There was a disturbing amount of bugs in the city, even on a rainy day like this. I tried to move the worst of them out of people’s houses as we drove past, but even my substantial efforts hardly made a dent in the problem.
The thing was, the natural order of humanity tended to fundamentally break down most species of insects’ environment, and they’d either migrate to the countryside or adapt to their new urban existence. The city had been built too big, too fast. The bugs that should’ve had a few decades or even a century to cycle through thousands of generations, to realise life here simply wasn’t going to work for them, had been forced into a new status quo that they had no context for, no base instincts to guide them.
Adapting to a new environment when the world had been turned on its head and nothing made sense anymore was no easy feat.
I felt for them, I really did. But the truth was that humanity came higher on our own hierarchy of needs, and something had to be done about it. Driving around for a few hours every morning to try and round them up wasn’t working, that much was obvious after only a few weeks of trying.
“We’re going to need a new approach,” I said out loud.
Lisa looked up from her laptop, which was balanced on her knees. “A new approach…?” She trailed off, blinking a few times. She was in civilian clothes, a simple black turtleneck and black trouser combo that I was sure was very fashionable, considering it was Lisa. “Oh, right. No problemo. I’m sure we can come up with something.”
I wasn’t so sure. Even if we did, it was just one problem among too many. Scion’s rampage had broken so many worlds beyond repair, and the ones that were still intact and populated ranged from hostile to wary. Our allies were ones of convenience or fear, and those weren’t good foundations to build a relationship.
I sighed, willing my thoughts away from that direction. It wasn’t my problem to solve, even if it was everyone’s problem to live with. “I’ve got group today. Jessica’s got someone coming to talk to us about the whole hero thing.”
“I know.” Lisa paused, making a face. “Would it bother you if I gave you a little warning?”
“I haven’t narrowed it down, exactly, but Mrs. Yamada has gotten a little… worried, I guess?”
“Worried how? About the group?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure it’s the group itself, but she feels like she’s fucked something up, something big. I’m leaning towards the theory that she’s talked to someone she shouldn’t have, without the necessary context or expectations, and she’s worried that may have serious repercussions for one or more members of your group.”
I frowned. We’d stopped navigating the city aimlessly now; at some unknown signal, our driver had started making for the usual meeting place. “What should I actually be expecting here?”
“Some kind of dynamic change. Yamada thinks she’s messed up, and will take some kind of step to rectify it.” Lisa tilted her head, smirking. “How that change manifests will be a big clue about the nature of the fuck-up she thinks she’s made. Might be that your group’s visitor is a part of that. Mind filling me in after?”
“I’m not going to give you any secrets told to me in confidence.”
With her power, Lisa probably knew more about the others than I did, but it was the principle of the matter.
“Of course not,” Lisa said. “But this could be important. That’s the feeling I get. So. Please, Taylor?”
I sighed. She’d probably figure it out eventually anyway, so there was no point being uncooperative if it would only mean adding to her headaches. Things were still a bit awkward between us, considering what She had done in the end, but she was still Lisa, still my friend. I nodded, turning my attention back to my impromptu bug removal service.
It took a good hour to make our way to our destination, and in that time I gathered a swarm that dwarfed anything I might have been able to put together back in Brockton Bay before everything went to shit. It was large enough to look like a cloud blotting out the sky. Somewhat less than conspicuous, I thought with a grimace. I hadn’t been paying attention.
I did my best to disperse it, sending the bugs down into sewers, to hide in trees, blend into fields. I’d keep them still for now, then transport them outside the bounds of the city once group was over.
I eyed the familiar building, feeling a moment of trepidation that hadn’t been there since the first session, when I was still unsure of so many things in my life. There was going to be something different in there, something unfamiliar, and that thought descended from my head until it settled like a pit in my stomach.
“I’m sorry for worrying you,” Lisa said softly.
“I would have been a lot more worried to go in there and find something had changed, with no idea why,” I replied. “I appreciate the heads up. Don’t worry about it. Not your fault.”
“Then apology accepted, I guess.”
Lisa reached over to give me a one-armed hug. I leaned into it, a little awkwardly. At times like these, I wished I could read her as well as she could read me. It felt like she went through so much effort to look after me, to keep me sane, to help me make sense of a world that was fundamentally nonsensical.
But who was looking after her?
Lisa chuckled. “Don’t go worrying about me, kiddo. It’s the big sister’s job to look after the little sister, right?”
There it was again. Knowing my thoughts the moment I had them. Sometimes it was useful, sometimes it rankled. I didn’t know what side of the spectrum it fell on, right now. My thoughts were confused, pulling me from one side to the other, moment by moment.
“Little sisters are allowed to worry, too,” I said, even if it felt corny enough to bring heat to my cheeks.
“You’re adorable.” Lisa reached over to pinch my cheek, but I slapped her hand away. Her hand was so much bigger than mine, and it felt wrong. I had a moment of discomfort in my own skin, my body feeling wrong. In my last memory before the trip into hell, I’d been taller than her, lither, and our hands were roughly the same size.
Now, I barely came up to her shoulder. The tips of my fingers would make it about halfway up hers if we splayed them out to the limit.
It fundamentally reminded me of the nature of my existence, and I fucking hated it. I was an abomination. A violation against my own sense of self.
Lisa’s arm was still around me, and I suddenly felt stifled, trapped.
“Hey, hey.” Her voice sounded as if it was coming to me through a thousand radios, a chorus of jumbled sound that echoed within my skull. “It’s okay, Taylor. Come back to me. Shh. It’s alright.”
I only realised there were tears on my cheeks when she gently wiped them off.
“Do you want me to call Mrs Yamada? You don’t have to go to the session if you don’t feel up to it.”
I shook my head. “Want to.”
“Okay. That’s fine. Maybe wait a few minutes, though? Catch your breath?”
I nodded, a jerky motion that strained my neck. I hated this… all of this. Feeling so weak, pathetic. It made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my own body, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than losing control of myself.
Memories that weren’t my own crossed my mind, and I willed them to fuck the hell off . I wasn’t responsible for anything She did, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to feel guilty for her actions. If she was dead, that was too good for her. If she wasn’t, I’d find her one day and pay her back for what she’d done, for all the flinches and glares and narrowed eyes that I didn’t deserve one bit.
With those thoughts, it was easier to catch my breath, get my equilibrium. Anger was easier than an existential crisis.
“Better?” Lisa asked. She hadn’t moved away the entire time, rubbing slow circles in my back and speaking soothing words in my ear, and I couldn’t put into words how much I appreciated that.
I nodded, leaning into her.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I snorted. “Don’t you know it all already?”
“I’m not looking for gossip and secrets, I want to help you feel better,” she said, a little sternly.
I shrugged out of her grip, giving her a small smile to make sure she knew I wasn’t mad at her.
“Maybe later?” I proposed. “I’d rather just get in there, get the session over with. Talk to Jessica.”
Lisa nodded. “Go on then, kiddo.”
I left the car after tolerating another hug from Lisa, then made my way into the building. The black sedan pulled away behind me almost immediately. She’d never admit it at times like these, but Lisa was a busy woman. The fact that she always made time for me even with all the things she had on her shoulders meant a lot. A part of me felt guilty for taking up so much of her day. A darker part of me felt I deserved to have at least a bit of her attention, but I did my best to squash it. Those feelings weren’t me. Not the person I wanted to be.
Or, at least, I really hoped they weren’t.
I heard plenty of familiar voices as I entered the building and navigated to the usual room. I couldn’t help the excitement that steadily built in me as I got closer. Group therapy had been a bother when I first started, but I had trusted Jessica that it was a good idea. I felt vindicated for placing my trust in her, considering where we were now. Even I could see how far everyone had come since that first session, and now?
We were genuinely talking about forming a hero group. An option I’d thought was completely closed off to me the moment I saw Dinah Alcott with sunken eyes, sickly pale skin, and an expression on her face like she thought she’d never be happy again.
I’d always wanted to be a hero. Being a villain was never something I had in mind; it was a destination I’d arrived at after a journey full of horrendous decisions.
Now, I had a chance. Maybe the team would crash and burn like Jessica seemed to think. For the first time in a long time, though, I found it in me to be optimistic.
I’d make it happen. It would work.
I practically skipped the last few steps to the door, and it was open as I arrived. Thus, it was there in the doorway that I got my first look at an unfamiliar teenage girl standing among our usual group. I froze. I'd gotten so caught up in my excitement—more extreme emotions that didn't feel in line with the person I thought I was—I'd briefly forgotten that we had someone coming to visit today. With that, Lisa’s warning hit me. Was the girl here to fix Jessica’s mistake, or was she the mistake?
When she turned, giving me a look at her, I realised she wasn’t unfamiliar after all.
Flowing blond hair, striking blue eyes, pretty and athletic in a way that seemed designed to strike at my every insecurity — I might have second-guessed myself, but the white dress with a city skyline printed on one side of the chest, text underneath identifying it as Brockton Bay, blew those doubts away.
“Glory Girl?” I blurted out before I could think not to, then cringed at the high pitch of my voice.
Victoria Dallon looked at me, her eyes going wide, but she said nothing, stunned into silence.
The rest of the group looked between me and her.
“History?” Tristan asked, shooting a look at Jessica.
Sveta gave me a look that was part uncomfortable and part apologetic.
Glory Girl blinked, and there was a faraway look in her eyes. “Uh, yeah. Guess you could say that.”
I nodded. History . Understatement of the century.
“Hey, it’s okay!” Kenzie cut in. She was wiggling in her seat, legs swinging beneath her. “I was scared too at first, but Taylor’s, like, my second favourite person now. She’s actually really cool.”
“You’d say Jack Slash was cool if he gave you a bit of attention,” Chris said, sneering.
“I’d say you aren’t cool!”
I tuned them out, my focus on Glory Girl as she took a step back, matching me as I moved to enter the room.
There was a ring of nine chairs in the middle of the room, and she had been on the other end of the circle from the doorway when I entered. Jessica was sat at the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, like usual, and she gave no comment on the little standoff between Glory Girl and I.
I stopped, heart suddenly pounding. I knew that look the former heroine was giving me, because it was something I’d seen more times than I could count.
Even when I was in Bonesaw’s little retinue, I hadn’t hurt anyone. In fact, I’d existed mostly as a way to taunt one of the heroes the Slaughterhouse Nine knew they were going up against, my power suppressed—and, admittedly, partly so Bonesaw could play pretend at having a little sister. When Jack lost and the Golden Man started his rampage, I surrendered without hesitation and played no part in any of it until She had brought us all to the battlefield. After Scion was defeated, I cooperated with the heroes, I answered the scientists’ questions, and I attended therapy like they asked me to. Since the moment I’d woken up in that tube, I hadn’t hurt a fly. My record was spotless.
And still, whenever I met a cape who recognised me, it seemed like half the time they reacted with the same emotions.
There were common themes: some widened their eyes and flinched away, others’ mouths dropped open as they froze on the spot, and a few even trembled like a kitten, cowering before me even though the top of my head rarely came up to their chin. There was one who went as far as to take up a fighting stance, activating his power with a nimbus of red light around his skull, screaming for others to get away from me.
Different expressions, but the same feelings.
Looking at Glory Girl, sorting through disjointed, blurry memories from before , I had the thought that this might be one of the few times I deserved it. In a strange way, that made me feel better, because it was something I had an actual, personal memory of doing, even if she hadn’t been a foot taller than me when it went down.
My eyes were fucking misty again , because of course they were. I could feel my bugs stirring, reacting to my emotions, spinning out lines of silk and making their way inside the building through cracks and crevices. After a moment of thought, I let them come. There was a greater-than-zero possibility I was about to be attacked by a flying brick, after all, and my swarm was utterly vast right now.
At least I know her gimmick .
That familiar anger from earlier was still there, bubbling just below the surface, and I called on it once more. Jessica said it was an unhealthy crutch to rely on, but it was better than floundering. Channelling that anger, that indignation, I moved further into the room, ignoring Victoria’s attempts to put distance between us.
This was my space, and I’d be damned if I was going to let her kick me out of it.
“Good morning, Taylor,” Jessica spoke for the first time, as if she’d been waiting for a good time to try and disperse the tension.
Kenzie and Chris were still bickering, but it was light-hearted. Ashley was watching over them. Tristan and Rain were quiet, watching the exchange, while Sveta and Glory Girl talked in low voices.
“Thanks for the warning,” I replied, a little more waspishly than I wanted. This fucking body. I felt that disconnect again, like my real self was on the other side of a screen and I was just puppetting this body around. I swallowed, willing it away.
“I’m sorry about that, I didn’t realise I hadn’t told you until you’d already left. I tried my best to get in contact with you to clear things up,” Jessica said.
I looked Jessica over, trying to see if I could read anything from her body language, but saw nothing different from usual. The suit jacket paired with a blouse and a business skirt was standard attire for her, and her expression betrayed nothing atypical.
Talked to someone she shouldn’t have, without the necessary context or expectations , Lisa had said. Who could she have talked to that might have repercussions for our group? And how did Glory Girl tie into it? Frankly, I was struggling to come up with a problem for which Glory Girl was the solution. Not one we couldn’t deal with ourselves, anyway.
I decided to put it out of my mind for now; if I didn’t figure it out by the end of the session, Lisa would no doubt figure it out when I got home.
I moved towards the empty seat in the circle, putting me between Ashley and Rain, receiving an imperious nod from the former and a look that couldn’t decide if it was a smile or a grimace from the latter. Kenzie was practically bouncing in her seat on the other side of Ashley, beaming at me—no doubt she was delighted with a new addition to the group. A new friend .
“It’s fine,” I said as I sat down, smoothing out the bottle green skirt Lisa had picked out for me. It wasn’t fine, but it wasn’t something I felt like making a big deal of, either. There were more important things to focus on right now.
I turned my attention to Glory Girl. “Do you need an explanation or can you figure it out for yourself?”
Jessica cut in. “I’d like to go over ground rules and expectations before we get into anything too personal.”
“It’s fine. It’s better if we get this out of the way.”
“It’s about structure, Taylor. If the first thing you do when you enter the room is get into therapy-relevant stuff without any small talk or catching up, it sets a bad tone for you, and you’ll approach future sessions with a different mindset.”
“I can’t do small talk or catch up with this hanging over me.” I gave her a pleading look. “She’s already come to her own conclusions, I won’t be able to think straight if I don’t correct them.”
Jessica’s expression was calm, and she spoke carefully. “Okay, but I reserve the right to jump in at any moment. Is that okay?”
I nodded, turning my attention back to Glory Girl.
“You’re a clone,” she said after a moment. She’d backed up to the point she was against the windows directly across from me, Sveta by her side. I wondered if she was preparing herself to smash through the glass and fly away. “Not, uh, Khepri though. Obviously. Weaver? Skitter?”
The rest of the group went quiet, staring.
The reminder rankled, calling to mind both my status and what She had gone on to do. “Skitter.”
Her eyes darted left and right. “Right. Um. But you were aged down?”
I nodded, arms crossed. Chris snickered, and I debated swarming him.
“I— could you explain more, at least a little bit? I’m sorry, I just feel like I’m walking through a minefield here and I don’t want to upset you.”
“You’ve already covered almost everything I’m comfortable sharing. Bonesaw attacked my team while the Nine were in Brockton, and she got some of my DNA. She cloned me using that data, and whether it’s some passenger fuckery or by her design, to me it felt like one moment Bonesaw was cutting into my skull with a circular saw, the next I was waking up in her laboratory.”
Or, at least, that’s what it had been like at the time, and I wished more than anything that it had remained that way. Memories of the in-between had only come later.
“Taylor,” Jessica called out.
“You don’t have to share any more if you don’t want to.”
I bristled, dismissing her. “Everyone here knows it anyway, and the next part is something I want everyone to know.” I took a breath. My hands were trembling, and there was a tremor starting to creep into my voice. My bugs were shifting. “I’m not Skitter the warlord, I’m not Weaver the hero, and I’m definitely not motherfucking Khepri! I have the bug powers, but none of that shit was me. I’m my own person, distinct and separate from her, and I want to be treated as such.”
I don’t deserve to take the blame for the things She did.
There was a reason I wasn’t with the Wardens or the Undersiders.
“Okay,” Glory Girl said. “That’s fine. I can do that. I’m sorry for reacting like I did, this just took me by surprise.”
I nodded my acceptance, and she turned to Jessica. “I’m really not sure what to say, here. Can’t say I’m too impressed with having this sprung on me, either. When you said there was an element I might find difficult to deal with, I didn’t think you meant someone directly relevant to me.”
“I apologise,” Jessica said, looking genuinely contrite. “The privacy of my patients is of paramount priority, and I hope Taylor understands when I say her status demands even more discretion than most.” She paused, contrition giving way for a solemn, steady gaze. “I’ll have to request that you please keep this confidential, for now.”
Glory Girl nodded. “Yeah. Of course. I get it.” She turned to me, only now starting to shift away from the window. She didn’t approach the chairs. “I’m sorry again for how I reacted.”
“It’s fine,” I said without meaning it for the second time in as many minutes.
The other members of the group hadn’t butted in so far—even Kenzie, remarkably—but a few shot me looks at that. Guess they knew me well enough at this point to know it absolutely was not fine.
Nothing I could do about it.
“Jessica invited me here because she felt I could give you guys some perspective on being part of a hero team,” she continued, “but I can leave if you’re uncomfortable. This is your group, it wouldn’t be fair on you for me to intrude.”
I thought about that, staring her down. So, evidently Glory Girl had been brought here as part of Jessica’s play to discourage us from forming our own team. For a moment, I wondered if the mistake Jessica thought she had made was in bringing us together at all, oblivious to the possibility something like this might come of it.
It just didn’t fit. Not from the way Lisa was talking. We already knew Jessica disapproved of our plans, that she thought it was a bad idea, destined for disaster. Had she tried to go to someone else before Victoria, and they’d found out about me? Decided they wanted some revenge?
That didn’t fit, either. Lisa would be all over something like that, and the Undersiders and the Heartbroken would come down on them like the wrath of a vengeful god.
So what was the mistake, and how did Victoria Dallon fit into it? Who had Jessica talked to?
Jessica had said very little since I’d arrived, I noticed.
It took me a moment to realise the room was quiet, waiting for my answer.
“You can stay,” I said, because now I was curious . A part of me wanted to be able to see the look on Lisa’s face when she realised I’d figured it all out without her input.
“Okay. Cool.” Glory Girl seemed to shake herself, moving back over to the circle of chairs. Considering how she’d looked when I first walked in, she seemed remarkably composed. “Well, I feel like I should introduce myself, even if you already know who I am.” She smiled. “Victoria Dallon. Not Glory Girl, please. Nice to meet you.”
I nodded slowly. “Taylor Wilbourn. None of her cape names, please. Likewise.”