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A Different Time, A Different Age [Worm Age-Swap AU]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by MissBrainProblems, Oct 25, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: Scurry
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    A/N: Don't ask why. Ask why not.

    Synopsis: Something odd has happened on Earth Bet. Ages, relationships and social positions have been changed around, and nothing was as how it had been before. What was once the story of a young Taylor Hebert is now the story of a young Danny Hebert, as the boy struggles to find his place in a world that is more of a mess now than it ever has been.

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    Chapter 1: Scurry

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    Class ended in five minutes, and all I could think was, an hour is too long for lunch.

    I could practically feel Brad's eyes burrowing into the back of my head, and I knew that there was no way in hell that he and his buddies were going to leave me alone until my next class. The God damned racist skinhead assholes had been harassing me since the beginning of the school year; Eddie had apparently gotten it into his head that if he recruited me into the Empire, that they could somehow use me to leverage my Mom for... Something? I had no idea what they were after, since she was just one of the English teachers, and not even a part of the school's administration. I didn't pretend to know the thought processes of fucking Nazis, though, so I had never bothered to put too much thought into it; instead, most of my thinking went into how to avoid these pieces of shit.

    Unfortunately, part of avoiding Brad and the other Empire thugs meant that I had to stop hanging out with Alan. My best friend had felt hurt, of course, and even been fucking pissed, but I couldn't burden him with the knowledge of what was going on and what I was going through, let alone getting him mixed up in all the shit Eddie was doing to me; he didn't need any of that, not with how hard he was studying to stay at the top of our class. No, I wasn't going to burden my friend with this bullshit; I could figure it out on my own. Or so I hoped, anyways.

    Ms. Clements was giving a lecture on parahumans, since it seemed to be that point in her World Issues class for her to cover the subject of capes and their impact on our society. "And in command of the Chicago Wards, we have M... Mur... Mah..." Ms. Clements was a sweet lady, but also a bit of a ditz; part of me was convinced that it was something of an act, though, to present herself as more endearing to her students.

    One of the boys in the class spoke up helpfully. "Myrddin, Mrs. Clements?" Tommy Gladly. In some ways, he was even more of a piece of shit than Brad and Eddie were. Oh, he pretended to be a nice, charming, caring guy, but he couldn't give less of a shit about anything that didn't help his social standing, especially with the girls. He talked about how much he liked to help people in need, about how he volunteered his time at soup kitchens and food banks, but he didn't do shit when he saw me getting harassed by the Empire thugs. Fake-ass brat.

    "Wooow, Tommy, you're so smart!" "I don't think I could pronounce that!" "You're so cool, Tommy!" I wanted to puke. I actually wanted to leave class, go to the nearest bathroom, and spew my breakfast out into the toilet. The sheer degree of saccharine bullshit that was coming out from the other students made me feel sick to my stomach, and I had no idea how I was the only person who noticed how fake it all was. I noticed Elizabeth Knott focusing intently on the textbook in front of her, and felt a small relief that at least somebody wasn't eating Tommy's shit up like it was filet mignon.

    "Thank you, Tommy! Myr... Myrddin, yes. Myr... Umm, he leads the Chicago Protectorate, and-" Ms. Clements was cut off by the sound of the lunch bell ringing loud across the classroom, and she had to speak over the din of the students rushing out to be heard. "Oh... Okay, everyone! I want all of you to, umm, guys! I..." Whatever our teacher wanted to say was drowned out by the sound of chatter and moving school furniture. I did feel just the tiniest bit bad for Ms. Clements, since it wasn't as if she was a bad teacher, just... Powerless before the collective force of a class of restless teenagers. I knew that she wanted to be liked by her students, so she was never really willing to put her foot down and rein her kids in when it was needed; I did judge her for that sort of weakness, but the cutesy act she put on managed to affect even me, in spite of my protestations that I could see straight through that kind of nonsense.

    More important than Ms. Clements at that moment, though, was Brad Meadows, staring at me as he stood head and shoulders over most of the rest of the students. Thankfully, we sat far enough away from each other in Ms. Clements' class that I had a pack of teenagers separating me from him, and I used that opportunity to start running to the most recent safe spot I had begun using. The third floor boys' restroom was far enough out of the way that most guys didn't bother using it, and the only people who were there when I arrived were a few students that were washing their hands and finishing up as I made my way in; I must have looked as tense as I felt, because two of them gave me strange looks as I went for one of the two stalls towards the back of the room.

    I waited until I heard the other boys leave, and I could be confident that I was alone in the washroom. Once I felt that I was safe, I opened up my backpack and pulled out a plastic container with some leftover lasagna from last night; I had just started to dig into the hearty goodness of my albeit cold meal when I heard footsteps approaching from the bathroom's entrance. Shit, shit, shit. I sat as perfectly still as I could on the toilet, barely allowing myself to even breathe as I listened to the three pairs of feet that made their way across the tile. They weren't speaking, but that heavy, clunky, graceless pace that one of them had... Yeah, that was Brad. One of the others knocked on the entrance to the stall I was in, and I nearly jumped out of my seat as I sputtered out: "O... Occupied!"

    "Heeey, it's Danny! How ya doin', bud?" Eddie's voice, sure enough. A hand jiggled the door to the stall, and my "bud" spoke up again with a sad voice. "Aww, why'd'ya go and lock yourself in there, Danny, ol' pal? Why don't'cha go ahead and open up? Your friends just wanna talk with ya!" No. No way in hell was I about to let Brad Meadows, Eddie Vickers, and - if my guess was right - James Fliescher into a small, cramped, bathroom stall with me. Fuck no.

    James' voice spoke up, confirming my suspicions about who the third member of their group was. "Edward. Can you stop with this stupid game of yours? Just get the Hebert boy to give us what we need."

    Brad responded, with his deep, gravelly voice that sounded as if he ate charcoal for breakfast. "Ngh. I agree, Eddie. Just kick the door in, and let's get this over with."

    Eddie's voice was still as sing-song and casual as it was before, but barely concealed anger was now present in his words. "Jimmy. Brad. Who was it that Max gave this mission to? Was it you, Jimmy? No? Was it you, Brad? No? Okay then. If you don't like how I'm doing this, then go talk to Max. Otherwise, shut up and follow my lead." Eddie didn't seem too concerned about letting his boss' name slip out like that. Max Anders was what people like Tommy Gladly aspired to be; I didn't know if there was anybody in school more well-adored than Max. Hell, just as Ms. Clements' little act had worked its magic on me from time to time, every time I saw Max, I just... Liked the guy. He exuded some sort of charisma that just made everyone want to be his friend. The rumors that he was secretly in charge of the junior Empire thugs at Winslow were either disregarded or silenced with Anders family money; if I tried to go to anybody and tell them that Eddie told me that Max was trying to get him to recruit me into the Empire, it would be a futile task, as absolutely nobody of importance would believe me.

    I gripped the plastic fork in my hand, as if it would somehow actually protect me. "I don't want to join the Empire, Eddie. I've told you this a hundred times now."

    The stall's door shift as Eddie leaned against it, the boy letting out a yawn in the process. "Danny, Danny, Danny. How many times are we going to have to go over this?" As I had said, this was at least the hundredth time, but it was clear that Eddie wasn't bothering to listen to me. "We're not trying to force you to join the Empire, Danny." I never said you were, Eddie, but thanks for saying it for the both of us. "But we do want you to join us, in the same way that we want all of our brothers and sisters to join the Empire." Eddie pulled away from the door, and his voice picked up slightly in volume; it almost sounded to me like he was some sort of professional speech-giver or some such, with the exact and trained way that he used his words. "We want you to join us, Danny, so that we can keep you safe from the crazed orientals of the ABB and from the drug-dealing primates of the Merchants." I would have even felt convinced by Eddie, if I hadn't personally known how full of bullshit he was. "I'm telling you this now, Danny. I mean this genuinely, from friend to friend." I felt the urge to scoff, but suppressed it, lest it encourage Brad to actually kick the door in. "We want you to join us for your sake, Danny. Not for ours."

    I grit my teeth, and the edges of the plastic fork dug into the skin of my palm as I felt it begin to crack under my grasp. More than that, though, I felt my power itching at the back of my head, wanting, begging to be let loose on these skinhead losers. I could hear so many creatures, not just in the school building itself, but also in the yards, in the dirt, in the trees outside, creatures that I could use to tear the Nazis outside my bathroom stall into tiny pieces, if I wanted to.

    No. I pushed back against my power, returning the creatures back to their normal routine. Doing that wouldn't be a Danny Hebert thing to do. More than that, it wouldn't be a Hebert thing to do. It wouldn't be what my Mom would want me to do, and it definitely wouldn't be what my Dad would want me to do, if he was still around. I wasn't the type of person that would abuse something like this to hurt others - even if they might have fucking deserved it - and I wasn't going to become that type of person, either. I could handle this. Danny Hebert could handle this.

    "Thank you, Eddie, but I think I can keep myself safe." I held my breath, as I waited for several seconds for whatever reaction the boys outside were going to give.

    And my heart dropped as I heard Eddie give a disappointed sigh. "Alright, Danny. Have it your way. Brad, you can kick the door in, now." I could practically hear the grin spread across the thug's face as he wound himself up to bash his way into the stall, and I pulled backwards onto the toilet seat, holding my things close to me. It took Brad one, two, three shuddering rams against the door of my stall, but when the entrance inevitably gave in, the other boy came barreling in, grabbing me by the collar of my shirt. Eddie spoke up as his friend began my 'education', as they called it. "Remember, Brad, not the face. Can't let Mrs. Hebert see her little boy all roughed up." The boy in question grunted, as he made a fist and threw it into my gut; the sheer trauma of the blow caused me to spew up the tiny amount of lasagna I had managed to ingest before this began, but Brad didn't seem to care in the slightest as my vomit landed on his cheek.

    While the other boy continued his assault, and as James went to keep watch at the bathroom entrance, Eddie stepped up behind Brad, smiling at me as I continued to receive blows on all parts of my torso. "Remember, Danny. This isn't Brad beating you up. This is Kenta, the fucking animal, trying to tear you apart. This is Adam, getting one of his drugged-up monkey pals to tear into you with the strength only a junkie has." This was one of the ways that Eddie tried to intimidate me into joining the Empire, and it had happened enough times that I was well aware of what was on the lesson plan. "I'm doing this for your own good, Danny. I'm doing this to teach you what will happen if you don't join the Empire." I could barely breathe through the battering my chest was taking, and my powers were intruding further upon my consciousness now. "If you do join the Empire, then Brad and I won't have to give you this lesson any longer, and we can keep any members of those... Lesser races from doing this to you, too." A small rodent skittered out from a hole in the wall near the entrance to the bathroom, and it looked up at James. I forced it away with what little mental strength I could, and it ran back into its hiding spot.

    Eventually, Eddie placed a hand on Brad's shoulder, signifying the brute to stop attacking me; the thug opted to get one more fist into my stomach before dropping me onto the floor of the stall, where I curled up into a ball before sputtering and coughing. As I tried to regain myself, I heard Eddie continuing to speak. "I hope you've finally heard what I'm trying to tell you, Danny. I really do want to help you. But you have to let me help you, first." Help me? Help me, you crazy skinhead fuck?! Does this look like you're helping me?! "Come on, Brad. We should let Danny think carefully about the lesson we just taught him." The other boy grunted like the fucking animal he was - ironic that those fuckers were closer to beasts than the so-called "lesser races" - before they left me alone in the bathroom.

    As I heard the Empire thugs leaving the area, I gingerly pushed myself up onto one arm. I didn't dare lift my shirt up to see the damage that Brad had done, but I could only imagine what my stomach and chest looked like underneath my clothes. My eyes were instead drawn to my lunch, fallen out of its plastic container and splattered all over the dirty tile of the bathroom floor. This, apparently, was enough to finish off my emotional defenses, and I felt the moisture that had been building in my eyes start to streak down my face as sobs tore themselves up from my throat; even though every part of my torso was straining in agony from the beating I had suffered at the hands of those Nazi punks, I couldn't help but cry in frustration and rage at... At... At everything. Why were Eddie and his friends harassing me like this, attacking me like this? Why was Winslow such a shithole? Why was Brockton Bay such a shithole? Why were my mom and I still living here? Why was Dad gone?

    I knew the answers to most of those questions, of course, but screaming them loudly in my head helped, partially. I had collapsed back onto my side, though, as my eyes faced the lasagna turned upside down on the ground. There was no way in hell that I was going to eat that, not with only God knew what living in the bathroom tile, but I wasn't about to let it go to waste, either. As I lay there exhausted, fatigued, and defeated, I allowed myself to use my power, drawing creatures out from the walls of the school and towards me. There were so, so many of them, more than likely anybody else suspected; the fact that Winslow's janitors barely gave a shit about pest control contributed to that number. I only grabbed enough that could meaningfully share the remains of my lunch, though, and a handful of fairly good sized rats made their way over to my bathroom stall.

    While urban rats and mice did tend to be quite filthy and prone to disease, my recent experiences with them informed me that they tended to be healthy enough more often than not. The ones that I had brought here to scavenge up the rest of my food were in particularly good condition, so I allowed myself the indulgence of lifting one of my hands - wincing in pain as I felt my wounded, bruised pectorals strain at the motion - and reaching out to gently stroke one of the rodents. Its fur was matted, messy, and a fair bit filthy, but it gave me a small comfort that I desperately needed at that point.

    Once the lasagna was gone and the rats had filled their bellies, I sent them back to where they had come from and allowed them to go back to their regular, ratty lives. I didn't have a phone, so I couldn't use it to check the time, but I was fairly certain that my lunch break was coming to an end, and that I would need to get up and get moving if I wanted to get to Mr. Veder's class in time. I groaned in pain as I lifted myself up, every damaged inch of my body letting me know exactly how much it hated how I was moving. I began to gather up my school supplies, and noted with a frown that my trigonometry textbook had fallen into the toilet, the thing having become soaked through by that point. There was nothing I could do about it, though, so I simply stuck it in a well-contained part of my backpack and hoped that it would manage to more or less dry out into a usable condition at some point. I washed my hands and my face to get all of the filth off my skin, before making my way out of the washroom.

    As I did, I considered a couple of the questions that I had asked myself back on the floor of the bathroom. Why was Winslow such a shithole? Because fuckers like Eddie and his friends could do as they pleased. Why was Brockton Bay such a shithole? Because fuckers like Eddie and his friends could do as they pleased. The Wards and the Protectorate and New Wave were always doing everything they could to stop thugs like the Empire, but it was never enough; I wanted to compare the skinheads to rats that scurried around endlessly, but I had gained too much respect for rodents over the past several months to do that. I didn't know how it was over at Arcadia, Immaculata, or Clarendon, but nobody at Winslow gave a shit about the Empire or the ABB or the Merchants, and I could only barely fault the "official" heroes for not stepping in to do anything for a school that would just turn back to crap right after they left; after all, the PRT had much bigger things to worry about, like the official Empire, or the Undersiders, or the Travelers, or Spitfire's Crew, or Uber and Leet... Okay, no, they probably didn't actually have to worry about Uber and Leet.

    Regardless, the point was that I had been sitting around with my power for the past several months, waiting for someone to solve those problems for me, or waiting for somebody to give me an opportunity to solve those problems; I just needed somebody else to get things started, and then I would go ahead and do something. Each time Eddie had Brad beat the shit out of me, he had been teaching me a lesson, yes, just not the one that he thought he was teaching me. What each fist that slammed into my gut taught me was that nobody - nobody - was going to fix my problems for me, nor were they going to give me any opportunities to do so for myself. I myself needed to create an opportunity to fix my problems, to fix Winslow's problems, hell, to even try and fix some of Brockton Bay's problems, as ambitious of a goal as that may have been. And if all of my idealism was for naught, and if I couldn't fix anybody else's problems? Well, I could at least hope to make enough money to move my mom and myself out of this fucking hellpit.

    Until I reached that point, though, until I reached the point that I genuinely believed that Winslow and Brockton were fucked and there was nothing I could do to make any of it even the tiniest bit better, I was going to try. I was going to try and use the powers that had been given to me to make my school and my city a better place for me and a better place for everybody else. I was going to try and be a superhero. I wasn't going to try and be a superhero next month, or next week, or tomorrow.

    No. I was going to try and be a superhero tonight.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
    Ack, Travisplo and Harpy81 like this.
  2. Travisplo

    Travisplo Dapper Necromonsieur, a fine undead gentleman

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    This is actually pretty interesting and seems fairly well done. I’ll definitely be watching for more.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: Scratch
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    A/N: I promise I'll take care of myself, don't worry.

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    Chapter 2: Scratch

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    Later that afternoon, I got back home to find the house empty, as it always was on weekdays. Mom always stayed a couple of hours after school let the students out so that she could grade homework and let kids swing by to talk to her if they needed. I was biased, obviously, but I was convinced that my Mom was one of the few adults at Winslow who gave anything resembling the slightest shit about her students' well-being. She was aware - far too aware - that there wasn't a whole that she could do for most of the kids, that she couldn't get that Chinese kid away from Kenta's gang, that she couldn't convince that girl with trackmarks on her arm to get help, that she couldn't move those white boys off the path to the Empire, but she tried; Mom tried to do everything she could to help her students, no matter how little of an effect it had. As long as she could improve one student's life in one tiny little way, that gave her the energy to keep moving forward.

    Of course, that nigh infinite altruism of hers extended to me, as well. Eddie was - unfortunately - smart enough to keep the fact that he, Brad, and James were beating the shit out of me away from my mom, even though she worked in the exact same building they were doing that crap to me in; Eddie knew where her class was, knew what her schedule was, knew where she would be every second of every minute of every hour of every school day. I assumed that he had help from Max in that department, or else it would be really creepy that Eddie knew so much about my mom.

    So my mom, thankfully, didn't know what was happening to me. One might think that it would be better for me if my mom knew, since then she would be able to go to the administration, and get Eddie and his friends punished, suspended, or even expelled. Unfortunately, the Empire's claws were deep into Winslow, and everybody - including my mom and I - knew it. I had seen Brad get expelled for beating a black kid's face in until you couldn't tell he had ever been a person, and yet the meathead had shown right back up the next week, as if nothing had even happened. When I had ended up asking Mom over dinner about how Brad had gotten back into Winslow, she buried her face in her hands and began to cry; shortly there-after, she began to scream, and curse, and shout, and let me know just how much she hated Winslow. Yes, she loved her classes, yes, she loved her students, and yes, she loved to teach, but she hated Winslow, down to its filthy, rotten core. But she knew that there was only so much she could do before trying to do any more became dangerous, for both her and for myself, so at some point, she just had to... Give up, and accept her defeat at the hands of corruption and bureaucracy.

    I had sometimes wondered if that sort of thing was why Max and Eddie wanted me in their little Nazi club, to have an in road to compromise the last bit of legitimate anti-Empire resistance at Winslow. All of that, of course, was why I could not, should not, and would not let my mom know about what Eddie and his friends were doing to me. She was stubborn and angry enough that she would go past the point of safety and fight for me until she got herself hurt, or worse. There was no way - no way - I was going to let that happen to my mom. I knew that she suspected that something was happening, but she hadn't yet put all of the pieces together. Until that happened, though, I had to keep what was happening at school a secret.

    ...of course, I also had to keep the fact that I was a fucking parahuman a secret, too. Mom didn't go down into our basement much anymore, primarily because it was filled with a lot of Dad's old stuff, and - as strong as Mom was - it was hard for her to be down there. So, rather than hide all of my superhero planning out for her to see in my bedroom, I stashed it all down here, in out of the way places that she wouldn't notice if she took a cursory look. I went over to my hiding spot, and pulled all of it out, setting it down for display on an old table we had down there.

    I had a notebook, that I had filled to the brim with ideas about how I would use my power. A lot of the first few pages had involved... Well, they had involved a lot of dark, violent fantasies that involved a lot of brutal, malicious killing on my part. I had tried to move past that as quickly as possible, and scratched much of it out in retrospect. After that, though, I had started to try and think up cape names - none of which sounded good by that point, by the way - and started sketching up costume ideas - I had atrocious drawing skills, but I myself could at least understand the details I had made, and that was all that mattered.

    My costume... It was hard to think up a nice, thematically appropriate costume for someone with the ability to control rodents. There was that wandering independent hero Mouse Protector, whose costume reminded a person of a certain copyrighted cartoon character, and who consistently made mouse-related puns. Nobody took her seriously, though, and she was not the type of cape I wanted to be, either way; I was not going to wear a fucking helmet with giant fucking mouse ears or oversized buck teeth. But for all my lambasting of Mouse Protector, my costume was still so ridiculously underwhelming.

    A black mask that covered the top half of my face, minus eye-holes. A black body suit. A badly spray-painted darkish grey stencil of a stylized rat's face; I kind of hated it, but I didn't have anything else at that moment to really identify me in costume. A pair of leather biker gloves that I had modified to give myself small "claws", that worked more for aesthetic purposes than offensive ones; I supposed that they could work in a pinch if I needed to hurt somebody, though. A utility belt to hold a phone, a baton, and a can of pepper spray. And... That was it. I didn't have a cool demon's mask like Imp of the Undersiders did, I didn't have the fancy formal wear that Trickster of the Travelers did, and I didn't have any of the shiny power armor that Victory Man of the local Protectorate did; I didn't have some lame-ass name like "Victory Man", at least.

    I sighed, looking at my lackluster outfit. I wanted to be able to keep improving it, keep coming up with new concepts to add onto it, to change it up, but... As I grabbed the fabric of the costume, I shook my head to myself. Those were just excuses, I knew, excuses to keep putting off the first genuine steps to becoming an actual, real superhero, and not just some scared little teenage boy who dreamed of becoming a superhero while his powers went to complete waste. It was a shitty outfit, but it would have to do, at least for now.

    I grabbed the notebook and flipped through it some more, turning to the pages where I had carefully documented the area's capes, and spent hours writing up how I could use my powers to counter theirs, assuming I was in a one-on-one situation; of course, I knew that one-on-ones were the exception to cape fights, rather than the rule, but I had to start my combat strategies somewhere. I continued going through the book, until I reached the section I was looking for, the section on Empire Eighty-Eight.

    I had particular reason to hate this gang and their villainous capes, to say the least, and I knew the location of one of their drug houses, thanks to my furry little friends and their ability to spy on Winslow's dealers. I figured that paying a bunch of Nazi fuckheads a visit would be a good way to start my hero career, and so I started going over all of the tactics I had written down for how to deal with each of their admittedly numerous parahumans.

    My heart thumped louder in my chest as I did so, and by the time I heard my mom pull into the driveway, my veins felt like they carried more adrenaline than blood. I was going to do it. I was going to be a superhero.

    ----------

    My mom, thankfully, was an early sleeper, and she had gone to bed around nine in the evening; she liked to get up early in the morning to go for runs, something she had apparently picked up when she herself was in high school. I thanked my lucky stars for giving me such a fitness conscious mother, and - once I was sure that she really was firmly asleep - I went down to the basement and gathered up my gear.

    It was technically the middle of the Spring season, but given that I was going out in the middle of the night, and given Brockton Bay's latitude, it was still fairly chilly. I was happy that I had ordered a bodysuit that had relatively good insulation, even though I knew that it might come back to bite me if I did any heroics during the Summer - which I intended to do, of course. My power didn't have any Mover facets to it - I had tried to make a "carpet" of rats to carry me along, and it had failed spectacularly, to say the least - so I had to make my way over to the Empire's territory on foot. I didn't have my mask on just yet, since I didn't need the whole world to know that I was some wannabe cape on my way somewhere, and I wore clothes that concealed the bodysuit underneath; a white kid walking through Empire territory, even at eleven at night, wasn't a particularly odd sight, so nobody gave me any trouble, thankfully.

    I started to walk a bit more cautiously once I approached the area where I knew their drug house was, though, as I suspected that security might be a bit tighter around that particular location. I didn't actually know exactly where the place was, so I began using my rodents to search around and try to pick up on snippets of conversation. As I tucked myself away behind a dumpster located in a nearby alley, I closed my eyes and focused on my swarm. Rats, mice, and other small, furry creatures had... Relatively okay vision and hearing compared to humans, at least for what I had been trying to use them for. Their sight was exceedingly blurry compared to a person with twenty-twenty vision, and they didn't do too great with colors, either. They technically had better hearing than a human did, but being able to pick up a wider range of sounds and noises meant that a rat's tiny brain had to process all that much more audio information coming in. Rodents, of course, had pretty good olfactory senses, but it was difficult to use those when trying to figure out where a storage of drugs was.

    ...well, it would be difficult, if I assumed that a bunch of Neo-Nazis were smart enough to keep their drugs properly stored. During the time I spent experimenting with my power at Winslow, I had managed to gain an understanding of how rats sensed various illicit substances by having them hang out around some of the Merchant kids; the rats I used were so good at picking up the scent of drugs that I could probably have made a career of using them as a replacement for dogs at airports. Sure enough, some dumbass skinhead had left a bunch of meth rocks out on the table, and sending one of my critters to chew open a nearby plastic bag confirmed that they were being used to store more of the crystals. Bingo.

    "...there you fucking rat!" One of the Empire thugs had apparently noticed the animal I was using to scout their place, as he had angrily kicked at the critter, causing it to squeak in pain before I had it run away; a cursory examination of his internal organs using my power suggested that he hadn't been mortally injured by the blow, so I sent him off out of my range, freeing him from service under me. I did grab a mouse, though, which was small enough that I hoped that they wouldn't notice when I sent this one in to size up my opponents.

    Setting my scout up on a windowsill inside of the house, I saw a number of what looked like regular, unpowered enforcers. They had what looked like guns in their hands or on their person, but I had expected that. There were a good number of them, which made sense when they had such a large stash of drugs that needed protecting. There was also...

    Oh. Oh crap. Crusader was there, too. Fucking Crusader, one of Steinn's lieutenants. What the fuck was he doing here?! This was just some fucking drug den! It wasn't like it was the Empire's headquarters, or something?! Shit, shit, shit, this was bad, there was no way I was going to be able to take on Crusader, especially not with all of those thugs with him, I had to leave, I had to...

    No. I stopped those thoughts, returning my attention to my own body for the moment. I took a few deep breaths while clenching and unclenching my hands. I had told myself that I was going to start being a hero tonight, and part of being a hero meant taking risks, part of being a hero meant fighting uphill, against the odds. So what if Crusader was there, in his armor, with his spear, and with his however many fucking clones of himself that he could spawn? So what if he had a bunch of big, muscular men carrying firearms that could end my life in a lethal shot? I... I... I was going to be a fucking hero.

    I closed my eyes again, hugging my body back against the dumpster, trying to let the dark of my costume blend in with the dark of the alleyway. I placed my focus back on all of the rodents I could feel in my radius; these weren't just rats and mice, but also a few squirrels, along with guinea pigs, rabbits, and hamsters that some people were keeping as pets, though I wouldn't attempt to use the domestics for anything, especially since they were all caged up anyways. Regardless, I began gathering up all of the free-roaming critters around the drug house, keeping them as concealed as I was while I waited for them to all make their way over. I couldn't just trickle my rodents in, unless I wanted them to get picked off one by one by the Empire thugs; I had to gather as many as I could, before swarming them with my army of fuzzy little friends.

    Before I had really reached the point I wanted, though, the mouse I was using to keep an eye on Crusader and the rest noticed that the Nazi cape was starting to move. Where was he going? There was no way I could tell. I could follow him, but what if he was getting ready to leave? What if I kept waiting, and I couldn't catch him with the rest of the thugs?

    Why was I now actively trying to catch motherfucking Crusader in this trap?

    I had to act at that moment, or all of the courage and impetuousness I had built up would be for naught. On my command, hundreds of rodents scampered their way into the building, climbing, scratching, and biting on both the normal Empire men and Crusader, as well. Most people have never been really bitten by a rodent, as in genuinely, truly bitten. They don't have an actual understanding of just how fucking sharp a rat's teeth is, and they certainly don't understand how much power is behind a squirrel's bite. One has to consider that a squirrel's teeth are designed to penetrate things like walnut shells; then one would have to consider what a squirrel's bite - a real, serious squirrel's bite - could do to a human's flesh.

    Yeah. Those Empire shitheads were bleeding, to say the least, bleeding and screaming. I made sure to stay away from eyes, genitals, or any other "critical" areas, and I made sure not to bite off fingers or toes, but everything else was fair game, as far as I was concerned. I didn't want to mutilate these Nazi fuckers, but I was still willing to make them reconsider their choice in career and ideology. Unfortunately for me, Crusader wasn't as fragile as the rest of them; the first issue wasn't even his powers, but his armor, instead, which was durable enough to keep even the squirrels from penetrating it. "Master! Fan out, find the fucker! He'll be hiding somewhere!" And god damnit, the guy was a lot smarter than he seemed from the reports, and way more intelligent than any white supremacist thug had any right to be.

    My rodents began looking for any leather straps that may have been keeping Crusader's armor together - just like I had thought about in my notes - as I figured that my swarm would at least be able to chew through those in order to expose the man's succulent flesh underneath. The mice I had positioned near the front of my alleyway watched as the Empire men began running around in an attempt to fight me, and... Wait. Why the fuck had I taken up position on the fucking ground?! Stupid, stupid, fucking stupid! You're a Sod damned moron, Danny! Shit, shit, fucking shit! I had been physically training since I gained my powers for the express purpose of being able to do shit like scaling fire escapes and otherwise climbing up buildings to be able to gain a vantage from which to control my horde, and tonight I had just decided for some reason, hey, why not just sit in a fucking alleyway.

    I couldn't stay there. One of the soldiers would eventually find me there. If I used my swarm to keep them out of that alleyway, they'd eventually figure out that the rats were defending somebody in there. I had to move, I had to get somewhere safer. I turned my focus back to my body again, using the back of my mind to keep the assault on Crusader and his men up with my rodents. My squirrels found the leather of his armor, and immediately began chewing; unfortunately, Crusader's clones began using their spears to surgically kill the rodents I had crawling over the man himself, and the momentum I had developed through my sneak attack was slowing down, not least because I now had to pay attention to keeping myself safe as well as attacking him.

    Seriously, great job, Danny. You did wonderfully. Amazingly.

    Gritting my teeth and shaking the self-annoyance for the moment, I stood up and began looking around. There had to be some place, some position I could make my way to, so that I could...

    "Found the fucker! He's over here!" I turned to see an Empire thug at the entrance to the alleyway, motioning his comrades over. Fuck shit crap bitch God damnit! I instantly threw all of my nearby rodents at the man, causing him to fall to the ground and scream in pain as pieces of his body were chewed off; I didn't bother letting my rodents enjoy the human meat, though, and I had them simply spit out whatever they bit off and give the man another bite. I still wasn't going to bite his fingers off, but I made sure to give his hand enough torture that he dropped his gun. Once I was sure that he was sufficiently disabled, I ordered my swarm over to the approaching skinheads; they shot into the horde, killing a number of the rodents, but there were enough that the men simply couldn't stop the tide. More of the Empire soldiers fell to my rats as teeth sunk into flesh.

    And me? I fucking ran. I had my baton and my pepper spray and my "claws", but I wasn't about to go up against some thug with a gun, and I was not about to go toe-to-toe with Crusader, to say the fucking least. In retrospect, though, running out onto a very open, very visible street may not have been the best course of action, as I soon realized that - while my attention was busy elsewhere - Crusader had made his way out of the drug den, and was currently in the air, scouting around for me. Once I had done him the service of leaving the concealing darkness of the alleyway, he immediately began diving in my direction; as he made his way towards the ground, he split off into several clones, all of which leveled their spears as the original also did so.

    If I had been one inch closer to Crusader and his phantom army, I was pretty sure that I would have died, a miserable ending to my first night out as a "hero". Instead, I simply flew several yards backwards from the force of the man slamming into the asphalt in front of me. Even as I felt my body bruise - bruises on top of the bruises that Brad had given me earlier in the day - I focused back on the swarm; I dragged every critter I had anywhere else on this battlefield, and directed them all towards Crusader. I had managed to cause a few pieces of his armor to fall off, and some of the smaller rodents managed to squeeze in through gaps in the plating and find... Chainmail underneath. Of course. Of fucking course. Considering the fact that if I gave into despair and defeat at that point would mean that I would probably die at the hands of this Neo-Nazi shithead, I had one of the mice I had underneath his armor try to bite through the chainmail, while another sought for any parts of his body not covered in the material. Thankfully, even though I hadn't begun to cause actual damage to the man yet, he apparently decided to give me breathing room while most of his clones worked on killing the animals swarming their master.

    I say "most" because Crusader had deigned to send one of the phantoms at me, and that single phantom was enough to make me scramble around on the ground as I dodged spear thrusts that shattered ground where I had just been. Finally, though, finally, one of my mice found a piece of exposed skin on Crusader's body, and I had it bite as hard as its muscles allowed it to. I didn't get much out of the man besides a growl of annoyance, but it was a start. More of his armor clattered to the ground as my rats and squirrels continued to bite at the leather straps, and more mice managed to squeeze in and find flesh for their teeth to dig into, and... They stopped coming. My rodents. I had ran out of my critters. I had hundreds of them when my ambush started, and Crusader and his thugs had managed to kill most of them by this point. My larger creatures had finally managed to get in under Crusader's protection, but the precise attacks of his clones were finishing off the last ones.

    I was dead. I was dead. I was dead I was dead I was fucking dead. I knew I shouldn't have tried this. I knew I wasn't cut out to be a hero. I should have just joined the Empire, like how Eddie wanted me to. I should have just dropped out of school, and stayed in my room. I should have just... I should have just...

    "Out of the way, fuckaroo!" Out of nowhere, I suddenly heard something vaguely akin to a motorcycle running down the street. There was a man in power armor driving in the front, while a wide-grinning teenage kid with dark skin rode passenger behind him, apparently the one who had shouted the vulgar greeting; in a sidecar was a fucking massive guy around the black kid's age, all muscle and way taller than even I was - and I was a beanpole compared to the average teenage boy - whose arm... No. No matter how much a regular human worked out, they could not get an arm that large. Attached to a fist that was as disproportionate as the arm itself was a pair of knuckle dusters, which were also stupidly huge. Upon seeing the trio on their obviously Tinkertech motorbike, I instantly understood what their plan was, and I curled up into a ball on the ground, trying to protect myself however I could.

    One of my surviving mice watched as Crusader turned around just in time for the teenager with the gargantuan arm to slam the knuckle dusters into the Nazi's face. The phantoms disappeared as Crusader flew even further than I had, and at a sufficient enough angle that the man's body slammed into a nearby building with a satisfying noise; I vaguely realized that most of the armor plates had been removed by my rodents at that point, and I silently allowed myself a small celebration for perhaps having had contributed to the force of that blow in some, minuscule way.

    "Yooo, Biter! Good fuckin' job, man! You see how that Nazi fucker flew?!" The dark-skinned teenager hopped off the back of the motorcycle, and ran right past me to take a look at Crusader, who seemed to safely be out cold for the moment.

    "Barker, be careful. He could wake up any second." The guy that was still massive even when his arm had shrunk down to a relatively "normal" size approached me. I tensed up for a moment, wondering if he was going to be a new enemy of some sort, but calmed down when he reached a hand down to help me up. I accepted his assistance, though I made very sure to note to never go up against this guy in a fist fight as I felt his grip strength. The older man on the motorcycle stayed there, keeping watch out for any Empire reinforcements. As I stood up, I looked around me, and tried to get an understanding of whatever the fuck had just happened.

    "Well well. Isn't this unexpected? We had hoped to take this Empire outpost down ourselves, but it appears that you've already done most of the work for us." A person walked out of a nearby alleyway, some other kind of cape dressed up in a jester or a harlequin's outfit. I... Actually couldn't tell if they were a man or a woman, but I didn't spend too much time on that question. What was more important was that they weren't the ones who had spoken, as I saw another figure hidden in the darkness of the alleyway that the jester had just come out from.

    "Who... Who are you folks?" I was still aching from what damage Crusader had caused me, and I breathed hard between each word I spoke.

    "Oh. Forgive my rudeness." The person that had been behind the harlequin walked out into the lights of the nearby streetlamps, and I finally managed to get a good look at him. I managed to tell that he was another teenager around my age - and just as tall, albeit not as tall as the muscular guy next to me - though the voice he used spoke of some degree of maturity far beyond his years. Besides that, though, it was hard to identify any defining features on him; this was primarily due to the full-body black suit that covered not only below the neck, but also his entire head, with a stylized white snake winding itself around the costume and ending on the forehead portion. Everything about his pose, his mannerisms, and the way he carried himself suggested to me that no matter how old this kid was, he was dangerous.

    "You can call me Coil. And I do believe that I would like to make you an offer."
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: Scavenge
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 3: Scavenge

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    I vaguely knew who Coil was, of course. I had scoured every piece of information related to Brockton Bay capes from the internet that I could, so I knew just about everything about Coil that he had let slip. The problem was that Coil hadn't actually let much at all slip. For example, I had no fucking clue what his power was, though everybody assumed that it must be some kind of Thinker ability since there was no trace of anything else; either that, or he was keeping it in reserve and using it out of sight. I knew that my assumption was right and that he was probably a teenager around my age, maybe a little older, but there was virtually no personal information about him beyond that, given the costume he wore. His first recorded bit of activity happened earlier this year, in January, right around when I developed my powers. He primarily operated by going after the criminals and the gangs, attacking their outposts, drug manufacturies, storehouses, and caches; him and his gang swept in, grabbed everything of value, and swept out. Since everything that Coil did involved stealing, vandalizing, and assaulting, a lot of people classified him as a villain. On the other hand, since Coil only hit criminals and villains, a lot of other people classified him as a hero, albeit an independent and morally questionable one. Some took the middle ground, and just classified the guy as a rogue. The PRT had opted to just leave him alone until he did something worth worrying about. Me? I had no fucking clue what to think, even less so now that he was actually standing right in front of me.

    I had a good idea about the people in Coil's gang. Or was it Coil's crew? His group? His pack? I had no idea what to call his organization, but I managed to recognize the members regardless. Biter had already been pointed out by his partner, Barker; aside from his gigantic stature (that he regularly made even larger with his power) he wore gloves, jeans, and something resembling part of a bear trap on his face as a mask. Barker, on the other hand, didn't even bother with a mask; his power was always on, and every time he spoke he generated gas. Since there would never be any way for him to meaningfully conceal his identity, he opted for just a black t-shirt and some jeans, both of which seemed a bit too large for his thin, short body. The man on the motorcycle I assumed to be Chariot, even though I couldn't quite get a good look at him. He was a Tinker that had been in Coil's employ for about the past month now; nobody quite knew what his specialty was, but everybody did point out that everything he made went really, really fast. The jester/harlequin person must have been Circus, a grab-bag cape that had been working with Coil since around February.

    Before I could wonder where he was, the last member of Coil's gang made his way towards us from where the Empire's drug house was - or had been, judging by the flames creeping out from the windows at that point. Trainwreck, another Tinker, who primarily worked with a set of power armor that looked like it belonged in some Jules Verne story, or something; what was visible of his teenaged face was horrifically ugly, to say the least, and some people speculated that he was actually a Case 53, though there was no proof one way or the other. At that moment, though, Trainwreck was carrying a small bag which looked even tinier in his oversized metal hand, which he handed to Circus. "Every dollar I could find, boss."

    Coil didn't turn his head towards the Tinker, though I couldn't tell if his eyes had shifted behind his suit or not. "Very good, Trainwreck. How much, would you say?"

    The steampunk kid pursed his lips for a moment in thought, revealing the rotten teeth behind them. "Eh. Fifty grand?"

    My eyes went wide as Coil nodded. There was fifty grand in that bag? That bag that was sitting a few fucking feet away from me in Circus' arms? That was more than my mom made in a single God damned year! And it was right there, all in one place! The black-suited guy spoke up. "Good. Circus, please take twenty thousand from the bag and hand it to our friend over here." My eyes watched as the jester person took the few steps necessary to reach me, before they reached into the bag and carefully counted out twenty thousand dollars. Once Circus had retrieved the amount that Coil had requested of them, the harlequin handed it over to me. They handed it over to me, and gave me twenty thousand fucking dollars.

    I dumbly held the stacks of cash in my hand as I looked around. Biter had gone over to where Barker was standing over Crusader, and they had bound the man up in what looked like Tinkertech handcuffs. Chariot was still sitting on his bike, continuing to watch for more Empire. Trainwreck, Circus, and Coil were all standing in front of me. I couldn't strictly see the expression on their leader's face, but I was pretty sure he was smiling. I looked down to the money, then back up at Coil. "What?" It was all I could say, really.

    The black-suited teen just sort of laughed, albeit not in a derisive fashion. "It's your portion of the proceeds for taking down this outpost, ah..." Coil tilted his head in a questioning manner. "I don't believe I know your name yet."

    I shook my head as I clenched the money close to me, almost worried that it would disappear if it didn't. "I... I don't have one, yet. I mean, a cape name. I have a real name, obviously, but... Not a cape name, though."

    Circus smiled at that, though I couldn't tell what kind of smile it was. Coil, meanwhile, continued his explanation. "Ah, well. Either way, as I said, it's your portion of the proceeds for taking down this output." I saw an eyebrow raise behind his suit. "You will accept your share, yes? If for some reason you'd rather not, I would be more than happy to add it back to the proverbial pot."

    I shook my head rapidly. "No! I mean, no, it's fine. Erm. Yes, I want it. I'll accept the share, I mean. But..." I looked down at the money again. Twenty thousand dollars, out of fifty thousand dollars. I could barely comprehend those numbers, even though part of me had gone out tonight with the hope that I could make some money out of this. I did the math, though, before raising my face back up to look at Coil. "If you guys keep only thirty thousand, though-" Only thirty thousand, Jesus Christ. "-you'll... There's six of you, right? So thirty thousand, split six ways, you each only get five thousand dollars. And I get four times that."

    Trainwreck laughed, and it was as ugly of a noise as the guy himself was; it didn't seem malicious, though, so I tried not to judge too much. "Well would'ja look at that! Rat Kid's basically a math wizard!" As insulting as the words might have come off like - and as annoying as being labeled "Rat Kid" was - I could tell that the Tinker didn't mean any genuinely harm or insult by it. I still grimaced a bit, though.

    Coil chuckled a bit, before responding to his team mate. "Now now, Trainwreck. Our friend over here is just being conscientious, isn't he?" He looked towards me for confirmation, but all I could get out was the smallest of nods. "That's quite a sense of fairness you have there, you know. Wanting to make sure that everybody gets an equal share." I thought I could see another grin appear behind Coil's suit, but I wasn't sure how benign this one was. "But consider this. You did most of the work for us, you know." The expression on my face must have looked ridiculously stupid, because Coil sighed before continuing. "You disabled every single last one of the unpowered Empire soldiers before we arrived." The black-costumed teenager stepped towards me for emphasis. "Every single last one. That's half of the work right there."

    One of his fingers pointed towards where Barker and Biter stood over Crusader's limp body. "Then, even though you weren't able to completely immobilize him, you crippled Crusader by taking apart his armor, piece by piece." My eyes followed Coil's finger, and I stared at where the Nazi cape was laying on the concrete of the sidewalk. "Biter may have delivered the proverbial killing blow-" Coil seemed to think of something, before quickly calling out to Barker and Biter. "Hey! Crusader isn't dead, correct?" Both of Coil's minions shook their heads in his direction, and the black-suited teen sighed before continuing. "I apologize. It would just be very bad if we actually killed one of the Empire's finest. They would use that as justification to come after us in full force. Anyways, as I was saying." Coil stepped over towards Circus, taking the bag of money from her. Pulling out another stack of cash, he continued explaining. "Biter may have delivered the killing blow, but Crusader would have likely walked away from that punch if his armor was intact, and if you hadn't been distracting him." Coil looked over his shoulder at me, his eyebrows raising in emphasis. "Really, if anything, we're short-changing you here."

    Twenty thousand dollars was short-changing me? I looked down at the money, again, as if still unable to fully comprehend that it was real, that I was actually holding that much cash in my hands. I shook my head before turning my gaze back up to Coil. "No. Uhm. It's fine, honestly. You guys, uhm. You saved me, y'know. From getting skewered by Crusader. So, uhh. I don't mind letting you guys have the other thirty thousand. Yeah." I started to tuck the wads of cash into my utility belt compartments wherever I had room, but it was a fairly awkward process.

    Trainwreck chuckled a bit as he saw me fumbling with the money, while Coil took a few steps over to me and spoke again. "Now then. Back to the offer I mentioned earlier. I haven't heard of any capes in Brockton Bay who can control rodents, nor any capes in general who can do that, so I'm assuming that this is your first night out?" I nodded in response, closing up my utility belt securely to make sure that the money wouldn't fall out. "Regardless of whether or not we had to 'save' you from Crusader, you did a spectacular job here, tonight. You've clearly been practicing your powers, and while you're still a little rough around the edges, I think any of the cape groups in Brockton would be pleased to have you." I blushed a little bit at his praise, but then immediately realized where Coil was going with this line of conversation. "So. How would you like to come work with us?"

    "What?" For the second time that night, I had no response but looking like an idiot and muttering out a single-worded question like that.

    Coil didn't seem to mind the stupidity on my face, though, and he continued speaking confidently. "I don't think it would be rude of me to say that it's fairly obvious that you're not used to making large amounts of money in a single night like this." He pointed at the cash, and my cheeks flared up further as I nodded. "If you come work with me - or if you come work for me, depending upon how you would like to see it - I can guarantee that you will be making at least twice that much every month. Ten thousand dollars a week, on average."

    My jaw dropped open. I could make nearly as much as my mom makes in a year within a single month. I could move her and myself out of this shitty fucking city in, what? A month, two, maybe three at most? If I spent long enough with Coil, hell, I could move us to some Caribbean island for the rest of our lives, give my mom the life that she deserves. Physically shaking my head to fling those fantasies out of my head, I opened my mouth partway and began to start. "No, I, uhm..."

    Coil held up a hand, stopping me before I could stumble over my words any further. "No, I understand. The money is a nice bonus, but that's not the primary reason you're trying to use your powers for, is it?" I stared at the teenager opposite me, trying to get a good gauge on him; the fact that his stupid black suit concealed most of his face didn't help in that department, though. More than anything, I just couldn't believe that someone around my age was just so... Confident. Coil continued before I could think on that subject any more. "You fancy yourself a hero, yes?"

    "I, uhm, I mean, uhh..." Once more, I tried and failed to form a response. Jesus Christ, Danny. Seriously, way to go. Good showing, on your first night out, babbling like an idiot.

    Coil smiled soothingly from behind his suit, tilting his head a little bit as he spoke. "No, don't worry. We don't have anything against heroes. Some of the more impetuous members of New Wave have tried to disrupt us, but the PRT has mostly left us alone. And it's not as if we have any problems with independent heroes that don't bother us, either." He looked at me pointedly as he said that. "Now. I'm not going to pretend that our little troupe here is heroic. We steal. We burglarize. We vandalize. The fact that we only target criminals doesn't change that fact. We might not be classified as villains, but it's not as if we don't do villainous things." I nodded at Coil, to show that I was following along. "But what if I told you that I had heroic goals in mind behind all of it?"

    The look of doubt on my face must have been obvious, because Coil laughed loudly before continuing. "I will admit, friend, that I don't have heroic motivations behind it. I'm doing what I'm doing because I'm proud, and I'm vain, and I'm egotistical." He was being... Awfully honest about this. "But it's not as if a number of 'official' heroes aren't all of those things and worse, anyways." I knew that the Protectorates and the Wards weren't exactly perfect angels, but I still felt my hands clench into fists as he so casually insulted them. Seeing my brief flash of anger, Coil put his hands up plaintively and apologized. "Ah. Forgive me. I was being a bit too facetious, perhaps. Regardless, though, the point is this." The teenager swept his hand around him at all of the dilapidated buildings and worn-down infrastructure surrounding us. "Brockton Bay, if you'll pardon my language, is a shithole."

    I felt my hands relax as Coil said that, my heart jumping a moment as I heard the boy repeat the same exact sentiment that I had been having so often for so long. He continued speaking, as I watched him pace for what was doubtlessly meant as dramatic effect. "Brockton Bay is a shithole, because of people like him." Coil pointed at Crusader as punctuation. "People like him, and the rest of the Empire, and the young start-up gangs like the ABB and the Merchants at Winslow." My breathing hitched as he looked at me while mentioning Winslow. Did he know? Could he guess? I didn't have time to think too hard on the subject before Coil kept speaking. "You have thugs for hire like Spitfire, like Uber and Leet - as ridiculous as those two might be - who run roughshod across Brockton Bay like they own the place. " Coil raised his hands in the air, raising his voice a little bit as he finished. "And then, to top it all off, you have the people who do own the place. Groups like the Undersiders or the Travelers who practically control the city, even in the 'better' areas of Brockton Bay, as they have more power than even the official city government manages." He walked over to me slowly, holding his hands behind his back and leaning in close before speaking in a soft whisper. "I want to fix this, and I am going to do that by getting rid of all of them. All of the gangs. All of the thugs. All of the criminals. And, my good hero, I want you to help me do all of that."

    As Coil drew back, I furrowed my brows. The guy was a great public speaker, to say the least, and I found myself being swayed by his words. I wasn't stupid, though, and I knew that a lot of what he was saying was probably just what he knew that I wanted to hear, what he knew would get me onto his side. I squinted my eyes as I tried to throw at least something back at Coil. "And what's your plan after that, huh? Aren't you just gonna like, take-over where they left off? Become the new teenage criminal underlord of Brockton Bay, or something? How, uhh. How's that gonna improve the city?" Shit, I must have sounded so weak, so stupid. I was just flailing desperately in some pathetic attempt to rebuke everything he had said.

    With a shrug, Coil turned to look off in the distance, down the street, before responding to my question. "I haven't thought that far ahead yet." I knew that was a lie, and he knew that I knew that was a lie, but it seemed like neither of us was willing to call the other out. "But let's say that I did want to become the new teenage criminal underlord of Brockton Bay, as you so eloquently put it." The teasing voice Coil put on wasn't one hundred percent charitable as he spoke. "You've only known me for some minutes now, but wouldn't you say that it would be a vast improvement to have someone like me in charge, as opposed to someone like him?" He pointed at Crusader again. "I'm pragmatic, hero. I don't attack people just because I don't like the color of their skin. I'm not like that maniac Hellhound, who brutalizes anybody that gets on her bad side. I'm not like that stubborn oaf Ballistic, who runs his territory like a spoiled child would. I want to fix this city, hero. I want to make it work." He snapped his fingers and pointed at Circus, who walked over and handed me a business card - a fucking business card, Jesus Christ. It was simple, with nothing but a bold-fonted "COIL" followed by a phone number and an address. "I trust you enough that I don't think that you'll hand that to anybody that would use it against us, would you?" It wasn't a question, since he already knew the answer; I shook my head anyways, just to provide a proper response.

    Coil whistled, and gathered up his crew around him. "Someone from the PRT is on their way, so we'll need to take our leave, for now. I recommend you don't let them know about the cash you have, unless they want to confiscate it for... 'Evidence'." Another smile that I could see behind the black suit. "Regardless, though, think on my offer, hero. I can tell that you want to fix this city, too. That you want to make this city work." As I watched Barker and Biter head towards Chariot's motorcycle, Trainwreck turned himself into a vehicle; I didn't have the time to comprehend just how fucking cool that was before Coil spoke up once more. "You have my number. You have my address." Another smirk, but this time layered with that same sense of danger I had before. "I hope to see you soon, hero." Circus and him climbed onto Trainwreck, and all six of them made their way off into the night.

    Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. What in the actual fuck had just happened? Once Coil's crew had disappeared from sight, I finally had the moment necessary to feel just how fast and hard my heart was beating, to feel just how heavy I was breathing. Unfortunately, that moment didn't last very long, as I saw some sort of PRT-issued motorcycle approaching from down the street. I tried to consider exactly what I wanted to do, but I opted to stay where I was, rather than just run or hide. After all, it wasn't as if I was a villain or anything, right?

    ...right? The wads of cash felt heavy in my utility belt compartments.

    As the rider approached, I was able to make him out as Clockblocker, one of the local Protectorate members. I supposed that this was probably one of the better scenarios for encountering a Protectorate member on my first night out - he was a better option than the lame-ass Victory Man or the hard-ass Vista, anyways - but I would have preferred Aegis over anybody else. Regardless, though, Clockblocker was who I got, so I tried to compose myself and take on as professional of a stance as I could while the hero pulled up to where Crusader and I were.

    Clockblocker got off his motorcycle and took several long, painfully awkward seconds to look from me, to Crusader, to the indentation in the brick wall that Crusader had made, to where there were a dozen Empire soldiers writhing around on the ground in pain from having pieces of their flesh bitten off by rodents, to where the Empire drug house was slowly burning up. "Can somebody please tell me why I was the one on duty tonight?" It wasn't a real question, and it wasn't actually directed at anybody in particular. With a sigh, he raised a hand to where his ear would be underneath his helmet, and spoke to someone on the other end. "Hey, Vista? Yeah, fight's already over. Crusader's down, same with a bunch of unpowered skinheads. One of their drug houses is on fire, so if you could get something for that, too, that would be great. Anybody else? Uhh, I dunno, lemme look around." For a moment, I thought that I had suddenly developed Stranger powers, since Clockblocker seemed to be staring right at me.

    Instead, the hero took his hand off of his helmet and walked over to me. "Alright, Rat Kid-" Why the fuck did everyone keep calling me 'Rat Kid'?! I really needed to get a name sorted out for me. "-I'm not gonna... I'm not gonna... Pfft. I'm not gonna rat you out to the PRT if you don't want me to." Yeah, I definitely wanted Aegis. Clockblocker took a few seconds to laugh at his own joke before continuing. "As far as... Hehe, rat you out... Uhm. I mean, anyways, as far as I can tell, you've done the city and the PRT a favor here by taking out these Nazi punks for us." He took a look at Crusader and the wall again, before turning back to me. "But I'm going to assume that the swarm of rats that we heard about wouldn't be capable of doing that, I'm guessing?" I shook my head slowly, before Clockblocker continued. "Yeah, I figured. That means that either Crusader flung himself into a brick wall - which I doubt, though that would be funny as hell to see - or that there was someone else here with you." I could tell less about Clockblocker's expression than I could about Coil's, since the hero's helmet completely concealed his face. For my part, I just sort of stood there and gulped. The hero put his hands up plaintively, and said: "Hey. I'm not gonna make you rat... Err, I'm not gonna make you tell on your friends if you don't want to. If they even are your friends. This is the first time I've seen you, Rat Kid-"

    Okay, that was enough. I interrupted him, hero or no hero. "Please. Please stop. My name is not Rat Kid, nor will it ever be."

    Clockblocker stopped for a moment, before nodding slowly. "Alright. You're not Rat Kid. What's your name, then, not-Rat Kid?"

    It was my turn to stop, as I shuffled my feet around, grimace, and looked away from Clockblocker. "I, uhh. I don't have one yet. But it's definitely not going to be Rat Kid."

    Clockblocker shrugged and sighed, before saying: "Well, I guess I'll just call you 'kid', then." I ruffled a bit at that, but I supposed that he did need to call me something. "Anyways, like I said, I'm guessing this is your first night out?" I nodded at the second time I'd received that question in about half an hour. "I don't know if you did this to like, get a good looking resume for the Wards, or whatever, but if you did, yeah, I'm pretty sure they'd be glad to have you, even if you didn't do it all yourself."

    And here I thought that being given a round-about offer to join the Wards would have made me jump for joy. Unfortunately for me, the quite snake-like Coil had caused me to have second thoughts. It wasn't just the money; though I wasn't going to pretend that it wasn't the money, either, as I doubted that Wards made forty thousand dollars a month. It was that, even if he was saying it just to get me on his good side, Coil did genuinely sound like he wanted to fix this city, to make it better, to kick out all of the skinheads and drug dealers and criminals, even if it was only for the sake of his own ego. Mind you, I had wanted to become a hero and join the Wards to be able to do all of that in a legal, official capacity, but... Christ, where had the "official" authorities ever managed to get with any of that? Winslow was still a high school practically controlled by the Empire while the ABB and the Merchants tore the place up for scraps. The Undersiders and the Travelers did have more de facto authority than the city government had. All of these fucking parahuman gangs in Brockton Bay, and the PRT had been unable to do anything meaningful about them.

    On the other hand, I didn't want to work with someone like Coil, who was a villain in all but actuality. He wanted to do things underhandedly, he wanted to do things illegally, he wanted to do things criminally, even if he wouldn't come out straight and say it. What would be the difference between the gangs running the city and this teenaged, black-suited supervillain running the city? He said that he had plans, and he seemed smart enough, but he was young enough to still be in high school. Could a kid like him, a kid the same age as me, really manage to fix the city and make it work better? Even if he could, would I be okay working with him? Would my own heart, my own soul, be able to take working with a person like Coil, whose aesthetic motif was - I had to reiterate - a fucking snake? More than that, would my mom be able to take it if she knew that I was working with a villain? What would Dad think, if he was still around?

    When it looked like Clockblocker was about to run out of patience waiting for my answer, I spoke up and responded. "I! Uhm. Sorry. I... Think I want to join the Wards, but I guess I just..." I rubbed one arm with the opposite hand, sheepishly looking away from the hero. What would the man even think, being told that a new cape didn't want to join the official superhero group? Would he take me in, assuming me to be a villain-in-the-making? I had to give him a proper answer either way, though. "...I kind of need to think some more about what I want to do. With my powers, I mean. What kind of cape career I want."

    I couldn't see behind Clockblocker's mask, of course, but I could still practically feel the expression on his face. With another sigh, he reached out to my shoulder, and I flinched when I thought that he was going to freeze me and get me ready to be brought into the PRT cells. Instead, he just gave me a bit of a pat on the shoulder, and nodded. "Hey, kid, I get you, I really do. Trust me, I fuckin' hate working with the PRT a lot of the time. It's so fuckin' stuffy in there, always businesslike all the time, always proper." He took the hand off of my shoulder before stretching his arms out, as if to punctuate his statement. "Don't get me wrong, though, kid. I love being a hero. And I've only just met you, but you seem like the kind of guy that would love being a hero, too. But I'm not gonna force you to come along, I'm not gonna drag you down to PRT headquarters and draft you into the Wards, or anything. Vista might do that, maybe even Gallant would, but I'm not going to."

    I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, as my whole body relaxed. Clockblocker chuckled a little bit, before continuing. "Hey, kid, seriously, don't worry about it. If you do swing by the PRT HQ, I'll put in a good word, let them know what you did here tonight. And if you don't, then you don't." The hero's tone suddenly shifted into something far more serious than I had ever expected that it could. "But I'm just saying. If you do end up becoming a villain-" I made a motion as if to speak up, but he stopped me and kept going. "-not saying you will, but if you do become a villain, I'm going to treat you like I treat every other villain, okay? I'm gonna beat your ass, and I'm gonna haul you in, okay?" I gulped again, before nodding slowly. Clockblocker's voice pitched up into joviality again, as I heard the smile behind his mask. "Good! Anyways, if you don't wanna get spotted by the rest of the PRT, probably a good time to get out of here. The vans should be here any minute to pick up Crusader and his buddies."

    I shuffled on my feet as I nodded again. Clockblocker turned around to survey the scene, but he looked back my way when I spoke up. "Umm! Mister Clockblocker! Uhm. Sir. Thank... Erm. Thank you, Clockblocker. I really do appreciate it."

    "No problem, kid. Seriously, though, skedaddle." The hero gave me a salute that turned into waving me off, before he pressed his hand to his helmet again. "Yeah, sorry, Vista. Couldn't find the rat person or whoever it was. Just Crusader and the Empire soldiers. Should be safe for the reinforcements to come in."

    As Clockblocker went to check on Crusader, I started jogging away from the scene, back in the direction of my house. I didn't actually know how I expected my first night out as a cape would go, but I certainly didn't expect it to go like this. I felt the money in my utility belt jiggle around as I ran - a hand went to make sure that it was properly secured, as I was not about to lose twenty thousand fucking dollars right after getting it - and my head worked overtime to process everything that had happened. Fighting Crusader, okay, that was simple enough, even if I had almost died. Encountering Coil, yeah, hadn't expected that. Being given money by Coil and being asked to join his group? Yeah, certainly hadn't fucking expected that. I knew I'd probably encounter a Protectorate member or a Ward, so seeing Clockblocker wasn't that much of a shock. What was a shock was not being able to immediately respond with a "Yes, please, God please." when the subject of joining the Wards came up.

    My head swam with images of Coil, of Clockblocker, of Crusader, of twenty thousand dollars. I wanted to yell in frustration, but I was worried what kind of attention that would draw. Instead, I clenched my jaw, grit my teeth, and just screamed as hard as I could into my throat. It didn't help.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: Conflict
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 4: Clash

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    Clockblocker had apparently kept his word, as I didn't find any PRT agents hot on my heels as I made my way back home that night; thankfully, I didn't find any Empire thugs doing the same, either. Even so, I ran as fast as my legs and my lungs would allow me, which honestly wasn't that fast considering how bruised my entire torso was after the day's events. Fortunately - or, under normal circumstances, quite unfortunately - my house was close enough to Empire territory that I didn't have to spend the rest of the night making my way back. As the house came into view, I pulled out the cape-business phone I had brought along with me - Mom would have killed me if she knew I had one, so I never used it otherwise - and checked the time: One o'clock in the morning. It wasn't as late as I knew that I could have ended up staying out for, but it still wasn't spectacular great, either, knowing how little sleep I would be getting before school the next day - or this morning, depending upon how one looked at it.

    I wanted to sigh as I made my way up the front stairs of my house, but I worried that any noise I made might wake my mom up; instead, I just made sure to skip the broken step on the stairs, and avoid the squeaky parts as I carefully inserted my key into the lock of the front door. The lights weren't on in the house as far as I could see, so I desperately wanted to hope that Mom wasn't sitting in a chair on the living room, waiting for me to make my way back in the house at one o'clock at night. Slowly opening the door - slowly, so painstakingly slowly - I did breathe a small, ever so quiet sigh of relief as I didn't see any indication of my mom being awake and ready to scream at me; Mom was one of the scariest people I knew when she was screaming or yelling, and I was fairly certain that I had inherited some of my own anger issues from her.

    Regardless, I gently - so, so gently - closed the door behind me, doing my best to make the "click" of it shutting completely as quiet as I could manage. I took in a small breath as I wracked my mind to remember all of the noisy spots on the floor, and began tip-toeing over to the stairs up to the second floor, where my and my Mom's bedrooms were. I felt my stomach growl in a demand for food, but I wasn't about to risk trying to make a sandwich or something in the kitchen, not at this time of night, not with my costume still on. I had stupidly - stupidly - left my civilian clothes behind in the alleyway near the Empire's drug house, so I hadn't been able to wear anything to cover up my bodysuit on the way back home; thankfully, the clothes themselves were just some cheap garments that I had bought specifically for caping around, and my trashy, piece of shit hero outfit was nondescript enough that nobody would have been able to tell what it was - or, for that matter, who I myself was - in the dark of the Brockton Bay night.

    Going up the stairs was probably the most frightening part of this little adventure, as the steps here had more risk of squeaking than even the ones coming up to the door; one did actually end up making a noise, and I stood there for what must have been a full minute before continuing my trek up to my room. I had just placed my hand on the doorknob when I heard a cough coming from my mom's room. I froze, feeling my heart pounding and the blood rushing through my ears. Had that cough been deliberately exaggerated for effect? I couldn't tell. Was my mom awake, ready to come charging out of her room, screaming her head off at me, asking me where I had been? I couldn't tell that, either. When there was no sign of her marching out to grab me by the ear and haul me down to the kitchen for a good talking to, I finally let myself breathe again before heading into my own room.

    I took off my costume and utility belt - twenty fucking thousand dollars included - and stuffed them under my bed; I'd relocate the stuff back down into the basement tomorrow, but I didn't want to take the risk of going down those stairs right now - and then up them again - just to put it all back where it belonged. I slipped on some pajamas - wincing a bit as I aggravated my injuries - and slunk into bed, letting the adrenaline from the night finally finish fading away, and allowing the complete and utter fatigue and exhaustion I felt yank me down into sleep within seconds. My dreams were vivid, and troubled, imagining what my life would be like if I went with Coil, and what it would be like if I went with the Wards. The fantasies that stirred around in my sleeping head made neither seem like a great option, but even in my dreams, I knew I'd have to make a decision eventually. I just wanted to be able to put that off for as long as possible.

    I awoke the next morning to the smell of a hearty, all-American breakfast being cooked downstairs. Making sure that my night-shirt fit me well enough that it wouldn't accidentally slip and reveal the bruises underneath, I made my way down the stairs, suppressing a yawn as I did. My mom was at the stove, dressed up in her running clothes, while frying a few eggs.

    "Morning, Danny." If she knew about the fact that I had been out last night, and if she was planning on screaming my head off about it, she certainly wasn't acting like it at that point. My mom placed a plate of breakfast at the table for me, and I gladly took a seat; God only knew that my body was screaming for nutrition after all of the energy it burnt last night.

    "Morning, Mom. Thanks for the breakfast." I split open the yolk of one of the eggs, before using a fork to start eating the remaining solid parts. Swallowing the food so I wouldn't talk with my mouth full, I cautiously ventured: "How'd your run go?"

    Mom smiled back at me, as if nothing in the world was amiss. She could get really, really angry, and she was super, super stubborn, often refusing to let things go no matter how bad the situation got, but she was also very, very good at keeping all that contained if she felt like it, too. No, I could not tell in the slightest if she knew. "It went good." Was her response, before she grabbed a newspaper from the kitchen counter, and put it on the table. The headline read 'EMPIRE EIGHTY EIGHT DRUG DEN ATTACKED', and the subtitle read 'CRUSADER IN CUSTODY'. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God oh God. She knew. She had to know. She had to know. "I stopped by the news stand while I was at the boardwalk, found that pretty interesting." I stared at the newspaper, trying to not let myself react in any meaningful way. "Good riddance, right? Stupid Empire thugs." Sitting down at the table with her own plate of breakfast, Mom gave me the most perfect, most innocent smile. I wanted her to tell me to just go ahead and say if she knew or not, because this sheer tension was threatening to kill me.

    I slowly, carefully nodded, as I shoved a piece of egg yolk soaked toast into my mouth to buy me time to consider how to best answer this. The bread felt like steel as it slowly made its way down my esophagus. "Yeah. Good riddance, Mom. I know how much you hate the Empire. Me too."

    Mom kept that completely amiable expression on her face as she pulled the newspaper towards her, unfolding the relevant story. "Apparently, some of the witnesses said that the cape used rats to attack the place." I nodded, again, not risking any commentary. "And they said that it seemed like it was probably a teenage boy. And that he got backed up by some other teenagers, later on. Though, nobody could tell who it was." Mom pulled the newspaper down so that she could look over the top of it at me. "You don't know of any kids at Winslow who are rat-using capes, do you, Danny?"

    It sounded as genuine of a question as she could manage, but my heart was thumping like a drum instead of my chest, almost hard enough to cause my bruises to ache again. With as casual of a shake of my head as I could manage, I tried to speak. "N... No, uhm." Shit. My God damned fucking voice cracked. Hopefully it was excusable as just a puberty thing. "I don't know anyone like that at Winslow, I don't think." Offering a small, awkward smile, I added. "Sorry, Mom."

    "Hmm..." Folding the newspaper back up, she placed it to the side, returning to her breakfast. As she picked a piece of bacon up, she pointed it towards me. "If you do find out that anybody like that is at Winslow, you'd tell Mom, right? That's the kind of stuff me... And the other teachers need to know about."

    She knew she knew she knew she knew she FUCKING knew.

    Laughing a little bit, I picked up my own piece of bacon, pointing it back at her in some feeble attempt at a conversational riposte. "Sure thing, Mom. But it's not like I'm in the Winslow cape scene, or whatever."

    Mom's grin hid evil intent. I could see it in her eyes. I was scared of my mom when she was openly angry, sure, but I was terrified of her right now. The look she gave me seemed like it belonged on a villain more than on a loving mother. "Maybe. You just never know, though, I suppose." Mom chewed on a piece of toast for several, long seconds, making sure to drag the action out before swallowing. "Capes do have secret identities. So they could be anyone you know, right?"

    I wanted to curl up into a ball and die, but instead I did my best to respond. "Right. Even, uhm. Maybe even Alan could be a cape, and I just don't know it?" Another nervous grin, one that I knew failed to hide any of the anxiety I was experiencing.

    "Exactly, Danny." Another bite of egg for my mom, before she continued. "The people closest to you could be parahumans, and you'd never know, unless they told you."

    Was this what it felt like to be tortured? I felt bad for perhaps minimizing what actual torture victims had to go through, but I felt like I was being tortured at that moment. "Yeah. Sounds about right, Mom." I continued eating my breakfast, and my mom seemed content to let up on the torment, as she returned to her own meal without pushing the subject any further.

    Eventually, I finished my food, and it was time for my mom and I to get ready for school. Since we were going to the same location anyways, she usually drove me with her, unless she or I had to be there early for something. Often, I considered it a wonderful convenience, as walking all the way to the school - even as close as it was to my house - was always a hassle. Now, I feared the idea of being in a car with my mom for even a single minute, the two of us in close proximity, I myself trapped if she wanted to broach the subject again. Of course, I couldn't just say, hey, Mom, I'm gonna walk to school today, without eliciting some kind of suspicion.

    And so the doors to the family's shitty four-door closed shut, and the sound of seatbelts buckling practically echoed through the interior of the vehicle. As my mom turned the car on, she put on the radio, as well, turning it to some inoffensive top twenty station. I smiled at her, and she returned the expression, and we managed to make the relatively short drive to school without a word about anything being exchanged.

    I always knew that my mom would have stayed with me until first period started in order to dote on me and adore me, since that was how much of her precious baby boy I was; however, she usually had prep work to do, so she was - thankfully - forced over to her class as soon as we touched ground on the campus. I said thankfully, but it was more of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Mom didn't have to notice the ways that most of the rest of the students avoided me, knowing that they might get in bad with the Empire if they were seen associating with Eddie's primary target; on the other hand, Eddie and his crew didn't mess with me when my Mom was around, since they didn't want her to know that the Empire was brutalizing her son. So as she left, I immediately went on guard, looking around for Eddie or any other Empire thugs that might be out to get me.

    I was soon approached by members of the Empire, but not the ones I was on the lookout for; even if they weren't here to terrorize me, though, I wasn't exactly happy to see them, either. Kurt and Lacey, once some of my closest friends besides Alan, now members of the Empire.

    "Hey, Danny. How're you feeling?" Kurt had a sad look on his face, and I could tell that he knew what sort of beating Brad had delivered to me yesterday, probably from Eddie and his friends bragging about it.

    "I'm fine, Kurt." I started walking past him and Lacey, not wanting to waste any more time on these two.

    Unfortunately, Kurt wasn't having any of it, as he grabbed my arm and stopped me; I winced a little bit in pain, and he loosened his grasp, an apologetic expression showing as well. "Danny, please. I'm your friend. Lacey's your friend, too. We want to help you." Lacey nodded, placing a hand on her boyfriend's shoulder and moving towards me.

    "You are not my friend, Kurt. Neither you nor Lacey." The words hurt me even as they left my mouth, but I was pretty sure that they hurt Kurt and Lacey even more, which was fine by me. "You stopped being my friends the moment you became a couple of-" I looked around nervously, checking to see if there were any other Empire sorts around. There were, but I was angry and bitter enough that I didn't care. "-became a couple of fucking Nazis, Kurt."

    Kurt frowned and looked exasperated, before feeding me the same line of bullshit he always did when this conversation came up. "Danny, look, I'm not a Nazi. I don't give a shit about that like, racial superiority, whites are better than everyone bullshit." Lacey smiled a little bit, as if trying to soothe my obviously increasing anger; I myself could feel the rodents at the edge of my consciousness start to squeak and chitter in response to the tension building in my chest. "It's just... The Empire offers safety, you know? From jackasses like Kenta and his gang, or even Adam." Kurt tried to place a hand on my shoulder, but I backed away, not allowing him the gesture. "Danny. The Empire offers work, too. The Docks are fucking dead, Danny. The ferry's never coming back, and-"

    That was the match my emotions needed. I stepped up to Kurt and jabbed a finger hard into his chest, hurting even myself in the process. "The Docks are not fucking dead, Kurt. And the ferry is coming back! My dad, he... Dad..." I grit my teeth, clenching my fists, intentionally moving my mice around in circles to keep myself from bringing them out of the walls and onto the surrounding students. "The city can be fixed, Kurt. We can make things better." I lifted my head, tears in my eyes as rage spread itself across my face. "But the Empire is not going to be the ones to make that better, Kurt. And by joining the Empire like this?" I looked over to his girlfriend, pointedly. "By joining the Empire, Lacey? You two are just making things worse."

    "Danny, that's not fair, your dad-" Lacey tried to speak up now, but I stopped her before she could even really get going.

    "My dad not be here any more, Lacey, but that doesn't mean that he's gone." That was the corniest line I'd said in a long time, but I meant it, even so. I smirked, perhaps a bit more viciously than I needed to. "And you say that you don't give a shit about the white supremacist nonsense?" I shook my head with disappointment. "Then why'd you stop hanging out with Jared?"

    Every word I was saying was hurting Kurt, but part of me wanted that, to some degree. "Danny, look, I didn't stop hanging out with Jared 'cause he was black, it was 'cause-"

    I interrupted Kurt again. I didn't actually give a shit about his answer, so I didn't bother to hear it. "Yeah. Sure thing, Kurt. Whatever the fuck you say." I turned to keep walking away, and Kurt didn't stop me this time. I did take a moment to look back towards my former friends and deliver one last parting jab. "And let me guess. The reason you stopped hanging out with me has nothing to do with Eddie Vickers, right?" Kurt looked like I had stabbed him in the heart, but I just started marching towards Mr. Veder's computer class.

    "Danny!" Kurt called after me, but I didn't bother to stop. "Just... Just join up, like they said! You'll be safe, then! And we can hang out again!" Bullshit. Fucking bullshit, Kurt. Fucking bullshit, Eddie. Fucking bullshit, Gladly. Fucking bullshit, all of you.

    I took a moment before reaching first period to find a bathroom to cry in.

    ----------

    Mr. Veder was a nice man, but he was also far more enthusiastic about his subject than any of the students were, and he often devolved into tangents that absolutely nobody else followed along with. "And so with the development of thirty two bit architecture, the hardware world...!"

    That just meant that once I was done with my work, I could screw around on the internet. The first thing I did once I had that freedom was to check the Parahumans Online board, to see what places besides the newspaper were saying about my little excursion last night. I found one dedicated thread to the subject, entitled "Attack on Empire Eighty Eight by New Cape?" A lot of the thread was filled with the same information that the newspaper had already printed. The cape - that is, me - could apparently control rodents, including squirrels. The cape seemed to be a teenage boy. The cape had help at some point. Crusader was taken in. What was more interesting was the fact that somebody had snapped a picture of the scene, a photo that hadn't made it to the press yet. Apparently taken from the window of one of the nearby buildings, it was a relatively distant shot of me, on the ground, with one of Crusader's ghosts getting ready to lunge in my direction again.

    Shit, I really needed a new costume. The fact that I was on the ground, scrambling for my life, didn't help how miserable I looked in the picture. One person - an "XxVoid_CowboyxX" - made some derogatory comment about how I had probably pissed my pants. I wanted to write a rebuttal, but resisted outing myself just to tell off some idiot on the internet. What was more important was that some PRT official released the fact that they had used nearby security camera footage to determine that the people who had swooped in to save my ass were Coil and his crew; I momentarily worried about whether or not they could have used that same footage to track me back home, but I put that out of my mind for that moment. The thread quickly devolved into an argument over whether or not Coil was a hero, a villain, or just a regular rogue, but a moderator soon came in to tell them to take it to the dedicated Coil thread. After that, though, my own thread died down - which, I had to admit, I was a little disappointed about, as it appeared that fame could be a little intoxicating - and most of the posts ended up arguing about what kind of animals I could control. They knew there were rats, mice, and squirrels, but folks were curious if I could control other rodents, as well.

    I could, of course. Every animal in the rodent family I had encountered so far was one that I could control, and I was even able to control rabbits, in spite of them being only closely related to rodents. I didn't quite understand the logic, but considering that parahuman abilities rarely worked off of logic in the first place, I didn't worry about it too much. My range was pretty vague, but usually settled around a mile, fluctuating depending upon my tension levels. I was surprised by the fact that I seemed to be able to control hundreds of rodents at a time, including fine motor control, and I idly wondered if my power had come along with some sort of micromanagement ability to make sure I could use it properly. I could see what they saw, heard what they heard, and generally felt their senses as if they were extensions of mine; rodent vision and hearing and such weren't exactly identical to human senses, though, and it had taken me a while to properly understand how they saw the world. At this point, though, I was at the point where I could use mice to effectively scout my surroundings, and could get a general understanding of what I had them looking at.

    "...but then when sixty four bit architecture became commercially available, everything changed...!"

    I barely noticed Mr. Veder's so-called "lecture" at the front of the class, as I opted to check the Coil thread on PHO to see what was being said over there. A not insignificant portion of the thread was indeed taken up by the hero-or-villain argument, but some people had bothered to talk about whether or not the "Rat Kid" - fuck me, I really needed a name, and soon - was going to be joining his gang.

    ...was I going to be joining his gang? After I escaped from the proverbial and perhaps literal scene of the crime, I had been too exhausted to think, and this morning had been enough of a rush of tension and anger that I hadn't had the time to consider the options I had presented in front of me. Clicking and clacking around on my computer to make myself look busy, I set my mind to thinking about that particular subject.

    Coil or the Wards. Independent-vigilante-underlord who had grand plans to fix the city (but was also just a kid like myself, I had to remember) or the legitimate but so far ineffective local authority (that was actually full of experienced adults, I had to remember). I considered my other options, too. There was New Wave, but that was a bit of a family affair, with the Stansfields and the Masons being the only real members of the team. Fracture was technically an adopted child of Liberty Lady, but I doubted that either her or Laserdream was willing to pick me up in addition; of course, I wasn't about to abandon my mom just to join an independent hero team, either. Unfortunately, it seemed like every other group in the city was villainous... And as much as I did consider the option of just getting enough money to skip town with Mom, I'd probably just rather do that with Coil than the fucking Empire or anybody else; at least Coil seemed like only a sort-of-villain, rather than a full-on one. There was also Parian, but I doubted that she needed someone who could control rats to help her with making giant stuffed teddy bears.

    I sighed, placing my head in my hands and shaking it to and fro. My groaning must have been loud enough for Mr. Veder to notice, because he called me out to the whole class. "Oh jeez. Was... Was I really that boring, Danny?"

    I looked up, an apologetic smile on my face. "Oh, sorry, Mr. Veder. It's not that. I'm really enjoying the lecture." I heard a few snickers, which I pointedly ignored. "I just have a headache, is all."

    "Oh no!" Mr. Veder looked actually terrified at the proposition. "We should get you to the nurse's office, right away!" My teacher scrambled for his desk, pulling out a hall pass. "Just let me... Danny Hebert... Nurse's office... First period." The man ran over to me, shoving the piece of paper into my hands, before pulling me out of my chair. I wanted to protest, but Mr. Veder was being so energetic and forceful I didn't get the chance. "Oh, sorry, did you have time to get your backpack? You did? Okay, good! Now get to the nurse's office! Headaches can turn deadly if they aren't taken care of, you know!" A few of the other students looked enviously at me, but I just sort of smiled as Mr. Veder practically shoved me out the door of his class, not letting me get a word in edge wise. "And go home if you need to, Danny? Okay?" I nodded, before my teacher reached up and clapped a hand on my shoulder - causing me to wince from the still ginger bruises on my chest - and nodded in return. "Good luck, Danny." And with that, he turned and went back to his class and to his lecture.

    Jesus Christ. It wasn't that Mr. Veder hated me and wanted me out of his class, or anything, and was just looking for some excuse to kick me out. He just... Genuinely cared, and actually thought that forcing me to go to the nurse's office was the best thing to do. I looked at the crumpled up hall pass in my hand, before turning around to check the hallway I was standing in. I saw a teacher making his way somewhere, and I saw a kid I knew to be part of the Merchants in the middle of selling something to another student in a nook of the hallway; the teacher either didn't see or didn't care, and I assumed it was the latter. With a sigh and a shake of my head, I just started making my way towards the nurse's office; knowing the faculty at this school, I probably didn't even need the hall pass Mr. Veder gave me, as nobody would give a second look at a kid walking the halls during the middle of a class period, apparently.

    As I made my way to the nurse's office either way - wouldn't hurt to be able to spend some time hanging out there, I supposed - I noticed the sound of some other kids talking in a nearby empty classroom. Having nothing but time and being both curious and an idiot, I took a glance inside, and found... Kenta, Daikichi, and Robin on one side of the classroom, while Max, Heith, Jessica and Nessa stood on the other side. Holy fuck.

    The leaders of the ABB were in an... Odd position, as things went with capes. Everybody knew that they were Lung, Oni Lee, and Bakuda respectively, since it was fairly easy to connect a large mixed-descent Asian kid, a thin Japanese boy, and a maniacal half-Asian girl to that particular set of villains. Due to the "unwritten rules" of the cape world, though, nobody was willing to go after them when they were in their teenage, civilian personas. The fact that the ABB weren't much besides a two-bit street gang - especially compared to the Empire - meant that the PRT didn't put too much effort into handling them; if anything, the PRT seemed to want them and the Merchants around as a force to counterbalance the far too powerful Empire, and I didn't fault them for that particular strategy. The Winslow administration wasn't too happy about the fact that three superpowered lunatics were allowed to run around their school freely, but there wasn't anything they could do about it without causing a perhaps literal blow-up in the process.

    Max Anders was... Another topic, altogether. Had a few people like myself figured out that he was in charge of the Empire at Winslow? Sure. Had a few people connected that to his father, the CEO of Medhall? Sure. Had anybody been able to prove that and get either him or his dad in trouble? Hell no. As far as the public was concerned, the Anders family was squeaky clean, while Theodore Anders was a paragon of the pharmaceuticals industry, who proudly helped to employ the economically disenfranchised of Brockton Bay; when I had once checked through Medhall's public records, though, I noted that he also employed just enough people of color to keep suspicion off his back, but not a single person more. Of course, if a stupid little brat like me went to the papers screaming about how Theodore Anders was more than likely the supervillain Steinn, leader of the most notorious street gang in Brockton Bay, I'd probably be kicked out on my ass for my trouble.

    I did find it odd that Max was having this... "Meeting" with Kenta and his crew in an empty classroom during school hours - where the Anders child could end up being spotted - but I also suspected that any dumbass kid prowling the halls during class time would be either stupid enough to not connect the dots presented by this scene or irrelevant enough to not be listened to. So, yeah, a dumbass kid just like myself. Either way, though, I listened in, intent on hearing what they were discussing.

    "...don't even have powers, little boy." Kenta was speaking. That stopped me for a moment. It sounded like Kenta was saying that Max didn't have powers? I thought that second generation capes were supposed to be a shoe in to get powers easily, and Max was a third generation cape; what was the story with that? Illegitimate child, maybe? I shook those thoughts out of my head, though, and continued listening. "So I would suggest that you do not threaten me or my companions."

    I noticed the barely visible twitch of Max's eyebrow at the comment about him not having powers. A sore spot? "I was not threatening you, Kenta." Max may have been a teenager like me, but he spoke like the CEO that his father was; it reminded me a bit of Coil, in a way, but with even more snakery behind it. "I was merely stating the facts, that the ABB had much to gain from one of the Empire's outposts going up in flames."

    Robin spoke up, with a high-pitched, cheery voice. "You mean one of the Empire's drug dens, Max. Don't try to sugarcoat it, babe." Wow, her voice was annoying. I hadn't heard her speak before now, but I already wanted to punch her in the face.

    Kenta raised a hand to stop the girl from speaking any further, looking perhaps a bit angrier than even Max was at her interruption. "Robin. Do not speak unless you are asked to." The girl grimaced, but didn't pipe up again. "Maximilian. You have no proof that we were behind last night's attack."

    Max smiled again, gesticulating with one hand as he spoke. "No, we do not. But we do have a new cape on the scene, one that hasn't been identified yet. He could be working for any of our enemies."

    Me? Working for the ABB? Uhh, yeah right. Kenta seemed to share my sentiment, and voiced it in lieu of myself. "The boy was white, Maximilian. He was far more likely to be working with you than with us." Daikichi next to him nodded in agreement.

    Max put on a faux offended look as he responded. "I'm sorry, Kenta, but are you accusing the Empire of attacking itself?"

    The large Asian man looked like he wanted to slam Max's face into the ground, and I couldn't blame him. "I did not say that, Maximilian. More importantly, there is evidence that Coil was there, as well. Why do you not blame him, instead?"

    Max shrugged, a casual motion as he looked to the side, away from Kenta even as he spoke to the teenager in question. "Coil doesn't go to school at Winslow. He's not in my jurisdiction. That's for... Steinn and his lieutenants to deal with."

    I could tell that everyone in the room was privy to the truth, but nobody on the ABB side was about to call Max out about his father. Kenta continued. "So, Maximilian. You know that the ABB was not at fault for this attack." The Asian teenager took a step closer, prompting Heith and her cousins to defensively form around Max. "What is it that you seek from us, then?"

    Max smiled, motioning for his bodyguards to back away; Heith looked at him with concern, but Max nodded, and she placed herself behind him. With a cheery voice, the Nazi youth leader finally delivered the statement that he had been building up to: "What I am saying, Kenta." It was Max's turn to take a step towards the ABB leader, now, causing Daikichi and Robin to tense up. The two of them were only a few feet away from each other, well within striking distance if civilities broke down. "Is that the Empire is getting ready to... Clean house, as it were." Kenta's eyebrow twitched and his fists clenched, but he remained calm. "For now, we will assume that Coil and this new Rat Kid-" Holy fuck, even Max? God Damnit. "-are the ones behind both this attack and... Any others that have occurred recently." I knew that there were a few recent attacks on Empire property that the ABB had definitely been behind, so it seemed like Max was throwing them a proverbial bone here. "And, as such, we will be focus our efforts on those parties, while restraining ourselves from engaging in hostilities with the ABB or the Merchants." Max took another stepped forward, and it seemed that the entire room was ready to erupt if he made even another movement. "Unless, of course, the Empire feels threatened." The teenager reversed his step, putting distance between him and the ABB leader. "What I am saying, Kenta, is that you should not make the Empire feel threatened, not in these so very trying times for us." I didn't think that anybody could look as condescending as Max did at that exact moment. "Do you understand, Kenta?"

    It may have been a rhetorical question, but it was still one that demanded a solid answer. Kenta was practically growling even as he gave his response, though. "I... Understand, Maximilian." I had a general knowledge of Kenta - and of Lung, by extension - as people who did not like to be weak, who hated to be put into positions of vulnerability like the one that he was in at that moment. At the same time, though, it was clear that Kenta knew that there was nothing he could do but acquiesce to Max; the ABB existed at the Empire's pleasure, in some ways, because the Neo-Nazi group would rather let them and the Merchants function than waste the resources that would be needed to take down capes like Lung or Squealer. Even so, if the Empire really wanted to, they could squash the other gangs like bugs. Max knew that, and Kenta knew that; Max was just reminding the ABB leader of how the situation really was.

    "Good. I'm glad you do understand, Kenta. It would be quite unfortunate if you didn't." The worst part about Max being such a sleazy little shithead was that he sounded good while doing it. Hell, maybe he did have some sort of Master power, that made him sound like some kind of veteran public speaker in spite of his age. "I'll be giving Adam this same talk, of course, just so we're all on the same page."

    Kenta gave a half-sneer, half-smile. "I wish you the best of luck with him, Maximilian." With that, he and the other two ABB members turned and made their way towards the door, where I was standing just outside of. I rapidly but quietly made my way further down the hall, far enough away that it wouldn't have seemed like I hadn't just been listening in. Once I was far enough away, I...

    Well, I remembered I had superpowers, and that I had these little things called mice that could watch things for me while I was a safe distance away. I wouldn't be able to hear the fine details of their conversation, but it would have been a lot safer than me standing right outside the classroom they were meeting in. Of course, there was the fact that they now knew the existence of "Rat Kid" - really had to do something about that, and fast - and that a rodent idly sitting by and watching them talk would likely now arouse their suspicion. Even so...

    I grabbed a nearby mouse, and sent it to follow behind Kenta and the others, while keeping it hidden the best I could. Once the ABB members were sure they were out of earshot of Max and his girls, Kenta began speaking. "...keep an eye out... ...Coil or Rat Kid... ...attack another Empire... ...distraction, we attack... ...ABB is not weak... ...find Adam, I need to... ...Merchants can cooperate..." I could follow along well enough, and I got the broad strokes.

    Kenta was going to start a gang war. He was going to ally with the Merchants to take the Empire down, while using Coil - and possibly myself - as a distraction. I considered further. Kenta was going to start a gang war because Max had threatened him. Max had threatened him because of an attack on a major Empire outpost, and the arrest of one of the Empire's lieutenants. The attack that I had caused. I connected the dots. My attack. Max threatening Kenta. Kenta starting a gang war. Yeah, it was as clear as crystal. Kenta was going to start a gang war, and it was, ultimately, my fault. Fuck.

    I considered Coil's card, still under my bed with the rest of my stuff. I considered Clockblocker, and the Wards, and the PRT. Kenta was going to start this gang war soon. He could even start it tonight. I was responsible for starting it, so I needed to be responsible for minimizing the damage. I had to go to Coil, or the PRT, or maybe both. I couldn't let the Docks be torn apart by a bunch of fucking Nazis, a bunch of fucking lunatics, and a bunch of fucking junkies. No way. No way in God damned hell was I going to let that happen.

    I resolved myself, and began to plan.
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2019
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  6. Threadmarks: Interlude: Theodore Anders
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Interlude: Theodore Anders

    ------------------------------

    Theo pinched the bridge of his nose as he looked at the stills from the security camera footage. Rats, mice, even squirrels swarmed over Justin, but the man barely reacted as he advanced upon the Rat Kid that had attacked their drug house, caused the loss of something along the lines of fifty thousand dollars, and of methamphetamine worth more than enough on its own. The next still, Biter slamming Crusader with an oversized fist; then, Crusader lying in a pile of bricks up against a building. Coil and the Rat Kid conversed for several minutes, where-in the teenaged mastermind handed over some stacks of cash to the newly minted cape. After Coil left, Clockblocker came along, and spent a similar amount of time talking to Rat Kid, before the latter ran off, out of view of the nearby cameras.

    "He's working with Coil, obviously." was what most people told him. The more enterprising souls in the Empire said "No, he's a new member of the Wards." Some even went so far as to say "Nah, he's with the Merchants, and was trying to get the meth, not the money." As Theo stared at a picture that got a particularly good look at the expression on Rat Kid's partially concealed face, he knew that all of these assumptions - as educated as they may have been - were, in fact, quite wrong. The boy looked uncertain, scared, nervous. Rat Kid clearly had not expected the arrival of Coil and his gang, and he seemed anxious when talking to Clockblocker; he also didn't give off that "junkie fiending for a hit" vibe, either, so Theo felt confident in throwing the Merchant theory out the proverbial window. No, Rat Kid seemed to be... Well, Rat Kid just seemed to be on his own; at the very least, he was independent last night, though Theo had no idea what might have happened between the time that security footage was taken and six or so hours since then.

    It didn't matter who Rat Kid was working with or whether or not he was working with anyone at all in the first place. This was the third attack on an Empire outpost within a week. Theo had sent Crusader out to guard that particular drug house against any possible attacks, and while the Empire leader was right in assuming that it would be targeted, he flinched with annoyance knowing that deploying Justin had only caused further losses; Crusader was in PRT custody, and Theo would have to orchestrate some sort of escape plan, on top of everything else he needed to do.

    The other attacks that past week had come from the ABB and the Merchants respectively. A bunch of kids - a bunch of fucking kids, superpowered or not - were attacking the Empire's outposts, taking their money, their drugs, and their valuables. If these attacks continued - or, rather, if these attacks continued unpunished - the Empire would seem weak, and it would only encourage the other criminals and even the PRT to come banging down on them even harder than what was already happening. Theo let out a heavy sigh, as he examined some documents detailing the ABB and the Merchants. Again, a bunch of fucking kids, playing at being hardened criminals while they were still in high school, a number of them younger than either Max or Morgana were. Part of Theo wanted to march down to Winslow, grab Kenta and Adam, and scream at them about how what they were doing was idiotic, was moronic, how they needed a better path in life, a better path than the one he had been forced to take. Theo knew, of course, that it would be of no use, that it wasn't that easy to fix people, especially not kids in situations like theirs.

    Theo was about to grab all of the papers and photos and everything else and throw them off his desk in a scream of rage when the door to his office opened, stopping his outburst before it could really began. Evelyn strode in, without really bothering to ask or wait for permission in any fashion. His wife had always been like that, from the moment that Richard had set Theo and her up. It was an active struggle for the Empire leader to maintain control of any situation that he was in with her, but Evelyn seemed to have enough energy to keep up far past the point that Theo wanted to give up. Even so, the Empire leader smiled at this wife, doing his best to seem nonchalant as he greeted her. "Hello, darling. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

    Evelyn stared at him for a moment as she walked around to his side of the desk, not even bothering to stay where visitors were normally expected to. Theo and Evelyn's relationship was... The Empire leader would have liked to call it strained, but that implied that it had ever been good in the first place. Richard arranged their betrothal and then their marriage, expecting Theo to be happy that his wife was of good, hearty, Aryan stock, and that they would be able to have good, hearty, Aryan children together. Theo, of course, didn't care, had never cared about any of his father's ridiculous ideological nonsense, and only parroted it when it became necessary to not get on Richard or Aster's bad side. Regardless of Theo's feelings, though, Evelyn was there, in a wedding bed, and the Anders heir was expected to continue the family line. It wasn't as if Evelyn was unattractive, or if Theo didn't find his natural instinct excited at the sight of her, but... His wife treated it like some kind of duty to be fulfilled, some kind of job to be done, and so Theo ultimately ended up feeling the same way. Soon enough, though, Max and then Melanie in turn came into the world, came into the fucking Anders family, where they would be expected to be true Aryan children to the true Aryan cause.

    And, soon enough, Richard was dead. His father hadn't died from a clash with the PRT, or a skirmish with another villainous gang. No, the old bastard had died from a stroke, before Richard was even sixty. On one hand, Theo was glad that the atrocious man known as his father was dead. On the other hand, Theo was terrified that he was now expected to be the new leader of Empire Eighty Eight. The Anders boy - the Anders man, now - had barely been able to keep up the charade and survive when he was Richard's heir apparent, and now he was expected to do that as the fucking leader of the Empire? He was expected to order people to distribute drugs to the vulnerable, to press young girls into prostitution, to have his soldiers run roughshod in the communities of poor blacks and Asians just to "show the superiority of the Aryan race"? How the fuck was he supposed to do all of that?

    Theo still didn't know the answer to that question, but he had still somehow managed to survive for the past fifteen years as the leader of the Empire; he had hated every waking and dreaming second of those fifteen years, but he was still alive, and he supposed that such a fact had to count for something, because not much else in his life at that point did. His son was a sociopath who used his charisma to practically run the underworld of one of Brockton Bay's more populous high schools, his daughter was a raging ideologue who screamed about minorities and homosexuals every time that Theo saw her, and Evelyn was always on the lookout for her husband to let slip any sign of weakness; Theo always suspected his wife of wanting to take control of the Empire for herself, and he knew that she was vicious enough that she'd take the chance of she saw it.

    He thought of Aster, though. He wondered where she was, and how she was doing. He wondered if the Gesellschaft had managed to figure out the truth yet, or - even worse - had managed to track her down and find her. Theo hadn't heard anything, though, and he supposed that no news was better than bad news when it came to the subject of his estranged sister. The man himself though, was still in Brockton Bay, still with the Empire, and still had to deal with everything such a position entailed; at the moment, he had to deal with the dangerous, villainous woman in front of him, otherwise known as his wife.

    Evelyn didn't bother with any pleasantries. She never did. "You know why I'm here, Theodore." He hated his full name. It sounded too stuffy, too formal, too... Traditional, for his liking. His wife jabbed a finger in the direction of the documents he was looking at, though she didn't bother to look at him while she spoke. "We've been letting these attacks go on for too long now without repercussion. That nigger kid and the chink need to be taught a lesson." Evelyn put special emphasis on the slurs, for Theo's sake. The man hated derogatory terms like that, and thirty seven years of being around a family and community of Nazis hadn't made him despise that sort of bigotry any less than he had when he was five years old. For the sake of blending in, though, Theo had learned to mask his reactions, and even managed to use the slurs himself whenever he felt it was needed, though the feel of them on his tongue was like sewer sludge if he did. Evelyn, though, had been his wife for almost twenty years, and even if they didn't share any sort of meaningful emotion connection, the sheer amount of time that she had spent in proximity with the man led him to believe that she had, at some point, figured out that he wasn't exactly a "true believer" in the Empire's cause.

    Theo sighed, grabbing a dossier for Lung and a dossier for Squealer, waving them pointedly at his wife. "You know why we never directly retaliate against the ABB and the Merchants, darling." He plopped the papers onto the desk, before pulling off a photo that had been paper-clipped to Kenta's file; it showed the young Asian man grown to roughly the size that Max's girlfriend or her cousins could, his body on flames in the process. "Do you really want to have to devote Empire resources to fighting this-" Theo grabbed another photo, this time of one of Squealer's creations, a massive scrap-built landship adorned with cannons and guns wherever they could fit. "-or this? We put our own capes on guard at our outposts, so that we can fight defensively, on our terms, and where we have the advantage." Evelyn clearly wasn't buying it, but Theo couldn't back down from his argument, either, lest his wife use that opportunity to move in and force her own plans into action; knowing her, Evelyn would gladly let the whole city burn if it meant crushing the ABB and the Merchants. "From a strictly cost-benefit analysis, darling, it's not worth the investment. We effectively control the entire Docks. A bunch of teenaged brats still in high school and running around playing at being supervillains aren't anything for us to worry about. We have more to lose by stirring up that hornet's nest than we have to gain."

    Evelyn stood there next to his desk and stared down at Theo as he sat in his chair. She wasn't saying anything, and the only sound Theo could hear was that of the ticking of the clock on his office wall; he vaguely considered that device for a second thinking about how much he bought it for - quite a lot -and how nice it looked in the room, bringing everything else together. What his wife was trying to do was to get him to flinch; she and him had played this game often enough that he knew how it was played, and that she never expected him to play it as well as he did. "But, darling, you are correct. Somebody does need to be taught a lesson." Give her power by saying that she was right, but then immediately take it away from her by seizing control of the conversation again, ultimately resulting in her being off balance for the rest of the dialogue; Theo momentarily felt a sudden worry that maybe Max had learned all his little conversation tricks from the Anders patriarch himself. "But instead of the ABB or the Merchants, we will be going after Coil and his friends, including the new one, the Rat Kid."

    Theo had been agonizing over that decision ever since he had received the call, ever since the second he knew that he would now have to do something in retaliation against somebody about what had happened that morning, lest both he and the Empire become even further endangered. He hated this, though; he hated that all of the other fucking supervillains in the Docks were a bunch of God damned teenagers. Kenta and the ABB. Adam and the Merchants. Coil and his crew. Rat Kid now, too, whether he was a villain or a hero or whatever else. Kids, one and all. If they were adults, maybe, Theo wouldn't be so conflicted about sending murderous hit squads after them, but they were all as old as his son or daughter were; Theo might have been disgusted by the very existence of his own children, but he could still understand the sanctity of youth. He thanked whatever higher power was out there that Max hadn't developed abilities yet; it was a sore spot for the young man, but Theo was glad that he had an excuse to keep Max out of any given parahuman crossfire.

    There was a small silver lining to the circumstances, though. While the ABB and the Merchants spent their nights fighting each other, attacking the Empire, and generally trying to muscle their way into organized crime, they necessarily had to spend their days at Winslow. It wasn't as if Kenta, Adam, or any of their compatriots were particularly academic individuals - though, apparently, Robin was near the top of her class - but it was rather the modus operandi that the ABB and the Merchants were currently following. The adult Asians criminals weren't about to willingly follow a teenager, even if he could turn himself into a gigantic dragon. The independent drug dealers weren't about to willingly follow a teenager, either; in Adam's case, though, he didn't exactly have any spectacular abilities to argue his case, either. What Lung and Skidmark had opted to do instead was to cultivate a following amongst the student body of Winslow, to recruit peers of their own relative age group, so that once Kenta and Adam graduated - or, more likely, simply ended their senior year without a diploma in hand - they would have their own gangs of young adults molded and ready to break out onto the Docks and start tussling with the Empire for real. Honestly, it was a plan that Theo himself could appreciate, even if it did involve recruiting hundreds of young people into violent gangs.

    He knew, of course, that this meant that the ABB and the Merchants would become a real, genuine threat in but a few years - as opposed to a bunch of kids running around trying to be gangbangers - but part of Theo... Part of Theo wanted that. He wanted someone like Lung and even someone like Adam who could reasonably stand up to him and the Empire. Being the leader of a criminal organization with no meaningful rivals and who even the fucking cops didn't bother with was stressful in ways that Theo had never imagined. One would think that being successful in that sort of way would have meant that Theo could have just sat back, relaxed, and not have to worry about sending his soldiers out to murder people for the color of their skin. Unfortunately, having no enemies in the Docks meant that everyone in the Empire along with any Gesellschaft visitors her received were asking him why he wasn't using his consolidated power to expand into Downtown.

    Why didn't he want to expand into Downtown? What, besides the existence of the Travelers and the Undersiders, two established, high-class villain groups that would likely gang up to take him and the Empire down if he made a move on their territory? Well, maybe Theo didn't want to spread the influence of a fucking toxic, insidious, vile, disgusting, abhorrent ideology like the one that the Empire held. Maybe he didn't want to make even more black and Asian and Hispanic folks feel like they could get killed whenever they went out just because of who their parents were. Maybe he didn't want to send a bunch of Aryan thugs with swastikas tattooed on their chest to terrorize even the fucking white folks that lived in Empire territory, because he and everybody else knew - even if they wouldn't admit it - that the pathetic gang of thugs and hoodlums he led were just looking for any excuse they could use to let them take their sadistic, animalistic instincts out on innocent, defenseless people.

    And yet, Theo enabled them. He was the head of the Anders family, he was the head of Empire Eighty Eight. He could leave. He could stand out of his chair, walk right past Evelyn, and leave, turning the Empire leaderless, and hopefully causing a civil war for the vacant throne. He could use his authority and his control to manipulate the Empire in such a way that it came crashing down on itself; he'd planned it out a few times, in notebooks he kept tucked firmly away, about how he could use his position to destroy the Empire from the inside out, but he never put any of those ideas into motion. Hell, he could have run away with Aster, could have taken Max and Morgan when they were still children, still untarnished by the taint of the Empire, saved them from Evelyn's toxic influence. Would Max still be the cold-hearted bastard he was today if Theo had done that? Would Morgan still be the screaming bigot she was today if Theo had done that? Could he have provided a better life for his children, if he had just did what should have been done, if he had just had a fucking spine?

    That was what it came down to, ultimately. Theo was a coward. He knew he was a coward. He ran the Empire well, because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't. He tolerated the Empire's foul ideology, because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't. He ordered killings, distributed drugs, organized prostitution rings, and so many more evil, vile acts, all because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't. He enabled an entire gang of Neo-Nazis, enabled hundreds of skinheads, because he was afraid. Theo didn't think of himself as a Nazi. He didn't think of himself as a bigot, or as a thug, or as a racist, or as a brute, or as anything that other members of the Empire prided themselves on being so much. But Theodore Anders knew that he was a bad man, maybe even an evil man, perhaps even worse than anybody else in the Empire, because he was just too afraid to do the right thing.

    And because he was too afraid to do the right thing, he now had to do the wrong thing, instead. Grabbing a relatively small dossier for Coil and an even smaller dossier - not even a page long - for Rat Kid, he placed those in front of Evelyn. "Coil has been increasingly brash as of late. He was the one who attacked us this morning, even if the ABB and the Merchants have caused their fair share of grief for us." His wife narrowed her eyes at the papers, but didn't interrupt Theo. "I'm inclined to think that he's building up to something. We know that the kid is smart, we know that he has plans. He wouldn't start ramping his own attacks up unless he had some ideas in motion. Killing either him or some of his hired muscle should suffice to both send a message and stop whatever he's planning." Evelyn nodded, following along as her husband spoke. "And Rat Kid? Well, it's always good to show new people in town that they shouldn't mess with the Empire, yes?" His wife smiled for the first time since she had entered his office. It was a small, perhaps even banal sort of treat to give her. She wanted blood and viciousness, and so Theo would give her blood and viciousness. Because he was a coward.

    "Very well. And Justin?" The other subject at hand, of course, the one that Theo hadn't really had the time to think about.

    The Anders man rubbed his temples as he sighed. "I have my sources in the PRT headquarters. We'll do the usual. Wait until they're getting ready to transfer for trial or whatever else, and then free him while he's on the road." Evelyn looked like she wanted to say something, but Theo stopped her before she could even get started. "We are not launching an attack on PRT headquarters. The PRT is practically neutral to us right now, and I will not have that compromised. Do you want the entire Brockton Bay Protectorate brought down on our heads? I'm sure they'll even bring their Wards along for fun, as well." This was one spot where Theo was confident that he could be as authoritative as he pleased without any backlash. Evelyn couldn't meaningfully argue against him at this point without sounding like she had a deathwish for herself and the Empire; not that Theo would mind too much if the PRT did haul in the Empire en masse.

    Biting her tongue, Evelyn nodded. "Very well. But send me out on this strike against Coil. And to free Justin, both. And don't say anything about how you're 'worried for my safety', Theodore."

    Theo looked up at his wife for several long seconds. It wasn't that he was worried for her safety; they both knew that was a bullshit excuse he gave to keep her out of combat. The more important issue was that every time Evelyn went out and made a show of herself in cape fights, she gained popularity, and that popularity was something that she could use if she ever did feel like launching a coup against Theo. With a sigh, the Empire's leader nodded. "Very well. But please do stay safe, darling." It was in the running for the most horrifically fake smile that anyone had ever displayed, and both of them knew it. "Do send Max in when you see him, though? I need to talk to him about something." Theo was practically kicking her out of his office, and the frown that flashed across Evelyn's face suggested that she knew.

    "I will, Theodore." With a phony smile of her own, Evelyn turned on her heels and made her way for the door. Once she was gone, Theo turned his attention to the photos of Coil and Rat Kid again. Teenagers. God damned teenagers, the same age as his own children. And he was throwing them to the wolves. He was offering them as a scapegoat, so that he wouldn't have to go against Lung or Skidmark. Did Coil and Rat Kid's lives have less value than Kenta and Adam's? Was this trade in life a net gain? Was it even equivalent? Rat Kid gave off the impression of a hero. Was he killing a young man that could possibly grow up to help save this city from the Empire that Theo ran, from the ABB and the Merchants that threatened to take their own slices of the proverbial pie? What about Coil? He was a villain, clearly, but he wasn't a villain like Theo, Lung, or Skidmark were. He wasn't lying when he told Evelyn that Coil had plans; the black-suited teenager seemed to always have plans, whether they were obvious or not. What was Coil's ultimate plan? Was it something better than what any of the gangs could offer? Was Coil practically a hero in his own right, using villainous means to achieve a greater outcome?

    Theo hated this. He hated it all. More than that, Theo hated himself. He didn't need to send anybody after Coil or Rat Kid. He could have told Evelyn and the rest of the Empire to fuck off, that he was glad that their fucking drug houses were burning down, that all of that meth was off the streets and no young white teens were going to be able to get addicted to the shit because some fuckoff skinhead dealer was giving them a free first hit. But he didn't do any of that. He had made the plans and readied the orders to send people after Coil and Rat Kid, people who were being sent to kill those kids. Kids, Jesus Christ. And all because Theodore Anders was too scared to do anything else. He wanted to scream, and he wanted to cry, not for himself, but for everybody that had suffered, was suffering, and would suffer both because of his actions and and because of his inaction. There was a pistol, in one of his drawers. Nominally for self-defense, if anybody asked, but Theo knew why it was really there. It was nice to have, just to know that he could use it any time he wanted. He never had, of course, and never would, because he was too afraid to even do that.

    His son entered the room, looking like some soldier entering the presence his superior officer. "You called, Father?"

    He wanted to slap Max, to hug him, to tell him that the two of them could just be a son and his dad, that they could go to the boardwalk, hang out, eat at Fugly Bob's, play football together, or whatever other hobbies Max might have been into; he wanted to tell him that Theo and Max and Morgan and Evelyn could have had a shot at being a normal fucking family if they just had the fucking chance to even try.

    Instead, Theo let his finger steeple together, and he put on the most professional smile he could towards his son. "Thank you for coming, Max. I need you to talk to Kenta and Adam for me today, when you're at Winslow..."

    What a coward Theodore Anders was.
     
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  7. Blackenedthorn

    Blackenedthorn Making the rounds.

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    In this AU of yours, does this mean that Marquis is living with New Wave and Amy had been birdcaged instead or is she still hanging around?
    What about Uber & Leet or Faultline's crew?
    What about Dragon? How does this AU effect her?
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: Packs
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 5: Packs

    ------------------

    I knew that I was going to have hell to pay later when my mom came home, but I could handle a screaming Taylor Hebert if it meant getting a handle on the situation before it spiraled too much out of control; or, at least, as much as a fifteen year old kid with no meaningful connections to anyone could get a handle on a brewing gang war. The school nurse had barely cared when I came in complaining about a migraine the size of an elephant pounding in my head; it seemed like he was so used to Winslow students wanting any excuse to skip school that he didn't even bother to give me a second glance as he typed something in to his computer to let me off for the day. I didn't mind the lack of hassle, though, and began to practically dash home the moment I was out of the school building. I just hoped my mom wasn't looking out of the window of her classroom at that moment.

    I had began to exercise enough after I got my powers that I could run a fair bit longer than I used to. I was still the same old scrawny bean pole that I had always been, but I wasn't about to be blown over by a strong wind; of course, Brad Meadows was a fair bit more than a strong wind, and I hadn't reached the point where I could take his blows without consequence, yet. Regardless, I managed to make good time on my way back home, and arrived there soon enough. I doubted that Kenta and Adam were going to start their offensive in the middle of Winslow - the school being the closest thing to neutral territory the gangs all had - so I didn't feel too rushed; either way, I also wanted to give Coil and the PRT as much of a head's up as humanly possible.

    I was tempted to do something suitably dramatic like dropping my backpack the moment I was through the front door of my house, but I kept myself composed as I practically sprinted up the stairs - squeaking be damned, at that moment - and flung myself into my room. I more or less threw myself to the floor - allowing myself that little bit of theatrics - and scrounged around for my costume; I pulled the outfit from under the bed, and felt around the utility belt until I found the cell phone in one of the pockets. I also managed to remember the twenty thousand fucking dollars, but I shoved that ridiculous amount of cash out of my mind for the moment while I searched for Coil's "business" card. Once I had it, I input the number - fingers shaking and making a few mistakes as I did - before pressing the call button.

    "Ah, hello, friend." I flinched for a moment as the guy's voice came over through my speaker. Did he know who I was? How did he know who I was? Maybe just an educated guess? "Have you considered my offer any further? I know it's been..." There was a pause, as if he was checking the time. "Less than twelve hours, but I would be absolutely delighted if you had already come to a decision on that matter."

    I stopped before speaking to clear my throat and get my words in order. "Coil. Hey there. Uhm, no, that's not what I'm calling about. But, uhh, I am still considering your offer. It's just, there's, uhh, something really important I need to talk to you about." I looked around my room, as if expecting my own surroundings for spies, cameras, or bugs of some sort. "Is this uhh, is this a secure line? Like, do you know if anybody's listening in, or whatever?"

    Coil gave a laugh that sounded like it had been practiced to sound like as much of an evil mastermind as possible, before responding. "No, dear friend, the line is not bugged. I do have two Tinkers, after all, even if neither have cyber security as their specialty. Now, what could be more important than an employment offer of fifty thousand dollars a month, hmm?"

    My head swam again for a moment at the mention of the possible pay I could be receiving if I want with Coil, but I shook those thoughts before continuing. "I'm a uhh, I guess this isn't a big surprise, but I'm a student at Winslow High School, yeah?" The boy on the other end gave a sound of confirmation as I kept speaking. "I, uhh, I saw the head of the Empire Eighty Eight there, uhm, shit, I don't know if I should give you his identity, if that breaks the unwritten rules, or whatever, uhm..."

    I could practically hear Coil lifting a hand to stop my rambling in its tracks. "It's fine, unless his identity is pertinent to the rest of the information."

    "Right, uhm, it's not. So, uhh, he was meeting with Kenta- Shit. I mean, I guess it doesn't matter, everyone knows Kenta is Lung, and I'm pretty sure you do, too." Another sound of acknowledgement, before I continued. "Anyways, he was meeting with Kenta, and he said that the Empire's going to give amnesty to the ABB and the Merchants for their recent attacks on Empire territory, because the Nazis want to focus their efforts on retaliating against us. Err, your gang and me, I mean. The both of us as separate entities, I guess." Way to go, Danny. "Uhh, anyways, that's not the important thing. I mean, it is important, but there's also what happened after the meeting. Kenta says that he's going to meet with Adam and organize some kind of like, joint strike on the Empire once they're busing fighting us. So like, a full-on gang war, and stuff. Oh, and, uhm, I figured this out using like, my power, and stuff. My rats and my mice." Why was I like this? "I, uhm, anyways. I figure a gang war like that would be pretty bad for the Docks, so I wanted to like, figure out some way to like, stop it, or help mitigate it, or something."

    A smirk laced itself into Coil's voice as he responded. "You sound awfully calm about the situation, all things considered?"

    Calm? My voice echoed my thought. "Calm? Is there something I should be worried about?"

    There was a moment of silence before Coil started laughing uproariously. It wasn't the same kind of villain laugh from before; this time it was just... The sound of a teenage kid, laughing at something that he found really, really funny. I had forgotten for a moment that Coil was around my age. The voice he used to speak up afterward didn't have that carefully intoned sense of professionalism and calm as it usually did. "Oh my God, you're serious, aren't you?" Yeah, just another teenage kid, at least for a moment. "Do you realize what you just told me? You said that the Empire has a hit out on me and you. The Empire wants you dead, dude, and you don't even care, because you're more worried about some kind of possible gang war, or something? Oh my God, you really are a hero through and through, aren't you?"

    I blanched, and almost dropped my phone. I... I really hadn't even realized. The Empire had a hit out on me. Well, on Rat Kid, or whatever my name was going to bed. I vaguely heard Coil's voice over the phone. "Ahem. I... I apologize for that outburst." Back to the practiced, level voice of his. "You are still with me, yes? Haven't passed out from the sudden revelation or anything, hmm?" I nodded dumbly, before remembering that Coil couldn't see me, and then offered a small grunt of confirmation. "Very good. Now then, I appreciate the information, and I have no reason to doubt the veracity of your claims, especially since it generally follows what I would expect out of the Empire." Enough about me, what about Coil? He didn't sound the least bit scared about the fact that the gang that controlled the entire Docks wanted his head. Or was he scared, and just hiding it behind that character of his? "But you said that you wanted to figure out a way to help stop Lung and Skidmark from turning the Docks into a warzone, correct?" Another sound of acknowledgment from me, and Coil continued. "And what exactly would you want me to do about that?"

    It wasn't a rejection in the form of a question, as it could have potentially sounded. Coil was actually asking me what I wanted him to do about the gang war, and I... I had no idea. I knew that I was going to get in touch with him and the PRT, tell them about the situation, and get them to help, but... Coil wasn't the PRT. He had no reason to stop a gang war like the one that Kenta was planning to start. If anything, a gang war like that might help Coil, create chaos that he could thrive in and weaken the gangs he ultimately wanted to destroy. I... Why had I called Coil for help on this? The guy voice my own thoughts even as I was thinking them. I could hear the teenager in him threatening to slip out, a few snorts and chuckles as he spoke. "You, heh... You, uhh. You have no idea what you would ask of me, do you, my friend?"

    My mouth opened, then it closed. Then it opened again, then it closed again. I didn't even know what to say. I felt like a complete moron, just rushing to try to do something without even thinking it through. Why couldn't I be more like my mom? She always thought everything she did through. "I, uhm. No, no I don't. I guess I was technically going to ask you to like, help out of the goodness of your heart? But I guess, uhm, you don't operate like that, do you? Erm, no offense, Coil."

    "None taken. It's true. I might want to fix this city, but I'm also not going to put myself and my crew in harm's way just to stop a few thugs and a few druggies from fighting a few Nazis, especially when the Nazis are threatening to kill me and my crew in the first place." I could hear a snakish grin cross Coil's face, and tensed up, fear running down my spine as he began to speak. "Now then. I won't do this out of the goodness of my heart, but!" I should have expected this. I should have expected this. "If, say, somebody paid me to use my crew to help out with the situation, since I could always use more funds." I looked towards the utility belt, where-in twenty thousand dollars was stashed. "Or, perhaps." Damn this guy. Seriously, fuck him. "If someone who was a new addition to my crew made a humble request of yours truly, and I felt that it would be in my best interest to help that new, committed crew member with his request, then I might also intervene." I grit my teeth. Fucking Coil. Fucking snake. He was a villain, in more ways than one. "I hope you understand?"

    I nodded, before speaking. "I understand, yes." My whole body was tense, and I made myself actively release that with a sigh. "I... I know I'm on a time limit now. Maybe a real tight time limit. But I still need to think about this, at least for a little bit longer."

    "And, in turn, I also understand. As you said, though, the clock is ticking, so I hope you make your decision sooner rather than later." I could detect a cheeriness in Coil's voice. Fucker.

    "One more thing before I go." Coil gave off a noise of curiosity, and I continued. "I'm also going to the PRT about this." A sound of disappointment, next. "I don't know if I'm going to be joining them, either. Joining the Wards, or whatever. But I need to tell them about this, yeah?"

    "Yes. I do hope that you won't be... Disclosing any information about our meeting, or this phone call? At least when it's not pertinent to the current situation?" I didn't fault him for being paranoid like that, to say the least.

    I shook my head, and spoke. "No. You, uhm. All things considered, Coil, you don't seem like a bad guy. Even if I do end up joining the Wards, I won't say anything, and I won't try to like, get in your way if I don't have to. If anything else, you're doing the Docks a favor by screwing with the Empire, and stuff."

    Another second of quiet, before Coil spoke again. "I believe you. It's not like there's much I can do if you do say anything to the PRT, so I don't really even have much choice but to believe you." A smirk in his voice. "But do be aware that the Wards have an allowance of four hundred dollars a month, and a minimum wage salary that goes straight into a trust, which you then only get when you turn eighteen."

    Bastard. Dickhead. "Alright. I, uhm. I'll talk to you later. Maybe. I'm, uhh, going to go see the PRT now. Thanks, Coil."

    "You're welcome, my friend." With a click, he hung up, and I was left alone in my room again. I was tempted to throw my phone, but it was shitty enough that I was worried that it would break if I did so. Instead, I gathered up all of my cape gear and the money from last night, before hauling it down to the basement. My thoughts were heavy enough as I made my way down the stairs that I felt like my body itself was weighed down.

    ----------

    I stood at the edge of an alleyway, looking up at the PRT HQ. Considering that I had managed to arrive in the hour before lunch, there weren't too many people on the streets of Downtown, but there were enough that I felt incredibly self-conscious. I had ditched the utility belt in my basement, taking only the cell phone with me out of all of my equipment, but I had my suit on again underneath a different pair of clothes - this time, a set that I would make sure to actually take back with me, if I needed to ditch it for any reason. Unfortunately, I hadn't anticipated today being this warm, and I was paying for that lack of planning by sweating heavily underneath my garments. Trying not to focus too much on the heat, I made my way as close to the PRT HQ as I dared while unmasked, before diving into another alleyway real quick. I slapped on the mask that hid the upper half of my face, and began making my way to the building as quickly as I could.

    Oh God, why was I doing this? Everyone was staring at me. Here was some scrawny-ass teenager, wearing some stupid-ass mask, making his way up to the PRT HQ like he was hot shit. Maybe I should have come at night. Did the PRT have night hours? I assumed they did. That would have been easier, I wouldn't have had to...

    The doors slid open, and I made my way into the lobby. Some gentle, inoffensive muzak jingle played as the receptionist looked up at me. Her and the PRT agents standing nearby visibly tensed when they saw my mask, and the guards seemed ready to spray me down with containment foam if I tried anything funny. "Can I help you, young man?"

    Can she help me? I froze up for a moment, not able to even remember why I came there. The agents looked at each other warily, and I finally managed to speak up before I got hosed down. "Uhm. Sorry. I... I need to talk to Clockblocker. It's really important. Tell him it's, uhm." Christ, I was not going to call myself 'Rat Kid', not when that very well might end up being my official name if I used it here and now. I just spewed out the first reasonable thing that came to mind. I would deal with it later, if it became an issue. "Tell him it's Gnaw." Wow, Danny. Wonderful. Gnaw, a hero for the ages. At least it was better than Rat Kid. Maybe I could get some PR guy to help me figure out something better later on.

    The woman looked at me with suspicion, but picked up her phone and pressed some buttons. "Connect me to Clockblocker, please. There's a 'Gnaw' here that's requesting him. Mhmm." It looked like the receptionist was on hold for half a minute, afterwards she looked up at me. "Master/Stranger protocols. Clockblocker wants to know what the pun he made to you last night is."

    I blinked a few times. The pun? I... Shit, why was I freezing up again, when they would suspect I was brainwashed or not even who I claimed to be if I didn't answer promptly. "He, uhm. He said that he wouldn't rat me out."

    The receptionist recited my answer into the phone, and then she went silent for a little while longer. After a bit, the woman looked up at me and spoke again. "One more question. What did Clockblocker say he would do if he found out you turned villain?"

    That, I could answer in a heartbeat, at least. "He said that he was gonna beat my ass and haul me in."

    Again, she repeated what I said, and after another span of time, she put the phone down and spoke to me. "Clockblocker will be here shortly. He's coming from the Protectorate HQ, though, so we'll have you wait somewhere further in." I nodded, noting that she hadn't even asked my permission before another guard came into the lobby and began to escort me towards a waiting room. It... Looked a bit more like an interrogation room than a waiting room, and I wondered for a moment if I was actually being placed under arrest. The fact that I hadn't been cuffed and that the door was left open suggested to me that I wasn't about to be sent to a jail cell just yet. Nobody bothered to offer me coffee, water, or a donut, though, which annoyed me a little bit.

    Which made me all the happier when Clockblocker walked into the room about twenty minutes later, holding a cup of coffee and a donut, which he placed down in front of me with a napkin. "Christ, honestly, the PRT." The hero shook his head, and it was an odd thing to watch; he was only wearing his helmet, and the lack of a bodysuit to connect to it made it really weird to look at him. "Not even water, huh?" As I picked up the coffee to feel how hot it was - only barely cool enough to start drinking it, which I did - I shook my head. "I swear, these guys have no sense of hospitality." Clockblocker took a seat across from me at the table, and he casually leaned back in his chair as he did so. "Anyways, what's up, kid? Decide to join the Wards, I hope?"

    I looked a bit sheepish as I put the donut down, suddenly feeling decidedly unworthy of its sugary goodness. "I, uhm. No, sorry, sir. Clockblocker, sir."

    "Kid." The hero leaned forward, across the table. "Breathe. It's fine. I'm not going to be offended if you don't want to join the Wards yet, okay? And you aren't going to get tossed into one of the cells for it, either."

    I took his advice and breathed, which seemed to content him as he returned to his lackadaisical sitting position from before. "Sorry. I mean, not sorry... I, uhh." Another breath, and I was so thankful that Clockblocker was having the patience with me that he was. "I have some information that I think is extremely critical to the PRT right now."

    The man sat up properly in his chair, suddenly attaining an at least half-businesslike demeanor. "Alright. You seem like a kid with your head on tight enough that you're not going to come in here crank calling the Protectorate. So, what have you got for us?"

    I nodded, thankful for his trust. "I, uhm. I go to Winslow High School, which I figure isn't much of a surprise?" Clockblocker shook his head, and I continued. "There's a kid there that I'm pretty sure is in charge of the Empire at the school. Uhh, but, unwritten rules, so I don't think I can tell you who?" The man nodded. "Alright, cool, thanks. Anyways, umm. I know I just talked about the unwritten rules, but I guess you guys know who Lung and Skidmark are?"

    He nodded again, before speaking for a moment. "They don't make much effort to hide their identities. Kenta Yukinori and Adam Mustain, both seventeen years of age, both juniors at Winslow High. The PRT has opted to not deal with them, because..." I couldn't see his expression, but Clockblocker tilted his head an inch. "Sorry. Classified. Go ahead, kid."

    I frowned a bit at being waved off with a "classified" - especially since I thought that the only reason they kept their hands out of Winslow was because it wasn't worth the trouble - but I continued regardless. "Anyways, uhm. The Empire guy, he was meeting with Kenta, and said that the Empire was going to ignore the ABB and the Merchants while the Nazis go after Coil, and, uhm." I remembered what the teenaged mastermind had told me. The Empire had a hit out on me. They wanted me dead. "...and me. The Empire wants me and Coil dead, sir, for the attack on their drug house."

    I heard a whistle from behind Clockblocker's mask, and he spoke up. "Kid, if there was ever a reason for you to join the Wards, that right there would be the major one. You do not want the full force of the Empire coming down on your head, especially when you're just some dumb, independent teenager. Err, sorry. Shit, that was rude, wasn't it?"

    I smiled, shaking my head. "No problem, sir. I... Won't deny that I am a bit of a dumb, independent teenager. But, uhm, anyways. There's something more important." Clockblocker nodded, motioning for me to continue. "Using my mice, I heard Kenta talking after the meeting was over. He said that he was going to talk to Adam and organize the ABB and the Merchants together to hit the Empire while they're busy with Coil and I. It sounded like Kenta wanted to, uhm, start a full-on gang war in the Docks, sir."

    I could hear Clockblocker take a deep breath behind his mask as he crossed his arms. "Well, shit. That's no good. Did you get any more details? A time they wanted to launch the attack, where they wanted to start it? Anything at all?"

    I shook my head, frowning again. "No, sir. I'm... Sorry, sir. I should have had my mice follow Kenta some more, see if I could hear anything more. That's my fault, sir."

    Clockblocker reached across the table to pat my shoulder again. "Kid, really, it's okay. Just telling us this is a lot." As he sat back in his chair, I could tell that he was taking a few moments to think about something. "I'm going to be honest. I don't know if the PRT will give a shit." I stood up out of my seat, the chair screeching as it slid back against the floor, and I slammed my hands down onto the table. I didn't say anything, just stared wide-eyed at Clockblocker. The hero waved me down, trying to explain himself. "Trust me, kid, I give a shit, I really do." As angry as I had become in a split second, I knew Clockblocker was telling the truth. "But the PRT, they..." The man sighed, burying his helmeted face in his hands. "They don't give a shit. They don't give a shit about the Docks, or anything that happens there, unless it threatens to spill over into Downtown." I grit my teeth, and he responded to my obviously increasing frustration. "Trust me, kid, I know it's bullshit. But that's what the people on-high say about it, and I can barely struggle against it without getting a slap on the wrist for going against orders, or whatever they want to pin me with." Clockblocker rapped his knuckles on the table a few times, before continuing. "The only time we go into the Docks, the only time we go into Empire territory, is when we get a call, like we did this morning. We can't just straight up ignore a cape fight in progress, or a villainous cape down and ready to be brought in."

    I shouted louder than I had intended, my voice echoing in the room as I threw my arms wide. "But know a cape fight is going to happen! And that it's going to be a big one! And that people are going to get hurt. That civilians are going to get hurt, sir! Isn't this the same thing as somebody calling it in?! Me coming here and telling you?"

    Clockblocker just shook his head, not bothering to try and calm me down any more. "It's... If it was in Downtown, maybe. But this... We don't know when the fight is going to happen, and even if we did, the higher ups would find some excuse to say that there's not enough evidence, or that they'll worry about it when it happens, or this, that, or the other thing." He made a motion as if to pinch the bridge of his nose, but realized at the last moment that his face was covered in a helmet. "I want to help, kid. I really do. I want to help you, kid. I'll go to the PRT, I'll talk to them, I'll see if I can't get them to do something about this." With another sigh, he crossed his arms again. "But they probably won't listen. They probably won't do anything. I wouldn't recommend that you try to do anything on your own, either, kid, because I know that you're probably thinking that right now." I opened my mouth to protest, but Clockblocker was right, and I didn't deny it. "You'll only get yourself hurt, kid, or worse, and you won't have done a damn thing for it to be worth it, not against three street gangs at once." I grit my teeth and smacked my hand down on the metal table again, causing it to reverberate angrily. "Kid. Really. I'm sorry. But there's just not much I can do."

    "Clearly, there's not." There was enough venom in my voice that I worried that I'd poison myself from it. I left the donut and the coffee on the table, both of them unfinished, as I turned towards the door. I could tell that Clockblocker wanted to stop me, but all he did was raise a hand before letting me go. I marched out of the PRT building, past a few guards that looked at me warily and a receptionist that raised an eyebrow at me in curiosity. I made my way back to the alley that I had put my mask on at, tearing the damned thing off. As I started to walk towards an opposite end, I pulled out my phone and dialed a number.

    "Hey, Coil? It's me. I'm in."
     
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  9. MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    I like to keep that kind of stuff a mystery until it comes up, apologies. I can guarantee you that all of those characters (and more!) will make an appearance at some point, though.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: Skulk
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 6: Skulk

    ------------------

    I still had several hours until my mom got home, so I accepted Coil's offer to come meet him immediately to formalize my membership with his crew. I made my way back to the Docks from Downtown, aiming myself for the general direction of the address on Coil's card. Even as I was walking, I was berating and kicking myself around in my head. I had been impetuous, I knew. I had made myself angry at Clockblocker, which I knew I shouldn't have; it was probably fine for me to be mad at the PRT itself, if what the hero had said was accurate, but I shouldn't have been mad at him, personally. He seemed to care enough - genuinely care, too - but he really did have his hands tied by the organization he was a part of. I... I wanted try and tell myself that I should have accepted Clockblocker's offer to join the Wards, that I shouldn't have marched out of there and burnt bridges like that, but nothing in me was believing it. Clockblocker had his hands tied by the PRT, so how was I - some dumb, teenager, wanna-be superhero brat - going to manage to do anything by joining the Wards? Was I going to be able to walk up to the Director, poke my finger in his chest, and say: "Hey! PRT! Go save the Docks, right now!", or something? No, of course I wasn't.

    I knew, though, that working with Coil was the less... Moral? Heroic? Ethical? Maybe just the overall less savory option. But nobody else I could think of was willing to stick their necks out to save the Docks, and even if Coil was only going to do so on condition of me joining his crew, I... I didn't have any other choice, did I? Or, did I have some other choice? Was there anything, anything I could do differently? I doubted that either Kenta or Adam were willing to listen to reason, and under no circumstances was I about to help the Empire. The Undersiders and the Travelers couldn't give two shits about anything outside of Downtown, just like how the PRT apparently didn't. Even if Parian was willing to help, I doubted that just her and I could do anything about three whole street gangs worth of deadly parahumans. Maybe I could take that twenty thousand dollars and go hire Spitfire's crew? Or would she and her mercenaries even bother risking their lives for such a paltry sum? God, to even be able to think of twenty thousand dollars as "a paltry sum". Uber and Leet might have had a cheaper price tag on their services... Though, if I was considering fucking Uber and Leet, then I had clearly, clearly reached rock bottom.

    Maybe I could join Coil's crew, get him to save the Docks, and then leave, ditch him right after, to go join the Wards properly, once the current crisis was over? But how would that be heroic, deceiving and betraying somebody who - although a bit snakish about it - seemed to genuinely want to help the city, albeit with arguably villainous means and arguably vainglorious motivations? Maybe I was just desperately looking for a different option when I knew there were none. Or maybe I was trying to convince myself that there were no other options because I didn't want to have to make any hard decisions.

    With those thoughts weighing heavy on my mind, I eventually managed to stumble my way to the address on Coil's card. It was what appeared to be an old, run-down garage, with the faded words "RANDY'S AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR" above two sets of doors meant for vehicles. There was a regular door on the first floor that opened into what looked like some kind of offices, though its windows had been boarded up, and a set of stairs that led up to another entrance. Coil had told me to take the stairs entrance while I was on the phone with him, so I started my way up, and knocked on the door once I reached it. I remembered my mask at the last second, quickly placing it around the upper half of my face; I figured that we'd be unmasking to each other soon enough, but the piece of firm plastic made me feel secure in an otherwise terrifying situation.

    It took a little bit, and I heard heavy foot steps from inside, before the door opened up to reveal Biter, with his bear-trap jaw-plate thing attached to his face. "Hey there." The piece of metal bobbed up and down as he spoke, and I found myself momentarily transfixed, seeing it up close. "Coil said you'd be coming around. Come on in." He ushered me into the building, and I nodded and stepped past the door. It was... Not an impressive place, but I supposed that a bunch of teenagers running around robbing street gangs wouldn't have been able to afford much better than this. It looked like the upper floor of the former auto shop was half meant to be a residence for "Randy" and half meant as storage for whatever excess car parts he may have had on hand. As it was, having six people in this space made it seem a bit cramped, though I assumed that some of the lower floor was also in use.

    Barker was draped along a somewhat ratty leather couch in a space that seemed to have been set up as a lounge or sort of living room area, watching some sort of daytime TV talk show with a bored look on his face. Once he saw me walking into the makeshift "house", though, he suddenly got a lot more excited. Climbing off his couch to dash over to me, he cheered in a loud voice. "Heeey, it's Rat Kid!" I winced. "I heard you decided to take up the big man's offer, eh? Gonna work with us, eeeh?"

    I frowned before responding. "It's, uhh, Gnaw, actually. Not Rat Kid. Gnaw."

    Barker's face contorted for a moment in disdain. "Gnaw? What kinda name is Gnaw?"

    I raised an eyebrow and smirked a little bit derisively in response. "At least it's better than 'Barker'."

    The owner of that name narrowed his eyes at me, and for a moment I thought that I was going to get into some kind of fight the moment I had stepped into Coil's headquarters. I even saw Biter pull up beside the two of us, ready to intervene if something blew up. Instead, Barker's face split into a wide grin, before he smacked a hand on my shoulder, a fair deal rougher than it needed to. "Eeey, the new guy's got some bite, ehh, Biter?"

    I groaned and almost felt physical pain at Barker's pun, while Biter just furrowed his brow and shook his head. "Coil's busy downstairs. Do you want anything? A drink, a snack, maybe?" Biter pointed towards a kitchenette that looked like it had been left over from Randy's time here.

    "Oh, uhm." I had left my backpack at home when I went to swap into my costume and get my mask. Stupid, stupid. "Yeah, actually. I forgot my lunch at home. Is it okay?"

    Biter smile, a motion I could just barely see behind his bear trap. "Hey, no problem. If you're gonna take Coil's offer, then uhh, mi casa es su casa, and all that."

    I started following Biter over to the kitchen, while Barker threw himself back onto the couch and shouted after us. "Hey, it's not your house, Biter. It's our house!" The muscular guy just smiled and shook his head, while opening up the fridge. Inside was... Not much. A jar of pickles, a few pizza boxes, a few... Beers, which was a bit shocking at first, but made sense when I supposed that they did have Chariot around if they wanted some, and some canned sodas. "Uhh, sorry." Biter looked up at me apologetically. "I guess we just have pizza? Or, erhm, pickles, if you'd like."

    I smiled and nodded. "Pizza's fine." I hadn't actually had pizza in only God knew how long. My mom was pretty adamant about cooking our own food, so we rarely got takeout or delivery anything, especially since most places in the Docks were either too crappy to be worth the money, too dangerous to visit, or both.

    Biter nodded back, pulling one of the pizza boxes out and setting it on the counter. "Pepperoni okay?" After another nod from me, Biter reached up into one of the cabinets and pulled out a paper plate for me. I noted that for being in a house full of mostly teenagers, the kitchenette was relatively clean, with some dishes drying on a rack and not much else; Coil's influence, perhaps? Hell, maybe even Biter's. Either way, I was impressed. As I was handed my pizza and made my way over to the nearby dining table - there wasn't really a defined "kitchen" and "dining room", they seemed to have been one entity, a necessity given the lack of room in the place - I looked around for a moment. Biter had gone over to where Barker was lying, and he made some comment about how trashy the show Barker was biting was; Barker made some retaliatory comment, and Biter laughed, which caused Barker to laugh in return. I...

    They weren't my friends. I had met them this morning. At the most, in maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, they would be my colleagues; my criminal colleagues too, depending upon how you looked at the circumstances. But something about the situation... I was at another person's house. I was sitting down and eating pizza at another person's house, while two of the residents laughed and watched television nearby. I... When was the last time I had been in this kind of situation? I hadn't spent any time with Kurt and Lacey since they had joined the Empire last year, and I hadn't been over to Alan's house since Eddie had threatened to mess with my best friend to get at me; as much as I didn't want Alan angry at me for not spending time with him, I wanted him to be hurt by a bunch of Nazi fuckheads even less. I think... I think that I hadn't been to anybody else's house in several months, possibly up to a year.

    It was an odd feeling, but one that was cut short by the sound of several pairs of feet coming up a nearby pair of stairs that apparently connected to the lower floor of the building. Circus was the first - or, at least, a person I assumed to be Circus, considering their lack of make-up and elaborate clown costume - followed by Coil, then Trainwreck, then Chariot; Trainwreck was in a scaled down version of his usual armor, Chariot wore a visor, and Coil was in his bodysuit. I stood up, wiping pizza grease off my hands with a napkin as I swallowed a bit of food before turning to face Coil properly. "Ah, hello my friend. It is indeed quite a pleasure to see you." He extended a black-clad hand my way.

    Taking it, I nodded. "Ah, I'm, uhm."

    Barker called from over by the couch. "He calls himself 'Gnaw'! Can you believe that, boss?" I flushed a bit as the other teenager cackled like a hyena for a few moments. I saw Trainwreck smirk a bit, but he quickly suppressed it with a cough.

    "Barker, please don't run off our new friend like that. Gnaw is a perfectly fine name, especially with your powers." Coil shook my hand, before pulling his back. I could see the smile behind the facial part of his suit. "Now then, Gnaw- Erm, just to make sure, Barker was telling the truth about your name, correct?" I nodded, and Coil continued. "Good. At least he got that bit right." Barker just gave a shit-eating grin before Coil spoke up again. "Anyways, Gnaw, just to confirm what we discussed over the phone. You are agreeing to enter my employ for the foreseeable future, accepting an equal share of all proceeds we make from our activities, and under the condition that I and everybody else in my employ assist in protecting the Docks during this gang war that you believe will soon erupt, yes?"

    I nodded, but after a few seconds of Coil silently staring at me, I cleared my throat and added. "Yes, that's correct. Your uhh, your employ, equal share, saving the Docks. That uhh, all sounds about right." Why the hell could Coil sound like some kind of practiced businessman while I sputtered around like some dumb kid? I would have to take public speaking lessons soon, or something.

    "Very good. I trust you enough, Gnaw, to not betray us, rat us out-" Coil stopped, furrowing his brow. I couldn't quite see the expression behind his suit, though. "I, uhh... How many times has that pun been made to you?"

    Okay, cool. I supposed that Coil wasn't always on top of the conversation. With a weak smile, I spoke up. "Uhh, just once, actually, with Clockblocker last night. I'm... I'm really hoping I don't get inundated with rat puns, though."

    Coil laughed a naturally teenagerish laugh, and I felt my whole body relax a bit from the tension that had built up as everyone else in the room either laughed with him or gave a smile. "Alright, anyways. Like I said, I'm trusting that you won't betray us, or turn us in to the PRT, or anything like that. And, in turn, I'm hoping that you trust us to not do anything of the same to you?" I nodded, slowly. I hoped that he wasn't implying that he did have reason to do any of that, but I supposed that just getting this sort of stuff out of the way was necessary to set up good faith between everybody involved. "Very well, then. Shall we?"

    Coil undid a barely visible zipper that attached the head part of his suit to the rest of it, allowing the fabric to hang off the back like a hood of some sort. The kid underneath was a black guy, who actually appeared to be a year or two older than me now that I managed to get a look at him, with a crew cut for a hairstyle. "Thomas Calvert."

    Circus was next, taking off their eye mask and showing a face that was androgynous as the rest of them. "Blake Barnes." They... I wasn't sure what I could call the feeling I got from Blake; their personality seemed as mysterious as every other part of them, their smile not giving much away.

    Chariot removed his visor, revealing a black man, as well - I idly considered what the Empire would think if they knew that the group that had been harassing and robbing them for the past while was half made up of African-Americans. "Trevor Medina. Nice to properly meet you, kid." Trevor was probably in his thirties or so, which seemed to make him the oldest member of the crew by at least a decade; I wondered if Coil was paying him extra, or something. He seemed a bit serious, but not unkind, either.

    "Oh, me next, me next!" Barker scrambled over to where the rest of the group was, and made a motion as if to rip a mask off his face; of course, the fact was that Barker didn't wear a mask at all, since the constant smoke emanating from his mouth was a dead giveaway as to who he was. With a smirk, he gave a deep, elaborate bow, before speaking in a exaggeratedly formal tone. "Ezekiel King, at your service." Popping back up into a standing pose, gave me a pair of finger guns, returning to his normal tone of voice. "You can just call me Zeke, though."

    Biter came up beside his friend, detaching the jaw-plate from his face; I wasn't quite sure how it was attached in a way that didn't require surgery or a screwdriver to remove it, but I didn't bother inquiring at that moment. "Brad Waters." I must have visibly flinched, because everyone gave me a look of concern. "Uhm. Is my name really that stupid?"

    I shook my head, an apologetic grimace as I explained. "Sorry. I just, uhm. I know another Brad, and he... Uhh." I grit my teeth and clenched my fists. "Sorry. Let's just say I don't like him much." The obviously much better Brad nodded in understanding.

    Trainwreck waved from behind the others, and stepped forward a bit. "Sorry, I, uhh, I know unmasking is a real big thing with capes, giving real names, and stuff, but, uhh." He pulled off his goggles, revealing eyes just as beady and ugly as I would have expected; I felt kind of bad thinking of him in that way, but he just... Didn't look good, at all. "I don't actually have a real name! 'Least as far as I remember. So everybody just calls me Trainwreck." With a small chuckle, he used a power-armored hand to rub the back of his head. "Sorry ta disappoint, like that."

    I smiled. "Nah, it's okay." I made a mental note to ask Trainwreck about his amnesia at a later point, if he was willing. "Uhm, anyways, here goes nothing, I suppose..." I reached up and pulled the half-mask off my face, revealing myself to what I figured was now my new cape team. "Danny. Danny Hebert. Nice to meet you all."

    Zeke had been bouncing back and forth on his feet as I was getting ready to unmask, but his excited face turned into one of utter disappointment the moment I had finished introducing myself. "Danny? Danny? First your cape name sucks, and then your real name is lame, too?" Brad smacked his friend upside the head, and Thomas sighed heavily.

    I smirked, and replied. "Alright, whatever you say, Ezekiel." I saw the other members of the crew smile in response to that, and Trevor even let out a small snort.

    Zeke, on the other hand, looked horrifically offended. "Excuse me! Ezekiel is a cool name! It's like, literally Biblical! C'mon, guys!" Everyone had started laughing now, and the more frustrated Zeke got over our teasing, the harder we laughed. "Shut up, Trainwreck! You don't even have a name!"

    "No name is still better than Ezekiel, dude." Zeke punched Trainwreck in the arm, but mostly only managed to hurt himself in the process when his fist connected to metal. As he gingerly nursed the hand, though, I saw a smile cross his face, a clear sign that he was enjoying it as much as everybody else.

    ----------

    Once we had managed to calm ourselves down, Thomas sat me at the dinner table as he grabbed a couple of pizza slices for himself. Trevor and Trainwreck went back down stairs to work on some tinker projects of theirs - apparently, Randy's place had been chosen for the lifts on the first floor, so that the two tinkers could practice their craft easier - while Blake went to hang out with Brad and Zeke on the couch. Brad forcefully commandeered the remote from his friend, switching the channel to some sort of nature documentary, instead; Zeke opted to sulk up against the arm of the couch once control of the TV had been wrested from him.

    "So, Danny." Thomas was back into full Coil mode, even if he wasn't wearing the head part of his suit as we talked. "Just to reiterate, you said that the ABB and the Merchants are going to jointly strike against the Empire, while the Empire sends hit squads out after us?" I paused for a moment to consider "us"; the Empire had certainly intended to send people out after both Coil's crew and I myself, but now those two entities were one in the same, and I had to take a moment to process that.

    "I, yeah. Or, at least, Kenta said he was going to talk to Adam about it, and from what I know about Adam, he'd probably accept the offer." Thomas had placed a number of files on the dining table, and he eat carefully to make sure he didn't get any grease or other stains on them; I replicated the caution, not wanting to offend my new boss on what I supposed what my first day on the job.

    "Yes, I'd agree with that assessment. Our dear friend Skidmark is very... Rash, to say the least, and from what I can tell, he's not happy with the current power imbalance in the Docks." He pulled out a map of the northern part of the city, bringing it to the top. On top of the geographical map was a color map, roughly detailing areas of control for the gangs present in the Docks. The Empire, in yellow, controlled... Well, they controlled almost all of it. The ABB, in red, had control over the predominantly Asian neighborhoods in the western part of the Docks, and nowhere else. The Merchants, in Blue, had a portion of the northern Trainyard region, which most people considered a sort of subsection of the Docks; a lot of non-Asian minorities lived there, so I supposed that it made sense for them to have power there. A small dot - right in the middle of Empire territory, I now realized - designated the hideout I was currently sitting in. "I can absolutely see him making a temporary alliance with Lung and the rest of the ABB to take on the Empire when they feel that the skinheads are distracted." With a sigh, a smile, and a shrug, he said: "A shame that the Empire decided to be distracted with us, though."

    I frowned, and pointed at the marker that designated Coil's building. "...and we're sitting here, smack dab in the parts they control." I looked up at him, concern on my face. "You're uhh, you seem to have a lot of confidence, sleeping in the lion's den, so to speak." Wincing a bit, I added. "Not to, uhh, not to doubt you, boss."

    Thomas looked at me for a moment, before shaking his head. "No offense taken. Well, a mild amount, but not that much." A grin, a bit more of the kid in the would-be mastermind, and he continued. "I understand your concern, Danny, and it is rather dangerous of us to be here, but it also allows us to mobilize faster, to strike at an Empire target, and then immediately retreat back to safety."

    My eyes moved towards the stairs down into the garage, and I hesitantly spoke up again. I didn't want to piss Thomas off, but there were some things I felt I had to know. "And you... Jet out from this place on Trainwreck and Trevor's bike? That seems, uhm..."

    Thomas smirked again, finishing my thought. "Less than subtle?" I nodded, before he continued. "Don't worry. Trevor's made a short range group teleporter. We use it to exit the building and re-enter it without anybody noticing. I'm sure that the Empire might realize what spot we're using to teleport out to, but..." Thomas shrugged. "...they haven't figured out how to exploit it yet, either." I let out a small sound of acknowledgment, and he spoke again. "Now then, Danny, did you have a plan as to what you wanted us to do once the ABB and the Merchants launch their attacks?"

    I paused, looking at the map. I... I didn't have a plan. Holy Christ almighty, I had made a critical life decision to join a vaguely-villainous gang for the sake of getting them to help me with this, and I didn't have a plan. I really needed to stop doing shit like this. I frowned as Thomas smiled and raised an eyebrow. "I... Hrm..." I placed my finger on the map, as if expecting it to give me some insight. When that didn't help, I pulled out the files on the various Empire, ABB, and Merchant capes. I thought about directly confronting them; wouldn't that just cause even more damage, though? I thought about damage control, instead; how did one damage control against people like Lung and Squealer, though? Not to mention, damage control just felt... Impotent; driving around on Trainwreck or Trevor's bike and rescuing people from burning buildings? I had joined Coil's crew to get them to do something heroic, and that sort of thing barely felt heroic.

    Then I remembered something Clockblocker had told me earlier: The PRT only gave a shit about Downtown. They would deploy their forces to any situation in Downtown. If they deployed their forces into Downtown, and then the threat they were deployed against went into the Docks... Screw what I had thought earlier. I could get the PRT to help stop the gang war. I might have to... No, I would have to do some shady, criminal, even villainous things, but...

    "Christ, okay, I don't even know if this'll work. It might not. Hell, it probably won't. Or maybe it will, I don't know. You're better at this stuff than I am, so I'll just tell you, and then you tell me what you think." Thomas nodded, and I placed my finger on Downtown. "Clockblocker told me today that the reason the PRT wouldn't help try to prevent this is because they don't give a shit about the Docks; they'd probably just wait for the gangs to wear each other out, and then come in to clean up the mess, letting the place burn to the ground in the mean time. However, they do give a shit about Downtown, and will deploy the Protectorate and the Wards if something happens there." Thomas gave a sound of acknowledgement, signalling me to continue. "So, what if we do... Something in Downtown, I don't know. Rob a bank, or a jewelry store, doesn't matter. Then, we don't fight the capes that come to stop us." I saw my boss' eyebrow raise, but I couldn't tell if it was a good or a bad expression. "Hell, we don't even try to shake them. We guide them into Downtown, into the middle of the gang war." I hadn't even realized that I was panting from speaking so fast and so strongly. Zeke, Brad, and Blake had stopped watching TV to listen to my plan. "They... Fuck, would the PRT just stop chasing us if they saw us going into the Docks? Or if they saw a giant Lung with Fenja and Menja, duking it out?" I shook my head and sucked in a breath of air. I looked up at Thomas, with a look of consternation on my face. "What do you think?"

    My boss nodded. "It's a good plan, Danny." I let out a breath of relief at his words. "You're right, though. The PRT would just stop chasing us if they saw what they were in for if they continued following." My smile sunk a little bit, but I waited for the follow-up. "However, it would be a different story if we took something that they couldn't afford to let go." My eyes widened, as Thomas... No, as Coil gave off a grin full of danger. "Something like a Ward."

    ----------

    I was barely able to focus on putting one foot in front of the other as I made my way back home. I would be back by around three o'clock, which was two full hours before my mom was supposed to be back, so I didn't rush myself, letting my brain wander as I walked. So. I was now planning on committing several crimes, which would firmly place me, as Gnaw, in the villain camp. Not just that, I had been the one to suggest committing criminal, villainous acts in the first place. Me. Coil had made it a good plan, but I was the one who wanted us to rob a bank and now kidnap a fucking Ward. I felt a bit nauseous, and I very nearly puked a few times as I strode along. I didn't know what sort of prison sentences I could get for those sort of crimes, but... God, was kidnapping a Ward the kind of shit that could get me sent to the Birdcage?

    Oh God, what was I doing? What in the hell was I doing? I shouldn't be doing this. I had wanted to be a hero. I had wanted to fix the city. Or, at the very least, I had wanted to get my mom and myself the hell out of here. This wasn't being a hero. This was, in fact, the exact opposite of being a hero. I may have been doing it with the intent of getting the PRT to intervene in a disastrous gang war, but... Did that matter? I was going to potentially harm very many innocent people for the sake of this little plan of mine. Did the well-being of the Docks outweigh the suffering those innocents would go through? Would the damage of robbing a bank be outweighed by stopping damage to the Docks? Was this what Coil had promised me when he said that I could help him fix the city?

    And why the fuck was my mom's car in the driveway?

    I nearly passed out. I actually, literally could feel my consciousness begin to drift as all of the endless anxiety that had been consuming me over the past... It had been less than eighteen hours since I had snuck out of the house last night. In less than eighteen hours, my life had changed this much. Oh, and my mom was home early from work, and she knew that I had used the nurse to skip out of school, and I was sure that her mind was brewing with ideas as to what I had been doing in my spare time today.

    Of course, it made sense, as I began to walk towards the front door of my house and what was most assuredly my certain doom. My mom voluntarily stayed until five o'clock because she cared about her class and her students; most other teachers zipped out the moment the final bell rang, coming in only to collect a paycheck and do the minimal work necessary. If she so pleased, my mom could do the same thing, like if she had anything that needed taking care of at home; like if she had a son who had been sent home early because of a crippling migraine.

    I turned the knob on the door. It was unlocked. I opened the door, and I stepped inside. Nobody called for me. I walked down the hallway. I saw my mom, in the dining room, sitting at the table. A nearby clock gave off a steady tick, tock, tick, tock as she sat there. My utility belt was there; the cash, the pepper spray, and the baton were lain out. Hearing my footsteps, she turned around with the most wonderful, sincere smile on her face. "Danny. Take a seat. We should talk." I nodded, dumbly, and tried to swallow; my throat was so tight from tension that it refused to let me. My legs felt like lead as I willed them forward, towards the chair opposite from her.

    As I sat down and caught my mom's eyes, I considered all of the people I had seen today. There was the charismatic sociopath that led the school's gang of Nazis. There was the psychopathic brute who could turn himself into a gigantic dragon, alongside equally terrifying compatriots. There was the PRT, with the full force of its bureaucratic and authoritative fist ready to come slamming down at any time. And there was Thomas Calvert, or Coil, the kid who was barely older than me but whose eyes were constantly dancing with danger.

    And yet, none of them were even as remotely terrifying as my mother, Taylor Hebert.

    Yeah, I was dead.
     
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  11. Blackenedthorn

    Blackenedthorn Making the rounds.

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    Even without powers, Taylor is frightening all the same
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: Bite
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 7: Bite

    -------------------

    One thing about my power that I had grown slightly inured to over the past few months was that it was always on, even when I was sleeping. There was, for example, one morning when my mom had to leave early and my alarm failed to go off when a mouse had crawled up onto my bed and bit me on the arm to wake me up; I still didn't know how had managed that, but it was obvious that it was something that I myself had did, albeit in my sleep. Subconsciously controlling a mouse to use as an alarm clock was one thing. Constantly being aware of every rodent within a mile radius, of course, was quite another thing. Luckily, the multitasking ability that had come along with my power meant that I wasn't overwhelmed by all of the sensations and information I was receiving every waking moment. Also luckily was the fact that, even though I was always aware of them, I wasn't always manually controlling every single rodent within my range; when I was calm, when my emotions were level, they simply went about their normal rodent lives, doing normal rodent things, while also acting as a thousand eyes and ears for me all the while. That was fine.

    What was not fine was the fact that when I was not calm and my emotions were far from level, my power sort of... Went haywire. Every creature I controlled would start going frantic, would start running around in circles, would start squeaking and scratching and scurrying; if I was lucky enough to find rodents being kept as pets in cages with wheels in them, their owners would have swiftly noted that their pet hamster was sprinting a thousand miles an hour on the damned thing. I knew, of course, that plenty of people with powers would find their abilities going out of control when their emotions got out of hand, and I tried my best to assert active control over my power whenever I got emotional, to keep the animals I had control over from hurting themselves or causing any sort of scene.

    Even though I didn't notice it most of the time, all of it being so far in the back of my head and with my multitasking ability handling most of it, I still knew when my rodents were doing all of that. When Brad was staring at me in Mrs. Clements' class, my rodents began to do that. When Eddie and his thugs were harassing and beating me, the rodents living in the walls of Winslow High would do that. Whenever Kurt and Lacey tried to talk to me, to recruit me into the Empire with them, I could feel my rodents doing that. When I was walking home after fighting Crusader, my rodents were surely doing that. When I saw Max meeting with Kenta, the rodents were definitely doing that. When I went to meet Clockblocker, and when I stormed out of the PRT building, all the rodents in the alleyways and the dumpsters and the sewers of Downtown were doing that. When I was planning out the bank robbery and the kidnapping with Coil, sure enough, my rodents were still doing that.

    Then? As I sat across the table from my mom, who somehow managed to be the most intimidating person I had ever met in spite of not having any powers that I knew of and looking as calm and placid as a still lake? Yeah, my rodents were doing this, with more force than I had ever known them to except when I actively was directing them at Crusader in the heat of battle last night. My squirrels were biting desperately on the branches of the trees they were nesting in. My rats and mice, in spite of my best efforts, were chewing at each other, drawing blood, tearing fur, and ripping skin. A pet rabbit that somebody had out of its cage to play began to thump rapidly and loudly, causing the owner great distress. I tried, I genuinely tried to stop them from freaking out, but it was really really really fucking hard when I was afraid that my mom was about to reach over the table and strangle me.

    I was pretty sure that she was deliberately prolonging the silence in order to unbalance me. It was working, of course. My mouth felt dry, I could barely breathe, and my heart was pounding hard enough that I thought that I could hear it. Finally, my mom spoke up. "So. You're Rat Kid." It wasn't a question, it was a statement; it still expected a response, though.

    I nodded, slowly, as if afraid that any motion would set her off. "Yes. It's, umm. I'm trying to go by Gnaw. Not Rat Kid."

    Mom nodded next, a look of concentration on her face as she thought. "Well, either way, you'll be going by Danny Hebert whenever you're in this house." I nodded, and suspected that I'd be doing a lot of that for the rest of this conversation. Well, it wasn't quite a conversation, as that word implied that two people were talking to each other. My mom was talking to me, she was telling to me. Arms still crossed, she looked down at the utility belt and everything else on the desk. "How long have you had powers?"

    "Three months. Since the beginning of the semester." I didn't even have time to think about whether or not I wanted to lie, let alone time enough to think of a falsehood to tell at all.

    A nod from her. "And did they just appear? Or did something cause them?"

    I had considered it for a long time, and I didn't think it was a coincidence that I had developed my powers as I lay bloodied and bruised on the ground behind the school's dumpsters, crying and screaming into the asphalt myself that nobody was helping me, that nobody would help me, that I had nobody I could rely on, or turn to for assistance. But could I tell my mom that? Could I tell my mom about everything that had been happening with Eddie, with the Empire? I knew my mom, and I knew what she would do.

    I tried to speak for several times, before finally managing to get my words out. "Mom. You have to promise me. You have got to promise me that you won't freak out, that you won't... Do your thing, and keep going, and get yourself hurt."

    She narrowed her eyes at me, but nodded. "I promise that I will try not to freak out. But you will tell me about this."

    I nodded, accomplishing a swallow that only marginally helped the lump in my throat. "There's this boy at school, Eddie Vickers. I, uhm, you might have had him in one of your classes?" My mom nodded, and I continued. "He's with the Empire, I think you probably know. He has two friends, Brad Meadows and James Fliescher. They've uhm. They've been trying to recruit me into the Empire, since I joined the school." I could see my mom's hands squeeze down on each opposite arm, but she didn't interrupt me. "They've, uhm. I didn't know why they were so vehement on trying to get me to join, but one time Eddie let slip that... I think they're trying to get to you, through me." Mom's eyes had been closed for a while as she listened, but they shot open wide, staring at me with an intensity that almost made me fall over in my chair. "They, uhm. They got really... Insistent. They started to hurt me, a lot. Bullying, I guess is the term you'd use. A lot of beatings, too." I could see my mom's nostrils flaring, and I prepared for whatever was about to happen.

    "I could tell that something was happening to you at school, Danny." As I opened my mouth, she held a hand up to stop me. "I'm not stupid, Danny. You know I'm not. I can see the way you fake a smile at me when we meet in the halls, or the way that you try to hide bruises whenever they left them on more visible areas." I winced and grimaced. Had I been that obvious? "But..." She sighed, and buried her head in her hands. "I... I didn't want to give you the 'Taylor Treatment'." If I hadn't been in such a tense situation, I would have laughed; I knew what my mom was referring to, but I had never heard it called the 'Taylor Treatment'. "You're the last person I want to act that way towards, Danny. I didn't want to grill you, I didn't want to sit here, like this, and force you to tell me everything. I wanted to give you the time to come to me and tell me when you felt ready." My mom wore a sad smile as she looked up at me. "I was wrong, though. The situation got out of control, because I didn't want to take control of it sooner, because I was more concerned with making sure that you were comfortable than making sure that you were safe."

    All I could do was let out a soft, small: "Mom..."

    "Now, you're lucky, Danny." She shook her head, and I could see tears begin to form in her eyes. "Because I know that if I try to do anything about this, that I will get hurt; more importantly, I know that you will get even more hurt than you already have been." One hand formed a fist, and the first real outburst of anger came. "Because the fucking Empire is too fucking strong, because it controls the entire Docks more than the fucking police and the fucking city does." I had heard that sort of thing from her before, but it sounded far, far more personal at that point. "And nobody... Nobody will help." There was a bitterness in her voice at that, and it was deeper than I thought it should have been. Taking a deep breath, she turned to me again. "Tell me what you were doing last night."

    I sat up straight in my chair, and immediately began explaining what had happened to my mom. "I wanted to go out and do hero stuff, Mom. I wanted to help fight the Empire, to help make the Docks a better place. I wanted to do it for me, for you, for... For Dad, too." Mom's expression changed slightly at the mention of her late husband. "And for everyone else. Maybe if I... Maybe if I did enough, I could help Kurt and Lacey. Maybe I could help make Winslow better, for all the students, and all the teachers, too." Mom had a melancholy look as she gazed at me. "So I... I went out, and attacked one of their drug houses. I... Didn't expect Crusader there, but I decided to go ahead, anyways. That was... Probably a dumb decision. A really bad decision, actually. He..." I felt my breath hitch as I remembered the fight. "He almost killed me, Mom. Crusader did. But then Coil and his crew showed up. The, uhh, other teenagers, from the newspaper. Well, Chariot's an adult, technically, but, uhh... They saved me, yeah."

    Mom studied my face, before speaking. "Coil. I've heard of him. He saved you, but I'm guessing it wasn't out of the goodness of his heart, was it?" I shook my head, sheepishly, and she pointed at the money. "From the drug house, I assume?" I nodded, and she silently stared at the bills for what must have been at least half a minute. "Someone more naive, more idealistic, would throw it in a fireplace and call it blood money, or something. I don't like what you had to do, what happened for you to get this, but it's yours to do with as you please." I looked up at my mom, unbelieving; she raised an eyebrow, and spoke with an almost humorous tone. "You didn't actually expect me to demand that you burn the money or go give it to the poor or something, did you?"

    I opened my mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, speaking with a crack in my voice. "M... Maybe?"

    A smile, and one that wasn't laden with venom. My breathing eased a little bit. "Danny, I might be a bitch, but I'm not an idiot, either." She pointed at the money again. "It's funds liberated from a criminal organization by a young hero. Nothing wrong with accepting it or using it." I smiled back at my mom, and I was so, so glad that we had managed to find common ground here, at least. "Now then. Why did you skip school today?"

    And there was the other shoe. I still knew that I didn't have any choice but to tell the truth; my mom might not have been a parahuman, but she could still detect lies as well as anybody with superpowers could. "Well, it started when Mr. Veder sent me to the nurse's office, because I had a headache." Mom smirked at the mention of that teacher; she was always ribbing on him over dinner. "I ended up going past an empty classroom, where, uhm." Should I give Max's name? Probably not, I could hide this much at least. "I saw some Empire kids talking with Kenta and his crew. Telling them that, uhm, they were going to ignore the ABB and the Merchants while they focused on me and Coil."

    Mom stopped me with a raised hand. "Okay. I just want to make sure. You said that the Empire is focusing on you, as well as Coil?" I nodded, before she motioned with her hand for me to continue. I was pretty sure that my mom's tension was increasing with every word at this point, though.

    I shifted in my seat uncomfortably as I spoke. "Uhm. After the meeting was over, I used a mouse to follow Kenta. He said that, uhm, he was going to talk to Adam, and try to get the Merchants and the ABB together to attack the Empire while the skinheads were distracted with me and Coil." Mom nodded, her breathing becoming heavier as the seconds wore on. "I, uhh, I really didn't want this gang war to happen, and since I was the only one who knew about it, I went to the PRT." My mom opened her eyes, and there was relief in them. I felt like a monster for what I was about to say. "I met with Clockblocker. He, uhm. He was sympathetic, but..." Mom's expression fell. She knew what was coming. "He said. He said, uhm. The PRT doesn't give a shit about the Docks, is what he said."

    My mom pounded on the table with both fists now, causing the items on it to rattle from the force. She grit her teeth together as she practically spat out the words. "Of fucking course. Not the principal, not the police, not the city, and not even the fucking PRT. Who cares about the part of town where all the poor shits live, right?" With a bitter scoff, she looked at me, and the albeit infuriated look in her eyes bid me to continue.

    "So, uhm. I left the PRT. I wanted to join the Wards, you know, even yesterday, before I went out. I wanted to, uhm, do some hero stuff, here in the Docks, then go join them, so I could be a real, official hero, and everything." Mom gave me another sad smile, and eyes that turned from that previous fury to ones deeply filled with pride in a moment. I smiled despite the situation. "But, since the PRT wasn't going to help, I had to find somebody who would."

    Mom finished before I could. "Coil." Again, not a question, but a statement. I nodded, and she asked: "And? What did Coil have to say?"

    I cleared my throat, moving around in my seat as I tried to work up the courage to continue. "He said that he would help defend the Docks against the upcoming gang war if I joined his crew."

    Again, my mom didn't even need to wait for any elaboration. "And so you joined Coil."

    I nodded. "Yes." The two of us sat there for a very tense minute or so, and I couldn't manage to tell what sort of expression was on my mom's face, besides the fact that it was intently thoughtful. A few times, I tried to speak, to offer justifications, or excuses, or anything, but I knew that she wouldn't want to hear any of it.

    Eventually, she spoke up again. "I don't like it, Danny. I don't like it at all. But I understand why you did it. I can't punish you for it, either, or try to ground you and forbid you from going out, or whatever. You're as strong-willed as I am, and I know you'd just run away, or something like that." I opened my mouth to say something, but she stopped me once more. "You think that you wouldn't, Danny, but I know that you would. You have something you want to do, and you're going to do it, no matter what you have to do in order to get it done. That's just how you are, Danny. That's how you've always been. That's how..." Mom frowned, before continuing. "That's how your Dad was, too. It's why I loved him, and it's why I love you, as well. So I'm not going to try and stop you, because nothing good would come of it." For a moment, Mom actually looked like she was off-balance, as she thought of what to say. "I don't know if I can support you as 'Gnaw', as a super... Superhero, I hope, on Coil's team." She bit her lip for a moment, and I saw a few fresh tears start. "But I think that I can support you as my son, whenever you come home." Another second or two of hesitation, and then: "Just... Just promise me, Danny, that you won't do too much trying to get this done. That you won't do something you can't take back."

    I thought of Coil. Of our plan. Of my plan. Of robbing a bank. Of kidnapping a Ward. I lied, because I knew that my mom wanted me to lie, if the truth would be too much for her, and that she would accept this lie. "I promise, Mom. I won't do anything I can't take back." She smiled. I smiled. We both knew it was bullshit, but neither of us was willing to admit it.

    Mom grabbed a napkin to wipe her eyes and blow her nose with, and she passed one to me; I hadn't even realized that I had been crying. The rodents in my range had finally settled down, and I hoped that the owner of the pet rabbit hadn't freaked out too badly. As my mom stood up out of her chair, she actually looked nervous. "There's... One other thing we need to talk about, Danny. I... Don't know if this is the best thing to do, but I think it should be done, anyways." I looked up at her, raising an eyebrow and sporting a confused look. "Do you know who Grue is?"

    ----------

    The ride to Downtown was done in a surpassing amount awkward silence. This time, however, it wasn't because my mom was furious at me and I was desperately trying to hide myself from her rage. No, this time, it was something of the obvious. "So. Your so-called 'book club'?" I had my elbow on the edge of the passenger door, my chin resting in my hand as I looked out the window.

    I could see my mom shift uncomfortably in the driver's seat, and vaguely saw a blush creep onto her cheeks. "Yeah. No such thing." We turned a corner, and I realized that we were in a particularly upscale part of Downtown, our dinky little junker feeling incredibly out of place amongst all of the luxury cars near us. "Look, Danny. I know I've already said this a thousand times, but I really am sorry. The big reason I didn't feel right getting angrier at you about this thing with your powers or with Coil is because of... Erm..."

    I finished for her. "Because you were hiding the fact that you're dating the villainous leader of one the two Downtown parahuman gangs?"

    Mom smiled awkwardly. "We're not dating, Danny. We just... See each other some times, is all."

    I turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow. "So, like, a booty call, or something?"

    I felt a stab of guilty pleasure as I watched my mom squirm in her seat. "It's not a booty call! I mean, we do, erm. We do do... That, but it's not..." She let out a guttural noise of frustration, before shooting me a quick look of annoyance. I just smiled in return.

    "So. Just to be sure. Grue isn't secretly my real dad, or something? And you, uhh, weren't seeing him while Dad was still around, right?" My look was pointed, and I internally laughed at the idea that the Empire might have been trying to recruit me when I was half-black but white-passing.

    "No! No, no, not at all. I would never have done that to Andrew, never would. I loved your dad too much to ever do anything like that to him." Mom seemed genuinely shaken up by the idea of her having possibly cheated on my dad, and I felt rather bad seeing her get so upset.

    "Well, I guess I understand why the Empire wanted to get to you through me, now." I mused idly. "I guess you weren't as discrete as you thought you were when you were going over to have a booty call with Mister Grue." I smiled a small, slightly impish smile as I saw Mom fidget some more. "I don't know why they didn't just straight up try and kidnap you, or whatever, but..." I straightened my face out, and put on the most serious face I could muster. "I'll keep you safe, Mom."

    We had pulled into a parking garage, and my mom used some kind of keycard that I hadn't known she had. Since we were out of the way of traffic, she took the moment to stop the car, look over to me, smile, and ruffle my hair playfully. I blushed furiously as she spoke. "I know you will, Danny. My brave, strong boy." It could have sounded condescending, but it wasn't. It was both believing and encouraging at the same time.

    Once we had pulled into a parking spot, we made our way towards the elevators, and... Jesus, even the elevators in this place were fancy. If this was one of the perks of being a highly successful supervillain, then maybe... I grinned a little bit, before shaking the idea out of my head. My mom noticed my smile, though, and questioned me as the elevator began to rise to... Christ, the penthouse floor. "What's so funny, Danny?"

    I pointed at the button lit up on the elevator panel, the "PH" letters next to it standing out noticeably. "Mom, if that's what being a supervillain can get me, then Coil could be burning down orphanages as long as I got paid for it."

    Mom's eyes shot open wide with a look of equal shot or offense, and she slapped my arm lightly. "Danny! Don't even joke about something like that!"

    I snickered a little bit as the elevator began to slow, before reaching into my pocket and pulling out my mask. When my mom had called Grue about the situation, he said that he wanted us to meet in masks, first, just for propriety's sake. I didn't question the orders of one of the most powerful supervillains in all of Brockton Bay, as pointless as it might have seemed to me. The elevator opened out onto a short hallway lined with potted plants, with a singular set of double-doors at the end. We walked into it, and Mom rang the doorbell.

    Several seconds later, one of the doors opened, and standing there was a quite tall dark-skinned man, taller than even my mom by at least a head or two, wearing a motorcycle helmet emblazoned with a skull across the visor. I'd seen plenty of photos and footage of him, but he was a lot more intimidating in person; I supposed that you didn't need to be able to turn yourself into a dragon like Lung could to give off an aura of supremacy. "Taylor." I could hear the smile behind his helmet, and my mom smiled back, blushing a bit. Eww. The supervillain extended a hand out to me, and I took it; it was large, muscular, and felt like it could crush my own hand like a paper cup if it wanted. "And you must be Dan- Err, sorry. You must be Gnaw." The cape name I had spurt out in the PRT lobby still felt a bit odd to me, but I was growing used to it. "Your mom's told me a lot about you. Your, uhh, civilian life, I mean. It's good to finally meet you." He was... Rather polite, for a supervillain. Not that I expected all of them to be like Adam or Kenta, especially since Grue was a full grown adult running illicit activities in Downtown rather than the Docks, but for being the leader of the Undersiders, Grue just sounded... Normal, I supposed. "Anyways, come in."

    As Grue motioned for us to enter his penthouse, I noticed him placing a hand on my mom's shoulder, another smile being shared between them. Eww. I definitely did not want to think about my mom having a booty call with this guy, polite supervillain or not. That being said, if my mom had decided to remarry, I would not have minded living in a place like that; despite nominally being an apartment, I was pretty sure that it was bigger than our house, taking up two stories of the building it was in and having several balconies, including one with... A pool?! Jesus Christ. "Can I get either of you two anything? Water, soda? A snack, maybe?" I felt like I was having deja vu as I turned around to look at Grue. Right, Brad had asked me the same thing when I first showed up at Coil's place, and this was... The second time in a single day that I had visited someone else's house, when I hadn't done so in months before now. What the hell was going on in my life?

    My mom and I both shook our heads. "I... Not to rush you, Br-" My mom winced. Grue's real name? "Not to rush you, Grue, but I don't know if we have time for small talk right now."

    Grue gave a laugh from behind his helmet, a deep, rich sound. Okay, maybe I could see why my mom had the hots for this guy. I wasn't into dudes, but I still understood. "That's what I like about you, Taylor. Always down to business." My mom smiled like she was a schoolgirl as old as I was. That was weird. It was weird. My mom wasn't supposed to be some blushing teenager. She was supposed to be my mom, Taylor Hebert, demon of the PTA meetings, and stuff.

    Before I could think on the odd situation I found myself any further, Grue invited us to sit down at a dinner table that looked like it might have cost all twenty thousand of the dollars I had earned last night. More deja vu, though, as flashes of Thomas went through my head, the two of us planning out a bank robbery and a kidnapping. "Alright, Gnaw. I trust your mom, more than even some of the other people in the Undersiders." He and my mother extended hands to hold one another and squeeze gently. I... Still hadn't necessarily managed to get over my dad's death, and I felt a slight tinge of bitterness that my mom was seeing another guy, or whatever this was, but I was happy for her, too. The fact that she still didn't let me have a normal cell phone probably meant that she wasn't completely over it, either, which I took some small solace in. I continued listening to what Grue was saying, though. "And, since you're her son, I trust you, or I want to trust you. But I know that you're part of another gang-" I winced, and Grue corrected himself. "Or another crew, another organization, whatever you want to call it. Point is, you're working with other parahumans who aren't the Undersiders." He took his hand away from my mom's, to fold them in front of him on the table, and I could tell there was a serious look in his eyes behind the helmet. "Other parahumans that might, at some point, come into conflict with the Undersiders." I wanted to protest, but even my mom looked like she had somehow accepted that fact, herself. "I will trust you if you say this, but I need you to tell me either way. If I unmask, do you promise not to use my identity against me if and when Coil decides it's time for him and you guys to fight us?" I nodded, and Grue spoke again. "I need you to say it, Gnaw."

    I fidgeted in my seat, and cleared my throat. "Yeah. Uhm. Sorry." Wow, Grue was intimidating when he went into business mode. I could see how he was the leader of the Undersiders, able to keep people like Hellhound in check. "Grue. Mister Grue. I promise that I will not use your identity against you if and when I end up fighting you."

    Grue seemed content with that, and he pulled off his helmet, revealing the single most god damned handsome guy I had seen in ages. I temporarily wondered if I wasn't into dudes. He gave a smile that I noticed caused my mom's heart to flutter, and it nearly did mine, too. "Brian LaBorn. Nice to meet you."

    I looked at mom, and she nodded. Pulling off my mask, I smiled softly, knowing I could never replicate how effective Brian's was. "Danny Hebert. Nice to meet you too, Brian."

    Brian nodded, before continuing. "Alright, Danny. If you don't mind, I... I'm always curious about this stuff. Do you mind if I could see your power?" Grue's ability wasn't exactly top secret; his darkness could extend out in tendrils to touch other parahumans, and he could temporarily copy their powers, albeit not necessarily as strong. As far as the PHO forums could tell, he used to just be able to spread shadows, but he had developed that secondary power at some point during his career.

    The concept of having him do that to me was actually a fair bit terrifying, but... He had trusted me enough to reveal his civilian identity - and thus probably the civilian identities of Imp and Regent, who most people figured to be his sister and brother-in-law - so I had to trust him with this, too. "Yeah, sure. Erm. I mean, go ahead, Mister LaBorn."

    Brian chuckled, shaking his head. "Danny, please. Call me Brian. Anyways, let's see..." Out of one of his hands came a tendril of his darkness, and it reached over the table to touch my arm. Closing his eyes, Brian focused, and... "What the fuck! Do you know how much I'm paying that fucking exterminator?!" My mom and I both nearly jumped out of our seats at the sudden outburst from the man, as Brian looked angrily towards his kitchen. "Fucking cocksucking mice, eating into my God damned cereal!" I focused on my power, and realized that there was, indeed, a mouse in the kitchen... Along with several other mice scattered throughout the house.

    I could feel him start to use my power to gather the rodents into the room with the intent of murdering the poor critters, but I offered a weak protest. "Wait! Brian, err, Grue, sir. I can... I can take care of this for you. So, uhm, please don't hurt them?"

    As I offered a nervous smile, Brian looked over at me, before sighing and shaking his head. "Sorry, Danny. I've just been having this problem for months now. You can get rid of them without hurting them, though?" I nodded, and he continued. "Alright, go ahead then. And, uhm, sorry, for hijacking your power like that."

    I grinned and shook my head. "It's no problem, Mister Brian." After a pointed look from the man, I corrected myself. "Sorry. It's no problem, Brian. Let me just..." As he retracted his tendril of darkness, I moved the mice under my control - or, at the very least, the ones in Brian's apartment - out through some exits and into the lower floors of the building; hopefully the other residents wouldn't mind. "Alright, that should take care of it."

    Brian chuckled again, before nodding. "Maybe you should ditch Coil and get a job as pest control, Danny." My mom and I both laughed at that, before Brian continued. "Speaking of Coil. Your mom informed me of the situation, with the Empire, and with the ABB and the Merchants."

    Mom placed a hand on Brian's arm, squeezing down as a concerned look crossed her face. "Do you think that the Undersiders can help, Brian? Danny's going to be risking his life fighting those goons, so..." She fidgeted around a bit, before offering a weak smile. "He needs all the help he can get, Brian."

    The man sighed, placing his opposite hand onto my mom's, and gripping it gently. "I called Li- Shit. You didn't hear that, Danny." I smirked, and nodded. "I called Tattletale after I got off the phone with you. She says no way, and if she says no way, then I can't possibly get anyone else on board, either. Not Imp, not Regent, and certainly not Bitch." I looked confused for a moment, before Brian clarified. "Oh, uhm, you might know her as Hellhound. She prefers Bitch, though." I nodded, looking rather confused at somebody wanting to be called "Bitch", but I didn't have time to think on it further before Mom responded.

    "Of course she says no way." She sighed and shook her head. "Always the pragmatist. Never wanting to do anything that doesn't need to be done." She took her hand from underneath Brian's in order to cross her arms in annoyance. "And what about you, Brian? Not as a member of the Undersiders, but just... As you?"

    Mom's boyfriend - was that the right word? - looked at her, then at me, then back and forth once more, before giving out a sigh himself. "I... Shit, Taylor. You're putting me in a hard spot, you know that?" The smirk on my mom's face suggested that yes, yes she indeed knew that. Brian grinned a little bit himself before continuing. "Whatever happens, I can't be seen fighting with Coil's crew. It would be too much of a conflict of interest. The PRT, the Travelers, and everyone else would think that we're allied. That's the primary reason Tattletale didn't want us to get involved, before even worrying about risking our lives out of the goodness of our hearts." My mom and I both nodded; it was a reasonable enough concern, even if it wasn't the answer either of us wanted. With another smile, Brian spoke up again. "However, if the supervillain known as Grue just happened to be in the Docks for whatever reason, and just happened to be caught in the crossfire of a gang war, and just happened to have to defend himself and maybe take out a few of the nearby gang-capes, well..." The man offered a shrug, and both my mom and I laughed a little bit. "Just one of those things, they'd have to suppose."

    For a moment, he looked pensive, and folded his hands on the table again before staring at them. "I'm not going to lie, though, Danny. This sounds dangerous. This sounds really dangerous. I don't think you fully understand what you're getting yourself into." I started to protest, but he stopped me. "Danny, I'm sorry, but you're a kid, and you're a rookie. You've been in one cape fight, against one other cape, and you had to have your ass saved by somebody else." I shrunk in my chair for a moment, blushing from shame. "I've been in this scene for... Christ, nearly twenty years now. I've been in more fights than I can remember. I've nearly been killed more times than I can remember. I know a dangerous situation when I see one, and three street gangs duking it out while one of them is actively trying to kill you and your friends is pretty fucking dangerous, Danny." His stare was intense, and it transfixed me. "I want you to answer me, verbally, when I ask this. Are you aware, Danny, that you could be killed when all of this comes to a head?"

    My mom was looking at me with a concerned but hard expression. I faced Grue, and nodded. "I understand, Brian. I know that I could be killed. But the Empire hasn't left me much of a choice, and even if they weren't after me, I-"

    Brian interrupted me, a gentle look on his face even as he did. "Even if they weren't, you'd still do it, because that's what you feel like you need to do, because you want to help." He looked over towards my mom, grinning. "Taylor, he really is your son, do you know that?"

    Mom reached over towards me, gently holding one of my hands. "I do, Brian. I really, really do." I squeezed her hand, and we smiled at each other.

    Brian sighed, releasing a boatload of tension; realizing that I was as wound up as he was, I did the same thing, followed by my mom. "Anyways, Taylor. Out of the room. Danny and I have to talk cape stuff."

    Mom raised an eyebrow, a look of mitigated offense on her face. "You always do this, Brian. Even back when we were teenagers, you were always 'Oh, Taylor, sorry, me and the other Undersiders have to plan our next bank robbery, so why don't you go for a walk?'" She used a mocking tone of voice, to which Brian simply shook his head and smiled.

    "Do you really want to hear your son talk about how he's planning to casually risk his life?" Brian looked at me, then back to my mom, a pointed expression on his face.

    My mom, in turn, looked at Brian, and then at me, crossing her arms and sighing. "I mean, yes, I would like to know what Danny's getting himself into, but..." She threw her arms up, and began marching her way towards another room. "I guess I understand. Whatever, I'll be in the entertainment room." Brian snorted a little bit at how much she was sulking, and I couldn't help but chuckle a little bit, as well.

    Once she was out of earshot, Brian and I faced each other again. "So, Danny. Or, I suppose, right now, it's Gnaw. Tell me about what you've planned out with Coil so far."

    I hesitated for a moment. Mom trusted Brian, trusted Grue, and he was a supervillain. There was no way he was going to rat me out to anybody, least of all the PRT, right? In spite of all of the reasons I had to be confident in him, I still felt a heavy amount of paranoia weighing on me. Even so, I took in a deep breath, and responded: "Well, we were thinking of kidnapping a Ward." I tried to say it as casually as I could, which wasn't very.

    Grue's eyes went wide, but he didn't otherwise react. "I see. Do go on, Gnaw."

    I nodded, and explained the rest of our plan.
     
    dxdragon, Ack and Akuma-Heika like this.
  13. Akuma-Heika

    Akuma-Heika The Devil Exists Within

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    Allied with who?

    I am curious how Taylor's relationship with Brian became more than platonic, and how Andrew felt about him. It sounds like they have known each other for a long time...which makes me wonder if they had known each other before Andrew's death (although probably before she married/dated him)
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: Nests
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 8: Nest

    -----------------------

    One good thing about the whole situation that we had found ourselves in was that the ball was in Coil and mine's court, at least for a short while; the ABB and the Merchants were waiting for the Empire to attack us, but the Empire was waiting to attack us, in turn, until we popped our heads out and made some sort of move. Coil had said that the Empire wasn't likely to fiddle their thumbs and sit around waiting for us to show ourselves forever, however, so we needed to launch our plan by at least the end of the week. In the mean time, though, we could lay low at Randy's place while we put everything together. Chariot's teleportation equipment meant that nobody ever saw his vehicles or Trainwreck zooming out of there, while anybody who might have been watching the building for foot traffic would only see a bunch of teenagers - and one adult - coming and going out of what they would likely presume to be a crack den or something like it; even though Thomas, Trevor, and Zeke were all black, that didn't turn enough heads to cause issues, since even the Empire wasn't brash enough to kick out every minority that lived in its territory.

    I had used that opportunity to let Grue lecture me on all of the things that I didn't know about the cape scene, stuff that I didn't have the chance to ask Thomas and the rest when I was over at Randy's earlier. He explained to me the concept of trigger events, for example, about how all capes have one, how it gives them his powers, and about how Grue himself had gone through two trigger events, the second one granting him his power-stealing ability. He explained the unwritten rules in greater detail, the concept of the Endbringer Truce, about how the PRT was willing to keep certain villains alive and out of the Birdcage so that they could join forces when the greater threats attacked. I asked Grue if that was part of the reason why the PRT hadn't done anything about Lung or Squealer, and he seemed to agree with that assessment; a giant dragon man seemed like a good weapon to use against Leviathan, even if he was a walking disaster the rest of the time.

    I also used the opportunity to finally have a meal that wasn't cold, day-old pizza or tension-filled eggs and bacon. It... Felt a little awkward to have dinner at Brian's place, to say the least. It was one thing to find out that my mom had a boyfriend, or whatever, but it was another thing to find out that the boyfriend was a supervillain gang leader, and that she had been "seeing" him since maybe half a year or so after my dad had died. I thought, perhaps, that the most annoying part of the entire thing that had been going on between my mom and Brian was that she had always given me the excuse that she was "going to a book club meeting" every time that she went to see him; remembering that, in turn, caused my mind to go through every time that my mom had told me that she was going to the "book club", remembering that she made herself look far better than I thought was necessary for a bunch of middle aged ladies sitting around and reading, and thinking about how I was on PHO, or playing a video game, or eating dinner, while she and Brian were over here doing... That.

    A fifteen year old's mind could be a rather over-actively imaginative thing. Where had the two of them done... That? In the bed, obviously. On the table, where I was at? In the chair I was sitting on? The kitchen counters? The couch in the entertainment room? Up against the windows? Suddenly, every surface in Brian's apartment seemed filthy, seemed absolutely, positively disgusting. I knew that my mom and my dad must have done that if I was around to talk about it, and... I knew that they were probably doing that while Dad was still alive, in their bedroom... Right next door to me... Oh, God. Strange sounds I had heard coming from behind the wall when I was younger suddenly made a lot more sense to me. I had to do my best to compose myself as Brian asked if I was okay. Why, yes, Mister Brian, I was quite okay. I was absolutely not thinking about you and my mom having sex, Mister Laborn. Tell me, Mister Grue, did you ever use that ladle to... To...

    I reveled in the small talk the three of us engaged in. We couldn't exactly talk about Brian's work, all things considered, so the conversation was mostly kept on my mom and myself, with the understanding that I couldn't really talk about my own cape stuff too much, lest I compromise Coil's trust in me; of course, there was also the fact that I didn't want my mom to catch wind of the plans that I had discussed with Grue. Instead, we talked about Mom's work, my own teenage life - Brian seemed to silently fume as I detailed the harassment I had been getting from the Empire, and what they had been doing to my school in general - and what I knew about my powers. Brian only got a lesser version of my power when he used his tendrils, so he was impressed to know that I could handle so many rodents at once; he politely asked me to not give him a demonstration of how versatile my power was, though, at the very least not within in his house. He also wanted me to tell him about my fight with the Empire and Crusader, even though my mom looked like she was about to pass out from shock at every second of my blow-by-blow retelling of the story; afterward, he made my mom promise that she would let me take self-defense lessons from him, which she only begrudgingly agreed to.

    Once dinner was over, my mom and I got ready to head back, but Brian asked to talk to my mom in private for a few minutes before we left; I stood outside the door of the supervillain's possibly multi-million dollar penthouse, shifting uncomfortably in the dress slacks my mom had made me wear for this meeting with Brian as I loudly wondered in my head if they were taking the time for... For a quickie, or... Something. Soon enough, though, Mom exited through the door, Brian waving goodbye as he closed it behind her; I was eternally grateful that I didn't notice any particular sheen of sweat or hickeys anywhere on my mom as we walked the short distance back to the elevator. It didn't look like she was about to tell me what her and Brian talked about, but she also seemed... Happier, afterwards, or maybe... More assured. More confident? More secure. Something like that. No matter which way it was, I figured I could be fine with allowing her that little secret.

    After all, it wasn't as if she hadn't been keeping this whole thing a secret from me for nearly two years now, so what was one more thing going to really do? Yeah, I had a small amount of bitterness still left in me. Just a tiny bit.

    It suddenly felt like my mom and I had entered some sort of arrangement where we were ping-ponging back and forth in terms of giving and taking secrets and trust, and I wasn't sure how great that made me feel. Hey, mom, I've had powers for the last few months and just joined a supervillain gang last night! Well, that's okay, son, because I've been dating a supervillain right under your nose! Well, alright, mom, is it okay if I go hang out with my supervillain friends so that we can plan how to beat up a bunch of other supervillains, except I can't tell you a single thing about it? Well, alright, son, I suppose it's okay, just don't get yourself killed, and make sure to go to school tomorrow!

    I tried not to focus how fucked up the Hebert family dynamic had become over the past twenty four hours as I made my way to Randy's place in my civilian clothes. Twilight had begun to make its way into the sky as I reached the stairs leading up to Coil's hideout, and I noticed some of the more unsavory types of the Docks start to come out; I was quite happy when Brad opened up the door - absent the bear-trap he had greeted me with earlier today - and ushered me in. There was some left-over Mexican food on the counters of the kitchenette, and Zeke had grabbed a couple of tacos that he was taking back to the couch as some sort of low-budget action flick was showing on the TV. Once he saw me, though, he raised up the hand that was holding the food and gave me a greeting. "He-ey, Danny boy! Nice to see ya back so soon!"

    Thomas pulled himself off the couch from next to where Blake was sitting; I didn't think that I saw the two of them snuggled up close together, but my eyes very well may have been deceiving me. Trainwreck's body was too large and heavy to accommodate normal furniture even when he was in his slimmed down version, and so he had morphed his parts into some sort of self-chair sitting position. Trevor, for his part, was still sitting in the kitchen, reading some paperback novel featuring spaceships on the front; I wondered if all Tinkers were into sci-fi, but I felt like that question might have been a bit offensive. As Thomas walked by Zeke, he pointed to the ground, where some pits of taco meat and lettuce had fallen. "Clean it up, Ezekiel." Our boss deadpanned his words, and I was pretty sure that I heard Zeke say something about Thomas not being Zeke's mom, or some such.

    Thomas invited me to take a seat at the dinner table, and I obliged; Brad paused the film, much to Zeke's annoyance, but everybody else gathered around to listen without having to be asked. "Well, Danny, I'm not going to say that I didn't want to see you so soon, but I certainly didn't expect it, either." He smiled a little bit, and I shifted in my chair. "Anyways. What was this important thing you told me about over the phone?"

    I had been thinking about how to tell Thomas about this ever since I had talked to Brian about our plans, and I still wasn't really sure how to broach the subject. I tried my best, though. "Okay, uhm. So, I got some information that we can use, and I think I got somebody who can help us out, too." Thomas' eyes narrowed dangerously, and I did my best to assuage him. "Please, trust me. I know I only just joined you guys..." I looked at the time on my phone. "...six or so hours ago, but I just really wanted this to work, and an opportunity presented itself, so I took it, and I knew I should have asked, but-"

    Thomas sighed, raising a hand to stop my rambling. "Danny, it's fine. Yes, I was a little concerned to know that you went off and did... Something, without us." He waited for a few seconds, as if seeing whether or not I would divulge the source of my "information"; when I didn't, he continued. "But I'm glad that you're being so enthusiastic about it. That makes sense, considering that you're one of the people that the Empire's planning on trying to kill, after all." I smiled, and Thomas returned the expression, before tilting his head, looking up at the ceiling, and tapping a finger on his chin. "Of course, this could be some elaborate long-con sort of ruse by the Empire, where they beat you up constantly to make it look like you're victimized by them, they have you attack one of their drug houses to make it seem like you're an enemy, before having you worm your way into our group to get us caught in an Empire trap." I stared at him for several long seconds, as he stared off into space. When the tension felt like it was about to burst, Thomas looked back at me with a shit-eating grin on his face, and said. "Danny. I'm fucking kidding. I've seen your bruises, and the Empire's not smart enough to think up some convoluted bullshit like that."

    The laughter that erupted from everyone instantly dispelled the pressure, and I exhaled a breath I didn't realize I was holding in. As I watched Thomas, though, I didn't completely believe him. I didn't think that he actually thought that I was some sort of Empire spy, but I could tell that he had thought about the possibility, and that he had thought about every possible convoluted plan that every possible enemy may have been trying against him; I wanted to feel offended, but all I could feel was that I would have done exactly the same, if I was in his position. Suspicion like that probably paid dividends in the villain business. "Ah, sorry, that probably ruined the mood, didn't it? Bad joke, I know. Anyways, go ahead, Danny."

    Forcing myself to smile and not worry about the fact that I was now employed by a teenager who was more paranoid that anybody else than I had ever known in my entire life, I continued. "Alright, uhm, so. Earlier we were talking about which bank we were going to rob, right?" God, that still felt weird to say. We were going to rob a bank. I was going to rob a bank. Danny Hebert, also known as Gnaw, villain bank robber. Before I could yet again continue commiserating over that, Thomas nodded, prompting me to continue. "So, my understanding is that most of the banks in Downtown are protected by either the Travelers or the Undersiders, right?"

    Thomas nodded, speaking up. "Yes, that's my understanding, as well. I've tried to get information regarding who protects which bank, but... No luck, so far." Trevor gave a small shrug, and I assumed that he had been assigned that task in lieu of an actual IT specialist; considering that Chariot was a mobility Tinker, I doubted that he had much power in that realm. "It wouldn't do to attack one of those banks and to have either the Travelers or the Undersiders come down on us after everything is done and over with - or, God forbid, during the middle of all of this - and I'm assuming that you know of a bank that isn't protected by either of those groups?"

    As my boss gave me a pointed look, I nodded. "Yeah. Brockton Bay Central."

    That elicited various noises of disapproval, annoyance, and frustration from the surrounding crowd. "Central? Are you serious?! That thing's like, Fort fuckin' Knox, man!" Zeke gave a verbal outburst, but the bits of taco he had left in his mouth came flying down onto the floor in the process; Brad smacked him upside the head, and pointed his friend over to the broom and dustpan. Once Zeke was busy with cleaning up his mess, Thomas nodded, continuing. "It's not the softest of targets, no. But I suppose that when they're that fortified, they're probably one of the few banks in the city that feel like they don't need the, ah, 'protection' of one of the gangs. Is that about correct, Danny?" That was basically what Brian had told me, and I confirmed it with a nod. "So unless there are any better targets, Central will be where we go." Holding up a finger for punctuation's sake, he continued. "However. Remember that we are not there to actually get any money. If we do, fantastic, great, wonderful. But we aren't going to hunker down until we get the vault open and grab all of the goodies." His gaze passed over each of us, and I could feel the confidence and authority that this eighteen year old kid held; most of it wasn't even a facade, either. "We go in. We allow the authorities to be alerted. We grab what we can in the mean time, it won't hurt. We wait for the Wards to arrive. Hopefully, they'll think we aren't enough of a threat to warrant sending the Protectorate along with, but if the big guns arrive, we'll handle it as it comes."

    Steepling his hands - okay, maybe that bit was for theatrics - he smiled devilishly as he spoke. "Honestly? I don't know why I didn't think of Central before. It's actually rather perfect for this plan. It is like Fort fucking Knox, Zeke, you're entirely right." The other kid smiled for a moment, as he put his broom away. "And that means that we can use it like a fortress. Once we're in, we hunker down, and we wait for them to come to us, baiting them, if necessary. If all else fails, then we can go on the offensive, grab our target, and run, but that's a last resort. We go for Squire preferably, or Dauntless if we can't." We all nodded in response. "...I should have gathered my files before you got here, Danny. I'm sorry. Give me a moment?" Wow, Thomas actually look embarrassed. If this is what it took to see the teenage mastermind act sheepish, I'd forgive him that.

    A few minutes later, Thomas came up the stairs with an arm full of folders and papers. Trevor cleared off the dining table, and gave our boss room to spread them out. "Alright, Brockton Bay Central... Ah, here it is!" A floor plan and blueprint came into view, and we all stared down at it. "Now then, this place has all the standards. Time locked vaults, bulletproof glass, the works..." Thomas had an uncanny ability to develop a plan on the fly, and I idly wondered if something like that was his power. Everybody else had shared theirs earlier, but the boss himself had been awfully mum; I had resolved to get him to tell me what it was, eventually, but that would have to come later, once I had earned more of his trust. Even so, he occasionally looked towards the other six of us, looking for input, opinions, concerns, and everything else that could help improve the plan an iota more; hell, even Zeke managed to say something smart once or twice.

    "Alright. So, last thing, timing." Thomas looked towards me as he continued. "You said that Lung and Skidmark stay at school until it lets out, right? So that they can have access to the other students?" I nodded. "It wouldn't be any good for us to get them to launch their attack on the Empire from within the school, obviously, so we would need to wait until after Winslow lets out." He folded his arms, staring down at the pile of papers but at none in particular. "The banks close at six, and they're not open on the weekends. So it has to be between roughly three and six, on a week day, and we don't have but more than a few days from now to do it before the Empire starts getting antsy." Thomas began to pace a little bit, finger tapping on his chin as he thought. He mostly had control of the room, but I noticed that none of us - not even Trevor, the much older man, or Zeke, the loud-mouthed dumbass - were upset by it. That was just how Thomas was, naturally keeping everyone's eyes locked on him, naturally having people allow him to speak as long as he wanted to; hell, maybe that was his power, for all I knew.

    "So it could be tomorrow, it could be Thursday, or it could be Friday." He looked towards Trevor and Trainwreck now. "If I give each of you until Friday, can you get something built for this?" The two Tinkers each nodded; I knew that Trainwreck tended to be an improvisation specialist, but I didn't doubt his ability to construct something useful given enough time, either. "Most importantly, Friday will have the most traffic, both in the bank and in Downtown in general." A slight, dangerous, perhaps even vicious smirk. "More hostages. More obstacles for the heroes. More defenses for us." I felt my stomach twist a little bit at that. Hostages, right. I was going to be taking hostages. And my friend Thomas here was viewing those people as tools to be used.

    Why couldn't I have just joined the Wards?

    Thomas looked like he was about to conclude the impromptu planning session, when he remembered something. "Wait, Danny, I nearly forgot. You said that you got us some help, too?"

    I nodded, and Thomas stared. I knew that I couldn't just leave it at that, but how did I even begin to explain this? "Yeah. Uhm. Grue. Grue from the Undersiders, I mean. He'll be in the Docks. He won't be helping us directly, but he'll be fighting to stop the gang war, even so."

    Jaws dropped and eyes widened all around. "Woah woah woah, hold the fucking phone, Danny?" Zeke, again, about as much as I had expected, with that smoke coming out from between his lips as he spoke. "You got Grue from the fucking Undersiders to help us? Mind explainin' that one, chief?"

    I grimaced a bit and searched for words, but Thomas saved me yet again. "Let the guy have his secrets, Ezekiel. I'm just glad to know that we'll have that assistance, even though I don't quite know how we got it." My boss tilted his head and thought about something for a moment, before continuing. "That explains where you got that information about Central, then." I grit my teeth, giving a non-committal and nervous smile. "It's fine, Danny. I won't pry. I don't have any reason to believe that the Undersiders are after our heads, so I trust that whatever connection you have with Grue, he's not using you to screw us over." With a smirk, Thomas added. "And I highly doubt that the Empire is willing to team up with a black man for anything like this, either." I let out a sigh, and nodded with a more relaxed smile next. I could still see the suspicion on Thomas' face, but I couldn't fault him for this paranoia, either.

    "Anyways. Now that all of that nonsense is done and over with." Thomas looked at the clock, and it read about eight in the evening. "Does, ah, does little Danny Hebert have a bed time he has to catch? Is his mommy going to get mad at him if he's out too late?"

    I stared at Thomas, and he just sort of grinned at me, while Zeke, Brad, and Blake all tried to hide laughs. Trevor and Trainwreck were also suppressing smiles as I tried to formulate a response. All I could get out, ultimately, was a smiling, jovial: "Fuck off, Thomas." Another round of laughter from all seven of us, as continued teasing and ribbing from everyone to everyone else. Trevor broke his serious-faced character for a moment to act like "Team Dad", telling all of his kids that they needed to get to sleep, since they had banks to be robbing in the morning, and all. Trainwreck offered to ferry everyone off to dreamland, making "Choo choo!" noises as he playfully stomped around the kitchen.

    And Thomas continued to take looks at me all the way, the lack of trust clear in his face. I wondered how long it would take for me to get him past that, if I could even manage it at all.

    After we finally managed to calm down, I was offered some burritos, which I gladly accepted; I may have only had dinner a few hours ago, but my rapidly growing teenage body demanded all the nutrition it could get. Zeke had apparently invested some of his salary into purchasing a few game systems, and he invited me to play with them; I had an old one at home that I occasionally played whenever I was especially bored, but seeing the newest and greatest video games was quite the experience. He, Blake, Brad and I played some four-person party game, where we were all trying to knock each other off platforms while collecting treasure; curses, more laughs, groans of disappointment, and mad giggling were had. Eventually, Blake and Thomas went off to bed together, arms wrapped around one another - yeah, I guess they were cuddling when I came in - and Trainwreck joined us in place of our lost player, though his power armor hands made it a bit hard for him to properly use the controller.

    I was having a good time. I was having a wonderful time. People I had met less than twenty four hours ago were now my friends, and I was now playing video games and eating tacos and laughing with them.

    I was enjoying it almost enough to forget that these were people that I was planning on committing robbery and kidnapping with.
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2019
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  15. Threadmarks: Interlude: Philip Stansfield
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Interlude: Philip Stansfield

    ----------------------------

    Philip considered his situation. He currently had at least a dozen, maybe two dozen rodents of various types crawling over him; all the civilians in the bank were in a similar state, with rats and mice crawling over people and into their clothes. Gnaw had told them that the rodents would attack anyone who attempted to escape or otherwise interfere in their robbery; Philip had dealt with enough villains during his time with New Wave to tell that the boy significantly lacked confidence in his words - considering that he was a new cape, Philip supposed that such a thing wasn't much of a surprise - but he also wasn't going to chance it, feeling the way that some of the rats took experimental nibbles on his skin. The worst part was probably the smell; a number of the rodents seemed to have recently been diving through dumpsters and getting their coats matted in garbage and other foul materials, and the scent had begun to fill up the bank lobby. As a few people began to gag, Philip continued to consider his situation.

    Was there anything he could do? He was up against at least four supervillains. Coil had an unknown power, but the general assumption was some sort of Thinker or Master ability. Gnaw had his rodents. Chariot had his Tinker tech. Biter had his size expansion. He had no idea where Barker, Trainwreck, or Circus were, but he still had to keep them in consideration; in other words, he was potentially up against seven supervillains. Additionally, there were a large number of hostages in the bank with him, and if he attempted to use his ability to its maximum potential, then he'd likely injure, maim, or even kill some of the civilians; as Philip was not the least bit ready to risk their lives like that, he had to think about any potential confrontation with the use of his power severely restrained. So, could Philip Stansfield successfully deal with Coil's crew? No. Of course not. There was no chance in hell.

    He sighed heavily, and a mouse stopped to watch him. Was Gnaw seeing the look of annoyance and frustration on his face? Probably. Philip hoped that he didn't seem any different than any of the other civilians in the bank; he doubly hoped that Gnaw wouldn't be able to recognize him through the rodent's beady little eyes. When there was no sign of Biter or Chariot coming to grab him and haul him up, he suspected that the danger of being outed as the superhero Fracture was out of the way.

    What were Philip's options, though? Rather, it was more like the boy had exactly one option available to him: He had to sit there and wait until either the PRT forces, New Wave, or both arrived on the scene to save him and everybody else in the building. That frustrated Philip, beyond belief. He was a superhero. He was supposed to be the one doing the saving, and here he was, being the one that needed saving, instead. Philip hated owing debts, and he knew that he was going to owe a major one to whoever pulled his ass out of this proverbial fire.

    He heard the shattering of bullet proof glass from the tellers' windows, the screaming of civilians, and the shouting of Coil. "Remain calm! Nobody has been injured, nobody is hurt. Tellers, please put all of your cash into the bag that Gnaw is holding; if you attempt anything untoward, then Biter will make sure that you experience repercussions for it." Sobbing from nearby, a baby's piercing cry cutting through the air; Philip worried for a moment that it might aggravate the robbers, but they thankfully seemed content to let the infant scream without worry. "Chariot, how long until the heroes get here?"

    The Tinker waited a quick second before responding to his boss. "Any second now, really. I'm surprised they're not here al-"

    "Coil, Gnaw, Biter, and Chariot. We know that you're in there. Come out with your hands up and surrender, or we will be mandated to use force to secure you." Squire's voice came from outside, electronically amplified to be loud enough that it was heard throughout the bank lobby.

    "Excellent. It's only the Wards." Philip heard Coil speak as the ringleader sidled up behind a concrete island near the bank's front doors; risking a glance, he saw the black-suited teenager holding a pistol; that added some credence to the idea that Coil didn't have any offensive parahuman abilities. More importantly was the fact that the PRT had sent only the Wards; did they really consider Coil and his crew so beneath them, just because they were mostly teenagers, that they didn't bother sending in the Protectorate? Philip would have scoffed, if he wasn't concerned that it would draw Coil's attention. He did not need the supervillain to realize that Fracture himself was curled up in a ball maybe a dozen feet away.

    "...not only the Wards, boss." Chariot pulled up behind a nearby marble-covered pillar, looking out the doors while holding some sort of Tinkertech weapon in his hands. "Look who else decided to join the party."

    Philip heard Coil give a "Tch." noise as he saw the supervillain's eyes furrow behind his suit. "Well, we had considered the possibility of the Protectorate and the Wards together. I suppose that New Wave and the Wards together isn't as bad as it could be." Coil smiled over to Chariot, and added a comment. "Imagine if all three of them were here at once."

    The Tinker shook his head, clenching his high-tech rifle closer to his body. "I'd rather not if it's all the same to you, boss." Philip took a moment to consider what he had just heard. New Wave was here? His family was here? If the PRT was already handling the situation, then why-? Ah, right. It was because Philip himself was there. He had told his mom that he was going to the bank to get some cash so that Mark and him could go to a concert this weekend, that he was going to Brockton Bay Central Bank, where the New Wave family had accounts. He had turned his cell phone off, as the robbers had instructed, and he was sure that there were a million missed calls and texts on it right at that moment. His mom - as much as he loved her dearly - was something of a ditz, but even she would have been able to put two and two together. And now New Wave was here, because of Philip, and they were going to risk themselves against Coil and his crew to save him. The boy didn't know whether to cry out of shame or out of happiness.

    Liberty Lady must have taken the device that Squire was using, as her voice now boomed throughout the bank. "Coil! I don't know why you're doing this, but-" For a moment, Philip heard Squire in the background cursing at his mom, ordering her to return the device. "-give me back my son!" Oh. Oh no, Mom. Why was she like that? Why was she so headstrong, so impetuous, so fucking stupid some times? Philip loved Victoria Stansfield more than he could put into words, and he was pretty sure that the vast majority of that wasn't even from her emotional aura. But holy God damn, could she do things that made him wince with no small amount of force. "If you don't send him out, safe and unharmed, within a single minute, then New Wave will come in to beat the snot out of you for this. And arrest you, too, I suppose." Squire again in the background, telling his mom that she couldn't just rush in, that there was protocol to follow, that... Knowing Liberty Lady, though, she couldn't give a shit about the PRT's protocols.

    "Gnaw! Biter! Whatever you're doing, drop it. Over here, now!" Coil shouted to his other two henchmen, who hopped over the teller's desk and back into the main lobby, carrying a duffelbag half-filled with cash. "Chariot. Who from New Wave is out there? Or, more importantly, is it Fracture or Flashbang that's out there?" Philip felt his power itching in his bones, felt his heart race, felt his breathing start to quicken.

    "It's Flashbang. So, if Liberty Lady is telling the truth, then Fracture's in here somewhere." Chariot turned his head, and his eyes began to scan the crowd of hostages.

    "Chariot, you watch the door. Gnaw, Biter, with me. Find Fracture. Now." Gnaw and Biter gave sounds of affirmation, before the three supervillains began stalking through the crowd, yanking up young-looking men - and even some women, given Philip's appearance - to check their identity. He saw Gnaw approaching, felt the boy's rats and mice crawling around on him with increased fervor, saw a fucking squirrel dashing across the tile floor of the bank lobby. He was the next one that Gnaw was going to check. There was no more waiting. He had to act. He couldn't use his full power, not with so many civilians around, but he had to do something.

    It hurt. Every time he used his power, it hurt. It hurt so much that Philip wanted to cry. But from the moment that he had triggered, when New Wave came to arrest his mo... Came to arrest Amelia Lavere, Philip had worked to learn to tolerate the pain his power caused him. He wanted to cry, but he didn't cry any more. He wanted to scream, but he didn't scream any more. Instead, he simply grit his teeth and squinted his eyes a little bit as his bones grew, tore out of his skin, pierced through his clothes, and skewered all of Gnaw's rodents that were on him.

    "He's here!" Philip heard Gnaw call out to the rest of his gang, and as the bone-spurting boy stood up, he saw Chariot level the Tinkertech rifle at him, Biter send an oversized hand at him, and Coil stashing his firearm to bring out a taser, instead. Before any of the villains could do anything, though, everything else went to hell, too. He both heard and felt one of his brother's orbs smash into the front doors of the bank, causing them to swing far off their hinges and slam into the walls on either side of them.

    "Change of plans! Biter, Gnaw, we're taking down Fracture! Chariot, suppress, make your way over here, ready the teleporter!" Wait, teleporter? What the hell was going on? And why were they trying to take him down? Wasn't this a bank robbery, why were they...? Wait, no, this wasn't a bank robbery. Suddenly, a million different little things made sense to Philip. The robbers hadn't bothered to care about letting any silent alarms go off. They weren't going for any vaults or any secure, high-value targets. Trainwreck, Circus, and Barker were nowhere to be seen. This wasn't a bank robbery. It was... Something else.

    He didn't have time to think about that, though. Liberty Lady, Flashbang, and Brandish began to try and make their way into the bank, while Chariot began firing shots from his weapon that seemed to function to fling his mom and siblings back whenever they were hit by one of the projectiles; even his mom was having trouble resisting the movement caused by those hits, so Philip knew that was some serious tech. Meanwhile, Coil called out to Gnaw and Biter: "Those bones are extensions of his own body. If you break them or hurt them, he's going to feel it." Fracture grit his teeth; it wasn't exactly top secret information, so he wasn't completely surprised that Coil knew about that, but the upcoming brawl was looking a lot worse for him at that moment. He had practiced to suppress the pain, but there was only so much literally bone-breaking agony that a teenage boy could take.

    Coil aimed his pistol at Philip, and the boy formed a shield of bones in front of him; the bullet at an angle that it deflected off of the barrier, but Fracture still winced a bit from the impact. Before he could react further, rats and mice began climbing up onto his legs, under his pants, biting and tearing skin as they ran up his body. Fracture speared as many of them as he could with bone growths, but there were so many of the damned rodents, and each time he shot a piece of skeleton out of his body, he had to deal with the pain it wrought. Then, there was Biter, who Fracture could see through the slits in his bone-shield charging towards while he was distracted by Gnaw's horde of rats; a vastly oversized, gauntlet covered first ready to swing. There was no way that even Fracture's highly dense bone barrier was going to be able to stop that - not to mention how much it would hurt even if it did - so the boy started to shoot out bones to injure or trip Biter before the muscular teenager could slam that fist into him.

    And then, Coil turned his gun towards the crowd of civilians that were fleeing from the cape fight that had just ensued. Fracture's eyes shifted from Biter, saw the gang leader pointing his gun at the crying baby from earlier, and its mother. There was no time for young Philip Stansfield to make a decision; he only had time to do. All of his power redirected itself into extending the bone shield away from him and towards the mother and child; the bullet pinged off the ossein, the infant was safe, and Fracture could do nothing but stare as Biter's gigantic hand made its way towards him. The pieces of bone connecting him to all of his skeletal constructs broke from the force, causing the barrier and all of his incomplete traps to clatter noisily to the ground. He could feel rodents that were on his body be crushed up against him, warm sensations of blood and gore oozing against his skin. More than anything, he felt his normal bones cracking as his whole form was flung backwards from the force of Biter's strike, sending him back into one of the marble pillars. Fracture knew that even his natural bones healed much easier than a normal person's did, but he felt a vague sense of worry about the rest of his body as he felt his consciousness start to slip.

    "Philip!" Jeez, didn't his mom know she was supposed to be using his cape name? New Wave's identities were all known, but it was the principal behind it.

    "Fuck, Biter! You better not have killed him!" Fracture felt a laugh form and falter in his throat as Coil berated his subordinate. Was he supposed to be laughing at the situation that he was in? Maybe, but he couldn't exactly have thought straight at that moment. "Chariot, over here, now!" More sounds of the Tinker's rifle and Coil's pistol being fired at... Oh, right, his family. They were here to help him.

    "I thought I was gonna have to go through that bone wall of his, boss!" Biter was protesting, while Gnaw muttered curses to himself as they drew close to where Fracture was leaned up against the wall.

    "Whatever, doesn't matter now. Chariot, is-" An explosion from nearby, one of Flashbang's concussive blasts. As Fracture's ears rang, he heard Coil continue issuing orders. "Gnaw! Focus! Swarm them! We need them distracted, just for a moment!"

    "Don't you fucking touch my son, you assholes!" Mom, again. She always got so angry about things. She really needed to learn to calm down.

    "Chariot. Teleporter. Is it ready?" Fracture finally managed the strength to lift his head to be able to take in the scene. Coil, Gnaw, Chariot, and Biter all knelt around him, the dufflebag of cash there as well. Liberty Lady, Flashbang, and Brandish further out. Flashbang was busy trying to stem the tide of incoming rodents, while Liberty Lady and Biter engaged in an odd sort of melee where the teenager's oversized fist was thrown repeatedly her way. Brandish, though, didn't have anything preventing her from moving in, so why...? Ah, yes, that look in her eyes as she watched Fracture lay there. Philip knew what that look was, since he had seen it every day of his life since being adopted by the Stansfields. What was it that Carol had once told him, when the two of them were along together, and she didn't have Victoria to keep her under control? "Like mother, like son." Carol believed, truly believed that Philip would end up as a villain, exactly like his biological mother had. Every time they fought side by side against bad guys as members of New Wave, Carol was always watching her adoptive brother, always looking for any signs that he would betray them to the villains. And now, as Brandish watched him, what was it that Fracture could hear her saying with that gaze of hers? "I bet this is just a plan so that you can run away and join Coil's gang, isn't it?" Yes, that was what Brandish was telling him, with that look in her eyes. "And even if that's not what you're doing..." No, Carol, don't say it. Please. Philip is your brother. You're his sister. He loves you, and he wants the two of you to be family, no matter what, so why...? "Even if that's not what you're doing? Even if you're not planning to betray us, and that they're actually trying to kidnap you? I hope that they take you and that you never come back."

    And then, they were gone. Or, rather, the bank was gone, as were his mother and siblings. Chariot's teleporter had done its job, and the five of them - four gang members and their one hostage - were now in the back of what looked to be some sort of Tinkertech van. Chariot scrambled up into the driver's seat to start the vehicle, Coil pointed a gun at Fracture, and Biter started putting restraints on the boy; there were apparently some rats that had been held in the van as a reserve, and Gnaw went to work placing them all over Fracture's body, ready to use them if the bone manipulator tried any funny business. That assumed, of course, that Fracture was in any state to even try any funny business in the first place. It wasn't just the concussion and generalized organ damage and bruising that Biter's unblocked hit had caused him; if that was all it was, Fracture was sure that he'd be able to get past that and try to fight his way out of the van. No, it was more the fact that his sister looked him dead in the eyes, when he was in trouble and desperately needed help, and simply, silently told him to go fuck himself why she stood there, not bothering to take the chance to try and save him. Philip knew that Carol didn't like him, that she didn't want him in the Stansfield family, but that... That was far more than he could ever have imagined.

    Fracture felt Biter finish his work as Chariot's van made its way onto the streets of Downtown; he wasn't quite sure what sort of Tinkertech the vehicle employed, but it seemed to be making its way past the busy roads without much issue. Coil handed the gun to Gnaw - who looked at it stupidly for a moment, before Coil pointed at Fracture to make his point clear - and hopped into the passenger seat, next to Chariot. "Remember, we have to make sure they're following us." The Tinker nodded and grunted affirmation, as Fracture felt the van shake a little bit from blasts and impacts from outside. "...you're sure that Liberty Lady won't be able to get a hold of this thing, right?" Chariot looked sideways at Coil, almost seeming offended at the doubt that his boss presented. "Sorry. Forget I asked."

    In the back of the van, Biter looked out a reinforced window that had been attached to the rear doors. With a frown, he called to the front. "Hey, boss. Wards aren't coming. Don't see any Protectorate, either. It's just New Wave. Probably 'cause of, uhh..." The muscular boy looked down at Fracture pointedly, while Coil sighed loudly.

    "Well, that's annoying, though I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that the PRT doesn't give a shit when it's an independent we kidnapped, rather than a Ward." The ringleader looked at Fracture, shaking his head in annoyance. "With luck, we might be able to gather up the Masons for this, too, and not just the Stansfields. Only having half of New Wave would be a bit lackluster, to say the least."

    Fracture's concussion had lessened enough to the point that he managed to slur out a few words. "Why... Kidnap... Me? ...Ward?" Gnaw was doing an exemplary job of keeping his finger off the trigger of the pistol, but the beanpole-looking kid was still shaking it in his hand as Fracture spoke.

    Biter began to growl at the hostage, but Coil held up a hand to stop him. "It's fine. Letting him know might be beneficial, actually, so he can let his mother dearest know our motives and potentially keep her from trying to murder us." Coil looked at Fracture - though, Philip couldn't actually tell if the ringleader was directly glancing at him, given the head of the black suit that was in the way - and spoke calmly, even as the van buckled and shifted while the Stansfield family chased it. "You see, young Fracture, there's something of a gang war going on at the Docks right now, and one that threatens to level entire neighborhoods if it's not dealt with, and dealt with quickly. We don't exactly want this gang war to happen, but the Empire, the ABB, and the Merchants aren't exactly people open to dialogue about this sort of thing. Young Gnaw here went to the PRT to try and alert them about it, but do you know what the PRT said?" Coil leaned in for dramatic effect, not actually waiting for Philip's answer; idly, Fracture considered how impressive it was that Coil could offer a monologue like this even during a high-speed parahuman chase. "They told him, in so many words, that they didn't give a shit about the Docks, that they would just wait for the gangs to wear themselves out and kill everyone around them before coming in to clean up the damage and declare themselves the 'heroes' of the day."

    With a shrug, Coil continued, though he was interrupted for a moment as Chariot's vehicle nearly fishtailed. "So we formulated a plan. Make the PRT intervene at the Docks. Kidnap one of their precious, irreplaceable Wards, and lead them on a chase right into the Docks, where they would have no choice but to handle the likes of Lung, Hookwolf, and Squealer." The area of the city in question came into view through the front of the van as they left the Downtown area, and Fracture could vaguely see glances of high-intensity parahuman conflict deeper in. "However, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and instead of a Ward, we got you, young Fracture." Coil clasped his hands on a knee as Fracture watched the van pull closer to where a massive, burning dragon man and two giantesses fought one another; a breath of fire from Lung flooded the lower floor of some nearby deli, igniting the building in the process. "So, maybe we didn't get the Protectorate and the Wards. That's fine. We can get New Wave, instead, using you as our bargaining chip."

    Fracture's eyebrows furrowed in confusion and disbelief. As his faculties continued to return, he managed to get more cohesive thoughts out: "What the... Coil, you..." The boy winced as the act of speaking caused a spark of pain in his head, but he continued regardless. "New Wave, we're not... You said the PRT doesn't... Doesn't give a shit, that they... Didn't help when you went to them, but..." Fracture gave a small laugh as he spoke again. "Coil. If you had gone to Liberty Lady, she... She would have agreed to help." The boy motioned with his head out towards the front of the van, where the battle between Lung and the giantesses was being joined by Laserdream and Browbeat, the two New Wave heroes doing their best to minimize the collateral damage being inflicted on the surrounding area. "We're not the... We're not the PRT, Coil. We help people who ask for it, no... No matter what. You... You should have just come... Come to us, instead."

    Chariot clenched his jaw. Biter let out a muted "Shit..." Gnaw let the gun drop to his side, as his mouth hung open in shock.

    Fracture, of course, still couldn't see exactly what expression was behind Coil's bodysuit. But he could still hear the boy's tone of voice. "Oh." It was simple, almost deadpan. "I... We... No, I was so laser-focused, so tunnel-visioned on the PRT that I just... Robbing the bank, kidnapping you... It... It was all for nothing, wasn't it? There was no point to this, to any of this. I... I never even considered just..."

    Outside the van, Lung bellowed, blew fire, and grew larger. Sounds of chittering machine gun and roaring artillery fire came from closer to the Merchants' territory. Something akin to the sound of a wolf's howl but intoned from clashing blades ripped through the air. A set of massive, unnatural explosions went off in the distance. Giant hands of brick and asphalt began to erupt several streets down. Sounds of chaos and destruction rung out all around them.

    Inside the van, Coil's head dropped, and his eyes looked towards the floor. Everyone was silent except for him. Three words, breathless and despondent. "I fucked up."
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2019
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  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: Snap
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 9: Snap

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    Several seconds passed. He shook his head, and said it again, even more lifelessly than the first time. "I fucked up." Still, nobody said anything.

    I was shocked. I was horrified. I was upset. I was angry beyond belief. And so I put all of those emotions into slapping my boss across his cloth-covered face as hard as I could. "Coil!" The pistol I had been holding clattered to the floor of the van, and it thankfully didn't discharge as it did so. "Wake up!" I had no doubt that striking the most vain and dangerous person I had ever known was a horrible idea, but something needed to be done; maybe hitting him like that was a bit more dramatic than was strictly necessary, but there wasn't time to consider propriety. "Yes, you fucked up. We fucked up. I suggested the plan in the first place, if you forgot." I saw Coil's mouth open up behind his suit, but I grabbed the fabric near his shoulders, shaking him. "No. Don't fucking argue with me right now. We can play pity and blame games once we're done here." I jabbed my finger towards the window, where Lung, Menja, and Fenja were currently wrecking buildings while Lightstar and Browbeat desperately tried to stop them. "Right now, those lunatics are destroying the Docks. They are destroying our home. My home, Coil. The one you promised you'd help me defend." I shook him again, and I could see Coil start to recover from his temporary emotional fit. "So please, wake the fuck up, and start being Coil, mastermind extraordinaire, and get us through this situation."

    Everyone was staring at me, Biter and Chariot giving me looks of horror. Coil lifted his hands up, and gripped my wrists where I was holding onto his suit, clenching down and attempting to pull me off of him. "Gnaw. I appreciate the encouragement, of course, but that fucking hurt, and I am far too proud to accept being struck like that without any repercussions for the offending party." I allowed my hands to let go of Coil's costume, while worrying that my boss might actually let his ego get in the way of our mission. "However, I am even more so too proud to let a slight to that pride prevent me from doing what needs to be done at this moment." There as a collective sigh of relief from everyone in the van, even from Fracture sitting in the back. Coil immediately began issuing orders, once more the leader I expected him to be. "Chariot, get into contact with the others, find out where they are, and meet up with them. Same plan as before, just with New Wave now." He climbed out of his chair over into the back with us, pointing at Biter. "Get in the passenger seat. Use your fist to clear the way if anything stops us." Biter nodded, immediately following the instructions. I heard Chariot start to talk to Circus as Coil looked to Fracture, next. "As I said, I fucked up. Kidnapping you was pointless. But what's done is done. Your family is here. If we let you go, will you fight with them, against the gangs? Will you tell them that we have no aim against them, and that we only wish to stop this conflict before it spirals out of control?"

    Fracture stared at Coil for several seconds, but finally spoke up when my boss started to speak again. "Forgive me, Coil, but you have to remember that I'm... Currently suffering from a concussion courtesy of... You and your band of merry men here." The New Wave boy smiled, and I saw Coil twitch in annoyance for a moment. "But the answer is... Yes. I'm fairly certain that Liberty Lady might have it out for you after, but... I will make sure she avoids you until... This is all over with."

    I could see Coil's eyes narrow behind his suit, but after a few moments of analyzing Fracture's expression, he seemed satisfied; it took Coil only a few seconds to undo the other boy's restraints, and Fracture rubbed his wrists as our boss turned back to Chariot. Even as the Tinker was still driving and navigating with Circus, Coil snapped his fingers and called out. "Send our friend here to the nearest alleyway. Safely, Chariot." The next second, Fracture was gone, teleported out by one of our Tinker's devices. I looked at Coil, and he looked at me. "I don't trust him, but I don't have much choice, either." I nodded in understanding, before keeping a lookout at the back of the van, my pistol reacquired and held close. Coil himself had grabbed another one, and was sitting next to me as Chariot continued to speed along. "Any chance of gathering rats as we're moving?"

    I shook my head. "This thing is moving way too fast. I tried to get a few to jump on it when it slowed down here and there, but they slipped off as soon as it accelerated again." I still had the rodents we had collected in the vehicle before we made our way to the bank, but it was significantly less than I usually had. Thankfully, everywhere in the Docks was teeming with rodents, and if Circus and the rest were anywhere near trees - which I assumed they were - I could get my favorite squirrels along with rats and mice from the dumpsters.

    Coil and I sat in silence while Chariot continued talking over the phone. "Thank you." That was all he said.

    I nodded. "You're welcome." A similarly short statement from myself.

    Shortly after, Chariot called from the front. "We're here." The van pulled to a stop - Chariot's vehicles all drove incredibly smooth, so there was no screeching or fishtailing or anything of the sort as he did so - and the four of us jumped out. It was... A warzone, essentially. I had seen the damage that had been being wrought while we were driving along, but moving along at such a speed and seeing it through a window mitigated how bad it actually was. It wasn't just the capes of the three gangs, either; their footsoldiers were on the ground, with guns, with knives, with baseball bats, attacking any civilian they felt was a threat on top of enemy gang members. I saw a few Empire soldiers pointing in our direction as I got on my feet, and I instantly swarmed them with every nearby rodent I could gather, incapacitating them before they could do anything more.

    Trainwreck, Circus, and Barker were facing off against Hookwolf and Iron Rain on an empty dirt lot. The latter hurled a slur in Barker's direction, while the former had taken his wild canine form full of shifting blades. I didn't wait for orders, already knowing what I needed to do. In the days between laying out our initial plan and now, Coil had made sure to go over every potential enemy cape in the gangs, detailing combat situations for each one; there was no way anything I could do would be of use against Hookwolf, as all of my rats and mice would be obliterated the moment they came into contact with him, so I directed all of my attention onto Rain, instead.

    "'Bout time you showed up, boss!" Trainwreck was in a heavy suit of power armor this time, and was in a melee with Hookwolf. The scrap Tinker had gathered some of the metal that Iron Rain had been throwing around, attaching it to his gauntlet as improvised claws; they were barely effective against the metal beast, but at least provided some distance.

    "We were otherwise indisposed, Trainwreck. But we're here now." Coil pointed his pistol at Iron Rain, and began taking shots; the woman screamed incoherently at my boss, while conjuring plates of steel to block the bullets. Circus had been keeping her busy before then - we knew that she'd pose an issue to Trainwreck especially, even if her ferrokinesis wasn't that strong, so all battle plans involved keeping her away from the Tinker - but the jester renewed their assault once reinforcements arrived. Biter turned his attention to Hookwolf, throwing metal-plated punches at the Nazi, adding to the pressure that Trainwreck was putting on. Chariot flanked the Wolf, using his repulsion rifle to start knocking our enemy into walls and buildings; it wasn't great that we were adding to the collateral damage that the fights around the Docks were causing, but there was no other real way to defeat Hookwolf when he had the kind of power he did. Barker held back at the van, a hand around his throat and a pistol in the grasp of his other; unfortunately for my team mate, his ability severely strained his throat, and he couldn't use it for too long without needing to rest.

    Trainwreck and Circus seemed to have been in a stalemate with Hookwolf and Iron Rain before we arrived, but when the odds when from two versus two to six versus two in a few seconds, the situation could changed rapidly. Iron Rain desperately tried to kill the rodents I had biting on her, but she couldn't stop all of them, and blood ran down her body as flesh was torn off; I felt significantly less bad about doing this to a raging Nazi bitch than I did while doing it to fracture, and the albeit slightly sadistic pleasure helped shake me further out of the mood I had from kidnapping the young hero. Circus pulled a wooden baseball bat from their hammer space, and clonked Iron Rain across the head with it; the Empire girl collapsed to the ground, all of her ferrokinetically manipulated objects falling with her. Hookwolf must have seen this, as he gave a metal-scraping howl of rage, before another shot from Chariot's weapon slammed the Nazi cape into a concrete wall once more; after such repeated punishment, Hookwolf's body apparently couldn't take any more, and his metallic wolf form collapsed to reveal the man underneath.

    "Gather them up. Bind them, gag them. If they seem even slightly conscious, give them a few good kicks or hits to make sure they stay out longer. We leave them, for now. If New Wave picks them up, great. If they don't, they'll still be too out of the fight to do anything for the rest of the day." Chariot used a pair of jet boots to dash over and grab Hookwolf, while Circus started on getting Iron Rain tied up. The harlequin gave the Empire girl a foot in the stomach, but I couldn't be sure if it had been actually strictly necessary; I wasn't actually sure if I cared, though, hearing the things she was saying at Barker. "Damage report?" Coil called out, and all of us responded that we were either fine or only had minor, inconsequential injuries. Trainwreck began collecting some of the remaining scrap Iron Rain had so generously donated to our cause, storing them in a compartment of his power armor for later use. "Alright. Can anybody tell me where the nearest targets are?"

    Before anyone could respond, a rumbling bulge started underneath where I and Circus stood. "Steinn! Move!" I barely had time to dive out of the way before a massive hand of dirt slammed up out of the ground. Turning around to look, I saw the man in question, the leader of Empire Eighty Eight; his hand was in a panel attached to his armor, one filled with tightly packed dirt. As they walked towards us, I saw his wife, Rune, in step next to him, several trash cans, hubcaps, and other assorted scrap and garbage floating around her. Alabaster and Cricket - Steinn's two other lieutenants alongside the now-imprisoned Crusader - pulled up on either side of the couple; Cricket held her kamas, spinning them around dramatically, while Alabaster held his pistols, giving them kisses in a similar fashion.

    "Well, it could have been worse." Trainwreck smiled nervously as he saw the oncoming Empire capes.

    Chariot stared at him for a few moments, before speaking up. "It could be worse than the leader of the Empire, his wife, and his two most trusted lieutenants?"

    Trainwreck shrugged, his power armor scraping together as he made the motion. "We could have had to deal with Lung, Oni Lee, and Bakuda all at once."

    Chariot grunted, as Coil began to quickly formulate a plan and speak it at the same time; much of it was what we had gone over during planning, but it beared repeating even so. "Chariot, suppression, especially on Rune's projectiles." The Tinker nodded, hoisting his rifles. "Trainwreck, go for Cricket if you can, and Alabaster if you can't; I don't know if your physiology is affected by her, but we can hope that it's not." Trainwreck pumped a scrap-bladed fist. "Barker, how's your throat?" The boy in question nodded, stating that he was well enough that he could try. "Alright. Save it for when you see an opening someone else has made. Don't waste any use of it." Barker nodded as smoke trickled out from between his lips. "Biter, first priority is dealing with Steinn's projections. After that, try to deal with Rune's projectiles. After that, your own initiative." The muscular teenager nodded, his hands already growing in size. "Circus, try to take out Rune and Steinn as soon as you can. Alabaster and Cricket will be running interference, but don't get bogged down by them." The jester nodded, bringing out a set of throwing knives from their hammer space. "Gnaw." Our boss finally turned to me, and I stood up straight, nodding. I could see him smile behind his suit as he gave me my orders. "Swarm the ever-living fuck out of them." I could only grin in response, as I started running every single last rodent I could find in my range towards the Empire capes.

    Once we were within earshot of Steinn, the Nazi leader called out to us. "Hello, Coil and friends. You really should get a better name than that some time, you know." Steinn sounded impressively casual as he spoke, the metal face of his costume impassive while he did. "Please don't tell me that's my daughter laying on the ground next to you. If she's hurt, you'll have to understand that I'll be less than charitable with the lot of you." I noted that he sounded much like Coil tried to when our boss was putting on his mastermind character... And that it sounded as practiced and as careful as Coil's voice did. Odd. "And Hookwolf, too? Poor, poor Hookwolf. This simply won't do, you know. First you attack my property, steal my things, and send one of my finest men to jail. Then you hurt my child and that valiant young man. This simply will not do. Alabaster, Cricket?" The two Empire capes turned towards their leader, and Steinn held up a finger, snapping it. "Deal with them, please."

    Battle was joined. Rune began throwing her telekinetic projectiles, causing Biter and Chariot to start knocking them out of the air. Trainwreck moved to intercept Cricket, but the Nazi cape was amazingly quick, making it difficult for the heavily armored man to catch her; judicious use of scrap-based shotguns at least kept her away from the rest of us. Circus made a bee-line for Rune and Steinn, throwing their daggers to force the telekinetic to divert some of her attention to blocking them. The harlequin dodged the fists that Steinn threw out from the ground and nearby walls, but the assault still forced them off their path and into Alabaster; the two of them clashed, causing our jester to be delayed in her objective. Biter took his focus away from throwing fists at the Nazi leaders to break apart the asphalt, concrete, and brick hands that Steinn was creating to block our way to him and Rune. Barker, Coil and I took cover behind the van - which Chariot had made sure was fortified as well as maneuverable and fast - and leaned out to take potshots at our enemies whenever we had a chance to; it wasn't very effective, given that Alabaster could recover from a bullet injury with ease, Cricket could just straight up dodge gunfire, and Rune and Steinn were well protected. Barker had to take time to keep recovering his voice, though, Coil's power - whatever it was - didn't have meaningful combat utility as far as I knew, and I was still gathering my rodents in a nearby alleyway. I wasn't about to trickle my rats in to let them die off one by one; no, I needed to get a critical mass, before sending them into the fight.

    Coil pulled a magazine from his belt, dropping an empty one from his pistol and reloading the gun. He looked at Iron Rain and Hookwolf laying nearby, then at his pistol, then at the Empire capes again, before shaking his head; seeing me watching, he explained: "Steinn specifically saw these two here with us. If he kept advancing anyway, then that means that he wouldn't give two shits if we tried to use them as hostages." I looked at Iron Rain, in specific. His own daughter, and he didn't care? I felt something like pure hatred well up in my heart for the Nazi leader, and I took it out by taking what I knew to be pointless shots at him and Rune. Christ, had I just shot a gun at a man in anger, with the intent to seriously injure him? I guessed that what they always said about how friends could be bad influences was pretty true, after so much time spent with Barker and Coil.

    My ears ringed from a high-pitched noise that rang across the battlefield, causing the three of us behind the van to wince in pain. Cricket. Coil looked over the vehicle in the direction of Trainwreck and the Empire cape in question, before slapping Barker on the chest. "Go. Back up Trainwreck. He's not immune to her noise, and he's not looking too good." Barker nodded, before standing up and dashing off in the direction of our scrap-tinker team mate. As I remained in cover behind the van, I heard a series of gunshots, and Barker screaming profanities at Cricket. I glanced above the vehicle to see what was happening; Trainwreck was kneeling on the ground, a hand to his stomach as he puked up some of the lunch we had eaten earlier in the day, while Barker clacked his teeth together, hard enough that I felt a bit of sympathetic pain in my jaw. The gas that had been expelled from his mouth burst into a cloud of ice crystals - or, rather, the gas had exploded into cold, causing the ambient moisture in the air to solidify - catching Cricket in the area of effect; the girl collapsed to the ground, not dead, but shivering and desperately trying to crawl away from Trainwreck and Barker.

    Steinn was apparently not very happy about this, as a fist flew out of a nearby brick wall towards Barker; unfortunately, the boy in question was too pre-occupied with celebrating his victory, and so the stone hand slammed into him, sending him flying. "Barker!" Biter shouted in shock and anger, and I saw his eyes narrow in anger as he screamed in rage, charging towards Rune and Steinn.

    "Biter! No! Stop! Get back here!" In spite of Coil's commands, Biter continued running forward towards the Nazi leaders. Growling, Coil slapped me on the chest, now, pointing towards Cricket and Trainwreck. "Make sure he's okay, then grab her, bring her over here while she's still down. I'll cover you." I nodded, and rushed out behind cover towards the disabled Empire cape as fast as I could. Biter was fighting with Rune and Steinn with a fury I didn't realize him capable of, using not only his fists but his legs and even his bear-trapped jaw, as well. The assault was ferocious, but it was also sloppy, and brash, and his two opponents could easily block him with telekinetic projectiles and materializing fists. While that was going on, I managed to reach where Trainwreck and Cricket were.

    "Hey, Trainwreck, you okay? Trainwreck?" I knelt next to my team mate, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. After giving a few more heaves of Chinese food, he held out a hand to give me a thumbs up, and pushed me towards where Cricket was lying. Leaving my friend to recover himself, I rushed over towards the Empire cape, laying my hands on her; wow, she was fucking cold, and I worried that she might legitimately suffer from serious hypothermia and frostbite if she didn't get medical attention soon. Pushing those concerns out of my head for the moment, though, I picked her up as well as I could with my still arguably meager strength; even with all the training I had done since January, my muscle mass still wasn't in a great spot, and my torso muscles still weren't completely recovered from Brad's beatings. I idly thought that I hoped that I could meet Brad during the middle of this, to send mice down his pants to bite off his...

    I reached the van, plopping the near-frozen Cricket onto the ground. Coil pulled out some restraints and handed them to me, and I began securing her. "Make sure she's knocked out. Don't need her getting up on us."

    The chill of Cricket's body suggested to me that there was no such concern. "She's basically a popsicle at this point. I think we should be fine." Coil looked back at me and Cricket, but just nodded before turning his attention back to the fight.

    "Fucking Biter, God damnit...!" Our team mate's limbs had been flying around madly enough that he had broken through walls and flung some cars about; he had even broken a fire hydrant, which was currently in the process of spewing its water supply out all over the street. "We're supposed to be stopping collateral damage, not cause it, you fucking..." Coil was whispering it, more to get his annoyance out than to actually berate Biter himself. I did wince a bit seeing one of Biter's fists slam through a building's exterior and into what looked to be some kind of kitchen for a restaurant, breaking appliances and spilling the contents of a fridge all across the floor; I considered the situation lucky that there weren't any civilians in there, likely having evacuated far away from our fight by now. It was disturbing, but Biter had just seen his best friend get slammed away by a giant brick fist, so... Wait, shit, Barker!

    I looked out across the battlefield, and saw Barker lying, apparently unconscious, below where Steinn's blow had thrown him against the concrete wall of a building. "I'm getting Barker." Coil just nodded, and I dashed towards my fallen team mate. I flinched for a moment, though, as bullets whizzed past me, before one slammed into my left arm, sending blazing agony up through my nerves. I screamed loudly in pain, clutching the injury tight as blood flowed out of the wound, soaking into the nearby fabric; the wound hurt so much that I was worried that I was going to pass out, but focused myself by cursing liberally. "Shit, fuck, God damnit, ow, shit!" I kept pressure on the injury, but either way, I had to turn my attention towards the source of those shots to see who I was being attacked by; it was Alabaster, advancing towards me, while Circus had been caught in one of Steinn's hands. "Biter! Focus! Get Circus free! They're trapped!" The muscular boy turned towards me, eyes burning with rage, before flipping his head in the direction I was pointing; I was thankful that he didn't seem to be so infuriated that he wasn't capable of doing what needed to be done, but I also had to deal with fucking Alabaster while he liberated Circus from their asphalt prison.

    "Gnaw! Go!" Coil started giving me covering fire against Alabaster, as I kept making my way towards Barker; the Empire cape in question just sort of... Took the bullets, like it was no big deal. Each time he did, he simply reverted himself back to before he took the bullet, but Coil's ammunition had still been expended. How the fuck was one even supposed to defeat a cape like him?! It made sense that Steinn had made Alabaster one of the Empire's chief lieutenants, if the ivory-skinned man was that powerful. As I knelt next to Barker, I realized how one was supposed to defeat someone like Alabaster. Rats. Mice. Squirrels. Lots of them. A critical mass of them, even. Like the one I had just finally finished gathering in the alleyway next to me.

    I sent my swarm entirely onto Alabaster, while Biter fought to break through more fists that Steinn had created to stop him from getting to Circus. Alabaster first attempted to dodge and get away from my rodent army, but it wasn't possible for long, not when I had hundreds of them at my command. Rune and Steinn tried to thin out their numbers, but they were too distracted with Biter and a recovering Trainwreck to be able to worry about my forces; Alabaster fired away into the swarm, killing plenty, but the man didn't have an infinite amount of ammunition in his magazines, either. The bites they caused wouldn't worry Alabaster for long, but that didn't matter; it was a distraction, and that was all I needed as I straight up just weighed the man down under the weight of my animals. I heard him curse as he tried to throw my rodents off, but for every rat he managed to fling off his legs, for every mouse he stabbed with the stiletto blades hidden in his guns, two more appeared. I didn't need to hurt him, or kill him, I just needed to stop him, and when I had buried his entire body in rodents, when I had forced him to his knees and then flat onto the ground under the sheer mass of my little chittering minions, Alabaster had been stopped.

    Leaving enough rodents on Alabaster to keep him pinned, I grabbed Barker with both hands, and immediately regretted the decision when my left arm flared in pain when I tried to use it; as inefficient as it may have been, I opted to just drag him with my one good arm, instead. In the mean time, I sent what rats and mice I had left over towards the now quite alone Empire leaders, hoping to do something, anything to help finish this skirmish off. Chariot had been kept busy for most of the fight countering Rune's telekinesis, but he was now attempting to hit the couple with his repulsion rifle for actual effect. Trainwreck was charging forward - stepping on some of my rodents in the process, though I couldn't blame him, all things considered - using his scrap shotgun to lay some covering fire at our two enemies. Biter was almost at Circus, now, having made his way through Steinn's stone-fist barrier, when the Nazi leader apparently decided that he was done with our little bit of fun-time. Shoving one of his hands into a concrete panel, a giant version of that fist flew out from a wall near where Circus was trapped, and hit the harlequin square home, my team mate in no way being able to escape from the blow. Stone shattered upon stone, and the jester went flying. "Circus!" Coil screamed gutturally, and I had to drop Barker in the middle of the street in order to run and intercept him as he ran towards his partner. "Let me go, Gnaw! Circus... Shit! Circus!"

    "Coil! Calm the fuck down! Now is not the time for this!" I watched as Rune used a sheet of metal that she had control over to ferry her and Steinn away from the battlefield; were they really just going to leave their comrades behind like that? I wasn't complaining, and I supposed that it made sense to cut one's losses and run like that, but it still gave me a sour taste in my mouth to see even these Nazi fuckers just be abandoned by their allies so easily. Once the two Empire leaders were well out of range, I let go of Coil. "Go. Make sure they're okay."

    While my boss made his way towards the hopefully only unconscious Circus, I continued dragging Barker towards the van; if nothing else, somebody needed to sit there and make sure that Cricket, Hookwolf, and Iron Rain weren't about to wake up and start hitting us from behind. I started checking Barker for injuries; if he had any serious wounds, they would be internal, and there wasn't anything that I could have done for him in that case. Instead, I pulled out some smelling salts from my utility belt, opening the vial and holding them underneath his nose; it wouldn't be pleasant, but we were still in the middle of a warzone, and we needed everyone on our team awake and ready to fight, if they could be. Barker started coughing, and his eyes opened up shortly after, waving the smelling salts out of his face. "Fucking Jesus Christ, dude! Is that fucking poison or something?"

    I smiled, glad to see that my friend was still as foul-mouthed as usual, which I supposed was probably a good sign. "No, it's not. You okay, though, Barker? Anything broken? Feel like you've got a punctured lung? Anything?"

    I did another cursory visual examination of my team-mate as he spoke. "Nah. Feel like I got hit by an eighteen wheeler, but I'm okay otherwise, I think. Guess we'll see when... Shit." Barker's eyes shot open wide as he looked up in the sky behind me.

    I felt my stomach drop. "Shit?" Steeling myself, I turned around, pointing my vision towards where Barker was staring.

    Liberty Lady, floating in the air, arms crossed, glaring down at the two of us with enough violence that I was sure I'd die just from the look she was giving me. Brandish and Flashbang were standing on the ground beneath her, the former having a hardlight sword in either hand, while the latter tossed one of his explosive orbs up and down in his hand. Behind them stood Fracture, still out of costume, and smiling at us. I couldn't tell if it was a good smile, or a bad smile, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to know.

    I gulped hard, before echoing Barker's sentiment breathlessly. "Yeah. Shit."
     
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2019
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: Chitter
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    A/N: Retconning Browbeat and family's surname for clarity's sake.

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    Chapter 10: Chitter

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    "You're all absolutely fucking stupid. I just wanted to make sure that you knew that." All seven members of Coil's crew had gathered back at the van at that point; Biter was tending to Barker, Coil was tending to Circus, and Chariot, Trainwreck and I stood in front of them, my arm having been bandaged where I had been shot by Alabaster. Liberty Lady didn't seem ready to sic her New Wave kids on us, but it didn't hurt to have some sort of defensive line up. "Fracture told me why you robbed the bank, why you kidnapped him. And you're all absolutely, positively, fucking stupid." The New Wave matriarch was still floating in the air in front of us, apparently for the effect of being several feet above the ground so that she could look down in our direction in an attempt at intimidation and authority. "We literally, literally were heading down here to stop this gang war when word reached us that you were robbing the bank Fracture was at. We sent the Masons on ahead, while we had to delay our arrival to this situation in order to deal with you." Liberty Lady was pointing with her finger as she spoke, jabbing it out with anger when she did. "Chariot, I don't know why the actual God damn you're willing to work with a bunch of teenagers, but you're absolutely fucking stupid for that, in particular. Look where following little Coil's orders has gotten you." I couldn't see our Tinker's expression behind his visor, but I did hear a small, non-committal grunt. "And you, Gnaw. I heard from Gallant about your meeting with Clockblocker. You say that you want to be a hero?" She scoffed, pointing at Fracture, and then at the collateral damage our fight had caused. "Yeah, great job, kid. You're absolutely fucking stupid too, for clarity's sake." I grit my teeth, but didn't say anything.

    Liberty Lady folded her arms as she floated in the air, a mild wind stirring up her cape as she shook her head down at us. "Now, you barrel of idiots should be grateful, because my son has generously argued on your behalf." She looked towards Fracture, frowning a bit, to which the boy just beamed up a smile at his mom; a fresh wave of guilt came over me as I saw their little exchange. "He's fucking stupid too, but not absolutely. Just a tiny bit." Fracture gave a small frown, but just nodded as Liberty Lady continued. "So, here's the deal, kids." The woman placed her hands onto her hips, tilting her head and smirking condescendingly down to us as she continued. "We're not going to take you in for robbing that bank, or kidnapping Fracture." A collective sigh of relief from our side. "We're even going to try and convince the PRT to leave you alone for it. You're definitely going to be classified as villains after your little stunt, but that's your own fucking fault." I felt my blood freeze. Me, a villain. It was done, there was no way out of it now. Gnaw, the rat kid, was going to be a villain. I remembered Clockblocker's words, about him beating my ass and hauling me in.

    "Lung, Fenja, and Menja have been driven off. Stormtiger and Victor clashed with Bakuda, with Grue coming out of nowhere and going after both sides, for some unknowable reason. After Bakuda leveled a city block or two, they broke off and disengaged." My jaw clenched. A city block or two? Even with Brian intervening? And if we hadn't bothered with that ridiculous bank robbery idea, maybe that would have never happened...? Damnit. God damnit. "The Masons are currently breaking up the fight between Squealer and Krieg. Oni Lee hasn't been spotted yet, but no news is good news in that matter. We're going to go take care of Skidmark and Mush once we're done here." Her eyes passed over Hookwolf, Iron Rain, and Cricket, before moving to the veritably mountain of rodents I had sitting atop Alabaster. "Gnaw. What's that?"

    "Oh, uhm." I still felt the cloudy-skinned man writhing underneath the pile of rats. I suspected that he had suffocated several times by now, but I also knew that his ability was probably keeping him alive through it; a morbid feeling passed over me as I considered the fate I was putting him through. "That's Alabaster. I couldn't figure out any other way to take him down, so..."

    Liberty Lady nodded, turning to look at her son. "Fracture. Pin him down for us? And don't be afraid to hurt him, if you have to. He's a big boy, he can take it." Victoria smiled a little bit more devilishly at that than I would have expected out of someone who was lecturing us on how to be 'heroes', and Fracture's grimace suggested that he felt similarly about his adoptive mother's expression; regardless, the boy nodded, and started making his way over towards Alabaster. As he walked by our group, he turned towards me and gave a look that I couldn't quite decipher before continuing towards the buried Empire cape.

    Before anything else could happen, a Protectorate issue patrol bike came roaring down the street, screeching to a halt on the dirt lot our van was parked on. A man in glowing power armor got off, looking around frantically. "Philip?! Honey, where's Philip, is he okay?!" I saw Brandish's face contort in disgust underneath her mask while Gallant looked around frantically for Fracture. The boy in question waved towards his dad from where he was using his bones to set up a prison for Alabaster, wincing in pain even as he did so.

    "He's fine, Gallant. Just a little bruised up, maybe a bit of a concussion." Liberty Lady stared at us pointedly. "And we are all very, very lucky that nothing worse happened to him." Our group shrunk back a little bit, Biter especially, who was making very sure to keep his fists in as passive of a stance as possible. "...Gallant, babe. Please don't tell me you skipped out on orders for this."

    The Protectorate hero rubbed the back of his head with a gauntlet-covered hand, and I could practically see the blush behind his helmet. "Uh. Maybe? I just, uhm. Thought you might have needed some help. With Fracture, but, the gang war, too." Gallant's gaze finally settled on the three disabled Empire capes laying on the ground in front of us. "Or... I guess not?"

    Liberty Lady sighed, shaking her head down at her husband. "Virtually everything's taken care of. We just need to take care of Skidmark and Mush, which isn't exactly a monumental task. Browbeat and the rest are dealing with Squealer and Krieg, and they should be fine." Gallant nodded looking around the destruction of the battlefield. "Now get back to HQ before the Director signs your death warrant, or something." Liberty Lady smiled down at Gallant, and the Protectorate hero grinned back up at her, nodding and heading back towards his patrol bike. The New Wave matriarch turned to us again, disdain replacing the loving look as she did. "Now, you kids. Just leave the Empire here for us to deal with, and the rest of you get back to your treehouse, or whatever it is. Stupid God damned kids, honestly. Just leave the heroics to the actual heroes from now on, okay?"

    Something snapped in me. I hadn't even felt that tense before she said that; the conversation had seemed to be winding down, even, the tension between us and the Stansfields slowly evaporating. But something Liberty Lady had said, about "actual heroes"... I didn't know what it was, but I stepped forward, stopping the woman as she was turning around to face her other kids. "What?" She gave me only one, derisive word as she floated there in the air above me. I could hear my team mates tense up behind me, Trainwreck's voice low as he urged me not to do... Whatever it was that I was about to do.

    "You're right, Liberty Lady. We are all absolutely fucking stupid." I looked up at her, my face equal parts sneer and anger. "We fucked up. We fucked up." I didn't turn to look at Coil, but I directed those words towards him anyways. "I put forward a plan to force the PRT to help us stop this gang war, and it was stupid, it was absolutely fucking stupid, you're right. Nobody else bothered to point out that we could have just come to you guys, that we could have just come to New Wave, and so they are absolutely fucking stupid for it, too, as stupid as I am for suggesting it in the first place." Brandish, Flashbang, and Gallant tensed up behind Liberty Lady, and I made sure to keep my hands away from my utility belt and my rodents from acting aggressively. My mice could see Fracture looking towards us, concern on his face. "But really, can you actually blame any of us for not considering New Wave as a potential ally?"

    "Kid." Liberty Lady's voice was full of danger and barely concealed fury. "I am giving you the chance to walk away from all of this. Take it."

    I shook my head, scoffing as I did. "You really think you're so heroic, don't you, Liberty Lady? You and the rest of New Wave." Brandish conjured a hardlight weapon, but Gallant held a hand in front of her, urging his daughter to put it away for now. "Oh, you're going to come in and help stop the gang war without anybody asking? Wow! How heroic of you! Coil and I and everybody else could have just come to you and asked for help, and you would have gladly offered your assistance, because you're the good guys, even more so than the silly PRT that has to follow its rules and its regulations!" I still hated the PRT for that, of course, but I was using every bit of ammunition I could think of. "But you don't actually care about the Docks, do you? You never have, and you never will. We're just a bunch of poor, impoverished nobodies, to the PRT and to New Wave."

    "Kid." The superheroine floating above me sent a wave of fear with her emotional aura, and it took every bit of control I had not to step back. I clenched my jaw and kept looking up at her, not averting my gaze for a second. "Shut up. Shut up now, and leave, before you say anything that you'll regret."

    I had already fucked up majorly once today. What was doing it again going to hurt? I knew that I shouldn't, I knew that Coil was going to have words with me if we got out of this situation that I had put us in, but I was angry, and I needed to get it out of my system lest it consume me. "Hell, nobody on New Wave is black, or Asian, or Hispanic, are they? One nice, big, happy, white family. Almost just like the Empire!" I gave a small, mocking laugh, as Liberty Lady's face contorted further. "And the Protectorate, too! I know Aegis is Hispanic, but... Who else, Gallant?" I looked towards the man in power armor, but he didn't say anything, opting to only shake his head. "And the Wards, you have... Miss Militia, right? Yeah, it's no surprise you don't give a shit about the part of Brockton Bay that's full of minorities being harassed and persecuted by a bunch of Nazis."

    Gallant stepped forward cautiously. "Gnaw, that's not fair, we-"

    I raised a hand to stop him. "Don't give me any fucking excuses, Gallant. The Empire has been practically running the Docks for decades now, since the Teeth got kicked out. The PRT didn't even bother to send any of their own forces to stop this gang war; even Clockblocker knows how much your organization doesn't give a shit about us down here in the Docks." Gallant stepped back a little bit; had I actually just won one over on the local Protectorate's second-in-command? Wow, I felt... Invigorated. Invigorated enough to keep telling off Liberty Lady, as stupid as it might have been. "And you." I pointed at the New Wave woman again, jabbing my finger up in her direction. "You say that you were already going to intervene in this war, even if we hadn't launched our admittedly stupid little bank robbery plan? Okay, I can buy that. I saw how Browbeat and Laserdream were already here, fighting Lung, that makes sense." I threw my arms open wide - wincing painfully as my left arm dropped before it could complete the motion - in order to gesture to the destruction around us, to destruction that we may have caused, but to destruction that could have been prevented, if just... If just... "But to say that you're the 'actual' heroes?" I chuckled with disdain. "Don't make me fucking laugh. You're about as much of 'heroes' as the PRT is. That is, Liberty Lady, not at fucking all."

    The woman made as if to dive towards me, but one of Gallant's emotion-orbs collided with her; it didn't cause her any damage, but it did cause her to stop as she looked down at her husband with confusion and shock. Gallant just pointedly shook his head up towards his wife, and I continued. "You cared about stopping this gang war because it would be great publicity for New Wave. The independent hero team swoops in, saves the day, when the PRT was sitting back with thumbs up their asses. A great newspaper headline, and I'm not even a journalist." I smirked derisively before speaking up again. "But when it's just business as usual, when it's just some Empire thugs stomping all over the Docks, making life hell for the poor and the minorities? That's not newspaper worthy, now is it? That's why you're not down here on a daily basis, trying to dismantle these Nazi fucks, like you would be if you were an actual hero." I pointed towards the three Empire capes we had secured in front of us, and then back towards where Alabaster had been firmly jailed by Fracture's bone constructions; the boy in question had started making his way back to the New Wave family, while giving me and his mother a wide berth in the process. "But no, that kind of grunt work is beneath you, isn't it?"

    I tilted my head, giving an exaggerated look of thought. "But, what was the name you used when you were younger, before you took up the title of Liberty Lady?" The woman in question started to open her mouth, but I stopped her and answered my inquiry myself. "Ah, that's right. Glory Girl. An appropriate name, considering that you don't give a shit about saving people, or doing the right thing, or any of that stuff." I took a step forward, narrowing the eyes behind my mask up at Liberty Lady. "You only give a shit about fame and glory, don't you?"

    Gallant couldn't stop his wife that time, and she came flying down towards me, grabbing me by the fabric of my costume, and hauling me high into the air. Okay, yeah. I might have fucked up a little bit. Maybe I had gone too far in a few places. I could accept that, especially now, when I was being held several stories above the ground by a woman that looked ready to drop me at a moment's notice. The woman spewed spittle as she screamed at me, and I had to actively control my bladder from releasing itself as my eyes continued to drift downwards. "You listen to me, you fucking punk!" Liberty Lady shook me, and for a moment I was afraid she'd lose her grasp. "You have no idea the shit that I and the rest of New Wave have gone through! The shit we've had to deal with during our career as fucking heroes, kid!" I desperately tried to plaster even a nervous smile on my face as Liberty Lady took a deep breath, calming herself enough to speak at a level tone when she continued. "You, kid, are a villain. You're a fucking villain now, after your little stunt at Brockton Bay Central. Even if you decided to ditch Coil so that you can go join the Wards-" I was glad that we were far enough from the ground that my constantly paranoid boss couldn't hear that suggestion "-you will always be a villain. There will be a little note on your file that says 'Former Villain' or 'Probationary Status'. You rob banks. You kidnap people's kids. You are a villain, Gnaw, and no amount of immature anger or righteous indignation will change that."

    Liberty Lady began lowering herself and I towards the ground; I noticed that my crew and the rest of the Stansfields on the ground had taken up preliminary battle positions, but weren't about to start anything unless either I or Liberty Lady threw the first blow. "I save people. I stop gang wars. Even if I'm doing that just for the sake of fame - which I assure you, I am fucking not - it doesn't change the fact that I am a hero, in terms of not only the PRT's classification, not only the public's view of me, but also just simple, moral fact. You can cry and scream like a little baby all you want, but nothing will change that." We reached the ground, and Liberty Lady set me down perhaps a bit harder than she necessarily needed to. With a poke to my chest that would have broken my sternum if there was any more power behind it, the woman added with an air of finality: "I am a hero, and you are a villain. That's all there is to it, kid." She looked back towards where Coil and the rest were, motioning with her head as she spoke to them. "Get the fuck out of here, now. Leave the Empire for us, we'll deal with them." I stood there for several moments, staring at Liberty Lady with as much ferocity as I could manage. I was being ridiculous, I knew, as any further provocations towards the woman would probably result in me being in a PRT cell by the end of the night, but the fury in my heart just refused to let me go. "Leave, kid. Now." I felt a hand on my shoulder - Biter - and he turned me towards the van, before I began to indignantly stomp off.

    Barker gingerly climbed into the rear of the vehicle, sitting up against the side with a wince as he held the more tender parts of his body. Trainwreck was loading Circus up, placing the jester on a row of deployable seats and securing them in with belts. Chariot was hopping into the driver's seat, while Coil stood at the back of the van, waiting for me and Biter to arrived. As soon as I was within range, Coil flung a fist out, catching me in the side of the face by surprise and throwing me to the ground. After the initial shock of the punch, I placed a hand where I had been hit, and looked up at my boss. Seeing the way his face contorted behind his suit, I dropped my gaze away in shame. "I... I deserved that." It was true, and it was all I could say. I had almost sabotaged the whole detente that Fracture had managed for us between New Wave and our group, and all because I wanted to unload my bitterness and animosity onto Liberty Lady.

    Coil nodded at me, huffing out of his nose. "Yes, yes you did. And now we're even, Gnaw. Come on, get up. We're going home. If our home's still there and hasn't been destroyed by insane criminals, anyways." My boss extended a black-gloved hand down to me, and I accepted it as he hauled me back to my feet.

    I smirked while hopping into the back of Chariot's vehicle. "Oh? Insane criminals like us, you mean?"

    Coil looked towards me as he sat down next to Circus, and I was fairly certain I saw a grin of his own behind the fabric. "Shut up, Gnaw." Barker, Trainwreck, and even Chariot smiled and chuckled as we set off back to Randy's.

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    Thankfully, Randy's place had remained essentially untouched by the gang war that was quickly winding down now that all of the capes were either out of commission or had withdrawn for the day; foot soldiers were still engaging in gun battles and street fights, but that wasn't as nearly as catastrophic as Lung burning down buildings or Squealer's landship blowing everything to hell and back. We did pass by the aftermath of Bakuda, Grue, Victor, and Stormtiger's fight, though, and I received a first hand view of hundreds of civilians looking at the rubble of what had been their homes and businesses; one child cried and sobbed as she held a rabbit that had been dug out of the rubble in her arms, and an attempt to ping my power off of it confirmed that it was no longer of this world. Us, too stupid to consider New Wave as potential allies. New Wave and the PRT, too proud to bother with the Docks when it didn't suit their needs. Me, too fucking angry to not sabotage any remote possibility of getting the "real" heroes down here to clean this place up. What a fucking mess.

    Coil had called a doctor ahead of our arrival back at base, and the woman was already waiting inside when Chariot's van teleported into the garage. Trainwreck and Biter carefully carried Circus up the stairs so that the harlequin could receive medical attention, while Chariot helped Barker climb his way to the second floor. Coil gave me a tired motion to join him in his office; Circus was in a far worse state than I was, and we had already agreed that I would wait while the doctor took care of our jester friend. My heart was still heavy with tension and anxiety as I stepped into the room, though; I thought we had made good on my idiocy with Liberty Lady, but maybe he was still angry? The expression on Thomas' face when he took off the hood of his suit was just one of sheer exhaustion, and I noticed that he had a black eye; I didn't even realize that he had been injured at some point. "Uhm, Thomas. If you want me to-"

    My boss raised a hand to stop me as he sunk into his chair, wincing as he moved in some way that caused him a bit of pain. "No, Danny, it's not that. I'm still kind of mad about what you did with Liberty Lady, but it's really not that. Water under the bridge, all that stuff." I sat down into the chair across the desk from him, and I noticed that he wasn't even bothering to attempt to put on his mastermind character voice; at that moment, he was just Thomas Calvert, and wasn't Coil at all. I took off my mask, and nodded as he continued. "The shit with Liberty Lady would have never even happened if I just hadn't fucked up with the plan." I opened my mouth to protest, but Thomas shook his head, interrupting me. "I heard what you said. You want to share responsibility for this whole debacle. I appreciate that, Danny. I really do. One for all and all for one and all that good stuff, yeah?" I smiled weakly, and nodded, before my boss continued. "But I'm still the leader, I'm still the one in charge. Ultimately, all or at least most of the responsibility for our failures lies at my feet. We all fucked up, maybe, but I fucked up the most, yeah?"

    I gulped, and nodded slowly, responding with a singular "Yeah."

    Sighing, Thomas continued. "I promised that I would help to defend the Docks - all of the Docks - if you joined us, Danny. And... I fucked up, and I failed. We stopped who we could, New Wave stopped who they could, but we saw the damage coming back, we saw how many houses and shops and buildings had been torn apart, or collapsed, or blown up, or burned down. Who knows how many civilian deaths there were today?" I paused for a moment to consider whether Thomas was concerned about civilian deaths out of his own sense of morality, or for what he knew to be what I was worried about. "But because I fucked up - because I fucked up, Danny - more damage was caused than was necessary. As has been said a million times now, we could have gone to New Wave, asked for their assistance, given them information, supported them in taking down the gang capes. But we didn't. And, to top it all off, we distracted the Stansfields long enough that they couldn't stop as much destruction as they could have otherwise." He looked up at me, his eyes somewhat sad. "And, I turned you into a villain - I turned all of us into villains - probably a fair bit sooner than you would have liked, huh, Danny?"

    I shook my head, smiling at my boss - at my friend - as I responded. "Thomas, really, it's okay. I knew from the moment I decided to join you that I'd be labeled a villain eventually. Better to get it over with now rather than later, yeah?"

    Thomas chuckled a tiny bit, before nodding and speaking up. "Yeah. But, Danny, look..." My boss buried his hand in his heads, and I realized that he didn't just look defeated or despondent; Thomas Calvert looked depressed. "I didn't hold up my end of the bargain, and I'm a man - Christ, no, sorry, I shouldn't use that word to describe myself. I'm a guy that feels very strongly about keeping agreements and promises. I broke the contract, so you should consider it no longer binding." I gave him a confused expression, and he glanced up at me with a sad smile. "Danny. I know you want to be a hero. If you go to the PRT now, I'm sure they won't mind the fact that you committed one, singular bank robbery. Wards have been accepted on probationary status for far less than that, you know. So if you want to leave my employment and join the heroes, I won't stop you. I won't even blame you. After all, who could want to stick around someone like-"

    I interrupted him forcefully. "Thomas. Don't give me that shit." He looked up at me again, and I saw tears in his eyes. "Yes, you fucked up. You made a mistake. I'm three years younger than you, boss, so I shouldn't have to be telling you this, but we all make mistakes. We all fuck up some times. And don't act like I don't know that you know that there's no way in hell that I'd take you up on your offer and ditch you to go join the Wards right now." Thomas gave me a half smile, half grimace, looking sheepish as he did so. "You heard what I said to Liberty Lady, so I know that you know that I wouldn't join the PRT if I had a gun to my head." Well, I probably would, but hyperbole and exaggeration felt right for this conversation. "So I'm going to tell you the same shit I told you in the van, after we saw Laserdream and Browbeat in the middle of the fight." My friend looked at me with concern, but I just smiled as I spoke. "Thomas. Wake the fuck up. You're Coil, mastermind extraordinaire. You know that I'm going to be sticking with you, and that you shouldn't need to play pity to get me to confirm that." He looked down at his desk, embarrassment further on his face. "Look, I don't give a shit why you're helping the Docks or trying to fix this city. Pride, vanity, ego. Maybe you actually have some altruism underneath that supervillain character of yours." A strange expression crossed Thomas' face, but I continued regardless. "Either way, the fact of the matter is that you are the only person who is consistently down here, who is consistently fucking with the Empire and trying to disrupt their stranglehold on this part of Brockton. Maybe the PRT and New Wave are the 'official' heroes, and maybe we're the 'official' villains, but I don't give two shits about that." I jabbed a finger across the desk towards Thomas, and said with a completely straight, serious face. "As far as I'm concerned? You're a hero, Thomas Calvert, no matter why you are one, and everyone else in this building is one, too."

    Thomas looked up at me an awkward smile spreading on his face. "Danny?" I nodded. "That was the cheesiest shit that I have ever fucking heard." I blinked, once, twice, and then the both of us burst out laughing. With a playfully mocking voice, my boss echoed my words. "You're a hero, Thomas Calvert! Oh, Danny, you're making my heart flutter." He placed his hands over his chest, letting out a wistful sigh as he did so.

    I batted at the air in his direction. "Shut up, Thomas. I was being serious!" The chuckle that kept coming out from my throat suggested that I found the situation was funny as he did, though.

    As he caught his breath, Thomas stood out of his chair, and began to make his way towards the exit into the garage. "Alright, come on. We can exchange corny compliments later. I want to check in on Blake and Ezekiel, make sure that they're okay."

    I nodded, pulling my self out of my seat and making my way to fall in step behind Thomas. "But seriously." My friend turned his head slightly to show he was listening. "You're a hero, Thomas Calvert." He snorted, I smiled, and we both made our way upstairs.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
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  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: Squeak
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 11: Squeak

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    Unfortunately for me, Victoria Stansfield was not the only angry mother that I knew that I was going to have to deal with that day. Once the doctor had made sure that Blake was stable and that Zeke didn't have any serious internal injuries, she turned her attention to me and the gunshot wound on my left arm. After the initial hit, my arm had mostly begun to just throb with dull pain unless I tried to move it; once the doctor pulled out her tools and went to work extracting the bullet, however, I found out just how little pain tolerance I actually had. Thankfully for me, the doctor was skilled enough that I only had to spend a short duration whining and crying like a baby in the middle of our team's dining room, and my arm was stitched up and good to go soon enough. I was given some painkillers and a sling to wear, but she assured me that it would heal with rest and time; I silently thanked whoever handed out powers that mine didn't require me to use my arm, even though it would make normal life a bit difficult in the foreseeable future.

    And then, after making sure that everything was good with Thomas and the rest of the crew, I made my way home. It was late in the afternoon - or early in the evening, depending upon who you asked - and was a fair bit after my mom would have returned home from school. I had asked Thomas to check to see if Winslow itself had been attacked - especially since it was a hotspot for gang activity - but it seemed to have been spared either by coincidence or by its concept as neutral ground having survived into the gang war that we had thankfully cut short. I told my mom to be careful today, too, that there was probably going to be some violence between the gangs, and I had been hoping that she had taken my words of caution seriously. The fact that I saw Mom's car in the driveway - undamaged beyond how it had looked that morning - solidified my certainty that she was probably okay, and allowed me to have a breath of relief. Of course, the tension in my chest only tightened up once more as I approached the front door, civilian clothes over my costume and my mask tucked into a pocket.

    The TV was on in the living room, visible from the dining table, but it was on mute. Silent aerial and cellphone footage of the various Brockton Bay capes fight each other showed in each of the four different quadrants of the screen, with the headline of "CHAOS IN BROCKTON BAY" towards the bottom, just above a news ticker putting out additional details regarding the fighting. I saw Krieg punching holes into Squealer's landship as the latter launched shells and bombs indiscriminately. I saw Bakuda throwing bombs at Victor and Stormtiger, blowing walls and doors and windows away with impunity. I saw Lung begin to shrink from his dragon form as he retreated opposite from Menja and Fenja, while the Mason side of New Wave tried to pursue them; Browbeat, Power Boy, and Shielder stayed back to help deal with the flames and damage the brawl between the giant villains had caused.

    And then I saw security camera footage of Coil, Chariot, Biter, and me inside of Brockton Bay Central. It was... Surreal, to see myself on the TV. It was even worse to see myself on the TV in the context of not only being a cape, but being a villainous cape. Subtitles ran just above the headline, delayed slightly as the typist struggled to keep up with the news anchors; I started reading midway through somebody's line. "...GNAW, A NEW CAPE WHO HAD SHOWN INTEREST IN THE WARDS. HOWEVER, HE SEEMS TO HAVE THROWN HIS LOT IN WITH THE VILLAINS. Rick: YES, CASEY, WHAT A SORRY PATH FOR THAT YOUNG MAN TO HAVE DECIDED ON. AND WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT COIL? Casey: WELL, COIL..."

    As the footage turned to an outside view of the bank, I watched as Liberty Lady, Flashbang, and Brandish rushed ahead of the Wards, much to the annoyance of Squire, who yelled after them, still silent on the TV. My own mom was sitting at the dining room table, watching the news impassively; a few slices of still steaming-hot homemade meatloaf sat on a plate accompanied by some vegetables, apparently intended for me. As my mom noticed my arrival, she turned her head towards me, giving me an inscrutable look before nodding to the dinner; I took her message, and sat down at the table, careful not to aggravate my injured arm. As I grabbed a fork and readied myself to dig in - Holy God I was hungry, I didn't even realize how hungry I was until I took a seat - Mom spoke up in a neutral, far too level tone of voice. "Is your arm okay?" She was expressing concern for me, sure enough, but I could tell how pissed she was regardless.

    I took a slow, careful bite of meatloaf, nodding as I swallowed before speaking up. "Yeah. Coil got a doctor to look at it. It, uhm. It should be fine. Just needs recovery time." I lifted the slinged arm as if to demonstrate, but I only caused myself to wince in the process. The image on the screen changed to the crew and I facing off against Steinn and his lieutenants. Serendipitously, the footage showed the moment that Alabaster shot me in the arm, right before my horde of rodents overwhelmed him.

    "Gunshot wound?" Mom didn't bother to look in my direction as she watched the TV show Biter's massive limbs tearing apart the street. I nodded, and she apparently saw the motion, because she gave a small "Hmm." in response. A few seconds later, she added. "Hurts, doesn't it?" The confusion on my face must have been clear, because she patted the right side of her abdomen; I suddenly remembered noticing a scar on her body there whenever I was little and we bathed together, or when I accidentally caught her changing, or anything like that. "It's why I quit hanging around with the Undersiders. That and your father, anyways." She turned around to pick up some meatloaf of her own, chewing the food lazily as she thought; as I only managed to stare and offer a small, weak, nervous smile.

    "It's uhm. It's good, Mom. Thanks for making dinner." I speared a piece of carrot with my fork, bringing it to my mouth with as much appreciation as I could muster into that sort of motion. Mom only gave another small noise as she swallowed her food.

    Several seconds later, as I was in the process of trying to ingest some broccoli, my mom slammed her fists onto the table, letting out a loud, ringing "Fuck!" that caused me to temporarily choke on my food. The plates and silverware clattered on the table from the force of her anger, and I could see my mom gritting her teeth and clenching her jaw. "I want to get angry at you, Danny. You have no fucking clue how angry I want to get at you right now. Robbing banks?! Kidnapping heroes?!" She swung an arm towards the TV to direct attention to the ongoing footage. "I guess I should have fucking known that's what was going to happen when you joined up with Coil!"

    "Mom, listen, I-" Holy shit, I was terrified. My mom had been fuming enough during breakfast and after school on Tuesday, but this was far, far past that. Maybe I was overdoing it with comparing my mom to the supervillains I was facing down - to the other supervillains I was facing down, at this point - but it always seemed like a pretty fair likening whenever I did so.

    "No, Danny. Look, you're not... You're not 'in trouble', or anything like that. Just... Just let me be angry for a little bit. Please." I felt relief knowing that my head wasn't going to be chopped off in a few seconds, but I then saw Mom's expression, and I felt... Guilty, in as many ways as one could possibly feel guilty. She was angry, yes, but she was also sad, defeated, miserable, depressed, in a similar but not quite identical way as Thomas had been earlier. Worse, of course, was the fact that I was the source of all of that for my mom; I was the reason she was tearing herself up inside, why she had obviously been sobbing up until the moment she heard me come in through the door, and why she would crying to herself and punching her pillow after she went to bed tonight. I felt like curling up into a ball and disappearing, as my guilt threatened to consume me. I had hurt my mom, in more ways than I had even realized possible.

    "I can't get angry at you is the thing, because then I'd be a fucking hypocrite!" She threw her arms wide, tears threatening to spill freshly down her cheeks. "It's not that I did the same shit you're doing now when I was a teenager, because parents are allowed to lecture their kids when they do something stupid the parents did when they were younger. That's not hypocrisy." My voice hitched as I tried to speak, but my mom didn't even seem to notice as she leaned over the table closer to me. "I would be a hypocrite because I don't regret the things I did with the Undersiders when I was younger. Sure, maybe I made some mistakes, maybe I did some things I shouldn't have, but I don't regret any of it, not even this scar that shithead from the Teeth gave me." Mom shook her head, dropping her face and causing some strands of her long, dark hair to fall over it. I always loved my mom's hair, and was always disappointed that I inherited dad's messy blonde locks, instead; I always loved... "But I don't regret any of the time that I spent with Brian or the others. I committed crimes. I aided supervillains. I did some bad things." My mom looked up at me, a small, awkward smile on her face. "But even now, I don't think that I did anything bad, you know, Danny?" I nodded, trying my best to return her smile. "First, I had Andrew keeping me from staying with the Undersiders. Then, I had you and Andrew. Now... I just have you, Danny. So I wouldn't join back up with them, wouldn't do anything more than just spending some time with Brian every now and again, not now that I have you that I need to look after, but...

    I reached out across the table to grab my mom's hand, and she turned her palm over to squeeze mine, gently. "So I can't get angry at you, Danny, not just because I've done the same things that you're doing right now, but because I would still do the same things that you're doing right now." She shook her head, looking over towards the TV again, which was now looping some of the footage from earlier. "I understand where you're coming from, Danny. I understand why you want to work with Coil. I live in the Docks too, you know. I see what happens every day, at school, and out on the streets." Part of her wasn't even speaking to me at that point; I wasn't sure how much of her had been speaking to me over this entire conversation, actually, but I was still doing everything I could to support her through whatever this process was that she was letting herself go through. "And I know that the PRT doesn't care about the Docks." She turned to look at me again, with another sad smile on her face. "You know, Liberty Lady was on the news earlier, giving an interview. She explained why you and Coil robbed the bank, and kidnapped Fracture. It was stupid, Danny, unbelievably stupid, but I can understand what you were thinking. She said that the PRT wouldn't have bothered to intervene here if they didn't have a reason, and she was right." I clenched my jaw and looked away, shame spreading across my cheeks. "So you wanted to help, Danny. You just didn't do it in the best way you could have. But you wanted to help, and how much you want to help lets me know that you really are your father's son. Andrew was always the same way, even from when I first met him." She looked a bit distant as she spoke, even more distant than she had been a few moments ago.

    Shaking her head, Mom seemed to regained herself slightly, and looked towards me again. "That's beside the point though, Danny." She placed her other hand on top of the one that she was already holding, and gently squeezed from both directions. "What I'm trying to say, Danny, is that..." My mom slowly blinked her beautiful, deeply brown eyes that partially hid behind her glasses, as if she couldn't believe what she was about to tell me. "I support you." A strange, indecipherable feeling came over me. She... Supported me? "I support you, Danny. I support you as Gnaw. I support you..." Mom scoffed, looking away for a moment, disbelief still on her face as she continued to speak. "I support you as a supervillain, Danny. As someone working with the supervillain Coil, and the rest of his crew." The way my mom spoke sounded as if she was reading off of a teleprompter, as if there was some disconnect between her thoughts and her words. "I don't know enough about anything to say whether or not this is the best choice, or the best path for you, or whatever. I really, really don't. I know so little about the situation that it makes me want to cry and scream even more than I already have." I gripped down with the hand that she was holding, offering what little help I could to her. "And I know that you're too young, Danny, to be making proper life choices for yourself; and you're not stupid, Danny - you're my son, after all - so you know that you're too young to be making proper life choices for yourself, too." I let out a little laugh, and noticed the salty taste of a tear roll into my mouth. Huh. When did that get there? "But there's no way that I can possibly manage to make decisions that are any better than the one's you're making, Danny. So..." With a breath and a nod, she confirmed what she was saying: "I support you, Danny. No matter what."

    My mom's emotions had caused her to ramble and wander as she tried to explain herself, and what had begun as her attempt to let out her anger had changed into... Whatever that was, right then. "I don't like it, Danny. I don't like what you're doing. I don't like you robbing banks. I don't like you kidnapping people. I don't like you fighting supervillains. I don't like you getting shot in the arm. I don't like any of it." I nodded in understanding, attempting to swallow some tension as she continued. "But I don't have to like it, either. This is what you want to do. This is how you want to help us, help the Docks, help the city. This is what you think is best. This is... Hell, this might even be what I think is best, if I sat down and considered it for long enough." Mom's look of defeat and sadness reappeared on her face, and I started to speak before she added on to what she was saying. "You know, Danny. When I initially found out I was pregnant, one of the very first thoughts I had was 'Please, don't let my child ever develop powers.' I had been with the Undersiders long enough to see what life is like for parahumans. It's never peaceful. There's always conflict, always violence, no matter which side of the fence you're on. Even people like Parian are always being harassed, always having to defend themselves against other capes. People with powers just... Can't have normal lives, it seems. But I wanted my child to be able to have a normal life." She looked me straight in the eye with a smirk that conveyed more despair than any frown ever possibly could have. "I guess nobody heard my prayers, though, huh?"

    I stood up out of my chair, walked the few steps over to where my mom was sitting, and wrapped her up in my one good arm, pulling her as tight as I could up to me. "Mom. Thank you, for everything. I love you, so much." She wrapped herself around me and began to cry, sobbing loud enough to echo throughout the otherwise quiet house, repeatedly saying my name, telling me how scared she was, how much she wanted to help, and I could only try my best to reassure her, help her feel safe, both for myself and for her.

    There was one point in the midst of all of it that I heard a soft whisper from my mom, not directed at me, or towards anyone else nearby. "I'm sorry, Andrew."

    ----------

    I spent the weekend recuperating from my injury in bed, taking time here and there to read the PHO boards to see the reactions to Friday's proceedings. Fiery debates had erupted regarding the PRT's consideration of impoverished areas of cities where they were stationed; civilians from some cities insisted that the PRT protected everyone equally where they lived, while people from other places swore that they never saw a Protectorate or a Ward within a ten mile distance from Section 8 housing. I saw somebody on Clockblocker's verified account, taking a very formal, official voice and stating how the PRT takes the safety of every citizen very seriously, and how blah blah blah blah blah; I convinced myself that it was just some PRT stooge who was using the name for PR purposes rather than the man himself. Those posts did bring me back to the night I had fought Crusader, though - less than a week ago, actually, which was astounding considering everything else that had happened since then - and when Clockblocker gave me his warning about what would happen if I turned villain. I... Didn't hate Clockblocker, not by any extent of the imagination. I marched out of that meeting with him, but I sincerely regretted it. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, maybe one of the only good 'heroes' in Brockton Bay, for that matter. He was just... Held down by the PRT. He wanted to help, but he had rules and regulations and stuff he had to follow. I could understand that. So I didn't want him to hate me, either. I hoped that if we ever met again, that I could get him to understand my side, and where I was coming from.

    Other PHO members were arguing about what Coil and the rest of us had done. A small number thought that our plan was brilliant, some considered it well-intentioned but poorly thought out - just as everyone I knew, including myself, did - while a majority of people were condemning us for even thinking of bank robbery and kidnapping as an acceptable method for achieving any goal. I... Couldn't exactly fault them for that. I felt like I still hadn't fully been hit by the gravity of what I had done on Friday, but I also knew that my feelings of guilt and shame were growing every time I thought about it. Either way, my team had committed criminal acts, and it was perfectly understandable that most civilians wholesale condemned us for it. I didn't agree with them, of course - or else I wouldn't still be on the path I had set out for myself - but I could understand them, even so.

    What ended up being more honestly hurtful was seeing the discussions regarding my power. "omfg so creepy! like, rats, seriously???" or "hahaha i can't believe gnaw ever wanted to be a hero, how is controlling rodents a hero's power" or "ewww, that's so gross!" Out of all of the things that had happened since Friday, those comments somehow ended up depressing me the most. I had considered since I triggered and gained my abilities that being able to manipulate rats wasn't exactly hero-like... But I could control squirrels, rabbits, and guinea pigs, too, so I hoped that being able to use the cuter, furrier critters would have helped my image, at least somewhat. The idea that just by virtue of my power that I could never have been an official 'hero' was disheartening, and I spent at least a couple cumulative hours in bed over the weekend sulking about it. I was everlastingly grateful when I managed to find one comment that was actually supportive of me, posted in my thread - my thread, Gnaw's thread, an official thread on the PHO boards, like wow - by someone who called themselves TheVenetian: "okay but guys did you see the way he just kinda buried alabaster with his rats??? that was fukin cool! regeneration doesn't help from a mountain of mice and stuff hahaha". I bookmarked that comment, and brought it up whenever I felt like I needed a little bit of encouragement.

    I checked the public PRT reports on the day's events, and was pleased to see that - in spite of all of our various fuckups - we succeeded in getting some of the gang capes hauled away. Hookwolf, Iron Rain, Cricket and Alabaster were secured by Liberty Lady and company after we left, while Skidmark and Mush were captured by the Stansfields later on. Oni Lee had been picked up by one of the Masons, apparently after having been knocked unconscious and left out on the street by somebody from the Empire; the PHO boards were having a laugh at his expense, for that one. Two thirds of the Merchant capes, one third of the ABB capes, and just under half of the Empire capes - and all three of Steinn's lieutenants - in prison was, in my estimation, a pretty good clean up of the gangs that had been infesting the Docks for so long. After the PRT and the police had arrived fashionably late to the party, they also arrested a large number of unpowered soldiers and henchmen; most people accepted, though. that there was no way that the non-parahuman justice system was going to be able to process that many. A significant portion of those thugs, unfortunately, would end up being released on probation or with slaps on the wrist, back onto the streets and into Winslow; I took whatever victories that I was allowed to get in that situation, though, and tried not to dwell on those facts for too long.

    I had also been keeping in touch with Thomas over my cellphone; my mom had accepted that it was a necessary thing for me to have and use, and she suggested that it was probably time for her to get over her understandable disdain for the things and get one of her own. Blake and Zeke were recovering well, with the former having woken up a few hours after I had left. The doctor wanted everyone in the crew to spend some time recovering, though, and so Thomas had promised to not launch any bank robberies or kidnappings in the mean time; the doctor hadn't found this funny, apparently, and just chided Thomas for not taking his friends' safety more seriously. Thankfully, there hadn't otherwise been any repercussions falling on the heads of Coil's crew. I had sent him a text saying that he needed to come up with an actual name, though, because "Coil's crew" just didn't have a great ring to it; he countered by saying that "Spitfire's crew" was one of the most famous mercenary groups in the New England area, which prompted the two of us to engage in a little bit of friendly back and forth on the subject. Eventually, I just promised to drop by Randy's on Monday after school, to check up on everybody and to deliver a list of possible team names to our glorious leader.

    Of course, being able to do that meant that I would have to survive Monday at school, first. I hadn't for a second forgotten that Winslow was filled with members of the gangs that we had worked to help decimate on Friday; we hadn't gone up against any Merchants or any ABB people directly, but I couldn't be certain that those two groups of psychologically unstable individuals wouldn't find some way to blame my team for what happened to their members. As far as I knew, my identity hadn't been compromised, but as I made my way into Winslow with a sling around my left arm, I felt very conscious of the news footage featuring Alabaster shooting me in that particular limb. I didn't expect skinheads or drug addicts to have particularly great logical skills, but it would be all too easy for someone to connect the injury I was showing to what had happened to Gnaw on Friday; I considered for a moment just ditching the sling, but opted to just lie if anybody asked and say that I had fallen off a ladder, since nobody could see what was under the sling, anyways. I got a few looks from people as I made my way towards Mr. Veder's first period class, but most of them seemed benign enough glances towards my injured arm and then immediately away again. The only set of eyes that made me feel particularly in danger were Eddie and James' as they stood to one side of the hallway, watching me but not acting in any way; I idly wondered where Brad was, and felt a bit guilty as a momentary hope about him having been injured - or worse - flashed through me.

    Once I had turned the corner away from where Eddie and James were, I saw someone standing in my way who, in some fashion, I considered even more troubling than the two Empire kids. "Danny. Talk to me. Please." Alan Barnes, my best friend - was he still, after I had neglected him for so long? - arms crossed as he blocked my way, the look on his face causing me nearly as much guilt as the expression my mom had worn on Friday night gave me.

    "I, uhm." I looked towards a nearby clock hanging high on a nearby wall, barred off to prevent vandalism from rowdy students. It told me that there was still a whopping twenty minutes until first period. I looked around, desperately trying to think of some excuse to give Alan. When I found none, I just kind of grinned awkwardly and asked with a raised eyebrow. "Do, uh. Do we have to?"

    Alan just looked more hurt at that, and I felt shame stab me in the heart as I watched his face contort. "Yes, Danny. We do. Or, at least, I think that we do. We haven't... You haven't... Danny, Christ, do you hate me now or something?! It's been months since we've talked for more than thirty seconds!"

    That was, of course, because I didn't want Alan to get caught up in what Eddie and his friends were doing to me, and then doubly because I didn't want him to get caught up in the fact that I have powers, and now triply because I didn't want him to get caught up in the fact that I was now the supervillain known as Gnaw, associated with Coil's crew. Of course I didn't hate Alan. How could I ever possibly hate him? He was my best friend, had been since we were in diapers, when our moms didn't hate each other yet. I wasn't talking to him because I didn't want to put him in danger, but I couldn't explain that to him without putting him in danger. What was I even supposed to do?

    The expression on my best friend's face made the decision for me. Sighing, with a drooping of my one good shoulder, I shook my head and acquiesced. "Alright. We can talk, Alan." My friend's face lit up with both disbelief and sheer happiness at my words; how long had he been struggling to get me to tell him why I had been acting like that to him for so long, to finally have it work? Silently, I hoped that Alan wouldn't be the one to hate me after I finished telling him everything that he wanted to know.
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2019
    dxdragon, Jarogh and Akuma-Heika like this.
  19. Index: Cast List
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    A Different Time, A Different Age

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    Cast List

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    Hebert Family:

    Daniel "Danny" Hebert, AKA Gnaw - 15 years old, male. Master, ability to control rodents and lagomorphs. Son of Taylor Hebert and Andrew Hebert, the latter deceased three years. Currently working under Coil. Sophomore student at Winslow High School.

    Taylor Hebert - 37 years old, female. Unpowered. Widow of Andrew Hebert, mother of Danny Hebert. English teacher at Winslow High School.

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    Coil's Crew: An organization formed by Coil to effect his plans at ridding the Docks of the street gangs and taking the area over for himself. Villains.

    Thomas Calvert, AKA Coil - 18 years old, male. Thinker, ability to split timelines and choose the one he prefers. In a relationship with Blake.

    Blake Spinner, AKA Circus - 17 years old, androgynous. Grab bag cape, featuring hammer space, enhanced reflexes, minor pyrokinesis, and more. In a relationship with Thomas.

    Trevor Medina, AKA Chariot - 32 years old, male. Mobility/transportation Tinker.

    Trainwreck - ??? years old, male. Monstrous cape with amnesia, scrap/improvisation Tinker.

    Ezekiel "Zeke" King, AKA Barker - 15 years old, male. Shaker/Blaster, generates gas with every vocal noise he makes, which he can detonate for a variety of effects. Best friends with Brad.

    Bradley "Brad" Waters, AKA Biter - 16 years old, male. Changer/Brute, can enlarge any part of his body to a gargantuan but still limited degree. Best friends with Zeke.

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    Empire Eighty-Eight: A white supremacist gang that has reigned supreme in the Docks since the ousting of the Teeth fifteen years ago and the forming of agreements with the Undersiders and the Travelers. Villains.

    Richard Anders, AKA Allfather - Deceased, 44 years old at death. Killed by Butcher of the Teeth during a concerted effort by the other gangs of Brockton Bay to drive the Teeth out. Shaker, could freely generate blades in his environment. Founder of Empire Eighty Eight, and patriarch of the Anders family; father to Theodore Anders and Aster Anders.

    Theodore Anders, AKA Steinn - 38 years old, male. Shaker, capable of placing hands or feet into a material and causing massive simulacrums of his body parts to appear in any nearby object that is of an identical material; brick to brick, steel to steel, et cetera. Leader of the Empire following his father's death fifteen years ago. Brother of Aster Anders. Married to Evelyn Anders (nee Herren). Father of Maximilian Anders and Morgana Anders. Chose his cape name as a small act of rebellion against the ideology of his family.

    Evelyn Anders, AKA Rune - 36 years old, female. Striker, capable of imparting telekinetic energy to objects so that she can control them freely. Married to Theodore Anders. Mother of Maximilian Anders and Morgana Anders.

    Justin Porter, AKA Crusader - 37 years old, male. Master, capable of generating ghostly clones of himself and freely manipulating them. Lieutenant for the Empire. Currently imprisoned.

    Jeremy Fallow, AKA Alabaster - 29 years old, male. Breaker, can repeatedly revert his body back to 4.3 seconds in the past. Monstrous cape, with pale skin and pure white eyes. Lieutenant for the Empire. Currently imprisoned.

    Melody Jurist, AKA Cricket - 28 years old, female. Thinker, Shaker, capable of generating and manipulating acoustics whilst simultaneously having superhuman reflexes. Lieutenant for the Empire. Currently imprisoned.

    Maximilian "Max" Anders - 17 years old, male. Unpowered, much to his shame. Son of Theodore Anders and Evelyn Anders, brother to Morgana Anders. Junior at Winslow High School, and secret leader of the Empire Eighty Eight youth at the same.

    Morgana Anders, AKA Iron Rain - 16 years old, female. Shaker, much like her grandfather, can generate metal objects in the air and use ferrokinesis to manipulate them. Daughter of Theodore Anders and Evelyn Anders, sister to Max Anders. Sophomore at Winslow High School. Currently imprisoned.

    Edward "Eddie" Vickers, AKA Victor - 17 years old, male. Thinker, skill thief. Junior at Winslow High School, main harasser of Danny Hebert.

    Bradley "Brad" Meadows, AKA Hookwolf - 18 years old, male. Changer/Brute, can transform himself into a mass of blades and metal objects. Senior at Winslow High School, physical abuser of Danny Hebert. Currently imprisoned.

    James Fliescher, AKA Krieg - 16 years old, male. Breaker (Brute/Shaker), capable of manipulating kinetic energies, especially close to his body. Junior at Winslow High School, supporting harasser of Danny Hebert.

    William "Billy" Lions, AKA Stormtiger - 15 years old, male. Shaker/Blaster, aerokinetic most known for sending waves of high powered air at his enemies. Sophomore at Winslow High School.

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    Azn Bad Boys: A start-up gang formed by Lung and consisting mostly of Asian youths; hopes to take territory from the Empire and establish their own rule over the Docks. Villains.

    Kenta Yukinori, AKA Lung - 17 years old, male. Changer (Brute/Blaster), capable of turning himself into what is, for all intents and purposes, a gigantic dragon-man capable of breathing fire and shredding cars with his claws. Leader of the ABB. Junior at Winslow High School.

    Daikichi Shirogane, AKA Oni Lee - 18 years old, male. Master/Mover, capable of teleporting himself and leaving a temporary clone behind that acts autonomously before disintegrating several seconds later. Lieutenant of the ABB. Senior at Winslow High School.

    Robin Rivers, AKA Bakuda - 15 years old, female. Bomb Tinker, capable of making explosives causing a wide variety of effects. Lieutenant of the ABB. Sophomore at Winslow High School.

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    The Merchants: A start-up gang formed by Skidmark and consisting mostly of young drug addicts; hopes to take territory from the Empire and seize control of the Docks' drug trade. Villains.

    Adam Mustain, AKA Skidmark - 17 years old, male. Shaker (Mover), capable of generating fields on any solid surface that cause an increase and/or change in velocity to anybody touched by the field. Leader of the Merchants. Junior at Winslow High School. Boyfriend of Sherrel. Currently imprisoned.

    Sherrel Bailey, AKA Squealer - 16 years old, female. Vehicular Tinker, capable of creating monstrous forms of transportation, up to and including landships. Lieutenant of the Merchants. Junior at Winslow High School. Girlfriend of Adam.

    Frank Bowyer, AKA Mush - 18 years old, male. Changer, capable of attaching loose physical matter to his body and forming himself into an amalgamation of objects. Lieutenant of the Merchants. Senior at Winslow High School. Currently imprisoned.

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    New Wave: An independent hero group operating in Brockton Bay, formerly known as the Brockton Bay Brigade. Prides themselves on having no division between their civilian and cape identities. Consisting solely of the Stansfield and Mason families.

    Victoria Stansfield, AKA Liberty Lady - 37 years old, female. Generalized Brute and Mover powers, including flight, super strength, as well as minor Master emotional manipulation. De facto leader of New Wave. Wife of Dean Stansfield, mother to Mark, Carol, and adoptively so to Philip. Sister to Crystal Mason and Eric Morgan.

    Mark Stansfield, AKA Flashbang - 16 years old, male. Blaster, capable of generating orbs of light that can detonate with concussive or explosive force. Son of Victoria and Dean Stansfield, brother to Carol and adoptively so to Philip. Junior at Arcadia High School.

    Carol Stansfield, AKA Brandish - 15 years old, female. Striker/breaker, capable of generating hardlight weapons that can shear through most material with ease. Daughter of Victoria and Dean Stansfield, sister to Mark and adoptively so to Philip. Doesn't see Philip as a real brother to her, though. Sophomore at Arcadia High School.

    Philip Stansfield, AKA Fracture - 15 years old, male. Shaker, capable of generating additional bone mass from his body, and manipulating the skeletal parts so long as they are still attached to him; feels pain from these growths as normally, which he has been trying to get past. Adoptive son of Victoria and Dean Stansfield, adoptive brother of Carol and Mark. Carol doesn't see him as a real brother. Biological son of Amelia Claire Lavere. Sophomore at Arcadia High School.

    Crystal Mason, AKA Laserdream - 36 years old, female. Mover/Shaker/Blaster, capable of flying, generating forcefields, and shooting laserbeams. Wife of Robert Mason, mother of Neil, Sarah, and Mike. Sister to Victoria Stansfield and Eric Morgan.

    Robert Mason, AKA Browbeat - 37 years old, male. Bruter/Striker (Changer), capable of short-range telekinesis and self-affecting biokinesis. Husband of Crystal Mason, father of Neil, Sarah, and Mike. Brother-in-law to Victoria Stansfield and Eric Morgan.

    Neil Mason, AKA Power Boy - 15 years old, male. Brute/Breaker, capable of short-range electrokinesis. Son of Crystal and Robert Mason, brother to Mike and Sarah.

    Sarah Mason, AKA Photon Girl - 14 years old, female. Mover/Shaker/Blaster, much like her mother and uncle, but with a greater balance between laser beams and shields. Son of Crystal and Robert Mason, sister to Neil and Mike.

    Michael "Mike" Mason, AKA Lightstar - 13 years old, male. Blaster, capable of creating slow-moving projectiles that he can detonate at will. Son of Crystal and Robert Mason, brother to Neil and Sarah.

    Eric Morgan, AKA Shielder - 35 years old, male. Mover/Shaker/Blaster, much like his sister Crystal and niece Sarah, but with a greater focus on shields rather than on lasers. Widower of Jessica Morgan.

    Jessica Morgan, AKA Fleur - Deceased. 29 years old at death. Killed by an Empire soldier in her civilian identity. Blaster capable of generating orbs that could be detonated or grown for various effects. Wife of Eric Morgan during life.

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    Protectorate: The official hero group operating in Brockton Bay under the jurisdiction of the Parahuman Response Team.

    Carlos Artigas, AKA Aegis - 36 years old, male. Generalized Brute and Mover powers, including regeneration, super strength, and flight. Captain of the Brockton Bay Protectorate.

    Chris Michaels, AKA Victory Man - 35 years old, male. Adaptability/modularity Tinker, capable of creating devices that can change functionality on the go. Lieutenant of the Brockton Bay Protectorate (much to his consternation).

    Dean Stansfield, AKA Gallant - 38 years old, male. Blaster/Master, capable of generating orbs that can cause targets to experience certain emotions, whilst also having kinetic force behind them. Turned down Captaincy of the Protectorate in order to prevent conflict of interest with New Wave. Husband of Victoria Stansfield, father to Mark, Carol, and adoptively so to Philip. Brother-in-law to Crystal Mason and Eric Morgan.

    Dennis Archer, AKA Clockblocker - 32 years old, male. Striker, capable of freezing any thing or person he touches from thirty seconds to ten minutes. Currently single, ladies.

    Missy Biron, AKA Vista - 28 years old, female. Shaker, capable of changing distances and angles in space, amongst other effects.

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    Wards: The official junior hero group operating in Brockton Bay, also under the jurisdiction of the PRT.

    Colin Wallis, AKA Squire - 17 years old, male. Miniaturization tinker, capable of fitting numerous objects into a small tool. Captain of the Brockton Bay Wards, senior at Arcadia High School.

    Hannah Smith, AKA Miss Militia - 17 years old, female. Blaster, possessing a green, glowing, vibrating object that she can turn into any weapon she's capable of conceptualizing. Lieutenant of the Brockton Bay Wards, junior at Arcadia High School.

    Shawn Rogers, AKA Dauntless - 16 years old, male. Striker (Trump), capable of imbuing an object with energy every few days in order to make it permanently "better" in some way. Sophomore at Arcadia High School.

    Ethan Thomas, AKA Prancer. 16 years old, male. Striker/Breaker, capable of manipulating kinetic energy of himself and things he touches. Probationary member of the Brockton Bay Wards, after having been apprehended following a string of high-profile robberies in Downtown Brockton. Sophomore at Arcadia High School.

    Robin Swoyer, AKA Velocity. 15 years old, male. Breaker (Mover), capable of reducing the effect that time, space, and physics work on him, and the way that he works on them, in return. Freshman at Arcadia High School.

    Sayid el-Maghrebi, AKA Sere. 14 years old, male. Shaker, capable of drawing in moisture from his surrounding environment, including violating the Manton Effect by drawing moisture from his enemies. Relatively new probationary member of the Brockton Bay Wards, after having accidentally killed several people during his trigger. Third year at Arcadia Middle School.

    Eleanor "Ellie" Farmer, AKA Dovetail. 13 years old, female. Mover/Shaker, capable of flight and creating forcefields in her wake. Relatively new member of the Wards. Second year at Arcadia Middle School.

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    Independents: Various non-aligned capes in and around Brockton Bay.

    Sabah Hasim, AKA Parian. 38 years old, female. Master/Shaker, capable of manipulating lightweight and/or porous materials in her vicinity with ease, which she often uses to construct large, durable, and strong stuffed animals. Works as a civilian contractor for retail stores and other businesses.
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: Nibble
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

    Joined:
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    Chapter 12: Nibble

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    I had ended up giving Alan the cliff notes version of what had happened to me over the past few months; twenty minutes - although long enough that I couldn't rush to class as an excuse to get away from him - was too short to give him all the nitty gritty details. We were tucked away in a remote stairwell, and I was using some smaller mice to keep a lookout for anyone that might have ended up wandering that way.

    "Alright, so." Alan, God bless his soul, had been patiently listening to every word I said without stopping or interrupting me, even though I could tell that he had clearly wanted to at several points. "Just to make sure I'm clear." He looked at me for permission to continue, and I nodded. "You're a parahuman." Another nod from me, confirming. "You control rodents and stuff." I had rat climb up to my uninjured shoulder to demonstrate. "...okay, Danny, before I keep going, I need to say this." Alan looked me straight in the eye, dead serious. "It's creepy. Like, seriously fucking creepy." I frowned at my friend's words, and for a moment I thought that I had somehow managed to make the rat on my shoulder make that saddened expression, as well; reluctantly, I sent the critter down and back to to the hole in the wall that it had come from. Alan sighed as he watched the rat go, pinching the bridge of his nose, but also continued speaking soon after. "Sorry, Danny. I... That was probably rude, or something. I just didn't want to blow smoke up your ass and say that I thought it was super cute or cool or whatever." That was one of the things I liked most about Alan; he was always straightforward and to the point about everything, joking that he was trying to be as un-lawyer-like as possible, so that he wouldn't turn out like his dad.

    "So, you're a parahuman, you control rodents, and... You're a villain. Gnaw, specifically." I gulped, and nodded once at what Alan was saying, before my friend spoke up again. "Okay. Okay, that? My best friend being a supervillain? I think I can deal with that much. I think. Hell, I can even deal with the fact that you got shot in the God damn arm and are acting like it's no big deal." I gingerly lifted the limb in question in its sling, looking at it with a frown on my face, while Alan furrowed his brows and began to pace. I jumped for a moment as I saw someone begin to pass in front of the vision of one of my mice; thankfully, the person had passed out of earshot by the time that Alan continued speaking. "You want to know what I can't deal with, Danny?" He stepped up close to me, so that he could speak low and still be heard. "The fact that my best fucking friend didn't want to tell me about any of it. Especially the bullying, Danny!" Alan flung his arms wide, scoffing in disbelief. "And don't give me that bullshit about how you didn't want to get me involved, Danny, or about how you didn't want me to get hurt, or whatever else other nonsense you thought up in that too-smart head of yours!" My friend poked me a bit harder than he needed to in the side of my skull, shaking his head in disappointment. "I'm your best friend, Danny. I've been your best friend since we were born, God damnit!" Alan just looked sad, then, as he placed a hand on my shoulder. "That's what best friends are for. To help each other out. I, shit, I mean, as much as I hate it, my dad's a lawyer, yeah? He could've done something about Eddie and the others, even if the school wasn't going to."

    I shook my head, gently placing my hand on Alan's wrist and moving his arm away from me. What was scaring me wasn't just that my best friend was angry at me, but that Alan Barnes, the kid that I always knew to be calm, collected and reasonable was angry. Alan was stubborn like how I was, but he wasn't angry, either; being stubborn and angry was my niche, after all. "Alan, come on. You've seen Brad get hauled away in cuffs just to come back the next week." My friend frowned, but didn't say anything; he had seen that, and he knew exactly what it meant that those sort of things happened. "Your dad could be the best God damned lawyer in all of Brockton - I mean, not saying that he's not up there, yeah, but anyways, uh. Yeah, he could be the best lawyer, present the best case, everything, but the Empire would still get their kids out with bribes or with blackmail or whatever else it is they use." Alan's face mixed together a sense of anger and a sense of being crestfallen; that wasn't the first time we had talked about stuff like that, about how people in the Empire consistently escaped justice because of how powerful the gang was in the Docks. One of the other things I liked about Alan - unlike Kurt and Lacey, the traitors - was that he refused to compromise on his principals for the sake of safety, for money, or for some other kind of benefit, just like how I refused to do so. "So, Alan. Seriously. I appreciate it. I really, really do. But you understand why I couldn't have asked for your help, yeah?"

    Alan punched the cheap plaster wall next to us so hard that I was worried he would either break his fist, alert somebody nearby, or both. "No, Danny. You could have asked for my help. You just didn't, even though you could." I saw tears in my friend's eyes, and two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously. The first thought was that I couldn't remember the last time I saw Alan Barnes crying. The second thought was that I had made two people I deeply cared about that sad in the past week. Once more, the intense urge to curl up into a ball and die overcame me. "Maybe you're right, Danny. Maybe I couldn't have done anything meaningful. Maybe the fucking Empire-" Alan punched the wall again, and I saw the tiniest bit of blood left where the plaster had begun to crack. "-is untouchable, even by people like my dad. But God damnit, Danny." He looked over at me with grit teeth and a trickle of moisture falling down one cheek. "I could have at least like, given you a fucking shoulder to cry on, or a hug, or something, Danny. Anything. I'm your best friend, and I want to help you, even if it's in the tiniest, most insignificant of ways." I felt my heart break as I looked at Alan, words trying and failing to form in my mouth.

    Then, the five minute warning bell for first period rang. I picked up my backpack off the ground with my good hand, before standing there for a few moments searching for something to say. "I've... Gotta get to class now, Alan." I rubbed the back of my head, fingers brushing against my messy brown hair. I lifted a limp, lame finger up to point at my friend's reddened, scraped fist. "You should... Maybe get that taken care of?" I didn't know why it came out as a question, and why the smile I tried to put on my face made itself seem so uncertain, as well. With a small, weak wave, I turned to head to Mister Veder's room.

    "Danny." Alan's voice, hard, stopped me in my tracks and forced me to look back towards him. "We're talking about this again at lunch. The bench where we used to sit." His eyes narrowed in frustration at me, and I could see the venom building on his tongue. "You do remember the bench, right? Where you and your best friend used to eat lunch together?" Alan was trying to hurt me, and he succeeded. If I had felt like trash a minute before that point, I felt like sewage waste right then.

    I nodded, my heart and stomach both heavy from the feelings inside of me. "Yeah. I do. I'll... I'll be there, Alan." My friend didn't bother to stop me as I continued towards my first period class, but the whole way there, my mind was preoccupied with the question as to whether I was supremely blessed or supremely cursed to have two people in my life like Alan and my mom; two people who had known me all my life, who loved me with all their hearts, who were willing to use all their power to help me, and who would just not leave me alone, no matter what I did to push and drive them away. I sighed loudly as I walked, the motion powerful enough that I felt as if every atom of oxygen in my body had been expelled with it.

    ----------

    The bench Alan had mentioned was in a small outdoors enclosure in the dead center of the main Winslow building. The architects and city planners had apparently felt that it was necessary for kids to be able to have a "natural experience" during breaks and lunch, but it was mostly used by kids to sneak off for cigarettes or weed; the bench was located in a relatively isolated spot that the two of us had found during freshman year that managed to avoid most of the smoke coming from students doing those sort of things. Alan and I had spent the first ten or fifteen minutes of our lunch hour eating in silence - a fairly awkward endeavor for me still, with my one injured arm - and I was just finishing off the last bit of some fruit juice when my friend finally spoke up. Idly looking at the bandage on the fist he had injured that morning, Alan intoned in a deadpan: "Introduce me to Coil."

    I had always thought that the trope of people spitting our their drinks was an exaggeration, that it never actually happened like that. As fruit juice spilled out of both my mouth and my nose after hearing that, I realized that I had been mistaken. Grabbing my balled up napkin to quickly wipe away at my face, I turned to Alan with my eyes as wide as I could make them. I felt like I had been dumbfounded more times in the past week than I had been over the rest of my life before that, and yet somehow, I still couldn't manage to find any proper words to respond to what Alan had said. "Wh... Wha?"

    My friend looked across the table at me and spoke as if he was suggesting we go camping together. "Like I said, introduce me to Coil. If you're going to be doing this, Danny, I'm going to be doing it right there with you." I just blinked at him, still desperately trying to process what he was saying. "Look, alright, I get it. I don't have powers like everyone else there does. But I can like..." Alan bobbed his head around as he wracked his brain, clearly trying to think up something that a normal person like him could do for a gang of supervillains. "Help strategize?"

    I shook my head slowly, my mouth still ajar. "No. I mean, uhm. It's just, Coil's got that pretty down? The rest of the team contributes ideas, but he already does a lot of the strategies himself."

    Alan smirked at me meaningfully. "Strategies like kidnapping heroes to draw them into a gang war?"

    I blushed at that, as everyone in Coil's crew had unanimously agreed that it had been a pretty fucking stupid plan, when I suddenly remembered something. "Wait, Alan! Your mom, your dad, are they-?!" I hadn't even bothered to check up on Alan in the aftermath of the gang war! What kind of best friend could I call myself when I couldn't even do that?

    Alan gave me a calming motion with his hands. "Danny. Danny. It's fine. We're fine. I'm fine, my mom and dad are fine, our house is fine. We heard some of Bakuda's bombs going off nearby, and I know that some other people close to us weren't so lucky, but we didn't get anything except some shaken nerves. Well, and a road blocked off by gigantic asphalt fists, but that's not too big of a deal compared to everything else." I nodded, a hand over my heart as I tried to calm myself down while Alan continued. He scrunched his eyebrows up a little bit as he thought for a few seconds before speaking up again. "We... Maybe we wouldn't have been that lucky if it hadn't been for you and New Wave, though? I know Liberty Lady said that they were going to go help, anyways, but you still... You and Coil and the rest of your guys fought to keep the Docks safe. You captured like, half a dozen Empire capes, all by yourselves. I saw how Barker and Circus got hit by Steinn, too, are they...?" Alan raised an eyebrow in question.

    "They're okay, yeah. Barker's mostly recovered, from my understanding, but Circus still needs some time in bed." Over the past week, I had finally reached the point where I wasn't slipping and mixing up my friends' cape and civilian names, like I had been at first for a few days. "And me, well..." I grinned a little sheepishly, moving my arm a tiny bit and wincing in the process. "I should be fine. Not like I use my hand or anything for my power, after all." Alan reached over and flicked me in the forehead, causing me to wince and reach my hand up to rub the spot. "Hey! What the hell was that for, Alan?!"

    My friend just snorted before shaking his head. "For being a dweeb, you dweeb." That title was something that Alan and I used to call each other all the time, our little "pet" name for each other when we wanted to tease our best friend. It wasn't as if we never called other people dweebs, or as if other people never called us dweebs, but Alan and I using the term between just the two of us carried a certain level of intimacy that it didn't when we used it with other people.

    "You're the dweeb, you dweeb!" I reached a hand across the table to try and flick Alan in the forehead, but he dodged out of the way expertly since I was constrained by my arm sling. It was... It was the kind of stuff that we used to do, before Eddie and his thugs started harassing me, and made me have to... Made me want to avoid Alan.

    My friend laughed at me, as he sat himself back down on the table. "I might be a dweeb, but you're the dweeb that got shot in the arm trying to keep people in the Docks safe, Danny." He smiled sadly at me, lowering his face in thought. "I... I remember Danny. When your dad was still alive." My breath hitched a moment, before Alan continued. "Uncle Andrew, he always talked about how he wanted to fix the Docks, get the Dockworkers their jobs back, get the ferry running again. Do you... Do you remember what you always used to say, Danny?" I thought I saw moisture appearing in Alan's eyes again, and I felt renewed guilt stab at my heart. "You always used to say 'When I grow up, I'm going to help you, dad! I'm going to help you fix the docks, get their jobs back, and get the ferry running!' Do you remember that, Danny?"

    I realized that the moisture wasn't in Alan's eyes, but was rather in mine; I nodded, sniffing a bit as tears ran down my cheek. "Yeah. Yeah, I remember saying that, Alan. I remember saying all of that."

    Alan reached across the table as his grin widened a little bit, grabbing my hand and squeezing it gently. "That's why I know they're wrong when they say you're a villain, Danny. Well, you might be classified as one, or whatever, but you're not a bad person, Danny. You're not evil. You're my best friend, Gnaw or Danny or otherwise, and I know that you only want to do what's right. You're a hero, Danny Hebert, even if you might be kind of stupid or kind of bad at it some times."

    I chuckled through my crying, and Alan actually look offended for a moment, thinking that I was laughing at him. Shaking my head, I explained. "No, uhm, sorry, I didn't mean to like, laugh at you like that. It's uhm..." I smiled a little bit, licking my lips and tasting salty tears. "I kind of said the exact same thing to Coil on Friday? After the uhm, bank robbery, and the fight, and stuff, and he said, uhh... What was it he said?" I looked off for a moment, recalling his exact words, before reciting it to my friend. "Alan? That was the cheesiest shit that I have ever fucking heard."

    I burst out laughing, while Alan put on a faux-angry expression as he lifted up his right hand in a punching motion. "Can it, Danny, or I'm going to hit you in your bad arm!" A moment later, though, Alan started laughing along with me.

    "C... Careful, Alan, or I'll..." I was interrupted by a giggle fit. "Send a mouse down your pants, to..."

    Alan's eyes went wide in horror. "You wouldn't, Danny. You fucking wouldn't." I waggled my eyebrows at him suggestively, and the laughing managed to alleviate the mood enough that I could calm down and turn off my waterworks. As I wiped away my tears and my snot, Alan continued. "But seriously, Danny, like. Don't 'villains' or whatever have like, unpowered henchmen? Henchpeople? Whatever the appropriate word is?" I snorted a bit, and Alan frowned as he continued. "I can be like, your henchman, Danny. Or Coil's henchman, whatever. As long as I get to support you in this. I'll scrub toilets, I'll cook meals, I'll sweep and mop, like, whatever. I don't care what it is, if you or Coil want me to do it, I'll do it." He stopped for a moment, scrunching his eyebrows and considering. "...I mean, anything not criminal anyways. I'm uhh... You wouldn't make me like, shoot anybody, would you, Danny?"

    I actually had to think on that one for a moment, and felt kind of bad that I even had to consider whether or not I would have my best friend shoot another human being. After a few moments, though, I slowly, somewhat uncertainly shook my head. "I... You probably wouldn't have to shoot anybody, no, Alan. But like..." I grumbled a little bit as I thought some more. "I mean, you might not necessarily be safe, either? Even if you just stay in the hideout? Like, the Empire could bust in, and you could get hurt, or even worse..." I saw a flash of reconsideration cross Alan's face, but he simply shook his head. "Or like, the PRT could drop by, and arrest you for like, associating with a supervillain, or something? I don't know what the exact crime would be."

    Alan spoke up helpfully. "Mundane accessory to parahuman criminality."

    I nodded, momentarily appreciative that Alan's dad was a lawyer. "Yeah. They'd bring you in for mundane accessory to parahuman criminality. So, like... I mean, I already know the answer to this question, but I have to ask it anyway. Are you okay with getting hurt or arrested, Alan?" In response, my friend reached across the table and hit me in my left, still injured arm. "Ow! Shit! What the fuck, Alan?!"

    Alan just looked at me with a derisive expression, shook his head, and repeated my words in a mocking tone. "'Are you okay with getting hurt or arrested, Alan?' Danny. Seriously. Look at yourself. You got shot in the arm. You nearly got hauled off by Liberty Lady and her kids, and your little outburst at her almost turned that nearly into a did, you dweeb!"

    My mouth dropped open for a moment. My outburst? "Wait. Hold on. There's, uhm. There's footage of me ranting at Liberty Lady?" I hadn't seen it for myself on any news or social media websites, but that didn't mean it wasn't out there.

    Alan cleared his throat, and spoke dramatically. "'Almost just like the Empire!'" My cheeks went fiery red in an instant, and I placed my face down on the table in shame. "Dweeb. You compared New Wave and Liberty Lady to supervillain Neo Nazis. You dweeb." I groaned painfully as everything I said on Friday came back to me, again, for what must have been the twentieth time since I spoke to the heroine in question. I just hadn't expected that the whole internet to be aware of the dumb shit that Gnaw had told one of the premier heroes of Brockton Bay. "You know, Danny. When I first watched that video, the first thing I thought was 'Wow, that sounds like something Danny would say.' And boy was I right, huh?" I felt his hand reach across to ruffle my hair, and I grumbled again in annoyance. "But in case you were wondering, Danny. That's a yes. I am okay with the possibility of getting hurt or arrested, because you, Danny Hebert, my best friend, are taking that risk, so I'm going to take that risk right alongside you. Understood?"

    I lifted my head up to look at Alan again, and I could see the determination in his eyes. Both my mom and Aunt Emma had said more than once that maybe the reason Alan and I were such good friends was because we were also kindred souls like this. I never gave up. He never gave up. Aunt Emma once commented that she knew that I got my pig-headed stubbornness from my mom, but that she had no idea where Alan got his from; ever so often, she blamed it on her son spending too much proximity to her former best friend, saying that Taylor Hebert had been rubbing off on Alan. I didn't know the answers to questions like those, but I did know that I wasn't going to be able to convince Alan otherwise.

    "Alright." Alan smirked, and I momentarily thought that he looked just like a lawyer, in spite of all the various things that he had to say about that particular profession. "Alright. I'll talk to Coil. I'll ask him. But I can't promise anything, okay, Alan? Coil is the boss. I just work for him. I don't get to make like, hiring or HR decisions or whatever, alright?"

    It seemed like Alan was just content to have won this argument, from the way he was smiling. Okay, maybe there were some things I didn't like about my best friend, and not even in an endearing sort of way; that sort of particular, annoying grin was one of them. "Alright, Danny. I understand." He pointed a finger in my direction. "But I'll know if you're lying to me about whether or not you actually talked to him, okay? My dad is a lawyer."

    I sighed, as in that moment, I was all, all too aware that Alan Barnes' father was indeed a lawyer. "Okay. I've got it. Won't lie to you, Alan." I looked over towards where a few Empire kids were smoking some cigarettes, the tobacco smell vaguely reaching us. "Alright. Well. How's your dad doing? Any interesting cases he tell you about, recently?"

    "Nah, not much... Wait, actually, yeah, there was one, don't know if I told you about this one yet..." As Alan started telling me the story, I allowed myself to ignore everything else about where I was in life at that point. I didn't worry about parahumans, or heroes, or villains, or Empire, or New Wave, or anything else. I was just glad to be having lunch with and talking to my best friend.

    ----------

    "Fourteen hundred dollars, Danny. There you go." I counted through the bills that Thomas had placed onto his office desk, and found the amount he had stated contained in the stack of cash. Satisfied, I tucked the money into my utility belt, in a new, fancy compartment that I had fitted that would allow me to keep relatively small amounts of cash secure.

    In the middle of everything else, I had forgotten to receive my share of the petty cash we had taken during the "bank robbery"; the act of stealing that money from the tellers' bins was meant to just make our heist seem like a "real" robbery, but since we had already taken it, well... Banks had insurance for that kind of stuff, right? So it wouldn't be too big of a deal for us to keep it, I didn't think. Besides, fourteen hundred dollars could go a long way, could help fix my mom's car, get us a new TV, or... "Hey, Thomas." My boss looked up at me raising his eyebrows in acknowledgement. "Do you know anybody that like... Works on costumes?" I was in civilian clothes, so I couldn't point out how absolutely stupid my rat-emblem body suit looked; many of the posters on PHO and elsewhere had agreed with my assessment about how dumb it was. "I just... Really need something better than what I have."

    Thomas smiled a little bit, but did me the favor of not voicing his agreement on how stupid my outfit looked. "I know somebody, yes. Won't just make you a suit that looks better, either, but can get you high quality, reinforced fabric, lightweight armor plates, the works." He was wearing the body portion of his suit, and he tapped one shoulder that made a dull sound as he did so; leather padding? "They're the person that did this get-up for me. It... Won't be only fourteen hundred dollars, though."

    I shook my head before responding. "Yeah, I figured. I still have most of that twenty thousand from a week ago. I wanted to save it to spend on equipment, and stuff, and I figure this is one of the better things I could drop that cash on."

    Thomas nodded, writing something down on a sticky note and attaching it to his laptop. "I'll get into contact with them, let them know that you want a make-over. I can probably make it happen in the next few days. Will you be available?" I nodded; the crew had agreed to let Blake completely recover so that we were at full strength, but also that we would go out to hit the Empire while half of their capes were down and out once Blake was back on their feet. Until then, we were resting, recuperating, planning, Tinkering, and training whenever we could. Thomas wanted to break the Empire with this next offensive - or at least as much as we could - but he was willing to wait for the perfect time, as well. Either that, or he was letting his feelings for Blake get in the way of his good judgment, but I wasn't about to doubt my boss either way. I stayed in the seat across from Thomas as he clacked on his laptop's keyboard and occasionally wrote something down with a pen. As I shifted uncomfortably and looked around the room nervously, he gave me a concerned look and asked: "Did you need anything else, Danny? ...is everything okay?"

    I fidgeted a bit more, gritting my teeth, before sighing and saying what I had originally come there to say. "I. Uhh. I have someone that wants to join us."

    Thomas immediately went into Coil mode, folding his hands on the table and looking at me with a completely neutral expression. "Do go on, Danny." I did consider Thomas my friend, but he also reminded me so much some times of the snake that emblazoned his outfit, and I felt like I was at risk of getting bit if I said the wrong thing.

    "He's, uhm. He's my best friend. I've known him since I was in diapers, literally. Our moms are, or used to be best friends, so we grew up together. I trust him completely." I swallowed and nodded, as confident in that statement as I ever had been in anything. "He, uhm. I kind of told him that I was a cape." I could see Coil proverbially bare his fangs. "But I didn't tell him anything that he couldn't have already known from the news or otherwise figured out." I raised my one good hand defensively, and Thomas backed down. "I had been keeping him out of the loop for months now, and I had been kind of keeping my distance from him so that he wouldn't get tangled up in all of this stuff, and that was kind of hurting him and our friendship a lot, so..." I used that same hand to rub the back of my head, grumbling a bit as I thought. "He knows I work with you, and because he wants to help me out, he wants to help you out. He doesn't have any powers, but he said he'd do whatever you ask of him, so long as it's not criminal. He can keep the place clean, cook meals, all of that janitorial and house work stuff. Anything, really."

    Coil stared at me in silence long enough - I could barely tell that he was even breathing - that I worried that he might have had a heart attack and died, frozen in place. Finally, he spoke up. "Alright. I trust you, Danny, and I trust that you trust your friend." He leaned over the table, staring right through me. "But you do understand that I can't be so trusting of people that I haven't met, yes? For all that I know - and for all that you know, too, Danny - this friend of yours could easily have been compromised by those PRT bastards. Maybe some Master in their employ, or even a Stranger. There's a Ward in Las Vegas that can make himself look like other people, you know?"

    "No! That's... That was definitely Alan I spoke to today. I know that capes can do a lot of really weird things, but..." I remembered the way he called me 'dweeb', the exact intonation, everything. "Maybe he's been Mastered, but he definitely isn't some Stranger in disguise. I swear that on my life, Thomas. If he is a Stranger, then I will accept whatever consequences you want to drop on me, boss."

    Coil took a dozen long, aching seconds to stare at me again. "Alright. But I will see him outside of this safe house to examine and question him on my own, because the 'heroes' af the PRT are not above Mastering somebody's best friend in order to infiltrate a villainous organization. Do you understand, Danny?" I gave him a single nod. "I need a verbal answer from you this time, Danny. I am not playing around with this."

    The man speaking to me at that moment was Coil, and nobody but Coil, and I answered him as such. "I understand, Coil."

    "Good. You may go now." With that, he returned to his work on his computer. But I sat there, still. There had been something on my mind ever since I had met Coil, and now it was coming to a head, after some things he had said during the conversation. The old saying went that curiosity killed the cat, and I was now wondering if that cat was about to be killed by a serpent. "Yes, Danny?" Thomas looked up at me, impatiently. "What is it?"

    "Thomas." My voice was neutral, flat. "Why do you hate the PRT so much? I mean, hate them, too, but you... There's something there that isn't just disdain at how they ignore the Docks so much." I saw the pit of vipers, and I jumped in. "What happened, Thomas?"

    I had begun to hate wall clocks, with the way that they rung out in a silent room while I was getting stared down by somebody that I was horrendously, mortally afraid of. I had seen Coil's eyes look plenty dangerous in the week since I had met him, but I was now legitimately afraid that he might kill me. I had a mouse on his gun, just in case, but I was fairly certain that he knew that it was there. With something that was half a sigh, half a growl, and half a scream, Thomas leaned back in his chair, the seat squeaking as he did so. "Argh. Whatever. It's not like I have some secret identity or whatever to keep safe, anyways. It's not like the PRT or anybody else knowing this will hurt me at all. There's nothing this knowledge can be used for. Blake already knows, so does Trainwreck, so does Travis. You, Zeke, and Brad are the only ones that don't, and I may as well tell those two after we're done here." He leaned down low over the desk, placing his head in his hands for a moment to stabilize himself; he sighed once more before looking up at me with a slightly pained expression on his face. As he began to speak, I leaned in to listen closely.

    "Tell me, Danny. How much do you know about what happened at Ellisburg?"
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
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  21. Threadmarks: Interlude: Thomas Calvert
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Interlude: Thomas Calvert

    ----------------------------

    "It's okay, Em. We're gonna get out of here, okay? I'm gonna get you out of here. We'll be okay. Everything's gonna be okay, Em." How could he say that? He was only eight years old, Emily was seven, and they were surrounded by all of the things that Jamie had made. No, not Jamie, not anymore. He was calling himself "The Goblin Prince" at that point, from some stupid book that the stupid nerd had stupidly read. Stupid, stupid Jamie! Just because they didn't play with him, just because they pushed him around sometimes, just because they took his shoes, and just because...!

    Thomas and Emily were still alive by that point only by virtue of hiding in his daddy's old fallout shelter; the ex-Marine had built the thing by hand in the case of a nuclear war that had never come. It was actually kind of crappily built, with only one room, and Thomas worried that the ceiling was going to collapse on them every time one of Jamie's things walked on the ground above them, but it had kept them safe and that was all that mattered. The same, unfortunately, couldn't be said about either of their families. Thomas watched as his daddy failed and tried to shoot the monsters that Jamie was sending at their home; his daddy managed to stop a few of the smaller ones, but they just got back up and kept charging at them along with the bigger ones. Thomas then watched as the monsters tore his daddy and his mommy and his big sister apart; they put his family back together again after, but they were... Wrong. They weren't his daddy or his mommy or his big sister any more, so Thomas ran away, and found Emily. The same thing had happened to Emily's daddy and mommy and little brother, so Thomas took her and snuck down into the shelter. Thomas' daddy had put a lot of food and water in there, so Thomas knew he and Emily could stay alive for a while, if they had to.

    But it was scary. It was really, really scary. There was a clock in the shelter, and Thomas knew it had been a long time since they had started to hide, a lot of days, and it wasn't stopping. The monsters made really strange noises, and sometimes he heard a normal person screaming for a while. Thomas knew he had to be strong, though, he had to be a big boy, to keep Emily safe. His neighbor and best friend was sleeping up against him, but she was also crying, and calling for her daddy even as she slept; Thomas was running a hand through his hair while humming softly, like how his mommy used to do for him when he was sad, hoping it would help her. It didn't, of course. Every time Emily stopped crying, something else happened up above, something bad, something scary, and she started up again. Thomas wanted to be angry at her, but he couldn't be, because Thomas was scared, too. Thomas was so scared sometimes, he almost peed his pants. But no. Big boys didn't cry, and big boys didn't pee their pants, and Thomas would be a big boy, so he and Emily could get out alive.

    Then, there was a new noise. Thomas had heard a lot of new noises since the monsters showed up, but Thomas knew what that noise was, from his daddy, and from movies. Gunfire. People up on the ground were shooting guns. The monsters didn't shoot guns, or at least Thomas didn't think they did. He shook Emily awake, talking really fast. "Em! Em, wake up! There's people here! Normal people! They're here to save us!" Thomas didn't know that for sure, of course, but he had to believe it, and he had to make Emily believe it, too.

    "Tommy... Wait, really? Someone's here to save us?!" The look on his friend's face made Thomas feel happy, too, made him believe what he had made Emily believe even more. Yeah, there were people in Ellisburg, to save them.

    There were voices from above the shelter door, normal voices, even though Thomas couldn't understand them. The people knocked on the door, and Thomas started shouting. "We're... We're in here! We're normal! We're two kids! Our... Our families are... They're dead! We need help! Please!" There was more talking, and then Thomas heard the door to the shelter be torn off, like by some kind of...

    Superhero. Through where the door had been ripped off, Thomas could see a bunch of adults wearing black outfits and holding guns. More importantly than those boring old people, though, was a large man, his body all shiny and metal, staring down into the shelter. Adamantium. One of the Tri... Trium... One of the big three heroes! And he was here, in Ellisburg, to save him and Emily! "Get them out and evacuate them."

    One of the adults wearing black looked at Adamantium, and she looked angry when she talked. "With all due respect, sir, they could have been affected by the enemy. They look normal, but they could be ticking time bombs, and-"

    The metal hero put a hand up to stop the angry lady from talking. "We aren't just here to apprehend the target, captain. We are also here to search for and rescue survivors. Those two are children. They've been in a shelter. They're more than likely fine. If I'm wrong, then it's on my head, and I will accept responsibility for it."

    The mean woman spoke again, looking at Thomas like she was really mad. "It's on our heads if they turn into monsters and kill us all, sir." She turned to look at Adamantium, who stared at her like it was a contest. After a bit, the captain looked down at Thomas and Emily, before pointing to two other adults wearing black. "Sergeants, get down there and get those kids out. We'll be taking them back to the perimeter, and into secure containment." The angry lady looked at the metal hero again when she said those last few words.

    Thomas didn't understand why, but the men wearing black were pointing their guns at him as they climbed down the ladder. He was kind of scared, but he also wanted to be rescued, so he didn't say anything. Emily held onto his arm really tight as the two men looked at them really closely, before talking to the people above them. "No external signs of infection or anything else. Bringing them up, captain." The man that grabbed Thomas tried to look like a nice man, but Thomas could tell that the nice man didn't like Thomas, or that he was scared of Thomas for some reason. Did they really think that Thomas and Emily were monsters, like what Jamie had made? Knowing that people thought he was a monster made Thomas sad, but he stayed still as the men helped them back up the ladder to above ground.

    Ellisburg was even worse than when Thomas and Emily had gone into the shelter. All the houses were really torn up, and he could see monsters far away that were fighting with other people wearing black, and with some other heroes. He could see the lady from the big three, Legendary, rushing around and beating up the scary monsters! They said she could only run fast and fly and beat bad guys up for a little bit before she had to stop, but she was still going right then! Heroic was fighting, too! The big man wearing the huge, shiny gold armor did the thing where he made the ground shake a lot and open up, and some of the monsters got eaten by the ground! They were... They were killing a lot of the monsters, but even more monsters came right after. Thomas knew that Adamantium, Legendary, and Heroic were all supposed to be really strong, but he worried that even they might not be able to take care of all the monsters... And Jamie himself was even scarier. Adamantium looked at the people wearing black, and talked to them like he was their boss. "Go. Get them out of here. I need to join the fight." The mean woman stared at him again, so the metal hero talked again. "Go, now."

    The lady looked angry again, but she turned around to face the closest place where there weren't any more houses or buildings. "Alright, squad, we're moving. On me, line, combat spacing."

    The two men that carried Thomas and Emily to the surface picked the kids up and gave them a piggy-back ride. "Alright, bucko. We're gonna get you and your friend out of here, okay? Just hold on tight." Thomas nodded, holding on to the man as tight as he could, and he saw Emily holding onto the other man just like he did.

    Thomas looked over to Emily, and smiled. "See, Em? I told you we'd be okay. I told you we'd get out of here."

    Emily smiled back at Thomas, nodding. "Yeah! I knew we would! Tommy never lies to me!" That wasn't true. Thomas lied to her all the time. But he wasn't going to say that, not then.

    The people with the guns started to walk, and Thomas had to hold on even tighter so he wouldn't fall off the man. Whenever they spotted a monster, they would shoot their guns a lot to make sure the monster didn't get back up again. It was really scary when that happened, and Thomas couldn't even cover his ears to make it not that loud. But the people were really brave - not as brave as the heroes, of course, but still pretty brave! - and they kept walking even while fighting the monsters. They were almost out of Ellisburg, when something really, really bad happened. A really fast monster came out of a dark place where they didn't see it, and it... It hurt one of the people wearing black really bad. It cut their head off. It killed the person. "Contact!" The boss lady shouted really loud, and everyone started shooting their guns. Thomas tried to hold on, but he couldn't, and so he fell to the ground. He turned to look for Emily on the other man, and that's when he saw the monster hurt the man... And also hurt Emily. The man fell on the ground, and Thomas could tell that he was dead, too. Emily was screaming and crying really really bad, and when Thomas rushed over to check on her, he knew why. The monster had cut off one of her legs, a little bit below the knee, and it was bleeding really bad. Thomas didn't know what to do. He looked around and saw the people with guns still trying to kill the monster, so nobody could help Emily.

    He looked for something in the man's pouches, something that could help Emily. There were lots of bullets for the gun, but Thomas wasn't strong enough to try and use it to help shoot the monster. There were some grenades that he knew would blow up, but he didn't know how to use them, so he put them away. He found a bandage, and he tried to use it on Emily, but it didn't work when her leg was cut off like that, and he didn't know how to use it the right way, either. Then he found a tourn... Tourn... Tourniquet, that he knew because his daddy had showed him once. He knew how to use that, so he put it just above where the monster had cut off Emily's leg, and pulled on it really tight until she stopped bleeding. He hoped that would work, and that Emily wouldn't die because she didn't have enough blood to stay alive.

    He heard the guns stop shooting, and he looked around to see what happened. The monster was on the ground, not moving, and the lady shot it a lot more times to make sure it wouldn't get up again. Then, she said a bad word, really loud. "Fuck! God damnit, casualty report!" All of the people who were still alive said their names to let the lady know they were still alive, but she looked madder each time someone said their name. "Great. Just fucking great." Then, the lady looked at him and Emily. She looked really mad that time, like she wanted to hurt him and Emily. But then she looked away. "Whatever. We're moving out, same as before. We're almost out of this fucking hellpit, so we're moving double time. Understood?"

    One of the people in black turned around to look at Thomas and Emily, before talking to the mean lady. "Captain, what about those two? The girl's hurt, too."

    The lady didn't turn around to look at them when she talked. Didn't she know that was rude? "Leave them." Thomas felt his heart feel weird. She was going to leave them behind? With the monsters? When Emily was hurt? But why? Wasn't she supposed to save them? Wasn't that what Adamantium had told her to do? Why was she leaving them behind?

    "But Captain, Adamantium said-" The man who talked to the lady before talked to her again. Thomas could tell that he wanted to take him and Emily along, to safety.

    The lady walked over to the man, and poked him really hard in the chest. "I don't fucking care what Adamantium said. Half of my squad is dead because we had to escort a couple of fucking kids, who might be monsters waiting to tear us apart once we get outside, anyways." She looked at Thomas and Emily again, and she pointed her gun at them. Thomas moved to put himself between Emily and the gun. He didn't even mean to. "If you don't start moving now, I will make it so that we don't have any fucking kids to rescue. Understood, sergeant?" The man stared at the lady for a while, before nodding and starting to walk away. The lady stopped pointing her gun at Thomas and Emily, but she stared at them for a little bit longer. Thomas noticed something that was on her clothes, white letters. "PRT". He had heard that name before, when people talked about heroes. He knew that the lady didn't have superpowers like Heroic or Legendary, but didn't she have to help people like him and Emily? Wasn't she supposed to be a good person, too? So why? Why?

    As the lady started to walk away with the other people wearing black, Thomas yelled at them. "Please! Don't leave us! Emily's hurt! She needs help, or she might die! Please! I'm scared! The monsters are scary! Please! Please... I'm scared..." But the people didn't turn around, and they didn't come back to help Thomas or Emily.

    Thomas started to cry really bad, but then Emily talked to him. "Tommy, it's okay." She smiled at him, even though she was hurting really bad and probably wanted to cry, too. "We're going to be okay, Tommy. We're going to get out of here." Emily wasn't crying. She was trying to help him not cry. Tommy had to not cry. He had to help Emily. Emily was hurt, and he had to help her. His best friend was hurt. He had to help her.

    He tried to pick her up, but he wasn't strong enough. He would've be strong enough if he was a superhero, like Adamantium, but he wasn't, so he wasn't strong enough to pick Emily up. He tried to give her a piggyback ride, too, but that didn't work, either, because he wasn't strong enough. He wished he could be like Legendary, picking up cars, so that he could give Emily a piggyback ride. Maybe if he saw a shooting star, he could make a wish on it, to become a superhero. He had to just help Emily walk, but it was really hard for her to walk with just one leg, so they went really slow. But he promised her that they would be okay. He promised her that they'd get out of Ellisburg. So he had to help Emily stay alive.

    He saw the forest nearby. He knew that his daddy always told him not to go into the forest, but Thomas thought that maybe the monsters wouldn't go into the forest, either, since it wasn't part of Ellisburg. Maybe they would, though, but Thomas still had to try. He saw other people wearing black running out of Ellisburg, too. All of them were running out of the town, or so Thomas thought, and none of them were helping him. It wasn't just that, though. There were probably other people alive in Ellisburg, too. Kids, just like him and Emily. Maybe people who still had daddies or mommies or sisters or brothers. But the PRT people were running away. They were leaving them all alone, to be hurt and killed by the monsters. Thomas felt very, very mad when he thought that. Mad enough that he wanted to hurt the PRT people, maybe even as bad as the monsters made them hurt.

    He saw Adamantium talking very loud and angry at Legendary. The lady superhero was yelling a lot. "We have to leave, Adamantium. The PRT is pulling out. They are leaving the town, and they are leaving us, too. If we stay here, we will die. Even you, Adamantium. I don't give a shit if you're made of metal, those things will tear you apart. I will take you out of here by force, if I have to."

    "We're the fucking Triumvirate, Legendary! We don't just run away because of some monsters, or whatever! We're supposed to be fucking heroes." Adamantium was yelling a lot, too. Thomas could tell that the metal man wanted to stay and fight the monsters, but that Legendary wanted to leave them behind, too. That made Thomas mad.

    "Adam. Listen to me. Listen to me, Adam." Legendary put her hands on Adamantium's shoulders while more people in black ran away around them. "This isn't a case of just some monsters. The PRT has classified Nilbog as an S-Class threat. Even the Triumvirate doesn't fight S-Class threats alone, do we? Do we fight Endbringers alone? Do we fight Sleeper alone? Do we fight the Slaughterhouse Nine alone? No, we don't. So we're not fighting this alone. We are leaving, Adam."

    The metal man looked around as everyone else left the town. Then, he saw Thomas and Emily, limping toward the forest. Thomas looked at him, too, and he saw that Adamantium looked very, very sad. But then, the metal man looked at Legendary, and nodded his head. "Alright. We're leaving." Then, he and Legendary were running away, too. That made Thomas very, very, very, very mad, and he promised that if he stayed alive that he would hurt the PRT and the Big Three as much as he could. He would hurt them because they left him behind, because they left Emily behind, because they left all of Thomas' friends and family behind, because they left everyone in Ellisburg behind. Thomas knew he would be mad until he hurt them like that.

    Thomas and Emily made it to the forest, and Thomas stopped so that they could rest for a little while. He hid behind a tree to make sure the monsters couldn't see them. Emily's leg wasn't bleeding that much thanks to the tourniquet, so that was good. He sat down next to Emily, smiled, and held her hand. "We're okay, Em. We made it out. We're alive." Emily grabbed Thomas' hand, before looking at Thomas and smiling, too.

    Then, Thomas heard something. He looked behind him, and saw lots of monsters from Ellisburg, walking to the forest where he and Emily were. If they kept walking, they would find him and Emily. If Thomas and Emily started walking away, it would be too slow, since Emily's leg was hurt. Because Emily's leg was hurt, they couldn't climb the tree and hide there, either. The monsters were going to find them. The monsters were going to hurt them. The monsters were going to kill them. And Thomas couldn't do anything. Except run.

    "Tommy?" Emily looked scared as Thomas stood up. "Tommy, are we walking more already? ...Tommy? Is everything okay?"

    Thomas looked at Emily, at her hurt leg, the leg she couldn't run with. He felt bad. He felt really, really bad. But he swallowed, and felt himself cry a little bit as he talked to her. "I'm sorry, Em. I'm really, really sorry." And then Thomas started to run away, further into the forest. There weren't a lot of trees, so he ran in a straight line, as fast as he could. It wasn't very fast, because he was eight years old, but maybe the monsters would stop at Emily to... To...

    "Tommy! Come back! Don't leave me, Tommy!" He heard Emily yelling at him, but he kept running. He had to run. He didn't want to die. They were both going to die if he stayed with her, so it was good if he ran and stayed alive. Emily was going to die no matter what, so Thomas had to stay alive.

    And then, he stopped moving forward. He was still running, but he was stopped. He looked down at his legs, and they were still running. But he wasn't moving. He turned around to look to see where the monsters were, because maybe one of the monsters was doing it to him? But the monsters were stopped, too. They were trying to run at him and Emily, but they were stopped, just like Thomas was. "Tommy! Come back!" Then, he felt his body be pulled, all the way back to Emily, while he saw the monsters move away. "Tommy, you came back!"

    Emily was smiling at him, but Thomas was afraid. He didn't know what was happening, and not knowing what was happening was scary. "Em, what... Emily." He didn't use all her name like that a lot, except when he was really serious. "Emily, what did you do?"

    Emily looked like she didn't know what he was talking about. "Tommy, what do you mean? I wanted you to come back, so you came back." Thomas really didn't know what Emily was talking about, though. He tried to think about it, but then the monsters were there, trapping them all around. "No..." Emily was really afraid, then, and Thomas felt himself pee his pajamas. "No!" Emily was yelling now, really loud. "Go away!" Thomas' body was pushed that time, and he went really far away from Emily, just like the monsters did. He stopped, though, and he stood there to look at Emily. She was okay, and the monsters weren't getting any closer to her. "Tommy, wait, no, I'm sorry. Come back, Tommy." Emily looked really sad, but Thomas didn't move like he did the last time. He was even more scared now. He wasn't just scared of the monsters, but now he was scared of Emily, too. So Thomas turned around, and started running again. He didn't get stopped that time, but he still heard Emily yelling at him. "Tommy! Please! I'm scared! Come back, Tommy! Come back!" Thomas put his hands on his ears as he ran, so he wouldn't hear Emily yelling any more.


    ----------

    Thomas didn't know where he was. It had been a long time since he left Ellisburg... Since he left Emily. He was really hungry, but he was a lot more thirsty. He felt tired, and dizzy, even though he went to sleep for a little bit. It was hard to sleep when you weren't on your bed, though. His daddy had taken him camping a few times, but even then, they had the bedrolls. But he was really, really thirsty. He remember his daddy saying that people could die if they didn't drink any water for three days. Thomas wished that he had taken some water from his daddy's shelter. He wished for a lot of things, actually. That Jamie had never made the monsters. That his daddy and mommy and sister were still alive. That the heroes had actually been heroes and saved him, Emily, and the town. That Emily... That he didn't...

    He wanted to cry, but he was so thirsty that he couldn't cry. He was so thirsty. He was so... Thomas fell on the ground. He didn't trip on anything. He just fell. He couldn't push himself back up, because he was so thirsty, and so tired. He laid on the ground for a while, his head spinning as he thought about all the stuff that had happened. He felt his eyes start to close, and he felt himself start to fall asleep, when he heard a lady's voice from nearby. It sounded like she was singing. "When you wish upon a star..." It was hard, but he lifted his head to look around. There was a lady wearing a suit and a funny hat. The lady held a water bottle, but she also held a weird glass thing like what Thomas had seen at the doctor's once. There was some weird drink inside, but Thomas couldn't tell what it was. The lady looked at him and then talked at him. "Tell me, Thomas Calvert. Do you wish to live?"

    Thomas didn't know what she was talking about. Wait, no, yes he did. Thomas needed the water she was holding, or else he would die. He ran away from Emily so that he could stay alive. Thomas wished to live, so he told the lady that. "I..." He tried to talk, but he was thirsty, so it was kind of hard. But he tried again. "I... Wish to live."

    The lady didn't give him the water bottle, though, and Thomas wondered why she didn't give him the water bottle. But then she talked at him again. "Good. That's good, Thomas. Now tell me. Do you wish to take revenge on the PRT, and the heroes who left you behind? Do you wish to hurt them, Tommy?" The lady looked and sounded really scary, scary enough that Thomas thought that he might pee his pajamas again if he wasn't so thirsty.

    But the lady was right. Thomas was still angry. Thomas still wanted to hurt the PRT and the heroes. Thomas still wanted to Re... Revenge on them. His voice was still funny, but he tried to talk again. "I... Wish to take re... Revenge on the PRT and the heroes. I wish..." He had to cough a little bit, but then he talked again. "I wish to hurt them, like how they let me, and Emily, and everyone else at Ellisburg get hurt."

    The lady smiled, but it didn't make Thomas feel happy. It just made him feel even more scared. "That's good, Thomas. That's very good." She put the weird glass thing on ground in front of him, and Thomas saw that the drink stuff inside was really strange. "Drink that first, Thomas, and then I'll let you have the water. Make sure not to spill any, okay?" Thomas looked up the lady with the hat, because he didn't get it. Why did she want him to drink that stuff? But she wouldn't give him the water unless he drank that weird stuff, so... He pulled the thing off the top of the glass, and looked at the drink a little bit more. He had to live. He had to live for himself, for Emily, and for everyone else. So he drank from the glass thing.

    And it hurt. It hurt a lot. It hurt more than anything Thomas had ever been hurt by before. Was that how much Emily felt hurt when the monster cut her leg off? Was that how much the PRT people felt hurt when the monsters killed them? Thomas thought that drinking the stuff made him hurt even more than what being hurt by the monsters would feel like. He saw things, too. Weird things, that he couldn't really remember. It was a long time that Thomas felt hurt, or maybe it was a little time. Thomas didn't really know. After a while, though, Thomas stopped being hurt, and...

    He saw two of everything. It wasn't like when he crossed his eyes, though. It was like there were two of Thomas, and each Thomas was doing something different, making different things happen. And he could stop one Thomas, and make the other Thomas the real Thomas, before making another Thomas from the new real Thomas. Both Thomases looked up at the lady, because they both hoped she was going to explain what was happening. "Very good, Thomas." It was weird for each Thomas to hear the lady speak, because both ladies spoke kind of differently. "Now, as I promised, here is your water." Both ladies gave both Thomases the water bottle, and both Thomases drank the water as much as they could, because both Thomases were still really, really thirsty. "Once you're ready, go that way, Thomas. There will be a road there. People will be driving by, and I'm sure that one will pick you up and take you somewhere safe." Thomas was drinking so much water that he couldn't talk back to the lady when she talked to him. "Goodbye, Thomas. And good luck."

    Thomas stopped drinking the water when he heard the lady tell him goodbye. He looked around - he already felt a lot less thirsty - looking for the lady, but she was gone. There were trees around, but none of them were big enough to hide a lady like her, especially with that silly suit and hat she wore. Thomas didn't know where she went, and Thomas thought that was really really weird. It wasn't as weird as there being two Thomases, though, each looking around at a different part of the forest to try and find the lady, though. Thomas sat there for a while to keep drinking the water. Once Thomas was done drinking the water, he stood up, and looked in the direction that the lady pointed. The lady said there was a road that way, a road where people would find him. Thomas suddenly worried about how his pajamas were peed in, but he hoped that the people who found him would be nice people, and wouldn't be mad at him for having peed in pajamas. Then, Thomas thought of something cool. What if he had one Thomas walk to the road one way, while the other Thomas walked to the road a different way? What if different people found each Thomas? That would be cool! So he had each Thomas walk a different way to the road.

    Both Thomases hummed, though. Each Thomas hummed a bit differently, but that was okay. They even sang a little bit. "When you wish upon a star... Makes no difference who you are..." Thomas sang because he was happy. Thomas was happy because he was alive. Thomas was still a little bit sad because he left Emily behind, but... Thomas was really happy because he knew that he had a superpower now. It was a weird superpower, because it didn't let him pick up cars like Legendary and didn't turn his skin into metal like Adamantium, but it was still a superpower. Thomas smiled, too. Thomas smiled because he was happy, but the smile felt a bit different than a normal happy smile. That was because Thomas was also happy that he could use that superpower to hurt the PRT and the heroes.

    Thomas remembered that he had said what he wanted to do to the hat lady as a wish. He figured it out, though. He figured out that his wish wasn't going to come true if he just sat there and waited for it to happen. He figured another thing out, too. He figured out why the hat lady gave him his powers. He had a wish that he wanted to come true, and the hat lady had given him superpowers so that he could make that wish come true. And that was just what Thomas was going to do. Even if he got hurt even more, even if he had to hurt people other than the PRT and the heroes, even if he had to do things that made him feel bad, or made him feel scared, Thomas was going to make his wish come true by himself, and hurt the PRT and the heroes as much as he could. But he didn't want to hurt them by like, beating them up or by shooting them, like what people normally think of when they talk about hurting someone. Thomas wanted to hurt them in other ways. He wanted to hurt them by making sure that everybody knew that they were mean people who left kids behind to get hurt by monsters. He wanted to hurt them by making sure that everybody knew that they were just a bunch of big dumb idiots who weren't really heroes, who weren't really good guys, but just pretended to be. More than anything, he wanted to hurt them by making sure that everybody remembered what happened at Ellisburg, how they had left an entire town full of people to die. That was how Thomas Calvert was going to hurt them, and he knew that it would hurt them way, way more than beating them up or shooting them ever would.

    Thomas smiled as he sang, but it wasn't a happy smile. "Anything your heart desires... Will come to you..."
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
    Jarogh likes this.
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: Pinch
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 13: Pinch

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    "Wow. Shit." It wasn't like there was anything else I could really say to that. I had listened to Thomas' story in complete and utter stunned silence for the past fifteen or twenty minutes or so, and there just wasn't anything else I could think of to say to him besides that.

    Thomas must have noticed my distress because he simply waved me off with a sigh. "Danny, I know you want to say something, offer some condolences or something, but it's fine." I shrunk back in my chair a little bit, sheepish from having been so transparent. "It's been over ten years now. I..." He frowned a little bit, looking towards no particular spot on the wall for several seconds. "Blake could tell you that I still have nightmares about it some times. I'd like to think that anybody would, if they had gone through Ellisburg as an eight year old, and that it's not just me." I nodded, but I didn't think he noticed. "But it's fine, Danny. Really. Thank you for being so concerned about me."

    I nodded again, since it wasn't like I had any other response to offer. I did pipe up about something that I felt was of fairly critical importance, though. "So... Your mysterious power, then? Two versions of reality? Or two timelines, or something?" I was mildly concerned that Thomas had just let the details of his power slip on the momentum of telling me about what had happened at Ellisburg, and that he actually hadn't intended to let me know what his abilities were.

    Thankfully, he just gave me a small nod and elaborated further. "Yes. I can take two different courses of action in each of the two different timelines. At any point, I can 'shut down' one timeline, keeping the other timeline as the 'real' one and being able to split a new 'second' timeline off of the currently 'real' one." I felt my head spin a bit, but I nodded to show that I was following along. "I also keep all of the information I've gained from any of the terminated timelines, though, so I often tend to use my power for information gathering, too. Ask questions that would get people pissed off or angry at me, get the info I need either way, then shut down that timeline."

    My eyes narrowed as I realized something rather important from what my boss had just said. "So the reason you trust me so much, after only having known me for a week...?"

    Thomas bit his lip, looking to the side with an expression that looked something akin to a kid being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I, uhh. May have interrogated you in a few dead timelines?" He gave me a smile like he was that kid who had been caught, and like I was his parent about to get him in trouble for it.

    I nodded, slowly. "Interrogated, huh?" Thomas nodded back, still grinning as apologetically as he could manage. "I'm going to guess... 'Enhanced' interrogation, too?" My boss looked away, clicking his tongue idly as I leaned over the desk towards him, narrowing my eyes in his direction. "I'm going to guess that you haven't told me any of this in your other timeline?"

    Thomas chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head in an anxious movement. "Ahaha, well, I mean, I do trust you, Danny, but if you, uhh, did just happen to get really angry and decide to swarm with me rats in this timeline, or something like that, it's, uhh... Good to have insurance?"

    I wanted to be angry, but I couldn't blame Thomas, not after I had heard what he went through in Ellisburg, and when I knew the exact details of his power. I did feel bad for all of those other Dannys in all of those dead timelines that they were tortured by Thomas in, but... Wait, no, fuck that, I was angry. Whether or not Thomas was justified in what he was doing or not, I was pissed. I was livid. I did want to swarm Thomas was rats, and I could feel the rodents in my zone of control nibbling at the back of my mind to do exactly that to him. How many times had Thomas tortured me that I didn't know about? How many rats would I need to tear into him before I felt even remotely sure that I had done the same to him as he had done to me? I felt so fucking betrayed by him, felt so fucking betrayed by this guy that I thought was supposed to be my friend - even if he was also technically my supervillain boss - betrayed by the fact that he had tortured me without me even knowing. How the fuck was I not supposed to be absolutely positively fucking outraged over this? How the fuck was I not supposed to want to rip him apart with hundreds of sharp, rodent teeth?

    ...but it wouldn't matter if I tried to attack him, anyways. Thomas would just shut down the timeline where I attacked him, so that the one where he never told me what he had done would be the 'real' world... And the Danny in that timeline would be none the wiser about what had happened. I took several deep breaths, closing my eyes, gripping one arm of the chair with my good hand hard enough that I thought that I might break it whether or not I was a Brute. I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas watching me warily, clearly ready to shut down this world the moment he saw any overt signs of aggression from me. With a deep, aggravated sigh, I asked the next question that had come to mind. "And how many times before this have you tried to tell me about the fact that you've been torturing me with your power, without it working out?"

    Thomas tilted his head, and his eyes drifted upward. Jesus Christ, was he having to think about it? Was he having to count? "This is... The fourth time."

    My jaw dropped. Three other Dannys had found out about what Thomas was doing to them, but I didn't remember any of, which meant they must have... "And I'm guessing the other three times didn't work out, then?" Thomas nodded slowly in response to my question. "Well, it's not like I can fuckin' blame those other Dannys, you know, Thomas?" I had banged my good fist on the desk, and I saw Thomas tense up; I couldn't give him reason to shut this timeline down, though, so I pulled back and breathed again. "I'm going to be honest with you, Thomas. First of all, I'm not going to attack you, because I know that would be useless." My boss nodded again, cautiously. "But I do want to attack you, because I am fucking angry. I'm fucking pissed that you've been..." The words didn't make any sense as they rolled off my tongue. "...torturing me behind my back? Or... Something like that? It's still making my head spin, sorry." With a sigh, I slumped back in the chair. "I'm angry, Thomas, but... I guess I kind of fucking understand where you're coming from, too?"

    My boss' face lit up for a moment, anxiously; in return, I gave him a glare, which caused him to instantly cancel the grin. "I'm. Still. Angry. Thomas. Just because I understand, just because I maybe even agree or even think it makes sense for you to do what you did, I'm still fucking livid. You went through Ellisburg. You're a villain. You can't trust anyone. You have this power you can use to do whatever you want and not have any lasting consequences in your 'real' world. I get it." Covering my face with the one hand I could use, I rested my elbows on Thomas' desk. "Hell, maybe even I'd do the same thing, in your position. Who the fuck knows." Another puzzle piece fell in place, and I looked up at Thomas with wide, shocked eyes. "Are you going to torture my friend when you talk to him, too?"

    Thomas shifted around in his chair like a kid who had just been caught sticking his hand in the cookie jar again after already having had his hand slapped for it. Eventually, he just gave me an anxious smile, and nervously offered: "Prooobablyyy?" I must have made a terrifying expression on my face, because Thomas backed up while putting his hands towards me plaintively. "Danny, it's just what I do with everyone, okay? I've done it with Blake, for God's sake, so don't think that anyone is immune from it." Christ, he even did it with Blake?

    "...do they know? Does anyone else in the crew know, I mean? That you've tortured them in dead timelines?" My hands were folded over each other on top of the desk as I blankly stared down my boss for several seconds.

    Thomas gulped hard, before giving a nod and responding. "Yes. Trevor, Trainwreck, and Blake all know, and now do you, as well. They, uhm. They were all pretty angry, as well, just like you are right now. And I... I can't blame you for being upset and more than I can blame them. It's not a great thing for me to do, hurting people I consider to be my friends and my team mates, people I trust, even if I can just kill off that timeline with no consequence. I understand that. I really do. But it's just... It's for... Argh!" It was Thomas' turn to bury his head in his hands, as he let out a heavy sigh. "I've tried to tell Brad and Ezekiel before, but those timelines never went over well, always ended up with them attacking me or leaving me. I still give it a shot from time to time when I think it might work, though. It hasn't, yet, unfortunately." I was stopped for a moment, as I realized that Thomas actually looked sad. He... Wanted to tell Brad and Zeke about what he was doing? He wanted to let them know just what he had been doing to other versions of the two of them, to let them know that he had been torturing them, betraying them like that?

    "...I'm paranoid, Danny. I'm suspicious of everyone. I'm constantly afraid that they might leave me behind, might betray me, might attack me." His eyes suddenly looked... Tired. Very, very tired. "I know what I do is fucked up, Danny. Believe me, I know. I've had to watch you... I've had to watch Blake scream out in pain and agony because of what I was doing to them - far more times than I care to admit - all because I'm a fucked up, paranoid lunatic that can't trust anyone." Thomas was... Jesus Christ. Thomas was crying. Thomas motherfucking Calvert, Coil, was crying, and was letting me see him do it. "But I want to trust people, Danny. I want to trust you, and Blake, and everyone else. And I want all of you to trust me, too. I don't want to be paranoid, I don't want to constantly torture my friends and the people I love because I have nightmares about being betrayed by them. But I just... I just..." Replicating my action from earlier, Thomas slammed his hands onto the desk in front of him. "I'm sorry, Danny. I'm just so fucked up. I'm sorry. I just..."

    What the hell was I even supposed to say in this situation? What had Blake or Trevor or Trainwreck said when they found out about all of this? More to the point, Blake still loved Thomas, knowing what they did? Trevor was still willing to work with Thomas, knowing what he did? Trainwreck was Thomas' friend, knowing what he did? If those three could, then maybe I... A heavy sighed escaped my lips, more of a grumble or a groan than anything else. "Alright, fine." Thomas looked up at me, tears and snot running down his face as I spoke. "I'm not going to give you any fucking comfort or solace right now, though, because you are fucked up, Thomas, and I don't like it, and yes, I am still angry, and probably will be for a while." My boss - my friend - nodded slowly, even as I could tell how much my words hurt him. "But I am also going to trust you, Thomas Calvert, even though everything I know tells me that I probably fucking shouldn't." Thomas' expression shifted, but his face was such a mess that I couldn't tell what emotion it showed. "Because you are my friend, Thomas Calvert, even if you're a fucking shitty friend that tortures me on the regular."

    I folded my uninjured arm over my sling before shaking my head in annoyance and a million other feelings on top of that. "I don't know what's different between me and the three other Dannys that you tried to tell this to, but I don't think it matters. I'd tell you not to use your power to torture me any more, but I know that there's no way I'd be able to tell if you did or not, either way." The way that Thomas looked away from me suggested that he was probably intending on still doing it, if he felt the need to. I wanted to protest, but I knew that it would be pointless. "Just... Don't fucking tell me if you do, okay? Even if it's a 'dead' timeline or a 'dead' world or whatever, I don't want to know about any other Dannys that had to be tortured. Okay, Thomas?" My boss nodded at me, once, and I felt a sadistic urge come up that I couldn't push back down. With a wicked smile, I spoke up again. "I need a verbal answer, Thomas." I felt like shit the moment the words left my mouth, but I needed that, right then and there. I was sure that Thomas would forgive me that little indiscretion, considering everything that he had done to all the various mes.

    Thomas furrowed his eyebrows at me for a moment, trying to figure out the significance that he knew rested in my words; once he had it figured out, I could see anger momentarily flash over his face, but he suppressed it when he realized that he of all people had no right to be angry at anyone. He nodded, sniffed, and cleared his throat, before speaking: "I promise to not tell you about any timelines where I... Torture you, Danny." The word was heavier on his tongue that time than it had been before, and seeing how much it weighed him down caused me a momentary sensation of satisfaction and triumph. Good. I was glad it hurt him that much to say. It didn't make up for what he had done, but it made me feel just a little bit better, and that was the important part, at least at that particular moment in time.

    I nodded, not exactly satisfied, but not about to sic a horde of rats and mice on Thomas, either; I supposed that was all that both I and Thomas could ask for, at that moment. I felt the rodents in my range of control settle down and go back to their normal, rodent activities of eating through garbage and scurrying around, and the comfortable, familiar sensation of rats just doing rat things helped calm me down, in turn; I idly appreciated the sort of symbiotic relationship that my power had created between me an all the furry critters I controlled, and how each passing day left me finding myself more and more capable of using it to keep myself emotionally level in high-stress situations like this. Turning my attention away from my rodents back to the office and to Thomas, though, I stood out of my chair. "Alright. I'm going to go home for the day to finish cooling off. Text me about getting something set up with my friend, when you get the chance. And about the person who can make me a new costume, too." Thomas silently nodded back at me, wiping some of the tears and snot off his face as I grabbed my stuff and headed for the door to the garage; I stopped after I had opened the door and was halfway through it, though, to turn around and look back at my boss. "Oh, and Thomas?" He looked up at me, slightly confused. "Fuck you. And thank you. I'll talk to you later." I left without bothering to see what sort of reaction Thomas was giving me.

    I gave what minimal pleasantries were necessary to my other team mates as I made my way up the stairs to the main level of the hideout and then back out the main entrance we used. I was pretty sure that they could tell that something was wrong, but nobody was willing ask me about it, not even the usually nosy Zeke; did I look that angry? On my walk back home, I looked around the range of my power to try and find any situation where there were two or more rodents in proximity to each other. So long as they weren't pets, I forced them to tear into each other until only one was left, and then I had the surviving rodent bite into itself wherever it could reach, or use its claws to rip itself apart however it could. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recognized that doing this would severely inhibit the resources available for my power to use in the long run, but I didn't care at that moment; all that mattered right then was that I had a lot of aggression that had built up inside of me, to say the least, and I needed to get it out in a way that wouldn't cause anybody any sort of harm of actual consequence.

    Sort of like how Thomas had been doing, I supposed.

    ----------

    Tuesday saw me meeting with Coil's contact, a rather mild-mannered man who quietly, patiently, and efficiently took my measurements and handled all of the requests I had regarding my costume. From what little information I could manage get out of him, he wasn't the one making the outfit, himself; instead he was in the employ of some independent Tinker who specialized in low-tech but extremely high quality armor and garments. I tried to fish around for even just a cape name, but apparently even Thomas didn't know anything beyond what I had already been told.

    Wednesday saw the outfit already being delivered, and when I dropped by Coil's hideout after school, I got to try it on. The basic fabric of the black bodysuit was dense and tight, but was still light and flexible enough to move around in. I had asked for soft leather padding on my elbows and knees, but the material the Tinker used had appeared to be of synthetic and much more durable make than natural animal skin. There were lightweight metal spaulders, vambraces, and greaves, to protect those particular parts of my body during fights. I wore boots made of the same pseudo-leather material as my elbow and knee padding, which also had reinforced toes built in. I received a metal mask made of the same material as the rest of my armor, which covered the entire front of my face barring eye and air holes in the appropriate spots. The man who had been taking my measurements had asked me the day before if I had wanted to add ears or whiskers or a nose to the mask; the stare I gave him must have been sufficient enough of an answer, though, as he immediately stopped pressing the issue. Even so, I did feel like I needed some way for my costume to say "Teenage boy who can control rats and mice." In the end, I opted for a semi-gray emblem across the front of my chest, a profile of a rat's head, its mouth opened in a threatening gesture, its incisors displayed prominently. I still didn't like the name I had spurted out on a whim back in the PRT HQ lobby, but if I was going to be "Gnaw" for at least a little while longer, then I felt a logo like that would work well.

    Getting the thing on was a bitch with an arm that still wasn't exactly in great condition, but all of the pain and struggle was well worth it when I got to see just how cool I looked in my new outfit. I walked around Randy's for a little bit while wearing it, and I was impressed at how easy it was for me to move in a costume intended for combat situations. I made a few tentative punches with my right arm - I hadn't had time to train with Brian, yet, but Trevor had taken time to help me learn a few basics, which I was appreciative for - and found that neither the pseudo-leather padding or the metal plating restricted my motions at all. I had gone down several grand buying the outfit, but I felt like every penny I had spent was worth it.

    Christ. I had just dumped several thousand dollars on clothes and was yet somehow fine and unconcerned about the expenditure. I couldn't have imagined spending that much on anything two weeks before that point, let alone a costume. At the same time, though, I knew that it wasn't a big deal, considering that Coil had plans for us to be hitting Empire properties soon, and hitting them hard; I would get back my investment on the outfit, and more than likely a few times more on top of that. Coil knew that the Empire would more than likely devote all of their remaining parahumans in an attempt to free their captured comrades, which they probably intended to try and do during a PRT prisoner transfer; the plan was for us to wait until Steinn, Rune, and all the other Nazi capes were busy fighting the PRT, so that we could wreak havoc throughout Empire territory while they were too occupied to do anything about it. Unfortunately, Coil didn't have any information regarding when any potential prisoner transfer would occur - or if it would even happen at all, since it wasn't necessarily a certainty - so the whole crew was on alert and ready to roll the moment anything happened; I agreed that I'd find some way to dip out of Winslow and meet up with the team if it happened during school hours, both to make sure that I could back Coil and everyone else up, and so that I wouldn't miss out on beating up a bunch of skinhead screwheads.

    School had ended on Thursday, though, and the time hadn't come by that point. Since everything seemed calm, Coil wanted to take that afternoon to meet with Alan to "vet" my friend. I knew what that meant now, of course; Coil would create a timeline where he tortured Alan to make sure that he wasn't a spy for the PRT or for anyone else, while in another timeline he just calmly chatted with my friend over tea and biscuits, or some bullshit like that. I hated that Coil was going to do that to Alan, even if it was an Alan that wouldn't be "real" once my boss was done with that version of the world; I hated myself more than Coil at that point, though, because I was sending Alan into the viper's pit knowing that was what was going to happen to him, not even bothering to warn him or tell him anything about it. I wondered if Alan would ever be able to forgive me if he found out that I knowingly allowed my boss to torture him. I wondered what I would do if Coil decided that he wanted to keep the timeline where he had tortured Alan, for whatever reason. Would I turn on Coil for hurting my best friend like that; or for hurting the "real" version of Alan, or whatever? Or would I accept it as just part of what Coil needed to do, part of his plans to help clean up the Docks, help fix Brockton Bay, and help exposed the PRT for the dastards they really were? I didn't know the answer to that question, and I hoped that I wouldn't have to answer it.

    I had been wearing my outfit on under my civilian clothes during school - barring the padding and the armor, which I had been keeping in my backpack - mostly for the sake of having it ready to go if I needed to head out on a moment's notice for whatever reason, but also because I felt really cool wearing it; when I knew that nobody around me could tell that I was wearing a supervillain costume underneath my jacket and my jeans, I felt all sneaky and stuff. What would Mrs. Clements think, if she knew that little Danny Hebert was the supervillain known as Gnaw, just sitting there, right in her class, mild-mannered as usual as he read his textbook? Would she be impressed? Would she be horrified? What if I had just decided to use my power and do a bunch of neat tricks with my rats? Make them draw letters on the floor or the walls, maybe. Could I pile them up and have them hang onto each other to make rat-people? Probably not enough fine control to do that... Would the other students think I was all nifty and dandy, having superpowers like that? I'd bet all the kids wouldn't be over Tommy Gladly if they saw me using my mice; no, I'd bet they think I was the cool kid, that deserved all of their praise and adoration! And then I could beat up all the Empire kids, too, right there in school, beat up Eddie and James, and then Brad, too, whenever that meathead got back. And then I could...!

    I shook my head, and focused myself back into reality. I had changed into my full costume in an alleyway near where Coil wanted to meet Alan and I, and was disappointed to find that the arm sling I was wearing made me look a lot less cool than I had been the day before. The two of us continued towards the meeting place, though, across alleyways and side streets, dashing when necessary to make sure that nobody saw me in my outfit as Gnaw. Eventually, the two of us found ourselves standing at back door of an abandoned shop somewhat close by to Randy's place. I had seen from the front that the windows and entrance were boarded up, so I had no doubt that it was a perfectly quiet place for Coil to do his little "interview" with Alan. I felt my stomach churn again, but gave the knocking pattern that Coil had told me to use. Three, one, two.

    Almost as soon as I had finished knocking, Circus opened the door, in their full jester outfit. The inside of the store was empty sans for a table, two chairs, and a battery-powered floodlight illuminating the interior. Coil sat on the far side of the table, his elbows resting on the surface as he partially concealed his already body-suit hidden face behind his hands. I was disconcerted by the presence of Circus, since I had assumed that Coil was going to do... Whatever it was he was going to do, by himself. Was Circus going to participate in Coil's "vetting" of Alan, too? I tightened my jaw, but didn't say anything. Coil was going to do what he felt was necessary for him to do, and I knew that there was no way I could convince him otherwise.

    "Hello, Alan Barnes. My name is Coil, though I believe that you already know that." My boss had the most Coil-like voice on that he could muster, the same voice he used when I had first met him last Monday night, after fighting Crusader. "I understand that you would like to work with us?" The two of us were still standing outside the store, Circus standing in a way to suggest that we weren't allowed in just at that point. Alan looked to me, and I nodded, before my friend turned back to Coil, swallowed hard, and gave his own nod; Coil, in return, also gave a motion of acknowledgement with his head. "You come highly recommended by my friend, there. I understand that you lack parahuman abilities, but that is not an automatic disqualification." Alan and I knew that already, but both of us still sighed, even so; was that what a formal job interview for adults was like? Yeesh. "However, I would like to conduct an interview, regardless, to make sure that I and my organization can trust you. You do understand the necessity of such a vetting process, yes, Mister Barnes?" I grit my teeth, trying not to think about what Coil was actually implying with those words. Alan looked at me again, and I could see concern spread across my friend's face as he noticed my discomfort. Even so, he turned back to Coil and gave another nod. "Very good. Please come in, Mister Barnes. By yourself."

    I had expected that. There was no way Coil was going to "interview" Alan while I was in the room there with my friend. Alan looked at me, rather unsettled by the prospect of going in there by himself, but I knew that there was no other way forward at that point. I placed my good hand on Alan's shoulder, nodded, and forced as reassuring as a smile as I could manage. I was pretty sure that I hadn't helped that much, but Alan nervously smiled back at me, before giving me one more nod, looking back at Coil, and stepping into the shop. As Circus went to close the door, the harlequin gave me a sad, sympathetic, and knowing smile.

    I spent the next hour sitting on the filthy ground in the alleyway behind the store, using my rodents to keep an eye out for anybody that might come into this God forsaken part of the Docks. I had rats put on a miniature play in front of me for my amusement, but it only marginally distracted me from what I knew was going on either inside of the building or in Coil's other version of that building. Alan, crying, screaming in pain, begging for mercy, thinking that I, his best friend, must have betrayed him. I had a number of rats line up in formation, head to tail. What was that version of Alan thinking? One of the rats stood on its hind legs, before squeaking and throwing its arms wide dramatically. That Coil wanted to get to Alan's father, somehow? A mouse came up behind the rat and grabbed onto its tail, yanking the larger rodent to the ground. And that Coil had told me to bring Alan to be tortured? A squirrel came in, and used its nut-breaking incisors to murder the mouse, spraying blood in the process. With a sigh, I had the rats eat the dead mouse to make sure it didn't go to waste.

    Finally, Coil, Circus, and Alan came out from the store, none of them looking any worse for wear; Alan had a very confused expression on his face, but he didn't bear any signs of torture, physical or otherwise. "Your friend has passed my interview, dearest Gnaw. We will now be heading back to the hideout, to introduce him to everyone else." I stood up off from the alleyway ground, brushing myself off and making sure that no rodent blood had splattered onto me at any point. Coil and Circus had already started making their way towards Randy's, and Alan and I fell into step behind them.

    Alan kept that uncertain look on his face as we walked, so I turned to ask him in a low, but still-audible-to-Coil voice. "Hey, Alan. Everything okay?" I saw Coil's head turn slightly in my direction, but he didn't otherwise react.

    "Yeah, it's just, uhm." Alan scrunched his eyebrows together, desperately trying to think on whatever problem it was that he was considering. "Coil's interview, it, uhm. It didn't really make any sense?" I nodded, showing that I was listening intently. "He asked me a bunch of like... Really pointless questions? Like what my favorite color was, or whether I liked dogs or cats better."

    Well, Alan, that was because he was torturing you in another version of reality, and wanted to keep his questions in this timeline as inoffensive as possible. I couldn't tell him that, of course, so I just slowly nodded again and answered in as neutral of a voice as possible. "Yeah, I dunno. My boss is kind of weird like that sometimes. But he never does anything without a reason. I'm sure he got what he wanted out of you, either way." Alan nodded, still unsure, as we continued to follow Coil back to the hideout.

    I was hoping that I was going to have time to introduce Alan to everybody in their civilian identities. He would probably like Thomas, so long as he didn't find out that our boss was secretly torturing his subordinates in alternate worlds. I thought that he would probably think Trevor was really cool, since Alan always liked the strong, silent characters in books and movies. I didn't know whether or not he would get along with Zeke, but that could have been dealt with at a later point. Unfortunately, we weren't going to have a chance to do any of that, not on that day.

    As we walked through the stairs entrance into the second floor of Randy's place, we saw Biter, Barker, Chariot, and Trainwreck rushing around and getting ready. As soon as he saw Coil enter, Chariot started speaking, breathlessly. "Boss. I was just about to call you." Coil tilted his head questioningly, before Chariot took in some air and continued. "The cameras near the PRT building just picked up several vans leaving out from the secure garage. It's the prisoner transport."

    Out of the corner of my eye, underneath the fabric of his suit, I saw a wolfish grin slowly spread itself across Coil's face.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
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  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: Gorge
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 14: Gorge

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    The thing was that we weren't really fighting the Empire so much as we were brutalizing them. Steinn, Rune, Fenja, Menja, Victor, Krieg, and Stormtiger were all busy attacking the PRT prisoner transport in order to free the captured Empire capes. In an odd twist of fate, Lung, Bakuda, and Squealer had teamed up with them in order to make sure that Oni Lee, Skidmark, and Mush were freed alongside everybody else, as well; apparently, Steinn had even gone so far as to hire Uber and Leet as back up on top of fully committing his forces and allying with people who had been his enemies less than a week before. As far as we knew, the Protectorate and the Wards had all been deployed with the prisoner convoy, with the result that a section of Downtown had been turned into a veritable warzone; Coil had idly wondered if the Travelers and the Undersiders were going to intervene in order to protect their properties.

    However, none of that was really our concern. What we were concerned with was the fact that all of the Empire's territory was currently undefended, at least in our sense of the term; all of the skinhead gang's outposts, caches, drug houses and other properties only had unpowered thugs to guard them, and there just weren't enough of the Nazi punks to stop a crew of parahumans from wreaking havoc. There was actually less resistance in certain places than I had expected; Coil explained that Steinn likely knew that we would be launching this attack while they were occupied, and so the Empire's leader had opted to cut his losses and allow us to loot the places that were less important to the Nazis. That made sense, and I was not going to argue with Steinn's decision, not with the way that we were hauling ass through Empire property after Empire property like there was no tomorrow.

    After we sort of had to tell Alan to just sit tight in the hideout for a small while - my friend had very little idea what was going on, so he didn't question anything we said - Coil had decided to split us up into two groups in order to cover more ground while also keeping relatively high offensive capabilities in each team; Barker, Biter, and Trainwreck were in one group, while Coil, Circus, Chariot, and myself were in the other. We used Chariot's teleportation relay that he had buried under the lot near Randy's place to drop off any cash and goods we had whenever there we gathered up too much for us to reasonably carry around - or whenever we acquired enough that we didn't want to risk losing it all. The team I was on had already made a few pit stops at the hideout, and by the third or fourth drop-off, we had... A lot. Cash, piled high in the garage. Valuables, electronics, weapons, drugs - which Coil promised to sell to someone who would take them out of town, and I wasn't going to doubt him, not in the middle of all of what was happening - and anything else that we could sell for good money. There was so much that my head was spinning, and I was barely able to focus as I sent swarms of rats to scout yet another building.

    "Nobody. Uhh. Nobody in there, I mean." How many thousands of dollars had we already looted. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? A million bucks. How much was that? How much could I buy with that? A million dollars. Jesus Christ.

    Coil must have noticed how distracted I was, because he snapped his fingers repeatedly in front of my face to grab my attention. "Danny. Wake up. We're not done yet. Check again. Are you sure there's nobody in there?"

    I didn't fault him for not trusting me at that moment. I myself wouldn't trust me if I saw whatever stupid, dumbfounded look was likely on my face right then. I swept the building with my rodents one more time, and nodded. "Yeah. Nobody." Judging by the fact that my creatures could smell and taste all sorts of things that I would rather not known that they could have sensed, the place seemed to be some kind of Empire-run whorehouse; at the very least, it had been an Empire-run whorehouse until that day, and likely would be once Steinn and his crew came back in and tried to recover things. "Brothel or something, I think. No guards and, uhh, no girls, either. None that were out in the open, anyways."

    Coil nodded, before motioning to Circus and Chariot. "Nothing Gnaw could see. Stay sharp, though. Could be safe rooms or other hiding spots." The two other capes nodded and made their way into the building, beginning a sweep; with another gesture, Coil motioned for me to follow him in, too. At first, I thought that his insistence on us staying in groups of two was part of his paranoia that somebody might stash something away for themselves without telling anybody; after he popped a skinhead thug in the kneecaps that I hadn't seen and who was ready to blow my brains out, though, I understood what the buddy system was actually for. I still harbored some resentment towards him for the whole "I've been torturing you and everybody else in the privacy of my alternate worlds." thing; I had begun to notice other little stuff that he did here and there, though, stuff like the partner system for sweeping the buildings to keep us safe, stuff that helped repair some of the faith I had in him that had been damaged. I wasn't going to instantly regain all of my trust in him over night, but it was a good start.

    We entered a "bedroom" that I sincerely hoped that nobody actually slept in, given what my rodents could tell about the place. Doing my best to ignore all the information coming from my rats, I began to search the place along with Coil. We had quickly learned to look under the bed in any room that had one, first, just in case there was somebody hiding under there that was planning on jumping out and clobbering us; there wasn't anybody under the furniture, but I immediately found my attention next drawn to a linen chest at the foot of the bed. I found it rather odd that a traditional piece of furniture like that would be found in a Nazi gang's whorehouse, but what I found even more strange was the fact that all of the stuff that had apparently been stored in there - not linens, but rather stuff that you would expect to find in a brothel that I was desperately trying to ignore - had been scattered around the floor nearby. I had a mouse crawl around the surface, trying to find some place where it could squeeze through into the trunk; it eventually found a spot, and as soon as it entered into the interior, a high pitched shriek emitted from within.

    Coil and I both trained our guns on the linen chest - I had become far more comfortable using a pistol over the past week and a half than I cared to admit - and I had the mouse run over the person inside, searching for any sort of weapon that they might have had on them. "Get it off me! Ew, ew, ew, get it off me!" Finding nothing on her except for a skimpy outfit, I slowly lifted the lid, a swarm of rats at the ready if I needed it.

    "Christ." I didn't, though. I doubted that I would need a gun, a baton, or even pepper spray to handle the person that was inside that container. I almost thought to call her a thing because of how skinny and malnourished she looked, almost like she was a ghost rather than a human being; not quite Holocaust survivor level, but she had definitely been approaching it. She was dirty, too, like she hadn't taken a shower in weeks, and I tried not to wrinkle my nose as I noticed that she smelled a similar way, also. Her clothes were... Almost non-existent, like they were only there for plausible deniability if law enforcement stormed the place. My eyes were only drawn to her actual personal features after I had studied just how horrific the girl looked, otherwise; brown hair, brown eyes, mousy, maybe my age, maybe a little younger - it was hard to tell with how thin she was - and I suspected that she would have been kind of cute if she hadn't been... How she was. More than anything, though, was the fact that underneath all that dirt, the girl was white.

    Coil spoke what I was thinking before I could. "I guess this is how they treat the women of the Aryan master race, isn't it?" I actually heard disgust in Coil's voice, which was something that I hadn't ever heard from him in regards to anybody else until that point. I looked at my boss out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to make the decision on what to do with the girl; he motioned with his pistol towards the "bedroom" door, before speaking to her. "Alright, kid. Get out of here. Go home. And do not tell anybody about this meeting." The waifish, mousy little thing just stood there for several seconds - her legs still in the linen chest, which I now had time to be impressed that she had fit herself into - looking between Coil and I. "Kid." My boss' voice took on a certain hardness. "Beat it." I could tell that he was trying to be as soft with her as he could, but the situation we were in wasn't exactly one where we could be all that soft, either.

    "Please." Her voice was significantly weaker than it was when she was struggling against my mouse, and I wondered for a moment if it was an act. "Please, take me with you. I can't... I can't stay here."

    Coil turned his head towards me, though I couldn't tell if he was looking at me, exactly. He shook his head, before speaking again. "Alright. You can't stay here." He pointed towards the exit with his gun again. "So leave. Door's open. Get out of here."

    The girl shook her head furiously. "No! They... They'll find me. The Empire will find me, and they'll bring me back here, or to... To another one of these places. Please, you have to take me with you!" She grabbed onto Coil's bodysuit, and I could see him momentarily considering just knocking her out with the butt of his pistol.

    "Look, kid. Just go back to your mom and dad, okay? Or your aunt and uncle, or whoever else you live with, okay? We're not exactly hiring little girls right now." I knew that Coil was indeed looking at me that time as he spoke. "We've already hired some henchmen recently, anyways."

    She had started to cry, now, and I felt my chest tighten up a bit. Shit, what a situation. "No! My parents, my family, they're... They're gone. Different stuff for all of them, but, they're..." The girl gulped, trying to compose herself. "That's why I joined the Empire. They said that they'd keep me safe, that they'd give me work, and food, and..."

    Coil had lost his patience by that point, and he threw her back towards the bed, eliciting a yelp of pain from her. As he put a hand up, I could hear the exasperation in his voice. "Save your sob story for someone who cares, kid. I'm here for the money. I'm not here to turn some brat into my charity case." As much as I wanted to help the girl, Coil was right. If we stopped to help every innocent person in danger, we... Well, we'd be heroes, and not villains. I tossed that train of thought out of my head as quickly as I could.

    However, the girl's eyes had lit up, something I wouldn't have thought possible for someone with a body that looked as lifeless as hers did. "Money? You're here for the money? Okay, I can show you where the money is! If I show you where the money is, will you take me with you? Please? I give you the money, you take me with you?"

    Coil shook his head, and as I heard the anger in his voice increasing, I began to felt my worry for the girl's safety begin to rise, as well. "Kid. We have both a Thinker and a Tinker in our group, and then one cape who has a whole big bag of tricks up their sleeve. Whatever money is here, we will find, and we will get." Coil shoved the barrel of his gun up against the girl's barely-concealed chest, and I heard her breath hitch a little bit. "And we will not need some stupid little girl to help us find it or get it."

    And then, she smirked. With a gun pointed nearly at her heart, facing up against two supervillains - one of which could have torn her apart with rats, if he wanted to - that frail, malnourished girl smirked; the expression appeared to throw even Coil off, as he withdrew his pistol back to a resting position. "No. You can't find this, not without my help. Unless you have a cape that can see through walls, or something." Coil and I looked at each other for a moment; Chariot may have been a Tinker, but I doubted that his transportation specialty would let him make anything like that. The girl must have figured out what we were thinking, because she continued, looking even more smug than before. "That's what I thought. But I've seen where they put the money, and I know they have a lot of money there." How did that girl who had looked so scared not a minute or two beforehand then suddenly look like some kind of little, mischievous devil? Had the initial shock of being found worn off, or something? Maybe it was because she knew she had a carrot to dangle in front of us at that point.

    I could see how Coil's eyebrows moved as he narrowed his gaze at the girl. After staring at her for a while - and having the girl herself stare back at Coil with that mocking grin of hers - my boss sighed loudly, and motioned for her to move towards the door. "Fine. If you show us the money, we'll take you with us, and figure out what the hell to do with some little brat when we get back to our place." Coil lifted his pistol meaningfully, as if to whip her with it. "But if you're lying, or even if there's no money where you think it is, I will knock you out and leave you here for the Empire thugs to find when they come back." The girl, for her part, just glared at him as she stepped out of the linen chest and began to lead us to wherever the money was. As Coil stepped in behind her, he asked: "So what's your name, anyways, kid?"

    The girl turned her head slightly to look back at us. "What do you care?"

    I found myself impressed as Coil managed to pinch the bridge of his nose even while walking. "I can keep calling you 'brat' and 'kid' for the rest of your life, if you'd like. Or, I can call you by your name. Your choice, brat."

    The three of us started down the stairs, and I saw Chariot looking at us from the doorway of one of the other "bedrooms". I gave him a thumbs up to let him know that everything was okay, and he returned the gesture, before returning to wherever Circus was. After a few seconds of silence, the girl spoke up. "It's Kayden. With a Y. So, like, K-A-Y-D-E-N. And you're, uhh, Coil and Gnaw, right?"

    "Yes. I'm Coil, he's Gnaw." I had nearby mice running around and scouting nearby the brothel we were raiding, using their albeit poor vision to look for anybody that seemed like they might be packing heat or getting ready to ambush us; nothing at that point, at least. Coil spoke up again, more to break the silence than anything else; maybe a little bit to give Kayden some retaliatory jabs in the little game they were playing. "So, I guess joining the Empire worked out real well for you, huh, Kayden?"

    She led us out the backdoor of the building, where there was a small, fenced off yard that had virtually nothing growing in it besides a few weeds. Coil stopped in the doorway, staring down at Kayden in uncertainty. "What?" The girl shrugged, pointing towards a spot in the yard. "They buried it in the ground. Like pirates, or something, I dunno. Nazi pirates." Coil huffed a little bit, but took the few steps down from the backdoor into the yard, following Kayden along once more. "Anyways, I mean... It made sense at the time. I was living on the streets, and there were a lot of black people and Asians around where I was living; I was just worried that they might hurt me, or something like that, so I joined the Empire to stay safe from them."

    I felt my teeth digging into my lip so hard that I thought that it might bleed; Coil's bodysuit covered every inch of him, so there was no way that Kayden could have known, at least not by looking at him. My boss stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the waifish girl that was probably half a foot shorter than either me or him... Who Coil would probably have no problem murdering with his bare hands, if he so chose; I pointedly considered the possibility that maybe his fingers were already wrapped around her throat in a different timeline. When Kayden realized that we weren't following any more, she turned around and looked at us with a confused expression. "What? It's right over here." The piece of ground had clearly been repeatedly disturbed, and I was pretty certain that anyone with a brain could have realized that there was something there if they were actively looking for it; I supposed that "having a brain" was too much to ask for from most skinheads, though.

    Coil, though, must have thought that however much money was underneath the dirt near Kayden could wait at least a few moments more. "You might want to consider your words a bit more carefully around your prospective employer, dear Kayden." That was probably one of the most Coil-ish Coil voices that I had ever heard my boss use up until that point; he was pissed, albeit in a different way than I had seen him angry before. That time, staring at the girl who had just unintentionally made such a massive faux pas, his anger seemed a little more... Personal than it usually was.

    Kayden, for her part, just shook her head in equal parts confusion and annoyance. With a shrug, she just let out a simple, casual: "What? What did I say?" In response, Coil simply undid a zipper around the wrist of his left hand - I wondered at that point how many of those he had on his suit - and allowed the glove part of his outfit to fall of, before wriggling the dark skinned appendage for the girl to see. "Oooh." All the confusion on Kayden's face instantly vanished, and her mouth hung open awkwardly. "Oh. Shit. Uhh, sorry. It's just that, uhh, you didn't sound black, you know... Like, you speak really articulately, not in ebonics or anything, so, uhh..."

    I was about to strangle the girl myself for how God damned awkward she was making the atmosphere, for how much she was causing me no small amount of sympathetic cringe from what she was saying. Coil, for his part, continued to stand there; I was thankful to see that he had his pistol holstered. "Kayden, my dear, I have two other people in my employ who are also of African descent, so if I do decide to hire you, I would highly suggest you work these little tendencies of yours out as quickly as you can." With heavy foot steps, he made his way over to the patch of dirt and began kicking the soil away, perhaps harder than he needed to; I made my way along mostly to put myself between Kayden and my boss, in the hopes of preventing anything else that was horrifically and brain-rattling awkward from happening.

    Underneath a thin layer of ground was a safe with a digital number lock. Coil and I tried to lift it together, but it was made of sufficiently dense and heavy material that we couldn't get it out of the hole that it had been buried in; Chariot might have been able to help, but he probably didn't have anything on hand for that specific kind of eventuality, and Circus' hammer space wouldn't be able to just pick up an entire safe out of the dirt like that. Kayden held her hands behind her, looking like a sly little imp as she kicked a foot back and forth playfully. "Guess you need the combination, huuuh?" Coil and I were sitting on the ground at that point, sweating a bit from the strain of trying to lift the safe; my boss, for his part, just turned his head to point directly at the girl. The smirk on Kayden's face disappeared in a flash as she began to speak in a dead serious tone. "Promise me that you'll take me with you. Promise me that you'll keep me safe from the Empire. Or else you're not getting the combination."

    I saw Coil's hand twitch toward his gun, and I could tell that he was thinking about it. In one of his different worlds, maybe he had gone that route; in the world that the me-Danny was in, though, he seemed to have opted for the more diplomatic approach. "I promise that I will take you with us if there is a sufficiently large amount of money in that safe, yes." He tilted his head slightly, and I could see the condescension hidden underneath his mask. "And I also promise that I will knock you out and leave you for the Empire to find if there isn't any thing of value in there, just like I said before."

    Kayden glared down at Coil for what must have been a minute or two, long enough for Chariot and Circus to join us in the backyard, and to join me in watching our boss engage in a staring contest with a twig that was pretending to be a girl. Eventually, though, Kayden nodded and bent down towards the safe; a few button presses later, and the safe gave out a four-tone jingle before popping open. Kayden pulled the door up the rest of the way, and Coil looked inside, his expression unknowable beneath the fabric of his bodysuit; after several seconds, though, he nodded, and gave Kayden an answer. "Hmph. Fine. But we are going to dig out whatever shit the Empire put into your brain at some point."

    "Yay! Thank you, Mister Coil!" The girl wrapped her arms around our boss, before giving him a kiss on his mask-covered cheek in what was most assuredly intended as a mocking gesture. Of course, that didn't stop a throwing knife from appearing in one of Circus' hands, the expression on the jester's face contorting more than just a little bit; I placed a hand on my team mate's shoulder, though, and after a quick huff, they calmed down and sent their dagger back into hammerspace.

    "Get off me, you damnable girl!" Coil didn't appear any happier than Circus was, actively pushing Kayden away even as she continued her attempts to try and tease and mock our boss. I heard Chariot chuckle a little bit from beside me, but a curt glare from Circus caused him to clear his throat, offer a small apology, and put on a serious frown instead.

    Coil was aggravated. Circus was jealous. Chariot just thought the whole thing was a hoot. Me? I had no fucking clue what to think about either the situation as a whole or Kayden in specific; I supposed that I'd have plenty of time to figure it out, though, if she really was going to stick around in the crew.

    ----------

    Far, far more important than Kayden was the sheer amount of loot we had all gathered over the past couple of hours since we launched our attack on the Empire holdings; we made a conscious decision to satisfy ourselves with soft targets, while avoiding the more secure properties the gang had, since it would likely have been too much danger and too much of a time investment to be worth whatever they had inside. Coil had, of course, eventually called our raids off once he felt that we likely wouldn't have much time left before the Empire came back with their newly freed capes in tow; before we had stopped, though, we had just taken... So much. There was no other way to describe it, really. There was just... A lot. Like, a lot a lot. Everyone had done their best to keep the cash bills in neat, orderly stacks at first, but as time went on, and we began unloading more and more money, things just started to pile up; the addition of loose money that wasn't bound together in any way didn't exactly help, either. I could only imagine the hours that we'd have to spend counting it all out; that, of course, didn't even consider all of the merchandise that we had grabbed, some of which was itself buried underneath the cash.

    As the seven capes of Coil's crew stood around the mountain of loot stacked up in Randy's garage - joined by Alan and Kayden, standing some distance back - Barker finally voiced the question that all of us were inevitably considering. "...how much d'ya think is in there?" He looked to Coil, first, but then to all of us, as if hoping that any of us could accurately or meaningfully answer the question.

    We all stared it. The bills the weapons, the drugs, the jewelry, the electronics... How much monetary value was sitting there in front of us? Our leader was the one that ventured the first guess, as inaccurate as it may have been. "My guess, knowing what I do about the Empire's properties - or did, rather, now that we're done with them - and just in terms of the actual money... Not including what we might get from selling everything..." Coil tilted his head, sussing out some sort of final answer. "...one million. At least. Maybe two. The merchandise? That much, again. Maybe more. Three or four million, in total."

    There was a cliche about how a place could be quiet enough that you could hear a pin drop. I never understood that, because pins dropping were actually pretty loud, depending on what kind of surface they hit. The point, however, was that the level of volume in the garage at that moment was at that sort of cliche level. Four million. Four million dollars. I did the math in my head. Four million dollars, divided seven ways... I would be taking at least five hundred thousand dollars, if Coil's estimation about the value of all of our treasures was correct. How much were houses in Downtown? Or penthouses? Or even apartments, really. I could move my mom out of that shitty old house in that shitty old neighborhood surrounded by shitty old gangs, and we could move somewhere we could be safe, I could use that money to help get her a position at Arcadia instead of shitty old Winslow, and now I could actually finally get her a brand new car like I had thought about before, getting rid of her shitty old junker. I could do all of that, and more. That's how much five hundred thousand dollars was.

    "We'll get one hundred thousand for everyone sorted before we leave. The rest, we'll work on later; further installments of one hundred thousand each, until we reach a remainder, and then we'll split further from there. And-" Before Coil could say another word, though, the cheering began.

    "Holy shit, guys! Four fucking mill!" Barker was jumping around excitedly, the gas from his power filling the air around him to such a degree that I worried he'd accidentally set off an explosion and burn up everything we had earned. "Hey! Hey Coil! Boss! Can I... Can I dive into it? Like in the fucking cartoons? Can I, boss?" The kid was so excited that I thought that he might be the one exploding soon enough, and he was pantomiming throwing himself into the piles of cash.

    Coil just stared at him for several seconds, and I could see my boss' jaw open and slack behind his mask. "If you do, Barker, then you will be the one counting all of the money for all of us." That seemed deflate the younger boy to the point that Barker wasn't willing to jump into the money, but the excitement was still there.

    Biter and Barker hugged each other. Trainwreck and Chariot began babbling on energetically about some Tinker stuff that I didn't understand. Circus had just been smiling silently, but I heard them and Coil start to talk about vacation and retirement plans. For my part, I turned around to look in Alan and Kayden's direction, the grin on my face wide enough that I was afraid that my mouth would fall off. "Holy shit, Alan. Alan, dude! Do you see this?!" I gestured to the pile of money and loot, and I could tell how a-glimmer my eyes were. Alan, though, was frowning. Why was he frowning? Didn't he see all of the cash right there? What was the frown trying to express? What was he... "Alan? Hey, Alan, what's wrong?" I walked over to my friend as Kayden stood there as transfixed as everyone else was by the stacks of bills piled high.

    The expression on Alan's face shifted as I grew close, though, moving from a frown into a smile. "Ah, it's nothing, Danny. I was just thinking about something." I could tell that he had forced the grin, and I opened my mouth to question him before he interrupted me. "Seriously, Danny. It's fine. Let's celebrate, yeah? This kind of haul is something we should be happy about, isn't it?" Alan draped his arm around my shoulders, and started walking me back to the mountain of loot. I knew that there was something wrong with Alan, something he was trying to avoid talking about, but... "Anyways, so what are you going to be spending this big paycheck on, Danny? Any plans, or anything?" I knew that he wasn't going to let me ask him, so I didn't try. It wouldn't do either of us any good, anyways, whatever it was.

    Instead, I put a smile back on my own face, even if I had to force it a little bit, myself. "Ah, yeah, well, so, you know how my mom's car is kind of a piece of junk, right? Well I was thinking..."

    Four million total. Five hundred thousand for me. I dreamt that night. I dreamt of all the things that I could do, of all the things that I could buy. I slept all night long, too, because there was just so much to dream about.
     
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  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: Slink
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 15: Slink

    -------------------

    The moment that I had walked through the front door to our house that night - my still recovering left arm now aching back into its sling after all the punishment that I had put it through that day - my mom had wanted me to tell her everything that I was allowed to about that day's events, since the media apparently hadn't said much about what Coil and the rest of us had been doing over in Empire territory. The news had - rightfully so - been focusing on the warzone that Downtown had been turned into as the ad hoc alliance of villainous capes went up against the Protectorate and Ward forces defending the prisoner transports, which had ultimately ended in every single last one of the parahuman gang members being freed from captivity. New Wave had been conspicuously absent from the fight, and some people on PHO were speculating that it might have been some kind of petty retaliation against the PRT for the "official" heroes not having assisted during the conflict in the Docks last Friday. Some people who did show up were the Travelers and the Undersiders - I made sure to pay special attention to the footage that included Grue in it - who first stood guard at their properties, and then intervened to stop the fighting between the two sides, notably after all the villainous capes had been released; the PRT wasn't exactly in a position to argue with the Downtown villains at that point - what with half of their own forces injured or disabled - so they reluctantly began to pick up the pieces while the criminals from the Docks escaped back to their territories.

    As for my team? We got a five minute segment featuring some shaky footage and blurry pictures from the phones of civilian bystanders. I cringed a little bit as I saw a video on PHO of my rats swarming over a group of Empire thugs, though, mainly because I hadn't noticed at that time how horrified their screams were as my rodents tore into their flesh; I idly considered maybe trying to pull back a little bit on my attacks whenever it was possible, idly considered not causing any more injury or terror than was strictly necessary. Apparently, though, Coil had contacted the news stations before they ran their stories, though, because they ended their segment by stating that our group was now going by the name of "the Entwined"; I supposed that Coil had better naming sense than I did, what with my deciding on the name of "Gnaw" and all. Regardless, though, my mom had desperately tried to sit me down at the dinner table so that she could make sure that I was okay, so that she could make sure I hadn't been injured again somewhere that she couldn't see, so that she could make sure that I hadn't done anything that I would "regret" later on, or whatever that meant. I assured her that I was fine, that everything was fine, but that I was really tired at that point, exhausted both physically and mentally, and that I needed to go sleep for a good ten or twelve hours; of course, I didn't tell her about the one hundred thousand dollars that were in my backpack at that point, since I knew that letting her know about the money would lead into a rather prolonged discussion when I just wanted to go to bed. It was clear that she didn't really want to let the subject go, but she had simply sighed and allowed me to head upstairs to my room, on the stipulation that I would tell her everything the next morning.

    And so, there I was, at seven in the morning, with a pile of cash totaling one hundred thousand dollars sitting on our dining room table, waiting for my mom to get back from her run; in order to help ingratiate myself to her, I even went through the trouble of making us both breakfast - mildly difficult with my arm, but not impossible - with her plate being kept warm and ready under a heat lamp. When I heard the sound of her keys jiggling in the lock to our front door, I quickly set the table up properly, and put on my best impression of the most obedient, adoring son possible. The money on the table was positioned in such a way that my mom didn't see it immediately upon entering the house, and so she simply smiled and greeted me as she re-locked the door and made her way towards the kitchen. "Danny. You're up early. That's good. Means we have more time to-" ...and then she saw the stacks of cash. Mom stood there for several seconds, looking at the money with a neutral expression on her face, before asking in an equally level tone a simple: "How much?"

    If I was being honest, I didn't know how my mom would react to the sudden appearance of that much money. I, personally, was excited as all hell that I had made that much bank in a single day, and that wasn't even the entire payout I was supposed to be getting once everything had been counted and liquefied. At the same time, though, my mom had always been a bit odd when it came to money, not really liking handouts or "easy cash" or anything like that; I had already been more than surprised when she didn't freak out over the twenty thousand that she had found in my basement hiding spot last Thursday. That being said, I put on as charming of a smile as I could managed, fluttered my eyelids adoringly, and admitted: "One hundred thousand." I wasn't about to volunteer that there was four hundred thousand more on the way, not until I saw how she reacted to that amount.

    Again, Mom just sort of stared, not moving her eyes or any other part of her body, barely breathing. "And how much more is there back with the Entwined?" I began to open my mouth, but my mom spoke up again without bothering to look at me. "I know there's more, Danny. I spent years with the Undersiders before I met your dad. I know how much money you can get from raiding twenty odd street gang safehouses in an afternoon." That time, she did bother to turn towards me, meeting my gaze dead on. "How much more, Danny?"

    Yeah, there was no way that I was going to be able to lie to my mom. She might not have been a parahuman, but she may as well still have been a mind-reader, even so. Not able to really look directly at the towering behemoth that was my mother, I glanced away, bit my lip, and filled out the rest of the truth. "Only for myself, probably at least five hundred thousand, once everything is counted and we get all the, uhm, commodities sold off. Half a million. Yeah." I had no idea that telling my mom that I had made five hundred thousand dollars in a single day would have managed to be such a stressful, anxiety inducing event.

    "Commodities." She continued to stare holes into me, and I could feel how intense her gaze was even when I wasn't looking directly at it. "Such as?"

    Maybe my mom was a parahuman, some kind of Master, with the way that her tone and body language compelled me to answer. "Uhm. You know. Jewelry. Electronics. Some weapons, too. Other stuff..." I hesitated, not wanting to explain to my mom what the "other stuff" was that Coil was planning to sell off.

    "Drugs." But there was no keeping secrets from my mom, apparently. "Don't try to deny it, either. I know how large the Empire's drug trade is. I see it at Winslow, for Christ's sake, and Brian's told me a bit about it." She placed her hands on the table, leaning forward towards me. "Along with everything else, you took the Empire's drug stashes. And you're planning on reselling all of it."

    I fidgeted in my seat, feeling my life hanging by a thread as my mom stared me down. Biting my lip again and doing my best to put on a mollifying expression, I explained: "Coil is planning to sell the, uhm, sell the drugs, yeah. But outside the city, Mom! We're not selling them in the Docks, or even Downtown. He has some contact, or something, and he's going to get all of it out of Brockton."

    Mom sighed, pulling back from the table and placing a hand on her head. "You say that, Danny, but you don't even realize that you're just taking Brockton's drug problem and making it some other miserable city's drug problem, instead. All the shit Coil's going to sell to whoever, all the meth, all the heroin, whatever's in there, it's going to go to Boston, or to New York, and then the people there get to deal with it, instead."

    I grit my teeth and clenched my jaw. As much as my mom scared me when she was like that, I had to at least try and stand up for myself. "And what about Brian and the Undersiders? They sell drugs, too, y'know!"

    Mom shot a look at me, and I could tell that I had - at least temporarily - set her off balance; once she had regained her footing, though, she came right back at me. "They sell things like weed, Danny. They sell ecstasy to young rich party kids and cocaine to old rich business people. They don't sell heroin and meth to vulnerable people in working class environments! There's a difference, Danny."

    I crossed my arms and stared at her. I knew I was only digging my grave further, but I responded even so. "Is there, Mom? Is there really a difference?" Cool. I had reached the point where I was then debating my mom about the ethical merits of selling various types of drugs. I idly wondered what in the hell had happened.

    My mom stared at me again, but I met her gaze this time, not backing down. She was being a hypocrite, and I wanted to make sure that she knew that, and I wanted to make sure she knew that there was nothing wrong with what Coil and I were doing, at least not compared to what Brian and the Undersiders had been doing for decades before us. Eventually, she gave up, letting out an annoyed sigh and throwing her arms out. "Whatever. It doesn't matter. It's not like I can tell Coil to not sell the drugs, and it's not like I can tell you to not accept the money from selling the drugs." She jabbed a finger towards the cash that was currently on the dinner table. "But that? We're going to see Brian after school today, because you need someone far more experienced in criminality and villainy than I am to explain how to handle that."

    A confused expression crossed my face as I looked up towards her. "But... Mom, it's just money? What does Brian need to tell me about it?"

    I saw several emotions flash across my mother's face at once, before she seemed to settle on a mix of condescension and adoration. "Oh. Oh Danny. You're so sweet. I almost forgot that you're only fifteen years old, considering everything that's been going on." I felt my face contort into something resembling offense as my mom sat down at the table, picking up her fork and starting to poke at the breakfast I had prepared. "It's not just money, Danny. It's one hundred thousand dollars." Mom smiled at me, but it was the most patronizing look I had ever seen her put on. "That's a lot of money, Danny. Especially for a family like ours. Not only that, it's a hundred thousand dollars that you stole from the dominant white supremacist street gang in the Docks." She picked up a piece of egg, swiftly chewing and swallowing the food before speaking again. "It's not just money, Danny. It's not like you have time to spend it right now, but we're going to see Brian after school either way."

    I frowned before stabbing at my bacon perhaps a bit more violently than I needed, while doing my best to keep from indulging in mouse fratricide with my power to vent the stress I was feeling. I didn't hate the idea of going to see Brian - being able to chat with a highly successful supervillain was an absolute treat for someone like me, just starting out in that field - but I did feel strongly annoyed that my mom felt like I need to be "taught" about things, or whatever. Was she a supervillain? Did she have powers? Was she a parahuman? No, she wasn't, so I didn't see where she got off trying to tell me what to do, or telling me that I didn't know anything.

    ...okay, maybe a little mouse fratricide would be fine.

    ----------

    The school day passed in a blur. Brad Meadows was back with his buddies, out of jail or the hospital or wherever he had been tucked away. Thankfully, Eddie didn't seem particularly ready to try and start up his harassment of me again, even though his meathead henchman was back and ready to deliver the pain if he so chose; I wasn't about to complain about the situation, though. Instead, I took the opportunity presented to me by that newfound safety to spend more time with Alan; it was a lot easier, to say the least, to hang out with my best friend when I didn't have to worry about having the shit kicked out of me by skinheads for the crime of merely existing. Alan himself, however, was still acting like he had been back at Coil's hideout the day before, when he was frowning in spite of all of the cash and goods we had piled up. Sure, he laughed with me, he smiled with me, but I could still tell that there was something wrong, that there was something bothering him; I didn't want to risk another fracture in our relationship so soon after we had started to repair it, though, so I didn't push the issue.

    In spite of the argument that my mom and I had gone through that morning, the car ride to Downtown after school - she took the day off early, leaving along with the rest of the students - was relatively peaceful and not as awkward as I had feared it might be. A significant portion of that, though, was the fact that we had plenty to see in terms of the aftermath of the convoy prison break battle from the day before. There had been around two dozen capes duking it out, and the evidence of that fact was present throughout the Downtown area; most of the damage had been concentrated to a few blocks that thankfully weren't near Brian's place, but there were still holes in the road and burnt out shops even miles away from the epicenter of the conflict. It took us a fair bit longer to get to the apartment complex than it had last time, due to all the detours and traffic rerouting as a result of the city and the PRT both scrambling to put things back the way they had been two days before.

    As we rode the elevator up to Brian's penthouse, I began to feel a little excited. Brian was... A cool guy, to say the least. There was the fact that he was Grue, the leader of the Undersiders, but he was also someone that I just liked being around, a man that I could look up to as... Well, a man, as well as a supervillain. My eyes slowly drifted towards where my mom was rocking back and forth on her feet as the elevator continued to smoothly rise up the building. I knew it was a long shot, all things considered, but... Danny LaBorn? Yeah, that had a nice ring to it.

    Those sorts of thoughts left my head, though, as we reached the penthouse floor and made our way through the small hallway that connected to the front door of his apartment. A rung doorbell and a short while later, and the entrance opened up to reveal Brian, in workout clothes mildly damp with sweat. "Taylor. Danny." He had a smile on his face as he stepped forward, giving my mom a hug and then... Ew. Ew ew ew ew ew. Okay, okay, I got it, I got it, I didn't need to see any more of that, so please, potential step-dad or not, please just...!

    My mom eventually pulled back, looking as equally as shocked but not nearly as disgusted as I was; in fact, it almost looked like rather than being disgusted that she was... Ew. No, I had to stop right there before I thought any further on it. "B... Brian. Wow. Uhh. Hello to you too?" She was smiling wide, while I was standing a few feet away feeling my stomach churn slightly. "I, umm. You know that, uhh, that's not why I'm here, right?" Yes, mom. "That". She continued, regardless. "I need you to talk to Danny about... Villain stuff, I guess." She looked at me with an apologetic grin, and I just shook my head in disapproval. I really hoped that I wasn't going to be handed taxi money and told to hit the road, or something.

    Brian finally let go of my mom, chuckling a bit in embarrassment as he rubbed the back of his head. "Ah ha, sorry. I was working out, and I guess I just, uhh... Testosterone and stuff, yeah?" I closed my eyes and fumed out through my nose, desperately trying to not comment on anything that was happening. "Anyways, yeah, come on in, and we can talk about all that kind of stuff." I opened my eyes back up to see Brian smiling at me like he was some kind of innocent angel who had never fucked my mom even once in his entire life. I almost wanted to believe that look, but I knew that it was lies, all lies. I just desperately hoped that they were using proper birth control, and that I wasn't going to end up being some kind of newly minted big brother at the age of fifteen.

    With a sigh, I just kind of pushed past Brian through the doorway, toward the dinner table where we had talked before. "Hey, Danny, don't just...!" I heard my mom call after me, likely to reprimand me for my rudeness, but I simply continued on into the apartment; I opted to focus on some rats on the lower floors, having them dance together in order to distract myself from all the thoughts rushing through my head. Once more, I had my bodysuit on underneath my civilian clothes, and in the backpack I had with me were my armor pieces and my mask; since I was going to be at Brian's place to be lectured about financial responsibility or whatever anyways, I figured that I could also get a few tips from him on other things, as well. With a sigh, I slunk down into one of the chairs, careful not to let my injured arm bend in improper ways.

    I could hear my mom grumbling something about "boy's time" or whatever while she made her way into the entertainment room again, just as she had the first time Brian spoke with me about villain stuff. The man in question just chuckled as she watched her go, and I tried very hard not to notice exactly where on my mom his eyes settled. I shuddered as he sat down in the chair across the table from me, and I did my best to not let that boyish grin of his cause me to forgive any of the sins that he had thus far committed. "Uh. Sorry, Danny. Really. I should have been more considerate, I should have been aware of your presence, and I wasn't. I genuinely do apologize."

    God damnit. It was so hard to hate this guy. I huffed and looked away from him, but acquiesced all the same. "...apology accepted." With a grumble, I settled into a normal sitting position and faced Brian properly. "Anyways. Did my mom tell you what she wanted you to talk to me about."

    Brian folded his hands over the table and nodded. "Yes. I understand that you and the rest of the Entwined had their first big haul yesterday? Courtesy of, ah..." He motioned out the windows, to where a building across the way had several glass panes blown out. "...the distractions here in Downtown?" I nodded in return, before he continued. "And I understand that you already have a hundred grand, but that you'll likely be getting somewhere around four hundred more?" Another nod from me, another continuation from Brian, though this time the man rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he spoke. "That's pretty good. More than the Undersiders ever made when we were starting out. Coil's got a good head on his shoulders, for being a kid." I didn't know whether to feel offended or appreciative at that; again, an adult was giving me the whole "kid" treatment, and yet, at the same time, Grue himself was admiring the work of our team, or at least of our leader. Brian's face took on an expression that I couldn't quite decipher, though, as he asked: "And how do you plan on spending that five hundred thousand dollars, Danny?"

    It was a trick question, I knew it was, and yet I also knew that I had to answer, one way or the other. I looked around the dining room as if expecting some solution to pop out at me, but with nothing in sight, I met Brian's eyes again, smiled cautiously, and gave him my response. "I mean, the first thing I was thinking of was getting mom a really nice, new car, to replace that piece of junk she's driving right now..."

    With nothing but a blink, Brian countered me. "No, you're not." It was halfway between a statement and an order, and I was so frozen by it that I didn't have time to react before he continued. "Danny, I know how much your mom makes. It's not a lot. I've been helping her out here and there, even though she hates me for it, but I never give her more money than she can reasonably explain away." Brian pointed a finger at me, not aggressively, but more to punctuate his remark. "And that's what you need to do, Danny, if you're going to stay in town while spending that money. If you buy your mom some high-end car, brand new, right off the lot, people are going to wonder where you got that money. A fifteen year old high school student with a thirty seven year old high school English teacher can't just up and buy a new car out of nowhere, after all." He leaned over the table towards me, his voice lowering just a decibel in volume as he continued. "And then, when people are wondering where you got that money, they're going to remember the way that the Entwined went around wrecking the Empire's shit and stealing all their cash. Then, they're going to remember Gnaw, a skinny white kid with dark hair, who, if you think about it, kind of looks like Danny Hebert, doesn't he?" Brian pulled back to sit upright in his chair, giving me a pointed look. "And then you get to find the Empire knocking your door down at two in the morning, coming after both you and your mom."

    I shook my head, a confused look on my face. "But I don't... What about... You told me about the unwritten rules last time, right? About how you're not supposed to go after a cape's civilian identity? So the Empire couldn't do that, right? Even if they figured out who I was?" I sounded exasperated even to myself, so I wondered what Brian must have been seeing and hearing over from his side. None of it made sense. I had earned half a million dollars, and then I was being told that I couldn't spend any of it? What the hell was up with that? How was that even remotely fair?

    Brian smiled, and it was the same kind of condescending smirk that my mom had put on in the morning. I was starting to hate that look, that expression of "Oh, you poor, naive little child." that these adults seemed to be so fond of. "Danny. The unwritten rules only apply so long as people want them to apply. They're unwritten, after all. Nobody has to follow them. Consider, for example, when the Brockton Bay Brigade battered down Persephone's door, when they invaded her own, personal, private residence so that they could haul her off to the Birdcage. Hell, they even took her kid, Danny. They took Persephone's kid. If that's not a violation of the unwritten rules, then I don't know what is." Folding his hands on the table, he leaned in again. "But they did that because Persephone was just that dangerous, because she needed to get put away that much. The unwritten rules can and will be broken if someone determines that a cape is too dangerous, too much trouble, or too much of a nuisance." He pointed a finger at me, smiling in a way that was marginally less patronizing than before. "And you, Danny? You, Coil, and the rest of the Entwined? You've made yourself quite the nuisance for Steinn and the Empire. If they figure out your civilian identity, then they will exploit it, and they will come after you and your mother in your own house."

    I sat there, my face twisted in consternation as I considered Brian's words. "But..." My hands fumbled around in attempted gesticulation while I gathered my thoughts. "So... The Empire can just... Get away with breaking the unwritten rules? What... What's the fucking point, then?" Somewhere down below, a pet guinea pig chewed desperately at the bars of its cage.

    "Oh, no, there'd be consequences, Danny, don't you worry." Brian crossed his arms and nodded. "If a cape or a gang decides to say 'fuck it' to the unwritten rules, then everybody else considers it fair game to break the unwritten rules in regards to them, and only to them. Empire decides to start going after civilian identities? Then nobody will have any problem with anybody that decides to go after their civilian identities, in return. It's a way to keep everybody in line, sort of. We did that with the Teeth, way back when. They didn't give a shit about the rules, so everybody in town went in on them hard, until they scattered like the scum that they were." Even with that, though, he narrowed his eyes dangerously at me before continuing. "But what happens to the Empire afterwards won't matter much to you or your mother if you're dead, Danny. And that's why you'll be buying your mother a slightly above average used car that a high school English teacher could afford if they saved up enough." Another grin came on Brian's face, but this one managed to ditch the condescension. "And besides, dealing with tax fraud investigations is a real bitch. Probably worse than having an entire gang of Nazi shitheads on your back, thinking about it."

    I finally managed a smile, myself, even a small chuckle. "Yeah, I can imagine it is. The tax man cometh, and all that."

    Brian pointed towards the backpack that I had sitting on the dining table, before continuing. "Anyways, your mom said you wanted me to check out your costume? Give you suggestions, if you need them?"

    I nodded, reaching for my bag as I began to speak. "Yeah, I was-" Then, I froze. One of my mice saw something, something that I considered rather concerning.

    "Danny? What's wrong?" I could see Brian tense up, could see some of his darkness start to seep out from his body as he readied himself for a fight.

    I had started to instinctively and almost automatically use my rodents to set up patrols and lookouts no matter where I was, just for the sake of safety; my caution, at that point, seemed to have finally paid off. "Someone just came out of the elevator on this floor. They're walking down the hallway, right now. Mouse sees it." I gulped hard as I looked towards the front door.

    Grue turned to look at the entrance to his apartment, too, his black tendrils swirling more. "Who are they? Can you tell?"

    I shook my head. "Barely. Mice vision isn't great. A woman, I think. Dark blonde hair? Short. Shorter than my mom, anyways. She has a mask on, I think? Hard to tell. And she's, uh. She's smiling."

    In spite of the tension, Grue's darkness instantly evaporated. "God fucking damnit, I swear. She always does this shit. Put your mask on, Danny." I had no idea what the hell was going on, but I trusted Grue's judgment, and so I quickly strapped the lightweight metal mask across my head, watching the front door nervously as Brian walked over towards it. The mouse that was in the hallway watched as the woman rang the doorbell, and I heard the jingle ring through the apartment at the same time. The door to the entertainment room opened slightly, and I saw my mom peek out at us with a confused expression. I barely had time to give her a shrug before Brian opened the door, greeting the person on the other side. "You have really got to stop fucking doing this, you know."

    Brian's musculature was enough that I couldn't really see the woman that was standing outside his apartment, except for the barest few glimpses. Whoever she was, she was apparently not content with letting Brian bar her way through the door, so she simply... Ducked underneath his arms and strode into his house with a confidence that I doubted many other people could pull off. Brian looked like he wanted to protest, to complain, to say something to the woman, but he also looked like he knew that nothing he told her would get through.

    As the woman strutted towards me, I allowed my own, regular eyes to take her in again, this time with additional clarity that my mice didn't have. Dark blonde hair. Shorter than my mom. Black domino mask on. Vulpine grin. It all began to add up as she stuck a hand out towards me in greeting, before intoning with a cheery voice: "Ah, you must be the fine young man that I've heard so much about!" I watched, frozen in place, as her smirk widened just the tiniest little bit; with nothing but that small, minuscule change in expression, though, I suddenly found myself feeling like helpless prey caught in the unrelenting jaws of a vicious predator. "My name's Tattletale. It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Gnaw."
     
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  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: Lynx
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 16: Lynx

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    Before I could even start to lift my hand, I heard the sound of stomping feet from my right, accompanied by my mother's voice. "Don't you dare, Tattletale." With an angry look on her face, she slapped the villainess' hand away from me; I had never seen the type of fury that my mom had in her eyes at that moment, and I had no clue as to exactly what it was. "You are not pulling your bullshit on my son."

    Tattletale put on an exaggerated pout, an expression that suggested she was enjoying the reaction she had provoked from my mother. "Aww, c'mon, Tay. Don't be like that." I saw Mom's eyebrow twitch for a moment, as Tattletale's face returned to a smirk. "Oh, but this is your son, you say?" She did her best to look absolutely surprised, even though everybody was aware that she already knew. "And here I thought he was just the supervillain Gnaw! I had no idea that he was little Danny Hebert, too!" Tattletale turned to look at me, a faux-shocked expression on her face.

    I looked at Tattletale, then to Brian, then to my mom, and then back again to Tattletale. Airing the question out to anybody willing to answer, I spoke: "...is she always like this?"

    All three adults in the room responded simultaneously: "Yes." My mom and Brian both glared at Tattletale, while the masked woman just shrugged innocently. Mom was the one that continued talking after a few seconds of silence. "What do you want, Tattletale? This was supposed to be time for Gnaw to get advice from Brian."

    Tattletale placed a hand over her chest, giving off a huff and an offended look. "Tay! I can't believe you! Aren't I allowed to drop by just for a friendly little visit? Can't I just drop by to say hi to my boss, my friend, and her son?" My mom crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at Tattletale, prompting the latter to put on another grin; she looked over at Brian then, tilting her head slightly in disappointment. "And really, Brian? Unmasking to a member of a rival group? You're far too trusting, especially for being our beloved leader."

    Brian closed the front door to his apartment and shook his head before walking back to the table we had been sitting at. "He's Taylor's son, Tattletale. I would trust Taylor with my life - no, I have trusted Taylor with my life, before - and so some of that trust extends to Gnaw. Not only that, but we already know who he is. It's only right that he knows who we are, too." The man gave a pointed look at Tattletale, before adding: "So, you know. If you wanted to, nobody here would be opposed."

    The villainess made a show of pacing back and forth, tapping her finger on her chin as she let out "Hmm"s and "Mrm"s. After a while, though, she stopped and turned to look at me, a somewhat more serious expression on her face as she stared. "I don't know, Brian. He is part of the Entwined, after all." A few seconds passed, and the manner in which Tattletale studied my face changed slightly. "...and he's more loyal to Coil than he is to our trust in him. Even if he doesn't know it yet." What?

    "Do not fucking do this, Tattletale." My mom had taken the few steps needed to close the distance between her and the other woman; she had placed a hand on Tattletale's shoulder, a small physical gesture of aggression, but not one that would escalate things to far. "Do not use your fucking powers on my God damned son!" The volume of my mom's voice rose into a yell at the end, but I was focused on the content of what she had said, not how loud it was. Tattletale was using her powers on me? Like with most Thinkers, her power had been hard to place, and most people could only speculate; she always claimed that it was mind reading, but it was generally accepted that she was saying that to make her seem more grandiose than she actually was. Sitting there and having her power be used on me, though, I really wished that I could have known exactly what she could do.

    "Oh, come on, Tay. You know I can't turn it off!" Tattletale brushed my mom's hand off her shoulder, the vulpine smile still on her face as she began to pace around dramatically again.

    "No, you can't turn it off, but you can keep from baiting my son into giving you info, at least." Mom had opted to just cross her arms and stand there, while Brian stood several feet away, ready to intervene if things got more heated than they already were.

    Tattletale hummed a bit as she made another show of trying to think, before she turned on her heel and stopped for a moment. "But no. I'm not unmasking myself to him. And I don't care about your feelings, Brian, because you shouldn't have unmasked, either. Especially as our leader, you've compromised all of us with this." Her voice had turned more serious, most of the playfulness from earlier gone, though obviously ready to return at a moment's notice. Brian himself glared at Tattletale, but didn't speak, choosing silence as the best option. As Tattletale turned to face me again, I saw something in her eyes, something that reminded me of someone, something that reminded me of... Ah. Of course. Tattletale reminded me of Thomas. I vaguely wondered if all Thinkers possessed that pathological paranoia like those two did.

    "Alright. Whatever, Tattletale. But you still haven't said what you're here for." My mom was apparently used to this behavior from the villainess, as she didn't seem particularly shaken up beyond the anger she had shown.

    Tattletale, for her part, stared back at my mom for several seconds, an emotion something akin to... Sadness? Melancholy? Longing? Something along those lines was in her eyes while she looked at Mom. "Taylor. Tay. Why are you like this? We used to be best friends, back in the early days. You remember that, right? How we spent hours talking together, watching movies, confiding in each other... Even though I already knew all your secrets, even though I already knew that you and Brian were-"

    "We're not friends anymore, Tattletale-" Mom had raised her voice again in order to cut the villainess off. "-precisely because you've become like this. I don't know what happened in the thirteen years between the battle with the Teeth and me reconnecting with you guys, but you are not the same Tattletale I knew back then. More importantly than that, though?" I saw my mom's fists clench, and I saw darkness start to spool off from Brian, in response. "Stop changing the fucking subject and answer the fucking question, Tattletale. Why. Are. You. Here?"

    The villainess just watched my mom for a few moments, before that smirk of hers went wide across her face yet again. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. I'm here because, well..." Tattletale turned to face me again, and I felt once again like I was nothing but prey being stared down by a predator. "I wanted to make Gnaw an offer. Or, rather, I wanted to make the Entwined an offer, with Gnaw as my liaison."

    "Don't believe a God damned thing that woman tells you, Gnaw." My mom, again, having backed off but still full of tension.

    Tattletale moved her eyes to look sideways towards Mom. "I'm not hearing you tell me that I can't make him this offer, Tay." Without turning to look at him, she also spoke towards Brian. "And I'm guessing I have your consent to move forward with this plan, oh dear leader?"

    My mom didn't respond, opting only to continue staring at Tattletale. Brian, still some ways away, just sighed and shook his head. "I mean, I have no fucking clue what this plan is, Tattletale, but you also don't tell me shit about most of your plans. So, go ahead, I guess." I was starting to wonder if Brian was actually in charge of the Undersiders or not.

    With a smirk, Tattletale waved Brian off. "Oh, don't worry, you big lug! I promise you'll like it!" He responded with not much more than a non-committal grunt, before Tattletale continued. "Anyways, Danny-" After getting a sharp look from both my mom and Brian, she laughed and corrected herself. "Oh, deary me, I'm sorry! Anyways, Gnaw." The intimidation that I felt from this woman was starting to become increasingly tainted with annoyance, and I was more and more able to understand why Mom and Brian acted the way they did toward her. "My understanding of the situation with the Entwined is..." She stopped talking for a few seconds to look at me intently; using her power again? "...at the very least, you want to take some territory for yourself. Coil's not content with just smashing and grabbing Empire property. He wants something bigger, am I right?"

    I considered giving her a verbal answer, but something told me that I wouldn't need to. "So he does want to take territory. Not a surprise. The only gang in this city that doesn't aim for territory is the Palanquin, and since Coil doesn't rent his services out, it makes sense that he'd want a slice of the Docks pie for himself." Another several seconds of looking at me. "...oh my God. No way. Really? That's amazing." An excited expression crossed her face, and her voice went up an octave or two in emotion. "I clearly underestimated Coil. That kid? Your boss, Gnaw? That kid has balls. Balls of fuckin' brass." Tattletale grabbed one of the chairs and sat down in it a few seats away from me; the woman placed her elbows on the table, resting her face in both hands as she did her best to give off a little kid on Christmas day expression. "So, tell me. Why does he want the Docks? I won't be able to figure that bit without at least a little bit of actual info, you know."

    That was when Brian stepped in, placing a hand on his "subordinate's" shoulder and squeezing down softly but firmly. "That's enough, Tattletale. I don't think those sort of questions are pertinent to your offer, are they? If anything, it sounds more like you're trying to interrogate the kid for information on our rivals." Brian looked over at me, and I gave him an appreciative nod for his assistance.

    Tattletale pouted again, like a kid who had just had all her Christmas presents taken away from her. "Fine, fine, fine. Whatever." The villainess dismissively slapped Brian's hand off of her shoulder, just as she had done to my mom, earlier; Brian clearly wasn't happy about it, but he simply retreated a bit further away to allow Tattletale and I room. "Anyways. All of that aside, Coil wants the Docks, yeah? The whole Docks?" I nodded, cautiously; she apparently already knew that much, so it wasn't like I could keep secrets on that account. "Okay, cool. That's even better than I thought it was going to be. So, listen. I need your help to take out the Empire."

    "What the fuck, Tattletale?!" Brian was pissed, then. He threw his arms wide with an incredulous look on his face. "Alright, you want to organize a bank robbery on your own? Fine, whatever. You want to organize a kidnapping on your own? Sure, I can deal with that. But now you're telling me that you've been planning to take out the God damned Empire Eighty-Eight all on your own, without telling any of us?" He took a few steps forward, but didn't close the distance all the way. "You... Tattletale, you can't just do this kind of shit." I noticed my mom out of the corner of my eye, leaning up against a wall, pinching the bridge of her nose, and fuming silently. I myself was about as shocked as both of them were. Not just taking on the Empire, but taking them out? The gang that had ruled the Docks with an iron fist for fifteen years? And Tattletale just wanted to... Eliminate them, completely?

    Tattletale, for her part, looked like she couldn't believe that what she had said had ended up making her "boss" so angry. "It's a good plan, Brian! I swear it is! All of my plans are good, you know!"

    Brian stared at her hard enough that I was worried that she would die of a heart attack on the spot; I was just glad that he wasn't shooting tendrils of darkness out at the villainess. "Yeah. Like that one plan that ended up with us getting torn to shreds by the Travelers? Great plan, Tattletale. Great plan."

    "Okay, so one plan didn't go so well. One plan, Brian. But I swear, this one is going to be great." Brian looked unconvinced, but he allowed Tattletale to continue.

    Before she could, though, I did my best to get a question in edge-wise. "Okay. Wait. Hold on. I don't mind the concept of taking out the Empire, but I thought you guys - the Undersiders - had some kind of like... De facto truce with them? They don't mess with Downtown, you don't mess with the Docks, or something? So why are you going after them?"

    Brian looked at Tattletale, and Tattletale looked at Brian; the villainess smiled, and made a gesture at the man, as if offering him the stage. With a sigh, Brian spoke up. "That's the problem, Gnaw. Tattletale's information network has let us know that the Empire's going to be breaking that truce here soon enough. Their current leader, Steinn, he wants to keep things intact, keep the status quo, just keep things how they are." He shook his head, looking out the window to the city beyond. "But his wife, Rune, she's been after the throne ever since they married, ever since Allfather passed away. And with that disaster a week ago? Where they lost four of their capes, on top of Crusader a few days before, and all of them to - no offense - a bunch of teenagers?" Brian looked at me pointedly, and I felt a bit of a blush cross my cheeks at what was essentially roundabout praise. "And then the attack you launched yesterday? Steinn looks weak, not just to the Empire, but to everybody. You can bet the ABB and the Merchants are going to keep going at the Empire after the lackluster showing the Nazis have put out over the past two weeks, and obviously the Entwined are planning on it, too."

    He stepped over to the table, before placing his hands on top of it and leaning over towards me. "And Rune's going to use the way that Steinn looks weak right now in order to take him out. Maybe kill him, maybe get him taken away by the PRT, maybe just run him out of Brockton, I don't know. No matter what, though, it's going to happen, it's going to happen soon, and everybody knows that it's going to happen. Normally, none of us would care about a coup happening in another gang. The problem is that we know that Rune is far more aggressive, far more belligerent than Steinn would ever dream of being. If she gets control of the Empire? She's going to gun for Downtown as hard as she can." Brian turned to look at Tattletale, then. "It's not like we can interfere in Empire politics enough to keep Steinn on the throne, so the best choice is to just tear the whole damn gang down before they turn into a problem." Tattletale smiled, and Brian sighed and shook his head in response. "So yeah. I guess that planning to take out the Empire is the best idea in this situation. But I still wish that you had told or asked somebody first."

    Tattletale simply smirked and gave a shrug before she spoke up once again. "Don't worry, Brian. It'll all work out. I promise!" Once more, the doubt was clear in the man's eyes, but he didn't interrupt her as she continued. "Anyways, Gnaw. What you, the ABB, and the Merchants did last Friday? That was great, a coordinated attack, all three of you planning to-" She stopped for a moment, her power obviously at work. "Wait, no, you didn't plan it with the ABB and the Merchants?" I shook my head, knowing that she'd get the answer one way or the other. "You just... Took advantage of the attack that they were already planning on launching?" That same excited look crossed her face, and the next second, she was laughing like a hyena, slapping the table with one hand while she held her gut with the other. "Oh my... Oh my fucking God! You guys... Coil... Hooolyyy shit you guys are good. Reminds me of the Undersiders when we were your age." She turned to grin at Brian, but he seemed mostly concerned with the possible damage that Tattletale was doing to his table; I idly wondered how much it cost, or if Brian was just that conscientious about things.

    The villainess wiped away a few tears of laughter before continuing. "God, Gnaw, I swear, I'm sorry for those little outbursts, but I just cannot believe how you guys operate. You're like, ten levels higher than any of those other gangs down there. I'm impressed. Really." I wanted to take the compliment, but I wasn't sure if I should, not from Tattletale. The woman obviously noticed that I hadn't been particularly pleased at her words, as she pouted a little bit. "Seriously, Gnaw. You guys are doing great work down in the Docks. Honest." She held one hand up flat, while the other was on her heart. As she was making that silly little gesture, though, I saw an emotion quickly flash across her face, one that she immediately tried to hide. I didn't need to have whatever powers Tattletale had to put the pieces together on that one; with her comment about "doing great work down in the Docks", she had triggered something that had given her the answer to her earlier question, about the Entwined's ultimate motivations. There was only one thing that I managed to think at that moment, and it was simply: Fucking Thinkers.

    Without missing a beat, though, she finally continued explaining her plan. "Alright, as I was saying. The uhh, uncoordinated coordinated attack? Amazing. Beautiful. Did a ton of damage to the Empire, and then set them up for even more damage less than a week later. Expertly done." I made sure to express my impatience as well as I could, crossing my arms in annoyance as I glared at Tattletale. "Alright, alright, I get it. Yeesh, kids these days. Anyways, basic idea? Do the same thing, on a larger scale. Spitfire's crew is always willing to do most work, and I'm sure that they'd be more than willing to get paid to beat up a bunch of Nazis. Uber and Leet are much the same way, and I know that they'd be glad to get footage for their little video streaming channel, or whatever it is. You, the ABB, and the Merchants are obviously in, and I've already talked to the Travelers, who-"

    "Really?" Brian's word wasn't said in angrily or loudly; it was more said in simple disbelief. "You already talked to the Travelers? You talked to the Travelers about this plan, alone, by yourself, before you even told any of us about the plan, let alone consulted us about whether we should approach the Travelers about it or not?" He was furious, but it seemed that he knew that popping off at Tattletale wouldn't accomplish much of anything.

    The villainess, for her part, just smiled sheepishly as she shrugged. "Whaaat? I mean, it worked out. They agreed. And we can plan our attack together, as an actual group. I just wanted to get them on board as fast as I could. And you were busy when I tried to call you about it." Tattletale smirked at Brian, then at my mom, and then at me. "Y'know. Busy." I closed my eyes tight and had some rats bang on some empty soda cans like they were drums in an attempt to drown out the emotions building up inside of me. When I opened my eyes back up I saw Mom get ready to charge over and strangle Tattletale, but a shake of Brian's head in her direction stopped her. I could tell that she was desperately torn between leaving the room to get away from the villainess and staying in the room to make sure that Tattletale didn't deliver too much bullshit onto my plate; I would have to remember to thank her for that later, once Tattletale herself was gone.

    "Alright. Anyways. Sorry, Gnaw, that we keep getting sidetracked. Point is, I'm going to try and get in contact with the ABB and the Merchants so that we can have an actually really this time coordinated attack between all the other groups in the city. You don't have to help me with that, though. You just need to go back home and talk to Coil. I already know that he'll say yes, but it's still a formality that we need to cover, anyways." She looked a little annoyed, like she hated having to deal with those "formalities". "I can't offer you guys any actual payment, though, because you're not mercs like Spitfire or Uber and Leet. Your 'payment' is going to be territory and whatever else you can grab from the Empire once the skinheads start to collapse in on themselves, yeah?" I nodded to show that I was following along. "I'm pretty sure Coil will understand that, so I don't think that I need you to do any convincing on your part. Yeah, just gotta drop in and give him the offer, really." Then, Tattletale leaned in close, so that she could whisper in my ear without Brian or my mom hearing her. "And hey, maybe you guys can use that territory to try and launch some experiments into fixing the Docks, yeah?"

    "What the fuck did you say to him, Tattletale?" I hadn't even had time to notice that my mom had already been charging over from the moment that Tattletale had started to approach me.

    The villainess just raised her hands plaintively, shaking her head with a smile. "Nothing important, Tay." A few seconds of silence, followed by. "And nothing you two don't already know, apparently."

    Brian cleared his throat, looking pointedly at Tattletale. "Alright. Gnaw will go back to Coil and deliver your offer to his boss. Was there anything else you needed to talk about regarding your plan, Tattletale, or are you ready to leave, now?"

    The villainess remained seated in her chair for a while, looking around the room to get a good view of each of us while a more moderate version of that vulpine smirk of hers rested on her face. "I think I'm done here, yes. If I need anything else from Gnaw, I'll make sure to be polite and deliver the information to Brian, so that he can send it along." My mom and Brian both continued to stare daggers at Tattletale while the blonde woman stood out of her chair, stretching in an exaggerated fashion. "Mmm! Anyways, I guess I'll leave this big, happy family of yours alone, for now. Go ahead and do whatever it is that a blissful household like yours does." I watched as Mom did her level best to contain herself for the few seconds that remained of Tattletale being in our presence. The villainess walked her way over to the front door, but stopped with her hand on the knob. "Oh, and Danny?" Brian and Mom tensed up again at the use of my civilian name; all of us simply watched, though, as Tattletale's expression once again took a more serious tone, her voice matching the look on her face. "It's an admirable goal, that you and Coil have. Just make sure that you don't lose sight of it, yeah?" Melancholy showed itself on Tattletale again, as she looked to Brian and Mom both. "Money and power has a way of doing that, you know." In an instant, the cheery, vulpine grin was on her face again, and she wiggled her fingers while waving goodbye. "Anyways, toodles!"

    And with that, she was gone. I was fairly certain that I had never met a more intense person in my entire life before then, and I was fairly certain that I wouldn't meet anyone more intense than her for the rest of my life after that point, either; Coil was like a kitten compared to the veritable tiger that Tattletale was, and I only belatedly realized that my hands had been shaking for much of that time. My mom was walking around, fuming, clenching and unclenching her fists, clearly looking for something to hit that wouldn't be damaged or broken if she did. In the end, her conundrum was solved by Brian motioned her over towards himself in a strange fashion, one that I understood the moment my mom started beating on the man with all the force she could manage. "Fucking cunt!" The view that my mouse in the hallway offered showed me that Tattletale was still waiting for the elevator, well within earshot of my mom's tantrum; the villainess looked directly at my mouse a moment later, that smile still on her face.

    My mom wasn't exactly the most muscular woman I had ever met, and I doubted that the punches she was throwing into Brian's torso weren't causing him more than a little bit of discomfort. "Stupid God damn bitch! Who the fuck does she think she is?!" I gulped and shrunk back in my chair; my mom's anger was something to behold when it was at full throttle, and it was something that even I had never managed to reach at my most furious. For a good while longer, she continued to use Brian as a punching bag, launching into tirades full of profanity every several seconds. Eventually, though, she apparently ran out of both energy and vocal endurance, as she settled into a motion of slowly, weakly whacking at Brian with open palms, while muttering out curses under her breath. Brian looked directly at me, and motioned with his head toward my mom.

    With no slight amount of trepidation, I stood out of my chair and took off my mask, setting the metal guard plate on the table before walking around to my mom; once I was next to her, I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug from behind, as gentle and as calming as I could. "I'm sorry, Danny. I'm so fucking sorry you had to go through that, that you had to meet that woman." Her voice was harsh from the screaming, and choked up from the slight tears I could feel dripping onto my arms.

    As Mom lifted her hands to settle on my forearms, I shook my head into the back of her shoulders. "It's fine, Mom, really. I'm... I'm a supervillain now, so I guess I'm going to have to learn to deal with people like that." I could feel her grip on my limbs tense up, and I considered that there was potentially some better word choice to have been had there. Even so, neither of us let up on the moment of calming intimacy.

    Some short time later, I heard Brian clear his throat and speak up. "So, uhm. Does anybody want... Dinner? I can order take-out, or we can make something, maybe? It's, uhm. It's up to you." I couldn't tell who exactly he was directing that "you", too, but I was going to allow my mom the choice either way.

    "I'll make dinner." My mom's voice was still low, and it caused Brian and I to look at each other again. "And before either of you say anything, yes, I'm okay to do so. I need something to distract me. Something to clear my head." She lifted her face up, turning slightly so that I could see it from my position behind her; the smile on it was forced, but she was doing her best to make it genuine. "So what I'm saying is that I'm telling the both of you that I'm making dinner. Understood?"

    That managed to get a small laugh out of Brian and I both. "Yes, Mom." I leaned forward to give her a kiss on the cheek, and I could hear a slight hum out of her as I did so.

    "Alright, well, when Madame Chef is ready, the kitchen is hers." As Brian spoke, my mom untangled herself from my hug with a giggle, before making her way over towards the area in question. With a grin of his own, Brian inquired: "And what does Madame Chef have in mind for this evening's dinner?"

    I did my best to smile at my mom and Brian as they began their cooking preparations, but as I took my seat at the dining table, my thoughts returned endlessly to the one of the last things that Tattletale had said before she left: Make sure that I don't lose sight of my goal? Money and power had a way of doing that? Was she implying that I was losing sight of my goal, just because I had earned a little cash? I didn't think I was. Sure, we had got a lot of money from raiding the Empire bases, but that was just a bonus; the cash was just a side thing as we worked toward freeing the Docks from the control of the gangs, as we worked toward fixing the city, as we worked toward holding the PRT accountable for their actions. I considered for a moment that maybe Tattletale was just being like my mom and Brian, looking down on me because I was still a teenager, treating me like I had no idea how the world worked, or something like that. Yeah, that made the most sense, thinking of it like that. Who the hell was that woman to try and tell me that I was "losing sight of my goal", anyways? No matter what her power did, no matter what it could tell her, she was wrong about that much.

    Danny Hebert was not losing sight of his goal, and neither was Thomas Calvert. The two of us were going to take Brockton Bay, and we were going to make it a better place. No matter what.

    I looked up from my musings toward where Brian and my mom were flirting a bit as they began to cook our dinner, and once more, the thought crossed my mind: No matter what.
     
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  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: Den
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 17: Den

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    The rest of the evening at Brian's place passed uneventfully, and the tension caused by Tattletale's visit slowly dissipated over the course of an hour spent eating thrown together but still enjoyable stir-fry. After dinner was over, he volunteered to look over my costume as he had been meaning to do before Tattletale showed up; apparently, his own outfit was made by the same armor-Tinker person that had made mine, though with another zero added to the price tag due to the fact that Brian's costume was made up almost completely of that pseudo-leather material that had been used for my elbow and knee pads. With that having been considered, there wasn't much for him to complain about regarding the quality of my outfit, though he did make some adjustments to where I was placing and how I was securing my armor in order to give me greater maneuverability and defense. I pestered him about the possibility of doing some sparring or some training, but he repeatedly denied my request, stating that it would have been too dangerous for me with my arm in the condition that it was in then; I was disappointed, but I didn't want to cause any more hassle for everybody than had already been had that night.

    Unfortunately, I did end up letting slip the fact that I had brought on Alan as my... "Henchman". To say the least, the fact that I was employing my best friend as a villainous minion still seemed a bit of an odd concept to me, but it wasn't something that I considered particularly controversial or outrageous, either. After all, more than anything else, the arrangement Alan and I had was just that he was helping me out with some stuff; we were best friends, after all, and helping each other out was what best friends were supposed to do, right? My mom, apparently, didn't seem to agree with that assessment, as she began grilling me the second the accidental admittance came out from between my lips. I noticed that she didn't seem particularly concerned with Alan himself - though she did make a few choice comments about "bad influences" and such - but was rather more worried about whether or not Alan's mom was aware of his and mine's arrangement. I hadn't specifically told Alan to not tell his mom, but I sort of assumed that my friend would have enough of a head on his shoulders to not start going around and blabbing about how he suddenly got a job working with the Entwined; if nothing else, it didn't seem to me like Emma Barnes knew of the situation. My mom wasn't particularly happy with that answer, but Brian managed to help me convince her that everything was more than likely fine. Even so, I could understand why she was worried about Alan potentially mouthing off to people about me, especially considering the circumstances between my mom and his.

    Eventually, though, the night came to an end, and my mom and I returned to our house in her junky old car that Brian had forced her to promise to let me replace over the weekend. I was pretty sure that Thomas and the rest of the Entwined didn't exactly follow a normal sleeping schedule - what with being a gang of villains, and all - but it was late enough on a Friday evening for myself that I simply gave my boss a quick text letting him know that I had something that I needed to talk to him about tomorrow, before heading off to bed. Opting to wait until at least the afternoon to drop by Randy's place, I coerced my mom into heading down to the used car lot and picking out her choice of gift. As Brian had drilled into my head the night before, the car that I gave my mom the money to buy wasn't amazing, and it wasn't even great, but it was good, and good was better than the so-called "vehicle" that my mother had been forced to drive around for the past several years, unable to afford anything that didn't break down at least once a month. Mom was incredibly reluctant to actually accept the cash - something else that Brian had warned me about the night before, about how people like my mom wouldn't feel comfortable accepting "dirty money" - and I was worried that she might have actually been making the salesman suspicious with how much she was fidgeting around. Eventually, though, she found one she liked, handed over the lump some of money, and we drove off the lot in a nice, decent, four-door family car, leaving the junker behind.

    As soon as we got home, I decided that it was late enough in the day to go talk to Thomas and the rest, so I did the usual of stuffing my backpack with my armor parts while putting my costume on under civilian clothes. I could tell that my mom was more nervous than usual about letting me go "off to work", as it were, more than likely due to our encounter with Tattletale the previous evening; a hug and a kiss on the cheek assuaged her worries enough to send me off with a smile and a wave, though, and I considered that well enough. As I walked my way over to Randy's through the Empire territory that both my own house and the Entwined's hideout resided in, I noticed that the atmosphere in the area was significantly different than it had been two weeks ago, before my initial attack on Crusader and the Empire outpost he was guarding. The primary change was that there weren't as many Empire soldiers standing on street corners or at the doorways of brothels or drug houses; the fact that the Entwined and I had shut down the vast majority of those types of facilities was probably a major contributing factor, there. I did see a number of people that I would have idly been able to recognize as belonging to the gang in question, but they were suddenly wearing hats to cover up their shaved heads and long-sleeved shirts to cover up the tattoos that they would usually proudly show; whether or not Rune was planning a coup against Steinn, the signs of Empire weakness were clear to everybody.

    The way normal, regular, civilian people were going about life in Empire territory had changed drastically overnight, as well. Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics were all walking around in the areas nominally "controlled" by the Nazi gang, but in greater numbers than they had been before; neither did they have the same degree of fear and skittishness that had formally been a requirement of survival for them, living where they did, with the threat of an Empire punk deciding to beat them up just because of the color of their skin looming around every corner. I did happen upon one of those aforementioned Empire punks harassing an old black lady for some ridiculously minor offense, smacking at her and making her drop her things right in the middle of the sidewalk; as confident as the minorities in Empire country had become, they apparently weren't confident enough to stand up to a skinhead thug sporting tattoos of swastikas and with a gun holstered in his waistband. While I couldn't blame them for not wanting to deal with that sort of trouble, Gnaw wasn't the kind of superhero that needed to worry about silly little things like firearms - the gunshot wound to my arm that was still recovering aside, of course - and so I opted to add my own brand of justice to the streets that the Empire was slowly losing its grasp on.

    Throwing a slur her way, he batted her across the head again, before continuing to denigrate her. "Watch where you're going! You got Alzheimer's or somethin', huh?! I hear you types get it more, wouldn't be surprised!" The lady, all too aware of the firearm that the Nazi was in possession of, was opting to simply do her best to block his blows and keep herself as uninjured as possible until he eventually got bored of assaulting her... Whenever that would be, of course. "People like you are the reason the Empire's in this fuckin' mess, y'know!" I didn't know, and I was fairly certain that neither the lady nor anyone else within earshot knew, either. "Empire's just tryna help out, then your types come in and just-" Thankfully, I didn't need to listen to another word of the skinhead's diatribe, as I had finally managed to gather enough rats, mice, and squirrels from the nearby alleyways and parks to deploy against him. I wasn't intending to seriously harm the man... But I did want to let him know that his days of being able to beat on people just because of their ethnicity were over. "-and one more thing, you-!"

    Then, the first scream of pain came, as a squirrel bit through the relatively thin material of his jeans and into the flesh of his calf, the rodent's teeth tearing through skin and meat and slamming into bone. "Argh!" The black woman took several steps backward, staring in awe as my rats began to crawl all over him. I myself was standing a few streets away from the scene, since I wasn't about to start a full on fight over the matter, especially considering that I had other business to deal with that day, anyways; of course, there was also the exhilarating fact that I was letting Empire jackasses like him know that I could use my power to reprimand them for their crimes no matter where I was and no matter where they were, which was pretty nice. "H... Help! Get them off me! Please, help!" I had to try not to laugh as my mice watched the skinhead beg the lady that he had been assaulting to help him against my swarm of rodents as they bit and ripped and tore and chewed at his skin. Plenty of other people on the street were watching, but nobody, not even other nearby Empire members, were looking like they were even slightly interested in assisting the man; the buffer of rodents that I had surrounding the thug while my main army went on the attack probably helped to dissuade any friends he might have had. Eventually, though, I decided that the Nazi punk had been punished enough, and sent my critters off to where I had found them. As the man lay on the sidewalk - bleeding from dozens of bite wounds and nearly unconscious - the black woman gathered up her things and sprinted off; I myself hummed a small, happy little tune, swollen with pride as I continued on to Randy's place.

    With no other Empire screwheads in need of behavioral correction, I made it to the Entwined's safehouse soon enough. I used my key to enter the stairway door, and was immediately confronted with the heavy bass sound of some first person shooter game being played in the living room. "Take that, you motherfucking cocksuckers!" Zeke's voice somehow managed to make itself heard over the din of the new, fancy sound system that sat to either side of the new, fancy widescreen LED television parked up against the wall; the gas from his power poured out from his mouth liberally as he breathed excitedly, and I worried that the slightest mistake on his part would blow the whole place to hell. Brad was apparently of a similar opinion, as he had opened up a nearby window to allow out whatever of Zeke's gas could manage to make its way over there before dissipating. Blake and Kayden were leaning on the back of the couch that Zeke was sitting on watching the boy riddle enemies with bullets and blow them apart with grenades. I didn't see Trainwreck or Trevor, but I assumed that they were both down in the garage doing Tinker things. Rather than try and be heard over the sound of the video game, I tapped Blake on the shoulder and pointed my finger downstairs, mouthing the name: "Thomas?" Blake nodded, pointing their own finger in that direction to indicate that they understood. With a nod, I made my way down to the first floor.

    My assumption about Trainwreck and Trevor had been correct, as they were both fiddling furiously with what looked to be a glut of new parts and materials. Trainwreck's Tinker stuff was never particularly impressive, given his specialty, but he was still managing fairly well, working on what looked like an improved version of the scrap gun that he had been using; Trevor, in the meanwhile, had used the car lift to bring his van several feet into the air, and was practically tearing its undercarriage apart and replacing it with a new design. I had learned over the past week and a half that one shouldn't interrupt a Tinker fugue, so I opted to leave them to their work in peace while I made my way to Thomas' office. A quick knock on the door, a quick answer of "Come in.", and I made my way through.

    The thumping bass of Zeke's game was sounding down into the office, perhaps even worse than upstairs due to the fact that we were directly below; ever so often, some explosion would go off, and the whole ceiling would shake for a second or two. The look on Thomas' face suggested that he wasn't exactly happy with the situation, but that he was managing to tolerate it and do his work either way. Alan was there, too, which I knew shouldn't have necessarily been all that surprising - given that he was then working for us, and all - but I still found myself momentarily taken aback as he turned loose bills into stacks before running them through a money sorting machine Thomas had set up on the desk. "Hey, Danny." My friend greeted me as he started counting out some one-dollar bills, of which there were an unfortunately large amount in the pile of cash we had looted from the Empire properties. I momentarily felt a bit guilty, though, when I realized that I had forgotten Alan in the midst of talking to Tattletale, buying my mom a new car, and getting ready to tell Thomas about the plan to take down the Empire; I had been the one to bring my friend into the Entwined, but I wasn't even the one helping get him set up with the crew judging by the fact that he had been working alone with Thomas for the past hour or two. Not feeling up for much more, I simply gave Alan a small nod and a smile, before turning to Thomas.

    "So, uhh, Thomas?" My boss looked up at me, a questioning look on his face. "Y'know, uhh. I talked to Grue again last night, got some advice from him on a few things..." Thomas' face tightened up a bit, but he nodded even so. "He, uhh, he told me that we shouldn't be too conspicuous with our spending? Might raise some red flags, y'know? Make it a bit obvious who we are?" I scrunched my eyebrows in thought for a moment, before adding: "Wait, how the hell does Zeke even go shopping, anyways?"

    Thomas smiled a little bit, shaking his head humorously. "He doesn't. Bradley does it for him." My boss motioned with his head towards the ceiling, where another deep boom came from the sound system up above. "Zeke wanted to get a lot more than that, believe it or not. Wanted to go on a huge spending spree. I managed to mollify him by saying that he could get a sound system and TV for his games, but that the rest would have to wait. He accepted, thank God." He stretched back in his chair, letting out a groan of exhaustion as he cracked a wrist. "Everybody else has been patient enough. I allowed Trevor to go and buy Tinker supplies for himself and Trainwreck earlier today, but it wasn't a purchase that anybody would have paid any attention to. Blake and myself aren't huge spenders, and neither is Bradley himself." Once again, Thomas stared up at the ceiling, his eyes narrowing a bit. "Kayden, the little brat, insisted on a 'finders fee' for showing us the safe. As if us taking her in wasn't payment enough on its own." My boss sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "But I gave her five thousand to do with as she pleases, so long as it doesn't get traced back to us. Damn girl."

    As it had turned out, Kayden was actually my age, and would have been a sophomore at Winslow with me if she hadn't been turned homeless by the deaths of most of her immediate family. Nobody would have known it given by how badly her body had been punished by malnutrition, but she had seemed ready enough to correct that with how much she ate last night after we converged back at our based once the raids were over. A quick shower after dinner proved one of my initial assumptions about Kayden correct, that she would probably have looked pretty cute if she hadn't been coated in dirt, grime, and only God knew what else. Once the adrenaline rush of the day's events had worn off, though - being found by Coil and I, manipulating the two of us, and then being brought back to our hideout - I noticed that the excited, mischievous personality she had shown us at the brothel began to retreat somewhat. Whenever any of us aside from Blake would get near her, for example, she would flinch away, and the girl seemed to always be monitoring every door and every part of the room she was in. It was a paranoia similar to Coil's, but not quite the same, either; I didn't want to ignorantly speculate on her circumstances too much, but considering the place that we found her in and the clothes that she had been wearing, I could only imagine what sort of things that had happened to Kayden, both to make her paranoid like that and to make her desperate enough to try and manipulate a person like Coil in order to secure her escape.

    Kayden, though, was not the reason that I had come to the hideout that day. I looked to Alan, and then back to Thomas, nodding once more before speaking up. "Right. Well, uhm, anyways, about that thing I texted you about...?" I looked back to Alan meaningfully, and my friend set the cash he had been counting aside on the table, preparing to leave.

    Thomas, though, waved Alan back down into his seat. "No, no, it's fine. Stay, Alan, please." My boss looked at me, a peculiar look on his face. "You trust your friend, right? So whatever you want to tell me, you should feel comfortable letting him hear. Right?"

    I grit my teeth, seeing what Thomas was doing but not willing to call him out on it. Even so, I nodded and agreed. "Yes. I trust Alan." I turned to my friend again, smiling. "I just wasn't sure if you trusted him. Boss."

    I liked Thomas. I considered him my friend. I looked up to him. Our goals aligned. I wanted to work for him. But holy God could he piss me off when he wanted to, like when he gave me a smirk that reminded me far too much of the expressions I had seen on Tattletale the night before. "I trust Alan, yes. And I trust you, too, Danny. So please, go ahead. What's this matter about?"

    Alan went back to counting through the cash, while I nodded and began my explanation to Thomas. "Alright, so, I already mentioned I went to see Grue last night?" My boss nodded, motioning for me to continue. "Well, I went there for just like... Basic advice stuff. Supervillainy tutoring, or whatever you want to call it." All three of us smiled, and Alan even let out a small chuckle. "But, uhh, in the middle of all of it, uhm." I lifted a hand to rub the back of my neck, smiling nervously. "Uhh. Tattletale showed up."

    I could see all mirth vanish from Thomas' expression in a single moment, to the point that even Alan - looking at our boss out of the side of his eye - tensed up. It was Coil I was dealing with, from that moment on. "Can we trust her?" Even without the mind-reading-whatever powers that Tattletale had, Coil could apparently already understand the general idea around the subject I had come to talk with him out. It was scary, almost, to know that my boss was so intuitive and sharp-minded even aside from his parallel-world Thinker power.

    I shook my head, confident in my answer. "No. Absolutely not. Even Grue told me not to, in so many words."

    Coil rubbed his chin, where a thin layer of facial hair grew; he hadn't shaved for a few days before that, apparently. "And yet, we're going to have to trust her, anyways. Am I about right, Danny?"

    I nodded, content to at least not be completely unbalanced during a conversation with the guy across the desk from me. "Yeah. Because everybody else is going to be doing so, as well." Coil looked at me, awaiting what he likely at least partially knew was coming. "She wants to destroy the Empire. Obliterate it. Not just attack it. Eliminate it, as an entity. Render it non-existent. And she wants everybody in Brockton to ally together for it."

    The sound of a bound stack of cash hitting the floor drew my attention to where Alan was sitting to the left of me, his hands frozen in mid air, his jaw hanging open, his eyes blinking dumbly. My friend turned to look at me, but I kept my eyes on Coil. My boss, for his part, was smiling wide, half in amusement and half in that hungry way that I had seen him grin a few times before then. After a few seconds, Coil began to laugh, and I sat there patiently as he expressed his mirth at the situation. Once he calmed himself down, he questioned me further. "Wonderful. Amazing. I'd heard tales of... Err, Tattletale's gutsiness, but that? Taking out the Empire, with everyone in Brockton behind her? That is impressive."

    I smirked back at Coil, and I idly wondered who I had picked that expression up from over the past two weeks. "She said the same thing about us, you know. Well, she said the same thing about you, Coil." My boss raised his eyebrows, pointing a finger at himself. I nodded, and explained further: "She, uhm. Okay, listen, I did not tell her about this." For once, Coil looked like he actually trusted me on an account. "But her power let her know about our ultimate goal. Taking over the Docks, fixing the city up... I don't think she knows about the, uhh. The other thing, though." Alan's presence in the room kept me from mentioning the PRT bit, and I was thankful to my friend as he simply went back to counting money instead of worrying about what "the other thing" could be. "But she said, and I quote, that you have balls of brass, and that we remind her of the Undersiders when they were our age."

    Coil clapped his hands together several times, looking very pleased. "Well, if that isn't the highest compliment a guy like me could have received. Tattletale of all people saying that I have balls of brass? Yeah, I can dig it." I was pretty sure that if my boss' ego grew any bigger, that his head would burst open; thankfully, he gave a wave of his hand in motion for me to continue. "But sorry, Danny. Do go on."

    "Anyways, yeah." I nodded, speaking up again. "She said that she's going to talk to the ABB and the Merchants, obviously, but that she wants to get the Travelers on board as well - or, rather, she already has got the Travelers on board." Coil's eyes rose in surprise, but he allowed me to continue uninterrupted. "She also said that she's going to hire Spitfire's crew, as well as even Uber and Leet for this little endeavor of hers." My boss snorted a bit at those two names "So basically... Yeah. Parian's the only one who'll be missing out on the party, really."

    Coil smiled at my middling joke, before nodding and asking: "So why does she want to do this now, after fifteen years of truce between Downtown and the Empire? Obviously the Empire's in a weak position right now, but they've been weaker, too, and the Undersiders haven't bothered with them during those times. What's the deciding factor, here?"

    Again, my boss managed to impress me with how much he could figure out without me having to say anything; I assumed that by merit of having two conversations on the subject at once that he might be privy to more than me-Danny was aware of, but I still found myself appreciate of Coil's logical skills, even so. I shook that thought out of my head, though, and managed to answer his question. "According to her... Information networks, or whatever it is, she has good reason to assume that Rune is getting ready to coup Steinn."

    That stopped Alan in his tracks again, and Coil's eyes went wide for a moment before they returned to a neutral position. For several seconds, I saw the gears in my boss' head turning - maybe turning twice, depending upon how his power exactly worked - as he considered what I had told him. "Steinn is too attached to the status quo. Has been since Allfather died. Doesn't want to rock the boat, doesn't care about the ideology, just wants to keep things normal and safe, at least as normal and safe as Empire rule of the Docks can be for everyone. Rune is the exact opposite. Belligerent, jingoistic, and a true believer. Only reason she hasn't couped him before is because she hasn't enough power during his weaker points. Now, though, she does. Who knows how many of the Empire capes on her side, and then how many of the Empire regulars, as well." Coil had stepped out of his chair by that point, and was pacing back and forth behind his desk, clearly taking joy in the acting of reasoning everything out. "It's not that it's the Empire that is vulnerable right now, but it's rather that Steinn is vulnerable one right now; it's that we need to take out the Empire as it exists as a tool, as a weapon, before it gets into the hands of Rune, before she grabs it and starts gunning to bring Downtown into the Empire fold along with the Docks." He stopped in his tracks, turning to look at me, his eyes still a-glimmer as he did. "Is that about right?"

    I nodded, smiling a bit as I saw how gleeful my boss was at the situation. "That's exactly it, yeah." I idly wondered if I could have figured all of that on my own, like how I had just seen the good Thomas Calvert do; even if he scared the shit out of me some times, even if he made me feel completely betrayed by torturing me and my friends in his alternate timelines - yeah, it was going to take some time for me to get over all of that, regardless of how much I had tried to rationalize it and explain it away - I doubted that there was anyone in the world I would want to serve under more than him.

    Coil nodded, looking at the ply-board that served to block the windows to the outside. "Wonderful. What an amazing lady she is, Tattletale. What an inspiration." I was silently grateful that Blake wasn't in the room with us as an enamored look entered Coil's eyes. "And, of course, she already knew that we were going to accept, already knows that we have accepted." I considered the thought that nobody but Coil and I even knew about the plan by that point, but I did supposed that he was the one in charge, technically. "So I'm sure that Tattletale's already-" There was a knock at the door, and Coil grinned. "Do come in."

    It was Blake, looking a little unsure of themselves. "Uh, hey, so there's, uhm." Wow, I hadn't ever seen Blake looking that uncertain before. "We've got a visitor? You should probably come see." Judging by the tone of their voice, though, it wasn't anything urgent or dangerous, at least.

    The smile on Coil's face only got wider as he spoke, and I could see even Blake lose some of their footing in the process. "Oh? Please, do tell. To whom do we owe the honor of their presence?"

    Blake bit their lip and shifted their eyes around slightly, before looking at Coil and nervously answer: "It's Regent. He says he's here to talk about 'the offer'."

    And, once more, Coil grinned. "Tell him I'll be right up."
     
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  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: Rex
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 18: Rex

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    "You're just like her, do you know that?" Regent leaned slightly backward as he spoke, the man's face concealed by his trademark Venetian mask even as he wore otherwise casual clothes; the rest of us - barring Trainwreck and Zeke - were wearing masks of various assortments, including ad hoc eye masks for Alan and Kayden.

    As we members of the Entwined stood on one side of the living room at Randy's place, Regent nodded directly at Coil, prompting our leader to offer a short response. "Well, I'd certainly like to take that as a compliment, being compared to Tattletale like that, but I'm going to guess that's not quite what you mean, good sir Regent?" The rest of us fidgeted nervously as tension began to seep into the air around us.

    With his face almost completely concealed by his mask and his body language tightly controlled, it was difficult to tell what sort of emotion Regent was experiencing at any given moment; even so, as I watched the man's barely visible eyes, I was fairly certain that I saw some small degree of disgust in them. "No, it wasn't really a compliment. It wasn't really meant as an insult, either. More just like, an observation, I guess." In spite of the expensive-looking dress shirt and slacks the man wore, along with the elaborate, elegant mask he had decided on as part of his costume, Regent's manner of speaking came off as very... Casual? Laid-back? Lackadaisical? If nothing else, his appearance contrasted sharply with the way that he spoke. With a shrug, though, Regent continued his explanation. "Like that 'good sir Regent' shit. The like... Condescension in your voice? You don't bother trying to hide it, either, like you want me to know that you know something that I don't; given that you're a Thinker, I'm gonna assume that you do know something that I don't, though." I looked over to Coil, and could only see a smile spread beneath the mask of his bodysuit. "You, Tattletale, and her little pet Accord are all like that. Pisses me off, to be honest."

    Coil took a step forward from our group, prompting the rest of us to nervously prepare for whatever our boss was about to do; I brought my swarm-sense to the front of my mind, feeling the hundreds of rodents arrayed around the building - already busy scouting for any reinforcements Regent might have had laying in wait - and ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Instead of anything violent, though, Coil simply gave Regent a deep, graceful bow; Regent wasn't exactly a short man, but Coil and I were both tall enough that when we were close enough to be compared with the masked villain that Regent seemed small, more than likely much to the man's annoyance. "My apologies, Regent, I did not mean to-"

    "No. Stop. I'm not here for that bullshit." Regent had stuck a hand out, causing Coil to clam up and pull out of his bow, but still stay where he was standing, closer to Regent than the rest of us. "I know that you've already accepted Tattletale's offer-" Coil began to nod, began to even offer verbal agreement, but Regent simply bulldozed over him and kept going. "-so now I'm going to tell you the next step of her 'master plan'." Regent made exaggerated, parodying movements with his hands when he said that, and I noticed the array of jewelry on his fingers, including what looked to be a wedding band on the ring finger of his right hand; before I could take any more notice of that, Regent pulled out a cheap-looking burner cellphone and placed it on the dinner table to his side. "That's the phone that she's going to be using to contact you." Regent pointed first to the phone, and then back to Coil. "If you want to stay apart of this deal, then you will answer it whenever she calls or texts." No 'Understood?' and no waiting for any response, just as before. "Tattletale wants to wait until Rune's coup against Steinn is in progress, so that we can hit 'em with their pants down, so-"

    "Wait, but, what if the Empire figures out what we're tryna do before then, won't they-?" As Zeke spoke up, the entire room turned to glare at him; Regent, Coil, myself, and everybody else stared down at the boy as smoke filtered out of his mouth, causing him to look confused and concerned. "What? It was just a question!"

    Regent huffed, and waved his hand through the air as if in an attempt to dispel the tension that had been building up. "Yeah, and it was a rude question, kid, 'cause you interrupted your 'good sir Regent' while he was speaking." With a shrug, Regent returned his attention to Coil. "No big deal, though. I knew a kid like him, back when the Undersiders were first starting out." I idly wondered if Regent meant himself, but he continued speaking before I could consider that any further. "Anyway. Doesn't matter if they find out, because Rune's going to launch the coup no matter what, because that's just how she is. We can have leaks, we can have spies, we can have snitches galore-" Everyone looked at each other for a moment - especially at Kayden - but Coil turning around to glare at us stopped that in its tracks before our own paranoia could spiral out of control. "-but it really won't matter. The plan's still going to be able to go through." He used an index finger to tap on the phone that he had placed on the table, before continuing. "Now, Tattletale and Accord are going to be figuring out some kind of battleplan, and they'll be wanting you to come down to talk to them so that you guys can hash out the details and figure out what your part's going to be." I saw Coil furrow his brows behind his mask, and Regent must have as well, given his next statement: "Ask it." A command, almost.

    I could see Coil twitch momentarily at Regent's words - apparently even our esteemed leader wasn't capable of completely keeping his cool around the masked villain - but composed himself enough to respond calmly to the man. "The plan is to have every other villainous group in the city attack the Empire all at once. Even if the Empire has a dozen capes, we'll have two dozen, twice their number. Why do we need..." Coil trailed off for a moment, before I could see his eyes open wide. "Oh. She really thinks that'll happen, then?"

    While the rest of us shuffled uncomfortably in ignorance of whatever it was that Coil had figured out, Regent turned to the rest of us and spoke with a smile in his voice. "See what I mean? Knows something you don't know, has to act smug about it. Every information Thinker that I've ever met is like this." I saw Coil stand up very, very straight before Regent continued. "But yes. Tattletale's pretty certain that the PRT is going to intervene in our fight, full bore. All the Protectorate and all the Wards both." Everyone in our group began to look at each other again, muttering worry and confusion in low voices while Regent continued to explain. "That prison convoy break that the Empire, the ABB, and the Merchants orchestrated? And that we and the Travelers locked down? Yeah, that's a huge black eye for the PRT, and they need something to make up for that." Regent shoved his hands into his pockets and twirled around on the spot, doing a little dance as he spoke. "So, sandwiching the rest of Brockton's villains between the heroes and the E88? Hopefully nabbing up as many of us as they can in the process?" The masked man pulled his hands out of his slacks in order to stretch his arms high above his head, causing some parts of his slender, toned chest to be exposed underneath his half-unbuttoned shirt; I saw Kayden out of the corner of my eye paying quite a bit of attention to that. "You said that the Empire has only a dozen capes. That's true. But if the PRT intervenes - which they will, even I can see that much - then we'll have another dozen capes on our flank." With a tilt of his head, Regent added with some finality: "And another dozen on top of that, if they can convince New Wave to join. Three dozen of them against two dozen of us, in that case. Now wouldn't that be fun?"

    Christ, I hadn't even thought about any of what Regent was telling us when Tattletale had originally offered me the deal to take back to Coil. Not just the Empire, but the PRT, and possibly New Wave, too? Lord only knew the grudge that New Wave had against the Entwined because of what we did with Fracture; Liberty Lady had let us go the last time, during the gang war, but I worried that she might end up being not so generous if we crossed proverbial swords again in the future. Before I could think on the matter any further, though, Coil spoke up. "And New Wave might very well show up, because..." Our boss had started to pace back and forth, rubbing his chin in the stereotypical manner that one does when deep in thought. "...they can't afford to flake on the PRT again, like how they did with the convoy breakout." Regent nodded slowly, while Coil continued voicing his thoughts. "It's not just for goodwill with the PRT, though, because they also need goodwill with the public - or at least Liberty Lady thinks so - and thus they can't be seen sitting on their hands during another major cape skirmish." Our leader stopped in his tracks to turn and look at Regent, and I could see the way that his mask strained against the expression of excitement that adorned Coil's face; I hoped that he was having his typical excitement for having figured something out, and not because he was hoping to brawl with the Empire, the PRT, and New Wave all at once. "Is that about right, Regent?"

    Regent nodded, putting his hands back into his pockets once again. "Yeah, that's about right. So, point is, the battleplan isn't going to just be about fighting the Empire. It's going to be about fighting the PRT when they come in from behind, and possibly - probably - New Wave on top of that. We'll have the advantage at first, but give it time and we'll end up being the ones outnumbered." The man rotated his head around, cracking his neck a little bit as he did. "Like I said, Tattletale and Accord can fill you in on the nitty gritty details, but the basic idea is that we want to hit the Empire hard enough to knock most of them out of the fight early, so that we can turn around and prepare for when the heroes show up. Anyway." Regent looked from one end of the group to the other, tilting his head and talking with a grin as he continued. "Now your good sir Regent can field any questions that you might have, my subjects."

    The man said it with such a tone of voice that he managed to cut through the nervous energy in the air, dispelling it and causing Zeke to snort out loudly, which in turn caused the rest of us to chuckle and giggle at Regent's comment. Once we quieted down sufficiently, Coil shook his head toward Regent, before walking over to the man and extending a hand out toward him. "No other questions, though I'll make sure that I get in contact with Tattletale if I think of any."

    I watched as Regent waited just long enough before shaking Coil's hand to set my off slightly off-balance, before eventually grabbing it and committing to the shake. "Of course. Unless she's asleep or already on the phone with somebody else, she'll always pick up." Regent tilted his head again, that time in the other direction and added: "I wish I could be a fly on the wall for when the two of you actually have your first conversation, though; her and Accord chatting is funny enough to watch, can't imagine what her and you would be like."

    I watched as Coil slowly, slowly extricated his hand from the shake, before he tilted his head himself - in a manner that seemed intent in parodying Regent's movements - and asked: "I'm going to assume or at least hope that that one was a compliment, this time?" I, personally, assumed that it was anything but a compliment, but I also wasn't going to voice that opinion given that things were finally settling down.

    "Might be. Might not be. Even I can't tell what I mean sometimes." I stopped for a moment to wonder what the hell he even meant by that, and given Coil's change in posture, he seemed similarly unbalanced by Regent's words; before we could take any longer to be confused, the masked man turned to look directly at me. "Gnaw. Grue wanted me to tell you something. You got a minute?"

    Regent gazed over pointedly at Coil when he asked his question, prompting me to look toward my boss for permission to go with the peculiar, likely untrustworthy man; Coil stared at me for several seconds, then at Regent for an equal amount of time, before turning back to me and nodding, albeit slowly and without much assurance behind the motion. Once my boss had given me the go-ahead, I looked toward Regent and nodded to the masked man in turn, adding: "Yeah, I can talk for a minute or two." The man nodded, and motioned me toward the door that exited down to the outside stairway; as I fell in step behind him, the rest of the Entwined began to disperse, albeit with most of them taking various types of looks my way.

    "Anybody outside?" I looked at Regent with confusion for a moment, before he chuckled a little bit and added. "Kid, I know you've been using your rats and shit to keep an eye out. I've been in this game for twenty years now. I don't have to be a Thinker to figure that sort of shit out."

    I clenched my jaw and blushed slightly behind my metal face mask, but shook my head and confirmed: "No, there's usually nobody out and about in this neighborhood, nothing much here anyway."

    Regent nodded, and opened up the door to the outside, before motioning for me to follow him, both of us still with our masks on. "Alright. Let's head into that alley over there so that we can have some privacy." Mom had always told me to never go into dark alleyways with strange men, but I assumed that she'd be okay with it if the strange man happened to be one of her friends and one of Brian's team mates. We dashed a little bit to make sure that neither of us were spotted coming out of Randy's place too clearly with our masks on, before we settled in the shade of the alley that he had pointed out. Before I could even regain my footing from the short sprint, Regent straight up went and took off his mask without even skipping a beat. "You know that you can't trust him, right?" And then, not bothering to skip another beat, he simply dropped right into conversation.

    It took me a few seconds to regain my bearings from the flurry of blows that Regent had just delivered me, and I fumbled with my own mask, struggling to pull it off given the way that my brain was still busy trying to play catch-up with everything that had happened. "I, uhh... Yaa?" I could barely comprehend what I was even trying to say, and almost forgot my name by the time that I had unmasked. "I, uhh... Danny Hebert?"

    Regent shook his head, sighing as he looked down at the ground of the alleyway. "I know who you are, kid. Kind of hard not to when I know that Gnaw is Taylor's brat. Alec Vasil, by the way, just so that we're even." I took a moment to get an actual look at Alec, now that I was begin given more time to compose myself properly; a man approaching middle-age who hadn't lost a trace of the handsomeness that he had clearly had when he was younger, the wrinkles that had begun to appear on his face only working to accentuate his mildly feminine features. "I know that Tattletale didn't bother unmasking to you, but fuck her. You're Taylor's kid, and we all owe enough to her to at least unmask to you." He turned to look me directly in the eye, and I doubted that his expression had been anywhere near as serious back in the living room as it was at that moment. "And I also owe her enough to ask you this again: You know that you can't trust Coil, right, Danny?"

    I stood there for several seconds, doing my best to meet Alec's stare for all of its intensity. "I have no idea what you mean. Of course I can trust Coil. Why wouldn't I trust Coil?" Alec's eyes narrows, and I looked away nervously, having lost our little staring competition.

    "Well, first of all, he's an information Thinker." Alec spoke those words as if they were the most common sense things in the world to say. "And you cannot ever trust an information Thinker. Like I said, they're cocky, they're condescending, and they think they know better than you do. Unfortunately, it's usually because they do know better than you do."

    I spoke to Alec while trying and failing to match his gaze again. "So, what? You don't trust Tattletale, then?"

    "No. I don't." The surety and suddenness with which Alec answered set me even further off-balance than I already was at that moment; crossing his arms, the man looked to the side, narrowing his gaze in annoyance, frustration, and... Fury? "I haven't trusted a single God damned thing that's come out of Tattletale's mouth in years. If she says something like, 'Hey, Alec, the sky is blue!', then I'll believe her, but I won't trust her, either. If that makes sense?" I nodded slowly, before he turned back to look at me again as he leaned against one of the walls of the alleyway. "You can't trust Thinkers like her and Coil, Danny. They have agendas buried underneath agendas buried underneath agendas. They don't view other people as people, they view them as tools. They make you think that you can trust them, they make you think that they're your friend, but they-"

    "Coil is my friend!" The anger with which I shouted and slammed my fist against the brick of a nearby building shocked me, but Alec didn't flinch in the slightest; fuming, I turned toward the man, and spoke hard, tense words. "I don't know how much you know about what I've been going through over the past year and a half, Alec, but I haven't exactly had many friends in that time. So please, Alec, I'm asking you, and I'm asking you politely, to not try and tell me that Coil isn't my friend, because he fucking is. Him, Circus, Biter, Barker, Trainwreck and Chariot are all my friends." Christ, I was angry. Why was I so angry?

    Alec remained leaning back against the alleyway wall, his arms crossed and leg bent so that his foot rested against the brick; I would almost say that the pose he took look practiced, if it didn't appear so natural on the man. "What does he do with his power?" I narrowed my eyes at Alec as the man spoke his question; was he really trying to just fish that information out of me just like that? With a sigh, he lifted one hand to the back of his head and ran it through curly black locks. "Sorry, I worded that wrong. I don't want you to tell me what his power does. I want you to tell me what he does with his power." Alec took several steps toward me, and I readied the rodents I had lurking in the dumpsters nearby. "Call off your fucking rats, Danny. I'm not going to hurt you." I didn't exactly believe Alec, but I wasn't about to argue with the man, either. Once he was satisfied that I wasn't about to tear him apart with an army of mice, Alec jabbed a finger in my direction. "I'm asking you what Coil has done with his power to you, Danny." Whatever expression I had on my face seemed to have encouraged Alec to poke his finger into my chest. "And don't fucking say that he hasn't done anything with it. I don't know what his power does, but I know that information Thinkers love to use their powers to fuck with people, to fuck with everyone, to even fuck with their allies and their so-called fucking 'friends'."

    Alec was... Enraged. He wasn't angry at me, of course, but he was just... Furious. Something with Tattletale? The same sort of thing that had caused Mom to break off her friendship with the other woman, that had caused Brian to distrust his team mate so much? "I..." Desperately, I fumbled to form words, form some sort of explanation, or maybe some sort of excuse. How much could I even tell Alec without letting slip what Coil's power was? "I, ah..." Wait, hold on, why was I even considering telling Alec about everything that Coil had done? It wasn't as if Alec needed to know anything about that; it was personal stuff, between Coil and the rest of the Entwined, that Alec had no right to know about. "Look, it..."

    Shaking his head, Alec just rolled his eyes and continued speaking, not waiting for me to get my words composed enough for a proper sentence. "Look, whatever. I don't need to know the details. You've already let me know that he's done some sort of shit to you, and I'm going to assume that he's done it to all of your team mates, too? And to those two new henchmen of yours?" I didn't say anything to Alec - didn't know what I could say - opting to instead just try and maintain eye contact with the man. "Tattletale's done her bullshit to everyone she works with. She's had her little pet Accord do what he does to everyone, too. That's why I know that Coil has done whatever shit he does to everyone he works with, as well." Alec placed a hand on my shoulder, causing me to flinch momentarily before he continued. "Look. I'm not going to tell you that Coil isn't your friend. You can believe that, if you want, I won't tell you not to." He narrowed his eyes to a dangerous edge as he paused, long enough to make a lump grow in my throat from the tension. "But I am going to ask you to consider what kind of person would do that sort of shit to their friends, yeah?"

    I felt like a sheep backed into a corner by a wolf, even though it was apparent that Alec didn't actually mean me any sort of harm. Even so, it took significant force for me to manage to speak up again. "Why, uhm..." I grit my teeth as my words stopped momentarily, before I pushed myself into continuing. "Why are you even telling me all this, Alec? What like... What do you have to gain from doing this?"

    In response to that question, Alec Vasil... Smiled. With a shake of his head, the man gave me a sad, pitiful look. "Christ, Danny. That's how far down you are, already?" What? What did he mean by that? Before I could wonder, Alec simply continued on. "I'm doing this because your mom is my friend, or at least was, at some point. I'm not 'gaining' anything from this, besides knowing that I'm helping out a good kid with a good heart, or some bullshit like that." He patted my cheek a few times, a motion that made me clench my jaw in annoyance and indignation. "Look, just remember. Agendas underneath agendas underneath agendas. That's how information Thinkers operate. If you really do want to trust Coil, then you can, but like I said..." Alec pulled backward, shoving one hand in his pocket and making his way toward the opposite end of the alleyway from where we entered. "...I really don't recommend it." And with a wave, he was off, leaving me behind.

    I stared after him - stared after Regent, after Alec Vasil, after my mom's friend - and took several minutes to weigh everything he had said. Thinkers, agendas, friends, trust, belief... I wasn't exactly a stupid guy - or at least I didn't like to think that I was - but I knew that I wasn't nearly as smart as someone like Thomas; no matter how much time I put into trying to figure out what was going on in my head, I couldn't make any progress. "Rrgh!" With a growl, I hit a dumpster loudly, causing the rats I had within to feel a momentary burst of anxiety from the noise and the rattling; I took another few minutes to compose myself, before making my way back to Randy's place.

    Thomas was waiting for me, unmasked, sitting at the dinner table; he had his laptop and some papers strewn about to make it look like he had simply been working in the kitchen, but it was painstakingly obvious that he wanted to get eyes on me the moment I walked through the door. I began to wonder if he had, perhaps, had a second version of himself eavesdrop on mine and Alec's conversation, and that he already knew the answers to every question that he wanted to ask me; before I could consider that possibility any further, though, Thomas smiled and asked in a cheery voice: "Everything okay, Danny?"

    "Yeah. Everything's fine." I smiled as genuinely as I could back at Thomas, but I knew that he could see right through the expression, that he could see right through my words. Was everything okay? Was everything fine? No. No, of course it wasn't. Alec's words continued to ring in my head, even as I sat down at the table next to Thomas, as I watched the look on my friend's face change subtly as he read my every movement, my every gesture, every twitch of my every muscle. Can't trust him. Not your friend. Have to trust him. Has to be your friend. Good person. Wants to fix the city. Agendas within agendas within agendas. Thinks of you as a tool, not as a person. Everything's not okay. No. Yes. Everything's fine. Everything is okay. He's your friend. You have to trust him.

    I smiled again as I settled into my seat and looked toward Thomas, calmly repeating those same words; I couldn't exactly tell, however, if the repetition was for his benefit or for mine. "Everything's fine." I idly wondered what my dad would have thought if he knew just how much of an absolute liar his son had managed to become.
     
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  28. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: Shedding
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 19: Shedding

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    As I returned home that evening from Randy's place, mind was weighed down uncomfortably heavy by what Alec had told me earlier. He had said that just as he couldn't trust Tattletale, that I couldn't trust Coil, and that he knew that Coil was doing something to everyone in the Entwined with his power in the same way that Tattletale had done things with her power to everyone in the Undersiders; as much as I didn't want to consider Alec's words to be anything close to the truth, my thoughts inevitably kept returning to what he had said as I hung around with Thomas and everyone else for the rest of the afternoon, with no amount of silly video games or stupid movies able to distract me.

    My mom, apparently, could tell that something was wrong, given the way that she gave me a look of concern as I made my way into the living room; ever thoughtful, though, she didn't immediately intrude on me, instead just simply offering: "Hey, sweetie. Welcome back. How... How'd things go today?" The implication, of course, was clear, even if she didn't verbalize the actual words; she knew that "things" hadn't necessarily gone well, and she wanted to know what had happened.

    With a bit of a sigh, I collapsed backward onto the couch next to her, some muted news program displaying on the TV; some commentators were arguing over how much fault the local heroes had in the prison transport breakout the other day, but my mind was too far elsewhere to pay attention to the subtitles rapidly scrolling up the screen. With a small, tired smile, I turned to my mom and answered as delicately as I could. "It went fine. Coil accepted Tattletale's offer, obviously." I saw several emotions cross my mother's face at once in response to that news, but she remained silent as I continued. "And, uhm. Regent showed up. Or Alec, I guess. He unmasked to me, like Brian did."

    I was more relieved than I thought I would be when I saw a smile cross my mom's face at the mention of her former team-mate's name; I knew that she got along well with Brian - perhaps a bit too well for my liking, sometimes - and that she hated that vulpine woman who had once been one of her best friends - I idly considered the fact that my mom hated both of her former best friends, but that fact was neither here nor there - but I had no idea how she felt about the other Undersiders. "Oh! How's he doing? I haven't seen him in a while, considering how busy he's been with his family, and all." I was happy, then, to know that she still liked Alec, and presumably his wife, Imp, as well.

    My smile turned a bit nervous as I nodded and gave her my initial response. "He's... He's doing good. We didn't talk much about him, though, but he seemed fine, from what I could tell." I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, looking away from my mom for a few moments before turning back to her, gritting my jaw, and delivering the rest of the truth. "He, umm. He said that he doesn't trust Tattletale, either." The expression on my mom's face hardened at that, and she nodded slowly in acknowledgment; I assumed that she already knew that, judging by what she had said back at Brian's place the previous night. "And he said that, uhm. That I shouldn't trust Coil, either, because he's a Thinker, just like Tattletale, and, uhm..." I was in the initial stages of rambling, I knew, but I clenched my fists and kept going regardless. "...and he said that, uhm, no matter what I think, that Coil isn't my friend, that, uhm, Thinkers only view people as tools, and stuff like that, that they, uhm, only care about their own personal agendas, and..." With a pained expression, I looked my mom square in the eyes and asked what had been on my mind since I had met Tattletale. "Mom. What the hell did she do to you guys? What has Tattletale done that has made you all hate her like this? She said that you two used to be the best of friends, but what I saw last night..." I shook my head, exasperated, as Thomas' smiling face flashed through my mind. "What the hell happened between the two of you?"

    For several long, silent seconds, my mom stared at me with an inscrutable expression on her face; I couldn't quite tell what was going through her mind in those quiet moments, but she eventually sighed, and wrapped her arm around me, pulling me close. "It's... A long story, Danny. Or, no, I guess it's not really a long story, it's just not one that I enjoy telling." As I leaned into her arm, I looked up at her with a concerned look; with a shake of her head, she returned my expression with a smile. "Don't worry, I'll tell you. I just... Need a little while to get everything into order. Stay with me for a bit, Danny?" I nodded, wrapping my mom up in a hug as the clock ticked loudly over the silence of the TV in front of us; it took her several minutes to composed herself enough, but I was willing to wait as long as my mom required.

    "I've never told you this, but I had an abortion when I was nineteen." My face swung up to look at my mom, and I saw an apologetic smile directed down at me. "Brian was the father. We were young, we were stupid, and we didn't use the proper protection, because it would 'feel better', or whatever stupid nonsense." With a sigh and a shake of her head, she squeezed me closer. "I was in college, Brian was busy leading the Undersiders, and neither of us could really afford having a kid. I... I still think about it most nights; it doesn't haunt me as much as it used to, but it was one of the major reasons for Brian and I separating back then." I nodded into my mom's arm, holding her tighter as she continued. "Shortly there-after, I met your father in one of my classes. We hit it off, started dating, and a couple of years after that, I became pregnant again, that time with you." I gave her opposite arm a gentle squeeze with my hand to let her know that I was listening, and she kept going. "I was still with the Undersiders at that point, though; Andrew wanted me to leave, of course, said that it would be too dangerous for me to stay with a gang like them when we were going to start a family and make a life with each other, and... He wasn't wrong. You know about the battle with the Teeth fifteen years ago?" I nodded, again, and I could hear my mom take a deep breath before speaking. "I got caught in the crossfire when they raided one of the Undersiders' bases. Shot in the abdomen." Mom lifted her shirt up, showed me where the scar from the bullet wound was; I had seen it plenty of times, but had never been certain where it had come from. "That was the final straw, both for me and for Andrew; I left the Undersiders, but did so on amicable terms, graduated from college, got a job at Winslow, and, well, you know the rest."

    I felt my mom tense up, though, as she prepared what I expected was the second part of her explanation. "Well, not the rest, not exactly. Like I told you before, shortly after your father died, I reached out to Brian again, reconnected with him and the Undersiders, because... Well..." She gave me a sad smile and a ruffle of my hair. "I was lonely, to be honest. That's the plain and simple truth of it; I was lonely, I had a hole in your heart from Andrew being gone, and I needed something, somebody to fill it." My immature teenage mind went immediately to the implication of Brian "filling" something of my mom's, but I desperately shook that out of my head and tried to regain the serious atmosphere of the conversation. "We're, uhh. We're practicing much safer sex now, though. So, don't worry, Danny. You won't be a fifteen or sixteen year old big brother, or anything like that." I gave a blushing frown, and my mom chuckled a little bit in return; wow, thanks, Mom, just as I was trying to throw those thoughts out of my mind. "But... In reconnecting with Brian, I reconnected with Tattletale, too." The mood went sour in a second, and I hugged my mom close in an attempt to comfort her.

    "She was... A different person from when I had last seen her." Mom had a distant look in her eyes, as she stared at nothing in particular on the wall. "That smile you saw on her last night, she always had that back fifteen years ago, but it was... Friendlier. More playful. Less... Actively malicious and spiteful, like how it is now." The expression on her face in that moment was... Pained; she felt genuinely hurt, as she thought about how Tattletale had once been. "She was mischievous, and could be a little bit ruthless with her enemies, but she was always kind to her friends, compassionate to her allies, supportive to everyone in the Undersiders, more or less." Something like guilt spread across her face as she continued. "He... Wasn't blaming me for it, not in the slightest, but Brian told me once after I reconnected that... That I had been some sort of 'stabilizing presence' for Tattletale, that I was the one thing keeping her power from influencing her the way it has; a best friend, to keep her grounded, to keep her connected to 'normal' people." Another sad smile, and I saw moisture start to build up in her eyes. "And I guess that fifteen years without me as a stabilizing presence turned her into... Whatever the hell she is now. Alec said that Thinkers only view people as tools, and only care about their personal agendas?" I nodded, slowly, before she continued. "I don't know Coil as well as you do, so I can't tell you what to think about him. But Tattletale? Fifteen years ago, that wasn't true for her. But today? I don't think she could have a friend if she tried."

    I frowned a bit as I watched my mom wipe a tear from her cheek, knowing that no amount of holding her close to me could provide the comfort that she needed. "The reason I told you about the abortion, Danny, is because..." The tears started to flow a bit faster, and I squeezed her as tight as I could. "I got into an argument with her, shortly after we reconnected. And she... She used her power on me. She knew that I had gone through the abortion, since I had confided in her about it when she was still my best friend, but at that time, she..." Anger on my mom's face now, mixed with the sadness. "...she gave voice to all of my deepest regrets, fears, anxieties, stirred up every negative emotion I had around the abortion and then every other part of my life that she could manage." She balled up a fist, and slammed it impotently against the soft, padded fabric of the couch. "Reminded me about how much shame I still feel about it, about how shitty I feel about the fact that I was willing to have you with Andrew only a few short years after I terminated Brian's baby, brought up the fact that, yeah, sometimes I worry that I might have subconsciously done it because I'm white, and Brian's black, and I was concerned about having a mixed race kid. I know that's not why I did it, but I still worry about it, sometimes, and that bitch, Tattletale, with her stupid fucking power, dredged that up and used it against me; worst of all was the fact that Brian himself was in the room, and I had to see the look of pain cross his face as he looked at me after hearing that."

    I changed positions with my mom, bringing her head into my shoulder so that I could wrap my arms around her and gently kiss her on the top of her head; both of us allowed her to cry and scream and curse for a little while, before she calmed herself down enough to continue speaking. "I... I guess she started doing stuff like that to everyone else in the Undersiders shortly after I left. You know that Imp is Brian's little sister, right?" I nodded; it was fairly public knowledge, even if it wasn't officially confirmed. "She began to needle him about the guilt he feels about having brought her into a life of crime, brought her into the Undersiders and exposed her to all of the dangers that came along with being a part of a gang of parahumans."

    Mom took a deep breath, as if she was preparing herself for something. "And Alec... Did he tell you his last name?" I gave a small sound of acknowledgment, and she continued. "Alec Vasil, then. Does, ah, does that name remind you of anybody?" I thought for a few seconds, wracking my brain in an attempt to figure out what answer my mom was looking for; when I realized it, though, my eyes went wide, and my jaw dropped. With a nod, my mom explained further. "Cherie Vasil. Cherish. Leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine. She's Alec's sister. Kind of a private thing, I suppose, but you'd have been able to figure it out on your own eventually." I felt myself utterly stunned at the revelation that I had been speaking to the brother of Cherish just a few hours ago, but I squeezed my mom's arm to let her know that she could continue. "Needless to say, that's been an endless source of provocation toward him on Tattletale's part; his worries about whether or not he's acting just like her or not, and whether or not his own kid might end up like his sister, that sort of thing. He probably hates her the most out of all of us, even more than I do, since he's had to spend over a decade with that. And then God only knows what's been happening since she brought Accord in; I haven't had the misfortune of meeting him, but Brian's never had a good thing to say about the kid."

    Squeezing herself around me, I felt my mom hesitate, and I vaguely sensed what was coming next; both of us prepared ourselves, and then Mom asked her questions: "Danny, does... Does Coil do anything like that to you? To Alan? To the rest of the Entwined?" Her expression was one concern, of love, of anxiety, of sheer maternal worry.

    Could I lie to her about that? Could I just laugh and say that no, no Mom, Coil absolutely does not use his power in any even vaguely malicious way on the rest of his team? Thomas' face flashed through my head again, that time the miserable, guilty, crying look he had on him after he had finished telling me about Ellisburg, and what he had been doing to all of us in his alternate timelines. Torture. Interrogations. Worse than that, maybe. I had, apparently, tried to attack him, tried to possibly kill him in three previous timelines before that one. The me-Danny that was in that surviving timeline was still angry with Thomas, still wanted to hurt him, but... None of it had been real, right? Or, at the very least, none of it was still real at that point. All dead timelines, all Dannys and Alans and Blakes that didn't exist any more. I myself had never been tortured by Thomas, after all; only a no-longer-real Danny had been through that. So what did I really need to tell my mom about what Thomas had been doing to me? To the rest of us? What could I tell her?

    Alec's words resounded in my head again as I prepared my answer; clearing my throat, I felt my chest tighten up as I responded. "...yes, he does." I saw my mom's face drop, something between horror and anger on her face. "It's... It's not as bad as what Tattletale's done to you guys, Mom. I promise." She seemed partially assuaged by that addendum; I myself was too busy worry about whether or not that statement was the truth, though. "I've talked with him about it. We had a good discussion about it. He..." Alan's confusion, coming out of the store after his 'interrogation', having no idea what had happened to his alternate self. "...he does what he does for our sake, for the sake of everyone in the Entwined." Mom did not seem convinced by that, and I wasn't sure if I could blame her. "He does it to keep us safe, to make sure that we haven't like, been infiltrated, that we don't have a spy, or a mole, or a traitor, or whatever. What he does is... Questionable, yeah." To say the fucking least, Danny. "But it's also necessary. I get why he does it." I fidgeted a bit in my seat, my eyebrows furrowing and my jaw clenching. "I trust him, Mom. I really do trust Coil. He might be a villain, he might be a criminal, but I think that I can do more good working for him, working with him than I could with the PRT or the Wards. Like I said before, he wants to fix the city, he wants to fix the Docks, he wants to get rid of all of the gangs, so-"

    My mom lifted a finger and placed it on my lips, motioning for me to stop rambling; with a small huff, I acquiesced, allowing her to speak. "Hey. Danny. It's okay." She sat up, wrapping me in another hug. "If you really do trust Coil, like you said, then I..." I could practically hear the way she carefully chose her next words. "...then I trust that you trust Coil, no matter what it is that he might be doing to you with his power. Like I said, you know him better than I do, so you know better whether or not he's trustworthy." Pulling back from the hug, she looked me in the eyes with a serious expression. "But if you ever feel like he's gone too far, then come to me, okay? I'll talk to Brian, see if we can do something to get you out of there. I don't know how much he can do, how much he's willing to do, but I'll do my best to persuade him." The distaste I felt must have been visible on my face, as my mom smacked me upside the head with a look of playful annoyance. "Not like that, you little teenage pervert!" Both of us chuckled a little bit, a small reprieve from the gravity of the conversation that we were having. "I mean it, though. I've told you this a thousand times since this all started, but you're my son, Danny, and I'll do whatever I need to in order to support you as such." She wrapped me up in her arms again, and squeezed me tight. "I love you, Danny. More than I could ever possibly say."

    I returned the hug, holding her close, and feeling my eyes start to water. "Yeah. I love you too, Mom."

    As much as I tried to focus on the feeling of my mom hugging me tightly, though, it was still Thomas' face that continued to appear in my head: Thomas smiling, as my friend. Thomas crying, out of guilt. And Thomas grinning, like a hungry wolf.

    ----------

    The next day, and me and the rest of the Entwined were standing in the main office of what I presumed to be one of Tattletale's many hideouts scattered through the city; the woman herself was sitting behind an expensive looking desk - her hands steepled together in what looked like one of the most stereotypical supervillain poses I've ever seen - with who I presumed to be Accord to one side of her - he was around my age, wore an elaborately designed mask, and was short even for a teenager - and four armed mercenary bodyguards stationed at various points of the room, holding rather deadly looking weaponry. The actual building was constructed underground, some kind of bunker that reminded me of Brockton Bay's other shelters, but even further reinforced; I idly wondered what sort of paranoia possessed Tattletale to have such defenses.

    Alan and Kayden were back at the hideout, holding down the proverbial fort while the parahumans on the team attended the meeting. Even amongst the powered members of the Entwined, though, all of us - even the usually implacable Chariot and Circus - were fidgeting and shuffling around in an uncomfortable silence; all of us, that is, except for our esteemed leader Coil. At the head of the pack, he was staring through his faceless bodysuit mask at Tattletale, just as she was looking near unblinkingly at him; they had been like that for literal minutes since we had entered, nobody having even said a word of greeting or welcome. I could only imagine what sort of alternate timelines Coil was going through, but I couldn't even begin to wonder what Tattletale or even Accord next to her were doing with their own powers; finally, graciously, the silence was ended by Tattletale speaking up: "Welcome, Coil and the Entwined! It's so nice to finally meet you." She turned to me, though, and added: "And it's so nice to see you again, Gnaw. How's your mother doing?"

    My eyebrow twitched for a moment, and I hope that the metal facemask I wore concealed that momentary gesture of annoyance. "She's doing well, thank you." My voice was intoned as politely as I could make it, even as I felt anger surge up inside of me since I then knew all of the things that the supervillainess had done to my mother and everybody else. It wouldn't do for me to ruin things for Coil and the rest of the Entwined just because I wanted to send a swarm of rats at her to tear the woman apart; of course, it wasn't as if there was any meaningful amount of rodents in her underground base, which I assumed was at least somewhat intentional on Tattletale's part.

    "Good, good! I'm glad to hear that. I'm always concerned about the welfare of my friends, you know." That smirk, that fucking smirk; it hadn't pissed me off that much back at Brian's place the other dad, but the intense urge to walk over there and just slap her then made itself known. I just smiled, though, and nodded in response; she turned with a grin of her own back to Coil, and continued speaking. "Coil. My compatriot Regent has informed me that you have accepted the Undersider's offer. Is that correct?" The Undersider's offer? Everyone in the room knew that it was Tattletale's offer, but nobody was willing to say it out loud, apparently; instead, Coil just nodded, his expression unreadable behind his suit. "Very good. Now then, I believe that Regent also informed you that we would all need to form a plan of attack against the Empire together?" Again, nobody voiced the fact that Tattletale and Accord already had a plan, and that the rest of us would just be expected to follow it; another nod from Coil, though, and Tattletale continued. "Very good. First of all, Coil, you will hold back in the command center with Accord and I."

    Every member of the Entwined tensed up, Circus especially; even Barker, apparently, understood the danger inherent in that. Coil was expected to separate from the group, and stay in the proverbial lion's den, right next to the two metaphorical lions? Our boss, as always, managed to be much better at keeping his cool than the rest of us, as I saw no meaningful movement or flinch out of him as he stared unerringly ahead at Tattletale. "I see. My power doesn't have significant ground combat utility, so you'd prefer to keep me... Safe in one of your bunkers, so that I can use it from there. Is that about correct?" His voice, too, was implacable, as still as a pool of water on a windless day.

    With a loud clap of her hands that caused most of us to jump, Tattletale grinned wide and pointed energetically at our boss. "Yes, exactly! See, I knew I'd like this kid! I told you he'd be good, right, Accord, dearie?"

    The boy next to her didn't move any more than Coil had been, his hands held together behind his back as he spoke politely and elegantly. "Exactly right, ma'am. He's quite the sharp one, ma'am."

    I saw Coil's hands ball up, just ever so slightly, before releasing; Tattletale, apparently, didn't miss that either, judging by the way the smirk on her face turned a bit more malicious. "But yes, Coil. That's the idea behind you remaining with Accord and I. Now, as for the rest of the Entwined..." Tattletale made a show of tapping her finger on her chin, as if she hadn't already thought everything through before we even got there. "Tell me, Coil. Who do you think is best suited to being a battlefield commander for the Entwined?"

    It wasn't subtle in the slightest, at least not for me; there was only one real answer to that question, but she was giving some sense of agency to Coil and the rest of us by asking it anyway. "I believe Chariot is the best option, given his age and his experience." We all turned to look at the man in question, and were greeted by a slight frown forming underneath where his visor ended; we all knew he would be the best choice, but he obviously wasn't entirely happy shouldering the responsibility.

    Tattletale nodded slowly, as if she was genuinely considering his answer. "Hmm, yes, I think I can agree with that. So, when Coil's back here with us, Chariot will be in charge of the Entwined out in the field. Makes sense to me." Coil's shoulder twitched a little bit, prompting another grin from Tattletale; I idly wondered if he was repeatedly trying to assault her in his alternate universe in some meager attempt to get his frustrations out. "Now then, as for the rest of the Entwined's part in the actual fight." The villainess pressed a button on her desk, and a projector shot an image out onto a nearby screen; arrayed on it were the various cape teams in the Bay, with details on each. "The Entwined have a similar modus operandi in the field as the Undersiders do; both of us specialize in hit and run tactics, with Bitch providing mobility for us, and Chariot providing mobility for you guys." Nods from all around as she brought details on both of our teams to the forefront of the screen; that made sense enough. "So, we'll be having the Entwined work with the Undersiders to track down and neutralize high value targets of the Empire; primarily, this means Steinn, Rune, Crusader, Cricket, and Alabaster, their leadership." Cutting off the head of the snake seemed reasonable enough; I did momentarily wince at that metaphor, though, as I looked over at Coil and the snake-patterned bodysuit he wore. "If we can get rid of them, that will make taking out their remaining parahuman forces much easier; the faster that we can do that, the faster that we can prepare for the PRT and New Wave to show up, so speed will be very much of the essence for us in that regard."

    I felt a momentary ping of excitement as I considered the possibility of fighting side by side with Brian, even though I was additionally worried about the possibility of maybe letting the man down with a subpar performance on my part; even though I hadn't known him for very long, I still looked up to him somewhat as a veteran supervillain.

    Another few clicks, and she brought up information regarding the Merchants. "A secondary task for our groups is going to be mobile defense. Squealer's landship is an impressive feat of firepower, but it's slow, it's a big target, and - most importantly - it's made of metal." Crusader, Krieg, and Iron Rain's profiles were brought up. "Crusader and Krieg can move fast enough to pummel it with ease, while Iron Rain's ferrokinesis - as weak as it might be - can still cause a problem. More than likely, the Empire will send those capes out to harass the Merchants." Another round of nods from everybody. "And, ah, no offense to the kids, but I don't expect either Skidmark or Mush can protect their girl all on their own, yeah?" For a moment, everyone in the room was able to share a laugh together, which was a welcome reprieve from the tense atmosphere. "The ABB can take care of themselves, as can the Travelers and the Palanquin, and Uber and Leet will be with the Undersiders. We're not babysitting the Merchants for nothing, though. Like I said, Squealer's landship can bring the pain down onto the Empire, so long as we keep it safe from assault; hell, even Mush might be able to ramp up enough to be useful. Maybe, anyways." Leaning back in her chair, Tattletale stretched her arms above her head before continuing. "Whenever we get word that the Merchants are in danger, either the Undersiders or you guys will head over there to assist, depending on who's closer. Make sense?"

    Everyone nodded once more, and Tattletale clapped her hands again. "Alright! I think that's all for right now. Accord and I are drawing up plans for each group in regards to the best way for you to tackle any given Empire cape you come into contact with; I'll have one of my boys here drop those off to you when they're ready, as well as some radios and communications equipment so that we can keep in contact once the attack begins." Another small flinch from Coil, and my mind went to all of the plans that he himself had made for fighting the Empire capes; I wondered if Tattletale was intruding like that on purpose or not. "Right now, I don't have an exact date or time as to when we're going to launch the assault, since it depends entirely on how soon Rune wants to launch her little coup; the most that I can tell you is that it'll happen sometime within the next two weeks, but possibly sooner. Just stay alert, yeah? Could happen at any time before then. I'll get in touch with you as soon as we're ready to go." As she motioned toward the door, one of her mercenaries opened it up, ushering our group out; as the rest of the Entwined turned to leave, though, I noticed Coil standing still, unmoving as he continued to stare at Tattletale. Tilting her head with a bit of a frown, the supervillainess looked pointedly at our boss and asked: "Yes, Coil, dearie? Is something the matter?"

    I saw a strained smile stretch the fabric of his suit, before he gave a small but still exaggerated bow, and responded in a polite voice. "No, ma'am." Coil stressed the word, as he looked toward Accord. "Nothing at all is the matter. I look forward to working with the both of you." With that, he turned, and starting making his way out from the office; I fell in step behind him, and gave one last look back at Tattletale, to see the woman giving us one of her smirks, accompanied by a small wave.

    The few minutes that it took for us to get back to the surface were incredibly tense, in spite of the utter silence with which we walked and climbed; every step that Coil took made him seem less and less steady, and I began to worry at a few points that he might trip, fall, or collapse. Eventually, we climbed up the ladder to the construction site that we had entered into Tattletale's tunnels from, and began changing back into our civilian clothes; Coil, however, sat down up against a concrete wall, breathing hard enough that Blake and I both rushed over to check on him. "Coil? Hey, Coil, are you okay? Hey, Thomas? C'mon, say something, Thomas." Not worrying about how rude it might have been, I undid the zipper that connected the head part of his bodysuit from the rest, and pulled it off his face so that we could get a good look at him.

    He was sweating. I had never understood what people had meant by "sweating bullets" until that point, but Thomas was very well doing just that. The climb back to the surface hadn't been even remotely exerting, so I knew that he wasn't perspirating from physical exhaustion; the fact that our boss stared straight ahead into the distance at nothing in particular while breathing hard and looking as pale as a sheet only worried both Blake and I even further. As his partner wrapped their arms around him, Thomas licked his lips anxiously, swallowed past a lump in his throat, and then whispered quietly, with the most terrified voice that I had ever heard out of a person, let alone out of Thomas Calvert: "Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, Danny. What a monster. What a God damned monster."

    Not knowing how else to respond to that, I simply grasped Thomas' hand, squeezed down, and nodded in agreement.
     
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  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: Grasp
    MissBrainProblems

    MissBrainProblems Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 20: Grasp

    -------------------

    The following week came and went without much incident; Eddie, Brad, and James left me alone during school hours, thankfully, and I assumed that the stress that was on the Empire at that time had trickled down to even footsoldiers like the three of them. Kurt and Lacey had apparently decided to "leave" the Empire, as had an increasing number of the skinhead gang's youth members; I wasn't about to let them back into my life right away, not after everything they had essentially been an accessory to since we started high school, but I accepted their proverbial olive branch, at the very least. I still spent my lunches alone with Alan; try as both of us might to keep the conversation on more mundane matters, though, our talks inevitably turned to quiet whispers about our work with the Entwined, and the coming assault on the Empire.

    After school was spent training and organizing with the Entwined - in spite of his annoyance on the matter, Thomas admitted that Tattletale and Accord's battleplans were superior to his own - or getting lessons from Brian; my mom's boyfriend had insisted on waiting until my arm was more fully healed before he started training me, but the badgering that I had been giving him every time I saw him slowly wore down his patience, until I eventually managed to essentially force him into letting me practice with him. Mom insisted that she be allowed to watch, and I could tell that Brian was sandbagging on me significantly, but I still learned how to use my baton in more ways than just flailing around with it meaninglessly; he also took me to a private shooting range of his, where he taught me how to better use the pistol that Coil had provided me with, whilst simultaneously warning me that I would be breaking every unwritten rule in the book if I needlessly shot and killed other capes. Regardless of his overbearing manner, though, I appreciated all of the things that Brian was teaching me, even if I was, technically, a part of a rival supervillain gang.

    As the weekend passed by relatively peacefully, I felt my anxiety and nerves about the coming conflict start to ease up a little bit; part of me believed - mistakenly, I knew - that maybe our big fight against the Empire wasn't even going to happen at all! Maybe I wouldn't even have to worry about joining in a battle that would eventually end up consisting of almost all of the parahumans in Brockton Bay!

    ...that was, of course, absolutely ridiculous to think, as Monday, the fifth day of May showed me; it happened in the middle of Ms. Clements' World Issues class, when she was talking about the parahuman organizations in different parts of the world. "And in the Chinese Union-Imperial, we have the Yangban. Not much is known about them beside their name, but..." The phone in my jacket pocket buzzed three times, and I felt my blood run cold; three messages in succession was the signal from Thomas for something of top priority importance, and I knew that there was only one thing that it could mean. I cursed silently to myself that it had to happen right then and there, in the middle of class; didn't those God damned Nazis have respect for anybody else's time?! Putting my annoyances away for the moment, though, I pulled out the phone and surreptitiously flipped to my text messages, doing my best to hide my activities from Ms. Clements.

    tc: "Tt says it's on. head to rp immediately for rendezvous. three messages, top priority"
    tc: "2"
    tc: "3"

    Damnit. Damnit, damnit, damnit. Ms. Clements was a bit of an air head, but there was no way that I was going to be able to just walk right out the door without her noticing; at the same time, though, I had to get moving as soon as I could, since it wasn't as if every other cape in the city was going to wait on little old Danny Hebert to get out of class. As I sat there considering my options, though, I heard the sound of another phone buzzing from behind me; at first, I thought that it was my own phone, but as I turned around, I saw Brad checking his own device. A few seconds later, the skinhead punk had grabbed his bag and was making his way toward the front of the classroom, walking straight for the exit.

    "Br... Bradley? What's wrong? Why are you leaving?" Ms. Clements looked like she had absolutely no idea what to do; I doubted that she was going to press the issue too much, given Brad's known proclivity for violence, but it wasn't as if she could just let him walk out, either. For the first time in memory, though, I thanked the Neo-Nazi bastard for providing me with a smoke screen for my own escape; grabbing my backpack, I started making my way toward the back door of the class, praising whoever had developed the fire code requiring two doors for every room.

    "I've got stuff I have to do. More important than any of this." Brad didn't even miss a beat as he walked out of the class, Ms. Clements calling out impotently for him to get back to his seat; unfortunately, one thing that I had failed to account for was the fact that since I was leaving at the same time that Brad was, the both of us would end up in the hallway together, alone. We stopped in our tracks as the doors to Ms. Clements' room shut with a click behind us, him staring at me, me staring at him; was the Empire calling on everyone for this coup, even bottom of the barrel thugs like-

    A thousand puzzle pieces fell into place at once, and I kicked myself for never having realized it before. Bradley Meadows. Youth member of the Empire Eighty Eight. Tall, muscular, with long, greasy blonde hair. Hookwolf. Young cape for the Empire Eighty Eight. Tall, muscular, with long, greasy blonde hair. Bradley Meadows. Missed several days of school after Hookwolf was apprehended during the gang war two weeks ago. Returned to school after the prison transport breakout. Oh. Oh shit.

    I froze in place, my eyes still locked onto Brad's, onto Hookwolf's; did he recognize me as Gnaw, too? He was a stupid brute, but that didn't mean that he couldn't have put his own puzzle pieces together, or had Eddie or James put them together for him. Danny Hebert. Tall, skinny, dark hair. Gnaw. Tall, skinny, dark hair. Danny Hebert. Came to school with his left arm in a sling after Alabaster was shown on the news shooting Gnaw in the left arm. Okay. Okay, yeah. Anybody with half a brain cell could have figured that out.

    Would Brad really attack me right there, in the school, though? It was supposed to be neutral ground, after all, and he had never gotten into it with anybody from the ABB or the Merchants, either; even so, I had to at least try and ensure that we weren't going to get into a fight in the middle of Winslow High School, right when classes were still on, both for the sake of keeping my identity a secret, and for the sake of securing the safety of the other students and staff. I quickly gathered up five rats from nearby holes and trash cans, before I had them stand up in a row in front of me; as a sharp piece of metal began to grow from Brad's forearm, I raised my hands up in a plaintive gesture, having my rats replicate the motion in turn. Holding my breath, I shook my head cautiously, once more having my rodent minions copy my movements; I hoped that the jackass skinhead would take my gestures for the truce request that they were, and not just attack me on the spot like the brutish goon I knew him to be. As Brad retracted the steel back into his body, though, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that my critters replicated in earnest. Once I was certain that the Neo-Nazi really wasn't going to assault me, I pointed down the part of the hallway that I was intending to take; thankfully understanding my intention, Brad pointed to the opposite part of the hallway, before the both of us gave a mutual nod of agreement.

    I was dashing down the hallways of Winslow High a second after that, keeping one rat on Brad's trail to make sure that he wasn't going to circle around and try to flank me from the sides, or anything of the sort; my feet were padding along the tile floor loud enough that I was sure that people in the classrooms would be able to hear, but I had neither the time nor the energy to care about those sort of things at that moment. Maybe it would look suspicious that Danny Hebert suddenly skipped school right before Gnaw was part of a massive parahuman brawl, but... I couldn't worry about that, not with everything that was on the line, not with the possibility of destroying a monstrous Neo-Nazi gang in sight for me, for Coil, and for the rest of the Entwined. I would deal with any issues regarding my secret identity after the Empire was taken care of.

    Unfortunately, it seemed like there would be more problems than I had initially thought in regards to my secret identity; as I was running for the front entrance of the school, I yet again encountered someone else I'd rather not have in the hallways. Standing there, over six feet tall, with a deadly look in his eyes, was the leader of the ABB himself: Kenta Yukinori. I came to a skidding halt as I turned the corner to find him speaking to his subordinate, Daikichi. "...meet up with her later. I'm not going to wait around for that stupid girl to get ready." Unfortunately for me, my meager attempt to fall back to where I had come from and hide from the two of them failed miserably, judging by the way that Kenta then next directed his voice toward me. "You can come out. You are our ally today. We will not harm you."

    "Jesus Christ, does everybody know who I am now?" I stepped back into view, likely looking as frustrated as I felt; I knew by that point that anybody who had paid attention would have been able to connect some dots, and that seeing me running through the halls right as Tattletale had sent out the go-signal would have confirmed everything, but I was really chafing at the fact that I had apparently done a piss poor job of hiding my identity. Crossing my arms, I shook my head and scowled in annoyance. "Whatever. You got word from her, too?" I wasn't willing to use specific names, right not in the middle of a public area, so I simply put meaningful stress on the pronoun, instead.

    I saw an actual smile on Kenta's face, the first time I had ever seen that sort of expression on the guy, but it was clearly one of derision and mockery at the frustration that I was feeling at that moment; I silently thanked him for not needling me on the point, though, as he simply nodded and gestured to Daikichi. "Indeed. We were going to wait for that stupid girl Robin, but she takes too much time. Daikichi and I will go ahead and begin." With a low, rumbling chuckle that his subordinated replicated, Kenta added: "Do you need protection on the way to meet your friends, little Danny?"

    Wow. If he wasn't two hundred odd pounds of muscle that could turn into a fire-breathing dragon, I would have actually been half-tempted to punch that stupid smirk off his face. Instead, I simply returned his look with a strained smile of my own, and shook my head. "No, but thank you, Kenta." Looking down the section of the hallway that lead toward the front entrance, though, I pointed in that direction and added: "We're heading the same way, though, right? So we may as well stick together." I did my damned best to make myself sound as confident as I could managed while saying that, though six plus feet of Asian menace made that somewhat difficult.

    With another grin, Kenta nodded, speaking to me again with that annoyingly patronizing tone of his. "It is as you say, little Danny." I felt my eyebrow twitch near violently as my fist balled up reflexively. "Let us go, before we waste any more time. The Empire falls today." All three of us nodded, and we continued running toward the exit; yeah, I supposed that it would have looked insanely suspicious for Danny Hebert to be marching alongside the very well known public identities of Lung and Oni Lee, but considering that my own identity appeared to have been completely compromised anyway, I had stopped caring about it at all by that point.

    What I did care about, though, was the serendipity that we were met with as we reached the front foyer of Winslow High School. Was serendipity the right word? It had too many positive connotations, none of which applied to that situation. Coincidence was too mundane. A fluke, maybe? Perhaps an accident. Accident seemed adequate to describe the way that I, Kenta, and Daikichi reached the entrance at the same time that Adam, Sherrel and Frank had, who were followed soon thereafter from a different hallway by Brad, Eddie, James, and Billy Lions. Yeah. Yeah, that all made sense. It made unfortunate, very unfortunate amounts of sense. Either way, though, there we were, almost every teenage cape in Winslow High, all gathered together in a single area; I was grateful that, at least, Yrsa, Fenja, Menja, and Iron Rain must have decided to take an alternate exit from the one we were at, since we wouldn't need all three teenage giantesses plus a girl that could conjure swords out of thin air in the mix of everything else. Either way, though, I had never imagined that in my entire life I would have ever found myself in a Mexican standoff, and yet there I was; silence reigned for what felt like minutes as I gathered rats and mice up nearby just in case.

    "Alright, uhh." Adam was the first to speak up, showing teeth that had begun to rot from meth usage. "Neutral ground, yeah? What's y'all say we just, y'know. Wait until we get onto the battlefield proper, and all that?" He laughed nervously, smiling wide in the process; Sherrel and Frank stood to either side of him, and I saw the latter eyeing a can of garbage, likely preparing to use his power on it if a fight broke out. Either way, though, the Merchants, at the very least, seemed reluctant to start a fight at Winslow, which I was very thankful to the drug-addled junkies for.

    I watched Eddie, at the head of the Empire pack; he seemed mostly unconcerned with the Merchants, instead directing his attention squarely at Lung. "For once, Adam, you say something that makes sense." Eddie's power didn't have any visible aspect to it, but I saw a few pieces of metal grow from Brad's skin as air started to gather around Billy's hands. "This is neutral ground, so let's not start any trouble and ruin that for everybody. Right, Kenta?" I didn't think that I had ever seen Eddie nervous, not in all of the nearly two years he had been harassing me for; as he looked at Kenta, though, I saw what I thought was genuine fear in his eyes.

    As I felt heat start to radiate to the side of me, I turned to where the ABB leader was standing, and saw the initial indications of his transformation; shit, was that maniac actually planning to fight the Empire youth right there in the entrance foyer of Winslow? "Hey, uhh, Kenta?" I spoke in a cautious voice that carried nervousness that I tried and failed to suppress. "Eddie's right, you know. Just like Adam said, neutral ground. Plus, our identities, and stuff, y'know?" The "identities" angle was a weak argument, but I figured that I had to try whatever I could and see what stuck.

    I watched as a bit of smoke came out from between Kenta's lips as he gave off another laugh. "Little Danny. You know as well as I do that everybody knows who I am. I only remain at this school for the sake of recruitment. However..." He turned to look at me, giving a smile that was increasingly covered in scales. "If I defeat the Empire? Then I will have more recruits than I could ever ask for." Kenta - no, he was Lung, at that point - tilted his head and gave me another condescending smirk. "But if you wish to run, little Danny - little rat boy - then I will not blame you." He looked over toward the Merchants, giving them a nod. "Nor you, addicts. Go. Do what you will. I will stay here and fight."

    The Merchants and I shot each other looks; were either of us about to try and stop Lung from starting a battle in the middle of Winslow? Lung, the man that could turn into a giant dragon and breathe fire? No, none of us were even remotely that stupid, even if it meant that our "neutral ground" would cease to be anything of the sort. "Alright. Alright." I gave a nod to Lung, the sweat beading on my forehead increasingly coming from the heat that the dragon-man gave off rather than my nerves. "Just... I don't know. Try not to cause too much collateral damage, yeah? Might get the PRT on your ass, or something." Throwing things and trying to see what stuck, indeed.

    As the Merchants and I dashed toward the exit, Lung simply turned to the Empire capes arrayed nearby, smiled, breathed in, and blew out flames; Adam, Sherrel, Frank and I were out of the building by the time that the fire alarms started going off, and the sounds of combat began to erupt from just inside the school. "Fucking lunatic, holy shit!" The leader of the Merchants shouted anxiously as we took cover nearby to compose ourselves. "Jesus Christ, can't believe that fucking maniac. Him and those other two Asian crazies are fucking made for each other, I tell you what!" As Adam chuckled nervously, I kept myself from commenting that a gang full of drug addicts were fucking made for each other, as well; I felt slightly guilty at that judgment, though, when he turned toward me with a wide, crooked smile. "Hey! Gnaw, right?" I grimaced, but nodded even so. "Hey, uhh, you want us to give you a lift to wherever Coil's place is? Or I guess like, nearby, since you probably don't want us to know where your hideout is, and shit, right?" Before I could even answer, the methed up teen turned to his girlfriend, and kept speaking. "Sherrel's got a ride she can give us a lift in. Probably on the way to our garage anyways, I think. That's okay, right, babe?" Once more, Adam didn't even let the girl respond before he looked back at me. "Yeah, see? So just c'mon, dude, let's get goin', 'fore the fun really starts!"

    I didn't even have time to consider the dangers of riding in a Tinker drug addict's "ride" alongside two other junkies before Adam was pulling me along with them; whether or not I even wanted the Merchants to give me a lift, it appeared that it was going to be happening either way. As we made our way to a nearby parking lot, Adam continued to talk my ear off. "Hey! So like, what's Coil up to, anyway?" I opened my mouth to speak, but was immediately cut off. "Wait, nah, that's not a good thing for me to ask, is it? Kinda private thing, yeah? Can't go revealing your plans to the enemies, and all." Adam furrowed his brows, before continuing rapidly. "Well, I guess we're not enemies right now. But we probably will be after today. No hard feelings though, yeah? Let's kick some Nazi ass before we have to kick each other's ass, yeah? Am I right, or am I right?" I didn't even bother trying to verbally answer, just giving a nod of my head as he continued. "Man, I've been waiting for this moment for years, since I triggered and then found Sherrel and Frank. Finally, finally, the Merchants are gonna be a force to be reckoned with. Right, Sherrel? Right, Frank?" Again, no time for either to respond as he kept babbling; I considered, vaguely, whether the Merchants would ever really be a "force to be reckoned with", considering that their leadership was constantly high on one thing or the other.

    "Ah, here it is! Here's Sherrel's baby! Well, one of them, anyway. Right, Sherrel?" I was starting to wonder why Adam even bothered speaking to anybody else as he made his way over to a five-seater convertible with its top down. It looked rather... Mundane, and I would have had no idea that it was Tinkertech unless I had been told; probably part of the idea. "This thing goes so fast, and it handles so well, and it's got a bunch of other cool shit, too, like smoke screens, and turrets and shit, though that's all hidden right now. Kind of a street car for us to just ride around in. Right, Sherrel?" I looked over toward the girl in question, and found her... Rather uncaring that her boyfriend was constantly asking after her only to keep talking; the way that her eyelids were constantly drooping gave me a hint as to why, though, and suddenly made me far more nervous about having her drive anything, let alone Tinkertech. "Alright! Anyway, let's go, yeah? C'mon, Sherrel, c'mon, Frank, time to go! You too, Gnaw!" Adam practically tossed into the backseat alongside Frank, with far more strength than I would have expected out of his skinny form; probably a benefit of the stimulants he was on.

    "Alright, Sherrel, wakey-wakey! I know that dope's good shit, but can't have ya fallin' asleep at the wheel, now!" Adam handed his girlfriend a glass pipe, packed full of what I assumed to be even more meth, manipulating her groggy form to get her into a proper position to smoke it; after a little while of heating the pipe, I watched as Sherrel took a hit of the meth - the first time I had ever seen someone smoke crystal, and a rather surreal experience, to say the least - and instantly woke up.

    Eyes shooting open wide, the Merchants girl rapidly did some things on the console that I couldn't make heads or tails of. "Al-fuckin'-right! Let's fuckin' do this, Adam! Yee-fuckin'-haw!" I desperately strapped myself in - stopping a moment to buckle up the slightly nodded off Frank, as well - as the Tinkertech car's engine roared to life. "Hang onto your fuckin' balls, boys! 'Cause there's no time to fuckin' waste!" As Adam and Sherrel both gave wide, drug-crazed smirks, I grabbed onto whatever I could in sheer anticipatory terror; a second later, we were off, faster than I ever knew a wheeled vehicle could go. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I later had nightmares about being driven around in that thing.

    ----------

    A common trope in films and TV is that when a character survives a crazy car ride, they will collapse out onto the asphalt and kiss the ground, praising stable, unmoving land; just as I had never imagined that I would ever have been in a Mexican standoff earlier that day, neither had I ever imagined that I would end up following that trope. As I practically scrambled out of Squealer's Tinkertech car, though - just quickly enough to avoid being dragged along by the Merchants when they sped off again - I pressed my lips to the asphalt, disregarding how disgusting the act was. They had dropped me off relatively close to Randy's place, but I made sure that it wasn't close enough that they would have figured out the exact location; considering how high the three of them were, though, I doubted that they would have remembered even if I had them stop directly in front of the building itself. Either way, though, I took a moment to stop the trembling in my legs, before dashing the rest of the way to our hideout.

    No time for subtlety, I ran up the stairs and practically burst through the door; after a momentary pause to make sure that I wasn't some Empire thug crashing the party, the rest of the Entwined went back to their preparations. Coil himself was suited up barring his hood, and walked over to me purposefully. "Danny. You got here quicker than I expected. Not that I'm complaining."

    I smiled awkwardly and explained: "Merchants gave me a ride." Seeing Coil's eyes shoot wide, I laughed a little bit and added: "It was, uhh. It was an experience, I'll say that much." Putting on a more serious expression, I spoke in a low voice. "Do, uhh. Do you know what's happening at Winslow right now?" Coil shook his head, a concerned look on his face as he did. "Kenta - Lung, rather - decided to fight the boys from the Empire youth that were there, right in the middle of the school, and-" I looked around the room rapidly, saw all of the Entwined's cape, and then Kayden, standing out of the way, but not... "Shit! Fuck! Shit fuck! Alan's still at the school! Fuck! Lung's tearing that place apart right now, I-"

    Coil placed both of his hands on either of my shoulders, holding me in place and staring at me dead in the eyes. "Danny. Gnaw. I need you right now. Alan can take care of himself. He's a smart guy. He's resourceful. Don't worry about him, okay? He'll be fine, alright?" I grit my teeth, clenched my jaw, balled my hands up into fists, but nodded, reluctantly. Christ almighty, I had been so focused on everything else that I had just left my best friend behind in the middle of a fucking warzone; why was it that I had felt less and less like what a friend should be with every day that had passed? "Okay. Good. One of Tattletale's men is going to drop by to pick me up. I'm fucking terrified right now, Gnaw, so please. I need the rest of you to stay steady for me. Got it?" I looked at Coil, and saw the fear he mentioned written all over his face; I nodded, again, steeling my own expression for his sake. "Chariot's getting the van ready. We're going to do it just like we planned. You guys stop by Empire outposts, you use your rats to scout until we find Rune or Steinn, preferably both; once you find them, you call the Undersiders for back up, before you rush in and take them out. Got it?" One more nod from me, and Coil patted my shoulders. "Alright. Gear up and get ready. No time to lose." And with that, he headed for the door, off to join Tattletale and Accord in their command post; Circus' face, even behind their mask and their make-up, as twisted up in nervousness and worry.

    I changed into my costume faster than I ever had before, getting my armor, belt, and weapons on in mere minutes; everyone else had already finished their preparations, and I wasn't willing to make them wait on me any longer than I had to. Less than fifteen minutes from the time I entered the door to Randy's place, me and the rest of the Entwined - minus our leader and Kayden both - were in Chariot's van; as the Tinkertech vehicle teleported outside, our field commander did a radio check. "Chariot to Entwined. Does everybody copy? Over." His voice came in both over our headsets and through regular soundwaves; ignoring the surreal aural experience, I responded in the affirmative along with my team mates. "Confirmed, local radios working. Entwined actual to Fox actual, do you copy? Over." I scowled a little bit at the fact that Tattletale had chosen "Fox" as her code name for the operation, but didn't say anything out loud. "Affirm, Fox actual. Snake should be arriving shortly, over." Turning toward to the rest of us in the back of the van, Chariot spoke up without using the radio. "Alright, kids." We all smiled a little bit at that, since there wasn't a trace of condescension in "Papa Chariot's" voice when he spoke. "Keep it quiet for Gnaw, so that he can focus on his rats. Otherwise, just keep an eye out. Everyone ready?" Affirmation from each of us, before Chariot nodded and got us on the road.

    Just as Coil had ordered, I did my best to not worry too much about Alan; he was smart and resourceful, and I was fairly certain that he would be able to escape from whatever battle was going on at Winslow at that moment, but... God damnit, was I still mad at myself for having forgotten about him. I felt my own fears pale a little bit in comparison, though, as my Danny-eyes focused on Circus even as my rodent-eyes patrolled and scouted around; the harlequin was fidgeting near constantly, their fingers playing around with their throwing knives in nervous energy. Trainwreck and Biter both did their best to comfort our team-mate, but all Circus could really do was smile and offer quiet thanks before going back to squirm around anxiously; I couldn't quite blame them, not with their boyfriend being trapped in a bunker with a woman that terrified even Coil himself.

    Even with myself fully focused on the task, I wasn't have much luck; every Empire outpost I scouted only had unpowered thugs stationed there, though they were all obviously on high alert. I did my best to swarm them as our van passed by, dealing what damage I could in tiny hit and runs, but there wasn't much else I had been able to manage. Off in the distance, we heard Bitch's mutant dogs howling, and at one point managed to catch glimpse of a giant hound carrying a few riders on its back; somewhere else far away, we heard the sounds of Squealer's landship letting loose with its artillery once again, while the noise from Bakuda's bombs echoed from a different direction. I thanked whatever lucky stars were blessing me that Bakuda wasn't back at Winslow, fighting alongside Lung and Oni Lee and blowing up the school in the process; it wasn't as if Lung himself wasn't enough to tear Winslow apart on his own, of course, but he didn't need any help with that, either. I additionally noted that most of the Docks' civilians seemed to have had the good sense to stay in doors and off the roads, given the violence that was once again rocking the neighborhood.

    That was how it went for what felt like an eternity; we drove around in Chariot's van, I checked through outposts and took out Empire soldiers where I could, and the silence was intermittently broken by the sound of explosions. We had entered into enough of a pattern that when Chariot spoke up, half of us in the back nearly jumped out of our skins. "This is Entwined actual. I copy, over." Several seconds of silence, before he sounded off again. "Affirm. We'll be there temporarily, over." As he spun the van around and began to jet down a street - quite literally, since the van had auxiliary jet engines - he called back to the rest of us. "Empire's launched their attack on the Merchants. We're heading there to back them up. Confirmed contacts are Crusader, Alabaster, Cricket, Fenja, Menja, and Iron Rain; basically, they really want that landship dead, and they're pulling out the big guns. Undersiders will rendezvous with us there, but get ready for a fight, either way." The rest of the Entwined tensed up, myself included; half of the Empire's confirmed capes, all in one area, with two out of their three giantesses present? Yeah, that was a fight in the making; at least the

    More than anything else, though, I simply allowed myself a small, exasperated sigh, as I prepared myself to meet with Skidmark, Squealer, and Mush for the second time in a day; I could only hope that I would have the energy to survive that encounter, whether they were my allies or not.
     
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