our fight when we'd been introduced I could feel it, a deep loyalty and respect. She wouldn't turn on me if I didn't give her a damn good reason.
Like selling her out to the PRT a traitorous thought came
Alec was… a difficult person to define, on the one hand he was a goofball, quick with a joke or snide comment, very devil may care. But on the other hand he seemed… longing, like he wanted to fill up with something, be it games, money, or the beer back in the hideout.
Brian was serious, or at least he tried to be, underneath the cold exterior he tried to project it was pretty obvious how much he cared for his team. That wasn't to say he was a softie by any means, but he certainly did have some soft spots.
Lisa reminded me of Emma, though not before or after her betrayal, but more somewhere in the middle. She was kind but snarky, mean but joking, I'd like to think we would have been closer friends someday. Too bad I'd never get the chance to find out.
"Okay rats, I'm moving on to test number six for the night, if you survive that'll be it for the day!" I thrashed and screamed as she maneuvered between us, a dark gray box held in her hands.
She moved back to the shielded console in front of Regent, presumably getting ready for the next round of torture. She peeked her head outside the tiny room and taunted us some more.
"Okay test number six is a go, any probably last words?!", this would usually be the part where the hero(ine) says something clever or profound but unfortunately for me, I'm too focused on how I should've played this differently, how I should've just sucked it up and joined The Wards, or god what about poor dad?
"FUCK YOU!", Lisa screams out, I guess she didn't have anything clever to say either but as a choice for last wo-
Oh fuck, this isn't just pain, it's the kind of torment only written about, the kind you can never completly describe, the kind that's supposed to last for barely a second at most. Only it just keeps going, deeper and deeper after each second, I force my eyes open as I hear the groaning of torn metal.
I don't see any of my teammates, Bitch and Regent have been replaced with long metal coffins that seem to have risen out the floor. A quick glance behind me confirms that the same has been done to Grue and Tattletale, it's only after I confirm this do I realize the stench.
The room doesn't smell like sterile disinfectant anymore, it smells like rotten blood and vomit, it smells like- oh god no. Just as I recognize the familiar scent, four sharp clangs come from either side of me and behind me, the lockers just closed.
I close my eyes to try and focus on something, anything else, but their screams sound even louder with the metalic echo of their own lockers. I only open my eyes when I hear the metal groaning again.
Four slightly corroded walls rise up around me, the roaches, beatles, and spiders welcome me back by gnawing at my flesh, it's as if I never left. I'm hyperventilating, I can't oh god, not again please no-
Who will take care of Aisha?
Who'll save the dogs?
Four identical flatlines meet my own.
My heart burns and twitches back to a jumpstart, as a voice whispers in the back of my mind.
Play dead, wait for darkness then attack.
I do as the voice says as I hear Bakuda walking towards the five of us, muttering something under her breath.
"Goddamn that hurt" I grumble as I exit my shielding, holding my masked head in my hands. Something screwy happened towards the tail end of the fear toxin experiment, went really fucking light-headed and bonked my head against the control console. Despite the pain I smile, I'd learned a shit ton about what made parahuman powers tick.
To think it was this easy, find their hideout (just ask the locals for the hotspots of Hellhounds' dog sightings), rig my knockout bomb somewhere out of sight of Tattletale, then get to work on them.
My smile deepens as I look towards my experiment, brilliant doesn't even begin to describe it. First thing was to shoot them up with a mixture of my own design, an electroconductive neurotoxin originally meant for skin contact. With this stuff on you, you'd be lit up like a christmas tree for hours.
With some minor tweaking to my formula, I had it congregate to where ever in the brain I chose it to go, combine that with the tesla coil (again custom built), I could keep the gemma too busy to give the victim any conscious control of their powers.
As I began dissembling the contraption, pulling needles out of dead teenagers, I thought I'd keep that little tidbit to myself. Lung wouldn't be so scary without his teeth.
I was fishing out my phone, getting ready to call some idiots down to dump bodies when the blonde behind me screamed.
"GRUE NOW!" I turned back towards Tattletale as a thick;black smog blankets the ground and quickly rises up and above me. I turn to run back to where I think my cover was, but before I could even take my first step, two hands, each big enough to wrap around my shoulders restrain me and I'm forced on to my back.
I writhe in the titanic grip of whoever it was before leather straps bind my wrists and ankles together, whatever the fuck they're doing they haven't decided to kill me yet.
The black fog dissipates and I see that I'm bound to one of the tables I'd set up earlier, but more importantly I see the five Undersiders staring back at me.
Regent and Tattletale stare at me with the bug girl in between them, on Regent's right is Hellhound and on Tattletale's left is Grue.
Hellhound looked monstrous, she'd gain damn near a foot in height and her boots tore from the tips, revealing long claws where her toes should be. Her hands were similarly changed with exposed bony plates around her knuckles. And while she wasn't exactly lean before, now she was built like a truck, with much wider shoulders and muscles that bulged under her clothes.
Her face looked mostly the same aside from the teeth she bared at me, the incisors engorged to a ridiculous level. From her forehead sprouted two large slightly curved horns just barely grazing the ceiling.
Grue looked changed similarly but not quite the same as Hellhound, his muscles not quite so pronounced and his horns not quite so long.
The Undersiders stared back at me and spoke all simultaneously:
"What did you do to us?"
The five teenagers didn't seem to register their unspoken coordination, not even sparing a glance at one another. As I went to speak up, Regent stepped forward and ripped the mask from my face harshly, holding it tightly in white-knuckled hands. The darkness generator spoke up next.
"Regent, what do you think you're doing?" Regent said nothing as he just seemed to grip my mask tighter, Tattletale then decided to explain it for him.
"He figures we can have some kind of mutually assured destruction this way, but with Bakuda", she glared my way "attacking us in our civvies, knowing where we live, I don't…" the blonde trailed off as the hulking monster that was Hellhound spoke up and began to prowl towards me.
"We should just kill her, after all she's done why don't we just-" both the bug girl and Grue shouted over her.
"NO!" Grue stepped between me and Hellhound as his horns began to flake off into dust and his form shrunk back to his original size.
"Bitch, we can't kill her, no matter how much I want to we can't have The Undersiders associated with murder no matter how justified, we can't take the heat that brings,"
"Oh come the fuck on!" Regent yelled as he threw my mask to the other side of the room "She knows who we are, she clearly doesn't give two shits about the rules so let's -" Regent mimed tying his hands together around an invisible wire and pulled.
I chose that moment to speak up, hoping that they're desire for answers would supersede any desire to kill me.
"I-I don't know what I did exactly, but I do know what I was experimenting with, you've got a thinker on your side not me, maybe you can piece it together" I gulped as the thinker in question shouted at me.
"And where are we supposed to do that genius?! We can't go back home because as somebody has clearly shown, that's out the goddamn window!",
"DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE CALL ME STUPID! I would've killed all of you if I wanted to, I only wanted to set a goddamn example why you don't fuck with The ABB!" I shook angrily on the table, how dare she question my intelligence? I could've, should've just killed the littl-
Hellhound pushed past Grue, one monstrous hand outstretched to crush my skull, I screamed out a desperate plea as I realized what my outburst has cost me.
"NO-ONE ELSE KNOWS!", Hellhound stopped her advance as all of The Undersiders eyes fell on me, the bug girl paused from shrinking in on herself and asked their group question.
"What do you mean?"
"I gathered up the men who moved you and your dogs," Hellhound perked up "I had them all killed, made some bs up to the higher brass of The ABB about betrayal, I needed people to know we got payback; not how we got it" the bug girl sat back on the ground holding her knees to her chest as Tattletale filled in the gaps.
"You didn't want anyone to know you broke the unwritten rules, didn't want The Empire or The Protectorate to come down hard on the ABB". I nodded my head as Grue got the conversation back on track.
"So… what did you do to us, those" he gestured to his head "h-hallucinations", he stuttered as the room got ten times as tense, Tattletale shuddered as Regent shifted from side to side tightening his hands into fists, the unnamed Undersider practically collapsed in on herself as she choked back a sob, Hellhound (Bitch?) let loose an unsettling growl, all five distraught but infuriated eyes stared back at me.
"The last experiment wasn't even mine, the toxin that went into your systems was the designs of another tinker down in New Jersey, called himself Scarecrow", Regent interrupted me then.
"How'd you get it? New Jersey's not exactly far but it's nowhere near close enough to smuggle tinker chems."
"I made that batch myself, Scarecrow was… killed by The Nine last time they were in town", I shuddered at the memory Scarecrow wasn't killed but I bet he wishes he was dead. Bonesaw turned him into a horrible effigy of himself, a screaming statue spewing out his own toxin in an empty cornfield.
"The drug was designed to make the victim hallucinate their own worst fear, he'd never tested it to it its' full effect on parahumans- I wante-"
Grue lunged forward and placed both his hands on my shoulders.
"Save. It. I don't want to hear your excuses," he turned back to the other Undersiders, "so, what do we do?" The bug controller answered back.
"We can't just kill-" Regent then rubbed his eyes as he whined.
"Oh fuck off! Just throw her down the stairs and leave, nothing to say we did it." Grue and bug argued against Regent and Bitch, arguing me mercy and death respectively. Tattletale yelled over the cacophony
"QUIET", she then gestured to the darkness emitter "Grue, curtain," the black teen nodded and gestured towards me, a black featureless wall engulfed his hand before consuming my vision.
Brian Laborn/ Grue
I turned back to my team with one hand still held towards the dark wall, my hand still spewing what the others saw as black smoke. Alec seemed to calm down at my display, tilting his head as he shot a statement.
"Huh, didn't know you could do that" I shrugged and replied.
"Couldn't do it till tonight…" I turned towards Lisa "what's the plan for Bakuda?" Taylor cut in again before she could answer.
"We shouldn't just-" Lisa put her arms out in a placating gesture
"We're not going to kill her, alright?", she met everyone's eyes before continuing, "Grue do you think you could do the same thing that you did to Bitch on Bakuda? Copy her powers I mean?"
"Should be able to, but Bitch's power er- her new one is physical, Bakuda's a tinker, I think I can but I don't know, what did you have in mind?"
"Tinker up a way to erase her short term memory? Truth be told it's the best shot we have at not having to kill her, it's either you can do it or we keep her at her word which honestly?" Regent gave a voice to our feelings on that option.
"Yeah, no fuckin' way, asshole came at us underhanded and against the rules, but if you guys wanna be all 'nonlethal' about it fine. If it doesn't work though?", he dragged his finger across his throat slowly.
I looked towards each of my team before nodding, we'd try it. I turned back towards my loose construct and brought the wall between us and Bakuda down. The tinker stared back at me, eyes filled with desperate hope. I gestured towards Bitch
"Knock her out, no more" Bitch stalked forward as the tinker began to shriek, my monstrous teammate thumped her hard on the top of the skull and she went limp instantly.
As soon as she fell back on the table, my darkness spewed forth and seeped into her. Just as soon I felt the gentle tug of her power in my mind, ideas and inspiration that just got stronger the more I focused on it.
I could make an explosive that could send out bacteria designed to heal the wounded, a unique kind of leukocyte that would form upon contact with the air. It would stimulate regeneration by latching on to the mitochondria of other healthy cells to promote mitosis, it wouldn't even be that difficult, just find the right triggers and-
One of my legs gave out from under me as Alec and Taylor held me steady, Taylor sent Alec a glare which he oddly responded kinda sheepishly to.
Oh, he tripped me. I stood up right and opened my mouth before Rachel explained.
"You spaced out, can you do it or not?"
I turned back towards the grayscale blob that held Bakuda then nodded before expanding on my plan.
"Yeah, yeah I can do it. If we can find more of the electro-conductive stimulus I could arrange to have the hydrokinetic lightning form in her hippocampus, it would fry her short term memory, the last couple days at least." I turned back and muttered out the more basic terminology.
"Just find the first thing she injected us with, I'll handle the rest," I let the blob that swallowed Bakuda whole shrink down to a loose tendril around her neck as I rubbed the back of my own.
Regent walked past me to go towards the cover Bakuda was using, his fingers sliding up my bicep as he spoke.
"Don't worry about it Bri, besides you're cute when you're all blushy like that."
"I um, just go find the serum already!" I shrugged off his hand as he began to cackle, embarrassed as I was it was good that he was calming down, but that did bring up some new questions.
When was the last time I'd seen Regent mad? Annoyed sure, I saw that all the time but genuinely angry? I don't think I have, though I suppose if anything was going to make him angry, this would do it.
I tightened the straps around Bakuda wrists and ankles, securing her to the table, sliding the iv into her arm as I began to ruminate on what exactly happened. We'd been tortured, not just beaten but actually tortured, it was still hard to think about.
We'd been pushed to the point few capes ever get to, we'd… we'd second triggered. Good lord what did this mean?
I focused on readjusting the voltage in a way that the fluid would congregate where I wanted it to. I then waited for the others to return with more of Bakuda's toxin.
I'd barely just gotten relaxed before Taylor, Lisa, and Rachel came back from the room adjacent to us, with three dogs in tow. Taylor carried Angelica whilst Bitch carried both Brutus and Judas.
"She had em locked up in the other room, probably was going to kill them to torture Bitch, they're fine though, just sleepy with whatever Bakuda gassed them with." Tattletale explained to me as Bitch shifted her grip on the two dogs. They always looked big for their breed even when normal, but now in Rachel's much taller form they looked almost small. Speaking of, I ought to ask.
"Bitch, can you change back at all?" Most triggers, aside from Case 53's didn't change the person much physically, but second triggers were a different beast entirely. Narwhal of The Guild brought attention to second triggers and was a prime example in how unpredictable they could be, her body permanently changed after hers.
Bitch looked up from the dogs in her arms and tilted her head at me.
"Why? Stronger this way, don't have to worry as much anymore" she turned her attention back to her dogs, idly scratching Judas behind his ears.
"But can you though?" Taylor asked, placing one hand down over Rachel's unoccupied enormous claw. Bitch looked down at Taylor and nodded, then looked back up at me.
"Yeah, I can, shouldn't though, not till we're back home" well that's a relief, Rachel was already hard enough to go out in public with normally.
"Yoohoo, if you guys are done over there," I turned to find Alec strutting over with a thin glass vial in his hands, labeled simply with a lightning bolt. "I got the juice."
He tried to maintain his impassive personality as he walked up, but after seeing him on the verge of killing someone with his bare hands it was obvious how not ok he was.
His eyes kept flicking over to Bakuda, his unoccupied hand twitched ever so slightly as he took in the contraption behind me, he'd seemed like he hated the shocks the most.
I met him halfway and grabbed the vial, our fingers brushing for just a second, I'd like to say it was the nature of the chem that sent a tingle up my spine. What the hell was wrong with me?
I turned back quickly and tried to ignore Lisa boring her eyes into the back of my skull, quickly replacing the used vial in Bakuda's contraption with the full. I turned back towards the others and motioned to get behind cover.
I grabbed Alec and Taylor's hands as I walked over towards the console with the two in tow, none of us were okay but they seemed the worst off. What kind of leader would I be if I didn't help them with this, at the very least it would distract me from the vision Bakuda induced in me.
As I flipped and turned dials on her console, getting ready to initiate the procedure, I began to speak aloud.
"3", I opened the latch made over the ironically big red button.
"2" I placed my right hand upon said button and made sure the others were clear.
"GO!" I slammed the button down as Bakuda began to jolt and spasm on the same table I was not an hour ago. I kept it going for another thirty or so seconds before switching off the machine, satisfied I'd erased the past few days at least.
Taylor tilted her head over my shoulder, her hands resting on each.
"Did- did it work?"
"Should have, now we just need to make sure she doesn't just come after us again." I replied
"So we're turning her in?" she seemed just a touch excited before Lisa came back into the room, Rachel, and the dogs with her.
"Yep," Lisa said, "good news too, we're directly beneath her lab, just call it in and we're good to go." Alec then stepped out from behind me a folded sheet of paper in his hand and some scotch tape in the other.
"So it was really that easy, just strap down, inject, and zappidy zap?" he asked
"I wouldn't call it easy, the serum itself likely takes several days to gestate and that's not even going into the more exotic ingredients needed," I let my darkness fade away from Bakuda and instantly felt the knowledge of her power leave my mind.
"Still think we should kill her" Rachel grumbled, the dogs in her arms were just starting to rouse from their slumber, eagerly licking the side of her face.
"Can't say I blame you," Taylor spoke up, "but this is the right thing to do, anybody find their phone in there?"
Lisa answered by pulling her burner out of her pocket, Alec slapped Bakuda's mask onto the unconscious bomber's face, the note he'd written taped to it, "for Bakuda" it said.
After making sure there wasn't any trace of our identities, no hidden cameras, no pictures or videos; we made our way topside for the first time since this morning. It was chilly out in the April night, just above freezing.
It was the kind of cold that bit just occasionally, the kind that would make you shiver just as you were getting used to it, to put simply, it sucked.
"So… we riding tonight or what?" Alec asked Rachel as he stretched languidly, Rachel stared back as she shook her head, responding at Alec's head tilt.
"No, dogs are too tired, we can walk." Just as Alec began to complain I tried to mediate between the two.
"Good idea Rachel, we don't have our masks anyway, come on we're not that far," I didn't actually know how far we were but our hideout was pretty close to ABB territory, besides my point stands, couldn't have five random teens associated with Bitch's dogs. Oh, that reminds me
"Bitch, can you shrink back down, ought to make us more inconspicuous", at her glare I rectified, "we won't be noticed as easily, so shrink down" I let just a touch of heat enter my voice as I spoke, giving it just a tad warning edge.
So with that settled, we began our trek, Lisa on the phone as we walked, two of the three dogs slowly trotting alongside us.
"Yep, we got the ABB's new tinker, Bakuda…" I heard a small clatter as one of Bitch's horns fell, "no guards as far as we could tell… dunno…" she began to walk in front of me as her knuckle plates slid off her skin "it's her lab alright… lot 42 by the docks… The Undersiders… " she staggered a little as she carried Angelica, a slight misstep as she shrunk back to normal height "not a joke… nope, bye."
Lisa sighed as I asked if everything was alright, she nodded as I felt a slight weight against my left shoulder. I looked down to find Taylor slumping against me and then standing up straight as if burned.
"Taylor" she jumped, startled as I spoke "you alright?"
"Yeah, just tired, woke up early this morning, then everything… happened…" she trailed off as I bit my lip.
I wasn't all that tired, the adrenaline of Bitch's power seemed to have some slight side effects, decision made, I walked in front of Taylor and kneeled on one knee, my back facing her.
"Brian? W-what are you doing?" she asked, I was about to tell her to hop on before Alec decided to tell her, in his own way of course.
"What does it look like dork? He's offering a ride on the Laborn express, better hop aboard before I decide to." I think he meant it as a joke but the slight anger seemed to motivate Taylor more than anything.
She was surprisingly light, almost worryingly so. I felt her grip around my neck tighten as I stood up, I held her thighs flush against the sides of my torso as I kept walking, trying to reassure her I wouldn't drop her.
It took another ten or so minutes before we could see anything familiar, by then the walk was going to last another twenty minutes at most.
Halfway there Taylor's head leaned onto the back of my left shoulder, her grip slackened to a loose pair of held hands, her breath gently tickling the nape of my neck. None of my teammates spoke about it, though Lisa stared with a bit more interest than Alec or Rachel did.
We'd gotten back to the hideout soon after, with a quick cursory look of its exterior, we headed inside. Aside from the broken door, a thug's bootprint clearly visible by the lock, there wasn't much of anything wrong.
Hell the tv was still on from Alec's game earlier that day, though the console had clearly shut itself off long before we got back.
"Tattletale" I asked, loud enough to make my voice known to any squatters that might be here, "anyone or anything here?"
Lisa looked towards the tv, then the kitchenette, and shook her head.
"No, we're all alone"
"Any chance there's anything left of the bomb or any other surprises?"
"No to the first one, should look around more though, just to be safe" I nodded and glanced towards Alec and Rachel, in unspoken agreement they began to fan out and search the place for bugs or bombs, whilst I stood guard by the door.
Or as much on guard as I could be with Taylor sleeping on my back. Thankfully after a few minutes Tattletale gave the all clear and we began to get settled for the night.
Lisa had the bright idea of fetching a blanket for Taylor as I began to untangle herself from me.
Or at least I tried to, despite her relaxed and seemingly deep sleep, the moment I made to remove her, she whined pitifully and held on tighter.
Alec had entered the kitchenette to grab himself a drink and chuckled at the sight of me, trying to gently pry off our newest Undersider without hurting her.
"Huh, would you look at that, a real live cuddlebug" he snorted at his own pun before taking a sip of his water, his eyes filled with amusement at my predicament.
"Would you shut up and help me here", I asked just a touch exasperated.
"And risk getting caught up in that? No thank you," he paused as Taylor began to mumble something in her sleep. I paid little attention to it as I tried wrenching her away a bit more forcefully, it was only two words but I caught them both.
"No… please…", I stopped immediately and looked down at the body I'd turned over to face my front. Taylor wasn't awake but her eyes were screwed shut, almost in pain, "p-please… don't."
She- she sounded so small, so afraid, I sat there dumbstruck as she rewound her arms around me, rubbing her face into the crook of my neck. I idly noticed that the top of her head rested perfectly beneath my chin.
I only came back to reality as I heard Alec moving something behind me. I turned back to see him moving our coffee table near the far wall.
"What are you doing?" I asked as I stood up, Taylor whined as I did so, but stopped as I readjusted my grip to more easily carry her.
"You'll see" he responded, he sounded tired, not physically but more mentally like he was resigned to his… I don't know, his tiredness I guess.
He then went down towards his room, the door opened as he looked for something. Then with a grunt of exertion I saw him slowly edge his mattress out into the main room, I knew immediately what he was doing but asked the not so apparent question.
"Where are you gonna sleep?" He grunted out an answer as he slid the mattress out in front of our couch, letting it fall in front of me.
"With you dummy, I'm way too fucking tired for personal space right now anyway." He turned back towards his room, presumably to get his pillows and blanket, but stopped as I put one hand on his shoulder.
"Alec" he tried to shrug off my hand, but I held firm "are you okay? For real, are you alright?" His shoulders slumped as he pinched his nose.
"No, to be honest Bri, I'm not fucking okay, look I… we'll talk about it tomorrow okay? For now let's just go to bed, please?", I let him go.
"Alright, we can do that", he hurried to his room as I sat down on the mattress, carefully taking off my and Taylor's shoes as we waited. Alec came back down the hall with Lisa and Rachel with him, each carrying their own pillows and blankets.
"So… we're all sleeping out here?"
"Duh" and "yeah" was said by Alec and Rachel respectively as Lisa sat down on the edge of the mattress with me.
"Yep" she said "looks like a regular slumber party"
No more words were passed between us as we got ready for bed, I layed in the middle, Taylor resting partly on my front, whilst Alec took my right, Rachel behind him as Lisa took my left, holding on to Taylor as we all tried to get some shuteye
I awoke only once to feel the bed jolting slightly, I opened my eyes in slight panic before realising what it was. Alec was convulsing slightly, spasming as he slept, my tired mind slipped my hand into his without a second thought.
Rachel grabbed him sleepily and held him close, his back to her front. I grumbled out my thoughts as I held back a yawn.
"We have a lot to talk about tomorrow." Lisa stirred and answered my statement with one of her own.
"You have no idea."
AUTHOR'S NOTE. Hello all, this chapter might seem a tad waify at points (especially the end), but please realize this will be roughly equal parts a shipfic as well as exploring an idea for a story, don't worry though.
This story will not devolve into ooc fluffy character interaction for no reason, I'm confident my beta (thank you bwu256) will keep me on track as I try to write this story.
Also, I know it might seem that I'm brushing over second triggers, but I can promise that this will be explored more completly before the first arc is done.
I've also included a small illustration for this chapter, enjoy Laborn Express by Jade0Monarch on DeviantArt.
I plan on updating this again in two weeks, though I did say that a week ago, so it may or may not come early
Thank you all, see ya on the flipside.
I awoke slowly; stiffly, my muscles aching like I'd ran a marathon or two. Truth be told, I wouldn't have woken up at all were it not for the loss of warmth that kept me company throughout the night. I stretched both my arms deeply, searching for the heat sink I'd been latched onto.
As I felt around blindly, I heard a strange clicking. A sound not unlike plastic hitting plastic, it had no rhythm or pattern, and was oddly familiar as I focused on my sleepy intrusion.
Game controller, console, likely a newer model, xbox based upon slight stickine-
Okay power, thank you for the hint. I opened my eyes to take in the scene, groggily rubbing into them as I did so.
Brian laid in front of me, turned on his side as he scrunched up his nose in his sleep, it seemed like he was the reason I'd lost out on extra sleep.
In his arms lay Taylor, her sleeping face framed by her black hair, she seemed content as our leader held her gently, holding on to a hand that reached over Brian to her.
I leaned up onto my elbow and saw Rachel's arm stretched over Brian, her hand being the one wrapped around Taylor's own. She seemed to have leaned into Brian closer than she was last night, Brian being the middle spoon between the two.
Alec sat on the edge of the bed, a blanket over his shoulders as he played his video game, the sound off as he shot up what looked like zombies. He turned back to look at me as I shuffled up, he gave me a surprisingly gentle smile before turning back to his shooter.
I disentangled my legs from Taylor's as I got up, deciding to do what I do best, talk. I took Alec's left as I began to stretch out the kinks in my limbs, my right foot gently knocking into his left.
"Morning Alec," I made to stifle a yawn, "... how'd you sleep?" he snorted before replying.
"Thought you were supposed to be good at smalltalk" he teased, "but for your information, I could've done with a little less blanket hogging but…" he trailed off.
"...but?" I pushed, I know he hated to have his thoughts, any of his thoughts, dragged out, but this felt like something he needed to say to me and himself. He rolled his eyes in slight annoyance before acquiecing.
"Buuuut, I slept pretty fuckin' great all things considered, you?"
"Me too, I'm only up because Brian" I gestured behind us, "stole Taylor from me."
"To be fair, you stole her first, she was latched onto him like a koala before you tugged her away.", he smirked at me, I'll admit I was a tad flustered at the implications of last night's unscheduled cuddle pile. I sighed with deep frustration, something was going on here and my power refused to help on that front.
The mood between us seemed to drop like a stone, both of us were pretty good at hiding what had happened but neither of us could ignore the changes.
Bakuda… did something to us, something besides or because of the triggers. My power helped me fill in the details a little, but just drew blanks when I was looking for actual answers.
Alec… had plenty of experience in emotional manipulation, I know he knows I know. Same as how we both know that something is fucking with the team dynamic.
I mean, take last night for example, since when were any of us so touchy-feely? A week ago, any of us even considering sharing a bed would be laughable.
Rachel wanted to be friends, but she'd been warped too far for any of us to make a meaningful connection. I turned back to look at her sleeping form and couldn't help the fond smile that graced my lips. She hadn't changed significantly, she was still blunt, angry, and loyal to a fault.
But now she was so much more than those surface characteristics, she was protective, strong; she was caring and… lots of changes were coming, I just hope we're tough enough to weather it.
"Penny for your thoughts?" he asked, glancing my way for a quick second before going back to his game. I bit the inside of my cheek before responding, pondering how to broach the topic.
"Actually, scratch that," he said, pausing the violence on screen to face me fully, "pretty sure I know what you're gonna say… let's hold up until the others get up.", I nodded as he resumed his virtual carnage.
So there we sat, him and I in silent company for the next fifteen minutes or so, the quiet clicks of his controller faintly breaching over Brian's soft snores. I was snapped out of my thoughts when, what felt like a foot, poked into the small of my back.
I twisted myself to look back at the offender and caught Taylor blindly slapping the mattress, likely searching for her glasses. Alec turned at the noise and exhaled sharply before answering Taylor's confusion.
"Glasses are on the coffee table dork," he cracked his back as he stood up, "I'll grab 'em".
As Alec began to pad over to said coffee table, Taylor opened her eyes and squinted at me, trying to put me in focus.
I waved as she blinked blearily, giving a greeting as I decided to fetch myself some water.
"Good morning Taylor, how'd you sleep?" she continued to stare at me before sleepily replying.
"'isa?" she asked, oh, she's not sure where she is.
"Yep, you're at the hideout, Brian had to carry you to bed last night." I turned back to the three on the mattress, Taylor had rolled herself towards me as Alec tapped her on the ear with her glasses. She idly grabbed them and slid it onto her face, she opened her mouth to respond but stopped as she realized whose arms she was still in.
A noise caught between a squeak and a hiccup escaped her lips as she scrambled to get up, face beet red the whole while. I tried to hold in my amusement with a hand covering my mouth, Alec however, had no such compunction and loudly began to cackle.
Brian sat up at his mirth, groggily rising as he pinched his nose. Rachel also began to wake, stretching all four of her limbs as she took in the early morning world.
"G'morning" Brian said to the room, getting up onto his feet immediately and walking towards the bathroom. I was heading back towards the other three when my phone began to ring, my work phone.
Coil my power provided unhelpfully, yeah no shit. The only other people who had that number were in the room sans phones. I looked towards Alec and he gave me a silent nod, turning the volume up on the tv whilst I walked towards my room phone in hand.
I accepted the call, trying to pretend my hands weren't shaking as I brought it up to my ear.
"Tattletale," his oily voice sounding particularly slimy, "how are you this morning?".
This was one of the biggest things I hated about the man, the dog and pony show of it all. How he only partook in questions like these for formality, but how he expected you to return the favor.
"I'm good boss, how are you?" I replied, going through the motions of this old song and dance yet again.
"I'm doing well Lisa," he put emphasis on my name, I didn't even need to use my power to know that it was deliberate, lording over how much he knew about me and in contrast how little I knew about him.
"Now onto the business at hand, my sources have informed me that Bakuda is in PRT custody, but more importantly that my Undersiders are responsible, why?"
And this brought it back to the pageantry he loves so much, he pretends to not know things, to let you lie to him first before "rightfully" bringing down his wrath. I wasn't going to play a game I wouldn't win though.
"We'd been kidnapped by Bakuda in our hideout yesterday, we managed to break free and subdue her, we'd decided not to kill her which left us with only the option of turning her in." I awaited his prepared response.
"...", which never came, I looked down at the phone to see if he'd hung up but saw the number still connected. I brought the phone back up as he began asking questions.
"When and how?" he asked, I paused as I considered his question, the only reason he'd ask for fine details before were to assumedly sort out lies. I hadn't lied yet, it could be that or just maybe he doesn't actually know!
The next half an hour or so continued on like this, him asking for specifics whilst I gave him the stripped down version of yesterday. I tried to bend the truth as much as I could before he asked the question I didn't have much room to lie in.
"The PRT claims that Bakuda has some form of amnesia, she doesn't even remember arriving in Brockton Bay, how did this occur?"
Damnit, I wanted to keep this part hidden for as long as I could, it was probably futile to lie to him, but there wasn't anyone who could actually tell him besides us five, there wasn't any evidence, digital or otherwise that could explain what happened.
So, I took a deep breath and lied my ass off.
"She underestimated us, Regent managed to trip her up when she thought she'd killed us, there was an accident and she got caught in her own experiment. We decided not to kill her, hoped she'd just be smart enough not to try again. Guess the memory loss was a happy coincidence."
Coil paused yet again, the phone silent for much longer than the last.
"I suppose so…" he said, voice dripping with scepticism "and the letter to Bakuda then?", my eyes widened, shit I didn't actually read it, Alec could have given us away before we could settle on a lie.
"Should I just consider it a veiled warning to the ABB? I'll admit the simple 'don't try this again' works well." Oh thank god, I responded quickly, careful to keep the relief out of my voice.
"Yes boss, we don't have the outright power to challenge the ABB, but some misdirection on our strength gives us some leeway."
"Hmm, you better not be lying to me, pet " he hung up immediately, leaving me to stew with that insidious nickname he gave me.
I was nearly going to scream before a knock sounded at my door, I turned back and opened it to see Brian standing there, a jacket thrown over a different shirt from this morning.
"Hey, we were gonna find some breakfast place to go to, you uh, wanna join us?", he sounded oddly bashful as he asked, way more bashful than necessary for a simple breakfast invitation. I tried to hone in my power for an answer but predictably came up blank.
"Yeah give me a minute and I'll be right out." I gently closed the door and began getting changed for breakfast, trying to focus on anything but the greasy feeling I get after talking to Coil.
I'd changed into a simple pair of jeans with a light green top, a black; light jacket over that, and tennis shoes completed the ensemble. I tied my hair up in a high ponytail as I walked out to greet the others, thinking about where there even was a good breakfast joint around the docks.
My other four teammates had been gathered around the island in the kitchenette, just meandering about as they waited for me. Alec looked over whatever was on Brian's phone before his eyes met mine, nudging the darkness controller before speaking.
"Finally, let's get a move on already, I'm starved," he pivoted on his heel towards the door dramatically as he motioned us to follow.
As the five of us exited our hideout, I asked Alec where it was we were actually heading.
"That diner out on Birkdale, Lucky Spoon I think, yo Bri hurry the hell up!" he said, cupping his hands as he looked at the black teen.
I turned back to see said teen trying to close the broken door as best he could, but was obviously worried about the hideout's security. Taylor assured him that Rachel's dogs were more than enough protection for the hour or so we'd be out, and so we headed off towards the restaurant on foot.
I tried to recall the actual restaurant I'm sure I passed a million times and luckily remembered why it was noteworthy. Back before The Merchants and ABB, "The Lucky Spoon Cafe" was the preferred stomping ground of The Marche's leader, Marquis.
When the osteokinetic ended up Birdcaged by The Brockton Bay Brigade, you'd think his enemies would leap at the chance to erase his influence but The E88 snatched up the little cafe and had been protecting it on the fringe of their territory for years.
Maybe it was out of respect of an old rival or maybe they thought to keep it as a trophy of a defeated enemy, both possibilities were equally likely for someone as skewed as Kaiser.
Either way, food good enough for a twisted gang leader was good enough for me. The trek didn't take long, less than ten minutes into our walk and we'd already spotted the diner, and then soon after we could smell the savory aroma of seared meats and maple syrup.
I thought it funny how the preferred restaurant of a supposedly high brow supervillain seemed way more like a mom and pop place than some overly expensive aristocracy.
The bell above the door chimed sharply as Brian held the door for the rest of us, a cook looking up from his flat top grill as it rang through the mostly empty restaurant. He turned to face us and yelled a simple greeting.
"Good morning and welcome to The Lucky Spoon Cafe, have a seat and someone will be right out!", his job done, he turned back to the sizzling bacon behind him.
The five of us picked a circular booth opposite the door, away from prying ears, squeezing in a tad snuggly as it wasn't quite big enough. Brian and Taylor took the ends whilst Alec, me, and Rachel sat between them. None of us mentioned the ivory mask set above the door, meant to resemble a human skull but with fused teeth and slits for a nose.
A waiter came towards us, menus in hand as he pulled out a notepad, ready to take our drinks as soon as possible. The skinny man, likely in his mid 20's, cleared his throat as he introduced himself.
"Hello, I'm Hennesy, I'll be your waiter this fine morning," he handed out the menus diligently as Rachel glared down at hers, trying to will it into being something easier for her.
"What can I start you off to drink with?", before anyone could answer, I asked him what exactly the cafe had for beverages, saving Rachel the trouble of reading out her options.
As he began to rattle off the choices, I let myself smile when Rachel perked up at the mention of apple juice and did so again when Taylor heard they had tea. Brian and I ordered our coffee's (mine just a hint sweet whilst he had his with heavy cream and two sugars), Alec deigned to have orange juice, whilst the other two got their favourites.
I idly noted that Taylor's preferred morning tea was green tea with honey and that Rachel seemed to have a slight sweet tooth.
Our drinks taken care of, we quietly deliberated what to eat, all silently agreeing to save our energy for the conversation up ahead.
When Rachel closed her menu last, her choice decided, I tried to think of the best way to approach last night. If I didn't commit to addressing it, the rest of this morning would be unbearably tense. If I brought it up too casually then I'd come off as uncaring to the absolute hell we'd been through. As I opened my mouth to begin however, Hennesy returned with our drinks, ready to take our orders.
"Here you are, two coffees,an orange and apple juice, and green tea, yes?", we gave our thanks as he pulled his notepad back out, starting with Brian and ending on Taylor.
"Pancakes with a side of eggs, sunnyside, and bacon", Hennesy scribbled that down as he turned towards me
"Shortstack of waffles, three to be precise." I answered as Alec got ready to order his.
"Same as Brian", he pointed to the teen in question, "but make mine scrambled." Rachel had been looking back down at her menu, likely making sure she read it right before answering.
"Steak, make it rare with hashbrowns." she seemed content that she'd read it correctly when the clearly irish man pivoted lastly to Taylor
"Waffles with a side of eggs, poached", she said simply, Hennesy gave us an eta while he snatched up our menus. Distraction over, I could reluctantly begin what was going to be one tense conversation.
"So…" good job me "I think we need to address what's exactly happened to us since… y'know." I finished lamely.
Taylor was the first to respond, the rest of us sat in varying states of anxiety as she scanned the rest of the restaurant before replying.
"Lisa," she hissed, "we shouldn't talk about that here!" she whisper shouted at me. Her panic seemed to drop the tension a tad as Alec snorted, Rachel even cracked a small smile as Brian alleviated her worries.
"It's alright, Tay" he said "no one's around… "he breathed in deeply as he continued "we need to talk about this, sooner or later."
And the tension rose up again, momentary relief over as Brian took the reigns of the conversation.
"We don't have to talk about what happened, I'd prefer if we didn't honestly… let's start with something easy, err easier." He steadied himself as he continued.
"My darkness, it's always been difficult to shape, the only shape it ever wanted to form was just a growing smog, but now," he held up his left hand above the table, his right shielding it from the rest of the cafe.
From his palm an impossibly black flower sprouted then changed into a vaguely elephant shape, it's trunk lifting up silently.
"It's not just that,-" Alec interrupted swiftly as he sipped at his orange juice
"Duh", Brian glowered at the nerve master before continuing
"Y'know how I can see through it, like it's a black and white movie, now it's more like, I can feel everything it holds like I'm a part of it, I could tell you exactly everything that was down there, down to the finest detail. It's…" he trailed off face twisted in concentration, clearly searching for a word.
"Omnipresence", I provided, then explained it deeper "you're everywhere in the darkness, you can sense everything in it", he nodded before continuing.
"That and…ever since I got Rachel's power, I've held onto a little of it? It's probably a bigger kick than any coffee, but you have to be in the darkness somehow." That had potential to be a huge force multiplier.
"Did you 'hold on' to anything Bakuda's power had?" I asked, he stared at me before responding.
"I don't think so? If I'm any smarter, I'm not tinker smart." he blinked as Alec put his hand into his own.
"Alec," he pushed out "what are you-", Alec interrupted with a mischievous glint in his eye.
"You said it's better than caffeine, so hit me, I hate coffee anyway."
"Wait, what if it's dangerous? We shouldn't test it on ourselves!" Taylor hissed at the two males at the table, Brian shook his head stating he knew it wouldn't hurt the recipient, and with that, ebony tendrils slid up between the two teens enclasped hands. The effect was immediate.
Alec's eyes widened as the pupils dilated, his posture stiffened up as his breath grew almost ragged. Rachel reached forward and grabbed his other hand with both of hers, gently making circles with her thumbs on his skin.
Pupils dilating by 40%, increased epinephrine levels, increased neurotransmitters, loss of hunger and salivation, symptoms not unlike fight or flight my power provided answers to my subconscious questions as Alec slowly came back down to being calm, staring at Rachel's still closed hands.
Rachel's calloused hands paused her ministrations and gently unwound them, explaining as she did so.
"Your eyes", she pointed towards his, "looked like my dogs when they first start getting big."
Alec gave a grateful smile as he got his breathing back to normal.
"Whoa… talk about a pick me up, might not have hurt, but warn a guy next time.", he stared down at his drink as he motioned Brian to continue.
"The main thing that's changed is the power copying obviously, whoever's in my field, my power can suppress and copy there's like it's my own." We all took a moment to absorb that before Alec decided to continue on with our power discussions.
"Yeah well… can we skip me? It's not that I don't trust you guys, buuuut," he held his face in his hands as he muttered into them "I'm pretty sure you won't trust me if I say what's exactly changed.". I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to reassure him.
He looked up as Brian put his hand on the other shoulder, giving his own assurance.
"It's cool Alec, I've had my suspicions you've been sandbagging since we met but…" he looked towards the others as he finished, "we're a team, now more than ever." Alec looked up at him with naked hope until he pushed back to his impassive normality, giving a smirk as he did.
"That's so fucking cheesy dude," he looked back at the rest of us and gave a sigh, "my power, even before yesterday, wasn't just twitches and spasms… I can control people, from the brainstem down I control everything.", he looked at the rest of us, waiting for disgust that never came.
Rachel was the first to break up the silence, blunt as usual.
"So what? You're power's creepy, I make dogs into 'monsters'" the air quotes clear as she spoke and pointed her thumb at Taylor, "she controls bugs, Brian can take your sight, hearing, and powers, and Lisa can know someone's secrets in minutes… none of our power's are pretty.", she finished staring at everyone for a challenge to her statement.
Alec gave a chuckle and though he didn't show it on his face, I could hear the relief in his voice.
"Yeah well now, it's a bit worse than control, before I couldn't get anything from the bodies brains, I'd have to know who they were to sell they were still themself.".
"Now though?" Taylor asked, eyes more curious than disturbed.
"I still don't get much, but I do get some things, recent things especially, what they had for breakfast that day, their names, and pretty much everything in the past half a day or so of me hija- taking over.".
"I'm sure there's more," Brian said, setting his elbows on the table, "my power changed a lot, I'm sure yours did too.".
"Yeah there's more, I still need line of sight to even make people twitch, but right now," he pointed towards the kitchen "I can tell there are three people in the kitchen, exactly seven other people waiting on their food, and two waiters, including Rajesh, walking about."
"That and I could barely control just me and one other person, now I'm sure I could control a dozen at least while still walking about."
Taylor bit her lip as we all took this in, clearly deciding on whether she should share her newfound abilities, she looked into my eyes shakily.
I gave her a patient smile, I know she's worried; terrified that we'll up and leave her without a second thought… that and the other thing she's worried of.
"I…" she started, "I've changed a lot too. I've never been able to see through their eyes, the bugs I mean. Now I can see and hear through a few, not all of them, but some. That and…" a black spider crawled out of her sleeve, the red hourglass emblazoned on its' carapace.
As the widow made itself comfortable on Taylor's palm, Taylor gently enclosed her other hand over it. As she did so a strange crackling noise emanated from her joined digits, not unlike a wrapper being torn. All of us except Taylor and Rachel gasped at the spider now residing there.
I say spider generously, the twelve legged arachnid stared up at me beadily with its' ten unblinking eyes, it's four fangs easily the size of fingernails. The whole thing was easily the size of a soda can and probably weighed much more based of the glossy sheen of it's armor.
The crackling noise must have been the remnants of its' former body, its' old skin laid across Taylor's palm. Even the dull red of its' hourglass laid there, juxtaposed by the bright purple one that now adorned the spider.
"Taylor", I asked as the "spider" crawled back up it's master's sleeve, "be honest with me, can these things reproduce?". Taylor looked shocked as she met my gaze.
"No! No, whatever I do makes them sterile, I can't force any sort of reproduction into them." Rachel seemed intrigued by the sinister looking bug, pointing out another interesting relationship between her and everyone's new abilities.
"Like my dogs," she said looking into Taylor's eyes "you make your bugs bigger; better." She seemed unconcerned with quite possibly the most dangerous result of last night, almost happy to find a sort of kindred spirit in Taylor.
"Can you do that to all the bugs in your radius, how long does it last?" Brian asked as he finished off his coffee, Taylor shook her head as she answered.
"No, they have to be touching me to transform and I know the form lasts only as long as they're within my zone.", she stated as a wave of relief seemed to hit Brian, a relief that I shared.
Sterile or not, mutant death bugs not under her control were a really bad thing, maybe even birdcage bad.
"So anything else?", at Taylor's shook head Brian silently asked who was up next, me or Rachel?
As I began to speak though, Alec pointed behind himself, speaking as he did.
"Food's here.", he said simply, and sure enough was Hennesy carrying over a large tray of our breakfast. I held my tongue as our food was divvied up, deciding to let ourselves enjoy it a little before I ruptured the good mood, or what little of it we could get.
All in all? I could see why Marquis liked this place, my waffles were just the right balance of flaky and soft, chewy but not overly so.
The rest of my teammates seemed to agree as well, Alec practically scarfing down his food as we all ate pretty quickly. The nerve master in question blamed his increased appetite on the jolt of adrenaline Brian gave him earlier, of which the darkness manipulator apologized profusely for.
I set my fork down halfway through my waffles, wiping at the excess syrup that had made it down my chin as I spoke.
"So I go first, then you?" I asked Rachel, whom gave me a slight nod as she tore back into her steak.
"Well the main thing that's changed is what info my power actually gives me. Like, don't get me wrong, it's still pretty broad, but now it feels more focused." Taylor paused her assault on her own waffles as she asked me a question.
"Focused more on what exactly?"
"Weaknesses" I answered as I sipped at my now lukewarm coffee, "it feels like my power's a lot more combat oriented now."
At the table's obvious befudlement, I expounded on what exactly changed.
"I can tell right now we're not in danger, well there's not any danger within a block or so actually. That and I can tell that no one in this restaurant has any intent to hurt us either." Brian sat down a strip of bacon as he simplified what I just said.
"So, a pretty wide danger sense, still doesn't explain what you mean by weaknesses."
"I was getting to that, I'm not or I wasn't a frontliner. But now I can, not predict the moves of others exactly, but react to what they're doing as it's happening. Like if Brian threw a punch at me, I'd move to dodge the instant he started to move."
"And my power, at least the longer I'm fighting, can give me more specific, more useful info on who I'm fighting… that and… I'm sure you guys heard the voice back in the lab?" At my question, Rachel's fork slipped from her hand and clattered against the plate.
The tension became palpable, almost physically like a weight on the atmosphere. I cut through it as I started back up,
"That wasn't me, I mean it was, it was my power but it felt like ours, do you know what I mean?" I asked as we slowly got back our bearings, Taylor put words to the table's confusion.
"You mean 'ours' like… telepathy?", she shuddered as she asked the question, I can't say I blame her. There's only ever been one true telepath and she had a bodycount in the tens of thousands directly and god knows how many indirectly.
"No, at least not actual telepathy, it's more like… an unspoken group think?" I settled on questionably before reaffirming my answer. "Yes, exactly like that, I know what you all heard and I'm sure you all did too.".
"Yeah", Alec answered, "Brian was told to 'cover the room'", he pointed at Rachel "you were told to 'bulk up'", he sat back in obvious consternation as Brian continued with the questions.
"Okay, who told us what to do If you didn't?", both I and Taylor answered at once
"We did", I turned to Taylor as she went back to her eggs, letting me explain, "that… voice is all of us, it's words to what we're all thinking."
"Okay, okay, let's put that on the back burner for right now." Brian said with authority, we'd talk about it more later, "Rachel? How have you changed?", he asked.
"A lot, couldn't make myself any tougher, any faster or stronger but now I can. Don't have to touch the dogs to make them stronger either. I think I'm, what's the word? For all the time?" She asked, looking at me in thought.
"Naturally?" I provided, she thought on the word and continued.
"Yeah, I can smell, hear, and see better all the time, like it's natural.", she summarized her alterations quickly, I almost wished she'd talked longer. Without the benefit of the topic, I'd have to move on to the more awkward changes, the ones me and Alec had noticed this morning.
"Well now that's out of the way, we should-" I was cut off as Taylor noticed the clock sitting above a booth, her face twisting into worry.
"CRAP! I've-I've got to go! Dad's probably wondering were I am, oh fuck-" she began to breath heavily as she got up, speedwalking shakily to the door.
I looked at Rachel and beckoned her to move, silently asking to chase after our runaway bug master. I looked at Brian and asked if he could cover the bill.
"Brian, could you-"
"Don't worry about it, I'll see you back home, just go make sure Taylor's okay." I gave him a grateful smile as I slipped out of the booth, giving chase to the newest Undersider.
She was barely out the door by the time I'd caught up with her. Her eyes shifting from side to side as my hand found her own, she opened her mouth in clear protest before I interrupted.
"It's okay, I'm just tagging along to make sure your dad doesn't worry. Besides" we settled into an easy pace as we walked towards the bus stop, "you and I have something to talk about.".
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hello all, well this came out quicker than expected didn't it?
This chapter was tough to write, as is most exposition I feel. But enough of that, here we are and here we'll be in two weeks or so
Next time on Stronger Together: Taylor and Lisa have a heart to heart, discussing trust and how its' already been breached.
See ya on the flipside
"So… what were you gonna say, back in the cafe?" I'd felt kinda guilty about that, I'm sure it was important and if I hadn't noticed the clock we'd still be there.
"Oh, never mind that, that's more a group discussion than a one on one kind of talk." She kicked a pebble to punctuate her statement, the rough rock tumbling into a storm drain as she swept her blonde locks behind one ear.
"Buuut," she added, "we've got lots to talk about, just you and I." She put weight on the us part. I tried not to look too nervous as I asked for clarification.
"Well? What exactly?" I questioned as we sat at the rickety old bench, waiting for our bus to arrive.
I started as Lisa gently laid her head upon my left shoulder, her hair tickling my nose. She resettled her head more comfortably as I looked down at her, her arms latching onto my own like a cat would a toy.
"Lisa, what are you-," I gulped before adding "-doing?"
"Just trying to relax a little before I say my piece. Taylor I..." She sighed deeply as I could feel her hands tighten around my forearm and tricep.
"I know why you became an Undersider." My whole body tensed at her admission, and my breath drew heavier as I whipped my head around, looking for the others.
This had to be their plan, to separate me, make me think-, no, no, no I've got to get out of here now! I tried to wrench my arm away and bolt. My escape was stopped by Lisa's death grip.
I whipped my head down to face her, searching for anger or deceit, but only saw disappointment and sadness in her eyes. Somehow that hurt much more than having her just be angry at me.
I paused and breathed deeply, trying to calm down, slowly sitting back as I hesitantly searched for a trap, my bugs skittering in the places I couldn’t see with my own eyes.
"Taylor," Lisa said again, as she slowly unwound her hands from my arm, only for them to find new purchase on either side of my face. They felt cool; soft; soothing almost. I tried not to lean into them as she spoke up again.
"Listen to me, okay? Just listen to me Taylor… I'm not mad at you alright, I'm not. But we need to talk about this. I'm going to let go and you have to stay, alright?" I bit my lip. I could run, probably not faster than her but maybe for just long enough to get away. I nodded anyway, holding onto her hands as she let them drop in between us.
"I know you want to be a hero, a real one, one that kids can look up to and feel safe. But it's not that simple. We – the Undersiders – can't be heroes. At least not the storybook version," she finished with a sigh as she stared down at our joined hands, her thumb rubbing small circles into my knuckles.
"Look, things are changing, and way faster than I want them to, but I need to know if you can be trusted."
I wanted to blurt out that of course I could be trusted, that she knew I'd never betray her or betray any of the team. But… I did want to be a hero.
"Do you- do you think you could be heroes someday? Or even just a little less like villains?" I tried to keep the tremble out of my voice as I asked. Villains or otherwise, they were my first real friends in years, I don't know how I'd cope with losing them, with going back to having nothing to look forward to.
"I-" She drew her lips into a thin line, staring up at me in silent frustration. I can't say I blame her. She's been a villain for months and here I come waltzing in, asking her to stop? She looked downcast, her head hanging low as she spoke again.
"I don't know what you want me to say, Taylor. My- our boss, he isn't concerned with heroes or villains. It's all about control to him. I can't really even argue with him. The simple truth is that villains are easier to control and position. And to be honest, Taylor? We're not good people, I don't know about you, but the rest of us?" She shook her head, frustrated, exhaling hard as she pulled one of her hands free.
A beat up, old bus rolled to a stop in front of us, its doors hissing open as the impassioned driver beckoned us aboard. I made to get up alone, letting my hand slip free of Lisa's. I blinked as said hand reached back and held mine tightly, the Thinker stepping aboard behind me.
We found our seat near the middle of the vehicle, as the sole passengers to our stop. The bus was silent for a good minute, the quiet punctuated only by the hum of the engine and background noise of the city.
If you had asked me yesterday if angry hand holding was a thing, I'd say that that's ridiculous. As I stare down at Lisa's surprisingly tight grip for such a small hand, I think it just might be.
I looked over at Lisa.
"What's your name gonna be?" Lisa asked. It was an obvious attempt at changing the subject, but I was more than happy to take it as I fiddled with the end of my sleeve.
"Well… I haven't put much thought into it." That was a boldfaced lie. I'd thought plenty on it, but there were only so many bug names that weren't disgusting, sinister, or edgy. And the ones that weren't aren't much better. I'd think I'd die of embarrassment if I went out as Ladybug or Butterfly.
"Okay," she said. "Personally I was thinking Khepri, the Egyptian god of scarabs and renewal. I think it fits even better now, what with-", she poked the back of my neck, where the widow I'd transformed rested.
"That could work," I said as I gave some serious thought to her suggestion. Honestly, it worked a little too well for my powers. With my luck, the name was probably already taken by some megalomaniac cape with an overinflated ego. Seriously, who names themselves after a god?
"So for your dad, I was thinking of telling him that you and I had a study date that ran on too long. The buses weren't running that late, and I offered you stay the night, think that works?" I wasn’t prepared for the sudden subject change, and it took me a few seconds to respond.
"I guess it works… but shouldn’t we hash out the excuse more, it feels pretty bare bones." I didn't bother trying to hide my relief as I spoke. The conversation about my loyalties was far from forgotten, but it was over for now.
Lisa gave a slight huff of amusement as she shook her head.
“Nope, the best part of any lie is that it remains flexible, especially for one thought up on the fly,” she continued as I tilted my head at her, silently asking her to elaborate. “Okay so, if we tried to make up everything, your dad might ask more, right? Say we miraculously memorized the lie, what do we do if he asks a question we can’t answer?”
“Okay, but do you build on the old lie or give a new reason? And can you remember the old reason far into the conversation? What happens if he catches you because you contradicted yourself?”
"Uh, lie more?" I answered lamely. Lisa snorted at my answer. For a moment, she almost reminded me of Emma as she hid her mouth behind one hand, but that creeping feeling died upon taking in her eyes.
Her green irises almost seemed to twinkle as her snickers turned to full on laughter, her shoulders shaking as her giggles finally petered out nearly half a minute later… I couldn't help the smile tugging at my lips.
"T-Taylor," she said shakily, still giving out little huffs of amusement, "the point I'm trying to make is that a lie can become rigid if it's unwilling to change. It'll eventually become brittle if someone asks enough questions."
The bus jolted to a halt as the doors hissed open, the sight of the suburbs greeting us as Lisa beckoned me to lead on
We walked in silence as the houses gradually became more familiar, finally turning onto my street. I saw my dad’s pickup still in our driveway. I must’ve seemed as nervous as I felt when Lisa began to walk just a step quicker, turning to face me completely, and grasped my other hand.
“Hey, it’s alright,” she said as we stopped on the corner. “He might be a little mad-” I winced. “-but he’ll be relieved more than anything. Just let me do the talking and back me up if he asks you directly.”
I nodded as we picked up the pace once more. I looked at the truck as we passed it, voicing my thoughts. “He shouldn’t even be here, he’d normally be at work by now.”
Lisa gave me a deadpan look as she replied, “Taylor, when your only daughter doesn’t come home during the night, you’re allowed to take the day off in case she comes back.” She walked up to the front door, giving me a tilt of her head as I fished my house key out. It seemed pretty stupid of Bakuda to let us keep all our things on us.
Still, I’m glad she didn’t take the key herself, it would've been pretty difficult to explain how I lost it. My blood ran cold as a stray thought entered my mind: what if Bakuda came here? What if she rigged my house, and that was why dad didn’t go to work? I nearly slammed open the door as I took in the short foyer into the living room.
I didn’t say anything as I heard footsteps coming from the kitchen, though I did look back as Lisa let go of my hand. I didn’t spare a moment to look forward again as the hurried footsteps stopped in front of me, my dad staring back.
“Taylor!” he said as he marched towards me, his shoulders slumping in relief as he crossed the short distance to wrap his arms around me. The hug was brief, but tight; strong. It felt like how I remembered it. Like that I hadn’t been missing out on something every other teen gets to enjoy.
And just as quickly as it started, it ended, he pushed back to hold on to my shoulders, scanning my face as he began to speak again.
“Where have you been? I was so worried, I thought-”,
My teammate cut in behind me before he could finish.
“Um, that would be my fault, Mr. Hebert.”
I turned to take in Lisa’s expression as she spoke. She looked perfectly sheepish, her eyes shifting as she hunched her shoulders. “Me and Taylor were hanging out with some friends yesterday. She was all set to go home, but I talked her into tutoring me for Mrs. Smith’s test tomorrow.” She scratched the back of her neck as she elaborated, shifting from foot to foot.
“Oh, I see. Are you one of Emma’s friends then too?” I was grateful that dad had taken his hands off of me when he asked that, otherwise he would’ve felt how stiff I’d gotten immediately. I turned back to Lisa as she began to answer. It was silly of me to be worried about what she’d say. There’s no way she would know Emma… and yet I dreaded if she somehow did.
“I’m sorry, who?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. She gave me an inquisitive glance and looked back at dad. I released a breath as he looked back at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. He turned fully towards the living room and interrogated Lisa more as he went towards the kitchen.
“So… how do you know Taylor?” The sound of a cabinet door creaking open echoed through the house as Lisa and I placed ourselves on the loveseat. I picked at the worn upholstery as dad returned to the living room, with a glass of water in one of each hand and one precarious mug hanging from his right.
He set both glasses of water in front of Lisa and me, sitting himself down in the armchair to the left of us as he drank from his own mug. Lisa began to respond but stopped as dad interrupted.
“Oh, and before I forget, what’s your name?”
Lisa took a small sip before answering. “I’m Lisa, Mr. Hebert, Lisa Wilbourn. I transferred from Clarendon a week or so ago. I sit next to Taylor in English.” It amazed me how quickly that lie rolled off her tongue, and she certainly gave off the feel of a sheepish teen who’d been caught cheating on an exam. Not at all like the supervillain she was.
“Okay,” dad said with a brief nod. He seemed more at ease, but definitely not convinced. Emma and I saw that look a lot when we thought we’d gotten away with not doing homework or stealing candy. “How far away do you live, then? I doubt Taylor stayed past midnight without thinking about the bus.”
I drank from my water to disguise my nervous gulp. We might not talk much, but dad knows I’m too attentive to forget the bus schedule. He and mom made me memorize it back in the fourth grade.
“I live near the market sir, and we studied till maybe seven-ish?” She looked at me for confirmation as I played along, nodding, before she continued. “The sun was setting by the time we’d noticed and, well, y’know how far the bus stop is from the market?” she asked rhetorically.
I was impressed. If you’ve ever been to any big city, you’d know how the bus stops are placed so that you have to walk all the way through the shopping districts. American capitalism at its finest.
“I see, so it would’ve been dark before the next stop. But couldn’t your parents have driven Taylor home?”
I finished my water as Lisa put her hand on my knee, eyes downcast as she answered. “I live alone,” she stated with finality. Somehow I knew that the somber expression on her face was genuine, and I put my hand atop hers as we sat in thick silence.
“Oh…” my dad stuttered, “I’m sorry.” He got up and looked down at Lisa and me. “I’m glad you’re okay Taylor, just be sure to tell me next time. And try to remember the house phone number, okay?” I nodded as he began to walk upstairs. As he disappeared from view, Lisa cut through the silence.
“He’s going to bed.”
I turned my head at her.
“He didn’t sleep last night. He stayed up waiting for you.” She got up and walked towards the bottom of the stairs, looking back at me with a smirk. “Well? Aren’t you going to show me your room? That’s what high school girls are supposed to do, right?” I followed behind her as she arrived in front of my bedroom door.
I opened it slowly, careful to check the state of it before Lisa could get an eyeful. I took a seat at my desk while Lisa sat on the end of my bed. I was grateful that I’d taken the effort to keep it tidy. Although I was a little embarrassed at how plain it looked. Bed, desk, and not much else.
Once upon a time I was like any other kid. I had posters of the Triumvirate, local Protectorate heroes, and even some elementary school art projects hung up on the walls. Now all that was left of those mementos were the little holes left by thumbtacks.
“Cool room, a little bland, but cozy somehow.”
I smiled as she spoke, letting her dissolve the next few hours with pleasant conversation. It wasn’t long before we’d settled into a slow back and forth of twenty questions.
We kept it light of course, no questions about ‘work’ or school. Just little mundane things anyone could ask anyone. What’s your favorite color, favorite movie, favorite season, that sort of thing. It made me realize how little I’ve talked in the past two years, how many classes I resigned myself to being a quiet punching bag. We’d just gotten through talking about our favorite books when she dropped the bomb on me.
“They wouldn’t hate you, you know?”
And just like that, the pleasant mood evaporated. I straightened up in my chair, hearing the old support creak under the sudden shift. I waited for her to continue but she seemed content to stay quiet.
“Why wouldn’t they?” I tried to sound brave, to keep the tremor out of my voice as I looked into her eyes. She frowned before shaking her head and answering me.
“I certainly don’t hate you. I don’t think I could, even before yesterday.” She lifted her hand to cut off my response. “If we’re being honest here, Brian would be madder at me than he would you. Alec would probably find it funny so long as you don’t go through with it. I know-”,
I broke through her explanation with something that she couldn’t downplay.
“And Rachel?” I asked. It’s easy to admit, out of all the Undersiders I’d end up betraying, Rachel would hurt the most. She didn’t deserve the blame on her trigger, she didn’t deserve that her powers fucked with her head, she especially didn’t deserve another ‘friend’ fucking up her life.
“Yeah, I won’t lie, Rachel would be pissed. She’d be hurt, and she’d probably try to beat the shit out of you.”
I hung my head in shame. I couldn’t keep looking at her. It hurt, it fucking ached to even think about betraying Rachel, or any of the team for that matter. I felt stuck. Either I don’t tell them and hope Lisa won’t either, and they’ll hate me when it does come out. Or, I tell them the next time I see them and they hate me sooner. I squeezed my eyes shut as I tried to keep from crying. I can’t fucking cry. Not in front of her.
I opened them when I felt Lisa wrap her arms around me, and I pushed back in anger. I didn’t deserve this. She should have left or be screaming at me, not trying to comfort a liar.
But try as I might, she wouldn’t let go of me, her arms locked themselves around my body and were holding on tight. I started to thrash and couldn’t help it anymore. I sobbed into her chest until I lost track of time.
The roaches in the walls and black widows in the basement stopped moving all together as I finally calmed down. I looked up at Lisa as my sobs turned to heaving hiccups.
She had wet tracks going down her own face. She smiled down at me as she resettled the hug to something less constrictive, and she carefully set the transformed widow onto my desk. I hadn’t noticed her take it off my neck.
“I-I didn’t think you’d be, any of you so-”
“Human?” she said in my ear. I nodded into her shoulder as she continued. “Yeah, that’s one of the first things you learn when you get powers, huh? It isn’t like those old comics at all. Everyone, even the most awful villains, are just humans at the end of it.”
“I don’t want to lose you guys, I can’t-”
She rubbed my back as the hiccups got a little more intense.
“We won’t cut you out, Taylor, but you can’t play both sides like this… So I’ll ask again, can we trust you?”
Maybe it was the anxiety, or the fear, or desire, or maybe all of the above. But I knew my answer the second I pulled back.
“Yes.” I met her eyes as I promised her, “I’m an Undersider.”
She blinked past a few more of her own tears as she grinned, a smile so happy and wide it must’ve hurt. I marveled at how her blonde locks caught the light from outside, how her nose had little creases from when she scrunched it up in thought, how everything about her is just breathtakingly beautiful.
I was snapped out of my stupor when she stepped away, shuffling backwards to her spot on my bed.
“Y-yeah, so um…” She idly combed her fingers through her ponytail as she trailed off. Her nose and cheeks were flushed, and I couldn’t help but feel a similar warmth on my own. Cathartic or not, crying in front of someone is always a bit embarrassing.
She cleared her throat when we’d reestablished our composure. “When will you tell the others exactly?”
I grimaced at her question but nodded resolutely, it would hurt to admit my scheme to the team but I should do it as soon as possible, before I lose the nerve to. “Is everybody free tomorrow?”
“Alec will be probably vegging out on the couch, and Brian’s sure to be with him. Rachel will probably be at her shelter but she’ll come if we ask. When tomorrow?”
“Ten a.m. or so. Dad will probably want to see me before he goes to work, and he’s home about 4 p.m. on Sundays.”
We spent the last half hour of Lisa’s time here trying to figure out the perfect way to confess to the rest of the team, but ended up deciding that it was best if I just stay honest.
I escorted her out when she had to meet up with the others back at the loft. Before she crossed the threshold outside, she embraced me as a farewell. Today had been a hard but evidently huggy day for me, which was definitely a pleasant change of pace.
I felt warm all over somehow. I was scared of tomorrow, but hopeful that I wouldn’t have the sword of Damocles over my friendships. I turned away from the door to see dad looking at me. I hadn’t realized how much time had passed since Lisa got here, but dad seemed to have gotten enough rest.
“I was going to pick something up, anything in particular you’re hungry for?”
“Italian sounds good, but not pizza”, I answered, relieved that he wasn’t still upset. My dad turned towards the kitchen then, a satisfied smile as he spoke.
“Lisa’s very pretty, by the way.”
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hello all, been a while hasn't it? I'm sorry I vanished for the past 5ish months, I'd like to say I've been terribly busy, but the truth of the matter is that depression killed my drive.
But now I'm back, well-rested and ready to keep this story moving on. I've already got the next chapter written but I'm going to hold off on posting it until I'm sure I've found my groove.
A special thanks goes to my beta, bwu256, for sticking with me and still deciding to help me up after I'd been useless for so long.
Next time on Stronger Together: Taylor confesses her plan, how will Alec, Brian, and especially Rachel take it
Rachel Lindt/ Bitch:
I woke up slowly. I couldn’t smell anything unfamiliar in the shelter and couldn’t hear anything that wasn’t a sleeping dog; no need to startle the ones up here.
I felt around with my legs to rouse the three dogs with me. Angelica lifted her head up between my legs, Brutus turned his snout up in front of me, and Judas patted my back with his paw. I rose up from my bed and stretched, reaching the ceiling with my hands and stretching to the tips of my toes.
I looked at the window separating my room from the rest of the shelter. Lisa says this was probably the office for some factory before Coil cleared it out.
The sun isn’t up yet but I don’t have to turn on any lights. Although it’s still dark, almost black, I can see everything in the shelter as clearly as normal. Even without a boost, this new way of sensing things is way better than before. I snap my fingers at the three dogs behind me, letting them know where I’m going.
I open the door with a bang. The newer dogs start barking from the kennels below as I walk down the stairs. I give a deep growl as I step in front of them, baring my teeth as I stare into their eyes, and I don’t stop until each one of them looks away. I begin opening their cages, starting with the obedient ones, letting it sink into the others how this pack will work.
They trot out onto the open floor and wait, some go over to the turf and shit, while others try to start fights with rivals they might’ve had when they were fighting dogs. I make it known quickly that that shit won’t happen here.
I spent the next half an hour-ish cleaning up the dirty kennels, the ones where the dogs were too impatient to go on the turf this morning. Most of those messes I don’t punish though, half of these were fresh, done by the bait dogs when the others started barking. I keep from growling at the thought. E88 fucks would have the bigger ones kick the shit outta the smaller ones as a ‘warmup.’ Don’t need to hurt those dogs more than they’ve been.
By then plenty of the dogs, both the older ones and newer ones, are getting hungry. A couple of them are even bold enough to whine at my feet. I walk over to the trough and pull out one of the bags underneath it.
Damn thing’s heavy. I need a whole bag to feed the entire pack both morning and night and these bags aren’t getting any lighter. I let it go for a second and pop my back for what I’m about to do.
I can feel muscles getting bigger, feel the horns wanting to rip out of my head, but I stop the growth there. Lots of the dogs are skittish with what I’ve already done and I don’t want them to be afraid of me. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t get about dog training. It’s not about fear, it’s about respect. If they get afraid, they won’t trust me, meaning they won’t respect me. Might attack me when I make them grow eventually.
I lift the bag easily now. Barely feels like I’m holding it before I rip into the top with my teeth. I empty it into the trough as I watch the rising sun in the high windows. I tilt my head as I listen for the city. I don’t hear any cars or sirens, so the city isn’t awake yet. Good, I need to watch the dogs while they’re eating anyway. Plenty of them didn’t know when they’d get food or how much. Most of them were eating as much as they could while the rest were waiting for the others to finish.
I push the littler ones to eat though. I can’t make them go against the bigger ones right away, but as long as I can make them a little bolder I’m fine with it. The dogs finish up the trough in about twenty minutes, and I make sure everyone got their fill before I hear my phone ringing upstairs.
I dig around in the pile of blankets for a second or two before I find it. I flick the call on and put it to my ear.
“Good morning Rachel, how’d you sleep?”
Questions like these bug the hell out of me, I wish people would just get to the point. It’s annoying, but Lisa talks a lot, that’s just how she is. I hum into the phone as I pull my clothes on. We haven’t had a job in a while so that’s probably it.
“Could you come by the loft by ten?”
I pull back my phone as I put my coat on. It’s nine thirty now so I should make it by walking there.
“I can, mask?”
“No, not a work thing, but we need to talk”, she says. She sounds worried.
“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute.”
I end the call and shove the phone in my pocket, lacing up my boots on the steps quickly. I reach over the railing and holler at the pack below.
“CAGES!” My voice comes out a little rougher than I meant it to, the boost I’d given myself made it sound deeper and angrier than normal. The dogs get the message all the same, but I’ll have to watch out for that the next time I grow. The dogs who put up a fight earlier don’t now, I know it’s more my training than the boost.
Brutus comes up next to me with three leashes in his mouth when I shut the last of the cages. I scratch his ears before I wrap them around him and the other two dogs coming with me to the loft.
I unlock the few locks on the side door as I shed the little growth I’ve made. The coat gets a little looser and my feet feel a little less tight as I walk outside. I check the door before heading out to the loft.
I pull my hood up as I walk my dogs. Before, I’d have to be constantly looking around for a cop or hero. But now I can smell the gunpowder and bullets in a cop’s gun and hear anyone on the rooftops. It makes me look more normal when all I’m focused on is what’s in front of me. Not that there’s anyone walking around in these neighborhoods to notice.
It doesn’t take me more than twenty minutes to get to the hideout. I take a look at the new door. It’s the same navy blue as the old one, but someone’s tried to make it look older than it is. Bits of black powder has been rubbed onto the metal. It’s supposed to be soot but doesn’t smell like smoke. The peeling paint doesn’t connect to the actual color beneath it, I don’t know why but it bugs me.
I try to turn the knob but it stays tightly closed. I pull out my phone and call Alec. Lisa and the rest are probably inside, but I know Alec’s in there for sure. It takes a few rings before he ends up answering. Probably too busy playing something to pick up.
“Hey Rache, anything-” I can almost see him concentrating on a game during the brief pause, “-you need?”
“Gotcha.” He ends the call and I can hear someone stepping down the stairs a few seconds later.
Lisa opens the door for me. She’s dressed in pajamas, an oversized t-shirt hanging off her shoulders. It has a lion yawning on the front, a speech bubble reading “I’m sleepy” coming from its mouth. She’s either not wearing pants, or they’re short enough to be covered by the shirt.
She grins up at me when I meet her eyes. Her hair is messy and sticking out everywhere. I end up smiling back at her when I breathe in the air coming from the loft. Her scent’s the first that comes to me. It mostly smells like the shampoo she uses, some flower I can’t remember. I know it’s another word for purple.
Under her scent are the others. Alec for sure and Taylor too, and I can smell that Brian’s been here but that he isn’t here now. Lisa steps aside and lets me pass. She talks while I take the stairs up.
“Okay, we’re just waiting on Brian to show up, then we’ll get started.”
I let the dogs free of their leashes when we got up the stairs. Angelica goes over towards Alec, who’s sitting on the couch playing some game, as usual. Judas stays close to me. He’s more comfortable with somebody than by himself. Brutus wanders over to the kitchen, and his head collides with Taylor’s hand as she sits on a barstool.
She looks down at the dog then at me. She smiles.
I don’t like when people smile. I know it’s supposed to be friendly, but all I can see when people do it is their teeth. How they can bite with them, rip into me with them.
Something is different, though. Before Friday, everyone’s smiles set me on edge. But Lisa’s and Taylor’s don’t confuse me. I don’t have to think about what they mean. I know Alec and Brian’s smiles wouldn’t either.
I don’t have time to think about that though, it’s not important right now. I take a deep sniff of the loft, focusing solely on Taylor. Underneath the scent of ink and grass is something fouler, nervous sweat. I can feel my brow sinking as I’m about to ask what’s wrong.
The sound of the door opening and heavy footfalls beat me to it.
“Hey guys.” Brian pulls off his jacket as he sits on the stool across from Taylor’s seat. “Sorry I’m late, had a call I needed to take.”
“It’s fine, you're just in time actually.” Lisa turns towards Alec. “Alec, team meeting!”
Alec turns off the TV and console before hopping over the back of the sofa, Angelica trailing behind him as he takes his spot next to Brian.
Lisa stands on one end of the kitchen island and I take my place on the other. I’m not the best at feeling out conversations, but I know with the heavy silence that this talk isn’t going to go well.
The nervous smell gets worse. It comes off of Taylor in waves as she fidgets on the stool. She takes a deep breath before looking between us, eyes not trained on anything but the countertop.
“I lied to you, all of you…” She looks at us more clearly as she says it. Brian looks worried but not in a fearful way, his eyes soften as he meets Taylor’s gaze. Lisa seems concerned too, but differently. She probably knows what Taylor lied about.
“I was going to betray the team, t-turn you into The Protectorate.”
Brian starts to yell immediately, switching focus between Lisa and Taylor. Alec’s trying to calm everyone down, but the whole while Taylor only stares at me. She flinches back when I grip the edge of the counter. I didn’t mean to but I can feel a boost kicking in.
“Why?” I ground out through gritted teeth. I can see she’s struggling to maintain eye contact. The other three have stopped arguing at my question, waiting for Taylor to speak up again.
“I wanted to be a hero, I didn’t want-”
“Didn’t want what? To tell us?” I feel the tips of my horns bulging underneath the skin, the grainy texture of the countertop cracking under my fingers.
“Rachel.” Brian tries to take back the lead but I keep going.
“What about what I want?! What we want, did that even fucking matter to you?” I bring my other fist down on the counter hard. It splinters out like ice where I hit it. Pain shoots through my hand. I can tell the bones in my right hand have broken after the hit, but I don’t care. I’m too fucking pissed to care about my goddamn hands. I snap my head back towards Taylor, but stop when I actually look at her.
She’s crying, her eyes are overflowing with tears as she takes short; gasping breaths.
It feels like a bucket of ice water's been dumped on me to see her like this, knowing that it’s my fault.
It’s not fucking fair. She can’t just cry and pretend she wasn’t going to- this is bullshit! I push past the team as I hurry towards the stairs. I’m outside and running to somewhere away from here in less than ten seconds.
The ache in my hand becomes worse when I actually notice it. I know where to go to fix it.
I keep a steady pace as I run to the Trainyard, bowling over some hobo – a drug dealer, by his smell – on the way when he tries to stop me. I know this is Merchant territory, very deep in too. In the back of my mind, I hope somebody comes looking for a fight.
I throw off my jacket and boots as soon as I’m amidst the train cars. The boots are a hassle with my hand screaming at me. I pull my pants off too. Don’t give a shit if anyone sees, I’m going to need them for when I go back home.
With that done, I let my power kick in, ratcheting it up to as high as I can get it.
The bones in my hand crack and pop as they’re pushed back together harshly. My fingernails push out to nearly three inches in sharp growth. I feel myself grow nearly a foot taller as the muscles bloat up to their full size.
Then my skin starts tearing, first as my horns push out, then over the rest of me. Some spots split as tightly coiled muscle forms on top of me, others rip when plates of bone start sliding through. My lips recede as my teeth grow into inch long knives, each razor sharp as I flick my longer tongue over them.
The last of the changes start when I feel my back pop in places as white spikes slip through it and out through my shirt. I can feel something rip out the bottom of my spine as it thumps against the ground. It takes a few seconds of growth to realize it’s a tail.
I stumble as my feet start to grow in the middle, forcing me to stand on my toes. The bottom part of my legs lengthen before popping in half, jutting backwards almost like inverted knees.
When I don’t feel myself growing any bigger or tougher, I stand up to my full height. I can see the tops of the storage cars easily. I wobble a little as I take my first step towards it. I can walk on my new legs fine, but I know I can’t run on them. I slam my hands on the ground, puffs of dirt kicking up where they landed. This is much better.
I prowl up to the cart on all fours, I can still see the top of it but need to tilt my head up a little. When I do, I take in another change I hadn’t noticed. My mouth had pushed itself out of my face, like a dog’s snout.
I charge at the rusted box, my claws ripping through with little resistance. I break through the next several the same way, ripping apart thick sheets of metal like tissue paper. I use my claws, teeth, and even tail to blow off steam.
The entire time I’d been there, I hadn't noticed anybody coming up to me, mostly anyone near just ran. I heard a few Merchants book it away when I started up, the guns in their pants jostling as they ran.
This wasn't fucking fair.
Taylor wasn't like this, wasn't supposed to be like this. She was smart, strong, but above that she was supposed to be my friend. Even after I'd set my dogs on her, she never hated me. Hell she'd stuck with us after Lung and Bakuda. And this whole time she was just going to fucking betray us?!
My tail cleaves through another box as I snarl. There's not that many of them left. If I keep going I'm not going to end up fighting Merchants, I'm going to end up fighting heroes.
What a load of shit. Heroes have fucked me over since Rollo, and even now all they do is make everything worse.
I look through the wreckage for anything more left to tear up when I smell something familiar. Two human scents are approaching. One smells like plastic and electricity, the other leather and smoke. There’s another one close by, not human, smells like my shelter.
Alec and Brian, with one of my dogs.
I turn to where I smell them. They're not so far away that I can't hear them, but they're not talking. I strain my ears to hear if anyone else is coming, but all I hear is Alec's light footsteps, Brian's stomps, and the trot of a dog.
They turn the corner of the train's engine as they walk up, neither of them slowing down when they see me. They're both wearing Regent's masks, although Brian is wearing the older one, his mouth showing. Judas picks up the pace to meet me, his tail wagging as his tongue lulls out of his maw.
"Hey, Bitch," Regent calls to me, one hand waving. I snort out a puff as I turn back to the wreckage. I can’t talk like this.
I brush the metallic shards away from the half a storage cart, laying down with both front paws crossed as my head rests on top of them. Grue is collecting my jacket, boots, and pants while Judas comes over to me, sniffing my nose before laying down on his back.
Regent looks around the scrapyard I’ve made before finding something between the torn chunks. He heaves it out from under the metal and pulls my shirt into view, stretched to the point it’s almost see through. I hadn’t noticed it come off earlier. Grue dumps my clothes in the cart I’m lying against before sitting there, his feet barely dusting the dirt below him.
“Bug’s sorry,” he says. I can’t really glare without eyebrows, but I hope he gets the message. Regent snickers a little to my left before sitting up against my side.
“Sorry? No shit Grue, she’s practically hysterical.” Regent huffs as he resettles himself, putting his hands behind his neck. “Can’t say I blame her though.”
I can’t talk to them, at least not with words. I give a small whine. Regent’s smart enough to get what I mean from it.
“It was a fucked up place where I grew up. Calling dad an asshole is an insult to assholes everywhere… but even in that shithole I wanted to be a hero too.” His voice is the saddest I’ve ever heard from him. Grue leans on the edge of his seat to try and look over at our teammate. Regent tilts his head to the side for a second before continuing.
“It was stupid kids’ stuff, I had this whole fantasy where I’d send my old man to the Birdcage, save my siblings, and we’d all live happily ever after.” He chuckles. “Then life happened.”
“Same here. Before Bug joined, shitty parents were a staple for us.” Grue looks me in the eyes as he speaks then starts to open and close his mouth silently, looking for something else to say.
“That’s the thing, Bitch. We-” he gestured at the three of us, “-know that being a ‘hero’ isn’t what the Protectorate tries to push it as. That being a hero isn’t about doing what’s right, it’s about doing what you’re told. Bug doesn’t get that yet. But Bitch?”
I tilt my ears toward him as he continues.
“Bug’s one of us, and she’s made her peace with that.” I huff angrily. If she’d made up her mind on it, then why the fuck would she even tell us?
Regent squawked as I stood back up, stretching as I began shedding the growth I've made. If we're gonna talk about this, then I'll actually have to be able to talk.
About halfway through the loss, I'm able to stand upright again. I walk into the train car and wait out the next minute or so it takes to get back to normal. Grue tosses me my clothes as he looks away, coughing into his hand as he stands watch.
Regent isn't so shy though, he makes it obvious that he’s checking me out. I zip up my coat and hop back down to the ground, grabbing Judas' leash when Regent curses.
Grue steps back into the cart as he speaks. "What do we got, Regent?"
"Two people just showed up in my range, from the rooftops. Probably Wards, one's walking without his feet touching the ground, the other's a shortie." Alec takes off his mask, shoving it into his jacket as he looks towards the nearest building.
"Vista?" Grue asks
"No, she's short but not that short." I look up with him when the heroes crest over the edge.
Dean Stansfield/ Gallant
Battery and I got a good look at the Trainyard as we neared the last rooftop. About a fifth of the abandoned train cars had been torn apart. The damage wasn’t too bad, all things considered though. There weren’t any spots that had been melted into slag or areas of broken physics, so it was definitely parahuman but at least it was probably only one. If we were lucky, it might just be a fresh trigger experimenting with their powers.
“Gallant,” Battery spoke to my right, “keep it tight. The report was vague, all we know is that something big started to tear up the place. Probable Changer with Brute characteristics. It should go without saying, but be careful.”
She put a hand to her ear as she spoke up again. “Console, we are moving to investigate.”
Kid Win’s voice crackled inside my helmet as Battery dropped over the edge of the roof, her suit faintly glowing. “Copy that, Battery.”
I stepped over the edge after her, the hydraulics of my suit whirring as they took and dampened the impact on the sidewalk. The two of us walked calmly into the forgotten lot, Battery’s aura shining with a confident teal tinged slightly with an excited emerald.
As we began to enter the wrecked area, I saw two teenagers with their backs turned to us. The taller one held onto a leash with a mean-looking pit bull at the end. Before I could adjust to the emotions I was seeing, Battery called out to them.
Both of the teens turned to look over at us. If I had to guess, I’d say they were a year or two younger than me. That wasn’t the strange part, though.
The black haired male was paler, and his emotions weren’t as vibrant as everyone else’s I’d seen, instead, they were so faint that the colors kept overlapping into an indistinct mess.
The girl had auburn messy hair and menacing features, and her expression told us she didn’t care who we were, just so long as we left her alone. Her emotions spoke volumes of that, mostly a fierce protective indigo with underlying shades of rusty frustration and sage conviction.
While the boy’s emotions hid quietly, the girl’s seemed to scream at me.
“Do you know who did this or where they went?” Battery said pleasantly as if the dog owner wasn’t trying to kill us with her eyes. I think I saw a vague flash of amber amusement in the boy’s aura as he replied, smiling.
“No idea, officer, we were just leaving.” He and the girl made to move away from us when Kid Win spoke up on console.
“That’s Hellhound! Repeat, that girl is Hellhound!” I stood up just a tad straighter as Battery and I prepared for a possible fight. Before we could call out any sort of order Hellhound lunged and grabbed the boy, one arm tight around his middle and the other on his throat.
“Easy Hellhound, we just-” Battery tried to de-escalate but was cut off quickly.
“Bitch, my name is Bitch!” Before either of us could respond to her, the boy in Hellhound’s arms yelled to us.
“Oh won’t the heroes save me from this rapscallion, this brute, this ruggedly gorgeous-” Hellhound (Bitch?) adjusted her grip onto his mouth. The frustration in her aura dipped as it got a touch more amused. Her face showed none of that, actually looking meaner than ever.
“Battery,” I spoke through the coms without broadcasting on the helmet’s external speakers, “she’s not going to kill him. It’s hard to tell, but he knows that for sure.” Battery gave the slightest nod as she began powering up, ready to tackle the dog master.
As soon as I’d established my findings with her, a black globe engulfed her head from behind, a thin wispy trail of darkness connecting it around the train car to our left. Battery stumbled forward, but not like she’d been hit, more like she was trying to find the light in an unlit room.
I’d already had both my hands raised towards the two criminals, ready to fire, when another teen joined them, his lower half obscured by black smog and his face hidden by a half mask. I turned my left hand to aim at the cape who could only be Grue when my hand snapped up at the elbow.
My eyes widened when the darkness shaker stepped back, his eyes glowing an electric blue as a very familiar energy flowed up the veins of his neck.
In an instant, I was on the ground some feet away, my chest aching as I blinked back stars. I tried sitting up but stopped when my vision became consumed by nothingness. I still saw the aura of the three Undersiders through the silent void, but then all at once they began to shrink. The colors lost their tint, and what little of the auras I could see were just solid shades, without nuance or deeper variation.
It was terrifying in a way the silent darkness wasn’t.
The faint vaguely human shaped blobs disappeared quickly, the darkness thinning out as the blue sky filled my vision over the next few minutes. I turned to look over at Battery, only to find her head still in the black cloud.
Despite her entrapment, I felt relieved to see the black negative of her aura slowly transform into a lurid, fearful chartreuse.
As I tried to reestablish communication with console through the HUD of my visor, the black thread connecting to Battery fizzled away. Soon after it had vanished, the dark fog dispersed into the air, leaving nothing of itself behind.
As soon as she’d confirmed that the Undersiders had left the immediate area, Armsmaster buzzed through the comms.
“Battery! Gallant! Report, are you alright?”
“Yeah…” I took a deep breath to steady myself. “We’re fine.”
“I’m en route, what just happened?” Battery stood quietly as her suit thrummed with energy before releasing it without moving. Just letting it charge and empty out as her aura shakily went back to teal.
“Honestly sir, I have no idea.”
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Hello all, I'm posting this chapter a day earlier than I wanted to but I've got some updates I feel need addressing sooner rather than later.
Firstly, while I do have the next chapter written, I do not have it edited, which brings me into my next point.
Secondly, as some might have noticed, my english (especially in syntax and punctuation) is not… as developed as I'd like it to be. I'd rather not get into it, but in short, English is not my first language.
This and the chapter before it was heavily edited for messy grammar by my previous beta, bwu256.
Thirdly, as my wording alluded to, I am in need of a new beta, my previous one (who has already helped so much) has withdrawn.
So I need a new beta who fulfills these requirements. Whomever they will be must have a firm grasp on The Undersiders as characters, a formal understanding of English (because I clearly don't), and above all they need to be patient.
I've just had to move back in with my mother for health concerns, production may slow down because of that.
Next time on Stronger Together: Alec ruminates on Taylor's apology, how he's being manipulated by an unknown force, and how the team will stay together or if they even will.
Thank you all, see you on the flipside.
The loft is really quiet without the others around to liven it up a bit, and no amount of turning the tv up seems to do anything.
Yesterday… yesterday fucking sucked.
Rachel had been pretty pissed when she’d stormed off, and she hadn’t really calmed down when me and Brian got her back home. She’d just rejected Taylor’s attempts at apologizing and fled back to her shelter with her three dogs in tow.
Brian had decided to turn in back at his place, he told Taylor he trusted her but it was pretty obvious he needed to cool off himself. Committed to the team or not, it hurt that she’d even considered turning on us.
Hurt wasn’t a new feeling for me, but it wasn’t one I ever expected to feel again, not after leaving my loving family. When Taylor first joined if she pulled this crap, I would have just voted her off and moved on. Now though? It ripped at me to cast her off, it felt like an ice cold knife in my heart, a numbness that didn’t keep me safe, but left me empty.
I know that something’s fucking with me, fucking with how I think about the team. You tend to notice things like that, growing up with somebody who could make you fall in love with the maid one day, and then have you joyously murder her the next.
Sometimes I think every person has a set amount of emotions they can feel, and mine were all used up during my time at the compound. That might be the thing I hate most about my father, and my time at the compound, even more than the gaslighting, the manipulation, the torture. It’s how he made himself essential, even after I escaped, how I needed him to just feel something for once. Feel something beyond a rush of adrenaline, or a small buzz of accomplishment, or carnal lust, or some other neurochemical hormone release.
Controlling other people though? That’s always a high, no matter what. I don’t need to change people, not like he did, I can just… borrow them for a while. Borrow some of their emotions to feel instead of my own lack.
And God, what a rush! When I think back to all the people I used to control, and the people I’ve even made twitch, as minimally I’ve been using my powers, I can’t help let out a chuckle. It’s like a blind man learning how to see.
But now? Now I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what the rest of the team will think if they look too deeply into my past. Rachel might’ve said that they wouldn’t care, but would that really hold up when they hear how many lips I forced around a pipe? How many people I’ve ran in front of cops to be shot? How many people I fucked over, just because I needed to feel that rush of fear in their systems?
At least Taylor was able to confess her sins.
Though, is it really a sin, compared to me?
They’re not going to find out though, anyone wanna fuck with this good deal I’ve got, fuck with the first true feelings I've had, I’ll walk them into a fire.
Anyway, that thing fucking with my emotions? It’s weird to think this but I’m grateful for this mess we’ve made of ourselves.
Heartbreaker, dear old dad, his power felt like an oil sliding over your brain. Creeping into your thoughts, your relationships, but all the while the wrongness of what you were feeling was always there. Whether or not he was letting you know or he just couldn’t actually get rid of that part of your brain, is what made it so terrible.
Like when some movie makes up an actor’s face with CGI, it looks fine but some part of you won’t let you see it like that.
But when I see Brian laugh, when I see one of Taylor’s elusive smiles? When I see Lisa’s eyes light up with a new secret, or hear Rachel talk tenderly to her dogs? This warmth in my chest is… cleaner than dad or any hijack.
That’s another thing I’m worried about, actually trying to explain what’s happening to them: how are you supposed to react to “Hey guys, fun fact, you’re being mindraped into a ménage à trois plus two, and no you can’t do anything to stop it!” I don’t know what will happen, but I can guarantee they’re not just going to go with the flow.
Well maybe Rachel will, she hates being forced into shit, but I doubt her, Brian, or Taylor have noticed anything wrong, noticed being forced into anything. Lisa’s too perceptive to not have noticed it and this isn’t my first time. Knowing Lisa, she’ll force that discussion the second Rachel can stand being in the same room as Taylor.
She’ll come around though, might take her a week or two but she will.
Yesterday, when she’d taken a swing at the counter and was ready to take another at Taylor, I felt the way she locked up, how she was crying angrily as she ran outside. She needs Taylor just as much as we all need each other now.
I hope this… whatever we are, whatever we’re going to be, I hope it will work out. Sleeping with the four of them was one of the few nights I didn’t pass out from exhaustion, or force myself to because of a job. That, and it was one hell of a view to wake up to, heh.
That’s another thing:, I know for a fact they weren’t this hot a week ago.
I mean, Taylor wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world, not unless you liked them shy and bookish. Rachel was way too butch for my taste. Lisa was good looking but more in a ‘hey that girl’s cute’ way than gorgeous. Brian was…
Okay Brian was always a beefcake, I’d have jumped his bones the second he’d asked. I’m pretty sure any of us would have, even Lisa and she isn’t (wasn’t?) even into guys or girls for that matter.
But that was all I’d ever felt for him, for any sexy person I’d come across, just a simple lust. Wanting to fuck, and that was it.
But now I… care about the team, more than a ‘hey, are you okay, good, get out there and take a bullet for Regent’ way. It’s been a long fucking time since I gave a shit about anybody besides me, but now I want to know if Brian’s custody battle is going okay, if Rachel picked up a new dog, if Taylor’s dad is paying more attention to her, or if Lisa managed to read a mystery without spoiling it a third of the way through.
. It’s weird to dwell on, so here I am on a dreary Monday afternoon, just me and some Prototype to keep myself busy. The game’s an Aleph port, Bet wouldn’t have made a game with a super virus infecting New York with the biotinkers here who might take it as a challenge.
Lisa wasn’t here when I woke up, although she'd left me a text. She was helping out Rachel with her dogs today, said she was going to try talking out the Taylor situation with her.
I end up flipping through tv channels when the game loses my interest, not that the myriad of trashy reality tv shows or ‘funny’ sitcoms hold it any better. Hell, the random things I can sense in my radius are way more entertaining.
My powers gave me a general idea of a person’s nerves before Bakuda, but it had a couple more restrictions than it does now.
I used to need line of sight on somebody to feel their systems, I still need it if I want to actively use my power, but now I can feel out everything with nerves in a block radius with my eyes closed.
It’s pretty accurate too, like right now I can tell there’s somebody crouching down outside an apartment building. The way his arm is flailing and how his right index finger is lit up, means he’s probably tagging that place for the… Merchants it feels like.
It should be way too much for me to keep up with, all the rats, bugs, and people must add up to the thousands and I yet can pick them out individually if I wanted to.
Actually, with that new awareness I can tell Taylor’s on her way here. Whenever her insects enter or leave her range, they sort of… stutter. Not long enough for a regular person to tell, but I can pretty clearly feel their nervous systems flickering slightly. It’s weird to be honest, I think she might be giving the poor little critters mini-strokes.
I pull myself up off the couch, grabbing up empty soda cans and bags of chips to throw away as more and more bugs become Taylor’s, one footstep at a time. I admit, it was still a little weird to feel myself smile when I saw how our loft looked a little less like a pigsty, a better environment for all my… well, for the rest of the Undersiders. It's as clean as I can get it when I feel Taylor herself enter my range.
Concern overtakes me as I get a better idea of her state: her legs are tired, barely lifting to scuff against the ground. She’s biting her lip worriedly, when she lets it go it keeps twitchin– no… trembling. It’s only when she keeps rubbing at her eyes do I realize what’s happening, she’s either hurt or sad, but either way she’s crying.
I’m putting on my jacket and shoes before she’s made it ten feet from the edge of my range, I’m jumping down the stairs and out the door by the time she’s another five. I pick up the pace just a little, speed walking down the street before I turn the last corner.
She must not be paying attention, there’s been somebody tailing her since I left the loft. He’s a druggie for sure, the way his grip tightens around something in the pocket of his hoodie, and the way the veins in his arms throb tell me enough.
Taylor’s confusion is evident in her eyes when she sees me, did she not think I’d be willing to see her? She hastily wipes at her face more, but manages to crack a smile as she settles into a more normal pace.
The druggie gets annoyed for a second before he sees me, the way he licks his lips probably means he thinks he’s about to double his robbery. I meet Taylor halfway and wrap my arms around her, trying to put all my feelings into a tight hug. She lets out a squeak of surprise, but after a second begins to hug back. I pretend to not notice the wet spot on my shirt.
I feel like I could spend all day just losing myself in Taylor’s embrace, but unfortunately for me (and her), random druggie number one decides to start up. I make him squeeze the broken bottle in his pocket, making his grip slide and cutting his hand on the glass. I shake my head at him slightly, mouthing a warning at the greasy haired waste.
His eyes widen just a bit as he turns with a soft scoff, trying to play it off. Oh definitely, you could absolutely rob us if you wanted, and aren’t shitting your pants right now. You’re just having a sudden unexpected case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome directly after deciding that it would be too much trouble to mug us.
“Hey” I say, slightly pulling back from the warm embrace of my–… of Taylor. Her smile stretches shakily at my greeting, wobbling a little in what I hope is relief. She doesn’t reply as I lead her to the loft, her hand gripping mine tightly. I can feel some of her bugs searching the place before we can even see it, her flies go underneath doors and onto the walls of every room.
“Lisa’s not home?”
“Yeah, it was her turn to help Rachel out, so it’s just you and me bugaboo”, If anyone asks, I was never giving her a shit-eating grin as she groaned.
“If we're ‘working’ you are absolutely not calling me that”, she said, turning her head to hide the smile she thinks I can’t feel.
“Oh reeeeeally?” I ask, forcing an obnoxious amount of melodrama into my voice as I unlock the loft’s entrance. “What can I call you?”
She answers at the top of the stairs, pushing up her glasses as she beelines for the couch. Hehe, beelines.
“When we’re out in… something more formal,” she coughs into her hand as she finishes “just call me the same thing the others call me.” I chuckle a little as I’m searching through the cupboards.
“It’s just us dork, not like we’re in the middle of the town square.” I push back the bags of Lisa’s ridiculously strong coffee when I find the tea that I’m looking for. Lisa bought a few different types a while ago, looking for something that made falling asleep with thinker headaches easier..
She gives an awkward laugh and a brief “sorry” as she walks over to me when she realizes I’m not going to the couch. Looks like the collection of tea we’ve got is pretty slim, the oolong box is empty, and I’m not sure about the other three. I end up grabbing a chamomile bag; I actually remember liking that one back in Quebec.
Cherie went through a snobby phase when I was maybe nine, and since tea was a ‘high society’ drink, she drank a shit ton of it. Father approved of course, he approved of anything that would make her a better infiltrator.
Shaking off the memories, I went fishing for the saucepan in the lower cabinets. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still in it’s packaging, but wow, nearly half a year in the loft and none of us had actually made anything? I bet Lisa just nuked her tea when she drank it.
I rip off the cardboard and get to work on brewing the tea, I’ve got it filled and on a burner in maybe a minute or two. When I turn back to Taylor, she’s staring at the kitchen island. The towel Lisa threw over it doesn’t do much to hide the indent of Rachel’s fist.
“What about gnatalie? Can I call you that?” She gives another groan but can’t stop the little giggle bubbling up in her throat.
“Alec that was terrible, and Natalie’s an actual name”, I raised an eyebrow and rested my chin on my hand.
“So? No one we know’s a Natalie”
“But there are people that do! It’ll make actual Natalies unsafe.”, she’s trying to put up an air of professionalism, but it’s not all that convincing with the mirth in her eyes.
“So I guess Beeatrice would be off the table too?”, she snorts a bit as I begin steeping the tea.
“No Alec that’s not gonna happen either, stop… bugging me?” The joke sucked, but I found the half-sure way she said it adorable despite myself. I couldn't help laughing at her eager expression.
“O-okay, okay,” I breath in deeply as I turn back to her, making sure the mug’s words aren’t visible from her side, “I give! Truce?”
She takes the mug gingerly, blowing on its surface before taking a cautious sip. She relaxes a little as the chamomile flows into her mouth, I sit opposite of her for a moment just taking in the quiet we’ve made.
“I’d offer you honey, but I doubt we have any around here.” she takes another sip before answering.
“It’s fine Alec, this is actually really good”
“It ought to be, Lisa probably spent a hundred dollars on that stuff”, she gives out a little hum as the quiet settles in again. I move towards the couch and turn the tv on, flipping to Netflix and looking for some quality background noise.
“So…” I pat the seat next to me as I scroll through options. I have to suppress a frown when she sits on the far end of the couch.
“What happened? I’m no one to talk about skipping school but it must’ve been worse than being bored.” I glance over to her when I speak, she’s picking at the skin of her fingernails. She clenches her teeth for a second, but manages to steel herself before turning towards me. Another thing that wouldn’t have happened last week..
“It probably is”, she whips her head around, staring at me incredulously. Good luck Tay, my poker face rivals a wall.
“But stupid shit makes me…” I search for the right word, “frustrated all the time, that doesn’t mean I’m any less annoyed with it just because it’s dumb”. Taylor pushes up her glasses again, I pretend not to notice her brushing the rims of her eyes as she does.
“I’m… I’m being bullied”, I sit up a little at that, slowing my browsing just a little as I try to think of what to say. She keeps going though, taking my silence as an invitation.
“It… I had a friend a long time ago…”,
The next few hours pass in a wave of hugs and teary exposition.. She told me everything,: down to the littlest, infuriating detail. She tells me about Emma, Emma Barnes, I make damn sure to commit that bitch’s name to memory.
She tells me how they were inseparable, best friends, fucking sisters. She tells me how she threw Taylor away, turned her deepest secrets against her, isolated her and rained down constant torment, from physical to emotional and everything in between.
Throughout the explanation we’d inched closer together, and by the time she’s done, she’s ended up up curled on top of me, sobbing into my chest. The only reason I haven’t broken anything is because I’m holding her, trying to keep how incredibly, monumentally, volcanically pissed I am from showing. I don’t think I’d ever felt this kind of rage, even during the worst moments at the compound. Is this rage? Despite the anger, a tiny corner of my mind can’t help but rejoice in the new sensation.
She told me about the locker, filled with toxic waste, and how she’d been locked in there overnight, screaming for help until she couldn’t speak, insects biting into her slowly-festering wounds. She doesn’t tell me that was her trigger, but she doesn’t need to.
Today had been small in scale to the shit this ‘trio’ had pulled, but it meant a lot to her. The last bit of sanctity between her and Emma had been brought to bare, to be mocked and scorned like some twisted joke.
“What’s the matter, Taylor?” Emma said, “You look upset.”
“So upset you’re going to cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?”
Yep, it’s decided. I’m going to kill her. Sophia and Madison too while I’m at it.
Taylor doesn’t have anything left to say, she just keeps on bawling into my shirt, murmuring apologies interspersed with sobbing calls of our names. Rachel’s is especially prominent.
I… literally any of the others would be better at this than me. I’ve never been good with emotions, and it’s been a long while since I’ve had to comfort someone, almost too long to remember.
“Shhh, ma petite puce”, I try my best, tenderly combing my fingers through her hair, whispering affirmations and kind words eventually trailing off to hum some nursery rhyme the maids use to sing back at the compound. It’s barely four-thirty in the afternoon, but Taylor’s sleeping soundly by the time my lullaby peters out.
I’m tempted to just lay there with her— I don’t know about the others, but sleeping alone has seriously lost its luster. I manage to wiggle around until I can sit up, adjusting Taylor as my right arm hooks behind her knees and the other cradles her head. I lay her down in my room, careful not to wake her. The peaceful expression she’s wearing is the last straw, tempting me into settling down to hold her after laying a soft kiss on her forehead.
Unfortunately, I can’t join her in sleep just yet, I leave quietly and gently close the door. I pull out my phone. I- we have work to do. I dial Lisa and wait for her pick up, it takes half a ring.
By the time she answers, I’m pulling out my costume and scepter from their hiding spot, the smirking venetian mask staring up at me.
“You still with Rachel?”
“Yeah, Brian’s with us, do you want us to pick up som–”
“Get to the loft, I’ll explain later”, I click the burner closed, and end up cleaning the place up for the second time today. I pick up the mug I’d given Taylor, and somehow, the stupid joke on it doesn’t seem nearly as funny as it used to be.
I stuff the costume into a duffel bag; I’ll have to change somewhere far away if I want to keep the loft hidden. I’m itching to greet the others like I had Taylor when they reach my range but it’s not smart to say what I’m gonna do out in public.
The three of them stop at the door: I can’t understand what they’re saying but I know they’re arguing. Before I can even think what to do, I’m down the stairs and wrenching open the door before it gets heated. Lisa stares at me for just a second and then rushes past me, Brian following closely behind.
Rachel doesn’t move from the doorway, leveling a flat stare at me before turning away
“Rachel…”, she looks over her shoulder at me.
“Taylor needs us right now, that means you too.”
She scoffs and takes a step away, but her right leg jolts up at my command and she lands hard on her hands. She growls as she tries to get back up, and her left hand slaps her face as I maneuver myself in front of her.
However, as I open my mouth to speak, her nerves change drastically as she lunges up, holding me off the ground by my collar. Her pupils had grown to encompass the whole of her eyes, her horns had just barely breached the skin on her forehead, a few stray drops of blood coating the tips.
“You done?” she growls, the three dogs around her give growls of their own. I don’t bother trying to struggle.
Whatever her power does to her dogs works on her too apparently, and her hands are still warm, still pumping blood, and very clearly still able to move around despite that my power sees it as dead. In short, Rachel was pissed off, and I couldn’t do shit to stop her.
I grab the middle of my t-shirt, still wet with Taylor’s tears, and press it to her face. She drops me as she staggers back, and I rise to my feet, pushing off a barking Angelica. Bitche's dogs won't bite unless told too. I’ll admit though, seeing the way their skin stretches around almost comically large muscles and teeth almost makes me stay down.
“That was Taylor, the same Taylor who’s probably dehydrated from all the crying she’s done today”, Rachel scowls at me, her and the dogs shrinking back to normal as she yells.
“So what?! She fucking lied to me!”
“You think she doesn’t fucking know?!” she stares down at me defiantly as I keep going. “She knows she hurt you, that she hurt all of us.” I shake my head and turn back to the loft, the door’s still open as I walk to it.
“Look, either talk it out now or later, either way she’ll be in there.” I move to close the door behind me when she grabs it’s edge, moving to lock it herself as she enters. We reach the top just as Brian enters from the hall joining our rooms to the rest of the loft. I hear Lisa closing the door to my room gently before she joins us.
I bring the duffel containing my costume to the kitchen island, setting it down without sitting before Lisa breaks the silence.
“What happened?” she says as Brian and Rachel take their seats around our impromptu meeting table.
I spill everything, telling them about all the isolation, the punishment, and the physical and emotional abuse ou– Taylor went through over the past year and a half. I know she’ll probably yell at me for this later, but right now I’m too worried to care. Better that she be angry than miserable, and no matter what she thinks, she needs all of our support..
Lisa stares me down with sharp eyes, scanning me for even the slightest sign of deceit or half truth. I honestly wish she could have found one.
Brian fidgets as much as he’ll allow himself to, fists clenched tightly under the table, face straining against an angry scowl. He takes a steadying breath when I start talking about the locker, and I start to see thin whisps of his power leak out from the sleeves of his jacket.
Rachel starts off with her eyes closed, arms crossed, seemingly ignoring my story. It isn’t long before she’s paying close attention, clenching and unclenching her fists as she shifts and fidgets in her chair. She grows just a little when I reach the locker, and I don’t think she even realizes it.
“What are we going to do about them?” Brian asks when I’m finished, voice sounding colder than any time I can remember since Bakuda.
“I didn’t tell you so we could talk about it, I know what I’m going to do”, Lisa and Brian bolt up from their chairs at what I’ve said.
“Alec you can’t be serious”
“We… We can’t go around killing highschoolers, Alec” Brian says, his scowl betraying his subconscious dissatisfaction.
“Look, the only reason I’m not breaking into Winslow right now is because this will go a lot smoother with the four of us.”
“No.” Rachel speaks with weight
“Oh for fuck’s sakes Rachel, I don’t care about whatever bullshit you’ve got but I’m fucki-”, she reaches for my wrist quickly, locking me there as Brian starts up the ‘discussion’.
“There’s other ways to solve it without killing people. The boss could get her into Arcadia–” Lisa winces at that, but a second later her eyes light up as she seems to realize something. She’s about to speak when Taylor steps into the light, her drooping eyes red from tears. She looks at the four of us in silence, she’s got her shoes in one hand.
“P-Please… please don’t do this guys, I’ll handle it, I always have”, I’m about to interject when Lisa beats me to it. She looks up at Taylor and wraps her arms around the taller girl’s middle, pressing herself tightly against our newest teammate
In unspoken agreement, the rest of us end up drawn to her. Brian hugs her from behind, his long arms wrapping around the both of them, as Rachel and I move to each of her empty sides. Almost despite herself, Taylor sinks into our embrace, eyes tearing up once again at the physical reminder of our support. We stay there for almost three minutes, just luxuriating in each others’ presences, until I break it up when I feel Taylor’s nervous system beginning to enter the first stages of sleep.
“We can’t just pretend we don’t know”, As she turns her head to me, her nose brushes against mine, and I realize just how close she is. The half awake look she gives me is… exciting, and I don’t miss how she’s looking at my lips.
“We’ll talk about it later Alec”, she pulls away from our embrace as she pulls out her phone. “Taylor, what’s your house number?”
"Why?" She asks, yawning deeply.
"We're having a sleepover tonight, will your dad care if you skip tomorrow?"
"I uh, I don't-" Rachel breaks through her stuttering
"Will he find out?"
"N-No, the school hasn't called him ever”, she concedes with a sigh, giving Lisa the number to her house’s landline.
"Um, Hello, Mr. Hebert?… Yes, it’s Lisa. Listen…do you know if T-Taylor could stay over at my house tonight?
She's laying the sheepishness a little thick but damn, if Lisa wasn’t a wanted criminal I'd recommend a career in acting.
Lisa confirms a few things over the phone, and then hands it off to Taylor.
"Hey dad… I'm okay… I just want to stay the night… Lisa and I can take the bus tomorrow,"
I've seen Taylor blush before, but this one is truly nuclear. This red reaches the tips of her ears, making her whole face resemble a tomato. She shrieks into the phone, anger and embarrassment are the most prevalent.
"DAD! I told you, we aren't like that!" I can just barely make out the person on the phone, he's laughing a deep belly laugh. More surprisingly, Lisa is blushing a similar, if less intense shade as she fiddles her hands in her lap.
"Okay… yeah, I love you too, goodnight.", she hangs up the phone quietly, she looks up to Lisa then quickly turns to me. Her blush resurging as she settles to staring at the floor. Breaking the awkward silence, Brian clears his throat and claps both of his hands together.
"So! I can order something if we're going to settle in for tonight? Pizza ok?", I chuckle a little as I move to the coffee table.
"Fine by me Bri, you know my usual." Rachel comes over to the other end of the table, helping me lift it up instead of dragging it by myself again.
"So we're just going to" Taylor says, a mix of incredulity and hope on her face, "s-sleep together again?"
"Yep" and "if you want" Rachel and I respond at almost the same time..
"But I don't have my pajamas here…" she protests weakly, and I'm about to point out that last time she slept in both her jeans and a sweatshirt when a rustling from the kitchen takes my attention.
Brian's taken his shirt off and… wow. His nervous system really doesn't do him justice. Good god I know in this line of work a strong body is a necessity, but holy shit.
He's more like a living work of art than a supervillain, the way his muscles coil in his six pack just makes me want to run my hands all over- Rachel takes my attention back by yanking the table to the wall.
Brian's holding out his t-shirt to Taylor in one hand, his other searching through the pocket of his jeans for a cell phone.
If I was distracted by it, then Taylor is outright hypnotized. I can't prove it, but the way she wipes her chin when she finally grabs the shirt makes me think she was drooling.
As Taylor runs to the bathroom, mumbling to herself, Brian walks back to the kitchen to order pizza, finally having found his cell. The way his nerves relax the second he turns makes me grin. That little sneak was showing off, flexing a little to make his already handsome frame seem more impressive.
Rachel grabs Judas' leash as she heads downstairs, she calls up that she's just picking up the food and that she'll be back.
Lisa emerges from her room in her pajamas, a fuzzy pair of purple pants and a loose fitting hot pink tank top. She gives me a wink when she catches me staring, but scrunches up her face in indecision a moment later.
Brian’s dragging the seldom-used mattress out into the living room, as I hear Rachel grab Brutus’s leash as she leaves to go get the food.I stare back at Lisa, I shrug as I mouth a question.
She moves over to help Brian, mouthing a response over her shoulder.
It's a couple more minutes of trying to fit Brian's larger mattress into the living room before we can let it drop into its place. It's another ten or so of arranging all the pillows and blankets, but in the end, we end up with a massive cloth nest, big enough for all five of us.
I hear Rachel slamming the door, carrying the pizza, as I watch Taylor open the bathroom door.
Taylor takes a hesitant step out into the living room, her bare toes wriggling against the hardwood floor. She's wringing her hands worryingly on the edge of Brian’s shirt, which is so big on her that she's almost bending down to reach the bottom.
Instead of stretching to cover Brian’s broad shoulders, the extra fabric lengthens the shirt on Taylor so it reaches just under mid thigh, accentuating her long pale legs.
"Sorry if I-" Rachel interrupts her as she sets the boxes on the countertop.
"Fuck off, you look…" she tilts her her head in thought "cute." She nods her head as she pulls out a plate and two slices of her own meat lovers pizza.
Taylor mumbles her thanks as she takes her spot right in the middle of our bed.
The next few hours are spent joking around, watching shitty action flicks, and eating greasy pizza. By the third movie though, some forgettable kung fu crap, we've all settled onto the bed.
Taylor's the first to lay back, pulling a sheet up to her neck as she tries to get some shuteye. She's keeping her arms and legs pinned to her sides when Rachel moves around me, forcing herself between the two of us.
She pulls me from my sitting position on to her side, and pulls Taylor onto her right, the both of us too tired to offer any resistance. I squirm a little in her grip, getting into a more comfortable spot, and drape my arm across Rachel’s chest to give Taylor’s shoulder a squeeze. She lets out the most adorable meep.
Lisa grabs the remote and turns down the tv, rolling over to spoon Taylor from behind. In the dim light, I can see Brian's arm reach over Lisa and settle on Taylor's other shoulder.
Rachel's breath evens out just after Taylor's, and Lisa mutters a goodnight to me and Brian before succumbing to slumber. I lift my head up from Rachels grasp just as Brian nods off.
My teammates are blissfully sleeping when my phone starts blowing up behind me. It isn't the cheap burner for work, but one of the newer models I use for messing around. I don't even have to unlock it to see the PHO alert, my breath hitches as I hastily turn down the notification sounds.
Lung and Bakuda free.
I try to get comfortable in the flickering light of bad movies.
CO-AUTHOR NUMBER ONE'S NOTE: Hello all, sorry this came out a week later than we meant it to but there was some… adjusting that needed to happen.
For one as the note might have already given away, I have a new beta (read co-author). So if you've noticed a significant spike in quality, that would be her!
Another thing though is that there will be some minor differences between the SpaceBattles version and Ao3 version henceforth. Nothing plot changing but Ao3 just gives us a little more room to fly.
So yep, see you on the flipside and here's Willow!
CO-AUTHOR NUMBER TWO'S NOTE:
Hi, I’m Willow, and I go by Sage Nameless on AO3, and PrognosticHannya on SB/SV/QQ. Btw, if anyone gets the joke behind the second name you get to name an OC.
Next up on “Stronger Together”, Mr. Snakey-gimp-suit himself: Coil!
Watch as we answer the question: “what if Might Guy and Orochimaru had a kid, and that kid reeeaaally liked Nietzsche?”
Seriously, I think we have a really unique take on the character, so please give us feedback.We try our best to stay away from the “hahaha I am so smart *dies immediately*” characterization that the fandom tends to give him, tell us what you think!
Cue the music!
“Timeline A~ to the left of me, Timeline B~ to the riiiiight, here I am: stuck in the middle (of an abandoned Endbringer shelter) with you. “
Thomas Calvert/ Coil
What many people don’t know about Ellisburg is that, going in, we didn’t know it would be… well, Ellisburg.
My squadron was a task force sent out to assess potential B-Class threats, not some sort of army as the media liked to portray us, in order to play up Nilbog’s threat for ratings. We were dispatched on routine sweeps, sent to assess possible B-Class threats, and had an impeccable record of ensuring that those threads were nullified. It was, if you could picture it, a normal squadron. A joker, a teacher’s pet, a maverick, and so on. A virtual Breakfast Club for parahuman murder. I was a loner, an outsider, rejected for my “paranoia”, but other than me the squadron would not be out of place in any city in America.
And so all those years ago, we were sent to Ellisburg, where we heard reports of a serial killer turning his neighbors into monsters. This was, of course, like any other mission, with Nilbog only having a dozen monsters at the most, so my colleagues treated it as they would have any other mission. In hindsight, analysts like to point out all the flaws, all the little oversights that compounded to cripple our response to Nilbog, and gave him time to really build up his armies and become an S-Class threat.
They’re correct of course, but every one of them misses the larger point.
The repeated dismissals of my plans of engagement, the half-hearted patrols, the improper inspection of equipment for sabotage, the haphazard searching of the “creepier” buildings (and refusal to admit to such out of a fear of losing face), these things were not unique to Ellisburg.
We were a celebrated squad, and had undertaken countless risky missions, and do you know what? Ellisburg was no different. There was no special incompetence, as the bleating public likes to reassure itself, no unusually horrific threat, just a group which had proven itself countless times being deployed once more.
And then everyone died.
All it took was just the right confluence of events, just the right combination of unpredictable fringe circumstances, and all these seemingly “harmless” forms of irresponsibility suddenly led to an S-Class slaughter.
My friends and coworkers mocked me for my diligence, for my planning, for creating twenty strategies for every two of theirs. They rejoiced in their idleness and called it virtue, shunning me as “paranoid”, or “neurotic”, or “overcautious”, and laughing at my supposed “scheming” against some event they thought would never come. They refused to prepare for the worst, and lived like they would never die. They relished in their own abilities, believing themselves so skilled that they were almost immortal.
This, to put it quite bluntly, is why they are dead, while I am alive.
Would you refuse to build a roof for your house, simply because you lived in a desert? The rains fall scarcely in the Sahara, but when they do fall, the droplets are so numerous and intense that they drown the world.
Emily, at least, respected me, even if her own diligence stemmed from a dogmatic obedience of protocol.
Oh how I loathe her.
It’s almost admirable, in a way. That near-religious adherence to protocol, even when ignorant of the higher principles behind it, that zealotry to ignore the spirit and obey the text: she would make a fine priest, I think.
A fine priest, yes.
But a very poor leader.
To this day, it astounds me how she can at one moment rage against the idle and self-important sheep which call themselves “the people”, so like our hubristic colleagues, but turn around with the next breath and defend the judgements of those sheep in defiance of the whole world. She mourns, she kowtows to ghosts.
Does she think they were strong, that they were righteous? Cut down by an unstoppable force of nature? No! The meek tell themselves the strong are inevitable, but the strong know they can succeed in spite of all odds. We could have won that day in Ellisburg, killed Nilbog when he was still a man in a silly costume, and yet the foolishness and sloth of my colleagues ensured he became a threat to all humanity. I know Emily understands this, and yet she continues to worship the throngs of humanity, all lazing and complaining in those slothful fools’ exact likeness!
These people, the people, are not some idol to be worshipped, not some god to be obeyed. If anything, they are an idol of weakness, not strength. They rarely care for more beyond their own trivial comfort and amusement, and will spend their entire life without an original thought. The people decide the future of the city? They can barely decide their favorite TV channel.
Ellisburg plays out time and time again: the people clamor endlessly for security and comfort, and yet in their sloth are unwilling to be even mildly upset or inconvenienced.
They want Lung gone? To kill a dragon, you must sacrifice a village.
They want Kaiser gone? To kill a general, you must sacrifice an army.
They want Nilbog gone? To kill a king, you must sacrifice a kingdom.
Boils must be lanced, and rot must be purged. Burn a vulture, and a phoenix will rise anew from the ashes.
But will the mayor do this, will the chief of police this, will Emily do this? No! These simpering cowards, these “representatives of the people”, they will shoot off their own legs out of fear of pointing the gun at another! They believe themselves to be the righteous, the knights arrayed to defend the cowering villagers against the monsters, and will kill themselves before ever admitting otherwise!
Yet, they ignore one simple truth.
In politics, there are no armies of knights and monsters, forces of good and evil clashing for the future of the world. There are no knights, there are only monsters. It’s just that some of the monsters are on opposite sides.
A leader must be that monster, a serpent, and have the strength of the boa and the venom of the mamba. The will of the people? The people’s will is for the newest cell phone, it is nothing, now, less than nothing! You would listen to what they say is righteous and unrighteous? What is righteous to them is their favorite celebrity marrying, it is even less than their will! Only the will of the serpent matters, only its righteousness matters, for prey cannot rule itself, lest they multiply and starve.
Brockton Bay is a sick, sick city, led by self-important thugs, and poisoned by a government which caters to the idle whims of the public.
They would have me be a lamb, rather than a serpent. To leave the city to rot for the comfort of sheep. To die with the rest of my squad in Ellisburg.
But I refuse!
I am the serpent, I am the monster in the dark, I am the Lord of Brockton Bay!
I am its salvation, its future, its invisible hand, and each day, my golden age draws nearer!
I am a constrictor, slowly enveloping Brockton Bay in my inescapable grip, stronger every moment. Every building, every dollar, every life, will one day fill my stomach.
My spies cause chaos, and my scales toughen.
My mercenaries shoot, and my hood flares.
My muscles flex.
My grip tightens.
In Timeline A I go to work, taking off my suit jacket as I begin my humdrum job.
In Timeline B I'm in my compound, I've rested well and am ready to begin my operations for the day. I've had my men stake out the Alcott's residence for weeks now, ready at a moment’s notice to acquire my potential greatest asset.
I revise tomorrow’s distraction for the fourth time, narrowing down exactly how I should manipulate my Tattletale down the correct path. It’s harder than usual: she does hate these unexpected and risky outings.But the rest of my Undersiders will bring her in line, they all need too much from me to refuse.
But the newest member, this… “bug”. She troubles me.
Investigations into Ms. Hebert, turned up a surprisingly unremarkable life, with little standing out in the way of academics or extracurricular activities. The only thing of note was an incident last January, where she was found near feral in a locker filled with biohazardous waste as the police report wrote.
Strangely for such a grievous incident, the investigation was conducted with little care.It found little, and closed not a week after it began. Or, from what I can see from my moles in the PRT, it was stopped.
Oh, it was the Hess girl! That certainly makes things interesting. I had already marked her out as a potential asset for months, and this incident gives me the perfect hook. I wonder, would she be forced off the wards if the information “mysteriously leaked” to the public? Absent-mindedly, I send a note to Mr. Pitter, asking him for a report on my subornation of the PRT holding cells, and how quickly I would be able to take Ms. Hess from them.
Although, there is the possibility of negative interactions with Hebert…
No, it's of no matter, Hebert's an asset that can be controlled, just like any other. If she refuses to comply, perhaps an unlucky workplace accident for her father, requiring extensive medical care?
Suddenly, my phones in both timelines ring. It is not a coincidence.
Accord does not have any scheduled call with me today, and nobody else with one number would have the other.
In both timelines I bring the phone to my ear, answering calmly.
"Hello", a smooth voice rings out in both timelines, simultaneous to the degree that it barely makes an echo.
"Mr. Calvert" she speaks in timeline A
"Coil" she speaks in timeline B.
"Postpone your plans one week, then you're free.", the line clicks dead in both timelines. No discussion, no bargaining of any kind, and yet I knew I had no choice but to comply.
Combat, arguing, or conflict of any kind against Contessa was, by its very definition, an effort in futility. If she could not overcome a parahuman in physical combat, she simply wouldn't be there. If there was a thinker alive who could outwit her, then they were either a Cauldron puppet, or they were dealt with the instant they'd come on the board.
Sighing, I call out for Mr. Pitter in Timeline B. It barely takes a minute for him to enter my office. He's a short, portly man, completely unremarkable for the amount of medial and strategic knowledge he contains. By design, of course, we’ve both worked extensively to perfect his image of “harmless middle-ages bureaucrat”.
"Yes sir?", he asks, a nervous smile worming its way onto the bootlickers face.
I tap my left index finger once against my right forearm.
In an instant the two guards behind Pitter restrain him, his screams of fear soothing my frustration just a tad. He begs and pleads all sorts of dribbling nonsense at me while being dragged away to my… well, I suppose there isn't a better name than “torture room” is there?
Even a monster must have hobbies, after all..
In Timeline A, my computer beeps with an e-mail. It seems the imaging seminar tomorrow has been rescheduled for next week, and as always I am mildly frightened at Cauldron’s sheer reach and efficiency. In Timeline B, Pitter doesn't even bother holding out, his screams a lovely, symphonic backdrop to my coffee making.
Should I go with my regular creamer or hazelnut?
It's when I use the salt that he really starts screaming though, his words are becoming an unintelligible garble to the point of incoherence. As I make a note to buy more creamer, I start pouring the acid atop his eyes, and wait for the sound of sizzling flesh to dominate the weakening screams.
. I drop timeline B as I take a sip of my coffee.
Damn, should've had my regular.
April 21st 2011
"Hmm, you better not be lying to me, pet", I click the phone off as I lean back in my chair. Sometimes, I honestly have to wonder if recruiting Tattletale was worth it. She may be an invaluable asset, but her utility when roaming free is greatly reduced by her attempts to deceive me, to the point where I’m seriously considering just drugging her.
I end the call with my perfect detective, an. I drop the timeline I'm at my office in, I'm sure that my sick days are going to be noticed at this rate, but honestly, it doesn't matter. My history in the PRT and the respect I've garnered will keep the position secure until I can move to the next stage of my plans
It's annoying to attempt this fresh each time I fail, but it's worth it to not alienate my Undersiders. I let timeline A continue without my interference, not even observing lest Tattletale catch wind of it.
In timeline A, I open up a few documents from Fortress and get to working
In timeline B, I order the mercenaries in..
"Sergeant, mobilise retrieval squad, protocol 1", I say into my communicator as I pull u. the soldiers’ bodycams.
"Understood sir, moving onto target, ETA ten minutes"
As the mercenaries split into two groups, I advise my spotter in the area to keep distance and observe without interfering. it's unlikely that my Undersiders would be meeting anyone, but contingencies are always necessary, even when one has infinite chances to fail.
My men move in quickly and efficiently, it's barely three seconds out of the convoy before they have The Undersiders surrounded.
And it's barely three seconds until all of my camera feeds go dark. I expected many possibilities, but for Grue to reveal his powers out of costume? Empty street or no, he's far too cautious for that.
I planned for the smoke long ago, however, and the sheer volume or tranquilizer darts should cancel out any stalling effects of Grue or Regent’s power.
It's another three minutes before the sergeant is able to reestablish communication, the screen popping back into vivid color. What I see on the only operational feed surprises me.
One of the two vans that brought my men are missing, eleven of the twelve have vanished from the area. The sergeant is the sole survivor.
I speak on another channel, with Grue's ability to obscure vision I don't bother ordering a report. When I turn on my spotter's camera I am similarly surprised,: he's gone dark as well.
That… that shouldn't be possible. Tattletale may recognise that they're being watched, but an agent trained in stealth and espionage shouldn't have been found and subdued so quickly.
I open another tab for tracking my equipment, but, predictably the tracer in the vehicle has been found and disabled. I don’t know why I even still bother putting them in there at this point, Tattletale could find a tracker while drunk and half-blind,
The men themselves could still be in Grue's shadow, as it's unlikely the tracers in their weapons and vests were destroyed.
I order two squads to deploy, one's monitoring Ms. Lindt’s shelter (I refuse to use that distasteful moniker she’s chosen for herself) while the other breaches into the loft. Alpha 1 reports no human activity, just angry dogs. Alpha 2 doesn't find anyone either, although they do point out a few peculiarities.
The door has been broken from the outside, consistent with Tattletale's report, although it's clear they retrieved Ms. Lindt's main trio of dogs. It's the other oddities that intrigue me.
Regent's mattress has been dragged into the living room, five pillows and various blankets are scattered around it. The various sundries are confirmed to be from the individual Undersiders rooms.
The implication is obvious but completely incongruent from my understanding of their dynamics.
Regent is a model sociopath, he has no empathy, no drive for conversation or affection, nothing that would motivate him to seek out companionship of any sort. He’s happy as long as I offer him cheap thrills and protection from his father, I certainly didn’t expect him to actually develop some sort of loyalty, let alone affection for his colleagues.
Tattletale is, by her own admission, both asexual and aromantic, two characteristics only magnified by her trigger. She detests prolonged contact, as her power continually supplys disgusting insights and plausibilities from her surroundings.
Grue is strictly a professional,: his teammates are colleagues first and friends second. Any contact would have to serve a functional purpose, which… cuddling certainly does not.
Ms. Lindt is simply too warped to have agreed. She is a rabid misanthrope, and barely even tolerates the presence of her teammates. She only interacts with humans because I demand it of her as payment for my aid.
'Bug' could have agreed to the arrangement, her file shows that she doesn't own a cellphone, nor does she have any sort of contact with other students. It's in line with the school record of 'attention seeking' that she could be starved for physical affection.
Keeping a lookout by Daniel Hebert's place of work and residence for his daughter is silent. Over the next three hours I monitor known spots The Undersiders frequent.
It's a fruitless endeavor, for all intents and purposes The Undersiders and my men have vanished.
I'm considering dropping this timeline and trying another ambush when suddenly, the missing squad's and spotter's tracers reconnect. The second in command is quick to reestablish contact, but seems terribly confused.
"Come in Command, we have been separated from our sergeant and have been teleported a significant distance from the target, requesting immediate assistance over.", teleported? He and those men with him all seem to be lumbering about in a daze, each of them are moving sluggishly to secure the warehouse they've found themselves in.
"This is Command,” I say, steepling my fingers, “return to checkpoint Sigma for advisement", the soldier is quick to respond.
"Negative Command, Zulu Epsilon Foxtrot.", his countersign is stated fluidly, not a moment of hesitation. If Regent has compromised one of these men, he hasn't chosen the most optimal ranking.
I connect the line to his sergeant, he knows his men better than I do, he'll vet them each before they can return back to base.
After nearly an hour of radioed questioning he confirms with me that none of his men nor the spotter seem to be under master influence. He and I are both familiar with Regent's ability, and while he's proven himself an amazing actor, no amount of theater would let him know the agents callsigns and M/S codewords.
Rooting out the master effect, there remains only one conclusion.
The Undersiders have a new member, one they've added without my knowledge.
Either a disorienting manton-unlimited teleporter (very unlikely but possible), a powerful master or stranger, or a parahuman capable of erasing or even outright altering memories. All are terrifying opponents. Given my men's amnesia, on top of the PRT's report for Bakuda, I can safely guess that this new member has only been with them for a short time. Smirking, I lean back in my chair. Once again, my Tattletale has spoiled her hand early and given me priceless information, with her none the wiser. I do love my power,
The moment my men have been cleared, I'll make sure they give their reports to me personally It’s a slow Saturday, so I have some free time to torture the men, to see if the memories resurface under extreme stress.
The sergeant's able to confirm the men and I'm able to confirm he's himself. With that I order the men's return and Pitter to ready his instruments, it's when they actually get inside that everything goes to complete shit
The sergeant attempts to debrief his men, but is promptly hit square in the face with the butt of a rifle and mobbed by his squad. The twelve armored men then begin securing the surrounding corridors with disturbing coordination.
Insects of various sizes and shapes start to flow from beneath the men's clothes, each of them all unnaturally large and deadly-looking. With clearly strong and glossy carapaces, and legs sharp enough to leave tiny gashes in the concrete floor, they march to the cameras and vents of the inner airlock doors.
I slam the vents closed with a single click of the mouse, but it’s too late, and enough of the creatures slipped through into the main base.
The last thing I see before the camera goes offline is Grue stepping forth from the dark entrance, the mercenaries around him humming "the ants go marching".
I know for a fact that none of The Undersiders can breach the security doors blocking them from the rest of the compound, but it's possible their newest member (or perhaps backer?) may have some sort of ability which lets them bypass it. The bugs in the vents seem completely resistant to the heated sterilization, they're clearly the work of a biotinker collaborating with Hebert. Did something happen with the Dallon girl?
Suddenly, a hulking mass of muscle and sinew, tears through half a foot of steel like tissue paper, so large it barely squeezes through into the main chamber.
"All deployed teams, sweep the surrounding area! Find Regent and neutralise him, over!", How is this happening! I scouted Regent for weeks before I recruited him, from the moment he entered my city, it is absolutely inconceivable that he could have been constantly concealing his abilities to this degree.
Unless… was he hiding his abilities, even when staying with his father? Or perhaps was never given the opportunity by the man to use his abilities to the fullest extent? Heartbreaker is a narcissist, and it is entirely possible he suppressed his children’s abilities for fear of being usurped by them.
No longer panicking at my lack of information, I almost collapse the timeline, but decide to let it play out once long, snake-like creatures slide under the door. Might as well use this timeline as a learning opportunity.
Fizzling, small chunks of the corrugated steel vault entrance fall away, melting in the presence of some chemical on the creatures’ cracky hides.
My away teams all report steady heartlines around forty beats per minute: out cold.
The door crumples on the ground to reveal Tattletale, Grue, and a figure that’s more muscle than anything else. The figure seems to shrink as they step through the doorway, the skin of her face stitches itself back to show Ms. Lindt. She can't- ah.
Tattletale pulls up a seat in front of me, her typical smirk is gone, replaced with a piercingly inquisitive expression. I know that look well, she wore it whenever she'd nearly figured out my power, whenever I had her breathing through punctured lungs.
"Grue, take it from him", he lifts a gloved hand and begins to swallow the light, I open my mouth to fish for more information but the second the wispy blackness touches me the timeline is… gone.
It's not like when I die or drop it myself, it feels different and wrong. Like my power had been wrenched away from me, and it's only because of that safety net I'm able to keep it.
What on earth did they do under the cover of that darkness? Was it that memory-editor? It’s quite possible that an attempt to edit my memories in one timeline would cause the timeline to collapse, but that would mean they somehow snuck their new member in without me noticing. The ‘stranger’ hypothesis is looking more and more likely. The use of darkness right before the collapse likely implies that they aren’t able to use whatever part of their power deals with memories at the same time as their stranger abilities, so at least I know I’ll have some warning.
I believe it’s time to try a different strategy.
I inhale deeply as I split reality. In timeline A, I continue sitting in my office, but in timeline B, I order a remote team to perform reconnaissance on the Herbert's residence. Bug and Tattletale are both there, from the information their tails gave me, so I believe it’s time to plan a more… in-depth extraction.
I mobilise three strike teams: two to monitor the loft, and one to storm the Hebert residence. Within minutes of setting up a perimeter, the loft's upper windows are shattered, and three of Ms. Lindt's dogs crash to the streets below, followed by something much more fierce.
In timeline A, I begin to add notes to each of The Undersiders dossiers.
Ms. Lindt can reinforce herself to a size surpassing her dogs, and seems to inherit physical animalistic characteristics.
Upon closer inspection of the three smaller monsters I add another note.
Growth in her dogs has changed drastically, armored plating seems less random and far more symmetrical, structure likely makes it tougher than before. Explanation is currently unknown, and info is HIGH PRIORITY, right below discovering identity of new memory editing cape.
My men at the Herbert's residence don't even have a moment to prepare before they’re set upon by a near-biblical horde of insects, both mutated and regular. I open up The Undersider group dossier and add notes to it as well.
Danger sense? Can see through insects’ eyes? Has demonstrated minor Thinker powers previously, nature still unknown. Medium priority.
Suddenly, I pause, my eyes widening. I scratch out many of my previous notes and hypotheses on their power, starting a new sheet and labeling it “EVIDENCE FOR SECOND TRIGGER”.
Over the next three days I'm able to gather quite a wealth of information on the team's new capabilities and what I find disturbs me. It seems I was correct, they had each experienced a second trigger but not just that.
They'd also done so in a cluster, whatever sort of madness Bakuda had conducted on them brought upon a trigger not ever documented before.
This is an interesting roadblock.
The trigger seems to have given one of them, most likely Tattletale or Bug, an ability extremely useful for coordinating their attacks, upgrading them almost an entire threat level by itself. If the power comes from Bug, it might be tied in to her newfound sensory abilities, as she’s shown an amazing capacity to detect threats of all kinds, both direct and indirect.
The memetic power I'd initially assumed may exist as a natural outcropping of either Regent or Grue's abilities. It's more likely however that my men had been puppeteered the instant they'd revealed themselves.
But then how would Regent know the proper opsec measures?
Ironically, the one who was the most difficult to capture beforehand is now the easiest of the five.
Not to say Grue's gotten easier, of course: a failed attempt on Sunday showed that in addition to his disorienting smoke, he'd also developed some form of short term burst regeneration. He'd shrugged off the tranquilizers like they were empty.
With the upgrades, Grue had become one of the most dangerous capes in Brockton Bay overnight.
His run in with Gallant and Battery showed me the ability that caused my timeline to involuntarily end, and made me write entire protocols to avoid being in his physical presence at all costs. Grue was now one of the elite few parahumans in the world capable of suppressing powers, and in addition, possessed the frankly terrifying capability to USE those powers for himself, in conjunction with his own.
Thankfully, since I haven’t seen any cape disappearances within the past few weeks, and the Undersiders haven’t bought any new property, so I doubt he can use this effect on more than a single person, and not outside of his physical proximity. The prospect of a second Hatchet Face is worrying enough, thank you very much, never mind a second Glaistig Uaine.
Despite all their increased firepower, they were, in the end, only humans, and thus evolved an equal number of crippling weaknesses to compensate for their newfound strength.
The Undersiders now shared an even closer comradery, bordering on intense codependency, which would make manipulating the actions of any one of their members almost trivially easy with the right threats.
That same codependence also made them irrational, however, and I learned from painful experience not to kill, or even grievously injure any one of them or their loved ones.
On Sunday, fifteen of my men managed to kill Regent, the least combat-capable of the five, and in the retaliatory raid they abandoned all pretences of non-lethality when dealing with my mercenaries. Tattletale weaved through their shots, effortlessly snapping necks like twigs, while Ms. Lindt ripped dozens to death like a slightly less gruesome Hookwolf. Bug demonstrated that while she preferred to use her wasps to paralyze, they were perfectly capable of making men drown to death in their own bile and blood, or melting through their armour with bursts of acid..
In the timeline where I’d merely managed to grievously wound Regent, the rest of them nearly called down the Triumvirate by kidnapping Panacea in an attempt to force her to heal him.
Grue didn't bother with sneaking in or trying to negotiate, he single mindedly searched for the one person who could save the slowly dying Regent.
He found Panacea and, without the slightest hesitation, leeched her power. Attacking the world's foremost healer was almost a guaranteed birdcaging, she was simply too valuable a resource to let die or turn away from heroics.
Despite all the death and destruction, this situation wasn't unsalvageable. Even if I lack the power to kill The Undersiders, I do have enough in the way of blackmail to keep them in line, but my next few days are consumed almost entirely by making contingency after contingency on how to deal with their newfound powers if, no, I’ll be honest, when they try to turn on me.
There are scarce few parahumans in the bay that could feasibly kill the five indiivdually,, let alone all of them together, and so the ideal option was to isolate them and take down each with a quick, but horrendously lethal long-rang assassination. I say ”‘long-range”, because if one of them was to survive, the assassin would otherwise be unable to escape their clutches, and thus would inevitably point them in my direction after an interrogation with Tattletale’s power.
Purity is the first to come to mind, her abilities make her suited for the lethality required. However, she’s a mass damage cape, not an individual blaster, even without Grue or Regent there to throw off her aim. If I were to send Purity after Grue, there's the chance of his darkness swallowing up her light, making him a threat on the level of Lung, unstoppable save for The Triumvirate.
Everyone else in The Empire is out for the same reason: they’re far too reliant on close or medium-range combat, I'd just be throwing him more powers. Victor does have merit though: he’s an excellent sniper, and while his power is potentially a long term multiplier for Grue, the risk of him being stolen compared to the chances he has at a successful shot is worth considering.
The only free ABB parahuman, Oni Lee, is hard countered by Grue though he could potentially attack from outside their range in surprise..
The Merchants, of course, are right out. Skidmark would perhaps stand a chance if he managed to apply his power creatively enough (personal note: add addendum to project entitled “Skidmark Railgun”), and anyone worth their salt knows not to underestimate a tinker. Either, then, would be a promising option, if not for the fact that sending either of the drug-addled loons would be like rolling out a red carpet of evidence for a Thinker of Tattletale’s caliber, no matter how many middlemen I use. I’d be dead within the week.
The conclusion I've come to is that any tinker besides Squealer is my best option. If they were caught, their power would offer even fewer immediate advantages than Victor’s, and unlike him, their technology should be unaffected by Grue’s improved darkness cloud, and might even be able to see through it using some esoteric mechanism.
Besides the human equivalent of a Hot Wheels advert, there's only two tinkers in Brockton Bay, and one of them is in prison. Contacting Toybox isn't an option, my men's rifles would tie me back to them enough.
The only other option would be Über of L33t, and despite both their personalities seemingly being designed to drive me into a murderous rage, they have yet to kill anyone, and it'll likely stay that way. Stupid as they try to appear I've tested with enough timelines to say they're both much smarter than their feigned idiocy wants people to think. If they do kill, even under my… persuasion, they'd lose the luxury being a 'joke' provides. That leaves only one option in the Bay.
Using the plans I've drawn up in the unlikely event that I am arrested by the Protectorate, I insert several teams into key points in the rig’s infrastructure, and by nightfall… Bakuda is mine.
April 24th, 2011
Now, I admit, it wasn’t a perfect operation, although as the first several timelines proved, it could have gone much, much worse. Regardless, the mad bomber is mine, and coming with her are all of her fantastic creations. She'll be difficult to keep in line given her psychological profile, but honestly, for a time-stopping bomb? I’d put up with quite a bit of impudence. Besides, it’s not like it will last long: anyone can be driven to obedience through the judicious use of drugs and torture, and despite what they like to think, the insane are no different.
The main obstacle I'd caused was Lung, my men had managed to escape but it was much too close.
One of the guard shifts was off by half a minute, a smoke break was all it took for my men to be stumbled upon. It turned the operation from a quiet retrieval to a hardfought escape, made all the more difficult by a single stray shot.
Lung, despite being known for his 'lazy' disposition and overwhelming ferocity, has an equally formidable mind. As the fire fight in the cells began to get out of control, he stood quietly behind his door.
The punch against the door rattled the walls and covered him in containment foam in seconds. My men were conditioned to sudden loud noises, the guard outside was not.
He left cover and one of my men took the shot, it tore through him easily and then the door, then the foam, and then Lung. That shot was enough to get him started, and unfortunately he managed to escape despite Armsmaster's intervention.
It's of no matter, the Lizard will be off the board soon enough and I got what I wanted. I had an endgame for them should they grow ambitious, but they're still mine for now. Mine and yet I must use them differently, instead of five pawns, I am left with a queen, two rooks, a knight, and a bishop. Different pieces calling for a different strategy.
With my insurance secured, I am once again at a crossroads with regards to the Undersiders.
On the one hand, a rebranding. Distancing myself from a newly formed 'heroic' team, while still maintaining ultimate control through Tattletale, provides a number of attractive benefits. I could undermine The PRT and Protectorate's authority from the inside, gain the trust of the local heroes, while simultaneously antagonizing the local gangs with Protectorate support. Independents or otherwise, heroes have to stick together, even if a few of them decide to go to war with a gang.
But with that rebranding brings problems—increased scrutiny would make controlling them a great deal more difficult, and with Tattletale already chomping at the bit, could very well cost me my control of them entirely—I believe I have enough other levers of control on the rest of the Undersiders that this point is largely compensated for, as my as-of-yet unsent emails to Heartbreaker and Child Protective Services prove. They'd also be harder to move into position while maintaining a public trust. I wouldn't have to deal with red tape but maneuvering them would still be more difficult than before.
On the other hand, I could accelerate my plans. Have The Undersiders snatch up and consolidate territory as quickly as possible and form a gang of their own. Unlike the “heroic” option, it would lead to almost total control, and depending on how they are portrayed in the press, even a bit of public goodwill. Afterall, there’s a reason that the Marquis’s name is still beloved by large portions of the city’s minority population, and it isn’t because of his fantastic taste in suits.
I heard a few weeks ago, that an elderly black woman spit on Lady Photon after being rescued from E88 goons by her, yelling that she never would have been in danger in the first place if Marquis was still around.
However, while potentially bringing in greater benefits, this plan also comes with far greater risks. New gangs aren't afforded the same benefits of the older, larger gangs which are in essence “too big to fail”, and I know Emily would pounce for a nice PR victory for her Protectorate that won’t send the city into a spiral of chaos. If the Undersiders started consolidating territory, it’s quite likely that the Protectorate would come down on them in full force, perhaps even aided by the E88 or ABB.
Additionally, actually running a criminal empire would be much more difficult through the proxy of the Undersiders, not if I don’t want to alienate them. Grue outright hates drugs of any kind, and would be reluctant at best to start selling them. Regent, despite (or perhaps because of) his upbringing and former crimes, absolutely despises forced prostitution. Dog fights are off the table because of Ms. Lindt, and Bug's father is the impromptu head of a union that's kept gangs out since he joined. It can still be done, of course, very few things are truly impossible for me to accomplish, but it would require an amount of effort so large that I would be hesitant to even consider it.
It's at six in the morning when I settle down for sleep in Timeline B, my phone rings from Tattletale in Timeline A. I answer, and despite the late hours, her request is absurd enough to genuinely stun me for a few moments.
It was a simple favor, one I could easily grant, but the fact that they even asked for it astounds me
Why on earth would anyone want to go to Winslow High?
Hello all, I hope you enjoyed our first interlude. Also as the chapter pointed out we will be posting a poll on The Undersiders future. Will they sink into villainy or rise into heroism? Also next chapter's going to be massive so it's probably going to take twoish weeks.
I’m really proud of that first monologue btw, it took me like six hours to get right, and was entirely my idea and writing. PRAISE ME.
Seriously though, how did you guys like a “obsessive-compulsive lovechild of Orochimaru and Mussolini” version of Coil?
Also, my depression’s acting up, give me hugs over the internet.
(bc I don’t get any in real life *cries*)
Next time on Stronger Together: Confessions are shared, the relationship will either solidify or crumble
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
"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.
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.
SleepyBird's AN: Hello all, we know this chapter is really short but we decided to split this chapter up 3 ways to actually get a chapter out some time this month.
We'll try to get another up in a week but no promises.
Also this is the first chapter with exclusive Ao3 content
Willow's AN: Hope you enjoy the CUDDLESMUT
Next time on Stronger Together: Lisa explains what everyone's been feeling, how will The Undersiders move forward?
Lisa Wilbourn/ Tattletale
I put the cell back in its charger and tie my hair up before stepping back into the den.
Alec and Brian have migrated to the kitchenette since I’d left, both doing their best to not wake our other two sleeping teammates. Shockingly, they’d mostly succeeded.
Speaking of the sleeping duo, I’m seriously considering pushing off our discussion until they’ve gotten back into some semblance of a normal sleep schedule. Taylor had shown how badly her fight and subsequent reconciliation with Rachel affected her, with how she’d almost immediately passed out the minute she dropped into bed next to the dog master.
It hadn't been more than a day since she came clean, but seeing the gentle smiles on their faces as they cuddled each other, you'd never guess they'd fought. Brian tried to claim that I let out a little “squee” when I saw them, but that’s obviously untrue, because I’m much more serious and composed than that.
In all honesty, Rachel should still be mad. Livid, in fact. She found out how one of the few people she’s ever trusted was going to throw her under the bus, and then, not two days later she's forgiven her? People don't pick up the pieces that easily when they fall apart, especially capes, and especially capes dealing with something so closely related to their trigger.
Rachel cares deeply for Taylor, was hurt, is no longer hurt, semi-conflicted, has deemed Taylor's presence above her own anger–...
...yeah, not buying it. People don't make conscious decisions like that. Humans are creatures ruled by emotions, and of those emotions anger almost always burns the brightest... I tried to focus my power more on her reasoning, but just end up with reiterations of the same point. I'm pretty sure I know why that is, but it'll have to wait until the rest of us are on the same page to discuss that.
Brian looks over to me and gestures to his mug, and I nod as he pours me a cup. Alec sits on the stool next to me and shows me the screen of his phone.
I look back to him and nod, he and I both rise and head for the bed. He goes to Rachel and shakes her shoulder, the dogs on the couch stir, realizing their master will be up soon. Rachel grumbles in her sleep and presses Taylor against her, murmuring something and burrowing away from Alec's hand.
Taylor hums and blinks back grogginess as she stares up at me. I grab up the glasses beside the bed and set them on to the bug master’s face. She mutters something incomprehensible as she uses her bangs as a shield to hide her blush. Her shyness is cute, but I won’t lie and say that I’m a little put out that she still feels the need to hide herself away from us. She tries to get free from Rachel's embrace, only to flail her arms as Rachel fails to budge even an inch.
"Rachel, hon-… I mean uh, Rachel, I've got to get up" Taylor whispers, blushing harder at her near-slip
I turn just as Brian reaches the four of us, he hands me my mug as Alec tries to roll Rachel on to her back, while Taylor pulls her arms in time with his pushes.
Rachel is clearly trying to fight back consciousness as she twists out of Alec’s grip, whining. . The noise is low, reminding me of Judas when he’s parked himself down in front of a cabinet you need something from. The noise slows as Rachel blinks and squints at the early morning light.
Finally , Rachel blinks her way into awareness, and I turn to face the collective group.
“Alright, everybody needs to get up, we really need to talk.”
I turn to Brian, “You can stay here for today, right?” he gives me a brief nod, his eyes searching. I turn back to Rachel, just now standing up, and repeat my question.
“Can only stay till ten, have to feed dogs”, she grunts, turning to her room with her three dogs in tow. Taylor gets up nervously and stares at me, hands fidgeting.
I give her my best reassuring smile: “It’s alright sw-… Taylor, we’re not talking about anything bad, but we do have to talk about it.”
It took another five or so minutes for us all to settle around the kitchen island, and I took the time to make Taylor some tea to keep her up (note to self: buy honey). I do the same for Rachel. Rachel fed her dogs, and Brian (unfortunately) put a shirt on. I was just about ready to open discussion when Alec chimed in.
“Why not bring the white board in? Y’know, to make it as cliché as possible.”
I considered it for a moment. “Alec, I know that aloofness is your way of dealing with stress, but that’s actually a really good idea.”
So after wheeling in our ‘heist board’ to the group’s chuckles, I began to write, putting each of our initials onto one point of a poorly drawn star.
Since I’m not in the habit of lying to myself, I’ll begrudgingly admit that modeling information is my way of dealing with stress.
For a minute or so all of us stand there, each of us (except Alec and Rachel, of course) trying and failing to start a conversation.
What? It’s not like there’s a how-to book on how to have the “surprise you’re in a fivesome” discussion. After a few more seconds, I decide to just dive right in.
“Taylor...” I pause, waiting until she meets my eyes “would you rather kiss or kill me?”
Taylor immediately squeaks, face burning a bright red. Avoiding my gaze and shifting in her seat, she tries to stammer out her own counter question.
"Why would I even, what-" she’s looking to the others for answers, Brian and Rachel are sporting similarly confused looks as I interrupt her.
"Please just answer me, it’s important.." Taylor stiffens but answers resolutely.
"Kiss, I would kiss you" she says, managing to dim her blush an admirable amount.
Well, at least until my next question.
"So then, if you could, would you want a romantic and/or sexual relationship with me?"
Taylor’s eyes widen past the rims of her glasses and almost jerks out of her chair, and I have to suppress my laughter at her reaction. Alec doesn’t even bother, openly cackling at how I turned the girl who fought Lung into a stammering puddle with a single sentence.
After a minute or so, we manage to get our giggling under control, and before I continue the conversation where I left off, Taylor shifts a bit more, her eyes darting to each of us as she bit her lip.
Is very uncomfortable, not sure where laughter is directed, thinks this is a joke, feels betrayed, comparing you to Emm-
I shut off my power as I realize my mistake, darting quickly out of my chair to bring her into a hug. I squeeze tight, whispering reassurances and praise into her ear until she calms, slumping into my grip with burning cheeks. By that time Brian’s gotten up from his seat and is staring across to us, concern written clearly on his face. I pull back from the hug, one hand still on her shoulder while I use the other to tuck her hair behind an ear.
“I don't want to make you uncomfortable, okay sweetie? You don’t have to answer now but-" she replies quietly, blood rushing back to her cheeks.
"Yes? Uh, to both I mean" she says it quizzically; maybe even a touch hopeful after hearing my term of endearment. I give her a smile as I move back to the board, my hand lingering on her shoulder for just a second longer.
I pick up the marker and draw a line between our initials, arrows pointing at both ends and cap it off with an ‘Sx+Rm’. I cap the marker and can feel my own blush working it’s way onto my face.
“This discussion will go a lot faster if both people answer honestly when I ask the questions ok? I promise I’m doing all this for a reason.” I get nods from the rest as I continue, “Okay… Taylor, I would also be willing to be in a relationship with you, both romantic and... erm yeah.” I clear my throat as I go to the next question, not bothering with the kiss/kill one.
“Okay, would you want a romantic and/or sexual relationship with Alec?", the nerve master rests his chin on his palm, his usual smirk replaced with a cocky smile.
Taylor seems to have calmed down when she meets his gaze; that doesn’t make the red leave her face but at least it’s not genuine discomfort anymore.
“Yes, if he uh, if he wanted then yeah, in both ways”, no one mentions when Alec’s shoulders sag just a touch with relief, as he leans back and hums in agreement… and doesn’t say anything else
“Alec?”, he tilts his head at my prompting, meeting my level gaze.
Eventually he breaks, rolling his eyes.“Oh, do you even need to ask? Absolutely, of course I would.”, he said it firmly, as if it were a self-evident truth.. He shot a grin at Taylor, who was now actively trying to hide inside her shirt. I drew another line connecting Taylor and Alec’s initials, same as the one I made earlier.
“Taylor, would you want a rom-”, the girl in question throws her hands in the air as she stands up, yelling her answer in frustration. I tried not to notice how the movement made… interesting changes to how the shirt fit, or how I could just barely see her panties peeking out.
“Yes okay! To both Brian and Rachel too, yes I’m apparently so fucking starved for affection that I have crushes on four people I met barely a week and a half ago!” her hands are in a white-knuckled grip, refusing to meet our eyes. I start to move out of my seat to hug her again, but she waves me off, looking conflicted. Rachel grabs her left hand, gripping it tight as the silence following Taylor’s outburst drags on.
Eventually, she speaks up: “Me too.”
She meets my gaze almost challengingly: “all that… I feel it too. For all of you. I don’t know why but I do, alright?”, By the end, she’s almost growling out her answer, Taylor’s hand clutched in a death grip.
I turn to Brian, who’s staring at her open-mouthed. Eventually, he collects himself, and turns to answer.
“It’s weird but uh,” Brian clears his throat as he continues, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment “yeah, it’s mutual ok Taylor? And for all of you. I mean, yeah I… all of that. ”
With the tension of embarrassment transformed into a tension of a different sort, we all just took in the silence for a moment, glancing at each other. The discussion was going a lot faster than I thought it would, but we still haven't cut into the meat of the problem.
"Ok, I'm going to start filling this in, if anyone disagrees or gets confused, say something. Alright?” Not waiting for an answer, I connect Taylor's initials to Brian and then Rachel's initials, I mark them both the same and hear no objection.
I then begin connecting Rachel's initials to me, Alec, and Brian. Once again I hear nothing as I add the finishing details.
I connect my initials to both of the boys and feel relief welling up in my chest at the silence. They… they like me. It's a new feeling, but the lightness in my chest is certainly welcome.
I turn to the last unfinished connection, Alec and Brian's, and that's when I hear the first disagreement.
"W-wait a minute," I turn back to see Brian, arms crossed, face red as he tries to meet my gaze. "I'm not so sure about me and," he coughs into his fist, "I mean I’m not… y’know… yeah. ".
Alec cocks a delicate eyebrow, and I pull up a seat as this probably won't be a quick conversation.
"It's just- I haven't- he-" Brian stammers into an angry grunt as he adds, "I'm not gay!"
"No shit," Alec chuckles as he gestures to the board "you just confirmed you'd be cool with any of the three lovely ladies here. Being bi is a thing. Or “pan” if you prefer, I guess.”
"I know that! But it's- well how bout you, huh? You willing to be with me?"
Alec snorts as he responds, rolling his eyes. “How long have you known me? Total slut here, for everybody.”
Brian snorts angrily. “Well isn’t that just perfect for you then?”
"It’s not-!,” he cut himself off by taking a calming breath, “It’s weird for me too, alright? No wait not ‘weird’ that’s not what I… I’m no good at this shit, fuck. But yeah I would have plowed you the day we met because” he breaks off, vaguely gesturing to Brian’s upper body, “so yeah the sex is a thing, and before this,” he gestures vaguely again, this time to the air, “that’s all it would have been, but... I mean… I never really did the romance thing until now. Aromantic to the bone. My home life pretty much ruined all that Disney shit for me.”
Alec moves his hands through the air in increasingly erratic patterns, working himself up into a rant. “It isn’t me! I don’t do sappy shit! I mean, it wasn’t me, and I didn’t , or it was at first and now it’s not, and that’s super weird, because… I don’t… I’m shit at dealing with this kind of stuff, dammit! I’m not gonna say some stupid romance novel shit about ‘I’ve never felt like this before!’ and swoon on the fucking couch like a ten dollar hooker, but you’re fucking different, alright?! All of you are! This is super weird and new and unnerving because I’m incredibly fucked up, and I don’t know how to feel about it, and I know I want to hate it because it’s just like what he did but I just fucking can’t!”
Alec cuts off, breathing heavy. “I… I… fuck Brian. I get it, I promise I get it. I’m not conflicted, that’s the fucking problem. I know how I feel about all of you, I just don’t know how to feel about how I feel.”
We all kept silent in the wake of his moment of vulnerability, but even without my power I could tell all of us wanted to rush over and hug him. Even knowing his thoughts already, it was incredibly touching to see how much we could affect our usually apathetic teammate.
After a few minutes of silence, Brian finally responds, swallowing thickly "I-...I'm not saying no, but I… I've known you for half a year now, I've never even thought I could be… with you or any man. Why now?"
Oh boy, here comes the hard part. And right after Alec finally opens up too! I guess even if everything else in my life’s changed I can still count on my shitty timing.
Grimacing, I decide to just get it over with: "that's… tough to pin down, but I know when it started." I manage to force the sentence out as unpleasant memories bubble to the surface.
The atmosphere immediately grows tense, like a cold front had suddenly manifested inside the loft. Alec's begins drumming his fingers on the counter but I can still see the shakes. Rachel breathes in sharply, her eyes dilating with mild growth.
Brian's jaw clenches as his eyes dart to the door, I can tell he's watching for an intruder, someone he saw in the lab. Taylor lifts her feet up onto her chair as she hugs her knees.
"So, we don't need to talk about that night okay? I don't know if you guys have noticed but some things in our dynamics have changed." I pause to see if I've gotten everyone's attention away from that then add, "my power doesn't work on any of you, not like it used to."
"What do you mean?" Brian asks
"Before it told me a lot more than I wanted to know, stuff like 'hasn't changed underwear in four days' or 'stain on pants isn't coffee'. It still does that for everyone else, but for you four it just tells me… well, the nice things."
Taylor quirks her head to the side: "The nice things?" she asks
"Y'know things like 'thinks you're beautiful', 'is counting your freckles', or 'likes your smile'. It doesn't give me anything that might make me dislike you guys." Rachel perks up at that and gives her own two cents.
"Me too, I-" she growls low and deep "I know I'm not good with people, too many things people do confuse me, but… not with you guys. Not anymore. I'm not… I don't get it all the way but I know things I didn't before."
I raise an eyebrow and she continues.
"Like smiling or other 'looks', I don't have to think about it with all of you."
Brian chimes in at that. "Could that be what's," he glances at Alec and blushes, "...making me think about Alec in that way?" I sighed as I answered, truthfully as I could.
"I dunno, but probably. Like, I figured I was ace, nobody held my interest that way and no offense but you guys didn't until Friday night." I glanced at the two who hadn't added in their orientation.
Rachel answers first. "Didn't think about girls that way, and not outside of fucking with guys."..
Taylor blushed at our dog master's crassness, but answered the question regardless. "I uh, I never really thought about it much. I've only ever only had crushes on guys but I haven't been in a relationship ever, so…" she shrugged as I stood up once more.
"The simple truth is that whatever the second triggers did to us, it’s also trying to push us together. Not like friends, not like couples, but one cohesive relationship.”
Brian seems agitated: “That’s impossible! you’ve got that backdoor into the PRT, you know triggers don’t work like that!”
“You’re right, they don’t, at least for regular triggers. Cluster triggers exist, according to the PRT’s files the members of a cluster experience strong emotions concerning the others, both positive and negative. It’s called the ‘kiss/kill dynamic’, and it’s not unheard of for all the clustermates to fall into a single category. There’s never been a cluster second trigger, but that might just be because of how rare…” I grimace, “how rare the circumstances that would lead to one are. I think we might be the first one, and that’s what’s pushing us together.”
“Wait a minute,” Taylor asks stoically “...when you say ‘pushing us together’ you mean we’re being forced to. Is there any way to stop it? Even if there isn’t couldn't we just ignore it?”
“Doubt it” Alec chimes in, looking uncomfortable. “master effects, which this probably is, don't just go away because we know about it. I’ve never heard of a master effect without a master though, so all the weird shit might be because of that.”
"‘Weird shit’?” Brian asks.
“Y’know, like… at least for me, I can’t sleep by myself anymore. Or I can do it, but it sucks. It’s like… eating porridge when I know I could have a buffet”
“A buffet?” I say, trying to relieve some of the tension by putting on a overexaggerated cockney accent, “Ah y’ sayin’ we look dishy, luv?”” Everyone chuckles as Alec responds in kind, miming to scratch his cheek with just his middle finger raised.
After a minute, the tension returns.
"S-so we, what?” Taylor eventually says, breaking the silence, “Just give up? Let ourselves be mastered?" Her face was twisted into a scowl. "That's not... if I were to date someone or someone's in this case, I'd want them to like me for me! Not just force it, that's no different from fucking Heartbreaker!"
A second later, Taylor seemed to realize what she said and blanched, looking at all of us in horror. “I d-didn’t m-mean to say t-that you guys were anything like him, you’re nothing like him, I just meant the situation -”
"It’s… don’t worry about it, dork.” Alec said, cutting her off with something halfway between a smirk and a grimace. You have a really good point.”
“But… but this isn’t anything like him. Trust me, I know.”
Taylor was about to speak up and ask what he meant, when I shushed her. Definitely not the time for that revelation on top of everything else.
“The thing is, Heartbreaker doesn't give two shits about the people he fucks up, he makes himself integral to his victims, he is the only person, the only thing that matters. It’s not love, it’s obsession. There was nothing about him that they liked, they were just obsessed with him as a concept. I have some hangups with what’s happening here, but I promise you that none of you are anything close to being like him, and the way I feel about all of you can’t even be compared to his thralls’ obsession.”
Alec took in a deep breath, gaze unable to meet up with ours. “I l-... li-... lo-... -... I just really care about all you guys, but you aren’t the center of my whole world. I’m still a person, I don’t have to go and, well… y’know… with all of you. I can still function by myself." He got up and walked around to Taylor's front.
"This… this isn’t mad, this isn’t blind, this isn’t manic. ”
Taylor just stared into his eyes, transfixed.
“I like you Taylor, not the idea of obeying you. I like your hidden strength and determination, how you keep fighting no matter how much shit the world throws at you. I like how easily I can fluster you by making innuendos, and I lo- like the way you hide behind your hair when you’re nervous. I like that you wring your hands when you talk, and I like that no matter how scared you are you never back down. I like you ” " and then to everyone’s shock, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her towards him, and kissed her.
Alec buried his other hand in Taylor's long locks just as she squeaked and hesitantly tried to mirror him, eyes shut as she returned the kiss. He kept his hands still one cradling her face while the other slowly stroked her hair.
What was initially intended as a rhetorical point soon turned into something more, as the kiss grew more heated, with Taylor letting out a little whimper that seemed to shoot straight to my crotch . I don't know how many seconds they spent exploring each other's mouths, and how many seconds the rest of us spent staring at them with flushed cheeks, but I know they only left for lack of oxygen. As Alec drew away Taylor's face chased after his lips for just a moment, before Alec pulled back and rested his chin on her shoulder.
"I’m falling for you, Taylor Hebert, and I can’t wait to fall even harder.”.
The gravity of his confession left us all stupefied, absolutely shocked at the incredibly heartfelt dedication of love from our usually apathetic nerve master. After a good thirty seconds of gaping and blushing, Taylor eventually managed to stutter out a reply.
“A-are we really doing this? The f-five of us, I-I mean. O-or will it be j-just couples, how will this-”
“No”, Rachel and I cut her off in tandem. After starting to formulate a reply, I decided that Rachel’s blunt and uncompromising honesty would speak to all of our feelings more than anything else.
“It’s all of us. All or nothing: we’re a pack.”.
“Yeah,” Brian follows up “I-I think it should be all of us. B-but can we take this slow, at least at first?” he rubs the back of his neck awkwardly, his gaze shifting from Alec to the floor.
The royal-themed Master in question gives him a suggestive wink, and stalks over to the darkness generator.
“Of course,” he draws, stretching in a way that emphasized his lithe, androgynous figure, “that just gives me plenty of time to seduce you, oh fearless leader” Brian stammers for just a second before Alec begins again, looking at me. “In all seriousness though, yeah”—a genuine smile graces his face—“I’m all for this.” he nods to himself as he glances over at me
I smile as I look at each of my… teammates? Lovers? Partners? Each of my whatever we are in the eye. “Thank you all, really. This isn’t going to be easy, and w-we’re definitely going to have our fights and arguments like any other relationship, even with the bond, but as long as we’re all dedicated to keeping this going, we’ll be okay.”
“So we’re dating now?” Taylor speaks up, glancing between the four of us, her surprise quickly transforming into joy.
“Yep”, I turned back to the board and finalized the final pairing with a flourish, getting a golf clap from Alec as I connected him to an embarrassed Brian. We end up standing there, basking in the moment, looking at each other with big, dopey grins on our faces for a good minute and a half, until a ringing phone from my room cuts into our reverie.
My face rapidly pales as I go to answer, because there’s only one person that would be calling that phone. Fits the bastard to ruin such a precious moment, wasn’t one call today enough?
“Hello Tattletale,” he starts out, blunt as ever, “there’s been a change of plans.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well”, he says, with the cold detachment of a man who knew without a doubt his orders would be obeyed, “after your recent exploits at embarrassing the Protectorate, I’ve decided that you serve a better purpose to undermine them by beating them at their own game.”
I swear the bastard takes some sort of perverse joy in leaving me speechless.
“Y-you’re asking us to be heroes ?!” I practically choke out, incredulous.
“No, I am saying you will be heroes. Am I understood?”
I’d have to thank him, the shock of that revelation almost made me forget what type of person he was. So good of him to remind me.
“Understood… who?” he parrots back, mocking.
I grind my teeth together as I can practically see his oily smirk.
“Understood… sir” I grit out.
“Excellent. You’ll find the details of your rebranding inside your mailbox. I’ve taken the liberty to include a budget for new costumes and a reputable contact to make them, I assume your old costumes aren’t fit for the new powers.”
Wait what did he s-
“I’ll leave the details up to you, Lisa, just remember to be ‘heroic’. I want front page news questioning if the Protectorate can do its job, don’t be subtle.”
He hangs up with an ominous click, and I shudder as I realize just how powerful his Thinker ability is, and start to panic. How am I going to explain this to everyone else?
If I tell them that “the boss” knows about our second triggers, I either have to pretend that I told him, which they would never forgive, or come clean about his Thinker ability, which would put them in danger.
Telling them he has bugs in the apartment has the same problem: either they think I purposefully hid it from them, or have some way of guessing he can fool my power.
Maybe I could say that he has spies? No, that would never work, we haven’t told anyone besides ourselves.
Say he’s in league with Bakuda? They’d immediately try to kill him, and I don’t blame them.
Wringing my hands, I rejoin the others, planning to do what I do best and wing it.
As I face them, eyes flicking back and forth, I open my mouth to speak, until Rachel cuts me off.
“So, what did Coil want?”
I look at her in disbelief as she shrugs, and slowly, Alec, Brian, and Taylor turn to look at me.
I let out a strangled laugh. “So guys... funny story…”
Yikes, nearly two months of radio silence and I have the audacity to raise this story again? Yes, yes, I know ‘it’s back!’, but in all seriousness I’ve decided not to try and get anyone’s hopes up by setting a schedule of any sort.
Updates will be sporadic and turbulent at best, and for what it’s worth I’m truly sorry this took so long, family stuff got a lot worse after November 15th so I just put this story on the shelf for way too long.
The ship is finally setting sail!!! I hope the ratio of fluff to seriousness in this chapter works out, we spent some time debating what type of tone it would set. Also SleepyBird don’t sweat a few weeks of non-updates, I literally haven’t updated my own fic in like an entire year lol.
Next time on Stronger Together: Who’s Coil’s contact? (Gee I wonder) and what will The Undersiders turn into?