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One of the clearest memories I had of before was the showdown with the Wards in Brockton Bay Central Bank. The edges were frayed, the colour was faded, and there were stains obscuring some details, but it was among the most complete pictures in the little mental scrapbook labelled ‘Taylor’.

The emotions I’d gone through were the strongest, the easiest to recall, and of those, the feeling of Glory Girl’s aura stood out in stark relief.

A complete loss of all rational thought, to the point I could barely stand. Fear. Condensed and targeted with surgical precision, slicing away logic and excising reason. It had left me standing there, staring like an idiot, as she hurled Tattletale towards me like a child would a doll.

It hadn’t given me the best impression of her and I was predisposed to holding on to first impressions. Not a good habit. Difficult to break, even when I was actively working on it with Jessica.

Somehow, thinking about the bank robbery grounded me, that feeling of the aura chasing away any confidence I might have felt. It was visceral, in a way not many memories were. If I made a timeline of my life, of the things I - myself - did, that event would be on there. Victoria’s presence at the group had stirred those memories, bringing them into starker clarity, and I wanted to examine them like I did in therapy with Jessica or the tests with the power researchers. There were still so many little pieces of me that were missing, and I wanted them back.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Victoria as a person, but if her existence could help me regain myself, I was willing to deal.

Still, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. On the surface, I knew Victoria’s reason for coming and Jessica’s goal in inviting her. Putting Jessica’s supposed mistake aside, one thing I knew for certain was that she didn’t want the group to form a hero team.

I could see where she was coming from. Our group had baggage, and it was heavy. But couldn’t the same be said for all parahumans, hero or otherwise? I’d learnt a lot about the passengers from my sis—from Bonesaw, and in my sessions with the Wardens’ scientists, and there was one string that tied all capes together: we were fucked up, one and all.

If you asked me, there was no point in waiting around for some nebulous future where all of us were in perfectly sound mind.

I was waiting for the big reveal, for something to jump out of the shadows and turn everything on its head. I knew I was being paranoid, but the knowledge there was something wrong had lit a spark of curiosity. At this point, I was burning.

“It’s not my intent to change your minds,” Victoria said, even though that was exactly what she was here for. “I’m here to give another perspective, and maybe to equip you guys with knowledge.”

I could see the use in that, to a degree, but it made me wonder.

“How long has it been since you were involved in hero work?” I asked when Victoria paused. I could see Jessica had been about to speak, but I didn’t want to go over her concerns again, especially not when she’d singled me out afterwards last time. I thought I was doing well, and for her to say I wasn’t ready for this? It had hurt.

“I don’t want this to be a thing where we pick on Victoria,” Sveta said, frowning.

“I’m not picking on her. No offence, but things are different now,” I said. “Brockton Bay had its troubles, but nothing like the way the city is now.”

Chris spoke. “One could argue Brockton Bay was pretty much a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Maybe she has more experience than you think.”

“I was there, too.”

“You were a villain, there.”

I stared at him. Of all people, why was Chris taking Victoria’s side? Just to contradict me?

“To answer your question,” Victoria spoke. “I’ve only gotten back into proper hero work recently, but before that I was with the Patrol. Have you heard of them?”

“Vaguely,” I said. Most of what I knew about them was from Lisa, and she didn’t give me much. “From what I understand, it’s half way between a neighbourhood watch and a PRT offshoot. Some old staff from various branches rounded up a bunch of high school kids who needed a job or a purpose and gave them some training.”

Tristan blinked a few times. “Sounds pretty cool. I was aware they existed too, but didn’t know even that much. You were a squaddie, Victoria?”

“More like a consultant. I didn’t do a lot of field work, but it popped up on occasion,” Victoria said. “You have to understand, I’ve lived and breathed cape stuff for as long as I can remember. Even before I triggered, it was my entire life. I had extensive notes, files. I recovered quite a lot of them from the ruins of my old home, and I’ve been helping out where I can.”

“How did you end up at the Patrol?” I asked. I’d made assumptions about Victoria, back in the day. I didn’t think they were unreasonable ones, considering her behaviour, so it wasn’t a stretch to think others might have assumed the same. She didn’t seem like consultant material.

“It was kind of just luck, really. I was out with my cousin, and I stumbled across a Patrol leader quizzing some trainees on cape-related stuff. I butted into the conversation, and the leader was impressed with my knowledge, gave me some contact details for one of her colleagues. I called the number a little while later, and they offered me a position helping train the recruits in the theoretical side of things.”

“Seems too good to be true,” Chris said.

“I did say it was luck,” Victoria replied with a wry smile.

Chris had no reply to that, expression unchanged.

Ashley spoke up instead, leaning back a fraction to look down her nose at Victoria. “This doesn’t answer Taylor’s question about your experience. I admit I’m curious, too.”

“She talked about it a bit before you guys came in,” Tristan said. “She was involved in that thing with Fume Hood last week.”

I blinked, trying to recall the details. I’d heard about it in the vaguest terms only because it was something Lisa was directly involved with. A job she’d planned had gone wrong, or something?

There was no way to ask the question delicately, so I stayed quiet.

“Right, sorry,” Victoria said. “About my experience as a hero? It’s literally only in the last week that I’ve started working my way back into the scene again. Interviewed with a few teams, but haven’t found the right fit yet. Just getting my footing again, really.” She paused. “But I do know a lot about what it means to be a part of a hero team, especially an independent one. The setting is different, but the basic principles remain the same. Like I said earlier, cape stuff has been my entire life for years. I think I’m more than experienced enough to give you guys some solid advice.”

“I think you can,” Kenzie said. “You seem really cool, to me.”

Chris made a gagging sound, but gave no comment.

I wasn’t sure how to feel.

“I’d like it if you would give Victoria a chance, Taylor,” Jessica said. “When she claims she’s well informed about parahuman studies and hero work, she’s not exaggerating or posturing. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll give her a glowing recommendation when it comes to pure knowledge of this stuff. She’ll talk your ear off if you give her the opportunity.”

“I never said I wasn’t going to give her a chance,” I said. “I was just asking.”

“Asking questions is absolutely okay. I just want to make sure you’re approaching this with an open mind. I genuinely believe Victoria will be able to give you some valuable insight.”

Why was I feeling like I’d ended up as the bad guy here?

“Sure, go ahead,” I said. “I just wanted to say before we go any further, though: all of us are set on this. The team thing. I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it no matter what you say.”

Tristan and Sveta nodded in agreement, with Rain giving his own, more subdued, affirmation. Kenzie was practically bouncing in her seat, though she was oddly expressionless. Ashley, of course, remained stone-faced.

“That’s fine,” Victoria said. “I told you I’m not here to try and talk you out of anything. I’m here to give you perspective and insight.”

“We appreciate it,” Sveta said, smiling. I’d seen Sveta and Victoria talking before, and I’d just assumed that Sveta was just being her usual self and acting as a comforting presence.

Now, it came back to me that Sveta had mentioned a friend from the asylum. She’d been feeling guilty for leaving that friend behind when she left to join the Irregulars, and it occurred to me that Lisa had once off-handedly mentioned what had happened to Victoria Dallon.

I shrunk in on myself, mortified. Maybe asking her how long she’d been out of the hero game hadn’t been the most tactful thing to do.

“I suppose the first thing I’d want to do is establish some context. Help me understand just why you guys want to be heroes at all, let alone form a team together.”

The others gave their own reasons.

Sveta’s desire to be more independent.

Ashley’s plans to see how the heroes work, to better prepare herself to return to villainy—I still didn’t fully believe her on that count.

Chris’ interest in being involved in the big events, crossing paths and doing battle with the most powerful capes.

Rain’s quest for redemption, with the idea of a team to have his back sprinkled on top.

Kenzie’s near-desperation to stay with the group of people she felt had come to accept her.

Tristan’s sheer need to return to the hero game, one of the few things that had made him feel alive.

I couldn’t help noticing that her attention kept drifting to me as everyone spoke, and I resented the implication.

“I always wanted to be a hero,” I said when it was my turn. “Even for a long time after I got tangled up with the Undersiders, helping people was always on my mind.”

“I heard a part of that story,” Victoria said.

I glanced at Jessica, then down at my hands. “For a while, it was my escape. I had a pretty shitty life, all things considered.”

“Is there any parahuman out there who didn’t?” Ashley mused.

“People who bought their powers from Cauldron, second gen capes,” I said.

Victoria barked a laugh, and spoke with a note of strain in her voice. “No. Common misconception. The second gen capes, I mean.”

Her tone confused me for a moment, before a hazy memory of an old conversation with Lisa clicked into place. “Oh. You’re second gen, right?”

“I am, yeah. I can assure you my trigger event was no easier than any of yours.”

The idea that getting fouled at a basketball game was in any way comparable to what I went through put my hackles up, and I had to reach for my bugs to calm down as Jessica spoke.

“I’d rather we didn’t go into such topics at this time,” she said. “They’re very difficult things for parahumans to discuss, and I don’t want to approach things with raised tempers. That helps no one.”

The group took that in, grim faces all round. There was no objection.

“You were explaining that you always wanted to be a hero, Taylor?” Jessica prompted.

It took me a moment to regain my train of thought. “I wanted to help people. Make things better in the city, but get away from the shit I was having to deal with at the same time. Things got derailed, bad luck and bad circumstances, and I ended up in a situation where I could help more people by being a villain than by being a hero.”

Chris snorted. “Keep telling yourself that.”

“Please don’t interrupt,” Jessica said, chastising.

“Now, I want to try again,” I continued through a clenched jaw, fists bunched into the fabric of my skirt. “A fresh start, being an actual hero this time.”

“That’s admirable,” Sveta said, and I could see the sentiment reflected in a few other faces, though Chris was miming sticking his finger into his mouth.

“It is admirable,” Victoria said. She gave me a lingering look, then tensed as if bracing herself. “For the sake of being transparent, I feel like I should let you know I recently got contacted on PHO by someone who used to know you in school. Someone involved. I don’t want to spill things in front of other people without your or her consent, but I can tell you more about it later, if you like.”

The revelation hit me like a punch in the gut. My memories from before my trigger event were hardly crystal clear, but there were things I’d never be able to forget, no matter how much I’d give to trade them in for something better. My time at school was one of those things. A tormentor, smiling sweetly and batting her eyes even as she played her petty pranks. Another, the physical one, pushing me or tripping me at any chance she got. The friend from my tainted, warped childhood memories, a person close enough to me I'd once apparently thought of her as a sister, cutting me to the core with words only someone who knew me intimately could wield.

Madison, Sophia, and Emma. I could see their faces clear as day. It all felt so asinine now, but back then their casual cruelty had made my life a living hell.

My mind raced, searching through the possibilities. Aisha had told me Shadow Stalker was still out there and she hadn’t changed a bit; I could eliminate her out of hand. That left Emma and Madison, both of whom I’d never heard a peep about. Actively avoided it.

“Okay,” I managed to croak out, anxiety coiling around my heart.

“I don’t know if it’ll make you feel better to hear this, but she’s trying to change, to be a better person,” Victoria said carefully. “She recognises the shit she did was wrong. That was why she got in contact with me. She wanted to find out what happened to you, though I can’t say exactly why. To apologise, maybe, though I wouldn’t even dream of asking you to forgive her. If you ask me, she has a long way to go, but she’s trying.”

Everything I’d ever talked about with Jessica told me I was supposed to think that was a good thing, that I should move on. No doubt lots of people would try to tell me that I should be happy for her that she was doing better, that I should give her a chance and forgive her.

Fuck that.

“Fuck that,” I said a beat after the thought. “I’m sick to death of everyone telling me I should forgive the fuckers who wronged me. I won’t do it. If she’s better, good for her, but I won’t have anything to do with it.”

Quiet lingered. Looks shifted my way, ranging from pity to shock. I ignored them, staring Victoria down. I knew the others well enough to read their expressions, but Victoria’s was new to me. She’d paled ever so slightly, her lips parted as if she was trying to speak but couldn’t find the right words, the whites of her eyes just visible above and below her irises.

I found myself wondering what was going through her mind. Did she regret saying anything? Did she disagree with me?

“I’m under no obligation to forgive anyone,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said with gravity in her voice. “I understand.” A pause. “I just thought it was fair to let you know. It didn’t feel right to approach this conversation while withholding that.”

I would have preferred she’d never brought it up at all. “Thanks, I guess.”

~~~

“If it’s okay with you guys, I’d like to pivot our discussion back to Brockton Bay,” Victoria said, glancing at me as she spoke. “That’s where most of my experience lies and, if you’ll forgive me, I disagree with Taylor that things are so different.”

“You mentioned New Wave, earlier,” Tristan said.

“Right.”

“A family team,” I said.

“Right again,” Victoria said. “Obviously that’s not true of you guys, but the point of comparison here is that New Wave was a team independent of the Protectorate. We worked directly with the local community, with the police, coordinating with the Protectorate and PRT where appropriate. I’m assuming that’s the kind of setup you guys would go with here.”

“That’s the idea,” Tristan said.

“Well, there are some hard realities to that. It’s not all beating up the bad guys, smiling for the camera, and basking in the adoration of your fans.”

Tristan chuckled. “I was in a corporate hero team before Gold Morning. None of this is new to me.”

“Corporate team? Which one?”

“Reach.”

Victoria blinked. “Nice. Can’t say I’m overly familiar with you guys, but I heard good things, back in the day.”

Tristan preened at the compliment.

“Well, for the benefit of everyone else, then.” There was no bite in Victoria’s words, but there was a shift in her eyes. Something sharper, more serious. Getting down to business. “First and most important: where’s the money going to come from? You’ll need to buy equipment, maybe rent a headquarters, pay for medical bills—I assure you, there’ll be injuries.”

There was a beat of silence. A few eyes turned my way, undoubtedly thinking back to what I’d revealed last week’s meeting—the thing that had made this seem so much more possible.

“Dragon and Defiant said they’d fund our team if Jessica signed off on it,” I said, giving the therapist in question the most dry look I could muster.

She only looked back at me, eyes steady, not rising to the bait.

“If not,” I continued, “I have other means. Friends. I can use my bugs to weave costumes. Spider silk and such. It makes for pretty tough material, with the right bugs and the right weave.”

Victoria blinked. “Your costume back in Brockton Bay?”

“Yeah. Made it myself.”

“That’s impressive.”

I stayed quiet, suddenly uncomfortable.

“And you’re in contact with Dragon?” Victoria prompted.

“Maintenance,” I said, even more uncomfortable. It was hard not to be on guard, picking at her words, with Lisa’s warning still stark in my mind.

“You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?” Victoria said, looking between Jessica and I. It seemed she took the hint, at least, and moved on. “Okay, this is good to hear. One of the biggest problems with Hero teams is money, generally speaking. Heroics often doesn’t pay very well unless you’re willing to go the sponsorship route, and that… well, I’ve had good and bad experiences, but I’d lean towards saying it’s something you should be wary of.”

“I know how that goes. Dealt with it more than a few times in Reach,” Tristan said. “A bad sponsor isn’t the end of the world. We can handle it.”

“Back then you were the talent. Managing all that stuff is much harder, especially while also still being the talent. My aunt often had periods where she worked herself into exhaustion, but she had no choice.”

“I get it, trust me. It’s hard. Like Taylor said, though, we don’t need to worry about that. As long as she’s part of this team, money’s sorted.”

I felt my bugs stirring a bit and had to quiet them. Tristan didn’t mean anything by it—couldn’t have known that Jessica had singled me out to try and convince me not to go through with this—but it still felt like a jab all the same.

Victoria nodded. “That’s great if it goes through. Fantastic, even. That leaves the question of goals. Do you have any concrete objectives in mind?”

“Nothing in particular, not for sure.” Tristan looked around the group briefly. “My thinking was we’d be some kind of recon-based team. Investigating and gathering information on the villains. Kenzie and Taylor have powers that are absolutely perfect for that kind of thing. They go in and get us our info, then we put together a strike force to take them out.”

Kenzie wiggled at the compliment, legs swinging like a puppy wagging its tail. “As long as I’m part of the strike force.”

“I’m not so sure about that part,” Victoria said, grimacing. She hastened to continue when it looked like Kenzie was going to reply. “I don’t just mean you, I’m not sure I like the idea of a strike force in general. That’s a very specialised line of work, the kind of thing that requires elite teams with a hell of a lot of training and oversight. It requires experience.

“We’re all experienced in our own ways,” I said.

“But not as a team. Not together as your own unit,” Victoria said. “Tristan had Reach and its substantial support system. Kenzie had the Wards, the PRT and the Youth Guard watching her back. Sveta had the staff at the asylum and then the Irregulars. Ashley…” Victoria trailed off, as if seeing the trap before her, before squaring her shoulders. “Ashley was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Knowing her as well as I did, I was shocked that Ashley didn’t lash out at that. She sat with her arms crossed, staring placidly as if nothing objectionable had been mentioned.

It was so jarring I had to consciously nudge my brain to get my train of thought back to where I wanted it to be.

“Chris and Rain I don’t know, but I’m assuming they really are inexperienced.”

“I’m experienced,” Chris said, cutting her off.

Victoria gave him a look that edged on sceptical, earning herself a sneer. “I’m experienced,” he repeated.

“Okay. Then my point still stands for Rain, from what you were saying earlier?”

“Yeah,” Rain said. “Never even been in a fight before. Not really.”

“And Taylor, you had the Undersiders, with an infamous and powerful thinker calling the shots.”

For a moment I assumed she was referring to Coil and wondered how the fuck she knew that, before it dawned on me. I scoffed. “Tattletale wasn’t the leader.”

Victoria looked genuinely surprised at that. “No? Then who led the Undersiders?”

“Grue, when I first joined, but we were a team employed by a villain named Coil. Apparently I—the other me—took over later. Tattletale was a good manipulator, a schemer. A great support player for someone with a defined set of goals. But she’s shit as a leader; she’s not suited to it in personality or power. ”

There was a moment of silence.

“You’re still in contact with Tattletale and the Undersiders, then?”

I grimaced. There was really no point hiding it, so I nodded. “I live with them.”

Victoria stared at me for a long moment. “Do I need to explain to you why that’s problematic, here?”

“They’re not villains,” I said, for all the good it would do.

“I’ve heard things about New Brockton Bay. Sure, the Undersiders aren’t the Empire or the Teeth, but it would be a stretch to call them heroes.”

“Tattletale controls the criminal element to keep things stable. There’s always going to be shit like drugs and prostitution, it’s better to have someone making sure it’s all clean and no one’s getting hurt over it.”

“There’s always someone getting hurt,” Victoria said, something raw entering her voice.

“Tattletale cooperates with the Wardens regularly as part of the agreement allowing Taylor to stay with her,” Jessica said. “While she is not an official affiliate and I wouldn’t go so far as to vouch for her character, it’s fair to say there is something of a relationship there. Dragon and Defiant are her liaisons, I believe.”

I wanted to snap at her, but stayed quiet. Why was my privacy the only one getting trampled over in this fucking meeting? Why was it always like this?

Realistically, I knew the answer. Didn’t want to think about her right now.

“I’m sorry, but even if you say that, it doesn’t remove the conflict of interest inherent in having the Undersiders connected to the team, not to mention the PR issues.”

“The Undersiders saved the fucking city after Leviathan,” I snapped. “Sure, not everything was above board, but we—they—helped people. Gave people food, shelter, and safety. Even now, Tattletale keeps New Brockton Bay from falling into chaos.”

“There are dozens of articles about the victims of the Undersiders’ crimes. Even just recently, Bitch’s victims have been giving interviews and posting on PHO. She traumatised people. ”

“She’s changed.”

“I’m sure she has, and I’m glad for her, but that’s beside the point. Even if they’ve stopped committing crimes, which the news and yourself seem to imply isn’t the case, you have to see that this is an obstacle for the group. I’m sorry but this needs to be discussed, just like I would with Ashley.”

Jessica spoke my name, but I ignored her.

“The heroes were totally ineffective in Brockton Bay,” I said, trying to keep the anger from my voice and mostly failing. “And we had to step up. If it weren’t for the villains, Bakuda’s rampage would’ve never ended.”

“The Protectorate arrested Bakuda. My boyfriend was there when they took her in,” Victoria said, wide-eyed. “And the whole thing started in the first place because of the gangs.”

I was momentarily left without an argument. I had the feeling that revealing that Bakuda’s rise to ABB leadership had only happened because of Lung’s capture—my fault—wouldn’t help my argument much.

“And taking care of the city after Leviathan? Against the Nine?”

“I can show you articles and magazine clippings with interviews from people who lived there at the time. I’ll concede that it’s totally possible that you helped people, that you did a lot of good even, but what I’m trying to say is that a lot of people don’t see things that way. Generally, the public judges the Undersiders for their actions. Stealing shipments of supplies, dealing drugs, running protection rackets.”

“Other gangs would’ve just done the same thing! We took over to make things better, control the criminal element, keep thugs in line so innocent people weren’t hurt. I provided medicine and food to my people while the Protectorate left them to starve!”

Victoria let out a slow breath and shook her head. “Left them to starve? Do you even know how hard the Protectorate worked to try and help the authorities get the city back on its feet? The whole country—maybe even the whole world—was watching Brockton Bay at that time. What they were presented with was a city where the heroes were desperately trying to restore order while villains took advantage of the aftermath of an Endbringer attack to take over a city, and that impression has lingered.”

“I’m going to call a time out there,” Yamada spoke, with a volume to her calm voice I’d never heard from her.

“Before I can refute her point?” I snapped.

Jessica gave me an even look. No judgement or condemnation. Placating. “I think this has gone rather far off topic, and I don’t want it to get more heated than it already has. We’ve had these discussions before, Taylor. Recognise your biases, examine the points being made objectively, outside your opinion of the person making them. Victoria is not your enemy here.”

Lisa’s words came to mind. A mistake Jessica had made, one that affected the group. I’d almost forgotten, caught up in the debate with Victoria. “Feels like you brought her here to attack me, if anything.”

“Nothing she has said today is markedly different from discussions we’ve had before. Do you remember when we had coffee on New Brockton Bay’s pier?”

My lips twisted. I nodded.

“Do you recall what was said?”

I gave another nod.

“Could you take a moment for me, Taylor? Sit back down, do some breathing exercises, try and calm yourself before engaging in the discussion again?”

I startled, looking around. I found grim faces staring back at me, a range of emotions from interest to discomfort to nervousness. I shrunk back into my seat. At some point, my bugs had drawn close to the point that my swarm was hidden only by the angle of the windows, crawling on the outer wall of the building. I willed them to return to the roof. My eyes were hot, and I angrily wiped at them.

When had I even stood up? When had I called my bugs?

My mind went back to the day Jessica had mentioned. A one-on-one therapy session, only a few months after Gold Morning, long before the therapy group had formed. It had been freezing cold, but I’d hated being inside back then, no matter how little the buildings might have resembled the little house of horrors my sis—Bonesaw and I had spent so much time in together. I’d been a total fucking wreck back then, scared of my own shadow, and that day in the snow might just have been the first time I’d been able to talk to Jessica.

I remembered looking out into the snow. Jessica had a habit of chatting about whatever, and I’d been happy to just stand there and listen. Most of what she said that day had gone in one ear and out the other—I had just liked hearing someone talk, even if the words didn’t register—but at some point she’d moved onto a topic that had grabbed my attention in a white-knuckle grip.

I suppose talking about Weaver wouldn’t technically be breaking doctor-patient confidentiality,” she’d said with a nervous titter, and then she’d told me a bit about my other self, the woman I could have become. I’d hung on every word as she’d monologued for minutes, but right now one part stood out in stark clarity.

Weaver had a habit of justifying the actions of herself and her friends, when she would have condemned the same in anyone else without hesitation.”

What do you mean?” I’d asked.

And, to her credit, Jessica had only taken a moment to get over the shock of finally hearing my voice before she explained.

I’m not like her, I thought.

“I’m sorry, Victoria,” I said, glaring at my clenched fists. My nails weren’t long enough to cut into my palms, and I kind of wished they were. “This is something I’ve been trying to work on. I’m sorry to everyone else for taking over the session, too.”

“It’s okay,” Victoria said. “I’m sorry, too. I got way too emotional there. Hot-button topic.”

There were a few murmurings from the others, placating. They barely registered.

Silence descended. Not uncomfortable, but there was a feeling that no one knew what to say, now, and Jessica didn’t seem about to jump in.

“I just—”

“I think—”

Victoria and I spoke at the same time.

“You go first,” she said.

“Right.” I took a deep breath, trying to quell the rising nausea.

“My association with the Undersiders won’t be a problem,” I said. I looked at Rain. “We all have our circumstances. The Undersiders are my family, one I’ve chosen. They’re not the bad people you seem to think they are.”

Victoria stayed quiet, whatever she wanted to say forgotten, and now the silence was strained, uncomfortable.

“It won’t be a problem,” I said again, desperate to see it sink in.

I could understand Victoria’s dislike of our group. Back in Brockton Bay, New Wave and the Undersiders hadn’t been on the best of terms, to say the least. My only meaningful interaction with her involved swarming her with the best stinging and biting insects I had on hand.

If she hadn’t come away from that encounter with the best impression of me, I couldn’t blame her.

Still, something in me raged against her judgement. It was easy for her to look down on us from her ivory tower, ignoring all the extenuating factors that lead the Undersiders to become what they were.

“Regardless, I don’t think this counters my point,” Victoria said, and it took me a moment to remember what point she even meant. Forming our own team. Right. “Quite the opposite, in fact. You all had a robust support network, professionals with, in most cases, a well-defined chain of command. Running a team yourselves is no easy feat, and I worry about how easily things could go wrong when all the problems are on your own shoulders.”

“We can handle it,” Tristan said. “We’ll have to.”

I nodded in agreement.

“I have concerns,” Victoria said.

“Victoria—” Sveta went to speak, but Victoria cut her off with a raised hand.

“I have very serious concerns,” she said, “but I think you guys are going to do this no matter what I or Jessica say. You had your minds made up before I even came here. You’re determined to walk this path. I can respect that, and I don’t think we’re going to get anything productive out of discussing it further. We’ll just keep going in circles.” She looked us over, meeting our eyes one by one. “In that case, I think I’d feel better about it—and I’m sure Jessica would say the same—if I had eyes on the situation.”

“What are you getting at?” I asked.

Victoria drew in a deep breath. She exchanged a look with Jessica, gave Sveta a smile, then turned back to me.

“I spent three years as a hero in an independent team in a dangerous city in a tumultuous time. I already told you I’ve been doing some consulting work for a while now, so I have experience in that department. I’ve been studying capes since I was a little kid. I watched every TV show, collected every magazine, tore through every piece of literature on parahumans I could find, and I’ve absorbed knowledge about this stuff like a sponge. I think it would benefit you guys—and it would go a long way towards assuaging some of my serious concerns—to put your group in a controlled environment with someone overseeing things, rather than letting you jump in at the deep end with no oversight. Maybe think of it like a trial period.”

“A trial period?” Jessica repeated.

“Yeah. I’ll take some time to assess them, give them some pointers. I don’t think I’m going to convince them of anything talking in a room like this, and vice versa. The way I see it, the best course of action is to go out and try it out in the safest manner possible. Let them see the reality of being a team of independent heroes, and let me see if they’re ready for it. If I give the okay, and you give the okay, then they get their funding. They become a team.”

Jessica gave Victoria a long, lingering look, before her gaze swivelled over the room, staring at each of us in turn. Eventually, her expression neutral, she gave a single nod. “I think I can get on board with that,” she said.

Victoria turned her attention back to the rest of us.“If that sounds okay, I’d like to offer my services.”

One eyebrow climbed to my hairline. “As, what? An invigilator? A chaperone?”

All around the room, our group was shifting. A change in atmosphere, brought on by the feeling that we were about to take another step towards our goal.

I leaned forward. Couldn’t help it. If Victoria gave the okay, Jessica would have to give her blessing. From there, our team was secured.

We just had to convince Victoria we were ready for this.

“I’m thinking more like a coach or a mentor,” Victoria said. “I’d like to show you guys the ropes.”

~~~