Actions

Work Header

Larva

Chapter Text

There was a disturbing number 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?”

“Go ahead.”

“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.”

“Still.”

“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.

Fear.

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. 

“What?”

“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.”

~~~

Chapter Text

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.”

~~~