Friends with Enemies
PCT Secret Snip Exchange 2
- For Mondrae205: Shielder & Newter, by crab
- For Relyet: Sundancer & Vista, by crab
- For Crab: Flechette & Newter, by Dank Memes
- For PitaEnigma: Gregor & Grue, by Mondrae205
- For Dank Memes: Bitch & Vista, by woermhoele
- For Noctis_noctua: Alexandria & Taylor, by T0PH4T
- For TheSleepingKnight: Gallant & Tattletale, by T0PH4T
- For T0PH4T: Victoria & Lisa, by rosed
- For Rosed: Squealer & Armsmaster, by Relyet
- For Alice: Armsmaster & Coil, by PitaEnigma
- For woermhoele: Imp & Vista, by Noctis_noctua
For Mondrae205: Shielder & Newter, by crab
Flying, in your opinion, is literally the best thing ever. Not “literally” like Crystal says it, “literally” like really actually one hundred percent for real.
You’ve been doing it for half of your life, and by now you barely remember a time when you couldn’t fly. It wasn’t even what you’re best at, really. You are called Shielder for a reason. But there’s just something so gripping about soaring over the city, the wind tousling your hair and rushing in your ears. It feels like cracking all your knuckles at once, hearing the pop-pop-pop and not even having to worry about Crystal complaining that it’s gross. You quietly survey the streets of Brockton Bay as they pass below your feet, waving cheerfully to the few who notice a shadow and looked up.
The Lord Street Market is bustling this evening, you notice. Several stalls have clusters of people crowding around. Occasionally a cheer goes up in the throng.
“Hey, Mom, some cool stuff’s happening at the Market,” you call in. “Can I go check it out?”
“Not right now, Eric. Besides, the vendors might not like a cape showing up and drawing away business,” Lady Photon replies. The worst part is that she’s right; your flashy blue-and-white bodysuit isn’t exactly subtle.
“Fiiine. Nothing’s happening, though. It’s been, like, half an hour, and no one’s gotten mugged or anything,” you say, passing over the marketplace.
“Don’t sound disappointed, Eric. Christ. That’s a good thing.”
“No, I–” You abort that argument. It won’t get anywhere, you know, so why bother starting it? “I’m gonna look around a couple blocks off the route. If the Market’s busy, there might be people trying to rob the shoppers and stuff.”
When Mom speaks again, her voice is warm with pride. “Good idea. Call in anything you see.”
“Mom, I know.” The street curves up to meet you as you keep flying to the top of the hill. There’s a nightclub here; the music’s blasting loud enough that you can hear it from fifteen feet in the air.
It’s then when you see people moving around in the alley. A flash of orange rebounds from wall to wall. Something white – a person, wearing a white t-shirt, you squint to see – runs halfway down the alley, but the orange blur moves much quicker. You quickly angle yourself and push forwards. Swing the feet forward, let your shoulders drop first, follow through when you make contact. The landing is easy, but the situation into which you’re doing the landing doesn’t look like it will be the same way.
The orange figure is vaguely familiar. “Hey, hold up,” you say. The lessons with Dad have been paying off; it comes out sounding deep and imposing. You think it does, at least. The guy in front of you looks up. He’s not that old-looking. A year or two older than you, maybe. He has orange skin that’s kind of… shiny, you decide. Like he’s been sweating. Blue hair a bit darker than your own. Oh, and he has a long tail. When you look up, you see his eyes are all blue, no white.
“Hey, don’t worry, man,” he says, hands up and fingers splayed. “These guys were trying to rob the place.”
You look down. There’s a gun on the ground next to an unconscious would-be robber. He’s drooling a bit. “What’d you do to them?”
“Knockout juice in my sweat. Sends ‘em off to dreamland for a few hours. I’ve heard it’s a pretty great trip.”
You nudge one with your foot. Nothing. All his muscles are relaxed; he’s like a ragdoll. “Uh huh.”
“Name’s Newter. Already know who you are.” The guy leans back and reclines in the air, apparently balancing on his… tail. His tail, which is a thing you’re still working through, so you just move on.
“Yeah. So… you’re with Faultline, right?”
Newter flips back up to his feet. “That a problem?” he asks, and now you can recognize the way he balances on the balls of his feet, tail coiling around a bit. One well-aimed flick would probably send the same ‘knockout juice’ at your face.
You look down at the guy in the t-shirt. You look over at the other guy down the alley. “Not to me, I don’t think.”
And just like that, the tension’s gone. “A’ight,” he says. “See you ‘round. Nice hair.”
And just like that, he’s gone as well.
It’s another week and a half before your patrol takes you past the Lord’s Market again. You spy something orange on top of the same nightclub and fly down a bit.
“Oh, hey, dude,” says Newter, looking up with a hand on his forehead. You sheepishly move around the roof so he’s not looking into the sun.
“Hey,” you say. “What are you doing up here?”
He grins and spreads his arms wide. “Workin’ on my tan, my man.”
It’s autumn in New England and his skin is more orange than a traffic cone. You say as much and he laughs. “I’m not doing anything, really. Just bored. Like to come up here. Top of the hill, y’know? Good view of the city.”
You turn. It really is a very nice view. Telephone poles and antennae and chimneys reach up for the sky, a thousand of the city’s arms in all shapes and sizes pointing to the same place. “Just clearing your head, or…?” you venture.
He regards you for a few seconds, all-blue eyes screwed tight against the sun. “Eh.” A finger pulls at his tank top and exposes a weird tattoo like a rotated C. “Case fifty-three. Faultline’s trying to help me and the rest of the gang get our shit together. Memories are all down the rabbit hole. Thought we had a lead, but…” he shrugs, hooking his thumbs through belt loops.
“I’m sorry,” you say. Because what else can you say to something like that? No memory, no chance of hiding who you are, no connections to help you…
Newter shrugs again. You admire how easily he can shift back to the unconcerned nonchalance that seems to be his resting state.
The silence stretches but doesn’t break. The two of you look back at the city’s skyline. After a while, you fly away.
You end up back there the next week and see Newter lying on top of a car. On the roof of a nightclub. “How,” you say.
He doesn’t open his eyes. “Dedication.”
This answers zero of your questions, and, in fact, raises quite a few more.
It becomes something of a ritual for you. Whenever your patrol takes you near the Lord’s Market, you visit the Palanquin. If Newter isn’t there already, he comes out to the roof within a couple minutes.
The car’s still there; since its arrival you’ve discovered that a skirmish with Rune got it thrown up here. Newter spends several minutes lauding the nightclub’s architectural integrity when he tells the story.
Your conversations meander and leapfrog from topic to topic. A discussion about the Bay turns to one about hair dyeing techniques.
“I tried to get Spitfire to help, but one of her gloves had a hole, so she kinda…” He mimes fainting, arm thrown dramatically across his forehead.
You nod. “The dye always stains Crystal’s hands. Then she’s on about how pointless it is and blah blah blah. I have no idea why she keeps agreeing to help.”
“Oh, I know all ‘bout that, bro. Hard to just have a good time with this life. Stop and smell the roses. Or the hair dye. Like, look, I love Faultline, for real. All of us do. But I wish she’d lighten up a bit, you feel me? Just… dunno. It’s always business.”
A little noise of noncommittal acknowledgement escapes you. “I feel you, yeah.”
“Guess we kinda got that in common, eh?” Newter says. He gets to his feet with a backflip that looks more casual than anything you’ve done in your life.
“How’s that?” you ask, letting your flight carry you up again.
He stretches a bit and leaps ten feet onto the roof of the car like it’s nothing. “Can’t get out of the spotlight. You’re public; every kid in New England knows New Wave. And I’m not exactly a Where’s Waldo here.” An expansive gesture to his own body accompanies his words. “You ever wish you weren’t a cape? Or, like… wish you could hide it?”
“No,” you say. “Yes,” you say a few seconds later. There’s a faint laugh from the boy on the car, and you find yourself laughing, too. “I guess sometimes. Just to be, like, a regular kid at school. Half my teachers think Crystal and Victoria and Amy and I are, like…” The word doesn’t come, so you gesticulate a bit to fill that particular conversational gap.
“Superhuman?” A cheeky grin splits his face.
You roll your eyes. “Oh, shut up.”
Winter starts to creep in; even the unusual warmth of Brockton Bay can’t stave it off forever. You land on the roof of Palanquin one day to find Newter already waiting.
“It’s going to snow tonight. You’re in a tank top?”
“I can take bullets, bro. Not, like, a lot of them, but even fucking Antarctica wouldn’t be anything more than a bit nippy.”
You pluck at your winter costume, which boasts a rather comfortable layer of padding that has the unfortunate downside of covering any hint of muscle. “Lucky.”
He raises his eyebrows. Those eyes still trip you up, even a couple months later. “Less so when I’m the backup bullet sponge.”
The bluntness in his tone at that worries you. “That happen a lot?”
“Kinda comes with the life of a cape mercenary, bro. After a while you just plan for shit to go pear-shaped out the gate, and anything else is a happy surprise. Speaking of, Faultline’s got us a job. Heading out early tomorrow. Figured I’d say bye.”
“No, to the Simurgh. Yes, to you, dumbass,” he says with a laugh. “You’re cool.”
The compliment is surprisingly heartwarming. Your talks have been spread out, but it’s fairly obvious that compliments aren’t something Newter throws around like confetti. And it’s nice to hear something nice about you that’s not related to cape stuff. “Thanks, man,” you reply. “You too. Stay safe, ‘kay?”
Newter bursts out laughing. “Oh, yeah, ‘stay safe.’ Good one, dude.” He reaches out. It’s easy to recognize the gesture; after all, you are a high schooler. Just before your hands make contact, though, he pulls it back and runs it through his hair.
A split second of offense vanishes when he wiggles his fingers, and you see the faint sheen. “Shit. You almost got me,” you say.
“Please. I did get you. Only the goodness in my heart saved you from tripping balls for the next four hours.”
A breath escapes you, and his grin makes it spiral into a full laugh, and then you’re both laughing. “Good luck, Newter.”
“See you, uh…” He blinks. You blink back. The silence grows, and this time you break it.
“You really don’t–”
“Come on, there’s like, fifty of you in New Wave.”
“It’s Shielder. Or, I mean, Eric.”
“See you, Eric.”
“See you, man.”
For Relyet: Sundancer & Vista, by crab
Marissa threw down the newspaper. Mrs. Newland, a tall, prim woman in expensive clothes, looked up. “Marissa, darling, what’s wrong?”
In lieu of an answer, Marissa pointed to one of the articles on the front of the sports section and took a large gulp of orange juice.
Arcadia’s Rising Star
Missy Biron talks basketball, soccer, and freshman year
“Oh, don’t get so hung up on her. Recruiters don’t look at the high school teams anymore,” her mom said with a dismissive wave. “Those travel teams are the places to be. Schools all over the country get to see you! You just have to prove you’re better.”
But I want to stay here, Marissa avoided saying. The arrival of a school bus in their cul-de-sac gave her an out. “Bye, Mom.”
“Bye, darling. Don’t forget, I’m picking you up right after your game for the tryouts!” Her mom’s voice followed her to the door in its invariably inescapable manner.
“Make sure you have your charger!”
“And your water bottle!”
“And–” The intervention of two inches of solid mahogany saved Marissa from further nagging.
The day passed in a blur of math and corn dogs. Two forty-five saw Marissa in the locker room with her hair in a ponytail and a jersey on her back. The “79” under her name felt a bit heavy, and not just from the weight of the stitched-on numbers on her back. She stared into her reflection’s eyes. They offered no insights.
Around the corner, the door opened. “Pythons! Get over here!” she heard Jess call.
Inhale for a four-count, hold for seven, exhale for eight. The internet’s advice proved effective after a moment, and Marissa joined the rest of the team between the rows of lockers. Jess held a clipboard in one hand while the other adjusted the angle of her chair. “Alright, girls. Coach C’s probably out there trying to bribe the refs, so you get your speech from me. Arcadia’s got a lot of new talent – stick to your girl and focus on blocking their passes. They don’t have a lot of shooters, which means they pass that ball like they’re playing hot potato. Harley – for God’s sake, Harley, stop fucking with your uniform – is gonna be on their hotshot new girl. Misty whoever.”
“Missy,” Marissa corrected. “She’s fast.”
Jess gave her a nod of acknowledgement. “Mars, you’re on the Dallon girl. Watch out for flops. Everyone else, rotate around. Don’t run a press unless they do. Also, Coach C said you’re doing five suicides for every steal they get, so, like, no pressure.”
The laughs that followed Jess’s words had a considerable amount of wincing mixed in.
“Okay, Oliver’s running the clock, so I gotta get back to do the book. Hands in, everyone.”
“Three! Two! One! PYTHONS!”
Marissa sat up in the bleachers in sullen silence and watched the boys play. As she did, Luke stole the ball and sunk an effortless three-pointer. The bench went wild. The rest of the girls’ team cheered as well, but it was a bit half-hearted.
Her observation was interrupted by the interposition of a person. “Hey.”
The interloper’s face was familiar. Irritatingly so, actually. “Missy Biron.”
“Yep,” said Missy Biron. “You played good today. Blocked Vicky like four times. She’s still mad.”
Marissa glowered. “Okay. And?”
Missy Biron shrugged and offered a hand. “And nothing. Just, good job.”
Her phone rang. “Hello?” she said into it, grateful for the escape from the conversation.
“Marissa, I’m outside. Hurry up now, we’ve only got two minutes of wiggle room,” the phone crackled in a canned version of her mother’s voice.
A groan escaped her as she slung one bag across her back and another on her shoulder. Sore muscles protested the whole way to the car.
“How’d the game go?” In response, Marissa sulked. “Hmm. Well, like I said this morning. Travel teams are the ones that matter.”
“Name?” said the coach, a tall woman with a face that brokered no nonsense and a tone to match.
“Alright. I’m Coach Fitts. Go warm up until everyone arrives,” the coach said, jerking her head towards the court. A few other girls were already shooting around; Marissa recognized a couple from Clarendon’s team, but no one else.
She headed off to grab a ball from the rack. Then the voices behind her grabbed Marissa’s attention.
“I’ve heard of you. Rising star you may be, but you still have to pass tryouts.”
“I know, Coach.”
“Hmph. Go warm up.”
Missy Biron, the one and only freshman on Arcadia’s varsity team, walked past Marissa in all her five-foot-zero glory. She just watched the girl go by in shock. Why was she shocked? In between the passive-aggressive remarks that passed for “encouragement,” her mom had explained a dozen times that this team was the best of the best. So of course Missy fucking Biron would be here.
In a mostly-successful attempt to clear her head, Marissa chose a basket far away from Arcadia’s new prodigy and practiced free throws. Donk. Thunk. Bonk. She gave up after eight misses in a row.
Thanks to everyone who tried out. We had many strong players try out for the team. Below is the list of those who made the cut.
Marissa saw that they were alphabetical by name and skipped down a bit.
Her stomach, faced with the choice between soaring with joy and dropping with apprehension, elected to do neither – or perhaps both – and instead invoke a vague nausea in Marissa.
“Alright, partner drills! Ava, Katherine, you’re partners! Missy, Marissa, you’re together! Tanya, Dez, you two!” Coach Fitts kept barking out pairs on the team.
Marissa was startled out of her daze by the intrusion of a basketball into her personal space. “Yo, Marissa. Come on,” said Missy, gesturing to the lines forming on the court. “Passing drills.”
They settled into a rhythm, alternating chest passes and bounce passes with a pair of basketballs. The constant beat of rubber on wood echoed around the room. It nearly blocked out the other girl’s voice.
“Uh, what, sorry?” said Marissa. Bounce pass.
Chest pass. “I said, how’s life?” Missy Biron repeated.
The words took another cycle to settle in. “It – uh, it’s fine,” said Marissa. Bounce pass. “You?”
Missy shrugged. Chest pass. “Could be better, could be worse. Basketball’s good, though.”
Basketball. Marissa could talk basketball. Bounce pass. “You played, uh, Winslow, right?”
“Yup.” Chest pass. “Not much of a game, though.”
It had featured on the front page of the sports section. Arcadia 54, Winslow 23. Bounce pass. “Guess that’s what happens when you’re up against the new star of the Bay.”
Missy made a face. Chest pass. “It’s not like that.”
A little bit of resentment flared in her gut. “It’s kind of like that, though.” Bounce pass. “You’re faster than anyone. Best free-throw percentage in the district.”
Another grimace from the other girl. Chest pass. “It’s about the team. Victoria, Crystal, they’re important too. We have to work together. We’d be no good otherwise.”
Marissa flubbed the ball, going for a chest pass at the same time as Missy. The two balls collided in mid-air and shot off to the sides, interfering with other partners’ rhythms until the whole room was off.
“Partner up, ladies! Same as last week! Free throw practice!”
Marissa tried not to glare at Missy fucking Biron too much. It got a lot harder after the thirteen-year-old sank nine perfect shorts out of ten. She caught the ball awkwardly. “You’re up,” said Missy.
“I know,” was Marissa’s lame reply.
The first shot flew too far left and rebounded out to the three-point line before Missy caught up with it.
The second shot was another miss, brushing the bottom of the net on its way to Missy’s waiting arms. She tossed it back. “Saw that clip of you against Arcadia from last year,” said the younger girl. “Pretty crazy. You practice those shots at home?”
The third shot bounced off the rim. “Yeah.”
The fourth shot spun around a bit and went in. Missy made a noise of approval; Marissa wasn’t sure if it was for the free throw or her answer. “Just, like, for fun? Or…?”
The fifth shot mirrored the third, its motion counterclockwise this time. “My mom,” said Marissa without realizing.
Missy didn’t throw the ball back right away. Confused, Marissa glanced down and was met with a questioning look. She gestured for the ball and caught the underhanded toss.
The sixth shot was a perfect swish. “What about her?” Missy asked. Marissa wished she could turn back time.
The seventh shot bounced high off the rim and back into the net. It took a moment of deliberation for Marissa to continue the conversation. “It’s all about the glory.”
The eighth shot went off the backboard and in. Missy nodded, enlightened. “Like, she wants more buzzer beaters?”
The ninth shot was another swish. “Basically. Whatever looks flashy and gets recruiters to notice,” she said, managing to keep most of the bitterness out of her tone.
The tenth shot bounced once, twice, then went in. “Hmm. Well, seven out of ten. Nice.”
“What?” Marissa stared at the other girl uncomprehendingly, hands still waiting for the ball.
“That was ten. My turn again. You did good. All seven in a row.”
Marissa blinked, then kicked herself into action once the words caught up. “Right, uh, thanks.”
Their first game arrived like a premature baby – unexpectedly soon and struggling to survive. Marissa cast a baleful glance towards the scoreboard. It stubbornly refused to display anything besides a testament to their twenty-point deficit to the Baltimore team.
“You girls better keep playing; I don’t want anyone quitting on me,” said the ever-resolute Coach Fitts. “One quarter to get this back. Break!”
“Three! Two! One! EARTHQUAKES!”
The girls spread out onto the court, taking up positions for the start of the quarter. Marissa clocked one of the opposing team and started to box her out. Everyone sprang into action as soon as the ball moved.
A flash of purple uniform marked a teammate rushing past her, another flash of orange – ball – passed by, she stepped forward – set a pick and roll – box out and rebound–
Without warning, someone flew in from the side and grabbed the ball out of the air. Marissa took a hip check and a hard fall. A whistle blew. Someone helped her up, and they kept going.
Catch the inbound, dribble, fake to the left – didn’t fool her – back off, pass, reposition, catch the pass back – step back and shoot.
Swish. The cheers glided off her ears as she ran back to play defence. “Box-one!” she heard Coach Fitts shout. “Missy roams!”
Marissa bounced on her feet, watching the green-clad players approach with the ball. Two steps to the right placed her close enough to threaten a blocked pass; the point guard changed her mind and pulled back instead of passing. The ball danced between pairs of hands until it ended up near her.
She kept one hand up and stayed low to the ground. Her own breathing was the loudest thing Marissa could hear. The girl in front of her made a move to drive, but Marissa was there, unmovable. The shot went short, and Missy caught it. They reset the formation.
Marissa jogged down the court ahead of the point guard.
The play began again; she burst into action; movements blurred together. Go wide, wait for a chance – catch the pass and throw it back – try and lose your tail – shit–
Another foul. She kept her footing this time. The inbound went to Marissa, and she took it around the key. Someone was open – wait, no – not there either – gap, drive – Marissa went up and suddenly the tallest girl was in front of her, arms reaching up, up to the roof – there.
A hint of yellow and purple on the girl’s other side. Marissa couldn’t make the shot from here. But the other girl could.
She passed the ball. Missy’s shot was perfect.
The bus trip back was lively despite their loss. An unanswered fourteen-point run tended to do that. Marissa chewed a bar made of granola and a half-dozen unidentifiable beige materials. Given that it was from her mother, Marissa suspected at least one might be cardboard.
A blonde head popped up over the back of the seat. “Hey.”
“Guh-hck–“ Marissa choked on a bite of cardboard-infused granola. “Scared me. Fuck. Hi. Sorry.”
Missy regarded her with a knowing, amused face that didn’t fit a thirteen-year-old. She said, “You were a beast that last quarter,” and Marissa couldn’t avoid cracking a grin.
“Psssh,” Marissa deflected. “They were just tired from going all out on us.”
Missy rolled her eyes. “And I’m Michael Jordan’s secret daughter. Take the compliment, Marissa.”
“Call me Mars.”
“Alright. Will you take the compliment now?”
“Jeez, alright, I did well. Whatever you say,” Mars said, and she laughed as she said it, because it turned out that Missy fucking Biron wasn’t so bad, and Mars had no idea why she’d ever thought she was.
For Crab: Flechette & Newter, by Dank Memes
She’s always loved the beach.
She has memories, fleeting as they are, of the sand and the waves and how she would be hugged and carried and set loose on the dunes for hours at a time, left to her own devices to explore and play.
A few of her social workers have told her that that was impossible. That her age and timelines don’t match up. That she couldn’t have been near any kind of beach or body of water during the ages she claims to remember. Her therapists tell her that it was most likely a coping mechanism. Memories that she made up with parents and family to feel better about her lack thereof.
Lily didn’t care. The memories were real enough to her.
She leaned back against a boulder, taking a deep breath of the briney air. Here in Brockton Bay, it was nothing like her memories. Here the beach was annihilated. Broken bits of wood, stone, cloth, and miscellaneous detritus swamped the damp sand. It also didn’t help her mood that the sky was grey and the wind was biting and Lily was fucking pissed. She wasn’t even sure what she was pissed at.
The city? For being a shithole?
Sabah? For allying herself with a criminal?
Skitter? For being that criminal?
Herself? For not stabbing the bitch through the heart?
A hand found a pebble, and Lily whipped it with all her might against the oncoming waves. It disappears in a small splash of foam. Lily sat back down, leaning against the boulder and looking up to the sky.
“What the fuck am I going to do?” she asked the sky. Like most times anyone tries to do that, the sky does not respond, instead it just continues to exist as an amorphous, swirling blob of grey that blankets the sky. Another stone finds itself to her hand, and Lily watches it disappear underneath the waves as well. More come to her, and soon Lily finds herself making a game of seeing how far she could whip small objects into the sea. It was therapeutic, almost. Bend the arm, snap it forward, watch pebble number forty whatever sail off into the roiling waves like a malformed ship in a bottle.
“Mind if I join you?”
Lily startled as someone sat down next to her. And then startled again when she realized who it was. He looked younger, up close, different from the pictures she saw on his dossier. Fully clothed too, in a thin hoodie and a pair of ratty jeans. Everything else, though, looked exactly as advertised. Orange skin, blue hair, a pair of similarly colored lizardian eyes, and a snaking tail that was twitching back and forth. Lily found herself instinctively reaching for the metal darts on her thigh, but cursed internally when she remembered that she wasn’t in costume.
“...I guess not. Hi,” she said, trying to inconspicuously move herself back into a more neutral position and hoping she wasn’t about to be kidnapped by a villain.
“Hi,” Newter responded. He sat himself down next to Lily. He picked up a small stone and threw it. Lily watched it splash into the sea.
“Whatcha doing here?” Lily asked, trying to keep her voice casual and sliding back so that her back was against the large rock, ensuring that her opponent had no way to get behind her. Though she wasn’t sure how much that could help if the villainous Case-53 had backup.
Newter shrugged. Another rock made its way into the waves, “Nothing. Just wandering, I guess. You seemed to be having fun down here.”
“I do?” Lily asked.
“Yeah. And I could use some fun right now.”
Another rock arced into the sea. And another. And another. The last one Newter flicked into the sea with a foot.
Newter sighed, “I’m sorry. I probably look fucking stupid. And scary. Big orange lizard person dropping down next to you and talking about random shit.”
“A little,” Lily confirmed, “But I also thought you were about to drug and kidnap me, so I guess it’s not the weirdest thing.”
“Does...does that happen to you often, or something?” Newter asked.
Lily turned to face him, “You tell me, you’re the villain.”
Newter dropped the rock in his hands, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Lily picked it up and heaved it into the ocean, “I mean. You are, right? I’m not mistaking you for the other orange-skinned guy in Brockton Bay? Newter? Works with Faultline? Villainous mercenaries?”
“I prefer being called a regular mercenary, thank you very much,” Newter said petulantly, “And no, I’m not here to kidnap you or whatever. I don’t even know who you are.”
“Sure. I believe you,” Lily said unconvincingly.
They had run out the supply of small rocks, so Lily picked up a small piece of driftwood to throw instead. It blew back with the wind and crashed somewhere behind her, “Darn.”
Newter shifted uncomfortably, messing around with something in his hands. Lily felt herself tensing in preparation for a fight.
“I wanted to make sure you weren’t about to do something stupid,” he finally said.
“Stupid?” Lily stood up, looking for more things to throw, “That’s not a very nice thing to say to a stranger.”
“Young girl, all alone by herself next to the ocean? Staring at the water for extended amounts of time and throwing random shit into it? With the city the way it is? It looked like you were about to do something stupid from where I was looking.”
The implications of Newter’s words hit her. “I wasn’t about to jump in or something.”
“That’s fine,” Newter stood up as well, kicking at the sand and other debris, “Just wanted to be sure.”
“So is this what you people do in your free time?” Lily found a few more pebbles underneath a patch of seaweed, “Commit crimes, then wander the beaches, tell people to not kill themselves?”
“Really, what is with you and that phrase ‘you people’? You just hate Case-53’s? Or is it the orange-skinned ones?”
“What? No, I don’t—that’s just—no! One of my friends is a Case-53!” Lily shouted in embarrassment, dropping a few stones she’d managed to gather.
Newter burst out laughing. He bent forward to help Lily regather her dropped projectile, snagging one off the top of the pile and tossing it behind him without looking. It went a little further than Lily thought it would, almost disappearing into the ocean mist before a plume of foam marked its impact.
“If I am so villainous,” he said, lobbing two stones at once this time, “why haven’t you ran away from me screaming? Or called for help?”
Lily didn’t respond, instead opting to set her gathered stones on the sand and sit down again. She winged a few more into the sea. Newter sat down as well.
“I dunno,” Lily finally said.
“Good answer,” Newter replied sarcastically.
“Shut up. I guess...I guess I didn’t want to leave yet. And you are right. This is fun. Helping me get over some shit.”
A few more rocks disappear into the sea.
“You have a lot of shit to get over at your age?” Newter asked. Lily gives him a look. “Right, right. Brockton Bay. Shouldn’t have needed to ask.”
Lily reached for another rock. The pile was running half empty already.
“I just don’t get it, you know?” Lily lets go of another stone, this time infusing it with her power. It whistles through the air, disappearing behind a curtain of sea mist.
“Damn. Nice throw. And I don’t get a lot of things, you’re going to have to be more specific,” Newter tries valiantly to match Lily’s throw, but unlike her, his power doesn’t negate physics. The stone fell painfully short.
“Villains. And people who join up with them.”
“You know, if you want me to leave you alone, you can just ask.”
“No, it’s not you this time, promise. But maybe you could answer my question?” Lily tries to skip the rock this time. It does nothing against the waves.
“I mean. I guess? I don’t really know you or anything, but I can give it a try,” Newter tries again to match her long through, this time flipping on the spot to launch the stone with his tail. It still barely goes half the distance of Lily’s throw.
“Why be a villain?”
“Wow, okay, I get it, let me just up and go away.”
Lily tried to skip the next stone. Just like the last time, it doesn’t do a thing, and she doesn’t know why she bothered to try. “You don’t need to answer.”
“I don’t.” This time Newter tries to throw a rock from the top of the boulder that Lily was leaning against, scampering up the grey monolith to launch his next pebble. It was still visible when it disappeared into the waves. “But I can.”
Lily stayed silent as he leapt back down onto the sand. He sits cross-legged and tilts his head at her.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well. Sometimes villainy’s all that someone’s got going for them, you know?”
“So that’s it?” Lily snorted, “Unfortunate circumstances, therefore I must break the law?”
“More like, unfortunate circumstances left me on the wrong side of the law before I knew what the law was. And then one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden I found myself really enjoying the company of those selfsame ne’er-do-wells. The cash is also a nice bonus.”
“You could get paid with the Protectorate. Or the Wards.”
“I could, but I hear they don’t have dental.”
“You hurt people.”
The accusation is acerbic, Lily feels her lip curling into a snarl as it leaves her tongue. She whips another pebble into the sea mist. It lands in the sand, just shy of the water. A sharp crack pierced the noise of crashing waves.
“...I do hurt people,” Newter said slowly, “I have hurt people. I will probably continue to hurt people. It’s part of the job.”
“You could take a new job. You could help people. You should help people.”
“I do help people.”
“You’re a villain!” Lily’s foot snapped out, scattering the remaining pile of pebbles. She continued the assault, kicking the scattered stones off into the ocean with surprising alacrity. Eventually she drops back onto the sand and crosses her arms.
“You feel a little better?” Newter asked.
“Marginally,” Lily huffed.
“That’s better than not at all,” Newter said, standing and beginning to gather a second pile of stones. A few minutes later a second pyramid of rocks assembled themselves and they resumed their throwing.
“How are you helping people?” Lily asked after a few minutes of silent stone throwing. Newter had given up matching her distance, and instead was going for trick shots.
“I help Gregor buy lunch sometimes. And get Labyrinth to places she needs to be. Help out around the neighborhood. Pick up litter,” he answers. He manages to launch four pebbles at once by standing on one leg and throwing with his other extremities.
“That’s not helping people.”
“No? They’re not people now?”
“I mean you’re not helping the people. You know. The public.”
“And why should I?”
Lily turned to face him, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Newter picks up a few more rocks and tries skipping them like Lily did. Lily didn’t bother telling him that it was a pointless effort, “Is it?”
“Because you have powers! Because you can! Because you should! Pick one!”
“And would you be happy? If you were a hero? Helping people?”
The question stops Lily cold.
Was she happy? As a Ward? As Flechette? As someone trying to help in a shithole that seemed to resist her every effort? How much could she honestly say she’s helped? Every mugger she puts away only seems to add five more to the streets.
“...I wouldn’t know,” she said.
“Well I don’t think I would be,” Newter said, “I think being a hero looks stuffy. All that pomp and circumstance and rules and regulations. I’d rather be with my friends. With people I care about, and who I like to think care for me in return.”
They were on their last few pebbles for the third time. Lily picked one up and began tossing it up and down.
“Sure, they call me a villain. Sure, I’ve hurt people, but at the end of the day,” somehow Newter managed to skip a pebble. Lily watched it bounce over the water once before it disappeared into the brine, “I think I also help as much as I hurt, and more importantly, I’m happy with where I am in life, and isn’t that kind of the goal for most people?”
The last few pebbles made their way out to sea. Newter stood and brushed the sand from his clothes.
“Well, I gotta go. It was nice meeting you, I guess.” Newter’s legs tensed, ready to launch him to the street above.
“Wait,” Lily interrupted before he could leave.
“Yeah?” Newter asked.
“...Thank you,” she said.
“You know, it’s really weird how you scream at me and then thank me less than five minutes later.”
“Yeah, well, I had some shit to work through. And talking to you helped. So thank you.”
Newter shrugged, “Alright then. Bye. Don’t jump into the ocean, crazy girl.”
“Don’t rob old ladies crossing the street, supervillain.”
“Oh, so now you have a sense of humor?”
Lily barely saw Newter leap away; catching only a vague orange blur zip upwards. She ran her fingers over the last remaining pebble, then took aim at the sea, flicking it forward like a baseball.
It bounced once as it hit the oncoming wave.
For PitaEnigma: Gregor & Grue, by Mondrae205
Grue banged his head against the wall. Everything was falling apart. Skitter or Tattletale would make navigating the ruined building trivial but now he had to risk getting lost.
The slow and steady dripping from damaged pipes put him even more on edge. He didn’t know what to do, but staying still wasn’t an option. It was dark enough that he might as well have been using his power, so he felt around the walls, careful of scraping his hand on something sharp.
As he went along, he silently cursed Bakuda yet again. That crazy woman just happened to blow up the building Grue was in. He couldn’t help but wonder how she knew where he was. He was scoping out buildings to use as a sort of base against the ABB and hadn’t even chosen one yet.
There was a strange yet familiar smell that he couldn’t quite pin down. His boots nudged some sludge near a precocious wall that looked ready to tip. Even though he barely touched it, his boot was stuck.
What was that junk? He was hesitant to bend down for a closer look, as he couldn’t see where it was and getting his mask stuck would be make him feel stupid. It was definitely where the smell was coming from though.
Once he got his shoe unstuck he took greater care of where he stepped, making the journey take even longer. It was impossible to tell how long he’d been trapped since his phone broke and it was night.
At least he assumed it was night. While he got knocked out, he didn’t feel like it had been for long. The concussion made the constant dripping even worse thanks to his headache. Every time he blinked it felt like glass in his head, and that was the only way he could tell.
The sound of heavy footsteps made him pause. He didn’t know anyone had been in the abandoned building.
Grue poured smoke over himself out of habit. It was a bit late, but he’d make due. It didn’t appear they heard him at any rate.
He weighed the risks and decided that it was most likely some poor sap who had gotten caught with him. Not even Bakuda was crazy enough to send her own men in there, right?
Even still, he didn’t let his guard down.
Once he found the source he found himself in another conundrum. There was no way to find out who it was without giving himself away. While he was reasonably certain he could take most people in a fist fight there was no guarantee when he couldn’t see either. His power was next to useless and if they had a weapon…
Suddenly, the man spoke. “Ah, Grue is it?” He had a strong accent that Grue couldn’t place, but familiar nonetheless.
“Gregor?” he asked on edge. When Gregor confirmed, Grue couldn’t help but sate his curiosity. “What gave me away?” He was still tense. While he trusted Gregor not to attack him, there was still too much unknown to him.
“I’ve spent much of my life after I first woke up in the sewers. I am used to the way the sound hits the walls. When you use your power it disrupts that. That happened right after your footsteps stopped. It was a logical conclusion. Still, I am glad it was not the likes of Oni Lee coming to finish me off.”
Swamping the area in darkness was a habit Grue was used to and aware of as he silently berated himself for that mistake. “Thanks for the tidbit. I assume that sticky sludge holding up the wall back there is yours?”
“You would be correct,” Gregor confirmed. ”That is, unless there is another cape with that power around.”
Not sure how to respond to Gregor’s joke - or at least he assumed it was one - Grue stated the obvious. “It looks like we’re stuck together.”
“Indeed it does,” Gregor stated. “It would be best if we had a truce, no? Help one another get out safely”
Grue didn’t think it needed to be said there’d be a truce, but he respected Gregor’s professionalism. “Deal. I’d shake your hand, but I can’t see it.”
Despite being proud of his joke, Gregor did not laugh. People never appreciated Grue’s jokes. They were fantastic.
He didn’t let his disappointment show, instead using the professionalism he was known for. “What’s the plan? We continue walking and hope we find a way out?”
Gregor stopped to think. “I do not know what to expect to find, but it is best we continue moving. Staying will not bring us anywhere.”
Plan set, they walked together, one on each side of a hallway, feeling out the wall. When one came to a room, the explored it together. After a while, they found a window.
“This window is too small for us to move through,” Gregor observed.
And indeed it was. It showed the setting sun with no one nearby. That was to be expected, considering where they were. Still, the sight gave them hope and they continued on.
Not liking the eerie silence, they spoke. It made things less bleak, less numbing. It gave them something to focus on. The talks topics ranged from their early cape career to their favorite foods.
They did not touch on their civilian lives for entirely different reasons.
And they were fine with that. Grue found it nice hearing about Gregor’s exploits, and assumed it was the same for him. Both were private individuals and respected each other’s privacy.
Apparently Bakuda got upset that Fautline’s Crew wouldn’t work for the mad bomber. Gregor got separated from his team and hid. Not knowing where he was, Bakuda got tired after randomly bombing places he could have hidden.
“Once we got the go ahead, we found Lung weakened after fighting a new cape. That was when we met Skitter,” Grue’s story was interrupted as they reached a crumpled wall with faint light creeping through. “This wall is almost a door,” Grue joked.
“Indeed it is. Perhaps we can finish the transformation,” Gregor said while missing yet another joke.
Grue wasn’t sure why he kept making them, as not even Tattletale seemed to get them. For being a thinker, she wasn’t nearly as good at making jokes as him.
It didn’t take long to make a plan. Gregor spewed his weird liquid onto the surrounding walls to support them, and together they pushed. It was heavy and Grue was straining his well trained body against it. He sweated and his muscles burned.. A loose piece of rubble fell on Grue, but his helmet protected him.
“Watch out for falling rocks,” Grue warned while panting.
“Thank you, friend.” The offhand mention of being a friend warmed Grue’s heart, and gave him the push he needed to tear down that wall separating him from the outside world.
Gregor lost his balance and tipped over, falling flat on his face. In the light, Grue saw what Gregor looked like for the first time that day. His body was covered in gross growths of hard scales or shells. His completely hairless body was transparent enough you could see his skeleton, and even his tongue and teeth.
Grue bent down and helped Gregor up. “You’re welcome, friend.”
For Dank Memes: Bitch & Vista, by woermhoele
Bastard growled, low and warning.
After the heroes had left, Rachel sat for a time, until her mind had calmed. Eventually, as the throbbing in her head subsided, she realized she was being stupid. Biter would go, or not. Miss Militia would keep her word, or not. Nothing she could help by worrying. So she’d taken Bastard for a walk down to the water. Her legs had been sore from the morning’s exertions, in danger of starting to lock up, and the exercise had helped. The water was still, clearer than it had ever been on Bet. It felt good, walking along the quiet shoreline.
She’d let Bastard off his chain to chase one of the local squirrel-things, as they’d returned past the memorial, and now he’d stopped, gaze fixed on a point hidden by the largest rock. “Quiet. Come,” she called him back to her side. Not loud, but not a whisper. No one looking for her would come this far and stop. No one else had any reason to be here. She gripped Bastard’s chain in both hands, considering, as he returned.
Projecting to make sure she’d be heard, she called out, “Who’s there?”
There was no reply, but Bastard’s attention remained on the rocks. Someone was definitely here. “Come out, now, or I’ll have Bastard drag you out.”
Rachel caught some rustling, this time, and Bastard growled again, “No, steady.” He didn’t relax, but he didn’t move. Finally, a familiar blonde figure in white and green stepped out around the rock. The girl moved hesitantly. Not obviously injured… uncertain? Rachel felt a surge of anger. She was used to idiots and assholes, but that was fast.
“Fuck are you doing here? We had a deal!” Bastard, picking up on her mood, stood taller, growling to emphasize her words.
Vista startled, stopped in her tracks, “Way--” her voice was thick, cutting off the word. Holding both hands up, palms out, she tried again, “Wait! Please…”
Either this wasn’t an ambush, or it was the stupidest ambush of all time, Rachel gestured for Bastard to lay down. Miss Militia could be somewhere nearby, with one of those big guns that could shoot something a mile away. She began pushing a slow trickle of power into Bastard, just in case. She let the chain fall from one hand. Still an option, not as direct a thread.
The hero took a moment to compose herself, clearing her throat and swallowing hard. Her voice still sounded strange, when she continued, “I didn’t think you’d still be here. I’m not sure why I came back. I just… wasn’t thinking. I had to go somewhere, and it couldn’t be with her.”
The girl had been crying, Rachel realized, the thing with her voice. Like one of the kids. “She coming, too?”
“Miss Militia,” Vista frowned, considering, “has a long walk ahead of her. Communications aren’t so good, between hubs, you know? If she sends up a signal flare, maybe someone will notice, pick her up sooner? But no, I don’t think so. Not today. She’ll need a team, flyers maybe. Trucks aren’t much faster than your dogs. Slower, some places. That’s why she let me tag along,” she practically spat the words, “earlier.”
Rachel nodded, patting Bastard absently with her free hand. Stupidest non-ambush of all time, maybe. Taking off when you couldn’t stand people anymore, she understood. Why here, why now, and what set the girl off in the first place, not so much. There’d be trouble, tomorrow, but not tonight. Trusting a sudden instinct, she reached for the loose end of the chain and looped it around Bastard’s neck. A proper collar wouldn’t survive the transformations from her power, but a sturdy length of chain with a slip lead did the trick.
“Come on then,” she said and started back home.
It wasn’t until almost a minute had passed, that she saw the landscape before her begin to shift and distort, and heard a soft footfall just behind her.
Missy woke with a start, scrabbling into a sitting position, pressing her back against something hard behind her. Trying to bring her breathing under control, she assessed the situation. Dark, but not pitch black. The faint outline of a door, muted light seeping in around the cracks. No windows. She felt around herself, identifying that the wall she leaned against was made of wood, unpainted but smooth. She was sitting on a cheap, thin mattress. No sheets, but there was a rough wool blanket she must have kicked off as she struggled awake.
It was too quiet. Not silent, as many unfamiliar sounds filtered in from outside: dogs barking, distant voices, and what sounded like a lone bird, but not of any kind Missy recognized. But all of the noises typical of the new city centers were missing. She should have heard the angry sounds of traffic, the constant thrums heavy equipment from the construction crews working around the clock, the clatter and commotion of her neighbors through the too-thin walls of the new apartment she shared with her mother.
Right. Because you ran away from home, like the child you were trying to prove you’re not. She felt a flush creep up her neck, as waves of embarrassment washed over her, recalling the previous evening’s events.
Once they were sure the… whatever that had been, with the broken trigger, was over, Miss Militia had been impatient to get started after Bitch, who’d taken off with two civilians before the dust had cleared. There were plans for a high-speed train line, but the tracks were still being laid. The roads weren’t much better than walking, most of the time, and they hadn’t come prepared for a chase through the wilderness. As fast as Bitch’s dogs moved, and with as much of a head start as they had, Vista had been the obvious choice to help close the gap.
At the time, she’d heard it as the request of a senior colleague recognizing her ability, and felt pride. It was a solid plan, except they had to stop so frequently to check their course that they hadn’t caught up to Bitch until after she’d broken off from her team. The meeting was… unexpected. Despite their past encounters, Missy had never gotten a solid read on the older girl. Or woman, now, she supposed, suppressing bitterness.
The memorial was the biggest surprise. Weaver wasn’t close to anyone. Skitter had been a living nightmare. Not the sort of person you’d expect to have friends, to be mourned. People didn’t even speak her name, now. Somehow, without any formal discussion, they’d collectively decided to excise her from history. Apparently, Bitch hadn’t gotten the memo. She still thought it could do with a more explicit marker, but perhaps it was for the best. How could you begin to memorialize that?
All in all, not a bad meeting, just weird. It had put both heroes in an introspective mood for the return trip, and they’d traveled mostly in silence, covering ground twice as fast as on the way out, until Miss Militia had had to go and ruin everything. It wasn’t so much what the older heroine had said, as how she’d said it. She’d made so clear that after everything, she still saw Missy as the littlest Ward. Which she hadn’t been since long before what was coming to be called the Gold Morning.
Sure, she wouldn’t legally be an adult for a few more years, but she was almost as old now as half the Undersiders had been when they’d all but taken over Brockton Bay. And it only cut more profoundly, the older she got, the more she achieved, to be reminded that others, including people she respected, saw her as ‘just a kid.’ It didn’t help that she was still so short. She’d gained a few inches, started to fill out her costume just a bit, but she knew she still looked young for her age.
Maybe it had been the meeting with Bitch, just a few years older than her, an independent warlord who dictated terms to biggest heroes around. The old PRT files said she could barely read, but look at the respect and fear she commanded. Not that Missy wanted to be feared, or anything, but would a little respect be too much to ask for?
She barely remembered the details of the ensuing argument. She knew she’d over-reacted, thrown some unfair accusations at Miss Militia, and stormed off, stranding the heroine a good six hours walk from the New Boston cluster. Hopefully, she’d been able to flag down a ride. Missy felt a brief surge of worry at the thought of something happening to Miss Militia, because of what she’d done, but dismissed it. All the guns should be enough to make anyone think twice, even if she hadn’t been a beloved public figure.
She didn’t remember deciding to return to the memorial but supposed it made sense. It was a quiet place, away from everyone and everything, and it was easy to feel her way back along the path they’d come, eyes blurry with tears. That was the worst part. More embarrassing even than having thrown a tantrum and run away. The fact that she’d bawled. Cried her eyes out like a baby… and almost been caught by a supervillain mid-sob.
She was pretty sure she’d covered it well. Bitch hadn’t commented on it, at any rate. Once she’d made clear she was alone, and not looking for a fight, Bitch had simply leashed her wolf-dog with that big length of chain and walked away. Missy had almost missed the invitation to follow, then hurried to catch up, folding space to clear the distance in a single step.
There’d been a rough moment, as she’d forgotten that her power could be disorienting if someone weren’t used to it. Bastard had adjusted more easily than his master. She remembered hearing that dogs were more reliant on sound and smell than sight, so she supposed that made sense. Bitch had grumbled a bit, but seemed to appreciate the added speed of their travel back to Bitch’s “neighborhood.”
It turned out Bitchs team didn’t live in New Brockton proper, but several miles out into the wilderness beyond the edge of the ramshackle apartments and tent cities that surrounded the newly minted skyscrapers at the urban core. Bitch wasn’t, she quickly learned, the talkative type, which had suited Missy just fine. They arrived as the small camp was wrapping up the day's activities. A few of the inhabitants had regarded them silently as they entered the encampment. One, a girl younger than Missy, waved at Bitch, who waved back.
Bitch led them to a large stockade that seemed to serve as a dog run, at the center of the camp, removing Bastard’s chain and releasing him into the pen. The dogs, of which there must have been several dozen in a startling variety of breeds and sizes, were less reserved in their greeting, with many barking happily. Bitch shushed them, patting a few through the stockade gate before hanging the chain from a nearby hook, next to several others of similar length. The young woman hesitated briefly, then turned to Missy, “Want to meet them?”
Vista had taken surprisingly well to the dogs. She’d said she always wanted one, growing up, but never had one, and it kind of showed: she’d been too hesitant at first, for one. But Vista had admitted her ignorance and listened to Rachel when she told the girl what to do. Rachel had shown her how to stand, how to approach them, how to offer her hand. She’d introduced Vista to all of the dogs she’d had time to train, who had the run of the run. Those who needed to be kept isolated, who were healing or proving challenging to socialize, were held elsewhere. Rachel had more dogs now than she’d ever had at one time. Almost too many to care for, to train personally. The end of the world had produced a lot of strays, and lack of access to veterinary care was producing more daily.
Vista had especially taken to Indie, an underdeveloped chocolate lab. Indie was filling out now, but had been suffering from extreme malnourishment, and would probably always be a little undersized and underweight for his breed. As soon as Rachel had told the girl his name, she’d laughed, “Indiana was the dog’s name!” Rachel didn’t get it, and the explanations had only confused her more. Didn’t matter. Meeting the dogs made the girl more relaxed. Probably less sad, though Rachel couldn’t be sure without asking. Indie, for his part, seemed happy with the extra attention.
At one point, tumbled to the ground under and an over-enthusiastic pile of some of the more playful dogs, laughing, Vista looked over at Rachel, expression hard to read. After extricating herself from the impromptu puppy pile, the girl approached.
“I know your name, you know. Not sure if you know mine? Tattletale probably had as many files on us as we did on you guys. But it feels… really weird, calling you Bitch, after this.”
Rachel thought for a moment, then shrugged, “Not like I’m wearing a mask, right now. Little weird, though. Most people who say ‘Rachel’ are friends?”
Vista hesitated, “I’d…” she stumbled, “Actually, fuck it, this is weird, here.” She pushed her mask up, revealing expressive brown eyes, then reached her hand out to Rachel, “Not gonna tell you my home address or my mother’s maiden name or anything. But I’m Missy, and I’d like to give ‘friends’ a shot.”
Rachel shrugged, “Sure.”
You’d think someone who trained dogs for a living would know “shake” when she saw it, but Rachel had totally left her hanging. After, Rachel had invited her to dinner with a simple, “Food?” and she’d met a few of the others, including Biter (briefly), and Cassie (less briefly). She remained “Vista” to the others, hoping Rachel would understand her intent. So far, so good.
Biter was standoffish. Missy suspected he didn’t agree with Rachel’s decision to bring her back, which she could respect, at least. Cassie accepted her presence without obvious concern, as if Rachel brought home stray superheroes every day, and then had proceeded to introduce herself as Rachel’s chief minion and general dogsbody. Cassie was… very enthusiastic.
The following morning, after recovering from her near-death-by-shame experience, Missy had done her best to wash up with near-freezing pump-water, then found herself gravitating back to the dog enclosure. She’d have to remember to pack a toothbrush, and maybe a change of clothes, next time she stranded her superior and ran off in a petulant huff. Her ears burned, and she pushed the thought away. The dogs, more so even than Rachel, were the center of the community that had formed here.
You might be forgiven for thinking that, after the end of the world, focusing on the millions of refugees desperately in need of shelter and food, would be a higher priority than dogs, but not by the Sons of Bitch. Missy hadn’t had a dog growing up and had never really felt the lack. She could remember idly wanting one, when she was five or so, but her heart’s desires had shifted early on to more important things, like parents who love one another, or who even loved her as much as they loved using her as a weapon, or a little bit of fucking resp--she’d pushed that thought aside as well.
It was her host’s arrival that helped break her out of the funk. Face damp from her own ablutions, Rachel had grunted in greeting, then let herself into the stockade, holding the gate open by way of inviting Missy to follow. What followed was an equally extreme crash course in the less pleasant sides of dog-husbandry: the work of feeding, grooming, and cleaning up after forty or so of the animals. Her power, at least, had helped with the feeding, pressing the places the food needed to close to where it was stored, saved her from stumbling about the yard with bags she could barely lift. She’d tried to overlap all the dog shit into one convenient pile, too, but found she her senses weren’t quite fine enough. Besides which, Rachel explained, you needed to look at it. The consistency and contents told you a lot about a dog’s health, apparently. Mooshing it all together would make it harder to catch fine details.
Eddie, one of Rachel’s “minions,” actually handled most of the grooming, like “Red” (actually Magenta, she later learned) handled the dogs’ medical needs, but Rachel liked to stay hands-on with each dog. For Rachel, much of the handling seemed to be intuitive, obvious. When Missy needed more detailed explanations than, “because,” Rachel often seemed a bit exasperated, before carefully breaking down the reasons in simple terms. Rachel’s manner would have been infuriating, if it weren’t for dissonance between it and the obvious care and patience the young woman displayed with the dogs.
She’d found the solution in a mental technique Gallant, and later one of the PRT therapists had shared with her. Assume that absolute best about the other person. What would have to be true, for their best intentions to produce the problematic behavior? If Rachel was actually taking the same care and patience with Missy as she did the dogs, then… was it possible Rachel’s frustration was with the explanations themselves, and not with Missy’s ignorance? She’d seen that Rachel had difficulty expressing herself, as early as the first conversation with Miss Militia, after all. Of course, Gallant aside, people rarely did have only the best of intentions, but Missy found it a lot easier to accept a little early morning bitchiness than being talked down to by a know-it-all.
That had been over a week ago, now, and it surprised Missy how quickly she’d fallen into a routine here. It seemed that dashing off on monster-back to drag people from the city wasn’t an every-day occurrence. If anything, an average day for the Sons of Bitch was downright dull, compared to her own regular patrol schedule, the unpredictable broken triggers, the mundane fights over space and food. Feed dogs, clean up after dogs, groom dogs, exercise dogs, train dogs, maybe try to get a carrot to grow, sleep. Every aspect of the dog’s care was interrelated, and the primary focus of this little community. While there was a surplus of dogs, generally, reliable trainers were in shorter supply. Cassie seemed to handle most of the business side of the things, but it helped explain the lack of other livestock, larger-scale farming, or suspicious convoys of covered trucks laden with contraband in and around the encampment. Missy suspected “dog training” didn’t quite account for every part of the Sons’ income, but she’d yet to see direct evidence of anything nefarious going on. Well, aside from the initial “kidnapping.”
Missy had been relieved when, by the second day, no one had come looking for her. She took that as evidence that Miss Militia had made it back alright: everyone at the broken trigger response knew where they’d gone, after all. If they both went missing, surely one hero or another would have tracked down Rachel to ask some questions? She hadn’t seen any apparent flyovers, but Thinkers existed, after all. Neither Rachel or any of her people had mentioned suspicious capes poking around, at least.
Intellectually, Missy knew this couldn’t last forever. Her mother would want to see or hear from her. Her teammates wouldn’t just let her disappear into quiet obscurity. She would get sick of being just a little dirty all the time or alternating between one borrowed set of clothing and her crudely hand-washed costume. It would be winter soon, too, and she knew it was predicted to be harsh. Rachel’s people may be prepared for it, but Missy would need a coat, or something, at least.
But for a little while longer, she hoped, she could enjoy this strange vacation from her other life. Here, no one treated her like a kid. There were no tasks deemed inappropriate or too risky. If she didn’t know how to do something, she asked, and someone, usually Rachel or Cassie, showed her what to do. When she made mistakes, she was held to account, and she did better the next time, and it wasn’t a whole thing. No one sighed and told her to wait until she had more experience. No one expected less of her because of her age. It was amazing.
Plus there were the dogs. Missy hadn’t quite memorized all the names and was continually amazed that Rachel kept track of them so easily. Dot and Patch, for example, were littermates who looked identical, as far as Missy was concerned. Even Rachel’s careful explanation of how to tell them apart, a combination of minute differences in the colored splotches on their coats, as well as subtle differences in behavior, hadn’t helped. But she’d gotten most of them, by now, and begun to discover the endearing personality quirks that made each dog a unique individual.
She’d have to admit it was the name that first drew her to Indie. Father-daughter movie nights featuring Tom Selleck’s turn as the adventuring professor were one of the few memories of time spent with her father that remained untainted by all that came after. But the scrappy little lab also an exact match to the mental image of “dog” in her head: warm eyes, friendly expression, a happy tail, intelligent and playful, but not over-excited like one of those little yappy ones. She hoped she wasn’t just projecting, but he’d seemed to take to her, too. Rachel was all of the dogs’ favorite, hands down, but Indie would seek Missy out, now, also.
And, to fully account for her reasons to stay on, she’d have to include Rachel herself. Aside from Biter, who Missy had barely exchange three words with, and who always seemed to find a reason to be leaving when Missy arrived, she’d found all of the Sons of Bitch to be pleasant, at least. Cassie was downright warm and welcoming, though Missy expected that was her approach to everyone. But it was Rachel who she spent the most time with, whose company she’d come to enjoy the most.
Rachel didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about why. Most of the time, it was pretty clear what you needed to do. Tired? Sleep. Hungry? Eat. Threatened? Attack, hard and fast and without hesitation, until the threat was gone. If she needed something, she would go get it. If something was too much trouble to get, it stood to reason she didn’t really need it. What, when, where, who, even how, were useful questions to ask. But why mostly made her head hurt, and the answers were rarely satisfying, anyway.
“What is your fucking problem?” she repeated, shoving Biter harder this time, enough that the big man rocked back on his heels. Beside her, Bastard growled warningly, ready to leap into the fight. She whistled, signaling for him to heel and sit. The other dogs were still a dozen yards away, laying where she’d told them to.
The large man bristled, but he didn’t shove back, or even move much, other than to straighten up. With his jaw-plate on, she couldn’t tell if he was working up to an answer or not. He met her gaze stubbornly for a long moment, then submitted, eyes dropping to the ground.
She looked over to Missy, who had stood, and was dusting herself off. Unhurt, the girl looked furious, but her focus was on Rachel, not Biter. Odd.
“No,” Missy replied coldly, “I’m pretty fucking far from okay.”
“Since this idiot won’t answer me, what happened? Gone for ten minutes, and you’re on the ground.”
They’d been headed out for a ride, maybe a hunt. The fucked up bull things had been everywhere, early on, but they were learning to avoid people now, and dogs. Still, there was a herd that roamed relatively close by, and Missy hadn’t hunted before. They got supplies now, so it wasn’t as critical a part of their routine, but chasing down the beasts was a good chance to acclimate the dogs under her power. Dot, Patch, and Indie were newer to it and could use the experience. She’d have to get them used to riders eventually, but one step at a time. Bastard could easily carry her and Missy together. Safer anyway, since the girl had no riding experience anyway.
She’d expected Missy to leave the first morning. Words were words. It had been unexpectedly satisfying, introducing the girl to the dogs. Like when she brought puppies over to the kids, but different. Missy asked questions. Some were stupid, sure, but most were good questions. Missy knew what she didn’t know, and looked to Rachel for guidance. She’d never trained a person, before, except to leave her alone. She thought she liked it. Missy was a little dense sometimes, didn’t seem to understand things as quickly as Rachel would have hoped, but the girl never asked the same question twice. She mostly didn’t talk for the sake of talking, either.
But the girl was with the heroes, and Rachel figured either she’d head home in the morning, once she cooled off about… whatever it was she’d been crying over. Or that Miss Militia would come for the girl, once she’d gotten back to the city and found a ride. Instead, Missy had shown up, bright and early, and gotten to work. A city girl, with no experience, ready to put in a full day without complaining. Even Taylor had fought her over shoveling shit, though that had been different. It was nicer than she expected, having an extra set of hands. Not a hassle to explain, when someone actually cared about what she said. Like Cassie, but quieter than Cassie. Cassie was like an abandoned puppy, sometimes, always looking for reassurance that she hadn’t done the wrong thing, wasn’t going to be rejected again.
So she’d taught, and Missy had listened and learned. She’d fucked up a couple of times, but she stayed even after Rachel told her off, and she didn’t make the same mistakes again. Rachel often wished humans were as straightforward to train as dogs, and Missy was as close as she’d come to that. Missy got along with her people, too, except Biter, but Biter’d been avoiding her since the first night, for some reason. Rachel figured it was another fucking french fry thing and would sort itself out. Cassie especially, though most people found Cassie easy to get along with. Probably good for Cassie to have someone to talk to. Some people needed that, and it wasn’t something Rachel was good at.
The second night saw her one lingering concern at harboring the girl to rest. Biter, the only one who bothered to keep his phone charged, which, if she thought about it, maybe should have been a sign of trouble brewing, had delivered the message. Miss Militia had been in touch with Tattletale, “Who, by the way, would really appreciate you getting in touch, soon.” The heroes had put the pieces together, but as long as they were sure Vista wasn’t being held against her will, would hold off for now. Also, the kidnapping fuckstick was being dealt with. He wouldn’t trouble them again.
That settled, Rachel adjusted to having the new girl around. She wasn’t underfoot all the time, either, which was good. When there wasn’t work, or Rachel had things to do that weren’t dog-related, Missy spent time with Cassie, or went off on her own. The girl could be pretty useful, too, like having someone really tall around to reach the high shelves. Or turn buildings upside down and inside out, when your one good file slips between a gap in the floorboards, and put the back again, like new. That was the fourth or fifth day.
Friends, Missy had said, the first night. It wasn’t like with the original Undersiders, for sure. Or even the Undersiders now. She couldn’t explain the difference, exactly. Cassie would always be a minion first, by her own preference. Biter was… useful. She didn’t have anything to compare this to. Friends was as good a word as any. It was nice.
It sucked that Biter was being weird about everything. He hadn’t said anything, exactly, since the second night. He’d complained, after delivering Lisa’s message, about babysitting a kiddie hero, and not even getting paid. That if they were changing sides, she should give him a warning first. But she’d shrugged, said Vista was okay and left things at that. And he hadn’t brought it up again.
Except he was avoiding Missy, and glaring at her occasionally when he thought no one would see, and generally being a passive-aggressive little shit. And it had been going on for a week now, and she was getting sick of it.
Which was, more than anything, why she’d shoved him, on coming back with the dogs to find Missy laying in the dirt and Biter standing over her, one arm slowly returning to its normal size. She’d ordered Dot, Patch, and Indie, “Down. Stay,” and rushed between Missy and Biter, shoving him back a step and demanding an explanation.
“I… “ Missy hesitated, “kinda kicked him.”
Caught off guard, Rachel found a stupid question slipping out before she could catch it, “Why?”
“He,” Rachel couldn’t quite read Missy’s expression, though it reminded her of a face one of her foster brothers had made when she found him wearing their foster mother’s shoes, right before he attacked her, “called me names, and I kicked him. A few times.”
Rachel looked to Biter, who just shrugged.
“Would one of you please start making sense? Now?” she growled.
“I asked him what he does around here. I was curious. He’s been avoiding me since I got here, and I just thought it would be nice to stop doing this awkward dance where we can’t be in the same room,” and Missy was all anger again, but didn’t look like she was preparing to fight. “So he told me. What he does here. What you all really do here. And I called him a lying liar who lies, and he called me stupid, and a child, and…” she trailed off, sparing a look at Biter, then shrugging.
“Which, before you say anything, was stupid, and more than a little embarrassing, But not nearly as embarrassing as spending the whole time I’m here thinking finally, here are some people who aren’t assholes, and daring to feel happy, only to find out it was all a lie.”
Rachel stared at Missy for a long moment, before asking a smarter question, “What?”
Finally, Biter spoke up, “She wanted to know what I brought to the table. I don’t mess with the dogs much, I don’t cook, I don’t spend much time repairing things, right? And, at the risk of offending Vista’s delicate sensibilities once again, she’s a little young to come to the wrong conclusion about me being a kept man.”
Missy’s eyebrows raised, then quickly lowered, her mouth briefly making an “o” shape before she intensified her glower, this time aimed at Biter. Bastard began to whine at the raised voices, so Rachel shushed him again. The other three were holding steady. She’d chosen well enough there, at least.
“So I told her the truth. I pull my weight by hurting people who need hurting. Because someone pays us to, or because they try to take from us, or disrespect us, or whatever. And I do it because I’m good at it, and truth to tell, sometimes I enjoy it -- the fighting, more than the hurting, mind. And then, because appearances to the contrary, I’m not just a pretty face, I answered the question she didn’t ask: why would a sweetheart like Bitch keep such a bad guy around?”
Which was the biggest problem with Biter, Rachel thought, aside from the philosophy crap. Always ten words when one would do. She wasn’t stupid. Despite his wordiness, she’d understood what he was getting at by about the second sentence. Villains and heroes shit. She shrugged.
“I get it,” she spat, “Hero shit. Villain shit.” turning to Missy--Vista--and meeting where the girl's eyes ought to be with a challenging gaze, she asked, “So, your gonna, what? Arrest us? After all that bullshit about trust?”
Missy looked away first, face turning to the ground. Biter scoffed at that, and walked away, leaving the pair of them alone with four uneasy dogs.
“You knew who we were,” Rachel hated the accusing tone in her own words, making her sound whiny. “Why you followed me in the first place.”
Not raising her head, Missy replied in a small voice, “Yeah.” The anger was gone. Rachel wasn’t sure exactly what had replaced it.
Rachel walked over and grabbed the leads for the three dogs she’d left together, bringing them back over near where Missy stood, unmoving. Indie whined a little, looking at the girl, so Rachel shushed him, scritching the base of his tail. That mostly settled him down. The others were calm, waiting. The shouting had stopped, so all was right in their worlds.
“Shoulda done what you did at the bank,” Rachel finally broke then silence, “Running in place? Or gone for the balls. Always surprises guys when you do that, so it’s like you get a free shot.”
Vista made a sound like a chuckle choking the life out of a giggle and looked up.
“You both fucked it. He should’ve known when to shut up. He’s been acting so fucking weird lately. French fries and dumb shit.”
Rachel wasn’t sure what to say, after that, so she didn’t.
Vista--Missy--raised her visor. She looked… sad? But she was smiling, without teeth showing. “I think I get it.”
“About the french fries. What you were saying earlier. And what he was saying. What Miss Militia was saying, too, on the way home,” Missy continued, sad and smiling. Not something dogs did. Was there a word for that?
“Glad somebody does.” Rachel felt tense. Like she should hit something, or run away, but there was no one to hit and nothing to run from.
“I have to go back.”
Rachel waited, unsure what she was supposed to say to that.
“My mom isn’t perfect, but. I’m who she has left, now. My team, too. Don’t know how they’ve been managing without me. Plus… I mean, I’ve only got the one pair of undies,” Missy finished, eyes matching her smile a little more now.
Rachel nodded. That, she absolutely understood.
“But, all this stuff. Biter, the… ‘hero shit,’ ‘villain shit.’ You’re right. That was stupid. I was acting... like a little kid,” she winced as said the words. “I have to go, but… I want to come back again. If that’s okay? Help with the dogs, maybe?”
In the long moment that it took Rachel to think it over, the urge to hit something eased off. Not goodbye.
Missy smiled, still no teeth, but there was no sadness in her eyes now.
Rachel whistled for Bastard to follow, nodded to Missy, and walked away, leading Dot and Patch by their chains. A hunt, then, no maybes.
Missy closed her eyes as Rachel headed off, lowering her visor, just in case. She was feeling… a lot of things. Biter doubling back to catch her with a tear in her eyes was the last thing she needed. She stood there until long after the sound of rattling chains and Rachel’s commands had faded into the distance.
A cold nose in her palm startled the girl from her reverie. Indie, she knew, before she opened her eyes.
“Good boy,” she said, kneeling down to hug the little lab. She rubbed behind his ears, then trailed her hand down to the base of his tail, scratching that one favorite spot. “Sorry you missed out on my account.”
Trust. Miss Militia had been right, about too many things. After a few minutes, she stood, leading Indie back to the stockade. She removed the chain lead and hung it correctly from the hook as Rachel had shown her.
Then, with a final pat of Indie’s flank through the slats of the gate, Missy felt through her power to a point on the horizon and began to fold...
For Noctis_noctua: Alexandria & Taylor, by T0PH4T
When Rebecca moved to Brockton Bay, she didn’t think much of it. Nazis, sex slavers, and it seemed like no one was trying to make it better. She was shocked when someone shot at her for the first time, an action which would’ve brought the wrath of God down on anyone who dared in Los Angeles but was apparently a depressingly common situation in the single closest thing to Gotham City she’d yet seen. The guy who had done it even managed to dodge attempt murder, claiming knowledge of her brute rating and taking a plea deal to get free.
The warehouse they raided was empty, and when they went to get answers the perp was long gone.
Rebecca kicked a stone down the road. Softly. Property damage was the number one way to lose the public’s trust, and in Brockton Bay they were already operating at a deficit. Armsmaster knew how to look good for the camera, knew how to play a crowd, but no one was a good enough spin doctor to make a city where the felon voting bloc could swing elections trust the establishment. It’d been one of the reasons she’d asked to be reassigned. The Elite excepted LA was doing pretty well, and Rebecca had wanted to do the most good. Besides, how bad could a city of three hundred some thousand actually get?
Rebecca gave the rock a little more oomph in frustration and watched it soar off into the distance.
The answer was horrible.
Rebecca whirled around. A woman stared back at her impassively, cool green eyes appraising. She was kneeling besides a plot of dirt, black hair stuck up in a bun and mouth set into a firmly neutral expression. “You should be a bit more careful. Anyone can be watching.”
“You need to come with me,” Rebecca said, hand shooting to her side and dragging out her phone. “The PRT has a form for you to sign, a procedure-”
Rebecca yelped as a fly flew down her throat, both hands flying to her throat in a desperate attempt to dislodge the creature. After a moment of hacking coughs, she started scraping at her tongue. “Grossgrossgrossgrossgross-”
“So this is what Wards look like these days.” When Rebecca looked up the woman had her phone in hand, and a distinctly disappointed look on her face. She clicked the power button on the top and stood up, far taller than she’d looked while working among the weeds. “Come with me.”
Rebecca shook her head, stepping back and make a face at the persistant taste of bug guts. “No, no, no. You come with me, or I come back with a PRT van and we figure things out the hard way.”
The woman paused, then sighed. “Two bees are about to land on your neck.”
Moments later Rebecca felt the tickle of little legs on her pulse, and even knowing that she could take small arms fire a shiver ran through her.
The woman pulled open an old screen door, then motioned at her house. “I’ve shown you mine, you’ve shown me yours. We trade names, details, mutually assured destruction. But you don’t call the PRT.”
Rebecca pulled herself up to her full height and shifted her body language, PR manuals and intimidation techniques flickering through her head and coalescing into a visage that had made people freeze in terror. “I don’t think you’re in a position to make demands.”
“While we were talking I sent an email to a holding account. If I don’t send the all-clear in two hours your physical description will be sent to an agent for distribution across half a dozen dark web media platforms that Dragon doesn’t know about. I think it’s you who aren’t in a position to make demands.” The woman stared back, and Rebecca couldn’t see a hint of fear in her. “Try me.”
Rebecca searched for the slightest sign that the woman was bluffing, that she hadn’t just gotten snookered, and found nothing but confidence.
After a moment, Rebecca turned away. “Why?”
A sigh echoed across the street. “To make a point. Now come on. I have cookies.”
The following weeks were... weird.
Rebecca didn’t report her breach of cover to the PRT. That had been part of the deal. Hypercognition came with hypercontrol of microexpressions, and the anti-Master thing she had meant Dean couldn’t read her emotions. At some point she was going to have to try to talk to the people in charge of Watchdog about accounting for capes like her, but that day was not today.
After school wrapped up, Rebecca would walk home. Dennis’s house was roughly in the same direction, so they’d walk together. Rebecca got the impression that he was kind of into her but he hadn’t made a move yet so she just let that sit. Maybe not the bravest thing to do, but Alexandria was the one who took gunshots. Rebecca could be a little meeker.
Besides, he was too skinny.
“Wipe that look off your face and help me with these weeds.” The command brought Rebecca back to reality. Taylor was kneeling by some peonies, pulling up little bits of grass. After a moment, she turned around and glared at Rebecca.
“Coming,” Rebecca said, dashing across the street and tossing her backpack to the hanging couch on the front porch.
Taylor had said that exchanging their identities would be mutually assured destruction. On the other hand, Taylor had also pointed out that she could dump Rebecca’s identity and disappear, while the reverse did not hold true. She also pointed out that there were numerous tasks that a forty-year-old woman may have some difficulty with, and if Rebecca would be kind enough to supplement her capering with out-of-costume deeds those deeds would be rewarded with out-of-costume baked goods. Stick, then carrot, and every time Rebecca tried to read Taylor all she got was detached confidence.
Rebecca figured that Taylor was just lonely and didn’t know how to ask people to have tea and cookies with her like a normal human being.
Rebecca fixed the front step, weeded like a fiend, and got a crash-course on how pipes and cars worked. In return she got to sample the baked goods Taylor made, the different types of honey the bees in her backyard made, and a uselessly broad selection of teas. The food would always be arranged just so once they were done, and after the snacks were consumed Taylor would politely ask Rebecca’s opinion on the food before letting her go free.
It took Rebecca a bit to realize that the silences on the back porch while they ate were awkward, and then another few silences to realize that Taylor was waiting for her to open up a dialogue. Why the woman who had more or less blackmailed her into compliance was expecting Rebecca to be a sterling conversationalist was beyond her, but when she took a step back from microexpressions and just thought about what Taylor did and didn’t say it got a lot more clear.
So the fifth time Rebecca talked about what she saw on patrol.
It was uncomfortable. Brockton Bay was a shitty place filled with shitty things, and talking about them wasn’t fun. Perfect memory made school easy, but it also made leaving work and work hard. She’d be walking around, laughing with Missy while they perused the Boardwalk for sales, and a blouse that a girl in an alleyway had been wearing would leap out at her from a nearby department store window and suddenly Rebecca would need to go home and snuggle some stuffed animals she probably should’ve grown out of and needed to be careful with because she never stopped being super strong and when you were super strong hugs could turn into torn skin spilling stuffing everywhere and tons of broken needles from trying to fix those tears even though it would never quite be the same again.
The day after Rebecca had finished explaining that, Taylor gave her a stuffed spider.
“This one won’t break,” she said.
For TheSleepingKnight: Gallant & Tattletale, by T0PH4T
Victoria put down her drink, staring into the empty mug. “I think we should take a break.”
Dean nodded, already hollowing out. It was a familiar feeling, painful but not unexpected. He and Victoria went through ups and downs, some comparable to the other couples at Arcadia, others too extreme for anyone who didn’t have powers to understand. They’d tried riding the harder sections out before, tried sticking together when they could barely stand to look at one another, and every time they ended up drifting apart anyway. After the third time it happened the two of them had decided to skip the painful middle period and both take some time alone. “Sorry.”
Victoria sighed, digging out her wallet to cover the bill. In the good times he’d pay on dates. They both knew he had money, knew that their parents would have no objection to the exchange, and they both enjoyed a little teasing over the act. When things were medium they’d split the small stuff, a way of affirming that they were choosing to be together. It was a small thing, one which had sparked surprisingly few arguments, and which served as a pretty good measuring tool for how their relationship was going.
The fact that she left enough to cover both his and her drinks did not bode well.
Dean sat there for a few minutes after she left, not thinking about anything in particular. Then he stood up, shrugged on his coat, and pulled out his phone. Not the one issued to Wards, not the one his father got him, but something smaller. Unremarkable. Anonymous.
The Tower. 9.
It took a minute for Lisa to find the precise phone that had gone off. After yanking open the ‘Personal’ drawer and digging out the device with power-guided fingers, she took two seconds to examine the text before deleting it. She let her head drop against the filing cabinet, the irritation at being disturbed fading into empathic regret, and sagged.
For a moment, Lisa held the pose.
Then she pushed back up to standing, put the phone back, and started getting ready.
The first step was a shower. After that, clothes. Black nylons, small heels, and a red dress that covered both shoulders and showed a modest amount of cleavage. Makeup, the expensive kind, which took forever to apply and wasn’t always available in Brocton Bay. On the way out the door she switched purses, trading the purple bag for a brown, understated satchel with room for her gun.
By the time she made it through Downtown traffic it was closer to nine thirty than nine. Parking very nearly didn’t happen, and it was only after Dean called the lot attendant himself that Lisa was able to hand over her keys and head into the Tower proper.
Lisa, before her name change, had never considered herself poor. Maybe her family could’ve been a little more well-off (her parents had certainly thought so) but at no point had she gone hungry. She hadn’t needed any material good excessively, and if she wanted something she could generally have it by saving and waiting. After living on the streets those simple luxuries gained new importance, and she’d consider herself even richer.
Then she’d stumbled into the company of the heir to the Stansfield corporation.
When Dean had learned to cook, his father had considered it a productive waste of time. An oxymoron, but only if you ignored the context. There was wasting time, and then there was wasting time. The former was done alone, pointlessly, in some such way that could never be expected to return on investment. The later was another type of networking disguised as a hobby, typically something collaborative that didn’t require too much brain power. Golf was an excellent waste of time, as were sailing, horseback riding, and wine tasting. The last option could simply be extended to social drinking as a whole but that was for parties, which were entirely separate from wasting time.
Dean didn’t like sharing the kitchen. He liked knowing where each individual utensil was, and having more people inevitably meant a disruption, either because he had to maneuver around the other person cooking with him or because they’d taken the ladle out of its spot for no reason or because they’d mixed up cinnamon and cumin and now he had to account for that.
That last point, the issue of administration, that had been the fulcrum of Dean’s argument for a place of his own. He needed a space where he could be the master of his own domain, exercise control over his own schedule, and in order to do that he couldn’t be forced to run every potential meeting by his parents. Gaining experience in personal time management, he’d called it. A valuable skill.
His father had seen through the bullshit right away but it’d been the sort of bullshit he wanted, and inside of a week Dean had a furnished apartment in Downton leased under his name.
It was the little victories that Dean savored. Having a supply his own clothes. Cooking his own food, good or bad. Being able to vent to the people he choose, and not having to sanitize it. All things that made him feel less like a caged bird.
And then he had a place to do it.
“Sorry I’m late. Traffic.”
“No worries, the mac’n’cheese just came out of the oven.”
“Beef, green and red peppers, some jalapenos, and more pepper than is entirely reasonable. Someone needs to stop you.”
“There’s a garden salad as a side in the fridge, right above the left-over tupperware, and any time you want to cook the meal you’re welcome to. No take-out.”
“What’s the point of having tons of money if you don’t pay people to do things for you?”
“When you say tons of money, do you mean my father’s tons of money?”
“What’s the point of having friends with rich parents if they don’t buy you things?”
“The earnest companionship, trust, and emotional affirmation?”
“You’re such a romantic.”
“I try very hard to be.”
“And sometimes it doesn’t work.”
“No. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Lisa woke up with her head resting on Dean’s chest and contemplated what she knew about him.
He was Gallant. That had been made painfully clear on their first meeting out of costume. He was genuinely gallant, something she’d suspected but never confirmed before enjoying his pot roast. He was the sole heir to the Stansfield family, and that the title had as many requirements as it did benefits. He was a thinker/blaster hybrid, not a tinker, and couldn’t turn his emotion sensing power off. These were all matters of public knowledge, or at least public knowledge in that you didn’t have to meet Dean to know it.
What wasn’t so public was the birthmark on his upper bicep, or how his body hair was blond instead of brown. Lisa would bet money that almost no one knew about the mild backne he had, or about his strange aversion to milk chocolate. He was ambidextrous, but only in the sense that he was right-hand dominant for cooking and left-hand dominant for typing on his phone.
She was also pretty sure that he didn’t speak as frankly about his friends with everyone else.
Lisa was good with solitude. Her secrets were meant to stay secret, and days could go by without her talking to anyone else. It was a little quiet but her power functioned best with solitude, and at the end of the day she found it relaxing. It wasn’t for everybody though, and certainly not for Dean.
Their meetings would start off with jokes, good conversation, and better food. Then they’d crack open a bottle of wine more expensive than most clothes Lisa wore and get tipsy enough to feel comfortable spilling their secrets. Dean would sob away his latest break up, Lisa would bitch and moan about her clients, one of them would misplace a hand in a gesture of solidarity gone very right, and then it was off to the bedroom.
Neither of them wanted more than that. Dean had too much baggage for her tastes, and she was too much in the grey for him. The occasional evening, not more than once every few months, was enough for both of them. Thinker powers had a way of forcing people apart, and they headed off the problem by never getting together.
Well, not really.
For T0PH4T: Victoria & Lisa, by rosed
Under the Mask
Out of habit, I checked to make sure nobody was watching me before I walked up the stairs. The sign above the door read “BBQ” in large letters with “Brockton Bay LGBT Center” painted below it in a rainbow of colors, just in case anyone thought this was a restaurant.
I didn’t know who I was looking out for, really. My mom? Some classmates? A skinhead waiting to ambush people as they were leaving the center? None of the possibilities actually seemed likely. I nodded to herself and opened the door. Inside, an electronic tone chimed.
There were a few other people in the front lobby, sitting in couches and chairs and mostly minding their own business, but at the sound of the chime, the woman behind the desk had looked up. “Hello, welcome to the Center,” she said. She was about Crystal’s age, maybe a few years older, and she had her hair done up in tight braids that ran back across her scalp. She gave me a polite smile.
“Uh,” I said. “Hi? I’m here for the discussion group, I guess.” Was I sounding like an idiot? I probably was, wasn’t I.
The woman nodded and pointed at a clipboard on the desk. “It’s not starting for a few minutes yet, so just sign in and take a seat. Sam will be out to collect everyone.”
“Thanks,” I said quietly. I wrote my name on the form under the others. There was a spot for an email address if I wanted to get on their mailing list. I left that blank. Maybe later.
The people on the couch had squished together to make a spot for me. I sank into it and looked around the room. A pretty boy with hazel eyes and messy brown hair was slouched over in one chair; above him were half a dozen posters for events and discussion groups. Apparently if I’d come by last weekend, I could have gotten some Girl Scout cookies, according to one of the posters. There was another guy on the other sofa, tall and clean-shaven and red-headed. He looked like he worked out, too. (I had Dean and I was happy with Dean, honest, but looking’s not a crime.)
I looked away before I got caught staring. There were a lot more posters. I was halfway through typing “what is intersectionality” into my phone’s web search when the door chimed again. A girl with the blonde ponytail walked in, picked up the pen, signed in on the sheet, and put down the pen just as a woman in perhaps her mid-twenties came out of the hallway to the rest of the center.
“Hey,” the woman said. “I’m Sam; if you’re here for the group, please come with me.”
I hopped to my feet and was the third person through the door, after the blonde girl and another of my couchmates, a short person with straight black hair. They seemed to know where they were going and led me to a room the size of our living room, with lots of chairs in a circle. I picked one of the comfier-looking ones and settled in. Three more teens filed in after me — redhead, pretty boy, and someone in an oversize hoodie — followed by Sam.
“Okay, looks like it’s just us today,” Sam said once everyone had found a seat. “But we still have some new faces, I think.” Oh great, I thought. I know what’s coming. “Let’s do names, pronouns, and something interesting. It doesn’t have to be about why you’re here, but it can be.” She held up a little plush figure of Legend. “I’m Sam, my pronouns are she/her, and I like to bake muffins on the weekend.” She tossed the figure at the redhead, who caught it.
“I’m Talia, she/her,” the redhead said quietly, much to my surprise. I could have sworn she was a guy. Maybe that was insensitive of me? “My interesting thing is, uh, I came out to a friend yesterday. It went pretty well,” she said.
“Oh, congrats!” the black-haired person said, and we all gave Talia a small round of applause. She blushed a little and threw the figure over to them.
“Name’s Cass, pronouns are they/them, and I’m still angry the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park didn’t have feathers,” they said quickly, and tossed Legend at me.
“Hi,” I said. “First time here, I guess. I’m Victoria, she/her. Is that how you say it?” The question was mostly rhetorical, but I got a few nods anyway. I turned the Legend figure over in my hands. Part of me wished I could say the interesting thing about me was that I’m a superhero. Maybe, if Uncle Neil hadn’t put the New Wave idea on hold after Hero’s death, maybe the world would have been different and I could get away with saying something like that. But the way things were, I couldn’t. So I just shrugged and said, “I play basketball at Arcadia.”
I tossed the plushie over to the blonde. She caught it deftly, winked at me playfully, and said, “I’m Lisa. My pronouns are she/her, and I’m pretty sure I’m asexual.”
She tossed Legend over to the pretty boy.
It sounds a little melodramatic when put like that, but Lisa said it in such a matter-of-fact tone that I found myself nodding and it took me a moment to realize I had no idea what that actually meant. I knew about asexual reproduction from biology class, but Lisa clearly wasn’t a bacterium or fungus. I didn’t get a chance to ask about it; the pretty boy, whose name was Derek, was telling us about his upcoming summer job at his uncle’s motorcycle repair shop down in NYC, and then hoodie person turned out to be named Sebastian. His family had just moved to town, poor guy.
With the icebreakers over, I summoned up my courage, and during a lull in conversation I decided to say why I was here. “My— someone I know came out as lesbian recently and it made me think about some things. Like, I’d sort of thought ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ was just based on what kind of relationship you were in. I thought everyone likes boys and girls, because why wouldn’t you? People are just people.” I shrugged. “It sounds stupid now.” I looked down at the floor. There had to be a way to explain this without making me sound oblivious, but I wasn’t managing it very well.
“It’s not stupid,” Cass said. “We’ve got all these words for identities because this stuff is complicated. You have to get different perspectives on things to figure out which ones work.”
“I guess,” I admitted. “So I don’t know what that means for me. I guess I’ll figure it out?”
Everyone else made encouraging mm-hmms, and there was an awkward silence for a little bit until Sebastian announced he was auditioning to play Peter Pan in a production of Peter and Wendy that his school (Immaculata, I think) was putting on. We wished him good luck, and Cass talked about their experience playing Viola while being agender. There was a lot of small talk after that. Sam explained how a board game about Puerto Rico’s colonization was actually really fun, Derek admitted still hadn’t broken up with his girlfriend despite knowing he was gay, and I found out Cass was taking university courses just like me, though they were doing biology instead of parahuman studies; Cass wanted to be a paleontologist.
The hour passed faster than I was expecting. As we were breaking up, Lisa asked me to join her for coffee, and that’s how I wound up at a place called “Breaking New Grounds” with a cold-brew coffee at 4pm on a Saturday. I was lucky I had a late night planned.
Lisa took a sip of some multi-step latte monstrosity and sighed happily. “This shouldn’t be good,” she admitted. “But despite that, it is. So, want some good books to read on bisexuality?”
I blinked at the speed of that transition. “Sure,” I said, after regaining my equilibrium. “You think that’s what I am?”
Lisa nodded. “That or pansexual, though the distinction’s pretty fuzzy, depending on who you talk to. Of course, you’re the only one who can say for sure, but I’ve got a hunch.”
“All right,” I said. She seemed sincere enough. “So, what’s ‘asexual’ mean, then?”
Her lip quirked a little. “It’s almost as simple as yours, definitely a bit harder to figure out. Basically, I don’t get interested in people on a sexual level. The ‘chemistry’ people talk about, it’s just never there.”
“Sounds rough,” I said. “Uh, I hope that’s not rude to say.”
She laughed lightly. “It’s annoying to figure out and to tell people. Some people just say ‘oh, you need to find the right guy’. I just shrug and move on. I don’t want to rule out possibilities, but it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to happen.”
“Makes sense,” I said, and sipped my coffee some more before changing the topic. “Did you read Mockingjay?”
We talked about things like that for a while before Lisa had to go. I got her number and she promised to text over the references for me to look at.
Two weeks later, after the next discussion group, we went for coffee again. The day after that we went shopping together; Lisa proved to be a better shopping partner than even Crystal. I found out she was emancipated and had her own apartment; we hung out there sometimes, arguing about movie plotlines over pizza and Mario Kart. Somehow we just clicked.
“Hey Lisa, do you want to know a secret?”
We were in my bedroom. I was sprawled across the bed, my head dangling upside down off one side. Blood was rushing to my head and I knew I must have looked ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like moving just yet.
Lisa threw a Skittle at me from her spot on the beanbag chair; I caught it and popped it in my mouth. “You know I do,” she said.
I could get in big trouble if Brandish knew I was doing this, and a part of me was actually thrilled about that. But I knew Lisa, I trusted her, and so I slowly lifted off the bed and rotated into a sitting position. I crossed my legs and floated down until my eyes were level with Lisa’s. I was still nearly a foot off the floor. “I’m a superhero,” I said.
Lisa seemed amused. “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe it,” she said, completely deadpan. “A real live superhero, here in front of me.” She popped another Skittle in her mouth. “Truly this is the most momentous day of my life.”
“You knew,” I said, only pouting just a little bit.
“I knew,” she confirmed. She tossed a Skittle in my lap; I let it fall to the floor. “Shall I tell you a secret, Glory Girl?”
I huffed and sat down on my bed. “Let me guess, you’re a cape too? Probably a Thinker.”
She smirked at me. “Let me know when you figure out which one.”
I rolled my eyes at that and threw a M&M back at her.
It wasn’t that hard to figure out, now that she’d admitted she was a cape. I could be certain Lisa was a known cape in the city; someone like her would have to have some kind of outlet for her abilities. She obviously wasn’t ABB or Merchants, and I was confident she wasn’t Empire either. The Wards did have a Thinker called Gnosis, but Lisa had never so much as mentioned Gallant, and if she were a Ward, she’d know I was dating him. Faultline’s Crew liked to play things close to the vest but I didn’t think they had a Thinker, so that left one possibility.
We’d both been a bit busy and so, as it turned out, the next time I saw Lisa, we were both in costume.
The Brigade didn’t patrol as much as the Protectorate liked to; most of us were students or full-time workers. But on this particular day, Laserdream and I were flying escort while Flashbang and Lightstar jogged easily through traffic, pausing occasionally to shake someone’s hand or pose for a photo. I spotted light glinting off something big, down a side street, and broke off to take a closer look. Moments later I hit the transmit button on the radios we used for patrol communications. “It’s Hookwolf!” I said. “And a few others. Active fight inbound!”
Laserdream went up high to cover us while I joined Flashbang and Lightstar at street level. Now that the fight was getting closer, I could tell it was Hookwolf, Rune, and a few other Empire capes chasing people on Hellhound’s monstrous dogs. I wasn’t very familiar with the Undersiders. They’d been active for almost a year now, but they tended toward smash-and-grab crime instead of big brawls like this. I wondered what had happened.
As I rushed in, I spotted a blonde in a bodysuit slumped over one of the dog-monsters; Tattletale seemed to be unconscious. That was Lisa, I knew, and for the first time I could recall, I found myself hoping a villain would be all right. The dogs ran past me, carrying the four Undersiders, and I swooped in on the freight pallet Rune was using as a flying carpet. She had Cricket on that platform too, I noted as I slipped under a chunk of concrete Rune flung at me. I didn’t want to get too close; even though I had my forcefield to keep me safe from Cricket’s knives, her sound blast would probably hurt me. Instead, I plowed through the freight pallet, breaking it on my force field; Rune’s orbiting weaponry plummeted to the ground as the two Nazis fell off the ruined platform. I let them fall, despite knowing Cricket would probably land well enough to stay in the fight, and looped back around to where my teammates were.
Laserdream was keeping Hookwolf busy just fine; he couldn’t break through her shields without effort, he couldn’t catch her in the air, and her blasts were keeping him from reinforcing Stormtiger. All the same, without Shielder here to assist, there was no way we could actually stop him if he decided to run for it. Flashbang was more than a match for Stormtiger; as I arrived, he finally got a detonation through Stormtiger’s aerokinesis and the Nazi fell over, wind knocked out of him. Flashbang turned to help Lightstar with the Undersiders, which is when everything went wrong.
Regent snapped his fingers and Lightstar’s projectile plowed into Flashbang. He went flying as it detonated; I caught him just as Grue’s smoke covered the area. I flew straight up, carrying Flashbang awkwardly over one shoulder. I emerged from the smoke some thirty feet up, but Hellhound’s dogs were gone from sight. I set Flashbang down on a nearby roof to wait for the smoke to disperse while I checked to see if Rune and Cricket were still where I’d dropped them. They weren’t.
Hookwolf had made an escape too, by the time the smoke cleared away, but we had Stormtiger. I ziptied him and we waited for the PRT to come take him away. It was kind of a victory, even if Mike was going to need to stop by Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil’s house to get Amy to fix him up. I hoped Lisa was going to be okay.
The next day was a school day, but I ducked out at lunch and took a bus over to Lisa’s place. She buzzed me in just as I started pressing the number for her unit, the showoff. The door to her apartment was unlocked.
She was in the living room, sporting a massive bruise on the side of her face. “Hey, Tattletale,” I said.
“Hey,” she responded.
“You look like shit,” I said.
Lisa snorted. “I’ve had worse,” she said.
“Really?” I sat down beside her. “How are you still, you know, doing this stuff?”
“Stealing from criminals? Lots of luck and hard work, Glory Girl, same as anyone else.” Lisa leaned back and closed her eyes. “Besides, Panacea’s not the only healer out there. We went to Toybox once, and had Operation fix Grue’s skull.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Isn’t she just a kid?”
“So are a lot of capes. She does good work, especially if you can keep her from putting in augmentations. She’s expensive, though.” Lisa waved her arm. “Anyway, I’ll be fine in a few days, probably.”
I looked around her living room. The apartment was small but comfortable. Lots of books in the bookshelves, comfy chairs, in-unit laundry. I’d wondered, before, how she managed to afford a place like this. Now it was obvious. And yet, I still had trouble summoning up the law-and-order mindset Brandish had taught me.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
Lisa gave a Gallic shrug. “Why do you do what you do? Why does Armsmaster drive a fancy motorcycle and swing a fancy spear? We do this because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves.”
I slumped back against a cushion. “You could switch sides, be a hero.”
“I’m going to tell you a little secret,” Lisa said, pivoting and leaning over me. “I am a hero. I just don’t get a hero’s publicity, that’s all.”
I blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“We’ve got a patron, someone who gets us intel and resources, same as the Protectorate get, just a bit different. We go after the gangs just as much as you in the Brigade do, maybe a little more. That’s what we were doing yesterday; we raided a print shop the Empire uses to launder money. We just had a little trouble getting away afterward.”
It made sense, I supposed. And she really hadn’t seemed like a villain, all this time. I knew I’d still double-check, of course. Mom had taught me ‘trust but verify’.
“You’re just lucky you ran into us,” I told her.
“Lucky!” She laughed. “Thinker, remember? I make my own luck.” She paused, breathed in and out. “I’m sorry about Regent fucking with your team. I’ll make him send over a card, something like ‘I’m beary sorry.’ What do you think?”
I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. “You’d probably better not,” I said. “Mom’s a lawyer; she won’t find it funny.”
“Okay,” Lisa said. She held out her fist. “Still friends?”
I bumped it with mine. “Still friends.”
For Rosed: Squealer & Armsmaster, by Relyet
Sherrell opened her eyes and then immediately wished she hadn’t. The bright, white lights were her first indication that something was fucked up.
The clean walls around her and the clean sheets draped over her were her next clue.
“Fuck am I...?” she grunted.
The final piece of the puzzle snapped into place when she tried to sit up and had her right arm yanked awkwardly by the firm leather cuff keeping her wrist held in place at the edge of the hospital bed. Higher up, a needle was stuck in her arm, connected to a tube snaking up to a bag of something clear hanging from a stand over her bed.
“Hey!” she called, her other hand going to her waist for her tool belt only to find her familiar grease caked cargos and her tool belt were missing. All her clothes were missing, in fact, replaced by a clean hospital gown. Everything was so fucking pristine. Looking at her arm, even her skin looked clean, cleaner than she could recall it looking in a long time.
Grunting, she returned to her efforts to free herself from the cuff. She was in the middle of yanking furiously on the bar the attached to with as much leverage as she could get when the door opened and a nurse came in pushing a cart. She saw Sherrell and gasped, leaving the cart behind.
“Miss, please, you’ll hurt yourself, the IV-”
“Suck my dick!” Sherrell hissed at her, wondering if she could bring her leg up and kick the bar out instead of pulling it. If she had her tools, this would be easier. Remembering her tools, she snapped her head around to the woman who was holding her hands out like she might grab Sherrell.
“Where’s my fucking gear?”
“Y-your things are safe, you’ll get them back once you’re discharged, please calm down miss or you’ll have to be sedated.”
“I’ll show you sedated!” She spat back, taking a swipe at the woman with her leg when she got close enough. Now that she was up and moving, Sherrell felt like week old dogshit. Her head was killing her and she was starting to feel a chill creep up her arms.
The nurse was able to avoid the kick and stepped back, rushing to the door and poking her head out into the hall. Within moments a pair of burly men in stereotypical white tees and white pants blustered into her room to help hold her down, while a doctor arrived to slide a needle into her arm. To Sherrell, it felt akin to sliding a key into the lock it was made to fit, and a comfortable fog quickly overtook her consciousness. High was high, as far as she was concerned, and if these cocksuckers wanted to keep shooting her up every time she got rowdy while keeping her wherever this was, that was fine by her.
“She’s been here for how long, again?” Collin asked into his headset as he walked through the front doors of the Leary Memorial Rehabilitation Center.
“A week. Been causing no end of trouble for the staff here,” the synthesized voice of Dragon answered. “They thought she was just a regular junkie, she showed up on their doorstep a complete wreck and muttering for help. First two days she kept sleepwalking so they restrained her, third day was the first time she was lucid. She immediately tried to escape and almost attacked a nurse.”
“Headaches on top of headaches,” Collin muttered, resisting the urge to rub at his temples. The gesture would do little good through his helmet. He approached the desk and Dragon paused her rundown.
“Hello. I was told you’re expecting me?” Collin said to the momentarily awestruck looking receptionist. He didn’t feel the need to bother with an introduction.
“Uhh... one moment.” The woman recovered quickly and picked up a phone, tapping three digits and talking into it in a hushed tone. An orderly and a doctor arrived, both of them craning their necks to take in the superhero. Armsmaster suppressed a sigh.
“I’m in a bit of a rush today, gentlemen...” He prodded, achieving what he hoped when the doctor snapped back to attention and turned to lead him into the building.
“Right, she’s just this way. Honestly, we would have contacted you sooner, if only we’d known...”
Armsmaster signaled inside his helmet for Dragon to continue. After a short, tinny sigh, she did.
“They’ve tried sedating her, but quickly caught on that she’d been acting out on purpose with that goal in mind. After cutting her off, she’s only gotten worse as withdrawal’s started to set in. They finally realized she wasn’t a normal patient when they walked in on her dismantling her EKG and trying to build a lightning gun.”
Armsmaster nodded with a hmmmm.
That’s why they were sending him, he supposed. She wasn’t really a priority get, so if he failed to sway her away from returning to her life of crime and debauchery it would be no skin of their backs, and she’d just go to jail.
There was also the fact that he was a tinker too. Some of them maybe believed that alone would allow him to make a breakthrough with her. He had to suppress a laugh, still following the doctor. There was a reason ‘too many tinkers in the toolbox’, while inane, was a turn of phrase that had some backing. A pair or more of Tinkers could be made to work together if they tried, could collaborate on projects and accomplish things neither of them could do alone, but they could just as easily find themselves at each other’s throats over something as simple as a difference in preferred organization models.
Collin would not say he was feeling hopeful as the doctor worked his key into the lock.
“The orderlies will be within earshot and I’ll try to be available if you need anything, uh... sir,” the doctor, whose nametag Collin had forgot to read when he had that chance, piped up before pulling the door open to let him in.
Collin walked into the room.
“Fuck off, pig!”
Collin turned around and walked out of the room.
One minute and one quick half lecture half pep talk from Dragon later, Collin walked back into the room.
Sherrell had to stop herself from grinding her teeth. She knew something was up when the nurses took everything that wasn’t bolted down out of her room, and when she woke up with both hands strapped down instead of just the one.
She knew she shouldn’t have messed with the machine in her room, not enough parts, not enough tools to make something big enough to help her escape. But she’d never been without for nearly this long in six years, nor had she ever gone this long without working on something.
The worst of her suspicions were confirmed when the door to her room opened, and a six foot man in blue power armor walked in, stiff as a robot. He left just as quickly as he came, and Sherrell was glad to see the back of him. Her hands were itching just getting a glimpse of his suit. It wasn’t nearly big enough.
He came back a minute later and tried the same thing. Just stood there and said hello, like a fucking door to door vacuum salesman.
“Thought I told you to fuck off,” she growled at him.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, much as I’d like to. I need to have a few words with you first.”
She didn’t need to be a Thinker to figure out he wanted to be out of this room almost as much as she did.
“I got nothin’ to talk to you about.”
“I would advise you to consider that more carefully. You don’t seem to understand the position you’re in.”
God she could crush him like a tomato can, if she only had her gear, only had her tools. He didn’t move, but she could just imagine him pulling out a chair, turning it around backwards, and sitting in it with his arms propped up on the back. Just like those useless public speakers that used to come to her school and talk about drugs and how uncool they were.
Sherrell let out a coarse chuckle that turned into a wince.
“Do you know where you are right now?”
Not the start she’d been expecting.
“Fuck if I know. Hospital? Too cushy to be a regular cell. Ain’t I supposed to get read my rights, pig?”
“You’re in rehab. Leary Memorial Rehabilitation Center, to be exact. You turned... you checked yourself in a week ago.”
She squinted at him, scrunching her face up.
“Bullshit,” she said lazily. Even as she did she felt uncertainty nibbling at the edges of her mind. The last thing she remembered was getting prepped for the party. Must’ve been a good one.
“Personally, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I’d like to get through this as quickly as possible. I’ve been sent here because while you still have several outstanding arrest warrants, your appearance here gave my superiors the impression you might be wishing to turn over a new leaf.”
The laugh she gave him was ugly and wracked her whole body. She laughed so hard it hurt! She even thought she got some spittle on his stupid fucking visor.
“As if! Don’t know what got in my gourd but I sure as shit ain’t turnin’ nothin’ except my ass right around and walkin’ out these doors the second I can. Ready to fuck off now?”
She watched him for several moments, the only movement a slight tilt his head, like a dog hearing something in the distance.
“I thought as much. In that case I’m to escort you out to the PRT van waiting in the parking lot, which will take you to a much less comfortable containment cell to await your trial.”
She felt the grin fall from her face.
“Th’fuck you say?”
“I’m saying, the PRT has put forth two options for me to deliver to you: Stay, and they’ll pay for your time in the Center here. Do not attempt escape, do not cause trouble, and you can earn yourself a reprieve. Or, don’t, and you go to containment to await trial for the numerous crimes you and I both know you’re guilty of, and then most likely to jail.”
For the first time, she didn’t have a reply at the ready. She’d been sitting up as much as her restraints would allow, and momentarily let her back come to rest on the mattress. There was no pussyfooting around it, it was extortion, plain and simple. She knew the taste of it, but she’d not been on the receiving end in a long time. Least when the bad guys did it they called it what it was.
She looked at the man again. Standing stiff as a board, radiating impatience. He wanted her to refuse, she could tell easily. No doubt so he could get back to his garage, his workshop, whatever he called it. He was practically waving it in her face, standing there in his fancy armor. How she’d get locked up tight and never touch so much as a Phillips-head again.
Two could play at that game. Sherrell shrugged her shoulders and spoke like she was deciding between which restaurant to eat lunch at.
“Yeah, sure, alright. I’ll stay.”
Collin walked through the doors of Leary Memorial Rehabilitation Center. Again.
His best estimate for how long Squealer would keep up this ruse had been four days. It had now been nearly a week.
“Hello Armsmaster,” the receptionist greeted him. The awe was nearly gone, after his 6th visit in a row.
“Say hello to her, Collin,” Dragon admonished when he tried to brush past the desk with just a grunt and a nod. She’d made clear to him she wasn’t going to be on hand to coach him through this one, but she couldn’t ignore a chance to school him in manners.
He had to stop and collect himself, and greeted the woman properly before continuing on his way. There wasn’t an escort this time. He’d been coming and going enough that they deemed it unnecessary unless he actually needed the doctor for something.
He reached the door to Squealer’s room and took the handle. It opened, not locked. Dangerous. The woman was inside, lounging on her bed, one leg propped up and crossed over the other, hands behind her head.
“Hello, Squealer.” Collin had given up trying to talk to the woman using her real name. It had been on the identification that she, for some reason, carried in a wallet in her costume, and the staff had found it and luckily only a few of them had actually read it. A compromised identity, even of a villain, is a serious issue.
“Hey, pig,” she said by way of a greeting, still reclining, still looking at the ceiling. He’d tried explaining he wasn’t a police officer, but that had no effect on her chosen epithet for him.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
The woman finally rolled her head to look at him, smirking.
“Missed my pretty face?”
She looked worse than the day before. Genetics had been kind to Sherrell Bailey, and she had been unkind in return. Blonde hair that she still refused to wash regularly despite now having access to clean facilities, scars and scratches marred her face, wounds from tinkering without proper protective gear. Dark circles under her eyes, chipped teeth, nails she’d been chewing on over the last week.
“I here to take you to the PRT Headquarters.”
That got her to sit upright. Collin couldn’t miss the shocked look on her face before she tried to cover it up with a roll of her eyes and another grin.
“Guess I shoulda known better than to trust a buncha PRT pigs.”
He pressed his lips more tightly together to keep from retorting too quickly. This needed to be done carefully, delicately.
“I’ll remind you, the terms of your arrangement were that you would participate in the recovery process during your stay here. That means actively attending the group therapy and your individual sessions. The PRT is not paying the fees for you to treat this as a vacation.”
Her eyebrow twitched and she shrugged, holding her arms out with her wrists facing up.
“Yeah, whatever. Slap those cuffs on me and let’s get this fuckin’ over with. Took you long enough.”
Collin sighed, and did in fact produce a set of mundane handcuffs. There was no use to bring the heavy duty tinker made manacles for this.
Cuffed, and walking in front of Collin, the pair of them left the Center. She missed his short stop at the front desk, didn’t pay attention when he bent over and scribbled something on a sheet.
He brought her to the single PRT van that had carried him here. A transport model, not meant for containment. He sat in the back, across from her, after transferring one of her handcuffs to a part of the bench.
He expected her to sit in stony silence, the same way she’d spent nearly every hour of every day inside the center, only opening her mouth to hurl curses at her fellow patients or occasionally the doctors and nurses. Instead, she ranted at him, affecting a carefree attitude of victory.
“Knew you’d crack first. Thought you could push me around, make me one of their dogs, like you? Hah. Least I’ll get some peace and quiet now.”
Collin kept quiet. He wouldn’t deny the tactic he’d been ordered to employ was a nearly textbook example of a shit deal. Designed to make her take the path of least resistance and net them an easy arrest. It might have worked.
“And once my crew gets off their asses and busts me out, I’m gona come back for you with a giant can opener. That shoots fire.”
Collin didn’t feel the need to inform her her teammates didn’t appear too hindered by her disappearance. They’d lost firepower and transportation, but he’d heard of no such effort to even locate their missing member, and nothing had changed about their movements or activity to indicate they were preparing for a breakout.
She ran out of steam before they arrived, and just sat tapping her foot, glaring at him. He uncuffed her from the bench and recuffed her wrists, then reached to a compartment at his hip.
“Hold still,” he asked, and her head jerked anyway as he slipped the simple, disposable black domino mask over her eyes.
“Fuck is this?” she tried demanding, but he just opened the door out of the van.
Scowling, she stepped out. Only one trooper was waiting for them, and escorted her and Collin into the lobby. It was a Sunday, and there weren’t any tour groups today.
Collin thanked the trooper when their elevator arrived, and motioned for her to step inside.
She was wary now. She wasn’t a stupid woman by any means, something Collin had needed to impress on his superiors when their frustration had started to mount. They wanted to maintain the appearance that they’d tried to help this woman, even if some of them would have much rather hauled her in the second the rehab center had called them.
It took this long with her refusing to budge for Collin to convince them there was something the center couldn’t provide.
The elevator opened onto a brightly lit corridor, rather than the darkened, almost dungeon-like halls of the containment floors.
“Where are we goin’, pig?” Squealer finally asked, following him now.
He passed his hand over a keypad beside a door, and it whisked open, giving her a look inside. A room the size of an auditorium, with a huge empty space in the center and an array of workspaces and equipment running the outside that most tinkers only saw in their wildest fantasies.
“I’m not about to let you into my personal workspace, but this is the communal workshop,” He explained, stepping in behind her and closing the door, locking it discretely. Precaution never hurt.
“The drugs are not the only thing you’re suffering withdrawal from, but I think you know that, Sherrell.”
She was too awestruck to turn on him and offer her usual bile at being spoken to so familiarly, walking more into the center of the room and turning in slow circles. There was a hunger in her eyes, one that Collin could recognize. Finally regaining her senses, she snapped her mouth shut and fixed her eyes on him.
“What’s the catch?”
It was Collin’s turn to smirk.
“Talk to me.”
Sherrell scoffed and rolled her eyes as hard as she could.
“You’re fuckin’ mental...”
“You won’t talk with the staff of the center. You won’t put any effort into your own recovery. My superiors’ patience is running out, and more importantly, my patience is running out. I want to get back to work.”
She laughed at him, walking back towards him from the center of the workshop.
“You think you are gona crack my coconut? Think just cause you let me borrow some tools I’ll give you a neat little sob story and cry on your shoulder?” She stepped up, jabbing a finger into his chestplate.
“No. My last psychology class was almost twenty years ago. The only reason I’m extending this offer to you, to take more time out of my personal schedule for you, is because you’re a fellow tinker. You don’t want a sympathetic ear? No one’s ever accused me of being one. You could talk about the goddamn weather for an hour.”
He crossed his arms and she narrowed her eyes at him again. There wasn’t much of the man visible, just the lower half of his jaw. Short, cropped beard, thin lips constantly frowning, pressed tightly together as if he had more to say, but held back. She’d caught a glimpse of it there, the way he started to get riled up at her for wasting so much of his time, which admittedly she had been doing on purpose.
One last glance at the room. A row of cars had been brought in and arranged in a line in one corner of the workshop. They looked cleaner and less rusted over than the junkyard pickings she’d grown accustomed to, maybe taken from an impound lot instead.
Her hands, hanging in front of her because of the cuffs, opened and closed, longing to turn those three cars into one tank, with six wheel drive and maybe a ramming spike, and it’d need some protection on the sides too.
She bit her lip and forced herself to look away, back at him. Was this still all part of their plan? Was this the carrot they could dangle in front of her until she did what they wanted? That’s how she’d ended up going from a dealer, to a buy, to a user. That’s how she’d...
“Fine. You win, pig,” she said, putting a little bite back into her voice and lifting her wrists.
With the cuffs off, she turned around, hands on her hips. Talk to him, and she got to build? She could do that.
“Bring me that circular saw, and I’ll tell you about the time we left a flaming bag of shit on Lung’s doorstep.”
Collin had been expecting, and preparing for, disaster. He kept a close eye on Squealer while she worked, and listened to the things she said and the stories she told as best he could. Over the next two days the three cars had been disassembled and recombined in the center of the room, a skeletal framework sitting on top of three wheels that she was excitedly adding layer after layer off extra metal on top of, like a kid doing papier-mâché.
“...so then Robbie, you remember him? He goes and puts his hand inside the alligator’s mouth to get his keys back. Then he has the audacity to come to me later, askin’ if I can make him a fuckin’ robot hand or somethin’. Fuckin’ dumbass.”
He’d heard a dozen meandering stories about the exploits of the Merchants, many he could personal match to police reports and one or two he was actually present for, which delighted his charge to no end when he reminded her. He wasn’t exactly learning valuable information, but he couldn’t back down from this now. Squealer was, as promised, behaving herself back at the rehab center, but still refusing to utter more than a few words during any kind of therapy.
Stepping away from her creation to wipe her brow and drain a bottle of water, the story she’d been telling petered out. Collin sat nearby, in a stool, and watched her, looking at the empty plastic bottle before crushing it and tossing it into the garbage can.
“I ain’t been able to take my time on a project like this in a long time.”
Collin stiffened. She’d so far not let any topic stay anywhere near her past or her personal feelings. Could he press on this? Should he?
“Since before the Merchants?” he asked, when she didn’t immediately blow past the comment into another tale of drug fueled debauchery.
“Yeah, well, you fuckers keep breakin’ my stuff, and Skidmark’s always springing new plans at short notice, so it’s gota be quick and dirty. Nice to get a chance to... take my time,” she said after grasping for the word, shrugging and lowering her welding mask again. She’d balked, and called him a pussy, but he refused to let her work without it, so she eventually gave in.
“It’s coming along nicely,” Collin said, because he needed to keep this conversation rolling. “It’s... possible for you to keep working in this way.”
“If I become one of you? Become a pig, a narc, turn around and rat out my own guys? Help you put all of ‘em in jail?” She said, then with a click reignited the torch in her gloved hands, downing out any response he might have had. She started to seal up a few gaps, but stopped, lowering the torch again.
She just stood there, staring at the cooling patch of metal, the torch still burning in her hand. Collin tensed slightly. He didn’t have his halberd, wasn’t allowed to bring it when escorting his charge, but he still had ways of defending himself.
“Not all of ‘em would even deserve that, y’know,” she said, in a voice almost completely lacking in her customary bite.
“Excuse me?” Collin said, almost missing her over the fizz of the torch. She reached over and closed the valve.
“I said not all of ‘em would deserve gettin’ locked up just cause they’re runnin’ with my guys.”
“...No, I suppose not all of them...”
“There’s some sickos, some real dickwads, but most of ‘em, they just wana get drunk, get high, have fun. But Skidmark lets people who do the hardcore shit and prove themselves get discounts.”
“We’ve seen the armbands,” Collin said, bluntly.
“Yeah? Well they’re not easy to get. We got this collage kid hangin’ around recently, just wants to buy weed so he can get through school bullshit or whatever. Last time I saw ‘em he was breaking some dudes legs with a pipe so he doesn’t have to pay as much...”
Collin briefly wondered, what would Dragon tell him to say here? She’d tuned herself out of his helmet the last two days, on call if he needed her, but not there to feed him lines. He would have to field this one himself.
“You know better than anyone which of them do deserve to be taken off the street. You could help. You could make sure no more kids like that get drawn into the Merchant’s clutches.”
Collin almost winced. Cheesy dialog like that almost never worked, and he could see by the way the woman’s shoulders shook a few times she was almost laughing at him. She stood up, setting the torch down.
“There’s always gona be people on the streets slingin’... If I brought down Skidmark for you I wouldn’t be doin’ it for no goody-goody reasons like that. I’d be doin’ it because he’s a prick and I-”
There was a buzzing noise, an alarm set to go off when it was time for him to take her back to the rehab center. She shook her head, pulling her mask and gloves off.
“Duno why I’m tellin’ you this. My guys’ll catch wind of where I am soon and I won’t have to put up with this shit anymore. C’mon, pig.”
Collin cuffed her, and led her back out to the van.
“I... heard you actually took part in group the other day.”
Sherrell looked up. She’d been working on one of the engines, making it into something that would be strong enough to power her creation, which by now had been armored and reinforced. It was coming along, but would only theoretically work. While she could have as many parts, scrap, and tools as she wanted, she had no power or fuel sources. Something she could have worked around with enough time, maybe, but she wasn’t worrying about it.
“What? They tell you about the shit I said?” she gripped the handle of the socket wrench she’d been holding a little tighter. Armsmaster held his hands up.
“No, no details. Just that you actually spoke up when it was your turn.”
Sherrell snorted and bent back down, fitting the wrench over the bolt again.
“Yeah... well, just had some shit to get off my chest, what of it?”
“Nothing. It’s encouraging to hear. That’s all.”
Sherrell pulled herself up out of the engine compartment to look at the man, standing five feet away from her and supervising her every move still.
“Why d’you do that?”
“Pretend like you really give a shit about me or the shit I’m dealin’ with.”
That knocked him off course, like she thought it would. She’d only seen him interact with a few other people while going to and from the center and it was already so obvious.
“You don’t, pig. Because you’re an asshole, and you don’t got time for other people’s bullshit,” she said, with a grin, sitting backwards on the front bumper of the towering vehicle.
She could see him floundering, trying to work out how to regain his footing.
“...I’ve been called worse.”
“Hey, man, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t sayin’ it’s a bad thing. Nothin’ wrong with knowin’ what you are and what you aren’t about, and what you aren’t about is bein’ nice to people. It don’t fit you. You didn’t care about that lady’s haircut yesterday, and you don’t care about me and my shit today.”
“I’m not heartless. I do care about your recovery. I’m just... not good at making conversation.”
“That’s why I been doin’ all the talking, huh?”
She still couldn’t see much of his face, and he was straightening himself up and pressing his lips together again, walling himself back so he wouldn’t respond the way he probably wanted to. But she liked to think she’d hit the nail on the head there.
“Alright, whatever. You wana keep jerkin’ eachother around, that’s fine, but I’m beginnin’ to wonder when’s the last time you sat down in front of a shrink.”
She went back to work.
The next time she saw him, he wasn’t wearing most of his armor. He still had the helmet, but he’d replaced the suit with a blue jumpsuit almost the exact same color. And he was mad. For the first time she actually found herself doubting the idea that he might secretly be a robot.
At the door to the workshop he waved his hand over the keypad, then after a moment of the door not opening, he huffed through his nose and tapped the number in manually, his fancy door opening doohickey probably left in his armor.
Inside the workshop, locked in for two or three hours, Sherrell crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows at him.
He didn’t reply, so she pushed harder.
“Y’look different, pig. You do somethin’ different with your hair?”
“Shut up. Get to work.”
“That’s more like it!” Sherrell laughed, clapping her hands together and going to get her safety gear. “So, c’mon, what’s the deal?”
Sherrell rolled her eyes and blew a raspberry at him.
“Oh, fuck off with that. I gota listen to a buncha hippie shrinks all day tellin’ people to address the root of their problems and yadda yadda, then come talk to you every day. And you think you get to bottle your shit up? No way. Dish.”
She got to work after that, hauling a bunch of piping, springs and wires, bins of bolts and joints over to a tarp, starting on plans for some kind of armaments for her creation. For the first time, he made use of one of the folding chairs in the workshop, sitting in it and sulking. She smirked to herself.
Finally, after she’d had the basic shapes she needed to cut marked out on the pipe, he spoke up.
“I brought in Lung last night.”
Sherrell let out a whistle.
“Damn. And he busted up your gear?”
“No. The PRT has confiscated my power armor and my halberd.”
Sherrell paused, the pipe clamped in place on a workbench. She wasn’t about to poke at that particular sore spot.
“Damn. Gettin’ your gear fucked with blows, huh? Why’d they do that?”
He readjusted his position on the chair and huffed.
“...I can’t tell you that.
“Sure, classified. That all?”
When he didn’t answer for a few moments, she was about to get back to work and start cutting the pipe.
“I’ve also lost command of my team. And I’ll be undergoing a full interrogation and investigation to determine if I’m qualified to return to the position. At the moment the only thing I’m qualified to do is-”
Sherrell smirked as he cut himself off and looked away from her. She had her back to the workbench now.
“Go on, you can say it. ‘Babysit the druggie’, right?”
“I wouldn’t put it in those terms... but yes. Because of your continued compliance, the sum total of the good will I have remaining allows me very little privilege, but I can still be trusted to watch you. I think they were more worried sending someone else would be too disruptive to the-” he hunched her shoulders up and sneered at the next word “-‘trust’ we’ve built up so far.”
Sherrell let out a barking laugh and slapped the edge of the table once.
“Hah! Is that what they think’s been happening here? Fuckin’ dumbasses...” She knew he wouldn’t laugh along with her, but maybe that got her a smirk? She couldn’t really tell from this distance, and the way he was still looking angrily at the walls and workbenches. His knee was actually starting to bounce. Sherrell pressed on.
“Well, normally my advice would be to pick yourself up a six pack or somethin’, but you don’t strike me as a big drinker.” The way he turned to glare and scowl at her just made her grin wider. “It’s a joke, man... Point is, you needa’ unwind. What d’you do to relax?”
“I don’t relax.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. Seriously, I know you gota have some concept of fun, what d’you do to pass the time, what do you enjoy my dude?”
“Tinkering. But my lab is also off limits...”
Sherrell stepped to the side and motioned her arm at the pipe she still hadn’t started working on.
“Wana help me out over here? Lend a hand instead of sittin’ there lookin’ more pathetic than a dried out dog turd?”
“I don’t think that...” He opened his mouth, shut it again when he processed what she’d said, then continued. “Maybe. Not like they can suspend me even further.”
He stood up out of the chair and crossed the room to the safety station, retrieving his own set of heavy duty gloves, then joined her at the bench, looking at the piping she’d assembled.
“What is... this looks like the start of some kind of weaponry,” he said, starting to frown at her.
“Net gun,” she said, putting one hand on her hip.
“...A net gun?”
“S’what I said, innit?”
He looked back at the tarp she’d left the rest of the assembled parts for the prototype, as if he could read their true purpose from them and tell if she was trying to get one over on him.
“You’ve... never shown a proclivity for non lethal weaponry in the past.”
“Yeah, well, if this baby is ever gona see the light of day, I doubt you guys would like it if I put a buncha missile launchers and machine guns on it. Unless you wana help me do that instead?”
Collin desperately wished he could turn on his helmet’s more advanced features, but he hadn’t had time to reassemble it completely after it’d been dismantled for inspection. His lie detector, his second conversational crutch outside of Dragon, was not operational, so he could not be sure of the seriousness of what he’d just heard.
“Are you... saying you would consider... allowing the PRT to...” Collin hated when she gave him what he was now starting to think of as the definition of a ‘knowing smirk’. Sherrell was, when not constantly under the influence of at least three different substances, a surprisingly perceptive woman. And, if the reports from the rahab center could be believed, actually capable of things like compassion and empathy. Not without couching them between foul language and crass imagery, but the sentiment, as twisted as it was, was there.
In some small part, Collin was feeling better about that.
“Nuh uh. Not yet. Get some work done. If we get this thing done before out time is up, I’ll tell you what I’m ‘considering’, yeah?”
Collin nodded, and she started up the saw.
They made short work of the task, despite their nearly total opposite ideas of efficiency of space, there wasn’t much room to argue about one simple weapon. After cutting, welding, wiring, priming, and a few dry fries to make sure the mechanisms would all release properly, it only took a little over an hour. During a break, while they sat and rehydrated, Sherrell finished a long drink and leaned forward, fixing her eyes on him.
“Okay, so... I’m not sayin’ bring me those papers and I’ll sign right up. I’m sayin’ maybe I still just wana put my two pencil dick teammates in the slammer where they belong and I’d call it quits after that. Maybe not. I’m still thinkin’ about it.”
That was way more than the PRT’s most optimistic estimation. Collin nodded his head.
“Very well. That is... good. If the very least we can achieve is the head parahumans of the Merchants behind bars, this will have been worth it, I suppose.”
“You ‘suppose’, eh?”
She snorted and laughed at him.
“And the whole, ‘not a fuckin’ junkie anymore’ part, do you suppose that’s just a little cherry on the top?”
Collin took a breath in through his nose and sighed.
“I didn’t mean it that way. Of course that’s a good thing. If I’m being honest, that’s... more important that you accepting a membership.”
He could see that for once he’d said something to throw her off. It didn’t make him feel as smug as it seemed to make her.
“Really? You bullshittin’ me, Arms?”
Collin took in her face. She looked much cleaner, much healthier than the first time he’d see her, handcuffed to a bed and ready to claw the face off of an innocent nurse to escape back to the streets and back to her gang. He didn’t think he trusted her implicitly, yet, but she didn’t strike him as a gossip. He took a breath, looking down at the empty water bottle in his hands.
“I didn’t want to take his assignment for a number of reasons. I’m not a talker, and your specialty is the polar opposite of mine. You’ve been a thorn in our side for months and caused thousands of dollars of damage to PRT equipment...”
“This is the part where there’s a ‘but’, unless you’re just tryin’ to piss me off.”
“I did take the assignment. I took it because of where they found you. Whether you meant to or not, you turned yourself in at the center, looking for help.”
Sherrell’s face was still, and as serious as he’d ever seen it. He could be making a very big mistake, but he’d already made plenty of those in the last 24 hours, one more couldn’t hurt.
“My parents divorced when I was younger. I lived with my mother, and she fell into a gambling addiction.”
Collin pressed his lips tightly together, waiting for some kind of jab, a snarky comment, a joke about him relating her to his mother.
He didn’t expect a quiet, genuinely curious voice.
“She didn’t get help, did she?”
Collin looked up, but Sherrell was lost in her own thoughts, brow tightly knit and a small frown dragging down the corners of her mouth.
They sat in silence for a few moments, the only sound the slight crinkling of the plastic water bottle in Collin’s hands as he turned it over.
“I lost my virginity to Skidmark for a few grams of shitty weed.”
Collin’s mouth almost dropped open, but he didn’t want to gawp at her. Instead, he brought his hand up and cupped it around his chin, rubbing his fingers through his beard.
“... I think we could get approval for a mounted taser and a few beanbag guns on this thing too,” Collin finally said, point over his shoulder at the nearly complete vehicle.
Sherrell was in her workshop when the sirens went off. A PRT trooper ran in, panting.
“Ironclad... Endbringer. Armsmaster said to bring the Mark III.”
Sherrell set down her torch, hurrying into her new costume. To save time, she’d made the welding mask and safety gloves a part of her new look.
Five minutes later, she was soaring down the street, hovering over the cars and people, towards the coastline in the third iteration on her battle wagon design, this one meant to go between land and air easily. Setting down in the parking lot, she dismounted and shouldered her way inside to join the rest of the Protectorate.
Defiant, Velocity, and Battery still looked at her warily when she walked into rooms, but she’d gotten along famously with Assault, to the dismay of her new ‘superior officers’, and Miss Militia was a surprisingly decent lady when she wasn’t bringing down her creations with stinger missiles.
And then there was Armsmaster, greeting her near the door with his best approximation of a friendly nod. It was pathetically bad.
“Ironclad. You’re going to be on transport, assisting search and rescue.”
“You got it. Put a big dent in ‘em for me, eh?”
Armsmaster nodded, putting out a hand which she begrudgingly shook, and handing over an armband for her to snap over her wrist.
Taking two steps away, a voice like the slime that gathered in the bottom of a dumpster assaulted her ears.
“Squeala’? Issat you in that shiny gettup?”
Looking up, Skidmark and Mush had made a hole through the crowd, and were looking at her expectantly.
“Where’ve you been, girl?” Mush asked, standing hunched over and encased in a humanoid shell of garbage and mud. “That a new ride a’yours outside? That’s chrome as fuck.”
“Shut up, Mush, I’m askin’ the questions. Squeala’, where the fuck you disappeared to? We’ve been lookin’ everywhere for your skank ass!”
She knew, for a fact, that they hadn’t. She could tell Armsmaster was still just behind her, still in earshot.
“I think you’ve got the wrong person...” Sherrell growled, trying to communicate that they should move out of her face before she moved them.
“Bullshit, I’d recognize that fat ass anywhere. This what you’re doin’ now, huh, buildin’ toys for the pigs?”
She walked past him, out the doors, and he followed, raising his voice.
“What?! You think you’re too good for us now, like you weren’t snortin’ off the same piss stained carpet we were a couple months ago?”
He was following her across the parking lot and practically shouting now, but she kept her tightly clenched fists down at her side, approaching the Mark III. Finally, she felt his hand grab her by the shoulder, and she stopped and turned.
“C’mon, we got enough time before this shitshow starts to get a few hits in, I ain’t goin’ into this thing sober and I know you don’t wana either.”
She punched him in the face.
He stumbled back into Mush, one hand over his nose, blood running down to join the dirt, or worse, on his face and shirt. His yellow, bloodshot eyes were wide and staring at her.
“Suck my dick, Skidmark. I’ve got a job to do.”
She climbed into the Mark III, closing the door behind her and cutting off Skidmark bawling that she’d broken the truce. Lifting off the ground to hover, waiting for the chaos to start, she returning her attention to her armband. Following the onscreen instructions to set it up, prompted her to say her name.
“Ironclad,” she said, and it flashed on the screen.
Outside, she caught Armsmaster standing just outside the door. He gave her a thumbs up.
She rolled her eyes, and gave him one back.
For Alice: Armsmaster & Coil, by PitaEnigma
It was a well established fact that nobody was allowed to sit next to Armsmaster when he was in the canteen. He would quietly stand in line and look almost ridiculous in his armor next to all of the normally dressed agents. He would quietly order the day’s fish with rice, his gauntleted hands dwarfing the tray. He would quietly chuckle at the teller’s “Can I have your PRT ID?” And he would, on occasion, sit at the table of Thomas Calvert.
It was a Monday. Difficult days tended to be Mondays. The Protectorate workweek was constant, without regular weekends or even a regular schedule, but Mondays still somehow managed to be the worst day. This one was no different.
“What day is it today?” Thomas broke the silence.
They sat quietly and ate their food. Thomas didn’t ask Armsmaster about the redness his beard wasn’t hiding, or the slight stiffness in how he cut pieces of fish, or the curl his lip made when the spicy sauce touched it.
When he was done eating, Armsmaster got up. He was interrupted from taking his tray by Thomas.
“Don’t bother. I’ll clear it when I get up.”
Tuesday wasn’t much better. Armsmaster skipped his lunch break that day, shoving a burrito into his mouth instead of eating a full meal. He was too busy to sit down. Calvert ate with Deputy Director Renick instead, and their conversation was about construction permits for a new type of shelter. It was easier than scheduling a meeting, especially while Renick’s boss held a grudge over what should have been ancient history.
On Wednesday, Armsmaster joined Thomas again. The signs of Armsmaster’s joy were small, but noticeable to the eye of someone who knew him. No affected smile tugged at his lips, there was no attempt at appeasing others, only an air of contentedness about him.
“Good news?” Thomas asked.
“I can’t talk about it.”
“I understood you’re getting a new contract with us.”
“I like to keep myself useful.”
It was an empty word, and neither of them had any use for empty words. But there was a part of Thomas that appreciated it anyway. The rest of their meal was pleasant in spite of what passed for Mediterranean eggplant. It had the consistency of congealed slime and a taste to match. In the silence, Thomas didn’t have to go through mental hypotheticals to speak. He didn’t have to research the other man’s words from another reality. He just let it be and enjoyed the aubergine atrocity on his plate.
Armsmaster didn’t appear on Thursday, nor did he appear on Friday. Calvert wouldn’t go back to PRT headquarters for another week, and concern never quite rose in his mind. He was busy, with both a day job and his work as Coil taking up most of his time. There were moves to plan and pawns to play.
It had been a week and a half since the last time they saw each other when Thomas was surprised during lunch by a metallic giant sitting in front of him. He nodded at Armsmaster.
“These last two weeks have been motherfuckers.”
Thomas had never heard Armsmaster curse before. It was something the man avoided in public, another one of the ways heroic capes were forced to conform to an image. Then again, so was he. Coil had to be sibilant, dignified, aloof, unsurprised by anything and prepared for everything. He debated closing his backup reality and splitting again, to navigate an unfamiliar conversation.
Instead, he said, “Not gonna pry, but I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Armsmaster said. “There was a string of near misses. It could have been a feather in my cap, but I messed up.”
“I know the feeling,” Thomas said, thinking about a few recent futile raids that had led to less money in his accounts but nothing much more.
“I heard. Back when you were a trooper, right?”
“Yes,” he said. It only stung if he thought too long about it. He could repress it, think about his other failures, the ones that had nothing to do with it, the ones that weren’t a reflection of that moment, pressing on and on and crushing down on him like a ceiling deathtrap in a bad movie, and he didn’t know what to think of because all of his failures were that failure, echoing endlessly through-
“I’m sorry,” Armsmaster said. Thomas smiled in what he hoped was a neutral smile.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
In his safe reality, he screamed. He grabbed his chair and smashed it against the wall, and bashed his head against it. He was a failure and he deserved to feel pain. He couldn’t even trigger properly. He had to buy it, force himself into a bargain with the devil just to get back to a place of power. Power so fucking fragile he had to keep the reality where he’d made himself bleed to stay safe.
Silence had descended on the table. He couldn’t force himself to eat what passed for lasagna, and something about Armsmaster’s fish made him want to throw up.
He cleared his tray and left the PRT headquarters, hating himself for being weak all the while breaking everything he owned in another reality before closing it and branching off again.
He came back the next day and took a salad. The food options were too revolting for even his standards. Armsmaster was sitting alone with fish and rice, eating them mechanically.
“Is it okay if I...” Thomas started.
“Of course,” Armsmaster said.
“I’m sorry,” they said in unison, then stopped. They each waited for the other to speak, then they just sat in silence.
It was a pleasant one, though.
Thomas enjoyed his salad. One of the vegetables in it was definitely a little too mushy, and there was definitely a bizarre aftertaste to the dressing, but it was enjoyable.
“Listen,” Armsmaster said.
“You don’t have to-”
“Let’s hang out sometime.”
“Okay,” Thomas said. “Beer?”
“Yeah. And when we meet… call me Colin.”
For woermhoele: Imp & Vista, by Noctis_noctua
When I was a kid, hearing some shit like ‘you don’t know what you have until you lose it’ is just one thing that you forget among all of the other shit that goes on. It’s something that gets ignored because they are just meaningless words, besides, nothing is going to happen. Of course, the world doesn’t work in a static, never changing way, and not everything is sunshine and unicorns like in Saturday morning cartoons. The world didn’t suddenly change from happiness to something gritty. It wasn’t like a bunch people one day just decided ‘hey, I want to be a drug addict.’ What did change was my view of the world. I began to notice people being beat up by a bunch of beefy looking white or asian guys, or I noticed friends stop coming to school and end up in some alley ‘hustling grams.’ All of a sudden, I learned what gangs were, as well as a bunch of other stuff about the world. But the world didn’t just change in cruel ways, there was some good along with the bad; most of it came from meeting people, and becoming good friends.
I had met some good friends in my life, some even became more than just friends. It hurt badly when they died, but as much as I hated them for it, I understood why they did it: So that people like me could live out our lives. Big bro, Alec, Taylor, thank you. I’ll make sure to kick some ass in your name. It hurt to lose the people she cared about, but it also made the friends she still had left feel even closer. Parian, Foil, Heartbreaker’s kids, Rachel, Lisa, Missy; I’m not going to give up what I have left easy.
As if on cue, I could hear the crunch of gravel and stone nearby, meaning that my target would be close. After a few seconds, the footsteps came just over the ledge of the ruined balcony that I was laying on. Showtime. I sat up, then looked over the edge. 7 feet below me, 3 people were walking, all of them were capes, because of the costumes. The one I was after was in the middle of the trio. I dangled my legs over the ledge, and then dropped down slowly, my arms holding on to the ledge for as long as possible as I got lower, then I released my grip, and fell 7 feet to the uneven ground below.
The trio of capes that passes by heard my trip down, and turned around, ready to engage. The right cape lifted his arm, and pointed it at me, with his hand slightly glowing; the left cape took out a futuristic gun from his waist and pointed it at me. While the two boys were getting ready to shoot at me, space seemed to distort between them, once again telling me that this was who I was after. They stared at me for a couple of seconds, getting ready to attack me; in response, I stood up from my squatting form and brushed off some of the dirt and dust that gathered on my costume while I was lying on the broken balcony.
After a few seconds of staring, space seemed to go back to normal, and the girl in the middle reached to lower the gun on her right while simultaneously calling out “She’s friendly.” I smirked, slowly walking up to the group while the guy on the right put his hands down. “Good to see you too Vista.” Her lips curled up into a smile, and she said in an amused tone, “Give me a couple of minutes to talk, I’ll rejoin you two in a minute.” Her partners were a bit unsure of her decision at first, and the one on the right looked like he was about to protest. I just had to get a comment in here. “I’m sorry for interrupting, but I’ll be done fast. Just forget about me.” They shrugged and walked down the ruined street. After a few moments of watching them walk away, Missy and I were alone.
“Nice to see that you’ve survived the apocalypse, Melissa.”
Her face scrunched up in sadness, and when she replied, it was quiet. “Same to you.” Shit, she probably lost someone close to her. Vista took a deep breath, her face more normal. “Where have you been for the last couple of days?”
“I was looking for a friend after the battle.”
Hearing the name kind of stung. “Yes.”
“Is she gone too?”
“Fuck.” This is getting way too sad.
“Vista, as much as I hate to admit it, they did what they had to, for all of us to live on.”
“How… how can you just say that? Do your dead teammates and friends not mean anything to you? Regent, Taylor, your brother, are they nothing to you?” Hearing the names of those I lost hurt, but I had to continue to be strong for her.
“What? No! Thinking of Alec makes me sad even now, but if I didn’t move on then they would have been gone for nothing.”
“But…” She tried to say, but I interrupted her. “Remember Nick Thompson back when we were kids? He’d thought he could mess with the younger kids because they were smaller, taking their shit and putting them down. At least he did before he met you. you kicked him so hard he went to the hospital. What makes Scion different? Just another guy who thinks he can do what he wants because he has power over people. You were like Taylor back in the day, making a sacrifice for everyone else, and because you moved past that, I think you can move past this.”
She was silent for some time, stuck in her thoughts. She finally looked up at me, and then cracked a small smile. “They chewed me out for hours in that office after,” she said somewhat amusingly, which I returned. Remembering the beefy older bully lying on the floor made me feel a little bit better. “Thank you Aisha, I kind of needed that.” She used her hand to wipe a tear from her eye.
“You know, they’re giving amnesty to people like you.” Interesting, but I’ll talk to Lisa, she should know better.
“I need to go back to my team, and I think you do too, but before we split up for who knows how long…” I pulled out a Tinker device from my pocket. It was a flat cylinder, essentially the shape of a large coin. A screen was on the top half, while a red button covered by a plastic lid was on the bottom half. “If you’re ever in trouble, press the button. I’ll come as fast as I can.”
She took the device and put it in a pocket. Suddenly, she reached out and gave me a hug. I was frozen for a second, but I then returned it. We stayed like that for what seemed like forever. Finally, she broke off from me, and said: “ Stay safe, Aisha.”
“You too, Missy.”