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All Alone [Worm AU]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jun 13, 2015.

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  1. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    Oh god the feels.
     
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  2. Argentorum

    Argentorum I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Can I just follow you as an author and stop having to dig up all your stories and follow them one at a time?
    I swear to god Ack.
     
  3. doomlord9

    doomlord9 Experienced.

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    This problem didn't exist before when he just had everything in the Omake Corner but now that thread barely gets any attention at all with each story/idea getting its own thread.
     
  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, but that thread got all sorts of bloated. Besides, it's in the NSFW section, where some people just don't go.
    All of my stories (that have threads of their own) are linked to my sig. And if you want to know if I've posted something new, just keep an eye on the Vote Thread; I always post a link there when I finish a new chapter of something.
     
  5. Twilight666

    Twilight666 Know what you're doing yet?

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    Or you can follow Ack on ffnet. You can then get a mail everytime he updates a story and everytime a new story is added.
    The only issue comes for NSFW stories that are on AO3.

    Unlike the stories on ffnet which are updated or posted almost immediately, the NSFW stories on AO3 sometimes take a while to be updated.
    "Bait & Switch" for example has not been updated yet.
     
  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Ah, I forgot about that, given that the chapter itself wasn't particularly NSFW.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    EDIT: Updated.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2015
    Twilight666 likes this.
  7. DieKatzchen

    DieKatzchen Know what you're doing yet?

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    Took me two tries to read the first chapter. Good job on the feels.
     
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  8. AnotherMoniker

    AnotherMoniker Getting some practice in, huh?

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    That had to be one of the more touching omakes I've seen, sans the last line which was kinda necessary to keep it meta. It'd be interesting to see a series of these, what with how many breakpoints there are in the worm-verse where a single decision has massive implications. An interesting one might be Piggot choosing between keeping Shadow Stalker as a ward or shipping her to juvie after busting her for vigilantism and what either path would do to her career.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Part Three: All in the Name
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    All Alone

    Part Three: All In the Name


    The Daughter

    Limbo.

    More than just a mythical location, it is also a state of mind, a state of being. Or rather, a state of non-being. Not thinking, eyes closed, breathing shallowly, not moving. Not acknowledging even the possibility of the existence of an outside world.

    There is nothing here. Nothing can hurt me, because I do not exist.

    If there is no me, then there is no pain, no hurt, no loss.

    I am not.

    <><>​

    She drifted in limbo, the warmth of the sheets covering her a barely acknowledged reality. The covers that she had pulled over her head gave the illusion of night-time, let her pretend that she was asleep, didn't have to get up, didn't have to do anything.

    Didn't have to remember.

    "Taylor."

    The voice is an illusion. It doesn't exist. Ignore it for long enough and it will go away. It always has before.

    "Taylor."

    The voice does not exist. I do not exist. Nothing exists.

    "Taylor!"

    She clenched her eyes shut, but did not put her hands over her ears, because that would acknowledge the existence of the voice.

    I am not.

    "Taylor, you have to get up. You've been in bed for days."

    The covers were pulled away from over her head; warm sunlight splashed over her face, her vision turning from black to red with the glare through her closed eyelids. She curled instinctively, arms covering her head, assuming a foetal position.

    "Taylor, you have to get up. You have to eat. To drink. To bathe."

    I have been getting up, she thought rebelliously. Midnight forays to sneak downstairs when the hunger pangs grew too strong to ignore. Furtive bites snatched in darkness because she didn't want to turn the lights on, to face her father. To face herself. To face reality.

    “Taylor, get up.” There was desperation in his voice now. Fear, for her. He doesn't want to lose me, like he lost Mom.

    “D'n'w'n'a,” she mumbled through a dry mouth, through vocal cords that hadn't uttered a sound that wasn't a sob for two weeks. The words, such as they were, came out despite herself, and in that moment she knew that she had lost.

    Since the funeral, she had been striving to shut herself away from the world, shut the world away from herself. Her father would get up in the morning, shower and make breakfast. Then he would come and tap on her bedroom door before he went to work. She always heard him, never answered.

    Awake, she would curl around the little tight ball of misery that was her entire world now, and pull the covers over her head. Sometimes she would sleep, sometimes she would cry, and sometimes she would just lie awake the entire day, the slow march of her thoughts matching the progression of the sun across the sky.

    He would come home in the afternoon, to find her breakfast cold and congealed in the pan. She would hear him sigh as he scraped the pan out, and then he would come upstairs and tap on her door. Call out to her, ask her what she wanted for dinner. She never answered. Her door would creak open slightly; he would be checking that she was still there, still alive. She would roll over, turning her face from the door, and it would close again.

    But now he wasn't taking that for an answer. He had forced her to respond to him, with almost insulting ease. Perhaps some part of her -

    No!

    - wanted to end this self-imposed exile -

    I don't!

    - and rejoin her family -

    Don't make me!

    - and the human race again.

    Please. Don't make me.

    Don't make me remember.

    She felt hands on her, guiding her to sit up. Her legs unfolded against her will, slid over the side of the bed. “Christ,” he muttered. “You're skin and bone.”

    Her eyes opened, but she kept them downcast. “Been eating,” she muttered defiantly.

    “Not much,” he retorted. “And you smell. Have you showered at all?”

    The answer to that was obvious. She didn't want to shower during the day, while he was out, because then she would have to look at herself, look at her face in the mirror. See the hurt in her own eyes. And she couldn't shower at night, because then he would hear her. Get up, perhaps. Turn on the lights. Talk to her. Make her talk to him. Make her think. Make her remember.

    “Well, you're showering now,” he decided. “You're getting up now, and you're marching into that bathroom, and you're going to stand under the shower for at least five minutes.” As he spoke, he was delving into her drawers, retrieving a shirt, a pair of jeans. Underwear, even. “If you don't, then I'm going to fill the tub full of ice water and dunk you in it.”

    Her eyes opened wider at that. “You wouldn't.”

    “Try me,” he retorted, with an uncharacteristic grimness. “It's been two weeks since Emma passed. To mourn is natural. This is more than mourning. It seems to me like you're trying to join her. Are you?”

    The shock went through her system like an electric jolt. Is that what I've been doing?

    Almost immediately, she denied it. No. No, I wouldn't do that. But the denial felt just a little hollow.

    “Dad,” she ventured, to try to turn her thoughts away from that topic, “is this what it was like for you when Mom passed?”

    He took a long moment to answer, and his own face was carved in harsher lines when he did. “I … possibly. I don't remember much of that time. I know that Alan and Zoe and Emma took you in, helped you where I couldn't. But they can't help you now. They need all the help they can get, themselves. It's a terrible thing, to lose a child.”

    He fears losing me. He's worried for me. He loves me.

    I've been so selfish. Emma's gone, but she wouldn't want me to do this. She'd want me to get out and make the best of life.

    Guilt welled up inside her, and she pushed herself to her feet. It took her two tries, but she made it. Taking the clothes from his arms, she made her way across the room to the door. It felt strange, opening it in broad daylight. Turning, she looked across at the shelf above her bed, which held two of her most prized possessions. One was a flute, worn and well-used, while the other was an equally well-used Alexandria action figure. The flute reminded her of happier days with her mother; the plastic toy stood strong and brave and optimistic, as she remembered Emma to be. Mom, Emma, I'm sorry. I'll do better.

    Her father followed her along the hallway to the bathroom. “I'll be making breakfast,” he told her. “Bacon and eggs okay?”

    Her stomach rumbled alarmingly, and she was suddenly very hungry. “Yes, please.”

    <><>​

    After the shower, she realised just how bad she must have smelled; she could scarcely stand the reek of the pyjamas she had been wearing. Freshly soaped and scrubbed, hair shampooed, she felt a thousand percent better. And the odour of the cooking food, wafting up from the kitchen, made her stomach rumble all over again.

    Her father looked up as she entered the kitchen; he was just putting bacon and egg on to a plate for her. “Hey now,” he greeted her. “Feeling better?”

    “Yeah,” she told him. It wasn't totally true; she was still avoiding her own gaze in the mirror, but she could handle being up and about. The impulse to dive back into bed and pull the covers over herself was still there, but it was being eroded more and more by the minute.

    Taking her seat at the table, she picked up the glass of orange juice at her place, and sipped at it. It tasted heavenly; she could feel the chilled liquid trickling down her throat. A clank signalled the plate being placed before her; the delicious odour of freshly cooked bacon and eggs, seasoned just the way she liked them, hit her nostrils anew.

    “Now, take it easy,” he cautioned her. “You haven't been eating that much recently, so you want to ease into it.”

    He hadn't given her all that much, she realised. Compared to what he had on his plate, it wasn't much at all, but she still had trouble finishing it. It tasted so good; she felt as though she'd been fasting for weeks instead of days. “Wow,” she told him after swallowing the last morsel. “That was great, Dad. Thanks.”

    Much of the worry was gone from his face and voice when he answered. “It's good just to see you up and around, kiddo. Now, let's go do one more thing.”

    “Go do what?” she asked. “I can't eat another bite, honestly.”

    “Not food.” He held up the car keys. “We're going out.”

    “What?” She was puzzled. “Where? Why?”

    “You'll see,” he replied. “Now go visit the bathroom so we can go.”

    “What? I don't have to -” Her stomach took the opportunity to rumble in quite a different manner than before. “Whoops. Maybe I do.”

    <><>​

    Once in the car, she watched him driving. “Sorry for frightening you like that, Dad,” she ventured. “I … don't know -”

    “I do,” he stated. “You were right. When your mother passed, I went into a similar state. I could barely take care of myself; I certainly couldn't take care of you. I owe Alan and Zoe so much, just for being there when you asked them for help.” Glancing across at her, he continued. “I don't know how you held up so well.”

    “I didn't,” she confessed. “I fell apart totally too, remember? And even a month later, I was still crying myself to sleep.” She had cried again, in the shower, but her father hadn't commented on her puffy eyes, for which she was grateful.

    “Well, you've been coming back,” he noted. “Even Alan was saying before you went on the camp that you were looking more cheerful, more like yourself. It's been good to see. Good to see you again.”

    “I don't know if I'll ever feel like me again,” she replied in a choked voice. “Emma -”

    <><>​

    The Father

    She began crying again; wordlessly, he handed her a box of tissues from the centre console. She used them profligately, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, but he didn't care. She was letting the emotions out, which was far better than locking them inside. Which was basically the point behind this trip.

    They made one stop, at a florist. She stared out the window at the floral arrangements, then turned to him. “What are we doing here, Dad?”

    “Why else?” he tried to make his tone light. “To buy flowers.”

    She didn't ask who the flowers were for; that was kind of a given. Together, they went into the shop. She got a little teary while picking out a bunch of summer-bright flowers, but he pretended not to see. He picked out a wreath; she was silent as they went back to the car.

    They had driven a few more blocks before she started looking around, an expression of concern on her face. “Uh, you do know that you're going the wrong way for the cemetery, right, Dad?”

    He nodded. “Yes. We're not going there.”

    “What?” She stared at him. “Where are we going then?”

    He drew a deep breath. “I asked Alan. We're going to where it happened.”

    “What?” Her tone was utterly different, this time. “What, no. No. I don't want to go there, Dad.”

    “Taylor, listen to me.” He put all the strength he could into his voice. “I'll be there with you, every step of the way. We need to see it. We need to see the place. It might help you come to terms with it. To face what's happened. Give you closure.”

    She clenched her hands around the bouquet that she was carrying so tightly that her knuckles whitened. “The only thing that would give me closure would be … “ Her voice dropped too low for him to hear, but he could guess. If I could kill the bastard who did it.

    He didn't know how to tell her that her wish had already been granted; at least the part involving the death of the culprit. The police had kept it quiet, but Alan Barnes had confided to him the scale of the bloodbath following the death of his daughter. Their best suspect for the murder, found wearing Emma's jacket, with the bloody blade still in hand, had been found dead on site, along with several of her comrades. Emma had been killed by a girl only a year or two older than herself.

    “Well, let's just see how it goes, okay, Taylor?”

    She brought her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. “I guess.”

    <><>​

    The Vigilante

    She picked up the signal from the radio beeper when it was still four blocks away. For the last two weeks she had been confining her attentions to this general area, two weeks during which she waited for Emma's friend to visit the spot. The device that Sophia had attached to the Heberts' car wasn't exactly Tinker tech, but it did the job; it had cost her a chunk of druggie money, but that was okay. There was always more where that came from. But now she was starting to get impatient; another week and she would have cut to the chase, gone to talk to the girl directly.

    She pulled the receiver out of the belt pouch and tried to align the screen properly. The tiny dot indicating the car's location was moving toward the appropriate area, all right. Excellent. Show time.

    She wasn't quite sure what she was expecting from the girl; after all, she hadn't been in the alleyway. All Sophia had seen of her was a tall, rail-thin girl, crying and being comforted by her father. Is she a wimp? Is that why it's taken her this long to come here?

    Nah. The Barnes girl was a fighter. She wouldn't be friends with a wimp.

    Stuffing the receiver back into the pouch, she ran to the edge of the roof and jumped; her cloak flared as she went to shadow form and coasted to the next building, where she reformed and ran forward once more. While she couldn't run as fast as a car, she didn't have to stop for traffic lights, or take a roundabout way to get where she wanted to go.

    Puffing slightly from the exertion, she paused on the rooftop that she wanted. Are they going to drive up there, or park outside and walk? She didn't think they would drive into the alleyway; that, after all, was what had precipitated what had happened to the Barnes girl. But then, walking down the length of the narrow street held its own perils. Walking was the ballsier option. Let's see what this one does.

    The car nosed up to the turnoff leading into the alleyway, and stopped. The air was so still that Sophia actually heard the parking brake come on as the engine stopped. Both doors opened, and they got out, bright flowers in hand.

    Wait, what? They're bringing flowers? Did I just misjudge this whole thing?

    As she watched, the father went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. From it, he took a large tyre iron. Gripping it tightly, he rejoined his daughter. Well, he's not stupid anyway. He's not prey.

    <><>​

    The Daughter

    Taylor glanced around as they walked down the narrow street. It looked ordinary to her, strewn with random trash and refuse, but what had happened here made it ominous. Even though it was midmorning, the shadows cast by the buildings were just a little intimidating. She felt that she was on the set of a horror movie, that the monster was going to jump out at any minute now.

    A flicker of movement, above, caught her eye, and she jumped, moving closer to her father. Turning her head, she stared at the edge of the roof. “Something's up there,” she stated, not daring to raise her voice too much.

    “What's that, Taylor?” Her father was looking all around, even glancing behind them, as they advanced down the alley. He put his arm around her shoulders, keeping her close. She didn't have any problem with that.

    “I saw something move. Up there, on the roof.”

    “Probably a bird, or a stray cat looking for a bird,” he suggested.

    “I guess,” she responded, but she was dubious. It hadn't looked like a bird, but then, she'd seen it only fleetingly, and not through her glasses. All she'd gotten an impression of was a dark object, moving. For all I know, it was a gorilla. Or a runaway weather balloon.

    He kept moving, and she kept moving with him, but she was watching the edge of the rooftops now.

    <><>​

    The Father

    “Taylor.”

    She looked around at him. “What?”

    He pointed down at the ground before them. There was a vague misshapen stain on it; it could have been oil, paint or a dozen other substances. He knew what it was. “This is where it happened. This is where she died.”

    Dropping to his knees, he carefully laid the wreath on the spot. “Rest in peace, Emma. You will be remembered.”

    Beside him, Taylor was looking around at the alleyway, the surrounding buildings. “This is the place? This is where my best friend died?” Tears were running down her face. “Emma died here? In this stinking, shitty place?”

    “Taylor -”

    “No, Dad, don't you see how wrong this all is? Emma wasn't supposed to die. She was supposed to live! We were going to grow up as best friends, and critique each others' boyfriends – well, I'd critique her boyfriends – and she was going to be a supermodel, and I'd be a scientist and discover how super-powers really worked, or something like that! We were going to have lives! Adventure! Fun!” She kicked an empty tin can; it skittered across the cracked asphalt until it hit a wall. “And now all that's gone because of some fucking assholes in a dirty stinking fucking alley!”

    As her voice rose, echoing between the buildings, she stormed back and forth across the road, kicking at scraps of newspaper and other trash. The can bounced away again, propelled by her foot; she ran after it and kicked it again, the bouquet forgotten in her hand.

    Danny got to his feet and glanced around. He didn't like the idea of her yelling like this; the idea had been to visit, lay the flowers down, then walk away. But at least she was venting, letting her feelings out. But still …

    “Taylor.” She was standing still, head down, crying, as he came up to her. “Taylor, come on.” As he put his arms around her, she leaned against his chest.

    “It's just not fair, you know?” she sobbed. “It's not fair. This shouldn't have happened to her.”

    “I know, kiddo, I know,” he sighed. “Life's not fair. We both know that.” I've known it since Anne-Rose passed.

    “I'm sorry for yelling like that,” she ventured.

    “It was only the truth,” he pointed out. “Want to put your flowers down?”

    “Okay.” Pulling away from his hug, she went to where the wreath lay, and carefully placed the bouquet in the middle of it. “Emma, I'm really sorry this happened, okay? I'll try to have a great life for the both of us.”

    <><>​

    The Vigilante

    She couldn't hear the words as they spoke between themselves, but the girl – Taylor – had been clearly audible as she yelled. She had anger in her; Sophia could hear it. If she'd just started to cry, Sophia would have dismissed her as a wimp, but the violence in her actions told another story altogether.

    She was sharp, too; Sophia wasn't sure that she hadn't been made, earlier, when they were walking up the alley. Taylor had been scanning the edges of the rooftop, and Sophia had had to keep her head down so as not to be seen. Most people didn't look up; it was a fact that made her life easier. But Taylor had looked up. What does that mean?

    In any case, there was a new situation brewing. While they'd been in the alleyway, a couple of guys from the Merchants had wandered up and were now leaning on the car. These guys were out of their territory and they had to know it, but they were probably out tagging for the hell of it. The Archer's Bridge Merchants were not known for their common sense; they were in the process of being forced out of their original territory by the ABB, but they still went and tagged in ABB turf.

    What the hell; Sophia didn't care about what happened to some Merchant mooks.

    But what was going on down there at the moment was definitely of interest to her. Taylor and her father had just walked out of the entrance to the street, to see the gang punks. How are they going to handle this? Are they going to fold, or are they going to fight?

    <><>​

    The Daughter

    She caught her breath when she saw the gang members. The anger had drained out of her, or at least mostly so, and she was more tired than anything; she still wasn't really recovered from her self-imposed starvation diet. There they were, leaning against the car, smoking something that she guessed wasn't tobacco, jeering to one another in highly obscene terms.

    Her mind flashed back to what had happened to Emma, and she felt fear. It washed through her body, weakening her knees and loosening her bowels. Oh god, what's going to happen? “D-dad?”

    “Taylor.” His voice was firm and low. “Stay behind me.” Gripping the tyre iron, which she had quite forgotten that he was carrying, he stepped forward.

    The punks turned when he was still a few paces from the car. “Hey man, whassup?”

    Her father stopped, and pointed the tyre iron like a gun. “Whassup, you little shits, is that you're gonna get off my goddamn car, and fuck off before I beat the ever-loving shit out of you.”

    Taylor's eyes opened wide. I've never heard Dad talk like that before.

    It seemed that the gang punks were equally surprised. “Hey man, chill,” one of them told him. “We're just hangin'. No big.”

    <><>​

    The Father

    Stepping forward again, he brought the iron down on the trunk of the car, leaving a dent. He hated doing it, but the anger roiling through him needed a target, and they needed to see that he meant business. The loud bang caused both the gang punks to jump up and away from the car. “Then go and hang some other place,” he growled. “Fuck off before I fuck you up.” Raising the tyre iron threateningly, he took another step forward.

    “Shit, dude, all right, all right, we're going.” They backed off; he wanted to follow, to threaten them some more, but they were going. The danger to Taylor was passing. He stood foursquare, tyre iron in sight, as they shambled off, looking back occasionally to make sure he wasn't following. When they felt that they were at a safe distance, they stopped and shouted obscenities, but he didn't care.

    Getting his keys out, he unlocked the car and let Taylor in, then went around and got in himself. The tyre iron he tossed into the back seat.

    His hands were shaking too much at first to put the key into the ignition; this was due to the after-effects of adrenaline in his system, he knew. But eventually he managed it, turned the key, and started the car.

    “Dad … “ Taylor began, as he turned the vehicle and began to head back toward home.

    He didn't want to look at her, see the fear in her face. He knew he had a violent temper, inherited from his father, but he had sworn that he would never let it loose on Anne-Rose or Taylor. And he hadn't. But now she had seen and heard what he could be like, what his father had been like when he was a boy. “I'm sorry, Taylor.”

    “Sorry for what, Dad?” she asked, and now he turned to look at her. The look in her eyes wasn't fear, wasn't revulsion. It was hero-worship. “That was awesome. You scared the shit out of those assholes.”

    “Yeah, I know,” he grunted. “I shouldn't have done that.”

    “What? No. Dad, seriously. That was awesome. Totally badass. You did what you had to do.”

    He shook his head. “Taylor, that's not me. Not really.”

    Reaching out, she put her hand on his forearm. “Well, I'm glad it was, just then. I'm glad you were there.”

    Taking his left hand off the wheel, he reached over to briefly cover her hand with his. “I'm just glad we got out of there in one piece. You all right?”

    She leaned back in her seat and breathed deeply. “Yeah, Dad. I think I'm better than I was.”

    “Good. Let's go home; we've had enough adventure for one day.”

    She giggled, a little high-pitched, some of the adrenaline still working its way out of her system. “Yeah, I think so too.”

    <><>​

    The Vigilante

    Shadow Stalker watched the car drive away. She didn't bother to follow. Well, well, she mused. That family is definitely not made up of wimps. I'm going to have to keep a closer eye on them.

    She still hadn't managed to talk to Taylor alone, but her chance would come.

    Sooner or later, it would come.


    End of Part Three

    Part Four
     
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2016
  10. pepperjack

    pepperjack A Variety of Cheese

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    Can't say I'm happy to see Sophia pulling another let's-wait-and-see. Didn't she get enough of that last time?
     
  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The gang members didn't have knives this time. And if they'd threatened the Heberts, she would have stepped in.
     
  12. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Nice one. Small changes, Danny taking charge, and letting his temper show a bit. And Sophia interpreting it in her own way. A recipe for disaster, I fear.
     
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  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    This is going to get darker. You have been warned.
     
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  14. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Ouch.
     
  15. Dr. Mercurious

    Dr. Mercurious Not too sore, are you?

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    Cross-posting from SV

    I had a feeling..and you my friend can do 'dark' disturbingly well. Why do I have the feeling that Taylor's trigger is going to have a minimum safe distance?
     
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  16. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    To quote a comic I once read: "Jersey City".

    EDIT (regarding 'minimum safe distance').
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2015
  17. pepperjack

    pepperjack A Variety of Cheese

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    And the Sophia redemption hook looked so promising, too...
     
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  18. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    No, you're thinking of Confrontation :p
     
  19. pepperjack

    pepperjack A Variety of Cheese

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    I'm really not. (From your smiley I figure you knew that, though.)
     
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  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I'm not saying that Sophia will be redeemed, and I'm not saying she won't. What's gonna happen in this fic isn't going to be (I hope) as easy to see coming as in (say) Confrontation.
     
  21. Dr. Mercurious

    Dr. Mercurious Not too sore, are you?

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    I was thinking it might be a Danny trigger, but it's Taylor who's rapidly becoming All Alone, so most likely Danny's going to bite it. No, I think this time, Sophia's going to be 'mentoring' Taylor instead of Emma. Because that would be thirty-one flavors of fucked up.
     
  22. Threadmarks: Part Four: Bad Decisions
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    All Alone

    Part Four: Bad Decisions


    Taylor

    Two weeks.

    She leaned on the railing, looking out at the bay. The Protectorate headquarters, within its pearlescent forcefield, was almost in her line of sight, but she refused to look at it. But she was aware of it, even as she refrained from acknowledging its existence. A rebellious thought flickered in the corner of her mind. With all their powers, they couldn't prevent one person from being murdered. What good are they, anyway?

    Digging her nails into the wooden rail, she focused on the ocean once more. Brockton Bay was well-known for its climate, unusually warm for how far north it was, and today was proving to be no exception. She wore a sleeveless top and jeans; there was a fine sheen of sweat on her arms from the heat of the day. Before her, the sunlight glinted from wavelets travelling slowly in towards the shore.

    Barely any of this registered on her, as she returned to her original train of thought.

    Two weeks.

    Two weeks since Emma died. Two weeks until I start high school.

    Two weeks was not a long time, in the grand scheme of things. Taylor had had two-week vacations that went by in the flicker of an eyelid. And in fact, it seemed as though barely any time had elapsed since Emma's funeral; while she was no longer burying herself away from the world – not that she had any choice, following her father's intervention – the pain of her loss was still unexpectedly sharp.

    At any time of day, she might see something and think, Oh, Emma would like that. Or worse, she might actually turn to address her best friend, forgetting that Emma would never again be at her elbow, never again roll her eyes at Taylor's jokes, even as she was laughing. Emma had a knack of telling her own jokes, the punchline carefully timed so that Taylor would snort her drink out of her nose. Taylor had thrown food at her more than once for doing this.

    I'd let her pull that on me every day of my life if it meant I could have her back.

    There were also just two weeks to go until school let in, and that was inflicting a whole new level of heartache upon her. She'd been looking forward to this, to a new school, new experiences. With Emma at her side, of course. Emma was the socially adept one, the pretty one. Taylor was happy to be the unnoticed friend of the popular girl, so long as this meant she didn't get picked on.

    However, there was more to it than that. She had needed Emma for balance, for perspective. Before her mother's death, Taylor had been a motormouth, bubbly, full of life. Emma had provided brakes and just a little sanity. She had also, paradoxically, ensured that Taylor didn't just vanish from the world every time she got a new book that she liked.

    Taylor, on the other hand, had done … what? Provided companionship? Injected a little levity and amusement into her best friend's life? Been the very best BFF she could possibly be?

    She was left wondering if there hadn't been something more she could have done. If she couldn't have been a better friend. Made Emma laugh a bit more, made her life a bit happier. Appreciated her more while she was there to be appreciated.

    And now I'll be going to high school and she won't be there to enjoy it with me. Though, to be honest, Emma had never quite enjoyed school as much as Taylor had. The joy of learning, of building on knowledge, was something she had understood, but had never been so deeply into as Taylor had. Nor had she been as much a cape geek as Taylor, although they had discussed the lives of various parahumans for hours at a time.

    It was wrenching to think that she'd never have another who-would-win discussion, matching two heroes or two villains and citing previous battles and known powers, hashing out which of them would likely emerge victorious. Alexandria, of course, was the trump card in all of this; they had agreed early on that anyone taking Alexandria on deserved the beatdown they were inevitably going to suffer.

    The tears that filled her eyes had little to do with the onshore breeze. I miss you, Emma.

    “Hey.”

    <><>​

    Startled from her thoughts, Taylor turned her head. There was someone standing there, but due to her tears, she had no clear view of them, although the voice had been female, probably of her own age. “What?”

    “You okay?”

    I'm about as far from okay as I can possibly get. But she didn't say so. Instead, she pulled a tissue from her pocket, wiped her eyes, then blew her nose. “I guess.” She paused. “Uh … do I know you?”

    Now that she could see clearly, she already knew the answer to that question. The girl standing before her was indeed a teenager, with long black hair and dark skin. Where Taylor was skinny and gawky, this girl was athletic and graceful. There was an air about her of watchful wariness, of being poised for action at any time. A little disconcertingly, she was almost as tall as Taylor, who was used to having significant height over any gathering of her peers.

    “No,” the girl confirmed, holding out her hand. “Sophia.”

    This was as blunt an introduction as Taylor had ever gotten from anyone. “Uh, Taylor,” she replied, shaking Sophia's hand tentatively. The other girl's grip was firm, almost challenging; Taylor found herself having to apply a lot more pressure than she had first intended.

    Sophia's gaze was very direct, her brown eyes fixed on Taylor's. “It's good to meet you,” she said.

    Taylor got the impression that there should have been a finally in there somewhere. She wasn't as people-savvy as Emma had been, but she was pretty sure that this was anything but a chance encounter. “Uh, right,” she mumbled in reply. “Did you want something?”

    Now, for the first time, Sophia seemed ill at ease. “You knew Emma Barnes, right?”

    Taylor's eyes opened wide. “What? How did you know Emma? Who are you?”

    “Uh … I met her briefly, the day she died,” Sophia said awkwardly.

    “Oh.” Taylor blinked. “She didn't mention meeting any new friends to me.”

    Sophia's head came up at that. “How do you mean?”

    “I mean,” Taylor told her, her voice rising a little, “that I was talking on the phone to her about thirty seconds before she was killed. I mean that Emma and I were best friends from first grade and we used to share friends like nobody's business.” She stepped forward, closing the distance, obscurely glad for the hot anger that was now replacing the hollowness in her chest. “So if she'd met somebody who she managed to impress to the point that you're seeking me out to ask about her, then you should've made an impression on her too. And she never said word one about meeting someone. So how about you tell me what the fuck you mean by 'met her briefly'. Or fuck off. I don't much care.”

    <><>​

    Sophia

    Shit. I didn't know that she'd been on the phone.

    The conversation was not going at all like Sophia had imagined that it might. Taylor was quick, very quick. She had pounced on the discrepancy almost immediately; Sophia wasn't at all sure how to extricate herself from the problem.

    On the other hand, the simmering anger radiating from the girl before her answered one particular question. Taylor Hebert is not a wimp. Which, ironically, made things a little harder for her. If the girl had been a pushover, Sophia could have just walked away, secure in the knowledge that if Taylor was a wimp, then Emma would probably have been one too.

    But she's not. She's really not.

    Taylor gave her a cold, dismissive stare. It stung; a moment ago Sophia had been in control of the situation but somehow the initiative had slipped from her grasp. “Emma was my best friend,” the skinny girl said. “I don't believe that you knew her at all. You want something from me, and you're just using her name to get under my skin. Go away and leave me alone.”

    Sophia felt the first stirrings of her own anger. Here she was, honestly making overtures and all she was getting was rejection and abuse. “I'm not going away,” she retorted stubbornly. “Not until you tell me what I want to know. About Emma.”

    Equally stubbornly, Taylor shook her head. “I'm not telling you anything about Emma until you tell me what this is all about.”

    “I can't tell you that,” Sophia insisted. “But it's important to me. I need to know what sort of person she was.”

    “Well, if you can't tell me why, I'm not telling you shit.” Turning, Taylor started moving off.

    Incensed, Sophia grabbed her by the shoulder. “Don't you fucking walk away from me.”

    Even in the heat of her anger, she had not forgotten the assessment she had made of Taylor; specifically, that she was no wimp. Thus, it came as a surprise to her when Taylor turned with the pull instead of resisting it. It was even more of a surprise when Taylor's long arm came around at head height, her open palm cracking against Sophia's cheek.

    In the normal course of events, she would have been ready and willing to return such a move with interest when in combat, but this hadn't been combat up until now. Momentarily stunned, she felt herself being pushed roughly back, to land ignominiously on her butt. “Now fuck off,” Taylor advised her, “and leave me alone.”

    As Sophia pulled herself to her feet using the safety rail, her anger flared anew. Who the fuck does she think she is? Nobody does that to me and gets away with it.

    Taylor had moved a few steps away in the interim; this merely served to let Sophia build up a little speed. Wimp Taylor might not be, but neither was she any kind of seasoned fighter; she turned far too late as Sophia bore down on her.

    “Look, I told you -” she began, only to break off with an “Oof!” as Sophia's shoulder slammed into her midsection. They went down in a tangled pile on the Boardwalk. First they rolled one way then the other, each one struggling for dominance.

    Taylor wasn't as strong as Sophia, or as fit. She certainly wasn't accustomed to fighting. But Sophia didn't want to hurt her and she didn't want to reveal her powers, which reduced the options open to her.

    Still, it wasn't long before Sophia managed to push her on to her back and hold her down with a hand on each forearm. Taylor had lost her glasses in the struggle, but the glare she directed at Sophia was no less fierce for all of that.

    “Stop fighting,” panted Sophia. “We don't need to fight. I don't want to hurt you.”

    “Says the bitch who just tackled me,” Taylor gasped. She tried to pull one arm free and failed. Undeterred, she tried with the other arm.

    “I don't,” insisted Sophia. “I just want to know about Emma.”

    “And until you tell me why, you can just fuck off in triplicate,” Taylor managed. Heaving herself up a little, she pulled her arms together behind her head.

    Sophia didn't realise what she was doing until Taylor's left hand grabbed Sophia's right wrist. Taylor didn't wear her nails long, but they were long enough; when she sank them into Sophia's wrist, Sophia yelped and let go of Taylor's arm.

    The punch that Taylor then delivered into Sophia's ribs wasn't particularly expert, but it still hurt. She pulled her arm back and did it again, then a third time. Sophia tightened her grip on Taylor's left wrist and twisted her own left arm to break the grip. She succeeded but at that moment, Taylor heaved, throwing Sophia off of her altogether.

    Sophia landed on her side; Taylor was rolling rapidly in the other direction in an attempt to widen the distance. But there was something the other girl wasn't seeing.

    “Look out!” Sophia called, too late. Taylor came to the edge of the Boardwalk, rolling straight under the safety rail. At the last moment, realising the danger, she reached out and tried to grab the rail, but missed. The last that Sophia saw of her was the soles of her trainers, disappearing over the side. Sophia heard the sound of the impact.

    Getting up, Sophia staggered to the rail, holding her ribs. Amateur she might be, but Taylor threw a mean punch. Looking over the rail, she saw Taylor, lying on the sand about ten feet below. She was on her side, face half-buried in the granular particles. One arm was twisted oddly. There was no sign of movement.

    “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” muttered Sophia. Not again, not again. Looking left and right, she realised what should already have been obvious to her, that this part of the Boardwalk was currently deserted. Otherwise, the fight would have been broken up before it went too far. But this also meant that Sophia could cheat a little.

    Vaulting over the rail, she went to shadow form before she hit the ground, then reformed beside Taylor. Grabbing Taylor's shoulder, she rolled her on to her back. “Are you all right -”

    The handful of sand caught her square in the face. She coughed and choked and tried to blink her eyes clear, but she didn't get the chance. A punch to the face made her reel, then she was pushed on to her stomach and a heavy weight landed on her back; it felt like somebody's knee. Having her face ground into the sand didn't help her breathing problems; Taylor grabbed one arm and twisted it behind her back, but Sophia wouldn't let her get a grip on the other.

    “What do you want with me?” demanded Taylor. “What do you want with Emma? Who are you? What the fuck is going on?” With each question, she pushed Sophia's face into the sand.

    Sophia was struggling just to breathe. I could go shadow, but that would out me. Instead, she used her free arm to push herself up just a little, so that she wasn't inhaling sand.

    “What do you want to know about Emma for?” Taylor's questions were relentless. “Where do you know her from?” She leaned even harder on Sophia's back; Sophia felt her vertebrae straining under the load. I've got to do something.

    Turning her head, she blurted out the one thing she hadn't meant to say. “I was there when she died.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Taylor stopped pushing Sophia's face into the sand, stopped pushing her arm up behind her back. She just stared down at the dark-skinned girl, a whirl of thoughts displacing her anger, her hurt.

    “What.” She had wanted to ask a dozen questions, but the single word was all that came out.

    Sophia turned her head farther, so that she could look up at Taylor with one eye. “I was there. When she died. I saw it happen.”

    “She was killed by gang members!” yelled Taylor. “They cut her throat! How could you have been there?”

    Sophia's answer was as straightforward as it was shocking. “Because I'm the one who killed them.”

    Taylor's grip loosened all the way. She got off of Sophia and watched dumbly as the other girl sat up and scrubbed the sand from her eyes and nose, spitting out particles as she did so. By the time she looked up, Taylor was just staring at her.

    “You killed them.” Her tone was flat; she didn't know whether or not to believe Sophia.

    “Yeah.” Sophia's tone was equally flat. “I did. Each and every one of the bastards.”

    “The police said a vigilante did it. But they wouldn't say who.” Taylor stared at Sophia. “You're good at fighting. But you're not that good. How could you kill them all?”

    “The police aren't saying because it's not their jurisdiction.” Sophia's lip twisted. “They'll have passed it on to the PRT.”

    Taylor blinked as she realised what Sophia was saying. “You're a cape?”

    Sophia nodded once, curtly. “Shadow Stalker. That's me.”

    For a second, Taylor was puzzled, and then memory clicked in. “Oh, right. I've heard that name. That's you?”

    As an answer, Sophia's body blurred into a mist-like form; when she reformed, she was standing upright. “That's me, yeah.”

    “Oh. Oh, wow.” Taylor, still sitting on the sand, stared up at Sophia. Her eyesight was pretty bad without her glasses, but she'd still seen that. I'm talking to a cape? “So ...” She paused. "… why do you want to know about Emma?”

    Sophia extended a hand to help Taylor up. "I don't know about you, but I've got sand down my neck and in my hair." Taylor noticed that she tacitly didn't mention the sand that had been thrown in her face, or the fact that her face had been rubbed in more sand. "Why don't we go get ourselves cleaned up, and then we can talk some more, if you want."

    Taylor accepted the hand up; Sophia's grip, as she had previously noted, was quite strong. She came to her feet, then looked vaguely around. "My glasses. Can you see them anywhere?"

    Sophia pointed at the Boardwalk above them. "I think they're up there."

    "Of course they are." Taylor shook her head in resignation, causing a light shower of sand from her hair. "Which way are the steps?"

    "Wow, you really can't see much without your glasses, can you?"

    "Nope. Short-sighted as hell."

    "That must suck." Sophia pointed. "Stairs are this way."

    As they began to trudge in that direction, Taylor looked at Sophia. "You know something?"

    Sophia rubbed at her cheekbone, where Taylor's punch had connected. "What's that?"

    "If you'd led with the whole 'I was there when she died' thing, you would've had my complete and total attention, and I wouldn't have had to kick your ass.”

    “Oh, pul-leeeze. You weren't kicking my ass. I had you right where I wanted you.”

    “Really?” Taylor snorted. “You must love eating sand then.”

    Bickering amicably, the two headed for the steps.

    <><>​

    Sophia

    “Okay, so give.”

    Taylor, once more bespectacled, had gotten rid of the sand from her clothing and hair. She sat opposite Sophia, also free of unwanted silicates, and sipped at her tea. There were fries in a basket between them; she nibbled at one while she awaited Sophia's answer.

    Sophia, for her part, took her time. She glanced around at the other patrons of the cafe, noting that none were close enough to easily eavesdrop on the conversation. Nobody was even paying them much in the way of attention, which was exactly the way she liked it. She was also going through what she was going to tell Taylor very carefully; she had to tell it in such a way that she didn't vary too much from the truth, but also so that Taylor didn't learn certain aspects of her actions.

    “The ABB had them trapped in the alley,” she began. “Dumpster in front, van behind. They'd dragged her out of the car and had her on her knees. Not sure what was going on there. I think maybe they were making her choose which part of her face they were going to cut up.”

    Taylor put her cup down with a distinct clink and laced her fingers together. “But they didn't …” she began uncertainly.

    “No, no, they didn't,” Sophia hastened to assure her. “She fought them. Just as I got there, she elbowed one of the guys in the nuts. But when she went to pull free, the girl with the knife just … cut her throat.”

    Taylor shut her eyes hard, then opened them again. “Just like that?” Her voice was a little faint.

    Sophia looked her straight in the eyes, pushing the lie as hard as she could. “Yeah. Just like that. She said something to Emma around about then, but I wasn't listening. I was aiming.”

    “Aiming?”

    “Yeah.” Sophia was back on familiar ground. “About three seconds after she did that, I shot her in the back of the neck with a razor-tipped crossbow arrow. Then I killed the rest of them.”

    Taylor breathed deeply, looking fixedly at the table. Her hands clenched on one another, the knuckles whitening almost alarmingly. “Good.”

    Sophia shrugged very slightly. “They killed her. Only made sense that they had to die, too.”

    There was a long silence, then Taylor looked up at her. “I have to know … did she … did Emma … was she …”

    “She didn't suffer,” Sophia assured her, then launched into her second lie. “She … well, when I got back to her, she was still alive. Still awake. Just barely hanging on. She looked me in the face and tried to say something. All I got was 'T …'. At the time, I thought she was trying to thank me for killing them. But now I think she was saying 'Taylor'.”

    “Oh god.” Taylor's voice was low. “Oh god. Oh god. She died in that alley and I wasn't there for her.”

    “I wish I could have saved her.” Sophia was entirely sincere now. “She came across as a fighter. Someone who didn't give up.”

    “Yeah, no, she was all of that.” Taylor spoke hastily. “She never took shit from anyone. Never backed down. Always knew what she was doing and where she was going, and god help anyone who got in her way.”

    So she was a fighter after all. Sophia ignored the fact that she'd led Taylor into saying that. She wouldn't lie to me about her best friend.

    A silence fell across the table; both of them ate fries, while Taylor drank tea and Sophia had some of her fruit concoction. Taylor didn't seem to want to break the silence, while Sophia wasn't sure how to lead the conversation where she wanted it to go. The last time I tried something like that, it didn't go so well.

    “Well, I really appreciate you tracking me down and telling me what happened.” Taylor had obviously decided that the silence was becoming awkward. “I'm just wondering. Where do we go from here?”

    This was as good an opening as she was going to get. “How would you like to help me get revenge on those gangbanger sons of bitches?”

    Taylor blinked. “I … didn't you say that you killed them all?”

    Sophia's smile was grim. “There's more than them out there.” She paused a moment. “And they'll be hurting and killing other innocents every night, out there. If someone doesn't stop them.”

    She ate a fry while awaiting Taylor's answer. It wasn't long in coming.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    The alleyway was dark and smelled of rotting garbage. Some of it squished under Taylor's trainers as she waited. She blended into the shadows well, dressed from head to toe in the darkest clothing she owned. God, I hope Dad doesn't notice that I snuck out.

    Sophia was late. The longer she waited, the more aware Taylor became of the stench of the alleyway, and the fact that she, a teenage girl with no particular training in crimefighting skills, was lurking in said alleyway, alone, with just a canister of pepper spray to protect herself.

    What am I even doing? It was a variation on a question she had asked herself a dozen times over the last few days, as her preparations to go out on patrol with Sophia became closer to completion. There was a point to the question; she was no more prepared for violent encounters than Emma had been. What's to stop what happened to her, from happening to me?

    As if in answer to the unspoken question, a shadow beside her solidified into Sophia, wearing the Shadow Stalker costume. “Hi.” Her voice was barely a murmur.

    For all that she had been expecting this, Taylor jumped. “Shit!” she hissed. “Don't do that!”

    Sophia chuckled, the sound low and dark in the alleyway. “Sorry. Anyway, got you something.”

    “What?”

    “Hold out your hand.”

    Obediently, Taylor did so; a moment later, her fingers wrapped around the handle of a baseball bat. It had been wrapped with electrical tape for better grip. “Wow,” she murmured, hefting the weapon. “Oh, wow.” Just swinging it back and forth gave her a feeling of power, of being in more control of her own destiny.

    “I used it up until I got the crossbows,” Sophia explained in an undertone. “Just remember; don't come in unless you think I need help. If you do have to come in, aim for the head or the joints and just keep swinging until you and me are the only ones standing.”

    “Right.” Taylor realised that her voice sounded less than totally enthusiastic.

    Sophia apparently picked up on the same vibe. “You okay with doing this? Want to back out?”

    Maybe. She took a deep breath and stiffened her spine. “No. I'm doing this. For Emma.” She'd do it for me.

    “Good. Come on, then, if you're coming.” Sophia turned and vanished into the darkness.

    After a moment, Taylor followed.


    End of Part Four

    Part Five
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2017
  23. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    The Queen of Escalation is coming, Brockton Bay. And this time, she's dancing to Sophia's tune. Fear her.
     
  24. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    Taking your unpowered friend out to fight gang members sounds like something that could easily go horribly wrong.
     
  25. nobodez

    nobodez Bringer of Context

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    This is going to end in tears.

    Blood and tears.

    Not sure who's blood, or who's tears, but there will be both before this is over.
     
  26. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Experienced.

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    ... or horribly right.

    Possibly both.
     
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  27. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    I'm torn. On one hand, I want to see this Taylor trigger, so we can see her live up to her full potential.

    On the other hand, a non-Parahuman Taylor living up to her potential is not, in any way, less scary, and far more original.
     
  28. Argentorum

    Argentorum I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    The Wolf pack is coming to Brockton Bay
     
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  29. FreshwaterPlimpie

    FreshwaterPlimpie Know what you're doing yet?

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    I like stories with a panicky in-over-her-head Taylor accidentally kicking everyone's asses.
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Part Five: It All Goes Wrong
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    All Alone

    Part Five: It All Goes Wrong

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Taylor

    I really need to get fit. She tried not to pant too obviously, jogging along between the ill-lit buildings. Ahead and above, a shadowy figure flitted from rooftop to rooftop. God, I hope she doesn't lose me. She could feel the nylon swimming wallet fastened around her right ankle; it contained money for cab fare, but she wasn't looking forward to trying to find a working pay phone in this neighbourhood. And I definitely don't want to try walking home alone.

    But she couldn't keep her eyes on the rooftops all the time; there was litter on the sidewalk, and if she hadn't kept an eye on where she was going, she would have tripped over a dozen times by now. Looking upward again, she tried to spot Sophia. There was nobody that she could see. Crap. Well, she was moving in this direction …

    Renewing her grip on the baseball bat, she moved forward again, trying to look in all directions at once. When the dark shape stepped out of a nearby alley, she let out a stifled gasp of relief. “Oh, there you are.”

    “Here I am,” agreed the indistinct figure, in a voice that was deep and masculine, and not at all like Sophia's. “And there you are. What you doing walking down my street at night, girlie?”

    Shit, shit, shit, shit. Gripping the bat in both hands, she backed away a few steps. What do I say? What do they say in those Westerns? “Just passing through. Don't want any trouble.”

    His chuckle was not at all reassuring. “I don't want trouble either. But I am gonna get me some sugar.” He stepped forward, and she heard the snik of a blade opening. “So keep quiet and there won't be any trouble at all.”

    Oh, yeah. It doesn't work in those Westerns, either.

    “Keep away from me!” She hated that her voice quavered on the last word. “I've got a friend -”

    “Come here, bitch!” He lunged toward her; instinctively, she raised the bat and swung down as hard as she could. There was a solid thump and a muted crack, and he let out a strangled scream. “Fuckin' bitch! I'll fuckin' kill you for that!”

    Remembering Sophia's brief tutorial on the subject, she stepped around to the right, hoping to avoid his knife hand, and swung the bat in a hard arc at knee level. Again, there was a solid thump that vibrated all the way up the bat into her hands. He let out another scream, a little more high-pitched this time, and she heard him fall to the ground.

    “Maybe next time you'll -” she began, then yelped as she felt a hand close around her ankle. He jerked, trying to throw her off balance, but she brought the bat down hard, swinging blindly in the near-total darkness. On the third impact, his grip relaxed. By the sixth, he had let go. She hit him three more times, more out of reflex than of any desire to make sure. Panting, she stepped back carefully.

    When the light cut out of the darkness to blind her, she threw up her arm to protect her eyes, and stepped back again. Oh, fuck, he had friends.

    “Well fucking done.” This time, it was Sophia's voice, sounding warm and amused. “You sure as shit put the beatdown on that bastard. I knew the Boardwalk wasn't a fluke.”

    Taylor felt her heart rate slowing down from 'ludicrous' to merely 'very fast'. “Are you nuts? The guy would've … fuck, he wanted to …” Even now, she couldn't actually say it. Saying it would make it real, and she didn't want it to be real.

    “Yeah, and how many other girls has he done it to?” Sophia's voice was hard, now. She pointed the light at the man, sprawled on the ground in front of Taylor. “He asked for it. You know it.”

    “Is … is he alive?” The guy was lying really, really still. Taylor had a bad feeling about this. Blood and hair were smeared on the bat.

    “Sure he is.” Sophia came closer and knelt beside the body. With two fingers, looking very professional, she felt the side of his neck. “Yup, there's a pulse. He'll be fine. And maybe he won't try and grab girls in the dark any more.”

    “Oh, good.” Taylor felt relief wash through her. I know what he tried to do, but I didn't want to kill him.

    Coming to her feet in one lithe move, Sophia slapped Taylor on the shoulder. “Score one for the good guys. Come on, Night Girl. Let's go find some more assholes to show the error of their ways.”

    Taylor felt a warm flush of pleasure at Sophia's use of her temporary 'cape' name. It made her feel like a real hero. Like she was actually helping to make a difference.

    <><>​

    Sophia

    “Yeah.” Taylor gripped the bat a little more tightly, as if drawing strength from its presence. “Let's go do that.” Then she pointed it at Sophia. “But don't fucking ditch me again. Got it?”

    Behind her mask, Sophia smiled. Oh, yeah. She's a fighter. “Got it, parter. Ready to go do some righteous ass-kicking of evil?”

    “Ready as I'll ever be.”

    “Great.” Turning off the flashlight, Sophia tucked it into the pouch on her belt and waited till their eyes had adjusted before leading the way out of the narrow side-street. She didn't want Taylor looking too closely at the guy on the ground, because she hadn't actually been able to find a pulse.

    If she realises that she's killed someone on her first go-around, she might panic. Give her time to get a little more used to the idea first. Of course, Sophia could've applied CPR, maybe even restarted his heart and gotten him breathing again. But why waste it on an oxygen thief like that? Some people are just plain better off dead.

    Out on the main thoroughfare, the street-lights were actually working. Sophia strode along, cloak flaring, trying to project the impression that yes, she did actually own the whole damn street. Alongside her, Taylor pulled up the scarf to cover the lower part of her face and tried to copy her mannerisms. She wasn't entirely successful, but Sophia had to give her props for the effort.

    After about a minute of this, Taylor turned to her. “So how do you do it?”

    Sophia thought she knew where this was going, but the question was begging to be asked. “Do what?”

    “Go out, night after night,” Taylor said. “Knowing that they'll still be there after you go home. Knowing that no matter how hard you try, someone's likely to get knifed in an alley, but you didn't stop it because you were half a mile in the wrong direction.” She waved her free hand, probably in an attempt to clarify her meaning. “How do you not lose faith in what you're doing?”

    Fortunately, this was a question that Sophia had asked herself more than once. “I go out because someone needs to,” she said bluntly. “The Protectorate does these cutesey little patrols, making enough noise that the bad guys duck into their holes until the heroes have gone past. They might stop a mugging a week, if the mugger's careless.” She tapped herself on the chest. “What colour's my costume?”

    “Uh, black.” Taylor's eyes opened a little wider behind her glasses, as if she had just realised what Sophia was getting at.

    “Exactly.” Behind her mask, Sophia sneered, although it wasn't at Taylor. “The rest of them wear nice bright colours. Fucking Clockblocker wears white. He doesn't even have a ranged ability. So how the fuck he's going to sneak up on anyone is beyond me. They don't patrol, they display. They show off the fact that yes, wow, there are superheroes in town, and we'll protect you, we promise.” By this time her hand was laid across her chest in a parody of someone swearing an oath, and her voice was as viciously sarcastic as she could make it. “Just so long as the bad guys commit the crimes right in front of us, on the schedule that we stick to on our patrols, and wait while we phone up Legend in New York so that he can personally give us permission to get off our fucking asses and do something.”

    “ … wow.” Taylor was staring at her. “It's not that bad, really. Is it?”

    Sophia felt almost sorry for the taller girl's cluelessness. “I've watched them. They do the same damn patrols over the same areas, over and over, week after week. Crime goes down in those areas, because the criminals aren't idiots. They go elsewhere. Me, I vary my routine. One week one area, another week another area. And anything I stop, I stop hard. By the time I finish with those assholes, they know not to fuck with Shadow Stalker.”

    “Yeah.” Taylor's voice was quiet. “You sure as hell stopped the ones that killed Emma.”

    “Damn right I did.” Sophia felt quiet pride that Taylor was listening and understanding. “They aren't ever going to hurt anyone again.”

    “But there's more where they came from.” The way Taylor voiced it, it wasn't a question.

    “All the way up to Lung,” confirmed Sophia. “And before you ask, no, I'm not fucking stupid enough to try to take him down. Kaiser, I could manage. But Purity would damn well turn me into a crater if I did.”

    “What about your shadow form?” asked Taylor.

    Behind her mask, Sophia grimaced. “Would you want to be the one to find out that you're not immune to her blasts?”

    Taylor looked enlightened. “Well, no, I guess not.” She paused. “So … what you were saying about why you go out.”

    Sophia shrugged. “I do it because someone has to. I do it because people need to know that there's someone out here, watching out for them. But mostly, I do it because there are people in the world who desperately need to have their heads kicked in, and I'm just the one to do the kicking.”

    “Right.” Taylor nodded. “I think I get it. I really do.”

    I knew she was smart. “Good, because -” Sophia broke off at the sound of a scream, up ahead. “Okay, talky time's over. Move it.”

    She accelerated into a sprint, feeling the cloak billow out behind her. It hampered her slightly, but not by a huge amount. Taylor's footsteps told her that the taller girl was trying gamely to keep up.

    Another scream sounded from an alleyway, just up ahead. Sophia came to a halt, and looked around the corner.

    There were five men, wearing Merchant colours, menacing two women and a man. The male victim was on his knees, cradling an arm which had red soaking through the sleeve. Both women seemed to be cowering back, not fighting at all. Sophia frowned at the sight of the blood. Did he try to fight back, or …?

    Taylor skidded to a halt behind her, then leaned out to peer past her. “Holy shit!” she whispered. “What are we gonna do?”

    “We're gonna kick the shit out of them,” Sophia said automatically. “But -”

    “Right!” Taylor darted past her. “Let's get them!”

    Sophia's eyes widened as Taylor went straight for the men baseball bat raised. Shit – no -

    Turning the corner herself, Sophia followed in Taylor's wake. When we're done here, I'm gonna have a talk with her about assessing the situation first.

    The first guy had obviously not expected to see a teenage girl come running at him, screaming some incoherent war-cry, and brandishing a baseball bat over her head. He froze for that all-important half-second, which was all that Taylor needed. There was a solid clunk as bat met head, and he went down and out.

    This left Taylor facing four armed and aware opponents. Even if they were Merchants, this still meant that there was a certain amount of danger involved. Not for Sophia, of course; given room to move, she could have taken them apart for light exercise. But Taylor had no training. All she had going for her was enthusiasm and a baseball bat.

    “Night Girl! Down!” shouted Sophia. Taylor dropped to the ground. Sophia sighted on two of the Merchant assholes and triggered her crossbows. Razor-tipped arrows whipped across the gap; one impacted the target in the shoulder, while the other skimmed past the other guy and lodged into a wall.

    “Fuuck!” screamed the guy she'd hit, stumbling to his knees. Pussy. The other one, wide-eyed, looked down at where the arrowhead had parted his jacket sleeve on the way past, and bolted. Bigger pussy. Sophia never paused, leaping past Taylor to slam her heel into the gut of one of the two still standing.

    He folded, but she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and went to shadow half a second before a heavy boot swept through her body. Rolling out of the way, she flickered into solidity and drove her elbow into the back of his neck. Where the fuck is Taylor? She's supposed to be backing me up, here.

    She spent half a second too long looking around for the taller girl; all of a sudden, brawny arms wrapped around her from behind. The guy she'd elbowed, still shaky, brandished a knife at her face. “Gonna cut you, bitch,” he slurred.

    Letting the guy behind her support her, she kicked him solidly in the nuts, then went to shadow form once more. Reforming behind the guy who'd grabbed her, she locked her arm around his neck in a sleeper hold. He clawed at the tough cloth of her costume sleeve, but was unable to get a proper purchase.

    Then the guy she'd nutsacked got up again. He was even more wobbly than before, but he was still up and fighting. He must get kicked there a lot. This was getting tedious; she'd tried to keep things less than lethal, but these guys were getting on her nerves, and she still didn't know where Taylor was.

    Releasing the bigger guy, she rolled backward out of the way. With quick, practised movements, she reloaded her crossbows; as the guy with the knife came at her, she nailed him through the kneecap. That put him down, screaming like a little baby. His buddy, still groggy from the almost-choking, took one in each thigh before he went down too.

    “Night Girl!” she called out, retrieving her arrows. The place online where she bought them supplied a discount for bulk orders, but even with druggie money, they still cost a bit. “Where are you?”

    Straightening up, she looked around. No Taylor. Putting the arrows away, she strode over to where the mugging victims were just getting to their feet. “Hey, you.”

    The guy with the cut on his arm blinked. “M-me?”

    “Yeah, you. You see where Night Girl went?” She waited a second for him to get the idea, then sighed in exasperation. “The other girl. The one with the baseball bat.”

    One of the women raised her hand slightly. “Uh, she chased the other guy, the one who ran away.”

    Oh, shit. “Which way did she go?”

    The woman pointed. Sophia didn't hesitate; she took off running in that direction. Behind her, the man's voice dwindled away. “Aren't you going to wait for …”

    The police? Hell, no. And stay out of dark alleys, you idiot.

    Reaching the street, she skidded to a halt. There was no sign of Taylor or her quarry to the left or right. Oh, come on. I didn't take that long to kick their asses.

    “Night Girl!” she called out, cupping her hands in front of her mask. “Where the fuck are you?”

    There was still no answer, but she thought she heard a car trunk slam shut. Unfortunately, from the way the sound echoed, she wasn't sure where it came from. A few seconds later, she heard a car door closing. That sounded like it came from the right. Hoping she was correct, she turned right and started jogging down the street, looking around for any clue that Taylor might have come this way.

    Shit, if she gets hurt because of me …

    A car engine started, somewhere out of her line of sight. Fuck. Where's that coming from? It had been loud, so it was kind of close, but …

    Just as she was crossing in front of yet another alleyway, headlights flared into high beam. Half-blinded, she flung her arm up in front of her eyes, trying to see what was going on. The car engine sounded again, roaring to a crescendo and rapidly getting closer. Instinctively, she went to shadow form and leaped straight up; the vehicle rocketed out of the alleyway below her. Dropping to the ground once more, she tried to get the number of the car, but it was swerving crazily from one side of the street to the other, having almost hit a parked vehicle.

    Pulling her flashlight out, she scanned the alleyway. If Taylor cornered him in here, he might've just knocked her out before making his getaway. If she's hurt, I need to find her.

    But there was no teenage girl to be seen. Just a familiar-looking baseball bat, and a black scarf that looked awfully like the one that Taylor had been using to conceal her identity. The horrifying reality burst in on her. Fuck. He took her with him. She's in the trunk.

    Whirling, she sprinted from the alleyway, just in time to see the car's tail-lights take the corner at the end of the block. Fuck. I have to catch up with that thing.

    Never in all her track and field experience had she run quite so fast. On the way, she unfastened the cloak and let it fall behind her. Pelting around the corner, she slowed down, heaving for breath.

    The street was empty. As her breathing slowed, she could vaguely hear the engine of the car, but there was no way to pinpoint it.

    Fuck. I lost them.

    Slumping against the side of the building, she wrapped her arms around herself. I failed. Again. Taylor came out with me. She trusted me to back her up. And now the fucking Merchants have got her. Raising her face to the uncaring night sky, she arched her fingers into claws and screamed, “FUUUUUUCK!”

    This time, there was no mistaking the red-hot ball of guilt that sat in her gut. I have fucked up so very, very badly. Taylor was a fighter, and I didn't teach her, I didn't train her. I just assumed she was ready. And now she's dead, or worse. Sophia had seen what the Merchants did in their spare time. She had no illusions about any kind of mercy that Taylor might face.

    Gritting her teeth, she bumped the back of her head against the brickwork behind her. How the fuck do I make this right?

    And then the answer came to her. Straightening up, she dashed back around the corner. On the way back across the street, she snagged her cloak and refastened it on the run. Retracing her steps, she retrieved the scarf and the baseball bat, tucking the former into her belt. And then she made her way to the alleyway where the mugging had taken place.

    The three victims were gone, which was good. Taylor's first target still lay there, unconscious. The guy she'd gotten in the shoulder was lying there in a huge pool of blood, barely moving. Must've hit an artery. Oh, well.

    The two she'd gotten with leg injuries were conscious, but in considerable pain. Kneecap guy was actually almost to his feet, or rather, foot. Leaning against the wall, he started in fear as Sophia re-entered the alleyway. “Stay away from me, you crazy bitch,” he babbled. “You fucked my knee.”

    Sophia looked dispassionately at him, then at the one with a wound in each thigh; that one was sitting up, but hadn't managed to work out the concept of standing quite yet. She hefted the bat and moved toward the guy with the kneecap. “You're gonna tell me where you guys hang out,” she said quietly. “And you're gonna tell me right the fuck now. You got me?”

    “Fuck you, skank,” he blustered. “I ain't gonna tell you fucking shit.”

    “Have it your way.” She braced herself and swung the bat as hard as she could. It impacted with the side of his good knee with a sickening crack. Screaming shrilly, he crumpled to the trash-strewn ground.

    Fuuuuuck!” he screamed, writhing in agony. “My fucking knee! You fucking bitch!”

    She put one foot on his leg and took aim at the knee she'd shot out. “Tell me where. Right the fuck now.”

    “Shit, no, no, no,” he blurted. “I'll tell you, I'll tell you.” Hastily, he rattled off an address. Sophia knew the street, but hadn't thought there was a Merchant hangout there.

    She frowned at him. “I think you're fucking with me.” Raising the bat, she smashed it into his knee anyway. He convulsed, shrieking so loudly she thought he might pop a blood vessel, and then passed out.

    Sophia turned to the other guy, who had been watching with horror. “One down,” she said as menacingly as she could. “So, you want to tell me where you really hang out, or you want me to see how many ways I can fuck up your legs too?” She slapped the bat into her palm. Already pale, he went sheet-white.

    <><>​

    Merchant Hangout, at the same time

    Joe looked over his cards at the other guys in the game. Mitch looked like he might be out of it, though Roach was still in the game despite the huge joint he kept toking on. Ziggy, on the other hand, was tripping hard on something, which puzzled Joe. He hadn't known Ziggy had anything worth tripping with.

    He rearranged his cards and peered at them. The smoke from Roach's joint drifted across the table, making it hard to concentrate. Finally, he pushed a couple of tiny pills into the stash in the middle of the table. “I bet two E.”

    Mitch blinked awake and licked dry lips, reaching for one of the E's. Joe slapped his hand. “You need to win the pot first.”

    “Oh. Yeah.” Mitch put down his cards. “I win.”

    Just as Joe was peering at the cards, the door to the hangout opened. Roach took a hit on his joint, then gusted the smoke across the table as he spoke. “Dude. We didn't ask for any party favours.”

    Joe looked around. Ray stepped into the hangout and shut the door behind him. He had someone over his shoulder, dressed in black from the waist down. Joe couldn't see if it was a guy or a girl, and what they were wearing from the waist up, but he assumed it was much the same.

    “Not a party favour,” Ray said, dropping his burden on to one of the ratty armchairs. Joe had been right. Black clothing from top to toe. Plus, long hair, which probably made it a girl.

    “Shit, it's a kid,” Joe said. “What the fuck, Ray? If you're gonna get someone high and bring them back, at least make sure they've got tits.”

    “I can't tell,” mumbled Roach. “Is it a boy or a girl? If it's a boy, I'm out.” Joe sniggered; the 'boy in a dress' prank they'd played on him that one time had been fucking hilarious. Some of the photos were still floating around somewhere, too.

    “It's a girl,” Ray said. “And she's Shadow Stalker's fucking partner.”

    That name got Joe's attention. He looked more closely at the girl's face. It was pretty badly bruised, with split lips and a broken nose; one eye was badly swollen. “You sure?” All of them there had a major hate-on for that shadow bitch. She stole their money, torched their drugs and shot arrows into them at every opportunity. Joe was pretty sure that she had even offed a couple of guys he'd known.

    “Dead fucking sure,” Ray stated flatly. “Me and the others ran into them in an alley off Dwight. Remember that one that people cut through all the time?”

    Joe nodded. “Yeah?”

    “Yeah, that one,” Ray said. “Two of them, five of us, this one had a baseball bat. Hit Donny right over the head. Then Shadow Stalker started shooting, so I legged it. I'm the only one who got away. This bitch chased me, but it turns out she's got no idea how to fight. I got the bat off her, so she tried to pepper-spray me, but I saw it coming. Knocked it out of her hand and kinda tuned her up a bit. Dropped her in the trunk and came here.”

    “Duuuude,” breathed Roach. “My fuckin' hero.”

    Joe frowned. “Why bring her back here? Why not just fuckin' shank her and leave her?”

    “Because she's Shadow Stalker's fuckin' partner, you dick,” Ray said. “We can finally find out where that bitch lives, and put a fuckin' end to her.”

    Joe looked at the girl apprehensively. “What about her powers?”

    Ray shrugged. “Didn't use any. Unless 'sucky at fighting' is a cape power these days.”

    “All-righty, then.” Joe got up, ignoring Mitch grabbing at the stash of pills in the middle of the table. He pushed his chair into the middle of the floor. “Tie her to this and wake her up. We got some questions to ask this little bitch.”

    It didn't take long to wrestle her limp form on to the chair. They had no rope, but an extension cord did the job just as easily. It was Roach, as he tied her ankles to the chair legs, who found something interesting. “Hey, what's this?” he asked, pushing up her pants leg.

    “What?” asked Joe.

    “This.” Roach pointed at a flat wallet of some sort, strapped to her ankle. “Think it's important?”

    Joe laughed out loud. “Important? That's fuckin' golden.” Pulling his switchblade and popping it open, he leaned down to slice the straps holding it to the girl's leg. “Okay, let's see.” There was a zipper on one side; opening the wallet, he went through it, pocket by pocket.

    “Well, well,” he chuckled. “Well, well, fucking well. Thirty dollars. Must be cab fare. Well, it's mine now.”

    “Hey,” slurred Roach. “I found that. That money's mine.”

    Joe rolled his eyes. “Next time, you check the fuckin' thing out then, loser.” Tucking the money into his pocket, he kept searching. It didn't feel as though there was anything else in there, but he kept looking on general principles. He was just about to give up when he found something else. “What's this?”

    “What's what?” asked Ray.

    “A name. This wallet belongs to T. Herbert,” he said, squinting to decipher the faded, fraying label, stitched into the very last pocket. “No, wait. Hebert.”

    “Weird fucking name,” Ray said. “You sure that's what it says?”

    “Sure as shit,” Joe assured him. “Like 'Herbert', but without the first 'R'.”

    Ray grinned. “Good. Let's see if they're in the phone book.” He rummaged through a cupboard until he found a White Pages, then started riffling through it. “Let's see … Hays … Head … Heath … Hebert … well, fuck me. It's a real name after all.” His grimy fingernail came to a halt on the sole listing for Hebert. “Okay, I've got an address for D and A Hebert.”

    “Well, it's a good bet that that's where this bitch lives.” Joe shrugged. “Dunno what Shadow Bitch's name is, though. Or even if she lives there.”

    “One way to find out.” That was Ray. “I'll get some of the guys together and go over there. Find out what the fuck's going on, and put a fucking end to it.”

    “And I'll stay here.” Joe looked down at the unconscious girl. “See what she can tell us about Shadow Stalker. And then we'll teach her not to mess in Merchant business. Ever fucking again.”

    “Wait.” It was Roach. He blinked as Joe and Ray both turned to look at him. “Uh … aren't there rules for this sort of thing? Unmasking capes and shit like that?”

    Ray grinned unpleasantly. He was really good at it. “We're not capes. They don't apply to us.”

    Joe nodded. “Damn straight.”



    End of Part Five

    Part Six
     
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2018
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