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Charity Begins at Home

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April 19  - backpack stolen and set on fire behind the school during lunch. Textbooks and homework inside. Emily dumped pencil shavings in hair in fourth period. Sophia tripped me down the stairs at end of day.

 

I set my pen down. Is that really it? Is that all I have to say about that? It feels like so few words for what would have been paragraphs when I’d started my journal, but really, what else is there to say that hasn’t been said already? If I described how things made me feel, I’d be on my tenth journal already, instead of approaching the end of my first; its just not worth it to put it all down.

I hear Dad’s truck pull up, a sputtering, dying noise, and the decision is made for me. The journal goes back into hiding, secreted away in my closet. Dad comes in through the front door as I reach the bottom of the stairs. He glances at me as he takes off his jacket and hangs it by the door. His boots are already off. His mouth pinches into a tight line and he looks away.

“Dinner’s ready. It’s staying warm in the oven,” I say. He nods at me. I wait for him to say something, to ask me how my day was, or if the bullying had let up, or any one of his typical, habitual questions. But he doesn’t. He follows me into the kitchen and makes his plate. We’re halfway through the meal - an attempted pot pie that’s mostly just mushy vegetables floating in mashed potatoes - by the time he finally does speak.

“You remember Charlie? Red hair, wider than he is tall?”

I might vaguely remember a dockworker like him from years ago, so I nod.

“I had to lay him off today. He didn’t take it well. Took a swing at me before Kurt got him to calm down enough to leave.”

Dad’s face isn’t busted, his glasses are still in place on his wide eyes, he wasn’t walking with the limp of someone who’d been hit in the stomach, and Dad looks more upset than angry, so I assume Charlie missed. I wait for him to finish his story, but he doesn’t and we finish dinner in silence.

“I have homework,” I tell him, leaving him to do the dishes as I go back upstairs.

“Taylor,” he calls when I’m at the base of the stairs. He’s looking at me from his seat. “If you need to talk…” he trails off.

I don’t answer him. It isn’t until my bedroom door is shut behind me that I can release the frustrated sigh. How can he expect me to want to talk to him, especially after that. He’s got more important things to deal with than my petty high school bullshit, and even if I did tell him, he can’t do anything about it. The school strong armed him after the- the incident back in January. It’s not worth it, not with all the stress he has at the DWU; he doesn’t need another Sisyphean task to crush himself under.

Neither of us can do anything about the bullying, but I can do something else. Or at least, try. I lied about the homework - sort of; I do have homework, but it was in my book bag and that's… yeah - so instead I grab a book and sit in bed to read to pass the time until Dad goes to bed. I flip through a couple chapters, barely paying attention as the hours go by, only comprehending the story because of previous reads, until finally, finally, Dad goes to bed.

I give it another half hour to let him fall asleep before I sneak downstairs then into the basement, doing my best to avoid the louder steps. I have to stop halfway down when I feel him start to stir, but he just rolls over. I don’t dare let out a relieved hooo until I’m sure he’s not getting up. Soon enough, though, I’m in the basement and pulling my cape gear out from the boarded up chimney chute.

I strip out of my normal clothes and don the spider silk body stocking I made using the dozens of black widows I keep down here. The grays and greens turned out darker than I wanted, but I can’t spend another three months weaving another just to fix the color. My time with my black widows is better spend making new gear than replacing otherwise functional gear.

I slide my mask on over my head and adjust it until it fits right, then flip up the hood, letting my hair spill forward over my shoulders. I wind a length of spidersilk rope around my torso to take with me. Hopefully, if I don’t have a chance to tie up a villain, I’ll at least be able to finally try scaling a building. I stuff my other supplies into my costume’s pouches, then head out through the back door, keeping to backyards until I’m far enough from my house that I can safely join the main road.

I head vaguely towards downtown, keeping an eye and bug out for any suspicious people or groups. It’s the same strategy I’ve used every other night I failed to find any gang members, and I’d like to try something else, but I haven’t been able to think of a different way to patrol. With my range, I can scour the nearby blocks, but somewhy the gangs just don’t seem to be out tonight. Or any other night I’m patrolling.

Eventually, I find and follow a pair of what I’m pretty sure are skinheads for an hour, but they end up heading to an apartment complex and going to bed without doing anything more illegal than jaywalking, so I move on, frustration simmering in my gut. Isn’t Brockton Bay supposed to be dangerous? Everyone always warns against getting caught out alone late at night - and most times of the day - but as far as I’ve been able to tell from my patrols, this is the safest, least crime-ridden city on the east coast.

Every time I’ve gone out, I haven’t been able to find much of anything. I stopped a mugging on my first night, but he looked Latino and wasn’t visibly on drugs, so I don’t think he was a member of any of the bigger gangs in the Bay. I barely had to hurt him before he was on the ground crying and the muggee was running away without so much as a “thanks.” I couldn’t even arrest him, since I had to search for a payphone to make the call, and by the time I found one and got back, he’d run off. I left before the cops could arrive to yell at me for wasting resources.

I wish I could find a drug deal or a cape fight. At least then I could do something. Maybe less with the latter, but still, something. Bugs could be a good distraction, at the very least. I might be able to scare off a lower level villain like Uber&Leet or Satchel if I get lucky. But sadly, there’s no cape fights anywhere around me.  

With nothing more productive in range, I test my rope-climbing abilities. Some of my flying insects carry one end of the silk cord to the top of a squat, three story building with only a handful of people inside. My bugs tie an end to what I’m pretty sure is an air conditioning unit, secure enough that the rope doesn’t come loose with a tug. I start to climb.

Five minutes later, I fall the three feet I made it up, with aching shoulders and hands, wondering why I ever thought I’d be able to climb a rope. I’m not nearly strong enough, even using the climbing techniques I’d read about. Another night of being a useless hero. It’ll be a relief when I’m finally old enough to join the Protectorate, but at this rate they won’t even want me when that time comes. Useless bug girl: three years of experience and zero arrests. Pathetic.

I gather my rope and head back out in a random direction, choosing to patrol for another hour or so, not yet ready to give up for the night. It isn’t until her house enters my range that I realize where my feet took me. It’s a familiar neighborhood, but one I haven’t been in in years, with well trimmed lawns complimenting upscale houses. One of the neighbors even left their bike on the front porch.

I stop between houses, a block away from Emma’s house. The spider-crickets in the walls the ambient flies illustrate the familiar, strange halls. I use some flies to check on the Barneses. Zoe and Alan are asleep in their bedroom downstairs. Anne isn’t here; she must have started college last year. But maybe she’s just out for the night? It doesn’t feel like her bedroom’s changed all that much from what I remember.

Emma’s asleep in her bedroom.

I barely recognize it. Gone are her shelves of stuffed animals and posters of boy bands and heroes. In their place are tubes of… makeup, I think? A few framed photographs too. Even her bed is different: a queen instead of the single we used to squish together into for sleepovers.

She’s so vulnerable. If I wanted to, I could so easily kill her.

If the spare key is in the same place in the garden - it is, I determine with a quick check - then I could easily get in without waking anyone up. I could grab a kitchen knife on my way up to her room, and that would be that. Hell, I didn’t even have to enter the house; I could just sting her to death from here. She doesn’t have a bee allergy, but enough stings would have to be fatal, right? I don’t remember how many times I’ve fantasized about going Carrie on the trio - which I would never do; they aren’t worth endangering my career as a hero - but this is the first time its ever occurred to me that it wouldn’t have to be at school. At home, at the mall, on a bus, at a restaurant, at her modeling job: Emma wouldn’t be safe anywhere if I really wanted to attack her.

…Hypothetically, I mean. I’m a hero, and heroes don’t kill. I won’t let her take this from me too.

I force my feet to take me home, trying and failing to put those thoughts out of my head. Dad’s still sound asleep, so it’s easy to sneak back in and stash my cape supplies, then head to bed for - I check the clock - 3 hours of sleep before school in the morning.

Sleep is slow to come, and it brings no rest.

Chapter Text

April 20 - Pencil shavings. Harassed for not having textbooks. 3rd period group work stolen by Julie-Anne and Rebecca. Emma offered to buy me a new book bag if I could play her a song on the flute. She just wouldn’t stop. I thought about using my power on her. It was different than before. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day, turning the idea over in my head. I can’t do that, because I want to be a Hero, and they don’t let murderers join the Protectorate. But, if no one ever learns it was me, then what’s the harm? I just have to be careful and not let it be linked to bugs. That’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about all day. Even now I’m thinking of ideas. I could make her choke on a fly, then pull it out afterward with other bugs. Or I could cut her with razor blades held by flying bugs. Poison can’t be that hard to find, and a bug in her breakfast

 

I set my pen down. These aren’t the sort of things a hero-to-be should be thinking, much less writing down. But, really there’s no harm just in imagining. I’ve done it before, come up with fantasies where the trio get their comeuppance, sometimes quite violently, but that was back in the fall, way before I’d gotten powers, before I’d gained the ability to actually act on them.

But… that’s not exactly true. I always could have brought a knife or even a gun to school if I’d really wanted to. I never did, because it was never worth it even when I had nothing. Now? I’ve got something to lose, so I’m definitely not going to do anything. So… there’s no real harm in fantasizing, not if I’ll never act them out.

Either way, these ideas probably don’t belong in my bullying journal, not unless I want to out myself when I finally present it as evidence. I reluctantly tear out this page, rewrite the relevant parts on a fresh page, and put the bullying journal away. After a minute of deliberation, I pull out a fresh-ish notebook to continue the fantasy. It’s better to let it out, right?

 

[scene break]

 

Another night out on patrol. Another long, aimless walk through the too-quiet city and I’m back here. I didn’t plan on coming here again tonight, but… I didn’t plan not to.

Almost everything in the neighborhood is quiet. There’s a couple people watching television in a basement, but that’s on the other side of me. In the Barnes house though, Zoe and Alan are asleep, and Anne is still absent.

Emma though, she’s pacing in her room. It takes a minute to put together a coherent picture with just my sense of bugs’ locations, but it feels like she’s on her phone. She might be talking, but I can’t make out sounds through my bugs. Just as well, I wouldn’t want to hear her voice any way. She seems agitated though, judging by her body language. I’d call it worried, if she were anyone else. The Emma I know doesn’t worry. She doesn’t care enough to.

Carefully, I make my way to her backyard. Her window is curtained, but I can see that her light is on. I watch her window despite not being able to see into it, and catch a shadow of movement. I wake the bugs in her house and move more inside to get a better picture of her room. I watch her with my smaller insects - mostly flies and a handful of mosquitoes - and keep my bigger bugs to the unseen crevices of her room - under the bed, behind the dresser, in her dirty clothes hamper.

It’s with them that I find what I didn’t know I was looking for. Mom’s flute, or at least the case, shoved in a corner under Emma’s bed. She kept it. She stole it, defaced and destroyed it, stole it again, and then kept it. I… I thought she’d have gotten rid of it. If I knew she had kept it under her bed this whole time, I would have broken in and taken it back already, but I didn’t even think to look.

I didn’t even think to look.

I bite down on my frustration and silence my scream before it escapes. I keep still my body and the bugs inside Emma’s house, taking out my hate with the rest of the bugs around me, focusing on a colony of ants tearing into a caterpillar and, when that’s dismantled, turning them against each other in a suicidal frenzy. Scenes such as that play out across the dozens of yards within my range.

The only thing that stops me from siccing my bugs on Emma is the fact that if I use my bugs on her, she wins. I won’t be able to be a hero if they can track it back to me. But heroes stop robberies. We bring justice, and what’s more just than getting back my mom’s flute?

I unlock the back door with the spare key and quietly close the door behind me. The smell of laundry detergent permeates the room and a wave of nostalgia almost knocks me off my feet. It’s just the laundry room, but it takes me back to days long past, when Emma and I would romp through here on our way to and from her back yard, covered in mud and grass, Aunt Zoe yelling for us to wash up before we tracked filth everywhere.

My eyes close as I center myself. I’d made up my mind, and I’m already inside. Turning back won’t accomplish anything. I keep my eyes closed to hold off any other strong emotional reactions, using my bugs to navigate my path through the kitchen and up the stairs, picking up a knife on the way. With years of practice not yet worn away by the time away, my feet avoid the louder steps as I ascend to the second floor.

My heart races as I hear Emma’s muffled voice on the other side of her bedroom door. I grip the knob with sweaty hand, and slow, carefully, turn it. When she’s facing the window, back to the door, I open it as slowly as I can to keep quiet.

“...promise, I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” stresses Emma. Her voice is weird, with none of the confidence she commands at school. Whoever she’s talking to must be terrifying. A villain? Did she fall in with a gang or something? That would figure: Winslow isn’t big enough to hold her attention forever, it makes sense she’d want powerful friends. It makes what I’m about to do easier, at least.

When the door’s open enough, I squeeze through. She’s still facing away as I approach her, still whispering desperately on her phone. “No, no you’re right. You’re the predator-” a cape name? It isn’t familiar. “-just be careful, okay? Yeah. I know.”

I stand there, in the middle of her room, right behind her, eyes still closed, knife in hand. I take a deep breath in preparation for what comes next. An acrid combination of Emma’s many perfumes invades my nose and I snort in disgust.

She turns around, a scream on her lips.

I lash out in panic.

She stumbles back a step, raising a hand to the hole across her neck, and her scream dies as a wheeze. Even that goes quiet when I sink the knife into her stomach, then jerk it out with a disgustingly quiet slrnk. She falls to the ground and curls up around her gash, staining the carpet red. She stares up at my mask in terror and inches away: the only movement she can make. The person on the other side of the phone is yelling now, tinny and unimportant.

I finally open my eyes to look at her. Confusion fights with fear for space on her face, but louder than either is her raw pain. When she reaches for her phone, I pick up a foot and kick it away, under her nightstand. The girl on the other end - Predator - is still making a racket, and I know I should leave soon. She might be on her way here, and who knows how fast she can move?

I crouch down, reach under the bed, past the other thing littering the space, and grab what I came here for: my mother’s flute. It doesn’t feel real in my hands, but I know this case. Recognized the name etched onto the bottom with my bugs, and holding it I’m even more sure.

I turn to leave the same way I came in, sparing one last glance at my once-closest friend. Pain and lostness. She looks cold. My shoulder slump and in memory of all the good times we shared, I go back to her. Crouching beside the only friend I can remember, I drive the knife into her again and again to put her out of her misery. She doesn’t have to suffer, even though she should.

Only when her eyes go hazy and unfocused and she looks almost at peace do I leave: back downstairs and out the door, locking it and replacing the key behind me. A full bodied exhaustion grows with every step I take, but I force myself to keep walking, to get home and be done with this night.

When I finally do return to my house, I sink heavily onto the back stoop, unable to take another step. My body is tired, and I feel like I ran a marathon, but, now that I’ve stopped moving, my brain fills with a cottony buzz. Every thought dies half formed in my head, ideas cut short by the loud static that fills my skull with so much itchy fluff: every thought but one. A single thought forms and isn’t lost to the dim buzz:

Emma is dead. My best friend, the first and last true friend I ever had, is dead, and by my hand. I killed her. I killed Emma.

The thought smooths out the static and, instead of the feelings I expected to feel, bone deep satisfaction suffuses me. The bullying is over. It has to be, with the head cut off; at the very least, I’ll not be as much of a target as before. I have a real chance at being left alone, now, and I didn’t have to wait and rely on some dispassionate authority to fix my situation; I did it myself.

A smile grows across my face, not big enough to show teeth, but persistent. Emma’s dead! For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to school. I can’t wait to see how things will change without Emma. Maybe I’ll finally be able to pull my grades up, or join a club, or even make a friend… Though, thinking on it, there’s no one in Winslow I’d want to be friends with. I could transfer? I haven’t tried that in a while. The last times I tried, the administration threw out my applications, but maybe my luck is finally turning around.

…I should go inside, get to sleep so I can face tomorrow as well-rested as possible, I decide. But when I push myself to my feet, I’m shocked cold by the sight of the knife still in my hand. I didn’t realize I still had it, but I must’ve brought it home with me, which is… bad. Really bad. I can’t keep this,-can’t keep a murder weapon! That’s like, murder 101. I need to get rid of it in a way no one will be able to find it or trace it back to me: same idea as not using my power to kill: its all for the sake of being a hero.

I also need to clean the blood off my costume. My arm is soaked, and the rest of me is splattered with the fluid. It’s tacky, pinching and peeling my costume uncomfortably in ways I didn’t notice while I stayed moving. Fuck, I hope I didn’t leave a trail. If I left a trail of Emma’s blood, that’s the end of it all. I sweep the ground along the path I traveled, using my bugs to search for any blood. I find nothing, and let out a held breath. The only blood in the area is on me and the stoop I stopped on. I’ll need to be more careful next time.

Hypothetically, I mean. There’s not going to be a next time, of course.

Anxiety relieved for now, I peel off my costume and, after checking to make sure it can be opened, drop it by one of the basement windows: a small one that I’m pretty sure is more for ventilation than light. I don’t want to get any blood in the house, after all. Down to a sports bra and compression shorts, I shiver, then head inside and down to the basement, setting hemovorous bugs to clean the blood from the spot I sat. I retrieve my costume and lock the window, then lay it out across Dad’s old workbench. Regular machine washing is a quick way to ruin spidersilk, but the spiders that wove it are unsurprisingly good at cleaning the material. The knife I stash in the coat chute to take care of in the morning; I’ll toss it in a dumpster or something. I don’t know. I’ll figure it out in the morning.

In my room, I have one last thing to take care of. Finally, I let myself focus on the true fruit of the night: Mom’s flute. I bite my lip to contain my excitement as I flip the latch.

Empty.

Chapter Text

“Taylor? Everything alright in there?” Dad asks through the bathroom door.

“Yeah,” I croak. “Just… Enjoying the hot water.”

I know he can tell I’m lying - there’s no way it’s not obvious in my voice - but he doesn’t call me on it, just like always. Instead he just says, “alright. Well, don’t take too long or you’ll prune.”

“Okay.”

“I’m heading to work. I left your breakfast on the table.”

He lingers for another long moment, but then walks away, letting me get back to my wallowing on the bathtub floor. I’ve been in the shower for almost an hour, and the water has long since turned cold, but I can’t bring myself to leave. The uncountable water drops hit my back and splash away or run down, but I still feel just as sticky and gross as when I woke up. At least the smell of bile is out of the air, where it lingered after I flushed dinner’s meagre remains.

I feel miserable and empty. I don’t know how I got to sleep last night; the emptiness I felt then now feeling like a far off fantasy, a benevolent perversion of my current torrent of dread.

It’s obvious, now, that I lost. I lost, and Emma won, plain and simple. She pushed, poked, and prodded me until I snapped. …No, snapped isn’t the right word. ‘Snapped’ makes it sound like it was a heat of the moment crime of passion. What I did was so much worse; I planned it. Sure, there were heightened feelings, but what I did was premeditated, no two ways about it. I have writings proving that.

Emma won. She broke me. I’m not a good person, not anymore, thanks to her pushing me into this, and I don’t know what to do. School feels like it’d be the best and worst thing to do. It’d distract me - I don’t have time to think deeply about things like this while I’m dodging bullies and vainly trying to focus enough to pass my classes - but it would remind me even more, without that familiar, dreadful head of red hair.

More important than school are the things left out in the basement. There’s the knife I need to get rid of, and my costume is still out in the open. I was able to get my spiders to stuff my costume behind some boxes when I woke up, just in case Dad looked down there somewhy, but opening the coal chute is a bit beyond them. I need to check out Emma’s house again, too, and make sure there’s nothing there linking me to last night.

I need to stop procrastinating.

Reluctantly, I turn off the water and shiver at the bracing chill of the air wicking away water. I don’t linger, and in five minutes I’m dressed for the day in jeans and one of my nicer hoodies: a maroon one that was a birthday present from Dad last year. A bit warm for the weather, but it’s soft and it doesn’t have many stains since I rarely wear it outside. Breakfast is a plate of eggs and some toast, with a jar of jam left out. It’s cold. I don’t touch any of it: just the sight makes my stomach turn in knots.

In the basement, I swap my now clean costume for the Barnes’s kitchen knife and reseal the coal chute. It’s… heavier than I remember. I swallow past a suddenly dry mouth at the memory of driving it into Emma’s gut, of desperately swinging it across her neck. Stupid. So stupid. I was careless. I had the drop on her, I had a huge window of opportunity to do it quietly, but I waited too long and she saw me. If she’d gotten her scream out, or done something, I might have been caught. I need to be more careful next time and not risk getting seen. I should avoid going inside at all if I can help it. Stay where I won’t be spotted, maybe even-

Wait. There’s not going to be a ‘next time.’ I don’t need to worry about how to do it better, I just need to clean up last night’s mess and put it all behind me. First, I have to get rid of the knife. I should also check for and get rid of any more blood I might’ve trailed; I only checked the couple blocks around my house last night, and if I left one further out there’s nothing that would stop someone from following it to my area, and that’s just a step away from linking it to me.

So I wrap the knife in a rag from under the kitchen sink, then two more and a zip lock bag just to be safe. I haven’t gotten a new book bag yet, so I put it in my hoodie’s front pocket; if anyone sees the lumpy mass, hopefully they won’t think “knife.”

Then, there’s nothing keeping me from leaving. I step outside, and feel eyes on me immediately, from all directions, as I walk through the neighborhood, as if every window in every house has someone peaking out through the blinds, watching me. I know it’s paranoia, and there’s no reason anyone would pay me any more attention today than any other day, but the feeling persists, building and building, until I give in and start checking for myself, making sure no one’s watching me by scouting with some less noticeable bugs: houseflies, gnats, mosquitoes, and the ilk. Many of the houses are occupied by at least one person but not a one is by a window, thankfully.

As I follow my path back last night, keeping to the streets instead of the yards this time, the houses transition from slightly run down and sporadically maintained to ones that gleam with fresh coats of paint and recently mowed lawns. Here, there is the occasional watcher: a woman tending to her garden, an older man watching toddlers play in the yard, a pair of white women jogging. Most look at me oddly, no doubt wondering what a teenager is doing out of school on a Friday morning, but none confront me about it.  

I pick up bits and pieces of a trail - where I brushed against a bush, or leaned against a fence - and I waste no time in directing insects to get rid of the smears and drops. I scour the path with as many bugs as can go unnoticed, searching for and destroying any evidence.

When the Barnes’s house enters my range, I have to stop. I expected it to be crawling with PRT and Protectorate, or at the very least a dozen BBPD officers, but instead there’re only five people there: three downstairs and two up. One of the officers upstairs is vaping in Emma’s room. He has a camera around his neck, so I feel safe in assuming he’s taking pictures of the crime scene. I consider for a moment if it’s worth trying to break the camera somehow, in case he’s got some evidence that could link back to me, but no. That’s far too risky. Anything he has is less damning than making an attempt. The other cop in the room is wearing latex gloves and bagging various things in the room.

Downstairs is a much different scene. The three are in the living room, two on the couch and one slumped in a chair. The two are police, obvious by the bulk of their uniforms, and the one in the chair has to be Mr. Barnes. They’re talking, that much is obvious, but bugs’ hearing is incomprehensible and painful, so I don’t bother trying to listen in. It feels weird to see Mr. Barnes like this; his posture and gestures are nothing like the man I knew as an uncle. Gone is the boisterous, proud man I would recognized, and in his place is a defeated, despairing husk. It reminds me of my own dad, in the months after the funeral, in those rare moments he’d have the energy to get out of bed, but the emptiness still clung to him like miasma.

The curb is an uncomfortable seat, but I don’t stand back up after I sit down, and from just over a block away, I feel the shapes of Mr. Barnes and the police as they conduct their business. I can’t hear, and I can’t see, but feeling is enough to keep me there. I ignore the lingering eyes of the occasional passerby.

A weight I didn’t realize I was carrying seems to fall off my shoulders, only to be replaced by a mantle of dread. Emma’s dead. She’s really, actually dead. She’s not hanging on in the hospital, or already healed by Panacea, or anything like that. That isn’t the posture of a man with hope. Even without eyes or ears, I can tell that is the defeated body language of a broken man.

The knife burns hot in my pocket. I killed her. I have to push down the satisfaction and remind myself that I lost. That she won. That I’ll never learn why she did everything she did. I’ll never be able to rub my eventual victory in her face and laugh about how she peaked in high school. I’ll never be able to meet her again in 20 years, when high school is a distant memory, and she’ll apologize and explain everything, and we’ll reconnect even if we never recover.

Last week, I knew things would never be the same as they once were, no matter what happened. She’d done too much damage to ever regain my confidence. I wasn’t naive enough to think I could actually trust her like I used to again; that ship sailed a while back, with the destruction Mom’s flute at the very latest. But now, things will never be anything again; I don’t know why that hurts.

I should get rid of the knife. I shouldn’t linger here; even a block away is too close to be safe. I should go to school, or home, or to the library, or something, anything other than sit here spying on the man whose daughter I killed. But I don’t.

Minutes pass as I remain on the curb. The police finish whatever they’re doing and move on. Zoe comes back home, Anne on her heels, and I watch the family as they grieve together. For some reason, this makes me angry. Why does Emma get better than Mom? Emma has an entire family to grieve over her, and they’re doing it right, coming together.

They lost a daughter, but they still have another. One who isn’t a bully and a traitor. Even after a death in the family, they’re still a family. They’ll get over this; they don’t have an excuse not to. I got better after Mom, after all, and I was alone. They will get better.

The three of them pile into a car and drive out of my range, and the empty house is suddenly too still. It feels wrong to keep watching with nothing happening, more-so than it did to spy on the residents. Pins and needles stab my legs when I stand. I start my walk back home before they wake up, letting the movement painfully push out stiffness.

It’s nearly 9 A.M. when I finally return home, but it feels so much later. Dad’s truck is still gone, and I breath a sigh of relief at the thought that I won’t have to face him now, won’t have to answer disinterested questions about why I’m not at school, even though I know he won’t be back until this evening. As I open the door and step inside, though, the relief abandons me. The quiet, still walls of the empty house seem to press in on me. It’s a familiar feeling, and easy to put out of mind.

Flies are crawling over my abandoned breakfast. My stomach shrivels at the sight, and I shiver at the passing thought of eating that. It’s not food, not anymore. I scrape the plate into the trash, send the flies into the basement to become spider food, and gather my school supplies for a shitty day. If I leave now, I’ll make it in time for World Issues.

Chapter Text

The air is a weight that pressed down on me, crawling deep into my lungs. Every breath is a struggle to keep calm as I approach the quiet school. It feels weird walking toward Winslow without the crowds of students around. Everyone is in class already. I’m never late to school. The only times I’ve seen the school like this is when I couldn’t stand it and ditched early.

I wonder if I should stop by the front office for a late slip, or just head on to Mr. Gladly’s class. When the secretary sees me, her face shifts to annoyance bordering on disgust, and I don’t know how to deal with that today. If she doesn’t want to deal with me, she doesn’t have to. I pass the office and head to class, hedging on Gladly not calling out my lack of tardy slip.

 Madison waves to me as I enter, infuriatingly innocent smile on her face as she talks to Julia in the next desk over. It’s a lie, just like every other smile she’s sent my way, and sure enough, my desk’s seat is covered in pencil shavings. It’s the only one unoccupied, too, thanks to my tardiness. Well. That’s not completely true; there’s one empty seat on the other side of Madison’s, behind Julia, but I know better than to set myself up for harassment like that.

“Taylor, glad to see you’re joining us today,” says Mr. Gladly, interrupting his own lecture. “You get lost on the way here?”

“Yes, Mr. Gladly,” I say because it’s easier than trying to explain.

“Well, I should make you go get a tardy slip, but we can let that slide today. I won’t tell if you don’t.” He winks at me.

I give him a nod, head to my desk, brush the shavings onto the floor, and take my seat. I force my jaw to unclench before I crack a tooth. It was the effort of ten seconds to clear my desk, something so minor and inconsequential that it’s hardly even a ping on my radar, but something about it grinds at me more than gum in my hair, or juice on my clothes. I’ve been here for two minutes, and the bullying’s already continuing. Emma’s dead but the bullying hasn’t stopped. It’s supposed to be different now, without Emma. Things are supposed to have changed, but I still have to put up with this crap?

Mr. Gladly restarts his lecture, and I try to pay attention. He’s a crap educator and an even worse teacher, but the subject matter is sometimes interesting enough to almost make up for it, especially since the spring semester started discussions on capes, even if it’s probably as untrue as I suspect the Triumvirate's biographies to be.

“Now, as I was saying, the 1989 Indian radicalist group Blood Water was started by the villain…” He fingerguns the audience, fishing for participation. No one answers. “…Red Rock, in North Dakota. Does anyone remember what Red Rock’s powers were? They were on the readings~ Kevin?”

Kevin answers, “He moved rocks, right?”

A couple kids laugh and Gladly cracks a smile. “Close. Red Rock was a woman who controlled sound waves, but she was known for causing rock slides, so I’ll give you credit. Does anyone know who arrested her? Here’s a hint: it was one of the Protectorate’s founders. Aaron?”

“Legend?” guesses Aaron. He’s wrong, it was Alexandria.

“Nope, but good guess. Other Aron?”

“Alexandria,” says other Aron, sounding much more confident than his counterpart.

“That’s right! So, Alexandria arrested Red Rock for a lot of reasons. Just to give the highlights of her RAP sheet, I thought I’d ‘throw down’ a couple bars of freestyle rap.” He starts to speak in an approximation of a beat. “Unh, yeah. Mess with me for no rea-son, I’m gonna have to call that trea-son.

I tune him out immediately and focus on my bugs instead. The lecture was almost worth listening to, but this is the third time he’s started trying to rap in class and the info has never been worth the pain. While I don’t want to get in the habit of using my powers at school, anything is acceptable to get away from… that.

I let myself know the bugs in the school and the surrounding area, not taking control, not directing, just feeling them move and live. I feel the spiders in the walls hunting and spinning webs, the ants in the sports yard gathering resources and organizing their hills, the flies in the bathrooms searching for scraps of organic matter to vomit onto and suck back up, the numerous insects and other creepy crawlies going about their business: a thousand tiny creatures contributing the the larger world in unseen ways.

I feel every time a beetle gets crushed underfoot, or a fruit fly gets clapped, or a caterpillar is snapped up by a bird. Hundreds of tiny lives snuffed out by uncaring giants and an unfair world every minute of the day: and that’s just within my range. This happens everywhere, all across the planet, all day every day. Countless, infinite death.

Eventually, I’m roused from the bugworld by mass movement in the classroom. The whole class is getting up and pushing their desks into groups of four. More group work: Gladly’s favorite teaching style, by some definition of the word ‘teaching.’ I’m too late to even try to choose a group - not that many would let me in - and, as always, I’m lumped in with the class’s dregs: Greg, who’s too annoying and irrelevant to be included anywhere, Sparky, who I’m only mostly sure is awake right now, and myself. There is no fourth. Madison’s group has a fifth, and Mr. Gladly obviously sees this, but lets it be, rather than stepping in and sending one of the bitches my way.

“Did you catch the announcement for the new Hitachi GameGear?” Greg asks, doubtlessly as off topic as ever. I cut him off before he can really get going.

“What’s the assignment?”

“Oh, we’re supposed to talk about political villains or something,” says Greg. “You know, like terrorists and stuff. Like Red Rock. Mr. G told us to make a list and how they went wrong or too far, weren’t you listening?”

“I zoned out,” I answer semi-honestly. “So villains with ideologies? That’s not too hard.”

“Right? That’s what I was thinking, since there’s so many of them, like Half-A who broke into the Trader Joe’s headquarters back in ‘02 when they recalled Hero’s Downfall, but really that was mostly just revenge as far as I know. I mean, he had the high score since it came out and some even say it was targeted because he was too good and even though Trader Joe’s said it was because the game was crass, I think it was because Half-A was playing the game with a custom tinker-build controller instead of the standard one and Trader Joe’s didn’t-”

“Greg.” He shuts up. “You said we’re supposed to talk about villains with ideologies. Half-A doesn’t sound like he fits that.”

“No no, that’s the thing, he was a huge activist in the gamer communities as a rogue. Really important cape, at least that’s what my dad says. I was too young to really-”

“He was a rogue?”

“Yeah, back in the 90s. Some people say he-”

“You said we’re supposed to be talking about villains, Greg. Like Lustrum, or Free Panther, or, I don’t know, Madcap.”

“I know, but he was arrested as a villain after the Trader Joe’s break in, so he counts, and he really did have an ideology; it was all about video games and what they can do for people, and he was kind of like Uber and L33t if they weren’t villains, he even had his own streaming site to watch him play. A lot of his videos are still online, well, if you know where to look for them, and I could send you a link? I think you’d really like his play-through of Protectorate Smash, but really all of his videos are really cool-”

On and on he drones about barely tangentially related things. I look over to the third member of our group. Maybe Sparky has the right idea, just zone out and let the day pass. Greg’s not going to get back on track, and wrangling him just… it sounds exhausting. It isn’t like Mr. Gladly is going to grade the classwork on more than participation. Fuck. This isn’t how I thought today would go in the least, but it really is just another vaguely shitty Friday. I focus back in on my bugs and let my awareness of the world shrink and expand.

A spitball to the cheek jolts me back into my body. Madison and her bitches laugh at my flinch. I wipe the wad off of my cheek and very purposefully don’t acknowledge their taunts about how I should pay more attention in class. They don’t deserve my attention, but maybe I can pay one of them a visit tonight? I smile at the thought, but I wouldn’t do that. They don’t deserve it: even Madison - bitch that she is - doesn’t make that cut.

Mr. Gladly’s class ends. Lunch time. I’m the first out of the room. There’s no group of girls waiting for me, no trap sprung on me, nothing stopping me from finding an uninhabited corner of the school to hide in for lunch except the fact that I forgot to bring lunch or lunch money. I don’t think I could eat anyway, with the lingering tightness in my abdomen. I settle for hiding out under a mostly abandoned stairwell and trying to think of a name for my heroic alter ego.

 

[scene break]

 

Less than an hour after I get home from school, there’s a knock on the front door, a sharp, insistent sound of something harder than a hand against wood, breaking my restless concentration over my barely done homework and messy spidersilk weaving. I’m not expecting anyone, and my dad wouldn’t knock unless he forgot his keys, and his house key is on the same ring as his truck key, so I let some flies buzz around outside the door to try to figure out who’s there. Two men, both tall, one fat, one chunky, both in bulky clothing. If I hadn’t just felt these outfits earlier this morning, I’d likely not recognize them before I found and mapped the badges over their breasts.

Why are the cops here? Do they know? There shouldn’t be any way they would know, I covered my tracks this morning. That it’s the regular police and not the PRT is a minor comfort, soiled by the fact that either group of law enforcement catching me would be about as bad as the other in the long term.

The knock comes again, nightstick no doubt denting the comparatively soft wood, and I head downstairs to answer them before they break the door down. I open the door a crack, just enough to stick my head through, and the knocking cop holsters his billy club.

“Can I help you, officers?” I ask

“Taylor Hebert?” the thinner policeman asks.

“That’s me.”

“My partner and I were wondering if we could ask you some questions.” He gives a smile that I think is supposed to be charming or calming, but only serves to make him look tired.

“Sure.” I’ll have to be careful, but a couple questions shouldn’t be too bad.

There’s a beat of expectant silence before he says, “it might be more comfortable to talk inside?”

“Here’s fine.” I’m not letting cops inside without a warrant; that’s something my dad’s drilled into me since long ago; cops aren’t heroes, and they’re not like PRT troopers, they’re predators and bullies more often than not, and like hell am I going to invite them inside.

The partner with the billy club glares at me before craning his neck to try to see around the door behind me, into my house. Just to make sure it’s not sitting out, I put bugs on the knife: back in the basement where I put it. Nothing in the front hall but coats and shoes.

“Alright Miss Hebert, whatever makes you more comfortable,” says the thinner cop as he pulls out a notepad. In the privacy of my mind, I dub him Notepad and his partner Nightstick. “Do you know an Emma Barnes?”

So they are here about her, about last night. That’s not good. My words are careful. “I know her, yes.”

“What’s your relationship with her?” Notepad asks.

“We used to be friends.”

“’Used to be’?” asks Nightstick: his first words, and they’re suspicious as all hell.

“We…” How much do I say? If I tell them she’s bullied me mercilessly for over a year, that might solidify their suspicions of me, but the school knows about it even if they won’t do anything, so if I don’t mention it at all, that might makes the cops even more suspicious. I finally settle on saying, “we drifted apart since high school.”

Nightstick squints at me, but Notepad just resumes his questioning. “So you’re not close anymore?”

“That’s right.”

“Do you know anyone who might want to hurt her? Anyone who might be jealous of her, or hold a grudge against her: know anyone like that?”

“Not really. She has a lot of-” sycophants “-friends. But like I said, I don’t really know her that well anymore.”

“Hm.” The two cops exchange a look, a silent message passing between them. “She was murdered last night, her body found this morning.” A chill travels up my spine, and I force my face to stay neutral, restarting my silk weaving to distract myself. “The parents said you two were close. Are you sure you don’t know anything?”

“Nothing comes to mind. Like I said, we’re not that close anymore,” I reiterate. Why won’t they believe me?

“Has she ever talked to you about her modeling career?”

“A bit. Mostly just what I’d overhear from her other friends in the halls and stuff.”

“Where were you last night?” snaps Nightstick.

I set two ant hills to war with each other in the backyard, very carefully keeping my face neutral as mandibles tear limbs from bodies. I can’t tell them the truth, obviously, but I didn’t expect them to be so blatant about it; they haven’t even taken me in yet, but it’s feeling like an interrogation on a cheesy police procedural: only thing missing is the setting.

Notepad gestures at Nightstick and gives me another tired smile. “Just a standard question, keeps us from having to come back because we didn’t ask all the questions we’re supposed to. So, if you don’t mind, could you tell us where you were between the hours of twelve and three A.M. last night?”

“I was here. Sleeping.”

Notepad flips closed his notepad and slips it into a breast pocket. “Alright, well thank you for your time, we’ll get out of your hair. You have a nice rest of your day, alright?”

“You too, officer.”

Nightstick spares the inside of my house a last stretching look, then squints at me before they both turn to leave. The rotted first step of the porch squeals under their weight, but isn’t quite ready to give out yet. I close the door, and when they’re in their patrol car, I finally let out the heavy breath I’d been holding in. But they don’t drive off yet. Both sit in the car, Nightstick in the driver’s seat, Notepad in the passenger’s, and I get the suspicion they’re talking, most definitely about me, but I can’t hear them, can’t even make out definitively that they are talking.

The longest five minutes of my life pass before they pull away and I let myself leave the front door. Cops came and went, and didn’t try to arrest me. It’s almost disappointing, that they didn’t somehow sus out my guilt. These are the people the city gives power, and they couldn’t even see through me. No wonder there’s still so much mundane crime, if those are the sort of people trusted to solve crimes. It’s as worrisome as it is expected, but it helped me out today, so… yay?

Chapter Text

Come Monday, there’s no ambiguity in whether people know Emma’s fate. The mourning shrine in the front hall is clear enough advertising. A picture of her smiling - it looks professional, and I wonder if it’s from her modeling - in the center of a wreath of flowers, surrounded by dozens of other pictures of her and twice as many flowers. Where did all of this come from? Did some students make it? Or did the school put it up? Does the administration have a dead student wreath prepared for just such an occasion, stored in a closet somewhere? Would I have gotten one, if I hadn’t made it out in January?

…Probably not. And even if I did, it’d have gotten stolen or vandalized before first period even started. My dead student wreath wouldn’t have had nearly so large an audience, either.

There are over a dozen girls standing by the memorial, and maybe every third student stops to look or chat in low, somber tones. I shove past, keeping my head down in case the girls wanted to harass me ‘in Emma’s memory’ or whatever bullshit excuse they wanted to come up with today, but I can’t escape the suffocating feeling in the air. The whole school is quieter than it should be, like just after a big gang fight, when no one wants to get the attention of the celebratory winners or impotent losers. Even Ms. Knott’s computer room feels more subdued than usual, with less students audibly slacking off and joking around. Is this the impact of a popular girl’s death?

It’s nicer than usual. No one bothers me throughout the day; it reminds me of the month before winter break, when the whole bullying campaign stopped and the worst I’d receive in a day were turned-up noses. I have to remind myself why this is different though. It’s not the calm before the storm. It’s not a lull before they hit me with something worse than anything previous. It’s… I’m not naive enough to call it the end, but it’s a break at the very least, while everyone puts on the production of grieving a lost classmate.

Even World Issues with Madison is more bearable than ever before, even if that’s mostly because she’s so caught up in the act of grief that she can’t tell of Greg in her usual way as he gives his condolences to the other girls in class. The annoyance on their faces as he parrots back their mourning words brings a smile to my own: a brief one, quickly smushed down before anyone could see. I don’t need to paint any sort of target on myself, especially when an errant rumor might hit closer to the truth than is safe. The worst possible outcome would be if Madison and Sophia somehow framed me for Emma’s murder because I’m - god forbid - happy for the reprieve today.

It’s as close to a perfect day as I’ve had all year, so of course the world conspires to shit on me in the form of a pissed off Sophia Hess ambushing me on my way to math. A fist to my gut drives the breath out of me, and before I even know what’s happening, the bitch is shoving me against the lockers with a forearm pressed against my neck.

“What’s so fucking funny, pissant?” she hisses at me, baring teeth - not smiling, definitely not smiling - in a vicious snarl, inches from my face. “I asked you a question, so answer me: what the fuck do you have to smile about?”

I try to suck in a breath, not to answer her, she wouldn’t like any answer I could give, but to reclaim the air she drove out of me, but her arm is cutting off my breathing to a strained wheeze.

“You think you’re having a good day? You think that without Emma around you’re safe? You’re dumber than I thought if that’s true. You’re a piece of shit. Prey like you isn’t safe unless I say so.” She punctuates her threat by driving another fist into my stomach, driving out the wisps of air I was able to suck down. Tiny, dark blips swirl in the air, and for a moment I panic for real, thinking my bugs are attacking, but it’s just dark spots in my eyes. My bugs are coming closer though, without my direction, and I send them away to be safe, desperate to stay hidden.

“Sophia, we have to go,” comes a girl’s voice, from off to the side. A pale hand grabs Sophia’s arm, but it gets slapped away.

“Don’t fucking touch me!” she snarls, finally releasing pressure on my neck. I drop to the floor in a heap. The metal of the locker is cool against my back, and I can finally suck down a breath. It sends me into a coughing, wheezing fit, but the dark spots in my vision clear up.

“Teachers are coming,” says the white girl, who I now recognize as one of the trio’s lesser sycophants, one of the girls that would join in on the name calling and rumor spreading, but never acted alone or from the front of a group. Marcy? Martha? Mary? Something that starts with an M. “We need to get out of here, now.”

Sophia scoffs, but lets herself be led away with only a parting comment. “You’ll keep that smug smile off your fucking face if you know what’s good for you.”

Then she and M-girl are gone, just in time for a pair of teachers to come into view: Mr. Gladly and one that I only vaguely recognize. I think he teaches woodshop, or maybe small engine repair? Whatever he teaches, he only spares me a pitying glance before continuing on, either to wherever he was originally going or to track down Sophia and M-girl. Gladly though, he stops next to me and, of course, makes a scene.

He calls out to the hall, “I don’t want to be That Guy, but the bell’s about to ring and you all don’t want to be late, do you?” which I guess is as close as he can get to telling students to fuck off while still being a ‘cool teacher.’ Still, the hall starts to clear, albeit slowly. The warning bell that comes a moment later puts more urgency in the other students’ egress than his words. I struggle to my feet, ignoring Gladly’s outstretched hand to stand on my own.

“I saw what happened,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“You saw Sophia choke me out?” My voice is scratchy, but the disbelief shows through, judging by how his lips purse.

“I saw her standing next to you, and I saw you fall,” he says noncommittally, dodging any sort of responsibility.

“And?”

He sighs. “Look, Taylor, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Emma Barnes passed away last week. I don’t know if you knew this, but Sophia was on the phone with her when she died-” That was Sophia on the other end? That means ‘Predator’ is a nickname, not a cape name. “-and she’s going through a rough time right now. Now, everyone grieves differently, and it’s not always pretty. Some people get sad, some people get numb, and some people get angry.”

Wait is he actually giving me this talk?

“Sophia’s a very… complicated girl, and we need to be patient with her while she’s going through this.”

He is! This… this… I don’t even know what to call him for this. This is a new level of spineless malice, even for him.

“Why don’t you try reaching out to her? I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, and she could probably use a friend now more-”

 I cut him off with a “are you fucking kidding me?! She beats the crap out of me every day for a year and you want me to be her friend?”

“She does what? Taylor, if that’s true, we need to go to the principal and-”

“And what? Give a couple days of vacation?”

He sighs. “I’ll talk to Sophia, okay?”

“No! You’ll just set her more against me.”

He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Taylor, I don’t know what to do with you. I’m trying my best, okay? You won’t talk to the administration, you won’t let me talk to the people you blame, you won’t tell any of the teachers what’s going on; I’m trying. Would you please just let me be on your side for once?”

“You- You seriously-” I scoff, and in lieu of finding an end to my sentence I shove past him. Gladly calls out to me as I stiffly walk away, bruise no doubt already forming on my gut, making each step stretch and tug my abdomen painfully, but I don’t hear his words over the crashing of blood in my ears.

Let him be on my side? He’s delusional if he thinks I’m in any way stopping him from calling out the bullying he witnesses. He only says things like this to clear his conscience. He doesn’t actually have any intention of doing anything, or he would have already. He just wants to feel good about continuing to do nothing, about staying comfortable while others pay the price. He wants to feel like a good teacher, but he isn’t. He’s the worst kind of teacher, in and out of the classroom.

His classes are always full of inane group work, and he never does anything about the shit that goes on under his nose. Hell, he’s worse than a substitute in the classroom. A sub at least doesn’t care about the power plays and social hierarchy of the students. The sub last fall was a crotchety old lady, but at least she was an ass to everyone. What I’d give to see her send Julia to the principal again…

And out of class? The other week pops into my head, when Emma taunted me over my own mother’s death - again - and the other girls told me to kill myself. He saw, he heard, and the only thing he did before walking away was make a sad face.

He never set out to hurt anyone, but he does let it happen. He let’s it happen, every day. That makes him culpable. It has to, at least on some level. He has the power to stop so much bullying, but actively chooses not to, so he’s responsible for everything that goes on under his watch. And there’s no way he’s only like this at school. He probably looks away from abuse everywhere else in his life too. With how he acts, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d ignore a mugging, or a murder, or anything really: lock eyes with someone just before they’re shanked, then make that same damn sad face before going about his day; “not my problem,” he would say before patting himself on the back for being ‘cool.’

No one bothers me as I leave the school to bus home, not caring that I’m skipping Mr. Quinlan’s math class. Despite my best efforts to push him out of my head, thoughts of Gladly plague me the whole way home, and even past its threshold. His sniveling, sad face sticks in my brain like tar, and every time my gut aches, it’s him I think of. That night, long after my dad has fallen asleep, I remain awake, unable to sleep through the layers of buzzing ideas.

Emma’s knife is the center-point of my thoughts, a beacon swaddled in my costume.

Chapter Text

My biggest failing with Emma was that I didn’t plan it enough. It was spur of the moment. It’d been building, but in the end it was an act of passion, of emotions boiling over. Tonight is different. Will be different. This time, I have an actual plan, not just fantasies and ideations. After tonight, Gladly will be dead, and I won’t even have to touch him.

It wasn’t hard to track him down, really. It’s like my power is tailor made for these sorts of things. All I had to do was sneak a few bugs into his bag and follow him home, staying out of his sight, a block behind him. The first day I tried this, last Tuesday, I lost him a few blocks from the school, but on Wednesday I could pick up where I left off, and I tracked him the next few blocks. Only a few days of that and he led me to his home.

His apartment isn’t anything special, just a one bedroom on the third floor of a brick building. Gladly’s place almost identical to every other apartment in the building. It looks out on the street, with a tiny balcony probably meant for smokers who don’t want to stain the walls inside (I say probably because, judging by the gunk clinging to most of the walls, no one uses the balcony for that). There are some personal touches, of course, like the coffee table that feels more like modern art someone set a board on top of, and the tiny personal gym in the corner of the den, but by and large it’s just another boring living space.

I would have preferred to do this while he was asleep, but I need to get this over with before sundown so my dad doesn’t worry. After catching me out on my first night of patrol, he’s been almost overbearing, and after Emma’s funeral he’s just gotten worse. But I can’t exactly tell him why he doesn’t need to worry about me dying like her, so I just have to deal with it.

I push away those thoughts of my dad; I can deal with him later, but Gladly is here and now. He’s just sitting in front of the TV, drinking a beer. He could be doing anything with his Friday night, and he’s watching television. Why even have weights if you’re not going to use them? Slacker. Even I’m doing something with my Friday. At least it makes him unlikely to see my bugs work.

Out of sight, they pilfer his bag and take the key ring from within. One of them has to be his house key; he doesn’t carry but the one ring. A procession of my bugs drag it under his couch and start on pinching the carabiner clip open through a combination of buggy teamwork and spidersilk. The smaller rings, the ones that actually hold the keys, are impossible to open, but that’s fine; even like this, they fit through the slots in the vent covers.

Air vents are nothing like in the spy movies. They’re all far too small to fit me, much less a fully grown James Bond. Maybe industrial ones are different, but I doubt it. This size means nothing to my procession of bugs, though. They can march through in files dozens of roaches wide, and with other bugs in the network of vents, getting lost is a nonissue as I direct them to drag the keys to a vent on the second floor and feed it through the slot for my fliers to pick up. An aerial squad carries it out of the nearby open window and drops them on the sidewalk below for me to pick up.

I have entry to Gladly’s apartment. I would have liked to not need it, but it is what it is, and the plan necessitates my entry. When the lobby is empty, I enter, heading to the enclosed stairwell for his floor. A couple leaves their apartment on the fourth floor, and I prepare to duck into the second, but they take the elevator down instead, and I can finish my climb unseen. I shouldn’t be recognizable even if someone does see me, with my hood up and my hair tied back, but it pays to be cautious. The less people who see me, the better. Once I’m on the third floor with Gladly, the worst part of the plan begins.

Waiting outside his door is nerve wracking despite my power letting me track anyone who might come out into the hall and spot me. Feeling the two dozen or so tenants on this floor, and watching them for any hint of egress only keys me into my own nerves. Every time someone stands, I tense. Every time someone moves, I prepare to run. But after I test the keys for the door’s match, there’s nothing to do but wait. I don’t even dare turning the key for fear of alerting Gladly, facing away from the door he may be.

But no one leaves their apartment, and the hall stays empty except for me until Gladly finally goes to the bathroom. I let out a held breath and move. The door opens then closes behind me. I move quickly and quietly - thankful for the carpeted floor - to his balcony door and open it a crack. The blinds will hide my work. I take the knotted end of the spidersilk rope dangling off the side of the roof out of my bugs’ hold and bring it inside. Then, I crouch behind the couch he was sitting on and wait for him to return to his seat and be distracted by the TV again. I could likely leave, and let my bugs handle the rest of the plan, but I’m already here, and it’s better to be close in case something goes wrong.

The toilet flushes, and I lick my lips in anticipation. Soon. When he sits back down, I can finish this and get home with plenty of time to spare. I just have to be patient. But when he comes back into the living room, he doesn’t sit down. Instead, he changes the channel from ESPN to a music channel playing classic pop music, turns the volume up, and goes into the kitchen, where he starts riffling through the cabinets and fridge for food.

This isn’t to plan. I was supposed to be in and out within 10 minutes. Why the hell is he making dinner so early?! It’s not even 6 in the afternoon! Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit. Calm down. I can salvage this. I can wait for him to finish cooking, and do the plan when he sits down to eat, but every minute longer I’m in here is another minute I risk discovery.

I could ditch the plan and go after him in the kitchen; my costume should protect me if he tries to knife me, but the clothes I have on over it would get shredded, and I don’t want to attract attention on my way home. Not to mention, I kind of like this hoodie. It was a Christmas gift. Plus, what would I do, stab him like I did Emma? That would be a pattern, and anything linking her death to Gladly’s is a bad idea.

Maybe I should leave and come back tomorrow? …No. No, I can’t do that. It has to be today. I’m already here and everything is in place. Coming back means twice the risk of being seen and caught. It’s twice the chance something will go wrong.

I could just ditch the pretense and swarm him. There’re enough venomous bugs in the area that, even without an allergy, he wouldn’t survive, but that runs counter to the entire reason I’m doing any of this; I’m getting rid of him so I don’t snap and do exactly that and ruin my hero career.

No. No, I don’t need to change the plan. I’ve thought everything through already, so it’s better to stick as close as possible to it. Living room, kitchen: what difference does it make? The only thing separating them is a wall. I can still do this.

I close my eyes to move my focus into the swarm. From hand to dragonfly legs, I pass the knotted end of the rope. Spiders along the ceiling and walls hold aloft the slack as the mass of my best fliers congregate above Gladly as he chops vegetables and sings along to ABBA, deafening himself to the buzzing and skittering of the hundreds of enemies he’s accrued. Fitting, that he’s ignorant to the enemies his inaction has bred, all the way until the end.

My fingers tap against my knee as I wait for the right moment. I need him to be still, I can’t afford to miss, but he won’t keep still. He keeps dancing around the kitchen, and if he were any good I could probably get the rope around his neck, but he worse at dancing than he as at rapping, and he has no rhythm! At all! Waiting isn’t working. If I’m going to do this, I need to make my own chance. The world isn’t going to give me one.

I pull my bugs out of the kitchen and station them above the doorway, out of sight. Staying low, I lean over toward the door and rap my knuckles against it, then hurry to shuffle back into place. Sure enough, he stops what he’s doing, sets down the knife, wipes his hands, and heads in my direction. Just as I wanted, Gladly leaves the kitchen to investigate, but as soon as he crosses the threshold, I act.

The noose drops, falling around his neck, and before he can even shout in surprise I feed the other end into the air conditioning unit fan on the roof. The blade snags it and the cord goes taut, dragging across the edge of the roof and Gladly’s balcony’s railing, straining but not tearing. His shout turns into a choked gargle as he’s jerked to the side and onto his ass by the tightened noose. He clutches at his neck, but is unable to get a grip on the silk rope, and unable to loosen it even if he could grasp it. The fan doesn’t have enough strength to pull him across the floor, but it has more than enough to crush his windpipe. I feel him struggle, feel his legs kick uselessly as he pushes himself up the wall in an attempt to relieve the pressure on his neck, feel his fingers as they scratch his neck raw around the cord.

My bugs feel all of this and relay it back to me, but they can’t see. They can’t see if he’s scared or angry. They can’t see how purple his face must be turning. They can’t see the red flowing out from under his fingernails. They can’t see how disheveled his hair must be, this time naturally messed instead of his typically purposeful style. I could, if I wanted to. I could peek over the back of the couch and see all of this and more, commit to memory his death throes.

But I don’t. I sit there on the floor, back to the couch, staring at the door, listening to ABBA cover up Gladly’s dying sounds. I breathe heavily as he doesn’t breathe at all, and I think about all the times he did nothing for me as I died piecemeal under his watch. He doesn’t deserve to be seen.

He slaps the wall, once, twice, thrice. Each hit is weaker than the last, and the fourth is a flop that doesn’t even hit the wall. His struggles slow, then stop. A minute passes. His pulse is gone. Another minute passes.

I sigh and let myself smile as a peaceful assurance washes over me. Gladly’s done. He’s not going to be a ‘teacher’ at Winslow anymore, and things can get better. The world gets blurry somewhy and I push my glasses up to wipe my eyes. My palm comes away wet, and I can’t help the bark of laughter that escapes me. Why the hell am I crying?

The peal of laughter that follows, I probably should have pushed down, but I let myself laugh. The world is better, just a bit. I made the world better, just a bit. Twice now! A toxic bitch and an incompetent authority: gone because of me! 

I laugh for a long while, sitting there on the floor behind Mr. Gladly’s couch, reveling in the feeling of taking control of my life and making a difference. I know I have to move, I have to clean up and get home, so, reluctantly, I get myself under control and leave the apartment. How long until a new renter lives here? I lock the door behind me and push the keys under the door, letting my bugs slide them back onto the carabiner and march it back into his bag. I set my spiders upon the silk line, severing the keystones of the noose and letting it unravel into a length of cord once more. The AC unit is busted, broken by the weight its fan was never meant to carry, but this makes it easier for my bugs to retrieve that end of the silk line and pull the rope off the roof, letting it fall in the empty alley behind the building.

My bugs continue to collect or destroy any insectoid evidence, going so far as to scrub his apartment of bugs he’d killed in his useless flailing. Alone in the stairwell, I slip out of the top half of my costume without removing my hoodie and tie it around my waist. I wait until the lobby is empty, then walk out and around the block to where my bugs stashed the silk line. Into my front pocket it goes, and then I’m ready to bus home.

I don’t hide my smile this time.

Chapter Text

There’s never enough work to go around, and getting the city to approve a project for more work an increasingly hopeless prospect with every passing day. Every day is a slog, and all around are reminders of how many friends and coworkers Danny’s lost to the grinding, halting economy. But sometimes - not often enough, never often enough - something comes along to break the disma and bring everything into focus. Remind him why he labors so hard, even if his work will never end. Sometimes, it’s a union cookout after a rare contract comes in. Other times, it’s a spark of good news from someone’s personal life: a wedding, or a child, big things like that.

Today, it’s his own daughter, humming as she finishes making dinner. She’s even tapping her foot along to the rhythm. It reminds him of the clubs he went to when he was younger and still figuring himself out. It’s ABBA, he realizes. He didn’t know she liked them, didn’t know she even knew them, but apparently so. Maybe he can get her one of their CDs for her birthday.

He wants to ask what sparked her good mood, but he doesn’t dare risk breaking it; he knows he has the worst habit of saying the exact wrong things to Taylor and has learned to keep his mouth shut around her. So he just sits quietly at their tiny kitchen table and watches her, the paperwork he’d brought home to review sitting neglected on the table.

“Should only be another five minutes,” she tells him.

“Sounds good, sweetie. Smells good too,” is all he says back, but even that much he didn’t get right, judging by the suspicious look she gives him.

But she doesn’t dig, doesn’t follow her suspicion up with anything, instead returning her attention to the meal preparation. She doesn’t restart her humming either, though, and Danny has to hold in a disappointed sigh, comforted only by the fact that the easy atmosphere is still mostly there, not yet driven out by the Hebert house’s typical dread.

Five minutes later, Taylor’s sitting across from him with a macaroni casserole on the table between them, chunks already taken out and divvied onto their plates.

“This is good,” he says after a bite.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Has a nice crunch.”

“Mm.”

“Is this a new recipe?”

“No,” she says, and just as he opens his mouth to follow up, she continues, “I found it in one of… the cookbooks. From the basement.”

The meaning behind his daughter’s words is obvious. Annette. Even the oblique reference to her takes the wind from his sails, not sure what to say, if there is anything he can say; his wife’s death is still an open wound for them both, even after all this time. But now that she’s said it, he can almost remember this dish from years and years ago, when Taylor only came up to his hip. She was a macaroni and cheese fiend for a couple months back then, so much so Zoe would tell stories of Emma complaining about cheese overload. Those were better days: long gone but feeling only just barely out of reach. More so now, after Emma’s tragedy.

He blinks away the ghosts. This is a good day, no reason to mar it with the past.

“How’s school?” he asks after two minutes of silence, and she flinches, eyes scanning his face with reignited suspicion. He checks his plate for his own foot because surely he’s shoving it in his mouth somehow, but finds only macaroni.

“...It’s good.” Her words are measured, but not as cold as they usually are, and he wonders if, somehow, spectacularly, that wasn’t the wrong thing to ask.

“Good. Good. That’s really… good,” he finishes lamely.

Silence returns to the Hebert dinner table, tense but not quite dreadful. Anticipatory, he thinks, with both of them waiting for a next thing to complete the conversation.

“Why do you ask?” she says, squinting at him.

“You uh, seemed like you were in a good mood. While you were making dinner.”

His daughter tenses, and he wonders what the hell is going on in her life that commenting on her good mood threatens to end it.

“I did?” she asks.

“Mhm. You were humming.”

“Humming?” It’s barely a question with the weight she puts into the word.

“Yep. Humming.”

“Oh. Sorry. Have a song stuck in my head, I guess.”

“It’s fine- better than fine. It’s… good.” He smiles his best smile and doesn’t even have to force it. This is the longest conversation he’s had with his daughter in months, and definitely, vastly better than the one they had after the hospital in January.  

“Oh. Uh, cool.” She cracks a smile back at him, brief and forced, but even those are rare for her so he drinks it in like a starving man in the desert.

And that’s that. He wants to ask her about so many things: if the bullying has finally stopped, whether she’s made a friend, why she was so odd at Emma’s funeral. But this tense peace feels too fragile to threaten with words, so he just smiles back at his timid, contemplative daughter and lets the rest of the meal pass is precipitous quiet.

 

[scene break. PoV: pigs]

 

Wilkins struggles with his lighter, flicking it four times to no effect before giving up and throwing it on the ground. “’Ey, you got a light? Mines busted,” he says around his cigarette.

“Mm? Yeah, I got you.” Mathis pulls back out his pack of smokes and passes the lighter within to his partner. Wilkins lights up and passes it back. Wilkins lets the first warm drag fill his lungs before sighing it out.

“Think this one’ll go anywhere?” asks Mathis.

“Fuck if I know. Doubt it. These never go anywhere.”

“We got that perv who killed the Barnes girl,” Mathis points out.

“Oh yeah. There’s that, at least. Fucking creep.”

“Right? Hope that kiddy-killer gets shanked.”

“Finally got the dad to shut up too, thank god.”

“Right? He was such a whiner, calling every damn hour to bitch at us. Like, fuck off and let us do our jobs already!”

Wilkins cracks a smile at that and Mathis counts it as a win. He’s been such a downer since Mary left. Mathis’s happy to see him bouncing back a little.

“Don’t tell the Sarge, but I got his plates,” Mathis continues. “Gonna pull him over next time I’m on the beat. Maybe even write him a bullshit ticket. See how he likes having his time wasted.”

“Ha! That’s messed up man. Give me the plates, I’ll keep an eye out too. I could use a laugh.”

Mathis finishes his cig and extinguishes the butt under his heel, then lights up another.

“This one’s weird though,” says Wilkins between drags, coming back to the case upstairs. “There’s nothing do go off. No fingerprints, no signs of forced entry, nothing stolen or out of place, no nothing. If he weren’t a teacher I’d say it was professional, but who the hell would put a hit out on a fucking grade school teacher?”

“High school.”

“Whatever, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. Guess we can just hope for the best when the boys do the interviews.”

“I fucking guess.” Wilkins spits on the sidewalk. “Bullshit we can’t get one of those Thinker Dogs to pull their damn weight.”

“You really want the PRT dropping in on this? We’d be out of a job if they did theirs.”

“I know, I know. Just annoying. Feels like every time we get a case that’s going somewhere they steal it and leave us the shit ones. We were doing perfectly fine before the fucking capes came around. We’ve been here longer. They should be working for us, not the other way around.”

“I hear you,” says Mathis, buckling up for this rant again. A pissed-off Wilkins is better than a mopey one, at least.

Chapter Text

My dad’s been more lively than ever, this last week, and I have to admit it’s rubbed off on me. School isn’t good, not by a long shot, but it is better. Easier. There’s less tension in the halls- well. No, that’s not true. Winslow has definitely been more tense since the police came around after Gladly’s death, but that feels like everyone else’s problem. There’s anxiety, fear, and worry abound, but somehow it’s less than I used to have to deal with alone.

Someone more socially adept than I could probably list a dozen reasons why this is, but for me it boils down to: with Emma gone, almost no one cares about me one way or the other. No one will help me out still, but the other students and faculty are leaving me alone for the most part. Sophia and - to a lesser extent - Madison are the exceptions to this, but neither of them can ruin my day like Emma could. It hurts, and it’s annoying, but it’s almost untargeted, and I can deal with it.

I was even able to turn in all of my homework today! All of it! Not a single sheet got stolen or destroyed! If this keeps up, I might be able to eke out passing grades in all of my classes. I might even get a B in math, if my math is right.

I’m not stupid, though, and I know this won’t last forever. I’m still the lowest of the low in Winslow’s hierarchy, and eventually the other students’ worry and fake concern after Emma and Gladly’s deaths will wear off and someone new will step up to stand on my throat again. I’ll have to deal with that when it happens, but for now I can enjoy the break from the constant harassment and bullying.

Hoping to ride that wave of good fortune, I’m out patrolling near the docks again tonight, even though it’s a weeknight. It’s a bit before midnight, a little over an hour after I set out, when I hear a loud POP off in the distance, like bubble wrap turned up to 100. Gunshots sound off soon after. It’s outside of my range, but it doesn’t sound too far away, so I sprint towards the sounds. After almost a month of patrolling, something’s finally happening, and I’m not going to miss it because I was too slow getting there.

The firefight comes into my range soon, and I stop to catch my breath and survey the scene. On one end of the street are a dozen men and women hiding behind cars, popping up to shoot, then crouching back down; three of them are bleeding or otherwise injured and incapacitated.

They’re shooting at what feels like an overturned dump truck mixed with a monster truck with a chunk carved out where the passenger seat should be. Behind it are four people, and oddly, only one of those four is actually returning fire, using a giant hulking gun mostly severed from the top of the vehicle and hanging out the side of the cover. Two of the others look to be shoving the random debris and garbage around them into a hopper to be fed into and shot out of the junk-gun at car-denting speeds. The last of them, a short, bald man, is partially stuck under the truck. A puddle grows larger around him, and he isn’t moving.

I think I just found some ABB gangers and Merchants, and if I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure the dump truck gunner is Squealer, a cape. A villainous cape. I finally find a fight, and I have the chance to take down a villain.

I waste no time with subtlety, swarming the area with as many bugs as I have available. I don’t wait for the stragglers to arrive before I set them stinging and biting all over. Like a light switch has been flipped, the gunfire cuts out and is replaced by screams, and soon those become low, pained groans.

When a person falls and stops moving, I pull most of the bugs off of them. I leave a few on them to keep track of them in case they wake up. Less useful bugs jam themselves into the moving parts of the guns, gumming up the works with their bodies, excretions, and sometimes guts and severed limbs. Weapons thoroughly made useless, I exit the alley.

The gangsters writhe but don’t put up much of a struggles as I zip-tie their wrists together. It quickly becomes evident I didn’t bring enough zip-ties, as I run out before the ABB are all secured. I stare at my last one for a second before realizing I didn’t even need them at all. I groan quietly as my spiders spin silk around wrists and ankles, binding and hobbling the ABB and Merchants down the street.

Despite the frustration at my thoughtlessness, looking at my work brings a smile to my face. Sixteen gangsters and one villain, all taken down by me! The only thing left is to call this in and get them all put away for good. I find a payphone just a block and a half away, but I hesitate to go to it. A lot could happen in the time it takes me to walk there and back, and even though my range will reach from there, I’ll have a better time keeping things under control if I stay close.

With that in mind, I pull a cellphone out of an ABB’s pocket and dial the PRT emergency hotline. I expect to be answered immediately, since this is an emergency, but it isn’t until the fourth ring that the operator picks up.

“PRT, what’s your emergency?” she asks, sounding tired, almost bored.

“I took down some ABB and Merchants. Squealer’s here too, I’m pretty sure. We’re on the corner of 14th and Sycamore.”

That puts some urgency into her voice. “Miss, please do not approach any Azn Bad Boy gang members and retreat to a safe distance if you haven’t already. I’m sending a PRT van and bomb squad to your location, please-”

She’s cut off by an explosion, just as I was processing the implication of the words ‘bomb squad,’ and I’m thrown against a wall by a wave of force. My bugs die by the thousands, and in an instant I’ve lost all of the ones I was using to monitor the Asian-American gangsters. I force myself to stand up, leaning heavily against the wall as my world spins. Then comes the sound of another explosion, this time the sucking vortex of a bathtub draining multiplied by a thousand. It throws me to the ground, and through my bugs I can feel the senseless movement of various surfaces twisting and spiraling toward a center point among the ABB gangsters, including the sidewalk I’m on.

I stumble to my feet and force them to carry me over the dizzying ground into the alley I’d initially come out of. As soon as I round the corner, another explosion goes off: a long, drawn out sound with multiple crescendos. My swarm is too depleted to inform of any effects before they perish, and I can’t tell if it was one bomb or multiple chained together. That doesn’t matter though, I need to get away.

I stagger through the alley and come out on the street on the other end. The various sounds of reality warping still reach me, so I keep moving, crossing the street and slipping into another alleyway. I don’t stop until I’m out of sight of the main road, finally stopping to rest in a stretch of wall between a pair of metal trashcans and a chain link fence. I should be safe here, out of sight and with multiple buildings between me and the bombs.

Back with the gangsters, my bugs are trickling in, re-amassing a swarm, but it’s a shadow of what I had earlier, splotchy and with a distinct dearth of biting and stinging insects, but good enough to survey the scene. I almost wish it wasn’t.

My stomach turns into knots as I feel the damage from the random bombings. The ground is ridged and gouged in odd twists, like a mussed blanket after a night of troubled sleep, and some of the buildings on either side of the street have sprouted what feel like long, thin spirals: drill bits pointed toward an epicenter. There are spaces that instantly kill my bugs, with no gradient to hint at how. A couple cars are torn to shreds, and feel like they’ve been put through a meat grinder. At least, that’s my interpretation of the metal spaghetti strewn across the ground.

The people aren’t any better. In many cases, they’re worse. One of the gangsters is burning, but instead of heat and ash rising off the flames, small, cubic chunks of material float up, out, and then fall down a few feet away. Another crumbles into nothing wherever my bugs touch him, and I presume he’s dead until he rolls over onto some of my bugs; he starts to thrash, and I pull all of my bugs away from him as fast as I can, leaving an appreciable circle around him empty. None of the other ABB members are any better, and I soon stop looking. Alive or dead, their fates turn my stomach.

The Merchants, at least, are all alive and relatively unharmed: excluding the one who was hurt before I arrived; he’s still not moving. The truck he was under has been dragged off of his lower body and partially spaghettified. That’s good, right? Squealer remains by the ruined dump truck, using it as cover against further explosions. The other two Merchants are crawling away from the area as fast as they can while bound. I don’t have any way to stop them: no more spiders to bind them further, no more biting, stinging insects to punish their movement. Still, I can’t let them get away.

A low wall of mostly harmless insects in their path gives them pause, and when it advances, they retreat, scooting back to the truck with Squealer. Good. I feel kind of bad pushing them closer to the explosions, but they’re behind the truck, and the bombs have stopped, so they should be safe.

Suddenly, Squealer is on her on her feet, free and unbound, with what feels like a blowtorch in her hand. She runs. I try to stop her with a wall of bugs, but she barrels through it like the nothing that it is, and before I can get enough of my more painful bugs onto her to do anything, she’s run right out of my range.

I lost the only villain I’d captured.

Fuck.” I slam my fist into the trashcan and it crashes away, leaving me with stinging knuckles.

Soon, maybe a minute or two later, I feel a pair of vans turn onto the wrecked street and stop near the destruction; the PRT has arrived. I push myself back onto my feet as bulky, well equipped men file out of the trucks to stand around the area and do whatever it is PRT troopers do in this situation. I make my way back to the scene, my body feeling worse than it did while I was fleeing. From heaps of unwanted experience, I know that if I’m feeling this tight now, I’ll be in worse shape come morning. Still, I need to talk to the PRT and Heroes, explain what happened, even if I don’t know what exactly did happen.

But as I get through the other alley, the one I’d initially hid in at the start of the fight, I hear a voice that gives me pause. The voice is a girl’s, maybe my age, and somehow familiar. But it’s not that familiarity that makes me stop in my tracks; it’s what she’s saying.

“-find the fucker responsible for this and put her under.”

A boy sighs. “Stalker, we’re not supposed to talk like that in costume.”

“Who gives a shit? No one’s around to hear but the rejects and the stiffs,” says the now-identified Shadow Stalker.

“Still…”

“Still what. You gonna snitch on me to Piggy?”

He sighs again. “No, I just-”

“Or are you telling me you don’t want this bitch dead. You feel for her or something? Think you’ve got a chance to stick it in ‘cause you-”

“Ugh, forget I said anything! Geeze.”

She scoffs. “That’s the Kid Weenie I know. Spineless as ever.”

I hear the exchange from the alley’s shadows, and it freezes the blood in my veins. I don’t dare breathe for fear of being noticed. Were they talking about me? The Wards - or at least Shadow Stalker - want me dead for what happened tonight. But that can’t be right, right? There’s no way? They need a kill order to do that. But even if they don’t try to kill me, they’d at least want to arrest me for all these men that, in their minds, I killed: accident be damned.

I can’t go out there now, not like this. This isn’t the debut I wanted. All but a handful of the unpowered gang members I’d caught are dead or worse. I caught a villain, but let her slip through my fingers. If I go out there, if I show myself right now, after all of this, there’s no way the PRT won’t label me a villain. My whole future as a hero, down the drain because of some weird bombs?

I’ve waited so long to actually debut, with a half dozen false starts and even more empty patrols. Another few days can’t hurt. I’ll do better next time and have something worthwhile to show to the Protectorate that’s not… this. At least I didn’t give a name to the PRT hotline person; maybe that will be enough to keep them from associating this with me when I take credit next time. I turn away from the destructive scene and start home.

“You hear that?” Kid Win asks.

“Hear what?” Shadow Stalker asks sardonically.

“In the alley.” I freeze. “I thought I heard something.”

I have a heartbeat of warning when my bugs on Shadow Stalker fall through the space she once occupied. My ambient aerial insects detect a breeze sailing at me, clipping through the corner of the building between the Wards and me. I run, and am barely taking my third step before Shadow Stalker reforms midair and something jabs me hard in the lower back and aggressively reminds me of the soreness all over my body. I stumble, but keep running.

Shadow Stalker turns back to mist as she approaches the ground, then flickers into and out of solidity as she bounces off the ground in a straight line at me. I juke to the side in time to dodge her resolidified outstretched arm, but that costs me valuable speed.

“Wait!” I shout, but she doesn’t listen. She turns back to translucent grey, invisible to my eyes in the dim light, detectable only by the slight gust felt by my bugs, and is behind me in less than a second.

Kid Win turns the corner to the alley and the lights on his visor illuminate the scene, giving him a great view of his Wards partner kicking my leg out from under me. Shadow Stalker grabs my wrist as I fall and jerks it up behind my back and uses my body as an buffer between her and the ground as we go down. I grit my teeth through the pain, my skin feeling like fire. It feels like something in my shoulder tore in the fall, and the feeling only grows more agonizing as Shadow Stalker keeps up the pressure.

“Stalker what the heck?!” Kid Win yells, hurrying down the alley towards us. Two PRT troopers follow behind him.

“Caught a runner, tranq bolt didn’t work,” she calls back to him. Then, to me, a hiss, “thought you could get away from me? Villains like you don’t get to run from me.”

“I’m a hero,” I grind out, tears forming in the corners of my eyes.

“Yeah right,” says the bully, wrenching my arm further.

She isn’t listening, so I have to make her listen. Bugs come out, swarming at us. I still don’t have many painful insects, but I’ve gathered enough mass to make her let go - blessed relief - and turn intangible as she bounds up and away, onto a fire escape above the other Ward and PRT troopers. I keep my insects nearby to deter another attack like the one before.

“Why’d it have to be bugs?, I hate bugs,” Kid Win murmurs, just loud enough for me to hear, as he levels his tinkertech pistols at me. Shadow Stalker does the same, her dual crossbows each loaded with another painful, bruising bolt, and the troopers follow suit.

Though my arm hurts like hell, I don’t let myself cradle it, instead letting both hang down beside me. They already attacked me once; I can’t invite another. I call insects to me from the surrounding area in preparation for an unwanted round three, but I keep my minions to the shadows cast by Kid Win and the trooper’s flashlights, the unseen rooftops and window ledges above us, and around the corners behind me, where there are no troopers.

“Why’d you attack me?” I shout.

“Why’d you run?” Shadow Stalker snaps back, but I get the impression she’s not actually looking for an answer. Something about her is twigging a nerve in the back of my head, but I can’t figure out what.

“Because you said you wanted to kill me!”

She tilts her head at me. “The fuck are you talking about, I never said-”

“Stalker, let me try,” interrupts Kid Win. Shadow Stalker scoffs but lets him speak. “Are you the one who called this in?”

“...Yeah. That was me.”

“So you’re a hero?”

“Yes.” Relief. “I don’t have a name yet, though.”

“Stand down, guys,” he says. He holsters his pistols. The troopers follow his lead, but Shadow Stalker keeps her crossbows aimed at me. Kid Win looks up at her like he wants to say something, but instead shakes his head and keeps quiet. I stay at the ready, in case her finger ‘slips.’ He turns back to me. “I think we got off on the wrong foot, and I’m sorry about that. Stalker here was talking about Bakuda earlier, not you.”

“Who’s Bakuda?”

“She’s a new ABB villain. A bomb tinker.”

“Oh.” That’s why they were dispatching a bomb squad! The ABB gangsters were carrying around tinkertech bombs for some suicidally stupid reason. “I hadn’t heard about her.”

“We’re keeping quiet about her so people don’t panic,” says the kid.

“Are you serious?” I snap. “You’re putting everyone in danger for- for good press?!”

He raises his hands in surrender. “I don’t really get it either, but the director said it’s better this way.”

Is this what the Wards is? I imagined it would be shitty high school teen drama, but I didn’t think I was being optimistic with that idea. Teens with powers blindly following orders, doing what they’re told without thinking for themselves, just trusting some faceless director? I shake my head in disgust and turn to leave.

“W-wait, we need your statement on what happened,” calls Kid Win to my back. I can hear the rush of worry lacing his words.

I clench my fists and weigh my options. I don’t want to stay here, trapped by their words and implied threats of violence. Not being told about Bakuda before tonight got me hurt, and it got a dozen people killed. I don’t owe them anything, least of all a justification, after Shadow Stalker shot and tackled me without so much as trying to talk to me.

But I can’t fight them. Even if they’re followers and bullies, they’re still the heroes, still Wards. Trying to fight will just get me labeled a villain, no matter how the fight goes. I can feel Shadow Stalker’s body tense in preparation to move, as if she’s reading my mind. Violent, psycho bitch probably wants a fight, but unless she’s dumb enough to attack me unprovoked, she’s leaving disappointed.

I call out, “I took them down, called you, got blown up, and then you arrived. Now, I’m leaving.”

I don’t give them the chance to respond, crashing my bugs down around me in a torrent of tiny, skittering, buzzing bodies: an undulating wall of chitin between me and the Wards. I keep them out of my hood so I don’t have to feel the tiny legs against my scalp, but otherwise cover myself in them, grateful for my full coverage bodysuit. There’s a sharp dividing line between bugs and open air a few yards from the Wards, and the only bugs within five feet of them are the ones stuck to their bodies. Through them I feel the parahumans and their handlers retreat, then halt when my swarm doesn’t follow. Their weapons are back out, pointing into the swarm, but I’m already out of the alley, safe from any shots they might fire.

I bring the massive swarm with me for a few blocks, wary of them following me, especially wary of Shadow Stalker trying to finish what she started, but she floats down to the ground beside Kid Win and stays put at least until my swarm is gone. The two capes then return to the scene of the ABB and Merchants.

I keep up the screen of bugs until I’m another diameter of range away, and only when I’m certain they’re not going to follow me home do I let it dissipate, relinquishing my hold on the insects and letting them scurry back into whatever dark corners and moist havens they instinctively seek out. Then, I turn towards home and begin my painful, slow return.

Chapter Text

I hate the idea that Gladly might’ve been right. Since she ambushed me between Art and Math last week, I can count the number of times Sophia has so much as shoved me on one hand. She might really have calmed down since Emma’s death, maybe emotionally matured a little, maybe even decided to change.

Whyever it is, I count myself lucky that she’s only glared weakly at me this morning: not weakly like she’s weak, but weakly like she’s just going through the motions, the sort of weakness a cashier has six hours into a ten hour shift. I’m too tired after last night’s… I hesitate to call it a fight- altercation with the Wards and the concussion-fearing zero hours of sleep I got. It feels like the whole school shares this tiredness today, lethargy infecting teachers and students alike: with the exception of one Madison Clements.

It’s like the last few weeks haven’t affected her in the slightest. She mourned and grieved for Emma with the best of them, but the pain didn’t last, just slipped away at the most opportune moment. And with the redhead gone, she’s wasted no time in throwing her name in the hat for next Queen Bitch crown, judging by the coterie of hangers-on she’s been accumulating: a larger crowd than I’ve ever seen orbiting her.

She’s been quiet, giving me space, but just as Emma built her empire of shit by standing on my throat, Madison will doubtlessly take up the reigns on that infrastructure of neglect and malice, and it’s only a matter of time before the bullying restarts.

So when we leave World Issues - and the third sub this week - and, out of the corner of my eye, I see her follow me instead of heading to the cafeteria with the bulk of her groupies, it’s almost a relief; I don’t know what she has planned, but, finally, it’s happening, and while it’s happening I can fight against it.

She’s running me down, but she has to be casual about it, she can’t let the game slip, and I use that against her, turning another corner to head back toward the lunchroom, moving with the crowd instead of against it. I push through gaps where I can find them, not letting my haste show, but not being particularly considerate about who I knock into. The scoffs and scorn I accrue don’t matter; I can’t sink any lower on the social food chain, and anyone that would target me for revenge would already be willing to join in on the abuse.

I have nothing to lose. But Madison? She and her crew can’t afford to tank the scorn, and I make it to the other side of the cafeteria doors, where the flow of the hungry crowd stops carrying me along and I have to fight to move through them. I can’t get trapped in the lunch room; the crowd won’t offer protection there, and I’d be worse off than if I had let Madison corner me immediately.

Finally, the flow of bodies lets up, and I’m free of the suffocating press and accompanying multitude of elbows. The halls aren’t yet empty, and likely won’t be for another fifteen minutes, as the lingering students trickle into their chosen lunch spots. I feel exposed under the teenagers’ gazes, knowing any one of the girls I pass could be feeding info to Madison, tracking me across the whole building, but there must be somewhere without eyes, somewhere I can lose her for good, or at least hide long enough for her to get bored and hungry enough to give up.

I let my swarm descend, scarce and spotty, to map out the school, scanning for empty halls and stairwells, and curse my own stubbornness for not doing this earlier, for not using my powers to keep track of Madison’s group, for running without a place to run to. But even like this, the empty halls don’t stay that way for long, students moving through them unpredictably. It’s not enough to just map the building, so I land flies on people’s clothes, and just like that I know where everyone in Winslow is: a constantly updating, untraceable map in my head.

From the way they wander in spurts and crawls, always vaguely towards my position, I can guess at which group is Madison’s, and suddenly I don’t need to hide. I can dodge her group now, effortlessly and flawlessly staying three steps ahead of her. Her network of girls with cellphones pales in comparison to my panopticon of bugs, and I don’t bother fighting the smile that cracks my lips.

An hour for lunch isn’t nearly long enough to corner me…

 

[scene break]

 

…but it turns out one day is.

I don’t know how she did it - whether her network of cellphone-carrying teens extends past Winslow’s walls, or if she has some other way of tracking me, but I refuse to believe it’s random chance - but hearing her voice at the Lord’s Street Market was an unwelcome addition to my Saturday shopping.

“O-M-G, Taylor? What a surprise,” she calls out.

I ease my white-knuckled grip from the combat knife I was inspecting, set it down, and turn to her. “What do you want.”

“Are you looking at the knives? That’s so… fun!” she giggles, ignoring my question. She turns to her friends. “You girls go on ahead, I need to restock on pepper spray real quick. Save me a seat?”

Her two friends agree and leave us, and true to her word Madison moves toward the pepper spray, putting on the act of ignoring me. She barely spares a glance at the selection before pointing out two pink tubes for the stall owner to ring up. I don’t take my eyes off her as she pays the man, drops one in her bag, and walks over to me with the other in hand. I’m on the balls of my feet, ready to bolt at the first sign of her typical bullshit, but instead of spraying me - stupid as that would be in front of so many witnesses, it’s still a possibility - she holds out the second canister toward me.

“Here,” she says, “this one’s for you.”

I don’t reach for it. Instead of pressing the issue, she just rolls her eyes.

“It’s not a trick or anything. I’ll even-” she sets it on the counter between us “-See? It’s just a gift.”

“...I already have one,” I say measuredly.

“So? I have four. Five now. Can’t be too careful in a city like this, after all. Girls like us-” a chill races up my spine “-need to be prepared to protect ourselves, you know?”

“What do you want, Madison?” I grit out.

“I can’t just be nice to a classmate I see around town?” she asks innocently. She even goes so far as to bat her eyelashes at me.

“No.”

She snorts, indelicate and non-girlish in a way that sets me further on edge. This feels fundamentally wrong. The only time she drops her mask of cuteness is when she’s being cruel in private. My bugs circle the area in search of an encroaching ring of girls, or out of place watcher, or something, any evidence of this being a trap, but I find nothing out of place.

“I guess I shouldn’t expect anything else given our history, huh?” She doesn’t wait for the obvious answer. “But I just want you to know: that’s all it is now, okay? History.”

I don’t say anything - what can I say - but my disbelief must show on my face, unused as I am to shoving down reactions outside of school, because her faux-innocent smile turns to pitying. I do another sweep with my bugs, but still nothing sticks out as odd.

“Listen: you were always Emma’s project. She was the one who kept pushing for those pranks. Me? I don’t give a shit about you. Honestly, I never really did.”

“Yeah. I got that,” I growl through a clenched jaw. She’s cussing now. It feels like I’m watching a deer eat a steak with a fork and knife: something so upsettingly unnatural it puts you further on edge than the worst of what should be.

She rolls her eyes again. “Not like that. I mean I don’t have any issue with you, Taylor. That was all Emma and Sophia. I only played along because that was the game; they were on top, and that was how to get in good with them. But now Emma’s gone, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that Sophia’s not exactly on top of things, socially.”

I hadn’t noticed. Sophia still has people to follow her around, still acts just as generally aggressive as ever. “What’s your point?”

“Oh my god,” she groans, “Emma said you were supposed to be smart; are you actually this stupid or are you still playing the game? I’ll spell it out for you: there’s no reason for things to keep going as they have. If you want it to stop for good…” she nudges the pepper spray a few inches closer to me, but neither of us break eye contact. “…all you have to do is accept some protection. Maybe help out a little bit if I need you to. Don’t make yourself too much of a target, and I’ll get the other girls to let up, okay?”

“…Why?” I ask after a long, tense pause.

“I just told you why.”

No, she really didn’t. “Why stop at all? Why not keep it up, or… Why?”

Her eyes turn cold, an expression that would fit better on Sophia than Madison, and her lips purse tight before saying, “because I know what it’s like.”

And before I can ask what that means, her smile returns, mask of innocence back in place, and then she brushes past me and flounces away. My bugs track her all the way to a coffee shop next to the Market and she doesn’t so much as glance back at me.

What the hell did that mean?, that she knows what it’s like. That didn’t feel like a lie, didn’t feel like a trick, but it has to be a trap somehow. It doesn’t fit for her to actually extend an olive branch like that; she’s too petty, too mean, to let things end like this, while she’s still got the upper hand.

The trio’s done things like this before, send a girl out to pretend to be my friend so they can get new dirt on me, figure out new ways to hurt me, but they never tried it with the core group of girls, only ever sent the peripherals at me. Madison is too suspect for me to trust, she has to know that, so why would she lie like this? Is it a distraction? But that doesn’t fit either; Madison’s never been the planner, never been the one to set up and put in motion these grand plays; that was always Emma. Madison’s style has always been petty, deniable, and constant - spitballs, stealing homework, name-calling, gossip - so unless she’s-

She’s changing her style. That’s it. That has to be it. With Emma gone, she’s not just stepping up in status, she’s taking over her duties too. She’s shifting from pranks to plans. She wants me to think things are going to be different, make me lower my guard and agree just to stop the harassment. Then, when I’m in too deep, or when my guard is lowered, she’ll spring something Big.

Just like in January.

“Hey, girlie.” I flinch at the stall owner’s voice. “You good?”

“I’m fine,” I say, but he doesn’t drop the weird look. I turn and leave before he can ask any follow up questions, and studiously ignore his calls about forgotten pepper spray.

I can’t- won’t go through another Locker. I won’t give her the chance. School’s finally started getting better; I’m finally getting my grades back up; I’m finally taking back my chance to go to college, to make my dad proud of me. He’s finally smiling again. We’re finally talking again. I can’t let another Locker happen, can’t let myself break again because then he’ll break, and he won’t get better. Not a third time.

I have to make sure this good streak lasts, for my dad’s sake.

I find a bench at the edge of the market, Madison comfortably within my range, and sit and wait for an opportunity. I scour the area with bugs, unseen, underfoot, unimportant, not searching for anything, but looking at everything: from the trees and buildings to the stalls’ products, from the people around to the ground they tread on: I feel and tally everything around me, waiting for something to pop out as useful. I don’t know what my opportunity will look like, but I’ll be ready for it, however and whenever it presents itself.

All the while, Madison drinks her overpriced, sugar-laden coffee, eats her muffin that’s 80% top, and chats with her friends. She’s distracted, having a nice day out after ruining mine. She’s probably already put our talk out of her mind, assured I’ll just roll over and let her get away with it all. She’s wrong. She’s so wrong. I will defend myself, and I’ll keep the school free from her neophyte machinations. I won’t let another trio form and grind the school under their heel again. I won’t let that poison resurface.

I’m a hero, after all, and heroes stop the bad guys. The best heroes stop the bad guys before they can even act, like Alexandria foiling the Elite’s plots in L.A. before the gang can hurt anyone. That’s all this is, me fixing a problem before it can hurt anyone. I have to be steadfast and decisive, but most of all I have to be smart. I can’t go rushing into things without a plan, can’t let my anger out here and now. I’m not indomitable like Alexandria, I can’t shrug off consequences like she can; I’m a squishy person behind all the bugs, and if I take this battle I’ll lose the war.

I use a fly to ferry a tick onto Madison’s scalp, make it latch on where it won’t be noticed, and commit this specific bug to memory. I want to be able to pick it out from the rest of my swarm at a moment’s notice. I want this tick to be a beacon among my swarm, to shine brightly in my head whenever it’s in my range. I treat this tiny tick as the single most important member of my swarm.

And then I wait for Madison to move. My opportunity isn’t here, isn’t now. There’s too many people around, too many eyes to see bugs acting suspiciously. I can’t, shouldn’t, act here and now. So I wait on an uncomfortable metal bench in the sun for Madison to move so I can follow.

I don’t have to wait long for her and her friends to leave the coffee shop and move back into the market, still comfortably within my two-and-a-half block radius. I consider tripping her up with a silk cord trip-line, but dismiss it; at best that would be an annoyance, and at worst would give me away. Still too many people around.

Some time later, after they’ve browsed the stalls, held up clothes to themselves and each other, picked through jewelry, and brushed over knick-knacks, Madison and her group start to leave, walking together toward one of the nearish by bus stops.

I open my eyes. I don’t know when I closed them, but I have to blink away the blindingly bright sunspots as my eyes adjust to the light again. No one pays me any attention as I stand to follow Madison. I close the distance between us, keeping only as far back as I need to say out of sight, and when she gets on the bus I start to jog. I can’t keep up with the vehicle, but I can mostly keep it in my power’s range, losing it for a block or two, then catching up or overtaking it when it stops in traffic or to disgorge passengers.

The bruises from the other night are pulling and aching as I run, and when Madison and her friends get off to wait for another bus, I duck into a secluded entryway to a closed hardware store to catch my breath from the unexpected run. My clothes are sticking to me from sweat: the humidity of late spring by the Bay. I press the heel of my hand against the bruise and try to stretch it out, ease the deep ache, but it doesn’t help. Would Madison notice if I snuck onto the bus behind her? Probably. Even if I put my hood up, she did just see me in these clothes. I’ll just have to keep at it like this, as much as that thought makes my body scream.

I push myself off the wall as a bus pulls up, but Madison doesn’t get on. She and another girl stand back as the others climb aboard. When the bus drives off, Madison and the other girl leave in another direction, and I have no trouble keeping her in my range even at this thankfully more sedate pace. I pass rows of buildings that seem to alternate between mostly abandoned and mostly not by the block. Bodegas, single name law offices, a thrift store, boutiques, restaurants: judging by the lack of upkeep on the storefronts and the general mood of the area, I assume that these remaining businesses are the ones too small and poor to move to a more lucrative area, but are profitable enough to justify keeping the lights on.

Madison and her friend split up when the other girl enters an apartment complex, and Madison is left to trudge onward by herself. As if by the flip of a switch, her body language changes entirely; gone is her normal, bouncy, wide-eyed way of walking, and in its place is something standoffish: shoulders hunched, head down, hand wrapped around a tube of pepper spray in her purse.

This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. I speed up, all but running after her. I don’t know which building is hers, but if I can get to her before she arrives, this will be a lot easier. I just need to get her off the main street and out of sight, with nothing but bugs, a can of pepper spray, and my own body. Cursing my lack of other options, I call out to her:

“Madison!”

She turns, a jerky motion, pulling her hand out of her purse. She glares at me for a moment before fear turns to incredulity.

“Taylor?! Wh- Did you follow me? What the heck?”

I open and close my mouth, struggling to find something to say. Why did I have to call out to her? Why did I think this would get her to move into an alley? Madison stomps over toward me. I can tell she’s angry and I blurt out,

“What did you mean?” She stops. “At the market, all that stuff you said.”

She looks around, head on a swivel until she spots a group of three men swaggering down the street. Her gaze lingers on them and her lips purse. She looks flatly back at me. “You’re an idiot. Follow me.”

She turns and resumes walking, and I hurry to catch up, feeling incredibly awkward as I walk side by side with my bully. She stops in front of a gated door and unlocks it, motioning me in ahead of her. It’s an apartment building. A bit run down, but not terribly so. There’re no bedbugs, and only a few mice or rats in the basement. The wavy blue and green carpet is faded and patchy, and the beige and yellow diamonds wallpaper looks to have been last applied before I was born. Madison lets the door clang shut behind us and starts up the stairs. I move after her, unreasonably wary. I assure myself that this can’t be a trap, that she didn’t know I was here, couldn’t have planned any of this.

She leads me to apartment 2D, unlocks three locks with three keys, and looks back as if to make sure I’m still here. She squints at me, bothered, confused, and annoyed by my presence before opening the door.

“Hurry up and get inside, I don’t want the neighbors to see you,” she says.

I enter the home of my tormentor.

It’s not what I expected. At all. In the back of my mind, I’d always assumed she lived in a house like Emma’s. I’d assumed she had a comfortable life like Emma’s. But the neighborhood, the building, the bits of water damage in her bathroom: it’s nothing like Emma’s suburban jewel. There’s too much furniture in her home for the space, as if her family had moved from a larger space but didn’t get rid of anything, and it all feels old. Some of it is antique old, the kind of stuff that’s lasted three generations and will live another five with proper care, but most of it is run-down old, like the desks at Winslow, or my and my dad’s increasingly threadbare couch, years past its intended expiration date.

“Now, what the frick are you doing here, Taylor?” she snaps, crossing her arms. I eye the pepper spray that’s still in her hand.

I didn’t mean to come here, but now that I am… “You said you know what it’s like; what did you mean by that?”

“You seriously followed me home like a creep to ask me that?”

“Yep,” I lie. That’s not why I’m here, not by a long shot; her words shouldn’t matter to me - don’t, for the most part - but those parting words won’t stop bouncing around in my head, so I might as well take care of this too.

She sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. She gestures to her couch. “Sit down. You want something to drink?”

“No thanks.”

She looks pointedly at my sweat-soaked clothes. “I’ll get us some water.”

Her couch is lumpy, and I struggle to find a comfortable spot. A couple inconspicuous flies track her motions as she pours two glasses of water from a pitcher form the fridge, but I don’t feel her add anything suspicious. She comes back into the living room, hands me a glass, and sits on the flower-print upholstered loveseat across the coffee table from me. She sips her water, but I just hold it in my hands, cold and moist. This feels like a dream, one that walks the line between dream and nightmare: unpleasant but not terrifying, and completely surreal. Why did I come here?

“You’re lucky I don’t call the police,” she says, startling me out of my thoughts. “I should. You don’t follow people like this, that’s stalker territory. If you weren’t you, I’d have maced you already.”

I bristle at that. What is that supposed to mean. Is she saying I’m not worth wasting the pepper spray on? Or that she doesn’t even need the pepper spray? Then why the hell is she still holding it so tightly? She’s such a bitch, already insulting me, never dropping the general bitchiness. I start drawing near wasps and bees from the area, bringing spiders up through the walls. I didn’t want to use venom and bites for these sorts of things, but she’s asking for a painful out at this point, keeping-

“OH MY GOD,” she shouts. “Say something already. I know you have the whole stoic thing down to a science at school, but do you never drop it? Is that just you?, silent, scowling Hebert. Did you follow me home just to stare at a glass of water and say nothing?”

I flinch, jerking my head up to look at her. She’s… right. I don’t need to say nothing, don’t need to show nothing. There’s no audience, and I’m not leaving with her alive. I can say what I want, and she can’t hurt me.

“I’m-” I clear my throat. “I’m out of practice.”

“At what, talking?” she mocks. I nod. She has the decency to at least look contrite. “Oh. Right.”

After an awkward silence, I ask again, “what’d you mean? At the market. When you said you know what it’s like. Know what what’s like?”

She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth and considers me for a long moment. “If you tell anyone what I’m about to tell you- heck, if you tell anyone anything about today, I’ll deny it and bury you. Capisce?”

“Like that’s not already your plan?”

“Huh?”

“The- the Locker. Like you’re not trying to bury me.”

She looks downright disgusted at the reminder, and if I didn’t know her, I’d believe my eyes. “Listen, for what it’s worth, it was never supposed to get that bad. You didn’t deserve… that. But I wasn’t involved in that one.”

“You’re lying. I saw you there, I heard you laugh at me.”

“Yeah, I was there. So was half of our grade. But I wasn’t a part of it. All any of us knew was that something was happening. I thought the garbage was the prank, not that they’d leave you in there or whatever.”

“That doesn’t make you not guilty; you could have let me out, or gotten a teacher, or stopped them, or done something!”

She scoffs. She actually fucking scoffs. “Yeah, no thanks, I’ve had enough social suicide to last a lifetime. I wasn’t going to throw away all my hard work for nothing. Listen: someone is always at the bottom of the pyramid, that’s just how life works. You got a bad roll, and that sucks, but you shouldn’t expect people to throw themselves down there with you for no reason. Plus, I mean, it wasn’t that bad; you bounced back.”

“LIKE HELL I DID!”

I’m on my feet now, water spilling into the carpet. She left me in that locker, left me there to rot for hours, and she’s not even apologizing, just making excuses and shifting the blame onto a dead girl, like the concept of respect for the dead, or even something as simple a loyalty to her friends, is foreign to her. I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does.

I take a step towards her, to show her just how damn wrong she is. But then she raises her hand and my world is pain. Immediate burning, itching, stinging eyes, like I’d submerged my face into a pool of bee stings. I can’t see through the pain, can’t do anything but try to get away, tripping over something and falling to the ground instead, I curl into a ball, pressing my back against whatever furniture or wall I’m nearest, trying to escape further attack.

Madison is saying something, but her words become a scream as the swarm of stinging, biting, venomous insects that has found its way into her apartment appears. She sprays her mace into the swarm like it can deter the insects, but it just makes it hurt more when the bugs land on her, and she drops the weapon. More insects appear, shuffling through the cracks in the doors and windows, pouring out of the air vents, and even her scream is consumed by the beating of innumerable of wings and the striations of countless chitinous body parts. My minions hang heavy in the room, so much so that, even within these first few seconds, I can feel the temperature rise: the friction of bug against bug bringing more and more pockets of space to temperatures lethal to each other.

I pull myself to my feet again and charge her despite the way my own face screams and burns, using my bugs to know my surroundings. I kick her in the ribs, not even bothering to move my bugs out of the way, before she curls into a defensive ball, but it’s useless as my bugs stream into her through every orifice, spawning a full bodied flinch as she instinctive tries to push away the assault. I kick her head like a soccer ball, and through my bugs feel the jarring impact.

She stops moving. I don’t. I keep kicking and stomping her body, keep pushing bugs into her, digging out every soft, fleshy bit they can reach. I don’t stop until long after my bugs no longer detect a pulse, and even then only because a growing feeling of suffocation. I struggle for breath, the stinging pain traveling down to my lungs, suddenly claustrophobic inside my swarm, and push my bugs away, making space so I can breathe. I collapse onto the couch, sticky with sweat, and force myself to take long, even breathes despite the pain they bring.

When I can finally focus on more than my face, I survey the apartment and am hit with a sense of wrongness. Despite the dense swarm a moment ago, the apartment as a whole looks almost untouched. The curtains are whole, the furniture isn’t any more scuffed than when I entered, and the lights are, if anything, brighter in the absence of my swarm. All of this gives Madison’s body an aura of unreality. A dead body doesn’t belong anywhere, always looks out of place even in a casket, but Madison’s especially doesn’t belong. She’s too messed up, too battered and bloody for the undisturbed surroundings. The only movement is the slow trickle of insects out of her face holes, and the blood seeping into the carpet from the bruises and tears I inflicted.

This is bad.

This is really, really bad.

I said I wouldn’t use my bugs, but she forced me to, and now… Now what? How do I keep going as a hero after this? One look at her and the heroes will know I did it. I didn’t hold back my venoms, and she’s covered in bug guts. If I could explain, they’d get it, they’d understand, but would they even give me that chance after the other night with Shadow Stalker and Kid Win? I doubt it; Shadow Stalker wasn’t eager to listen to me from the start, and I grossed out Kid Win with my bugs, and that’s all before I basically threw a tantrum at them. Maybe in a few months, after I have more wins under my belt they would listen but-

I jump off of that train of thought. ‘Ifs’ and ‘buts’ won’t do anything for me right now. I don’t have a few months right now. Right now, I have a… I have a body to take care of. If I don’t get rid of it, don’t cover my tracks, I can kiss any chance of making a difference as a hero goodbye. I’ll get rid of it, clean up the bloodstain, and do better next time. No, this is the last time. I won’t let there be a next time, no matter what. I can’t let this keep happening.

Now. How do I dispose of a body?

…I have no idea how to dispose of a body. I never planned to need to, I was always going to dodge any culpability in the first place, so why would I ever even need to think about this? Shit. Shit shit fuck shit dammit, why didn’t I plan for this?!

I take a deep breath, but my exhale is shaky so I take another, and then another, until I’m breathing calmly again. Okay. Okay. First, I have to make sure I’m not about to be discovered. Easy. A quick sweep of the building reveals no one in the halls. The only person on this floor acting odd is a man in 2A peeking though the peep hole and holding a baseball bat. No one’s coming, even if they heard something. Nice place, this area. That means no one should bother me until- until her parents come home. Shit. She didn’t say when that would be; I’ll have to move fast and keep an eye out.  

Next. What comes next? The body. I have to find a place to put it where it won’t be discovered and linked back to my alter ego. Bugs search my range - over three blocks right now - for an isolated nook, a place without people, somewhere the corpse can rot in peace for however long it takes a body to decompose, without anyone stumbling onto it. I dismiss any buildings that feel occupied; even if I can find a place that doesn’t have anyone nearby right now doesn’t mitigate the risk of swift discovery later. Instead, I look lower, to the basements and the streets.

Could I put it in a dumpster? No, those get checked too often: every time it’s emptied or filled. A dead end alley is no good either, too open; but maybe that’s a good thing? It would attract any wild animals, like the feral cats and dogs that feel endemic to the area, and they would help get rid of it quicker. No, no, too visible, too prone to discovery by a wandering homeless person. I need somewhere with no people at all, somewhere no one can see or get to.

It suddenly pops out at me: the sewers. Brockton Bay has drainage tunnels all throughout the city to prevent flooding, built back in the 1800s, and they’re perfect for this: not visible, no foot traffic, fairly wide, filled with rats, and the smell won’t even tip anyone off because it’s supposed to stink down there.

I feel the underground area, but it takes a minute to find a nearby entrance, and another two to find one the body can fit through, but then I have a path. In the middle of the block is a grate leading into the tunnels; if I can get the grate up, I can drop the body down, close the grate, and be done. I just have to get there without discovery.

 I step over the body to get into the kitchen. Under the sink is a roll of trash bags. I grab them and the pair of rubber gloves next to them and head back into the living room. The carpet is wet and squishy, and it feels like I’m wearing wet socks without the actual wetness on my feet. I open the first trash bag and consider the best way to do this. I squat by its feet, lift the appendages with one hand and bring the bag around them with my other. The corpse hasn’t started to cool or stiffen yet, which I think makes this easier, but it’s nothing but dead weight and won’t cooperate as I drag the bag up the calves and thighs like the world’s crinkliest, ugliest black dress, and I have to go back multiple times to get the bag up to its hips because it keeps getting bunched under her.

I hit a wall at the hips, unable to lift them with just one hand, and if I use both hands to pick up, I can’t pull the bag up over them. I try to pull the bag up with just my fingers, trying to pass it between them as I lift, and it works. Incrementally, inch by inch, the bag moves up, from finger to finger until the body slips from my hold and splats back onto the squishy carpet, spraying the area like a child stomping into a puddle.

I look down at myself in horror, covered in drops of warm red. My legs below the knees got the worst of it, splattered to the point that I can feel the blood sticking through my jeans. I’ll grab a change of clothes from the mom’s closet before I leave: god knows that won’t be the worst thing I’ve done here today.

I get back to it, caring less for the mess now, just trying to shove the body into the bag so I can be done with it. It takes almost ten minutes, but I finally fill the bag. Unfortunately, it only covers up to her shoulders, and I let out a groan as I realizes I still have more to do. I grab out another bag and fold the body at the waist - what I should have done at the start - but it doesn’t want to stay folded, keeps trying to lay back out. I need to tie it in place, so I bring spiders to me and set them to spinning web, using flies to wrap the head to the knees, then groan again as I realize I could have, should have, used bugs to pull the bag up earlier.

I get the second bag around the body in record time.

I bring in mosquitoes, flies, bedbugs, fleas, lice, butterflies - any bug that drinks blood - and start them on cleaning up the blood. They drink until they’re full, then keep drinking to the point of immobilization, at which point I have other bugs carry them to the sink and make them disgorge their meal. Then they go back for seconds, then thirds - as many as it takes to get rid of the evidence.

All of this while I strip and bag my own clothes, shoes, and the rubber gloves. I can’t leave them here. I dress in the parents’ room, but Madison must have gotten her figure from her mother because all of the feminine clothes are much, much too small and tight for me, so I have to take a button up shirt and pair of khaki slacks from the dad’s side of the closet: a big man, I have to poke a new hole in the belt to keep it on me. I stuff a pair of socks each into the toes of his shoes to keep them from flopping around on my feet; they’re uncomfortable, but they’ll have to do.

Back in the living room, it’s hard to tell how much progress my hematophagic system has made. Maybe there’s less blood, but maybe not. The sink is certainly gory, so obviously it’s working on some level, but visually there’s so little difference I might as well not bother. I turn the faucet on to wash down the blood, splashing the water to get at the corners of the basin, and leave it running as I make my bugs vomit over the stream as I unfurl another trash bag to add another layer between the body and the world.

I drag the heavy bundle to the back bedroom. I don’t let my eyes wander here. I don’t want to see her room. I open the window, check once more that no one is looking, and heave. I grunt and snarl as I force the body up onto the windowsill, and for a moment it perches precariously there, a lumpy, black blob of plastic. And then she’s gone, out of her bedroom for the last time, plummeting to the ground below. A wet smack of an impact, like hair on my back in the shower. I drop my bag of clothes down after it, then close the window and rush back out of the room.

The man in 2A has moved back from the door finally, and no one else has taken up watch, so I’m free to reenter the hall. Down the stairs, out the front door, and around the corner: the body bag is sitting exactly where it fell. No one is looking. No one cares. The idea makes me crack a smile. Finally, human apathy working for rather than against me. The reality of the situation swiftly kills that smile, though, and I start dragging the body toward the grate. A red smear is left behind, a gash in the bag from the rough ground. A string of curses escapes me, as this is entirely too much work just to cover for one mistake. I move some of my blood eating/cleaning operation from the apartment to the alley to try to clear that spot.

A flattened cardboard box makes a decent enough sled and I’m able to drag it the rest of the way without leaving a trail. I stop for a brief rest beside the grate, to catch my breath and stretch my aching shoulders. Any adrenaline that might’ve been running through my veins has long since abandoned me, and I’m tired down to the bone. Everything hurts.

My heart jumps into my throat as I’m struck by the idea that this is somehow a trap. I double check my bugs, making sure they’re all still on every person, and they are. I scan the area for anyone acting suspiciously, but no one is. The apartment unit is still devoid of people, and no one is by any of the windows facing the alley. Still, I can’t discount the possibility that this is somehow a setup. If there were another option, I’d pursue it instead, but this is all I have, all I can do now, so I have to see it through.

The grate doesn’t budge.

I feel it minutely shift on my second attempt, but it slips out from between aching fingers and I stumble backward and fall. My arms burn painfully, shoulders to fingertips, and the rest of my body doesn’t feel much better off: exhaustion accumulated from constant maximum effort. I’ve never felt the weakness of my power more than now; if I were an Alexandria package, or had any sort of super strength or environmental manipulation I could leverage it to shift the grate, but I can’t even lift a chunk of metal. 

I… I don’t know what to do. I really fucked the dog with this one. I try to focus on my bugs instead of the failure I am, but they’re part of it all and I can’t stop the moisture from accumulating in my eyes. I know they have nothing to do with the lingering sting of mace. I look up to try to keep the tears from spilling over, but they escape anyway. I wipe them away and press the heel of my hand over my sockets to keep more from showing themselves as I try to keep my frustrated sobs from boiling over into a scream.

“Trying to get me in trouble one last time, huh?” I ask Madison.

She doesn’t respond, obviously.

“Nothing to say? No inane, snarky comment? Not going to tell on me to a teacher or something? That’s okay. You’ve already outdone yourself. You don’t have to do anything and I’ll still get in more trouble than you could ever dream. Sending me to jail this time. Maybe even the birdcage. Heh. Emma would probably get a kick out of that. Tell her if you see her down there, alright? Not that I really think there’s something After, but… well, just in case. Making a dead girl laugh probably isn’t worth that many points or whatever, but every little bit helps, right?”

She keeps saying nothing.

“...right. Yeah… I still don’t know what you meant, earlier, when you said you got it. You said ‘girls like us’ too. Called me a girl like you. I think that’s the first time someone’s included me in anything on purpose in a long time, now that I think about it. It made me mad, that you saw anything of yourself in me. Still does, honestly. I don’t want to be anything like you, or Emma, or Sophia. I don’t want to be a bully. It hurt that you could say that, even if you didn’t say that. I never thought you could ever really hurt me. Annoy? Sure. Frustrate? Every day. But not hurt, not like how Emma did. But somehow you found the words to hurt me enough to hurt you back.”

She crinkles a bit in the breeze.

“Maybe… maybe you were right. Maybe I am a bit like you. I hurt you. I broke you worse than you three broke me. But hey, look on the bright side; it’s over, for you. You don’t have to keep going. Don’t have to carry around the brokenness. You can just lay there with your brokenness and… yeah. You’ll get a wreath too, like Emma. Probably just as big a funeral too. Closed casket, probably. I did mess up your face.”

She doesn’t say anything, and for a while, I don’t either.

“I’m not sorry, by the way. I know I should be. I know I should feel bad. I just… I just…” A sigh escapes. “Don’t.”

I push myself back to my feet and get back to it. I still can’t lift the grate, but maybe a dumpster fire will work well enough to cover my tracks.

Chapter Text

A metal bin. Lighter fluid. A match.

Flames rise above the trashcan’s rim and I watch as my incrimination is destroyed. This is the end of months and months of meticulous documentation, the end of the line for this plan. It feels like I’m back at Emma’s funeral, watching her casket be lowered into the dirt. It’s an ending. The point of no return has since passed, but this act closes the idea that things will ever be different. Be better.

It has to happen though. It’s too risky to leave this door open. I should be glad, watching the journals burn, knowing that I don’t need them anymore, but it feels like saying goodbye to the hope that someone would act if I could get them to listen. I’ll never know if anyone would have even listened, now. It’s too risky.

What started as a way to document the abuse and collect evidence, turned into a manifesto of vengeance and violent fantasy. Showing it to anyone, they’d know. They’d know about what I did Emma, Gladly, and Madison, even though I never wrote what happened down on the page. But they’d know how badly I had wanted it. They’d know all of my lowest desires.

If they saw it all, they’d damn me to prison without a second thought. I can’t let that happen. I can’t leave my dad like that, with no explanation, no warning. He’d break again. It’s not death, but in some ways it’d be worse. He’d force himself to visit, to look at me and be forced to think about every way he messed up as a father, and it wouldn’t even be his fault; it would be mine. And that’s the better option. If I’m caged…

So the pages burn. The printed e-mails burn. The pictures of bruises burn. It all serves as kindling for the clothes from yesterday: bloodied and stolen alike. I liked those shoes. Mine, not Madison’s dad’s. They were comfortable. Still newish.

I stir the fire and step back as the almost familiar scent of burning travels with the newest burst smoke. I try not to think about the disgusting intensity of yesterday’s burnt smells, focusing instead on the insects all around: the bees visiting flowers, the wasps on the prowl, the ants carrying food to their hills, my spiders twisting drag-lines with unnatural precision and direction.

The fire dies some time later, stirred until only ash and melted rubber is left. Into the ground it goes, and I shovel dirt to unmake the hole in my back yard. And then I have nothing to do, nothing to take my mind off of the last 24 hours. Even my weaving can’t distract me, spiders almost autopiloting through their patterns. What was Madison going to say?

I go to bed.

Hours later, when my dad comes home from work, I’m still there, still awake. When he knocks on my door and asks if I’m in here, I can’t find it in me to answer. When he sticks his head in through the cracked door, I don’t bother pretending I’m asleep; I’m still dressed, not even under the covers.

He sits on the bed beside me, a hand near but not touching me, and asks, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

The tight emptiness in my gut twists into searing rage. All this time, and only now does he reach out? Where was this dad when I actually needed him? Where was this dad when Mom died and I cried myself to sleep for a week? Where was this dad when Emma turned on me, or the bullying got bad, or after the locker, or the dozens of other times I needed him? My voice is measured and cold as I remove every trace of anger in the words I say to him. “Go away.”

And just like that he gives up. His hands retreat to his lap and I feel the bed lift as he shifts his weight to stand and leave. But then the bed sinks again and he’s still here.

“I said ‘go away,’” I repeat. My voice is still just as even.

With a fruit fly on his neck, I feel him struggle for words: jaw clenching, neck muscles flexing, adam’s apple twitching up and down. My bugs mutilate each other in the back yard under my command, but I don’t let any of them pass the point of killing each other; I have them tear limbs, rip mandibles, sever antennae. They suffer, and I feel that suffering, and it lets me not think about whatever meaningless platitude he’s going to pull out after years of absence.

“No, I’m not going to do that,” he finally says.

My eyes snap to him, my teeth grinding against each other. His gaze meets mine. His glasses magnify his furrowed brow and he doesn’t look as bewildered as he usually does; right now he looks scared. Scared of me. Scared of his own daughter, like I’d ever done anything to earn his fear. He looks away from my glare and continues,

“I know I haven’t always been there for you-”

“No shit.” I don’t try to hold back the vitriol now, but even to my own ears I just sound tired.

He tries again, “I know I haven’t always been there for you, and I don’t have an excuse for that. There is no excusing that. But I… You’ve been so happy these last few weeks, and I didn’t know how much I missed seeing you like that. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I saw you smile, or heard you laugh, or act like… like it’s…” He swallows. “…Like it’s worth it, and I don’t want to see you go back to that. I can’t do that. But this isn’t about me. This is about you, Taylor, and I need you to know: you are the most important thing in my life, and, and I am here for you now.”

I… I look up at him and for just a moment I see a flicker of a man I barely recognize. For the briefest instant, he’s not the widower broken by the death of his wife, or the labor organizer beaten down time and time again by the city and big business, or the impotent and angry father yelling at my principal over the phone. He’s my daddy, scared of messing up and losing me.

Before I realize what’s happening, I’m in his arms and pressing my face into his shoulder. I don’t know who moved first, who drew the other into the hug, but it doesn’t matter because my daddy’s hugging me tightly, too tightly to be comfortable, but in a good way; my lungs groan underneath my ribs and I can’t get enough air into me before it’s forced out by my uncontrollable heaving and shuddering as I leak tears onto his shirt. I feel twin dampness on my scalp where my dad presses his face into my hair, like he doesn’t care that I smell like burnt rubber and plastic. He holds me like I matter, and I cling to him like a woman lost at sea, neither of us willing or able to let go and cut short this rare moment of family.

But all things must end, and eventually we run out of tears to cry and strength to hold each other. I scoot back a bit, trying to recover the pieces I let fall out of me. He pats my knee and smiles, tired and relaxed and easy like never before. For some reason, it’s almost enough to start me crying again, so when he asks if I want some water, I jump on the offer, glad for the chance to pull myself together more coherently. It’s… I don’t want to to overload him with too much too fast.

With my bugs, I watch him go downstairs and grab two glasses. He sets them in the sink and turns the tap on. He stares into the running water as they overfill, and I can feel him saying something to himself, but it’s impossible to make out the words. I don’t know if I’d want to hear whatever he’s saying, if I could, and I pull away self-consciously to give him the same moment of privacy he’s giving me. I focus on my breathing, and on putting the bugs I’d mutilated out of their misery, letting that scene of gore feed the survivors.

When my dad comes back, we’ve both gotten our emotions under control, though his eyes - and I suspect mine as well - are still red and his face is a bit splotchy. He sits on the bed with me, hands me a glass, and I take greedy gulps. Tears are dehydrating. I drink half in one go, then hold the half full glass between my legs.

“So,” my dad starts. He’s looking at me with careful eyes, and the fear from earlier isn’t completely banished. “What’s wrong?”

“I…” I don’t know what to tell him, how much of the truth is safe. Not all of it, obviously. He’d never look at me the same if he knew it all. He wouldn’t be scared of losing me, he’d be scared of me. So I need to keep things vague. Generalizations he won’t link to the truth.

“I messed up,” I finally say. “I made a mistake and, I don’t know if- no, I can’t ever take it back. How do I move past something like that?”

I can see him mulling over my words, trying to make sense of them. His words are slow, when he finally speaks. “It’s not going to feel like enough of an answer, but you don’t. If it’s really something you can’t take back, can’t apologize for or resolve, then it’ll stick with you forever.”

“…That sucks.”

“Heh. You’re telling me. It’s hard - it’s so hard - but most days it gets a bit easier to carry with you. Everyone has regrets.”

Is that what this is? Regret? That doesn’t feel right, not really. I don’t regret killing any of them. I wish I hadn’t had to, wish there was another way, but I don’t regret their deaths. They had to be stopped. But maybe there was a better way to do it- no, there was definitely a better way to do it.

“The only way to deal with regret is to let it help you not make that same mistake again,” my dad says when I don’t.

“Mm.”

“Is this about Emma?”

My neck cracks from the speed with which I turn my head at him. Does he know? What does he know? How does he know? Did he discover my costume? Or worse: the knife? Did I let something slip in conversation? Dumbass! How many 15 year olds talk about regret like this? He knows, he knows and he’s-

He hugs me again. I freeze. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, Little Owl.” He lets go. “How about I get us some take-out for dinner tonight? I don’t think either of us are in the mood to cook.”

“O… okay.”

“Pizza from Avellinos sound good?”

I nod.

He stands, walks to the door, and turns back before passing the threshold. He opens his mouth to say something, but closes it before anything comes out, then nods and leaves for real: downstairs, out the door, into his truck, gone. Numbly, I take a shower to scrub away the smell of dirty fire, and under that steaming, rushing water, my brain turns over again and again.

Failures, shortcomings, regrets. No matter how I look at it, I messed up. I fucked up. Things… I didn’t do this right, any of it. What I did: that’s not what a hero does. Heroes don’t kill, and certainly don’t enjoy it. I… I can’t be a hero like this; I can’t be anything but a villain. I already am one. I’ve been a villain ever since that night with Emma.

I cut off the water.

I make my decision.

Before I can change my mind, I dry off, get dressed, write a note for my dad explaining things - fifteen words is all I can manage; it’ll have to do - and leave out the back. I start jogging and don’t slow down until I reach my destination. I do my best to ignore the hundreds of eyes and phone cameras on me as I move further into the open, but the crowd’s gaze is too heavy, too sharp to dismiss.

The crowd of the Boardwalk splits around me, no one willing to get close, leaving me in an isolated bubble. I can feel their wariness. Their fear. My costume isn’t the brightest or most friendly, but you’d think they would know I’m a… that I’m not going to hurt them. I haven’t attacked anyone here yet. And if they do think I’m a villain, shouldn’t they be running? Maybe they’re waiting for a show. I don’t know. It feels wrong for this to be so spectated, for the whole world to be watching this. Flies land on dozens of camera lenses, and when they’re swatted away I replace them with more. The crowd’s mutterings grow louder, fearful, as they realize it’s my doing.

Finally, I sense a pair moving briskly towards me, the crowd splitting for them like it had for me, but indescribably different. The tone, maybe: the expressions and voices of the people parting. Doesn’t matter. Miss Militia and Dauntless appear from the crowd; military camouflage and gleaming bronze, they cut impressive figures even without weapons drawn. This is what real heroes look like. A much better first impression than Kid Win and Shadow Stalker. Maybe they can understand. Maybe not.

Either way, I don’t give them the chance to speak first. This needs to be said.

Chapter Text

“…and this is your room. Any questions?” Bookworm - Adam, out of costume - finishes.

“No, I think I’ve got it,” is my subdued answer. Honestly, I do have questions, but they can wait; it’s been a long day, and an even longer week, and I want nothing more than to retreat into the room assigned to me and process everything. I’d thought I’d’ve’d more than enough time to come to terms with all of this in the preceding months, but it really just made the whole thing more exhausting than it had any right being. I barely even met two other Wards, for Pete’s sake, just exchanged names before they headed out to patrol.

“Hey, Weaver, listen,” Bookworm calls out before I can make it all the way through the threshold. I turn back to face him. “The director asked me not to tell you, but I think you deserve to know; I’ve seen your record, and I can’t say I was happy to learn the team was getting a…”

He gestures too vaguely to actually mean anything, but I understand him. He’s worried about having a murderer on the team. Can’t say I blame him, but it’s still annoying. I turned myself in, I served time, I did the good behavior thing; what was the point of all that if everyone is only ever going to see me as my RAP sheet? I expected as much, prepared myself for the inevitability of a friendless time with the Wards, but it still stings to know they won’t even get the chance to judge me for me. Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll at least be professional on the job; if they hate me outside of work, I can deal with that, but being forced to surround myself with people who hate me… I can’t deal with another Winslow. I’d rather go back to prison.

“But I haven’t told any of the other Wards,” Bookworm continues. “They don’t even know you’re on probation. It’s up to you if you want them to know, and I can tell them if you want me to, but. Well. You deserve the option of a clean slate.”

…or maybe good behaviour was good for something other than early parole. Huh.

“Thank you,” I say, genuine. “Can I think on it?”

“Of course,” he says with a handsome smile no doubt perfected over dozens of hours of PR training. “And that wraps it all up. Welcome to the Wards department 17. I look forward to working with you, Taylor.”

“Yeah, me too.”

With a final parting nod, he turns and leaves the way we came and I dip into the room, the door sliding closed behind me, and fall onto the bunk. Finally, finally alone, I let go of the tightness that’s been clutching more and more of my chest as the tour went on, and on, and on. He wouldn’t shut up about the most random of useless details: so much trivia I’d expect it was part of his power, and maybe it is; he is a postcog of some sort. And joy of joys, I get to meet the rest of the Wards in another couple hours; but until then, I can just be.

Less than two minutes later, I’m deathly bored. My terrariums haven’t been sent over from the prison yet, so I don’t have my weaving contracts to occupy my thoughts, and the heavy rain outside is keeping down all but my wormiest bugs. There’s some inside the PRT building, but the deputy director warned me against doing anything ‘suspicious’ - whatever that means - and I don’t want to risk pissing him off so soon. I didn’t get the feeling he’s quick to forgive, and I’d rather not get shipped back to juvie so quickly. Maybe in the future, depending on the team, he can be a good exit strategy, but not yet.

Lacking anything else to do, I unpack my bags: just a suitcase and a duffel bag my dad sent over from home. Mostly clothes, but a couple books and pictures too. I pause to look at one that my dad must have dug through the basement for. It’s of me and my mom, smiling in front of a massive tree with a bench built around it, some solidly build brick buildings behind us. I must have been nine or ten, and she took me on a tour of her campus. One of the few from that era without… without Emma. A year after I killed her and I’m no closer to knowing why everything went the way it did; so much of everything is unknowable now, because of what I did.

I set the picture on the desk, facing the room so I’ll be able to see it from the bed. It’s soon joined by the other family pictures he sent over. I’ll probably never set foot in Brockton Bay again if the PRT has anything to say about it, so even though the reminders of home ache, I keep them visible.

With a sigh, I dig out the cell phone the PRT gave me. Durable, discrete, and far simpler tech than I’d expect from them, but if it gets the job done… I still don’t like it. Don’t like that I’m supposed to carry it with me everywhere, that I have to keep it on me at all times so they can contact me in an emergency. I get it, but…

I turn away from the desk, flip open the phone, and dial home. It rings and rings without connecting, and though I hear my dad’s voice, it’s only the answering machine recording, two years old rather than really him. I close the phone rather than leave a message, disappointed until I catch sight of the phone’s clock; then I just feel stupid. It’s barely 1pm on a Tuesday; of course he wouldn’t pick up, he’s at work. I try his personal office number, and it connects before the second ring is done.

“Hello?”

“Hey, dad.”

“Taylor! Hey, how’s it going, sweetie?” he asks, his voice immediately perking up.

“Good. Good. And you?”

“Oh, you know, same as always.”

I nod, and the conversation stalls like it still so often does. I hear papers shuffling in the background.

“Sooo,” he draws out the word. “Today’s your first day out, right? I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for your release, but-”

“I get it, too far away and all that. They probably wouldn’t have let you, anyway. It was a bus ride straight here, then the tour.”

“Still. Are you settling in alright?”

“Yeah, mostly. I just finished unpacking. Feels… weird, I don’t know.”

“They’re not giving you any trouble, are they?” His voice is heavy with worry, and I’m not entirely sure it’s completely on my behalf.

“No- well, no. Bookworm - he’s the leader - gave me a talk, but supposedly none of the other Wards know anything, so…” I trail off with a sigh. “I’m supposed to meet the rest of the team later today, after school lets out.”

“Well, don’t write them off too quickly.”

“I know.”

“Give them a chance, and keep an open mind, and you might make some friends.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that.” Or at least try, for his sake as much as my own.

“And if you get any… urges, you can always call me or Dr. Meli-”

“Yeah, Dad. I know.” A groan escapes, low and frustrated. I want to say that that’s not how it works, that there’re no ‘urges’ like what he’s thinking, but the words feel like lies before they even reach my tongue. Ugh. I called to take my mind off of this, not focus further on it. “I didn’t mean to snap, I just-- Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure. Of course, Taylor. What do you want to talk about?” He sounds subdued, and I can’t help but feel like crap, doubly so because I have to flounder for a new topic.

“You get any new contracts?”

He sighs. “I’m working at it. Since the spillover from Boston, there’s at least been some work to go around, but it’s been slowing down as repairs finish.” Two hours away from the action, and even a year later repairs are still ongoing. Terrifying as that is, work’s work. I can’t help the dark thought that that’s the reason why the PRT would let a murderer join the Wards; there’s always the need for more warm bodies.

“That’s good.” A beat of silence stretches into a moment into a length; neither of us have anything left to say. “I’m sure you’re busy; I’ll let you go.”

“I always have time for you, kiddo.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I love you, Taylor.”

“Love you too.”

We both linger for a moment more. Then I pull the phone away and, after a minute of pressing random buttons, end the call. I fall back onto the bed and drag a hand down my face with a groan. That could have gone better, but it also could have gone much, much worse.

That could be the tagline of my life, honestly. I’ve had a lot of time to think about how much worse things could have gone if I hadn’t turned myself in when I did, because I would have eventually been caught. It was only a matter of time before Emma’s knife came back to bite me; I’ve read books, I know what a Chekhov’s gun is. And even if I never got caught, even if I were able to keep killing forever - alone or after falling in with a gang - I never wanted to be a monster. Even three was too many; I’ll be paying back these debts for the rest of my life.