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Realignment

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

It was half past seven in the morning when I found myself lost in thought, in the back of a bus on the way to my personal hell, Winslow High. Another week of school had just started; another week of inevitable torture creeping ever closer. My mind was still locked onto the latest ‘prank’ the Trio had decided to grace me with.

 

Normally, I’d barely react to my tormentors’ actions. I’d endure as much as I could, trying not to give them the satisfaction of seeing me weak. But last Friday wasn’t normal. 

 

Last Friday, someone stole my mother’s flute from me. From my locker, no less! Which was locked! This was just absurd. 

 

Ugh, it was so monumentally stupid of me to bring it along. What was I thinking?

 

I impassively stared out the window, watching the lights as they passed by. Not even halfway there yet… I closed my eyes and sighed.

 

And it wasn’t like this was the first thing they’d stolen from me, either — random things in my locker kept going missing, and have been for quite some time. I really should’ve changed the lock… 

 

I shuddered involuntarily, remembering the horror of early January: being shoved in my locker filled with trash, rusty razor blades and other pointy, sharp, dirty objects; the overwhelming pain from the countless wounds tearing at me as I thrashed within; the dying hope of ever getting out alive; the realization that nobody would even consider helping me… It was a miracle that someone pointed out to an adult that my locker was literally bleeding!

 

…And then there was my consolation prize. A joke of a power and a reminder of what I’d gone through.

 

Damn did it feel useless. As if it was goading me to just stab my problems — the bullies, that is — to death. But I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t go Carrie on them, I was better than that. I refused to become a monster that was even worse than the bitches I had to share a school with. Not to mention the consequences that doing so would bring… Regardless, one way or another, I’d make the damn thing useful. Somehow.

 

I opened my eyes, and noticed that I was nearly there.

 

Time to find out who the thief was.

 

 

I made it to Winslow and beelined towards my locker, keeping my head low and hoping that no one would bother me at least before classes started. Some people had, countless times in the past, but today seemed relatively calm so far.

 

I focused on the crux of my plan - the object sitting inside a decoy pencil pouch within my bag’s bowels: an immaculately polished, perfectly angular, low-polygonal piece of obsidian-like material — or, as I called it, a thorn. Unlike actual obsidian, its durability could rival steel, provided I paid enough attention to it anyway. Eight inches long and one and a half inches wide, the thing barely managed to fit in the pouch properly. Shape-wise, it looked like someone glued two different triangular pyramids together, with one of them being much taller than the other, and with their shared base being an equilateral triangle. Simple, yet fancy, and pretty sharp as well.

 

I reached the locker and, while nobody was looking, put the pencil pouch onto the top shelf. The idea was that if someone touched the pouch, I'd be able to feel it shifting via my thorn. I’d then dismiss said thorn, like I practiced at home, and try to get to the locker to see the culprit in action. 

 

Sure, it wasn’t the best plan in the world, but it wasn’t overly convoluted; not much could go wrong that way. All I had to do was bide my time, and bide my time I did.

 

 

A minute or so after the ring of the school bells had heralded PE class, I felt something strange. I was on my way towards the changing room when I felt the thorn in my locker — on which I kept a bit of my attention all this time — being poked. The thing that startled me was the fact that once it was poked, it felt fuller somehow, and yet even more hollow than usual. This odd sensation made my control over the thorn flinch as well, leading me to feel it… flying away from the touch… through the pouch, the locker shelf and the wall behind said locker…

 

…What the fuck?

 

Hoping that I didn’t give myself away, I dismissed the thorn and started speed walking towards the hallway where my locker resided. At that point almost everyone was in their respective classes, with the halls nearly empty, so all I had to endure were a few stares from those who were late, quickly rushing by. Still, the closer I got to the locker’s location the softer I made my footsteps, just in case. I wouldn’t want to scare off the thief right away, after all.

 

Getting to the corner that connected to the hallway, I peeked out from it and stiffened in shock.

 

There was a person standing there made entirely of a see-through shadow, barely visible and with a hand withdrawing back through my locker’s door. They were slowly dragging out a prolonged, equally dark and transparent object with it. Once it was pulled out, everything shadowy became normal, revealing…

 

…A seemingly-puzzled Sophia looking at the empty pencil pouch in her hand.

 

WHAT. THE. FUCK?!

 

I sharply inhaled and hid behind the corner again, wobbling on my feet thanks to all the adrenaline screaming through my veins.

 

Sophia was… Sophia was Shadow Stalker. A Ward. A hero. How many more ‘heroes’ were like this when nobody was looking?..

 

I suddenly felt nauseous, gagging involuntarily, and sprinted to the nearest bathroom to void my stomach.

 

After cleaning up and washing my face, I steeled myself for the rest of the day — if I behaved too differently, Sophia or the others would most likely notice. Considering Shadow Stalker wasn’t known for being charitable either… I didn’t want to imagine what would happen if she found out that I knew who she was. I just needed to survive the rest of the day, and only then would it be safe to properly freak out.

 

I slowly exhaled, left the bathroom and suppressed the urge to think about what I had witnessed.

 

 

“Taylor, are you feeling okay?” I heard my dad say.

 

I was still dazed from earlier, drifting about, my mind thick with cloying, oppressing fog. After school, I returned home, my strings pulled by the puppetmaster that was routine. Dad returned from work in the middle of me making lunch, and… Ugh, I was spacing out again.

 

“Huh?” I asked absentmindedly, looking up from my plate of meatloaf.

 

“You look like you’re sick,” my dad pointed out.

 

Huh.

 

“I, uh… don’t know? Maybe?” Wow, great answer, Taylor. That was almost coherent.

 

He stared at me for a moment, then asked: “...Do you need to go to the hospital?”

 

“What? No, no hospital, I-I’m just dizzy,” I lied as I continued eating my lunch in the hopes that this conversation would end soon.

 

My dad finished a bite of his own and said, “I still think that you should stay home for a couple of days. Just to be sure. Okay, kiddo?”

 

Should I, really? I sure as hell didn’t want to go back, especially since today’s discovery. Also, having a day or two to decompress did sound nice. Yeah, I should probably stay.

 

I swallowed and nodded: “Yeah, alright. Thanks, dad.” Not having to go to school tomorrow made me feel a tiny bit relieved, even if I was still due a breakdown or three.

 

He answered with a weak smile: “You’re welcome, kiddo.” 

 

We finished our lunch in silence. I did the dishes, gave my dad a hug, retreated to my room and collapsed on my bed. Ugh.

 

In the safety of my room, away from all the evil of the world, the floodgates opened and my mind started racing.

 

How in the actual fuck was Sophia a fucking Ward?! Did the PRT really just… hire psychopaths? Why? Did they not do psych evaluations? Or were they just so desperate for all the capes they could get, no matter the cost? Were the other Wards just as bad? Or were they being bullied by her as well, somehow? How have they not helped me by now? Or did they simply not care? Were they covering for her, just because she was a Ward?

 

I felt a stinging in my eyes and curled up in the fetal position, sobbing ever-so-slightly.

 

Summoning a thorn in my hands, I just laid there. It was something to focus on, something to use as a distraction. I noted the usual feeling of emptiness it had, especially in comparison to that odd sensation of fullness when it had been touched by Sophia. Yet, back then, it was also even more empty. Or, more accurately, false.

 

I mulled over that thought while remembering the way the thorn simply passed through all those objects. Just like Sophia…

 

Wait. Did I..?

 

I stared at the thorn in my hands, replaying the scene in my head yet again. That would explain the feeling of falseness it suddenly had… A smile began crawling across my face as I realized the ramifications of what I’d just figured out. My thorns could copy powers… 

 

And here I thought my power was useless.

 

With a goofy grin I got off my bed, walked over to my desk and took out a piece of paper. So far, my brainstorming attempts on a fitting cape name weren’t successful, but…

 

With renewed vigor and a goal in sight, I started thinking.

 

 

After a while, I let out a frustrated huff. Everything I thought of just didn’t feel good enough. This was harder than I thought.

 

I glared at the paper in front of me, as if willing it to come alive and start throwing ideas at my face.

 

Thorn? "Thorn and her thorns" sounds stupid, no.

Spike? Edgy, stupid and villainous.

Shard? Can work, backup choice.

Obelisk? Feels off.

Obsidian? Taken, British vigilante.

Trinity? Meh.

Triforce? No.

 

[frustrated scribbles]

_________________________

 

Combination? Too on the nose.

Amalgam? Taken, Australian cape.

Synthesis? Taken, villain Tinker from VA.

Fusion? Sounds too destructive.

Unity? Too cheesy.

Prism? Taken, NY Protectorate cape.

Conduit? Sounds awkward.

 

I sighed, leaning back and closing my eyes for a moment. I stretched and stifled a yawn. Today was certainly exhausting. 

 

Taking the thorn I put on my desk into my hands, my eyes bored into it for answers it probably didn’t contain. What would mom think?..

 

I closed my eyes again and thought of flowers, my mind on autopilot. At first, the thought was simply abstract, but the first actual flower I thought of made me pause. A rose. One of mom’s favorites, and her middle name besides. And me calling my constructs ‘thorns’ would fit in flawlessly with said moniker...

 

I looked back to the object in my palm, then at my trainwreck of a name list, and added ‘Black Rose’ at the bottom. Perfect.

 

With my cape name finally chosen, I smiled, then folded and hid the paper. Couldn’t have anyone find it and spoil everything, after all.

 

I held my thorn close to my chest and felt a tear roll down my cheek.

 

“I’ll make you proud, mom.”

 


 

Supplementary Art: Amalgam Thorn

 

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

I was laying on my bed staring at the ceiling, resting yet restless in anticipation of my outing. The only real thing that prevented me from going out was my lack of a cape name, but that had finally been resolved earlier, filling me with nervousness and excitement in equal measures. I also felt another emotion slithering within me however, one I hadn't noticed until I had nothing else to do but think. Spite. It was the main reason I was so set on going out today instead of waiting for, say, better parts for my attempt at a costume.

 

I wanted to do something, anything helpful. Better than Sophia ever had, and I wanted to do it as soon as possible.

 

I craned my neck to check the time again. Seeing that it was 9 minutes before midnight, I judged that the time to leave was nigh and slowly rolled off my bed. After making sure that dad was already asleep, I quietly began donning my ‘cape costume’: a pair of black jeans I got from a thrift store a while ago, an equally-black hoodie with pockets that had zippers (as well as a spare twenty-dollar bill, just in case) and a pair of combat boots which were, obviously, also black. Additionally, I had a relatively cheap utility belt with the can of pepper spray dad gave me when I first started running. The aforementioned belt had a short, dark gray veil-like cloth glued to the inner side of it in a way that made it look like one of those punk half skirts. Of course, I had also donned a black domino mask which I reinforced from the back so I could attach lenses from an old pair of glasses I wore. That way, it would look like I’m not wearing glasses at all, separating my civilian identity from the cape one a bit further. 

 

Far from ideal, but, for now, I’d deal.

 

I double-checked if everything I prepared was where I needed it to be, and, with careful movements, snuck out of the house. Thanks to my power, I didn’t really need a knife, so I decided against stealing one from the kitchen on my way out. I picked a random direction which turned out to be north and started walking.

 

The closer I got to the Docks, the worse everything looked: both the buildings many abandoned and decrepit, covered in gang tags and various stains and the few people that were still outside at such a late hour. I avoided getting close to the latter, giving them a wide berth as most people here were either gang members, homeless or under the influence. Then again, that can be said about most of Brockton Bay, partially excluding the Boardwalk due to its proximity to the local Protectorate base of operations the PHQ.

 

My musings were interrupted by the sound of an impact several blocks away. I spun in the direction it was coming from and saw smoke billowing into the sky, accompanied by another sound, this time… an explosion? I inhaled, exhaled, then began sprinting through the empty alleyways towards the unrest.

 

When I got near the building adjacent to the source of the sounds, it was clear that there was a fight going on. And not a normal fight, no, but a cape fight. Honestly, I was… becoming a bit apprehensive of fighting another cape on my first day. The most I expected myself to do today was stop a mugging or something; something that didn’t have people with powers pointed straight at me…

 

But now wasn’t the time to get cold feet there were likely people nearby that needed help, and helping was why I was out here in the first place.

 

I summoned two thorns which I kept hovering by my sides. Then I clenched my fists, walked to the corner and took a peek.

 

 

When I peeked over the corner, my blood froze despite the scorching waves of heat and fire permeating this place: facing away from me stood Lung, the current leader of the ABB. What was even worse was that he was currently about fifteen feet tall and surrounded by blue-yellow flames, the fires around him making his silvery scales glisten, rampaging about with no signs of stopping.

 

Currently fighting him were two monstrous dog-like beasts the size of horses, trying to find purchase in his natural armor. One of their swipes managed to connect, tearing a good chunk of scaly meat from Lung’s calf, but by the time he turned to face his attacker the wound was already almost gone. Before the beast managed to leap away, Lung exploded once more, sending me reeling from the scalding air beating against my face, and stomped closer to the unlucky dog-thing that was laying on it’s side attempting to get up. He then raised his foot and, with a disgustingly meaty crunch, brought it down upon the creature, killing it instantly.

 

I just stood in shock, feeling sick to my stomach, horrified by such a casual display of power. I was completely useless against him at this stage were I to attack now, one lucky hit from him would render me as good as dead! The fuck was I even doing here?!

 

I tried gulping, but my throat was dry from all the surrounding heat. It was then that I noticed someone in a lavender bodysuit with noticeable damage and long blonde hair slowly walking backwards in my direction while watching Lung, with one arm holding the other. Thankfully, it seemed like none of Lung’s fire attacks managed to hit this person too badly. She did have visible lacerations though, some of which were still bleeding…

 

I took a moment to refresh my attention on the two thorns following me, then sent one of them to the blonde girl. When it reached her I turned it a bit and gently nudged her back with it’s side. With a start, she spun around and stared at the thorn in front of her, looking exhausted, scared and mildly confused. Maybe even dazed? Feeling slightly annoyed, I turned the thorn around so the longer part of it pointed directly at me hopefully, she’ll get my message and ship her curvy ass out of murder dragon range before the latter notices the former.

 

The girl frowned and looked ahead, eyes instantly locking with mine. I did a quick ‘come here’ gesture with my left hand, which prompted her to relax slightly and nod. She grabbed my thorn for, I assumed, support I was making it levitate, after all and sprinted towards me, wincing.

 

We hid behind the corner, our backs to the wall, away from all the carnage that was still ongoing. The blonde to my right was panting, shuddering every so often and looking down at the road with a thousand-yard stare.

 

“Are… are you okay?” I ask hesitantly, praying for a positive answer.

 

She slowly shook her head, letting out a sad chuckle before answering.

 

“No. Fuck no. Everything went to shit so fast…”

 

We heard another roar from Lung, slightly further away this time, but then felt the impact of what must’ve been a fireball rather close to the corner we were hiding at. With caution, we scooted a few feet away from the edge, just in case.

 

“Hey, uh, why is this thing different now?”

 

I turned my gaze to the girl, who was currently leaning against the wall and watching the thorn in her hand. Which did indeed look different… 

 

The thorn in question was now slightly tinted purple, and had small yellow-to-purple sparkles appearing and disappearing inside. It was surprisingly pretty. 

 

And it also felt full, like with Sophia…

 

“I think I can, uh, use other people’s powers through my thorns… Yours seems to improve my control over this one?” I answered, feeling more and more uncertain.

 

The blonde stared at me for a split second with a surprised expression which seemed to melt away as she looked back at the thorn. When she finally returned her gaze to me she had a pained smile on her face.

 

“My power just confirmed that, and I think I know how we can escape.”

 

 

I watched with intrigue and trepidation as the tired girl let go of my thorn and stepped away from the wall she was leaning on. It seemed like she was trying to look out from the corner without getting into Lung’s line of sight. Smart. (Why didn’t I think of that?)

 

“There-,” she is suddenly cut off by the sound of an explosion and a wave of heat. My hoodie was already drenched with sweat by this point and it was pissing me off. 

 

A moment later, the blonde jerked back to the wall as we watched the other dog beast fly through the air, slamming through the wall of one of the nearby buildings, a mangled limb sticking out of the hole. Judging by the fact that it wasn’t making any noises or movements, I wasn’t exactly confident that it was still alive. The blonde gasped, looked at it for a second, then turned to me, expression unreadable.

 

“I saw some wisps of darkness, power of a teammate of mine. They're disappearing fast, so he's either knocked out or worse... Fuck!” she scowled, “Our best ticket out of here alive is you stealing that darkness for yourself. Can you do that?" She was holding her other arm again, eyes boring into mine with resignation.

 

I didn’t even know what to think at that moment. Shouldn’t we try to save that person? Considering the state of the dog monsters, he was probably dead or dying right now! ...Then again, how would we even do anything useful to help? I didn’t know this girl’s power, and my own was probably not gonna reach the fight anyway. And I was not getting any closer, I’m not that suicidal. 

 

…Huh, where did that come from?

 

I watched her wince at something probably her injuries and nodded, frowning. It was too dangerous to try anything else, running was the right call here. It hurt to agree, but it was the smart thing to do.

 

I did the same peeking trick that she did, albeit a bit closer to the wall this time, and saw a cloud rapidly-shrinking smoke-like darkness. Remembering that I had a second thorn currently summoned, hovering beside me, I sent it towards the cloud, keeping it close to the ground and wall so it wouldn't be seen.

 

Meanwhile, Lung threw two fireballs one after another at a far-away corner, which is where, I assumed, the other person (or maybe people?) had fled to. I… honestly couldn’t tell if the blood and gore and bones and other disgusting stuff littering the street were just from the monster dogs or not. I shuddered at the thought. 

 

Lung unfurled his wings he had wings now! and lunged forwards, thankfully away from me. Come to think of it, were he to turn around now I’d be dead meat. Charred dead meat. Yeah, being Brockton Fried Taylor didn’t sound very appealing to me at the moment.

 

Suddenly, I felt the tell-tale feeling of fullness that came with borrowing a power coming from the thorn I sent out. And, surely enough, said thorn was currently bathing in the darkness, right at the ever-retreating edge of it.

 

“Got it.” I said, hiding behind the corner yet again. 

 

Two seconds later, the thorn reached our spot. I took it in my right hand, examining it swiftly. Unlike the girl’s, this one looked like it had black smoke roiling inside it. Quite fitting, all things considered.

 

The blonde exhaled as if she was holding a breath, looked at the thorn and then me, and nodded.

 

“Alright, use it.”

 

 

Guided by instinct, I willed the smoke within to flow out. It was a bit like… like flexing a muscle I didn’t know I had. I felt something escape the thorn but, oddly enough, I didn’t actually see it no smoke, no darkness. The sensation of an expanding area was growing though, and I could feel everything within it: the wall, the debris, the girl beside me. 

 

Speaking of whom, she was looking increasingly disoriented, jerking her head around before grabbing my thorn-holding hand. 

 

“Wait, what?” she said while looking at it. She then released and re-grabbed it, palm resting on the thorn. “Huh.”

 

“What... are you doing?” I asked.

 

The blonde began pulling me away from the burning, bloody mess of a fight scene and, as we started walking, she replied.

 

“Apparently anyone who touches your crystal thing-”

 

“Thorn,” I corrected her.

 

“-right, thorn. Anyone who touches it while it has Grue's powers gets to see and feel right through the darkness it generates. Didn't think it felt like this. Weird.”

 

Interesting.

 

I hummed in acknowledgement and looked at our hands around the thorn.

 

“Good to know, I guess…” I replied, “...Wait, do you hear that?”

 

It sounded like sirens, faintly screaming in the distance. PRT, perhaps?.. If so, they were late as h-

 

Before I could finish that thought the girl practically dragged me into an intersecting street, her body tense, and crouched behind a dumpster. I crouched beside her, but something didn’t add up here.

 

“Why are we hiding?” I whispered, “Isn’t that the PRT?”

 

As much as I didn’t trust them, it was probably a smart idea to ask them for medical assistance. Probably.

 

The girl, panting, answered. “Yes, but we shouldn't be seen.” Her voice was oddly serious, her lips tightened into a thin line.

 

Just in case, I grabbed the other, sparkly thorn with my free left hand, holding it like a knife or a thick, cosmic icicle and looked in the vague direction of where the rapidly-approaching sirens are blaring from.

 

“But why?” I asked. Something about this was definitely suspicious.

 

“Just trust me on this one, please. I'll explain later. Promise.” She was looking at me, tired yet pleading, still panting slightly.

 

I eyed her for a moment, sighed, looked away and muttered, “Alright.”

 

 

Soon enough, two PRT vehicles and two motorcycles passed us and, judging by the sounds, turned around the corner we were hiding behind earlier. From what I’ve seen on TV, the people on those motorcycles were most likely Armsmaster and Miss Militia. Ugh, I’ve always wanted to meet them… Then again, that was before I realized they supported monsters like Sophia. Yeah, meeting them now would just make me even more annoyed.

 

The blonde held up her free hand, “Wait…” then, after a few seconds, lowered it, “...aaand we’re clear. C’mon.”

 

She staggered while we stood up, wincing, and leaned on me. My mask seemed to have not concealed my concern, because she looked at me with a neutral expression and said, “I’m fine.” She did not look fine.

 

“You're obviously in pain,” I pointed out. Her wounds, shallow as they were, clearly still stung.

 

To my surprise the girl grinned and, with oddly graceful movements, pulled us forward, away from the carnage.

 

“Good, that means I’m still alive.”

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

Shuffling forward like zombies, eyes unfocused and breath ragged, we walked. My face felt numb, my mask clinging to it, helped by the drying streaks of tears which were not just from the painful heat. How did this go so fucking wrong…

 

Lacking backup during an ambush increases letha-

 

I know, power. I know. Please, just… shut up for a moment.

 

I looked at my savior, wondering what she was thinking about right now. She was still relatively tense, judging by her grip around her thorn. Her obviously-cared-for hair was clinging to her face with sweat, and at some point she lowered her hood. Considering the sub-par attire, she was definitely new to the cape scene. Heck, maybe this was even her first night out, how unlucky would that be?

 

Huh, I don’t think I even got her name, what with all the craziness going on. Good time to fix that, I suppose.

 

“Did you ever say your name?” I asked, “Sorry if you did, I’m, uh, not exactly in prime condition at the moment.”

 

“T- uh, Black Rose. You?” Yeah, definitely her first time. Poor thing.

 

“Tattletale,” I answered dryly, my usual smugness turned to ash in my mouth. I looked behind me, facing back in the direction we came from. Was I really still Tattletale? My team was either broken or dead, after all…

 

“Wounds sustained by teammates will lead to death without swift medical intervention.”

 

I shuddered at the recent memory of what was probably my power’s most scary declaration so far, my eyes starting to blur yet again. I pushed back the nascent tears as much as I could. Where would I go now? Back to the loft? Back under that prick's thumb?

 

No. Absolutely fucking not.

 

Going back to my apartment was also a stupid idea; he definitely had it bugged and under surveillance at this point. Ugh, I was so screwed…

 

I glanced at Black Rose again, who was still clearly lost in her own thoughts. 

 

Not employed by Coil. Is a potential ally. Is willing to help. Is concerned.

 

…Or not. Fingers crossed?

 

I sighed. Time to find out if I can escape his grasp for good.

 

“Well… it was,” I clarified a bit quieter than normal while forcing a weak smile onto my face.

 

Rose turned her head towards me, tilting it quizzically and — I assumed — raising an eyebrow.

 

I took a deep breath and elaborated.

 

“Do you know of a villain called Coil?”

 

“I think I've heard of him. He's the mercenary guy, right?” Black Rose answered after a slight pause.

 

“Yes,” I confirmed with a nod. “Long story short, one day he got some of his mercs to accost me and said something along the lines of 'work for me or die.' Well, not in those words, exactly, but considering one of the mercenaries was holding me at gunpoint… Either way, I’ve been a villain ever since. …Until now, I guess?”

 

At that point, Rose was walking with a slower pace, her eyes and attention fully on me.

 

“Holy shit. And I thought I had problems.”

 

I snorted at the comment.

 

“Don't get me wrong,” I continued with a smirk, “It was fun while it lasted. It's just I'd have much preferred it if I were doing it of my own volition. Y'know, without having a sword of Damocles hanging over me all the time.”

 

“Couldn't you have run away, then?” She asked.

 

My smirk disappeared and I shook my head.

 

“No, I'd be dead before lunchtime. Fucker's power is bullshit, pretty sure he’s some sort of high-end Thinker. He knows things he shouldn't, he is paranoid as fuck, and he doesn't fail. Usually.” 

 

Rose smiled slightly, still facing me. “Seems like he failed this time.”

 

I grinned at her statement, hoping with all of my heart that she was right. I was this close to freedom…

 

…Which was exactly when the universe decided to whisper “Fuck you in particular~” in my ear and make my grin short-lived. A little over a block away people were walking in pairs, as if patrolling something. Normally, that wouldn’t be too important — we were elbow-deep in gang territory, after all. No, the thing that sent a chill through my spine was the fact that they were wearing military gear, sporting the tell-tale glowing tinkertech rifles that only one supervillain in this city liked to use. The latter was the only reason I had even noticed them in the first place.

 

Attempting to intercept any escapees from the fight scene. Local police force bribed to avoid the scene to give them time.

 

Not letting go of her thorn or the hand holding said thorn, I dragged Black Rose to the nearest wall.

 

“Damnit, Rose, why’d you have to jinx us like that?” I hissed.

 

She looked in the direction I was looking and saw the mercenaries too, then tensed up and crouched beside me.

 

“They’re his, I’m assuming?” She asked, her voice anxious.

 

“Yes,” I confirmed, my heart beating faster. “Seems like he wanted to prevent any of us from running off. Which I still fully intend to do, by the way.”

 

Rose looked at her left hand — the one holding my power’s thorn as if it were a knife — and then at the mercs.

 

Is an ally. Will protect you. Contemplating best way to attack.

 

At that moment, I felt hope and gratitude, surprised at the speed of her commitment. But what surprised me even more was the final line of my power. She was planning to attack them… Fuck, bad idea. I gently tightened my grip around her right hand, prompting her to glance at me.

 

“Don't,” I said while looking into her eyes. “I'm flattered, but if his mercenaries were to encounter resistance or go missing, he'll know something is up.”

 

Rose paused, uncertain on how to proceed, then spoke.

 

“We sneak through, then.”

 

I nodded and looked up. 

 

The dark clouds were barely visible in the night sky today. This was compounded by plumes of smoke that were still billowing from all the flames lit by Lung. At least one of the buildings near the scene was completely on fire at this point; visible even from here, a block or two away, and further confirmed by fire truck sirens.

 

“Be glad the weather's cloudy today,” I commented. “Moonlight would've highlighted us easily.”

 

Rose looked at me again, owlishly tilting her head. “What?”

 

“What, you think they wouldn't notice a blob of darkness that is suspiciously human-sized?” I retorted.

 

She looked around for a moment before answering.

 

“Oh. Yeah, you have a point. I kinda forgot they can see it.”

 

With a light chuckle I slowly stood up into a half-crouch, Rose mirroring me soon after. I took a single step forward while watching the mercs and started explaining the plan.

 

“Now, then. We need to time this correctly. Thankfully, we can just run past as fast as we can, since Grue's darkness suppresses things such as sound and signals. We can hide behind that car over there before we move on. Ready?”

 

“Ready,” she nodded.

 

I counted us down, and then we ran.

 

 

After carefully passing three rings of patrolling mercenaries, as well as fifteen or more minutes of tired walking in one direction, I finally decided that we were safe. The first ring didn’t cause any problems, but the second and third were a bit more annoying to deal with. The second, for example, had more mercs than the others, with some guarding an unmarked van — we had to improvise and go through an abandoned warehouse nearby instead. 

 

Us managing to get through the third ring unseen, however, was only due to sheer luck — the traitorous moon decided to show its face between the clouds after all. How dare it call my bluff! We had to hide squeezed together behind a payphone for several agonizing minutes before the moonlight receded once more. The thing that made it incredibly stressful was that the mercenary ring was shrinking, just like the others; slowly but surely closing in on the location we were fleeing from. There were like twenty seconds left tops before we would’ve been discovered had the natural darkness not returned.

 

From my sitting position, I lazily looked around: we were currently holed up in a condemned office building relatively close to the border between the Boardwalk and ABB territory. How ironic was it that, after escaping my captor, the first place I returned to was the territory from where I was taken in the first place?

 

Apparently, Black Rose — who was still sitting next to me, our hands still clasped around the Grue thorn — noticed my fidgeting, because she turned her head towards me. Actually, scratch that, of course she would notice — we were still in her darkness after all. Guess she’s not the only forgetful one here, huh? I blame Lung.

 

“Uhm… What’s the time?” She whispered, breaking the sweet, sweet silence. Ugh, ow, the migraines were coming back with a vengeance…

 

I took out one of the two burner phones I had on me and turned it on.

 

“Almost 2 AM,” I stated. Not gonna lie, this shit hurricane of a night felt longer from where I was standing. Or sitting. Whatever. I was expecting it to be four by now, at least.

 

Rose let out a small breath of relief, looking a bit more relaxed than before. Meanwhile, I was still staring at the phone in my right hand with the annoying sensation of having forgotten something important… 

 

In the event of escape, you have planned contingencies to prevent Coil from obtaining collected information.

 

Oh! Yeah, that’s it! Thanks, power.

 

“This reminds me…” I started while looking at my companion, who tilted her head curiously. “Since I’ve ‘retired,’ I need to make sure nothing on my servers gets in Coil's hands. Good thing I set ‘em up in a way that I can wipe them remotely.” I motioned with the burner, a smirk on my face, and winked. “But yeah,” I continued, “as I've mentioned earlier, no signal in the darkness. I'll just step out for a moment, alright?”

 

A second later I felt the invisible darkness’ shape shift, changing in a way that left both me and the phone outside its boundaries, sans my left hand still holding the Grue thorn with hers.

 

“That works too,” I shrugged.

 

With a single message to the right number, I just made it so if Coil manages to decrypt my stuff, the only things that he’d find would be a metric ton of cat pics, as well as a large collection of viruses and other annoyances. Enjoy the tinker edition of BonziBuddy, motherfucker.

 

Receiving an automated reply that confirmed the service’s success, I placed the burner on the ground, removed its battery and bashed it with a nearby brick. Kicking away the pieces, I relaxed against the wall, closing my eyes and feeling the darkness envelop me once more.

 

 

Relatively soon after, Black Rose decided to shatter the silence again, fiddling with the hem of her skirt thing.

 

“I didn't expect my first day out to be this intense,” she said, her voice sounding almost haunted. I chuckled bitterly at that.

 

“No kidding. At least you didn't try to fight the rage dragon,” I answered.

 

My smile withered and died as I remembered my power’s blasted proclamation once more.

 

“Yeah,” Rose stated hollowly and, after a pause, asked, “What do we do now?”

 

Good fucking question.

 

I opened my eyes, staring at nothing in particular, and sighed.

 

“I don’t know.” 

 

I really didn’t. For the first time in forever, I had no idea on what to do. I spent so long thinking about different avenues of escape that I forgot to plan the actions that were to follow said escape…

 

An uneasy feeling settled in my stomach as I truly understood the nebulousness of my future. I was free. I was now without a master. No more heavy shackles, no more veiled threats. I was laid bare to the world, sitting at rock bottom, and the only one who could help me was myself. 

 

And, just maybe, the thorn girl beside me.

 

This knowledge was both exciting and terrifying.

 

“You… don't have anywhere to go now, do you?” I heard Rose say, almost a whisper.

 

I blinked and turned my head towards her, but said nothing. She wasn’t looking at me, one-handedly hugging her knees, her expression unreadable. Was she really..?

 

After a moment, she continued just as quietly.

 

“...You can stay with me. Better to hide in a home than out on the streets, right?”

 

That… Was I really that obvious?

 

Is lonely. Wants to help. Will protect you. Wants a friend. Has no friends.

 

My eyes widened at the information. Sure, I barely knew her so far, but Rose seemed nice! How the hell did she not have friends?

 

I would definitely look into this later.

 

The prolonged silence (oops) prompted her to finally face me, looking… rather shy? Oh, hells, I should probably answer.

 

“And your folks won’t mind?” I asked, smiling weakly.

 

She looked away for a moment, then back at me, sadder than before, her mask masterfully failing to hide it. In place of continuing to hug her knees she used her left arm to hug herself instead, the thorn holding my power absent.

 

“You can… hide in my room? Dad's... busy with work, and he probably won't barge in as he keeps to himself.”

 

Huh, and what about her-

 

Father is an introvert. Mother is absent. Mother is dead. Father is depressed due to grief. Black Rose's cape name was chosen partially due to mourning her mother's death.

 

Oh.

 

I nodded slightly, trying to not look like I was spacing out.

 

“Okay,” I said. The only thing I had to lose at this point was my freedom, and I doubted that Black Rose would be interested in taking that away. Considering everything so far… I trusted her. And not just out of desperation.

 

I gave her a sad smile while trying not to cry for the umpteenth time this night, almost failing when I saw Rose return it… 

 

Fuck it.

 

I removed my domino mask and looked straight at her.

 

“I’m Lisa.”

 

A moment later, she did the same, now sporting a no-longer-sad smile.

 

“I’m Taylor.”

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

The first thing that stood out to my mind when I started waking up was the scent of lavender. The second was a gentle tightness around my waist. Not a tangled blanket, more like… a hug? Come to think of it, I was hugging someone too.

 

What.

 

I blearily opened my eyes, only to find a blonde blob sharing my pillow, breathing steadily. I squinted my eyes and- oh. Lisa. She was still fast asleep, her face visibly tired and her hair all over the place. Then… last night wasn’t a dream?

 

I closed my eyes as the memories of my disastrous outing began surging back.

 

I… went out as Black Rose. I went to the Docks, into ABB territory, hunting for trouble. I found said trouble; way more than I expected to encounter on my first day. I survived Lung. We survived Lung. And Coil’s forces soon after, too…

 

I wasn’t sure what to think anymore.

 

Lisa unmasked to me, and so did I to her… People didn’t just do that on a whim, even I knew that. I was still unsure of what to think of the gesture, still relatively surprised by the trust she apparently had in me. Then again, it’s not like she had anyone else left, or anywhere else to go…

 

After accepting my offer to stay with me, we walked to my house, still holding the darkness thorn. By the time I dismissed it, we were already in my room, our sneaking into the home muted by the smoky shadows. Dad was thankfully still sleeping, as oblivious as usual. I let Lisa borrow some of my pajamas and, upon her return, finally let my head meet the pillow, falling asleep almost instantly.

 

I looked at the sleeping blonde, studying her expression. Her lips were not as thin or as wide as mine, barely pressed together in a line, the tiniest bit open. Sprinkling her nose was an adorable collection of freckles, ones that were impressively hidden by her mask earlier. With the mask gone, I could even still make out some dried tear tracks trailing from her closed eyes.

 

Behind her mask, she was still just a relatively normal girl like me. Villain or not, losing someone close to you was always horrible, and she lost her whole team in one fell swoop. Considering her forced employment, I wouldn’t have expected her to care much about her teammates… yet she did anyway. I could only imagine what sort of grief she was feeling right now.

 

She was just as alone as me.

 

Was that the reason she decided to unmask? To make me part of her normal life too? To become a friend, and not just a masked acquaintance? To become a friend…

 

I… had a friend again?

 

That realization startled me, but the surprise and melancholy quickly melted away, soon becoming replaced with happiness, gratitude and hope.

 

I think I had a friend again.

 

With a growing smile on my face, I tightened my hold around Lisa’s waist, just a little bit. I tried not to overdo it as I didn’t want her to wake up yet, but she began to stir regardless.

 

Oops.

 

I saw green eyes flutter open, looking straight at me, and a faint smirk started crawling up their owner’s lips as she tried to suppress a yawn.

 

“Are you always this cuddly?” Lisa asked sleepily.

 

I stiffened. A blush was already beginning to spread and I had no idea what to say or do. My mouth opened and closed several times in an attempt to apologize or something, but no words came out. Lisa’s smirk turned into a warm smile and she closed her eyes.

 

“Relax, Taylor,” she said, hugging me tighter than before. “This is nice.”

 

And it was.

 

We remained like this, just basking in comfort, for another several minutes before I decided to spare a look at my alarm clock; Lisa had disabled the alarm for the night before we crashed. I was surprised to see that it was almost midday.

 

I listened closely, trying to hear if my dad was still at home. He was normally at work at this time, but it was worth checking either way just in case. After lying there for half a minute I determined that he was either gone or really, really quiet. Naturally, I prayed that it was the former. I exhaled and looked at Lisa again.

 

“Good morning,” I finally said.

 

“Morning, hero.” Her grin was positively infectious.

 

 

Considering how we immediately passed out earlier, we were still due our showers. I took mine first, letting Lisa pick out something from my wardrobe to replace the borrowed pajamas in the meantime. While she was having her morning ablutions, I cleaned up my room a bit and went down to the kitchen to begin preparing our late breakfast. On the table, though, I found a note.

 

Hope you're feeling better from sleeping in, kiddo. Seems like having you not go today was the right call after all, huh?

 

Well, I was glad he suggested that I stay. Going to Winslow in this state would be torture. Well, even more torture than usual. I was still sore from earlier, and Lisa even more so due to her injuries, which were, thankfully, not too serious.

 

Speaking of Lisa, by the time I started with the breakfast she had already made an appearance. The clothes she settled on were a dark purple T-shirt and green pajama bottoms that were a little long and hung over her feet, with her hair tied in a bun. Not bad, not bad at all.

 

While I was cooking, Lisa walked around inspecting everything. On our way home, she mentioned that her power was essentially superpowered intuition, so it was pretty obvious she was using it right now. I wondered, what was it telling her?

 

Soon enough, though, the food was ready: French toast, eggs and bacon.

 

“You know, I haven’t asked yet why you instantly suggested me hiding here,” Lisa started during our meal, her eyes boring into mine with curiosity. “Most would’ve recommended asking the PRT for help or something.”

 

Most wouldn’t expect the PRT to be hiring psychopaths, but what did I know?

 

“I would've, at least before yesterday,” I answered with a darkened expression.

 

“Oh?” She was frowning now. Did her power spoil it already? Or was she angry at me?

 

Considering how much Lisa had told me about her life already, it would’ve been unfair of me to hide this from her. Or, well, anything. She was both a Thinker and my biggest chance for getting help, after all.

 

And, hopefully, my friend.

 

“Apparently, one of my bullies is a fucking Ward,” I explained. “...I'll tell you more later, I guess.”

 

Lisa stared at me, an unusually serious expression quickly replacing her initial surprise. “...That bad, huh?”

 

“Yup,” I answered dryly.

 

Lisa finished chewing a piece of bacon. “Once we're done with breakfast, you're telling me everything. And then…” she smiled mischievously, “...we shall scheme!”

 

Scheme? Is she talking about revenge? Fuck, no, bad idea.

 

“Lisa, I... if I retaliate, I'll be no better than them! I'll-” I managed to exclaim before getting interrupted.

 

“No, Taylor, you won't be fine.” Lisa was sporting that serious expression again. “If things are as serious as my power tells me, there's no telling when they'll up the pressure again. Hell, they might simply get bored one day and kill you! Do you want that to happen? I had to deal with Shadow Stalker as well, for your information, and I know how she operates. This isn’t out of the question.”

 

How did sh- right, Thinker. Ugh, and she did have a point, too. I did nearly die in the locker, after all. That proved they were indeed capable of murder... Fuck.

 

I took a silent sip of orange juice, while Lisa took a slow breath.

 

“Look,” she continued, “I'm not telling you to go Carrie on them; that sounds like a headache and a half. Instead, try to do something subtle; something that won’t be traced back to you, that'll at least make them pause for a bit…” She was biting her lower lip now, eyes downcast. “You seem like such a nice person, and I'd hate to see you in more pain than you’re already in.”

 

Surprised by those words, food forgotten, I felt my eyes sting. My attempts at suppressing the sudden tears were, ultimately, futile, so I just sat there with a watery smile looking at Lisa, who had a sad smile of her own.

 

“Thank you,” I nearly whispered. Her eyes were glistening as well.

 

“You’re not alone, Taylor. Not anymore. Remember that.”

 

 

The rest of breakfast was noticeably lighter than the start and, naturally, so were the topics. The warmth never faded, though. Honestly, I was still waiting for all of this to end and turn out to be a dream, but the longer it continued the less likely that seemed.

 

After cleaning everything up I decided not to wait, leading Lisa back to my room so I could bring her  up to speed. There would probably not be a better time to do so, anyways. I handed her the horror show that was my diary, and she sat on my bed next to me.

 

By the time she got to the end, she was squeezing me with a one-armed iron grip, enough to almost hurt, with her jaw tight and her lips taut. She was absolutely seething, and I noticed her glaring in the direction of the drawer she stashed her pistol in, even after I pointed out to her that killing the Bitches Three would only bring more problems on our heads. The ambient rage in the air, however, seemed to affect me as well, at least a little bit. With anger-fueled motivation, as well as determination, we started to do just what Lisa said we would.

 

We began scheming.

 

When I described to Lisa the way I found out about Sophia’s secret identity, she instantly decided to use it as the basis for our plan: Sophia’s apparent kleptomania meant that she would, inevitably, try using her powers on my locker again. I had already made her confused with the thorn trick yesterday, so she would be extra eager to plunder my steel deathtrap.

 

This time, instead of my thorn I’d be leaving behind an object that had an electrical charge stored inside it. The reason for that was Lisa’s reveal of Sophia’s greatest weakness — electricity. Apparently one of her teammates, Regent, managed to taze the bitch once, which nearly knocked her out completely.

 

I originally wanted to use an old video camera, with its battery aligned close to the locker door, but according to Lisa it wouldn’t do much. Sure, it might've still zapped her, but I… kinda wanted her to stop entirely? Oddly enough, I was becoming a bit ignorant of Lisa’s earlier words about subtlety. In theory, the harder I’d hit Sophia, the longer it’d take her to retaliate. With that thought swirling in my mind, an idea formed, and I decided to search the basement for supplies.

 

“You’re kidding,” Lisa said behind my back, watching me heave a spare car battery onto a cluttered table. “You do know that what you’re planning to do will come back to bite you in the ass, right?”

 

“Probably,” I replied while setting down a soldering iron and a spool of string. “I just want to be done with her for good. Maybe the others will stop, too.”

 

“This is a bad idea.”

 

“Then why are you helping?” I smirked as she managed to find a wire stripper somewhere.

 

“Because you’re stubborn, obviously, and I want some payback as well.” Lisa leaned against the table with a sigh. “At least the battery’s about three quarters full, no need to bother charging it.”

 

Right, she mentioned having to deal with Sophia before. I wonder what she did to them?

 

I mused on that thought while searching for a toggle switch. Surely dad had one of those lying around, right?

 

“This, right?” Lisa said while handing me something.

 

“Just what I needed, thanks,” I answered, taking the switch and putting it on the impromptu workbench.

 

After finding two jumper cables and a bottle of glue, I was ready. Lisa was fiddling around with a small picture frame, probably bored out of her mind, so I decided to get this over with.

 

I used the wire stripper and soldering iron to cut one of the jumper cables in half, and attached its halves to the ends of the toggle switch’s wires. Naturally, I almost botched it. Afterwards, I attached the car battery to the other cable from one side and to the switch from the other. The end result was small enough to fit in the locker just fine, with two clamps that I’d have to attach to my locker’s door from the inside. Now, what would the bait be?

 

I asked Lisa that question, and all she did was grin at me.

 

“If you want her to fuck off so bad, why not just tell her?” She said after I made an unamused face, sitting on the edge of the table.

 

“What, like with a recording?” I asked.

 

“Nah, too time-consuming. A picture, maybe?” She waved with the picture frame she was holding with one hand.

 

A picture would work. Yes, it would work just fine.

 

I looked around, trying to spot mom’s old polaroid camera. Ah, there, on the shelf.

 

Five minutes later, my hands were holding a photo of me flipping the camera off. I had even taken a few creative liberties by writing “FUCK OFF” with a golden marker on the bottom. Perfect.

 

Hopefully she’d get the message.

 

The photo was inserted into the frame, the frame was tied with the string to the toggle switch, and the whole contraption was tested. The string was torn after one of the attempts, so I tied the frame and the switch together multiple times instead of just one, even gluing the string to the latter just in case. That problem taken care of, everything else was working rather smoothly, according to Lisa’s power at least.

 

With the plan ready and prepared for, we disconnected the parts, carried them to my room, then retired to the living room instead.

 

 

Lisa was staring at the family computer like it personally offended her. Seeing that, I offered to check out what was new on Parahumans Online. Maybe she could even find some info on her teammates’ fates?

 

“Can it even load PHO?” She asked skeptically.

 

“Surprisingly, yeah,” I answered with a snort.

 

Lisa sighed and dragged a second chair over.

 

“We really need to upgrade this thing later. Or at least get me a laptop,” she stated with no shame at all. Figures.

 

“With what money?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

Lisa smiled smugly. “Sweetie, I'm a millionaire.”

 

Excuse me, what?

 

I felt as if my eyebrows left orbit, and Lisa started cackling maniacally.

 

“Holy shit, you should seriously see your face right now!” She was giggling through the words, unable to stop.

 

She had to be screwing with me.

 

“Please tell me you're joking,” I pleaded.

 

Lisa enthusiastically shook her head.

 

“Nope, I'm serious. Did you honestly think I'd not do something petty against my captor?” She said with a shit-eating grin.

 

“What, you stole his cash or something?” I asked with a smile of my own.

 

“Sorta?” Lisa half-asked, still grinning. “I siphoned money from his bank accounts, right into my own. Loser never even suspected.”

 

I rolled my eyes.

 

“Even if that's the case, you do realize that suddenly getting a new computer would be incredibly suspicious, right?” Dad wasn’t that oblivious.

 

“And that's why I also mentioned a laptop. You can just hide it in your room with me!” Lisa exclaimed and threw her hands up victoriously.

 

Well, she did have a point there. Again. What was I going to do with her long term? Just hide her in my room forever? We’d probably have to talk about that later.

 

I shrugged and loaded up PHO. Once an account for my cape identity was created, I logged on, wondering what we’d find.

 


 

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♦ Topic: Lung Rampage at the Docks (Locked Thread)

In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay ► Gangs ► ABB

Bagrat (Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (The Guy in the Know)

Posted On Apr 12th 2011:

Apparently, Lung decided to go on a walk through the Docks tonight, torching and ruining a good chunk of it. Something made him run rampant, but the PRT are yet to make a statement so we don't know about what happened there. No videos have surfaced so far either.

 

Thoughts?

 

EDIT: A witness has shared a photo of a part of the scene from afar: link (Warnings: blood, bones, gore)

EDIT EDIT: A PRT statement is confirmed to be in the works.

Last edited April 12th, 2011

 

(Showing page 1 of 3)

►Pathfinder

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Maybe he had food poisoning?

 

►WonderBred

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

I heard roars and sirens in the docks while walking my dog, shit was fucking creepy

 

►Und3rPr3ssur3

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Why you walking with food in ABB territory, Bread? :I

 

►MoriohN

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

I wasn't gonna get anywhere close to the place, but I had a telescope lying around so I decided to zoom in.

I wish I hadn't.

 

Viewer discretion is advised, lotta blood n gore: link

 

►Kriketz

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Jesus fuck, is that meat? Are those bones?

 

►OvertureOfDark

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

welp there goes my breakfast

 

►XxVoid_CowboyxX

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

The pic is blurry, but I think that's one of Hellhound's creatures. Do you think the Undersiders tried attacking Lung and got bodied?

 

►FissileFizzle

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Huh, that does seem likely.

 

Why is Void making sense all of a sudden?

 

►Kiinematiic2 (Banned)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

i hope the undies got roasted

*User has been banned for this post*

End of Page.   1, 2, 3

 

(Showing page 2 of 3)

►OrganEyeSir (Not an Eye)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

I hope the gore is only from the monster and does not contain any human bits. Lung was pissed, that's for sure.

 

Kinematic, the fuck's your problem?

 

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Kiinematiic2, wishing death on someone is a bannable offense, and you were warned several times already beforehand. Yes, this applies to villains too. Enjoy your ban.

 

►ExcitedRed

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Oh, I've seen those things jumping across the rooftops! It was about midnight, I think? Dunno.

 

And yes, before you ask, that was at the edge of the Docks.

 

►Deimos

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Well, there we have it, folks. Lung got annoyed and slapped the Undersiders into space. Or into the ground. Sucks to be them.

 

►ArchmageEin

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Serves them right.

*User has been warned for this post*

 

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

ArchmageEin, please avoid such remarks in the future. Consider this your first warning.

 

►Ganderorb (Cape Groupie) (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

When will the PRT say something? All of this seems suspicious.

 

►Reave (Verified PRT Agent)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

While I can't confirm or deny any of the speculation here, I /can/ say that a statement is in the works. It'll be released when it's ready.

 

►CheerfulGiraffe (Banned)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

When it's ready? Shouldn't it have been ready hours ago? Stop being lazy, pen-pushers.

*User has been banned for this post*

 

►Bagrat (Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (The Guy in the Know)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

Thanks for the update, Reave.

 

EDIT: Giraffe, you need to chill.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3

 

(Showing page 3 of 3)

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)

Replied On Apr 12th 2011:

CheerfulGiraffe, you have been antagonizing the PRT for quite a while now. Here's a ban, you've earned it.

 

In other news, I have decided to lock this thread until the PRT statement is released. Perhaps the downtime will help you all calm down a bit.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3

 


 

“Well, that was underwhelming,” I said when I reached the end of the thread.

 

“No kidding,” Lisa huffed out while stretching her back. “And it was locked hours ago, too. Bluh.”

 

“Anything your power picked up on?” I asked.

 

“Nah, not enough information. I’d rather not have it give me false leads.”

 

Huh, so she could make mistakes. Good to know.

 

Soon enough, my stomach growled, so we decided to eat lunch.

 

 

Dad arrived a bit after dinner, with Lisa already hiding in my closet. I told him that sleeping in helped — it really did, just for different reasons — and that I’d be fine to go to school tomorrow. I didn’t want to go, but it would attract more attention if I were gone for longer. Plus, I had a present for Sophia ready, and I was itching to try it out.

 

Under the guise of going to do homework, I absconded to my room, only to find Lisa at my desk, drawing something. I came closer and leaned over her shoulder. Before me laid an unfinished pencil sketch of a costume, one that must’ve taken an hour or so of her time already.

 

The mask was a domino mask with its ends pointing upwards. Said ends were shaded brighter than the rest of the mask, in a gradient of sorts. The eye holes were highlighted with a lighter tone, radiating from them as if glowing. The closer one got to the eyes, the more pointed particles were visible.

 

As for the costume itself, it was rather similar to her old one so far - it was still based on a spandex bodysuit, but now had a medium-sized skirt to it as well. It seemed like Lisa was inspired by mine, because it was flowing out of her horizontal utility belt. Unlike mine, however, the skirt ended in pointed strips, slightly darker at the ends. The neck had an intricate design at the front, and, jutting out slightly from her sternum, there was… a gem? A pin? A broach? There was something that, I assumed, resembled a black hole. It looked rather nice.

 

Lisa was currently adding detail to the arms, erasing away the dark from the hands and making them highlighted, radiating the same glow and particles as the mask’s eyes. Her expression was rather focused, so I waited for her to finish the arms before speaking.

 

“I like it, but…” I started. “Didn't you say you wanted to retire?”

 

Lisa nodded. “Yeah, but I was talking about Tattletale. I still wanna do cape stuff, y'know, especially with Coil still out there. Also, you need a sidekick.” She winked.

 

That prompted a thoughtful hum from me. Better to be prepared, I guess, and having her by my side sounded nice; way better than trudging through the streets alone.

 

“So, rebranding?” I asked.

 

“Yep!” Lisa replied with a pop. “I wanted to go with Insight, back when I was originally planning my escape at least, but the way my power interacts with yours got me thinking…”

 

Ah, I was pretty sure I knew where this was going.

 

I grabbed a chair and sat next to her, held out my hand, and summoned a thorn on top of it.

 

“The stars?” I guessed.

 

Lisa touched the thorn and, after a moment, the usual glossy black surface changed into the familiar see-through purple one, with a field of pretty, four-pointed star-like particles contained within, appearing and disappearing at random.

 

“Mhm…” She confirmed, watching it while looking visibly relaxed. “When you're not being chased by a dragon, this thing is quite soothing to look at.”

 

She ran a finger over it idly, then pulled ba-

 

Mild lacerations created on target’s middle and index fingers.

 

WHAT.

 

“Ow,” Lisa supplied, looking at two tiny wounds on her fingertips. They were bleeding slightly, but it didn’t seem serious.

 

What the fuck just happened?

 

“Uhhh... Why is there a voice in my head?” I asked, still tense.

 

“What did it say, exactly?” Lisa was staring into my eyes, serious mode activated once more.

 

I struggled to remember the exact words, but what I did remember made me shiver.

 

“Something about a mild laceration on a target. I-I think the target's you? Should I be worried? Lisa?” I was not panicking! Definitely not.

 

Lisa just sighed, and a small smile bloomed a second later.

 

“Well, guess we now know what that one does,” she noted. “As for the terminology, my power says it's normal, so don't sweat it. I doubt it'll try stabbing me or something.”

 

Oh. Well, that’s one crisis averted. Phew.

 

So… Lisa’s power lets my thorns give feedback on inflicted wounds? That… that sounded useful. Really useful, actually. Good to know.

 

I warily looked at the thorn in my hand and exhaled. “Okay.”

 

Calming down, I glanced at the still-unfinished sketch on the desk, at my thorn, then at Lisa, and asked: “So... What then, if not Insight?”

 

She smirked.

 

“What do you think about Nebula?”

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

The hum of the bus was grating my ears as I sat in the back, anxious yet excited. Today, I would finally attempt to fight back. Today, the Trio would finally encounter resistance. Today, things would finally change.

 

For the better, I hoped. I didn’t want to imagine how things could get even worse.

 

The parts for my shock trap were nestled neatly in my backpack near the top so I could remove them quickly. The backpack itself was rather heavy today, courtesy of the car battery within. Theoretically, I could summon a thorn or two under it to spread some of the weight, but I wasn’t in the mood to risk getting caught, especially not today. The burden wouldn’t be mine to bear for long, anyway.

 

Naturally, Lisa was still apprehensive of me going through with this. This was a serious gamble, an uncalculated risk, but I just wanted things to stop for once. For me, it was worth trying and she understood that.

 

I smiled at the state I last saw Lisa in — apparently, the blonde Thinker was far from a morning person. When my alarm started blaring and forced me to get up for my morning run, she quickly made use of my absence by monopolizing the whole blanket, curling up head-first under the sheets with an annoyed groan. By the time I got back and took a shower she was still there, grumbling about coffee, or, rather, the lack thereof. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help her with that without risking revealing her to dad, so I trusted that she’d take care of it herself after we left.

 

I felt the bus lurch to a halt and took stock of my location. Winslow.

 

I got off, speed walking through the school grounds and into the building. The halls were relatively empty, with most people usually congregating at the cafeteria at this time, so the path to my locker was clear. I reached and unlocked it, looked around to check if anyone was watching and, satisfied, opened my backpack.

 

The first thing that I lifted onto the top shelf was the car battery, on its side and flush with the far right corner. I then took out the toggle switch, hastily applied glue to its bottom, and stuck it near the far left corner, wires and glued string facing towards me. The bait picture, framed, joined them in the middle relatively close to the door, and I connected the aforementioned string to it from the back. Before continuing, I tugged on the frame once to test it, eliciting a positive result. The battery and the switch were then linked via one of the latter’s wires, and the two others were clamped onto the insides of the locker’s door. I quickly double-checked everything, slammed the door shut, reapplied the lock and exhaled.

 

Several seconds later, as I began walking away, I watched as Emma and Julia turned the corner towards me, grinning. I steeled myself for a verbal beatdown that was almost guaranteed to happen, but they passed quickly, the latter only bumping my shoulder on the way though.

 

Honestly, I expected more than that… There was definitely something sketchy going on today. Were they luring me into a false sense of security? Did they have some other big ‘prank’ prepared while I was gone?

 

Filled with dread and morbid curiosity, I reluctantly shuffled towards my first class.

 

 

Learning Python with Mrs. Knott was rather soothing. Mostly, it was because she actually bothered to keep an eye on her students, causing my hair to catch less spitballs than in other classes. This was further facilitated by the fact that the Trio didn’t take Computer class, likely thinking that it was ‘too nerdy’ or something. Another reason I quite liked the class was that I was actually pretty good at it — it was probably the only class I had that wasn’t affected by the bullying much. 

 

As usual, I finished today’s project with half an hour or so to spare, so I decided to check PHO.

Unfortunately, the thread me and Lisa looked up yesterday was still locked, leading me to scroll aimlessly through the website, bored out of my mind.

 

There was, apparently, a Slaughterhouse Nine attack on Salt Lake City a few days ago, with Bonesaw releasing a virus that caused its hosts to permanently crave salt. This resulted in droves of zombie-like victims hunting for anything containing it, gorging themselves upon whatever they found and dying of salt poisoning. A video (muted, of course) was also linked, though I had to close it after a minute or so due to how disgusting it was — the Nine had set up traps like razor wire, caltrops and paths of sharp glass shards across the city around visible outdoor spots filled to the brim with raw salt, resulting in the infected dying by the hundreds simply by trying to get through.

 

Trying to take my mind off of the carnage, I scrolled further. 

 

Sleeper was, oddly enough, not sleeping, and was instead currently on the move towards Moscow; which was strange considering the Russian city had long been in ruins since the attack by Behemoth in 1995. I wondered what his goal was, if any.

 

In Florida, a villain by the name of Octobeam somehow managed to cut the state off from the rest of America with tinkertech, the divide being several miles wide. That… was probably for the best, honestly.

 

The Boston Wards member Weld had another resurgence of his meme, this time even more deep fried than the last. People were reposting it with edits, seemingly competing on who could create the most inane image possible. While I didn’t find most of them funny, that did give me the idea to spend the rest of the class looking at cute cat pictures to soothe my nerves.

 

Soon enough, though, the bell rang.

 

I turned off the computer and grabbed my bag, walking out of the classroom. As expected, the Trio’s cronies were already waiting by the door, eager to do… something. They were shifting about, eyeing me with those stupid grins on their faces. Some were giggling while others were whispering. I ignored them, not looking at them directly, and tried to push through.

 

Of course, someone tripped me after I took a few steps forward. I fell on my side, barely catching my glasses on the way down. My hip and shoulder hurt in a way that made me sure they’ll be bruised later. I laid there for a second or two before putting my glasses back on and getting back up.

 

I ignored the peanut gallery’s insults, shouldering through the crowd and running for the stairs towards the abandoned third floor bathroom.

 

 

Mr. Gladly’s World Issues class was as boring as always. He split us off into groups of three, landing me with Greg Veder and Madison Clements, and declared that we were to come up with ranked lists of the most successful heroes and villains of the last decade. I ended up doing most of the preliminary work since Veder was, as usual, running out of breath by infodumping about video games, and Clements was… actually holding the irritating blonde boy’s no-longer-one-way conversation and even getting some of his references for some reason.

 

God, that was weird to witness.

 

After the surreal event had finally passed, I was on my way to my next class when disaster struck, and by disaster I of course meant The Three Bitches. However, there weren’t three of them this time: Emma was present, leading as always, and Madison was lagging behind, her face emitting annoyance at no one in particular. Probably because she got caught talking to Greg. Sophia, though, was missing, even after I checked the small crowd of followers that Emma usually brought. Better than getting punched, I supposed.

 

“Oh hey, look who it is!” Emma began, her voice sickly sweet. “Taylor, how’s it going? Haven't killed yourself yet? I’m sure your mom would’ve liked the company!”

 

I snarled. How dare she?!

 

“What a shame,” Madison supplied, grinning with her head turning towards Emma. “You think she’d finally get to jump some bones that way?” A laugh rolled through the crowd at that.

 

“Nah, even the dead wouldn’t want her.” Emma matched Clements’ grin. “She’d die like she lived — a loser virgin, alone and forgotten.”

 

I began opening my mouth to say at least something back, my eyes already stinging; but before I said my first word a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the halls.

 

It was a scream of pain. Sophia’s scream.

 

Everyone turned to face the direction it came from, people’s eyes the size of dinner plates, faces pale and stances wary. The small crowd began moving, and I followed along at a distance. As we approached the location of my locker the crowd grew more and more thick; even the staircase in the distance was completely packed with bodies. It was a single mass going in a single direction, a human stampede. For better or for worse, going back was now impossible.

 

The closer we got, the more gasps and whispers and exclamations in the vein of ‘holy shit’ and ‘oh my god’ I could hear around me. I lost track of Emma and Madison by the time I got near the origin point of the sounds, assuming that they were even closer than me. Students were nervous and horrified, surprised and disgusted; many were holding their phones, and I needed to know why.

 

In my gut — which currently felt like it was filled with lead — I knew why. But I still needed to see.

 

Due to my height, I didn’t need to get too close, but the moment I found a good spot to look from, I suddenly locked up, wanting to be even further away. Way further; anywhere but there.

 

The first thing I saw was a smoking red smear on my locker’s door near the top that I could smell even from here, reeking of iron. Blood. The top of the smear was charred and circular, and the old paint around the mark was melting, adding an uncomfortable chemical tang to the mix.

 

The second thing my eyes set upon was a person. Sophia was on the ground, the crowd giving her a wide berth as she lay there twitching, sobbing and gasping for air. She had red lines on her skin that split like lightning, all across her left arm and beyond, ending at her neck, and the left arm itself had no hand attached to it. At the base of the wrist was a clear but burnt cut, the top of it seemingly not cauterized enough like the rest and thus still bleeding rather heavily.

 

I felt like I was going to be sick. Lisa was right, this was a bad idea. This was a horrible idea. This was the stupidest idea I have ever come up with so far.

 

But… then again, this was kind of what I was going for, right? Not to such an extreme, sure, but something similar nonetheless. I was even feeling a bit of sadistic glee at the moment… Was that how the Trio felt while bullying me?

 

Sophia was shaking, still on the ground, looking at her stump. Then she flickered.

 

Ah. Well then, I’ve managed to unintentionally unmask the bitch to the public. Yay, me. God, I was so fucked…

 

I sighed, glaring at her.

 

Sophia put her intact right arm onto the floor, trying to push herself to her feet. While staggering up she flickered into darkness a few more times, glaring at the gasping crowd with incredibly potent rage.

 

“YOU'RE SHADOW STALKER?!” I heard Greg’s bewildered voice from somewhere to my right.

 

Sophia snapped her head, still flickering, towards where Veder probably was, staring daggers murderously. She then entered her Breaker state fully, her power no longer spazzing out, and dashed through the crowd to the screams of everyone nearby. I saw her unphase her right arm just long enough to lay out a dazed Greg with a crunchy punch to the jaw before sprinting away, quickly followed by some of the more adventurous and/or stupid individuals.

 

At this point I was pretty sure I was hyperventilating, my knees weak and wobbly, so I pushed through the crowd with shaking hands. I tried to look as small as I could, and entered the nearest bathroom.

 

I didn’t want to think right now. I just wanted to go home… 

 

 

When I stumbled through the front door of my home Lisa peeked at me from the living room, probably busy doing… Lisa things. I still had to find out what those were, other than abusing my family’s computer. Either way, she waved and smiled at me, walking closer with slow steps.

 

“Well hey, you’re back early!” She exclaimed. “Huh, you look like you’ve seen a gho- ohh … Oh. Shit.” Lisa looked at me with a concerned expression. “…How bad?”

 

“You were right,” I said, pointedly trying to not look at her.

 

“I’m always right,” she replied half-heartedly.

 

“Not now, Lisa, I’m still quietly freaking out in my mind right now. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t do… that.” I was so fucked it wasn’t even funny.

 

“I did say that subtlety would’ve been better,” Lisa sighed, closing the gap and wrapping her arms around me.

 

“Sorry…” I whispered.

 

“Don’t apologize, just try to listen next time.” She released me from her hug, looking towards the living room and then back at me. “Was it recorded?” She asked.

 

“Yeah… Pretty sure everyone knows who Sophia is at this point.” So fucked…

 

Lisa let out a low whistle. 

 

“Wew. Yeah, I need to see this,” she stated, sighing. “C’mon, let's find out how fucked we are.”

 

She took me by my wrist and led me towards the living room computer, loading up PHO and logging on.

 


 

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♦ Topic: Shadow Stalker Unmasked!

In: Boards ► Parahumans ► America ► Brockton Bay ► Teams ► Brockton Bay Wards ► Shadow Stalker

ArrCane (Original Poster) (Cape Groupie)

Posted On Apr 13th 2011:

YO GUYS HOLY SHIT STALKER JUST GOT ZAPPED IN CIVVIES AT WINSLOW!!

 

link linky linko link~

 

EDIT: MORE LINKIES!: beep boop bop pow

 

EDIT EDIT: EVEN MORE!! wee woo wee woo

Last edited April 13th, 2011

 

(Showing page 1 of 14)

►ExcitedRed

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Woah, she went to Winslow?! How did I not notice!

 

►Bagrat (The Guy in the Know) (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Damn, she does /not/ look good in that vid.

 

...Is she missing a hand, or is it just bent in a weird way?

 

►Deimos

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Bagrat, look at the locker. Now, remember who we are talking about.

 

Yeah, I'm betting her hand is still in there.

 

►Lolitup

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

jesus, ow, that must hurt like ab itch

and look at those lines on her arm, its like she got struck y lightning

 

►OrganEyeSir (Not an Eye)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Stalker /is/ known to be weak to electricity, so... maybe she got tased or something?

 

►Nod

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

To me llooks like she was trying to steal something

Guess the Wards aren't so benevolent after all

 

►Und3rPr3ssur3

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Guess the bitch got caught red-handed. ;}

 

►ArrCane (Original Poster) (Cape Groupie)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Ok so her identity is shot to all hells by now so I don't relaly care about hiding this~

 

Sophia is a known bitch and has been bullying a student for atleast a year from what I know, punching and shoving and whatever

 

tldr she's toast, I'm like 99.5% sure she'll get booted off the Wards

 

►ArchmageEin (Banned)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

*User has been banned for this post*

 

►Chaosfaith

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Jesus, man, chill!

 

Fcking Empire scum, I swear...

 

►FissileFizzle

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

We're doing puns now?

 

I suggest she /hands/ herselve in!

 

EDIT: herself*, damnit! Argh.

 

►Ganderorb (Veteran Member) (Cape Groupie)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Honestly, I'm not really surprised at this point. The PRT've been rather sus lately. As I've pointed out before. Multiple times. Yeah.

 

►Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Woah.

 

...What ArrCane said kinda does sound like her.

I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't expect her to remain a Ward after this. Especially after this. I sure as hell don't want her back.

 

►ExcitedRed

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Oh hey, it's Vista! Did y'all know she was doing this? Or was today a... shocking revelation?

Get it?

End of Page.   1, 2 , 3 ... 12 , 13 , 14

 

(Showing page 6 of 14)

►Chrome

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

*groans at the puns*

You people need hobbies.

 

►QwertyD

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Ding dong the bitch is dead! Well, almost. Oh well.

*User has been warned for this post*

 

►ArrCane (Original Poster) (Cape Groupie)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

ADDED ~MORE LINKS~!

 

►LogChomper

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

My god, that guy went FLYING. Like, you could hear the crunch from that. Ow.

 

►MoriohN

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

I expect someone to make a T-shirt out of this. Please, I'll buy several!

 

►XxVoid_CowboyxX

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Yeah, Chomper, that hurt. Still does. Ow.

 

But anyways, HOLY SHIT HOW DID I MISS THE FACT THAT SHADOW STALKER WENT TO MY SCHOOL????

 

►OrganEyeSir (Not an Eye)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Wait, that was you, Void? You ok, man?

From the sound of it, you might need some stitches...

 

►DisOrderly09

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Well, seems like Shadow Shocker got what she fucking deserved.

*User has been warned for this post*

 

►XxVoid_CowboyxX

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

...Actually I just got fixed up by FREAKING PANACEA OF ALL PEOPLE!!! TODAY IS AWESOME!!!! btw Armsmaster (!!!!!!!!!) is checking out the molten locker right now, they shooed everyone away but I got a peek. Looked like it had wires inside or something. Tinkertech maybe?

 

►Razorpunk (Verified Cape) (Villain)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Oof, ouch, ow!

I love it!

*User has been warned for this post*

 

►SpecificProtagonist

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Phew, glad that you're okay Void! I don't know what got into Sophia there.

 

►Feychick

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Pretty sure what got into her was a fuckload of electricity and an illegal dose of karma.

 

MoriohN - on it!

 

►Brocktonite03 (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Considering what some of you have said about her... How did they miss this during the psych eval? Or do they not do those?

 

►Clockblocker (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Yeah she's nuts.

 

►Pathfinder

Replied On Apr 13th 2011:

Hoo boy. The media is gonna eat this up.

End of Page.   1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6, 7 , 8 ... 12 , 13 , 14

 


 

Lisa leaned back, popping her neck, and exhaled slowly. “Welp.”

 

“We’re screwed, a-aren’t we?” I asked with my face in my hands, nervous energy jittering inside me.

 

“No kidding. I didn’t expect it to go that bad.”

 

I let out a whine.

 

“I do think we can un-fuck this, though. For you, at least. Most people seemed to have concluded that she’s an asshole, thankfully.”

 

I turned my head towards her, staring.

 

“Okay, so.” Lisa began while biting her lip, her eyes closed. “Revealing the identity of a Ward is a big deal, that’s for sure. Heck, revealing any cape’s identity is against the unwritten rules already.” 

 

At that I raised an eyebrow. “What rules?”

 

“...I’ll tell you about those later. Anyways, revealing the identity of a Ward by hurting them that badly… Things become even more serious. Like, expect the PRT to knock on our door by sundown.”

 

I shuddered.

 

“Obviously, they’ll want to talk to you.” Lisa was looking at me again. “And, most likely, will try to pin the blame on you too. Tell me, what do you plan to do against that?”

 

I… uh. “Blame Sophia?”

 

“Exactly!” Lisa said with a smirk, pointing at me with one of her limp hands. “You are a victim, first and foremost. Use it to your advantage! I-”

 

A knock sounded at the door, and my heart began racing. Lisa looked at me with eyes wide in horror, my own probably just as large.

 

“Shit,” we both said.

 

She leapt from her chair and ran for the stairs, while I barely managed to stand up thanks to my shaking legs. Before she went any further, though, Lisa turned around.

 

“Good luck, Taylor. You got this.”

 

I nodded, balling up my hands and trying to calm myself even a little bit. She returned the nod and started climbing back up to the safety of my room. To the safety of the closet.

 

There was another knock.

 

I slowly stepped closer, hand outstretched to the doorknob. I could do this, I thought. It’s just some PRT guys, right? Haha, nothing to worry about! Nothing at all!

 

I opened the door.

 

In front of me stood Miss Militia and Armsmaster, the former’s hand resting on a machete while the latter’s was clutching a menacing-looking halberd.

 

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

“Miss Taylor Hebert, correct?” Armsmaster asked, breaking the silence. “I and Miss Militia here have come to ask you a few questions.”

 

The two of them stood a foot or so before me, and motorcycles which I could only assume were theirs sat parked near the sidewalk. Armsmaster’s facial expression was blank, which wasn’t helped by the fact that his visor covered the upper half. Unlike him, Miss Militia seemed to be smiling under her bandana if I was reading her eyes correctly. Was that a good thing?

 

“I- um- y-yes. T-that’s me.” Yet again, the infamous Hebert communication skills made themselves known, and not just because I used to be a fan of the heroes standing in front of me until recently.

 

Miss Militia displayed a look of concern, and the machete on her hip transformed into some sort of fancy knife. She then looked at Armsmaster, who seemed to take the hint and stowed his halberd behind his back, crossing his arms. Not having capes openly brandishing their weapons in my direction did wonders for one’s sanity, who would’ve thought?

 

Miss Militia turned back to me and spoke. “We just want to talk, Taylor, you have nothing to worry about.” Yeah, right, absolutely nothing. Definitely. The blonde monster in my closet would probably disagree. “May we come in?” Well, at least she asked.

 

“Uh, s-sure.” What else was I gonna do, slam the door in their faces?

 

I stepped to the side as they walked into the kitchen, Armsmaster first with Miss Militia right after. Closing the door, I stood near the table, unconsciously placing it between them and me.

 

“Are you alone?” The Tinker asked.

 

“Oh, uh, dad’s at w-work right now.” Holy shit, I can’t let him know about Lisa. Distract, distract! “Would you l-like something to drink?” Please say yes, please say yes… I really needed to calm my nerves at that moment.

 

“No.” Damnit!

 

“Tea, if you wouldn’t mind.” Thank you, Militia. Also, they were totally doing the good cop/bad cop thing, huh?

 

“Is Earl Grey okay?” I asked.

 

“Sure, haven’t tasted that one in a while.” Yet another eye-smile. She must’ve taken classes for that.

 

“A-alright.” I grabbed two tea bags. “Feel free to take a seat?”

 

They did, and I began stalling.

 

 

Thankfully, the heroes were patient enough not to start with their questions before I set down their drinks. Armsmaster was sitting like a statue, probably occupied by his visor, while Miss Militia kept looking around, checking out all the pictures mom hung a long time ago. I was still feeling nervous, worried they’d do something to me or, even worse, to Lisa, but most of my adrenaline had disappeared by that point.

 

Either way, with me done with the tea, it was time to face the music. I doubted they’d appreciate even more stalling on my part.

 

Placing the cups on the table and sitting down across from them, I took a sip from my tea.

 

“So…” I began flawlessly.

 

“So.” Miss Militia echoed me, taking a sip of her own.

 

“I assume you know why we came to visit you today, right?” Armsmaster asked.

 

“Sophia?” I guessed.

 

“Yes.” Armsmaster confirmed, nodding. “Before we begin discussing your actions, allow me to describe the PRT’s point of view regarding the incident in question.”

 

He finished the rest of his water in one go and set his elbows on the table. I didn’t even notice the glass being half-empty when I sat down. 

 

“Earlier today, we received an alert about Shadow Stalker, whom you may know as Sophia Hess, being maimed in her civilian identity during school hours. That would be serious enough on its own, but her maiming, as well as the fact that she is a parahuman, became public knowledge via bystanders and social media. Recorded evidence also depicted her lashing out at a fellow student and then escaping the facility using her powers.” He exhaled. “Why we are here today is the reason Sophia was outed in the first place – a shock trap in a locker with your name on it. Do you mind explaining yourself and your actions?” Explaining myself? Was he really on her side?!

 

My potent inner mix of astonishment and disappointment must’ve shown on my face, because Miss Militia touched Armsmaster’s arm, looked at him with a frown, and then faced me.

 

“Taylor, we really need to know more. This is a serious situation you got yourself in.” The gun woman took another sip, her eyes on me.

 

“I set the trap so nothing else would get stolen from me. I’ve lost enough already.” I answered, my own eyes narrowing.

 

“Do you mind telling us what has been stolen so far?” She lowered her cup.

 

“You don’t know? Oh, who am I kidding, of course you don’t.” I scoffed, glaring at her. “School supplies, non-school supplies, my homework, unrelated items, my mom’s fucking flute! But of course , you don’t keep track of your hooded psychopath . Why would you need to?” Yeah, I was pretty pissed right now.

 

Militia’s eyebrows were frowning even more now. “Sophia’s on parole, Taylor, and has been ever since she was recruited. If she had done anything, her handler would have had to report it to us.” Was she that dense? Was this the woman I fangirled over for so long?

 

“Well that certainly hasn’t happened yet, huh?” I snapped. “Maybe the handler needs a handler of their own? Heck, why stop there, make a whole chain of ‘em!”

 

Armsmaster sighed. “For how long have these thefts been going on, exactly?”

 

Wow, they really didn’t know. I was ready to add the kitchen table to my forehead’s social circle at this point.

 

“Ever since she began fucking bullying me!” I yelled, switching glare targets. “That’s more than a year ago, for your information! I have asked everyone for help, from classmates to teachers to the police, and nothing! My pleas were ignored just like always; even after I nearly died a few months ago! I did everything right, everything that I was supposed to, and still – still it came to this!”

 

I was running out of breath, and had just realized I was standing. My hands were balled into fists, Armsmaster looked more tense than usual and Miss Militia’s knife turned into a Glock; her expression wary yet concerned. I slowly exhaled, getting my breathing under control, and sat back down to take another sip of my now-lukewarm tea with a shaking hand.

 

“We will get back to that, Taylor.” Miss Militia’s eyes made me think of a pitying smile. I didn’t need her pity. “Many of your classmates and other fellow students have come forward to tell us about all… that. We just need to get done with discussing today’s incident first, okay?”

 

“...Okay.” I said, annoyed, the fight seeping out of me. Of course those damn leeches would come forward now that Sophia was outed. Disgusting.

 

“When I inspected your locker, I noticed something interesting,” Armsmaster stated. “It wasn’t meant for just anyone, but specifically Shadow Stalker . Or someone with similar powers, I suppose. Someone who wouldn’t see the string connected to the picture, someone who would still be able to move that picture regardless, someone who would be guaranteed to be in contact with the locker door during the whole duration of the theft.” Oh. “Does this mean you knew who she was beforehand?” Shit.

 

“Yes, as of two days ago.” I answered, deciding to go with the truth. His jaw tensed somewhat. “I saw her in her shadow form reach into my locker and steal a pencil pouch.” Still tense.

 

“So you knew of her weakness at the time of making the trap.” That wasn’t a question. Uh oh.

 

“Y-yes, but I didn’t expect it to make it that effective!” I stammered. “Especially the hand-slicing part! Doesn’t she normally stay in walls just fine?”

 

Armsmaster sighed again. “Normally, she doesn’t get shocked for prolonged amounts of time. Or at all, for that matter.” He leaned back. “My theory is that the surprise, mixed with a relatively strong for her Breaker state, at least electrical current, managed to disable her power for just enough time to cause her… extensive hand injury, considering said hand was overlapping the locker door at that moment.”

 

“Oh,” I supplied. It made sense, but how could I have predicted that? Fucking powers.

 

“Now, then.” He leaned in again, and even through the visor I could feel his eyes boring through me. “Let's move onto the bullying problem. Tell us everything.” Finally.

 

I finished my tea and set the cup aside.

 

It was then that the front door opened. Dad. 

 

…Why was he here so early? It was barely 1 PM!

 

I watched as my bewildered father closed the door, his eyes not moving away from us, and prayed that he wouldn’t make things too awkward. He hung his coat with practiced motions and walked, slowly, towards the table.

 

“Hello, Armsmaster.” He looked at the armored hero first, then at the one with the American bandana. “Miss Militia. To what do we owe the pleasure?” After that, he turned to me. “Taylor, are you in trouble?”

 

Thanks for the vote of confidence, dad.

 

“I- uh. Maybe?” I glanced at Miss Militia with an eyebrow raised. Thankfully, she understood me.

 

“No, Mr. Hebert, not exactly. There has just been an incident at her school earlier today that concerned her, so we decided to stop by and talk about it.” Well, that was an understatement and a half, but sure.

 

I sighed.

 

“Yeah, that’s what the boys at work told me.” Dad explained. “Are you okay, Taylor?”

 

“I’m fine, dad. For once, I’m not the one hurt here.” I then turned my head back to the heroes. “So…” I stretched, leaning back. “Everything?”

 

Armsmaster nodded. “The more you tell us, the more we can help you with.” Miss Militia nodded as well.

 

Was it worth it, to reveal what I’ve hidden from dad so far? To show him how deep the rabbit hole truly went? To have him stress needlessly again? A month ago, I would’ve said no. Hell, even a week ago, too. But now, with all that had happened? Maybe it was. Today seemed to be quite the day for gambles, after all.

 

Ignoring my father’s increasingly concerned gaze, I stood up and walked towards the stairs.

 

“You want everything? Fine.” I spoke with sudden conviction, facing away from them. “Catch him up while I’m gone. I’ll be riiight back…”

 

 

When I came back down, accursed diary in hand, the adults were engaged in a quiet conversation. I stepped closer and they stopped, all eyes on me. Laying down the diary in the middle of the table, I sat back into my chair, crossed my arms, and stared right back.

 

“Read.” I spoke, my tone cold. “See for yourself what the bitch had done.”

 

My dad flashed another concerned glance at me and, when Miss Militia picked up the diary, took a chair and sat beside her. Armsmaster, on her other side, leaned in to read too.

 

For the duration of the readthrough, nobody said anything. I just sat there, watching them as Miss Militia kept growing more pale, Armsmaster kept growing more rigid, and dad kept growing more angry. This was especially noticeable when they I assumed had gotten to the page describing my trigger event. The further they got, the more they kept shooting indecipherable glances at me, and the more I became impatient, wishing for all of this to just end already.

 

Finally, they seemed to have reached the last page as Militia closed the diary and laid it on the table. Naturally, all of them were looking right at me. Again.

 

“Is…” Armsmaster cleared his throat. “Is all of this true?”

 

“Yes,” I replied, annoyed at his question.

 

“Taylor, why didn’t you tell me?” Dad asked, angry yet defeated.

 

“What would you have done, dad?” I replied. “I told literally everyone I could, teachers and Blackwell included, but nobody’s done anything! If you would’ve gone to them in my stead, nothing would’ve changed! You would’ve just been even more stressed!”

 

“Then we should’ve had you change schools! Or would that also not have worked?” He was yelling already, thanks to his temper. The heroes were certainly looking rather uncomfortable right now.

 

“Do you think I haven’t tried that?!” Dad wasn’t the only one here with a temper. “The last time I filed for a transfer to Arcadia they just told me my papers were gone! Poof! As if they didn't exist in the first place! And, thanks to the bullying, my grades aren’t good enough to try again!” By the end, I was pretty sure I was growling.

 

“Oh my god.” He was clutching at his head with both hands now. “Tell me you don’t have anything to do with this.” He said, glaring at the heroes.

 

“We don’t, but the PRT may,” Armsmaster stated. Huh. “This seems like a coverup on quite a large scale. Rest assured that we will investigate this further.”

 

I snorted. “Yeah, right. You’ll drop the investigation like the rest of them.”

 

“Taylor, this is a very serious matter, and your diary if you’ll let us make copies of it will help a lot . Not just against Sophia, but Emma and Madison too. Maybe even the others as well.” Miss Militia was looking straight at me, the edges of her eyes crinkled from an unseen smile. “Thank you for trusting us.”

 

“Whatever.” I didn’t really believe her. They’d probably just… sweep it under the rug or something. Right?

 

“And, regarding what you’ve said about transfers…” I looked up at that. “We are willing to assist you with the transfer to Arcadia, if you still want it. Regardless of your current grades.”

 

Well, I didn’t expect that . And Arcadia did sound nice: no more bullies, no more gangbangers, no more failures roleplaying as teachers… 

 

As much as I disliked the PRT, this was a rather enticing olive branch.

 

“I do.” I said. “Uh, want it, I mean.” That made dad perk up a bit.

 

“Are you sure, Taylor?” He asked.

 

“Yeah, of course, dad. Much better than remaining in the dump that is Winslow. At least Arcadia doesn’t have gangs walking the halls in full colors.”

 

“You’re right. This will be good for you, kiddo.” Hey, he was actually smiling for once. Nice!

 

Armsmaster stood up from his chair, and Miss Militia followed right after.

 

“We will contact you later today with further details on your transfer,” he said while walking to the front door. “As for the shock trap, you won’t be sued for it and the property damage it caused will be covered by us, as Shadow Stalker is the PRT’s responsibility and that extends to her civilian identity. Emma Barnes and Madison Clements will be dealt with, and so will Sophia Hess once we manage to successfully contact her again.”

 

I felt myself nodding absently, committing Armsmaster’s words to memory, until that last sentence of his threw me for a loop. Was she not at their base?

 

“Wait, Sophia’s gone?” I asked. “She’s not with you guys?”

 

“No, Taylor, we… haven’t made much progress in finding her just yet.” Miss Militia answered. “The last time she was seen was when she ran out of Winslow, heading south.”

 

Huh.

 

“Huh.” I echoed myself.

 

“You shouldn’t worry about this, Taylor.” She was looking at me again, standing next to the open door. “It’s not your fault.” She then did her smiling eyes again and waved. “Goodbye, and stay safe.” Armsmaster muttered his goodbyes too, funnily enough.

 

And just like that, they left, speeding away on their motorbikes. I survived.

 

“Did you say something, kiddo?” Dad asked, startling me.

 

“Oh, uh, it’s nothing.” I lied. Speaking of, I really needed to lie down… “All of this just… went better than I expected, I guess.” I shrugged, and my stomach rumbled. Right, I haven’t eaten yet.

 

“I didn’t know what to expect when I saw you sitting there, chatting with two famous heroes.” He was smiling awkwardly. “But since you’re getting transferred, maybe we should mark the occasion? How does pizza sound?”

 

I smiled too and hugged him.

 

“Sure, dad. Sounds good to me.”

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

Thursday went by in a blur. Between our sessions of lazing about and decompressing from recent events, Taylor had to visit Arcadia with her dad to finish her transfer, so I, bored out of my mind, stuck with the ol’ reliable — internet browsing. Freaking out about Shadow Stalker being loose didn’t feel productive enough to me. 

 

Yes, I was a hypocrite.

 

After some fussing and a few less-than-legal website visits, I managed to arrange for two discreet deliveries for the coming days, expediting our plans somewhat. The first one was a debit card for one of my accounts so we could actually do some in-person shopping, while the second one contained some fancy Tinker cosmetics for our costumes. The former would be especially useful…

 

…Which was why, the day after, I was walking next to Taylor on our way to the Boardwalk. I was obviously still nervous about Coil and his spies, but we both needed to destress and I had things I needed to buy to ensure our safety. Thanks to Taylor’s post-Arcadia supply run though, we actually had the means to ‘defend’ ourselves.

 

Enter: disguises!

 

At the moment, I was sporting more freckles than was normal for me, with many spilling out onto my cheeks and nose, had a fake mole on my left jaw, and my eyes were housing brown-colored contacts. I was, of course, wearing more borrowed clothes — a light blue blouse this time, and a dark skirt. Most of my hair was in a bun, hidden in a pretty yellow sun hat plundered from the brunette’s wardrobe.

 

Speaking of whom, the raven-haired girl’s mane was currently pulled back in a ponytail. To my annoyance, she didn’t want to go outside without a hoodie, but at least she agreed to keep the hood down and show the world those magnificent legs of hers via an old pair of jeans that weren’t of the baggy variety. Progress!

 

Anyways, once we were nearing our destination I led Taylor on a detour into an alley to pick up today’s delivery. Just as described, a small unmarked letter was hidden away in the crook between a crumbling brick wall and some random metal garbage. I grabbed the letter and shot a thumbs up at my bemused companion, grinning.

 

“What’s that?” She asked with an eyebrow raised.

 

I held up a finger while I ripped the letter apart, and took out the glorious card within. “Money.” I winked.

 

“Ah,” Taylor supplied. “I was wondering why you didn’t want me to take any cash.” She paused. “Uh, how much is that, anyway?”

 

“Don’t remember the exact amount, but it had a bunch of zeros so we’ll prooobably be fine,” I answered, leading us back out towards the street.

 

Taylor snorted and shook her head. “Yeah, probably. I wonder if…” She looked around, clearly wary of being overheard. “...your ‘former employer’ knows about that.”

 

It was, indeed, a good question. Theoretically, he could’ve just been ignoring my thefts to make me think that I was fooling him; this wasn’t a difficult thing for a person like him to do. I was most certainly not going to get sucked into another recursive spiral of ‘he knew that she knew’ and the like — that way lay madness. Paranoia was one hell of a drug.

 

“Probably not,” I answered after a moment, “but I doubt it would matter much if he did. Hopefully…” Hopefully.

 

Ugh. Even now, Coil was spoiling my mood. Could I not have a single day of peace without having to think about him? He reminded me of that one Fallen chick at this point, this was ridiculous.

 

Oh well.

 

I felt Taylor hesitantly take my hand, a quick glance telling me that she was still looking straight ahead. “He won’t take you again.”

 

Will protect you. Won’t betray you. Is comforted by the feel of your hand.

 

I smiled at that. It was definitely still new for me to have someone I could show weakness to without being judged. It was soothing, and something I had missed out on for a long time, just like Taylor herself. This was nice.

 

I sighed quietly, feeling a bit calmer.

 

A few more silent but comfortable minutes of walking and I finally had my first target in sight: a neat little clothing store I visited sometimes. It was time to upgrade that wardrobe...

 

 

Clothes shopping went relatively well.

 

Sure, Taylor was difficult to coax into garments that showed any of her skin and/or figure, but I managed to get her to try out a sundress or three; she even let me buy one of them! Still, she was noticeably uncomfortable during most of the time we were there, and that irritated me. The poor girl truly believed her tormentors’ lies about her appearance, subconsciously acting in ways that made her more invisible to the public; hiding away and nervously scanning her surroundings.

 

I would need to break that habit.

 

“Lisa?” I heard Taylor say, drawing me out of my thoughts. She was looking at me with an adorable worried frown, fidgeting with her shopping bag’s handle.

 

“Hm?” I managed.

 

“You didn’t hear what I just said, did you?” She sighed, shaking her head. “Want to go get ice cream? I know a place nearby…”

 

Well, it was warm outside for once.

 

Family tradition. Stopped visiting after her mother’s death. Is hoping you will go with her.

 

Oh dear. How could I say no to that?

 

“Sure, Tay. Lead the way!” I rhymed with a grin. Clearly, it was the right answer, because Taylor perked up with a smile of her own and dragged me by my hand to an old ice cream shop. 

 

We soon emerged from it with a large ice cream cone each — mine was vanilla-flavored, while hers had strawberry and creme brulee; we both wanted to sit down and relax inside, but we still had places to visit before heading back home so we decided against it; another time, perhaps? Regardless, we ended up quietly discussing the failings of the PRT on our way to a nearby tech store, the final errand-esque location for today, with me describing just how easy it is to escape their custody with proper preparation, planning and outside support. I wasn’t in the mood to go there anytime soon, but theory is important!

 

“Lisa.” Taylor was glaring at the violet Dragon-branded phone in my hand. “Why are you getting a second one?”

 

“You need one as well, y’know.” I smiled at her with a small tilt of my head, only to see her wince slightly and look away. 

 

Right, mom trauma. Fuck. 

 

I sighed, stepped closer and lowered my voice to a whisper. “Taylor, listen to me. I know about your family’s issue with phones, I do, but we really need to stay in contact, just in case. Please?”

 

She looked into my eyes, unblinking, for a few more seconds before nodding. “Alright, yeah. Just… feels wrong, I guess.”

 

I returned the nod, clearly relieved, but after another moment of hesitation Taylor snatched the phone I was holding away and put it back on the shelf.

 

“I want mine in black,” she clarified with an awkward half-smile.

 

I rolled my eyes and got what she asked, moving on.

 

“More?” She soon commented. “Is two not enough?”I could hear a bit of exasperation in her voice, probably because I was eyeing the burner phone section for too long.

 

“Don’t knock burners, they’re useful!” I said defensively, which prompted her own eye roll. “They are!”

 

No, I wasn’t whining. Shut up.

 

“Whatever you say,” she replied playfully.

 

I was originally planning on just four, but I got six just to spite her.

 

Beyond our odd array of phones, we also bought a spool of fairy lights for our stalker-shaped problems, as well as a decent laptop and modem for yours truly. A quick visit to the bathroom later, we concealed our technological treasures within the ones made of cloth and returned outside. It was then that Taylor had another idea.

 

“Oh, how about we check out Lord’s Market?” Tay actually looked less guarded than earlier, so I assumed that our outing was serving its purpose. Good. “I haven’t been there in a while.”

 

“We are rather close.” I shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

 

Shopping bags in hand, we set off, enjoying each other’s company.

 

Of course, right as we got near the jewelry & miscellaneous knickknacks part of the market, the hand of fate finally decided to flip us off.

 

“Hey, hey, people!” An odd voice split through the crowd, coming from somewhere higher. “Who’s ready for a show? I know I am!~”

 

Me and Taylor both spun our heads around to face the source of the voice, only to find a masked jester standing atop one of the stalls, arms apart, looking into the crowds around them.

 

Circus.

 

Employed by Coil. Paid to look for you. Planning to cause chaos for cover. Is entertained.

 

“Shit,” I whispered, close enough for Taylor to hear, the blood draining from my face. “They’re actually searching for me.”

 

⬆◮⬇

Taylor

 

Lisa’s words were full of terror, and the feeling quickly subsumed me as well. We were outside, far from home, not in costume and in danger due to an androgynous clown. All I knew from my wiki searches was that they were a solo villain and had a literal hammerspace power. If only I could steal it…

 

I felt Lisa grab my wrist and push through the panicking crowd towards one of the stalls. I assumed this was for cover, because she instantly hid behind it as we got there. She set her bags next to the flimsy wall and I did the same, still panicking.

 

“Lie down, or take a beating!~” I watched the carnie say before dropping down from their perch and absolutely decimating one of the stalls with their enormous, ridiculous hammer. “Yeah, there we go. Come on, come on!”

 

I looked at Lisa and she silently tugged me down, both of us lying down on the uncomfortable concrete, just like the rest of the people unlucky enough to be here. Except… there was a pair that was still standing, a dozen feet away from us.

 

A girl with long, platinum blonde hair was glaring at Circus, her hands curled into fists and disdain clearly written on her strangely familiar face. A shorter girl, her hair frizzy, curly and brown, was standing next to her, hiding slightly behind the older one’s arm and staring daggers at the threat. Oddly enough I recognized her face too, though I couldn’t quite figure out where I knew her from…

 

“Oho, the Dallon sisters?~” I heard the clown say. Wait. Dallon, as in the New Wave kind? “Well, now, this is about to get interesting!

 

Before the brunette — who was, apparently, Panacea — could say anything, the blonde took off towards Circus, her right fist ready to punch. I watched as the attack was easily dodged; the villain flipping through the air while launching several throwing knives. One of them was blocked by the annoyed Glory Girl’s forearm, another tore through two nearby stalls, and the third embedded in the ground, dangerously close to a sneaking miracle healer who let out an ‘eep!’ and hopped back a step.

 

As the flying brick and the clown college reject kept dodging, trading blows and wrecking the market, I looked at Lisa. Her face was weary, and I was beginning to worry that she was getting another migraine, but she noticed my gaze and wormed closer.

 

“Don’t even think about running in there to save the day,” she hissed quietly. “We need to keep a low profile, and neither of us have costumes.”

 

Her stare was intense and I swallowed, nodding.

 

“You are in a moderately good position, though,” she continued with a growing smirk. “Mostly because they still don’t know about us. Try to sabotage the clown, and please don’t get us caught.” She tightened her hand’s hold on mine for a moment, the smirk turning to a fragile smile. I answered in kind before looking back at the fight.

 

I saw several street torches affixed to a few of the stalls’ exteriors; light sources that were definitely not there before. Glory Girl had just broken off one of them, tossing the burning stick away with an impressive throw, but it seemed like Circus had planned for that. They cartwheeled away from another punch with a gleeful smile on their face as the airborne torch, instead of stopping to burn, flared up even more. The flames were launched in the opposite direction of the wood’s trajectory, as if the former slid off the latter, and the large fireball — why does it always have to be fireballs?! — shot straight towards the blonde hero, the one who was currently preoccupied with weaving around more knives.

 

As I summoned a thorn in a broken vase from a stall nearby, I watched the flaming orb hit Glory Girl straight in the torso. Her body flew backwards and crashed into a fruit stand, destroying it and becoming buried in a sea of bananas. I brought my thorn closer, maneuvering through the destruction so less people would see it.

 

“You need more potassium, darling!~” Circus quipped with a hand on their hip. I heard Lisa snort at that. Figures.

 

Focusing, I spied a determined-looking Panacea creeping up behind them, hands in front of her as if ready to pounce. She lunged at the jester, but her target spun away at the last second, eluding her grasp. The frizzy brunette landed on the ground and quickly began picking herself up, but as soon as she turned around to face the demented clown once more…

 

…Circus spun again, summoning their fuck-off hammer right before it collided with Panacea’s chest, propelling her through the air and into a telephone pole several stalls away from us. She slumped to the ground and didn’t move further.

 

“AMY!” I heard Glory Girl yell as she burst out of the banana pile skyward. She scanned the ‘battlefield’, saw where her sister landed, and dropped right next to her with haste, touching the fallen healer’s shoulders. The blonde kept whispering something which I could only imagine was Panacea’s name and, after a few shakes, the brunette raised her head.

 

Her facial expression began as one of pain; then it shifted to confusion and, finally, to pure horror. Even from here, with the crowd eerily silent, even with Circus watching with interest, I could hear her speak with a horrible rasp.

 

“I-” She swallowed heavily, wincing in pain. “I c-can't... feel my l-legs...”

 

I stilled from that declaration, and I could feel Lisa’s grip tighten even harder. The world’s greatest healer was just heavily crippled right in front of my eyes, and I had done nothing to stop it! How could I be so useless?!

 

Glory Girl flinched away, her own horror evidently roiling within her and turning into rage. She balled up her fists, so tight that I saw trickles of blood, and, after a second of glaring at a terrified Circus, launched at them like a bullet with a cry of unbridled fury.

 

I caught myself staring at the display, frozen like a statue, before I suddenly noticed that my thorn had felt full for a while now. Bewildered, I focused on it, leading it towards a place I could see from here.

 

The thorn peeking out of the rubble seemed to bring some of the debris with it, and had a golden tint with an equally golden ribbon coiling within. Bringing it further into sight, I realized that the rubble was being dragged alongside it due to a triangular skirt-like golden forcefield around the base of the thorn, translucent and shimmering slightly. Oddly enough, the forcefield was completely invisible in a nearby broken mirror’s reflection, but that was a mystery for later. Steadying my still-panicked breath, I sent the shielded thorn towards Glory Girl’s and Circus’ location, still hiding it between the remaining market stalls, hoping to at least be somewhat useful.

 

"HOW-"

 

I felt Lisa’s grip tightening again, if but for a moment, and turned to look at her. With her serious expression she nodded towards Panacea, and- oh. Holy shit, why was I so dense today?

 

I summoned another thorn nearby, but it immediately became full too. So did the third. What the fuck? They both felt like the first one, which I assumed was Glory Girl’s, so…

 

“Aura,” Lisa whimpered beside me. Okay, that made sense, I supposed. So… how could I then heal Panacea if her sister’s power kept cockblocking me?

 

I dismissed the two youngest thorns while flicking my attention to the remaining one just for a moment to keep it from disappearing. Then, I summoned another thorn, trying to bullshit my way into it not taking Glory Girl’s power and… nope, it still did that. Ugh.

 

"-FUCKING-"

 

I could… try doing the two other things I felt I could do? Not that my practice had ever yielded any clues on what exactly that entailed… Disregarding the mental action I could perform which required me to select several active thorns at once, I focused on attempting the other one instead, as it could be done during a thorn’s summoning. Honestly, to me it felt completely useless so far, mostly because all it did was give the thorn in question a number. That was it. A fucking number. But hey, I was out of options anyway so why not give it a try.

 

I summoned a thorn while giving it the number 1, the lowest I could give, and… well shit, it actually remained empty. Huh. The number went down to 0, though… 

 

Alright, healer healing time. Hopefully, this would work.

 

“-DARE YOU!!!”

 

I flew my ‘zero’ thorn off the cracked shelf that I summoned it on and sent it towards Panacea. While it was on its way, I looked at the battle to my right, witnessing Glory Girl avoid an incoming hammer swing as they dueled on another stall’s roof. Lining up my Glory Girl thorn under Circus’ feet, I watched them take a step and stabbed the thorn upwards, dismissing it as it went through their foot. The clown yelped, off-balance for once, and got decked by the avenging blonde, a loud crunch sounding as the hero’s fist met Circus’ shoulder before launching them back into the side of a car, its windows shattering immediately.

 

…Nice, I actually helped for once!

 

Now, with my attention fully on my ‘zero’ thorn, I continued sneaking it the rest of the way over to Panacea, my control more precise. The girl was still slumped and in pain, but she managed to notice the incoming object when it got within a few feet of her and… began pressing herself against the pole in fear? What? Why?

 

Oh. I’m such an idiot. Of course she would do that; it looked like it was about to stab right through her! God, if ‘Moron’ was a power classification, I would totally have it.

 

I fixed my mistake by angling the thorn so it was pointing towards the ground, and made it rotate slowly — that seemed to help, as the healer looked less terrified than before, merely tired. I then started moving said thorn closer to her hand and, midway through, she seemed to get the idea, hesitantly stretching out that hand towards it, shaking and wincing.

 

She grabbed my thorn, and it instantly felt full, becoming see-through and greenish blue like deep sea water. Its center held a shimmering mote of sunlight, with the surfaces having patterns of light not unlike what one could see on the ocean floor. 

 

Fuck yes, numbers for the win!

 

Panacea let go of it with a flinch, most likely surprised by the transformation, but I quickly moved it back into her palm. It was then that my perception of her expanded and I could feel her whole body in its entirety. My eyes widened at the incredible amount of injury just one attack had caused — a broken spine, broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a collapsed lung... I winced and, slowly getting used to her powerful and complex power, began healing. Thankfully, her power assisted with the changes.

 

The curly-haired girl stared at the item in her hand with incredulity as I knew that she was feeling her pain go away in real time. Her eyes widened even more as she tried and succeeded at moving her legs again. She propped herself up and shakily stood straight, still looking at the thorn while I double- and triple-checked to make sure she was ok. Satisfied with her newly-restored health, I dismissed her thorn, causing it to fade away as black sand that was swiftly carried away on a non-existent breeze, watching with amusement as Panacea kept trying to catch the disappearing particles to no avail.

 

Phew. Yeah, that was all I could say on the matter at the moment.

 

I glanced towards where I last saw Circus and spotted a menacing-looking Glory Girl angrily tying them up with a rope. They… did not look good. I then turned my gaze to Lisa who was, of course, grinning as always. Her grip was soft now, and I just laid there, unmoving for a few moments, relaxing on the still-uncomfortable asphalt. When I looked back to Panacea, I saw Glory Girl with her, hugging the tired yet relieved healer with a smile on her face.

 

Taking in the display of affection, I noticed that there were PRT officers setting up a perimeter and helping some of the civilians. I was a bit surprised that I didn’t notice the sirens up until now, though, to be fair, I did have bigger things to worry about than that. Shaking my head, I rose, helping Lisa up as well. We took our bags, brushing off the dirt from our clothes, and started walking, exhausted but satisfied, home.

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

“Keep an eye out, I’ll be right back.”

 

I watched Lisa wink and turn around, jogging towards a cracked planter next to some building’s front porch. Just like yesterday, our path to the Boardwalk included a visit to an alley a different one this time, but still. Simply standing here made me feel uneasy, but apparently we both needed whatever it was that Lisa ordered, so I pushed the uncomfortable feeling down. She couldn’t just mail whatever she wanted home, after all dad would surely get suspicious if he noticed, and that wasn’t even mentioning the paper trails.

 

“All done,” Lisa said to my right, startling me. She had a small package tucked under her arm, and was looking at me with amusement, her other hand on her hip. “Let's go, it should’ve started by now.”

 

Due to the chaos that unfolded at the Lord Street Market, as well as the looming threats of Sophia and Coil, we decided to focus on getting ourselves some proper costumes. My original attempt at one was okay for the small budget I had at the time, but with Lisa’s help I could make one that was much, much better in comparison. Also, Lisa herself was done with her Tattletale persona, which meant that she had to get a wardrobe change of her own too.

 

The evening I stumbled upon her drawing her new outfit, I quickly got roped into the endeavor. It was quite calming, especially when done with company, and it was something I haven’t done in ages. Not since Emma’s betrayal.

 

We’ve been drawing a bit before bed every day since, brainstorming and criticizing each other’s works. It was only last night that both costume designs were finally finished, which was when Lisa suggested we commission Parian, a doll-themed rogue that did puppet shows on the weekends at the Boardwalk. 

 

As it was Saturday, one such show was unfolding right now as me and Lisa approached the store it was advertising, joining a relatively large crowd. While I wasn’t a fan of puppet shows myself, finding them rather unsettling, the way Parian controlled her dolls as if they were real, living beings was definitely impressive. I wondered how it felt, being able to do so with such finesse; maybe I could try it someday?

 

I heard the crowd clapping as the show came to a close, and felt Lisa tugging my arm to the side. I followed her to a discreet corner where she handed me a plain domino mask, the same brand as the one I bought for my first costume. She already had hers donned, so I just shrugged and put mine on, trusting that she had a plan in motion. Several seconds later, I saw Parian passing by us alongside her living toys.

 

“Excuse me, Parian.” I watched Lisa say as we approached her. “You do commissions, right?”

 

The doll turned and looked at us with an odd air of apprehension before speaking. “...What kind of commissions are you asking me for, exactly?” Was she scared of us?

 

“The heroic kind,” Lisa answered, smiling slightly. “Y’know, costumes?”

 

Parian seemed to relax at the mention that we were heroes, and nodded. “Yes, I can do that. It won’t be cheap, though.”

“We know, that’s not an issue.” 

 

“Alright.” Parian seemed to have glanced away for a moment, likely hesitating. Then again, her mask wasn’t the best at displaying emotions. “In that case, please follow me.”

 

We arrived at a door after a few minutes of silent walking; the puppet cape and her cloth-based entourage filing in before me and Lisa. The animated beings walked further down the hall while we stood near the entrance, watching Parian clean one of her tables. Most of the mannequins populating this place wore different kinds of dresses, all made impeccably well. Clearly, we were dealing with a professional here.

 

“So,” she said, finally sitting down. “What do you have in mind?”

 

We sat as well and I took out two folders from my bag, sliding them over. Naturally, the folders contained all of our sketches, and Parian seemed pleasantly surprised upon finding that out. She took her time studying each and every one, humming to herself periodically, and nodded after a while, seemingly satisfied.

 

“Usually, I’m the one who has to do all of this.” She said, pointing at the drawings. “Nice designs, though there are some things I’d still change. First, though… What are these? They don’t look like cloth, so I wouldn’t be able to make them.” She pointed at the broach-like things Lisa suggested we incorporate into our costumes, hers circular while mine was triangular. Honestly, I didn’t know what they were either, but they did look nice and fit our themes.

 

“Cosmetic tinkertech!” Lisa explained enthusiastically, lifting her package from her lap onto the table. “In fact, I got ‘em right here.” She tapped it.

 

Parian inclined her head to the side, staring at the package, then shrugged. “Need help opening it?”

 

“Actually, I think I got this.” I raised my hand weakly. Lisa looked confused for a moment before her expression lit up with understanding and she slid the object over with a nod.

 

I held it down with my hands while a newly-summoned thorn swiftly cut through the seam in one clean movement. Thorn dismissed and the package opened, I handed the latter back to Lisa.

 

Me and the puppeteer both watched as she took out two identical boxes, each about the size of a fist.

 

Inside each was one of the mystery broach-like accessories. They were both about two inches wide, with smoky black surfaces, a bit like my new phone when the screen was turned off, except it was obvious that they were three-dimensional. The backsides were flat, also black, and had countless tiny loops adorning the perimeters. Interesting.

 

Alongside the Tinker broaches, each box contained a strange USB cable that ended with a nail-sized flat metal circle, as well as what I assumed was a user manual. Lisa pocketed one cable and manual pair, then slid the other across towards Parian along with the broaches.

 

“These loops are for strings, that much is obvious. Shouldn’t be hard to attach,” she muttered while inspecting one of them. Afterwards, she put it down and switched her gaze towards her cable and manual. “Okay, what about these, why are you giving them to me?” 

 

“Just in case you wanted to test them. They create visual effects, though we’ll have to code our own.” Lisa elaborated with a shrug, digging into her own user manual. “Pretty sure there are some preset ones… Ah, yup, there they are. Page 26. Oh, and if you’re worried about power, these things charge using body heat. Or, well, any heat.”

 

“What a strange project…” Parian let out a ‘hmm’ of contemplation. “Alright, I’m in.”

 

“Nice,” my companion said with a grin. “So, about those criticisms…”

 

 

After a while, we had our measurements taken and were summarily released. There was so much fashion talk it managed to make my head spin. We did get ice cream on our way back home though, which was nice. Even if it didn’t help my fraying mood much.

 

We were sitting in my room atop my bed now, Lisa playing around with her new laptop while I watched her. Under any other circumstances, I would be pretty relaxed, especially considering our costume ministrations were being relegated to someone else, but right now I felt like a wound spring. My restlessness was, of course, perfectly natural there were at least two lingering threats hanging over our heads, a fact that was rather stressful to acknowledge at the best of times.

 

How the hell did Lisa deal with this all the time?

 

“You get used to it,” I heard her say. She was looking at me from the side, a rueful smile on her face. “Just gotta keep busy and try not to think of all the ways everything can go horribly, horribly wrong. Preparation helps too, I suppose.”

 

“Am I really that obvious?” I asked with a weak smile of my own.

 

“Maybe,” the blonde replied, then tapped her head twice. “Even without my power it’s pretty easy to see that you’re worried about something. You’re still tense, and you’ve been doing that for the last, what, twenty minutes?”

 

I followed her gaze to the curling and uncurling toes on my right foot. Yeah, that was obvious. I stopped it.

 

“I gotta do something , Lisa.” I whined and flopped down, stretching. “If one of us gets hurt because I was too lazy to prepare better…”

 

Lisa sighed and leaned back to look at me with a sad expression. “I get that, Taylor, but we’ve done all we can, short of stocking up on guns and tasers or whatever. You don’t have to run yourself ragged for my sake.”

 

“I want to, though.” I met her eyes. “For the both of us.”

 

She shook her head and closed the laptop, sliding it off her lap with one arm.

 

“Look around, Taylor.” She laid down next to me and gestured at the walls of my room all of the fairy lights we bought yesterday were already set up by us last night, glowing faintly. It was rather cozy, all things considered. “We pretty much got Stalker taken care of. Not the most impenetrable defense, sure, but at least your room’s safe. Should probably get a taser, though… Ask your dad for one, maybe?”

 

I hummed in agreement, staring at the ceiling. Were there any other ways we could gain an advantage?

 

“As for Coil…” Lisa continued a bit quieter. “...There’s nothing we can do about him at the moment. Just have to not get seen, because if we do, we’re as good as dead.”

 

I felt a chill lance through me.

 

“Nothing..?” I whispered, dread made audible. She was the smartest person I knew; surely she could think of something, right?

 

“Nothing,” she echoed, oddly hollow. “Imagine that, one day, you get a knock on the door. You open it, only to find yourself staring down the barrel of a tinkertech rifle. You try to fight back you die. You try to run you die. You don’t open the door at all, and hide instead you still fucking die once his mercs inevitably find you. So, you surrender yourself to his mercy in hope that he won’t kill you, but at that point you’ve already lost.” I could hear her breathe slowly, as if trying to calm herself. “Oh, and if you were hoping for a lucky break... With his power, luck is never on your side.”

 

That…

 

That was horrifying.

 

I turned my head towards Lisa at a glacial pace, my neck almost creaking, only to see her eyes closed and tears rolling. Without hesitation, I immediately rolled over and snatched her into a hug.

 

“I shouldn’t have come here…” I heard her whisper into my shoulder.

 

“It was my offer, not yours,” I answered warmly.

 

“You didn’t understand how scary he was at the time.”

 

“You said plenty. I made my choice.”

 

“I’m endangering both you and your father’s lives, Taylor. Every day I spend in this house is a day you two are at risk! How can you not see that?”

 

I exhaled slowly, looking down at the top of her head.

 

This was a person who was at rock bottom, who so desperately needed a helping hand. This was a girl that had known pain as intimately as me, if not more. This was the first and only friend I had in years. Someone who seemed to genuinely care about me, and someone who I cared about as well.

 

I refused to let her hurt any longer.

 

“I know, Lisa. I know. You think I’m not afraid of one of us dying?” I pulled back a little to let her see my face. Hers was a bit flushed, still somewhat wet like the shoulder she cried on. “I’m terrified . Before this Monday, I never would have thought that cape stuff was so… dangerous. Sure, it may have crossed my mind a few times, but it’s another thing entirely to experience it firsthand…”

 

“Then why? Why put up with me?” She had a watery, self-deprecating smile now, and was still clinging to my waist with a weak grip.

 

“Because you’re not alone anymore,” I answered while smiling as well, repeating her own statement from a few days ago. I’d never forget it, of that I was certain. “Remember?”

 

Lisa paused, then exhaled a short giggle-like noise before leaning back into our hug.

 

“Dork,” she said with a small smirk.

 

“We’ll get through this, Lise. Somehow.”

 

 

“So,” Lisa said after biting into a cracker with cheese. “I’ve been thinking.”

 

I snorted. “You’re always thinking. That’s literally your thing.”

 

“I’m glad you agree,” she said smugly, finishing her treat.

 

“What have you been thinking about this time?” I asked, nibbling on a cracker too.

 

“Your power.” She waved yet another one in my general direction. “It’s weird.”

 

“Most powers are,” I retorted playfully.

 

“Yeah, but mine says yours still has secrets to tell.” Lisa leaned in with a smirk. “And I love secrets, so spill.”

 

“Well, I’m not sure what to tell you.” I watched her narrow her eyes. “No, really!”

 

The Thinker framed her chin between her thumb and index finger, locking her mischievous eyes with mine. The smirk she had before quickly grew into a grin before she popped another cracker in her mouth.

 

“How about some testing?” she said, chewing away.

 

That did sound fun. I had some questions of my own, after all…

 

“Why the hell not,” I agreed with a shrug. “Let's go upstairs.”

 

I took the plate of cheese and crackers with me, and we quickly returned back to my room. I sat on my bed, while Lisa chose to remain at the desk.

 

“Alright.” She grabbed an empty sheet of paper and wrote ‘Basics’ at the top with a pen, then leaned back with a playful flourish. “Tell me, Miss Hebert what can you do?”

 

I rolled my eyes and outstretched my hand. “I summon thorns,” I deadpanned, doing exactly that above my palm. I saw Lisa jot down ‘Summon’ on the left side of the sheet.

 

She nodded. “What else?”

 

“Uh, I can dismiss them too..?” I demonstrated. “Does that count?”

 

Another nod. “Yup, everything counts.” ‘Dismiss’ joined the list, and Lisa’s eyes were back on me. “More.”

 

“Uhhh...” I faltered before remembering the day prior. “Right, numbers!”

 

“Numbers?” I watched an eyebrow rise to the heavens.

 

“Yeah, so… Remember the thing with the aura yesterday? The one Glory Girl had?”

 

She blinked, then tilted her head to the side. “You did that with numbers?”

 

“Well, yes,” I confirmed, trying to put my thoughts into words. “Back when I last practiced a bit with my power, I found out I could do two more of these instinctual things, kinda like summoning and dismissing but not. One of them was that I could give a thorn a number. That’s… about it. They don’t even change visually.”

 

“Huh, interesting. Hold on.” Lisa wrote ‘Numbers?’ on her paper before continuing. “What numbers can you give?”

 

I summoned a thorn and tried giving it the number -7, but nothing happened, just as predicted. I then tried 2011, which worked just fine.

 

“Okay, so apparently I can do any number that’s not negative or zero,” I said.

 

The frowning blonde hummed in thought. “How about fractions?” She asked.

 

Good question, though I doubted it would work. I dismissed the thorn and summoned a new one, attempting to give it ⅔ which failed spectacularly. Oh well.

 

“Nope.”

 

Lisa shrugged. “Fair. Now, then, what did you do with the aura, exactly?”

 

“Well…” I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to recall my actions. “I summoned a thorn with the number 1, which turned to 0 pretty much instantly. It didn’t fill up with Glory Girl’s power like the rest, though.”

 

“Did you try numbering one of the Dallon-flavored thorns instead?” She queried with a smirk.

 

“No, but I had a hunch that it would do nothing.” I levitated the thorn in my hand over to Lisa. “Try it?”

 

She touched the floating object, quickly turning it space-themed. I then tried to give it the number 4, but the number was simply rejected.

 

“Didn’t work,” I shrugged.

 

“I may have a theory… Summon a new one, give it a number that isn’t 1, and let me touch it.”

 

I obliged, going with the number 4. She then booped it. “Alright, it went down from 4 to 3, but that’s it.”

 

My smug assistant tapped it a few times more before leaning back. “Still 3?”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

With a grin, she crossed out ‘Numbers?’ and wrote ‘Ignore’ beside it. “Cracked it,” She said. When she saw my confused look, she decided to elaborate. “Apparently, it’s a sort of ignorance system. Basically, you give a thorn a number, and it will ignore that many unique powers it interacts with first, adding them to an internal blacklist of sorts. Obviously, any further interactions with blacklisted powers won’t do shit. Pretty useful.”

 

Yeah, okay, that made sense. “So, like on PHO? Except instead of users, it's powers?” I asked.

 

“Exactly!” She exclaimed, then grabbed another cheese cracker.

 

“Neat. Okay, what next?” This was fun!

 

“That other ‘thing’ you mentioned,” Lisa said, obviously excited, leaning towards me. “Might be the secret my power is so enthusiastic about.”

 

That was certainly intriguing, if mildly foreboding.

 

“Well, it wants me to select several thorns, and when I do they turn into a spike.” I had discovered this ability a few weeks ago, but, so far, there weren’t any reasons for me to use it. Sure, having a large spike made out of several thorns is cool and all, but most of the time it’s too bulky to bother with.

 

I looked away from my thorn, only to see that Lisa’s eyes were beginning to resemble dinner plates.

 

“Show me. Now.” She intoned with an odd urgency in her voice.

 

A bit unsettled by the way she said that, I summoned three more thorns and selected all four. All but one quickly floated to the stationary one; the one I selected first. They aligned themselves around it, then connected, all at once. When that happened, the resulting spike’s components no longer remained in my mind’s vision the spike was a singular, whole thing; just like a normal thorn, and thus felt rather similar.

 

“H-holy shit.” I heard Lisa say, almost… scared? No, that couldn’t be right. “Holy fucking shit.” In awe, maybe?

 

“Lisa? W-what’s wrong?” I asked, trying not to panic. “Lise?”

 

She looked me in my eyes, an absolutely feral grin splitting her face.

 

“It seems, dear Taylor, that copying powers isn’t the only thing you can do.” 

 

She started giggling, slightly wincing at the migraine she was probably having right now. I watched her unexpected hysterics, racking my brain on the reason she was so hyper all of a sudden.

 

However, right before my mind could catch up, before it could reach the revelation on its own, Lisa finally stopped and leaned further forward, her face inches away from mine.

 

“You can combine them too.”

Chapter Text

Danny

 

A morning alarm blared, quieter than it normally did, before being dutifully turned off by the occupant of the bed beside it. Said occupant, Danny Hebert, soon slid out from under the covers and put on a robe, feeling unusually awake thanks to his racing mind. It would’ve been a normal morning like any other, except on normal mornings Danny didn’t spend time agonizing over his daughter meeting secret guests behind his back, especially at late hours. He thought of last night once more, trying and failing to stay calm…

 

There he was, shambling through the corridor towards his and his wife’s room, tired and ready for sleep, when he heard those damn voices. Stilling, he soon identified the direction they were coming from — Taylor’s room, which he approached slowly while avoiding the creaky floorboards. Were there thieves in the house? How did he not hear them enter? What were they doing in his daughter’s room? Was she awake? Hurt?

 

Fear for his daughter’s life as well as the rising anger aimed at the late night intruders almost led Danny to open the door right then and there, ready to run in and tackle the first person he deemed a threat, but his hand was halted by the sudden realization that one of the two voices was Taylor’s; calm and collected.

 

“I think a gradient would work well here,” he heard her say quietly. “You can do the sparkly thing with it too, right?” Was she discussing fashion with someone?

 

“Ooh, good idea,” said the other voice, young and feminine, more outgoing than his daughter’s. “More stars at the ends, then. Can maybe even have them leave a short trail or something.”

 

Very faint tapping and sliding sounds could occasionally be heard from the location of Taylor’s desk, right near the same place their voices came from. Danny, of course, was puzzled, not knowing how to act in such a scenario.

 

He felt relief over his daughter apparently not being in danger, but that still didn’t answer the two questions that worried him quite a bit: who was Taylor talking to, and why was she in Taylor’s room at ten in the evening?

 

Listening in for another half a minute, Danny judged that barging in would only make things worse, especially if he failed to restrain his explosive temper. At that moment, his daughter was safe, possibly even having fun, so it was probably smarter to wait until the morning and ask then. Doing anything else would likely result in Taylor withdrawing into herself again, anyways.

 

He let out a breath he didn’t notice he was holding and retreated to the bedroom.

 

 

Now, it was indeed morning, and the newly-awakened father decided that it was time to make his move.

 

He crept out into the hall and reached his daughter’s door once more, then stopped. Hushed voices, quieter than yesterday, could be heard if he stood still enough, though the individual words were too muffled to understand. The surrounding quiet was so deafening that the only other things Danny could hear were his own heartbeat and a quiet rain beating against the windows. 

 

Did they stay up all night, or did they wake up early? It was clear that whoever that other girl was, she stayed over without even telling him of her existence, which should probably be addressed sooner rather than later.

 

When Danny finally opened the door, the first thing he noticed was the light; or, more specifically, lights — the walls were covered with fairy lights, all of them turned on ever so slightly. He couldn’t help but think of the next electricity bill before turning his head towards his daughter’s desk.

 

Taylor was sitting behind it, huddled alongside her blonde companion, both of them surprised at the sudden entrance. They were still wearing pajamas, though Danny could recognize the ones on the mystery girl as Taylor’s, too. And since when did she have a laptop? The more he took everything in, the more questions were raised in his head. He reflexively crossed his arms, looking unamused.

 

“D-dad, I-” His daughter began, stuttering horribly. “I c-can explain?”

 

The blonde girl yawned and touched Taylor’s arm, meeting Danny’s eyes. “Hi, Mister Hebert. I expected this to happen eventually, so…” She shrugged and lazily stood up, proffering an arm with a tired smile on her face. “I’m Lisa.”

 

Taylor watched with wide eyes as Danny hesitated before shaking Lisa’s hand with a puzzled expression, the latter sitting back down next to her afterwards.

 

“Please, call me Danny. Everyone else does,” he said before looking around again, his eyes finally settling on his daughter. “Is Christmas coming early this year, or..?” He trailed off.

 

A corner of Taylor’s mouth quirked up as she and Lisa exchanged glances before bursting into a fit of giggles, the nervous tension dropping a bit. “N-no, hah, we just set up some defenses. Doing it anywhere else would’ve probably tipped you off.” She looked at him with a bit of guilt in her eyes.

 

For such a suddenly jovial mood, this sounded rather serious. Danny decided to err on the side of caution and ask. “Defenses?”

 

His daughter’s mood dipped noticeably, and the only thing she did was nod.

 

“Against Shadow Stalker,” said Lisa, deciding to take over. “Knowing her, she’s probably gonna attack us sooner or later, so we did all this…” she waved one of her hands at the walls, “...to capitalize on her weakness to electricity.” After a second or two, she perked up. “Oh, I can ask you directly now — get a taser or two, just in case. Better safe than sorry.”

 

Danny nodded numbly while processing what was just said. Shadow Stalker? Sophia? That bitch from school was still targeting Taylor? It did make sense, considering she slipped her leash. From what the Protectorate heroes said, she was on parole for excessive violence… What was she planning to do?

 

He breathed slowly, trying to lower his rising anger. His shoulders were tense, and he had to hide his hands in his robe’s pockets so he could make fists without them being seen. “Okay. I’ll try to think of something for the rest of the house too, get the boys in on this.” He sat at the edge of his daughter’s bed and exhaled once again. “Now, can we please address the elephant in the room? Wh-”

 

“She didn’t have anywhere to go!” Taylor blurted out, her face shifting from panicked to serious in an instant. Danny could recognize that stubbornness anywhere, and he knew that it wasn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

 

“I’m not that fat…” Lisa murmured with a playful pout.

 

“How long have you been here already, Lisa?” He asked with a sigh.

 

“Since Monday, so… about a week,” the blonde shrugged.

 

So Taylor’s sudden appetite was a ruse then, Danny thought to himself. Clever.

 

“I’m surprised I didn’t notice sooner,” he said, smiling awkwardly. “And you’ve hid in this room the whole time, I’m guessing?”

 

“Yep,” Lisa confirmed with a pop before pointing at the closet. “A few times there too, but yeah.”

 

“I see.” He looked at her for a moment. “To be clear: you are homeless, right? No family members or anyone else you can go to?”

 

Danny noticed Taylor’s sudden discomfort, though Lisa confirmed his guesses with an annoyed — or, possibly, angry — nod. It looked like there was some history he should probably avoid prodding any further.

 

“In that case, you’re welcome to stay,” he declared, instantly noticing the relief both girls were certainly feeling right now. “Though I expect you to help out with the chores,” he added lightly.

 

“I’ll help with the bills, too,” Lisa said, grinning. “I may be homeless but I do have money.”

 

“That would explain the laptop, then…” Danny spoke with a raised eyebrow, looking at the lavender object in question.

 

While Lisa nodded, Taylor stood up and stretched, yawning before speaking. “Thanks, dad,” she said with a relaxed smile. She hugged him and moved to the door, turning around instead of opening it. “I’ll start making breakfast, then?”

 

With her father’s nod and Lisa’s thumbs up, Taylor exited the room with quiet motions and closed the door behind her. A silence stretched out as the two remained looking at each other, waiting for the other to start talking first.

 

“So…” Danny began. “What is your relationship with Taylor, exactly?”

 

Lisa snorted before answering. “Friend? Confidante? The monster in her closet?” She said with a grin, eliciting a sigh from the robed man. 

 

“You two haven’t done anything else, I hope?” He asked, much to Lisa’s amusement.

 

“Hah, no.” She shook her head. “Definitely not. Though she’d probably be annoyed at any changes to our sleeping arrangements.”

 

“Oh? And why is that?”

 

“Taylor’s… not in a very good place right now.” When she said that, he noticed that her grin waned to a sad half-smile, and a heavy feeling settled in his stomach. “Physical comfort helps.”

 

“Oh.” Was that his fault?

 

He could feel his hands ball up into fists again.

 

“Speaking of, what is your relationship with Taylor, Danny? Hm?”

 

“I’m her father, obviously.”

 

The blonde took a deep breath before boring her eyes into him. “That’s actually less obvious than you might think,” she said, her voice deceptively soft.

 

“What do you mean?” Danny asked, sensing his anger slowly returning.

 

“She barely talks about you,” Lisa pointed out with disappointment. “And from what I’ve seen, she barely interacts with you, too. Do you honestly think those are signs of a healthy relationship?”

 

She was right, he thought. Beyond the occasional smalltalk during breakfast, dinner and, sometimes, lunch, they didn’t really talk at all. They never went anywhere either. Not like they used to when… when Annette was there. His mouth went dry as he thought back on all their interactions over the past month. There must have been something. Some moment he had talked to her; checked that she was doing better. Made her favorite meal even. Something to refute this stranger’s caustic words. Was he really that lost without his wife?

 

Yes, of course he was. God, did he miss her...

 

“I understand that you were stricken by grief, Danny, but by acting as you did you essentially orphaned her. Sure, she did mention that things are slightly better nowadays, but ‘slightly’ isn’t enough. In fact, far from it.” Lisa was openly glaring at him now, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. “This isn’t the first intervention you’ve had to sit through, is it?”

 

No, it wasn’t. His posture sagged as images of a similar conversation with Alan flashed through his mind, each a painful reminder he couldn’t forget. He shook his head, looking at the ground. What would Anne have said if she saw him now? He was a failure, plain and simple. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had been a real father to Taylor. Danny sank back against the pillows on the bed.

 

“You’re right… I’ve been too damn lost in myself.” He exhaled slowly, shuddering. “Have I really missed so much?” He whispered the words out, talking more to himself than the girl before him.

 

“What does it say about you when your daughter trusts a stranger more than her own family?” Her every sentence stung; every word, every syllable. And yet, all of them were true. “When will she have a dad again, Danny? When? Tell me.”

 

Now,” Danny growled, slowly turning his anger against himself. He could even feel his clenched fists begin drawing blood as his nails sunk deeper into his palms. “Now.”

 

“Good,” the smiling blonde said, standing up from her chair. “Because she still needs you, now more than ever.”

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

Dad’s car screeched to a halt as we arrived at Arcadia High, the radio still playing music until I turned it off. For reasons known only to gods and Lisa, he offered to drive me to school today instead of having me ride the bus like I did with Winslow, and I accepted without question. The ride was rather relaxing, with both of us listening to some tunes like we frequently did years ago. He even seemed to make an effort to keep the smalltalk afloat, if only for a bit. It was nice.

 

Ever since he found out about Lisa yesterday, he looked more… active to me. Attentive? Alive? Whatever it was, it looked difficult for him, but it was a nice change of pace from the usual way he carried himself — barely there, going through the motions, noticeably hollow.

 

Then again, I was like that too until recently.

 

I knew that Lisa had something to do with this, especially considering the way dad seemed to look at her sometimes, as if seeking approval — and wasn’t that an odd concept — but all she told me was that they talked and that she had to remind him of his priorities. While her being adamant on keeping everything under wraps was as annoying as always, I was still grateful for the results and I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth — all I cared about was that Lisa was still allowed to stay and dad was more himself than usual.

 

“Nervous?” He asked while looking at me.

 

“A bit,” I conceded, glancing at my new school. Much as I was excited about leaving the hellhole that was Winslow behind as a distant, unpleasant memory, I still felt apprehension stir within me. People would undoubtedly know who I was thanks to all the fame-seeking parasites I had to unfortunately share a school with spilling everything they knew about Shadow Stalker’s wrongdoings on social media, and I was powerless to stop them. The only thing I could do was ignore everyone, which I was planning on doing regardless.

 

I sighed, raising my bookbag from my feet onto my lap, and looked back at my dad. “Guess it’s time,” I muttered.

 

Dad reached over the console and gave me a one-armed hug. 

 

“I’m sure you’ll be fine, Taylor,” he said, smiling faintly. A few moments after he released me, he continued. “You, uh, have your phone with you, right?”

 

Confessing to him about having one was pretty difficult, but Lisa decided to annoy me until I finally agreed. Dad… wasn’t amused. He was visibly disappointed, just as I expected, but at least he didn’t take it away or anything. I still felt bad about having it, but it was too useful to ignore.

 

I checked my pockets, verifying that I did, in fact, have the phone with me.

 

“Yeah, I do.” I patted the pocket that held it.

 

“If anything happens, call me,” dad intoned with a frown. “Okay, Taylor?”

 

“You do know that Arcadia has a Faraday cage, right?” I deadpanned.

 

“...Ah, I forgot about that.” He guiltily rubbed the back of his head.

 

“Don’t worry, dad, I’ll find a way if I need it.” I opened the door, ready to leave. “So, uh. Bye, I guess?”

 

“Bye, kiddo. I love you.”

 

“Love you too, dad,” I said with a smile before stepping out.

 

I left the car and began walking towards the school’s entrance, my head held high. The school grounds were decently populated, and the whole place looked cared for, unlike Winslow’s. Barely any dead grass, no random trash, clean benches and tables. I couldn’t see any noticeable gang colors so far either. A group of students were sitting under a tree, apparently playing some sort of card game, while another was having a heated debate with most of the participants having their phones out. Just normal people doing normal things.

 

I strode further, going through the entrance.

 

Slowly walking through the halls, I looked around, committing the building’s layout to memory. Of course, I had already been here before on Thursday, so I was feeling less nervous than before — hopefully, my unease wouldn’t be too obvious. There was still about half an hour left before classes, though quite a lot of people were already inside, most of them chatting or walking. To my annoyance, a few were already looking at me, but I resolved myself to take it all in stride.

 

Soon enough I noticed a familiar blonde walking straight towards me, not breaking eye contact once it’d been established. She looked model-tier pretty, her hair was immaculate and- wait, was that Glory Girl?

 

Shit, did she know who I was?!

 

“Vicky, aura,” her mousy sister said with annoyance, elbowing her in the side. I didn’t even recognize that Panacea was with her until now, weird. Thankfully, she was still able to walk, so… Yay, me?

 

“Right, sorry,” ‘Vicky’ said to her before turning back to me with a cheery smile. “Hi, I’m Victoria, and this is my sister Amy! You’re the new girl, uh, Taylor Herbert, right?”

 

Good Lord, she’s an extrovert.

 

“Hebert, but um, yes. Hi?” I did a small wave with one arm while the other was holding my middle.

 

Victoria blinked before unfolding a small piece of paper and glancing at it. “Oh, oops.” She then offered the thing to me, still smiling. “Either way, welcome to Arcadia! Principal told me to give you this and show you around, so just tell me when you’re ready!” I saw Amy roll her eyes at that, clearly unamused.

 

I took the paper, which apparently contained my locker number and the password to its lock. I had a brief sinking feeling at the idea of her knowing my combination before telling myself that that’d be silly — Glory Girl wasn’t the type of person to abuse information like that. I shook the thought away and pocketed the slip of paper before shrugging. “Sure,” I said with minimal thinking — not like I had anything better to do at the time.

 

My wrist was then swiftly grabbed by my newly-appointed tour guide, who began tugging me in some random direction. “Nice! C’mon, we got lots to cover. So, that way’s the gym…”

 

This was going to be a long day.

 

 

The ‘tour’ took about twenty minutes in total, with me ending up feeling as winded as Amy, even though I usually ran in the mornings. Thankfully, her sister decided to switch things up a bit after that, stopping us by the cafeteria for some casual banter with some other friends she had. It was safe to say that I forgot their names almost immediately.

 

The classes that followed the ringing of the first bell went rather smoothly, in my opinion — every teacher I’d met so far had been nice, most of them seeming to actually enjoy their subjects. The Math one was more strict than I expected, though, with my initial judgement coming from Victoria’s gossip. Then again, she was also pretty fair, so everything balanced out in the end.

 

Oh, and apparently this school had clubs! I was pretty surprised by that, with Winslow having none at all. Regardless, I hadn’t applied to any of them yet due to feeling busy enough already nowadays — and I wasn’t even going out doing cape stuff yet! Plus, the more time I spent at home, the smaller were the chances of it being attacked when I was gone.

 

As yet another bell rang, I quietly collected my things and put them in my bag. I hesitated on my way out, my instincts screaming at me that I was about to be attacked but, obviously, nothing happened — I wasn’t there anymore, I no longer needed to hide. I could finally just… blend in. Coexist.

 

What a strange feeling.

 

I welcomed it.

 

The latest bell heralded the start of lunch break, so I started making my way towards the cafeteria. Most of my classmates were heading there too, though I noticed that some opted to go outside instead — something that I decided to try at a later date. I wasn’t going to get whatever they served here because I packed myself my own lunch, but I was willing to bet that the food was of better quality than anything one could find at Winslow.

 

As I walked, I basked in my newfound anonymity, a ghost of a smile finding its way onto my face. Once I entered the cafeteria though, my eyes were quickly drawn to Victoria waving at me from one of the tables, while her sister simply stared at me with no emotion whatsoever. I didn’t really feel like eating alone so I approached them, settling down beside Amy.

 

“Hey, Taylor!” Victoria exclaimed.

 

“Hi, Victoria,” I greeted them in turn. “Hi, Amy.” I received but a murmur in response.

 

“These…” the blonde bombshell pointed at the boys sitting across the table, “...are Dean and Dennis. Say hi, guys!”

 

The one who I assumed was Dennis just waved his hand with a non-committal “Hey,” while Dean extended his arm across the table, which I took.

 

“Nice to meet you, Taylor, I’m Dean,” he said with an oddly polite tone.

 

“Yeah, uh, you too,” I replied awkwardly.

 

Pleasantries exchanged, Victoria decided to move onto gossip once more. Apparently, she and Dean were dating, and Dennis was a bit miffed that some other boy named Chris wasn’t here today, busy with something else. I ate my lunch in silence, most of the time only contributing to the conversation when asked directly, and I noticed that Amy was doing the same thing. She looked somewhat… out of it. I was getting worried that I’d broken her somehow — I didn’t have any practice with her power, after all, I let it do most of the work by itself back then.

 

At some point she looked at me, as if noticing my existence for the first time. The puzzled expression on her face, mixed with what I’d peg as recognition, sent a lance of ice through my heart, especially since it was quickly replaced by something more serious. Did she know? If yes, how much did she know? Did I screw up? I screwed up, didn’t I?

 

As I panicked internally while I finished up my lunch, I noticed that Dean kept shooting me confused glances every so often, too. If he knew as well… I didn’t know what would happen then.

 

I flinched at the sudden feeling of a tap on my left shoulder.

 

“Hey, uhm, mind if I borrow you for a bit?” I saw Amy say, her freckled face pensive.

 

“Y-yeah,” I managed, trying and failing to calm my nerves. “O-okay.”

 

We stood up and left the table under the confounded gazes of the others, my gait rigid as she led me by my wrist to an empty classroom. The brunette leaned back against the teacher’s desk and stared at me intently, saying nothing.

 

I began trying to stammer through some kind of apology, a deep part of my brain telling me that I fucked up big time, but she interrupted me before I released more than one syllable from my mouth. “Are you okay?” She asked, furrowing her eyebrows.

 

“I- uh. Wh-what?”

 

“I remember you.” My stomach dropped. “I healed you a few months ago, didn’t I?” Oh. “You had a ton of punctures, lacerations, infections and so on, right?”

 

So she didn’t know. Phew.

 

Though… maybe she should?

 

“Y-yeah, that was me,” I confirmed, feeling slightly less tense. “Th-thanks for healing me.”

 

“What the hell happened to you in the first place?” She demanded, crossing her arms. “It took me almost half an hour to put you back together!”

 

Half an- what? Me fixing her up only took a few minutes! Was I really fucked up that bad?

 

I sighed, sitting on a desk that was across from the one holding up Amy, and spoke. “Bullies.” That was all she would get from me. Probably.

 

She scoffed. “‘Bullies.’ That was a fucking murder attempt. Please tell me they got caught, at least?”

 

“Well…” I didn’t know what actually happened to them, but I could hope that the PRT would do something useful for once. “The PRT probably dealt with two of them, but it’s not like they send updates every day or anything.”

 

“Hold up,” Amy leaned forward a bit, her eyes boring into my own. “PRT?”

 

“The third one, Sophia, escaped,” I said, giving her a hint. “They don’t know where she is right now.”

 

Understanding flashed across her face, solidifying into an annoyed expression. “Shadow Stalker.”

 

I nodded.

 

“The bitch never should’ve been a Ward in the first place,” she muttered. Exactly!

 

“Well, I doubt she still counts as one,” I commented, remembering a news report on her from a few days ago. “People are out for blood. Even the other Wards, apparently.”

 

“Yeah, they’re not happy,” Amy said with a dark smirk. “Things got way out of hand far too quickly.” They sure di- wait a minute.

 

“Was that a pun?” I deadpanned, suppressing a grin.

 

“Maybe. Are you doing better now, though?” She asked.

 

“Huh?”

 

“After the uh… injuries. And Stalker too, I guess,” she shrugged with one shoulder.

 

“I think so? Isn’t it too early to judge?” I was still waiting for that attack to happen, for example.

 

She shrugged again, and I looked around. Nobody in sight. This was probably the best opening I would get…

 

“I, uh. I wanted to ask you that too, actually.” I said, slightly quieter than before.

 

Amy looked at me with confusion, which meant I had to go all in. I wanted to.

 

“I did fix you correctly, r-right?” I whispered, anxiety spiking once again.

 

I watched as her eyes widened and her face paled, the knuckles on her left hand whitening as she grabbed the edge of the desk she was sitting on. She stared at me as she brought the other shaking hand to her mouth, and I could hear her breath hitch even from here.

 

“Th-that was you?” She asked, faintly. I was sincerely hoping she wouldn’t pass out, because that would be extremely difficult to explain to her sister without getting a punch to the face.

 

I saw Amy draw a triangle in the air with her finger, still not breaking eye contact with me, as if asking a silent question. She looked so small and vulnerable at this moment…

 

I looked around, making sure that we were still alone while noting the positions of any cameras I could find. I turned in a way that made my body obscure their views but not Amy’s, and then exhaled slowly, readying myself. Amy gasped as soon as she saw the black sand, her face becoming as white as a sheet of freckled paper when it formed into a thorn for just a split second before disappearing once again. She sat there, shaking, as I continued to watch her with trepidation, wondering what was going to happen next.

 

Unexpectedly, Amy jumped off her perch and hugged me, strill trembling as I wrapped my arms around her by reflex. “Oh god, thank you,” she whispered, pressing her face against my collarbone. “Thank you so much.”

 

I held her like that for about a minute while her shaking tapered off, a warm feeling radiating inside me. I smiled, knowing that I actually managed to help someone successfully. Though, I should probably still ask…

 

“I didn’t make any mistakes, did I?” I asked, letting go.

 

Amy shook her head, a small smile making itself known on her own face. “No. I got thoroughly checked when they drove me to the hospital, everything seemed like it was in perfect condition.” Then, she chuckled. “Although I did feel ravenous for a day or two afterwards.”

 

“Oh, is that bad? I’m s-” I began before getting swiftly cut off.

 

“No, Taylor, it’s a side effect of my power. You had to get the mass from somewhere, right?” She was looking at me with an amused twinkle in her eye.

 

Before I could reply, I suddenly heard something vibrating somewhere nearby before realizing that it was my phone, and promptly took it out. A message from Lisa? Was she attacked?

 

I opened it.

 

  L: Hey Taylor, I assume the Faraday cage is turned off right now so gonna pester you real quick.

  L: The PRT finally released their damn statement. (took them long enough!)

 

Oh dear.

 

  L: Apparently, they had a new Ward that hadn’t debuted yet, and *of course* the idiots from above decided to have the Wards try and help out against Lung. Because reasons.

  L: Long story short, Browbeat (the newbie) is dead, and the media ain’t happy. Fun.

  L: Oh, and no info whatsoever about the other guys.

  L: Ugh.

  L: Hope you’re having a better day than me because I am *so* done right now.

 

Well, then. That was… something.

 

I assumed that the ‘other guys’ she was talking about were the Undersiders, and… yeah, I could understand why Lisa was so pissed right now. I sighed.

 

“The PRT fucked up again, who would’ve thought,” I commented out loud.

 

Amy, confused, sat next to me and read over my shoulder. Oddly enough, she started looking more and more guilty the further she got.

 

“Guess who failed to heal him in time,” the sad healer said without meeting my eyes.

 

I gently laid a hand on her arm, trying not to scare her away. “You can’t save everyone, it’s not your fault.”

 

“Sure feels like it,” she mumbled.

 

“If I were you, I’d blame whoever it was that put him there in the first place,” I said, trying to redirect her fallen mood.

 

“Yeah.” Amy looked around us, then glanced at the door. “We should probably go. Vicky might get worried otherwise.”

 

I nodded, sliding off the desk, and we slowly made our way to the hall, only for me to bump into Victoria right as I exited the classroom. Was she guarding it or something?

 

Amy seemed to notice that it startled me, because she instantly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. “What the fuck, Vicky! Were you spying on us?” Oh shit, hopefully not. I wasn’t too keen on outing myself to her just yet.

 

Victoria, meanwhile, was simply ignoring Amy’s words, eyeing each of us smugly, clearly entertained.

 

The blonde stepped forward and gave her sister a hug, ruffling her hair. “Your social circle is finally expanding! I’m happy for you, Ames.” The sister in question groaned with annoyance, which I understood completely.

 

“So!” Victoria began after releasing Amy. “Have you two exchanged numbers yet?”

 

“N-no?” I said, looking at her with uncertainty.

 

Seeing Amy shake her head, Victoria sighed before prompting us to do the exchange. We managed to finish it right before the next bell and, with hasty goodbyes, we separated, going to classes once more.

 

 

On my bus ride home, I felt another barrage of messages get sent to my phone. Pulling it out, I was surprised to see that they came from Amy, of all people. Feeling overcome with curiosity, I opened them.

 

  A: hi

  A: uh

  A: I’d like to hang out sometime

  A: if you don’t mind

 

Oh! I quickly typed my response.

 

  A: just ignore me

  T: Hey! Sure, when do you want to meet up? I’m free now.

  A: oh

  A: can’t right now, got hospital stuff to do

 

Right, Panacea duties. Hmm…

 

  T: Tomorrow, then? After school?

  A: ok that works

 

Nice! Maybe she could meet Lisa, too!

 

  A: see ya around I guess?

  T: Yes, see you!

 

After staring at my phone for a couple more seconds, making sure she wasn’t going to say anything else, I finally put it away. Another smile managed to find its way onto my face, and I looked outside my window, thinking about just how well today went.

 

It felt nice to have friends again.

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

It was a slow day on PHO.

 

I scrolled past thread after thread of boring speculation with nothing at all catching my eye. Void got tempbanned for yet another stupid theory involving the Simurgh’s bosom, someone posted a video of Scion stopping a wayward cruise liner from crashing into a port, and yet more people were discussing some tremors that were recently felt near Boston.

 

Tremors likely caused by a parahuman.

 

Fascinating. Anything else? No? Of course not. God, this was boring.

 

Groaning with annoyance, I closed my laptop and went downstairs to the living room. It was still barely 2 PM, so Taylor would probably be here within the next hour. I just had to survive ‘till then. Easy.

 

Juice box in hand, I flopped onto the couch, hoping that at least the TV would have something interesting on today. Sure, I wasn’t an adult, but watching the local news was pretty useful for anyone who lived in a hellhole like Brockton Bay, especially if they were a cape. With a bit of luck, there might even be some clues sprinkled in that I could use.

 

I took a sip of apple juice and turned the TV on.

 

“-inues to spiral out of control. So far, Oni Lee has managed to cause nine civilian casualties in the attack.”

 

Welp. Apparently, some of the ABB were at Weymouth Mall, and they weren’t there for shopping. Probably.

 

“Velocity and Triumph of the local Protectorate were just spotted engaging with the villain. Meanwhile, seventeen of the twenty four spotted unpowered gang members have been confirmed to be incapacitated and are currently being transferred into police custody, as stated by officer Henderson, a BBPD first responder.”

 

I watched the fight unfold as Oni Lee teleported around, constantly trying to stab the two heroes with a military knife. He actually managed to catch Velocity off-guard once, but the cut was so tiny that the camera could barely capture it. That wasn’t helped by the fact that the speedster zoomed about as well, following Oni Lee whenever he noticed that he had teleported.

 

Triumph shouted, disorienting two clones with his shockwave and making the real instance of the murderous ABB lieutenant lose his balance, but Lee teleported yet again. This time, he appeared in the air behind Triumph, plunging his knife into the lion-themed cape’s shoulder before dropping a grenade from his bandolier, but Velocity succeeded in batting it away in time before it exploded. 

 

Come to think of it, the demon-masked sociopath was surprisingly careful today. Usually, he had his clones rain grenades on his targets all the time, even using them as respawnable suicide bombers, but here he was mostly content with just using his knife. Weird.

 

Scavenging for resources. Avoiding accidental destruction of technology-related stores. Scavenging for Tinker resources. Is a distraction.

 

Well that wasn’t ominous at all.

 

The wannabe ninja on the screen had apparently gotten bored just like me, actually and decided to fuck off into the sunset. The news people seemed to have had the same idea, resulting in a PRT-sponsored cereal ad getting shoved in my face. I sighed, turned the TV off and stretched lazily, then stood up.

 

 

Before I reached Taylor’s room, ready to partake in more mindless doomscrolling, the telltale sound of the front door opening made me immediately backtrack. Oh well, I’d just have to update my board later, instead. Hopefully, I wouldn’t forget it.

 

“Lisa! I’m home!” I heard Taylor shout as I walked down the stairs. “Amy’s h- oh, hey.” Aww, she was smiling. Good.

 

“Hey yourself,” I replied with a smirk and looked at the wayward healer by her side. “And hey to you, too. Name’s Lisa.”

 

“Amy,” she answered dryly, averting her eyes.

 

Is wary of you.

 

Huh?

 

Is reminded of her sister. Feels guilty of the comparison.

 

I mean, yeah, we’re both blondes, but what’s the problem with that?

 

Guilt indicates socially unacceptable feelings. Has a crush on her sister. Is aware of its social unacceptability and unlikelihood of reciprocation. Is filled with self-loathing as a result.

 

…Holy shit, no wonder she clings to her so much.

 

Saying that this was troublesome would be an understatement.

 

“Lisa?” Taylor’s voice cut through my thoughts like butter. “You’re doing that thing again.”

 

I blinked.

 

Right, I was still staring at Amy. Well then.

 

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, sighing and leaning against the kitchen table. The beginnings of a migraine were already starting to settle in, too…

 

“Does she do that often?” Amy quietly asked Taylor, watching me with confusion.

 

“Sometimes,” I answered instead, trying to sweep everything under the proverbial rug. “Anyways, what do you two think about ordering chinese for lunch? I’m starving.”

 

With neither of them objecting, I fetched a menu for one of the places we ordered from already once before, and Taylor took care of the phone call once we were done with all of our choices. Of course, that then left us awkwardly sitting at the table, waiting for the food to arrive while not knowing what to do next. Hmm…

 

“Nice to know you’re still standing,” I stated, trying to break the ice.

 

“What?” Amy asked, drawn out of her idle observations of the Hebert household. “Oh. Yeah, uh. Thanks?” She shrunk in on herself, clearly still uneasy about remembering the injury.

 

“Fun fact,” Taylor piped up, looking rather relaxed. “Lisa’s the one who reminded me to try and heal you. I was, uh, a bit too busy trying to nail the clown at the time.” Thanks for the assist, Tay.

 

“Huh.” Amy was looking straight at me until now, lowering her gaze to the table. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

 

While I liked being thanked for doing cool things and all that jazz, this whole thing seemed to only increase her unease over time. In fact, it was probably better to avoid the topic altogether. Taylor had apparently gotten the same idea, judging by her worried expression.

 

“Okay, topic change: the ABB have a Tinker now, apparently,” I said, eliciting concerned looks from the both of them.

 

“Where did you get that from?” Amy spoke up with a mild amount of suspicion lacing her voice. Ugh, what a headache.

 

Wait, no, that was just my migraine.

 

“The TV, duh,” I answered with a knowing smile.

 

“Since when did you watch TV?” Taylor asked while arching an eyebrow in amusement. “Didn’t you say it was for ‘boring adults’ just a few days ago?” Meanie. Amy’s lips quirked up, at least.

 

“Well maybe I was wrong,” I scowled, pouting with my arms crossed.

 

Taylor performed a faux gasp while Amy let out a snort.

 

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.”

 

I watched, smiling, as the two descended into giggles, the tension in the air thinning somewhat. Worth it.

 

As they began to slow down, I continued. “But yeah, today’s attack on the mall was a scavenging expedition, with Teleporting McMurderbot being the distraction.”

 

“Wait, they attacked the mall?” Taylor asked in surprise. “When?”

 

Amy checked her phone with an annoyed expression. “Almost an hour ago, apparently.” Then, she looked up back at me. “No word about a Tinker, though.”

 

I sighed, propping my head up with one hand. “Fine, let me spell it out for you puny non-Thinkers. First of all, Oni Lee barely used any grenades, unlike his usual MO. He only dropped one of them today, and even that one barely did anything. Second, he and his goons most of which were arrested, by the by actively avoided trashing up the mall’s tech stores. Third, he wasted the heroes’ time by ‘porting around instead of being as aggressive as he normally is.” I took in their pondering faces before asking. “Thoughts?”

 

A few seconds later, Amy nodded. “Okay, that does make sense.” She hummed a bit before continuing. “But, uh. Why out yourself to me?” 

 

A sensible question, I’d give her that.

 

“Well, you know about Taylor already, and we’re going to be out doing cape stuff as soon as our costumes get finished.” I shrugged. “Also, I’m pretty sure you can figure out that I’m a cape simply by touching me, so eh. No point in hiding.”

 

“Fair, I guess,” she replied as the doorbell rang, still eyeing me warily.

 

“I’ll get it!” Taylor exclaimed, running to the door. 

 

Amy’s eyes lingered on her for a moment before she looked back at me with a curious gaze. “What can you do, then?” She asked.

 

“Oh, nothing much,” I answered, smirking. “I’m psychic.” Wait, fuck.

 

I may have screwed up a little.

 

As I spoke the last two words her face quickly became pale, drained of color, causing her numerous freckles to stand out even more. She unconsciously started pushing herself against the back of her chair, away from me, the threat, and breathed more and more erratically. Shit, she was terrified of me.

 

Now, normally I would have enjoyed this, but something in her overall demeanor that I picked up so far was sadly far too reminiscent of Taylor. Not just the current one, even, but the Taylor I met that night someone without a support network, lost in a dark spiral. Amy might’ve had a sister, sure, but since said sister was part of the problem, telling her anything would likely only make things worse.

 

I had to step in, that was the one thing I knew for certain.

 

Not to mention the fact that she was Taylor’s friend, and in Taylor’s home. We weren’t enemies, and I had enough of those already for the time being.

 

“Amy,” I said with a hushed tone, glancing for a moment at the front door where Taylor stood, a step or two outside, paying for our food. “Yes, I’m aware of your issues, but-”

 

Her eyes widened even more as she tried to exit the table, failing and hitting her knee instead.

 

“Amy, listen to me!” I hissed, which succeeded in making her pause like a deer in the headlights. “ All of us have problems, not just you! It’s okay-”

 

“It’s not okay!” She choked out. “N-No one can know!” Damnit, she really was spiraling now. “I-If anyone finds out, everything would be ruined! Victoria w-would hate me, and she should… I’m disgusting…” She sniffled as she started getting up to leave again. “I-I have to go…” I really needed to fix that.

 

I sighed, stood up from my chair, and walked over to cut her off and give her a hug or whatever counted as one, considering her arms were pinned to her sides at the moment. Hopefully, the gesture would work as well on her as it did on Taylor.

 

“It may not be okay, but we won’t judge, and we won’t tell. That, I promise.”

 

For some reason, Amy actually started crying, latching onto me like a limpet as I held her in my arms. 

 

…I wasn’t really sure if that was good or not.

 

Power usage facilitated due to established skin contact.

 

Okay, and?

 

Biokinesis can be used to determine truthfulness of a statement spoken by an observed individual.

 

Great, a lie detector. Powers are bullshit, what else is new. Thankfully, I was telling the truth there. I think.

 

Also, ow. I said it once and I’ll say it again fuck migraines.

 

I barely heard the sound of the door closing and saw Taylor speed walking back, food bags in hand and distress on her face. She stopped near us, unsure of what to do, and looked at me. I silently pointed with my eyes, first at her, then at Amy, and after a few tries Taylor seemed to have gotten what I meant. I felt Amy tense when she heard the bags thunk softly onto the table, but she relaxed when Taylor approached from behind and joined in on the hug, stroking her hair in a calming manner.

 

“I don’t know what happened, Amy, but we’ll help as much as we can,” she said gently, though I could hear her barely-hidden concern as well. “Right, Lisa?” Ever the heroic one.

 

Is worried. Trusts you.

 

“Exactly,” I answered with a faint smile, but it faltered when I shuddered at the sensation of a hot knife being jammed straight through my temple.

 

“Lisa?!”

 

I sagged to my knees and closed my eyes, letting go of Amy as I held my head with one hand while supporting myself with the other. “T-too much power overuse, owww,” was all I could say before dissolving into incoherent whimpers. I felt tears start involuntarily streaming down my face, and a wet palm cupped my right cheek a moment later.

 

“I-I don’t think I can do much,” I heard Amy whisper. “This is going on in your brain, your Gemma, and I d-don’t do brains… I’m sorry…”

 

“Painkillers, maybe?” Taylor was just as quiet. To my annoyance, even their low volumes caused my head to throb with pain. “I saw her take some a few times before, but it was never this bad. Will they still work?”

 

“I t-think so? I’ll uh, try synthesizing some aspirin in her bloodstream…” I heard her take a breath, then exhale. “Now.” The agony receded by a tiny bit, but it was still there, far too noticeable. I doubted I could do much in this state, but I could at least try to communicate.

 

“It h- ah- it helped a little,” I managed, then tried to stand. I also attempted to open my eyes, but that just sent another lance through my brain, and I felt Taylor try to support me from my left as I swayed.

 

“Don’t talk, that’ll just make things worse,” Amy said after rustling some papers or whatever. Judging by the nose-blowing sound that came a second later, they were probably tissues.

 

“Couch?” Taylor asked softly, to which I did a jerky nod. Even that still hurt. “Okay.”

 

As we slowly made our way to the couch, I heard Amy speak up again. “I can put her to sleep, maybe? The aspirin already made her drowsy regardless.”

 

Yeah, that would probably be for the best at this point.

 

“Do it,” I croaked as I finally laid down, ready for Morpheus to take me away.

 

The last thing I felt was her hand on my cheek once more.

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

When I woke up, everyone was already gone.

 

Light streamed from a nearby window, causing me to squint. Damn, morning already? I didn't think I’d sleep for that long. Had to be more than twelve hours for sure.

 

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d awoken tonight — that happened at Ass AM while both Taylor and her dad were already conked out and I was shambling about like a zombie. Back then, I simply got myself a glass of water and went back to sleep, mostly due to the fact that my head still hurt and I felt rather dizzy. In hindsight, that might’ve been due to the hunger that I was still feeling even now.

 

My stomach grumbled with perfect timing before collapsing into a black hole yet again.

 

I slowly got up and looked around, yawning and trying to adapt to the light. I wrapped myself in the blanket that had mysteriously appeared on me overnight — thanks, Tay — and checked the time on the TV cable box. 8:17 AM. Huh. Assuming I passed out at, say, 2 PM, plus a handful of minutes… ten… oh wow, eighteen hours in total.

 

Welp. At least I was feeling better now.

 

Turning around, I noticed that the armrest of the couch I was sleeping on had a sticky note on it, right next to an equally-mysterious pillow. So that was why I felt so oddly comfortable… Yet still not as comfortable as usual. 

 

I blamed the lack of cuddles.

 

Upon grabbing the note and a spare pill of aspirin, I instantly recognized Taylor’s handwriting and began reading on my way to the bathroom.

 

Hey, Lisa. Hope you’ll feel better when you wake up. There are leftovers in the fridge from yesterday, but feel free to cook something else if you want.

P.S. Text us when you can, please!

 

…Leave it to her to use a postscript on a goddamn Post-it note. Dork.

 

I sighed, threw it away, then reached for the toothpaste.

 

 

When I started cooking my omelette I finally bothered to take out my phone, noticing that it had a few new messages I hadn't yet opened. Most of them were recent, originating from Taylor, but the oldest three were Amy’s. Still feeling… something about the way yesterday went, I decided to open them first.

 

  A: hi, Taylor gave me your number

  A: tell me when you’ve woken up

  A: or her I guess

 

Simple enough, considering I was planning to do that anyway. I didn’t expect her to talk about what happened between us just yet, but the fact that she messaged me at all was probably a good sign.

 

  L: Sup.

  L: I’m awake.

  L: Not gonna lie, the knocking-me-out thing helped a lot. I can still feel the headache but it’s mild at best.

  L: Thanks, Amy, good thinking.

 

A bit of praise should hopefully do the trick.

 

With no immediate answer, I swapped to my conversation with Taylor, expecting something with a similar sentiment.

 

  T: Are you still not up yet? You’ve been sleeping for quite a while.

 

Yup, nailed it.

 

  T: Well, I’m off to school.

  T: Amy’s still a bit cagey but less now. She asked about you too.

  T: What happened yesterday, anyway? It sounded serious. I still want to help you know.

 

And I still didn’t know what to do about it. Like, we could try and keep coaxing her away from her sister — that would help in the long run — but there was still something else to it, some other problem that I hadn’t uncovered yet. Amy’s tiredness, for example, stood out far too much — I could vividly remember the bags under her eyes, as well as how drained of life she seemed. It was yet another thing I had to ask about later, and it annoyed me to no end. 

 

Meanwhile, simply remaining friends with her sounded like a good enough idea for now. For someone with a sibling, she looked surprisingly lonely.

 

Regardless, I kept reading.

 

  T: Oh, Amy just helped me set up a group chat!

  T: Here!

 

…Not something I would’ve thought Taylor would do but sure, why not. I joined the chat and greeted the others, though neither had answered just yet. Assuming they were busy, I set the phone aside and began consuming my delicious meal. Finally, some good fucking food.

 

Half a meal later, I somehow got jumpscared by a loud buzz as my damn phone vibrated against the counter. Cool, a new mes-

 

It was on PHO. It was sent to my Nebula account. It was from Parian.

 

NICE!

 

I took another bite as I opened the website.

 


 

Welcome to the Parahumans Online message boards.

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Private Messages from Parian (Verified Cape)

 

Parian: Hi.

Parian: Your costumes are ready, how do you want to pick them up?

 

Nebula: Hey!

Nebula: Can you do what the broach guys do and hide the costumes somewhere random outside?

Nebula: In boxes, obviously.

 

Parian: Yes, that sounds doable.

 

Nebula: Neat, do that then. Preferably as soon as you can.

 

Parian: Okay.

Parian: In that case, I’ll message you a picture and the location later today.

Parian: Bye for now.

 

Parian has left the conversation

 


 

Fuck yes.

 

I quickly finished my plate and washed it down with OJ, then cleaned it and put it away. Afterwards, I grabbed my phone again and sent another text to the group chat.

 

  L: Costumes are finally ready!

  L: Gonna pick them up later.

 

…Huh, still no answer.

 

I waited a bit more, but neither of them were marked online. Was I forgetting something?

 

Arcadia Faraday cage currently active.

 

Oh. Yeah, that was it. Considering all the messages were sent before 8 AM, I should’ve easily remembered that. Damnit.

 

I laid my face onto the table and groaned. Stupid fancy schools.

 

 

A bunch of excited Taylor texts, two forays into the wilderness and several bonus hours of boredom later, both girls finally decided to show up. I stretched and waved at them from the couch — I was watching TV at the time — while they hung up their raincoats and swiftly approached me. Taylor was noticeably animated, practically flouncing on her way to my domain, and Amy appeared rather curious as well. Apparently, the excitement was at least slightly infectious.

 

The frizzy-haired healer didn’t say a word as she stretched out a hand with a slight frown on her face. It looked like she was having difficulties keeping eye contact with me, but when I tried on a softer smile it seemed to have alleviated her unease a bit. Taking her hand in mine, I watched as she silently scanned me with her power and, a second or two later, she nodded.

 

“Gemma’s still pulsing its pain receptors but way less than before. You’ll live.”

 

I snorted. “Thanks for the confidence boost, Amy.”

 

“Anytime,” she replied with a wry smile. “You should probably avoid using your power too much, though. At least for a little while.”

 

I saw Taylor’s smile crumble from those words. “Oh. I thought we could go out tonight…”

 

With a mental sigh I shifted my gaze back to Amy and asked. “Do you think we can still do that? I barely feel the headache right now, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be gone by midnight.”

 

She looked from me to Tay and back to me, then huffed and crossed her arms. “Fine,” she said, frowning again. “But don’t blame me if the same thing happens to you again.”

 

Taylor pumped her arm, eliciting a grin from me. “Sounds good to me,” I agreed.

 

Reluctantly smiling as well, Amy took a moment before speaking once more. “So, uh. What about the costumes?” Yeah, she was definitely nervous now. “Can I see them too?”

 

Before I could speak, Taylor piped in again. “I already said yes before, Amy, it’s fine!” She then seemed to remember that I was present too, because she glanced at me with guilt before slightly shrinking on herself. “Uhm, i-if it’s okay? Lisa?”

 

…Why did I delude myself into thinking that I could beat her trauma within a single week? That thing has hands, I tell you.

 

“Of course it’s okay, Taylor.” I rose from the couch and gave her a quick hug with one arm. Turning the TV off, I looked at my friends, spread out my arms, then spoke. “Let's go, then?”

 

We brought a few Capri Sun pouches as we entered Taylor’s room, the two costume boxes waiting for us at the foot of the bed. I set aside my juice as I slid one of them closer to an empty space, and we all settled around it on the floor.

 

“How the hell did you get this stuff?” Amy asked with surprise. To be fair, that surprise had merit — the boxes in question were each nearly as big as my torso and weighed heavier than one would’ve expected them to. Carrying them back here was not fun.

 

“Well, I had to get them one at a time, sooo…” I lazily leaned back against the bed. “Let's just say I’m not doing this again without a car.”

 

The two chuckled as a thorn was summoned to slice the tape apart. Before it was dismissed, Amy turned to Tay and asked her with a whisper. “Hey... Can I, uh, hold my thorn again?”

 

Taylor nodded, smiling warmly, and levitated the thorn into the shorter girl’s hands. While I was slowly unpacking my costume, I glanced at the others every so often as well — Amy was embracing her glowing oceanic crystal with both of her hands, hugging it close to her chest and looking relaxed and at peace; Taylor, meanwhile, absently stared at it, her mind likely too busy with watching the healer by proxy. It was simply adorable, and I probably would’ve suspected a Master effect in our midst had I not been witness to her injury and subsequent recovery that day at the market.

 

Grinning at their antics, I took my folded up costume and slowly stood up. “Gonna change now,” I muttered and waddled past them to the bathroom, not forgetting my tinkertech broach.

 

Several minutes later, I was good to go. I looked at myself in the mirror and smirked with satisfaction — Parian had done a great job indeed.

 

Pretty much the entirety of my costume was colored in similar shades of a very dark violet, with the legs being the darkest part. Just like Taylor, I opted to have an almost-knee-length skirt flow from under my utility belt of a lighter, more lavender hue, and my trusty pistol’s holster sat right at my hip instead of its usual place on my thigh. Unlike Tay’s, my skirt split into five pointed strips, with each strip’s point radiating a glowing yellow-to-purple gradient along the edges.

 

The same gradient originated from my glowing, gloved palms — designed in a way that made them attention-grabbing in a fight. That way, Taylor could sneak about in her edgy clothes with ease while I took care of the others. From a distance, of course.

 

Obviously, both of us had requested for our gloves’ fingertips to be thin. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to poke her thorns to fill them with pretty stars, while she wouldn't be able to, uh… I don’t know. Get healed with Amy’s power, maybe? Neither of us at the time were expecting for Panacea to know us personally, but it seemed like all of this worked out in the end.

 

Anyways, the last accessory I had on me was a comfy, dark shawl-like thing. It was stretched over my shoulders but didn’t reach down to my chest, and kinda helped with accentuating the whole mysterious, almost arcane feel I now possessed.

 

Oh, and my domino mask was pastel yellow, just like the brightest parts of the gradients everywhere else.

 

I secured my broach on the designated part of the shawl near the top of my sternum, waited a few seconds, then proceeded with the on/off command by tapping it with three fingers, then two, then one. Before turning on, it was dark and glossy, but as soon as the final tap landed the darkness turned pitch black, a pure void surrounded by a border of that familiar gradient glowing ever so softly.

 

Thanks to the real reason I got the broaches in the first place — keratin-based hologram projection — my hair began glowing in the same manner, the glow and color being brighter the closer they were to my scalp. Within the hair, the favorite part of my custom VFX began showing, too — tiny, four-pointed stars with a yellow-to-purple gradient, just like the ones that could be seen in my thorns. They shimmered and sparkled, appeared and disappeared at random times and in random places, and even left behind a very faint trail if I moved.

 

Perfection.

 

Exiting the bathroom, I bumped into a bored-looking Amy standing in the corridor.

 

“Oh!” She said with a start, stepping back and giving me a once-over. “Woah.” She came closer and put a hand through my hair. “Holy shit, this is so pretty…” She trailed off, clearly awestruck.

 

Before I could answer, though, Taylor’s voice sounded from her room. “I’m ready, you can come in!”

 

Grinning once more, I opened the door, and both of us walked back inside.

 

Taylor looked wonderful. Her costume consisted completely of near-black dark grays, and was rather form-fitting, which she seemed to have only fully realized now, fidgeting nervously. Of course, that was thanks to me prodding her for a bit, but details.

 

She still had a half-skirt, similar to her original attempt, but it was now of much better quality with a slightly odd texture near the edges. Above it was, obviously, a gray belt, and attached to it on her left was a small pack where I assumed she would keep her pepper spray and burner phones.

 

Her upper body was rather simple, lacking decorations, and appeared almost tactical in nature — which, to be fair, was her intention from the start. Her gloves were slightly lighter than her body but darker than the belt, and looked just as comfortable as mine. Naturally, her domino mask — fitted with prescription lenses — was the same color as the rest of her outfit, and the broach on her own sternum was a glossy black triangle pointing upwards.

 

Speaking of which…

 

“You finished your effects?” I asked with surprise, still looking Taylor over.

 

“Oh, y-yeah, I did that yesterday while I was showing them to Amy.” Huh. “...Is it good?”

 

I slowly walked around her and looked at her hair. Inside it, particles trickled down, almost like water, but I could see the resemblance already — Taylor’s black sand. Just like the sand that formed her thorns, just like the sand that the thorns turned back into, it flowed through her mane before disappearing in a nonexistent wind.

 

“Looks perfect to me,” I grinned, and I could actually see the tension leaving her in real time. “You look great, Taylor.”

 

“Thanks,” she said, smiling.

 

“Uh,” Amy hummed as the both of us turned to her. “It looks well-done, don’t get me wrong, but…”

 

“But?” We spoke at the same time.

 

“Jinx,” I whispered to Taylor, earning an elbow to my ribs. Joke’s on you — I saw that grin!

 

“...It kinda looks like what a villain would wear?” By the end, Amy was visibly cringing at her own words, but she did have a point, however.

 

“Maybe,” I replied, trying to explain things. “But Taylor wanted to go with stealth, and you can’t be all stealthy in bright colors like me.”

 

“Your costume is literally ninety percent dark purple,” the healer deadpanned.

 

“Sure, but I doubt people will just ignore my glowing broach, my glowing hands, my glowing hair and my glowing skirt,” I deadpanned back.

 

Amy rolled her eyes and shrugged, looking back at Taylor. “Whatever. You look good, Taylor.” I nodded in agreement as well.

 

“Thank you,” she managed before looking at me. “You do too, Lise! This costume is amazing!”

 

“I know, right?” I struck a pose. “Totally worth it.”

 

“Wait, hold on, a gun? ” Amy asked, pointing to the weapon in my hand.

 

“Yup.”

 

“...Why?” Her face was full of suspicion. Again. Ughhh…

 

“Because I’m safer with one than without one?” I tried, technically telling the truth.

 

“And you won’t shoot anyone to death?” Yeah, she was not amused.

 

“Not really? This is for emergency stuff only,” I said with a raised eyebrow.

 

“...Fine.”

 

“You know, Amy, I’m pretty sure she can get you a gun too if you want one,” Taylor commented, awkward but entertained.

 

Amy, for that matter, took several seconds to actually consider it before shaking her head, curly hair going everywhere. “Nah, Carol would flip,” she said, her voice filled with annoyance.

 

Now that sounded important.

 

Loathes her adoptive mother. Adoptive mother distant. Acknowledges the apparent impossibility of fulfilling her adoptive mother’s expectations. Constantly tries to fulfill them regardless.

 

God, what is it with everyone I know all having shitty as fuck parents?

 

“Uhh.” Ah, they were both looking at me.

 

“...I said that outloud, didn’t I?” I sighed.

 

“Yup,” Amy said, half-confused and half-amused.

 

“Taylor, put your hand down,” I said with a bit of annoyance. “Don’t even try to defend your father here; he only got better after I whipped him into shape.”

 

She sighed and did as I said. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

 

“Alright, I’m not in the mood for this right now,” I began, stepping back towards the door. “Amy, we’ll talk more about that later...”

 

“O-kay..?”

 

“...But for now, I think it would be best to lose the costumes and relax a bit.” I removed my mask and opened the door. “Movie night?”

 


 

Supplementary Art: Nebula Supplementary Art: Black Rose

 

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

Water splashed as I stepped in another puddle, the rains having ceased several hours before. I was following Taylor’s — ahem, Black Rose’s — lead as we walked across the rooftops; one of the ‘normie-friendly’ routes that I had memorized over my career, enjoying the calm before the storm as best as we could. One could almost call the city ‘serene’ at this moment, even if they would be way off the mark.

 

Our movie-night-during-broad-daylight with Amy went relatively well, in my opinion — with her being the guest, me and Taylor agreed on letting her pick what we were going to watch first, which ended up being the classic horror movie The Thing when she’d heard that Taylor had never seen it before. Clearly, we had a duty to instill some culture into the dorky girl, and instill it we did with great success.

 

The next movie choice was handed off to Taylor, who went with The Princess Bride after a few minutes of consideration . To our collective annoyance, Danny returned home midway through it, bringing like six or seven people with him, most of them guys. Taylor only really talked to a pair by the names of Kurt and Lacey — the rest only greeting us lightly — and we were then roped into helping them shore up the house’s defenses against handless spooky phenomena with rolls and rolls of strip lights.

 

Yes, strip lights. Were said lights colored, the place would’ve looked like a decent nightclub. Thankfully, that was not the case.

 

The adults — which, I assumed, were Danny’s coworkers — also brought some other useful supplies for our Home Alone knockoff of a situation. Amongst the loot was about a dozen tasers, a metal baseball bat, a loaded revolver (people still used those?) and an expandable riot baton. Kurt also decided to be funny and give us a small box of metal shurikens, but I doubted that we would have to use those for anything.

 

Amy was rather surprised by the whole thing, apparently thinking that the fairy lights in Taylor’s room were just overenthusiastic decorations, but went along with the defense setup without much fuss on her part after an abridged explanation done by yours truly. Sometime during the ‘decoration’ of the second floor, though, Demolition Dallon had knocked on the door and spirited the less-tense-than-usual medic away, citing ‘family business’.

 

Of course, Amy then got chewed out by her turbobitch of a mother for not telling her about us, as we learned from her group chat messages later in the evening. Ugh.

 

“L- I mean, uh, Nebula,” Rose suddenly called, crouching down and looking at the barren street below us. “Look.”

 

I crouched next to her and saw some girl around our age in the process of getting robbed, surrounded by a group of five skinheads laughing at her plight. She shook with terror as one of them got closer, pushing her against the wall and- yeah, we needed to go now.

 

“C’mon,” I said hastily, already moving to the fire escape.

 

Rose had five thorns of hers ready by the time we dropped onto the street, so she sent them all out into the open air for what I assumed to be an attack from above. Black sand was gathering in an attempt to make a sixth but, for some reason, it was taking a noticeably longer time than usual. While she did that I slowly unholstered my gun and kept it trained at our main target’s head for some sweet, sweet intimidation.

 

As we approached them, trying not to walk too loudly, the pinned girl had apparently noticed us and resumed kicking her captor with renewed vigor. He slammed her into the wall again and, alongside one of the other four douchebags, turned away from his victim to gape at us in surprise.

 

Well, mostly me.

 

“Let her go, and you won’t get hurt too badly,” I spoke with a grin, the rest of them turning to me as I pointed with my gun. Speaking of which… “If I see any of y-”

 

Of course, that was when not one, not two, but three of the nazi crew reached for their weapons, their suddenly-panicking leader still holding the girl in his clutches. One of them had a zombie knife, grinning madl- OH SHIT, GUNS!

 

I tackled a frozen Black Rose to the side as I saw glints in the air reflecting from something smooth — two of her thorns had just swooped down onto the pistols like eagles, one of them piercing a gun (and the holder’s hand) completely, shattering it into pieces, while the other one knocked its own target away into a pile of dirty trash bags. Phew.

 

“Good save,” I groaned while getting off my teammate.

 

“HOLY FUCK, MY HAND!” Yelled the first guy, clearly missing his palm already.

 

“C-cape! Run!” Stuttered the weaponless one, following his own advice.

 

While the losers were scrambling about, I dragged Rose back onto her feet and stood next to her. “Don’t let them get away,” I whispered, getting a nod in return. I almost began making another announcement then and there but, witnessing the runner trip and fall due to another aerial assault, I also noticed the knife guy and the leader — who seemed to be wearing brass knuckles — were charging straight at us.

 

Rose saw them too and took her sixth thorn in her hand like a knife, her face a mask of nervous concentration. I pointed my gun at the leader again while leaning over and laying my fingertips onto the knife thorn, releasing my power for just a single thought.

 

Thinks your gun is a bluff.

 

Oh really, now?

 

Meanwhile, the thorn lit up with stars.

 

There were still a few seconds left before the knuckles guy would reach me, so I aimed slightly to the side of him and grinned again, locking my eyes with his.

 

I fired.

 

The gunshot startled everyone, and the leader even stopped completely, but his stab-happy friend didn’t seem bothered enough to try and slow down — lunging and slicing at my hand before thankfully being parried by two thorns at the last second, failing to get a stab in me as I jumped back to get away from his immediate range. One of the thorns circled back and stopped right in front of the leader’s face, the latter becoming even more white than before, and then bonked him on the top of his head with a dull thunk.

 

Three down… Wait, where was the second gun kid?

 

My lapse in attention earned me a rough shove from Rose as she barely managed to block yet another slice that was heading right at me. Knife Guy took the hint and changed targets, going for her instead by slashing at her midsection, but I quickly recovered and pistol-whipped him in the back. At the same time, Rose sidestepped the attack and sweeped out with her leg, and with our combined efforts the fourth of the five nazis had fallen.

 

Naturally, she bonked him too.

 

Looking around, our gazes were drawn to the trash pile where the other guy’s gun was supposed to be, except it wasn’t the only occupant any longer — its owner himself was crumpled in the pile, wheezing while shielding his face with both hands. The hispanic-looking girl me and Rose were trying to save had apparently successfully pepper-sprayed the last of her assailants while we were busy and was now standing over him, shoe on his head, looking at us.

 

Rose poked me in the arm. “I’ll tie them up, Neb,” she said, panting slightly. “Uh, go talk to her maybe?”

 

“Yep, on it.” I replied, holstering my pistol. I put on a non-smug smile and strode closer to the victim, walking slowly to not scare her off. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked.

 

“Y-yes, thank you!” She answered, nodding stiffly and hugging herself. As I kicked the mewling skinhead’s gun further away, the girl took a few steps and crouched down, picking up her stolen purse. “D-do I call the p-police now?”

 

Well, that would save us the trouble.

 

“Sure, go ahead,” I said with a nod of my own.

 

She took out a flip phone and dialed while I walked over to the maimed gunman. Just like his healthier counterpart, he was in a fetal position; only instead of holding his head he was cradling his right hand, whining slightly.

 

Will bleed out without swift medical intervention.

 

No shit, Sherlock. Also, what was it with Taylor and maiming hands? That’s two for two, now.

 

I called her to me as she finished tying the leader. “Can you cut this guy’s clothes?” I asked. To my infinite satisfaction, the loser in question had flinched at my word choice. “He’ll bleed out without help otherwise.”

 

Rose’s lips pressed into a thin line as she glared at the injury, and she knelt down to hold the man’s arm in place. With her glowing knife thorn, his sleeve was cut into strips of cloth and I stepped in to make a makeshift tourniquet while shooing my partner off to tie the pepper-sprayed thug instead.

 

Good thing Brian taught me the basics of first aid, huh?

 

“Uh, e-excuse me?” I heard from my right, glancing at the girl who was still on her phone. “W-what are your names?”

 

“I’m Nebula, and that over there is Black Rose,” I replied. “Oh, and ask for an ambulance for this guy, please. Don’t want a dead body on our hands.”

 

She half-nodded, half-bowed in my direction and repeated what I said to whomever she was talking to as I got back to preventing the glaring nazi scum from kicking the bucket early. The feeling’s mutual, buddy, don’t worry about it.

 

“All done,” Rose said tiredly, walking back to me. The five of her normal thorns were trailing behind her back, forming a star-like (or flower-like?) shape while pointing outwards in equal intervals. “Need any help?” She asked, uneasy.

 

“Hmm… This should hold just fine, so…” I stood up. “Tie him up and we can leave, I guess.”

 

She shrugged. “Sure.”

 

“Wait, y-you’re not staying?” The victim asked in surprise.

 

I really didn’t want to deal with cops so soon…

 

Me and Rose shared a glance before I gave the girl an answer. “We’ll stay for a bit to make sure none of these idiots try anything stupid, but as soon as we hear the sirens, we’ll leave. Does that sound good to you?”

 

She nodded hesitantly, looking at me shyly, unable to meet my eyes. “Okay.”

 

⬇▲⬆

Taylor

 

“So…” Nebula said as we continued our patrol.

 

“So,” I echoed her, moving around a smokestack.

 

“It’s the hand, isn’t it?” She asked me with a gentle tone.

 

I hummed instead of answering, all but confirming her guess.

 

“You did what you had to, Rose. You saved us both back there.”

 

“Yeah, I did, but he almost died in the process!” I exclaimed. “And why am I even worrying about him in the first place? He’s a nazi! With the Empire! He shouldn’t fucking matter!” I threw my head back, pointing my gaze at the dark, cloudy sky. “Ughhh.”

 

“Because you’re a good person?” Nebula guessed, and I could see her outstretched arm in my peripheral vision. I glared at her with annoyance. “What?”

 

“Good people don’t bother themselves about a nazi’s health,” I said.

 

“Good people avoid killing, nazis or not.”

 

“I- I guess,” I conceded with a sigh, dropping down onto another building’s roof.

 

“No, really,” Nebula continued as she followed my trail. “What else would you have done in that situation? Ran at them?”

 

What would have I done? I… couldn’t really think of anything else. There were barely any hiding spaces, and I didn’t have any long-range weapons other than my thorns. Hmm…

 

“I could’ve tried knocking them out, maybe? Like I did later?” I suggested.

 

“Eh, maybe. Still riskier than going for the gun hand or the gun itself, though. Like, what if you bonk a dude with a thick skull and that doesn’t do the trick? Sure, he might sway or something, but he’d still have a chance to shoot you.”

 

True.

 

“Were I you, I would’ve done the same thing,” she continued her explanation, shrugging while looking at me. “Hell, the only reason I hadn’t shot one of the guns myself was because you were in their line of fire.”

 

I hummed again, this time in acknowledgement, before stepping over a short railing.

 

Like I’d done numerous times this night already, I surveyed the streets below me once we got a bit further away. A small empty playground came into view, a 24/7 convenience store with a dilapidated neon sign, an unmarked van, some rundown cars… Wait, an unmarked van?

 

I looked closer.

 

The vehicle was surrounded by a dozen or so gang members — yet more Empire, considering one of them had a literal fascist armband, the clown — who were moving crates of something into a quaint-looking furniture store. The only person there that wasn’t doing anything was a fit, twenty-something blonde with a buzzcut, leaning against the wide glass window outside with crossed arms and a bored posture.

 

She also had a cage on her face.

 

Cricket.

 

Nebula must’ve seen me freeze up all of a sudden because she knelt by my side and looked for herself. Scanning the location she stilled too and, unfortunately, gulped.

 

I watched with dread as a grin peeked through the Empire cape’s cage of a mask, her head turning towards us ever so slightly. I could hear my heartbeat, our heartbeats, and I had a feeling that the enemy could hear them too. Suffice it to say, we were boned, plain and simple.

 

“We’re in her range already, Rose,” Nebula confirmed, weakly grabbing my arm. “Get ready for a fight.”

 

The grin widened.

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

We ran.

 

Silently agreeing that we weren’t at all ready, we sprinted across the rooftop, away from the edge — Cricket was ruthless, had crazy fast reflexes and was far from a pushover in melee combat, and I wouldn’t be able to do much against her even at range. According to Nebula, Cricket was agile enough to dodge bullets, and, without any powers that helped with the issue, my thorns were far slower than that. Our chances were slim, so escape was the best choice we currently had.

 

I started climbing up the ladder to the roof that we had come from when I heard a moving, whining noise from below; somewhere within the spacious building we were currently standing atop of. Before I could react, Nebula grabbed me by my waist and yanked me off the ladder right as something exploded near its bottom — the building shook and we fell on our backs, my head feeling dizzy as I looked at mangled metal.

 

They had bombs?!

 

I staggered to my feet and helped my teammate up, but yet another of those firework-esque sounds approached from the nazis’ direction. Through the dust I managed to make out a blur flying through the hole that was once the bottom of the ladder and colliding with the crumbling wall. I reflexively shielded my eyes — not that I needed to, thanks to my lenses — as the second explosion made us stumble, forcing us to crouch and look around for an alternative way out from this deathtrap. There was no heat to the blast, only raw force. Not bombs, then, but something else…

 

The way back was cut off and the rooftop’s edge was far too high to jump from…

 

“What do we do?!” I asked in my panic.

 

“Hold on!” Nebula cried as another burst of fireless explosions, this time three in quick succession, sounded loudly all around us.

 

The whine of projectiles was echoed by the whine of steel, and I wrapped my arms around my partner as we failed to get up yet again. I could feel the roof under us buckling due to all of the damage it had suffered, the dark holes and gashes forming a rough U-shape with us in the middle. Like a tongue, our piece of metal ground bent downwards and, try as we might, we were unable to find anything to hold onto in time. We were slipping… 

 

…Was this how we’d die? Buried under rubble?

 

As we fell I grouped my thorns beneath me, bringing them closer to my back and making them push me upwards in a last-ditch effort to slow our descent. With Lisa’s body on me, that wasn’t enough to make us float, but we actually managed to land without any bones getting broken in the process — or so I hoped, as my new bruises began to sting.

 

Mostly judging by sound, we landed on a catwalk, but that was the only thing I could manage to see — the inky black darkness surrounded us on all sides, and even the faint moonlight barely helped as it was hidden by the clouds. Nebula rolled off of me, clearly suppressing a groan as she exhaled heavily with a shudder. I tried to stand.

 

Her thorn lit up the area around us, no longer blocked by my back as I made it fly away to the nearest wall. The glow was shimmering, ever-changing, faint, but still far too noticea-

 

Shit, Nebula’s hair and costume were even brighter than the thorn!

 

A familiar sound heralded another incoming projectile. I dragged my teammate to her feet and away from the spot we were just in, and a second later it was all but a cloud of dust. We ran further away, closer to the wall, and as we reached an industrial shelf close enough to the catwalk I felt the other five empty thorns suddenly become full.

 

The ringing in my ears became much harder to ignore, and my head spun as my concentration failed. I… could see in the darkness now? Ugh, no, that wasn’t it… Why was it so weird and pulsating? Some spots nearby I was aware of, while most were still shrouded in nothing. Was this Cricket’s power? A shitty map?

 

The nausea was getting worse.

 

I began making the Nebula thorn fly around the place, away from us in a randomized pattern, hoping that it would distract our pursuers for a bit. As I took another step forward, the area around my location immediately became visible before quickly fading away, and I finally realized what the ‘map’ power actually was — a radar! Or, uh, sonar. Regardless, we had to move, but… how would we move without getting heard?

 

The sick feeling began to fade away as I floated one of Cricket’s thorns over to Nebula. It looked as if it was vibrating, its outline being fuzzy to my vision, but both to touch and to itself it felt as solid and under control as normal. Nebula took it in her hand and, even though we were in the dark, looked straight at me.

 

So it could be shared, like Grue’s…

 

She put a hand close to her chest and pointed with her finger to the side. I nodded and climbed over from the catwalk to the nearby shelf, still wobbling slightly but steadied thanks to her help. As I helped her over, I spread out the other four Cricket thorns across the building in a bid to understand our surroundings.

 

What little sounds that were being made helped me identify our location as an abandoned warehouse. Beyond catwalks and empty shelves there was barely anything here, debris and random rubble strewn about with no rhyme or reason. At least we weren’t causing property damage anywhere that mattered.

 

One of the furthest thorns immediately detected two people standing near the entrance — a man and a woman, both apparently rather athletic. The latter was definitely Cricket because she was wearing a cage on her head, while the former…

 

…The former had chains, no shirt, and a tiger mask.

 

I put my mouth right next to Nebula’s ear and whispered as quietly as I could, “Stormtiger.” She stilled, just like back on the roof, and I then felt Cricket immediately point in our direction and say something to her partner. Stormtiger began to make stuff move around his hands… Oh! He was drawing in air, that was what those explosions were! We had to get off this thing right the fuck now!

 

I tugged my teammate to the side and began climbing down the shelf, with her following my lead and her Cricket thorn floating next to her neck for convenience. Dangerous, yes, but that way she could climb faster while maintaining the stolen radar. Right before we dropped down to the floor I heard the tell-tale screech of Stormtiger’s claws getting released; this time being highlighted in my mind’s eye via Cricket’s radar as three flying crescents. There were several consecutive crashing sounds as they burst through each row of shelves that stood between us and the nazi capes, billowing up more dust.

 

We stood on a patch of moss, panting and not knowing what to do.

 

They were toying with us! We were like animals, being hunted for sport — the fuckers weren’t even trying to get close yet! This was a stalemate at best, and when they’d inevitably start moving in…

 

“Take it,” I heard Nebula whisper, mirroring my actions from earlier and leaning in close. Take what? …Ah. Okay. In that case… I’d need another thorn.

 

I began counting the seconds as I focused on my task. One, two, three, four…

 

Another whine sounded, another claw avoided. We were behind a concrete block now.

 

…Nine, ten, eleven…

 

“Stop hiding, little mice!” Stormtiger roared with loud unrestrained laughter. “Or do you finally want to fight for real?”

 

…Eighteen, nineteen, twenty…

 

Cricket took two weapons off her back, looking like a pair of little scythes, and let out a rasp of what I could reasonably assume was excitement. It still sounded wrong... Was her throat damaged or something?

 

Twenty four, twenty five, twenty six. Done.

 

Finally, finally, the seventh thorn had formed, sitting in my palm as I decided to give it the number 1 just in case. Yes, I’d not be able to copy Stormtiger’s power before the number was spent, but I didn’t want to sit through another minute of summoning if Cricket used her sickness aura again. Speaking of which, I should try replicating that one myself.

 

I sent one of the unused Cricket thorns closer to the villains’ location to chase after her, letting the empty one go to follow in its wake. The bitch reacted, dodging and weaving just as well as I expected her to. Stormtiger tried clawing at the thorn pair unsuccessfully, mostly because they were faster than him, but he also didn’t dare use his blast thing so close to his teammate, apparently.

 

I could exploit that.

 

While my target was dodging, I tried changing the sounds within the attacking Cricket thorn’s radius. That… that looked trippy. And I could hear it from here, too. Was that really what white noise looked like? Heck, I could only even still see — or, well, feel — whatever was going on within that place thanks to another Cricket thorn hidden nearby behind a pillar, because actively modifying sounds and maintaining the sonar was seemingly too much for the first one to handle at the same time. Figures.

 

Either way, the effect was immediate. Cricket stumbled, disoriented by her sudden auditory hallucinations, and I successfully managed to cut her in the forearm with the empty thorn. Thankfully, my hunch was right, and the number triumphantly went down to zero — just like with Nebula’s power, Cricket’s could be copied from touch if she was still actively using it, and her sonar had apparently counted for that.

 

My headache began growing worse a few seconds later. Ugh, she must have resumed doing that thing again — the nausea was already returning, my vision closing in around the edges…

 

…If I could modify sounds, could I, perhaps, nullify them as well?

 

I tested my theory on the thorn in Nebula’s hand and immediately started feeling better, no longer plagued by the unexpected bout of dizziness. Nebula herself, though, looked around in a panicked manner before grabbing my hand with her free one. Why was..? Right, the radar of this one was off too now.

 

In the glow of her broach I saw her lips move, but no sound came out thanks to the effect I had made around us. She pressed her other hand to her temple as I made a sphere around us not have noise cancellation, then exhaled. It was almost as if we were inside a bubble.

 

“Oh my god, fucking finally, ” Nebula said with clear exasperation. “I’m trying to conserve my power here but this is a shitshow. Please tell me you have something planned? Pretty please?”

 

“Well…” I drawled, giving my attack thorns a bit of my attention. This could work, but I’d need to time things perfectly. “...They don’t seem too keen on using flashlights, and I can suppress all of Cricket’s sounds.” I turned my head towards the nazis, who were still dodging my thorns. “How about we make the blind lead the blind?”

 

She smirked. “Okay, that works. What about Stormtiger?”

 

“I’ll blast him with his own power, duh.” Just had to grab it for myself first…

 

I watched as Cricket parried one of the thorns heading for her. Shit, she was getting better even with the handicap.

 

“Nah,” Nebula replied. Judging by the sound, she was also shaking her head. “He can cover himself in a shield of air currents, it would absorb most of the damage. Especially with his aerokinesis overall.” Hmm…

 

“What about all the junk lying around?” I suggested. “Maybe I can have a blast wave throw a shelf at him or something.”

 

“Mmm, better.” A pause. “Yeah, try that.” Nice.

 

I led Nebula to a safer spot behind a column and several broken steel beams as I directed her thorn towards the hiding Cricket radar thorn near our enemies. With a clink, they combined, losing the ability to manipulate sound but thankfully keeping the sonar. The versatility loss wasn’t an issue for me since the other Cricket thorn was still flying around, hounding her with that awful audiovisual static, and I was mostly banking on the contribution of Nebula’s power giving me some ideas to counter the cage-faced bitch.

 

Heavy auditory interference created near target.

 

That… I was pretty sure it was referring to the white noise. Hmm…

 

“Shit!” Nebula exclaimed, breaking me out of my concentration — Stormtiger had seemingly gotten tired of this whole charade, and was barreling through the knocked over shelves right towards us. Or, well, a bit to the left- oh fuck!

 

The concrete block a few meters away from us exploded and I felt a sting as a piece of it left a cut on my jaw, but I ignored it. The sound-proof bubble cut both ways, it seemed, and I was too busy to notice the absence of any damned whining. Stormtiger was running towards us, towards where we were, so I had to finish what I’d started quickly.

 

As Nebula pointed her pistol at where she predicted he would appear from, I directed the third Cricket thorn — where did the fourth one go, didn’t I have five to begin with? — to intercept the shirtless cape alongside the empty one. Then, I rearranged the Cricket-attacking thorns for a different maneuver: the Nebula/Cricket spike hung behind, waiting to strike, and the white noise Cricket spike was set to noise cancellation mode.

 

Just as that happened, I lost ‘visual’ on everything within that area, but sent the spike towards her regardless. Meanwhile, the Stormtiger-intercepting thorns were closing in-

 

Light laceration created on target’s right hip.

 

Nice. I reverted the relevant Cricket spike back to white noise generation-

 

Heavy auditory interference created near target.

 

Yeah, whatever. She was agitated now, obviously not used to sudden involuntary blindness and sickness, and that was good — with a bit more prodding I was sure I could stop her completely. But how?

 

…Actually, why not try the nausea wave?

 

I did just that.

 

Mild feeling of vertigo created in target.

 

My observations were halted yet again by the feeling of fullness emanating from the thorn that had just touched Stormtiger. I had the backup Cricket thorn continue its assault as I sent the new aerokinetic one upwards, towards the ceiling. We were running once more, kiting the male nazi, and I spared a moment of attention to the thorn in Nebula’s hand. I swiftly returned to my ministrations with Cricket, though, as she was very close to losing completely.

 

I ‘blinded’ her again, made the spike move in with a strike, then flickered on the nausea. Rinse and repeat; over and over. It felt like watching a camera recording with an extremely low frame rate, but it seemed to be working — the thorn’s hits were landing.

 

Mild laceration created on target’s left bicep.

Light contusion created on target’s right thigh.

Light laceration created on target’s back.

 

Just a little more, and she would be out of the fight…

 

Further vertigo application recommended for safe takedown.

 

“Focus on the tiger, Rose! He can fucking see us!” Nebula yelled as she dragged me further, my mind still busy with Cricket, her injuries, and the thorns that were near her. Panicking, I made the Stormtiger thorn above release a light burst of air on instinct, but it barely did anything as its owner drew closer. I made it start drawing air instead.

 

At that same moment I noticed a bright light moving in the distance. Coming through from the entrance of the building, a cone of it shone from a large object in someone’s hands. Who..?

 

I had no time, and shot the compressed air, lining it up in a way for the explosion to launch a barrel right into the side of Stormtiger. I could faintly see him turn his head and jump at the last second, but the barrel still made contact and he crumpled to the ground.

 

For obvious reasons I didn’t hear the crunch, but I was pretty sure his leg was now broken.

 

As he landed on some debris I made my Cricket attackers cease their assault, floating nearby with the nausea field shrunk down. She was currently on her knees, puking her guts out, so I let my restored senses view the mystery person approaching her. It was a woman with a gun, no, a rifle, and said rifle had a flashlight attached to it from below. Fuck, armed gang members? Wait, no, more footsteps had entered the spike’s range… Power armor?!

 

I almost began to hyperventilate before acknowledging the second person’s weapon of choice: a halberd. Letting out a shaky breath I guided us towards who I now knew was Armsmaster and Miss Militia, glad that backup had arrived. We didn’t really need the Cricket thorn any longer, so in the meantime I let it fly out of Nebula’s hands and had it perch right out of Stormtiger’s range. He was sprawled out on the floor face-first, and his attempts at lifting himself up all but ceased with a little application of vertigo.

 

“Stop,” Armsmaster ordered, raising his halberd offensively as we approached him and Miss Militia. “Identify yourselves.” The flashlight wasn’t helping either.

 

“Nebula,” spoke my partner, pointing at herself. She then pointed to me. “Black Rose,” we said in a chorus.

 

“And will we have to fight?” Still hostile, how annoying.

 

I suddenly heard a sound near Cricket, and felt that she was trying to stand up. I whipped my head in her direction and, thankfully, the heroes reacted in turn. The villain swayed from side to side, limping behind some boxes before a thorn toppled her to the ground again. Thankfully, she didn’t try getting up after that, especially after Miss Militia covered her with containment foam.

 

“W-why would we have to fight?” I asked, now that the threat had been dealt with. I was tired enough already, and fighting heroes was not on my itinerary.

 

“Are you two not villains?” The Tinker gestured to us.

 

“No!” We exclaimed together, our annoyance growing bigger.

 

“I… see.” He said, pausing, then communicated something to his earpiece. “Was Cricket the only one here? There were reports of explosions nearby.”

 

“Stormtiger’s over there.” Nebula said, pointing to the nazi with a grin. “Broken leg; lost to a barrel.”

 

“Excuse me, what?” The four of us walked over towards him.

 

“I launched a barrel at him. He didn’t get away in time.” I shrugged.

 

“...Are you sure you’re not a villain?” The suspicion in Armsmaster’s voice was starting to grate my ears.

 

“No. We aren’t villains, we’re heroes.” I snapped, crossing my arms. “Why are you even asking that in the first place?” It was probably the costume.

 

“Well, your costume is completely black.” Fucking- Ughhh. This is gonna become a thing, isn’t it?

 

“Stealth is important!” I raised my hands in the air. “And Alexandria’s costume is dark too, and nobody says that she’s a villain!”

 

“She’s also well-known, while you only debuted today. Am I correct on that assumption?”

 

“...Yeah.” Well, technically ‘no’, but to the public? Yeah, that happened tonight.

 

He paused.

 

“How did you pick a fight with these two, anyway?”

 

 

The faceless PRT officers skittered around like ants, surveying the site and securing the villains.

 

Nebula and I briefed the heroes, with the two looking rather surprised. I suspected that they knew who Nebula was before, but they didn’t show it, and relented after my edited description of my powers — apparently, my healing of Panacea was known to them, which also meant they knew I was a Trump. Still, I kept my ability to combine thorns under wraps, so not all of my advantage was lost.

 

“You did well tonight,” Armsmaster spoke, breaking the silence. “Though you, no doubt, must understand how dangerous it was.” Yes, I understood. And I knew where this was going.

 

“Is this where you give us the Wards pitch?” I asked without amusement.

 

“Yes, actually. Do you wish to join?”

 

“No,” I answered, and the sudden silence was deafening. Did I leave a Cricket thorn on? I swore that I’d dismissed them all already…

 

“...Care to explain why?” He said after a few seconds.

 

“We’d rather be independent,” Nebula chipped in, grabbing my wrist.

 

And I'd rather not work with those that were responsible for Sophia...

 

“...Right.” The halberd wielder grunted, and turned to his gun-toting friend. “I suppose we’re done here, then.” Not even going to try and win us over? Huh.

 

Miss Militia nodded. “Seems like it.” She looked at us and waved. “Take care, you two.” Interesting.

 

We returned the wave halfheartedly as we watched them leave, the PRT trucks driving away as I stood next to my partner. I breathed in the chilly air, then sighed as she looked around us.

 

“The Empire’s in an arms race against someone,” Nebula said worriedly.

 

“Whom?” I asked, watching the taped off furniture store.

 

“Don’t know, not enough info. I’ll have to do some digging.”

 

I didn’t say anything as I flinched from some pain near my jaw. Damn cut…

 

“We’re gonna need to conceal that.” The smugness on her face was both irritating and adorable.

 

“I’m tired, Nebula,” I groaned. “Let's just go home.”

 

“Sure,” she agreed. “Let’s.”

Chapter Text

Amy

 

“Please tell me you’ve slept more than me tonight.”

 

Still resting my head on one arm, I rolled it to the side to look up at the annoyance. My gaze met with Lisa’s, who was looking down at me with crossed arms. Took her long enough — I’d almost managed to doze off again.

 

I yawned.

 

“That’s a no, then.” She sighed, slightly shaking her head. “What am I to do with you?”

 

Lisa sat on the L-shaped couch, facing me from the other side with that all-knowing look of hers. We were tucked into the privacy corner of a coffee shop — her favorite, apparently — after she’d suggested a one-on-one meeting when I got done with my classes. The radio was currently playing TiK ToK, the outside was damp from the rain, and I was still tired as hell.

 

Better than going home early, I supposed. Though I wondered why Vicky was so distraught about Dean this whole morning…

 

Taking a better look at my companion, I noticed that she had bags under her eyes as well. Not as visible as mine, but still there. Did she sleep at all today?

 

“Was tonight really that rough for you two? Taylor was pretty damn moody.” And had an infected gash on her jaw, the reckless idiot.

 

“It… wasn’t ideal- Oh, one sec.” Lisa got back to her feet as she heard her order being called. I took a sip myself as she walked to the counter and back. “So did she tell you what happened?”

 

“The capes or the non-capes?”

 

“Either? Both?” She shrugged.

 

“From what I’ve been told, you two ‘managed to stop a mugging, almost got shot in the process, had a skinhead almost bleed out and then played blind hide 'n' seek with more nazis’, quote-unquote. Sound accurate?”

 

“That’s the gist of it, yeah.” She took a long sip of her coffee. “There’s something else, though, and I’m worried.”

 

Well that sure didn’t sound like her. I sat up properly. “What?”

 

“An arms race, apparently. Couldn’t really sleep much with that on my mind.”

 

Oh. Great. Just what the city needed. More chaos, as if we didn’t have enough of that already.

 

“That would explain how weird the gangs have been behaving recently,” I commented. “Ahem, allegedly. I don’t actually know anything about that.”

 

That seemed to have gotten her attention. “Weird?”

 

This time it was I who shrugged, as I really was out of the loop. “Ask Vicky. Or the others, I guess — I don’t do patrols, remember?”

 

“Right. Yeah.” Another sip. “Taylor has her number, I think.” She did… Oh no, why would I even suggest that?!

 

A dark feeling washed over me as I thought about either of them getting to know Vicky more. Were that to happen, what were the chances that they’d leave me for her completely? Shatter my newfound refuge? I was the boring one, after all. The rude, bitchy healer. Why were they even putting up with me in the first place? My power? I would have to be usef-

 

A light snap in front of my face brought my attention back to Lisa. Shit.

 

“Amy, stop it; you’re spiraling again,” she said tiredly. “I promise that we won’t go away, I just need more information. Even if it’s from her.” She scooted closer, offering her right hand to me under the table. “And if you don’t want to believe me, you can do the lie detector thing like last time.” Of course she knew about that. Fucking Thinkers, I swear…

 

“Fine.” I looked away, my insides still tied in an uncomfortable living knot.

 

When our hands clasped together I felt Lisa’s expression soften slightly. Once more could I see every cell that formed her body, the beauty of it marred by an old stain of prolonged starvation. Her lack of sleep stood out more than Taylor’s — one or two hours at best, the rest mostly replaced by coffee — and the prickling feeling of her Gemma’s pain receptors firing was still pretty damn noticeable, proof of her power’s very recent usage.

 

She also had several large bruises covering her front, all of them fresh and obviously from last night, so I turned my head back to her, ready to ask my routine question.

 

“Do I-” I started.

 

“We-” Lisa began at the same time. Snorting and grinning, she waved at me with her other, free hand. “Go ahead, you first.”

 

I rolled my eyes and asked, “Do I have your permission to heal you?”

 

“Yep.” And just like that, the bruises were soon gone.

 

…I could do so much more, though: more durable skin, stronger muscles, denser bones, quicker reflexes… She wouldn’t get hurt in the first place! It would be so, so easy… but also against the rules, and a slippery slope to the dark recesses of my mind.

 

I sighed.

 

“So, as I was saying…” Lisa continued, pointing at me. If she noticed anything, she’d thankfully chosen to ignore it. “...We care about you, not your power. I know that it might as well be a cliche at this point, but it’s still true and I mean it.” Truth. Huh. “Taylor gets those doubts too sometimes, y’know? Pretty frequently, actually.” Truth once again. “So do I. We’re far from perfect.”

 

The Taylor example was one I already had experience with myself — that small bout of weakness before we went unpacking their costumes stood out to me in my memories, so sudden and concerning. Oh, and then the one some time after that, what with her nervously fidgeting in worry that we won’t like her movie choice… Given what little of her Winslow era she had told me about, I could definitely see where all of that was coming from. Even now, Taylor only really hung out at school with me, avoiding others like the plague — my sister included.

 

…Aaand now I felt dumb. God damnit.

 

“All I’m asking is for you to give us the benefit of the doubt, Amy,” Lisa spoke from behind her cup, swaying it forwards a bit once. “Things have been good so far, right?”

 

“I guess..?” So far, part of me whispered inside of my head. It won’t last. “I hope you didn’t just jinx us.”

 

“Probably not. And besides,” she shrugged. “Having a support network is pretty helpful. You could use one that doesn’t include your sister. Or consist exclusively of her, for that matter.”

 

A rueful, bitter smile found its way onto my face. “What are you now, my therapist?”

 

She choked on her drink in her sudden amusement, though I cheated with my powers to prevent the nascent coughing fit. Shit, did that count as breaking the rules? Surely not, right? I was simply saving her from sudden asphyxiation! Haha, definitely! Just forget that it happened, Amy, everything was fine…

 

I removed the sponge-like tissue from her airways that I set up, sweating and praying to all that was holy that Lisa didn’t notice as I carefully withdrew my hand from her grip. Stupid fucking slip-up, stupid fucking power.

 

“Whoa, that felt weird. Uh, thanks? Oh.”

 

NOT FINE! SHE NOTICED! EVERYTHING WAS NOT FUCKING FINE!

 

“Oh my god,” I heard her whisper under her breath. “Another one? Really?” 

 

She held her face with one arm, clearly done with my shit.

 

“What is it this time? C’mon, Amy, help a girl out.” Lisa asked me with exasperation.

 

What should I even tell her? That I’m a monster? I am. But considering her track record, she would just ignore it and say that I’m not one regardless.

 

“Amy, please. I can’t keep-” She discreetly looked at the rest of the shop, checking if anyone else was in earshot. “Okay, first of all, you’re hyperventilating. Breathe.” Easy for her to say! …I tried following the advice regardless. “Second: I’m trying to help but it fucking hurts. I don’t want this to be a repeat of last time, but I’m almost certain it’ll end the same way if we keep going without a break.”

 

I nodded and took my sweet time to get my breathing under control. With shaky hands I reached for my cup and finished it in one go, trying to calm myself somehow. It… didn’t really work. At all.

 

A glance at Lisa yielded her calculating look again; this time focused not on me, though, but someone else.

 

“Alright, so the cashier is contemplating on whether he should intervene or not, and I’m pretty sure neither of us want to deal with any strangers.” I hummed in agreement while looking anywhere but her. “So, here’s the plan: you keep your breath steady and we go get some fresh air. Alright? Alright. Let's go.”

 

She stood and I followed suit, discarding my cup as the both of us left.

 

 

I shivered under my hoodie as some of the cold somehow managed to pierce it. The sky was gray and depressing, but at least it was no longer raining. Bothering with hypothermia didn’t seem fun at all, even if I had the new safety net that was Taylor and her power.

 

Lisa was still with me, holding my hand while we walked towards Taylor’s house. I still sensed a larger amount of cortisol in her blood than was normal, and the punishment from her power was becoming more severe. Well, it didn’t get much worse since we ditched the coffee shop, but it wasn’t getting better either, and stayed dangerously close to ‘advised knockout’ territory.

 

“Should I explain myself?” I asked out loud. She hurt herself for my sake, due to my stupidity, so might as well give her something. Right?

 

“Considering I’m currently in pain? Sure, go ham.”

 

I cringed. “Sorry.”

 

“I’m used to it.” She sighed. “So, why the second freakout? All I got was ‘Scared of herself.’”

 

“That… Yeah, that sounds about right.”

 

I felt her shudder as a new pulse of pain spread through her Gemma.

 

“Stop fucking thinking so hard, you idiot!” I hissed. “I’m telling you already!”

 

“Y-yeah, ow,” she said. “Sorry, habit.”

 

Habit, my ass. This was Vicky and her aura all over again, ugh. What was it with blondes and being shit at controlling their powers?

 

No offense, Vista.

 

“So you know how I’m a biokinetic, right?” I asked, and saw her nodding. “What do you think that entails?”

 

“Hmm… I haven’t really thought about that until now. Enlighten me.” Your funeral.

 

“I have complete control over any living organism so long as I’m in physical contact with it. No matter the size, no matter the complexity. I’m touching it? I can control it. Heck, I can even control you — manually — because of our connection right here.” I squeezed Lisa’s hand.

 

The cortisol levels spiked and her breathing had quickened. Some of her muscles coiled as well.

 

“...And now I’m suddenly very glad that you’re my friend and not my enemy,” my not-enemy shakily said.

 

I snorted. “But wait, there’s more! The control means I can change things however I want! Give you gills? Simple. Transmute a hamster into a potato? As easy as pie. Make a living rabbit consisting entirely of grass? A bit harder, but still doable — all I need is biomass! Do you see the fucking issue here?” By the end of it I was ranting, and Lisa was looking at me while biting her lip.

 

It was a good thing that said rant was more of me hissing rather than yelling — the few strangers that passed us didn’t seem to hear me.

 

“You’re a biotinker. Got it.” Lisa exhaled and looked at the sky.

 

“Mhmm. More like a monster.” Okay, that one slipped out of me by accident. Eh. Still as true as always.

 

“No.” Shut up! “You have the potential to be a monster, but you aren’t one.” Ughhh.

 

I shook my head. “You don’t understand.” No one did, what else was new.

 

“I do, actually.”

 

I turned my head to her in bewilderment and a flicker of anger. “You’re joking.” I deadpanned, my eyes narrowing. She had to be, right?

 

“Nope, not really. But first, how about some more distant examples?” Lisa led me to a bench, and we sat after clearing the raindrops. “Eidolon. Do you think he’s a monster?”

 

“No…”

 

“He has the potential for it. To raze cities to the ground, to do all sorts of other crazy shit. So many powers, and all at his disposal — we are very fucking lucky that he isn’t a villain.” Okay, I could see where she was coming from. Still not as monstrous as me, though. “How about Dragon? Monster or not?”

 

She was literally the warden of the Birdcage, wasn’t she?  “No?” I asked, still a bit unsure.

 

“Yet again — the potential is still there. Even without getting into the topic of the Birdcage, those fancy flying suits of hers are still quite dangerous.” A pause. “Hatchet Face.”

 

What?

 

“You heard me. Hatchet Face.” The power nullifier of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

 

She had to be fucking with me. “Monster, for sure.”

 

“Naturally.” She nodded. “But could he not be one, in another life?”

 

What. “You’ve lost me. Explain,” I demanded.

 

“It’s a pretty simple question, Amy,” Lisa stated while watching me intently. She hadn’t used her power even once during this whole exchange, which was nicer than having me carry her all the way over to Taylor’s. “Could he, or someone else with his powers, have been a good person instead? Someone that didn’t deserve to be called a monster?”

 

Hatchet Face himself? No, I couldn’t see it. But someone else..? “Maaaybe?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Bitch, speak clearly.” I elbowed her in the ribs. “What do you mean, ‘exactly’? This doesn’t make any damn sense.”

 

She sighed. “Okay, final example then. What about me?”

 

“What about you?” Was there something Lisa hadn’t told me yet?

 

“Well, theoretically, I can leave a person insensate and fit for a padded cell with nothing but words… and a little bit of time, of course. I can also convince them to be happy about the tragic death of a loved one, or go on a suicide mission, or sabotage the government. Break them, reshape them — I don’t need biomass like you do. Sure, I can’t change their physical shape, but their minds? Most definitely. My kind of power is one that cults are built upon, Amy, not unlike the Fallen.” She took a deep breath. “If people like them are monsters, am I one as well?”

 

Holy shit, she was telling the truth. That power was more Master than Thinker when used in such a way… And what she said was monstrous, no doubts about it. On the other hand, though… They were just a few examples. She could do more beneficial things, like be a fancy superpowered detective. Or a therapist, I supposed. Not a monster.

 

At least, she didn’t seem like one to me. But hey, what did I know?

 

“No.” I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry, and met her gaze with mine. “You aren’t.”

 

“So why would you be any different?”

 

“Because I…” What? Was more powerful than her? No, that didn’t seem to be it…

 

“Don’t get me wrong, I may not be able to wreak havoc on large scales, but I’m still perfectly capable of doing some lesser fucked up stuff.” Her pose shifted. “Like most sane people, I simply don’t do it — I’m not a bad person. My morals may be dubious, but I don’t feel the need to topple monarchies or poison the local water supply or whatever other inane bullshit actual fucked up people tend to do.”

 

“...‘Topple monarchies’? Really?”

 

“Shut up, I have a headache. You try thinking with an ice pick between your eyes.”

 

I snorted, rolling my shoulders. “No thanks, Miss Morality. I’m starting to see your point, though.”

 

“Took you long enough,” Lisa said, standing up from the bench. I followed her as well, and we continued walking.

Chapter Text

Taylor

 

I was laying on the living room couch, taking a well-earned nap after school, when I was jolted awake by the sound of the front door opening.

 

“Taylor, we’re home!” Phew, it was only them.

 

“Hey!” I yelled back, sitting up and looking for my glasses. Where did they go..?

 

“Did you sleep like I told you to?” Oh, Amy didn’t sound that grumpy anymore!

 

“A bit!” Not enough, but eh. I’d take it. Now, where were the-

 

“Sup.” I watched a blurry blonde walk up to me, crouch down and hand me something familiar.

 

…Ah, they were on the floor. I accepted the glasses and put them on with a playful grumble.

 

“Hey, Lisa.” I smiled weakly. “Hey, Amy. Everything went well, I hope?” I stifled a yawn and stretched a little, my back making a few small pops.

 

The former just gave me a thumbs up as the latter approached me and answered, an annoyed lilt to her voice causing me to raise an eyebrow. “Somehow, yeah. Almost had to knock her out again, though.” Huh?

 

“Says the one who had two panic attacks back-to-back.” What?

 

“I could’ve dealt with it by myself, Lisa.” Amy clearly lied, her eyes narrowed with mock anger. “You passing out in public, on the other hand, would’ve been quite the predicament.”

 

“From where I stood it didn’t seem like you were ‘dealing’ with it,” Lisa retorted with a hand on her hip.

This wasn’t just banter, was it? Neither of them disagreed with the other’s words. I needed to know more, even if I was wrong and they were just messing around.

 

“What even happened in the first place?” I asked, my mind whirring with possibilities too numerous to count. Amy having issues was never really a secret, but I still barely knew about any and was far too afraid to ask. Did… did her mom or someone ambush them? An argument? Something else?

 

“Ugh, I’m tired. Lisa can tell you later.” Amy said before flopping next to me onto the couch.

 

…Well, it didn’t seem like a time-sensitive issue, at least. Both she and Lisa looked drained, yes, but I didn’t sense any aggression between them. Still, I couldn't keep the small hint of anxiety out of my voice.

 

“Alright,” I conceded. “Later, then. I was waiting for you two anyways.”

 

Lisa frowned and crossed her arms. “Something happened.” That wasn’t a question, but yes. Something did happen.

 

“Before I tell you, can you promise not to use your power, Lise? I can see that you have a migraine. Please, you can use it later.” Why did she have to keep hurting herself?

 

“Wow. Finally. Someone with common sense,” Amy grumbled. “Lisa, listen to her. Doctor’s orders.” …Thanks?

 

“I literally used common sense on you ten minutes ago, Ames,” the blonde deadpanned. Relenting under our gazes, though, she took a deep breath and exhaled. “Yeah, yeah, I promise. Now spill.”

 

“Okay.” Here we go. “The Undersiders broke out last night, Lise.”

 

I could feel everyones’ hearts skip a beat, and the silence was almost audible.

 

“They’re… They’re alive?” She whispered with a relieved smile.

 

“Apparently, yeah. Not sure why the PRT hid it.” Were they trying to poach them? I wouldn’t be too surprised. Make the villains disappear, rebrand in a new town…

 

I wondered idly if that had already happened before.

 

Lisa took a few shaky steps past us and sank into dad’s recliner. She let out a shuddering breath, and I saw a tear or two leave her closed eyes before she started wiping at her face.

 

“Wh- What? ” Amy exclaimed in bewilderment. She sent me a perplexed glance before continuing to stare at Lisa. “Why are both of you happy???” Wait, she didn’t know?

 

…This was about to get awkward.

 

Lisa let out a small, slightly bitter laugh. “Right. You might need some context for that, Amy.” A wet giggle escaped her as she continued to speak unimpeded. “Okay, let’s see… Do you remember the Undersiders’ cape names?”

 

“Grue, Regent, Hellhound an- holy shit, you’re Tattletale?!

 

“Yup. Was.

 

“What the fuck, Lisa?!” Aaand she was standing now. Great. “J-just- What?!”

 

“Honestly,” I interjected, “I kind of expected her to tell you that by now.”

 

“And you!” Amy glared at me. “Really, Taylor?! Why the hell are you teaming with a villain?!”

 

“I’m not!”

 

“She’s not,” Lisa added.

 

“Oh yeah? Then explain.” If looks could kill, we would’ve probably already been dead by now.

 

“Can you sit back down, at least?” I asked. “Please, Amy? Just listen?”

 

“Fine,” she huffed, the deathly glare still shining in her eyes, before falling back on the couch at a distance.

 

Judging from my few experiences of Amy being accosted at school, she could be rather caustic to those she didn’t like. We had to be careful not to let that side of her turn against us, because if it did…

 

I shuddered. Yeah, not good.

 

“Coil. You know him? Good — I worked for him.” Fucking careful, Lisa! Ugh!

 

“WHAT?!”

 

“Not willingly.” Why couldn’t she lead with that?

 

“Wh- huh? Did he kidnap you or something?”

 

“Kinda? Hmm.” Lisa yawned. “How about an abridged recap?” 

 

Amy shrugged, confused but still very much visibly pissed, while I simply nodded — I wanted to hear more too.

 

“Okay then. So… I triggered about a year and a half ago, and ran away from home a few months after that. Then, I spent like four more out on the streets near the Boardwalk, trying to survive as best as I could. That’s where Coil’s mercs found me and conscripted me at gunpoint, with the slimy bastard himself ordering me to form a team.”

 

“The Undersiders,” Amy guessed. “And here I thought they were independent.” She then looked back at Lisa. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

 

Lisa snorted. “I would’ve, but you’d have probably freaked out even more.”

 

“...Fair.” Amy sighed. “Why not run away from him as well, though?”

 

“Taylor asked me that too, but Coil always seemed to know things. It was far too risky, and I didn’t want to get stuffed in a dark room.” Lisa visibly shuddered at that, and I wisely avoided questioning it — she wasn’t the only one scared of such spaces.

 

“We suspect he’s a Thinker,” I commented. “A powerful one, too.”

 

“Hmm… Like a precog?” Amy asked, and I felt my blood turn into ice.

 

I’d never even thought about such a possibility, but Coil being a precog… It would mean that he wanted us to be here. He’d orchestrated everything to perfection, from Lung to Circus and more. Would he really release Lisa like that, only to snatch her back some time later? What about me? And Amy? We were already involved…

 

Looking around the room with a growing feeling of sickness, I noticed that the others were as pale as I imagined I was. “Sh-should we even think about th-that?” I managed to ask, my voice hoarse.

 

“I… I honestly don’t know.” Lisa said while nervously hugging her legs. “That would be like dealing with the Simurgh — unpredictable and fucking terrifying; plans within plans and all of them immaculate. If he’s actually a precog…” She took a shaky breath. “...We’re screwed no matter what we do.” More silence. “No, I doubt it. He sounded enraged that night. If he was just acting, my power would’ve picked up on it.”

 

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Are you sure?”

 

She shrugged. “As close as I can get, really. I’ll have to double-check later.”

 

“By ‘that night’, did you mean..?” Amy trailed off.

 

“Lung.”

 

“Ah.” The brunette paused. “They looked like hell when I got there.”

 

Lisa fixed her posture and looked at Amy intently. “How were they?”

 

“One word? Bad. Regent’s lower half got stepped on, Grue had both of his legs broken, Hellhound was clawed in the side, and lost, what, two of her dogs?” Me and Lisa both winced from the information. “Yeah, I think it was two, but anyway — you get the idea. More fractures, more broken bones, more cuts, more burns, and I had to use those freaky Hellhound flesh sacs as biomass, even though she sounded against it.” …Flesh sacs? Note to self — ask Lisa about their powers.

 

“Well, thanks for healing them. They may be villains but they’re not bad people.”

 

Amy looked a bit skeptical. “If they’re ‘not bad people’, why did they then become villains? Or did they get kidnapped too?”

 

“No, I was the only one. The others were screwed in other ways — Grue had shit parents and needed to take care of his sister, Bitch was branded a murderer for a trigger event gone wrong, and Regent’s hiding from his father who, by the way, is Heartbreaker.”

 

…Oh. Holy shit.

 

“So yeah. Fun. And the snake gimp is pulling the strings.” Lisa leaned back again, sighing.

 

That was when I remembered another important piece of information. “I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but the Undersiders were broken out by Sophia. Circus got out too.”

 

“Shit!” Both of them cursed in chorus.

 

“Where did you even get all of this?” Lisa asked. “PHO, I assume?”

 

“Where else? They had a video up and everything.”

 

“Then Coil got his hands on her…” She chuckled. “I wonder how Grue will react to that.” Oh, true. Apparently, they had a feud going on.

 

“She is a bitch…” Amy conceded uncomfortably.

 

“Sophia made Taylor trigger; she can die in a ditch for all I care.”

 

…I felt warm inside from that comment. And no, those were not tears in my eyes.

 

"Wait, that time I healed you? After what she did..?" Amy’s eyes widened as she swiveled her head towards me. “That was your trigger event, Taylor? Fuck, I didn’t even know…”

 

“Trigger event?” I asked.

 

“The situation that caused you to gain your powers,” Lisa explained in a somber tone.

 

“Oh. Y-yeah.” I’d rather not remember…

 

“S-sorry for bringing it up!” Amy stuttered, my unease probably showing on my face.

 

“It’s fine, let’s j-just… skip it? Please?”

 

“Good idea.” Lisa stood and stretched her back. “New topic: lunch. Race you to the kitchen!”

 

My stomach growled in agreement.

 

 

Initially, we wanted to make some spaghetti, but apparently there were no noodles left. Tired of takeout and too lazy to bother going to the store, we settled on making chicken soup instead. Lisa also got a bag of potato chips from upstairs, which went nicely with the dish.

 

“Am I the only one who finds all these lights utterly ridiculous?” Amy asked as the three of us ate at the kitchen table. She waved her hand at the strip lights around the room, and I had to agree — the place resembled a laser tag arena.

 

“At least they aren’t colored,” I commented. “Or strobing. Or pulsing.”

 

Amy snorted. “DJ Hebert on the beat!” She and Lisa promptly burst into giggles.

 

“Oh god, please no,” I said with mock horror, a hand over my heart, which caused them to laugh even harder.

 

“Heh, I was thinking more along the lines of an arcade,” said Lisa. “Just need to replace the floor with a dark carpet, and voila — a nerd’s paradise. Don’t forget your quarters!”

 

“Oh, good idea! Have either of you gone to a real one?” Didn’t think Amy was that enthusiastic about this. Huh.

 

“Once or twice, a few years ago,” Lisa answered, suppressing a wince.

 

“Same here,” I spoke. Yet more memories tainted by Emma…

 

“They can be pretty fun. I know a good one downtown near the Forsberg Gallery.”

 

Lisa hummed while crunching on a potato chip. “Tomorrow is Friday…”

 

Both of them turned to me.

 

“What?” Did they want me to..?

 

“Wanna come with?” Amy prodded.

 

“And knowing how you are, Taylor… No. Bad. Thoughts,” Lisa added. “Or we’ll drag you there against your will. Capiche?”

 

“Okay.”

 

Well, that happened.

 

“Nice.” Amy took another spoonful. “Hopefully there won’t be any emergencies.” Yeah.

 

“You got a taser, right?” Lisa asked.

 

“No? I don’t need it — if someone touches me I just put them to sleep.” The healer smirked. “Thought you already knew that, o Mistress of Migraines.”

 

“Ugh, don’t remind me. But really, you should grab one regardless.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Stalker.”

 

Amy paused. “Oh.” A nod. “Right.”

 

“We have like a dozen, you can grab a few from the basement,” I told her with a smile.

 

“One should be enough.” She hummed. “Do you think they’d let me take it? As Panacea, I mean.”

 

I shrugged.

 

“They better,” Lisa said, leaning on one hand and grabbing chips with the other. “You should make some backup plans beyond that, too. Paralyzing spores or something, or a needle with some sleep liquid.”

 

Amy scrunched her nose at the suggestion, shaking her head before answering, annoyed. “People will notice, and Carol will freak out.”

 

I blinked. “Huh? Aren’t you a healer?” I should’ve played with her power a bit more. What Lisa said sounded interesting… Useful and versatile.

 

Amy froze, slowly turning to me. She almost looked afraid, shooting glances between me and Lisa. As she ducked her head, I heard Lisa sigh. What was going on? Was this connected to the panic attacks Lisa mentioned?

 

After a few seconds of clear internal debate, Amy finally spoke. “No, uh. Biokinetic,” she clarified, glumly looking at her soup.

 

“Woah.” Was that it? I had to try that out for myself sometime.

 

“‘Woah’?” Amy’s gaze snapped back up to me. “Really? That’s it, just… ‘woah’? Do you even know what biokinetic means?

 

“Yeah, um… able to manipulate biological stuff?” I was trying to think what could be causing her reaction. She heals, but it’s actually biokinesis… She can manipulate human biology then?

 

“Yes, with no Manton limit,” she answered. “I don’t heal. I just make people’s bodies put themselves back together. But I could… make them do other things. Anything. All with just a thought.” She ducked her head again.

 

If she had no limit, why didn't she heal herself? Or was this just an attempt at sounding more scary?

 

“But you won’t though, right? Any cape can do crazy stuff if they tried. I heard Miss Militia is able to make small nukes, but she’s still a hero. Or imagine if Eidolon was a villain,” I pointed out.

 

“That’s what I said!” Lisa exclaimed with a grin.

 

“There’s still a chance!” Amy shouted, looking between us, her soup forgotten. I was a little worried she’d knock it over, what with her expressive limbs, but I didn’t want to interrupt. Not yet, at least. “Aren’t you afraid I might… do something to you?” She looked almost on the verge of tears.

 

“...No?” I answered simply, at the same time as Lisa’s “Nope.”

 

Amy groaned, “What is wrong with you two?! This is… a big deal! I’m dangerous!”

 

“So am I,” I said. “Are you afraid of me?”

 

“Well, no. But you can’t just-”

 

Before she could answer, I summoned a thorn and made it poke her, filling it with her shimmering sea-green.

 

“How about now?” I asked again. I was treading dangerous waters, but if this worked…

 

She looked from me to her thorn and back, a small look of dawning apprehension on her face. I remembered her practically cuddling with it just the other day. Did she really notice the danger just now? That I could exploit her power just as easily?

 

“Y-you… you wouldn’t…” Amy stammered.

 

“No,” Lisa cut in. “She wouldn’t. And neither would you, you dork.”

 

“You can’t know that, though! And if it got out that I could do so much, other people would-”

 

“If you’re worried about being seen , then why not make a second identity?” Lisa asked. “A masked one, obviously.” That… was actually a good idea!

 

“I- Hmm.” Amy stared at a lone potato chip like it contained the meaning of life. “But then people would just be afraid of my new identity instead. They’d be the one to get a kill order signed. And where would I even get a costume?”

 

“Aren’t you rich?”

 

“I literally heal for free.”

 

“If you’re a biokinetic, then can’t you make one by yourself?” I thought out loud as I finished my soup. “It’s what I’d do.” I shrugged and leaned back.

 

Amy’s worried expression turned a bit thoughtful. “I… could do that. That would be interesting. But what would I even do? The PRT would still freak.”

 

Lisa made an inquisitive noise.

 

“Well, it’s dangerous…”

 

“...And you’re powerful as fuck,” the blonde finished.

 

“You can patrol with us, maybe?” I offered, slightly nervous.

 

“Yup, also true.” Lisa nodded sagely.

 

Amy looked at one of us, then the other. “If Carol ever notices, she is going to be pissed.

 

Lisa hummed. “Maybe. But her opinion doesn’t matter.” A pause. “C’mon, Ames, join us! We… have cookies?”

 

“We do?” Didn’t she eat them?

 

“Okay, not anymore, but we can bake some a bit later!”

 

The frizzy brunette sighed, shrugging and shaking her head. “Are you sure you guys want me?”

 

“Duh.”

 

"Yes!"

 

“Fine, whatever, I’m in.”

 

Lisa and I cheered, and the cookies were delicious.

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

Several rays of sunshine peeked through the somber clouds, making the city look less depressing than it usually did this time of year. Cars drove past as I locked the front door, wind lashing across my face and a chill already getting to me. Were it not for the promise of fun with some friends, I would’ve stayed inside at least until late May.

 

I double-checked my pockets for some bills, a taser and pepper spray. Confirming that they were there, I nodded to myself and hea-

 

I fell face-first onto the ground. Fucking doorstep.

 

Picking myself up and rubbing the dirt off my cheek, I vowed to gently remind dear sweet Taylor of the hazard.

 

Anyways, I headed towards the bus stop, trying to ignore the pain.

 

Due to yesterday’s news on the fate of my former team, I had decided to change my civilian disguise in hopes of not getting noticed — a pair of non-baggy jeans appropriated from Taylor’s wardrobe, a dark green hoodie procured from the same location… Definitely not my style, but I had to endure it regardless. The hoodie actually being comfortable was certainly helping with that.

 

…Despite having a new disguise, though, my fears were barely quelled. My eyes kept darting around, analyzing everyone in sight, and even with trying to keep a lid on my power I still felt the buzz of a headache waiting to happen. I’d already frozen up one time, tensing for just a moment when I saw someone who looked like Alec crossing the street. Double-checking with my power had confirmed that it wasn’t him, but what if it was? What then? Of all my former teammates, he was probably the most dangerous.

 

I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, ignoring a stray cat that ran past me into some bushes.

 

When we were still together, the Undersiders usually went to the Boardwalk when in civvies. This was partially because of my knowledge of the area — especially since I had lived there prior to getting Coil’d — but also thanks to the entertainment factor: the place was rife with all kinds of tourist traps, expensive joints and other things to dump money on. Considering we were villains, money was never an issue.

 

Now, though? I had to be careful; avoid the area like the plague. Oh, and the middle part of the Docks, too: the loft was there, Rachel’s dog shelter was there…

 

The bus’ arriving screech broke me out of my musings.

 

I paid my fare and found a free seat, taking out my phone and opening the messaging app. My version apparently had some annoying settings enabled by default, but me, Taylor and Amy collectively fixed that yesterday.

 

We also spent some time theorycrafting about the latter’s power, and how it would be expressed during the times she’d put on a mask. The biggest point of discussion was the fact that we were heroes, which meant that we needed to try and look non-threatening to the public. Black Rose’s costume and power looked villain-like already, so there was a need for Amy to help me offset the bad optics. She seemed to agree with me as well, so we went in a more whimsical direction.

 

While the costume for Amy’s new identity was still far from set in stone, we did decide on a theme for her — magical plants and mushrooms. Half an hour after that, the candidates for her cape name were narrowed down to just two: Nymph and Briar. The former ultimately won due to sounding more benevolent, with the other being recycled for her username in our group chat.

 

Speaking of which, I opened the thing up. Taylor had scrubbed it clean of cape-adjacent activity — which mostly entailed my mention of our costumes — as we agreed to keep such things off the books, just in case. Three new messages apparently laid within, ones that caused me to raise an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

  TwistedBriar: hey Lisa, is it ok if I drag V into this?

  TwistedBriar: to the arcade I mean

  TwistedBriar: she’s moping about Dean

 

Huh.

 

As interesting as it would be to get more dirt on the rich boy, I had to consider the implications of Victoria first. Having her near Amy would be… eh. Okay, it probably wouldn't be that bad. And refusing would likely look bad for all of us. Oh well.

 

  EyeSea: Sure, go ahead. (on the bus btw)

 

A reply came several seconds later.

 

  PetitHibou: Nice! We just got out of class.

  PetitHibou: Amy says “Cool.”

  TwistedBriar: cool

  TwistedBriar: god damnit

 

The edges of my mouth twitched upwards.

 

  EyeSea: Should be there in a few minutes.

  EyeSea: o/

 

And yes, I was indeed riding towards Arcadia. The Wards-infested school was the halfway point between home and the arcade, so going there to catch up with the others was the obvious course of action.

 

A minute or two later of me listening to music, I exited the bus and began approaching the meeting point. I hummed to the tune of Fireflies, watching a horde of students leave through the front gates, and by the time I got there I spotted Taylor and Amy sitting on one of the outdoor benches. They were turned away from me, both holding their phones, and their attention was on Victoria Dallon, who was enthusiastically explaining… something.

 

“-which could probably be used for resource gathering too!” I heard the blonde say. “If the stuff doesn’t disappear, anyway.”

 

Currently discussing non-combat utilities of powers. Mention of potentially-disappearing resources suggests either Labyrinth or Barrow.

 

Well that's an interesting topic.

 

I tried to look inconspicuous as I walked up behind my two friends. Amy noticed her sister looking at me and squeaked after following her gaze, surprised that I was right next to her, sporting my usual grin. The sound made Taylor flinch as she was thinking of a response to Victoria, and she, too, joined the ‘Staring at Lisa’ game, looking a bit conflicted.

 

“Christ, Lisa. Seriously?” Amy grumbled tiredly.

 

“Yup. Hey, you two.”

 

Taylor gave me a small wave and a smile. “Hey, Lise… Uh. What’s up with your cheek?” What was- Oh, right.

 

“Your doorstep attempted to kill me,” I deadpanned while crossing my arms.

 

“Oh, shit! Sorry! We keep forgetting to replace it.” …And now she was looking away from me.

 

I sighed. “It’s fine, Taylor. Really. Just be glad that it didn’t succeed.”

 

She hummed noncommittally. “Remind me to tell dad later?”

 

“Sure.” I gave her a one-armed hug.

 

Amy, meanwhile, had silently grabbed said arm’s hand, and a warm sensation spread through me as the pain was washed away. Grateful for the gesture, I nodded, and she shrugged when I whispered a ‘thanks’.

 

“So,” said the older Dallon sister, eyeing us all with amusement. “Is this the famous Lisa that I heard so much about?” Oh god, did those two talk about me? They better not have said anything stupid!

 

“Nothing bad, I hope?” I queried, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Nah.” She waved in dismissal. “All they said was that you were smart.”

 

…Now, I didn’t exactly have the world’s largest ego, but I never said that it was anywhere near the smallest, either. So far, it was pleased, and I was pleased in turn.

 

“What school do you go to? I didn’t see you here, so… Winslow? Clarendon? Immaculata?”

 

“None of them!”

 

The girl blinked twice in rapid succession. “Say what?”

 

“None of them,” I repeated, letting smugness ooze into my voice as I sat next to Amy and sandwiched her against Taylor. “I got my GED, no need for me to bother.” The former just rolled her eyes.

 

“Careful there, professor.” The healer smirked at me. “You might even get a Thinker rating.”

 

Victoria snorted, oblivious to my sudden unease, and her small smile widened into a proper one. She stretched out a hand over the table. “Nice to meet a fellow intellectual, then. Victoria Dallon.”

 

“Lisa Wilbourn.”

 

“Arcade time?”

 

“Arcade time.”

 

⬆▲⬇

Taylor

 

Mobius’ Trip Arcade was a surprisingly large place, and already teeming with customers by the time we got there. The floor was a step lower than ground level, the carpets were as dark as Lisa predicted, the air was filled with game noises and the atmosphere felt just right. While I wasn’t big on video games, I could say one thing for certain: this definitely seemed higher quality than the place I visited with Emma.

 

After a brief stop by the change machine to get quarters, we split the coins and started looking around. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I could still see sadness warring within Victoria, so my primary goal was to fix that somehow, draw away her attention. Knowing what Amy told me about her sister, she liked punching problems in the face, but since she couldn’t punch her boyfriend due to him moving out of town, it had to be dealt with in other ways, ways I was still trying to find.

 

Actually…

 

“Hey, uh. Victoria?” I called out hesitantly.

 

“Hm?”

 

“Thoughts on this one?” I pointed at one of those games where you have to punch as hard as you can.

 

For some reason, the bummed-out blonde cringed and looked rather… bashful? Her sister let out a giggle, though. I wondered what that meant.

 

“She’s banned from that one,” Amy said, grinning. “Broke two machines, both in the same week!”

 

Victoria gasped and turned to look at her, embarrassed. “Ames! How could you!”

 

“Easily and with grace.”

 

Lisa snorted.

 

Not deterred by this amusing complication, I tried pressing on with a different approach. “Maybe you can teach me, then?” I looked to Lisa for support, who stood behind Victoria, only to find her giving me a double thumbs up. Amy looked at her with confusion before getting whispered what I assumed was an explanation, at which point understanding had bloomed on her face. She nodded too, so I was doing something right.

 

Victoria, for that matter, took a second to consider things. “Sure, why not. Are you two coming too?”

 

“Hah,” Amy managed. “No. Absolutely not.” She took a moment to take stock of the games that were close enough to us and the punching game. Seemingly spotting something of interest, her eyes lit up and the grin widened.

 

Hoo boy,” Lisa said with resignation.

 

“Hey. Hey, Lisa,” Amy began sweetly.

 

“Please no.”

 

“Guitar Hero.”

 

“Oh god.” Lisa groaned.

 

“Come on! You against me, three songs in total!”

 

“Ooh, Taylor, wanna bet on who wins?” Victoria asked eagerly, still watching the others.

 

I did have ten dollars in a pocket somewhere still…

 

“Ten bucks on Lisa.” I said.

 

“Ten on Ames.”

 

“You’re on.”

 

⬆▲⬇

Amy

 

Lisa, apparently, already knew the basics, so the first song we went for was Deftones’ Hole in the Earth. While she had a rocky start, she got into the whole thing pretty quickly, nearly overtaking me, but ‘nearly’ wasn’t enough. I managed to pull through, mostly thanks to experience, and scored my first win while wiping her grin off her face.

 

The second song was her choice, and a pleasant surprise at that — No More Sorrow by Linkin Park, a band that I listened to relatively frequently. We were pretty even the whole length of it, until I choked at the final three-note sequence, so the victory went to the Thinker this time around.

 

Just a setback.

 

For the finale, the tiebreaker, we decided to flip a coin. Not to determine the winner, though, but to choose the final song. Lisa’s choice was This Is A Call by Foo Fighters, and mine was Matchbook Romance’s Monsters. Yes, I wanted to raise the stakes a bit, but who could really blame me?

 

The coinflip’s result was tails, which meant that my choice had won.

 

With a grunt of annoyance, my foe had finally fallen. Both of us screwed up on that one, multiple times even, but she did so a bit earlier which meant that she got left with less points. I pumped my fists up into the air, stretching my fingers out to make them stop aching.

 

“Yusss,” I hissed to myself.

 

Lisa set down her guitar and walked closer to me, pouting. “You totally cheated.”

 

“Nope, you just suck.”

 

“Energy drinks count! I saw that Legendberry!”

 

I resisted the urge to facepalm but she probably knew I was thinking of it. “That is a sports drink.”

 

“Exactly!”

 

“No, Lisa- Ugh.”

 

“Pretty sure there’s a difference between a sports drink and an energy drink.” I heard Taylor say as she and Vicky approached.

 

I just smiled while pointing at the knowledgeable girl.

 

Lisa sagged and sighed. “Fine. Close game.”

 

“You did good. Don’t worry about it, Lise.” I spread my arms in an exaggerated shrug. “I’m just better.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Gloat some more, why don't ya.” She turned to Taylor and Vicky. “And what about you two? What seems good to you?”

 

“Well,” my sister said smugly, “It seems like I won ten dollars.” She closed the distance between us and gave me a hug. Ruffling my hair. “Great job, Ames! I knew you could do it!”

 

…Cue internal screaming.

 

“Sorry,” Lisa, meanwhile, told the loser of the bet.

 

“It’s your money,” Taylor retorted.

 

“...I’m not sure if I should feel better or worse from that.”

 

Taylor just shrugged and turned her head to me. “So. What now?”

 

And just like that, an idea struck me.

 

⬇▲⬆

Taylor

 

When I asked Amy about our next destination I had to admit that I didn’t think things through. After a moment or two of thinking, she just got this odd, expectant smile and started dragging me somewhere, Lisa and Victoria left standing behind. The last thing I heard from them was the latter suggesting Skee-Ball. We waded through crowds of gamers and game systems, and all I could do was commiserate with past Lisa. An Amy with a goal was an Amy to be reckoned with.

 

I felt her stop and looked at what stood before me — a colorful arcade cabinet decorated with crystals. The cabinet and title screen both had ‘Depth Crawler’ in big, shimmering letters, and a recording of some gameplay was playing in the background. Connected were two controllers, one already held by Amy, who was watching me intently as I hesitantly grabbed the other.

 

“So… what is this?” I asked with slight confusion.

 

“Well, it’s a game I like. How familiar are you?”

 

I shyly looked away, because I honestly wasn’t prepared. “Not at all, sorry. You remember my computer, right?”

She blinked, then frowned. “Right. That thing. What about Lisa’s laptop?”

 

“Huh. I hadn’t thought of that.” But then again… “I don’t really play games, though.”

 

“Hmm, I see…”

 

“You two gonna play yet?” I heard from my right.

 

Two guys were looking at us, clearly unimpressed. One of them held a drink, while the other was openly ogling me. Suppressing a shudder, I looked at them with indifference.

 

“Yes,” Amy said. Her voice was filled with loathing. “Yes, we will, actually.” I heard her drop a quarter into the machine, and our controllers vibrated.

 

The drink nerd scowled and turned around to his partner. “C’mon, Jake, let's play a real game.” ‘Jake’ grunted and took a last look. Luckily, they didn’t linger, and left in the direction of an internet cafe.

 

Ignoring whatever that was, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I faced the screen and pressed ‘A’, prompting a cutscene which detailed the game's story. The closest comparison I could think of was Dante’s Inferno, except the goal wasn’t love here, and the Depths were less demonic — both players and other characters seemed to covet some sort of gemstone, which was hidden deep underground beneath layers of deadly environments. There were ten of them in total, each divided in ten parts. Said parts were apparently the game’s levels, which sounded like quite a lot.

 

“Do you really plan to go through all of them?” I asked my co-player in bewilderment.

 

“Huh? Oh. No, just the first layer.” Ah. Phew. “The game is hard enough already, and we don’t have enough time for more than that.” …And now I was scared again.

 

Oh well. I could do this. How hard could it really be?

 

There were several classical archetypes which each of us had to choose from, fit with more blurbs of sweet lore. Amy snickered at me reading everything, but I couldn’t really help it. Eventually, I settled on being a rogue, with her locking in the mage almost instantly, and we finally synced our button presses to enter the selected layer.

 

The first level was an underground portion of the forest that the characters were picked from, filled with roots and plant-based monsters which were simple enough to kill. If either of us got close to one, a cone appeared, slightly blurry, and became more and more visible with increased proximity to said monster. That, Amy explained, was a cone of sight, and it was important for later stages. Apparently, stealth was important here, which was part of why she picked the game for me.

 

Through that place we waded unimpeded, and the same was true for two more levels. The fourth, though, had an underground civilization, annoying me with its smart inhabitants. I managed to get caught sneaking several times by them — twice from someone hearing footsteps, once for colliding with a pot. That last one caused a cascade of alarms, almost killing us with sheer numbers of enemies.

 

Neither of us had died though, so we marched further on, ever-deeper.

 

“Alright… Flip that lever, Tay. I almost got my CDs up.”

 

“Need to knock out the guards for that. One second… There.”

 

We were currently holed up in an ancient-looking elevator, waiting for it to stop and anxious about what’s next. This was level nine, a magic-infused ancient city. One that vehemently worshiped sunlight even though it was deep below the surface. Mirrors were prevalent here, and while I managed to redirect some magic light onto a crowd of enemies, both of us got caught by some in several other parts of the level.

 

Overall, I was actually having fun, and I could definitely see the appeal of such games.

 

The elevator opened, and we finally stepped out. Sneaking through the tunnel, I found no enemies at all, and the reason for that was all too clear — this was the boss area, just like with the levels before. I took a quick peek at Amy, meeting her gaze with my own.

 

“This one’s pretty annoying… I think I’ll summon some help.” Amy reached into her pocket and produced a… trading card? Really?

 

She swiped it across a rectangle under the screen, and Victoria- ahem, Glory Girl had appeared next to her in-game. Her costume looked a bit weathered, though, which seemed like a stylistic choice..? Regardless, this whole concept just… grated me. For some reason.

 

I turned to Amy. “Isn’t this cheating?” I asked, pointing at the hero.

 

“Cheating? You too?” She sighed. “Tell me, please, why would it be?”

 

“You’re using something from outside the game. Something that gives you an advantage.”

 

“Well, yeah, I guess. But I don’t really think that counts?”

 

I shrugged, walking in circles in-game. “It just feels… unfair to me. Not everyone has cards, you know?”

 

“Eh, fine. I can unsummon her.” She did just that. “But keep in mind that the boss here isn’t a pushover.”

 

“Duly noted. Shall we?”

 

I stepped a bit further, close to the glowing gates, and opened them with a long button press. What laid beyond was an enormous, crown-shaped mirror suspended above a void. The outer cavern walls pulsed with streams of color, and the mirror itself served as the arena we had to fight in. There was no boss visible yet, but it was only because I wasn’t close enough. That, I knew, would change soon.

 

Amy and I pressed on, side by side, and stood in the center. The ground seemed to shake, and I could see rubble falling from above. A slithering sound was coming closer and closer, and finally culminated in a giant worm-like creature peeking out from the depths below. A ‘Coruscaith’.

 

It didn’t look happy.

 

Then again, I couldn’t really tell — it had no head, but a tiny replica of the arena instead. Its body consisted of rings full of sharp, reflective needles, and each of the rings rotated haphazardly without reason. It must’ve used them to dig, drill through the earth like earlier. There also appeared to be some goo-like stuff between each one, transparent and yet glowing, and I guessed that said goo would be the monster’s downfall.

 

It shot out a beam, closer to me than Amy. I sidestepped it and began using my abilities while it was busy. Amy walked to the side, staying further away from the boss, and I dodged yet another attack. So far, so good.

 

The Coruscaith hid under the mirror, then emerged from one of the five points of the crown shape. It propelled itself through the air, fast enough to knock Amy back, and landed beyond the edge as if nothing even happened.

 

The fact that Amy took damage so early was quite annoying — both of us were damage dealers, and only had one Health Scroll each. We had to keep up with our dodging, or the game would be over quick.

 

As the monster’s health dropped to eighty percent, the second-to-last point from the right of its crown head began glowing, a pastel rainbow. I shuffled in one place, not knowing what to do, but as the worm’s goo increased its luminance I saw Amy retreat to the left of me.

 

I attempted to follow her, but I simply wasn’t quick enough — my sprint ability was still recharging when the boss headbutted the floor. A full strip of it shattered mesmerizingly, and I realized what had just happened — instead of telegraphing the attack on the floor, it had done so on the creature’s ‘face’.

 

Clever.

 

I wouldn’t get hit by it twice, though.

 

The broken slice of the floor was now formed out of many small shards, two of them being bigger than the rest. They were the only ones which retained the rest of the mirror’s reflectiveness, while the others softly glowed in a myriad of colors. Going by past experiences — even if all of them were from today — it was most likely that the glowing areas were somehow harmful in nature.

 

Permanent area denial? Now that really did feel annoying.

 

We managed to weather the assault relatively steadily for two more mirror breaks before disaster struck. Every time a strip of mirror had been broken, the time between attacks decreased by a small margin. This wasn’t really much of a problem by itself, but paired with the need to parkour? It was deadly.

 

Our enemy fired a beam. But not at the floor, no — at a wall. It reflected, aiming for me, but I managed to actually dodge it. The beam kept on going, though, and Amy…

 

Well, Amy was still standing there, casting one of her fuck-off spells.

 

“Take that, you worm!” She grumbled at the screen, hurling a fireball the size of a car. “Oh shit- GOD DAMNIT!” Her character evaporated. “Piece of shit fucking boss!”

 

“I can do this,” I muttered. “It’s fine. I can do this.”

 

“Yeah, kick its ass!”

 

I dodged a wide-range tail swipe.

 

“That is the plan. Well, that, and ‘don’t die’, I think.”

 

Unfortunately, though, in the end, I didn’t really have it — the Coruscaith was just too nimble, and I was still new to the gameplay. I managed to whittle its health down to only twenty percent, and a single stupid misstep led me right into some glowing shards. Amy complained about ‘tuning’ and ‘lazy-ass developers’, I simply listened to her while leaning against the railing, and even though we had failed to even get to the tenth level, I still had an enjoyable experience.

 

Maybe I wouldn’t mind another go, sometime.

 

As the both of us stood there, gazing at the ‘game over’ screen, I looked at my teammate once more. Amy was watching the worm bash our corpses, lit up by hundreds of ever-changing colors.

 

“That was pretty fun,” I told her with a smile.

 

“Glad you agree,” she replied, closing her eyes. “Gotta say, as much as I hate it, this crystal dipshit’s visuals are pretty soothing to look at.”

 

“Mmm. Yeah. Like a kaleidoscope or something.”

 

She raised a single eyebrow, then frowned and opened her eyes. “Huh. Speaking of…” She got closer, whispering the rest. “Do we have a name for the team yet? That sounds kinda nice if you think about it.” It did have a ring to it… but no. Too lengthy.

 

I shook my head, glancing at the screen and then back to her. “No, but it’s a mouthful. I do like the concept, though.”

 

Amy stepped back a bit and hummed, clearly lost in thought. “There was some other word like it… Or similar enough, but not really.”

 

“Hmm. Mirage?”

 

“No.”

 

“Phantasmagoria?”

 

She looked at me with surprise. “ Hell no, you bookworm. Think simpler, jeez. It was something to do with geometry…”

 

Oh! Right! “Fractal!”

 

Yes!” She nodded twice. “Perfect! Yes!”

 

Fractal sounded… It sounded just right. In my opinion, the word gave feelings of mystery and complexity both, and all three of us had them, all in equal measures. It didn’t seem intimidating enough, and was easy enough to memorize…

 

I nodded. “I like it. Let's see if Lisa does as well.”

 

 

We found Lisa and Victoria at the air hockey table. Both of them were grinning, hitting a puck back and forth, and somehow still continuing the discussion we had from earlier.

 

“I don’t think Lung would agree to become a decorative barbeque grill,” Lisa said with amusement as she defended her side from attacks.

 

“Okay, then how about Spitfire?” Victoria asked in turn.

 

Lisa distractedly shook her head, still too focused on the game to notice us. “Nah, doubt it, her power’s too strong for that. If it can easily melt through steel beams and stuff, wouldn’t it also decimate pork?”

 

“Mmm. Maybe. Lung’s stronger, though.”

 

If he ramps up — and he’s not that strong all the time. And I’m pretty sure he can regulate his flame output regardless.” At that, she managed to score a goal. “Gotcha.”

 

“Damn. You win, then.”

 

“What’s the score?” Amy asked, and it would be innocent were she not grinning.

 

“Ah!” Lisa jumped. “Fuck, Amy. Hey.”

 

“That’s payback.”

 

“Yeah, fair. I deserved that.”

 

“So…” I walked closer. “Score?”

 

“Seven to five in my favor. How was whatever she dragged you to?”

 

I shrugged, but smiled slightly. “We died, but it was nice.”

 

“She did better than I expected,” Amy added.

 

Victoria quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, did you two do Depth Crawler? Ames and I beat seven layers. That thing is crazy hard.” Holy shit, seven? Did they do it with cards, or does it get easier for some weird reason?

 

“We died at the level nine boss,” I said, crossing my arms in defiance.

 

“Ah,” the heroine managed. “Yeah, that guy is annoying.”

 

“More like overtuned,” Amy murmured, still salty.

 

“Ames, you say that about every boss you die to.”

 

“You know I’m right though.”

 

“Debatable.”

 

“Meh.”

 

My stomach suddenly grumbled, and Lisa’s answered in kind.

 

“Considering we’re all done… Where do we go from here?” I asked.

 

“Pizza?” Amy suggested.

 

“Sounds good to me,” was Lisa’s answer.

 

Victoria piped up. “I know a spot!”

 

Lisa slightly tilted her head. “The one that’s two blocks from here?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“Good choice.”

 

It was then that I noticed some girl running up to Victoria. “Oh. Em. Gee. Excuse me? Glory Girl?” All of us turned to her. “Can I get an autograph? Big fan right here!”

 

“Sure!” Victoria chirped and sauntered off to the side.

 

As the literal fangirl began rummaging through her bags, Amy dragged me towards Lisa, eager to exploit the diversion. We huddled together, though not enough to warrant suspicion. Hopefully we didn’t look too ridiculous from the outside.

 

“Did something happen..? No. What is it?”

 

“We got a name,” I said.

 

“Oh? As in, the three of us?”

 

Amy nodded. “Yep.”

 

“Shoot. I’m all ears.” Lisa leaned against the air hockey table.

 

“Amy suggested ‘Fractal’. I like it. Do you?”

 

Our Thinker’s brows flew upwards, and a familiar smirk appeared. “Ooh! Yeah. Yeah, that one’s good. Got mystery and style, but not too tacky or bland.” Exactly!

 

“So… Are we sticking with it?”

 

“If all of us agree, yeah.”

 

Amy just gave her a silent thumbs up, with me doing the same a moment later. After a snort and a roll of her eyes, Lisa gave us two in return, which prompted a giggle from the healer. Of course, that only escalated when I spotted Victoria sliding in too, looking at each of us with bemusement, uncertainty, and two thumbs up of her own.

 

Okay, we definitely looked ridiculous from the outside. No question.

 

“Am I doing this right?” She asked with a confused smile.

 

We descended into laughter. Yeah, today was good.

Chapter Text

Emily

3 Days Ago

 

Director Emily Piggot watched as Armsmaster entered the conference room. As usual, the punctual Tinker had arrived exactly when ordered, with the wall clock displaying 1:00 PM and everyone else being already present. Just in case, she made another quick mental headcount. Yes, everybody was here.

 

Which meant it was time to begin.

 

“We have several things to address today,” Emily started, annoyed. She was still completely furious about the sheer size of her failure with Stalker. A scandal related to her civilian identity, one that unmasked her as well? That was difficult enough to recover from by itself. But no, the little shit decided to turn villain, too!

 

When the PR team got the news, the local head of Image instantly filed for resignation. Ever since then it had been absolute chaos, with the soccer moms of Youth Guard being the least of Emily’s problems. Rebecca Costa-Brown herself decided to ‘let her go’, with the change of power finally happening on Monday. Just four more days and it would all be finally over…

 

Emily took a deep breath. “So. Let’s get to it. Armsmaster?”

 

The man changed his pose and nodded. “First of all, we will be discussing the breakout that happened last night.” He gestured at the projector screen, where camera footage was already rolling. “At 2:07 AM, Shadow Stalker was seen phasing into the PRT ENE Headquarters…”

 

Emily tuned out the Tinker’s narration as she watched the footage herself: Stalker, still in her Breaker state, walked down the hallway unimpeded. Even like this, when she could barely be seen, her left arm was noticeably shorter; the severed hand still unrecovered. Instead, there was something else attached, spanning across the whole forearm — something mechanical, by the looks of it. The shadowy silhouette prevented Emily from discerning its purpose, but she guessed that it must’ve been a weapon — Stalker’s signature crossbow was missing, and she wouldn’t go anywhere unarmed.

 

Emily blinked at the unintentional pun. She shook her head and continued watching.

 

The ex-Ward stalked towards the door to the central stairwell, stopping before entering to quickly check her surroundings. Satisfied by the knowledge that nobody (in person) was watching, she stepped right through the door.

 

The footage then changed to one from a different camera: tucked near another, similarly-painted door. The bottom of the walls had a red horizontal strip, which meant that this was the cell floor, the place where the villains were held.

 

As Shadow Stalker approached her objective, Emily gritted her teeth.

 

With a swift, practiced motion and a flicker out of her Breaker state, the hooded figure took a small cylinder out from her belt. She primed the grenade — an EMP, as told by Armsmaster — and lobbed the thing in front of her before sprinting away. It went off two seconds later, thankfully not reaching the camera, which was when the alarms finally kicked in, tinting everything in red.

 

Stalker whipped around and shot several things at the ceiling, using whatever she had attached to her arm. Must’ve been jamming the foam dispensers, Emily thought to herself. The fact that they needed replacements was definitely supporting that theory.

 

Beelining straight towards the holding cells, ignoring the blaring alarms, her right hand reached behind her as the teen villain pressed on further. She fumbled with only one arm, though, clearly not used to her handicap — some odd, distinctly tinkertech, objects tumbled down from her belt to the floor.

 

Crouching — and probably cursing — Stalker unfolded them all. Each was the size of a napkin with a light blue metallic sheen, and each was attached by their owner to a door with a villain inside.

 

Said owner stepped back for a moment. She checked her surroundings once more. The charges were then activated, and the doors swiftly melted away.

 

The first one to step out was Circus, greeting Stalker with an upward nod. Regent, Grue and Hellhound left their own cells right after that. As per regulation, all were in PRT-issued prison sweats: black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed in two different places in white. There was no sound to the recording, but it was obvious that there was some tension — Grue looked wary of his savior, who didn’t seem too comfortable either.

 

Regardless, the five of them backtracked, and stopped at the door to the stairwell. With a push to the panic rail it opened, and all of them rushed out of view.

 

Yet another change of camera placed the action in the middle of the gift shop — the farthest wall had melted, giving the villains an easy escape. The squad of PRT officers surrounding the area from the outside tried cutting them off to no avail, as Shadow Stalker fired at them through the shop windows before passing by. If only they had more funding…

 

Emily seethed as the escapees made short work of Clockblocker, weaving past Kid Win’s shots while Circus danced around with Battery. In fact, the clown also downed Vista with a particularly nasty trick: after evading yet another Battery charge, Circus jumped to the side and right into Stalker’s line of fire. One of the ex-Ward’s projectiles ricocheted from a hammerspace’d throwing knife, flying straight towards the neck of the space manipulator. The needle was, thankfully, non-lethal — and wasn’t that odd to point out — but it still managed to connect with the target, knocking her out in mere seconds.

 

With the biggest obstacle to their escape down, Shadow Stalker yelled something at Grue, looking around. The darkness generator nodded and his shadowy smoke began to billow, spreading across a large area until the camera could no longer see them. Beyond the gift shop’s windows there was literally nothing but black, and when the obstruction had finally dissipated…

 

…The villains were nowhere in sight.

 

Emily sighed, ignoring the feeling of her left eye twitching. “Thank you, Armsmaster.” She then looked at everyone present.

 

All of the Wards were in some state of distress, obviously still reeling from such a nasty betrayal. The last week was certainly not kind to them, or anyone else for that matter — first the Lung disaster, then that thing with Hess… And then, when Browbeat’s death was revealed to the public, the Stansfields had, understandably, snapped.

 

Suffice it to say, Gallant’s sudden transfer was taken quite badly.

 

Meanwhile, the adults were looking as serious as ever: Miss Militia had furrowed her eyebrows, Armsmaster was clenching his jaw. Triumph and Velocity just seemed tired, while Battery appeared outright pissed. Hell, even Assault had kept quiet — that’s when you knew things were dire.

 

“We will be going over your mistakes in more depth a bit later,” Emily announced with a cold tone. “For now, let’s just point out the obvious.”

 

“She’s a villain now,” Clockblocker stated, getting slapped by a still-sleepy Vista.

 

“Yes, Clock. She is.”

 

Kid Win raised his hand, and Emily motioned for him to speak.

 

“She’s, uh. She’s still one-handed? A-and without her usual crossbow?”

 

Armsmaster nodded. “True. While the footage we have isn’t ideal, it’s clear that she has a new weapon.” The recording rewinded back to a still shot from the gift shop camera. It then zoomed in on Shadow Stalker loading something into her forearm. The picture was still grainy, but Armsmaster sharpened it after a few seconds. “Much like her crossbow, this new contraption accepts bolts as ammunition. While it is probably some sort of tinkertech, it does not make use of electricity — I hope it is obvious as to why. These here,” he stepped closer to the projector screen, pointing out two long indents that were parallel to the flight groove, “are most likely retractable blades. While this melee option was not seen being used yet, it would be wise to be cautious regardless.”

 

“So, like- Ow! Really, Vista? I’m asking.” Clockblocker whined.

 

“What’s your question?” Armsmaster queried.

 

“Would the blades be like in that Predator movie from Aleph?”

 

The other Wards collectively groaned, but the adult hero raised a hand to silence them.

 

“That’s a smarter question than all of you might think,” he said. The picture zoomed in a bit closer. “No, Clockblocker, they wouldn’t be. Or, at least, Dragon and I don’t think so: while the Predator gauntlet extends its blades forwards, Shadow Stalker’s likely does so outwards.”

 

“Huh.” Then silence.

 

“We’re entering speculation territory,” Emily decided to nip the distraction in the bud. “Anything else that is concrete?

 

“She looks strangely annoyed by Grue?” Vista half-asked.

 

Armsmaster rewinded the footage to when the villains had only just left their cells.

 

“Yeah, over there!” She pointed. “It’s almost as if Grue is scared of her!”

 

“I mean, Stalker did have a hate-boner for the guy,” Clockblocker drawled. Emily’s eye twitched at the vulgarity, but she ignored it and focused on the task.

 

Triumph slightly tilted his head. “Mind expanding on that?”

 

“Well, you know how their powers interact weirdly? How her Breaker state isn’t intangible if it’s inside of Grue’s smoke or whatever?” A secondary weakness, Emily noted. It wasn’t too relevant before, but… “I guess she was angry that she was vulnerable.” Clockblocker shrugged. “Dunno.”

 

“Why would she break him out, then?” Kid Win asked, clearly confused.

 

That was when Calvert decided to make himself known. “She’s being paid by someone.”

 

Armsmaster nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid that is true. Her prosthetic-slash-weapon, her equipment and targets: all of it points to someone with power. Stalker didn’t even look at the holding cell labels — she knew where the prisoners were contained.”

 

Aegis hummed to himself. “She’s obviously not with the Empire…”

 

“Not the ABB, either,” Vista continued. “I doubt they would take her.”

 

“Coil?” Assault made a guess.

 

“With the heavy usage of tinkertech? Yes, I can see it.” Armsmaster shifted. “We might need to increase his priority.”

 

Emily agreed. “You have my clearance to do so.”

 

“And the Undersiders?”

 

“Yes, go ahead. And just in case, Circus too.” At least Cricket and Stormtiger hadn’t escaped yet, Emily thought.

 

Armsmaster nodded. “Done.”

 

“Good.” Emily looked around again. “We will return to this later.” She turned her head back to Armsmaster. “Now, about the vigilantes.”

 

The Tinker cleared his throat. “At around 2:15 AM, we received several distress calls about a possible cape fight near Ferry Station South. Miss Militia and I were then dispatched to the location…”

 

 

“...Additionally, an hour prior to their run-in with the Empire — at 1:19 AM, according to the BBPD — they managed to stop an armed robbery in the northern end of Downtown. The victim they saved had confirmed it.”

 

Emily shifted in her seat. “So, what are your thoughts on them?” She asked.

 

“They’re clearly new, as evidenced by the condition of one of the robbers. Panacea was still at Brockton General Hospital by the time he was delivered to it and, according to her and the paramedics, the man’s right hand was pierced by a pointy triangular object.” Armsmaster paused. “Which, of course, lines up with Black Rose’s thorns.” Or, as per the PRT-assigned codename, ‘Nail’s nails’, Emily remembered. Whoever came up with that one needed to be fired, effective immediately.

 

“Did she have a reason to maim him so extensively?”

 

“Possibly,” Armsmaster grunted. “The police stated that there were shattered remnants of a Glock 19 at the scene, so it was likely that this was self-defense.”

 

Emily nodded. “Continue.”

 

“It’s worth noting that when I confronted them about their potentially-villainous attire, Black Rose immediately rebuffed it by stating that they were heroes. According to my lie detector, she was telling the truth.” Good, Emily thought. That was good. She just had to be careful with the recruitment…

 

“Armsmaster, How would you rate them?”

 

He took a moment to consider the question. “I’d peg Black Rose as a mid-level Trump-slash-Shaker. Maybe a low-level Blaster as well, considering what she did to the robber.” Mentally, Emily agreed. “As for Nebula, though… I’m not so sure. There’s another thing I want to mention.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I may be completely wrong here, but I’m almost certain that Nebula is Tattletale.”

 

Well that was quite a bombshell, Emily commented to herself. She looked at the others’ reactions, noting the amount of surprise. Assault especially looked intrigued by the idea — he used to be a villain himself, after all.

 

Emily motioned to continue.

 

“Their height and build match, at least.” A comparison between two still shots was displayed on the projector screen. “Even if we barely have any footage of the latter.” This complicated things.

 

“Shouldn’t we be happy for her?” Assault asked. “That’s one less villain we have to fight, after all.”

 

Emily, meanwhile, was not that convinced. “We shouldn’t be too reckless. If this is true, the girl is a Thinker — who knows what she could be planning?”

 

“What if she’s the one who paid Shadow Stalker to spring the Undersiders?” Clockblocker asked. A surprisingly good question, too, considering the thoughtful silence now enveloping the room.

 

Armsmaster hummed. “That’s possible. Her and Black Rose’s fight against Cricket and Stormtiger might’ve been a distraction, something to divert a few heroes from the situation at the PRT HQ. The timing tracks.” He crossed his arms. “Even with the event that we’ll be discussing after this.”

 

“We’re not done yet, Armsmaster,” Emily said. “How would you rate Nebula, with everything you had just mentioned?”

 

“If we’re going with the theory that she is indeed Tattletale? A mid-level Thinker. Otherwise — a low-level Trump.” The Tinker turned back to the screen again, where a piece of footage from his helmet had just been pulled up.

 

And what do you do, exactly? ” Came Armsmaster’s voice from the video. Both the blonde and her partner were standing outside with Armsmaster, while Miss Militia could be seen at the side. The gun cape was pointing a nasty-looking shotgun at an angry containment-foamed Stormtiger, who was surrounded by PRT officers attempting to load him in a van.

 

Well…” Nebula trailed off before turning her head towards Black Rose.

 

The latter met her eyes, blinked and then nodded. “Right.” A thorn manifested between the two of them, pointing downwards.

 

...I do this!” The galaxy-themed girl grinned before putting her fingertips on the object. She seemed to suppress a slight wince at the same time the thorn began glowing, withdrawing her hand from the construct and watching it float in the air. Just like with Nebula’s hair, the thorn now contained little stars, popping in and out of existence with no apparent pattern.

 

Had Glenn not written off the ENE branch as a failure, he’d be pulling out all stops right now, Emily mused. Whatever the girl’s power was, it certainly looked rather pretty.

 

Armsmaster stopped the video. “She gave no explanation beyond describing the effect as ‘enhancement’. She wasn’t lying, either, hence the Trump classification.”

 

“So we have two new potentially-benevolent Trumps running around?” Emily asked.

 

“Correct, Director.”

 

“Christ.” She paused. “Anything else on the blonde girl? Or was that it?”

 

“No, nothing. Judging by their retelling of the fight, Nebula didn’t exhibit any other abilities beyond creating a glowing thorn like the one on screen.”

 

Emily took a moment to think, rubbing at her temples. Either the ‘enhancement’ granted more than just light, or Nebula was hiding something — powers weren’t usually so weak. “Give her a Stranger zero as well, just to be sure,” the Director said. “Mostly as a reminder about her potential ties with Tattletale.”

 

Armsmaster nodded. “Done. What about the rest?”

 

“What about the rest?”

 

“Do I assign the Thinker rating too?”

 

Better to be overprepared than underprepared, Emily reasoned. “Do it.” She paused again, thinking. “What about the Wards pitch?”

 

Armsmaster’s posture tightened, becoming a bit more guarded. “They rejected it,” he said, then played another clip.

 

You did well tonight,” Armsmaster spoke to the vigilantes. “Though you, no doubt, must understand how dangerous it was.

 

Black Rose had frowned somewhat. “Is this where you give us the Wards pitch? ” Her voice sounded rife with distaste, at which Emily furrowed her brows.

 

Yes, actually,” Armsmaster stated. “Do you wish to join?

 

No,” the black-clad cape answered. The silence that followed was tense.

 

...Care to explain why?

 

Nebula grabbed her partner’s wrist. “We’d rather be independent.

 

The video ended right after.

 

“Do note that both of them are Trumps, Director. Since most Trumps trigger from an altercation with other parahumans, it is likely that Black Rose and Nebula would rather limit such interactions.” No replacement for Gallant, then. Emily scowled.

 

“Or because Nebula’s still Tattletale, perhaps?” The other wards looked at Aegis, who spent most of the meeting in silence.

 

“Or that, yes.” Armsmaster nodded.

 

Miss Militia took a step forward, looking at him. “Or maybe her partner is one of Shadow Stalker’s victims.” She turned her head towards Emily, her eyes uncharacteristically cold. “In her civilian identity, that is. I trust you kept the diary?”

 

It all comes full circle, the Director thought with annoyance. “Yes, the evidence is secured. Along with a ton of copies.” Just thinking about all the nasty things Hess had done made Emily’s blood pressure skyrocket.

 

Militia’s flickering weapon had finally settled on a knife. She nodded and slowly stepped backwards.

 

Emily sighed, then looked back at Armsmaster. “Did you mention the mortality rates at least?”

 

“...No,” he said, hesitating. “I decided not to in the case that they’d take it as intimidation.”

 

“...Fair.” Emily glanced at the wall clock. “Five minute break,” she announced.

 

 

“The third event,” Armsmaster started, “took place within the same time frame as the two previous ones. Unlike with the others though, there isn’t much information at the moment.”

 

“Tell us what we know so far,” Emily ordered. What little she heard already had felt like a headache and a half.

 

“At 2:21 AM, a fire was reported near the Commercial District. After dealing with the hazard and investigating the house in question, it was discovered that it was broken into beforehand. The stairs and bedroom — what was left of them, anyway — also showed signs of violent struggle, covered in blood and littered with bullet casings, while some other parts of the building, such as the living room, were vandalized with ABB iconography.”

 

“And how, exactly, is this relevant to us? If we had to investigate every unpowered gang member attack, we’d…”

 

“Only one body was found, Director,” Armsmaster interrupted. “Victor of the Empire. Othala was most likely kidnapped.”

 

“Oh shit,” whispered one of the Wards.

 

Emily sputtered, taken aback by the reveal. “Why the hell did you not say that earlier?!” She yelled as her subordinates winced.

 

“Ma’am, I did.”

 

“No, you told me about Skidmark.” Or did she simply forget?

 

“Skidmark as well, but I told you,” he emphasized.

 

Emily, clearly, was far from amused. She took a deep breath, then prompted the Tinker once more.

 

“Part of the retrieved evidence was a reinforced stash of military-grade weapons, and most of them matched the ones seen being used by Victor. The other things of note were his and Othala’s costumes, only partially lost to the flames — the latter’s signature eyepatch, for example, was left basically unscathed.”

 

“You said there was only one body?” Emily asked.

 

“Yes.” Armsmaster nodded. “Victor went down fighting, the CSIs are certain of it. If he actually managed to kill anyone, though… Unknown.”

 

A pregnant pause. “I see.” Emily adjusted her jacket. One less nazi to worry about, she thought. “Is there more?”

 

“No, not at the moment.”

 

Emily swept her gaze across the conference room. “The Empire will retaliate. I expect you all to be ready for when that happens.” Waiting for a moment, satisfied by everyone’s nods, the Director slumped back in her chair. She looked, yet again, at the Tinker. “Since you decided to mention him: what’s the progress on Skidmark’s autopsy?” The foul-mouthed drug user had bit the dust just several days ago, and the way he had died was concerning, to say the least.

 

“It has concluded,” Armsmaster answered, looking at her.

 

“And?”

 

“Wh- Uh, excuse me?” Velocity interrupted, raising a hand. “What happened to him in the first place?”

 

“Right, you were out of town,” Emily acknowledged. “Armsmaster?” The man nodded.

 

“Adam Mustain, better known as Skidmark, was discovered dead in an alley of the lower Docks two days ago. His body was severely mutilated, missing a large chunk of his upper torso. This included his left arm, left lung, half of his right lung, and his heart. Two fingertips — of his left hand’s pinky and thumb — were found on the ground nearby as well.” Armsmaster shifted again, unsurprisingly uncomfortable by what he was describing. A quick look at the peanut gallery revealed a few of the Wards looking ill too.

 

“Continue,” Emily prompted. The faster it was over, the better.

 

“The autopsy report had described all of his wounds being ‘impossibly clean’ — not in the sense of bacteria, but precision. A good comparison would be him being a drawing that was partially expunged by a wet eraser.”

 

Emily blinked. “Wet?”

 

“The corpse was drenched in water.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“We strongly suspect that the murderer is an unknown cape, codename ‘Acrid’. Dragon’s theory — with which I agree — is that Acrid is a dangerous Striker-Breaker, functioning similarly to the Empire cape Fog. Unlike Fog, we think that Acrid transforms into a humanoid water shape which removes any biological matter it touches.” Armsmaster paused. “That last bit is mostly due to the pavement still being unscathed, as well as common sense when it comes to the Manton effect.”

 

“Right, because otherwise he’d just fall through the ground,” Clockblocker managed.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Cool.” The Ward replied dryly.

 

“I assume that’s all?” Emily asked, hoping for ‘yes’. She wasn’t in the mood for more near-baseless speculation.

 

“Yes.” Bingo. “Unless you want to address something else..?”

 

Emily surveyed the room again, inspecting her ‘troops’ one by one. All of them looked plain exhausted… Better to stop here for now.

 

“No, I don’t think so. Thank you, Armsmaster.” With that, the Director turned her head towards the others. “Both gangs will begin to escalate, of that I’m pretty certain. Prepare for the worst and be careful. Dismissed.”

 

Just four more days…

Chapter Text

Victoria

3 Days Ago

 

Victoria groaned in her pillow and wrapped it around her ears, failing to ignore the music that woke her up just mere seconds ago. It was far too early for Dean to be calling her, she reasoned. Why couldn’t he wait at least another hour more?

 

I got a feeling~

 

Then again, she did ask him to call her as soon as he could. The boy didn’t answer the whole day yesterday, which worried her, and his hasty ‘very busy sry’ didn’t make her any calmer.

 

That tonight’s gonna be a good night~

 

In the end, her worry won her over. Victoria yawned and began to float, her face still facing downwards — she was too lazy to bother performing such inhuman feats as rolling over, and it wasn’t like her mom was here to scold her for flying inside the house.

 

That tonight’s gonna be a-

 

Her blindly-grasping limb finally found the offending noisemaker. She didn’t bother stifling another yawn as she finally answered her phone, “Dean? Wha-”

 

H-Hey, Vicky, I’m sorry if I woke you up but I only just got some time to call you. So, uh.” Victoria heard a faint exhalation. “Hi? ” She was surprised by how… meek he sounded. Not panicked, but definitely distressed.

 

Victoria sat up, sleep utterly forgotten. “What happened and who do I punch?” She glanced at the window, wondering if she could sneak out without anyone noticing. The digital clock on her nightstand displayed 6:49 AM and holy fuck was she not in the mood for school right now.

 

No one, Vicky, I’m fine,” Dean answered tiredly. “...Physically, at least.” Another faint breath, as if he was psyching himself up for something.

 

“Physically. Not mentally?” Victoria frowned.

 

I’m out of town.

 

…What? His abrupt answer threw her in for a loop. Didn’t they plan on going to the movies tomorrow? “You’re… What?” She quietly asked.

 

As in, I moved.

 

Victoria’s stomach dropped. Moved? Moved away? Away from the Bay? No, this couldn’t be happening…

 

She clutched her phone harder. “What do you mean… ‘moved’?” She failed to hide the sudden waver in her voice.

 

I-I didn’t even know we were moving until yesterday. I tried calling you earlier but father just grabbed my phone and sent me packing.” Dean sighed. “I’m so sorry, Vicky.

 

Cold realization settled over Victoria. “You’re not coming back.” His parents weren’t the nicest, even if they pretended to be for appearances’ sake. She knew they took advantage of him dating a hero, for example — she wasn’t stupid. But what caused them to leave so readily?

 

The silence stretched.

 

I don’t know,” Dean finally said. “I- maybe they’ll let us visit each other? I really don’t know. Fuck.

 

Yeah. Fuck.

 

Victoria rested her head against the back of the bed. “Why?” She had her suspicions. “And where are you now? Boston?”

 

New York,” he answered glumly, and Victoria’s eyes widened at the distance. “As for why… Remember how I told you about my parents freaking out about Browbeat? ” A pause. “Yeah.

 

“Wait, did they take you out of the Wards?!” She asked with incredulity — she couldn’t imagine herself staying calm if she were told she could no longer be a hero. Getting grounded was always temporary, but cancellation? A full-on ban? She’d fight against it, hard.

 

No.” Oh. “Director Piggot arranged for my body double to participate in some of Brockton’s fake patrols for a few more weeks, at which point…

 

“...Your birthday comes soon after,” Victoria finished. Regardless of distance, she would visit to celebrate. Of that she was certain, all restrictions be damned.

 

Her eyes stung.

 

Yeah. I met Director Wilkins yesterday, and she said she’s ready to accept me into the Protectorate. Somewhere in early June, I think. Unless I’m still needed for the investigation.

 

“The what?”

 

She heard him hesitate. “I… There’s been something weird going on in a few of the city’s neighborhoods. Something that spooked even the local Elite branch. Director Wilkins mentioned that my power could be of use, so I agreed to help.” He scratched his temple. “I’m, uh, not really supposed to talk about it, but I’m basically part of a secret operation now. Not that I know much yet — they’re keeping most details under wraps.

 

Victoria blinked. “Wow. I can’t even imagine…” She trailed off. “Please don’t get hurt.”

 

That’s the plan,” he agreed. “Wish you were here too, though.” The tone was meant to inject a bit of levity into the conversation, but…

 

“Yeah…” Victoria answered. “Well, that’s…” She couldn’t say ‘good’. She just… couldn’t. Victoria knew that it was good for him objectively — the New York branch was the biggest one! The most famous! Heck, Dean’s now living out his superpowered detective fantasies! People need him! — But her feelings said otherwise; her stupid, selfish feelings. “I’m happy for you,” she said. A sob had almost escaped her then.

 

Vicky…” Dean trailed off. She knew that he knew she was lying.

 

“Shut up, just… Why did you have to go?” She whined.

 

A sigh. “I just told you why.” He paused again. “Look, Vicky, do you honestly think I wanted this?

 

“...No.”

 

Exactly.

 

“But you still transferred.” Victoria sniffled. “I know that they need the Ward’s agreement for that stuff. I’ve done my research, Dean.”

 

Vicky…” He did it again.

 

“Don’t ‘Vicky’ me, Dean! You agreed! You didn’t have to, but you did! You could’ve stayed!” She forced herself to lower her voice after the wall separating her and Amy’s room was knocked on from the other side. “You could’ve stayed…”

 

It was either that or getting banned from cape stuff completely!

“You could’ve easily stayed as a vigilante or something!”

 

Not everyone has the ability to fly, Vicky. I can’t sneak out without someone noticing.” Okay, now he was just being ridiculous!

 

“You know I can carry you just fine, Dean! You don’t need flight when I could just pick you up instead.”

 

Dean, for his part, huffed. “Either way, father would’ve skinned me alive for going against him. You know how he is.” Yes. She knew.

 

“You co-”

 

Vicky.” His voice sounded full of exasperation and defeat. “Just stop. I’m sorry. I really am.

 

A tear rolled down Victoria’s cheek, and then another. She didn’t answer.

 

She heard him take a deep breath. “I'll understand if you want to... end things.” Her heart skipped a beat. “Between us.

 

“No!” She shouted. “No. Please, I- We can do long-distance?”

 

I’d like that.” Both of them exhaled. “I wish I could’ve warned you sooner.” A faint knock was heard a second after. “Shit. One second.

 

The small exchange that followed wasn’t loud enough to hear through the phone. Victoria did recognize Mary’s voice, though; the Stansfields’ live-in maid. So the whole family moved, then? What about his father’s business?

 

A door closed, and Dean was back on the phone. “Sorry, uh. They’re waiting for me. Breakfast. I’ll… call you later?

 

“Yeah,” Victoria whispered. She didn’t want this call to end. But the universe didn’t care about feelings, she knew that now intimately well. “Okay. I love you.”

 

I love you too, Vicky. Bye.

 

“Bye.”

 

The call had ended, and Victoria curled up in her bed. Hiding beneath the sheets, she let the dam finally break.

Chapter Text

Taylor

Now

 

The arcade visit two days ago went off without a hitch, culminating in a short stop at the prize counter near the entrance. According to the attendant, the selection was expanded last weekend, which definitely seemed to be the case considering how interested the Dallons looked. The reward that gained most of Amy’s attention was a Cthulhu plushie, nearly two feet tall and aquamarine in color, overlooking its gaming domain from the safety of the top shelf. We swiped that one immediately.

 

Lisa, of course, had her eyes on a smug-looking fox, sharing its grin when I handed it to her. While I found the thing cute as well, the one I liked even more was a similarly-sized flannel moth sitting next to it. It was just so damn fluffy, the floppy antennae especially!

 

We’d gotten it as well. Obviously.

 

I expected Victoria to get a plush too, what with our collective haul from Skee-Ball, Depth Crawler and that blasted punching machine, but she was fine with just two starburst hair clips, silently watching us with an oddly soft smile.

 

During the walk back home after stuffing our mouths at a pizza place, Victoria spotted some space warping and flew on ahead to investigate. The three of us found her talking to Vista with a forlorn expression, Kid Win floating above on his hoverboard in an ever-expanding circle. According to Amy, the green-clad Shaker knew Victoria’s boyfriend as well, and had apparently taken his move nearly as badly as the older blonde herself. She certainly appeared rather rigid; way less cheerful than the media showed. Their hug didn’t help much, either, so this was pretty serious.

 

I was still far too unsure about my judgment of the Wards; my feelings mixed and shifting, so many of them negative. Ultimately, I resorted to standing at a distance, stewing in my thoughts with Lisa and Amy keeping me company. At least I wasn’t alone then, because otherwise I’d have just left.

 

The chat didn’t last long, as the Wards were ordered to keep going. I wasn’t surprised much when Victoria decided to tag along with them — she was quite enthusiastic with her coaching back at the arcade. I figured she still needed to punch something, and as long as she was careful? Beating down on gang members sounded pretty therapeutic.

 

Thus, it was just us three, left to our own devices.

 

Of course, arriving at my home with no supervision whatsoever, we did what any group of three perfectly sane teenage girls would do in our situation: kick off a lengthy discussion featuring numerous crimes against nature.

 

…Okay, not really. Almost.

 

In reality, me and Lisa spent a good twenty minutes catching Amy up on my power. While she did know the basics already, the fact that I could combine thorns into spikes was still new to her, for one — I was far from verbose back when I told her of our Empire encounter.

 

Another discovery was a formula, courtesy of Lisa — a fruit of experimentation, boredom and curiosity. It described how long it would take for me to summon a brand new thorn: for each one already active, the time was essentially doubled. Though I still had yet to memorize the effect spikes had on the equation, I knew from all my testing that the lowest was eight tenths of a second.

 

Victoria would’ve found this fascinating, there was no doubt about it, however I was set on avoiding any mention of my powers to anyone beyond my teammates. This was, of course, common sense — like with most capes that weren’t unmasked, my team and I benefited from anonymity; the incredibly powerful ability to lead a double life. Were said anonymity threatened, anyone close to us would be in danger by default, and that extended to ourselves tenfold — in costume or not, it didn’t matter.

 

It wouldn’t be hard for the blonde Dallon to slip up somewhere, considering how prone she was to gossip about everything. And it didn’t even have to be with civilians — just her mom would be more than enough to screw things up. Amy would get yelled at, and probably grounded until college. Judging from her stories, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to expect her to get banned from associating with us, either — we were encouraging the healer to be more creative with her powers.

 

Regardless, with the catchup completed, I suggested testing a new interaction: Lisa and Amy’s powers, merged within a spike. I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities ever since Amy pointed out her biokinesis, thinking of different ways the combination could express itself: would it focus on Lisa’s intelligence, offering ideas for augmenting brains? Draw from her ‘intuition’, granting even more innate knowledge of any living matter touched? Lean towards Amy’s potential, showing ways of optimizing even the most complex of organs? Something completely different?

 

A bit of everything, apparently.

 

Amy had christened it a ‘tech tree’, a term I remembered hearing from several of Greg Veder’s monologues, both her and Lisa’s excitement skyrocketing once I described my sensations in full. Touching a grape with the spike caused a web of options to bloom in my mind, some of them unavailable and locked behind others. I could make the small fruit bigger, replace all of its insides with seeds, remove the insides entirely, apply an addictive effect… Not counting the unavailable ones, there were at least twenty changes I could select from and, considering the ‘test subject’, it felt like barely even scratching the surface.

 

My first attempt was to enlarge the grape, and it was only then that I noticed the price — each alteration had one, marked by varying, vague feelings of volume. There were also fractions, but I ignored them for the time being, focusing on selecting enough biomass within the grape in my hand. The price for enlargement was small, about half of my subject in total, and, as soon as I had confirmed it, the aforementioned half disappeared.

 

…And then began growing back. And so did the grape after that. Amy’s face was priceless as she stared at the resulting fruit. Lisa’s evil cackles only added to the effect — the grape was the size of an apple, yet it was just as dense as before. Amy called my power bullshit, Lisa demanded a taste, and that was as far as we’d gotten thanks to Victoria crashing the party.

 

In hindsight, it was getting late, though we were still annoyed by the delay.

 

…Which brought us to now, two days later, Amy at my door; a tote bag over her shoulder, anticipation in her eyes. She was wearing a black Linkin Park shirt and a pair of denim jeans, sporting several holes that were probably intentionally made. While I never really got the point of that trend, she was certainly rocking the look.

 

“C’mon, let’s do this. Where’s Lisa?”

 

“Upstairs. Did you bring me some biomass?”

 

“Duh.” Amy tapped at her bag. “You’re doing the groceries next time.”

 

I snorted and let her in, beelining towards the stairs. Two long days of waiting only made us more eager to continue.

 

While I and Lisa could’ve technically kept going, Amy was part of the team, and her power was part of the interaction. Even if I could resummon any previously-existing constructs, I still would’ve felt pretty bad, testing it without her.

 

Then again, I couldn’t, so the point was moot regardless.

 

We stepped into my room, and Lisa looked up from her laptop.

 

“Took you long enough. Sup.” She glanced at the bag and grinned. “You’ve come prepared, I see.”

 

“Not like I’m letting you two violate nature without me.”

 

“Oh?” The blonde raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re more than welcome to join.”

 

I didn’t need to see Amy’s face to know that she rolled her eyes. “Screw you, Lisa. Scooch. What are you up to, anyway?”

 

“Oh, you know…” Lisa drawled with smugness, eyeing me and Amy as we sat by her sides on the bed. This thing was designed for one person, so Lisa getting squished was inevitable.

 

Not that any of us minded, really — those new wine-red fox-themed pajama bottoms made her even softer than usual. Though she could’ve gone without stealing the owl shirt from my wardrobe…

 

“...You’re hacking the PRT again, aren’t you,” Amy guessed, exasperated.

 

“Guilty,” was Lisa’s answer.

 

Amy sighed. “God damnit.”

 

“To be fair,” I commented, “what she’s doing is useful. We need all the info we can get, and we can’t be everywhere at once.” ‘Yet’, I avoided saying. I’d think of something, eventually — having more range would be invaluable for our safety.

 

“Also, without me, you wouldn’t have known about Acrid,” Lisa pointed out, still tapping away at her keyboard. “He might just be a theory, but better safe than sorry, right?”

 

She kept on periodically switching between several command prompt windows, mostly just keeping an eye on them as she rifled through PHO. And that was without even mentioning the dozens of browser tabs opened — I would’ve gotten a migraine just by trying to find the right one.

 

Amy groaned in response. “Yeah, I guess…” She paused for a moment. “Still feels…”

 

“Wrong to do this? Sure. It might, but think of it this way: Coil is also in on this — I’m just leveling the playing field.” The Thinker huffed in annoyance, refreshing the page yet again. “Even with this, we’re at a massive disadvantage. Probably always will be, unless we get an anti-Thinker.” Which would be dangerous in its own right, most likely. “And we still need to deal with the mercs, and the Undersiders  — wow, feels weird to say that — and whoever else the fucker has on retainer.” She rolled her neck. “Lots to do, that’s for sure.”

 

I squeezed Lisa’s free hand.

 

Humming in acknowledgement, Amy leaned back against the headboard. “Do we even have a plan for him yet?” Another pause. “‘Cause I’m helping too.”

 

I flashed a grateful smile at her, to which she answered with a shug. Even though she’d already agreed to join our team, I was still reasonably worried that she’d refuse to help with Coil. Hearing that she was willing to pitch in… It was like a weight being lifted from my chest. With her, we might actually stand a chance. With her, we had options.

 

Lisa, though, looked conflicted. That wasn’t a good sign.

 

“Amy…” she began. The softness of her voice surprised me. “You don’t have to do this. Really, you don’t have to.”

 

…What? I mean, she was right, but… why use such a tone? Did I not pick up on something?

 

Clearly, I didn’t, because Lisa’s words seemed to have struck a nerve.

 

“I’m helping. Shut up.” Amy was almost growling, her freckles scrunched up in annoyance. “Shut up or I’ll mute you,” she added. What did I not see?

 

To that, Lisa just sighed, then passed her laptop to me. She turned around on her side, facing Amy’s glare head-on.

 

“Amy.”

 

What.

 

“Coffee shop.”

 

“What?”

 

I blinked, not following as well. Was this the monster thing again?

 

…No, doubt it. We haven’t yet done any testing. Was it something about Coil? Fuck, I didn’t know.

 

“Remember what I told you in the coffee shop, Amy. The first thing, not the second.”

 

Hmm, ‘Coffee shop’… What else did Lisa mention? Shitty adoptive mother? Fear of turning evil? Fear of earning a kill order? Fear of us leaving for..?

 

Oh.

 

“Taylor already got it,” Lisa said, confirming my guess. “Remember who you are — a person, not a power.”

 

“Yeah, Amy, we’re still here.” I reached over and touched her hand, partially hidden by the crossing of her arms. “We won’t leave. Promise.” Not like Emma. Never like Emma.

 

Amy looked away.

 

“I don’t want you boarding the ‘fuck Coil’ train in an attempt to be fucking useful,” Lisa continued, now serious, and I found myself nodding to her. “Nor of obligation, for that matter. Of..? From..? Ugh, fuck grammar. Moving on.”  She sighed. “I’m only okay with you contributing if you actually, genuinely want to. Because, reminder — you don’t have to. We won’t suddenly run off. I get that living with Brandish made you think that you’re just a tool, but that’s not how people work.” A pause. “Well, some do. Not us, though.”

 

“But-”

 

“No buts, don’t even think about it. Yes, your power is bullshit. Yes, it’s extremely useful. But if you don’t want to help out, then don’t. Will I be annoyed? A bit, but I’ll respect the choice, and I’ll deal.” Lisa shrugged with one arm. “Always have. Got it?”

 

Amy groaned again, both eyes closed this time. “You and your words. Jesus.”

 

“Thinker five~” Lisa grinned. “And Trump. And Stranger, somehow.” She shook her head, chuckling. “Dunno what they’re on, but I want some.”

 

Amy’s lips have quirked upwards. “Still not sure where the Stranger bit came from.”

 

Before we got completely derailed, I poked her in the shoulder. “Are you okay now?” I asked, not wanting to leave this unresolved.

 

“Yeah. I guess,” she grumbled. “I still want to help you, though.”

 

“Want?”

 

“Want.”

 

“Okay,” I agreed. “And thank you.” I just hoped she knew what she’d signed up for…

 

She shot me a lazy thumbs up, then sat up, opening her eyes again. “Carol talked about you two yesterday, by the way.” Oh. Oh dear.

 

Amy was smirking now, though, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Right?

 

I was still mildly annoyed that we couldn't just text about this, but all of us have agreed to keep the cape stuff as secret as possible. If even one of us wasn’t careful enough…

 

“Hmm? Oh.” Lisa arched her eyebrows. “Interesting.”

 

I rolled my eyes and lightly elbowed her in the ribs.

 

“Et tu, Taylor?”

 

I sighed. “Just let her talk, Lise. And stop using your power for everything — we still need it for the experiments.” I looked at the laptop on my lap. “Oh, should I..?”

 

“Nah, gimmie. There. Not much new info yet, anyway.” She closed the device and handed it to Amy.

 

“What do you want me to do with this?”

 

You’re the closest to the nightstand.”

 

“You can reach it too, you know.”

 

“Yes, but I’m lazy.”

 

“You think I’m not?”

 

Suffice it to say, I burst into giggles. This was just all too much.

 

 

“...And I just sat there with a shitty poker face. Nobody noticed, I think. Fingers crossed?”

 

Amy’s tale of her mother’s antics was as entertaining as it was concerning. Mostly due to her paranoia, and her urgent warning to steer clear of Nebula. According to Lisa, the PRT logs didn’t link her two identities outright, but the info Amy gave contradicted that — Brandish was informed by Armsmaster himself. That, of course, resulted in her alerting both Amy and Victoria, as she ‘didn’t want them to fall prey to the whims of an enemy Thinker’.

 

Lisa appeared amused by it, but I could tell that she was worried too.

 

“Welp. Better than having Halbeard showing up on our doorstep again.”

 

Amy blinked. “Wait, what?”

 

“That was right after Sophia.”

 

“Yeah, he came with Miss Militia,” I clarified. “It’s how I got into Arcadia, actually.”

 

“Huh,” Amy managed. “That explains it.” She chuckled. “I like how you maimed a bitch and they still gave you a transfer.”

 

I pressed my lips into a straight line. “She was one of my bullies. And I let them read my diary.”

 

“Wait, you have a diary?”

 

“Sorta? They took it for evidence. And it wasn’t what you would expect it to be — just a daily log of all their ‘pranks’. There wasn’t much else to write about.”

 

“Oh,” Amy said. “Sorry.” She huffed in annoyance. “I’d hug you but Lisa’s in the way. Blame her.”

 

A giggle escaped me. “Sure, I forgive you.”

 

Lisa, meanwhile, gasped. “You can climb over just fine, you know.”

 

“That implies laborious movements,” Amy retorted. “I came here to flip off Mother Nature, not… move. Eugh.”

 

Lisa and I shared a glance. I could just… Oh, yep, she’s gotten the same idea.

 

Some shuffling later, and the problem was no more.

 

“Better?” I asked Amy, with Lisa now behind me. The former had simply shrugged, then rolled into my embrace.

 

Being hugged by both of them, at the same time, was just… wonderful. All of my stress vanished, if only for a moment. Lisa and Amy, too, seemed to agree with my judgment, almost melting into me, no longer as tense.

 

Amy was the first one to break the cozy silence, her voice slightly muffled by my shoulder. “Weren’t you there too, Lisa?”

 

“Wh-”

 

“During their visit. Did they not question you?”

 

“Ha! If they did, I’d not be here right now,” Lisa answered smugly, and I could hear her grin. “No, don’t worry, I hid. They never even saw me~”

 

“Maybe that’s where the Stranger rating came from?” I joked.

 

Lisa snorted. “Doubt it.”

 

“Hmm.” Amy grimaced. “You think they will come back?”

 

Lisa’s grip became rigid. “I sure fucking hope not.”

 

Once again, I felt tension in the air, mixed with a fog of silence. We had far too many enemies to make plans against already, and adding the Protectorate to that list felt wrong… And yet, we had to, didn’t we? Coil would surely exploit them. Pull some strings in the PRT, cause some effect by proxy, catch us unawares…

 

I shuddered.

 

“Um, how about we continue where we left off?” I summoned a thorn next to each of them, ending the double hug. “Not like we’re gonna fight Armsmaster.” And we needed a distraction. And resources. And weapons…

 

“Please don’t jinx us like last time, Taylor.” Like last..? Oh, right, the Coil mercs.

 

“Sorry?”

 

Lisa just waved me off. “It’s fine, best not to dwell on it.”

 

As she said that, I reached over Amy for her bag. Oddly enough, her plush was here too. “Why’d you bring Cthulhu?” I asked.

 

Amy frowned momentarily, but then seemed to remember something. “Carol kept glaring at him, so I figured I’d leave him here. Better than having him taken away for tinkertech analysis.”

 

…What.

 

“Did you put anything inside him?” Lisa asked with an eyebrow raised.

 

“No..? The fuck?”

 

The Thinker shrugged. “Just asking. Thought maybe you’d smuggled some biomass.”

 

“That’s what the apples are for,” Amy deadpanned. “And Taylor can grow more if needed. I’m not about to start gutting toys, Lisa.”

 

“That’s actually a good idea,” I murmured.

 

…And now they’re staring at me.

 

“Taylor, sweetie, what the fuck?” Lisa queried.

 

“Well, we could trap them? Or something? Just in case?”

 

“The last time you made a trap, its victim lost their ambidexterity privileges.” …Low blow.

 

“Yeah, well… Yeah. But more options is good!”

 

Lisa just softly facepalmed, exchanging a glance with Amy. Why did they not agree? We weren’t completely safe here.

 

“How about we stick to… tamer stuff, for now? Weaponizing plushies sounds like a last resort to me. At least start with entrances or something, I dunno.”

 

Amy sighed. “Flipping off Mother Nature is more tame? …Yeah. Somehow, it is. God, you two are impossible.” She grabbed an apple. “Fuck it.”

 

 

In. Out.

 

In. Out.

 

In. Out.

 

Knot… Done.

 

Another hole repaired. Hopefully the last one — my fingers were getting numb… Looking over the costume, that seemed to be the case. Phew.

 

So far, the session was a success. Yes, I was nursing a Thinker migraine from Lisa/Amy spike overuse, and yes, we didn’t make anything sentient, but we still grew a bunch of cool things that will be useful in costume and out. This was also a nice exercise in designing stuff with Nymph’s theme, as we had to make a clear distinction between her and Panacea.

 

A good example would be the caltrop plant we created: its caltrops were green and purple, and pyramidal in shape. Well, with small thorns — not mine, the plant kind — sticking out from each point, but the comparison still worked. Each caltrop had many smaller iterations inside, connected to the previous ones through the aforementioned thorns. Much to Lisa’s chagrin, Amy insisted on calling them ‘fractrops’.

 

I liked it, at least.

 

Additionally, Lisa suggested making them glow in reverse proportion to their size — nothing too noticeable in a fight, but easily identifiable when you knew what to look for. The idea was that Nymph’s power had to make at least some part of every plant glowy, even already existing ones if she needed to touch them for something.

 

Of course, having a very conspicuous plant would be just asking for trouble — even dad would notice, and I didn’t want that to happen. That was why, a handful of internet searches later, we decided on making the thing into a blue moonstone succulent instead — the fractrops would grow inside its leaves, which could be peeled apart like an orange, or an onion. As long as I kept it at my desk, the lamp and fairy lights would keep it alive.

 

Low watering requirements, too. I couldn’t say no to that.

 

Currently, the caltrop plant was one of our two only renewable creations, with the small potted fern at my nightstand being the other. That was a potent anti-paralytic, mostly to counteract my new combat knife. It also worked with the Venus handcuffs I came up with, and most other conventional paralytic substances. Rubbing several leaves on the affected area was, usually, more than enough. For stronger and/or full-body impairments, though, the recommended course of action was ingestion.

 

There were some annoyances, however: the glow rule, for example, meant that the knife needed to glow at least sometimes, and I really didn’t want that to be the case. The compromise we settled on in the end was applying bioluminescence to the paralytic agent instead, causing it to only light up when not on the knife itself. Theoretically, it’d also help me track my target, as each cut would leave a softly-glowing golden mark regardless of if it struck flesh or not.

 

…Might have to think of a way to prevent it from glowing while on me, though. Close-quarters combat could be quite messy, and allowing enemies to partake in the tracking aspect was far from the best of ideas.

 

Stretching in the desk chair, I stowed away the needle, placing it in the storage compartment of the silk generator nearby. It was still far from ideal, but even in its current iteration it saved us a trip to Parian — refill with biomass, put in the needle, have it auto-threaded and feel free to sew. While what we had now sufficed for repairs, I was already thinking of upgrades: tentacles with silk glands on each one, perhaps, having them work in tandem with each other? Would let me control the thing via power instead of manually, too.

 

Much like the patched-up costumes, I hid the bottle-shaped artifact far from prying eyes, then stood up, looking at the bed. Two pairs of eyes stared back.

 

“Any luck with the mushrooms?” I asked, sitting down next to my teammates.

 

“Nah,” Amy answered, yawning. “I’ll finish ‘em some other time.”

 

I yawned as well, followed by Lisa. “Fair.” Speaking of whom…

 

“We may need your input, Tay,” she said, then gestured to the thing stretched over her and Amy’s legs.

 

Looking at the plant-based barebones of a robe, I shook my head. “Not now. Later?” It was far from done, and I was pretty exhausted… The migraine, too, had yet to fully recede. I couldn't imagine how she dealt with them near-daily.

 

The Thinker blinked, then nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” She stretched, arching her spine.

 

“Wait, we’re done?” Amy asked, bewildered. She was definitely the one who had the most fun out of all of us.

 

“We can pick this back up later?” I offered.

 

She looked at the robe, frowned for a split second, shrugged, then flopped backwards, bonelessly. “Eh.”

 

“Guess that’s Amy for ‘yes’,” Lisa commented.

 

Lightly, I smiled at nothing in particular, but then noticed the costume melting into one big glob of goo. “Uh. Amy?” That was her doing, right?

 

“Hm? Oh. Don’t mind that.” She waved me off.

 

Lisa saw my confusion first. “She can remember it, dork. Rebuilding shouldn’t be hard.” Oh, okay, right. Better than keeping even more obvious tinkertech, I supposed. And this wa- “Yes, Taylor, this counts. Wet tinkertech, but still. Also, ow.” …Thinkers.

 

Amy poked her in the arm. “Stop thinking.”

 

I nodded in agreement, then reached for another apple. Huh, only two left?

 

We sat in silence for another solid minute before Amy turned her head to look at what I’d been making. “Are those gummy worms?” She asked, propping herself up on one elbow.

 

I made them wiggle in my hands, courtesy of Amy’s power. “Yup.” My current goal was to make the flavor reminiscent of Fruit Gushers. The fact that I was playing around with fruit tissue helped a bit.

 

She rolled her eyes and reached over, touching one and blinking. “Not bad. I’d do a few things differently, though.” Well, I sure wouldn’t mind some more tips.

 

I let her confiscate my potentially-biohazardous treats, then restored physical contact between them and Amy’s thorn. Oh, I did miss a few things, interesting…

 

Lisa cleared her throat. “If you two are gonna do that I’ll be obligated to sing the song to annoy you.” She was watching the gummy worms too, mildly put off by their squirming.

 

Amy, being Amy, made them wiggle even more in response.

 

“I warned you!” Lisa pointed accusingly.

 

“And I don’t care,” Amy answered with a grin. “Hell, I can even start for you.”

 

“Oh god, what did I do,” I heard Lisa whisper through her hands.

 

Ignoring my own chuckle, Amy sat up a bit straighter and started: “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me. Guess I’ll go eat worms!~”

 

Lisa groaned.

 

“Come- on- Lisa and- join- the- fucking song,” Amy sang to the tune, “Look at them wiggle and squirm!~”

 

I giggled.

 

Midway through tormenting Lisa — who was doubly annoyed by Amy getting one of the lines wrong ‘on purpose’ — we collectively heard the front door closing, heralding dad’s arrival and spurring us to clean up.

 

“I’m home!” He announced from below. “With pizza!” That got our attention.

 

“Didn’t we tell him that we had pizza two days ago?” Lisa asked me. “Ow!”

 

Amy, after casually elbowing her, offered a piece of wisdom: “Never say no to free pizza.”

 

As someone who enjoyed it as well, I slowly nodded in agreement. Then I stood up to shout, “Coming!”

 

Once we double-checked my room yet again, we made our way to the bathroom.

 

An emergency appetite refresh and one flight of stairs later, we were settling into our places at the kitchen table with gusto. I was glad that dad brought two pizzas instead of one, because every single one of us was positively ravenous.

 

“Hello again, Amy,” dad greeted. “Have you girls been having fun?”

 

Both me and the healer shared a glance and looked at Lisa.

 

“Yes,” she answered dryly, pointedly ignoring our grins. “Tons. Loads, even.”

 

“Turnabout is fair play,” Amy commented, sticking her tongue out victoriously.

 

“What did you two d-” As dad’s gaze wandered to me, he did a double-take and frowned. “Taylor, why are your eyes… greener?” Huh. He noticed.

 

Amy’s offer to fix my eyes came out of left field, in my opinion — she was fiddling with her mushrooms at the time, while I was trying out more different spike-made modifications. Still, I took her up on it in the end. Though I always liked wearing glasses, enjoying their mask-like feeling of protection, my poor vision made me reliant on them, which my tormentors used to their benefit. On numerous occasions I couldn’t do anything but lay there, unable to fight back because I couldn’t see a thing. And yes, the bitches were gone — hopefully forever — but still, I had to be careful… I didn’t have any willingness to become a target again.

 

Lisa, naturally, saw how torn I was on the decision. Her suggestion was to, instead of fixing my eyes outright, make them adaptive. I instantly agreed, as it offered the best of both worlds — the continued ability to wear glasses as well as perfect vision whether I had them on or not.

 

…As for the color change, that was originally an Amy slip-up, but I asked for her to just roll with it — both her and Lisa’s eyes were much prettier than my boring brown. Lisa’s were a darker shade of green, quite like an empty wine bottle, while Amy’s were almost yellow, comparable to sun-soaked grass. I opted for something in the middle of the two, keeping a bit of the brown on the outer part of the iris.

 

Now, then, how to explain this… Truth would probably work fine.

 

“Amy healed my vision, and…” Right, uh. Color. Fine, small lie it is. “...that’s a side-effect?” I turned to Amy.

 

“Yup,” she answered tersely.

 

“Oh.” Dad blinked. “I see.”

 

Lisa snorted.

 

Trying not to groan, I reached for a slice of pizza.

 

Somehow, dad wasn’t as easily misled. “Why are you still wearing glasses, then?” He asked me, motioning with his own slice.

 

“Uh.” Succinctly put, Taylor. That wasn’t suspicious at all.

 

“They’re adaptive,” Amy almost whispered. I could see how much it pained her to reveal that.

 

Dad turned to look at her. “Huh. You can do that?”

 

She just nodded, looking at her food. “Please don’t tell Carol.”

 

Dad, thankfully, didn’t prod much further. “Okay, I won’t,” he nodded and took a bite. When he swallowed, though… “Oh, by the way, I spoke with her.”

 

Lisa choked on her soda, and Amy stopped moving at all.

 

“What do you mean, you ‘spoke with her’?” I asked.

 

“Well, she called me during my break, curious both about me and who Amy was spending her time with…” An audible gulp could be heard from the healer’s location. “...Which is why she’ll be coming over tomorrow for dinner. Her husband and daughters are invited too, of course.”

 

My appetite withered and died irrevocably.

 

“Fuck,” Lisa summed up our thoughts.

Chapter Text

Reaction 3.2

Amy

 

I sat in the car with crossed arms and a scowl, channeling my anxiety into anger at the world around me.

 

Of course everything had to go to shit. Of fucking course! As soon as things started to get better, as soon as the universe noticed me having fun, of course it had to sic Carol on me! Can’t let monstrous, evil Amy enjoy herself, no! That would be totally and utterly unacceptable!

 

Oh, Amy actually got friends for once in her miserable life? Well shit, gotta go yell at her! Can’t have that be happening!

 

Oh, Amy went with them to unwind at the arcade? Crank the glare dial all the way up! And spare some for the toy — it must be evil somehow!

 

Oh, Amy used her power and it was not to heal somebody? And she liked it? Heresy! Time to ruin everything, because goddamn reasons!

 

Fuck this joke of an existence with a rake. Why di-

 

I flinched as a hand softly pressed against my shoulder. “Hey,” I heard from my right. Her voice was but a whisper.

 

What? ” I hissed at Vicky, my heart still beating a mile a minute. Even when not looking straight at her, I could see the soft glow coming from her phone. Was she not entertained enough by her boy toy?

 

“Whoa, Ames, no need to get so snippy.” The words carried amusement, but there was some hurt in there as well.

 

Still, I didn’t deign to respond, continuing my vigil by the window. Yet more fucking rain… How on-theme.

 

“You can’t ignore me all day, y’know.” Was that a challenge? “Amyyy…”

 

…And now she was shaking me. God damnit. With a sigh, I looked at her, glaring through my hair.

 

Right after my head turned, the concern on her face had retreated; just a bit. The corners of her lips rose upwards. “Told ya.”

 

I rolled my eyes.

 

“What’s with the brooding, sis?” She asked, still speaking quietly. “Aren’t you excited to see them again?” Usually, I would be, but…

 

Ugh, this felt like being driven to my execution. If any of us slipped up somehow, gave Carol more reason to dig deeper, how many days would I have until the inevitable reveal? And what would happen then? Her going ballistic would be pretty realistic.

 

Heh, that one rhymed.

 

God, I was so fucked.

 

Vicky was waving a hand now, right in front of my face.

 

“Stop that,” I ordered. She stopped, but the worry was still there…

 

I really needed to say something.

 

“It’s nothing.” Eh, too short. Clipped. “Don’t worry about it.” Better.

 

“Liar.” She tilted her head. “What’s the matter, Ames? Tell me?” Oh, if only…

 

Hm. How would Vicky react to me joining another team behind her back? Playing around with my powers in ways that would give Carol an aneurysm?

 

Well, the latter she’d most likely be okay with — I still remembered her giggles from the time when we messed around with a stray cat. That was a month or two after my trigger, before I got signed up for hospital duty, and Carol had obviously spotted the glow right away, yelling at me to revert it. But Vicky was still on my side, annoyed by the ban on experimentation. Had she learned of my exploits, she’d probably support me.

 

What of the former, though…

 

Betrayed. She’d feel betrayed. Betrayed, left out, abandoned. I didn’t want that to happen — she was still getting over Dean leaving. Maybe I’d tell her, someday, but definitely not today. A week? A month? A year away from now? This was a thing left for future Amy to worry about.

 

Provided I survived today’s ordeal, of course. And that meant I needed an exc-

 

“Did you have a fight with them or something?” …Eh?

 

“What? Where’d you get that from?” I asked while still trying to think of a proper reply.

 

In response, Vicky crossed her arms; playfully, unlike me. “You’re not giving me much to go by here.” A pause. “So it’s not them?”

 

I shook my head. “No.”

 

“So you are excited.”

 

“...Yes.”

 

“And there is something else that’s smothering my lovely little sister’s excitement?”

 

“N- What?” I mean, she wasn’t wrong.

 

A glance at Carol showed her still talking to Mark.

 

Huh, we were halfway there.

 

“Was it something at the hospital..?” Victoria continued.

 

“No, Vicky, stop. I’m- I’m just tired.” Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t a lie — I was, indeed, exhausted, and would rather curl up under a blanket. The only reason for why I hadn’t dozed off completely was my blood being suffused by caffeine and dread.

 

Thankfully, Vicky listened, but I didn’t think she believed me. She watched my face intently for a few more seconds before nodding, probably hoping that I’d reconsider my answer. A chime from the phone in her lap drew her attention, though, redirecting it from me.

 

I let out a silent breath. Dean actually being useful was not something I expected to happen.

 

I returned my gaze to the window, watching other cars pass by us until we stopped. The fallen raindrops glowed red, courtesy of yet another traffic light. So far, it wasn’t dark out, but the clouds still made things gloomier, highlighting the color as I stared at it; mind empty. Only by resuming the approach to Taylor’s household did the movement snap me out of my trance.

 

Taking a page out of my sister’s book, I extracted my phone from my jeans and unlocked it.

 

  EyeSea: Ames, help, we’ve created a monster.

  EyeSea: Taylor doesn’t want to switch off Animal Planet.

  EyeSea: It’s a 24 hour marathon, Amy, this is torture of the highest degree.

  PetitHibou: Why are you sitting in here instead of watching? Look at those fangs! Look at them!

  EyeSea: Oh god.

  PetitHibou: Amy would like this too, I think.

  EyeSea: Amy, please don’t agree with her.

  PetitHibou: Hey!

  PetitHibou: This is useful, you know! I got a bunch of new ideas already.

  EyeSea: That’s precisely the problem, Tay. Your ideas are *terrifying*.

  EyeSea: Aaand ad break’s over.

  EyeSea: Welp. (send help)

 

…How the hell did I miss that?

 

Slowly blinking, I started typing up some messages of my own.

 

  TwistedBriar: I’m just gonna ignore that

  TwistedBriar: we’re on the way

  TwistedBriar: almost there

 

Lisa, of course, answered almost immediately.

 

  EyeSea: Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  EyeSea: We’re ready, I think.

  EyeSea: You?

 

Absolutely not.

 

  EyeSea: I assume that’s a ‘no’..?

  TwistedBriar: are you kidding?

  TwistedBriar: obviously

  TwistedBriar: not, I mean

  TwistedBriar: obviously mot

  TwistedBriar: fguckl

 

My hands were shaking again. I took a deep breath, then another, trying to make it stop. Shit, we were already here- almost, but still. Fuck! Why the hell did Danny decide to invite her in the first place?!

 

Another message appeared.

 

  EyeSea: Everything will be ok.

 

Yeah, right.

 

  PetitHibou: We’ll be there too, Amy!

 

And probably catch a lightsaber to the face.

 

  PetitHibou: Oh, I see your car.

 

Shit!

 

“We’re here,” Carol announced.

 

 

“Hello!” Danny greeted us at the door, shuffling off to the side. “Come on in — the pork is almost done.” Not wanting to stay in the rain more than necessary, we took him up on the offer.

 

“Smoked?” Mark asked him, shaking off his umbrella.

 

Danny nodded. “Loin, yes.” He proffered a hand, which was met. “Daniel Hebert- oh, but please, call me Danny.”

 

I turned my attention to Carol.

 

Her lawyer face was on, with that fake polite smile to boot, analyzing Danny while stealing glances at her surroundings. The strip lights caught her attention, if her raised eyebrow was anything to go by; still, she didn’t comment on them, nodding and contributing to the introductions as they stretched on. So far, I could spot nothing out of the ordinary in her behavior, but I knew that it could change at any moment on a dime. All I could do was pray that Lisa had some kind of plan — diverting Carol’s attention, stalling until it was late, literally anything else…

 

…Where was Lisa, anyway? And Taylor, come to think of it.

 

Judging that I wasn’t needed, I slipped away to the kitchen; my sister left behind, distracted by some family pictures.

 

Huh, weird. Neither of them was here. The kitchen table was set, though, with silverware, plates, empty glasses and a salad bowl. The table itself was expanded as well — a second one was dragged in, placed flush against the first. Two people could fit at each side now.

 

The back door opening caught me off guard, making me flinch, but I relaxed a little after seeing who it was: Lisa sauntered in, wearing a simple green blouse and a skirt; her hair was done up in a bun, except for two locks framing her face from both sides. I waved and tried to smile, stepping closer to her, but judging by Lisa’s expression all I could manage was a grimace.

 

I stiffened for a moment as she closed the distance and hugged me, staying utterly silent and just standing there… breathing. That lavender scent of hers filled my lungs again, soothing my fraying nerves as I tried to ignore the voices from the front hall. All too soon, though, the hug was finally broken. Lisa took a step back, looking at me with a faint smile.

 

“Like I said, Amy, everything will be fine,” she reiterated, her eyes probing into mine. “And yes, I got a plan — you were there, remember?”

 

“But what if it won’t work?” I whispered, still nervous. Carol was too paranoid. “What if she still finds out?”

 

Lisa took a slow breath, leaning against the doorframe. “If it won’t work, that’s what the contingencies are for. Not like we’d just let her take everything out on you.”

 

With a short hum of acknowledgement I glanced behind me, just in case. Everyone else had moved into the living room, and I could hear someone opening drawers. Danny, probably.

 

As I turned back to Lisa, I found the Thinker frowning. “You were at the hospital again,” she stated, disappointment coloring her voice.

 

“Well, yeah..?” I needed to. I had to. What would people say if Panacea didn’t show up?

 

Lisa crossed her arms under her chest, still gazing at me. “Three- no, four hours today, five hours yesterda- seven and a half?! And- what the hell, Amy?! You can’t just replace breaks with coffee!” Wincing and annoyed, I opened my mouth to respond; yet, she continued, thankfully not loud enough for the others to hear. “Yes, yes, I know, pot meets kettle. Still! What would Taylor say if she were to analyze you? You’re barely standing!”

 

And, to add insult to injury, my stomach rumbled as well. Traitor.

 

Lisa sighed and shook her head. “Damnit, Amy.”

 

I huffed, crossing my arms too. “And what do you want me to do? Apologize? ‘Sorry for doing my job?’ Please.”

 

“I want you to actually look after yourself for once!” She hissed. “What you’re doing isn’t healthy!”

 

“Sure, Miss Aspirin Addict, go tell that to Carol!”

 

“Maybe I will!”

 

“G-” Uh. “Okay, um, wait. Maybe not?” I backpedaled. “She might take it badly.” I wasn’t forfeiting, just… thinking and acting logically!

 

“Hmm… Probably.” Lisa conceded. “Yeah, she would. Fuck.” She hummed in annoyance, her calculating look back in full force, tapping her cheek with her fingers as she thought. A handful of seconds later she seemed to have found a solution, nodding to herself and meeting my eyes with hers. “Look, how about this: we get the whole dinner thing over with, not get skewered by Lightsaber Lass-” I snorted. “-and I use the info I collect from her to try and find a way to help you. Sound good?” A pause. “Not now, obviously. Later.” She added with a wave of a hand.

 

“Wasn’t the info thing planned anyway?” I deadpanned, eyebrows raised. She’d probably add Carol to her conspiracy board after this.

 

“I’m me, so yes,” she confirmed with a grin. “Juicy secrets are juicy.”

 

“Right.” I sighed, then leaned against a nearby chair.

 

Remembering the way she had described her power to me, I wondered how she’d use it in her quest to right Carol’s wrongs: talk to her in private, drowning her in facts? Going loud and public, exposing her failings to the world? Resorting to blackmail, strong-arming her into submission? Manipulating from the shadows; somehow unseen yet victorious?

 

Oh. Victoria. Shit, she’d be affected too. Whatever Lisa’d come up with, she better not hurt her in the process.

 

“I’ll only go nuclear as a last resort,” Lisa answered before the request left my lips. I stifled a sigh, knowing full well that she was in for another migraine. “This is a tricky situation no matter how you spin it — you are her sister, after all. Whatever affects you is likely to affect her as well, so her getting caught up in it is pretty damn likely.”

 

“She didn’t notice all the bullshit you picked up on,” I pointed out, my voice bitter. That was, as always, a conflicting, annoying thought. On one hand, Vicky didn’t notice any of my feelings towards her, for which I was grateful because she’d never let me near her otherwise; on the other, it hurt quite a bit, knowing that she was so oblivious to not notice how Carol treated me. She might’ve had her own problems to focus on, I could understand that, but still.

 

“She’s not a Thinker, Amy. Also, she’s a happy-go-lucky teenager,” Lisa retorted. “Or, well, trying to still be one.”

 

I frowned. “‘Trying’?”

 

“Trying. Trying to still act cheerful after one of her fixtures all but disappeared.” Oh. “She’s still glued to her phone, right?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” The car ride to here was a perfect example.

 

“Case in point.” Lisa nodded. “Were she to lose contact with Dean completely, she’d either shut down or try punching her problems away. The cracks are there if you look hard enough.” Shit, should I try to talk to her or something? And did Lisa get all that from just the Arcade? “Either way, I’d prefer not to hurt her,” Lisa said with a nonchalant shrug. “I’d like to think of her as a potential friend, y’know?” She grinned. “How things change…”

 

Hesitantly, I nodded, still processing the information. “Okay,” I agreed. If anything, we could discuss more details later. “Where’s Taylor, by the way? She wasn’t with Danny, last I checked.”

 

I ignored Vicky’s doting “Aww!” from the living room.

 

“Oh, she’s out there. Keeping an eye on the food.” Lisa moved away from the doorframe, glancing at her phone. “I think it’s time. C’mon.” She opened the door to the backyard, still wet from the rain, stepping onto a small, roofed deck.

 

“Lisa, where’d you go? I sent you on a mission!”

 

Lisa cursed. “The plate!”

 

“Yes, Lisa. The plate,” Taylor deadpanned.

 

I chuckled as she sighed, watching Lisa run back inside, inhaling the scent of smoked meat and ignoring the void in my stomach.

 

“Hey, Amy.” Taylor waved from her perch near the smoker, tiredly. “Sorry, I was a bit busy. Food’s pretty much ready, so…” She trailed off with an apologetic expression.

 

“Nah, it’s whatever,” I waved her off and stepped closer, coughing into my fist due to the smoke coming out of the tube thing.

 

Inadvertently, my eyes were drawn to her legs, revealed to the world thanks to a nice blue-yellow sundress — something I didn’t expect Taylor to wear. She shifted under my gaze, clearly uncomfortable at the attention, tugging at a familiar coat that was draped across her shoulders.

 

“I’m underdressed, huh,” I stated, still staring.

 

“It is a bit much, isn’t it?” She said with an awkward smile, peeking into the smoker in an effort to avoid my eyes. “Lisa said we needed to dress up properly…”

 

I shook my head. “No! More like I’m not much. Or, uh… am less?” I reached out to poke her in the side. “Help, you’re the wordy one.”

 

“Wasn’t that supposed to be Lisa?” Her smile grew a bit.

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“Yeah, I do. I still think you look good, though.” …Why? I was literally wearing the same stuff from yesterday. Well, a different shirt, but still.

 

I crossed my arms in defiance. “And so do I. Deal with it.” Boom. There. And she better not complain!

 

She sighed theatrically and leaned against the railing. “Oh no, whatever shall I do.”

 

A few beats of silence passed.

 

“What do you wanna bet on Lisa getting caught in Hurricane Victoria?” I asked.

 

Taylor snorted. “She’ll have to enjoy munching on coals instead of meat, then.”

 

The door, miraculously, opened. “I’m back, I’m back, shut up.”

 

“Oh wow, you didn’t even get lost this time,” I snarked.

 

“Shush, you,” Lisa muttered. The panting blonde handed Taylor the dish, and soon the meal was relocated onto it.

 

Of course, when we started walking back to the door, the thing opened again, spitting out another blonde. “Oh my gosh, Tay, you looked so cute when you were little!” My sister cooed in delight. You could practically see the stars in her eyes.

 

…Tiny Taylor did sound cute, I had to admit. As one would expect, though, Taylor herself didn’t seem to agree.

 

“Wh- Ugh! Damnit, dad!” She sputtered.

 

We quickly followed the flustered girl inside.

 

 

I took another bite. God damn was this meat delicious. So far, I could simply enjoy it — no dangerous topics were broached. Sure, I was obviously still on edge — still secretly terrified that Carol would notice something — but food and reassuring glances from my friends have kept me grounded.

 

Yesterday, Danny was understandably caught off-guard by our reaction. I didn’t really know what he was thinking at that point — maybe that the Dallons were a perfectly functional family due to being heroes? Well, tough luck. We weren’t, not by a long shot. Regardless, Lisa explained to him our main hang-up with the visit — Carol being paranoid, and thus destined to be cautious of her. Surprisingly, it was Danny who came up with the best cover story in the end, suggesting that Lisa’s parents were on a business trip, hence her stay at the Heberts’.

 

Given that the house and its occupants were still intact, Carol had bought the fake story completely.

 

Of course, Lisa looking drastically different from her costumed appearance had also helped dispel Carol’s possibly-correct suspicions. And no, it wasn’t really a stretch for her to suspect the connection, in my opinion — the Armsmaster visit to our home was merely two days ago. She’d probably be actively wary of blonde teenage girls for another few weeks or so.

 

I took a long sip of soda.

 

“...Okay. And what about you, Amy?”

 

“Huh?” Shit, everyone was staring at me. Did I miss something important? 

 

Danny repeated his question: “What are your thoughts on Arcadia?”

 

“Oh. Uhm.” I gave him a shrug. “It’s good, I guess?” Not like I had anything else to compare to, other than what little Taylor told me of Winslow.

 

Danny blinked. “Well, yes, I would hope so.” A pause. “And the teachers?”

 

“I told you, dad, they’re fine,” Taylor whined. She was still embarrassed by the photos from earlier.

 

I just pointed at her. “What she said,” I stated. Why do they want me to talk? God, this was annoying. Uhh, let’s see… Right, stalling was good. I’d do that, then. “The worst I can think of is Mrs. Dukes, but she’s just strict. Fair, not mean.”

 

My sister nodded. “Yeah, she’s nice!” …Vicky, everyone’s nice to you.

 

Well, except for the nazis, but seriously, fuck those guys.

 

Danny furrowed his eyebrows as he nodded and looked at Taylor. “That’s the math teacher, right?”

 

“Yup.” She bit into some salad.

 

“I see.” He twirled his fork a bit. “Good.”

 

“Mr. Padilla could be better,” Taylor commented further, “but he’s okay too, I guess. And, before you ask — Computer class.” She shrugged. “I preferred Mrs. Knott.”

 

“Ah, I assume she’s from Winslow?” Carol asked.

 

“Yes, but… I’d rather not talk about it.”

 

I saw Lisa pat Taylor’s knee under the table while the others returned to their meals.

 

The awkward silence lasted a handful of seconds, only disrupted by the soft sounds of chewing and drinking. I grabbed a bit more pork, but didn’t eat more yet, just studying the reactions of Carol and Mark. Mark was, well, Mark — subdued, as always, and happy to stay in the quiet. Kinda like me, I supposed. Carol, though… She was currently thinking of something else to say, her stoic face slightly tinged by confusion, looking like she was trying to solve a difficult puzzle.

 

Finally, she turned to Lisa. “And what sort of school do you go to?” Carol asked.

 

“None, I got my GED,” Lisa answered while smiling politely. It was mildly amusing to see her act this way.

 

“Oh? When, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 

Lisa waved her hand. “About a year ago.”

 

“Impressive.”

 

Carol looked like she wanted to ask something else, but Mark was somehow faster. “What sort of hobbies do you girls have?”

 

Now that was a difficult one. I knew that he wasn’t asking me, just Lisa and Taylor, but all of us were too busy with cape stuff to have other hobbies. Saying that they had none would make them suspicious as hell. We did brainstorm a bit on this in private, suggesting and discarding potential answers, but I was still worried that it wouldn’t be enough. Especially if Carol prodded further than we’d prepared for.

 

Oh well, at least we didn’t stray far from the truth.

 

“I like reading,” Taylor answered quietly. “Classics, mostly.” Heh. Dork. “Also, um. Documentaries? And insects are cool as well.” They kinda were, if creepy. Those, and marine creatures — the deep ones were especially odd, almost alien. And I wasn’t even talking about stuff like the blobfish — they looked perfectly normal when you didn’t yank them out of their habitat like an idiot. Anglerfish, on the other hand… Yeah, they were freaky, but cool. Cuttlefish were adorable, and so were aquatic isopods. Octopuses… Octopi? Whatever, those too. And all the glowing critters were simply mesmerizing.

 

“...And sometimes I just wander around on Wikipedia for fun,” I heard Lisa say. Seems like I tuned out yet again. Way to go, me. “Oh, and shopping. Naturally.” She smiled a little wider.

 

Vicky all but jumped out of her seat. “And you didn’t tell me?! My god, Lisa, we gotta go together sometime!” Welp. She was certainly excited to have another friend to discuss her obsession with.

 

Taylor’s tired eyes met mine. Yeah.

 

She then looked at the table, and the nearly-empty dish. Most of the others at this point were done with their food, leaning back. I quietly snorted as she raised up her hand, suggesting dessert like she was still sitting in class. Everyone agreed, the adults began discussing work again, and Vicky and I left our seats to help Taylor and Lisa.

 

Eventually, we settled back. Our dessert? Cookies, cheesecake and tea. While I wasn’t stuffed before, I was certainly gonna be by the end of this. The lull in conversation lasted one heavenly minute or two before Carol decided to open her mouth yet again.

 

“Say, Taylor,” she queried, “How did you meet Amy?”

 

She nervously looked at me. “At school.” Then, my sister. “Victoria was there, too. She, um, showed me around the place.” I nodded, just in case.

 

Carol looked at Vicky, who gave her a nod as well, and then turned to me. “I assume you met Lisa through Taylor?” Shit, was she suspecting something?! Fuck, okay, okay, I could do this. We were doing fine so far, me fucking things up wouldn’t help at all.

 

I nodded. Again. I didn’t trust my voice at the moment. Lisa confirmed with a “Yes,” and yet another nod came from Taylor.

 

“And Victoria?” Carol probed. Fuck, this was like an interrogation. I hated everything about this, and felt through my power that Lisa agreed.

 

Oh, and she was beginning to have that migraine again. Great. Fantastic. Perfect. Just what we fucking needed.

 

“All four of us went to Mobius’ on Friday, remember?” Vicky asked.

 

“Right, the arcade. That’s where you first met, then?”

 

“Yup!” My sister chirped.

 

“I see.” Carol swirled the teaspoon in her cup. “What about you two?” Who..? Oh. Oh fuck.

 

Lisa’s heartbeat quickened, but she still looked composed on the outside. A corner of her mouth had quirked upwards for barely a moment. “We met online,” she lied, “About a year and a half ago.”

 

Taylor hummed in confirmation while sipping on her tea.

 

“And me living pretty close from here made it trivial to meet in person,” Lisa continued with a shrug. It was impressive how good she was at lying. On the spot, no less.

 

Please buy it, please buy it…

 

“How did you meet Mark?” Lisa asked, her eyes on a cookie. That worked too, I supposed — she was seizing control of the conversation.

 

“Oh.” Carol stopped what she was doing and took a look at her husband. “It’s… complicated.”

 

“Is it?” Mark asked.

 

Carol looked like she bit a lemon. Heh.

 

“Okay, it kind of is,” he agreed with a nod, “But the gist of it was that Carol joined the Brockton Bay Brigade, back in the old days.” He took a sip. “I was part of it already, and we hit it off pretty quickly.”

 

Carol just sighed. “Yes, that’s… accurate. Though he was pretty insufferable at the start.”

 

Danny chuckled, and so did Lisa.

 

Speaking of whom, the Thinker was apparently still not done with her questions. “Fair, fair. Oh, is it true that you’re the ones who crushed the Marche?” A bit random, but what did I know?

 

Carol cringed, looking at Lisa, then me, then Lisa again. “Indirectly, but I suppose so.” She nodded, as if to herself. “Yes. Yes, we did. We cut off the head of the snake by finally dealing with Marquis.” Her face turned to one of distaste, an expression I was far too familiar with. “Evil, that man. Pure evil. I’m glad that he’s gone for good.” Sheesh. What had he ever done to her? She always avoided that topic…

 

I could feel Lisa fighting herself not to grin, which… okay? If anything, she’d tell me later, so I ignored that for now. I also saw Danny frown, but he didn’t say anything, just kept eating. And Taylor looked confused, silently copying her dad.

 

Lisa nodded politely — which was still a weird thing to witness — and finished her tea, setting the cup onto a small plate. “Did you work with the PRT back then? …Wait, no, they weren’t a thing yet. What about when they were formed? Or, more accurately, when the ENE branch was created?”

 

…She was definitely fishing for information, huh. Welp, good luck with that. Though the innocent angle did seem to work so far…

 

“Not at first, but eventually, yes. And since we’re affiliates nowadays, we help out even more than before.” Carol paused for a bit. “Hopefully the new Director will be more agreeable than Piggot…” Oh yeah, that happened. He seemed sorta charismatic in today’s interview. Definitely better than Piggy.

 

“...New Director?” Lisa asked. Wait, she didn’t know?

 

“Yes, Director Calvert. He had a press conference earlier today.”

 

“Huh. Haven’t heard of him.” Lie. Uh oh. She looked at a guilty Taylor. “And a certain bespectacled dork was hogging the TV all day.” Animal Planet. Right.

 

“Sorry,” Taylor half-whispered, blushing.

 

“Well,” Carol continued, “He didn’t really say much of import. The usual PR speech about making the city better, defeating villains, and so on. I’m still unsure on whether or not he’s actually good, but time will tell, I suppose.”

 

“...Noted.” What the fuck was with her emotions? Her cortisol spiked yet again!

 

I couldn’t yet get an answer, so I just sat with the remains of my cheesecake.

 

 

“Lisa, what’s the problem?” I whispered as we went to the living room. The girl was still tense throughout the rest of the dinner, which only made me more curious as time went by.

 

“Calvert, he’s a Coil mole. Ex-military, too. His was one of the names that were associated with the organization, and he was a tactical advisor for the PRT before this bombshell of an announcement.” Shit, this was worse than I expected.

 

“And what about the PRT servers?” Taylor asked, her face pensive. “Did they not mention Dire- I mean, uh, Piggot? Her leaving?”

 

“No! That’s what’s so fucking annoying — they kept everything off the records until the last minute! Maybe they have something new now, but… Ugh.”

 

“Would things really be different had we known about this ahead of time?” I queried. “Not like we’d go crusading through their headquarters.” I hated that I was even considering it, but fuck. Who knew that the PRT was this infested?

 

Other than Lisa, obviously. Or Coil himself.

 

“No, but still.” She slowly shook her head in exasperation. “I don’t like being blindsided like this. Every surprise is like a reminder that I didn't prepare well enough.”

 

Taylor led her to the couch, Lisa taking a seat between us.

 

“Can’t we, like, tip someone off?” I suggested. Armsmaster, maybe..? Or Assault?

 

Lisa hummed out a negative. “Another point of failure. It’s part of why I don’t want Victoria in on this — just a single conversation is enough to screw us over.”

 

Damn. “It’s only us, then.”

 

“Yup.” A sigh.

 

“We can do this,” Taylor stated, and I smiled lightly at her naivete. It was a wonder she still had blind faith in her after all the things she’d been through.

 

“I st-” Lisa began saying something else, but stopped herself when we heard footsteps.

 

My sister entered the room with the grace of an elephant in a China shop, practically skipping towards us before taking a seat at my other side. “So, Lisa, about that shopping trip…”

 

I suppressed a groan, and I wasn’t the only one.

 

“I hope you don’t want to go now,” Lisa deadpanned. Mentally, I agreed — right now I was in the mood for lying about and attempting to sleep. Especially because it was like, what, nine already? Somewhere along those lines. I should be at the hospital, but taking one day off didn’t sound too bad…

 

“Duh,” Vicky said. “Of course not. But we can go tomorrow?”

 

“Can you not at least wait until Friday?” I whined, knowing that complaining was useless.

 

“Come on, Ames, you know we have time after school!” You, maybe. Not me.  “And what do you mean, ‘you’? I was thinking we could all go!”

 

This time I did groan, which was punctuated by Taylor’s resigned sigh. Lisa was trying not to lose it, her smirk twitching as she watched us both.

 

I glared at her.

 

“Wednesday, maybe?” The all-knowing blonde counter-offered, taking the glare in stride.

 

Vicky thought it over. “Sure!”

 

“Did you ask your mom for permission?” Lisa grinned.

 

“Do I really need it, though?”

 

“She’ll be annoyed at us both if you don’t,” I pointed out. And yes, I was going along with Lisa’s distraction scheme. It was obvious to anyone with a brain.

 

“Point.” Vicky nodded, then ruffled my hair and stood up. “Be right back!”

 

And just like that, she was gone.

 

Lisa let out a breath. “God, she needs to work on her timing.”

 

“She also never knocks,” I grumbled. “Even when you ask her to.”

 

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Lisa said, reaching over for the TV remote. “Now, let’s hope there’s a rerun. Maybe I can get something useful out of it.”

 

“What do you think Coil will make him do?” Taylor asked, watching Lisa intently. I did so as well.

 

The blonde thought about it for a few seconds as she flicked through the channels, still searching for a rerun. “He’ll need to be careful,” she said, “But his goals would likely include expanding his territory. Extrapolating from that, he’d go for the other gangs. With a puppet Director, he now has the… ability…”

 

She trailed off as she found what she wanted — footage of Calvert’s debut, being discussed by two semi-bored news anchors. Lisa frowned and unmuted the sound as the anchors played a segment of the new Director’s speech. Then, she froze. Her remote hand went limp. I felt blood draining from her face, and her breathing became shallow and ragged.

 

Both me and Taylor noticed, and we looked at our Thinker with worry.

 

“It's him,” Lisa whispered. “That is Coil.”

 

…Why did the universe hate us?

Chapter Text

Lisa

 

Throughout all of my adventures — if they could even be called that — there was one thing that I’d learned for certain: waiting sucked hard, yet it was often still necessary to endure. From my time on the streets to the various excursions planned by Coil, waiting was sometimes the only option, be it to gamble on getting a better position to relieve someone of their wallet, or to strike a target at an appointed, much safer time when one set of guards was getting swapped with another. The more time a person spent waiting for something, the more ways they’d find to deal with the boredom that came with it: think about how things might deviate from the plan, reminisce about the past, ponder the meaning of life, and so on. My point was that most people, as well as almost every cape, were accustomed to waiting ‘in bulk’, while Taylor simply… wasn’t. She’d been active for only two weeks, after all.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong — she had the patience of a saint, as well as that burning resolve when she had a clear goal to strive for, but the waiting during a stakeout was noticeably different to the waiting she was used to at her old school. At Winslow, that triad of tormentors — whom I still had an itch to break in retaliation, by the way — had instilled a sense of futility into Taylor’s mind; of inevitability. Whenever she thought she’d get attacked, or pushed, or verbally abused, she probably would be, and nary a single day went by without at least some little thing happening to her to reinforce that feeling.

 

The situation we were in now, though — lying on a roof, our eyes on a storage facility — was almost the opposite of what I had described. For one, there was no inevitability; even I didn’t know for sure if anyone would actually appear. There were also no known hostile entities nearby — we double- and triple-checked before properly laying down. No tense or stressful atmosphere, either — we were hoping for our targets to appear, instead of dreading them like those goddamn bullies. There was, however, boredom, and Taylor wasn’t a fan.

 

Honestly, neither was I, but I at least knew how to cope.

 

“Nebula,” Black Rose murmured, shifting yet again. “Can- can you please distract me?”

 

“Falling asleep already?” I whispered back with a smirk.

 

She sighed. “You joke, but I’m seriously worried that might happen. It’s been, what, an hour since we got here?” A few warm wisps of black sand grazed my cheek as the ravenette met my gaze, not turning her head fully and still occasionally sending glances at the location we were watching. “My legs are feeling numb, and that’s with the fact that I run in the mornings. Even with roofs being so… uncomfortable, I still feel like I’m about to pass out,” she wearily pointed out. “So please, Nebula. Talk to me?”

 

I smiled and shrugged. “Sure.” I was bored too, after all. “What’s on your mind?”

 

She turned her head back at the facility. “This, I guess. And what comes after.”

 

A second later I mirrored her movements, my eyes following a lone security guard patrolling the place with a flashlight. He still hadn’t noticed us, but then again — people didn’t tend to look up. Me deciding to turn off my broach didn’t do him any favors either.

 

Why were we snooping about in the first place? Well, after recovering from the initial shock that came from learning of the fucker’s promotion, I decided to take advantage of Coil being likely more busy than normal. With his cushy new job as PRT Director he was probably still getting used to it, getting shown all the Director-only things he had doubtlessly already known beforehand, which meant that in order to take care of his more illegal activities he would be forced to rely on his mercenaries even more than usual for, say, a week or so. Due to that train of thought, I spent the majority of the day following the Dallon visit on compiling a list of merc congregation points, then trimming said list to leave only the places with the highest chances of them showing up. After that, the plan was to perform reconnaissance: spot the fuckers and tail them to the base. And beyond that? Who knows. Depended on what we’d find, really.

 

So far, though, we weren’t lucky. The only two living souls we’d spotted were the guard and some homeless guy he chased away a good twenty minutes ago. I was hoping that the mercs would show up, and that we’d finally have a good lead, but it seemed that this choice was a bust.

 

Oh well. Better luck next time.

 

“Good talk,” I heard from my left.

 

I rolled my eyes. “I was thinking.

 

“As one does.”

 

“That ‘one’ being me.”

 

A rather faint smile wormed its way onto my teammate’s face. “Is that you implying that I don’t think at all?”

 

I snorted and shook my head. “Sometimes, I wish you’d think less. About crossing plant and animal traits in such horrifying ways, at least. You may not be at Giger’s level now, but you’re certainly heading there. Fast.” Fun fact: instead of being a biotinker like on Bet, his Earth Aleph counterpart was an artist. A good one, too, if you got past the weirdness of his art. An even weirder thing to note, though, was how eerily similar said art was to the things cape-Giger managed to create — had he lived in the US, the Slaughterhouse Nine would’ve totally paid him a visit. Especially due to him being unmasked — as far as I knew, dude never even used a cape name.

 

“You know that the combinations are useful, Neb. Heck, you said it yourself, remember? And if I and Am- uh, Nymph can easily make a thing that’s better than what we have, then why not let us do it? It’s not like you were against it during the power binge.”

 

Self-conscious about her preference of utility over appearance. Afraid of driving you away due to said preference. Is currently contemplating yet another biokinesis-based creation.

 

No shit, Sherlock. That was obvious.

 

Also, not happening.

 

“Not against it now, either.” I pointed out, then sighed and poked her in the side. “Don’t worry, I’m just teasing you. Even if what you come up with really is super creepy sometimes, I can’t deny the usefulness of it all.” Really, the versatility of Amy’s power was truly something to behold; paired up with Taylor’s creativity, the two could do pretty much anything.

 

She hummed in acknowledgement. “And there’s so many possibilities I’ve yet to even think about…” Rose wistfully mused, still not letting the guard out of her sight.

 

“...And this is just with her base power,” I supplied. Having so many options to choose from was definitely a new feeling for me, and it was glorious; I relished it. I didn’t have such luxury while still under the creepy snake’s thumb.

 

“Yeah…” She paused. “Oh, did you make that list yet?”

 

I grimaced. “Ehh, sorta. I jotted down the interactions we’d discovered so far, obviously, but beyond several more unconfirmed ones I turned my power on? Was too busy to bother.” A shrug. “Yet, at least. I’ll get back to it sooner or later.” These Coil mercs wouldn’t catch themselves.

 

Not that we were catching any now. Or were planning to, for that matter.

 

Slowly, she nodded. “The latest one I remember you mentioning was, uhm… you and Circus? Wait, no, Nymph. Nymph and Circus.” Ah, that was a good one. Or, at least, it had the potential to be useful. While the specifics were still unknown due to this being just a theory, the most important part was, apparently, the likely ability to shove living things into that hammerspace of theirs. And no, my power didn’t tell me if they’d be able to breathe in there, but still. I could imagine the combo being used similarly to teleportation, for example.

 

Huh, would it work on Rose herself?

 

Regardless, I continued. “Still need to get Glory Girl to use her aura near you again somehow. Your version of her power looking so different from the original is… strange.”

 

“True,” Rose agreed. “Yours isn’t too similar either, though.”

 

“I know, and it’s weird. I want to know what’s up with that.” Why make it more combat-focused? Why add feedback on damage dealt? Why the stars? The illumination? The lack of clear answers annoyed me.

 

“Is it really that big of a deal?” My teammate asked, slightly frowning, perturbed. “I thought it was just one of those things you chalk up to powers being weird in general.”

 

Still laying on my stomach, I slowly stretched my spine by bending backwards. “While that may be the case, I still want to find a pattern if there is one.” Satisfied, I exhaled. “That way, you’d have something to expect while in the thick of it. Less unknowns is better than more unknowns.”

 

“I gue-”

 

The sky lit up.

 

Through half-blinded eyes, squinting meekly into the distance and pressing ourselves into each other out of animalistic fear, we watched. It was terrifying. And overwhelmingly loud. Much like thunder, the cacophony of sounds started a second or so after the lights did. …No, the explosions — the multiple blast waves washing over us made it blatantly obvious. Still, were I deaf, that wouldn’t have been the first thing my mind would’ve jumped to — what stood on the horizon was entirely unnatural.

 

At the meeting point of the Docks, the Trainyard and the Boat Graveyard, in the northeastern corner of Brockton and to the east of our current location, a remnant of the explosions could be seen even from here — a circular formation of alabaster growths and crystals. Several points of the structure rivaled a four-story building in height, and the span of that thing horizontally had to be two blocks at the least. From what I could see, several parts of it were on fire, the flames on all but one of them being purple; the last one blue. A shard the size of a school bus was hovering in the air, a bit to the left. Another section was melting like wax, and yet another was replaced by what looked like a whole playground. For every second of me analyzing whatever the hell had just happened, I spotted at least two more oddities — and we were nowhere even near the place.

 

The explosions themselves hadn’t ceased completely, either.

 

Sounds indicate large quantity of individual explosions. Certain observed explosion effects ignore conventional laws of physics. Unique explosion effects point to parahuman involvement.

 

I’m not fucking blind! Give me something useful, you dick!

 

Amount of unique explosion effects points to either a randomness-based Shaker power or an explosion-based Tinker power.

 

Okay, that’s better, I-

 

Likelihood of survival with baseline human biology at ground zero minimal.

 

Yeah, yeah, right. While that may be true, it didn’t disprove the Shaker theory outright — the Manton effect would’ve protected them.

 

Well, probably. Indirect things like suffocation might do the job regardless.

 

I looked closer, but found no more clues — though we were on a roof, I still couldn’t see well enough. The distance didn’t help, and it was the middle of the night; we’d have to get closer for anything better than what I got already.

 

“W-what the f-fuck…” Rose breathed beside me, a quiver in her voice.

 

Like me, she had at some point rolled onto her back and sat up, her eyes wide, still shaking and breathing sporadically as she came down from the shock. Not that I looked much better — this was a surprise and a half. And my fingers were becoming numb from her iron grip on one of my wrists.

 

“Rose,” I whispered softly, then pulled the limb closer to me.

 

She looked at me with a dazed expression, which switched to an alarmed one as she glanced at my arm. “S-sorry,” Rose mumbled, simultaneously letting it go. “I- It’s just-”

 

“Breathe.” I hugged her.

 

She followed my advice.

 

“Better?” I asked, drawing back.

 

A second or two later, she nodded. “W-what was that? What is that?” Her gaze drifted to the rock thing again.

 

Pulling my legs closer to me, I shifted into a crouch. “Some new explosion-based cape. Tinker or Shaker, though I’m not really sure which.”

 

“That’s…”

 

“...Batshit insane?” I finished for her. “Yeah. Whatever that power is, it’s bullshit. Look, see that over there?”

 

“Is that a playground?! ” My teammate gaped. “And the part to the right looks like lightning! The hell?!”

 

“I think that’s plasma.” Or something similar. “Oh, and that was flammable gas.” Was.

 

Rose’s several thorns vibrated near her in the air.

 

Suddenly, she snapped her head back to me, dismayed. “There could be people still out there!” …Pardon?

 

Affected area contains moderate amount of tenants despite prominent disrepair.

 

Wait. Did I..? Oh. Fuck, she was right!

 

This was bad. Really, really bad. I’d mistaken the location in my haste to get more details. People still lived there — the mostly-abandoned part was more to the northwest. A glance at Rose made me lock eyes with her, the earlier panic transmuted into determination. Her tremors were mostly gone now, giving way to more restless fidgeting.

 

“We help,” she stated.

 

Wordlessly, I nodded. I rose, and so did she as I reactivated my broach. The sudden brightness of my hair seemed to have caught the guard’s attention, but his shouts were ignored by both of us as we moved further from the edge. Guard rail, ladder, smokestack — it all blurred in our rush to the site. Neither of us talked, too focused on movement and movement alone.

 

 

By the time we got closer, the explosions had already stopped. Still, I could hear the sirens and crumbling buildings and cries for help. Disregarding the dull buzz in my head, I continued scanning our surroundings, looking for more hints at who the perpetrator was.

 

Tinker theory more likely due to gridlike pattern of secondary explosions.

 

Yeah, I noticed that too: the explosions that came after the initial lightshow only appeared in a square area, cut off by some streets and an alley. The biggest indicator of this was when we’d gotten close enough to ‘enter’ the affected territory — only one side of the street was affected directly; naturally, I didn’t count broken windows. Were the explosions generated directly via a power and not through tinkertech, the city’s layout wouldn’t be taken into account.

 

Or maybe it would be. Who knew? Powers were bullshit, after all.

 

The streets within the affected square were relatively unscathed, sans one car-sized tumorous growth in the middle of an intersection. That, too, pointed to tinkertech being planted, which meant that all this might’ve been triggered remotely. So yeah, I was leaning towards the-

 

“What if the Nine are here?” Black Rose whispered.

 

Stilling, I sputtered. “Fucking what?!

 

She swept her arm across the landscape. “Does this not remind you of Shatterbird?”

 

Christ, she’ll give me a heart attack at this rate. I could see where she was coming from, but this was a blastwave’s doing, not Shatterbird’s. “True,” I still agreed, “But she’s dead.” Hopefully forever. “Picked off not so long after Salt Lake City. Sniper cape, I think? But yeah. And, last I checked, they were heading more to the northwest.” And thank fuck for that.

 

Rose let out a breath. She was probably praying for me to disprove her. “Okay.” She nodded. “Okay. Good. No Nine, then.”

 

…She really needed to learn not to jinx us.

 

What distracted me from further speculation was us turning a corner, revealing that white, uneven wall again. Not even a wall, really, but a ton of rocks and other bleached forms jutting out and away from ground zero. I couldn’t get a good look at it before, as the street we were walking on had a building collapse and obscure it, leaving only small parts peeking through as the rest loomed above, unseen. I might’ve been able to see more from above, but we were forced to descend to street level fairly quickly — there were no ‘normie paths’ that I knew of intersecting the place we were bound for.

 

While the crystalline mass looked like an abstract painting from afar, the comparison didn’t do it justice — reality felt broken here. Technically, it was — most of the explosions had fucked with physics, and though not everything was affected, simply walking through the place gave me the creeps. It was like something from a nightmare, and yet it was real. I hated it.

 

Still, we moved onwards. People depended on us.

 

I felt Rose stop, and I turned to look at her. Her breaths were shallow again, her thorns unstable. I followed her gaze, and gasped as well — there was a man next to a wall, slightly floating.

 

And I didn’t mean floating like Victoria did — the victim was completely still, as if put on pause like a video. A hunch I had, however, disagreed with that comparison. The slightly hunched pose, the bulged out eyes, the- oh god, the blue tint of his skin…

 

Dead due to suffocation.

 

I didn’t want to think about that.

 

Rose had two thorns fly closer to him, but they just clinked against something invisible. She continued trying to find purchase for a few more seconds, to no avail.

 

“Paused air. O-or it turned solid.” I tugged on her arm. “We can’t do anything here. Let’s go, Rose,” I pleaded quietly.

 

She said nothing, but still followed.

 

We ventured further, avoiding more hazards: a half-molten bookstore with solid lava instead of walls, a car made completely out of red mucus, an urchin-like ball of needles twice our height, a slow-moving funhouse mirror effect surrounding an invisible point in the air…

 

“Please… help…”

 

I whipped my head towards the voice immediately. My teammate had heard it too, already dragging me to the entrance of some crumbling two-story apartment building. The voice came from the second floor, near the window, so we went for the stairwell. Annoyingly, some steps were broken, but Rose used six thorns all pressed together as floating stepping stones instead.

 

Helping me up as well, we bolted through the front door that was already torn off its hinges before we got here, sprinting through the hallway to the room that the voice was coming from.

 

“Careful,” the man inside rasped, and we stopped with a lurch before entering. “Try not to… cut yourselves too…” Cut?

 

I looked around.

 

Part of the wall was broken, including the door to the room with the victim, and the floor directly next to it… dipped downwards. Ah. There was a mass of metal in the middle, a bit like that spike ball from earlier, with pipes, cutlery and all sorts of other things pressed together. Many of them were bent, and most reflected the glow of my hair — our only current light source, if not counting the half-hidden moon.

 

Potent magnetic effect likely. Floor around doorway unstable.

 

“Rose,” I called out, “Step back. Floor’s busted, gotta get in some other way.” She was relatively careful already, but more vigilance never hurt anybody.

 

As she stepped closer to me, I hummed, holding my chin in my hand as I thought. Apart from the window there were no other points of ingress, and none of Nymph’s toys were of any use here… Could we bash through the wall or something? The outside had brickwork, so no, probably not. Yet, some places had no scuff marks or cracks in the paint, unlike the stairwell and the start of the hall.

 

Apartment recently renovated.

 

I raised an eyebrow, then looked closer at the mess in the adjacent room. Indeed, I managed to spot two parts of the wall that were hollow on the inside, some wooden panels — all broken — dragged along with the pipework to the center of the anomaly.

 

That worked.

 

I moved back into the corridor and knocked on the wall a few feet left of the unstable doorframe.

 

Hollow reverb suggests usage of drywall.

 

Bingo. Also, old news, but thanks for the confirmation. Now, then…

 

“Can you try feeling what’s on the other side over here?” I asked Rose, then knocked again. The tactile feedback of her thorns was pretty faint, enough to only be noticeable when she was actively focusing, but it was still there. It was still useful.

 

A few seconds passed by. “Just the wall, I think,” Rose replied. “Do you want me to tear it down?”

 

“Go ahead.” Came from inside. “Place is a mess-” A harsh cough. “-anyway…”

 

…We needed to stop wasting time.

 

As I stepped out of the way, my teammate heeded the words of the victim, stabbing through the drywall with ease. The thorns flew into the material, then out, then in again. More debris littered the floor, and soon we had a hole big enough for someone to fit through.

 

Rose entered first, but I wasn’t far behind. The man within was slumped next to a window on a chair. He didn’t look old, but he wasn’t young, either, with dark skin, graying hair and a muscular build. The foot on his right leg was missing, tied off with some torn-up cloth and elevated onto the nightstand. His left hand had dried blood on it as well, roughly bandaged up with part of the wound still showing through. It looked as if it ruptured… Was the magnetic pull from the explosion that strong?

 

Posture, patience, skill in first aid and displayed keepsakes suggest military training. Lost moderate amount of blood. At risk of bleeding out.

 

Right.

 

“Sir, we’re here to get you out,” I said to him while closing the distance.

 

He chuckled, coughing again. “Thanks, kids. Been sitting here for a while now… Name’s Kevin, by the way.”

 

I nodded in acknowledgement. “I’m Nebula, and she’s Black Rose. We sh-”

 

“Is there, um, anything here that you can use as a walking stick?” Rose cut in, looking around, being careful not to get too close to the giant hole in one side of the room.

 

“Dunno. Could use my Mosin, I guess,” The man replied with a pained expression. “‘S up there,” he pointed, “In the wardrobe.”

 

I walked past a confused Rose. “I’ll get it; you check his hand.” In hindsight, we should’ve made some sort of healing item first. It would’ve been quite handy right about now…

 

Partially annoyed by my own pun, I rummaged through Kevin’s wardrobe with haste. I doubted that he’d attack us, and Rose’s thorns should be enough of a warning anyway, but we had to hurry if we wanted to help out more people beyond him. Finally, I felt some smooth wood within the cloth and yanked the gun-burrito out, unwrapping the rifle and returning to the others.

 

Rifle loaded.

 

I tensed a slight bit, but feigned ignorance — he was just a victim. Anyone would have weapons on hand in this part of town. Or anywhere else, really — this was Brockton Bay. Still, I undid the weapon’s latch first, letting its rounds fall to the floor, then ejected the one in the chamber. Potential — if unlikely — threat neutralized, I handed the Mosin to its owner as Black Rose carefully straightened out his hand’s bandaging.

 

“Right, well, I’m-” He coughed. “-Ready.”

 

“Not yet,” Rose mumbled. “...There.” She turned to me. “Get that side?”

 

I shot her a double thumbs up. “Yep.”

 

With an arm under his shoulders and a long rifle for him to lean on, we helped the guy hobble to his feet and head towards the uneven hole in the wall. Getting through it was more annoying, but it didn’t stop us for long. Rose also offered four thorns for more support — one under each forearm and one held in each hand — as it became clear rather fast that neither of us were used to dealing with heavy things, unlike Kevin.

 

I wasn’t going to complain about a lessened load, though. That’d be stupid.

 

“...And the fucking place just- ah! Careful.” The ex-soldier hissed as his injured leg bumped into something.

 

“Sorry,” Rose apologized. She readjusted her grip on the man, getting him out of the apartment.

 

We kept going, and Kevin continued. “So yeah — it exploded, or something… Somewhere on the first floor. Just… one second there was nothing, and then a bunch of shit suddenly started collapsing into where the sound came from. Like a damn black hole or something.”

 

“For objects containing metal, but yes,” I confirmed our suspicions. “Would explain your hand, for example. Guessing it was close enough that even the iron in your blood got pulled by it.” Powers, ladies and gentlemen.

 

“Yeah-” He rasped, then coughed again. “Yeah. The leg was fucked up by some of the metal stuff in my desk. Broke through the bone and everything.” He chuckled, clearly bitter. “Thank fuck for painkillers, huh?”

 

Wincing, I agreed. “No kidding.” Were I in his place, I would be swearing up a storm.

 

Also, I could really use some of those painkillers as well. My migraine wasn’t knockout-levels of painful so far, but it was already pretty difficult to ignore.

 

Carefully, we reached the busted part of the stairwell. “Okay, before my next question, do we have a way to get down there?” I asked.

 

“I’d prefer not to jump down,” Kevin joked, evoking an eyeroll.

 

“Duly noted,” I commented dryly. At least he wasn’t doing too bad. Unless he was delirious.

 

…Eh. Doubt it.

 

“Neb?” Rose called out, looking forward. “I might need your power.” Nice.

 

I held out my hand. “Got an idea, hm? Good timing.” A thorn then landed into my grasp.

 

Power requested for structural analysis.

 

I already knew that, but I still had to draw on my power so she could snag it.

 

As expected, the thorn lit up and flew away into the air. Rose had it lightly impact the railing — which was still sorta intact, if bent and airborne — and then hummed. “Okay.”

 

“Care to explain?” I prodded. I could lean on my power some more, but eh. Not worth the trouble.

 

“The feedback said that the railing’s weakest over there.” She pointed at the bottom part of it, relatively in between the two edges. “I could have some thorns support it from below, maybe..?”

 

Kevin sighed. “Figured you’d say that.” He paused. “So? Are we-” A cough. “-going? Or nah?”

 

We didn’t have any better ideas, so climbing down via railing was the option we were forced to settle on. Kevin gave us a small scare when he was three quarters down, but Rose had her leftover thorns float up flush against his back to support him. It was a minor struggle, but soon all three of us were on the first floor. Of course, we then went for the exit.

 

Finally, we were outside again.

 

“By the muscular golden ass of Scion!” Kevin blurted out. “What is that?!”

 

…Right. We were outside again.

 

“Explosion cape,” I explained. “Which is why I was planning to ask you some questions. We’re trying to figure out who they are, and every little tidbit helps.” And yes, I was fishing for leads on the bomber. ‘Knowledge is power’, et cetera, et cetera…

 

“Shit.” He gulped. “Ask away. This- this isn’t what I expected.” Considering he was probably a war vet, it was doubly uncomfortable to see his reaction. This was supposed to be a city, not a warzone…

 

“While we walk,” Rose ordered, exasperated.

 

“Yeah, agreed,” Kevin nodded. “Better not bleed out now.

 

Humming, I squinted my eyes. “I think I heard an ambulance. C’mon.”

Chapter Text

Reaction 3.4

Taylor

 

“We’re almost there,” I said. “Look — there’s the medical tent.”

 

The person that we were dragging only answered with a whimper.

 

“Don’t-” Nebula huffed. “Don’t bother talking. He’s in shock. And barely conscious.”

 

“Ugh,” I grunted. I knew that. Still, I wanted to let him know. Maybe he’d still somehow hear me; bounce back with a second wind…

 

At first I thought he was a zombie; the unfocused moaning and slow banging on a door sure made him sound like one, at least. This whole place being so broken only helped sell the demented illusion. Somehow, the threat didn’t scare us — I blamed it on tiredness and us being lethally armed — so, with me taking point, we went to the door leading to the motel room.

 

As I broke through the lock thanks to a thorn at full speed, we pushed past the guy’s weight, causing him to stumble. That let us get a good look at him, and… yeah. It wasn’t pretty. Both of his hands were gone, cut slightly diagonally at the wrist. It reminded me of Sophia, however these wounds weren’t cauterized. The tip of his nose was gone too, with only a quarter of an inch missing. All three wounds bled profusely, and the victim himself was most certainly out of it.

 

Nebula’s analysis declared that he was studying for exams, at least until another explosion decided to swap part of his room with a motel’s. He was in shock by the time we got there, and kept kicking the door in his stupor, likely subconsciously hoping that someone would hear it and find him. I pointed out that the timeline didn’t add up, however, and my teammate reluctantly agreed — neither of us heard more explosions after our first arrival at the scene. In the end, though, we chalked it up to time dilation — at least two different explosion effects that we’d encountered already were time-based, so having a third one delay a fourth wasn’t too big of a leap in logic.

 

And yes, it was a stretch and a half, but Nebula’s migraine was bad enough already. Plus, we had a student on our hands who was quickly bleeding out — there was no time for theories. Heck, there was no time for anything.

 

“One incoming!” Nebula called out as we approached the tent. “Get some extra blood bags!”

 

A pair of paramedics ran out, taking over victim-dragging duty with grim expressions. The two PRT agents, meanwhile, kept their mute vigil by the entrance.

 

God, those faceless helmets always unnerved me for some reason. In person, the effect only multiplied, and I felt annoyed at myself for being intimidated. I was on edge, advancing stiffly next to Nebula, my mind racing; what were they thinking right now? Were they judging us? Put off by my costume? And did I have to worry about them working for Coil?

 

Once we reached a free stretcher, the handless student was placed upon it. With that, we were left there to stand — the medics’ attention was solely on the survivor. Nobody’d asked me to leave as I walked over to a foldable chair, so ignoring the odor of antiseptic and iron, I took a deep breath and looked around.

 

There were around fifteen more people laying about, and barely a quarter of them were being tended to. Excluding two others, the rest were insensate: one had a bloody blindfold and was tracing the edges of his stretcher with a bandaged hand, while the other kept loudly breathing, muttering something to herself every few seconds.

 

I noted that the translucent girl was still among those sleeping; an explosion had caused all of her flesh to take on an ethereal, see-through structure. Especially when seen from afar, she greatly resembled a living glass statue. Or a ghost, or a jellyfish.

 

The poor thing didn’t look older than twelve.

 

While I was stewing in my thoughts, my teammate sank into the chair beside me, but she didn’t manage to get a single word out before the flaps of the entrance opened again. A man and two women — one of them elderly — walked in, heading straight to the triage nurse who was already jotting something down on her clipboard. The old lady was the one injured, constantly hissing as she moved, thanks to several thick, spiral fragments the length of a phone being embedded in her right forearm.

 

Wincing in sympathy, I shifted my gaze onto the ones that have brought her, moderately intrigued by the fact that their clothing was definitely of the cape variety. The man wore red body armor, as well as a visor of a brighter shade, while the woman’s attire of choice was a dark gray costume with cyan lines. Almost instantly, it dawned on me who they were — Assault and Battery; a duo that specialized in movement, with the latter being one of the capes I’d looked up to. This was the first time we’d seen any heroes here at all, this blasted night, and that fact unnerved me — was there something else we didn’t know about? Something even more serious, demanding all of their attention?

 

“Nice to see fellow heroes helping out,” Assault declared. He’d approached us as soon as the elderly woman was taken care of, his smile tired. “Nebula and Black Rose, right?”

 

“Yep,” my teammate said. “Been here for a while, got like three people out so far. Currently taking a breather, but we’ll be out there in a few.” She shrugged.

 

“You’ve been at it since the whole thing started?”

 

“Almost? Took ten minutes to get here.”

 

The crimson hero nodded in approval, and that’s when I noticed his partner returning — Battery stopped by his side, carrying three bottles of water. “Hey there. Here,” she told us with a smile, offering two of the three with one hand. “Better stay hydrated.”

 

I silently nodded in agreement and took one of the offered bottles.

 

At that point one of the nurses decided to shoo us out of the tent, as we were both crowding up an already-cramped place and were not as quiet as some would’ve liked. The water break continued outside for another minute, and soon we were ready to go and search for yet more people to rescue.

 

“Are you doing search and rescue in a specific area?” Nebula asked. All of us were heading in a direction chosen by Battery.

 

“Mhm, the southwestern quadrant.” The woman replied, still facing forward. I couldn’t get a read on her, as that damn visor didn’t show her eyes at all. The same could be said for Assault, which didn’t alleviate any of my fears; while they did seem rather friendly, I had no guarantees that they harbored no ill will towards us.

 

Slowly, my eyes drifted upwards, taking in the enormous scale of the… thing again. It looked so wrong and unreal, and so big, so oppressive, so dangerous. The glowing plasma part we’d seen earlier was already gone, all burnt out; the melting part looked like it had solidified, and the floating one slowed its rotation. Quietly humming, I wondered how it would all look in a week — with so many anomalies, some were bound to be unstable. Hopefully, the mass could eventually be taken apart, paving the way for recovery from this horrible scar on the city.

 

“So…” Assault playfully drawled. “...A little birdie told me that you two managed to outplay some nazis the other day.”

 

Nebula raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Really, now? Was it the one with a beard and an efficiency fetish, or the one treating the Second Amendment like the Bible?”

 

Ignoring the red hero’s snort, I suppressed an annoyed sigh and cut in. “We did, yes. Why are you asking, exactly?” That fight was a trainwreck and a half.

 

“What, can’t I be curious?” He asked me with a grin, spreading his arms in a gesture that was fit for a comedian.

 

“I guess.” I paused. “They’re still taken care of, right? No breakouts or anything?”

 

“Nah. Still locked up.”

 

“Good. But tell me — do you plan on losing them like Circus?” Nebula prodded, the innocent smile on her face growing slightly wider as she continued. “‘Cause I have a feeling that the Empire will stir soon — they’re bound to use this headache of a bombshell to their advantage.”

 

As she lazily waved a hand at the white crystals in the distance, Battery stared at her in silence, her lips pressed in a thin line.

 

“We’d rather not have to worry about them trying to find us,” I explained to her.

 

That caught Assault’s attention. “You know you can join the Wards, right? The pay’s pretty good, and we’d keep you both safe.”

 

That had, inadvertently, caused me to clench my jaw in defiance. “We’re aware,” I said dryly. “But we won’t. We’d already told as much to Armsmaster.” ‘Safe’ was the exact opposite of how I’d describe the Wards right now.

 

“And besides, we have a team already,” Nebula added with a shrug.

 

My eyes met hers for a moment, but she just smiled and blinked, reassuring me. Battery and Assault seemed to be doing the same thing, sharing a glance even though they couldn’t see through their visors.

 

“...I see. And do we know what that team is called?” Battery asked, her head tilting slightly.

 

“No, you don’t. And don’t bother asking us just yet — announcing the name without all of the members present would be quite a dick move,” my teammate pointed out.

 

“Yeah. Maybe later,” I told the heroes a second after. I wanted Amy to be here for this, as she was as much of a member as any of us.

 

“Fair enough, though I sugge-”

 

“Help! Help! The fucking plants are going haywire!” A guy was running at us from an alley, shouting. His hoodie and jeans were cut up in several places, two of the deeper slashes still lightly bleeding.

 

“Okay, calm down,” Battery told him, eyeing the wounds. “What plants? Where?”

 

“T-the plants, they got my friends!”

 

Nebula cut in. “It would be best if you started from the beginning.”

 

“We don’t have time! ” The man whined.

 

“Then make it quick.”

 

He took a moment to compose himself. “Alright, okay, alright…”

 

 

“There’s Chesterton,” Assault pointed out as we all sprinted to the avenue in question. The emergency sounded serious, and the guy we met looked haunted by what he’d seen.

 

Apparently, he and his friends were having an all-nighter, playing poker, and he had stepped out of the apartment for a five-minute smoke break — or so he claimed. Once finished, he returned, but found a scene straight from his nightmares — a wall of thorny vines, all writhing behind the front door of his home. Some of them lashed out in an attempt to grab his arm, but he turned tail and ran almost instantly, on the search for some heroes who’d help.

 

After he gave us some directions, Battery pointed him to the nearest medic tent.

 

Annoyed by the remaining distance, I took two thorns I had summoned during our sprint, leading them to the scarlet speedster who was waiting for me, Nebula and Battery to catch up. “Assault, use your power, please.”

 

“Sure.” He shrugged, then touched both of the thorns and accelerated them.

 

Of course, the acceleration was only momentary, and I returned the two objects to me, but their tint was a deep indigo shade now; tiny red specs bounced within at random. The faster they moved, the brighter they glowed, but I didn’t waste more than a second — one thorn I’d left with me, grasped in my left palm, while the other I handed to Nebula. She accepted it without comment.

 

From my observations, I assumed that Assault somehow collected ‘movement’ to be used for later, possibly having his partner boost him by running into him or something. Were that indeed the case, I expected to exploit my telekinetic control over my thorns, passively collecting whatever resource it actually needed, and then expending it as we got closer to our destination.

 

I was wrong.

 

The Assault thorns couldn’t affect themselves, and I felt no internal resource. This led me to try the first thing that came to my lagging mind — having the thorn in my hand pull on the weird, pointy sensation I was feeling inside my body, right at the very center of it.

 

“Woah!” I yelped, stumbling forwards. Oddly, I didn’t expect that. Thankfully, the others didn’t slow down, though Assault snorted.

 

“It’s vectors, Rose,” Nebula said, panting, as I tried the maneuver again, this time successfully. I felt so light during that brief moment, as if flying, or something similar.

 

To my disappointment, I didn’t manage to stay airborne for more than a few seconds at a time, resorting to skipping across the asphalt — annoyingly enough, flying didn’t seem to be an option. I had to siphon the values of speed vectors from secondary targets to the primary one, and rotating it came at a cost too.

 

Oh well, it was still better than nothing.

 

“Ready for the final stretch?” Assault asked as we reached the intersection.

 

“Yeah,” me and Nebula chorused, panting slightly. Battery nodded.

 

“I think I get how your power works. Nebula,” I turned, “Want a boost?”

 

“Sure, but start small.”

 

I nodded. “Okay.”

 

We turned the corner and continued.

 

“Wait, is that the place?” Nebula asked a handful of seconds later, pointing at a four-story building on the left side.

 

“Yes,” Battery confirmed. She was the last one to arrive. “Do you see something?”

 

“Barely, but look over there. Second floor.”

 

Like the others, I focused on the window she was watching at the moment. Something that seemed like roots was obscuring the light from within, save a few cracks.

 

“Those aren’t curtains, are they?” Assault muttered to himself.

 

“No. Vines. Christ, and they’re moving! …Gross.”

 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Let’s go.”

 

Nebula sighed. “Let’s.”

 

As Battery informed the BBPD of the situation, calling for immediate evacuation of the building, we wandered closer to the front. The infested apartment complex was a big one, wide and U-shaped. It seemed better-kept than half of the other buildings nearby, but there was still noticeable disrepair, like some broken windows and a mangled storm drain. Idly, I wondered who had managed to do that.

 

There was also a bundle of vines nestled into the left wing’s corner, connecting the second and third floor’s windows while spreading a bit more horizontally. And, like a particularly thin awning, part of said vine was draped over the top of the front door.

 

“I’m gonna cut it,” I stated.

 

“Do it,” said Battery, watching.

 

Taking three of the seven thorns that I currently had floating around me, I directed them to that segment and impaled the slightly-bulbous part it split off of. The offshoot began to wiggle, contracting and coiling as I worked to cut it off; spurts of clear, foul-smelling liquid leaked from the ‘wounds’ every second or two. Even after the connection was broken, it still kept on fucking wriggling.

 

It reminded me of a decapitated snake.

 

“Yup,” Nebula said. “Gross.” The inner parts were almost jelly-like, similar to the insides of an aloe vera plant.

 

As Assault hummed, agreeing with my teammate, he opened the door.

 

We entered.

 

Seeing nothing out of the ordinary in the central hall so far, Assault cleared his throat, then cupped his mouth, letting out a shout: “ATTENTION TO ALL TENANTS! THIS BUILDING IS UNDER ATTACK BY A PARAHUMAN THREAT! EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY IF YOU ARE ABLE AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS FROM EITHER PRT STAFF OR THE BBPD!” With that, he coughed. “Phew.”

 

“Hopefully people will listen,” Nebula commented.

 

“Militia’s megaphone would’ve helped here a lot,” Assault groaned after a follow-up coughing fit.

 

Meanwhile, I strode closer to a placard on the wall which showcased the layout of the place we were in. There was a staircase in the hall to the left of us, as well as another one in the nearest corner of the right wing. “Come on,” I said. “If they’re on the third floor then we have to move.” I had an increasingly sinking feeling that the plant didn’t plan on waiting for us.

 

Battery didn't seem to agree. “We have to get everyone out of here, not just the-”

 

“If we don’t stop the vines from spreading, things might get out of control before backup arrives.” Thank you, Nebula. “Rose is right, we need to go.”

 

“You think there’s something in that guy’s apartment?” Assault queried, arms crossed. “Like, besides the vines?”

 

“You saw how the part Rose cut off stopped moving after a while. That points to there being a core, or heart, or whatever else everything needs to be connected to in order to stay alive. Otherwise, the offshoot would’ve started its own ‘colony’ by now.” Shit, I didn’t even think of that.

 

“Uh. Right. Battery, mind checking-?”

 

“One second.” She looked outside. “No, still dead.”

 

The three of us let out a breath.

 

“Before we continue,” I said, “You should probably give me your power as well.” Punctuating my statement, an empty thorn levitated to her forearm — I judged it would be enough, considering the lines on her suit glowed brighter when she was charged.

 

“...What do I do, exactly?” Battery questioned, uncertain. “And will this have any lasting effects?”

 

“Nope, none,” my partner piped in. “Just do your thing.”

 

She did, and the thorn was filled, crackling with cobalt-blue lightning inside. Trying to not waste more time, I nodded and moved to the left staircase. As an experiment, I pinged the new thorn, yet that did nothing but flare up the sparks. I attempted to ‘hold’ the mental button instead, which resulted in the construct floating off past the stairs.

 

“Your controller seems broken,” Assault remarked in amusement.

 

“Do you need time to get used to it?” Battery asked. “We can’t wait long.” As if I didn’t know.

 

Annoyed, I didn’t answer. My attempts to make that thorn move didn’t work at all; it kept on floating. I released my mental hold on it, and- oh. Huh. That felt weird. That felt really weird.

 

It was as if all of my attention was suddenly focused on only that thorn — but it wasn’t! That was the weird part! I perceived everything else just fine, too. I tried moving Battery’s thorn again, and this time it worked perfectly fine, however my control over it felt so much better, so much faster. Strange.

 

“Neat,” Nebula said. “Now let’s go.” She grabbed my arm.

 

Returning all of my current thorns into formation behind my back, I let her lead me unimpeded.

 

“Shit!” My teammate cursed as we both dodged to the side a few seconds later. We’d only gotten to the second floor, and the stairs to the third were obscured by the fucking vines. They lashed out and kept constantly shifting, moving like a wall made of dark green snakes, with the spiky and thorny exterior explicitly threatening to cut us up.

 

Assault got in front of us to act as a sort of shield, nullifying the organic lashes’ momentum as his partner helped me and Nebula up. I waited five seconds to charge the Battery thorn for a bit, and contributed to the defense with the other seven, including the Assault pair.

 

Battery herself began charging too, content with our relative safety a few steps away from the stairs in the hallway. Her thorn, meanwhile, I’d already boosted and released. I made it slash through the plantmass like butter, weaving through it with ease and finesse, yet the plant still felt endless. I needed more firepower.

 

“We need to find another way!” Nebula shouted. “The other stairwell doesn’t look infested! C’mon!”

 

Retreating, Assault grunted. “Yeah, I can’t do this forever.”

 

“And they keep growing back, too. What the hell’s powering it?” My partner muttered.

 

Assault repeated his shout about evacuation, and we’d even seen a few tenants shuffle out of their apartments. Thankfully, the left stairwell’s infestation was mentioned too, so nobody tried going through it. With that out of the way, we speed-walked through the hall to the building’s right wing, going straight for the stairs and up. We pressed on to the third floor, walking into the hall and…

 

“Nebula…” I asked. “...Why is this wall made of… flesh?” The wall was a deep red, shot through with bone and spots of skin plastered over it at random. I could make out random bits sticking out; an ear here, an eye there. It was horrific.

 

Nebula didn’t answer.

 

“Nebula? Neb?” I looked at her. Her face was as pale as chalk, and she pointed at something else behind me.

 

Whirling around with my knife at the ready, I froze up as my mind understood what I saw: about four steps away, there stood a statue of a woman. She was slumped up against the meat, and was attempting to shield her eyes with one hand. Her ‘skin’ was a mixture of wallpaper and concrete, the details of all of her were far too immaculate… As much as I didn’t even want to imagine it at all, in that moment I knew — that was not just a statue.

 

She was staring across the hall at an open door to another apartment. A splotch of red replaced part of the entrance, with the handle resembling some sort of round bone. Gripping my knife even harder while attempting to not lose my dinner, I suppressed a full-body shudder, clenched my teeth and stepped back.

 

The emergency response teams could handle that one — I didn’t think anything in there was still alive.

 

Stench hit my nose, and I frantically looked around, expecting to see more fleshy objects or encroaching vines ready to slash at me. Thankfully, there were none — it was just Nebula throwing up. As Battery quietly reported the casualty to her earbud, we both walked past her to Assault, who was looking down the obstructed hall.

 

“We… may have a problem here,” he sighed, likely still reeling. What stood before us was a tangle of vines, mixed in with the fragments of the floor from above. The way further was blocked, by both plant and stone this time; while there wasn’t as much of the former, the latter made up for it twice over.

 

I took Nebula’s hand in mine, squeezing it lightly; she squeezed back. “Think we can go from above?” I asked gently.

 

“Probably,” she answered.

 

“Hold on,” Assault said. “You want to go down through the other stairway? Isn’t it filled with those vines, top to bottom?”

 

Not top to bottom — first floor was perfectly clean. I don’t want to waste more time picking through rubble when we have other options.”

 

Battery’s steps announced her return. “I have to agree, Assault. Director says to proceed with her plan.”

 

Nebula’s grip on me tightened almost painfully, though mine wasn’t far from that either. I shuddered; was the fucker scheming yet again? Would he exploit such a tragedy to regain control of ‘his lucrative asset’? Staring into her eyes, those tired glimmering bottle-green orbs, I had a suspicion that I was correct.

 

“Your choice,” she breathed almost silently.

 

Yet we didn’t have a choice; not a real one, at least. What would we do? Turn back? There were still some people here, possibly trapped and/or dying, and I had to do my part in saving them. I’d do my best to defend my partner if Coil had truly set up some damn trap, but we had to move before more people suffered. I couldn’t condemn them to death.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

She just squeezed my hand again.

 

We went up to the highest floor.

 

Assault put his arms on his sides. “In hindsight, I should’ve expected this.” What he was referring to was the big, plant-filled hole in the center.

 

“There’s no plants on the other side,” Nebula stated in annoyance. “You can bounce through just fine, unless we let the vines grow even further.”

 

Indeed, there weren’t many of them, though they did seem alert and agitated. All were coiling and stabbing in our general direction, even though we were standing a good ten feet away.

 

“I wish Nymph was here right about now,” I muttered. With her, either of us could’ve just touched the plant and made it wither.

 

“Yeah, she’d be perfect here.”

 

“Who’s that?” Assault asked me. “One of your mysterious teammates?”

 

I hummed in confirmation. “If you see some plants glowing, then it’s probably her.”

 

“So are you jumping or not?” Nebula snapped. “Make a decision.”

 

“Wait, maybe there’s some other way..?” Battery said, looking at both of them.

 

In an attempt to lessen the risk for Assault, I stepped slightly closer to the rift in the floor. All of my seven thorns — with two from Assault and just one from Battery — homed in on the closest vine trying to get to me, shredding the stem into pieces.

 

…Vines did have stems, right?

 

Either way, I had it dragged closer to me — I didn’t want to enable the main mass to reconnect to it, if it could do that. That then, of course, meant that the cut-off part tried to attack me. In fact, the thing took me by surprise with its fluid movements — even though it was hemorrhaging liquid, it still kept slithering towards my foot.

 

“Stay down,” I grunted as I stabbed the thing with my knife. Oddly enough, it slowed, halting completely in a few seconds. Watching the glowing, glittery gold seeping out of the wound, an idea came to mind. “Huh,” I said. “Perfect indeed.”

 

Turning around, I was met with a fresh grin from my teammate. “That works. Though I’m not sure why — it should be plant matter, right?.. Or maybe a hybrid? Hmm…” She looked at Assault. “Think you can do the bouncy thing but stab them while you’re at it?”

 

Assault, who was at that point just staring silently at the gold liquid, nodded. “Yeah. I can try it.”

 

Shrugging, I passed the knife to him. He was, after all, the one with the most mobility here.

 

“Are you sure?” Battery asked him.

 

“Yup. I’ll be fine, Puppy, don’t worry.” With a grin he walked to the center of the hall and faced the writhing mess. “Ready when you are!”

 

One, two… Battery stayed there for about seven seconds. Then, the next moment the lines on her costume began to glow, some even having sparks of electricity run past them. She ran straight at Assault, tackling him bodily in a way that should hurt, but all he did was shoot forward like a bullet, his teammate unscathed and just watching.

 

The crimson-clad man ping-ponged so fast that my eyes could barely follow him, almost a blur as he left golden gouges in the plantmass. Every strike from the creature only sped him up even further, and soon we were left with a messy-yet-safe hallway.

 

Assault skidded to a halt back at our side, grinning ear to ear. “Nice workout,” he said.

 

“We’re still not done here,” Nebula pointed out.

 

“Right, gotta get you all across. Unless you can do the thing from before..?” The one with his thorns?

 

“We can,” I confirmed, and then gave one of said thorns to my partner. Meanwhile, its owner had given me my knife back. I stowed it. “Ready?” I asked.

 

“Ready,” was Nebula’s answer. Taking a running start, we both leapt right across the chasm.

 

Assault landed next to us, with Battery last. “I think I hear backup,” she said, turning her head as if looking through a wall.

 

I heard it too. Whoever it was that arrived, they were urging people still inside to either get out using the emergency exits or to lock themselves in a secure spot and wait for rescue. Assault was definitely relieved by that, most likely tired from yelling every floor.

 

…And then, all of a sudden, my ears were assaulted by another loud noise. I flinched, looking around, and felt cold water mist spray from the ceiling.

 

“SOME IDIOT PULLED THE FIRE ALARM!” Nebula shouted while covering her ears.

 

Oh. Fuck. With how much liquid its insides were storing, the plant’s growth was bound to speed up by a lot.

 

“WE NEED TO GO BEFORE IT GROWS MORE!” I yelled and ran down the stairs to the third floor. Almost tripping on a sneaky, lone vine, I jumped into the hallway and gaped at how many more there were: to my right, there were several still remaining, ones Assault couldn’t reach during his bounce-around on the fourth floor; to my left, a cord of vines had crept past the corner and into the stairwell; even more to my left, almost behind me in said stairwell, there was a bigger mass of the stuff — the same overgrown segment that we’d run into earlier.

 

At least I still had a clear path before me.

 

A thorny lash brought me back to my senses, and I had my thorns counter-attack. As I took my knife out again, dodging a vertical swing, I had the Assault pair of thorns stop two more. The four empty ones were already on the offensive, while the one touched by Battery hovered in place as it charged.

 

“ANY PLAN?” Assault yelled. Good, they caught up.

 

“GET TO THE HEART WHILE WE STILL CAN!” I yelled back. I’d also heard two gunshots a second later, coming from Nebula, but she was already putting the gun away when I glanced at her, mouthing ‘useless’.

 

To secure the right side’s safety, I focused on vines that were peeking through the rubble. I hopped over a low horizontal sweep and plunged my knife into the plant, however apparently I had miscalculated, as another grabbed my hand almost instantly. I struggled for a solid second, my movements more sluggish and my costume wet, but at last Battery’s thorn came in slicing and dicing, hacking the plant limb away.

 

My wrist was hurting, and I could see a bit of blood — some of the vine’s damn exterior was pointy and sharp enough to pierce. Thankfully though, all the vines on this side were now done for; I’d stabbed each to stop their movement, then turned back to the others right after.

 

I noted the blockage in the stairwell to my left no longer moving — it was cut off from the main mass. Good. Nebula was standing next to me with her normal knife, while Assault and Battery both were attacking some vines at the bend of the left wing.

 

“I’M ALL DONE HERE!” I told her. “YOU OKAY?”

 

“JUST PEACHY!” Her sarcasm didn’t hide the way she hunched in on herself, or shivered.

 

“COME ON, NEB, JUST A BIT MORE!” I shouted over the alarm, starting to walk.

 

She fell in step, still on her guard, but I could see signs of her migraine spiking. I put my free arm around the small of her back, offering help in the one way I could.

 

“ASK- ASK HER FOR MORE THORNS!” She yelled, suddenly more alert.

 

“FOR WHAT?” I queried. More boost uptime? That would indeed come in handy, I supposed.

 

“THE ELECTRICITY!”

 

I blinked at that, frowning. What electricity was she talking about?

 

Then, it all clicked together as I saw Battery explode in a burst of lightning. The cloying stench in the air became even more unbearable for a few seconds, but I didn’t care — the attack worked! Part of the vine cable they were fighting was just blown to pieces! Nice!

 

We half-sprinted to her. “BATTERY! DO THE CHARGE AGAIN!” I ordered. At the same time, I had all four empty thorns land on her forearms; on the lines.

 

“ONE SECOND!” She stated, then nodded.

 

And, that one second later, I now had five Battery thorns at my disposal.

 

We turned the corner into the left wing, my Assault thorns protecting him and his partner from some errant vines that they hadn’t charred yet. I also noticed that some of the mist-spraying nozzles were broken — instead of water, only more vines emerged; these being the thickness of overcooked spaghetti.

 

I stood with Nebula behind them, waiting for Battery’s thorns to charge. I hoped that I could indeed do that same lightning attack, because otherwise we were more limited. Eight, nine… nine was the maximum, then — the more I waited beyond that, the more dizzy I felt every second.

 

But… where’s the option? I felt no option to make it explode! Probably swaying from the dizziness at that point, I released my hold on the thorns and had them boost themselves again.

 

Fuck. So I couldn’t do it? No, wait, there was something new, now… Hm.

 

I pinged an option I hadn’t even noticed, one that appeared only during the boost, and the test subject thorn had released its charge. Eureka! It did work! Quickly, I made the other four plunge even deeper into the vine mass, activating the discharge and…

 

Boom. A dry doorway.

 

Speaking of doorways, as I kept charging and blasting, I noticed that most of the plantmass here was coming from one pretty-much-stuffed apartment. There was almost nothing but vines there, all packed super tightly like spiky ground beef. I was also pretty sure that it was the apartment of the man that we’d met, back in the alley — if that was the case, then there were several more people inside still.

 

“IS THIS IT?” I asked.

 

“YES!” Both Battery and Nebula answered.

 

Assault batted several more vines off, ones that were heading straight for me. Whoops.

 

We were almost there, then. If so, I could cut off the gigantic portion left of the doorway with another salvo of lightning if I positioned the thorns right. Technically, this could’ve been easier with just one thorn from Nebula, but I was not going to ask her now. She was in too much pain as is, if the way she leaned onto me was of any indication.

 

Battery stepped and discharged yet again, keeping up her siege of the apartment proper. I, meanwhile, waited — I needed full power for this one. As soon as I felt that weird dizziness again, I released the five Battery thorns; they dug in, cut through, then blew up.

 

The entire part to the left of us started shaking, wriggling and contracting; resembling an angry, eldritch octopus with no eyes but all of the tentacles. I hacked at the ones that got too close with my knife, but even with them slowing down the thing somewhat, the cessation of movement was not nearly as quick.

 

Still, though. Only the apartment remained. We just had to get through and find where-

 

“IT’S IN THE BATHROOM!”

 

I blinked and looked at Assault. “WHAT?”

 

“HE’S RIGHT!” Nebula yelled. “LOOK AT THE VINES!”

 

I did as she asked, following the writhing mass back with my eyes.

 

…Yeah, they were coming from the bathroom, though these were thicker than the average thigh. I’d have to do one of them at a time if I wanted to blast the fuckers off. Hmm, how could I cheat here?..

 

Nebula’s hold onto my shoulders became a bit tighter. “THE HEART’S IN THERE! HAS TO BE!” Shit, she was fucking scowling; using her power yet again.

 

Fine, I’ll try this blind, then.

 

I had all the thorns charge once more.

 

Like before, I did the burrowing trick — I needed to find where the heart was and stop it; if I could follow the pulsing beat of all the liquid being pumped through, maybe it would lead me straight to the source, to the core. To not waste time, I had the Assault thorns do that, one for each direction…

 

…On the right side, somewhere. I see.

 

And I acted: all Battery thorns boosted, I made them spear straight through the mass. Like heat-seeking missiles, they homed in on the pulsing organ — it was even easier with five thorns instead of two. Somewhere about three feet above from the floor, the heart hung, now surrounded.

 

Praying for this to work, I gave the final mental command.

 

 

I shivered in the blanket I’d been given, muscles aching as I sat outside. It wasn’t as cold as a month ago, with May right around the corner; yet, watching the crescent in the sky, I shivered more.

 

The rescue mission was mostly a success, and the plant was dead now. It grated me, however, that there were still those we couldn’t save. The statue woman, for one, but even some others we hadn’t found until later — eleven dead in total, not counting pets. It stung.

 

Apparently, it all started with one of the poker group members, Kim. When Barry — the apartment owner — stepped out for a smoke, Kim went to the bathroom; in fact, that was where we found him — or, to be clear, just smears of viscera and shards of bone. From the point of view of the others, they just heard a weird flashbang-like noise and then crunching; then tearing, then scraping… The initial plantmass explosion had even busted down the door. As the vines crept in their direction, they panicked and ran to the bedroom, barricading themselves in and praying for help to arrive sometime soon.

 

With my hand laying on Nebula’s, I felt her turn in her seat for some reason. A glance showed her watching Assault and Battery talk about something. The glow of her hair was still dimmer than usual, thanks to the Tinker broach not drawing enough body heat, but slowly it was returning to its original brightness. Good.

 

“Battery,” she called. Then snapped her fingers. “Battery!”

 

“What?”

 

“They’re not a Striker, or a Shaker. They’re a Tinker.”

 

“Huh? But the current evidence-”

 

“-Points to it being a fucking Tinker!” Nebula snapped.

 

Tiredly, I sighed. And then yawned. Yeah.

 

While the heroes looked surprised by her oddly rude tone, I knew that we had good reasons to believe what we did.

 

Before all of this, on the way to that far-flung ambulance, Nebula had Kevin answer a handful of questions, most of them focusing on the explosion and his neighbors. The interesting part was him mentioning the ones living in the apartment under his: the tenants were a diehard ABB couple, never forgetting to wear something that showed off some red and green. They didn’t bother Kevin too much, but their distaste for the man was not a secret — both shared a frequently-voiced opinion that the territory they lived in was meant to only be for ‘their kind’.

 

That fact got my teammate’s mind racing, and soon she’d dismissed her Shaker theory outright. Most likely, in her opinion, the bomber was a Tinker; the Tinker she’d learned about from Oni Lee’s mall raid. She guessed that for one reason or another, the bomber got crossed by the gang that once welcomed them, deciding to resort to the ‘nuclear option’ and obliterate several blocks. Something about the idea didn’t feel right to me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was that everything fit perfectly, like having a child complete a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded?

 

Then again, even if some parts were not accurate, the thing about the ABB seemed right on the money — for one, we were deep in the heart of their territory, and both Kevin’s neighbors and Kim took part in the gang; and yes, Battery did indeed verify the latter. If the original plan was to strike out at everyone else, for example, the Tinker would take part in arming the grunts that’d participate in the attack, or defense. And with tinkertech being, well, tinkertech, having wireless triggers was not very difficult. I think.

 

Battery crossed her arms. “How sure are you of this?” She asked my partner.

 

“...Ninety-five percent.”

 

“And the last five?”

 

“Shaker, probably. Someone that causes those explosions in random locations, with a higher chance of them happening closer to the location of that person themself.” Several seconds passed, allowing the pair to digest that theory. “Yet again — it’s unlikely. They’d have to be invincible to survive in the epicenter of their own undoing.”

 

“Like Ash Beast?” I quietly asked. The S-class threat somewhere in Africa sounded quite similar to what she was describing.

 

“Yes,” Nebula nodded once. “Like Ash Beast.” She turned her head towards Assault. “Did any of you get to the center yet? Behind the wall of… whatever the fuck the white stuff is?”

 

Assault hesitated, exchanging a quick glance with Battery, but then answered. “Dauntless did, yeah. And some helicopters, of course. It’s pretty barren in there, not even any rubble.”

 

“Well duh, most of it was either pushed out by the mass or deleted by more explosions.” A pause. “So what, the inside’s like a scaled up cereal bowl, then?”

 

The hero hummed. “Essentially. A bit flatter, but sounds about right.”

 

I felt my teammate shudder in yet another risky usage of power, the fucking idiot. “And no bodies?” She asked. Right, we needed confirmation. But still!

 

Assault shook his head. A negative, then.

 

“Okay. In that case, I stand by my previous assumption, except it’s ninety-nine percent for the Tinker theory and only one percent for the Shaker. Might’ve gotten out by teleportation, I guess, but who knows. Sounds unlikely.”

 

I nodded in agreement.

 

“...That was one of Hunch’s guesses,” Battery muttered while looking at Assault.

 

“You notify them, then,” he replied.

 

A sigh. “Okay.” She stepped away to the side again.

 

Her partner hummed. “Speaking of. You two okay? This was quite the damn mess.”

 

I shrugged. “We helped.” That’s all that matters, in the end.

 

“It wou-” Nebula started, but then just stopped. “Wait.”

 

“Wh-” Assault started.

 

“Be fucking quiet!”

 

Oh no. More explosions.

 

Tensely, we listened; thankfully all of them were far away. Eight blocks, maybe? Ten? It was behind our backs and a bit to the right. Why did they resume? And why there?

 

“God fucking damnit.”

 

I looked at Nebula. “What?”

 

“I think it’s a Trump bomb. The exponential kind.” Exponential..? So, one that granted powers? Like that one guy from the Birdcage?

 

“Shit. Shit! This could be catastrophic…” Assault muttered to himself. He whirled back to face us again. “But as much as it pains me to say this, you two are not coming with. I’m serious.” Yeah, he was — his usually-comedic demeanor was completely gone now.

 

“But-!” I tried to argue.

 

“No buts. You need some sleep. If not you, then at least her.” God damnit, he was right…

 

“Did I miss something?” Battery queried. She was frowning as she came closer. Then, she saw how Assault was tensely watching us. “...What happened?”

 

“We heard more. Uh, more bombs. Over there,” he pointed. “Like eight of them.”

 

With the way Battery took a step back, I had a feeling her eyes were as wide as dinner plates. “No.”

 

“Yes,” Nebula said again without tact. “And your boyfriend forgot to mention that it’s likely a Trump bomb. Expect multiple culprit-victims, technically Mastered Teacher-style.”

 

“Did you get all that?” Battery asked her earbud, or so I assumed. She then nodded to herself. “Yeah, agreed.” Clearing her throat, she looked at both of us for a moment. Then, only at Nebula. “You were right in your assumption.”

 

“About the boyfriend?” She smirked.

 

“About the Empire.”

 

“Remind me: what did I guess, exactly?”

 

“Them using the bombing as a distraction,” Battery answered.

 

“God damnit! ” My teammate groaned, slumping back in her chair with both hands on her head. “That was to be expected, but fuck! What did they do?” She demanded.

 

“Several armed groups of Empire grunts were reported southwest from here. Fenja, Menja, Krieg and Rune as well, leading the charge and fighting anyone who opposed them.”

 

“Do you think the explosions we heard have anything to do with this?” I asked.

 

My teammate hummed, thinking. “Eh. Fifty-fifty. It’s possible that the Trump bomb would grant more than one compulsion, so the one beyond bomb-making could be related to attacking the Empire. Stuff like trigger phrases, or visuals. I dunno. Maybe.”

 

Nobody talked for a moment or two, but the silence was soon broken by Assault. “So I guess that the…” He sighed. “...gang war is finally here.”

 

Nebula hummed again.

 

“Go sleep, you deserve it. We’ll take it from here,” Battery said. “You helped a lot, and I mean it. Take care of yourselves.”

 

I waved.

 

After a quiet, half-sarcastic “Yeah,” from my partner, Battery ‘met’ Assault’s gaze and turned around, finally leaving.

 

He, meanwhile, nodded. “She’s right, you know — without you, we would’ve had to wait for backup. More people would’ve died by then.”

 

“I guess,” I managed. “Uh, bye?” …And Hebert eloquence strikes again.

 

“Until next time!” Assault saluted, then jogged off to catch up to his… girlfriend?

 

Still. “A gang war…” I whispered in disbelief.

 

“…There goes that shopping trip,” Nebula muttered.