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Emissary - A Deputy Recursive Crossover (Worm AU/Canon)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Noelemahc, Jul 19, 2017.

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  1. Threadmarks: Intro and Description
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Welcome to QQ repost of a crossover of a sequel of a fork of an AU fanfic with the canon storyline!

    Concise Summary: A fluke application of a device made by L33t lands a fanfic Taylor Hebert, Deputy Commander of Wards ENE, into the canon timeline during the fallout of the Empire 88 Unmasking. Things escalate from there.

    Original SB thread

    To recount: Internship (Worm) by Hopeful Penguin puts Taylor Hebert in an internship at the PRT a month before her Trigger, resulting in a chain of events preventing it. Deputy (Internship (Worm AU) AU) by Reyemile diverts from that idea to add an extra butterfly: someone else Triggers with Skitter's powers instead of Taylor, and that kicks her PRT trajectory into high gear. Its sequel, Deputy Commander (Worm AU) (Sequel) has her becoming Deputy Commander, leading the Wards ENE, the first non-powered Ward in the history of the program.

    The shared TVTropes page for them all is here:
    Internship / Fan Fic - TV Tropes

    But what would happen if she'd end up in the canon timeline, where the Wards are less numerous, Shadow Stalker is still considered a hero and Taylor Hebert has never set foot in Arcadia, dated Aegis or became a PHO meme?

    This was spun off from the omake-off in the Deputy Commander thread, begun by Reyemile himself here. That thought was quickly picked up by myself and Sithking Zero who should be considered a full-scale co-author on this, considering about 45% of all the stuff you will see below is either his ideas or his writing.

    Mandatory disclaimers:
    • This fic is a fork from a hypothetical future of Deputy Commander. I am getting some minor do's and don't's from Reyemile on covering future events on his fic, but for all intents and purposes, the diversion point is somewhere in February 2011 (where Deputy Commander is at the time of this writing, the Stagehand arc).
    • This fic begins in May 2011, so assume all canon events up to Arc 7 happened unchanged, and Arc 7 itself is mostly unaffected, since until Interlude 7.x the Protectorate side of the consequences of Arc 6 are not shown.
    • This is canon-verse, so Being Taylor Hebert Is Suffering is in effect. Fortunately, there is now more than one Taylor Hebert in the world, so the load will be shared.
    • This is not a fix-fic or a Peggy Sue, since Deputaylor only has knowledge of her own past prior to May 6th, 2011 from her timeline. Not all of the events between December 1st, 2010 and May 6th, 2011 of the two timelines worked the same.
    • If future chapters of Deputy Commander (or any hypothetical sequels) contradict events shown as the past of Deputaylor in this fic, there may be retcons. Or maybe not, this will depend on the scope of the discrepancies, just like the existence and events in Agent Hebert (Worm AU) didn't cause the Deputy fic to retcon things (like Glory Girl's... hobbies...).
    • We're desperately trying to preserve as much of canon as is humanly possible while keeping the fic fun. It's an interesting challenge.
    • The chapters based on omakes from the original omake-off will be marked as such. Do not expect them to flow the same way or lead into the same plot cues, however, as none of them were originally written to fit together in any coherent sort of way. The most preserved ones are Reyemile's, simply because you can't improve on perfection.
    • For clarity's sake, when referring to their civilian personas, Skittaylor and Deputaylor are a good comfy shorthand. Until a certain event changes that, of course. From then on, they are, respectively, Taylor and Rose.
    • No, we will not be crossing any more alt!Taylors over. Yes, we may cross more Deputyverse characters over.
    • QQ Exclusive: With permission from Sithking, who recused himself from that sort of stuff, I will be making NSFW omakes to the story, mostly non-canon, which will be posted in a separate thread in the appropriate forum section. References in the main story will be added to indicate where what goes (e.g. 'Here chapter Q.01 fits in').
    And now, on to the content!
     
  2. Threadmarks: Prologue
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Prologue
    (original omake)
    “What’s this I hear,” Deputy Director Rennick began, settling in his chair, hoping he could land in it without jolting the table because the damn coffee machine filled his mug to the brim again, “About our PRT troopers bringing in an unknown parahuman, and getting locked in M/S containment for their efforts?”

    Armsmaster made an exhaling noise that may or may not have been called a huff. He certainly wouldn’t’ve called it that, that’s for sure. The Protectorate hero was dressed-down, wearing his lighter armor and without his signature Halberd, his primary gear still lying half-repaired in his workshop after the previous day's combat, and the fact that the hours of sleep he's had since then could be counted on the fingers of a crippled man's hand clearly showed.

    “Earlier today,” he gestured at the screen, showing a typical Docks area warehouse that looked like something gnawed on its edge, “PRT dispatch received a report on regular service frequencies that an officer in the field has apprehended Über and L33t in the middle of testing their newest contraption, which was disassembling the warehouse you see before you.”

    A click, another picture, Über and L33t, wearing form-fitting (flattering in one case, really not in the other) black outfits with light-up neon lines along the seams, matching green. Grunts of acknowledgment circled the table, as Deputy Director Rennick, Director Piggot and Wards Team Leader Aegis nodded assent.

    “Who was the officer? How does the Master/Stranger Protocol factor into this?” Director Piggot asked, leaning slightly forward to rest her elbows on the table, the exertion clear on her face. It had been a long day and this sudden meeting had kept her from her regular schedule. Following yesterday’s toss-up at the Forsberg Gallery, she had a short amount of patience for the irrelevant.

    “That is where it gets weird,” Armsmaster admitted, bringing the next picture up. The outfit displayed on an armor stand looked like a standard-issue PRT tactical response uniform, except… it wasn’t one, it was a set of what looked like a cape’s armor, maybe Tinkertech, made to look like a PRT uniform. The uncanny valley was extended by the weird badge where the rank insignia was supposed to be, which an additional photo revealed to be the logo of the Wards program. To top it off, the name tag simply said “COMMANDER” in the standard blocky letters.

    “The call-in was made by a person claiming to be Deputy Commander, Wards ENE, wearing this armor and wielding a Tinkertech taser,” Armsmaster continued, gesturing at a pop-up screen showing what looked like a modified PRT taser, “Said subject also had apprehended Über and L33t and intended to hand them off to the arrived PRT troops, but halted, claiming the situation a set-up as Sergeant Michaelson, who led the deployment team, was discharged from PRT ranks three months earlier and was now employed as a mercenary.”

    Director Piggot frowned, turning to face Deputy Director Rennick, the man shifting uneasily under her stern gaze.

    “How did we miss that, exactly?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow, “I assume the statement was confirmed false?”

    “Indeed so, but by this time the situation devolved into a standoff until a second squad, led by Lieutenant Martinez, arrived to pack both sides into containment foam and enact Master/Stranger Protocols.”

    “I suppose there was a reason for that last one?” Aegis asked carefully, scratching his chin in thought.

    “Naturally. Both Michaelson and this ’Deputy Commander’ possessed active and valid M/S confirmation codes and verification passcodes as well,” Armsmaster replied, reading off a wrist-mounted display, “Martinez decided to play it safe.”

    “How did you separate the armor from the Subject?” Rennick asked, tilting his head inquisitively, “Not like they gave it up willingly?”

    “Actually, that was what happened,” Armsmaster’s voice showed a rare glimpse of surprise, “Upon being freed from the foam in M/S Containment, Subject unmasked, presenting a PRT employee ID with valid access codes equal to Wards Leader level issued to a person absent in our databases. Under the pretense of M/S questioning, it was discovered Subject claims to be the leader of the Wards ENE following the death of Aegis--” everyone’s heads turned towards the helmeted Ward at these words, while Aegis himself made a strangled noise, “--at the hands of Hookwolf, who was later executed by his Empire 88 comrades for disobedience in order to avoid Protectorate retribution.”

    A soft chime emanated from his wrist as he was explaining, which he silenced by stabbing a button somewhere on his gauntlet.

    “Dragon, now is not a--”

    “Armsmaster, I realize you’re in a meeting right now, but it’s for the best, this will save us some time,” a slightly accented voice said from his wrist.

    “What is the urgency, Dragon?” Director Piggot spoke up, shifting in her seat. The Canadian Tinker did not usually sound so… agitated?

    “Hello, Directors, Aegis,” the synthesized face of the woman known only as Dragon spoke from the main screen, “I’ve been running scans of the Warehouse and Docks areas following the ABB conflict for signs of unexploded Bakuda bombs to test a new drone model I’ve been developing with Armsmaster’s help, and one of them detected an unusual, but identifiable, energy signature,” she paused, eyes flicking to and fro, as if debating the consequences of the discovery, “It was a close match to the energy bleed of the portal to Earth Aleph Professor Haywire created, except short-lived. Something in the Docks opened and shut a portal to another Earth.”

    “What was the location, Dragon? Could you pinpoint it?” Deputy Director Rennick asked, raising a hand, palm forward, in response to his neighbors at the table turning to him, “Anywhere near… The old Staton Processed Chemicals warehouses?” he added, reading off the report Armsmaster brought up on the screen.

    “Directly on top of Building 4, sir,” was Dragon’s somewhat hesitant response.

    “Armsmaster, you said the Subject relinquished their gear without protest?” Piggot half-stood from her seat with a sudden urgency.

    “Yes. Initial screening showed the Subject to be truthful about statements made, familiar with the M/S process and treating it as a habitual inevitability. Miss Militia is currently continuing questioning.”

    “Could you patch us in?” Aegis suggested.

    A young woman’s voice came through the speakers, somewhat worn out but still sharp, direct and to the point, apparently elaborating on something that it had to repeat multiple times in the past.

    “--after which Shadow Stalker was revealed to be complicit in an ongoing bullying campaign at her school, resulting in causing a Trigger of one of her targets.”

    The speaker on-screen, a tall girl looking to be in her late teens and wearing a standard PRT grey jumpsuit, paused to run a hand through her dark curly hair and release a tired sigh.

    “With the help of a classmate, she left town before she could be apprehended. When on a PR visit to the newly opened PRT recruitment office in Providence, I was attacked by her. She blamed me for the reveal of her misdeeds, and wounded me with her crossbow before I managed to subdue her with a taser blast.”

    Miss Militia interrupted her story, thumbing the intercom button.

    “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have connection to Director Piggot and Armsmaster, they wanted to clarify something, if you wouldn't mind?” she said, reading the cue from the computer in front of her.

    “Deputy Commander,” Armsmaster said, struggling through the unfamiliar rank, “Could you tell us, how you chanced upon Über and L33t today?”

    “I was on patrol with Weaver, as per Dr. Yamada’s recommendations, when she detected an unusual energy discharge through her scans,” she recounted readily, “Upon discovery that it was Uber and L33t field-testing some new gear, we attempted to apprehend them. I managed to taze Uber, but then L33t tossed me into something that turned out to be one of his tinkertech props. I was disoriented for a short while and when I came to, Weaver was gone and they were continuing testing with other equipment.”

    Glances were exchanged around the table. Armsmaster pressed something on his wrist again, as the word MUTE appeared on the big screen.
    “Director,” he said warily, “She is a 94% voice match for Skitter, but the body shape does not match up, she is a lot… bulkier,” he let go of the button at Director Piggot's nod, and the word disappeared.

    “Concluding that they overpowered and stashed her somewhere, and that the device I hit must have been a stasis device that failed prematurely, I caught them by surprise, taking them down and calling it in. You know the rest, Armsmaster, you were there in the end,” she finished, somewhat uneasily.

    “Deputy Commander,” Dragon said carefully.

    “Yes, Dragon?” the girl asked, apparently recognizing the Tinker whose voice piped into the interrogation room around the voice-scrambling filters used for M/S questioning. More looks were exchanged around the table. Not a lot of people outside of the Protectorate were on easy speaking terms with the Canadian shut-in heroine.

    “Could you describe the device L33t used on you?”

    “Um… like a picture frame, maybe?” she paused, apparently fishing in her mind for details of the thing, “About as tall as Armsmaster in his armor, metal, like a support strut on a crane or an oil rig kind of metal, kinda rusted-looking or painted that way, with evenly spaced rivets. Inside of it looked like a TV screen with the old black and white static in it, I guess?”

    “Did it look something like this?” Dragon asked, putting a picture on the small screen in the corner of the interrogation room, a duplicate showing up in a pop-up on the conference room’s screen. The girl barely looked at it before nodding.

    “This is from the game Quake, a Slipgate, a dimensional doorway,” Dragon offered, her voice even and soft. The girl stiffened suddenly.

    “As per PRT Directive 507, section 45, I plead interdimensional refugee status,” she recited almost mechanically, “Including confidentiality clauses on my identity and those of my counterpart or counterparts, if applicable, as per section 47.”

    The reactions were varied. Armsmaster nodded expectantly and with a hint of approval, Miss Militia looked taken aback and Director Piggot had a curious mixture of confusion and respect on her face. Aegis merely shook his head while Rennick beamed like he found the whole thing highly amusing. This situation has just gotten interesting.

    “As per sections 48 through 50, I request PRT clearance level 6, two levels below PRT clearance of dimensionally-displaced PRT operative or equivalent thereof, which you probably already confirmed if your encryption systems work with the ones that are encoded in my ID badge.”

    “Deputy Commander,” Dragon said again, “I’m afraid we have no idea who you are except for the data on the badge.”

    “Permission to reveal your identity to Director Piggot?” Miss Militia asked carefully, before catching herself, “Armsmaster and I saw the badge, the others on the line only saw your face on security footage.”

    “Others?” the girl asked warily.

    “Aside from me, Armsmaster and Dragon, on the line we have Director Piggot, Deputy Director Rennick and Aegis.”

    “Aegis--” the girl gasped, before letting out a strangled “Permission granted. Section 46 also applies in this case.”

    “Revelation of dimensionally-displaced asset’s identity and their counterpart, if applicable, is to be treated with secrecy equal to that of a Ward or Protectorate member,” Dragon recited softly, half to assure the girl, half for the benefit of the people in the conference room, “And may not be used against their counterpart pending the results of identity confirmation.”

    “Proceed,” Director Piggot nodded.

    “My name is Taylor Hebert. I was a short-term intern for the Director before being Deputized during an interdepartmental investigation which used discoveries I made when studying regular crime reports. After being tested for powers due to unexpected performance, I was made an offer of a long-term internship and accidentally found Internet fame during my PR rotation. My current assignment is, among other things, the result of my securing a parahuman for the Wards from the CIA and apprehending Shadow Stalker after she has gone rogue-- I’ve just explained how that went,” the girl, Taylor, recited somewhat timidly.

    “Very well, Miss Hebert,” Director Piggot said, as placatingly as she could, “Directive 507 allows you to keep quiet on matters of secret identities unless relevant to the investigation.”

    “Just one thing, Director,” Taylor said, her voice downcast, “Shadow Stalker is still a Ward, isn’t she?”

    “Yes, she is,” Piggot confirmed, seeing where this was going.

    “Has there been a new insect-controlling cape active in the city in the past three or four months? Probably an independent hero.”

    “The only insect-controller in Brockton Bay is Skitter,” Armsmaster replied tersely, his voice fraught with emotions, “She’s been active for a month and a half, maybe. But she’s not a hero.”

    “Tell me, please?” Taylor pleaded, “Tell me about Skitter?”

    Who the hell are you, Taylor Hebert? Director Piggot wondered, And what's your connection to Skitter if you have no powers?
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2017
  3. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.01
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    The photograph slid limply from my hand.

    I'd left it for last because I still couldn't believe it. The locker incident, the location of her first appearance, the descriptions of her height and build. All of them pointed to a conclusion that was impossible to accept.

    But in the end, the grainy security photo made undeniable the facts that I didn't want to be true. I knew that long black hair too well for any doubt..

    Skitter was me.

    She was a villain.

    And I’ve outed her to the PRT with my bitch fit about being M/Sed again.

    Should have realized things were wrong when Martinez showed up to bail out Michaelson, the guy that trained me at the start, who helped me get the tattoo after Carlos died, and who lost his job at the PRT over it. Another fine dumb mess, courtesy of yours truly, because I still did things before thinking them through.

    I’d be more careful now about what I say and to whom. I needed to get back, back to my PRT, my Wards, my life. But until I could do that, I was stuck here… might as well make myself useful, to this PRT and to the other me that failed to get her chance to be a hero.

    But first, I had to get free, and as legally as possible.

    ------​

    The bureaucratic process for enacting Directive 507 was somewhat straightforward, in a “from A to B” way of doing things in a specific order.

    Step one. Confirm subject is interdimensional. Done, Taylor Hebert is a student attending Winslow High School, even if she was cutting class as she was spotted coming and going on cameras at the Meridian Mall the day I was questioned by Miss Militia. So I wasn’t her. Fingerprints taken when she was hospitalized in January matched mine. So I WAS her, regardless of who else she was.

    That gave me my name back.

    Step two. Confirm subject is a PRT asset. Done, my credentials turned out to be so valid, even my M/S codes matched. They wouldn’t give me new ones, of course, citing ‘operational security’, at least until Step Four was done with.

    Still, that gave me my rank back, at least in spirit.

    Step three. Enact applicable clauses of the Directive to protect the identity of PRT asset’s local counterpart in the situation they were a cape with a secret identity. This required me to acknowledge that yes, Skitter was most likely Taylor Hebert, but also tied the PRT’s hands in regard to what they could (publicly) do about it, because the Directive equated the discovery of cape identities through dimensional shenanigans to accidental unmasking. There was a clause for when the cape in question was an S-Class threat or the dimensional crosser gave their permission… but I wasn’t doing that to her. To me.

    This gave me my conscience back.

    I hoped Director Piggot was a straight shooter regardless of the dimension and would not abuse that knowledge until I put my plan into action. People beyond her, especially Thomas Calvert? I had no guarantees and no real leverage to hold them to the Directive’s letter as long as I was locked up. This was made slightly easier by the fact that from what I could tell he wasn’t currently engaged by the PRT as a consultant, giving me some breathing room.

    Step four. Sign Relevant Executive Orders (Confidential, Eyes Only, etc, etc) into effect regarding that whole identity thing, up to and including giving the dimensionally-displaced PRT asset (that’s me) clearance appropriate to, or up to two security levels below, depending on difference in regulation and situational direness, what they rated in their home dimension.

    That would give me my agency back.

    It also would knock me down from Wards Leader access level (not that I would want that, they still had Aegis here) down to what a regular Ward would rate, still a few levels above the intern I began my journey as.

    Oh yes, Aegis.

    I was simultaneously relieved and dismayed to learn that here Carlos had lived on, confirming my Dean’s unpleasant accusation that Parian’s bold escalation was the catalyst for Hookwolf’s killing of him. Judging by the fact that all three of them were still alive, my fumbling attempts to make the Wards more proactive achieved little beyond killing my first-ever boyfriend and sending his killer to a gruesome execution. That… was not something I was ready to face again, so soon after seemingly coming to terms with the fact of his death to begin with.

    More importantly, I was at a loss as to how I would probably react to running into him in the hallways, as I was still kept in the PRT HQ downtown. The idea of a sobbing unfamiliar girl glomping him in the hallway would likely freak Carlos out, especially with the creepy red jumpsuit and domino mask (thankfully, the jumpsuit concealed the tattoo) they gave me to wear while Armsmaster politely refused to tell me what the heck he was doing to my gear. Probably poking the local version of Kid Win with it, hoping to stimulate the boy into figuring out his specialty. He may be a great Tinker, but a great mentor Armsmaster wasn’t.

    Red seemed to be the color reserved for the almost-forgotten segment of off-world interaction segment of PRT protocol. In addition to cases like mine, it was also supposed to cover actions in case of alien invasion (most of it was written before the Simurgh showed up and was hilariously obsolete), or another Tinker poking a hole onto Earth Aleph or the hypothetical Earth Dalet and so on.

    The only reason I myself was aware of the thing was because reports of a villainous double of Weaver operating in the Trainyard area made us look into possible ways that could have happened. Having quickly ruled out clones (Blasto had no stake in Brockton and would have likely charged potential customers through the nose for doing work involving an active Ward), we were left with increasingly bizarre alternate options.

    So of course I read the manual on dealing with Mirrorverse selves cover to cover. I couldn’t help but think what I would do if it was me in Madison’s place, stuffed in that ugly mess the Trio made of my locker, getting bug powers… now, I was going to try and help the me that did go through all that.

    Assuming I could even get near her.

    ------​

    Step four was where the process stalled out. From the short outline Miss Militia gave me as I tried to work through my nervousness by tapping my foot against The Loose Floor Tile of Interrogation Room 5A (I was in a To The Moon and Back mood) Brockton Bay was in disarray, first from some sort of altercation between the gangs precipitating into Bakuda running a massacre of a bombing spree across the city in order to free Lung from PRT custody after Armsmaster put him there, then from the fact that on the day of my ‘arrival’, someone went and publicized the civilian identities of all the Empire 88 capes.

    The worse thing was that the rumour mill said the Undersiders did it. Skitter’s team. Taylor’s team. It was confusing thinking of the me-that-wasn’t-me as a separate person, so I had to keep repeating it. Taylor. She’s Taylor. You’re the outsider. I’d probably need a new, unconfusing name, and something more sensible than Rolyat.

    Their recent attack on a celebration of the victory against the ABB (somehow, I doubted Armsmaster’s reasoning about petty villainy, there was too much that didn’t fit here) made the Undersiders a hot topic among PRT brass, and anything remotely related to them was a smoking gun. So, Skitter’s otherworldly double dropping into their lap and foolishly taking her own mask off? Paydirt.

    I was snapped from my musical endeavours (Sorry, Darren) and a recounting of how Skitter managed to outwit Armsmaster in a one-on-one fight by the arrival of a two-man convoy, telling me they would take me to the Rig for further testing.

    I sighed as I got up, thinking the simple cloth mask was a dumb decision if the hair was left loose. I looked like they caught Skitter. Heck, maybe the troopers DID think they caught Skitter. As soon as my hands were free, I was making a braid.

    Couldn’t dare ask Miss Militia for that. This was personal.

    ------​

    As a result of what probably was reasonable paranoia, Chief Director Costa-Brown decided she needed an extra layer of guarantees that I was not part of a “Skitter plan” or, Scion forbid, Skitter herself. Her solution was sitting across the table from me, still silent after five minutes of coming into Conference Room A (I was indifferent on this one, I was only ever in it the one time I helped coordinate the Wards on the S&R when my version of Bakuda exploded a hurricane bomb of some sort on the Boardwalk).

    These five minutes did a lot to my opinion of Alexandria as my favorite Triumvirate member while I fought to match the dispassionate look she was giving me. My initial flash of giddiness at seeing who exactly was here to ‘interview’ me was quickly stifled by the look she gave me, and was suffocated in metaphorical cold water at the frown that persisted onwards.

    Mental combat. It was sort of an open secret, at least to my version of the PRT, that Alexandria loved using her Thinker rating much like her Brute one, to bludgeon opponents into submission. Bring them off-balance with carefully chosen words, body language, unexpected revelations. She did not participate in interrogations often, but what I once saw in an internal review video matched what I was seeing now pretty well. She worked, in a way, very much like Tattletale did. And I’ve learned how to best Tattletale.

    “If there’s anything you need to know, ma’am,” I said, projecting my best Director Piggot forward, “You only need to ask. We’re all on the same side here.”

    “I’m not entirely sure there’s anyone on your side, child,” was her cold reply, “Except maybe Taylor Hebert. Or should I say, ‘Taylor Heberts’, however many of you there actually are?”

    “Oops, you got me,” I admitted with a fake giggle, thank you, Dennis, “I’m actually a clone-maker, Skitter is also me and the insects are actually all tiny me’s wearing jetpacks.”

    That earned me a derisive snerk. She did not appreciate being mocked.

    “Are you so willing to waste my time with silly jokes, child?”

    She felt at ease, like this. Like she was an empress in her domain and all of us unpowered people were set dressing she could easily rearrange. She was half right in that regard. She could. But she wasn’t. There were rules. Rules applied to everybody.

    “Are you so willing to waste my time as the PRT continues to wallow in its disgrace?” I retorted, inwardly thanking my PR contacts for drilling me on how to handle hostile journalists, “I’ve recruited Panacea to my Wards, poached young parahumans from the CIA and kangaroo courts trying to Birdcage people based on Trigger events,” I boasted, only slightly exaggera-- Oh, shit, Synod, I have to-- No, I have to get free first! “I could bring Skitter in for you, bring this sorry mess to an end, but instead, you’d rather-- what are you doing exactly?”

    “I’m watching you squirm, child, while you wait for your companions to realize your plan didn’t work out,” she replied coolly, refusing to rise to the bait. I half expected her to call me ‘Skitter’ to my face.

    “I have a poster of you at home, you know,” I deflected, changing tracks, “Dressed up as you for Halloween once. Maybe I should try Dragon next, she’s a lot more respectful of proper procedure.”

    “Procedure has nothing to do with what you and yours did at the Forsberg gallery.”

    Another attempt at attack. It’s clear she’s goading me, but she’s not being sufficiently creative about it. Is she holding back or working off limited briefing materials? Maybe both?

    “Right, right,” switching tracks again, how about Victoria Dallon? “I’m the one with a malevolent plan, offering information, aid with apprehending and turning at least one wanted cape, uncovering at least one corrupt Ward, and saving you and yours a load of grief at having to explain to the press how one of your child soldiers caused a Trigger, and then what sounds like a chance meeting with Armsmaster somehow resulted in that Trigger joining the Undersiders?”

    She actually blinked! Did that bearded clanker never actually report the details of his meeting with Skitter? The Cliff’s Notes I heard was the full extent of their knowledge on her motivation? I am SO having words on filing reports with my Armsmaster when I get back!

    “The only reason it’s not on PHO yet is likely because Skitter doesn’t yet know her schoolyard bully is Shadow Stalker,” pouring salt in the wound, even if it’s merely a scratch, “And I doubt your window of opportunity to convert her will grow wider if she finds out before I reach her. You should arrest Shadow Stalker for attempted murder, however.”

    THAT had the desired effect.

    “How do you know that?” she narrowed her eye. It was weird, looking the eye that stared down the Siberian showing doubt.

    “You actually didn’t read my file?” I twisted the knife, going for maximum Tattletale, “Was the in-flight movie on the plane from LA that good?” Yes, Taylor, insult the flying brick by implying she took a plane here, great job, “I am Deputy Commander Taylor Hebert, Wards ENE. PRT Clearance Level 4, one step below Director Piggot. My Shadow Stalker is behind bars for what she did before and after joining the Wards. Yours is still running around, bullying her classmates and killing muggers. All I want is to keep the peace and that is why I serve the PRT. Why did you become a hero, ma’am?”

    “You don’t have powers,” she countered, ignoring my barb about loyalties. Doesn’t care for the PRT or doesn’t think I’m being honest? How can she fight Endbringers but not care about justice? Too jaded from her long un-aging career? “You cannot be a real Ward. You’re just a girl playing pretend that got lucky once and was handed a symbolic position, I bet. One mistake and it’s back to the playground with you, child.”

    “Of course, this is probably why Vista is constantly pissed off,” sorry Missy, but I need to keep her off balance, “You value age over experience, like some crusty, old, man. Glaistig Uaine looks younger than I do, would you judge her beneath you as well?”

    “Glaistig Uaine is in the Birdcage!” she slammed her palm against the table, leaving an imprint, reminding me of Vicky, again, “Do you want me to compare you to her?”

    Shit. My plan misfired. I did not intend to make The Alexandria Package pissed, and not in a confined spa-- it’s a play, she’s fucking playing me!

    “Voluntarily, I must add,” I responded, trying to pass my gasp for breath as a deep sigh, “And you’re changing the subject, her importance has nothing to do with her age, perceived or actual. I earned my rank, my position and the loyalty of my Wards with my actions. I prove it every day I put the uniform on.”

    She stood up from her chair, turning her back to me, doubtless trying to get her facial expression back under control. I felt oddly elated. I would never talk back to my Alexandria like that, I shook her hand once, she was not this self-centred bi--

    “The Tinkertech you were wearing, where did it come from? The Toybox?”

    She turned to me, changing the pace of the questions as she put her hands on the back of her chair, leaning forwards in an almost-threatening manner. If her armor was less sensible, I would be getting an eyeful of her cleavage right now. Thank god for her modesty, a part of me thought, beating back the jealousy over the concept of having cleavage, something I always envied about Alexandria. That and flight. Say, could I pester Dragon for-- no, not now!

    “Kid Win made everything electronic. The uniform was made to Wards specifications and then tuned up by Weaver as part of the project to upgrade protection for all the Brockton Bay Wards with stab- and bulletproof fabrics,” I rattled off, for what is probably the fifth time since yesterday.

    “What is the purpose of the goggles?”

    “The Eye of Wadjet serves as a command-and-control HUD, providing me with situational awareness in the field, and features additional vision modes for situations with low or zero visibility. The goggles can be used separately from the facemask if need be.”

    The conversation’s tone shifted, she was no longer openly hostile, and so neither was I. Probably she thought it was clever, the way she twisted me into divulging information which I freely gave away since Armsmaster and Kid Win likely already figured everything out. I hoped they kept it in working order. Even without Sirin and Alkonost, my trusty spy drones, the Eye of Wadjet’s command interface could be used in a variety of ways to enhance my performance in combat.

    “Who’s Weaver?”

    “The one on the receiving end of Skitter’s Trigger event instead of… who it is here,” I hesitated, if she didn’t read the file, there was no real need to confirm it was Taylor Hebert, at least not until the Directive was enacted, “You’ll have to forgive my reluctance to sharing their identity, especially if they didn’t Trigger here. The powers, from what I’ve heard, are broadly similar.”

    If she caught on to my weak ruse, she gave no indication of it. She straightened out, crossing her arms.

    “How did you recruit Panacea into the Wards?”

    “I asked politely,” my voice as sweet as sugar, full Emma mode. I felt like retching for speaking like that, but it had the desired effect, she was winding down a little faster.

    “Who are the CIA capes you mentioned? We have no active underage capes on record for them,” she went fishing, I doubted Smith wouldn’t trot Synod out at every opportunity he had… unless something already happened to her? I may just have to set fire to that man when I find him.

    Quid pro quo, Miss Library,” I put the Brute 3 manacles on the table, not really caring about the sound they made, as I let some of Amy’s venom into my voice. The indignity of still wearing that heavy crap has worn my patience thin. If the E88 chased down Skitter and her team for the alleged outing, all I was going to look forward to was a very awkward talk with my-- with her Dad at her funeral, and I really didn’t want to waste any more time here.

    “You are in no position--”

    “Directive 507, Section 73. I’m well aware that for the intent of certain procedures, your Thinker rating is admissible as a polygraph test. At which point did I lie?” I cut her off, but my growing empathy with Director Piggot about self-centered Thinkers allowed me to keep my voice from cracking. I cut off motherfrickin Alexandria! Goodbye, dearest spleen, in case I never see you again!

    “You slipped up twice, equating yourself to Skitter,” she said a little too smugly for an invulnerable flying brick with a built-in lie detector talking down to a lowly unpowered teenager, “Why do you keep dancing around her identity?”

    “You know why,” I glared at her, “And you know who she is because I did not realize where I was at first. Don’t play dumb with me. I need you to tell Chief Director Costa-Brown to authorize Directive 507, and then everyone wins. The PRT gets a trained operative with custom gear and valuable intel,” she snerked again and I remotely wished I had something to throw at her smug-- darn it, she GOT to me!-- “the Wards get Skitter and possibly Tattletale, and, given time to locate them, if they still live, the CIA assets I mentioned,” no reason to get her hopes up, and also allowing me to keep Synod’s nature concealed for the time being, “And in that, a major PR boost for turning well-known parahuman criminals into Wards, as well as dismantling the gang that showed the Wards and the PRT up on multiple occasions.”

    “What do you get out of this?” she narrowed her eye again. I wished for a squirt gun filled with cranberry juice, wondering if it would actually sting her eye or not. She got to me and I was angry, both at her and at myself, and that made my thoughts petty. Petty and vicious. Neither of which I should be if I was to win this. Another deep breath masked into a sigh.

    “Peace of mind, Shadow Stalker in juvie where she belongs, and a step towards punching Über and L33t into recreating the conditions that got me here in the first place. I have a team to get back to, and a villainous doppelganger of one of my Wards to stop.”

    “So you would trade three potential Wards for the loss of an existing one?”

    “The cold calculus of war does not apply here, Miss Library,” I responded, trying to remember how Carol Dallon went from fake warm mother to genuinely disturbing lawyer, “As I sincerely doubt Shadow Stalker, if left unchecked, stopped violating the terms of her probation past the date where I arrested her in my world. That’s another PR nightmare I’m helping you prevent,” merely because it coincides with my own goals, I managed not to say, “All it takes is one leak to the press, which Tattletale may already be preparing for all we know, before the newsies across the country start wondering, ‘Was Brockton Bay’s Protectorate turning a blind eye to one of their Wards being a killer and an abusive psychopath an isolated incident, or is it a sign of systemic corruption’?”

    She relented. I could see her pose, her entire body language, shift completely once more. So she had some sort of loyalty to the establishment, the earlier dismissal was another act. Damn but she was good at this.

    “I am impressed, Deputy Hebert,” she admitted, as I raised my manacles again to interject.

    “Deputy Commander.”

    “Deputy Commander,” she repeated with a nod, “Are you quite sure you have no powers?”

    “They tested me earlier today while I was waiting for you to arrive,” I stifled a snort, it did not come out dignified, “I did not care much for doing that a third time.”

    “In that case, I am suggesting a Thinker 0, Master 0 rating for your file. Just so that someone would not underestimate you again,” she continued, producing a key from somewhere to unlock the manacles. They clanged onto the table, leaving a satisfying scuff mark to finally give this room some personality. Oh, wait, the palm print already did it. Off to the Collateral Damage Training Seminars with you, Miss Library, my tired mind supplied.

    “Add Brute 0 as well, then. Panacea was slightly overzealous when she healed me from combat wounds once,” I offered as an olive branch, still making a mental note about the squirt gun. Does she make every compliment she says sound like an insult? “They tell me my bones are now quite a bit stronger than normal for someone my age.”

    “I will see about getting your equipment back to you, however…” she trailed off, trying to feed me lines for some reason.

    “Yes, I will remove the Deputy Commander insignia, as well as the PRT signage. Perhaps repaint the whole thing, if I get access to Kid Win’s or Armsmaster’s workshops. I presume you want me to form a different cape persona for when, if, I am allowed into the outside world?”

    “Exactly so. Contact with the Wards is probably inevitable, but I suggest refraining from revealing your connection to Skitter until she’s… obtained. Is a Social Thinker designation acceptable to you?”

    “Very. What do you think of Emissary?”
     
  4. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.02
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.02
    (original omake)

    In the end, I was met halfway. After a lengthy lecture about the importance of preserving my nature secret, Alexandria departed, leaving me to face the prospect of an indefinite stay away from my life, my Dad, my sister, my friends, my Wards, my goals. This meant I had to set some new ones, however long I was stuck here. The faint hope that the local version of L33t hadn’t yet built a device like the one that got me here was strongly suppressed by the dread that even if he’d build one for me, it wasn’t guaranteed to get me to my dimension, or universe or whatever. Who knows how his things even work?

    She was quite surprised to learn I came from Earth Bet, because this Earth was also an Earth Bet. This meant either a different Earth on the hypothetical chain of worlds (which Alexandria mentioned offhand so casually as if she held evidence it was true) had also assumed it was Bet and the next one over was Aleph, or there was more than one chain. The fact that I’ve met my Earth’s Alexandria was the kicker -- she was way too certain she couldn’t have alternate universe counterparts. Still, she seemed intrigued at the prospects that would bring.

    In short, even if my intel value would turn out to be impractical, my scientific value was pretty high. Which was okay by me, so long as they weren’t going to try and cut me up, I hoped.

    So here I was, safely ensconced at the Protectorate HQ, The Rig, out on the Bay, with a whole half a floor available to me until a better housing solution was derived. Most of it was empty offices, left dormant as backup for a crisis, Endbringer event or some other reason that would render the PRT building downtown unusable or unavailable. Ah, the pleasant, if slightly musty, smell of contingency plans!

    One office was reactivated for my use, netting me a new PRT internal user account and a new set of ID cards, made out to ‘Emissary’ the cape and ‘Rose Ellison’ the PRT Intern with an access level equal to a Ward. I refused to be useless and didn’t back down until I got an access level that allowed me access to what meager files they had on Skitter and the Undersiders. Director Piggot said they’d look into my claims about Shadow Stalker but having hard evidence really wouldn’t hurt, and in the meantime I should stay put and try to keep my head down.

    Along the way, I started noting down which of the cases I worked on that the local PRT has failed to solve or even hadn’t opened and which of these I could confirm would work based on available intel. This would make for a decent olive branch when I would be delivering my ultimatum to Director Piggot later this evening, based on the confirmation of my hunches concerning Skitter’s nebulous prior run-ins with Armsmaster which he stayed suspiciously vague on.

    I also tried running. It was ridiculous, but the two-day lull in my workout routine was itching my muscles badly, and so I found myself taking a sprint through the hallways of the half-abandoned floor, still wearing that garish red jumpsuit and accompanying domino mask, my hair done up into a french braid. I intended to keep it only as long as I needed to meet up with Skitter, to better prove my identity, then… do something to it.

    For clothing, aside from several of these jumpsuits, I got standard issue PRT-approved underwear, socks, shoes, even a beanie I half suspected was scavenged from the Lost & Found in the lobby. If I ever decided to re-enact a (slightly redder) rendition of One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, I totally could. Except for the hair, I guessed, but that, again, was only as long as I kept it long.

    The idea of cutting off my hair hurt, but if I had to stay in this world for a while, I’d need to step off the Rig, and do it in a way that did not associate me with the local Taylor Hebert. Skitter. Whatever. I kept trying to think of her as “her”, at least until I had to deal with her directly.

    I wanted to improve her life, not mess it up by accidentally running into Emma or Sophia or even Greg -- in short, anyone who would take out the consequences of meeting me on her. This meant changing my appearance as much as I could bear to. Hmm, maybe I should shave a temple or two, get that teenage rebel streak fix?

    Lost in contemplation about that, I naturally didn’t consider that only half of this floor was in disuse as I ran into - probably earning a bruise or two in the process - the armored figure of Dauntless, who was just standing in the middle of the hallway. It didn’t seem like he was going anywhere, just… lost in thought like me?

    “Oof,” I proposed my complaint about the situation to the world, which relented, granting me the ability to catch my breath, “Hello Dauntless. I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you there, got too focused on my thoughts.”

    “Er, right. No harm done,” he replied somewhat absently, eyeing me with a weird curiosity, probably confused why I wasn’t sufficiently starstruck-- or maybe offended I wasn’t, “I just heard the scuttlebutt that we have a stowaway up here and wanted to meet you in person.”

    He offered me a gloved hand, which I shook gingerly. I hadn’t had many interactions with my Dauntless, but what little I remembered from the files seemed to match this one. No need for attitude adjustments, so long as I would stop blabbing about the dimensional thing. Alexandria was pretty stern on that point, after all. I turned my shrug into an arm stretch to get the feeling of the impact out of my upper body.

    “Yeah, hi, I’m Emissary and I’m… probably going to be a Ward here? I don’t know yet, honestly,” I replied, trying to sound earnest. This somehow felt like a triple identity situation, as all of the people who knew I wasn’t from around here, knew the me under the mask. I had to create ‘Rose’ and ‘Emissary’ from the ground up, preferably avoiding a repeat of the dreaded DeputyH meme if I could help it.

    “But staying at the Rig? Anonymously? That’s some special circumstances, I’d say,” he whistled, “Next thing you’ll tell me, yesterday’s surprise visit from Alexandria was for your benefit as well.”

    “It… sorta was an audition, I guess?” I grinned sheepishly (Dennis #3, "it's funny, but also actually true") , “There’s talk my powers are a good counter for Tattletale and Skitter, of the Undersiders. I’m here as… well, best think of it as something like witness protection? My identity isn’t known, but I’m staying for the duration of a… rebranding.”

    “Ah,” he ah’ed knowingly, probably thinking back to Madcap, if he knew his story, “Get a new mask and then you’re on the prowl for them?”

    “Something like that, yeah, though I hope it will be done only by talking to them, I’d rather avoid violence,” I nodded lightly, moving to other stretches, “Bad PR, can’t put minors into direct danger, yada yada.”

    “Heh,” he heh’ed, which somehow made me appreciate the Grecian-helmeted hero a bit more, especially compared to my recent bout of mutually assured rudeness with Alexandria, “I hope it works out, maybe you’ll do better than we did.”

    “Than you?” I looked at him quizzically, inasmuch as the mask permitted, pumping my legs in place so they wouldn’t lose the heat, “Oh, you mean with the gallery and--”

    “Yeah, not our finest hour, I have to admit.”

    It was his turn to look sheepish. I suddenly recalled that my initiative to get the Protectorate members more regular therapy sessions after Madison started to improve resulted in him getting a bit more sure of himself. Clearly, he needed that here, but he wasn’t going to seek it out himself. Probably the pressure from the Triumvirate-scale expectations getting to him, I mused, recalling Armsmaster’s barbed opinion of the man before me I received the same day as my Commanderdom. Commandership? Comma-- Not really relevant, right now.

    “Anyway, forgive me for the nosiness,” he spoke up again, “I was getting a bit stir-crazy with the preparations for the Empire Eighty-Eight raids and wanted to get topside, then remembered this floor isn’t empty anymore when I heard you running.”

    “No harm done,” I replied with a smile (my own this time), “I’d better not keep you from contemplating the horizon then, I should get back to my plans of catching the Undersiders, myself.”

    Hah, or catching the Undersiders myself?

    “That would be good, though if I were you, I’d hold off on that for a while, what with Purity going on her rampage for them.”

    What.

    “What? Rampage?” I repeated feebly. I hadn’t yet reached the E88 files regarding their collective unmasking, but I had a hunch that if it included Kayden Anders nee Russell, it would include Aster, and Purity would rip Scion’s heart out (if he had one to begin with) to make sure her daughter was safe. I saw how that ended badly for a bunch of ABB goons that foolishly tried to mug her on one of the streets separating ABB and E88 territory once, which was how we found out her identity to begin with. She was pregnant at the time. If something like that happened here… Wait, she only gave birth recently, didn't she?

    “Yeah, she looked pretty ticked off at the Undersiders for the info leak, said they took something from her? Don’t you watch TV?” he asked with a tone of ‘you youngsters’ in his voice, which felt odd, he was probably closer to my age than my Dad’s.

    “No TV in my quarters. Oh crap,” I squeezed out, eyes widening as I recalled a heated memo war over Purity’s identity that I got to participate in no more than two weeks ago, “Look, it was nice talking to you, but I have a Thinker thing to do and a phone call to make, sorry to bail on you--” I turned and ran, my last words trailing around the corner at him as he waved half-heartedly at my back and said something I couldn’t hear over the feeling of dread building in the back of my head.

    ------​

    A quick look at the few layers of operation orders and reports I had access to revealed a “cease” (Was that a valid use of the word?) of unpowered E88 personnel which were subsequently moved to a safehouse for storing, ironically, witness protection people. The phone call I was making was, of course, to Director Piggot.

    “Emissary,” she said uneasily, “Now is not the--”

    “Did you order to seize Kayden Russell’s kids?” I cut her off.

    “Whose?”

    “Purity, she was outed with the rest of the E88 the day that I arrived. She’s tearing up the city, yelling she wants to return whatever’s been taken from her,” I spoke rapidly, clacking away at the keyboard with both hands, my jaw cramping from holding the uncomfortable receiver with my shoulder, “Someone ordered her children to be grabbed by PRT troops, which are currently sitting in a witness protection safehouse.”

    “I do not remember signing such an order,” she responded slowly, the warning signs of her temper heating up in her voice.

    “To be short: she keeps Night and Fog on a personal leash. One call and they come here from Boston if they haven’t already. She values the life of her daughter above her own or anyone else’s and was willing to retire to keep her safe,” I rattled off, trying to backtrace the order before hitting several variations of ACCESS DENIED, “In my world she’s a repentant vigilante trying to earn enough goodwill to go Protectorate to get protection for her newborn child. The PRT here has taken her daughter and foster son. She’s tearing up the city thinking the Undersiders are at fault. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

    The line was silent before she spoke a single word.

    “Suggestions?”

    “Twofold. Check who has ordered Team Sabre on this, because I don’t have the access, and have Velocity or Assault and Battery approach her, apologize and kindly ask her to step down in exchange for protection for her and her children from Kaiser. I’ll also need PHO access on my machine.”

    “I’ll see what can be done. Thank you, Emissary,” she finally said. It felt like she hadn’t used these words in a while.

    Pacem a Potentibus, Director,” I half-quoted the obsoleted PRT motto, retired after Behemoth’s attack on New York. The lack of a functional motto (or any human face) was part of the problem with the PRT’s perception I was trying to fix for my world… and here, nobody even bothered. Cutting the motto’s first words changed the meaning. Peace from powers indeed, instead of Protecting the peace from powers or whatever awkward meaning Ad Tuendam Pacem a Potentibus was supposed to stand for. I was surprised to learn nobody tried to make the motto acronymize to “PRT” as well.

    I was unsure what the strangled sound on the other end of the phone was, but she dropped the call without saying another word.

    ------​

    The PHO was overflowing with reactions to the E88 and the apparent breakage of the Unwritten Rules by the Undersiders. But I wasn’t there to trawl for juicy pics or rumors. There was networking to be done.

    With an e-mail to Dragon, I got help with securing a Verified Cape account on PHO for Emissary the Cape, since the previous holder of the title had apparently died a few Endbringer attacks ago and was definitely not going to use it again.


    To: Winged_One
    From: Emissary
    Subject: Leak

    Tt,
    Coil rolled on you. Likely used you to obtain info.
    Consider cutting losses.
    PRT cleaning house w/regard Aster.
    E.


    To: Gotharina
    From: Emissary
    Subject: YG

    Caryn,
    Are you still employed by the Youth Guard?
    Have information to offer regarding underaged capes in CIA employ.
    E.


    To: TaylorH
    From: Emissary
    Subject: The Journal

    Little Owl,
    I can help you get justice against EB and SH, but I will need your Journal for evidence.
    Will you be willing to meet in person?
    Bring Tt if you want to.

    Annette’s Daughter.


    To: Panacea
    From: Emissary
    Subject: Overwork

    You are more than a service.
    Ask Carol about your father.
    E.​


    I leaned back in my seat. That would be a decent start, at least as long as I couldn’t leave this place. Taunting Smith was a risk, but I was unsure whether Synod’s unverified account was even in use, let alone monitored. Bringing CIA attention to me would be entertaining, even though this Piggot would likely refuse to back me if it came to blows. In the end, I decided against it, particularly since I was unsure what to even write to her, on the off-chance she was the person behind the account.

    That left only two immediate issues to clear up: what to paint on my armor and how to solve Armsmaster’s mystery.

    ------​

    I was sitting in the waiting chair across from Natalie, agonizing over the fact that I couldn’t have a meaningful talk with her, and doodling the Eye of Wadjet (the symbol, not my mask) in the margins of my stack of printouts over and over again.

    She looked up at me quizzically, and I waved meekly.

    “Do we know each other?” she said, “In the-- I mean, I know.”

    She practically hissed the last part, probably out of some misguided attempt to keep the sound recorders from picking it up. I nodded in response.

    “Yeah. I started out as a PRT intern under you,” I replied, smiling at the pleasant nostalgia, “Things kinda snowballed from there, I’m afraid.”

    “How do you go from--” she began, but was cut off by the intercom buzz.

    “Natalie, please invite Emissary in. And try to keep sensitive material from spreading?” Director Piggot’s voice suggested. Natalie blanched, I snickered and got up.

    “I’ll tell you about it, if I survive,” I said, reaching for the doorknob.

    ------​

    “...this Taylor is going to be mistrustful of everything the Protectorate or PRT comes at her with, more than I was. It seems the Undersiders do not yet know their self-appointed nemesis and the girl that made Skitter Trigger are the same person just yet, but the fact that the Locker happened and apparently no retribution followed will have destroyed any remaining faith in the institutions of state without you to rebuild them, ma’am.”

    Behind me the projection screen displayed all I could find out, which was not much: a report from the hospital regarding Taylor’s state after she was pulled from the locker. A lackluster report from the short-lived police investigation, smothered by the lack of evidence, witnesses and faculty cooperation. A single complaint from one Taylor Hebert filed in 2009, which I even remembered writing, apparently the only one the school bothered to digitize (or store, I was unsure which).

    And the capstone: a single frame from Armsmaster’s helmet cam recording of one of his encounters with Skitter that accompanied his report on her. Where was the rest of the footage?

    “Brown-nosing won’t help, Taylor,” Director Piggot said, surprisingly softly, “We need hard evidence.”

    Maybe it was the stack of printouts detailing what I could confirm from my memories of past cases that was now on her desk, maybe the fact of my professionalism without any of the mentoring I received from my Piggot, but it somehow felt as if the Director was warming up to me. Or maybe I was imagining things.

    “I’m not… brown-nosing,” I replied dejectedly, “You helped me a lot, helped me get out of a bad place, before this--” I gestured at the screen, “--could happen to me. I’m sorry we never met in this reality, or timeline or whatever, and I appreciate the fact that you’re even listening to me right now, but--”

    "This isn't relevant," Armsmaster said, interrupting my gratitude. "Skitter and the Undersiders have proven themselves progressively more and more dangerous as time has gone on. They need to be stopped. What else can you tell us?"

    “I’m getting there,” I snapped back, refusing to be cowed. Is this what made her turn villain? He pushed, in his usual manner, on a teen with authority issues that make common teenage rebellion look like their Sunday best, and she decided the heroes are assholes? “Damaged as I would be after the Locker, I would still want to be a hero, that was my one life’s dream no amount of bullying could scratch. For me to turn to villainy, that option would have to be better than any other, an utter collapse of faith in the system of justice, the police, the Protectorate. The after-action reports I have access to don’t show me any reason for that to cause what happened from the bank onwards.”

    “So your research is useless to us," Armsmaster shook his head, “We could have done all that based entirely on knowing her name. Your name."

    “Not entirely true,” I replied, prodding the projection screen with the red dot of the laser pointer, “We now know why she kept refusing to join, and you wouldn't know that from this one document,” my pointer speared the school report, “But I'm missing a piece of the puzzle. With your permission, ma'am,” I nodded to the Director, “I'd like to see the full, uncensored versions of these reports.”

    For some reason, the Director raised her eyebrows at me while Armsmaster stiffened.

    “The 'full' versions, Miss Hebert?” she asked slowly, “I admit I'm not sure what you mean.”

    I surpressed my irritation, with far more difficulty than I was used to, the last week must be getting to me more than I thought, and reminded myself of the various protocols which might be hindering my investigation.

    “Director, I understand that you and the rest of the PRT are probably at least a little nervous about me, and I get why,” I explained calmly, then let out a small laugh. “I mean, if it hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't believe it either. A known villain approaching you with intel, claiming to be from another world where she's a model employee? I'd have said it was too good to be true or that they were crazy,” I sighed, “But I do want to earn your trust and help you, and Brockton Bay. And right now, that means helping you deal with Skitter.” I moved across the projection to stand next to the first recorded image of Skitter, her first night out. “I like to think I'm good with analysis--” a bit of modesty would probably help, “--but I can't help you if I'm not getting accurate information.” I cocked my head, “You are familiar with the phrase, 'garbage in, garbage out,' right?”

    Armsmaster's body language had slowly been shifting as I talked, from a confident, at-ease stance to one that seemed bowstring-taut and filled with tension. As I spoke and saw the changes, an ugly thought wormed its way into my mind, but I dismissed it immediately. Armsmaster and I hadn't gotten along that well, back home, but he was a solid, dependable hero. One who could be blunt to the point of rudeness, admittedly, but a good and honest man.

    He opened his mouth as if to speak, but was cut off by a gesture from Director Piggot.

    “I'm more than familiar with the phrase, Miss Hebert,” she answered smoothly, a scowl flitting over her face so quickly I thought I'd imagined it, “But what makes you think that the reports you've been given are false?”

    I nodded gratefully even as Armsmaster scowled. “Honestly, Ma'am, its mostly the report from her first appearance,” I circled the report with my pointer, “Which states that Armsmaster engaged Lung, defeated him, and tranquilized him, causing him to shrink down to his human form before the at-the-time unnamed Parahuman now known as Skitter approached him, claiming it was her first night. Armsmaster makes a Wards Pitch, she declines.”

    “We know all this,” Armsmaster interjected, “As well as the complications from the tranquilizers that led to Lung being crippled in detention. I've already been punished for that incident. If you can't tell us anything new, then you've just wasted time while-”

    “Armsmaster.”

    Piggot's voice was absolutely level, there was no heat, no ice in it, but it held as much authority as, no, even more than, the Triumvirate. He blanched and shut up. I stared at the Tinker, confused at his... surprisingly hostile outburst. What was going on?

    Piggot cleared her throat and I turned back to her.

    “Please continue,” she stated.

    “Certainly,” I adjusted my grip on the laser pointer before using it to indicate details on Armsmaster's helmet camera still, “According to the report,” I began, “Skitter didn't show up until after Lung was a human again,” the red dot flickered over to a corner of the image. “But here, we can see one of Lung's claws, which would indicate he's still transformed. I thought that it could have been cut off during the fight and Lung regenerated a new one, but the report makes no mention of a wound like from the fight and follow-up statements from PRT field cleanup teams and those of the First Responders on scene make no mention of a severed limb on the site. They have to report these things, biohazard rules and all.”

    I hesitated slightly before I began my next point. Director Piggot's eyebrows were climbing higher and higher, while Armsmaster's teeth were grinding together.

    “The other thing I noticed was her hair and costume,” I continued, pointer flicking across the picture, “specifically, the damage both have taken. Her hair,” I pointed to the feature, “is clearly singed in several places. As for her costume, note the discolored spots.”

    “What do they mean?” Piggot asked, curious, but with an underlying edge.

    “Back in my world, Weaver made spider-silk armor for all the Wards, and Skitter seems to have made a similar suit for herself,” I paused, briefly pushing down a pang of regret, remembering briefing my Piggot (and wasn't THAT an odd sentence?) on the benefits of the suits, “I was there when they were testing exactly how strong and durable they were, and the discoloration matches nearly exactly for one particular type of damage: extreme heat.”

    I took a deep breath.

    “These discrepancies lead me to the conclusion that Skitter was present much longer than was stated in the official report, possibly since the start of the fight. Ma'am, if you'd like me to help you more on this case, PLEASE let me see the report that tells me what really happened.”

    Director Piggot placed her face in her hands and exhaled loudly. When she dropped her hands, her face was a carefully controlled mask.

    Unfortunately,” she growled, and her anger was sufficient to drive me back a step before I caught myself, “What you read was not a coverup or a redacted version of the incident. That is the only version of events we have on record,” she slowly turned to face the leader of the Protectorate, “Fortunately, the author of said report is right here,” her glare intensified, and I felt a twinge of sympathy for Armsmaster. I had NEVER seen her as angry as she was right now, her face blotching unpleasantly. In contrast, what I could see of Armsmaster's face was paling dramatically, “Well, Armsmaster? Would you like to explain these 'discrepancies' to myself and Emissary?”

    She pressed a button on her desk, and two uniformed PRT troopers stepped into the room, confoam throwers held at ease.

    “Well?” she bared her teeth at him, “I'm waiting.”

    Armsmaster gulped.

    Then he began to talk.
     
  5. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.03
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.03

    I pounded the bag. The gym at the PRT HQ was usually abandoned at this hour of the evening, with the day shifts already gone home and the evening and night shifts out on patrols or in their ready-rooms. I still kept the mask on, just in case, but swapped the jumpsuit out for a tank top and boxing shorts from an extra serving of PRT-provided clothes I had to requisition. My ever-expanding bag of stuff returned with me from the Rig back to the city as it was determined I’d be staying here from here on out, especially if I was to join the Wards as both Piggot and Alexandria suggested, hopefully independently of each other.

    The main saving grace about the PRT-issued clothing was that all the bras I was provided were sports bras, so I avoided being in the bizarre position of stripping beyond underwear while still wearing the red mask. I hated the thing, but had to keep it at least for another day.

    I let my anger simmer below the surface, driving my hits, helping the muscles burn. I needed the workout, yes, but I also needed an outlet.

    Skitter wanted to be a hero, but she felt she could gather intel on the Undersiders when they offered her a spot. This she wanted to use as her ‘in’ with the Protectorate, to build goodwill.

    Armsmaster showed us what footage he had - his talks with Skitter at the site of Lung’s takedown and at Forsberg - because he apparently genuinely didn’t record the time she went to warn him about the bank job. Through a bizarre combination of bad phrasing on his part and teenage idiocy on hers (I wished I could say I myself was different in that regard, but I certainly wasn’t), they managed to fall into a doomed spiral of mutual mistrust and disrespect. And of course he didn’t quite get all of the nuances down in the written report. Even in the parts that he actually wrote down. Piggot was furious about that, and I couldn’t blame her.

    Where I saw a rigid man holding up his strict but self-consistent understanding of the principles of Law and Justice, Skitter saw another vestige of The Man, the system that has been pushing her down ever since the bullying started.

    Where I saw a girl desperately trying to find a place to be useful to The Greater Good in the hell that was this Brockton Bay, Armsmaster saw an opportunist clever enough to fool his lie detector with her words of wanting to be a hero.

    I bit back my remark that he may as well just turned another Sphere into Mannequin, no Simurgh necessary, because I refused to believe Skitter was that far gone, and instead asked when I could use his tools to repaint my armor. I had no idea how this Tattletale was handling Taylor in their off hours, but I also had no illusions that whatever she was doing at the behest of Coil could not have been good, for her or the city. This meant I had to shake a leg, get cleared for unsupervised forays on the town. Which I would do as soon as I’d get any responses on PHO, of course.

    I paused, panting, sweat beading on my skin, the tip of my braid ruffled as it hung heavily over my shoulder as I leaned forward to rest against the bag. My anger slowly gave way to the coldness of logic.

    Was Tattletale’s story the same? She wasn’t really an utter bitch, she always played the situation to aggravate her opponent because it was the easy way out. Not like her power allowed her to perform well in physical combat, though it undoubtedly had some Combat Thinker applications, looking for tells and openings. Her barbed tongue was her primary weapon. If Skitter got pressured into villainy by a failed recruitment and mislabeling, maybe she’s not the only one? Was she even working for Coil willingly? Or aware he was involved?

    I was awoken from my contemplation by the sound of someone clearing their throat. Looking up, pushing my braid back and fixing the mask’s position, I almost jumped at seeing who it was, certainly not the person I was expecting.

    “Hello, Clockblocker,” I said, offering the red-headed boy in the white domino mask a small smile (Old Madison #4, “I am not a threat”, because New Madison only had two so far), “What can I help you with?”

    The boy shifted uneasily, rubbing the back of his head. Not the conversation starter you expected, eh?

    “You have me at a disadvantage, Miss--”

    “Emissary,” I supplied, trying to remember the Wards mandatory workout schedule for this week before realizing the difference in the roster likely rendered my memories of it irrelevant. I hope he’s here alone and let’s leave it at that.

    “Miss Emissary,” he nodded, “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before?”

    “Only been in town for a few days,” I admitted, for a certain degree of truth, “Once the paperwork and security clearances work out, I’m likely going to end up as one of the Wards, like you.”

    He beamed at that, before catching himself.

    “Likely? What’s not to like about us Wards? You going to chicken out? Is this a trial run? ‘Nah, these Wards have too many boys. And these Wards are too young. But these Wards are juuuust riiight’,” he singsonged the fairytale parody, earning himself a laugh from me.

    “No, I meant I’m here for a specific task and unsure whether they’ll keep me on afterwards,” I replied, with a more earnest smile this time, “Hence the mask, because if they move me, what good is my civilian identity for any of you?”

    “To be pen-pals? Oooor, I dunno, long-distance romance?” he shrugged. This resulted in my suppressing a laugh with an Amy-like snort. Now I made me sad. I hope I can get to Amy before it’s too late.

    He picked up some free weights, clearly to be seen doing something rather than simply standing next to me. I chose this moment of pause in the conversation to towel my sweat off, trying to ignore how he nearly dropped one of the weights on his foot as his eyes got glued to-- my arms? Has he never seen biceps on a girl before?

    “You can pen-pal with the cape identity, you know? I’m sure there’s been precedent for that with most of the Las Vegas team. And I’m afraid you’re not my type, dear Blocker of Clocks,” I finally offered, moving on towards the water cooler. Not having my own water bottle was a pain.

    “Er, what is your type, oh Fair Maiden Of Probably Punching My Head Off If I Say The Wrong Thing?” he asked cautiously. I realized my post-workout muscles may have made me look more buff than I was, especially with the way that this tank top accentuated the shoulders… but it was also slightly uncomfortable being ogled by Dennis of all people. I imagined if I ever had a brother, this is what I would feel like if he walked in on me in the shower. I thanked the heavens these shorts were pretty baggy and concealed the places I really didn’t want to be ogled.

    “Someone manlier, you know?” I suggested lightly, trying to wrestle the machine to give me something between ‘scalding hot’ and ‘icy tundra’, “With a bit more muscles and hopefully not shorter than me. Like… Aegis?”

    I tried to keep my voice from hitching, and hoping to hell and back this will not turn into a cheesy chick flick where Aegis would stride in the doorway that very moment. It didn’t, the person walking through the door at that moment was Dean. Gallant. Professionalism. Don’t let them know you know their names.

    “What’s that about Aegis-- oh boy, Clock, are you so desperate you’re hitting on PRT troopers now?” he started, before realizing I was masked when I turned to face him and waved. And that I was a little young to be a PRT trooper, “Wait, don’t tell me. Shadow Stalker’s petitions to have Flechette transferred over worked?”

    His eyes scanned the both of us in the way I associated with using his emotion sight over his actual one, and it somehow felt that this was a repeat of earlier performances. Why am I not surprised?

    “Sorry,” I grinned, pointing at my face, “Red mask, not white. I’m a secret transfer, and definitely not Flechette. Also, hi!” This reminds me! “Wait, Shadow Stalker wanted Flechette transferred in? Isn’t she… kind of a loner?”

    “Eh, it’s a crossbow thing, I’m guessing,” Dennis ventured, returning his attention to his weights, “So, Aegis, huh. Is that why you, eh-he-he?”

    I followed his gaze to my arm. My arm holding the cup of water. With the tattoo of Aegis's broken helmet. Shit. Seven hundred shades of embarassment later, I vowed to only work out in a sweatshirt from now on. I was not giving the tattoo up, but flaunting it would do me no good either.

    “You got me,” I admitted, hoping that would account for the chromophore of blanching and blushing my face was probably doing right now, “I got this on a dare after a friend caught me ogling a few photos of his. Just… don’t tell Aegis, okay? At least not yet. Not like I expected to end up here when I was getting it done,” I almost didn’t lie.

    “Make you a deal,” Dean said, probably confused by the kaleidoscope of grief, love, shame and whatever else filtered through that emotion sense of his, “You tell us what your powers are, and we’ll keep your secret?”

    “For now,” Clockblocker added with a grin, “Then, when they’re introducing you officially, we’d be all ‘Oh, yeah, right, Emissary, the girl with the stupidly huge--’ er--” he paused, eyes widening as he realised the earlier exchange, “--smile?” he volunteered, awkwardness hanging in the air as he blanched and I blushed. Again. Traitorous face, he’s like a kid brother caught peeping, why are you blushing?

    He struggled through his last set, his weight quite a bit below the ones I used… or even the ones I had already built my Clockblocker up to using. Being a squishy wizard type, I pushed him to get in better shape to dodge bullets better “until he could learn how to freeze them”, more commonly known as “forever”. Aegis, apparently, didn’t see the merit of forcing Clockblocker to do it.

    “Fine,” I shrugged, setting the weights on one of the leg machines. My normal routine would include a set or two of burpees before the wind-down, but I was not doing them in front of boys, especially not these ones, “Hi, I’m Emissary and I’m a Social Thinker. I’m good at getting people to do what I want by talking at them, and I’m also good at running, tazing people and bureaucracy,” I recited in a drab monotone, “Only the first one is a power, the rest are hobbies.”

    “Hi, Emissary,” the boys chorused before Dean took off to warm up on the mats, shaking his head, while Dennis simply laughed.

    “But seriously, how is ‘bureaucracy’ a hobby?” he asked quizzically, putting the weights on an angled barbell. Not a lot, but hey, everybody starts somewhere, right? His forearms certainly needed all the help they could get.

    “Dad was a Union man,” I shrugged again, settling in to push the weight upwards with my legs, “Instilled a lot of respect for the power of crossing the f’s and dotting the j’s in me.”

    “I’m not sure that saying goes exactly like that…” Dean offered from afar.

    “Mom was an English professor,” I continued, “I’m fairly certain that’s exactly how you write f’s and j’s.”

    ------​

    My self-reflection in the shower, aside from washing away the doubts of having my tattoo exposed, involved the conclusion that it seemed like the Wards were pretty much the same as in my world before I shook their lives up by getting their team leader killed. So is it ‘world’ now? Or ‘timeline’? Probably using ‘world’ from now on. Except for Browbeat. Who the heck is Browbeat?

    The largest discrepancy I could find was the fact that Gallant and Glory Girl were still dating. Or rather Dean Stansfield and Victoria Dallon were. Huh, I guess she didn't get incarcerated in this world. Good thing I looked it up before mentioning something as inciting out loud. Guess she's still relying on Amy here...

    I was assigned a bunk in a currently unused PRT trooper dorm room until I was ready to be a Ward and got a spot at Wards Common, and I opted to shower in the shared bathroom of the six-person dorm rather than risk running into someone I knew and Taylor didn’t in the gym’s shower. That run-in with Michaelson and Martinez was enough trouble already.

    The PRT phone I was issued was a dumb brick, so checking the consequences of my PHO machinations would have to wait until morning. As a result, while I waited for my hair to dry (wonder of wonders, I get no hair dryer!) I was doodlin-- er-- drawing designs for the new armor paint job. It still needed to project an impression of formality that the Wards Deputy Commander armor achieved by aping the PRT trooper uniform. That was a stroke of genius, preserving the brand image of The Deputy, firmly associated with the PRT uniforms at that point, but also conveying the idea that hey, I was playing by cape rules now.

    Sure, it resulted in a wave of fresh True DeputyH Facts, but by that point anything would do that. I giggled in a most unbecoming way (Sorry, Dad) at the thought of what my world’s PHO would think of my talk with Alexandria. Or what I accidentally did to Armsmaster’s career. Oh crap. I’m going to be using his lab for this. He’s actually still in possession of my gear. I really hope he doesn’t take anything out on my stuff.

    I flashed back to my childhood, playing capes with Emma, who was still running free here, likely tormenting her Taylor up until she stopped coming to class to free up more time for Undersidering, no doubt. We worked on ideas for what we wanted our cape costumes to be when we inevitably got powers, because why wouldn’t we? Skitter’s costume looked nothing like anything I could remember, but I did vaguely recall Madison-- my Madison, Weaver-- telling me how much effort dying the web-made suits required, which meant Skitter was restricted for color choice. This also meant that unless I was willing to wait for a week or two while this Dragon reformulated the dyes my Dragon used for this process, I was stuck with the dark grays of my original undersuit for the time being.

    A secondary concern - if I ran into Skitter as Emissary before I ran into Taylor as Rose (or a combination thereof), I needed something that I would be able to leverage into convincing her I was a friend, an ally. This meant it had to be a recognizable design from my childhood. Which was how I arrived at the need for the dark greens and browns and grays of the design for Forest Guardian, who was supposed to be an ally of Mouse Protector.

    The sweeping lines of her armor, translated onto the flats of mine, would make for an impression of a greenish knightly breastplate, which I hoped PRT PR would not veto for being ‘insufficiently heroic’. A look at my phone and a hand through my hair told me it was time to brush up, braid up and go see if Armsmaster didn’t tear anything of mine apart in a fit of vengeance. Or revenge? Was there a difference? In a fit of revengeance, alright.

    ------​

    My initial guess was correct: Armsmaster had Kid Win tearing his hair out over figuring out the intricacies of the results of one of his own Tinker fugues. As I remembered, he said something about the one that resulted in Mjölnir lasting two days. No way he was cracking it in the two days he spent pulling it apart.

    “I sincerely hope you can put it back together,” I said, injecting steel into my voice, “Or you’re making me a new one.”

    Chris promptly fell out of his chair, drawing a chuckle from Dragon’s avatar on one of the screens. At my insistence, after hearing Piggot intended to bar Armsmaster from Tinkering entirely, he was granted clemency (I did not need him suffering from Tinker withdrawal, knowing full well it would only make him angrier) but would have to be chaperoned by Dragon. The Director agreed, apparently unaware of the Canadian Tinker’s relationship with the local hero.

    “I was putting it back together!” he countered, getting back up and fixing his helmet in place. For whatever reason, he seemed to have ignored the mask warning when I entered Armsmaster’s lab and that was how I managed to surprise him.

    “Any insights?” I asked, going for a friendlier tone this time. While the Ward climbed back onto the chair and put the tools he dropped back into position, I cast a look around the place. It was little different from how I remembered the one in my world, the prime difference maybe being Kid Win’s presence to begin with. I rarely was there to see the two Tinkers interact anywhere other than Chris’s own lab, and the boy felt out of place here, like a kid trying on his father’s dress uniform to see how he looked in it.

    “Hello, Emissary,” Dragon finally said, “The only conclusions we’ve made is that the command software in your HUD is capable of interfacing with the Endbringer bracelets to provide real-time positioning guidance, making you indispensable in S&R operations. Would you mind if I tried to replicate it?”

    “Not really. From what I know, it was based on your work to begin with,” I shrugged. You made it, after all, I held myself from saying. Out loud I said, “Er, is Kid Win cleared on my origins?”

    Chris shook his head.

    “I most definitely am not, which is seven kinds of frustrating. This feels like something I should be able to make myself, but… I’m missing something, like a key trick, you know?”

    I nodded at his pleading look (how does he do that in a helmet?), before arching a questioning eyebrow at Dragon. Her digital visage made a slight nod.

    “Will you put Mjölnir back together?” I asked, smiling kindly (Mrs. Knott #2, “You are my best student, and I respect you, even though I can’t help you with the bullying”).

    “Mew-what?”

    “My taser. Put it back together and you get a prize,” a grin (Tattletale #1, “I know something you don’t know”) and a tap on my temple, “I’m a Thinker, you know. I can help you. I promise.”

    He grinned and got back to work. Seven minutes later, the mishmash of parts scattered on the table had once again become my instrument of justice. It looked like this wasn't the first time he did that.

    “That was easier than I thought, like it was made to be easily pulled apart and put together again,” he noted, providing me with an amazingly easy in.

    “From the files I’ve seen on your work,” I intoned in a deliberately faked lecturing tone, making him chuckle, “You have a habit of rebuilding your devices to add or replace a function at a time. Have you considered making them modular to swap between modes of use on the fly?”

    You could hear a pin drop in the silence that followed. Then he crashed off the chair again and scrambled out the door, muttering something along the way.

    “Well, he’s probably going to be gone for a couple of days at least,” Armsmaster said from somewhere behind me. I’d love to say I didn’t copy Chris’s initial scramble of surprise, and it would be mostly true because I did not have a chair to fall out of. Right. Forgot he has some sort of sleeping quarters in the next room over. Stupid of me.

    “For what it’s worth,” I said earnestly, trying not to fold in on myself, “I’m sorry how it turned out. I thought Alexandria only used the short version of events because she wanted me to slip up and reveal I’m Skitter by mentioning something that wasn’t in them.”

    “For what it’s worth…”

    His voice trailed off. He looked haggard, like he hadn’t slept since yesterday. Or shaved. Or eaten. Granted, I never saw him use the base canteen even back home, and my few visits to it here were mostly spent trying to stay out of the way of Martinez and her team, reminding me painfully of lunchtime at Winslow, but still.

    “Armsmaster…” Dragon’s sadness was palpable, and seemed to snap him to attention.

    “What’s going to happen to you now?” I asked, my face hopefully conveying concern in a way he understood. It felt like he had it easier with Dragon because she talked to him off a screen.

    “I’ve already been set for a transfer to Chicago, in a subordinate position,” he said darkly, settling into a slump on a stool near the workbench adjacent to the rack of Halberds, “Following the thing at Forsberg. Miss Militia gets the team leadership. After this, though…”

    He trailed off, resting an idle hand against the bench, looking at his feet. Neither of us said much for what felt like an awkward eternity but the wall clock (one of several, he wanted to always be aware if he lost time to a Tinker fugue or just plain getting caught in his work, I remembered) said was around 40 seconds.

    “...right. Let’s go, your armor is over here,” he gestured to follow, and so I did. He was wearing his at-base light outfit again, the one he used when he needed to go to briefings that wouldn’t be followed by exploding into action, “We removed the paint from the armor plating, but the undersuit is intractable, I’m afraid.”

    I found myself staring at my fuzzy reflection in the bared faceplate of my helmet. It was made to be removable, letting me have my face visible while still using the Eye of Wadjet and having the back and sides of my head protected. However, like the drones, the backplate of the helmet stayed on base back home, I had my hair down the day my patrol with Weaver was cut short. Another thing I would have to replace if I was to get back to my full combat capacity again.

    “I’ve got a concept for what I want it to look like,” I said, holding up the legal pad I made my sketches in. “And I also think it’s time I met the Wards, unmasking and all. If this goes well, I’m willing to join the team.”

    “Should you be talking to me about this?” he asked humourlessly as he set up the machine he used to calibrate his armor.

    “Until the transfer, or whatever, is official, you’re still team leader,” I replied tonelessly, matching him, “I’ll be talking to Miss Militia about it as well later. Have to be careful around Shadow Stalker, after all.”

    “I was going to ask about that next.”

    “Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

    It was a silly plan, but in that lay its brilliance.
     
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2018
  6. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.04
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.04

    Miss Militia’s facial expression, what I could see of it outside the bandana, could best be described as “mild bewilderment”.

    “You’re joining the Wards?” she repeated, as if her saying it would make it any less true. I sipped at my styrofoam cup of tea as if contemplating the answer was some sort of monumental task. She took the opportunity to work the tube from her coffee (at least it smelled vaguely coffee-like) under her bandana to do the same.

    “Yep,” I nodded, resulting in an undignified yelp instead of a word, as the ‘p’ got consumed by the fabric of my (two sizes too large) PRT-issue PRT-branded PRT-approved PRT sweatshirt. I wore it over the red jumpsuit, for maximum ridicule.

    Once (if?) I got her approval, in 27 hours, when the final layer of sealant would set and my new armor was ready, I would be free to do my dramatic unmasking to the Wards, enlist, and get my hands on a Wards expense card. Then I intended go to the Boardwalk, buy literally the first set of clothing I could find, even skinny jeans, and burn the jumpsuit. In a rusted broken barrel. I would be willing to go on patrol into Merchants territory with Shadow Stalker to find one, if push came to shove.

    My smile must have turned too wistful for Miss Militia to manage as she pulled me out of my clothing-destroying reverie with the expectable question.

    “Weren’t you planning on finding your counterpart first?”

    I was grateful for the way she worded it, and it probably showed in the way I smiled (Anne Marie #1, because that girl had a one-size-fits-all beaming smile which the size of my mouth turned into a literal floodlight of teeth).

    “It’s a chain-of-deals, the way I see it,” I began to explain, “Can’t find her since she’s skipping class and pretty much ran away from home after the double-punch of the Forsberg mess and E88 outing. Have to find Undersiders,” I paused to take a breath and a sip of my tea, “Can’t find Undersiders because Masters of the Escape," I accompanied that with air quotes, "So I have to wait till either she or Tata replies my PMs on PHO.”

    “Tata?” A quizzical eyebrow accompanied the question. I envied both the shape and the way it arched.

    “Tattletale. She loves saying “ta-ta” when she has the last word and signs her e-mails with ‘Tt’,” I explained, “Somehow, being called that offends her. Go figure.”

    “Alright, sorry I interrupted.”

    She smiled, or I thought she smiled, so I smiled back, my own smile again. She earned a lot of them every time we talked.

    “No problem. Sooo… I have to prove useful to the Protectorate in the meantime so my harebrained scheme to have them PAY to intentionally let L33t build something doesn’t go up in flames,” another pause, another sip (Damn but I hate vending machine tea, why did I go for vending machine tea?), “And between my two marketable skillsets, intelligence analysis loses pretty hard to being a Ward. Alexandria’s already made me a Thinker 0, Master 0, Brute 0 which to people with restricted clearance will appear as a Thinker 2, Master 1, Brute 1, and my training--” I flexed a bicep, a wasted effort in this sweatshirt, but she nodded anyway, “--means I am more than the sum total of my Tinkertech.”

    She eyed me apprehensively, as if seeing me for the first time, and asked an unexpectable question.

    “When was the last time you slept?”

    “Last night, for four hours. Was kinda antsy about the new paint job,” I replied, brandishing my legal pad of sketches. Miss Militia glanced at the design for Spiderweb, or what Skitter would have gone for if she didn’t have body image issues I sadly shared with her (and the fact that it was an Emma design), and harrumphed in a surprisingly Director Piggot-like way.

    “Emissary… Taylor… have you… talked to anybody about your predicament?” she asked cautiously as if discussing something grave, like how long ago did I decide to be gay or something like that.

    “Who can I talk to? Who should I talk to?” I countered, “Directors Piggot and Rennick aren’t good therapy buddies in either world, Armsmaster has his own problems because of me already, Dragon is nice, but her time is too important to be spent on me, and Aegis… well…”

    I trailed off and rolled up my sleeve instead. She stared at the tattoo.

    “...I loved Aegis. Then he died. Imagine how awkward that talk would be,” I said as I rolled the sleeve back down, raising a hand at her obvious counter, “I will talk to him about it, but later, once I’m settled in,” but then added at her gaze, “And I will talk to him about joining the Wards too. Don’t worry.”

    She placed her rarely ungloved hand (with a lovely manicure of alternating olive drab and camo brown on her nails which I hoped was some sort of Tinkertech armored shellac if she went into battle with that) on my resting palm.

    “Then talk to me,” she said in that soothing tone I knew all too well. There was a kind and sensible woman under the stars-and-stripes bandana, it’s just that she seldom ventured outside of her Fortress of Rules and Regulations. “You’re trying to bear the world on your shoulders, but you’re not the leader of the Wards, not here. And frankly, I’d be worried for them if you worked yourself into a similar frenzy when you were. I could… help you with some of that. I don’t sleep, so my door is open pretty much whenever I’m not on patrol or in a meeting.”

    A protest began and died on my lips. Dammit, she’s right. I can’t fix everything at once. But I’m not doing everything at once, am I? Wards and Skitter first, then Amy and Synod, then getting the PRT to get L33t whatever deal he needs to get me home. But shit, what’s happening home without me? Maybe I should-- but I can’t just leave things the way they are here!

    “Who’s Synod?” Miss Militia asked, “You were muttering,” she added in response to my crazed stare. Shit. Maybe I do need more sleep. A quick glance at Miss Militia earned me a similarly quick nod. Still muttering. Double shit.

    “A Ward I poached from the CIA. Also now my foster kid sister,” I said, “Thinker 4, and twelve, and they used to work her to the bone. Still are, here, probably, because I didn’t stop them in January.”

    I sniffled and belatedly realized there were tears in my eyes.

    “What about Amy? You’re talking about Amy Dallon, Panacea, is that correct?”

    “Yeah. Poached her too. Her home situation is toxic, she’s--” I paused, then resumed, In for a penny, I told myself, “She was, is, a closeted lesbian, and an adopted daughter of a Birdcaged supervillain. That second one scores her a lot of love from Brandish as you can guess, and Flashbang… isn’t really there for anyone,” I paused for another sniffle, reaching for the cheap napkins we got from the dispenser next to the vending machine to wipe my eyes, “She saw... Sees, sees herself as obligated to heal due to having these powers and feeling like she's not doing enough with them. To make matters worse, Glory Girl used to-- probably still does, here-- call on her to cover up use of excessive force when apprehending criminals. None of this is conductive to a healthy mind on its own, and piled together… I know there's talk of her participating in Endbringer battles, if she hasn't already in this world, so you can imagine how that will go for her if she breaks. Or if it involves the Simurgh.”

    “And the list goes on, I imagine,” she said gravely, and I realized her hand has been gripping mine for quite a while now.

    “And the worst is, I can’t use any of this directly, without either freaking everyone out or outing myself as a dimensional traveler,” I continued, hating myself for the crack in my voice, “Especially not as long as Tattletale and Coil are loose, as the both of them thrive on stealing people’s secrets and using them to break them. And it’s enough for Tattletale to just be in the same room with you.”

    “You’ve mentioned it before, are you certain it was Coil that funded the Undersiders?” she grasped onto the change of subject like a firefighter ripping open a water valve. Bless this woman, whoever’s up there.

    “Yeah. Funny thing, turns out the only reason Skitter joined them was to learn that little fact, but--” I trailed off. She was briefed of course, no need to beat a dead horse.

    “I promise not to use any of this knowledge without your say-so,” she said gently, letting go of my hand, “Except the bit about Coil, if you don’t mind.”

    I nodded, not really caring what my face showed anymore. I had no strength left to keep the mask on, somehow airing my pent-up bothers has opened a water main behind my eyes. Death by dehydration would be a hilarious end to this story, I thought, chuckling slightly.

    “What’s funny?” she asked inquisitively, cocking her head to the side.

    “Just-- just realized, I was prepared for a scene like this, except it would be Skitter bawling and I comforting her. Instead…”

    I trailed off, letting my eyes wander the room. It was interesting how your mind would latch onto random details when you did that, like the fact the shades of blue on her sash and bandana were different.

    “From one lady of war to another, Taylor: it’s useful to have a good cry every now and then,” she said with a chuckle of her own, “Maybe followed by ice cream and terrible movies.”

    “Rose,” I objected, wiping my eyes dry, once it looked like I ran out, “If this is to work with any semblance of sanity left in me, I am now Rose. Taylor is Skitter. I am Rose,” I repeated again, with more conviction this time.

    “Alright, Rose. Can you explain, what is it with you and braids?”

    ------​

    Once I washed up, scrubbing my face vigorously enough to make all of it as red as my eyes were, she practically dragged me to the PR people to finalize the armor design. The leaves were argued away, the knightly look slightly defocused, since it was all a pattern on a relatively flat chestpiece, anyway. The end result still made me look like a sci-fi knight, but a less fairytale one.

    When I asked whether the design was too dark, they countered that it would actually make me a good marketing middle ground between Shadow Stalker and Vista, as well as upholding the idea that a Thinker could still be a valuable asset in close encounter situations, which would boost recruitment. I was, apparently, a perfect embodiment of “Amazonian teenage appeal”, which meant going for the same logic as Miss Militia’s style was acceptable. Oh, right, we’re now similarly coloured! But I take offence at being turned into a simultaneous thinly veiled sex fetish and feminist marketing tick box.

    The revised design was fed into Armsmaster’s armor-painting machine and the amazingly automated process of painting, layering and securing the image onto the armor began in earnest.

    That done, as her final act as Fairy Godmother for the day, Miss Militia practically force-fed me fish fillet in the cafeteria and sent me off to sleep.

    ------​

    I slept for twelve hours and woke up feeling like chewed overcooked spaghetti. A cursory glance in the mirror confirmed that my hair looked about the same.

    Alright, Rose, I promise you this: as soon as my plan works out, I’m getting a buzzcut. Or maybe a bob with a shaved temple. If that doesn’t work out, I can just shave it all down. Win-win!

    My reflection nodded and winked in a conspiratorial manner and I was off to shower and brush my teeth and work out the kinks in my back from the weird sleeping position I woke up in. The snap-crackle-pop of my spine sent weird jolts of electric shock out across my entire body, making me feel less like I was ran through a woodchipper.

    Back popped into place, hair in two braids this time, teeth sparkly, I was ready to face the world again, admitting that however bad I looked at waking, I felt infinitely better than before. Still not at my best, sure, but definitely no longer rattled enough to spill people’s personal secrets willy-nilly.

    So I began with the PRT cafeteria, to get breakfast (lunch? It’s breakfast if it’s the first meal of the day!) and reconnect with my humanity. Which was how I found myself eating opposite Martinez, explaining how sorry I was that last Saturday turned into a confoam fiesta.

    “I’m guessing they NDAed you up to the gills, huh?” I grinned into my steak, or what the sign claimed to be steak, anyway.

    “Yeah, that was an entertaining shitshow you’ve put us through, Red,” she grinned back, saluting me with her own alleged steak, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you’re stuck here. Michaelson as a Soldier of Fortune aside, your Brockton Bay sounds a heckuva lot nicer than ours.”

    “Well, I’m here now, let’s see what I can do ya for,” I grinned my best Assault at her (#3, “I just made a dirty pun, hee-hee”, it was the only one of his I learned to reproduce yet), “Though it may take a few days before results show. A lot of the stuff I did impacted the E88, most of that intel’s useless now that they’ve been outed.”

    She shrugged and clinked her juice glass against mine.

    “Eh, I’ll take any help we can get, especially if someone with Trooper sensibilities gets the capes to shape up. I’ll drink to that!” We downed a gulp of juice each, grinning like madwomen, “You’re not keeping that ‘PRT Cape’ outfit, are ya?” she asked with a wicked glint in her eye that reminded me of the one my Martinez had when she first saw it.

    “Had to lose it, sorry. Hope you’ll like the new one,” I said placatingly, “Going to be called ‘Emissary’ now, because, y’know--”

    “--nobody to command, I get it,” she nodded, “Well, it’s still gonna be you in it. Saturday definitely made a record for the weirdest people foamed to amount of shit dumped on my head over it ratio.”

    “And I’ll drink to that,” I clinked my glass against hers this time, “And if you ever need someone to bitch about capes to, you know where to find me. Other you was a dear friend and mentor, even told me about--” Carlos, my brain froze as Aegis walked into the cafeteria, but I shook my head, hard, dislodging the thought as he walked in a direction that kept him from noticing me, “--your husband. I can listen, if you need someone to.”

    “Weirdest friendly cape foamed to shit dumped ratio, too,” she grinned as we downed another pair of gulps, “But I still owe ya one for sticking so many of my people in The Tank.”

    While I was trying to process what exactly she meant by that, she stood up straight and waved.

    “Hey, Aegis!” she called out, “Over here! New girl’s got somethin’ to tell you!”

    She looked down at my bewildered deer-in-headlights-in-red-mask face, grinning. I looked back, thinking swears of vengeance at her. Betrayer!

    “I saw the way you were looking at him, and I just couldn’t resist. Have fun, Red!”

    And with that, she was gone, balancing both our trays, one in each hand, leaving me alone with my cup of instant coffee and ominous sense of dread.

    When I regained control over my mental faculties and realized the ground stolidly refused to open up and swallow me, I saw Aegis standing next to the table, obviously debating whether this was a good idea.

    “Hey,” I finally said as he settled down and risked trying to eat.

    “Hey,” he said, the awkwardness of the situation making him drop his first forkful of mashed potatoes back onto the plate.

    “You heard, right?” I asked, feeling immensely stupid for stating the obvious.

    “I’m dead, and you have a tattoo of my helmet. I can put two and two together,” he replied, victorious over the next forkful. The blunt manner of speech made me think he was offended we didn’t talk this over sooner. Well, he was right.

    “Um. Actually, I wanted to talk about me joining the Wards first, but…” I was beet-red by that point. He was right there. I was conflicted. Should I cry? Hug him? Kiss him? He didn’t know me from Adam. That would be imposition of a very rude nature, so I sighed and changed tracks, “Who tattled? Dennis?”

    “Not telling, and it’s still a related issue, in case it becomes a problem,” he smiled, in that wonderful polite way of his-- Pull yourself together, woman!

    “Right. I’m… getting, was getting, therapy over it. Was shoring myself up for maybe dating again, nothing certain. And then…”

    “And then you’re here, and I’m here, and you’re broken up about it,” he gestured between us with his free hand, “I’m… really not sure how to feel about this. About you. About every crazy thing you’ve told us so far, because it feels like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

    “I suggest rationing the awkwardness. As far as the team’s concerned, I’m just a groupie that Triggered and lucked into joining her idol’s team,” I proposed, leaning forward, resting on my elbows, “Act like it, not much difference from your end.”

    “I can do that. What about you?” he leaned forward against the table as well, intrigued.

    “I… I’d like to say ‘please go on a date with me, if you’re up for it’, but I already feel like such a tool for even thinking it,” I said timidly, eyes downcast.

    “I… okay. Someday, maybe. Not now, definitely. Sorry, but… you know,” he nodded and I nodded back, “We’ll get to team tactics when you’re official, so my only palpable concern is simple,” he raised an index finger, “Shadow Stalker. Will there be problems? You know we can’t simply kick her out, and from what you’ve told us, she knows your counterpart.”

    “I’ve devised a solution. It’s a stopgap, just to buy time until I have concrete evidence, then it’s up to Piggot and the Youth Guard to battle it out, but I’ve run it past Miss Militia and Dragon and they… well, they didn’t veto anything.”

    “I feel like you’re using Dragon as a stand-in for Armsmaster somehow,” he grinned, “Though I can’t fault the logic there, seeing as she’s acting like a buffer for him at the moment. Your doing?”

    “Sorry,” another downcast look, “I was making the best of a bad situation I myself created. Also, she has tons of goodwill with everybody and is one of, like, two people he’ll listen to unconditionally.”

    “From what I heard, it was more like he created it and you kicked it open.”

    I stopped to notice he abandoned what was left of his lunch in favour of our rapid-fire exchange, just like my coffee was growing cold, still untouched. The thought made my heart twinge a bit.

    “Well, anyway, so long as Stalker doesn’t go Hannibal Lecter the moment I unmask, it’ll all work out. And if she does, isn’t that damning evidence in itself?” I spread my hands out for a mega-shrug, “Win-win, as far as I'm concerned.”

    “Except the part where she then stabs you?”

    “Eh, I walked it off last time and I wasn’t Brute 1 back then.”

    “I was meaning to ask - how did that come about?”

    “Panacea overdid the healing. And when I said ‘walked it off’, I meant ‘Panacea saved me from a three-month-long hospital stay’.”

    “Huh. You’re--”

    “Amazing?”

    “Bizarre.”

    I was grinning like mad. He was almost at the same point.

    “I can live with that. So, coach, am I on the team?”

    I love you.

    “So long as you can keep your hands to yourself and promise not to do anything as disruptive as what happened to Armsmaster without running it by me first.”

    “I’ll do my best,” I grinned and I reached out across the table to give him a peck on the lips (he did say no hands!) and ran away while he sat there, flabbergasted and all alone with my cold and untouched cup of coffee.

    ------​

    I’d love to claim I didn’t spend almost half an hour in the shower afterwards, alternating between giggling, crying and hyperventilating, but that felt like the best kiss of my life.

    Can I take him home with me? No, dammit, his parents are here. What do I tell them? Hell, what would I tell my Aegis’s parents?! Not like I have a way home yet anyway.

    The day’s workout passed in a blur, and in the evening I was in Armsmaster’s workshop again, looking at the man soldiering on through Kid Win’s stilted explanation of the new, multi-format laser/taser pistol his revelation produced. Long words which I doubted I could even spell were thrown about liberally and they both seemed too engrossed to even notice I was there.

    As for me, I was there just to do my best impression of a cat staring at the washing machine, looking at the intricate latticework of Tinker paints being laid down on my armor, so just as they barely paid any attention to me as I wandered past them, neither did I focus on their shop talk. The remade armor had become a symbol of hope for me, and I hoped I would be able to carry the manic energy I felt the last few days going forward, maybe project it to empower others. Gotta work that Master 1 rating somehow.

    The paints were a thing also used in the original - well, the one I wore into this world, that was actually revision three of my costume and the first to involve them - but not in any of the Wards’ outfits. It was an abandoned Dragon project based on something a long-dead European rogue produced for sale to other Tinkers, a paint that served as an extra layer of ablative armor. Its two main weaknesses were a piss-poor color selection (which, amazingly, included a lot of the colors I chose before I learned of the limitations) and excruciatingly strict application requirements, which is why Armsmaster had a machine that did exactly that. Watching it in motion was surreal, like a tapestry being woven together. A tapestry that could save your life from a bullet or two, if you were okay with repainting the entire armor from scratch afterwards. A small price to pay for an extra degree of protection, in my opinion.

    And once it was done… Operation Wild Rose would be fully underway.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2017
  7. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.05
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.05
    (original omake)​

    [Rose]​

    My heart was thumping. It was ready. I was ready. I needed to keep my cool through this, then I’d finally get access to resources I needed to push forward with finding Taylor, helping Taylor, and then the rest of the people on my list, probably beginning with Amy. Before she smokes her lungs out preferably.

    My helmet was complete, I managed to coax Armsmaster and Chris into making me a replacement backplate, allowing me to make it fully sealed once more. This meant I was only missing Sirin and Alkonost from my loadout, and I could theoretically negotiate the terms of having the drones themselves remade, the originals lost on the other side of the portal.

    Tying my braid up the back of my head, I sealed the backplate, feeling how it settled flush against the sides of my mask to form a full protective helmet. I needed the full reveal effect, and that meant I needed to be dressed to the nines. With that in mind, I strapped Mjölnir in its harness to my chest, checking the charge and setting (lowest, of course) to make sure.

    The final design for the front of the armor portrayed a sci-fi version of knightly layered plate, with the faux plate over my chest in a dull metallic green with sharp angular edges accenting my modest bust in flow with the curvature of the ceramic plating itself. My abdomen was covered with layered brownish-green tiles making the illusion of metal abs, while the sides were patterned with a chainmail-like texture. The armor plates on my arms and legs were the same green as the chest segment with a similar border design like pressed metal, while the back had the green plates over the shoulder blades extending down along the ribs with the same brown tiles down the spine and the softer tissues covered with the chainmail texture again.

    The overall result of the body armor was an impression of a metallic musculature gradually shifting from green at chest level to brown by my waist. Combined with the dark grey of the undersuit visible between the armor plates, I looked like a badass videogame character, missing only some sort of fuckoff-huge gun to complete the image. Since guns weren’t really my thing (and would make the already skeevy future meetings with the Youth Guard even more problematic), Mjölnir would have to suffice. And it could do ‘fuckoff’ if necessary.

    The helmet was painted to look like a cross between a spacesuit’s and a knight’s helmet, retaining the green metal theme, with the removable faceplate marking where my eyes (and Wadjet’s) were with an impression of black glass with the mouth area being more of the green faux-metal. From afar it would look like a motorcycle helmet on steroids and nightmare fuel and I loved it. It was perfect for both what I hoped Emissary to be, and for concealing my identity. I even managed to work the PRT motto I spooked Director Piggot with into the texture of the backplate, a fine print along the seals. It would be there if I needed to remember what I was fighting for.

    The new design was pretty far removed from what the original stood for, but if I was going to pose as an actual cape, secret identity and all, I would need to look the part. The armor pieces for my legs and arms were all modular, originally intended to be put on top of civilian clothing if necessary, just like the chest piece, but with the spidermesh undersuit and the sci-fi design the whole thing looked like a singular construction not unlike Armsmaster’s, with the effect intensified by the painted-on ‘muscles’ of metal.

    Wearing the whole of it felt like coming home, mainly because it was the largest piece of home available to me, like a safety blanket made of black widow silk and armor plating. I was ready for the most ridiculous grandstand I’ve ever done.

    ------​

    The mask alarm blared to life, giving everyone fifteen seconds of warning that it was time to cover up, although it was more of a courtesy call. Director Piggot insisted I play my role to the full, including feigned ignorance of their identities. For my part, I was more concerned about Aegis giving something away than myself.

    The timer ran out and the door slid open, admitting me into the Wards common room, its domed shape feeling welcomingly familiar and yet strangely distant, looking almost like it did six months ago when I first set foot in it, rather than how I saw it a week ago.

    Instead of Madison’s posters, the wall of one segment had anatomy reference charts, presumably Browbeat’s. Amy’s bookshelves were still Sophia’s crossbow stands. Aegis’s spare armor (he went through them at an alarming rate, I remembered) was still in the same place, but without the memorial plaque, obviously redundant when the man himself was standing right next to it.

    I was hoping that Dean’s emotion sight would see my trepidation caused by the conflict between memories and reality as a result of awe at being admitted to the sanctuary of teenage heroism, particularly considering he knew about the tattoo. With a small smile, unseen by all, I stepped forth, hearing the door slide closed behind Armsmaster and Miss Militia.

    “Wards,” she began, “We would like to introduce your newest member, who some of you may have already met out of costume, or even helped with it,” she nodded at Chris, who raised a hand to give me a small wave, I responded with a thumbs up. “Emissary is a newly found Thinker who was already a PRT intern at the time of discovery, which made the situation regarding her recruitment a little… complicated. As a result, parts of her file are sealed until the paperwork is cleared up. Nevertheless, I would like you all to welcome her to your ranks and help her with settling in here in Brockton Bay as the newest Ward of Protectorate ENE.”

    A lukewarm and unenthusiastic wave of applause rolled through the room as the semi-circle of Wards took turns introducing themselves.

    “You already know, but I’m Aegis, team leader,” Carlos spoke, shaking his long hair free of his rust-coloured helmet, “My name is Carlos, and I’m glad to have you on the team.”

    My heart did a little backflip I didn’t even try to conceal from Dean because this would only work in favor of the ‘became an intern because she was a cape groupie’ legend of Rose Ellison. Of all the people in this room not read into my secrets, he represented the greatest threat to the deception, so getting him to believe would help convince the others I was genuine.

    “Clockblocker, at your service, O Lady Of The Large Smile,” Dennis bowed before removing his helmet, letting his shock of red hair free to reign havoc on the universe, “Also known as Dennis, but you can call me anything.”

    “Sure thing, Anything,” I obliged with a rhyming cadence, eliciting a laugh from the boy and groans from the rest of the team. Surprisingly, only Missy went for the facepalm.

    “I’m Vista,” she said matter-of-factly, before removing her green visor in a swift practiced move, “And also Missy. Please don’t shatter my hopes of a sensible person joining the team?”

    Sophia and Dennis seemed to snort in perfect synchronicity at that, though definitely for unrelated reasons, confirmed by the not-glare her full-face mask gave him immediately afterwards. I gave Missy a serious nod, hoping to allay her fears, and offering her a hand to shake. She took it gladly, if inexpertly. My XO was a master of the power handshake by now, another thing here I’d need to fix. Somehow. Without tearing Aegis’s authority down, preferably.

    "Browbeat," the comically muscled boy in brown said next, "Although when my mask is off, please call me James."

    When I came in here to join the Wards, I had mentally prepared myself to feel a lot of things. Regret at all the people who should be here but I hadn't yet saved, sadness that none of my friends recognized me, hot, swooping anger at the sight of Shadow Stalker out of prison. But I had convinced myself that I could handle it. And in a way, I was handling it fine… by which I mean that I was going to be quietly freaking out about it later when I was alone.

    But when a familiar face emerged from beneath the mask of Browbeat, I was blindsided, hard. Feelings I wasn't defending against, fear, shock, anger, confusion... they spilled forth like from a broken dam.

    Pieces of data flew through my mind, jumbling up and breaking my momentum, spitting out questions. How, when, why? The nature of Trigger events, what had caused this in my friend--

    "Is something wrong?" he asked. Belatedly, I realized he had extended his hand for me to shake. I hastily rebuilt my mental walls before Gallant noticed-- I hope --and gathered myself.

    "I'm sorry," I reached out and shook his hand and my head at the same time, "You remind me of someone I used to go to Middle School with."

    "Ah, that makes sense," he replied in his matter-of-fact way, understanding coloring those blue eyes.

    I wonder if he has a motorcycle, I idly mused as we gripped each other's hands, Guess it depends on if he's dating Mandy here or not.

    The explanation seemed to be sufficient and the process resumed. Dean was next, and of course he had to show off, making a sweeping bow and whipping his helmet off in one smooth movement.

    “I’m Dean, or Gallant if you prefer, and yes, before you ask, I’m two parts of a love triangle with Glory Girl that’s been a fixture of our local media circus for months now,” he recited with suspiciously practiced ease. I pushed the sad memories of their breakup aside, focusing instead on his unexpected rebound and the weird feeling of ‘I don’t know how to feel about it’ it elicited in me. Judging by his awkward smile, it had the desired effect.

    “Chris, although I think I gave myself away earlier,” Kid Win said sheepishly, gesturing at my head, “How’s the helmet?”

    “Snug like a glove,” I replied happily, trying not to think what was coming up, “Thanks again for the help.”

    He nodded, and then the mask with the face of the scowling woman came off.

    “Shadow Stalker. Sophia,” she said. I nodded dispassionately, constructing my face into the most un-Taylor-like face I could, which was Anne Marie #1, again.

    Undoing the main clasps which would remove the helmet as a whole, I shrugged out of it, thankful for the change in hair profile the tied up braid made, and hitched the Eye of Wadjet up onto my forehead. I practiced in front of a mirror for this, I was willing to admit, just to check how un-Taylor-like I could make my face look.

    “Hi, I’m Rose, Rose El--” I began before, like on cue, I was interrupted.

    Hebert?” Sophia roared, eyes wide with surprise, her body dropping into a combat stance, “Is this some sort of joke?”

    Everyone in the room tensed, looking back and forth between me and her. I slowly raised my free hand, palm outward in the universal gesture of ‘please don’t’ and scrunched my eyebrows together in the way New Madison did sometimes when she fought against the urge to offload a morality decision onto me, again a face Sophia would probably have never seen Taylor Hebert make.

    “No, Ellison, Ell-ee-son. Hebert is my mother’s maiden name, I’ve got family here in Brockton Bay, maybe you’ve met my cousin Taylor?” I stammered out rapidly, piling on the awkward, before she could rally herself, “Haven’t seen her in... ten years, I think? They used to tell us we’re quite alike. Maybe that’s why--”

    “Rose? Pause for breath?” Miss Militia suggested, her hand on my shoulder. Her timing was, as always, impeccable. The whole byplay made me come off as ditzy and therefore harmless.

    I half-turned my head back to her and nodded.

    “Right, sorry. Anyway, I used to be an intern at the PRT, but then the quality of my work raised a few flags, and I got called in for power testing. And then one more time,” I snerked earnestly, remembering how my own power tests went, “To sum up: I’m a grab bag, Thinker 2, Master 1, Brute 1. The Master is deferred. I’m good at figuring out people and which buttons to press to get them to do something, but I can’t compel anyone to do something directly against their will.”

    “That’s… underwhelming?” Missy ventured, “I mean… like, you manipulate people by figuring them out?”

    “Kind of like that, yeah, like an unpowered person could, but much faster,” I nodded, “And I also have bones that are pretty hard to break unless you’re a Brute and I heal slightly faster than normal. Like, one week of hospitals instead of two, but it naturally depends on the injury,” which was not a lie for a change. Strictly speaking, neither was the manipulation by analysis, but neither was a power.

    “Then what’s with the fancy gear?” Sophia asked, expression still guarded, waiting for the other shoe to drop in a prank she felt I was playing on her, refusing to relax. Her paranoia was not unfounded, but she clearly underestimated the kind of connections I had.

    “My power lets me figure people out,” I repeated, “That includes power analysis and tactical solutions, both in hostile and friendly capes, so in the field I’m useful both as a spotter and coordinator,” I tapped the Eyes of Wadjet, “And as a fighter,” I finished, brandishing Mjölnir, “Careful, that thing’s rated up to Brute 6. And if it comes to that, I can just punch stuff. Hand-to-hand training and all.”

    Dennis whistled.

    “So, you’re not only ripped, you can also figure out how to rip people up?” he deadpanned, earning himself a cuff upside the head from Dean.

    “Rip and tear,” I nodded, grinning somewhat maliciously (Sophia #1, “Let’s see if you bruise easily”, which made the original author look at me funny), “My Brute rating, small as it may be, lets me gain muscle much faster, so I run, work out, do actual drills with PRT combat instructors, the works.”

    Sophia’s look changed slowly, as I slotted more neatly into her worldview. The rest of them gave me a variety of weird looks.

    “Whaddaya mean, ‘ripped’?” James asked carefully.

    “We ran into Emissary in the gym a few days ago,” Dean said, grinning widely, “Trust me when I say this, she’s second only to you in brawns here, and it’s not even her main power!” After a brief pause, he added, “Sorry Aegis, this means you too.”

    I shrugged. He was overselling me, but that wasn’t a bad thing in this situation. I seriously doubted I could ever be stronger than Aegis, not with his power being what it was, but I was certainly a hell of a lot more fit than I was when we dated. Before he-- Not. Now. Not in front of people.

    “Eh, I could take her,” he laughed and that seemed to defuse the remaining tension in the room, Sophia’s narrowed eyes aside.

    “And don’t worry, Missy, I’ve worked for the PRT before this gig, I can be very serious when the need arises,” I said to the girl in green, “So expect me to chew you all out for misfiling patrol reports regularly,” I added, smiling Anne Marie’s smile again. This could be good, I told myself, Maybe I’ll get to help some of them too. “Of course, I can also help you file them properly, if you ask nicely.”

    Satisfied with the end result, the adults stepped off to talk to Aegis to the side of the room while I was led by Missy to an empty room, which in my Wards was designated as Synod’s. It’s definitely fate, so first thing I’m personalizing here is a kitty poster onto the wall. “Laws give me paws!”, I’m thinking.

    ------​

    [Emily Piggot]​

    “How do you expect to join the Wards while Shadow Stalker is among their ranks and keep the situation from becoming a powderkeg?”

    My voice was tired. All of me was tired. The girl’s intel checked out, and after some ridiculous gesturing Velocity was able to snag the attention of Purity and talk her through getting her children back in exchange for agreeing to testify against the Empire and possible further deals down the line. All of this could have gone very, very wrong, and it intrigued me greatly which of my subordinates decided that an outed cape’s family was fair play as far as the Rules were concerned. Damnable they may be, at times it felt the Rules were the only reason we were only ankle-deep in blood in the streets instead of knee-deep here in Brockton Bay.

    “I have a plan. It’s a dumb plan, but it’s going to work,” she said, doing that thing again where she looked like someone pasted a different person’s emotional response on her face while the rest of her remained dispassive. It was, frankly, more than a little creepy.

    “By all means, do explain,” I conceded. It was easier to hear her out, it seemed, especially since more often than not she had enough citations to back her statements up.

    “I am not here as Taylor Hebert, I am here to bring her in, because Taylor Hebert is Skitter,” she said, gesturing vaguely, “I am Emissary, a.k.a. Rose Ellison, who just conveniently enough is Taylor Hebert’s second cousin.”

    “And you look exactly like her? I doubt anyone would buy it,” I said wearily, rubbing the bridge of my nose with thumb and forefinger.

    “But I don’t!” she exclaimed and beamed a too-wide smile on her too-wide mouth. It sometimes felt like she learned how to express emotions from a self-help book. Or relearned, considering what she’s told us, I added inwardly.

    Holding up a printout of Taylor Hebert’s photo pulled from a surveillance camera, she gestured between the photo and herself.

    “I kinda look like her, yes, but so does Anne Hathaway,” she took a deep breath, “Look closer. No glasses. Different hair -- I’m cutting mine off as soon as she believes that I’m her, it’s pretty distinctive -- and different build. She’s thin, but mildly athletic, I’m guessing she got to be that shape because she took up running,” her laser pointer prodded at the legs of the printed Taylor.

    “Me, I’ve got volume, because I’m built up, so to speak,” she grinned again, reminding me of a fox that entered the henhouse, “So even if I was to wear a suit like Skitter’s -- mine is pretty similar, if you take off the armor panels, by the way -- we would look like night and day, or like Lieutenant Martinez does next to Shadow Stalker.”

    “And you’re going to rely on your muscle mass to disguise you?” I let doubt seep through my voice, “She’ll see your face long before she sees you undressed, I expect.”

    “And the face she’ll see won’t be this,” she replied stubbornly, pointing at the girl in the picture, who looked afraid of her own shadow, her hair the only sign of her femininity, her glasses only adding to the impression of a reedy twig you could snap with only a glance, “But this.”

    She did something to her ever-present braid, fixing it up as a flat circle on the back of her head. I only now realized she started braiding her hair by default as soon as her hands were freed by Alexandria, because at first, in that jumpsuit and manacles, were I to put glasses on her, turned in on herself as she was at the time, she’d be the spitting image of the Taylor Hebert in the picture, of Skitter. Instead, the girl in front of me only vaguely resembled the teenage supervillain, with her eyes uncovered, her hair up, her neck wider and decidedly untwiglike. Even in the overlarge PRT sweatshirt she was wearing, she projected a feeling of physical strength and raw determination, something the scared girl in the picture did not. Then again, the scared girl in the picture managed to defeat Lung twice, taking the time to carve out his eyes the second time, not to mention outplaying Armsmaster in one-on-one combat. I was suddenly very glad I had one of my own, even if this one was only faking having powers.

    “I look similar, yes, but Sophia doesn’t know Taylor is Skitter, or that Taylor is likely playing into her role as punching bag after getting her powers,” the Taylor in front of me explained, “A girl that looks sort of like Taylor but is actually a powerhouse would fall into a different category in her mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d offer me condolences Taylor was my ‘cousin’.”

    “And if she asks her friend, the one you said used to be yours, about the cousin thing?” I leaned back in my chair carefully, feeling I was being played somehow.

    “Emma knows we have distant relatives we never talk to, but not their names, and it isn’t likely either of them can ask Taylor and get a straight answer, can they?” she put the picture down, fidgeting in the uncomfortable guest chair, “And if they check in ways that don’t make the PRT ask them pointed questions about digging for a cape’s family details, all they’ll find is that there’s a hundred and eight ‘Rose Ellisons’ in Montana alone.”

    “How did you pick the name?”

    “Rose, after my mother’s middle name, in case I do manage to contact Taylor and her father in their civilian life first,” she listed off, her expression darkening briefly, “And Ellison because I vaguely recall seeing the name, or at least something similar, in the family tree. If that fails, Harlan Ellison was a great writer and I like the way it sounds,” she finished with a small smile, which wasn’t saying much with the shape of her mouth, “The fact that it sounds close to ‘Emissary’ is a bit on the nose, but…”

    “Alright, ‘Rose’,” I sighed again, “Let’s see where this plan gets you, but I’d prefer it if you kept at least Miss Militia and Aegis in the loop about this.”

    “Of course, ma’am. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    “And if this ends with bloodshed in my building, I won’t let even Alexandria stop me from making you regret it.”

    ------​

    [Rose]​

    I dumped the duffel bag with my PRT-issued stuff on the bed, surveying the available storage space. I would definitely need to make a shopping run soon, because the PRT-issued shampoos did evil things to my hair and PRT-approved feminine hygiene items were definitely approved by a man. And, of course, then there were the clothes. It said a lot about my situation that I’d rather stay in the spidersilk undersuit than change back into the grey government garb. At least I was free of the color red. That’s decided, first few outfits will be all in blues and yellows.

    A knock on my open door had me turn around, holding a freshly-removed right armguard in my left hand. Sophia was in the doorway, in civilian clothes now. The jeans were flattering her runner’s legs, and I assumed mine would look just as good if I would ever stop hating jeans that hugged my figure.

    “Hey,” she said quietly.

    “Hey,” I said, waving with the armguard and moving back to disrobing, focusing on the task to avoid lashing out. I knew she was going down, so I could keep without the hostilities to her, hopefully.

    “Are you really Hebert’s cousin?” she wondered aloud to my back. Finished with the guards, I reached for the clasps of the chestpiece.

    "Second cousin, because my mom is her dad’s cousin.” I nodded absently, sliding sideways out of the armor. I deposited it on a mannequin similar to the one holding Aegis’s spare and turned to face her, hoping the form-hugging undersuit would crush any doubts she had about me being Taylor, “You thought I was her for a moment, didn’t you?” I asked, and when she nodded, pressed, “Doesn’t sound like you’re a friend of hers.”

    Wait, why was her gaze lowered when I turned around? Was she checking out my ass? No, wait, probably my legs, she runs, I mentioned I run, it’s probably another check.

    She shrugged nonchalantly. I had to give it to her, she really did make sociopathy look easy.

    “Can’t say I am. She’s kind of a loner,” she said in a subdued drawl, like just thinking of me, of Taylor, made her want to hurt somebody, “Has been as long as I know her.”

    “That’s okay,” I said softly, trying not to grind my teeth at the memories of her saying the same words to the school authorities, “She’ll have me now. Once my papers are in order, I’m heading down to pay her and Uncle Danny a visit.”

    “Papers?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically.

    “Oh, right, I forgot to mention -- the nature of my discovery kind of made a mess, drew attention, now my mom’s separated from me by Witness Protection and I was shuffled here because I have family here,” I repeated the backstory I worked out with Miss Militia and Dragon, “Dad ran out on us a while ago.”

    She had this weird look in her eye at that as I belatedly realized. She’s being raised by a single mom. Oh god, please tell me I have not just accidentally earned sympathy points from Sophia! I really didn’t think this through.

    “Aaaanyway,” I deflected, bouncing on the bed a little, “I’d also like to apologize in advance, it looks like you got me instead of Flechette in the transfers,” I tried to make a regretful face, “Sorry, I was told you petitioned for her.”

    “S’alright,” she shook her head, “Thought I’d see eye to eye with her on weapons. Do you just run or do you compete?” she finally asked the question. Goodness, it’s really sad she doesn’t have any better hobbies than track, violence and Taylor, but I’m repeating myself. Is it her home situation or her powers-- Wait, am I seriously trying to justify Sophia?!

    “I run for fun,” I shrugged, wondering how to get her to leave, because I wanted to change into civvies too and whatever my thoughts, I was not going to strip in front of Sophia fucking Hess, “Began before I got my powers, then it turned out it made bodybuilding easier. So here I am,” I flexed a bicep, “Proving Mother Nature really wanted me to look like a man.”

    “Nah, not with a butt like that,” she smirked, detaching herself from the doorframe, “See you ‘round, Ellison.”

    Sweet mercy, she was looking at my ass. Kill me. Kill me now. At least this will make an amazing anecdote for Taylor. And Madison, when I get home.
     
  8. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.06
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.06

    I had barely a minute to comprehend that the person that had, in another world, hunted me in a moose preserve with lethal crossbow bolts, apparently thought I had a nice ass-- and if that wasn’t proof I couldn’t Trigger, nothing else was --before my façade started to crack. I had tried to be analytical about the whole thing, that this was just another PRT situation, that it just needed to be worked through logically... but it hadn’t felt really real until just now.

    Individual Wards not recognizing me could be written off as a prank, or them not recognizing me in a new situation. But all of them at once, with Sophia... and James... That had really driven it home.

    I am trapped here. And I don’t know if I am ever going to get home. Back to Dad, and Amy, and Anne Marie, and… hell, even Madison, and she was just starting to show signs of being her own person again.

    I barely managed to slam the door shut before I collapsed against the wall next to it. A gasp escaped me, and the old demons of self-doubt reared their heads again as tears spilled down my face. They whispered in my ears, hooking icy talons into my heart. Synod would never get free of the CIA, Amy would fizzle out into nothingness, my alternate would be drawn deeper and deeper into villainy...

    A knock pulled me out of my despair, if only for a moment.

    “Go away,” I sniffed, wiping my cheek with the back of my hand.

    “I... I don’t think I can do that,” came Carlos's-- Aegis, I reminded myself with a heavy heart, not my Carlos, what the hell was I thinking with that kiss earlier, I was so stupid --muffled voice from behind the door. “Can... can I come in?”

    I took about seven seconds to calm myself down enough before I stood back up and opened the door for him.

    “Come in,” I told him glumly.

    He gave a small smile and my heart flip-flopped in my chest. Down, girl.

    “Okay, I know this was probably stressful for you,” he began, hesitation flickering across his face as he surveyed my tear-streaked one, “But I have to know what all that was about.”

    I took a deep, shuddering breath as I leaned back against the wall.

    “To tell the truth, I’m... Sophia is…”

    “Sophia?” he finished wryly.

    “Picture you’re New Wave, and Marquis showed up at your front door, with cake and flowers,” I shot back. “I’m not saying I’m not going to be okay with working with her... aside from in front of her face, of course,” I added quickly at his raised eyebrow, “But she’s just so... different from what I knew about her. From the impression the other yous gave me of working with her, even.”

    “Cognitive dissonance,” he shrugged, “You’re only used to her in a very narrow set of experiences. Encounter her outside of those, or interact in ways you never did before, and her behavior changes drastically,” he looked a little sheepish, “I’m friends with an Emotion-sensing Thinker/Blaster/Master, you pick up some things after a while.”

    “She said I had a nice butt,” I shivered. Aegis, bless him, tried his hardest to keep from laughing. The good news for him was that that noise he made was not laughter. The bad news was that I had no idea what it was supposed to be. “There’s a world of difference between ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ and ‘Shadow Stalker thinks I have a nice butt’, especially to someone whose looks she insulted before on numerous occasions. I have... Look, I'm a Thinker 0 and I have no idea how to react to that except purging my stomach.”

    While I was talking, he had covered his mouth with his hand and his shoulders were quivering slightly-- traitor --and it took him a moment to calm himself down.

    “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think even Dr. Yamada would be able to help you with that mess of emotions,” he finally gave his two cents, “But I was actually asking about Browbeat.”

    I looked down. “Ah. That.”

    “I get Sophia being a bit of a hot button issue for you…” his gaze got intense as I looked back at him, “But I have to know right now if James is another problem. I’m likely going to be losing one Ward soon, I need to know if--”

    “No, no!” I shook my hands as if to ward off his words, “James is a different problem.” At his continued stern look, I elaborated, “Okay, he’s a problem, but not a problem like Sophia is a problem.” I sighed and hugged my arms, “Back home, James is... well, we’re friends... distant friends, maybe, but friends... well, he’s dating one of my friends... I think, it’s not like it’s easy to read him at the best of times,” I babbled.

    Aegis placed a hand on my shoulder and I felt the tension leaving my body. I’d accuse him of having a Master power for him to do that, but I’d seen his files. Besides, I knew the real reason his presence made me feel more comfortable... and my stomach was twisting into knots again.

    I took a breath. “Back home, James is just a guy. He’s not in the Wards, and he doesn’t have powers, but my Amy told me that he’s at risk for developing a schizophrenic disorder and has an inactive Corona Pollentia, so the PRT has been keeping an eye on him.”

    “So he’s not a villain?” Aegis asked slowly. I nodded.

    “Sophia was a face I was expecting to see. James wasn’t... and the thought of a friend Triggering…” I trailed off as Aegis winced. Then his face set.

    “So, I’m just double checking here,” he looked me straight in the eyes, "No new problems with James?”

    I shook my head. “James should be fine. He's not another Sophia.”

    Aegis dropped his hand and sighed in relief, even as the shoulder he had placed his hand on tingled warmly in his absence. He gave a weak smile to me.

    “Sorry, I just needed to make sure... the last week or so has been…”

    “A little weird?”

    Insane seems too tame for what it's felt like,” he grumbled. I giggled.

    “I guess dimensional travelers might be a little out of the ordinary,” I flippantly stated, “Especially when they’re the girl that kicked your asses that same week ago,” I balanced the insult out by New Madison #1, ‘bees it is’. I felt I would be getting more mileage out of that one once I would meet up with Tattletale.

    “It is at that,” he laughed before turning and opening the door. He hesitated in the door frame. “Look…” he started, hesitating, “I know this hasn't been easy on you... but if you need someone to talk to, my door’s open.”

    I nodded. “Thanks, Carlos... that means a lot.”

    He started to leave, before grinning at me.

    “Oh, and Sophia might have had a point, there... It is rather--”

    “OUT!” I yelled, slamming the door in his face, my cheeks luminous.

    ------​

    It took me a bit to distribute the stuff from my bag into the provided shelving and decide on a course of action. PRT expense card in hand, I nodded at my own reflection in my helmet’s visor.

    Having changed into a pair of PRT-approved sweatpants and a Miss Militia T-shirt I procured from the gift shop downstairs the day before (the sexy one, with the butt pose, it was the only one of her they had left in my size, unfortunately), I stepped back out into the common area. Multiple pairs of eyes were glued to me pretty quickly.

    “I’ve got a problem,” I began, “And would appreciate any help I can get.”

    I saw Sophia roll her eyes at that. Well, not roll exactly, considering she had her back turned to me, as she was busy stuffing something into a shoulder bag, but the motion of her head seemed to fit. Missy looked interested, Dennis’s gaze was practically glued to me and the other boys were absent, likely gone on patrol or moved to their rooms.

    “The airline lost my luggage, so all the clothes I have are PRT things and whatever I can snag from the gift shop,” I explained, hooking a thumb under the collar of my shirt. Dennis gulped in an unflatteringly Greg-like way at that. I had no idea why, the sports bra I was wearing underneath made me look like a thin muscley guy-- Oh crap, how did I forget? I’d better not send any more mixed signals at him if I can help it. “So I need a guide to where there is shopping to be had. And maybe help with carrying things back.”

    “With those guns?” Dennis snorted, “I’m pretty sure you could carry me back in one hand and your shopping in the other.”

    “Aaand why would I take you with me then?” I grinned back, relying on an old classic, Director Rennick #2, ‘that was funny, but please, never do that again’.

    “Did someone mention shopping?” Dean piped up from the console, “I’ve got a solution for that.”

    “What, you’re volunteering yourself?” I replied, trying to keep the ‘we all know how you shop with Victoria’ out of my voice.

    “Better! My girlfriend!” he called back, a triumphant smile in his voice. He wasn’t doing it to get out of shopping with Victoria. He was doing it to get Victoria out of shopping with him! I barely resisted the urge to facepalm.

    Sophia and Missy were shockingly unanimous and didn’t. Suppressing a snort, I turned in his general direction and raised my voice to make sure I was heard through whatever comms chatter he was hearing.

    “Let me just picture it,” I found myself snapping into my Deputy Commander voice, “You want to ask your girlfriend, whose Internet nickname is something something Collateral Damage, to help clothes shopping for a girl you just met, and she asks, ‘who is this girl to you?’, what’s your response?”

    “Um. She’s a friend? Also, technically we met two days ago?”

    Wham! Breakup, and possibly breakage of bones, because that didn’t make any difference,” Dennis remarked.

    “She’s a Ward?”

    “I’m outed, possibly in the middle of the Boardwalk, which puts my relatives at risk,” I sighed, “And while I may ask Sophia to look out for my cousin’s well-being at school after that happens, I somehow doubt she’ll appreciate the bodyguard duty,” I added, twisting the knife I just plunged in the former vigilante’s back. My voice was earnest, and it certainly would remind her of my promise to help Taylor from now on.

    The room temperature dropped by enough degrees that I thought I saw Missy get goosebumps as she tried to shrink behind her book. We all knew how Sophia hated guard duty, but none of them knew I knew. I was also the only one who knew how the very concept of being Taylor Hebert’s bodyguard would rankle her.

    Rose, you are one malicious piece of work, but damn if this doesn’t feel good. Please don’t turn into another Emma. Please?

    “I don’t remember volunteering my help with anything,” she growled, hitching the bag over her shoulder. “I’m outta here. Ellison, I hope you won’t be telling your cousin about me?”

    “I just reamed Gallant for the same shit, didn’t I?” was my response. That earned me a lopsided smirk and a dismissive hair flip. When she departed, I let out a frustrated sigh.

    “Sorry you had to see that,” I said, “I have a feeling she’s really not fond of my cousin for some reason, and I’d prefer not to rock the boat till I get her perspective on this.”

    The three confused looks I got told me Dean abandoned his post at the console. I cringed a little bit and shrugged.

    “What?” I asked, only partly feigning confusion, “As much as my gut tells me Sophia really needs a family therapist, I don’t know what Taylor did to make her,” I hooked a thumb at the exit, “Cuss at the very notion of someone who looks like my cousin being a Ward, so I intend to find out.”

    Plotted to perfection: forced repetition of the fact that Taylor, my cousin, looks a lot like me, and is not on good terms with Sophia. I may actually just end up carrying the Journal into the PRT building aboveboard. Considering she’s had an extra four months of data to put into it compared to my copy, I was unsure whether I’d need a wheelbarrow for it. Bet I could just sneak in and take it… While risking whatever bees-first-questions-later solution Skitter may be using to protect her Dad and their house from strange capes... Crap.

    “But really,” Dennis asked, “Wouldn’t that out Sophia to your cousin?”

    “Hey, Tay-Tay,” I intoned in a vague approximation of Emma’s voice, trying to refrain from shuddering as I did so, “This girl, like, accosted me on the Bored-walk thinking I was you, and when I set her straight, she said her name’s Sophia and, like, now that she’s looked me over, I apparently work out enough to earn her respect,” I stretched out my right arm to show off a tricep, “D’ya know a Sophia, yay high, likes to cuss, has runner’s legs? What was she all about?”

    “First, that was creepy, second, you don’t actually sound like that,” Missy countered, “And third, what is it with you and working out? Power or no power, you’re a dragon and a chainmail bikini away from a heavy metal album cover.”

    “Sorry, I’m not up to their high standards in women,” I snorted, gesturing at my chest, then my face as I listed off, “Not blonde, not pretty, not busty, not of age. And no, I’m not outing anyone, which is why I was actually going to ask Dean,” I went on, turning to the knightly Ward, “How many Wards’ identities does Victoria know?”

    Good going, use her full name, this Glory Girl isn’t ‘Vicky’ to me, not yet anyway. I have a suspicion where this is headed.

    Missy glared at me, both for deflecting her question regarding working out and for putting Dean on the spot to talk about his girlfriend some more. I’m really sorry Missy, one moral hazard at a time.

    “Um. Mine?” he ventured cautiously, realizing he was trapped.

    “Aaand there we have it. ‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for execution, please do better next time,” I finished, turning off the Commander voice, “I’m sorry Dean, but this’ll have to wait either until I’m friends with Victoria or until my helmet accidentally falls off during a chance team-up. She goes to Arcadia, right? I have to figure out which of the two options is more likely.”

    “Goes is a strong word,” Dean rubbed his chin, “She attends a lot of college classes now, Parahuman theory and all that, but yeah, you can run into her there.”

    “She's still gonna ask where you know Dean from, though,” Dennis supplied, snickering again, “She's got him on a pretty short leash.”

    “Well, then I guess Missy’s my only hope,” I said, turning to my would-be XO to avoid looking at Dean flushing, “Vista, should you choose to accept it, the mission is yours,” I piled the gruff spy voice on thickly, making her giggle, “Are you free this afternoon?”

    “That depends,” she flipped her hair in what would be a ‘cool and mysterious’ way when she’d learn to overact better, “How good are you at math?”

    “At my school level?” I pondered aloud, grasping my chin in an exaggerated thinking pose, “Okay. Ish. For yours, I think I can help you with homework, you little mercenary, you.”

    “E-e-excellent,” she grinned, making me wonder for a moment whether she’d attempt a cackle. Thankfully, she thought better of it, “Let me go change and we can get going.”

    ------​

    While I waited for Missy, I got online to check my messages. It was… a disappointing experience.

    Gotharina replied she got kicked out of the Youth Guard (some incident similar to mine, I'd wager), but she could pass on a message to her aunt if I had concrete info, and also who the hell was I if I knew her real name. Also, she asked whether I was cute. Guessing she thought I was a guy from the name, I sighed and typed out a short response that I only play one on TV and that I’d get back to her when I had any evidence to present, which I seriously doubted I could easily obtain.

    Panacea apparently had an automated filtering system that sent me a prefabricated politely but sternly worded response that if I wanted to interact with her in any capacity I either had to be on her whitelist or reach out through official New Wave contacts. Also, that she doesn't do requests.

    Neither Tattletale nor Taylor replied to their messages. I could understand Taylor ignoring PHO because she trusted Tattletale to monitor the news, and being a fugitive from the law and the gangs was a problem in and of itself, but Tattletale’s silence was a mystery. The account I wrote to was active, posting the same vague and cryptic waves of trolling I remembered from my world, and had actually posted stuff since Tuesday, most of it in reaction threads to the E88 outing. In the unlikely event that whoever used this screen name in this world wasn’t Tattletale, they chose to ignore my message altogether, making me regret the grandstanding choice of words I used.

    My points of contact exhausted, I exhaled loudly, throwing myself against the back of the chair. What other non-aggressive avenues of approach did I have aside from wandering the streets at random, hoping to trip either Skitter’s swarm-sense or Tattletale’s bullshit analysis sight. It’s not like I could just print a classified--

    Dear Rose, I am you, but you are an idiot. Sincerely yours, you.


    Hopping to the PHO contacts and hookups section, where people wrote semi-anonymously to contact each other after cape fights, reached out to capes that saved them or checked up on people looking for them, and made a burner account post.

    Tata,
    Have info for Bug, willing to meet on your terms.
    E.​

    “Are you coming or did PHO swallow you whole?”

    Missy’s voice snapped me out of the afterglow akin to the one I got after a planning session for a fight. I nodded as I stood up groggily, stretching to get my body back into gear.

    “Sorry, somebody was wrong on the Internet,” I said gravely before gesturing at the vault door leading out of the Wards area, “Shall we?”

    ------​

    “Wait,” I said, suspicion in my voice, “This looks like a touristy area. Why are we in a touristy area when the shops are likely overpriced and the track pants I am wearing make me look like a Russian mobster?”

    We were standing on the Boardwalk, next to the store than in my world used to be Parian’s, because here she apparently either was chased off by the Empire or never actually set up shop there. The store in question looked like it catered to teen girls with money to burn and adults who, for one reason or another, intended to dress like teen girls.

    In short, the whole of it screamed “Madison Clements” at me. Correction, old Madison Clements. The new and subdued Madison was a less peppy dresser, going for practicality over cuteness, a woman after my own heart. Sadly literal in her case, as knowingly or unknowingly she was likely copying me, but I would be the first to say, whatever her reasons, she made it work for her.

    “You didn’t specify the shopping, and I thought you’d want to dress up pretty,” Missy shrugged in a way, which, between her pastel-blue sundress and light jacket that kept the worst of the wind away from her, only made her look even younger than she was. “Not sure you would if I let you loose on a mall or something. You’d probably be all ‘rawr, leather pants, spiked bra, let me at them mall rat boys!’ If you’re worried about the prices, a) you can afford it, and b), clearance racks exist for a reason.”

    I snickered and offered her my hand, extricating it from the overlarge sleeve of the PRT hoodie. She obligingly dragged me into the store by it.

    “Now who’s being creepy?” I asked, checking that the sleeve didn't ride up too high to reveal my tattoo to the world at large, “But good idea, it’s hard to find good sizes with shoulders like these, and clearance racks often offer the tail ends of size ranges--”

    I paused, staring in disbelief at the clearance rack she maneuvered me in front of. An old friend was staring at me from it. The sequin unicorn was still as ugly as the one in my closet back home, except I haven’t worn him in a while once my arms started having trouble fitting through the sleeves. The fashion industry, sadly, never learned that some girls work out too, and need wider arm receptacles. However, this was a different store, and the design was plastered on a tank top of a slightly different, if still offensive, shade of pink.

    I was grabbing it before Missy could make any sound, but followed it up by a yellow-green tee that looked like it would accommodate me better (it had some sort of inspirational quote overlaid on a pretentious faux-Polaroid still of a city) and a blue button-down blouse that could, conceivably, work with jeans or a skirt. Crap, I will need to find a suitable skirt! Or can I requisition a PRT dress uniform?

    “Rose?” my guide asked, “Are you sure you want to be trying that… pink one on?”

    I grinned at the implied idiocy of this decision, mainly because I agreed with the unvoiced assessment, but I needed to establish a comfort zone, and on top of that, the unicorn could probably make Sophia’s eyes bleed, which was a definite plus.

    “It reminded me of one of the things I lost,” I admitted earnestly, “So I’m trying it on even if I’m not getting it. Bring me to the jeans. We’re looking for the boot cuts.”

    A fun fact most people that don’t work out systematically don’t seem to grasp: once you stop skipping leg day, your legs get wider. Your hips get thicker. Your calves become bouncy and curvy in ways some people associate with breasts too much for comfort. And none of that new stuff fits into ‘normal’ jeans, not by a long shot. Thankfully, Clay helped me figure out what fit me best, so all I needed now was to pilfer the jeans rack for things with the correct numbers.

    “So you never answered,” came Missy’s muffled voice through the curtain of the dressing room as I battled the tank top for dominance. It was a little snug, and I was afraid of tearing it, “Why do you work out so much?”

    “Two reasons,” I said, swinging the curtain open. My reflection in the mirror wall behind her stood staring back at me, barefoot, the first pair of shorts I decided to designate as ‘domestic’ hanging a bit loose on my hips, the tank top’s snugness outlining my abs aggressively and countering the sports bra’s effect to give me a pretense of cleavage. In a proper bra it’d look like I had an actual bust! I looked ridiculous and I was getting this tank top even if I would accidentally tear it in half when taking it off while getting ready to go to sleep.

    Woah. Nobody would doubt you’re a girl if you’d go out in that,” Missy told the unicorn, I hoped, because the thought of her talking to my chest was weird and wrong and weird, “So, what are they?”

    “One. I refuse to be useless. My Thinker power consigns me to a fate of console wrangling and hostage negotiations. I want to be useful in any situation. Hence the training, the weapons, the works,” I replied turning this way and that to see that unless I stretched the tank top too taut, the shorts let any concerned parties see the waistband of my underwear and that just wouldn’t do.

    “Two. I started before I got the powers, wanted to get stronger, protect myself from bullying,” I half-lied again, closing the curtain behind me.

    “Did it help?”

    “With the bullies? No,” I replied, pretty much walking out of the shorts and depositing them on the changing room bench, “The PRT discovered them by accident when doing a background check for my original joining. They got schooled, and I got transferred from the local Winslow equivalent to the local Arcadia.”

    Opening the curtain, I showed her set number two, the two-tone tee (I had since realized the city was LA, and the phrase ‘Chase your dreams wherever they lead you’) and the slightly flared jeans. They were a tad loose on my waist but just right on my legs, nothing a good belt couldn’t fix.

    “What’s between you and Dean?” I asked, going for innocence, “I noticed you don’t like the idea of his girlfriend too much,” I clarified, wilting a little under the stare I got in response.

    “Shirt looks good on you,” Missy said thoughtfully, “Not sure about the jeans, will you be able to sit down in these?”

    I demonstrated. The fabric felt tight, but not uncomfortably so, which meant that at their clearance price, they were definitely a ‘keep’.

    “I… I like Dean, but I know I’m too young for him, and Vicky’s… well, you’ve seen her, right?” she gave a small sigh. I nodded.

    “Yeah, don’t need powers to realize that, I was just pushing the boundaries a bit, sorry,” I offered, kneeling before her small stool-seated form, “And yeah, seen her, she’s not my type, but cheer up, maybe it’ll pass,” she looked up with hope at that, “And you’ll find someone who’ll like you for you, although hopefully without an age gap to go along with it.”

    She scoffed, poking me in the shoulder.

    “Yeah, like you’re one to talk. These must come in handy beating away all the guys and girls lining up for a shot with you?”

    It was my turn to sigh.

    “Only guy I dated… died. Empire Eighty-Eight. He was Latino. After that all the dating I had were therapy sessions over my guilt complex,” I explained, sadness tinging my voice, “He stepped in when an Empire posse attacked a friend of mine I asked him to help. He saved her, but the wounds were too severe.”

    I crashed down onto a stool next to her, rubbing my eyes with the backs of my hands. I was slightly surprised to find them dry. Is it the indirect telling or the fact that I'm spent already? When did I become such an emotional wreck?

    “It’s why I look at Aegis like you look at Dean,” I found myself hugging her around the shoulders, more for my comfort than hers, “Always had a crush on him. Found a guy that kinda looked like him, we dated, I felt I was falling in love. Then, my whole world was swept from under my feet,” I sniffled, “The police came to my house when I was getting dressed up for a big date. Took me a while to pull myself back together after that. The workouts helped take my mind off it too.”

    “Was that… your… you know?” she asked cautiously. I realized there were tears in her eyes.

    “What? Oh, no, that one happened in December,” I shook my head, sticking to the fake concept of how ‘Rose’ triggered, “So, don’t look at me as if being fit makes you more successful in love. Or in life,” looking at her get downcast again, I gave her one of my own grins, “And here’s a powered guess: if you’re still interested, I can give you a few pointers and maybe talk the PRT trainers into helping you with training. If nothing else, it does draw attention.”

    “I… I think I’d like that,” she nodded, scratching her nose thoughtfully.

    “Great!” I stood up, returning to the booth, “Because there’s still an issue we haven’t skirted yet!”

    I grinned at the sound of her chuckling as I drew the curtain and turned to the hangers with the skirt and the blouse.
     
  9. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.07
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.07

    When we got back to PRT HQ, more messages awaited me. Perhaps it was the roundabout way we took, revisiting several shops, or the need to wait for the PRT van we called in to pick us up because while we waltzed easily out of the building through one of the semi-hidden alternate exits, waltzing back in with lots of shopping bags wasn’t a good option. Perhaps it was simply the fact that pinging people that I had logged in at the shared desktop at the Wards Commons made them all want to write to me. But first, there were bags to be sorted out, as I was surprised at the volume we had accrued despite the small dent it made in my Wards spending allowance. In fact, the most expensive item on the list was a swimsuit.

    Missy seemed to take an odd glee in having me try on bikinis, which, according to my notes on my Missy, probably meant she was itching to have some of her own, but was holding back for the same reason I was until recently. Until Panacea gave me the only aspect of my abilities that would actually pass for a superpower… Or maybe Missy was holding back because of the horrific scar across her chest that Hookwolf gave her.

    Of course, this Missy hadn’t confided in anyone about it, but in return for my suffering I managed to coax her into a new dress that showed some skin yet managed to conceal even the hints of the mess of flesh that would certainly ruin her enjoyment of bikinis when she would grow up. I cheated of course, it was the exact same one my Missy got the weekend before I was zapped here, but I’m sure any version of Vista appreciated feeling pretty despite her disfigurement. I wonder if we can cajole the local Amy into doing away with it.

    As a result, I now owned a set of pretty swimwear that cost as much all of my underwear (including the freshly bought plain stuff AND the government-issued stuff) put together. I was unsure whether I’d ever actually get to put it to use, but the look of ‘I will get you some even if I never get any myself’ that Missy wore throughout the ordeal made me certain I picked the best person to be my XO. Properly motivated, this girl would go through hell, high water and rouge angles of satin if it meant getting things done.

    When she was done helping me and was getting ready to head home, reluctant as always (not that she knew I knew why), I pulled her into a tight hug, promising we’d hang out again as soon as was possible. She hugged me back in a way that made me wonder if she developed super-strength as a second Trigger.

    Once Missy was gone, it was time to network again. Flopping my way into the shorts I designated ‘domestic’ and shedding the hoodie, I deposited myself and my PRT-issued mug of PRT-issued tea (English Breakfast teabags from a noname office supplier, but it was all I had available) in front of the computer.

    First up, check for PHO messages. I had just the one.

    From: T_Am_Eye
    To: Emissary
    Subject: Meet

    E,
    That was coy. Bug doesn’t know you.
    Your PM to her has her spooked. What does a Ward have to do with her?
    Tt​

    Shit. Paranoia winning out? Clearly, Tattletale’s logic chain went “E” - newly registered capes - Emissary - verified already - likely a Ward because new Protectorate members were more visible. Or because the Undersiders had some sort of backdoor to the security cameras in the building, courtesy of Coil’s plants (I waved at the security camera above the entrance to the Commons). Or one of said plants merely taking snaps with a cell phone camera and passing them on to their boss and/or his Underlings. Double shit. I am burning that jumpsuit toot sweet.

    From: Emissary
    To: T_Am_Eye
    Subject: Meet

    Tata,
    The only reason I am not up her wardrobe to get it myself yet is respect for her boundaries (also allergic to bees). I'm sorry for scaring her, but I didn't know another way that I could get through while being taken seriously. She needs justice against EB and SH, I want SH in jail. This can tip the scales for both of us. Win-win.
    Name your terms, time and place. I’ll unmask if that gets you to trust me.
    E.

    P.S. You realize of course, Coil tossed you under the bus this week and will gladly do it again?
    P.P.S. Don’t think about the purple elephants.​

    That may have been petty, but the face my Tattletale made the time I sprang this on her was worth trying it again.

    The other messages were internal e-mails, one from Miss Militia, stating there was a spot empty on tomorrow’s patrol schedule due to Chris being stuck in Tinkerland again, and offering me to go out on my first patrol as Emissary with my pick of James or Dennis, while the other would get Missy. Wondering why I couldn’t go with Missy (Probably because I’m yet untried and they’re still babying her), I went with the devil I knew better, replying that I would take Clockblocker.

    The other one was from that Chambers guy, the local one, that was originally behind my Deputy costume, and coincidentally the one approving its redesign into its current form. He wrote that they managed to settle the arrangements for my official unveiling as a new Ward for a Friday One-PM TV broadcast. Oh joy, I thought darkly, another swearing-in ceremony, hopefully this one won’t be ruined by Tattletale’s machinations. Also, way to go with the short notice! I’ve got fifteen hours to prepare a speech?

    The final one was from a lady in Marketing I vaguely remembered from my internship, asking me to come in on Monday to do some rehearsal promo shots for merchandising concepts because PR needed high-quality images of me in my armor. Not that I can fault them, I kinda short-circuited the whole system. Normally they’d have these before the costume was even made. AND none of them had input!

    Chambers was briefed with an abridged version of the truth, to help with the fast-tracking, but as far as the PRT layperson was concerned, I was an out-of-town Ward relocated due to a high risk of my identity being leaked in my home town. Agreeing to the proposed time, I shot the response e-mail out and stood up, realizing I had time to kill before bed and nothing to kill it with except Kid Win’s videogames, harassing whoever was on console duty right now or going out to the gym again.

    ------​

    “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” I intoned in my best Tattletale voice, making Carlos nearly jump out of his seat at the console.

    “What-- Rose, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” he protested, his expression turning horrified as he realized what he just implied, “Damn. Sorry, I--”

    “Don’t worry,” I said, putting a placating hand on his shoulder, “I had a heart to heart with Vista and realized I would be doing my therapists a disservice if I would break down at the drop of a hat.”

    “That’s… good.”

    The awkwardness was quickly dispelled by him snapping his head back to the console and the map on one of the screens.

    “Stalker!” he got the commanding voice up, thumbing the transmit button as he did so, “Stop abandoning Gallant! You know he can’t roof-hop the way you do!”

    “So do you, yet you still keep putting him in the field with me,” Sophia’s voice hissed from the speakers. The ongoing E88 situation made the patrol schedules a mess, as I understood, leading to situations like this, when Dean went straight from a console shift to a late evening (it was never officially ‘night’) patrol, “I hope the new girl isn’t this slow.”

    I shook my head at this, thankful nobody could see the expression on my face. Going on patrols with her was nowhere in my plans for the foreseeable future.

    “Focus, please,” Aegis implored into his headset, eyes screwed shut with the effort of keeping his voice level, “I’d rather I didn’t have to send her out to scrape either of you off the pavement.”

    “But boss, I just bought a new toy bucket and plastic spatula!” I mock protested once I was sure he ended the transmission. I could hear Dean grumbling in the background.

    “Please, you’re almost as bad as Dennis,” Carlos looked at me with a tired look in his eyes. When was the last time he slept properly?

    “Speaking of Clock, I’m up for patrol with him tomorrow,” I remembered, “Miss Militia just told me. Got any tips for handling him?”

    “Please, don’t… encourage him? I’m sure you know how he functions, and it seems that… well, he’s taken an interest in you.”

    “I do, and I noticed, yes. I’ll try to dissuade him, tell him he’s got no chance with those spindly arms of his,” I nodded, trying to keep my face straight, then pointed at the screens, “You got a ping.”

    He looked at the warning light, nodded, and flipped a few switches.

    “Wards Console, Aegis speaking, please state your problem?”

    I waved at him, accepting his wave back with a nod as he continued taking down information from the BBPD officer that thought he spotted Alabaster in the area of The Towers while I stepped back into the commons.

    ------​

    Another cup of tea saw me at the computer again. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read Tattletale’s response.

    From: T_Am_Eye
    To: Emissary
    Subject: Meet

    E,
    Can’t bother you on your big day tomorrow, and our Saturday is sadly already booked. How about lunch on Sunday? Are you okay with Fugly Bob’s?
    Tt

    P.S. Duh.
    P.P.S. If you mention swallows of any kind, you are getting coffee thrown in your face.​

    How in the hell does she know about the press conference as soon as I do? Gotta ask Dragon about the security of the computer systems here.


    The rest of the evening was consumed in a blur of experimenting with the new bras and the tank top figuring out how to give myself an illusion of cleavage (thank the gods for pectorals being pliant in this respect!), trying to figure out which of my new acquisitions would go well with the PRT-issued clothes and generally goofing off in front of the smallish mirror I had in my room.

    I did a few more sitdowns with the computer, each a cycle of not getting any more messages and checking out my old friend, the Crime Map, to check out if there was any reason to worry about the upcoming patrol. Route 3, I saw, was slightly altered as one street was turned into a crater by Bakuda and still wasn’t repaired. I will have to remember that.

    I also got a kick out of watching Sophia and Dean try to not react to the Earth Aleph heavy metal band t-shirt Missy insisted I get when they passed through to change into civvies before going home. Instead of the typical scantily clad lady we’ve discussed earlier, the shirt showed an impressively muscled scantily clad gentleman, though the ridiculous serrated sword he was brandishing probably meant he was anything but gentle. Just thinking about that silly pun made me giggle again.

    It even coaxed a blush out of Aegis when he noticed a certain similarity between the largest piece of clothing the gentleman was wearing - a full-face helmet, unlike the Earth Bet version - with the one tattooed on my arm, another reason Missy insisted I get it. This success also convinced me I needed to check the band itself out, if only to check whether they were not of the sort that put Übermensch propaganda in their lyrics. In retrospect, we should have done that before buying the shirt, but we were on a roll and couldn’t quite stop ourselves in time.

    Missy, I decided, was almost as good a shopping buddy as Hurricane Victoria, and a lot less pushy about it, which she handily compensated for by allowing me to indulge in Bad Shopping Decisions willy-nilly.

    One by one, they departed, saying their goodbyes (well, Sophia grunted, for what it’s worth), leaving me alone with the closed door of Chris’s workshop and the telltale clanging sounds of a Tinker trance coming from within. I set an alarm for myself to check whether he’s still alive and fed, since he stepped out for a coffee right before the patrol returned to base, and went to set up my room for the night.

    ------
    [This is where Q.01 occurs]
    ------​

    I was pacing, my spidermesh undersuit the only piece of my outfit I had donned thus far. Horsing around with the Wards to establish Rose Ellison as distinct from Taylor Hebert was one thing. I intended Emissary the Cape Persona to be something of an amalgamation of Tattletale, who I was already emulating to a degree out-of-costume, and The Deputy, for whatever good it would do to the meme potential.

    This meant getting into a calmer frame of mind than I was feeling right now. There was little doubt Tattletale would be watching the announcement, either on TV or online, and that meant the rest of the Undersiders would too. I needed to project the right kind of image if I was to approach them on Sunday with my disarmament plans. I was certain I could surprise this Tattletale with the option of exonerating Hellhound just as I did mine, and after that we’d see what could be done for Grue and Regent.

    My main prize, however, was the recruitment of Skitter, with Tattletale as a target of opportunity. The problem was, of course, not knowing how the inclusion of Skitter changed the group dynamics, since while she seemed to be somewhat passive at the bank, letting Tattletale play first fiddle, Forsberg had been primarily her show.

    I exhaled, looking at the bedside clock. It was time to go be a superhero. I donned my boots, clasped the leg guards on, one by one, and straightened out to the sound of knocking on my door.

    “Emissary? Mike Chambers. PR consensus changed a bit, can you do your presentation unarmed?” I frowned as I shrugged my way into the chestpiece, “This won’t affect your patrol kit, we’re only asking just this once. Emphasize the Thinker rating, too, if you can.”

    Great, last-minute changes are the one thing any plan needs to improve!

    “Any words to avoid?” I asked politely, strapping on the arm guards. Only the helmet remained.

    “Nothing specific, the outline you sent in last night will do fine so long as nobody tries to heckle you,” he assured me with what I expected was a fitting facial expression designed to inspire me. Thankfully, the door prevented me from seeing it and likely scowling in response.

    Wait. Heckling? That’s a thing that happens?

    “Is that a thing that happens? At debut press conferences?” I asked cautiously as I strapped into the Eye of Wadjet. Never let it be known that I would go anywhere unprepared. After a moment’s hesitation and a setting check, I shoved Mjölnir into my back compartment, where the zip ties and its spare modules would normally be. It wasn’t a good fit but its presence relaxed me. I doubted anyone would be dumb enough to try something in the PRT building, but you can never be sure.

    “Not in Brockton, no, but there were a few incidents in L.A. in the past, so we try to warn everybody,” he explained, “Forewarned, forearmed, etc, etc.”

    I grinned into my faceplate (as he actually pronounced it as “yetk” or something like that) and reached for the door.

    “I’m ready. Bring it on,” I said, hoping this Friday the 13th would not be my unlucky day.

    ------​

    “...discovered as a PRT Intern, please welcome Brockton Bay’s newest Ward, Emissary!” Deputy Director Rennick introduced me with a hint of amusement in his voice.

    The conference room was not particularly large, and not particularly pretty and I was certain I’ve never set foot in this one before. I stepped up to the lectern with little hesitation, seemingly fully in control of my emotions.

    “People of Brockton Bay,” I found my Deputy Commander voice again, “My name is Emissary and I am a low-level Thinker and Brute. I am, in a way, the anti-Thinker Thinker, something this city seems to need in light of recent events,” I paused, lowering my gaze for dramatic effect, before looking back up to continue, “When I joined the PRT I was already a parahuman, but one unaware of her powers. A cape groupie willing to do her small part to help keep the peace. And now that I know of my powers, I intend to use them for the same purpose. This isn’t my home city, but I do have family here,” I bent the truth again, “And their safety is as important to me as your safety. I swear to uphold the law to the best of my ability, to spread peace and understanding as far as I can be heard, and to protect this city and its citizens with my life if the need arises. Ad Tuendam Pacem a Potentibus!”

    I intentionally constructed the words from the original oath of PRT troopers, both to show them they had an actual ally in the camp of capes, and to reinforce the idea that unpowered PRT employees can ascend into the primus inter pares level of government-sanctioned parahumans. Something I already did as The Deputy, of course, but here I would be posing as a powered person, and that changed the onus placed on me.

    Sure, there were examples of PRT-serving parahumans, and Chevalier was a shining example of that, but Brockton Bay sure could use the morale boost of having one of their own: a cape that got into the ‘cape loony bin’ before being a cape. It implied a difference of conviction, something the PR people were happy to hear from me and so they latched on to it fiercely as it was unheard of for a Ward. I went off-script with the motto, however, even as I saw several PRT troopers from the protective detail, Martinez included, salute me when I said it.

    “And now we will have a short Q&A session,” Rennick spoke into his microphone, a forest of raised hands appearing before me.

    “Karen Stross, Brockton Bay Beacon & Journal,” said a severe-looking lady whose face could probably be used to sharpen swords, the name she said made me straighten up before I realized it was the bus stop newspaper, not the… other one, “Emissary, as you’ve mentioned, you’ve interned at a different PRT office, why be a Ward in Brockton Bay?”

    “Ms. Stross, as I said, I have family here, and I needed relocation to keep my identity secret,” I explained, trying to minimize any nervous gesturing, “Thus, Brockton Bay provided a perfect opportunity for me. Next, please?”

    “Marie Renard, Cape Designs,” came from the opposite end of the room, the speaker was a redhead who looked like Martinez would have if she were an anime character, large eyes and all, “The similarity of your costume design to a certain videogame has not gone unnoticed. Combined with the purported arrest of Über and L33t last weekend, we have to ask for clarity: are you in any way affiliated with them?”

    I shook my head, trying not to chuckle in a way that would be heard outside my helmet.

    “Miss Renard, unfortunately I don’t play videogames, and the design was based on a childhood drawing of mine,” I explained patiently, “I’ve always wanted to be a hero, and now I am one. It made sense to provide the Image team my childhood’s dream to make it reality,” I paused while the wave of assent in the crowd would die down, “As for Über and L33t, it was actually me who apprehended them. It was mostly an accident, as I was out of costume at the time, which led to me being foamed along with them by the arriving PRT troopers I had called in, entirely my own fault for breaking protocol.”

    This detailed denial was a pre-prepared one, of course, to ward off any questioning whatsoever regarding the events at the Docks. The redheaded journalist seemed satisfied with the explanation.

    “One last question, I’m thinking,” Rennick offered the crowd of journalists. I picked one at random, a dark-skinned young man with a neatly trimmed beard.

    “Matthew Wong, Boston Globe,” he introduced himself, “As a Thinker with a Master subrating, what is your stance on the Canary trial?”

    The crowd erupted with protests and shouted questions. I intentionally omitted the Master rating from my introduction to avoid something like this, not to mention the sticky situation that Canary presented to me, specifically. Back home, Paige Macabee hadn't even made it to trial. She had committed suicide in her cell before getting to court. Madison-- that is, my Madison --had taken her place as the scapegoat against Masters. Here, neither event had happened. Paige was still alive, for a relative value of the term as applicable to a squishy Master sent to the Birdcage a week or so ago.

    “That trial was a polarizing event,” I said, picking my words carefully from the internal PRT memo on the subject, “But as an affiliated person, both as a Ward and PRT employee, I cannot make any public statements on the subject. That will be all, thank you for your time!”

    “Once again, a welcome to our newest Ward!” Rennick cued the people to begin clapping, and obviously trying not to glare at Mr Wong.

    I gave a small wave at the cameras and departed to the dying applause, feeling slightly rotten inside. I had a lot of things to say about Canary’s trial, several of them to the Boston PRT Director, and none of them remotely nice. I was thankful I was not allowed to voice any of those.

    ------​

    “So, Canary, huh,” Dennis was unsubtle as a half-brick to the head as we stepped onto the Boardwalk together for our patrol. I tried to shrug dismissively and failed.

    “It was a sham, not a trial,” I muttered angrily, hoping nobody else would hear me, “They didn’t investigate, didn’t let her defend herself. They just wanted to set a precedent. All this will result in is every Master rated above 2 saying ‘fuck it, if they treat us like villains, might as well act like villains.’ Nobody wants that.”

    “Sorry I brought it up,” he said timidly, again reminding me of Greg and his foot-in-mouth disease. At least Clockblocker had the sense to apologize once he realized he made a faux pas.

    “Don’t-- Never mind, let’s talk about something else,” I shook my head, trying to get my shoulders to unclench into a better body language phrase than ‘I want to kill something’. Body language is triply important for full-mask capes, after all, “Arcadia,” I said, “I’m going to start there after summer break. Is it nice?”

    “Depends on what you compare it to, I guess, but it’s probably the nicest school in Brockton Bay, sure,” Dennis replied, cheer returning to his voice as he waved at a bunch of passing girls wearing Immaculata uniforms. I was suddenly very aware all the attention of the street was on the white-costumed boy, not the sulky green-armored girl. They can tell I’m a girl in here, right?

    “Good to know,” I said, genuine sadness in my voice, “I switched schools before due to bullying, wouldn’t want to do it again.”

    We walked slowly along the Boardwalk, stopping for the occasional photo request. I wondered idly how many people were being shaken down for their money right now in the alleys towards the Docks.

    “You-- you were--? Who’d-- oh,” he sputtered, clearly working out the order of events, “No, you’re safe from that crap in our school.”

    “You don’t have to say it,” I chuckled, looking at my reflection in the storefront of the place that sold me the unicorn yesterday, “I know I suck at small talk.”

    “Then let me lead!” he offered enthusiastically, picking up the pace a bit. I fell into step next to him, “I saw your metal shirt. It was very…”

    “Metal?” I suggested with a grin he wouldn’t see. It says a lot about me, the fact that I react more earnestly with my face hidden.

    “Uh-huh. Wouldn’t’ve pegged you for that kind of music,” he admitted, miming playing a guitar, although the way he did it made me think more of a ukulele.

    “I’m not. Missy’s joke about heavy metal covers made me wonder if they make these with half-naked girls, there must be ones with half-naked guys. So I found one,” I explained, before tapping my breastplate, “Though I do look the part now, don’t I?”

    “Um. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re not nearly as naked enough?” he stage-whispered at me.

    “I meant metal, Clock,” another tap, “Because of the paint job? I’m not undressing for your entertainment.”

    While I spoke, we paused to glare accusingly at a pair of guys with suspiciously Nazi-like tattoos visible from under their t-shirts until they turned around and wandered in the general direction of away from the Boardwalk. Exchanging a high-five, we continued the patrol.

    “Ha, so whose entertainment would you undress for?” he asked, thankfully tempering his volume so the passers-by won’t get swept along into Cape Drama: Brockton Bay episode unfolding between the two of us.

    “Okay, seriously, flirt on your own damn time, don’t make me listen to it!” Sophia’s voice came over the intercom. Blanching, I checked my comms, finding the switch off. I glared at Dennis, realized he can’t realize it and bonked him on the helmet lightly. He shrugged sheepishly. Apparently, she only heard his half of the conversation.

    “Sorry Console, radio became stuck,” he said as I realized he had reached the same conclusion.

    “Sure. Just don’t make it my problem,” she said dismissively, “Why would you even flirt over a conversation about beefcake?”

    Oh, right. She saw the shirt too. This is too hilarious to ignore.

    “Why, Console, did you like what you saw?” I asked, pouring on Old Madison’s innocence, and reveling in the way she sputtered.

    “Or was it the shirt?” Dennis joined in. I offered him another high-five. He took it.

    “What I saw was a store robbery in progress two streets over,” she countered, “So you better hoof it before the perps are gone.”

    Levity forgotten, we took a sharp turn and moved to a sprint as she rattled the exact address off.

    ------​

    “Holy crap, you fight like one of them!” Dennis reeked of excitement. While he tangoed with one of the would-be robbers trying to freeze him and not get switchblade poisoning for his troubles, I subdued the other three with minimal application of sweeps, holds and a shot from Mjölnir into the back of the one that tried to do a runner.

    "One of who?" I asked, checking the charge gauge. It held up nicely. This was my first discharge of the taser outside of the firing range since coming here, and it was good to know I could still rely on it.

    "Like the troopers!" he explained, "Like some sort of spec ops badass!"

    I gave him a thumbs up to go along with the grin he couldn't see.

    While he called it in, I surveyed all four of them. The one Clockblocker froze was actually one of the swastika-wearing guys from the Boardwalk, the other may have escaped or never partook in the robbery or, yes, was still in the store?

    “Going to check inside, cover me,” I said, pulling Mjölnir out again.

    “With what?!” was the frantic reply. I tossed him a can of confoam in response.

    “It’s like Mace,” I explained, carefully opening the store’s door, “Face towards target, try to hit them, don’t have to aim for the face. Simple as pie.”

    “Never held one of these things before,” he admitted, "Or Mace, for that matter."

    “BBPD ETA 1 minute,” Sophia announced. I had to admit, however much she hated it in the Wards, she was competent… by this world’s competence levels, apparently. My Clockblocker could have taken on all of these Neo-Nazi alone, and Sophia was clearly listening in instead of reporting the stuck radio at once.

    The broken glass of the smashed front door was crunching under my feet as I tapped my temple, flicking through vision modes. Finally, some backscatter-like mode told me there were two people in the office in the back, one kneeling, the other with a gun pointed at the head of the first, but their heads were both turned towards me. Towards the sounds I was making. Shit.

    Sirens outside heralded the arrival of the police while I continued to move further in, happy that I was past the smashed glass. Satisfied with the absence of noise, the person with the gun urged the hostage towards one of the walls. Safe. He’s still after the money even though the cops are here? Or she? Why is this thing so fuzzy?

    The door to the office was slightly ajar as I crept up to it. Stilling myself for a moment and making sure the one with the gun had now lowered it because the one in front of the safe didn’t see them with their back turned, I leaped in, Mjölnir at the ready.

    I zapped the gun guy (It was a guy! But not the one from the Boardwalk!), dropping onto the floor moments before he did, his sizeable gun clattering loudly against a desk leg.

    “I'm with the Wards. Are you okay?” I asked of the hostage.

    “Careful, it’s--” he (also a guy!) started to say as I saw the gun suddenly pointing at my face, “Alabaster,” we said in unison as I took in the pale man’s smirk.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Recruit 1.08
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Recruit 1.08

    It was a series of snap thoughts, snap decisions.

    He’s not going to harm a Ward.
    Not because he fears a kill order, because he doesn’t need the complication.


    Shit that’s a huge revolver.

    I need to arch back, bend my head back too, so any accidental discharge will graze, not impact. Mjölnir should still be good for two or three blasts at this charge and intensity level.

    Bending back on the floor, I zapped Alabaster again, watching his hand twitch, thankfully not enough to accidentally pull the trigger. He dropped like a sack of lily-white potatoes once again, the ginormous revolver clattering against my breastplate this time. Damn, it’s also heavy!

    I bought myself three seconds till the next reset, he will probably reset upright again.
    I’m going to need containment foam to stop him permanently.
    And I just gave my container to Dennis. Idiot.


    I scrambled upright, slamming my palm against my head in the comms-activating position.

    “Alabaster inside, need confoam on my position NOW!” I broadcast on the general channel, hoping either Clockblocker or some cop with a Parahuman Response badge (if they even had this program on this world, I was starting to hate trying to rely on non-existent contingencies) would get here before Mjölnir’s batteries died. As soon as I saw Alabaster shift, my free hand swung from my head to where I expected his to show up, palm forward.

    Why should I waste shots if hand-to-hand may suffice to keep him occupied?
    He’s used to tanking, not hand-to-hand, probably relies on his resets to reload ammo.
    Wait, I don’t actually know that.
    What happens to the bull-- not now!


    My hand connected with his chin, clanging his jaw shut, pushing his head up and driving him back a step. Whipping him in the face with Mjölnir, I followed up with a straight kick to his knee. It didn’t even make a sound, but made him shift attention from raising his gun from where he was pointing it at my prone form before. He resets into the position he was damaged in? That has to be really annoying!

    Anger flared on his face, furious now, as he looked up at me losing my balance from failing to break his knee. I heard the crunch of glass behind me and brought Mjölnir to bear just as Alabaster raised his gun. We fired at the same time. He collapsed again as I heard the bullet ping off something to my side.

    I turned to see Dennis standing in the doorway, frozen with shock, slowly turning his head towards the gouge the bullet left in the doorframe, almost as wide as a peach core… or a human eye.

    “You can panic later, foam him!” I heard myself yelling. He almost jumped out of his skin at the sudden loudness.

    “Don’t--” he began to protest as Alabaster reset again. I tried to zap him one more time, he even flinched as Mjölnir gave out a desultory beep of low batteries, allowing me to drive a left hook, as strong as I could make it on short notice, into the Nazi cape’s temple. Instead of watching him crumple, I twisted around, hooking Mjölnir back into place on my chest, and screamed at Dennis.

    “GIMME!”

    Bless his heart, the boy did not hesitate, tossing the confoam canister to me. Catching it, I twisted back just in time to see Alabaster reset again. His scowl by this point could curd milk, but he hesitated, clearly choosing which of us to shoot to facilitate his retreat. I did not.

    “Clock! Freeze yourself!” I yelled as I thumbed the canister’s release, hoping it wasn’t too jacked up from the throwing around.

    The foam went onto his chest, his shoulders, his gun arm, expanding rapidly as I backpedaled, tripping on something, dropping onto my butt, getting foam over my left boot by accident as I fought to keep the stream on-target. He peeled off his last shot, the bullet tearing through the still-setting foam and plinking against what I hoped was Clockblocker’s clock-locked chest. I led the stream in a crisscross against Alabaster’s legs and feet as I felt the canister’s stream start dwindling.

    Once it gave up the ghost with a last defiant poot, I dropped it on the floor and admired my handiwork. Alabaster was twitching against a cloud of foam holding his torso and most of his hands immobile, while another kept him glued to the floor. Bonus points: because I tripped, the flow jumped and the two pieces remained unconnected. He was stuck upright and having to hold the foam on his body aloft. Perfect!

    I half-turned to check if Dennis was alright and sighed with relief as I saw his time-frozen form still standing in the doorway. If nothing else, he was highly useful as a distraction.

    “All clear. Console, we’re gonna need a pickup for Alabaster,” I reported over the radio, ignoring Sophia’s response as a wave of tiredness hit my body. The adrenaline was fading now.

    I let myself relax and drop back flat onto the floor. Until my leg was chipped or dissolved out, I wasn’t going anywhere.

    ------​

    “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!”

    Director Piggot was slightly dissatisfied with my performance, primarily due to the fact that I all but forced Dennis to tank a bullet to the chest. Talking the boy down from a panic attack was the evening’s highlight for me as the PRT van whisked us back to HQ.

    “WHAT PART OF ‘PATROL THE BOARDWALK’ INVOLVES ASSAULTING WANTED PARAHUMAN CRIMINALS?!”

    For whatever reason, she chose to debrief us separately, and Dennis, already discarded by the machine of hate, was waiting for me outside out of some sense of misguided camaraderie. Why the hell do I keep comparing him to Greg? He helped!

    “I HAVE HALF A MIND TO BENCH YOU INDEFINITELY, YOUR SKITTER PROJECT BE DAMNED!”

    She was winding down, I saw, and I couldn’t exactly fault her for the conclusions she made. My helmet cam footage was still in my helmet cam, and my six-page incident report, next to Dennis’s half-page one, were a crumpled mess in the Director’s left hand.

    “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but are you reacting to me as a Ward or as someone Alexandria and the Chief Director have an interest in?” I asked, still riding the wave of elation. Another cape I took down more or less one-on-one! “Because the answer to the first is in my report, and to the second is ‘I didn’t get to be where I was without being good at my job’. Clockblocker is unharmed and I didn’t even scratch the ablative paint.”

    “What if I was to say ‘someone under my command whose death, regardless of status, is an unacceptable loss’?” she shot back, sounding only a little bit petty. That made me feel petty myself. She’s the one who has no choice but sit back and watch children under her command walk into danger. I feel like an ass.

    “My scan told me an armed perp was in the room with a hostage,” I began in earnest, sounding way calmer than I felt. Being masked-up in front of Director Piggot was a novel experience in general, but I was here as a Ward, not The Deputy. “I chose the best stealth option and engaged with the taser, per PRT Field Manual, section--”

    “What I want to know,” she interrupted, thankfully using her indoor voice this time, “Is why you left your partner behind, instead of waiting for the police to secure the perimeter and moving up with them to apprehend the remaining perpetrator.”

    “The hostage, ma’am. I was uncertain if I could afford the delay,” I admitted, my head hung in shame, “I didn’t want his death to be on my conscience, knowing I could have stopped the perp, as I didn’t know it was Alabaster yet, from killing the hostage. It looked like the only reason he was still alive was to open the safe.”

    She steepled her fingers in front of her, sighing heavily.

    “That was a good call, Emissary,” she admitted, “The safe contained a black ledger -- money laundering reports, Kaiser apparently wanted them destroyed to better separate the compromised E88 assets from the indirectly-controlled. Obviously, this isn’t happening now.”

    I felt like beaming before two things crushed that feeling - the way she said it and the dejà vu that I had already been in this position in the past.

    “That said, your further actions were needlessly reckless--”

    “Situational risk, ma’am,” I interjected, “By the time I realized I was up against Alabaster, it was primarily about not getting shot and keeping him down long enough for backup to get there.” I paused to take a breath, “When Clockblocker panicked, both unable to safely approach the hostile cape and incapable of using the containment foam, I had to adapt, and the delay allowed the perp to shoot twice. One shot went wide, the other was negated by Clockblocker’s defense.”

    “So much for a soft launch,” the Director exhaled, burying her face in her hands. After maybe half a minute of silence, she looked back up at me. “You have a camera in that setup of yours, correct?” I nodded affirmation, and she continued, “If it corroborates your report, you’re likely in the clear. The only real infraction is your storming the room without backup, everything else was pure grace under pressure, or ‘badassitude’, as Clockblocker summarized in his own report.”

    She separated the lone sheet of paper from the mess in her fist, straightened it out. He said that in an official report? My mind was torn between Deputy Commander, his superior from another world, wanting to tear into him for informal language in an official document and Taylor Hebert, former bullied girl, realizing she was probably getting a fistbump from Sophia Hess over this. I swallowed the lump in my throat.

    “May I make a suggestion, ma’am? While we’re on the subject?” I ventured, then continued after she nodded, “The Wards need training with the PRT compact containment foam canisters. I know they all have mandatory training with the larger foam throwers, but the portable cans can easily be included in field kits and help prevent escalation of the sort that happened today. Ma’am.”

    I shut up at the cold glare I was getting. It somehow made me feel she was still pissed I had my own canister on me, because the old regulation I only recently tore down for my Wards was still in force here. When will they realize Brockton Bay is a warzone? The Wards here are child soldiers on the losing side, and nobody wins if they are thrust into danger with inadequate equipment?

    “I will take your suggestion into consideration, Emissary,” she spoke slowly and quietly, “Dismissed.”

    I stood up, nearly toppling the chair backwards.

    “Ma’am,” I repeated before making my retreat outside, “Is… is Clockblocker getting a therapy session assigned over this?”

    “Are you asking… or suggesting?” Director Piggot’s voice turned inquisitive.

    “Asking, ma’am,” I replied, tone flat, “Trying to determine how I should approach him, whether it’s going to be just me and Aegis bringing him around or Dr. Karpenko or whoever’s on rotation this month will chip in.”

    “Do you approach therapy the same way you do combat?” she did the not-smile I could never copy with my teeth being what they are, like a vague idea of a grin as interpreted by Bosch. Emily Piggot had a nice smile, but she never gave it out unless the occasion merited it. I was yet to merit it in this world. I decided I wanted to change that.

    ------​

    I more or less collapsed into the chair next to Dennis, who was leaning back against the wall, his entire form radiating tiredness. I felt about as badly as he looked, though most of him was about the mental strain, and for me a combination of the same with physical exertion.

    I got extremely lucky. He was caught unawares, unprepared for my fighting skill, my entire approach and, of course, Mjölnir. Good thing I had it on the ‘normal’ setting, Brute 6 mode would have done fuck-all against those resets and drained the batteries much faster.

    “So, you come here often?” I intoned, my voice utterly failing to match my body language. I vaguely heard Natalie snicker from her desk, but what I needed was for Clockblocker to snap back to factory settings.

    What was that old story called? ‘A Little Oil’? I thought I gave the class clown PTSD by accident and felt obscenely guilty at the notion that my carelessness, or, rather, reliance on what my Wards could do and these couldn’t, did this to him. And what that would do to the team scared me a little bit. These are my Wards now. I have to make sure they survive. Even Sophia. Can’t go to jail when you’re dead.

    “Nah, not since I got my card punched and collected the novelty mug,” he finally said, detaching his head from the wall and turning to face me, “What’s the verdict?”

    “I am now your court-appointed therapist,” I said with mock seriousness, “Please proceed to my office to receive your treatment.”

    I knew I was giving him an opening. I was giving him an opening.

    “If by ‘your office’ you mean your room, and by treatment--”

    I could hear the grin in his voice, and the tension in my back I didn’t know was even there melted away.

    “C’mon, Clock,” I said, cutting him off as I stood up, “You can be awkward at me back where you can actually see the faces I’m making at you under this helmet.”

    He put a nervous hand on my shoulder, making me tense again.

    “Tell me just one thing,” he said with the same mock seriousness, “Is your faces all I’m going to be see--”

    I didn’t let him finish as my hand crawled up behind him to grab him by the nape of his neck and drag him along with me.

    “Not with that attitude you’re not, buddy.”

    As the elevator doors closed on us, I could hear Natale finally let go of the snorting laughter she was holding in as she watched this disaster unfold.

    ------​

    “Cheeeers!” was the collective yell that welcomed us in the Wards Commons, with Missy, Chris, James, Dean and even Sophia joining in, however half-heartedly. They were masked-up, but only Sophia was actually in costume, having just finished her console shift.

    Carlos was, I noticed, conspicuously missing. Probably getting briefed by Miss Militia on how to handle my little stunt.

    “Whu--” I half-wheezed as Missy demonstrated her second Trigger power again, hugging me.

    “We heard what happened, decided to come in, greet the heroes of the hour!” Dean explained as I noticed Chris was more or less hanging off his friend, clearly freed from the fey mood that struck him so soon after the last. He was, of course, off duty today, but James and Missy were due to go out on patrol in the next shift, so they weren’t here just for us.

    “More like, heroine of the hour,” Dennis objected, his voice a weird mix of cheer and dejection, “I mostly served as a distraction.”

    “Don’t give me that defeatist crap!” I protested, “You shrugged off two shots of that huge gun! Saved my stupid butt from getting ventilated!” I whipped off my helmet, giving him my best go at Danny Hebert #1, “I’m proud of you, kiddo”, something I’ve seen a good bit of in the past months and hoped would get to see again.

    “So tell me, how does a Thinker take down Alabaster?” Sophia said, removing her own mask, “All I could hear after you were done flirting was grunts and broken glass and whatever the fuck you call that sound your thing makes.”

    I clamped down on the emotional response. Am I going to flinch every time I use the word ‘butt’ around Sophia now? Also, shit, now there’s gonna be rumours because she thinks Clock’s half of the conversation meant we were-- but we were, weren’t we? What is Carlos--

    “Well, I zapped him every time he reset, but then I ran out of batteries and--”

    “And then she beat him up!” Dennis exclaimed excitedly. His helmet was off too, now, “And then she foamed him.”

    “And myself,” I corrected, pointing at the yellowish trails of the containment foam solvent on my left foot.

    “Back up a bit,” Chris said, waving a floppy hand in front of his face. What the hell was he building in there? How is he even standing? “Alabaster? Isn’t he, like, a Brute 5 or something?”

    “Technically, he’s a Shaker/Breaker, but it lets him tank damage with the best of Brutes, yeah,” I nerded back, feeling the balance in the room shift dangerously with that, “I’m not sure he can even be killed, so I just hit him as hard as I could.”

    “I think I actually heard his skull crack at that last punch,” Dennis added helpfully. Missy’s eye twitched as Sophia nodded appreciatively.

    “And then I got reamed out for rushing him instead of waiting for backup,” I reminded him, “And I’m guessing you got it for not watching my back?”

    Dennis paled a little bit at that.

    “I-- Sorry, you--” he stammered, and I felt bad again for comparing him to Greg before, “Wha--?”

    He froze up through no power of his own as I hugged him much like Missy hugged me moments before, except I was a bit taller than him, so it was a different kind of awkward entirely.

    “You still came to back me up, and distracted him, and got me my foam back,” I explained patiently, and gave him a peck on the cheek before letting go. He flushed red as I continued, “So don’t go selling yourself short.”

    Snickers went round the room at that display, or maybe snorts, I couldn’t tell.

    “Sophia?” Dennis said suddenly, still red-faced, as he turned to the third participant of our patrol, even if in spirit, “Do you want to join in? You had some part in this too, after all.”

    “Not kissing you, Alderman,” my sorta-nemesis snorted, making me wonder if I was doing the same unhealthy thing I did to Madison-- no, Madison was remorseful and broken. Sophia only stopped because she drove Skitter, Taylor, out of school. Maybe she’s picking on someone else now as her main target. Maribel, or Greg or--

    “What about Rose?” Chris suggested. I somehow missed that in my storm of thoughts I was still standing by the entrance while everyone else was scattered across the sofas with what looked suspiciously like cheese-crust pizzas.

    “What about me?” I asked, remembering to repeat the eyebrow-bunching of Madison’s for Sophia’s benefit. How do spies do this sort of stuff all the time?

    I wandered to an unoccupied stuffed chair and let gravity do its thing. Once there, I started snapping off the armor panels on my arms, stacking them neatly on the floor next to me.

    James made a show of gesturing at me with one hand, at Sophia with another, then miming them kissing together, complete with slurpy noises I may have found funny were they directed at someone else.

    “Not kissing her either,” Sophia protested, yet in a tone vastly different from the way she replied to Dennis’s proposition. I shuddered, tried to fake it into a shrug, but it looked like Dean noticed me faking it this time. I resolved to talk to him sometime soon, I needed him sold on the reasoning behind my behaviour around Shadow Stalker long enough to bag her.

    “So I was wondering,” I tried to change the subject, “What were those godawful noises from your room last night, Win? Sounded like you were using a dentist’s drill at one point.”

    “Crud. I totally forgot to thank you for helping me with my specialty, didn’t I?” the haggard boy asked, running a hand through his unkempt hair, not apologizing for disrupting my sleep at all, “On behalf of Kid Win’s Brain Office: thank you!”

    He made a small bow which made his pizza dip a bit, which made it drip a bit of sauce on his pants. He didn’t seem to notice or particularly care. My leg armor segments joined the arm ones in a second neat stack.

    “And as to what he was building, it was this,” Dean said, coming up from behind Chris, depositing a giant metal thing on the table. My breath hitched. Alkonost. He remade, no, he made Alkonost. Is the universe conspiring to make me kiss them all today or what?

    “Some of the stuff in your goggles made me think,” he careened through an explanation, looking ready to collapse into sleep then and there, “They’ve got hooks in the software, an API for drone control. Not just PRT issue quads, but also Tinker drones if they’re made to spec,” he tapped the casing of the red bird-like contraption gently with his knuckles, “And this is. No name yet, but your gear seems to have some weird mythological theme, so I thought you should name it. To fit your theme or what-have-you. Consider it a housewarming gift of sorts? Welcome to the team and a job well done and stuff.”

    There was a small round of applause, with everyone, and I mean everyone, joining in.

    Ah, fuck it.

    I stood up, armorless now, so it may have looked a little lewd to an outside observer because of my form-fitting undersuit as I circumnavigated the table with the pile of pizza boxes towards him. I leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek too.

    “Thank you, Chris,” I said in a stage whisper, making him flush, though pale as he was from lack of sleep, it more made him look normal-tinged, “I’m going to think extra hard on how to name your gift.”

    When I straightened back up, Missy was facepalming, James was gone (sounds like he’s getting costumed up), Dean was staring past me wide-eyed, Dennis looked envious and Sophia… Sophia apparently got a close-up of my butt as I bent down. Some Friday the 13th this turned out to be, I thought as I went back to my seat, realizing Dean was struck by what he saw in Sophia, and I understood why, even as she tried to hide it the moment I turned to look at her, giving her a safe smile, Mr Smith #1, “Visibly Artificial Smile #57”.

    The look she was giving me I couldn't quite decipher, as it was not one I knew her to use. But when she gave me that look, I felt ice go down my spine, like prey before a predator... I forced myself to suppress those particular memories. What I did know was that I wasn't turning my back on Sophia for a while... Well, for more reasons than a knife-in-the-back, at least.

    “What did I miss?” James asked, stepping back into the room, his costume in place save for his mask, “And why is Chris now red too? Is it contagious?”

    “Maybe,” I agreed, pecking him on the cheek as I went past. Play complete: I am not a kissy-slut, just a girl that’s sharing her giddiness, “Tag, you’re it.”

    He was still standing there, stock still, hand pressed to his cheek, slowly turning red too, when I squished myself back into my chair, boots dropped on the floor, my undersuit-clad legs dangling over an armrest.

    “Hey, Emissary?” asked Missy, eyebrows bouncing slightly, “No love for Dean or Carlos?”

    Dean, for his part, pretended to not react to this. Carlos, who had apparently entered the room during my byplay with Chris, raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I gave a short laugh and reached for one of the plastic cups on the table. The green fizzy thing inside greeted me with ticklish bubble pops against my nose.

    “It wouldn't be professional to kiss my commanding officer,” I replied primly, pretending to turn up my nose at the implication, “It might cause problems further down the line.”

    “Oh really?” Carlos' eyebrow darted further upwards, “Then what was that thing in the lunchroom?”

    “I said it was unprofessional, not that I wouldn't do it.”

    “And Dean?” Missy asked again. Was that hope in her eye... because I wasn't kissing him? Poor kid has it bad.

    “I need to kiss him like I need a hole in the chest,” I said as I gave him a stare, while keeping my mood happy to let him know I was joking, hiding a small grin into my cup.

    “Which, thanks to his girlfriend, you would soon have,” chimed Dennis at just the right moment that I nearly snorted my soda.

    “Didn't want to say it...” I nodded at Dennis as Dean frowned.

    “Come on, guys, she's not THAT bad--” but before he could go on about how not bad Glory Girl was, Missy let out a most unfeminine snort.

    “Hey, for the record, how long did Piggot ream you out for inviting her to the bank?” she asked, doing a fair impression of Anne Marie when she was trying to get away with things-- entirely too innocent for her own good.

    Dean slumped. “Still not that bad,” he protested meekly, but it was clear he knew he lost already.

    I recalled a bit of the information that I had heard about her from my research on Skitter's activities at the bank.

    “Didn't she break down a wall and shatter a window, putting every one of the hostages at risk?” I asked, thinking back to my own argument with Piggot earlier today.

    Aegis stepped between me and Dean, clapping his hands, thankfully sparing me any questions about kissing Missy. I would have agreed to, conditional on her letting me call her 'cute'. Alas, my dastardly plan was not to be.

    “Okay, I think we've had enough fun picking on Dean's girlfriend--” I had to work very hard to ignore Missy's smirk, “But we've kind of gotten off topic of why we're really here.” He turned to face me.

    “Emissary hasn't been with us very long--”

    “Officially, just under eight hours since she was publicly announced,” pitched in James in that nonchalant way of his. Aegis shot him a small glare which James, as always, did not notice.

    “But still," he continued, “She's already managed to bring down a major E88 cape. Normally, we have a tradition here in the Wards ENE...” he trailed off, letting Missy pick up the slack.

    “Said tradition being that if a Ward bags a hostile cape, the rest of the team buys her dinner,” she explained with a grin. I knew this, of course, having been exposed to the tradition first when I had brought in Stagehand. “Unfortunately, because it's also your first Piggot-Reaming... well, the pizza's a little colder than we intended.”

    “So without further ado...” Clock smirked, before opening his mouth again. “For she's a jolly good fellow...”

    As the rest of the Wards began to sing, even Sophia (in as lackluster a manner as was considered physically possible), I felt warmth bubbling up inside me. Even if they weren't my Wards, they were still the same people that they were back home at their cores. For the first real time since I got to this new world... I felt like I was home.

    I shot a glance at Sophia out of the corner of my eye. Well, mostly.

    ------​

    When the pizza was gone and the soda a distant fizzy memory of Dean’s parting burp (I think it was the loudest I’ve ever heard Missy laugh), and James and Missy were gone on their patrol shift, only slightly late, I settled in front of the computer again to look up what the Intertubes made of my debut today, both the official and unofficial one.

    Instead, the first thing grabbing at me was a PHO private message notification.


    From: Gotharina
    To: Emissary
    Subject: Nice start!

    First up, HOLY CRAP YOU ACTUALLY ARE A GIRL! I thought you were totally blowing me off there! I still wanna know if your cute under there ;]
    Second, was all that stuff about childhood dreams true? Kinda sounded like PR drek to me. Do they really let you draw your own costume designs?
    Finally, what the hell kind of Thinker powers you have? You threw those Empire spooks around like ragdolls! I bet you work out a lot too ;*

    So, i was wondering, since you seem to already know my name and all, maybe i already know you? Maybe you want to go grab a coffee or something on Saturday or Sunday, tell me more about your childhood dreams? )))

    ~Caryn​


    My eye twitched. I think I chipped a tooth from gritting them together. Of course the universe had to escalate, and what better than to twist the knife on my ill-fated attempt to use Caryn Ives as a contact?

    The girl that broke my rib, then had me punch her in retaliation, the girl that cut herself and had hair more immense than mine, the girl with the silly pun in her name that still made me wonder whether it was real… was flirting with me? Asking me out on what was essentially a date to unmask myself?

    Was this really ‘everyone gets to kiss Rose Ellison day’?

    Freakiest. Friday. Thirteenth. Ever.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Interlude 01.C
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

    Joined:
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    Interlude 01.C

    [Gallant]​

    “Dean? Dean, are you even listening to me?”

    I snap to, locking my eyes with hers. Vicky’s not looking happy, but then again, this has been an ‘off’ week for us, so…

    “Sorry, Vicky, I’ve just been thinking--”

    “About how amazingly lucky you are I don’t punt you into the Bay whenever you zone out on what few dates we actually go on?”

    Her tone is… yeah, I’m getting there, don’t rush me… she’s miffed. Yeah, that’s a fitting word. Of course, she has a right to, I’ve...

    “Yeah, extremely. I’ve kinda been a crap boyfriend lately, haven’t I?”

    The question takes her by surprise. I love the way surprise looks on her face. I love the way every emotion looks on her face. I guess it’s kind of an open secret, but here goes: it’s tough to be in a healthy relationship when you’re an emotion-sensing Thinker/Master/Blaster. Tougher still when the girl you’re in the relationship with has an emotion-affecting aura. But the toughest part is, our emotion-related powers cancel each other out. Here’s a fate for you: the girl I was already dating is the one my power worked on for only a couple of months after I got it, because then she got hers and then they didn’t.

    “Gee, you’ve noticed? Now stop locking up and tell me what’s up with you. Is it the new girl?”

    So we have to make this work the old-fashioned way. Because I’m the only guy she knows who will give her an honest emotional response. Because she’s the only girl I know who I don’t have the ‘cheat codes’ to, as my best buddy Dennis aptly puts it, the smug bastard. I know he’s smug about it because that’s what he radiates every time the subject of Vicky comes up. He’s a pulsar of smugness.

    “New girl?”

    I feign confusion. She doesn’t buy it.

    “Yeah. Green armor, five-ten, named herself after a Turkish soldier?”

    “You’re thinking of ‘janissary’, Vicky. She’s ‘Emissary’. And why do you think it’s about her?”

    “You make that face every time you get hung up on your new team-mate’s hangups. You were out of it for weeks after Browbeat joined.”

    Did I mention she’s also smart? Like, she already spends half her school time on college classes.

    “Yeah, because I knew him from school,” I over-enunciate, “I still don’t know what Triggered the guy.”

    “So. New girl. Spill.”

    She waves her hand back and forth, her super-strength actually making a fair bit of wind at me, changing the landscape of my salad. We’re in a corner booth of a Boardwalk café, its large windows allowing us to see the people walking by but at the same time affording a sense of privacy to talk about Cape Matters without being overheard. We still make a point of not talking in the direction of the window, for fear of lip-reading cape-a-razzis.

    “She’s flighty. Flirty. A little intense. No, wait, a lotta intense. I think you’d like her.”

    “Huh. So what’s the problem then?”

    “Not her. Shadow Stalker.”

    “Shadow Stalker has a problem with her?”

    She raises an eyebrow. Nothing out of the ordinary, yet. Yet.

    “Shadow Stalker is developing a crush on her.”

    “Shadow Stalker has emotions other than indignance and red mist?”

    Oh yes, both eyebrows now. That’s a ⅗ on the surprise-o-meter.

    “You know she does, Vicky. She’s a person, like any of us.”

    “Not like most, though, going by what you’ve told me.”

    I pause, take a sip of my tonic water. Vicky follows suit, her strawberry faux-mojito making weird ice-grinding noises at her.

    “Well, the problem is Emissary’s reaction.”

    “Hmm? She objected? She’s a homophobe? A racist?”

    “Neither. I asked her. She said she’s okay with female attention, that it happens a lot with her figure. I’m inclined to believe her.”

    “What’s wrong with her figure? From what little I saw under that armor, she’s… I dunno, tall, maybe a little boyish?”

    She gestures next to her hips, vertical chopping motions. Nuh-uh, Vicky, I am not discussing another girl’s butt with you. I’m not suicidal, and you’re more insecure than you think you are.

    “Vicky, she’s ripped. I don’t normally say that about a girl, but she’s built like a linebacker.”

    “Didn’t she say she’s a Thinker?”

    And Brute. She said her regen lets her train harder, build muscle faster.”

    “Are you trying to tell me it’s not even her final form?”

    She’s laughing. I love the way she laughs, even the way she sometimes snorts when she laughs too hard. Like her sister. Come to think of it, that’s one of the few things they have in common, aside from gender and address.

    “Ha, ha, Vicky. Very droll. No, the thing is, she used to work out before she got her powers. She used to be bullied, physically bullied, that’s what triggered her. Just working out didn’t help.”

    “Shit. Now I feel like an asshole for laughing about it.”

    She frowns. I love the way she frowns.

    “Well, anyway, she mentioned she has family in Brockton on TV, yeah? Turns out, Shadow Stalker is her cousin’s classmate.”

    “I don’t think I like where this is going.”

    “Yeah. Her Thinker power tells her Shadow Stalker may be bullying her cousin. Now you see how it may be a problem?”

    “This also tells you some ugly things about Shadow Stalker, doesn’t it?”

    “Yeah. So she’s meeting with her cousin tomorrow, try to get her side of things.”

    “That’s good, isn’t it? Except… should you be telling me all these things?”

    “I have to tell somebody, Vicky. If I keep playing secret keeper for everybody, I’ll explode.”

    “Yeah, but you’ve all but outed her to me by now.”

    “Ha. That reminds me. On Thursday, she says the airline lost her luggage--”

    “That’s terrible! Her clothes?”

    “Yeah. Gone. So she asks for help shopping. So I have a bright idea--”

    “You suggested me?”

    She frowns again. This frown, I don’t like. I fear it. This frown is the ‘Im’ma punch that fool’ frown. The fool is me, by the way. It’s a personalized frown. I’m lucky like that.

    “So she went with Vista in the end, got lots of weird stuff, but she’s settling in now. Still staying at the base, though, I guess that’s another thing she’s hashing out with her cousin. Doesn’t want to impose.”

    “Wait, she’s not staying with her family?”

    “Something about nearly being outed because she was discovered to have powers while interning at the PRT back wherever home is.”

    “So wait. You knew this, and still wanted her to out herself to me, to bring her family here into the open too?”

    I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I can’t resist. I have to do it at least once in my life and I’m even justified this time.

    “That’s what she said!”

    I think the slap breaks the speed of sound. I still love her.

    ------​

    [Clockblocker]​

    “Damn, that must have hurt!” Dennis exclaimed, his wince unseen to the world under his mask. The mugger that just tried to make off with this guy’s briefcase remained upright for a moment, right where he hit the ground, almost perfectly vertical, before toppling over into an undignified heap.

    “And that’s how you do it,” Missy, no, Vista, because she was in costume and on duty, exclaimed, brushing her hands off in mock triumph, “Are you alright, sir?”

    The man whose briefcase just did an impressive parabolic arc into the hood of a nearby Mercedes nodded slowly, visibly torn between ‘aaaah, capes are intimidating’ and ‘dearie me, I hope my travel flask of scotch I always keep in that briefcase didn’t spill all over the latest issue of Monster Capes Unleashed’. At least, that’s what Dennis thought, as he made the decision for the man, picking the briefcase up and handing it to the poor guy. The sloshing sound inside of it seemingly confirmed the second option, although Dennis wasn’t certain about the exact kind of the sleazy magazine this kind of sleazy businessman would read. The small angular pin on the lapel of his jacket told Dennis more than he probably wanted to know.

    “Nothing hurt except my pride, Miss Vista,” Mr Business Man replied, accepting the case from Dennis. He pondered for a moment, what sort of a superpower a cape named Business Man would have. Would he beat people up with… his business? That would be a disturbing thought.

    As they returned to their patrol route, reporting that they had handed off the hoodlum to a beat cop, Dennis returned his attention to the question Vista posited earlier.

    “I dunno,” he said, “Powers are powers. You don’t like yours?”

    “It’s not that I don’t like them…” Missy shrugged, gave a thumbs up to a tourist that wanted to take a photo of her, and turned back to face Clockblocker, “But sometimes I wonder if I would have been treated differently if I got some other ones.”

    “Is it the ageism issue again?”

    Dennis winced internally. Then externally, because full-face mask. Bam! Being a superhero is convenient so often!

    “Nooo, it’s the ‘mostly being the transport’ issue again. You know my power can be used offensively, right?”

    She put her hands on her hips, stopped to stomp a foot down. This far, no further, her pose said. Dennis raised his hands, palms outward. Take it easy, his pose replied, but her pose didn’t.

    “I know, I literally just saw it,” he said, reinforcing his pose’s argument. Missy’s pose considered conceding, “I’m just not sure what you’re driving at here. Do you think you’d be less restricted if you had, say, Circus’s power? Or Skitter’s?”

    “I highly doubt it,” came a voice over his comms, “And incidentally, Clock, your comms are stuck open again.”

    “Emissary? You’ve been listening?” Vista asked, toggling her own communicator.

    “I only heard Clockblocker’s side, though I can guess what yours was about,” the newest Ward’s voice continued, “And to answer his question: Circus maybe, Skitter definitely no. Very few options to make that power PR-friendly, and all of them neuter it in some way.”

    “Butterflies?” Dennis suggested, “I’m guessing dragonflies and some prettier beetles may work. Ladybirds, too.”

    “Who even calls them ladybirds anymore?” Vista asked incredulously, “How old are you again?”

    “71, but I know a very good chiropractor,” Dennis countered without losing a step, “But back to the issue. Wouldn’t Circus’s pyrokinesis serve as a limiting factor too?”

    “Not really, no,” he heard Rose reply slowly, as if she was rubbing her chin, “Even without that, you still have the hammerspace and preternatural agility. Kind of like Grace but as a grab-bag, I guess?”

    “Hmm. So you’re saying Skitter’s powers force her into villainy?” Vista chimed in, stepping over a puddle of suspicious origins. Crumbs at its edge implied it may have been ice cream… some time last century.

    “More like the perception of them?” Emissary paused to hmmm, “You’ll note that there’s an edge of necessity to everything she does -- the spiders on the hostages were a way of tracking them and keeping them in line through fear. No need for roughing up that may have happened otherwise.”

    “Right, and the swarm she set on me?” Dennis wondered aloud, stopping to check his reflection in a storefront.

    “Forced you out of the fight, because you were the greatest threat to them after Vista, I’m guessing.”

    “You don’t have to make me feel better, you know,” Missy grumbled, not entirely earnestly, “‘You got disabled because you’re dangerous’ doesn’t sound more reassuring than being taken out because you’re useless.”

    “Oh, I’m sure the bugs would interfere with your Manton limit, too, but the key thing is they needed a getaway, and you’re the getaway deterrent,” Rose didn’t exactly laugh, but the cheer was evident in her voice. “Speaking of which, there’s a police chase about to cross the intersection in front of you. Could you?”

    “Sure. Lemme at’em!”

    ------​

    Observation report #017, May 14th, 2011,
    Subject codename
    [Shadow Stalker]​


    >Recorded call #484301
    >Phone number not previously associated with Subject
    >Identified through voiceprint analysis from call received by related PoI
    >Call date May 13th, 2011
    >Connected phone identified as belonging to PoI Codename Epsilon Bravo


    (Transcript begins)
    (Five rings before phone is picked up)​

    Epsilon Bravo: Heya, hero.

    Shadow Stalker: Hey, survivor. Heard the news?

    EB (agitated): Is it true what they posted on PHO? The newbie got Alabaster on her FIRST DAY?

    SS (excited): Every word. I was on Console at the time. Clock-wad was useless ballast for her, he only took one mook down.

    EB: So how is she?

    SS: She said she got training from PRT Combat Instructors. I can believe it, the way she… moves.

    EB (hesitant): Soph?

    SS (excited): No, really, hear me out: she’s like a caged animal. Powerful, strong, independent, working just within the margins.

    EB: Is she… like you then?

    SS (pensive): Not entirely. She’s… polite to these posers. Doesn’t put anyone into their place. But then she goes and does something like that. Shows her strength. You saw the footage, right?

    EB: What little of it was online, yeah.

    SS: I saw the helmet cam stuff. Beautiful. No hesitation, just action and reaction. She’s like a machine.

    EB (excited): Will you be giving her the Talk then?

    (Note: “Talk” spoken as if intended to be capitalized, best guess used)​

    SS: Yeah. There’s a snag, though.

    (pause)​

    EB: What? Why?

    SS: You heard on TV how she’s here because she’s got family here?

    EB: So? Are they Empire or something?

    SS: Worse. She’s Hebert’s cousin.

    (Note: Strike added, disclosure of a Ward’s personal family details to third party)​

    EB (surprised): WHAT?!

    SS: Yeah. She kinda looks like her too, nearly made me think she WAS Hebert. Except I saw her this week, still weak as shit.

    (Note: Possibly “weak-ass shit”, best guess used.)​

    SS: Anyway, you know if Hebert had any cousins named Rose?

    (Note: Strike added, disclosure of a parahuman’s personal identity to a third party)​

    EB (uncertain): Not really… I know they’ve got distant relatives in Montana and somewhere else, but nothing about them. Her mom’s family kinda fell out with them after her parents got married.

    SS (stern): Ems, this is important. She said she’s related from her father’s side.

    EB (uncertain): I don’t know much about his family. Sorry, Soph.

    SS (dismissive): Eh, no matter. So I had an idea today, when I saw the way she was twisting the Wards around her finger already.

    EB: She what?

    SS: Kissed Browbeat on the cheek, nearly blew the guy’s gasket. Clockblocker looks like he’s salivating whenever he sees her. Even Aegis is acting weird around her.

    EB: Wait. Is she trying to--

    SS (interrupts): Almost eating out of the palm of her hand, they are. Pity she’s going to Arcadia next semester.

    EB (panic): But we can still--

    SS (interrupts): So tell me, Ems. How would you like a NEW friend? Who looks a bit like your old weak and ugly friend, but is strong and beautiful?

    EB (surprised): Oh... OH, okay. Sorry, I just thought…

    (pause)​

    SS (confused): Thought what?

    EB (dismissive): Nothing, nothing... Hmm. I have an idea...

    SS: That we should bring her into our little group?

    EB: Wouldn’t it break dear Taylor’s heart to see her wonderful cousin become our best friend?

    SS: I know, right?

    EB: So, the usual place tomorrow?

    SS: Yeah, see you then. Till later, Ems!

    EB: Later, hero!


    (Note: As per Chief Director Costa-Brown’s orders, transcript sealed, security rating EYES ONLY, until further notice)​

    ------​

    [Kid Win]​

    Imagine this: when the world is turning, you are not seeing it move smoothly. You’re seeing the highlights, a sizzle reel of it jerking back and forth, changing from slow glacial crawling one moment to a hyper-energetic run the next. As you amble from day to day, one life event to another, the pace of the world feels erratic, random. And then one day you are told, it is not the world that is this way. It is you.

    Imagine this: you discover you have powers. In a world where having powers either makes you a celebrity or a person of importance (not the same thing!), this is a good thing, right? Wrong. Powers have a sense of irony. One of the people on your team has a mind that makes them immutable to the things around them. So now he has powers that make him immutable to things around him. You have trouble focusing on things and counting. So of course you get a power reliant on both.

    But then: someone points out that there is a pattern to the string of barely-finished, half-done projects that litter your workshop and that set your mentor's already stern face to make that disparaging thinly-pressed-lips expression. And it clicks together. None of them were supposed to be finished. Each of them should be lacking. Constructing connectors and clips and hooks and inputs and-- you put it all together. And it WORKS.

    And so: you build things based on your old discarded concepts, things you thought you couldn’t build because you’re a fuckup. But you’re not. You’re fucking amazing, because if you pull this part off and instead make an attachment that can fit that piece… you get a gun that puts all your previous hand-held ones to shame.

    And then: your mentor is pleased. He still doesn’t smile, but that’s okay. You all know he only really smiles, like, not a fake polite smile that he can actually do very well, but it’s still fake, but a real smile, when he’s talking to one person and one person alone. He doesn’t seem to be aware of it, but she probably is. But that’s not what you were thinking about, right? He doesn’t smile, but he praises you, and you’re proud to have made another Thing That Works.

    But also: now that it’s out of your system, you realize you can build more. New things, new ideas flood your head, assembled from the half-formed jumble that used to take up most of your thoughtspace. Some of them even draw inspiration from things you’ve handled before, things made by other Tinkers. Like the Halberds your mentor is so attached to. Like the bizarre taser of the one who fixed your brain, which looks like it could have been your own work had you not… been lost before. Like the goggles that even Dragon, the greatest Tinker in the world, has taken an interest in, along with, it seems, their wearer.

    And actually: so have you. You’ve unmasked to her first, by accident but still. She unmasked in return, quietly, for a short bit, finger pressed to her lips. Not that the red domino mask hid a lot of her face to begin with, that wide mouth, capable of smiling so infectiously, is distinctive enough to render any mask which leaves it uncovered pretty much useless. You felt obliged to her, she managed something your master couldn’t: she gave you your specialty. For a Tinker, this may as well mean she gave you your life.

    And then: you saw it. Saw the bird of metal, whose wings and payload can be swapped out at will, saw the way it would work with her goggles, be her eyes in the sky. You think you even saw the way it would make her smile. And it did. And made her get up from her chair, wearing just that skintight undersuit of hers, hugging her athletic form so--

    And that was how she kissed you.

    Certainly: it didn’t mean much to her, she had already kissed Dennis (he did catch a bullet for her) and then James (he is funny when flustered), but that is beside the point. She liked your gift. She will put it to good use. Perhaps… it would be nice to get kissed again.

    And so: there you are, in the cafeteria after sleeping off the consequences of your double-whammy Tinker revelation of the week, trying to get some breakfast. And there she is, sitting with her trooper friend, the one she said she’s training with. And so you sit down with them (you asked first, of course, they didn’t mind). And as you put the first spoon of porridge in yourself, the worst sound known to all the capes across America blares.

    Endbringer.

    And you’d be in shock, like many other people, thinking something like ‘why me?’ or ‘why here?’, but instead, you turn towards her as she slams her fist on the table, just in time to see her do something you’ve never seen before. It’s an interesting sight, always, a pretty girl swearing.

    “For fuck’s sake,” she exclaims, “I was supposed to have lunch with Tattletale today.”
     
  12. Threadmarks: Interlude 01.D
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Interlude 01.D

    [Gallant]​

    “Dean? Dean, you really came to see me?”

    I sat down, locking my eyes with hers. Vicky looked happy, but then again we haven’t seen each other for a few weeks, so…

    “Of course, Vicky, I promised, didn’t I?”

    “So did a lot of people, but you’re the first one to actually follow up on that.”

    Vicky... she still looked stunning, but juvie had taken its toll on her. Her hair was much shorter, only going down to just past her ears. Her skin, once well-tanned, was much paler. Her eyes, which once brimmed with confidence, were dulled significantly with dark circles underneath them.

    She looked down, almost shy, before giving me a tired, wry grin.

    So,” she said sharply, “What's life like on the outside?” she grinned as she leaned back in her chair, Brute-rated manacles clinking as she put her hands behind her head.

    I sighed as I rubbed my brow.

    “It's been kind of a mess lately. The ABB's been making inroads into Merchant territory, couple rumors that Blasto has been trying to set up shop in Brockton, and we still haven't caught the Weaver impersonator…”

    She waved her hand dismissively.

    “No, I’ll have none of that, I can get all that from the newspapers. Anything good?” Her voice took on a slight pleading quality, “From our friends?”

    I stomped down on a ride of emotions that threatened to break through my mental dam. “Well, James and Mandy just had their three month anniversary.”

    She giggled, almost her old self again for a moment or two.

    “Hard to believe they stuck together. Did you know he asked her what the word 'kike' meant? To her face?”

    “Yeah, she mentioned that,” I chuckled.

    Her mischievous grin grew wider.

    “Did she mention that that's how they first met?”

    My jaw dropped. “You're kidding.”

    Still smiling, she raised two fingers.

    “Scout's honor.”

    I shot her a mock glare.

    “Wrong gender and you've never been in the Scouts.”

    Her face took on a look of perfect innocence.

    “Oh, really? I don't recall you making that objection last year when I was wearing--”

    “Neither of us were thinking clearly at the time,” I blurted out, cheeks feeling hotter than Lung's flames as my ex-girlfriend began to cackle.

    “Oh, you were thinking all right,”she wheezed, “Just not with the brain that has the Corona in it!”

    I finally gave in to the urge to laugh. For a minute or two we weren't on opposite sides of bulletproof glass, just two old friends laughing about better times. We lapsed into a companionable silence.

    “So, how are you doing?” I finally asked. She gave me a more excited smile.

    "I'm doing much better!” she chirped, “My therapist says I'm making good progress controlling my anger issues, and between you and me,” she leaned forward conspiratorially, “I haven't lost control of my aura in almost four weeks!”

    “That's great, Vicky!” I really was happy for her. ‘Aura incontinence’ had been more than a little problem for her before she got put away.

    “And what about you?” she asked, “Find anyone new?”

    How is it that the people we love are capable of hitting us where it hurts the worst?

    “Well... I... I'm…”

    She cut off my stammering with a single hand.

    “Dean, it's been over two months,” she said soothingly, “And I was a little bit of a bitch towards the end. It's fine that you've found someone new. Look at me!” she gestured to her jumpsuit-clad self, “I'm over it and ready to hit the dating scene... well, in two years, give or take, barring the appeals process and the whims of the courts… the dating pool in here kinda sucks...” she trailed off with a sheepish grin.

    It was true that the two of us were emotional blanks to each other when it came to our powers. I couldn't sense her emotions and she couldn't rely on her aura to keep me in awe. But I could always tell when she was lying.

    “So who is it?” she asked, leaning forward, “Dennis, right? Always thought the two of you were kinda close…”

    I laughed, grateful for the change in topic. “Vicky, you know I'm straight as an arrow. No, it's not Dennis.”

    She tapped her chin thoughtfully.

    “You're right, you have standards. Hmmm... Purity, maybe? I hear she's single now, and you do seem to be attracted to Bad Girls…”

    I sputtered. “When have I ever been into bad girls?”

    She raised an eyebrow at me. I shrugged apologetically.

    “Fair enough. But no... she's still too Nazi-ish for my tastes. And I still feel that helping or encouraging anyone with Nazi beliefs is practically a sin.”

    “A sin?”

    “Dating a Nazi is one of those little sins. I'm of the opinion that if you should sin, save it for one of the really big ones.”

    “The Gospel According To Dean Stansfield,” she snorted, “All right, so not Dennis and not Purity..." she recounted, making me shudder, "Is it Amy? I always thought she might have had a…”

    She trailed off as I failed to keep the apprehension and distress from my face.

    “Dean?” she asked in a low voice, “Is something wrong with Amy?”

    “Well... she--”

    Vicky slammed her fists into the table, denting it and causing the green light on her suppression collar to turn yellow. Judging by the reaction of the guards, her aura amped up as well.

    “Dean, I swear to God, if something's happened to Ames, there is no way--”

    “Vicky!” I choked while subtly waving a guard to stand down, “Aura!”

    Her presence faded away, and she withdrew into herself. I checked the guards’ emotional signatures, making sure she got it all the way down.

    “Amy's fine, right?” Her rage had vanished and left behind someone ashamed and scared. “Please, Dean, tell me she's fine, please…”

    I raised my hands in a placating gesture.

    “Vicky, Amy is okay... well, physically, at least.” I sighed and placed my hands on the table. Her face grew cross.

    “Dean, just tell me if she's fine or not.” She clenched her hands into fists.

    “Emotionally," I went on, “Her and Weaver are... well, they're really out of it. Taylor... Taylor disappeared a week ago.”

    Vicky's face underwent the most rapid shifts of emotions I'd seen from her in a long time. Shock, to horror, to vengeful glee, to guilt, all in less than a second.

    I gave her a moment to compose herself, not bothering to hide my disappointment.

    Finally, she answered.

    “So, what happened?” She asked in a forceful light tone, “Someone stole a loaf of bread and Madame Javert decided to track them down?”

    My voice was cold.

    “Weaver and Deputy ran into Über and L33t, who had set up some sort of portal devices for their latest stunt. During the fight, Deputy was knocked into one of them and vanished, the device itself blew up. In the confusion, Über and L33t got away.”

    Vicky winced. “Ouch.”

    I kneaded my forehead.

    “Weaver's been nearly inconsolable. It's a struggle to get her to do... anything, lately.” It'd taken three days to get her to agree to eat anything, and I was still hesitant to leave her alone for more than an hour. Thankfully, Rory still owed me a favor, which is what allowed me to come today. “Amy hasn't been as bad, but she did almost punch Vista at one point. Luckily, Dennis had frozen her in time, so she punched him instead.”

    Vicky looked pensive for a moment. “I wish I could be there for her,” she said unusually timidly.

    “I do too,” I whispered.

    The silence dragged on before Vicky brightened visibly.

    “Still, this'll give me some great teasing material when I get out,” she mused with a mischievous grin.

    I frowned. “I don't think either of them would like that,” I stated firmly.

    “What? Oh, no, no, not Ames or Weaver, no," she backpedaled, waving her hands placatingly. “I mean Taylor. Gonna tease the shit outta her.” She scoffed. “Taken down by Über and L33t? Please.”

    I goggled at her before getting my thoughts together.

    “Vicky,” I began slowly, “We don't even know if she's still alive.”

    She scoffed again. “She took me down. I might have--” she paused for a moment, “-- some issues with her, but even I know she's too damn stubborn to die.”

    The guard cleared his throat behind Vicky and meaningfully tapped his wrist.

    “Visiting hours over already?” she asked mournfully.

    “I'm afraid so,” I replied in kind. I stood up, stretching as I did so. “I'll tell Amy you said hi.”

    “Please do,” she said, sounding relieved. “And Dean?”

    “Yeah, Vicky?”

    “You'll visit again, right?”

    She looked so desperate at that moment.

    “Sure, Vicky. I'll be back soon. I'll see you later.”

    “Bye, Dean…” she slowly waved as the guard on her side of the glass escorted her back to her cell.

    ------​

    [Danny Hebert]​

    The days stretched by, the nightmare never ceasing. Taylor, his daughter, a normal kid playing superhero, was gone. Gone, because of a fluke, a series of dumb mistakes, her own included, apparently. But he couldn’t afford to fold like he did when her mother died.

    He, somehow, had yet another girl depending on him. Anne Marie was not taking Taylor’s… disappearance well, but thankfully her friends in the Wards were willing to help her, support her. He had his own friends to call on, but right now? Right now he didn’t want to risk getting drunk, because he was unsure of what he would do if he was sufficiently inebriated.

    And so, he found himself nursing yet another oversteeped Earl Grey and staring numbly at a documentary on how the world gaming industry changed overnight when Leviathan sank Kyushu and irreparably damaged the Japanese economy with the resulting tsunami. He couldn’t help but see the cold irony of the television, as it was those thrice-damned gamer losers, Über & L33t, responsible for what happened to Taylor.

    And then the doorbell rang. And again.

    He got up, feeling as creaky as the chair he just left. Walked to the door. Opened it. Stared blearily at the surprisingly similarly-weary teenager beyond it.

    “Hi,” the teenager breathlessly said to him.

    Danny's eyebrow rose.

    “Hello... do I know you?”

    “I think we met once before, sir. I, uh…” his forehead furrowed, and his free hand scratched his head. Something clicked in Danny's mind.

    “Didn’t I last see you sleeping on my couch?”

    The kid's face lit up... though Danny had to admit that it was less like a lightbulb going off and more of a match being lit.

    “Mister Hebert, sir, I’m one of your daughter’s--” the boy began, trying to get his disheveled hair in a semblance of order with his free hand -- the other one held what appeared to be a laptop bag -- but Danny cut him off.

    “Inside.”

    The boy nodded sharply and took a step over the threshold. His footsteps followed the Deputy’s father as the man picked up a cup from the side table near the door and proceeded deeper into the house to take a seat at the table in the kitchen, beckoning him to do the same. Obliging, he deposited the bag on the table in front of him, opening it to reveal some sort of cobbled-together laptop, probably Tinkertech, which he roused from sleep mode.

    “Which one are you?” Danny asked, taking a sip from his tea even as his hand shook. “Kid Win?”

    “Yeah. Chris,” the boy, Chris, acknowledged, before adding, “I wish it were under better circumstances.”

    “Yeah. Should have asked your name the last time around, so the blame is on me here. Is Synod--” Danny began to ask before the boy superhero cut him off.

    “She’s fine, sir. Panacea’s with her right now,” he said, twisting the laptop around for Danny to see the screen.

    He ignored it as his grip tightened on his teacup.

    “May I ask,” Danny began, a growl slipping into his voice, “Why she is with Panacea?”

    Chris stared at him for three seconds before his eyes widened and he began shaking his hands.

    “No, no, no no no! I'm sorry, sir, I'm sorry, I spoke wrong, I've been working for a while... It's Friday, right?”

    Danny's eyebrow raised slightly as his free fingers began to drum ominously on the table.

    “It's Saturday.”

    “Huh,” he stared into space for a moment, “That's probably why your house kept trying to dodge me. But no no, sorry for the misunderstanding, Synod and Panacea are together because they were just hanging out when I last saw them, Synod doesn't need…” he waved his hand awkwardly, “I came here to show you this!” he pointed excitedly towards the monitor.

    It showed what looked like a slightly-melted metal frame, like a performance art piece or something. “I’m here about this. The thing that took De-- Taylor. That took Taylor.”

    ‘Took’?” Danny repeated, his pulse quickening. They did tell him there was no guarantee his girl was dead or alive, hard to tell with the kind of crap L33t sometimes builds…

    “Yeah. We spent a couple of all-nighters pulling it apart. I-i mean I guess I already said that- bu-but anyway. It’s a teleporter of a certain kind. Are you f-familiar with the stuff Über and L33t do?” Chris explained, looking like he was about to sneeze.

    “Videogames?” Danny ventured, throwing a glance back in the general direction of the still-talking TV. It cut away to commercial, advertising a new movie about pirates. Black something something, he couldn’t quite hear.

    “Exactly. They have a, a thing about authenticity to the source material,” Chris explained surprisingly animatedly, “Which is what brings us to this,” he jabbed a finger at the image on the screen.

    “The teleporter? Does that mean--”

    “She’s probably fine, wherever she is, Mister Hebert,” Chris breathed out, “Just… on another Earth. L-like Professor Haywire's stuff. Sort of. Kind of. We think.”

    Danny's shoulders, which had been more taut with tension than steel cables, started to imperceptibly relax.

    “Haywire? Wait, so she's on Aleph?”

    "”Well, no…” Chris was starting to waver, and not just in his words. His hands were almost shaking with tiredness now, and Danny noted that he was leaning on the table a bit more than he had at the start of the conversation. “We’re... well, Dragon, really, not me, I don't get some of this, she says... well not really says ‘cause it’s Tinkerbabble and stuff but no, we don’t think she was sent to Aleph. So congrats!” he threw up his hands before slapping them down again, “Taylor could be the first Bet native on this new Earth!”

    “But she’s alive, right?”

    Chris stopped, eyes focusing on Danny.

    “Uh, what?”

    “Is. My daughter. Alive.”

    “Umm... probably?” Seeing Danny’s expression, he hastened to elaborate, “I mean, she was sent to another world... probably... so she's probably okay wherever she is, but... Interdimensional physics aren't really something we know a whole lot about... So the likelihood that Taylor is alive is much greater than it was before we found that out.”

    “And you apparently rushed here just to tell me that?” Danny asked, trying to calm down even as his heart raced and his veins pumped and-- “Have you told anyone else?”

    “Um. No?” the boy seemed to shrink in on himself at the realization of who exactly Danny was referring to.

    “Well. I can understand where you’re coming from, Chris,” Danny said as he stood up, a lot less heavily as he did minutes before, “But you should have started with her sister, considering you were in the same building with her.”

    “Uh~~ I... I haven’t slept since Wednesday... I only got here because I had to tell you... I’m so sorry, sir!”

    “Don’t worry, I’m not--”

    The house phone rang, interrupting his explanation. Danny stepped up to it, took the phone off the cradle.

    “Hebert household,” he said, idly wondering whether it was--

    “Mister Hebert? Armsmaster. We have good news,” a familiar voice spoke from the phone. Out of the corner of his eye, Danny could see Chris stumbling towards his living room.

    “If that’s what I think it is, Kid Win already told me, even if he forgot to tell Synod. Could you please tell her her sister’s okay?” Danny replied with a smile, turning to look at the-- where did the boy go? He was just-- his brief search was cut off by a snore. “Speaking of okay, could you send somebody over? This boy seems to be making a habit of crashing on my couch whenever he comes by.”

    ------​

    [Panacea]​

    I inhaled, held my breath for a moment, then exhaled. Rinse and repeat. Deep, slow breaths. My friend isn’t dead. She can’t be dead. It’s not because she’s my friend. It’s because the universe has already shat on her enough and the line has to be drawn somewhere. It is because I don’t want her kid sister to continue suffering. It is because her father cannot continue losing the important women in his life. It is because I-- because this team will, already has, cease functioning without her.

    Dennis is doing his best to pretend, and it is somewhat convincing, what with him and Missy being the most functional of us after Gallant, but I can see the way the smile has faded from his eyes even when it still lights up his face. Chris has buried himself along with Armsmaster into studying the… thing… that did this to Taylor. Similarly, Missy is being Little Miss Soldier, her emotions under lock and key, and her position as Taylor’s XO has dredged up some sort of bizarre drill sergeant facsimile out of her, like one of Synod’s constructs.

    But it is Synod herself that worries me, along with Madison. Neither girl responds to anything Dean and I attempt to get them to snap out of their depression spirals - loss of will to live is not something either of us can cure.

    So we agreed to split the load, based on prior experience. Dean is watching Madison, getting her to eat, to move, to interact with someone or something. As much as I shared Taylor’s resentment of her at the outset, there is one thing that cannot be denied about our poor insect queen: she’s broken. She’s been broken by her Trigger, made worse when her containment made her second Trigger. She started to get better, leaning on Taylor for moral guidance and Dean for moral support as it was. And then one of the people propping her humanity up was taken away, worse, it happened right in front of her, and now she blames herself for it.

    The inhuman wail of despair that opened her call about what happened was surely heard throughout the entire PRT building and Dennis actually asked me to check whether his eardrums were okay, as he was manning the Console at the time. I sincerely hoped that Über and L33t were quietly shitting themselves to death in an airtight box, because nothing short of the Triumvirate would stop her from tearing them limb from limb if she’d find them. And then feed the remains to her insects. Once she would start moving, anyway.

    Since then, she’d either be in her room here on the base, or at home, near-catatonic except when Dean was urging her on, muttering constantly, blaming herself for what those two fuckers (and my dear dumb best friend’s recklessness) did to “the most good person she’s ever known”. If she wasn’t so pitiable, I would have laughed at that statement, because she had apparently never seen Taylor do stupid shit without thinking it through, even if it was, ostensibly, for the greater good, at least as she saw it.

    Anne Marie was a different can of worms entirely. Leaving aside her hero worship issues which somehow transformed from simple attachment to the idea of The Deputy to broad adoration of her ‘big sis’, her powers played the cruelest trick of all on her.

    “Anne Marie--” I would say, and the poor girl would whimper, and when anyone other than Oxfordian would try speak up, she would shut them up. Especially Deputy. The last two times she bit her tongue so hard, she drew blood. If it wasn’t for my healing, I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t’ve bit it off at some point, just gnawing at it in despair to avoid hearing her voice.

    Deputy, or at least a copy that sounded and thought like Taylor, was a part of her. Nothing drives the point of losing your role model, your sister, further than being talked out of your stupor by your own mouth saying things in her voice thought up by an approximation of her mind.

    I am never going to get to kiss her now, I thought bitterly as I sat on the sofa in the Wards’ Commons, Anne Marie’s still-sobbing form sprawled across it, her head in my lap, little hands clutching at my jeans as if her life depended on it. And I would probably make for a shitty mother. Can’t even talk one super-powered tween down from… hell, probably the greatest trauma since her Trigger event? Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be playing this game on the hardest setting.

    Motherhood… was a painful topic for me. For all three of us. Taylor, who lost her mom and nearly lost herself as a result, Anne Marie, whose mom was locked away and was the cause of her Trigger, and me, who couldn’t even remember her birth parents properly. It was funny, in a way, that while Danny was her foster father, it sometimes felt like Taylor and I were the girl’s parents, despite only being a few years older than her.

    It was then that deliverance from my self-reflection had arrived. The mask alarm blared, but we ignored it - there was nobody else here, the both of us were unmasked capes… and even so, it was only Armsmaster that the large door admitted into the Commons, clad in his lighter at-base armor and looking just as bad as we felt.

    “Panacea. Synod,” he acknowledged our presence in his usual manner, like a checkout machine in a supermarket. That’ll be $99.25, large discount on the sliced Panacea this time of year. “Mister Hebert just informed me that Kid Win skipped his duties and didn’t talk to you before coming to him.”

    Anne Marie perked up at the mention of her foster father. Distraught as she was, she knew his history just like I did, and knew what led to Taylor’s current peculiar ethics and character traits. She was worried about him too.

    “The device that affected the Deputy Commander was a teleporter, of the dimensional variety. There’s a high probability that she’s alive. Just-- OOF!”

    You see, even when you’re a Protectorate Team Leader, it is incredibly hard to keep talking when two super-powered teens in mourning are told their best friend and sister isn’t as dead as they thought she was. They would pounce, and they would hug and, wait, what was the word again? Glomp, yes, they would definitely glomp.

    A joke I read on PHO yesterday (it utterly failed to amuse either of us then) came to mind, unbidden. “What is the difference between Lung and an excited teenage girl? One is an unstoppable force incapable of being deterred from its target and squeezing the life from it... and the other is Lung.”

    “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Anne Marie kept repeating as I myself realized I was crying again, for the first time since Saturday and the dreadful news. Armsmaster took the opportunity to resume speaking now that he could breathe again.

    “--just on another Earth, most likely not Aleph.”

    That got us to un-glomp quickly.

    “Does that mean big sis isn’t coming back?” Anne Marie asked cautiously, her voice shaky, her eyes watering up again.

    “No,” the man replied, his voice surprisingly soft, “It only means either she or us will have to build another portal. It will probably have to be us, however, because we have no idea what sort of world she ended up on, and what technology level the local populace possesses.”

    “Deputy Commander may request Directive 507 or equivalent to be enforced in order to secure aid,” Anne Marie spoke in Taylor’s voice, making all three of us flinch, “Provided the Protectorate or equivalent structure exists in the world she’s on.”

    “Correct,” Armsmaster nodded, taking off his glove to accept my outstretched hand, “But there is no guarantee one does,” he paused to look down at the hand as I purged his system from what felt like a month’s worth of stimulant buildup, recycling what I could to keep him from crashing. “Thank you.”

    I nodded at him as he put his glove back on.

    “So there’s one thing for us to do, then,” I concluded, making the oh-so-banal yet oh-so-appropriate gesture, punching my left balled-up fist into the palm of my right hand. “We hunt down Über and L33t and punch them until they agree to rebuild the thing that did this.”

    And when she gets back, I am going to ask The Motherfucking Deputy out, friendship be damned. I almost lost the opportunity already. I am not losing it-- her-- again.

    ------​

    [Stagehand]​

    Apollo had a thing against taxi cars. They all smelled… weird. Like, have you ever been at a garage sale? Yeah, that’s what the smell of a taxi’s inside reminded him of the most, the Presumably Wearable Shoe table at a garage sale. Granted, he was only at one garage sale ever and nobody would deny that old Mrs. Ohlssen wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards, but still…

    His father spoke up, distracting Apollo from musing on whether the risk of getting gum stuck on your pants was higher in a cab or at a school cafeteria. And the cafeteria was winning!

    “This is an unusual setup you’ve made for us, Miss-- Marcus, you said?”

    Marques, Mr Herren,” the PRT agent assigned as Apollo’s guard detail for this trip replied wearily. It was clear from the expression on her olive-skinned face that she was confused as to why exactly she was the one assigned to them, “And I’m sure you’ll agree the circumstances aren’t particularly usual either?”

    Apollo’s father didn’t have much to offer in response to that, it seemed, as he turned back to look in the side window. Presumably, he agreed, but maybe he didn’t and didn’t have a good counter-argument? Either way, Apollo supposed, the man would stay quiet which was quite alright as far as he was concerned. Even with his newfound connection with his parents after Deputy brought him in, he still had trouble understanding some of the things his parents did, claiming it would be “for the good of the family”. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of these times, being mostly his idea. Well, his and Doctor Yamada’s, but mostly his.

    He was glad to be working with her again. He wasn’t fond of the last doctor rotated into Boston, ‘Doctor Amber’ she asked to be called (he found it stupid, it felt condescending, Wards weren’t kindergarteners!) even though she was actually Doctor Roberts. She was a short frail-looking blonde with mismatched eyes and a lisp, both caused by a scar that crossed the left half of her face and even though he was on a team with several Case 53s and her appearance didn’t faze him, Apollo still didn’t like her. Possibly because she was aggravating in how sugary-sweet she tried to be about everything.

    He shook the thought from his mind as the cab slowed down, turning into a fenced-off parking lot, passing a sign bearing the insignia of the PRT. The cab was directed to the far end of the lot, behind a second, opaque fence. His father stepped out first, walking around the car to open the door for his wife and pay the driver. Apollo, for his part, clambered out through the door his father used to stand near the Agent and gape at the figure that walked up to greet them when the cab drove off.

    Tall, at least as far as Apollo was concerned, and packed, no, practically poured into a blue uniform with white designs reminiscent of flames or electricity or electricity-shaped flames, the man was as handsome as he was famous. Legend, one of the Triumvirate, was here to personally greet them?!

    “I trust your journey from the airport was satisfactory, Mister Herren, Missus Herren?” he asked before offering Apollo a hand to shake. “And you must be Stagehand. Apologies for the way you were conveyed, but with the news of a serial killer hunting down current and former Empire-Eighty-Eight affiliates, we didn’t want you to attract any attention.”

    As Apollo gingerly shook the hand of the country’s most famous male superhero, his mother raised a protesting hand.

    “But we’re not-- We never--” she sputtered, making Apollo roll his eyes. The depths of denial the woman could plumb were enormous, however much he loved his mom. He smothered a grin on recalling how he’d once seen someone call Legend ‘Gay Laser Beefcake’ on PHO and how flustered she got when he asked her what ‘beefcake’ meant and why Legend was one.

    “But your daughter is,” Legend replied calmly, “And therefore you’re on the risk list. If you’d follow me…” he gestured towards the unmarked automatic doors behind him before starting to walk. Apollo and his parents followed.

    “We’ve set up a path that will make masks unnecessary,” the hero explained as he walked briskly, setting a pace that Apollo had a bit of trouble following, but he enjoyed a fair challenge, and it was clear there was no real reason to waste the time of the local Protectorate Leader.

    They took an elevator up a couple of floors, then another one, this one heavily armored, before reaching a hallway of doors all of which, according to the signs on them, led to conference rooms. Legend stood next to Conference Room 2B, gesturing for them to enter.

    “I may come by later,” he said, “But for now, I leave you in the capable hands of Doctor Yamada,” he explained as he opened the door, waving at the Asian woman within. Apollo grinned at the sight of her, but then--

    Cassie!” his mother yelped, practically tripping over him as she rushed inside. Yeah. The reason they even came to New York in the first place. His sister, in her stupid blue PRT-issued jumpsuit. Who always merited attention first. Again. He was the Ward first, didn’t that count for something?

    ------​

    [Rune?]​

    She never particularly enjoyed her name. Long and pretentious and-- ugh. Being Sandra was easier on the ears too, and Grease jokes at school were more tolerable than Lassie ones. School, double ugh.

    “Hey,” she said weakly instead of voicing the torrent of feelings that primarily boiled down to ‘I hate my brother the least of these people, and we actually tried to kill each other with our powers’. Her mother hugged her tightly as her father seated himself across the table from her and the Doctor. It was a test, all of it a multi-layered test, for her, her parents, even Apollo. The Latina Agent escorting her family here, Dreamboat Rainbow Blaster Dude meeting them, and the sla-- eugh --Asian therapist. It was all a play, they wanted to see if she could at least pretend to play by their rules. And play along she did.

    “You’re alright!” were the first words out of her mother’s mouth when she finally let go of the rib-crushing hug, “I was so worried!”

    Sandra rolled her eyes, rather surprised to see her brother doing the same, then finally spoke up.

    “Relax, it was only a broken jaw, it’s not like someone cut my face off or something,” she protested somewhat stiltedly as her mother held her by the jaw in question, turning Sandra’s head this way and that, running her fingers over the faint surgical scars where the doctors had to pull her face apart to put it back together. Should have thought better than to provoke Little Miss Catches Capes With No Powers, she mentally growled at herself for the fifth time today. It was just past 9AM, she was actually doing well with that compared to yesterday.

    “They refused to let us see you--” her mother continued as her husband reached across the table to put a hand on his wife’s shoulder.

    “Janice? Let her speak, please?”

    “To be frank, that was at my recommendation,” the Doctor said, her voice surprisingly strong for someone her size, “Due to the circumstances under which the Deputy managed to arrest both your children on the same day and the information she relayed to me, I found it prudent to set events up in a way that would make you spend a little more of your time with your son.”

    Her words were met with three blank stares of confusion, and one warm smile of gratitude.

    “Wha-- what do you possibly mean?” her father spoke up, his voice a perfect play of indignant protest, all fake, she guessed, “We love our son! We rushed to his side as soon as we could when the matter of joining the Wards came up!”

    “And all it took was him trying to kill me, imagine that,” Sandra muttered angrily, turning away from them.

    “For what it’s worth--” Apollo began, but she cut him off.

    “Yeah, yeah, it was mutual,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. Then, remembering her earlier talk with Doctor Yamada, she added, “Temporary truce, one probationary Ward to another?”

    As Apollo reached out a hesitant fist out, she awkwardly bumped it with her own, both siblings ignoring the confused looks of her parents. Both sat back in their chairs, a little more at ease as some of the tension present in the room right from the start slowly drained away.

    “I thought we were here to discuss getting Cassie onto the Wards?” her mother ventured, shooting an accusing glare at Doctor Yamada. The Doctor, for her part, shrugged and smiled and produced a stack of papers from her briefcase.

    “That was actually something I have already discussed earlier with Sandra,” she explained, ignoring Apollo’s flitting glance at the mention of his sister’s alternate short name, “There’s a tiny loophole that permits us to induct a child into the Wards if their parents aren’t willing to participate in their trial, which happens a lot more often than you’d think. And so she joined, and got a new cape name and costume and ankle tracker.”

    Sandra sighed, resting her elbow against the table and depositing her head in her open palm.

    “When you rushed to Polly’s side in Boston, you were only told I was hospitalized, not that I would be put on trial,” she said, raising her head every time she needed to speak, like some sort of puppet. Apollo seemed too busy trying not to laugh at that to be offended at the use of his childhood nickname that his sister used to tease him with all these months ago, before she ran away from home to join one of the most hated gangs of the East Coast. “I am now Maquis, and I even got myself a badass WWII-style greatcoat to wear.”

    ------​

    [Maquis]​

    “But why--” her father sputtered before being cut off by his son.

    That’s why they spent so much time with me? Because you tricked them into being unable to come to you?!” he practically screamed, before turning to face his mother’s blanching face, “And you never told me!”

    “Honey, it wouldn’t’ve changed any--”

    Bullshit,” Sandra cut her mother off, “It was clear he did what he did because he was jealous of me. Of your attention to me,” she explained, venom in every word, “Attention I never needed or asked for.”

    “And that brings us to the matter of the trial,” Doctor Yamada said, as Sandra realized she couldn’t even remember the woman’s first name, “The court summons was delivered to your home. Where you would have surely seen it in your mail, PRT envelope and all. Instead, you chose to spend more time in Boston, with your son, as you were supposed to,” she continued, cutting herself off when it became clear even she couldn’t resist the pull of emotion on her voice.

    “And you asked for this?” Apollo asked, eyes wide, staring at his sister with incredulity.

    “Yeah. No big deal,” she said, convincing maybe her mother, because the woman was gullible enough to speak to telemarketers for longer than the four seconds necessary to realize who they were and drop the call, “I don’t need’em, you do, you told me yourself just as much.”

    “I… thank you,” he breathed out, remembering what the Deputy told him, three months ago: his sister tried to cover his face with her mask before escaping, broken jaw and all, when the unpowered Ward managed to tackle her, landing face-first on the ground and exacerbating the damage already done to her face. The surgical scars were barely noticeable, but the shape of his sister’s face seemed to have remained the same. Not that she would agree with that, of course, she actually liked the way her chin became a tiny bit sharper, her jaw a tad narrower.

    “But how long--” began their father before the rest of his voice was drowned out by a terrible noise, one that chilled them all to the bone.

    Endbringer.

    The siren cut out shortly, before Legend’s voice rang out throughout the building.

    “Leviathan on approach to Boston. Deployment pattern Epsilon, all active capes on the list assemble in the parking lot for teleportation.”

    The Herrens stared at each other silently.

    You’re not going,” all four of them said sternly at the same time, before Sandra swore out loud.

    Crap! I was supposed to go to the gym with Flechette today!"
     
  13. Threadmarks: Coda 01
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Coda 01
    [original omake]​

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    ♦ Topic: New Ward For Brockton Bay: Emissary
    In: Boards ► America ► Brockton Bay ► News
    Reave
    (Original Poster) (Verified PRT Agent)
    Posted On May 13th 2011:
    We are glad to announce that a new Ward is joining the Wards ENE!
    Please give a warm welcome to Emissary, who has recently transferred to Brockton Bay before she could join her local Wards due to outside circumstances.

    As a result of being a PRT Employee before becoming a Ward, Emissary has the rare experience of combining PRT combat training with Wards-specific training, allowing her to be an effective operator despite her Thinker 2 rating.

    You can see the debut press conference [HERE]
    Official Ward discussion thread located [HERE]
    Please direct all discussion not directly related to the debut to that thread.

    EDIT: It has come to our attention that many users misunderstand how the PRT Rating System works. A "deferred" rating, sometimes referred to as "subrating", is given when a particular power type can be used to simulate or emulate another type. For example a Tinker (Mover) is a Tinker whose devices allow them to transport themselves and/or others in unconventional ways. Don't forget, this system is primarily a threat assessment system, not a power measurement one.

    MOD EDIT: People attempting to derail the thread into discussion of the Canary case will find themselves tempbanned in short order.

    MOD EDIT 2: Thread now locked for consistent derails.


    (Showing page 5 of 17)
    ►Miss Mercury (Protectorate Employee)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    That kind of response is unjustified. All PRT employees are treated equally. The situation surrounding Emissary is strictly a consequence of her being discovered as parahuman during routine testing all employees undergo.

    ►XxVoid_CowboyxX
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    I'm worried about the full-body coverage. Between the armor which clearly is separate from whatever weird material that undersuit is made of, and the helmet which is painted to look like a DIFFERENT kind of helmet? Maybe this whole thing is a setup and she's actually a Case 53 under there?

    ►Noveltry
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Come on, Void. Who in their right mind would try to cover up a 53 being a 53?

    ►Clockblocker (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Trust me on this, guys, Emissary is definitely a girl and definitely not a Case 53.
    She is, however, a Verified Gym Rat.

    ►Emissary (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Cape Groupie) (Verified PRT Agent)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Thanks, Clock. Thanks a whole lot. I need an extra tag like I need a third hand.
    No, wait, I do need a third hand. It would make slapping you for doing silly things so much easier!

    To the mods: what do I do about my tag overload? I think merging my prior account with the new one resulted in some weirdness.

    ►Tin_Mother (Moderator)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    @ Emissary replied via PM. Sorry for the confusion.

    ►JediLordSeven (Wiki Warrior)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Semi-related question: when are we getting official pics of that sweet sweet armor?

    Quarter-related question: did I hear the reporter lady in the press conference right, someone already decided it's a videogame tribute? What videogame is that?

    ►AtaeHone
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    @JediLordSeven that would be Doom, I think? Though someone earlier in the thread mentioned the armor-panels-on-grey-undersuit makes her look like a Boba Fett cosplay gone wrong.

    ►Oderic (Moderator)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    That would be another question best raised in the specific discussion thread, located [HERE]. Please be mindful of other users' time.

    ►AtaeHone
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Sorry, sorry, will not happen again.

    To re-rail the thread:
    How do you think the guy asking about the Master rating knew about it? Leak? Lucky guess? Actually a precog?

    EDIT: While we're on the subject of the press conference, what was that bit with the Latin in the end?

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ... 15, 16, 17

    ■​

    ♦ Topic: Emissary Discussion Thread
    In: Boards ► America ► Brockton Bay ► Wards
    Emissary
    (Original Poster) (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Cape Groupie) (Verified PRT Agent)
    Posted On May 13th 2011:
    Hello everyone!

    My name is Emissary and I am Brockton Bay's newest Ward. I asked politely and they allowed me to start my own thread, so here goes:

    I am a Thinker 2 (Master 1). My power lies in analysis of things I see, drawing inferences and making conclusions to profile people I interact with. I have been assigned a Master rating in response to the fact that this information can be used to manipulate people in what is essentially power-assisted NLP.

    To curb any questions I've already heard asked one too many times: I cannot actually control you, coerce you to do anything against your will or the like any more than an unpowered person can. I am not one of Heartbreaker's (I am not even Canadian! No offense to our Canadian fans!) and I am definitely in no way related to the Simurgh. All I do is learn how to best poke you with words to get a reaction, no better than a stand-up comedian, although maybe with a faster reaction time.

    I am also a Brute 1, my bones are denser than a normal human's and I have a very slow regeneration capability. In practice this means it's a little harder to knock me out of a fight, and I will get out of the hospital in two weeks instead of two months, but doesn't give me any special frontline combat value.

    So... questions?

    EDIT: No, I will not be disclosing my sexual preference. I'm 15, I'm pretty sure that's not something you should be even THINKING about, let alone asking. Yes, Void_Cowboy, this means YOU.

    EDIT2: Yes, I've heard all the variations on "sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me". Yes, I'm aware I'm a poster child for that saying. Somehow implying I wanted this powerset is not going to make you look smart.

    Links to pics and videos:
    Official debut press conference available [HERE]
    Cell phone footage of fight against E88 with Clockblocker [HERE] and [HERE]

    (Showing page 7 of 12)
    ►Nene
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    So let me get this straight. If what we've seen of the Undersiders via cell phone footage and hearsay is remotely accurate, you're some sort of cut-rate Tattletale balanced out by the fact that if you get punched in the face for your words, you'll walk it off faster?

    ►T_Am_Eye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    @Nene while I find the suggestion I get punched in the face a lot rather insulting, that does seem like an apt summation.

    ►Emissary (Original Poster) (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Cape Groupie) (Verified PRT Agent)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    EDIT: Never mind, I can't believe I imagined I would NOT get ninja'd by Tata.

    ►XxVoid_CowboyxX
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Wait, T_Am_Eye is Tattletale? Really? How is she still unverified? More importantly, why are villains allowed to openly post in Wards threads?

    ►Oderic (Moderator)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Believe it or not, we still require a "powers in use" picture as proof to get verified as a cape. Thinkers have a lot of problems with that one, as you'd imagine. Emissary got verified as all Wards do: through PRT power testing.

    I do not suppose many villains would be willing to go through the same procedure.

    ►Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    Wouldn't a conversation with a moderator work for such an occasion?

    I can't believe I'm saying this to a mod, but PMs exist for a reason.

    ►Tin_Mother (Moderator)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    @Vista if we did that, we'd spend most of our waking hours responding to verification requests. At least the current system allows us to automate part of the process by filtering out obviously photo-manipulated pictures. Except that one unfortunate incident with Retouche, but that was resolved very quickly.

    ►Gotharina
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    I still can't get over the fact that I thought you were a guy at first. Though I guess I could be forgiven, between the height and the shoulders and--

    [User was infracted for this post]
    MOD EDIT: Please remember that all Wards are underage and insinuations of this kind will NOT be tolerated.

    ►WildRose (Verified PRT Agent)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    And that, children, is why we have agents stationed at every Wards Meet & Greet. I'd tell you a cautionary tale, but most of them would violate the board's SFW content rules.

    ►Emissary (Original Poster) (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Cape Groupie) (Verified PRT Agent)
    Replied On May 13th 2011:
    @WildRose you can't believe how grateful I am for that fact. Or the work you and your colleagues do in order to keep the peace. Thank you!

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

    ■​


    “She’s lying,” Tattletale’s voice made me look up from the screen with the press conference video, “She’s lived in Brockton most of her life if not all of it. The ‘relatives’ she’s speaking of are her birth family. I’m not sure what else she may be hiding.”

    I froze, connections forming in my mind, the realization hitting me harder than Bakuda’s bombs or Armsmaster’s weird Halberd attachments. Tattletale’s phone slid limply from my hand, clattering to the floor as she stepped back, staring at me in wide-eyed terror.

    "Taylor? Is she--" she asked, but I wasn't paying attention to the rest of her words.

    I couldn't believe it at first, thinking it was just what it looked like on the surface, some new Ward brought in from out-of-state, maybe secretly a Changer or Trump, someone who could shift into a person to get at their mindset, to screw with me after shaming the Protectorate at the gallery. But the details, the timeline, all added up to a conclusion that was impossible to accept.

    The exchange on PHO only added fuel to the pyre in my brain. Nobody else knew certain details about my childhood. About the bullying journal. The design of the suit, a little more professional and streamlined, was still unmistakably Forest Guardian, a friend of Mouse Protector I… we… made up as kids. And that name

    The height was off, but the weird armor plates on the shoes could be hiding lifts. The chestplate was relatively flat, but depending on how the undersuit was padded and armored, you could hide any bust size in there…

    And it would explain so much. Shadow Stalker helping her back at that mall, less than a month ago. The powers, ready-made for bullying. The way the school authorities looked the other way, going along with her whims. Harboring a nascent Ward must have brought the school coffers some extra funding...

    In the end, the press conference video and the grainy mobile phone photos on PHO made undeniable the facts that I didn't want to be true. I knew that design was only known to one other person.

    The new Ward, Emissary, was…

    THAT FUCKING BITCH.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Responder 2.01
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

    Joined:
    May 30, 2017
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    Responder 2.01
    [original omake]​

    [Rose]​

    The torrential rain banging against the window was the only sound in the room. Director Piggot sighed heavily, her coffee untouched before her.

    I couldn’t exactly blame her, not every person’s reaction to an Endbringer siren heard at 7 AM is going to the office. Thankfully, our shared work ethic (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”) conveyed itself nicely to such stubborness, which is why her first reaction was to show up at the office, looking like death warmed over, and mine was to be waiting for her at the door of her office, a cup of coffee made to her preference in my hand.

    She was wearing her uniform, I was costumed up. I was vaguely aware that after we scrambled out of the cafeteria, Chris ran off to get ready himself, but he wasn’t in his room when I found myself facing the one bureaucratic niggle I didn’t want biting me in the ass down the line. As a Ward, I needed extra permission to attend an Endbringer battle. As a red-carder, however, that meant asking a PRT Director in place of my parents.

    “I’m only asking for the moral weight of it,” she finally spoke, pausing to take a sip of her coffee. It probably got colder than she liked it by now, but she was pleasantly surprised, “Because I’ve already learned you’re stubborn enough to do it even without my permission. So. Endbringer?”

    “I’ve trained for multiple scenarios with my Wards, ma’am,” I explained. My helmet was on the table, my face rigidly unsmiling like hers for a change as I wrung my hair back into the torturous shapes that would fit inside my helmet in closed mode and tried really hard not to think that my Wards were most likely facing their own Endbringer right now. Without me. “My goggles also let me interface with the gauntlets Dragon made, see their locations and tags in real-time overlay. Your Dragon copied the software from it but I don’t know whether she had time to put any of it to use yet. I’ll expect at least her and Armsmaster to make use of it, making coordinating both attacks and S&R easier.”

    “I see. I expect you will be volunteering for Search and Rescue operations then?” she asked, sparing a glance at her watch, looking up in time to see me nod acknowledgement. “You have seven minutes until deployment, and I have to get to the shelter. I don’t have to guess that you hope to find Skitter and the rest of the Undersiders joining the effort?” another nod followed, and she nodded back, a little reluctantly, “Permission granted, then. Please try not to die, or the Chief Director will be very cross with me.”

    “To be fair, ma’am, if I died, I’d be very cross with me too.”

    ------​

    The office building chosen as the staging area belonged to a now-defunct software firm, and if I had to guess, the primary reasoning behind it had been the fortuitous location: waterfront, a short distance from the Boardwalk, and a large parking lot bereft of cars for the teleporting. A loud crack announced the arrival of Strider and a group of unfamiliar capes, which filed into the building quickly before the blue-capped independent hero departed with another crack.

    “I wonder if we’ll get more volunteers owing to the advance warning,” Dean mused next to me as we quickly crossed the parking lot through a path indicated by PRT troopers keeping watch. They pulled double duty here: enforcing the Endbringer Truce with stern looks and confoam throwers and keeping people out of the designated teleport areas. Most Mover powers did ugly things to people caught in their path, after all.

    I shuddered at the memory of reading up on Telefrag, a villain from the Midwest whose MO involved abusing the shit out of the fact that his power forcibly displaced any matter from his destination. He was, in a lot of ways, the Siberian of teleporters. Except, of course, you couldn’t have stopped the Siberian with a high-caliber bullet to the head.

    I spared a quick glance to the mass of clouds rapidly approaching from the sea as Aegis led us into the building’s spacious lobby, where chairs and TV screens were already set up for a briefing, a unique situation for an Endbringer battle. More of Strider’s cracks sounded from the outside as I scanned the room, taking in the who’s who of the local and national cape scene. The E88 were here, sans Alabaster and Purity, both thanks to me, although the glares I was getting from the Wonder Twins were probably only for the Whitest Guy, and I was okay with that. He would be sitting this one out in the PRT’s own underground shelter, with the unpowered personnel that was doing the night shifts when the siren sounded. And the Queen of Not Backing Down, of course. Purity was probably out of town by now, her children in tow. It was interesting that I saw no sign of Cricket -- she didn’t go murderhobo on her comrades in this world, seeing as how Hookwolf was here, and so she didn’t get vaporized by Purity for her trouble, so where was she?

    Individual villains gathered up in bunches here and there, towards the back of the room I saw the guys of the Undersiders -- but neither of the girls I wanted to see. Where the hell are they? Come to think of it, where’s Hellhound?

    “Flechette, hey, Flechette!” I heard Sophia call out, probably aiming to network her way into a crossbowmance after all. The New York Ward walked over to where our team stood, meekly waving greetings at all of us.

    “Shadow Stalker, hello,” she said somewhat awkwardly, probably unsure what commonalities she had with the other dark-clothed tall athletic crossbow-wielder girl whose sexual preference I had reasons to doubt. Wait, that’s a lot of starting points already. “I heard your transfer request for me fell through?”

    “Yeah, that’s my fault,” I admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of my helmet, “I got shuffled in as an emergency transfer, ruined your crossbow team-up. Hi, I’m Emissary and very new,” I added, offering her a hand to shake.

    I got what body language told me was a puzzled look from Flechette and an annoyed look from Sophia. Right. The fact that Sophia only wanted Flechette for her huge weapon was supposed to be a surprise to the pale girl in the half-mask. She shook my hand before speaking.

    “Technically, it’s an arbalest…” the out-of-town Ward began before cutting herself off, having spotted something out of my sight, “Sorry, this will only be a moment.”

    She rushed off to the side, apparently to rescue Parian from what looked like an extremely awkward talk with Bambina, the diminutive ‘child’ villainess clearly offended at the interruption.

    I cast a look around the room, watching Dean wander off to greet his girlfriend and her team (darn it, Amy’s right there, but I can’t approach her in a crowd), as Alexandria and the rest of the L.A. contingent entered. Awed looks followed her as she crossed the room, and more than a few of them stuck to me when she gave me an acknowledging nod, presumably impressed I had the gall to go into an Endbringer battle with no powers and only a small pile of borrowed Tinkertech to my name. I could practically taste the ‘Well done, child’ in her posture. As she approached Legend at center stage, they exchanged greetings and he, too, spared a glance in my direction. I gave him a small wave and grinned like an idiot when he returned it. Thank Scion for full-face helmets.

    “Becoming popular, aren’t we?” I heard Missy’s voice behind me, “How’d that happen anyway?”

    “She kinda… handled my transfer here?” I replied meekly, trying to project the image of the awkward girl taken to the Annual Cape Awards by her aunt who was there to receive one herself, “I guess this is her way of checking in on me.”

    “Huh. You realize this will paint a few targets on your back after all this, right?” she asked. I shrugged, not like cape nepotism wasn't a thing in either of the two worlds.

    I kept scanning the crowd, noting that Flechette returned with Parian in tow, to the displeasure of Shadow Stalker, all the while stifling my urge to wave at Weld and the rest of the Boston team as they walked in-- followed by Skitter dragged by the hand by a very disheveled Tattletale.

    My heart nearly stopped at that moment, then started again, then stopped once more as they spotted me among the Wards and-- gave me looks of pure malice? What? Tattletale waved a greeting at her teammates and sauntered off to join them, leaving Taylor standing awkwardly alone next to the Travelers who were giving her odd looks. Didn’t they work for Coil together? Or was that a one-time team-up?

    “Be right back,” I replied to Dennis’s questioning glance as I pushed past Flechette’s feeble attempts to get Parian involved in her talk with Shadow Stalker about urban tactics. Parian gave me a passing glance that I belatedly realized was a sizing-up one. Congratulations, Rose, you are officially lady catnip! I thought to myself as I approached the other me, seemingly abandoned by her new best friend (shit, girl, we’re bad at this friends thing, aren’t we?), whose other self in turn was apparently the closest thing I had to a nemesis back home. The way that Grue looked at Skitter when they entered suggested there was a rift in the team forming. Might as well capitalize on that.

    “Guess we’ll have to take a rain check on those burgers, huh,” I said with my best Clockblocker voice (not as good at it as his smiles), remembering to project my best superhero posture for the benefit of Tattletale’s powers in case she was watching. The glare I got in response (well, I assumed Taylor glared, her own full-face mask didn’t help) felt like a bucket of ice water this time. I cocked my head questioningly at Skitter, hoping additional input would help me sort this out.

    “How-- how could they let you be a hero!” she sputtered, confusing me further, “When you even picked your name to mock me!”

    It was not the shock of hearing my voice from the outside - I got plenty of that from Synod - but the tone. The words. The stubborn rage behind them.

    “Skitter, I’m afraid I don’t--”

    People were starting to look, now. Shit. Double shit. Come on, other me, don’t make a scene!

    “Yeah you don’t! You’ve pretty much outed me!” Skitter hissed before pointing an accusing finger at me, “And the thing about the diary was such a transparent ruse to destroy evidence! EB my ass!”

    What. The. Fuck. Did she... But how... Fuck, I was a brainless worm. She only knew two people who knew about Forest Guardian, and she was not the one wearing the costume. So of course she decided I was Emma fucking Barnes. Somehow. FUCK. MY. LIFE.

    While I was stunned by my revelation on her conclusion, she stepped closer into my personal space.

    "How'd you get away with it?" she hissed, "The Wards just overlook anything you do? Must come in handy, holding that money over Blackwell. Explains why no one looked into--" she hesitated for a second, "--the Locker."

    "What?" I asked dazedly. Wrong move. Her posture grew more aggressive, and Tata wasn't even bothering to hide that she was watching us anymore.

    "You don't remember?" I had never felt such raw, overpowering rage and hatred before. Even when facing down Nazis to defend minorities, they'd never been this furious. "You... the worst thing you've ever done and you don't fucking rem--"

    I closed the distance between us. "Taylor!" I hissed. She hesitated, startled, and I took advantage. "I am not that fucking, treacherous, lying bitchbag of a redhead!" Breathing exercises, one, two, three... "Skitter, you are literally the most important person here to me right now. I want to help you more than anything."

    I had an unbidden flashback to Aegis asking me out for the first time, and the paranoia I felt over that.

    "Why?" she challenged me slowly, "Why now? What's so different that someone tries to help me now of all times?"

    "I'm here," I stated in my Deputy Commander voice, "And I promise on--" I took a gamble, "Lexie that I want to help you," as I said this I made the requisite sliding motion on the helmet to depolarize the visor. As I did so, I turned to face Tata.

    With the Eyes of Wadjet on, my identity was still secure, but what she could see was enough to make her flinch and her mouth drop open. 'Not in public,' I mouthed to her. The Thinker's mouth settled into a firm line and she gave me a quick nod, earning her a confused look from Regent.

    I turned back to Taylor, who... well, based on how her mask shifted, was also in open mouthed shock.

    "How..." she sputtered.

    Internally, I sighed in relief. Lexie was a small stuffed doll that I had made back in first grade, shaped like the Triumvirate member. I had told everyone I got rid of it, but she still stayed under my bed to this day. I had been in the habit of pulling it out and remembering better times before I joined the PRT, though I hadn't done it in a while. It seemed Taylor was the same in that regard.

    I gave her a Taylor Hebert #2, "Have i found understanding?", which seemed to enhance the effect.

    "If I was her and I knew that, I'd have used it by now. I'd like to talk to you later when we have some time, but..." with one hand I gestured around the room, "That's not really an option."

    While she was still out of it, I took the opportunity to look, really look, at Taylor Hebert, Skitter, the person whose life I was thus far epically failing to unfuck.

    Next to me, she still looked too tall for her figure, packed into black widow silk that hugged it just like mine did, except where I had the outlines of taut muscle and a body shape that many boys would kill to have, she had the wiriness and a hint of frailty that I left behind me when a certain Biostriker made me a Brute. I realized I was staring when I noticed her yellow goggles were boring into me, absorbing what she could see of my nose and mouth. Her nose and mouth. It seemed to freak her out a bit. Nodding slowly, I made my faceplate opaque once more.

    “If it makes you trust me more, put some spiders on me,” I said, reaching out an open palm, “See if you can get them inside my helmet, it’s the only place they’ll stay dry out there.”

    It was her turn to give me a confused look as she reached out her arm towards mine, a few spiders whose species I didn’t recognize passing from her hair down to it and onto me. All the while I was thinking I’m a bad leader, I should be more aware of the resources at Weaver’s disposal… but at least I no longer flinch when insects walk across me. The last bit seemed to freak Tattletale and Sundancer (she kept throwing weird side-eyes at Skitter until I glared at her and she promptly looked away) out more than it did Skitter, although she quickly caught up with them in HSQ as she did a double-take herself, though for a much different reason.

    “Wait, is that suit made of--”

    “It is. Don’t say it,” I replied, feeling tiny legs brush against the bare skin of my neck. The helmet was good protection, but it wasn’t airtight. It was just unfeasible with its modular nature. This made me think they could enter via the neck.

    “They can’t fit through the foam padding, could you...” she spoke quietly, and I nodded in response. I turned my back to her, opening the back of my helmet by a fraction to let her see the black hair within. Once she gave a grunt of acknowledgement, I sealed the spiders in, hoping they’d find refuge in my hair.

    “Emissary, you alright there?” Sophia called out to me, clearly confused by my manipulations. I waved back, handing Skitter a pre-prepared piece of paper - option 3, I’ve been paranoid about this on the ride over - and departing with a final word to my-- what? Doppelgänger? Other self? Sister? Cousin? “Little Owl... Please make it out alive.”

    I walked off, refusing to look back and hoping nobody could see me shaking.

    ------​

    [Taylor]​

    The trip to the meeting location was frantic enough, my mind roiling over the multitude of issues with the fucked up mess my life was at the moment.

    Coil and Dinah Alcott, who was a parahuman he abducted for her Thinker power with our, with my help. The Undersiders being okay with it. Tattletale, Lisa, the one among them I most thought of as I my friend, saying that she had no choice but to obey in this even as she’d look for ways to free Dinah.

    And Emissary. That name felt the most offensive. It was not enough that she chose a design from my childhood that I helped create, she had to put her name on it. Emma-ssary. Lisa tried to argue that we had insufficient information for this conclusion, that her power told her it could be someone else close to me, someone who knew about my childhood, but of the three people that weren’t me, only one was both alive and of the age appropriate to enlist in the Wards.

    Emma fucking Barnes.

    And she had the gall to ask us to meet her unmasked, bring the bullying diary I’d been forced to reveal to her when I brought it to Blackwell. Did she seriously think we were that dumb? That I was that dumb? Apparently I was, until I saw the press conference. And the next day became a swirl of emotions. Mostly rage and paranoia.

    I threw myself into my cape life so fervently because it got me out of my school life. I didn’t need the fucking Bitch Trio getting involved in that too. What’s next? Madison is secretly Vista? Sophia is Clockblocker? Or… shit, she kinda had the same body type as Shadow Stalker, didn’t she? She was a Ward before Emissary, and active as a cape for much longer than that. So naturally when Emma Triggered, she’d take her under her wing, have her sign up for the Wards, have a spiffy set of armor made…

    I idly wondered when did she gain those Thinker/Master powers, and how much of my bullying was power-assisted? How much of my life was ground out in a way that would explain her sharp reaction to the question about Canary?

    My rage hadn’t subsided significantly throughout Saturday by the time we met with Coil, and it may have coloured things somewhat. I may have screamed a little too loudly at my team-- my friends. Frankly, I was more than a little surprised an assassin from Coil wasn’t waiting for me at the loft after my outburst, but maybe he or she just got waylaid by the Endbringer siren? Or maybe Lisa talked him down, I wasn’t sure what to think anymore.

    In the end I still let Lisa talk me into going to fight Leviathan (might as well die in a blaze of glory, I mused), and so here I was, standing like an idiot alone in the middle of a crowd, clutching the piece of paper that Emissary gave me. Except...

    She wasn’t Emma. Couldnt’t be. She was really that tall, maybe a little taller than me. Those weren’t lift shoes. The undersuit she wore hugged a figure that was more Sophia than Emma-- or rather, Sophia probably looked next to her like I did next to Sophia. Couldn’t be Sophia either, there seemed to be a bit too much hair packed into that helmet that I’ve had a hard time maneuvering the spiders she shockingly allowed me put inside her helmet into a position where she wouldn’t accidentally squish them with her head.

    What was worse, I recognized the material she wore. Black widow silk, the real stuff, like what I used, not the synthetic Tinkertech stuff the Toybox was fiddling with, still without realizing it shouldn’t simply be made into sheets for later sewing. The craftsmanship was different from mine, but the basic technique must have come from the same, or at least similar, books and videos as the ones I used first starting out, and it was clearly something mass-produced. This was made by someone farming spiders in better conditions than mine, but the tradeoff was a less personal and detailed approach. No armor inserts, but that was what the snap-on armor panels were for, I guessed. The suit used the same logic as mine, full-bodied with a separate headgear option, except hers was a weird Tinkertech helmet with a faceplate she could make transparent.

    And within that lay my face, Empire Strikes Back-style. I did a double-take, and hesitantly realized it wasn’t exactly mine, just similar. A bit older, maybe, and definitely prettier. Where my lips were thin and useless, these looked… kissable, like a movie star’s. The chin was stronger, more defined than mine. The nose looked like it may have been broken at some point, then carefully mended, but the signs were there. And though the goggles hid the eyes, I wouldn’t’ve been surprised to learn they would look something like mine as well.

    Was she a Changer? Was this an aspect of her Master power or a feature of the helmet, the whole thing actually a three-dimensional hologram? And the way she spoke… it was like someone took my voice and ran it through one of those pitch shifter programs, like I’d imagine myself sounding when I’d be 25. Or like I imagined my mom sounded as a teen?

    So maybe, just maybe… I gingerly unfolded the paper she gave me, watching as she walked up to the Wards, gesturing finger guns at Clockblocker, who shot me what I assumed was a confused look. Then they all laughed, presumably at my expense.

    The paper was mundane, it looked like it was torn out of a common note pad, scribbled over unsteadily in pencil as if the writer was in a hurry or in a fast-moving vehicle. And the note was in my handwriting.

    T, it said, I really am trying to help. The spiders will let you track me. My gear will let me track you. We can look out for each other.
    I made deals with the Protectorate. They knew your identity, but your Dad is now off-limits. I will fight to get you and Tt into the Wards if you’ll let me, and I need the Journal to solve Winslow for you, likely get you into Arcadia with me.


    I looked up from the paper to see Shadow Stalker give Emissary a friendly pat on the shoulder. I looked back down at it. I missed a scribble at the bottom.

    P.S. My name is Rose.

    What the fuck is even my life? Who the hell was this girl, who knew my identity, knew how my powers worked, knew about my life, short of being some sort of bizarro alternate reality Amazon Lesbian Goddess version of me? Or my mom? That… wasn’t the case, was it?

    ------​

    [Rose]​

    “What the hell were you talking to Skitter about, M?” Dennis asked incredulously, “It looked like you scared the crap out of her and her friends for a moment there.”

    “See the way they stand? Skitter clearly is leaving the team. I made the pitch,” I replied semi-honestly, “She gets the same deal Stalker did, I win my bet with Alexandria.”

    “That is unlikely,” James protested, “Alexandria is not the type to bet on something she cannot win. Many forget about her Thinker rating, and I doubt she would have made a bet if she was not certain of the outcome.”

    “We’ll see,” I said, looking at the way Taylor was reading and re-reading my note over and over again. I turned back to Dennis, made a dumb pose, “Those lines you were suggesting on the ride over don’t work on girls when said by other girls either.”

    “Guess it’s really not you, it’s your sense of humor,” Chris concluded for us, throwing an arm around Dennis’s shoulders, “But don’t despair, maybe when Emissary brings Skitter into the fold, she’ll let you have sloppy seconds.”

    Laughter broke out around him, but it only made me a little pissed off. She was still me, damnit, and if he’d met her out of costume he’d change his mind if I had anything to say-- Wait, did I just nearly talk myself into setting up other me with Dennis? What if she’s not into him? Or into guys at all? Wait, but I am into guys, right? How di-- NOT NOW.

    The laughter made Dennis look at Taylor, shudder, then look back at me, pleading in his body and voice alike.

    “Please tell me that’s not what this is about,” he said, “It’s not the kind of wing-womanning I wanted you to do.”

    “Is that all I am to you now, Clock,” I said, mock indignation in my voice, “A chick magnet shark, for you to remora around?”

    Somehow, the laughter that erupted at this remark even included Sophia, Flechette and Parian, who seemed to still stick around despite the cold shoulder Sophia was giving her. Our horsing around was cut short when Legend strode up to the microphone, no doubt to give us a pep talk. Morituri te salutant.

    I spared another look at Skitter before settling down, offered her an emphatic thumbs up, to which she replied with a confused shrug as she sat down herself. As Legend spoke, and several Wards he drafted while I was manipulating my other self distributed the armbands, I sifted through Wadjet’s diagnostic functions.

    Step one. Armband scanner online. It detected the armband I was given, and locked into its datastream once I registered with it.

    Step two. Calibrate view distance. I swiveled my head around, glad to see names pop up in a green overlay on capes without pre-assigned groups. The Triumvirate lit up in gold, Armsmaster and Miss Militia in a dark blue, and the Wards that overlapped with my own team were a lighter shade of blue. I fiddled with the settings to extend that to Carlos, James, Sophia, Flechette and Parian, who seemed to have been adopted by the New Yorker for some reason. I shuffled in my seat to get a lock on Skitter, then marked her in red. Need to be able to tell her apart from anyone else.

    I fiddled with the settings until I could see the purple marker for Dragon’s suit through the wall, then set the system to show anything farther than that as markers without names attached.

    Step three. The drone. It was slightly different from my Alkonost drone, less agile, better armored, and without the modular payload system. Yet. But its main purpose was to be my eye in the sky, co-ordinating team operations and dumping confoam canisters on escaping perps. The machine this Kid Win built for me was perfect for this task, and just in time for the inevitable chaos of an Endbringer fight.

    As I was without the control suite haptic gloves when I entered this world, I was limited in what I could make the drone do with just the gesture interface of my helmet, which meant setting it to hover above my location and actively avoid any obstacles or hostiles for now. Preferably without attacking anyone as well - the Truce meant no touching the villains, and Leviathan has been proven to not give two shits about containment foam on more than one occasion.

    So of course as soon as Finist (turned out, Slavic mythology had a ton of magic birds to name drones after) took off from its perch on top of the PRT van that brought us here, it gave me a warning warble, projecting a picture-in-picture into my left eye: there was a fuckhuge wave coming right towards us.

    I stood up, drawing the attention of everyone in the room and interrupting the team assignments as I yelled.

    “WAVE INCOMING!”
     
  15. Threadmarks: Responder 2.02
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Responder 2.02

    The jaunt of the teleport was sudden and loud and left me more than a little disoriented as my left eye kept showing me the overhead view Finist provided while my right showed me that we were suddenly at an intersection a couple of blocks away from the building. Even through the incessant pitter-patter of rain against my helmet, I could make out a horrible crashing sound as in my left eye I saw the wave obliterate the building we just left and continue to smash into the streets beyond it. Thankfully, the layout of the streets meant that particular wave wouldn’t reach us in any meaningful way other than raising the water level at our feet. I checked for Skitter, found her further out, getting up from all fours, it looked like she got a mouthful of water on the teleport in.

    I hope Strider got all the PRT troopers inside his field. Doesn’t look like any of the vans departed. Wait, he brought Dragon along somehow, and she was pretty far out, wasn’t she? Or did another-- NOT NOW.

    As the armbands rattled off the casualty list - presumably those that decided to leave the building on foot or were already outside when I shouted my warning, I twisted around, watching the capes and troopers around me scatter, directed by their armbands in accordance with their assigned teams. But I interrupted my assignment, and didn’t have a task set in my armband as a result. I watched Sophia and Parian to the side of me activate their armbands to get tasked, and followed suit, jabbing both buttons at once.

    “Search and Rescue, please,” I spoke into the device, “Dragon, you can patch in to the feed from my drone for an additional vantage point when tracking assignments for fliers.”

    An acknowledging beep preceded a change in the display, and I quickly received a zone designation and a direction to follow. Scoping out the best path to do it without wading in the ankle-deep rush of water in the middle of the street, I found myself running further inland alongside Hookwolf, a Traveler whose name I didn’t know and a PRT Trooper bereft of a containment foam dispenser. Strange bedfellows doesn’t begin to cover it.

    “Trooper! You got an armband?” I called out, “Tagging along?”

    “Trooper Carlsson, ma’am,” he yelled back, hopping with practiced ease over a twisted shape I recognized as the remains of a motorcycle, “You got me M/Sed last week, remember? No band but if you’re on S&R, I can help you carry people.”

    I nodded, gesturing with a chopping motion to correct his path to the building my armband was leading me to. Finist’s feed showed the drone has reacquired my location and was headed over, scanning the debris from the initial wave as it passed above. As it read the armband tags it could find, the knot in my guts continued to grow tighter. So many dead from the first wave, and Leviathan hasn’t even--

    INCOMING!” Carlsson yelped, throwing himself aside, as a deafening crash rolled across the street just in time for Finist’s bird’s-eye-view to show me Leviathan rushing through a building to our right. I rolled over a parked car’s hood, taking refuge behind it as debris of glass and concrete rained onto the street, throwing up fountains of water with their impacts and striking several capes below. My armband dutifully locked onto Leviathan’s position as I cast my gaze across the Endbringer.

    Carapacitator down, CD-5, WCM deceased, CD-5. Iron Falcon down, CD-5…

    Its scaly form towered above the street, its asymmetrical flat face slowly turning as if its four eyes were trying to decide who to kill first. Then it moved, and that infamous watery ‘shadow’ of his, a mass of water that seemed to duplicate his every move, like a ghostly afterimage on a badly-tuned TV, moved with him, slashing when he slashed, dodging when he dodged.

    Thankfully, the giant didn’t even bother looking in my direction as he turned around to swat a flying cape out of the air and into an adjacent building. The lack of an armband notification and the retaliating strike with part of the building’s wall told me that was Alexandria. I insulted the woman that’s punching an Endbringer right now to her face. She punched all the Endbringers. Multiple insults.

    I snapped out of it as Legend swooped in, accompanied by several capes I didn’t recognize, blasting the monster with rays and streams and missiles and ghostly copies of themselves. My readout showed me their names, but none of them besides the Triumvirate members were in a special color and I still haven’t reached my destination.

    I motioned to Carlsson to move and we continued down the sidewalk and around the corner to find our first target: a cape that I think I saw coming in with Alexandria’s group. It looked like they were a flier that got struck out of the air by a piece of railing or the like from one of the buildings on the beachfront that were torn up by the initial tsunami. Their long dark hair and blue cape were in their face, it was hard to decide which gender they were. The fall didn’t do them any favors either. Wadjet identified the cape as 'Paranatural’ and I called it in, requesting another flier to pick him up. In the meantime, Carlsson and I dragged him off the street so he wouldn’t drown and put him carefully onto a torn-off car hood, another apparent result of a car crash caused by the shock of the Endbringer siren taking someone aback at the wrong time, like the motorcycle earlier.

    “Can’t do jack about the metal thing,” my partner hissed, “But we can at least make splints for her legs?”

    I nodded, not bothering to correct him. We tore up Paranatural’s cape for the cloth, securing his legs together with an abandoned skateboard’s deck beneath them, making sure the binding was tight enough not to rattle anything but not too tight to cut off circulation. With an enthusiastic yell, a cape I didn’t know -- one of the out-of-town Wards, judging by the cheery costume -- dropped down next to us as I was stripping Paranatural’s armband off.

    “Holey moley,” she exclaimed, “I’m guessin’ I oughta carry’er steady as possible, yah?”

    Resisting the urge to facepalm at the apparent lack of any sort of panic or urgency in her voice, I nodded and Carlsson and I helped her heft the car hood with Paranatural secured on top of it above her head. She took off easily, twisting away from the receding noises of the fight. I handed the armband to the trooper.

    “In case we get separated,” I said tersely as I checked my own for the next destination, “Aren’t you supposed to carry a beacon instead of these?”

    “Carlsson,” he introduced himself to the armband, “Sorry, ma’am, we were just coming off patrol when we got redirected to babysit your cape circlejerk. Wrong gear for this.”

    Great, please try not to crash on me from lack of sleep?” I intoned, as Finist saw Leviathan rend several capes with his oversized claws.

    Fenja down, CD-5, Little Miss Priss down, CD-5, Acoustic deceased, CD-5. Harsh Mistress down, CD-5. Resolute deceased, CD-5...

    “Dragon, slave Carlsson’s tracker to mine, he’s an unpowered,” I asked of my armband as we set off back towards the moving battle. Once I crested an area of buckled concrete that ended up above the water, I spun around, trying to check on the Wards and Skitter.

    Taylor was trying to assist some cape Wadjet IDed as Iron Falcon all the way on the other side of the fight from me while Brockton Bay’s junior heroes were scattered all over the place. Aegis was hurling pieces of smashed buildings at the Endbringer to cover for Kid Win’s unfolding cannon, Gallant was trying to co-ordinate the evacuation of a still-giant Fenja from the immediate vicinity of the fight, while Shadow Stalker and Flechette were apparently setting up some sort of sniper’s nest on top of a nearby building. No sight of Parian or Vista, but I assumed they would be far away from the actual fighting. I was surprised the local Wards doctrine had even allowed Vista onto the battlefield, considering she was constantly restricted from fighting villainous capes.

    Armsmaster and Legend were taking turns barking orders through the armband, but I wasn’t really paying attention, focused on the fact that our destination was someone smashed into the second story of a clothing store, mannequins and jackets spilling into the water below. Regretting that I have never learned to use a grappling hook, I hoofed it towards the store entrance. Come on, Prissmas or whatever your name is, try to hold on while I get up this fucking winding staircase, I hate pretentious stores with these narrow-- right, there you are!

    Shit’s fucked up,” Little Miss Priss (thank you, Wadjet!) told me in lieu of a greeting, limbs splayed around her on the pile of soaked clothing she was tangled in in, “Dislocated shoulder AND something crunched in my hip. I’m also stuck.”

    “Hold on,” I said, trying not to think that a lot of the shirts wrapped around her abdomen were stained red, “Can you still feel the dislocated arm?”

    “Yeah, just not move it much. But!” she added triumphantly, clearly dizzy with shock and blood loss, “I’ve finally managed to lick my elbow! Gonna shut that asshole Derek right up along with his damned double-jointed -- OW, SHIIIT--

    While she was ranting, Carlsson and I maneuvered her arm into a good position and crunched it back into place, interrupting her and, apparently, dislodging something in her hip.

    “For fuck’s sake, do something!” she yelped hysterically as I gestured for Carlsson to free her arms from the cloth and went to work on her lower body as the white of her costume became increasingly darker red.

    “Open fracture, shit,” I hissed through my teeth before yanking my confoam canister out. “Hold on, this is gonna feel fucked up.”

    “Wait, what are you--” she tried to protest before I tied a couple of shirts round her waist, trying not to jolt her too much, and began filling the enclosed space they formed with confoam. I paused, added two more round her upper legs, poured on some more. As a result, she was immobilized from the chest down, the shirts holding the foam in place and the foam holding her everything inside of her. I didn’t even notice the stream of profanity that erupted from her once we lifted her up as I hooked my arms under her shoulders and Carlsson took the glob of foam.

    Sham down, CD-5. Woebegone deceased, CD-5…

    “We’re not getting her down that staircase, ma’am,” he noted dryly.

    “Wasn’t gonna,” I protested, pulling them both over to the shattered window, ignoring Priss’s swears of protest. She didn’t want to get tossed out of a window for some reason. “Relax,” I snapped at her, “See the water below? We’re tossing you into that pothole, so that the water and the confoam will cushion your fall. Or we can leave you here.”

    “Shit, I hope Panacea survives this, I really don’t want to wear a burquini to the beach for the rest of my liiiiiiiii--”

    Again, I interrupted her rant with trying to save her life. She landed in the crater made by some sort of explosion and filled with the slush of rain and seawater with a loud splash but no notable increase in swear intensity. Why did so many people forget that containment foam floats when solidified?

    We rushed down the motherfucking stairs just in time to see our rescuee wiggle her way out of the water and roll ungainly down the side of the crater into the rushing water of the street. The thought that she’s a Blaster tried to make itself known to me.

    “Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE!” I growled as I ran after her before she got swept away, “Can’t you just STAY STILL?!”

    Wave incoming!

    The armband’s warble was just in time as I saw Priss hook herself on an open car door to keep from floating away. She was beyond cursing and was now simply muttering angrily, her costume a mess of small tears, some of them bloodied now.

    “Ma’am?” Carlsson asked cautiously, gesturing at his armband. Belatedly I realized that I had a better option, directing Finist to swivel from showing me me to showing me the direction of the fight. It wasn’t pretty, as the wave has already passed the ruined Boardwalk as I reached Priss and the car she was clinging to.

    “Hold the fuck on!” I yelled at her, getting riled up myself from the rude way she’s been treating us, as I stepped up to her backwards, kneeled and grabbed her hands over my shoulders. “Carlsson, the bar!”

    He reacted well, doing an awkward 180 and rushing to the small set of stairs leading to a bar entrance. The door resisted his attempts as I was already by the foot of the stairs and could hear the onrushing wave coming up the street. He kicked it in and stepped in and aside quickly to let me collapse through the door and out of the water, Priss collapsing on top of me with a hiss of pain. However much foam I put on her, she was still hurt badly inside of it and tossing her around like a beach ball did her no good.

    Chubster down, CD-5. Good Neighbor deceased, CD-5. Hallow deceased, CD-5. Krieg down. CD-4.

    “C’mon you two, we have to move, they’re moving back this way,” Carlsson huffed, rolling Priss off my back. I stood up wearily, looking at my reflection in the bar’s mirrored entry arch, finding that half the ablative paint on my face was gone already, silvery streaks of the bare material shining through. Fuck.

    I raised my arm to my face again, happy to see that at least the paint on my forearm was still there.

    “We need a pickup for Little Miss Priss, she’s got a broken pelvis and possibly spinal damage,” I spoke into my armband, “We’re currently inside MacLaren’s pub up on Carson street, over.”

    Another confirmation ping.

    I scanned through the walls, trying to figure out where Skitter went. Dragon was seemingly locked in melee with Leviathan (the overhead view made it look more like ‘being torn apart’ rather than ‘engaged in melee’ but that’s unprofessional talk), while multiple capes were using the distraction to pelt him with all they’ve got. That didn’t seem to faze him all that much.

    “Why are you staring at that wall?” someone behind me asked. I turned around. Priss, right side up again, was fidgeting in place, her face, surprisingly intact for what she’d gone through, was in what a kinder person would have called an ‘inquisitive’ stare but what I liked to call the ‘none of my business but maybe you’ll answer anyway’ stare.

    “My scanners let me see through walls, plus I can see the armband-wearing capes as motes of light even when the backscatter is off,” I explained patiently, switching off Finist’s view for now, I was starting to get cross-eyed from using only one to navigate.

    Have to keep her awake, no coma for you, little miss Little Miss!

    “Neat! All I can do is shoot little blasts that make things fall apart,” she replied sullenly. Carlsson’s marker told me he was taking a bathroom break. How can he-- ah, right, just returned from patrol. “Doesn’t work on living things though, which is actually good? But does work on their clothes if they have any. Boy, that was fun…”

    Great, just great. I’m stuck in a place I can’t legally be in with a pervert. Suddenly, I was very glad she was immobile. Carlsson emerged from the bathroom, adjusting his pants and huffing.

    “What’s the verdict, ma’am?” he asked, his deference beginning to grate me. Then again, I have stepped up, haven’t I? Why did I still feel useless?

    Hew deceased, CD-5. Strapping Lad down, CD-5. Intrepid down, CD-5.

    That’s why.


    “Keep watch on her,” I nodded in Priss’s direction, she started whining again while we were talking, “I should be marked on your armband with a blue marker, once you’re free, look me up if you can. I’m gonna try and meet up with my team.”

    “What was your power again?” he asked, stepping after me as I rechecked Mjölnir in its holster and the charge on the confoam canister.

    “Social Thinker,” I replied, grinning through my helmet, not that he could see it. “So before you say anything else: I’m fifteen. The best you can offer me is a coffee in the PRT cafeteria.

    “For fuck’s sake, this is no time for flirting!” Priss called out from behind him.

    “I was actually going to ask who trained you,” I couldn’t see his face but he sounded apologetic, “The press release said you got PRT Trooper training?”

    “Martinez, actually,” I replied, stepping back out into the rain, “Take it up with her!”

    He waved at me and stepped back inside as I ran towards the fray, stabbing the armband’s buttons again.

    “Next target please,” I huffed out, checking off the names I could see. Taylor was doing CPR to Chubster, the poor guy seemed to be really out of it. I was directed to somewhere beyond the sidewalk she was kneeling on, so I decided to help, make sure she didn’t spend the rest of the day attending to the guy that weighed more than both of us put together.

    I could see Sophia and Flechette shooting Leviathan from their perch, Sophia’s phased arrows doing fuck-all like most Blasters below 6 did, but Flechette’s needle-like bolts penetrated deep into the Endbringer’s hide, as did Narwhal’s forcefields. The beast was bleeding from a wound in his neck, one the Canadian heroine tore open, but didn’t seem too bothered by it.

    I kneeled by Taylor’s side, patted her back as she paused from trying to make Chubster breathe again.

    “I see you’re attempting CPR. Would you like some help with that?” I asked as cheerfully as I could. Taylor jumped slightly.

    Gah, you scared the shit out of me, you bitch!” she growled back, some resentment clearly still lingering in her. Was it easier for her to think of me as Emma? Some semblance of her, of our friend back? Not the time to dwell on that. It was easy to see how she gathered herself up, collecting her anger and shoving it down. We may look different, but on the inside we’re still the same. “Can’t get him in the recovery position, he’s too heavy.”

    “Got it. Keep track of his head, don’t let him breathe water,” I replied, shifting position. She grunted angrily in response but didn’t object. Kneeling to the other side of the downed cape, I touched my way down his side, grabbing hold of an armor plate’s edge and pulled, shifting it into a rolling kind of push. Beyond Skitter, I could see that some flier named Aquila (isn’t that just Latin for Eagle?), has touched down near Carlsson’s location, probably to free him from Priss’s foul-mouthed presence.

    Chubster rolled over to the side, started coughing up water and things I’d rather not think about and I could see my cousin (guess I should stick to thinking about her like that, get used to it and all) visibly unclench at the sight of him regaining his breathing. But because we can’t have nice things, of course at that moment--

    Tidal wave!

    A flurry of activity unrelated to Leviathan spun up, Narwhal setting up fields between the crowd and the direction of the coast, and Shielder yelled to gather ‘round him, and so we shook Chubster to near-wakefulness and pulled him up together and penguin-walked him towards the New Wave cape as I saw the wave making its devastating progress across the city through my drone.

    Shielder put up his shield with nary a second to spare as the water crashed against it, smashing people and debris alike into the blue field. I felt Chubster’s hand tighten around my shoulder, Taylor’s breath hitching told me he did the same to her.

    Thank you, both of you,” he rasped, coughing up some more water, as we saw a huge dark shape swim past us through the water as Shielder fell to his knees, the strain of keeping up against a force of nature clearly getting to him.

    Heavy casualties, please wait
    , a chorus of identical voices announced, coming from the armbands of everyone within the maskless hero’s shield. This meant the losses were too much for Dragon’s system to handle? Shit, did Priss make it out okay? I wasn’t watching the feed! Wait, Carlsson was out in the open--

    The surging water stopped suddenly, a misty fog in its place. No, not fog, steam. Through it we could vaguely see Myrrdin and Eidolon doing something in the middle of the street, one evaporating the water and the other directing it away, shaping it into a ball above his head. Almost as if by-- no, I’m not saying it.

    Leviathan dropped down from a nearby building, his claws ripping through cape and concrete alike, as he made great use of the disorientation all of us suffered after the wave, some reeling in shock at the sudden attack, some still worn out from holding up the forcefields for so long. I felt more than saw as Chubster let go of us and took a hazy step forward, then another, then, with a roar, his voice still raspy, he reached his hands out before him, pulling a half-torn building down on Leviathan with whatever it was his power actually did, once it was clear nobody in the group the Endbringer had rushed survived.

    This brought a moment of respite for everyone involved as activity resumed, people scattering from the street while Myrrdin directed the ball he was creating at Leviathan, impacting his face right as he emerged from the ruins of the building Chubster brought down. It sheared off a fragment of the Endbringer’s face, wiping out two of his eyes as if with an eraser, sending him toppling head over heels, the hardest I’ve seen him hit thus far.

    “Try to hem him in towards us,” a voice came over the armbands, “We’re can’t allow him to escape to recover!” Chevalier, I realized, it was Chevalier speaking.

    All the capes still able to resumed their attacks, throwing, shooting, zapping, casting, shouting, even spitting, most of them trying to focus on one side of the Endbringer as he slowly got up, reforming his afterimage.

    He wasn’t merely standing in the ruins of a residential building, he was standing knee-deep in the dead, crumpled forms of capes, heroes and villains alike, scattered around it, most of them killed by the wave. It didn’t merely cut our number more than by half, it ravaged the entire city around us, as buildings were left torn open, some of them collapsed. Offices, stores, restaurants, homes, broken, ruined, their contents, the paraphernalia of people’s lives spilling out of them, as if the lifeblood of the city was draining out of a wound ever so slowly.

    More forcefields popped up around Leviathan, trying to cut off possible ways for it to leave, allowing a specific corridor between the ruined buildings in the direction Chevalier indicated. He struck a forcefield, watching it shatter like glass, and another quickly reformed before it. I saw more fliers swoop in to sift through the broken bodies on the street as the armbands came to life again.

    Losses are as follows: Debaser, Ascendant, Gallant, Zigzag, Prince of Blades, Vitiator, Humble, Halo, Whirlygig, Night, Crusader, Uglymug, Victor, Furrow, Barker, Elegance, Quark, Pelter, Snowflake, Carlsson, Mama Bear, Mister Eminent, Lady Photon, Biter…

    I roared in impotent rage, startling Skitter who was standing next to me, equally dumbstruck by the devastation so casually brought on by the Endbringer. Shielder's power dropped as he did, slamming his fist into the concrete with a cry of despair. Then Taylor's quiet wail joined mine.

    …Cloister, Narwhal, Vixen, Flashbang, The Dart, Geomancer, Oaf, Tattletale…

    Who was Carlsson to me? A chance encounter. Tattletale was her Amy. Her new best friend to replace the ravaged hole in our soul left when Sophia ripped Emma out. I reached out, put a hand on her shoulder.

    “That’s casualties,” I said softly, “She may not actually be dead.”

    She shook my hand off, glared at me. It looked like she was trying to work through the emotions she was feeling but then she gathered herself up again. I could see the emotion drain out of her form, as if she was-- wait, she’s not doing it through her insects, is she? I felt motion on the back of my head, which nearly panicked me before I remembered the spiders she put there.

    “Skitter!” I called out, “Let me help you! Did you want to find her?”

    The last thing I needed right now was for her to lose herself and go do something suicidally stupid. She shook her head, turning her attention to her armband instead. Then her hand dropped down uselessly. It took me a moment to realize why: she wanted to go help save someone, but the overloaded system stopped tasking us. She looked up back at me as the air around us shook with a series of powerful explosions. Leviathan, still hemmed in, was being bombarded by Miss Militia using some sort of grenade launcher, its shape glowing green every time she fired. She’s using her power to reload it, I realized before we saw another flash of green as Eidolon surrounded himself with a myriad of sparks, enveloping most of the relatively-intact bodies scattered around us and then vanishing along with them.

    It was at that moment that Leviathan cut the Gordian knot and walked out of his improvised prison through a wall of one of the buildings, leaving more debris in his wake, one wall of the building collapsing on a group of close-range capes.

    Brandish down, CD-6. Karakuri deceased, CD-6.

    Everyone still on our street rushed to follow, except for Shielder, who decided that he didn’t want his aunt to join his uncle and mother. As we rounded the corner, the scene was a vague repeat of what happened before: forcefields blocked Leviathan’s path on most sides, Sundancer’s sun, already almost as big as the Endbringer itself, on another, reaching a point where it started to do collateral damage to the buildings around it.

    “Care!” Miss Militia cried out, “Fire in the hole!”

    She resumed firing from the grenade launcher, but no longer reloading with her power. I flashed back to the reports: the Protectorate seized a large stash of Bakuda’s bombs, many of them were specced to 20mm grenade launchers, she even used one herself. The first grenade left the Endbringer slathered in sticky golden string of some sort, the second sheared off parts of its shoulder and the third… the third created a sphere of shimmering air within which everything seemed to slow down. The flow of water, and Leviathan’s leg caught in it, seemed to move slower and slower.

    He pulled on his leg, trying to get free, when somebody called out “Don’t let him escape before it sets!” and everyone who was still standing opened fire, set forcefields, threw debris, all trying to do what my voice told them to.

    What? Did I yell that? Did Skitter?

    And then he was stuck, a part of his right leg in permanent stasis in a Bakuda-made reproduction of what looked like Grey Boy’s time-stop effect. And then he whipped his tail into the crowd of capes that wasn’t far enough, his afterimage reaching out a bit further, throwing some capes aside, hooking several others up with the tail, tossing them into the time-stop bubble.

    Jotun deceased, CD-6. Dauntless down, CD-6. Armsmaster deceased, CD-6. Morningstar deceased, CD-6.

    His afterimage didn’t stop, however, moving further out, slashing a watery scythe across his assailants.

    Miss Militia down, CD-6.

    Menja and Browbeat moved forth, trying to smash him while he was immobile, but he sent a pickup truck flying in their direction, bowling the giantess over as he started pulling on his leg harder. Skitter and I rushed in, unanimous in our decision to help Miss Militia get up from the side of the bus Leviathan’s swipe smashed her into.

    Menja down, CD-6.

    There was an ear-splitting scream and a crack of a building crumbling as the giant's twin sister howled her pain and rage, jumping from the top of an office building. The force of the impact briefly drove the monster down a few feet, but before it could try and throw her off, she started slamming her spear into its head and neck over and over, leaving bleeding holes all over its backside.

    Militia was a mess, an elbow turned the wrong way around, gouges in her legs left by bits of the bus’s torn-up side that she went through, her hair scattered around her face, her expression unfocused. Skitter picked up her bandanna from where it fell on the floor, tied it back across her face.

    “T-thank you, Taylor,” Miss Militia slurred out, eyes slightly glazed, “I’m Ha-Hannah--”

    She was cut off by Fenja's scream and a deafening impact as an arm the size of a bus slammed into the ground not twenty feet from us, the giantess following shortly after. She cradled her stump as she shrank in size, the tail of the monster cracking through the air exactly like a whip. The Echo that followed it carved laser-fine gashes into buildings, trees, cars... and people, I winced as I noticed the bone sticking out of the severed arm looked like it could be used to slice steel, so fine was the cut.

    Fenja down, CD-6. Nature's Child deceased, CD-6. Chimichanga down, CD-6.

    I shook myself out of it, contemplation of Leviathan's power could wait for later, right now there were bigger fish to fry... like that I could feel movement in my hair and that Skitter looked to be trying to burn a hole in my armor with her glares. I cleared my throat.

    “Ma'am, I alrea-”

    “H-hi, Taylor," she slurred, turning to me, “H-have you m-met Rose?” She leaned towards Taylor, “She looks just like you,” she stage-whispered. Then she twitched her shoulder and winced. “Why does my arm hurt?”

    Legend down, CD-6.

    Both Taylor and I turned at that, seeing the melee has moved on, only the dead and the time-locked left where we could see. Leviathan was nowhere in sight, but it looked like he left a chunk of his right foot in the time bubble along with Armsmaster and the others.

    “We have to fix her arm up,” I said, breaking the sudden stillness punctuated by Miss-- Hannah’s ragged breathing, “Can you check the joint?”

    Taylor didn't move, staring at me.

    “What did she mean by that,” she whispered, not even bothering to give the question an inflection.

    I had been less than fifty feet from a creature that had single-handedly sunk Newfoundland and a healthy fraction of Japan. I didn't feel as much fear as I did in that exact moment.

    “She's being literal,” I nodded towards the concussed heroine, “And I will explain. It is phenomenally complicated, and we WILL talk later assuming we get out of this, but I think that right now we have bigger fish to fry," I sounded exasperated, repeating myself, but to be fair I was having a really, really bad day so far. "So if you don't mind, I think we have a job to do?”

    Taylor nodded, moving to the heroine’s right side as I fished out my confoam canister again. Unsanitary, sure, but still, a plugged wound was better than a leaking one. She hissed louder as I gave her legs funny-shaped bands of foam and held them up till they would harden to a point where Taylor and I could carry her without sticking to her ourselves.

    “No bones broken, but a severe dislocation, and ligaments torn,” Taylor reported, “Before we can sling it, we’ll have to put it back into place.”

    “Get her something to bite down on, I’ll do it.”

    “I can do that myself,” Hannah protested, her eyes a little clearer, the green glow of her power providing an escrima stick which Taylor promptly helped her bite down on. I twisted and pulled. She screamed, a raw, animal sound that nearly drowned out the armband’s announcement.

    Shielder down, CD-6. Laserdream down, CD-6.

    Fuuuuck,” I exhaled, unhooking Hannah’s waist flag and tying it off around her neck into an improvised sling into which we carefully maneuvered her wounded arm. She switched her stick out into a cane (does a cane count as a weapon or is it a sword cane?) and protested when we tried to help her beyond getting her upright.

    “He’s slaughtering us,” Taylor whispered, barely audible above the incessant rain. “Like we don’t matter.”

    “We don’t-- ugh-- matter, not really,” Hannah replied, wincing as she stepped over the threshold of the bus’s normal entryway where we lead her, “Endbringers always have a specific target, we’re just rarely aware of it even after the fact.”

    Sundancer down, CD-7.

    Belatedly, I reactivated my view of Finist, hoping Dragon made use of its vantage point. The gaggle of the last capes standing against Leviathan chased him near the bank building, which he used to prop himself up because one of his legs was now shorter than the other. That didn’t deter him from using his afterimages to keep them away even with Othala surprisingly taking a frontline role to empower other capes. Why would she? She’s more useful as a healer-- Victor. Victor was on the unspecified casualty list. Shit, I hope to hell and back Amy stayed in the hospital.

    And then he did what nobody seemed to expect, dumping all the water in his afterimage into a wave that ran down the street all the way to us, tossing the capes aside. I threw Miss Militia in front of me, ignoring her grunt of pain, allowing her cover behind a brownstone’s entry staircase as I myself grabbed hold of the wrought-iron railing on its side, looking behind me…

    Skitter down, CE-6.

    Oh my god.
     
  16. Threadmarks: Responder 2.03
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Responder 2.03

    [Rose]​

    As I collapsed bonelessly onto the flagstones next to the bloodied form of Miss Militia, I had two thoughts on my mind. Fervent prayers of gratitude to the nameless ironmonger that made the metal whatchamacallit that may have just saved my life, and equally frenzied prayers that Taylor was okay.

    “Ma’am, are you alright?” I managed to force out, trying to stand up, carefully working the joints in my arms. It seemed I hadn’t dislocated anything but my right arm was a mess of pain regardless, the strain on my muscles too significant. In addition, as I checked myself over, thankful the spidermesh was intact, I realized most of the ablative paint was gone. I looked more like a robot now, the armor segments a sandblasted mirror surface with the occasional pockmark where the debris carried by the wave has struck me. There were multiple small rents on my rightside plates, but the real action was on my left, complete with a deep gash on the forearm segment and across the left of my chestplate, complete with a corner chipped off. That will be a pain and a half to replace. Guess I’m back to wearing castoffs again...

    “Been… better… but I will live… to be better…” Miss Militia grunted with effort, working through some sort of mantra, with her power giving her a bo staff instead of the cane which she used to straighten herself as she tried to stand.

    I stood up straight, surveying the damage around me. It looked as if someone took a belt sander to everything in this street, from the shorn-off lampposts and cars stripped of paint like I was and to capes whose costumes were lacking in armor paneling. Curiously, Fenja's severed arm was gone. Leviathan himself was nowhere to be seen, so I had to prioritize.

    “Gonna check on Skitter, will you be okay in here?” I asked the heroine and she nodded in response, her face loaded with effort. I had Finist do a sweep of the area, pointing out to Dragon which capes were still moving despite having been reported as dead, and one name caught my attention.

    Hannah,” I hissed, trying to put a stopper in my excitement, “Colin’s still moving, could you please check on him? Looks like he’s stuck in the time bubble, but not all the way in.” I winced at my accidental slip of Armsmaster’s name -- she didn’t need to know in advance that I had the lowdown on each of Brockton Bay’s protectorate members, from Ethan and Sam to Robin and Nate.

    She lit up at that, moving with purpose-- well, hobbling with purpose, my confoam on her legs got in the way of faster movement, but still. Purpose. I followed her example, starting at a light jog down the street in the direction the wave must have carried Taylor-- and where Wadjet was telling me her armband was still active, surrounded by others, meaning it was still attached to an arm with a pulse and someone may be helping her. Okay, that was needlessly morbid right now. She probably has both arms still attached, considering our suits are similarly made.

    Then I tripped, righted myself, tripped again. Paused. I saw that I had just tripped over someone’s leg. Legs. The someone themselves was conspicuously absent. Cursing my half-finished breakfast, I stifled the urge to throw up and pressed onwards.

    I passed what looked like a lattice of blades, torn apart, apparently while I was out of it, Kaiser had tried to stop the Endbringer from leaving. Wait, the battle went right past us?! How long was I out? Panic rising, I sped up, following Skitter’s signal.

    Then I rounded a corner and saw the most bizarre sight imaginable. Leviathan was standing still in the middle of what used to be a small park square (I vaguely recalled there was supposed to be a fountain where his intact leg now stood), silent, unmoving, his afterimage equally stuck right behind him. Within it I could vaguely make out a familiar form. Shit, Dennis!

    The ramshackle group gathered in front of the improvised statue was shouting at each other, not seeming to bother with the Ward that was about to drown. I saw Kaiser erecting more blades around the Endbringer’s feet as Myrrdin and Eidolon were generating glowing bands of energy in the air around him, white and red respectively, presumably to restrict his movement once he unfroze and hopefully inflict some more damage.

    “Clockblocker down, CE-6! Need a teleporter to get him free, stat!” I screamed into my armband, continuing my jog towards the gathering and the red ping in my HUD. I saw Trickster pop into the crowd, looking around for directions, so I flipped my visor open and put my hands together in front of my mouth.

    “Clockblocker, inside the water clone!” I yelled, “Swap him!” God, I hope my intel on his power was good.

    He turned to me, nodded, then did something with one of the bodies lying at the edge of the park. Clockblocker’s white outline within the water was replaced by a black one, while the class clown of the Wards East-North-East popped into being at the feet of the Travelers’ leader. Someone immediately bent down to help him, as I felt my heart stop. The red signal was somewhere among those bodies… there! She was sitting, back leaning against a trashcan, probably someone had carried and put her down there.

    The curse froze on my lips as Leviathan resumed moving, burned himself against the rings of power set up by the country’s most powerful capes, started flailing, his afterimage following suit. As it shifted, I saw the body Trickster replaced Clockblocker with fall out its side, thankfully away from my general direction. I didn’t have time to ruminate on that as Leviathan’s tail swung my way, forcing me to drop to the ground as fast as I could, making me exude an undignified yelp as I felt something crack. Goodbye, fair ribs, may Valhalla welcome you-- wait, that wasn’t my ribs.

    Mjölnir’s harness gave up the ghost, the collision with a twist of metal, likely more pieces of Kaiser’s blades, had sliced the paracord. I gathered it up, restringing and reclipping it into a belted holster, as automatically as I had done countless times before during my self-imposed drills. Take that, Dennis, you smug-- no, not when he’s lying right there.

    Not even bothering to pay attention to the giant monster that was trying to scatter the remaining capes with his afterimage while it tried to break through its improvised prison -- a metal ping against my helmet told me that Kaiser’s barricade was likely torn apart now -- I kneeled before Taylor onto what little was left of the grass. She wasn’t awake. I roared another curse, rolled her mask halfway up her face to make sure she didn’t throw up in it, then hoisted her up into a fireman’s carry and set off at a brisk pace away from the fighting.

    I risked a glance sideways, confused by the lack of armband notifications, as I saw that the rings were down, but Leviathan was still stuck, beating himself uselessly against multiple overlaid forcefields, blue and orange and teal and more blue. Bastion, the hero that landed on the news recently for his racist remarks, and a few others assigned to the forcefield group with him, were repeating their earlier trick. It wouldn’t hold the Endbringer for long, I knew, but it bought more time for Eidolon to pull off another mass-teleport with the bodies, except this time the effect was a reddish glow instead of golden sparks.

    The ones left behind were the few surviving frontline fighters that were expected to do something against Leviathan when it came to that. I recognized Manpower, Glory Girl, Hookwolf, Aegis, a monstrous shape I presumed to be Genesis considering the presence of other Travelers, and eight capes I didn’t recognize. Behind them stood two of Parian’s inflated cloth figures, but I didn’t bother looking for the doll cape herself. Hopefully, she had a good vantage point.

    Before turning back onto the street with the time bubble, I spared another glance at the standoff just in time to see Leviathan swing his tail through a building.

    Bastion deceased, CE-6. Hexagon deceased, CE-6. Herald down, CE-6, Escutcheon down, CE-6.

    That was a troubling development, like before with Miss Militia. He was smart enough to localize the threat to his continued rampage. The battle was joined, as the frontline fighters were trying to do something to stall him from going after the Blasters and other ranged capes (is Flechette a Shaker or a Blaster? I can’t remember…).

    “Taylor, please tell me you’re okay,” I said to the girl I was carrying, “Because we have to get out of here right fucking now.”

    She stirred, her sputter halfway from retching to the word Fuck, and turned her head to face me. I gave her a weak smile and a thumbs up, realizing my visor was still up. I could see her scowl as she reached her hands up to roll her mask down her face.

    Escutcheon deceased, CE-6.

    “Wass gowin ohn?” she breathed out unsteadily as I shifted position to keep her from sliding off me, jolting her slightly.

    “Clockblocker froze Leviathan but got knocked out for his trouble, then it all went to shit,” I explained, totally not ruining the moment by wiping my own mouth from the spittle I suddenly was aware of. “Before we could get ready, the freeze timed out.”

    Kid Win down, CE-6.

    What? Where was he even-- I began to wonder before the hoverboard and its owner clattered onto the pavement in front of us, Alternator Cannon still attached.

    “Shit! Check on him?” I hissed, rushing to the board. I lowered Taylor to the ground, glad she could stand on her own, however gingerly. I blanked on the two times my Chris showed me how to fly the damn thing, but I didn’t need it to be aloft to fire the gun, I hoped, because the trajectory of his fall meant the fight was following us. Up ahead I could see Miss Militia tugging on what I guessed Armsmaster would look like after a date with a grindstone, the Tinker’s armor likely partially or completely non-functional, just a weight holding him down now rather than enhancing his strength and speed.

    A flash of green told me they decided to give it up as I saw Miss Militia raise a vaguely Oriental sword above her head and brought it down on something I couldn’t see behind Armsmaster. His grunt of pain told me all I needed to know.

    “Can’t tell if--” she paused to cough, curse, then cough again, “--anything’s broken, but the armor seems intact, and he’s still breathing.”

    Good,” was all I could say as I wrested the cannon-and-hoverboard combo into an upright position, just in time to see Leviathan head back our way again, something clutched in his hands.

    Kaiser down, CE-6, the armband informed me just in time for the upper half of Tzar-Nazi’s body to flop into the water in front of us, drawing out more swearing, almost in unison. Wait, 'down'? What is this guy MADE of?

    I risked a glance at Skitter, she was glaring at me again. Finist told me the rest of the hunting party was following Leviathan as he moved towards us. Was he running… or chasing US?

    “Danger close!” I yelled into my armband, hoping the fliers would take the hint, “Firing path down Dirk street!”

    Not bothering to dwell on it further, I angled the cannon upwards, hoping I figured the power dial out enough to give it 50% charge until I could sight it in, and depressed the double-action triggers. A beam of something fierce slammed into Leviathan’s chest briefly, leaving a glowing gash that lost its reddish tint as it cooled. My teeth bared in what was the best approximation of Director Piggot #2, "You WILL NOT enjoy this", that I could muster under the circumstances, I dialed the power to full and finally closed my visor.

    Finist was above me now, showing me myself, Skitter pulling Kid Win towards a brownstone’s entryway like the one that saved me and Hannah earlier, Armsmaster striding purposefully towards me from behind, one Halberd in his intact hand, another on his back, Miss Militia hobbling towards a service vehicle crashed into a wall just beyond the time bubble. Beyond the Endbringer I could see the shapes of what Wadjet told me were Glory Girl and Aegis in flight, but without moving Finist, I couldn’t make out who was who on the ground. What confused me was the absence of Parian’s figures -- did they go down or did Leviathan move beyond her range, wherever she was?

    No matter. I just hope he doesn’t fall over and crush someone from this.

    The charger signal pinged, one second after I rolled the slider all the way up, the adrenaline pounding in my temples, as with a final What the fuck am I doing?! and an indistinct growl, I fired the cannon again.

    The beam’s brightness blinded me, as I stubbornly held on to the triggers. I had the beam aimed at center mass, and the Endbringer showed no sign of trying to dodge when I fired -- either suicidally overconfident in his ability to tank it or too certain he would reach me before I would cut loose -- so I hoped I was still pouring the beam into him, when a burning sensation in my hands told me that something was going terribly wrong.

    I was wrenched off my feet, thrown aside by what felt like the cannon exploding rather than Leviathan striking me, before a sharp impact first to my back and then to my head told me gravity was still angry at me over that incident with Vertigo last month and was all too willing to pay me back even across dimensions. Maybe it knew I was here, and followed me, waiting for the best time to enact its vengeance?

    No, wait, that’s probably the concussion talking.

    Emissary down, CD-6, I
    heard someone else’s armband say before blacking out.

    ------​

    [Taylor]​

    As much as it hurt to walk on my own, I still preferred it to the undignified way that overconfident idiot with my face carried me like I was a sack of potatoes. When she rushed towards the cannon on Kid Win’s hoverboard I recognized from the bank, it became clear she was actually suicidally overconfident.

    As she wrestled with the Tinkertech gun, I heaved and pulled and cursed and pulled again, trying to move the cannon’s red-and-gold plated creator to a relatively safe distance from it and my whoever-she-was. Counterpart? Doppelgänger? Creepy stalker?

    I couldn’t help but notice that she felt like all the Undersiders rolled into one: Brian’s muscle mass and almost military body language, Lisa’s tongue and ability to pull information you’d thought was buried where no-one would look right outta her ass, Alec’s crude humor and thick skin, Rachel’s stubborn determination and alien system of values and my face and, likely, hair as well, based on what little I saw of it and what my spiders could tell me. Her costume looked different now, too, but flecks of green here and there and the deep gouges in some of the plating told me the story: she must’ve weathered the wave that blew me away.

    As I stewed in my thoughts, I reached out with my power. The buildings in this area were mostly intact, so they had to have-- there! I gathered what few insects I could from around me, hiding out in dry areas and indoors. I directed them to scout, placing several spare flies inside Emissary’s back armor plate, and making sure to pack as much as I could into Leviathan’s open wounds -- I will not get blindsided again.

    Then the idiot was yelling something I couldn’t quite make out into her armband, broadcasting? -- I checked my silent armband for damage but it didn’t look even scuffed too badly -- and then the world went white. Whatever it was she did to Kid Win’s cannon, it was likely not the intended use, as the beam felt like it was going to give me sunburn just from looking at it. Nevertheless, all that output must have counted for something as it looked like it punched clean through Leviathan’s side, leaving a gash between what passed for his ribs, before cutting out.

    And by ‘cutting out’ I mean ‘the cannon blew up in her face’. Shit, did she close that mask thing? Where did she go?

    Emissary down, CD-6, I heard someone else’s armband say, confirming my fear - my map was working but the sound was shot. The someone else in question turned out to be Armsmaster, who strode past me, giving a cursory glance at Kid Win’s prone form at my feet.

    “He’s alive,” I croaked, for some reason sounding apologetic. He gave me an inscrutable look and ambled past, doing something with his free hand. Belatedly, I realized it was bloodied, apparently missing all his fingers but the thumb, and as he was holding a Halberd in his right, he was limited to pressing the buttons on his wrist-computer-thing with said thumb. It didn’t look comfortable. Then again, it didn't seem to faze him either. I finagled an earthworm onto his boot and a few sets of mosquitoes into crevices and nooks on his armor. He was going into direct combat, I needed to make sure I could track him if need be. I was wary of him now, between the words we’d had during the fight at the Gallery and beyond it, and the weird look he just gave me… better safe than sorry.

    I pulled Kid Win up to a sitting position, resting his back into the corner between the brownstone’s wall proper and its impressive entryway stairs -- this would give him some cover at least, I’d seen her -- Rose -- do the same with Miss Militia earlier. Finally convinced I could leave the Ward unattended, I stood up to survey the battle… only to see it wasn’t here anymore.

    Who are you in the dark? I wondered, checking for the insect markers I’d spread, noting that Armsmaster was trying to pursue Leviathan who was, presumably, now pursuing some other target after he pretty much caused Emissary to self-destruct trying to beat him. Idiot.

    She only had the one spider in her helmet left alive on her, and even so it was on the helmet now, not inside of it. Her backplate must have come loose when she fell. I found her across the street, half-buried in the hood of a car that was awkwardly angled upwards due to a half-destroyed section of the road from someone’s powers - it looked distinctly like the result of an explosion and Leviathan didn’t do explosions.

    Planting my foot against the bent front fender, I pulled on her arm to dislodge her from the idiot-shaped imprint in the car, clearly too angry to articulate my irritation with her. She held secrets I needed to know, and I wasn’t letting her die before she’d spill them to me, one way or another. I had her halfway out of the car when she jolted like she jammed a fork in a toaster and began to furiously try to free herself.

    “Lemme out,” she groaned, shaking her head as she tried to extract her other arm. I rolled my eyes, what, exactly, did she think I am doing?

    I helped her sit down on the curb next to the car, the air around eerily quiet aside from the pattering of the rain.

    “Geroff,” she protested incoherently, struggling to free her arm from my grip, then held it up to her temple in a weird gesture that looked like she was using it… as a keyboard? How did that even work?

    “What are you doing? Didn’t you say we gotta move?” I asked, incredulous with her odd behavior.

    “Sa-saving Aegis,” she stammered, hammering the side of her helmet, “My d-drone is overseeing the fight. They moved towards the Docks. Let’s follow.”

    Aegis down, CC-7.

    “That didn’t sound like saving,” I protested, my voice reproachful, as I helped her get up to her feet once she let go of her head.

    “It’s a world of difference to a regenerator,” she said, waving her hand to someone to our side, “How much there’s left to regenerate from.”

    She stretched, and I could hear her vertebrae popping even through the rain. Shit. She’s a regenerator, like Aegis is. Did her drone stop Leviathan from killing him?

    A sudden roaring sound had me snap my head to the side, as an orange-marked truck rolled up to us, Miss Militia at the wheel.

    “Get in, girls, it’s time to catch up,” she said, her voice sounding as tired as I felt.

    Rose swung the passenger door open and climbed in, settling next to Miss-- Hannah. She told me her name so I wouldn’t freak out about having seen her face, addressed me by name to show she already knew who I am, like Rose said. How the fuck did they find out?

    I climbed in next, dwelling on another data point: with her backplate gone, Rose’s hair spilled out into my face, black and curly, just like mine. This all felt surreal, like we were about to drive into a red-curtained room with a dancing dwarf and a lady talking backwards.

    ‘She is my cousin. I feel like I know her. She is filled with secrets. Sometimes, my arms bend back.’
    The owls are not what they seem.
    I could never understand what that last one was supposed to mean. Seriously, fuck Lynch.


    We drove down the street, swerving around-- Was that Fenja's arm? What was it doing here? --then made a turn, then another. On approach to the Docks, however, a bright flash lit up the sky. Two of our three armbands immediately chimed in:

    Heavy casualties, please wait.

    Shit,” I muttered, dreading a repeat of the earlier butcher’s list. Were we too late? Miss Militia gunned the engine as we reached a relatively undamaged stretch of road, while Emissary fiddled with her helmet again. I tried to reach out with my swarms, feeling Armsmaster standing in front of Leviathan in a parking zone between warehouse buildings. They were surrounded by unmoving bodies. My heart fell as the armbands spoke up.

    Losses are as follows: Browbeat, Manpower, Hookwolf, Glory Girl, Shadow Stalker, Parian…

    It was my turn to place my hand on Rose’s shoulder when I heard her growl. She seemed to have three basic states: stone cold soldier, like Miss Militia, needling smart-ass, like Tattletale and… yeah, that’s why she reminded me of Bitch.

    “You said it yourself, they may not necessarily be dead,” I spoke softly as the truck made the turn before last. We could hear the sounds of fighting, yelling, a male voice… Armsmaster? He wasn’t on the list!

    “Dragon, that last one wasn’t a death report, all armbands within a certain radius failed at once,” I heard my voice -- Rose again -- speaking into her armband, “All but one. It coincided with some sort of explosion. Please make a note for review later?”

    “Acknowledged,” her armband replied in the same voice, but not pre-recorded. Dragon answered her personally?

    “Sitrep,” Miss Militia ordered, and while I fumbled through the meaning of the word, distracted by the sight of Aegis sticking out of a mound of containment foam stuck to the roof of a one-story building, Emissary spoke again.

    “Some of them are down but most are still fighting, primarily ranged,” she reported, making me realize the order was ‘situation report’ or something like that, “Armsmaster is engaging Leviathan directly, not getting hit, his combat prediction software, probably.” She paused, turned to Miss Militia. “How did you get him out? I thought you can’t pull out of a Grey Boy bubble?”

    “It wasn’t Grey Boy. More like Clockblocker,” I offered, and she turned back to me, “I’ve seen Bakuda use ones like this before. Tattletale said that to copy a parahuman’s power, Bakuda had to be able to look into it first. No Grey Boy victims in Brockton.” It was a little unnerving to stare directly into my own reflection in that now-bare-mirror visor of hers.

    “We pulled out as much of his arm as we could, like Leviathan did, but there was some sort of inverse-proportional thing in how Bakuda set up the effect,” Miss Militia finally replied, not taking her eyes off the road, “I had to cut his fingers off to free him. Once it was all out, he rebooted his armor, as it must have short-circuited due to the time-displacement. Get ready!” Miss Militia quipped as she sharply turned the wheel, squeezing the truck into a narrow gap between two long warehouse buildings.

    We sped out onto the lot where the action was, taking in as much of the situation as we could, although between us three Hannah was probably the most disadvantaged, as Rose had her drone flying overhead and I had my swarms flitting to and fro through the thinning rain. Wait, thinning? Does that mean…

    Both Armsmaster and Leviathan turned to face us, as another of Flechette’s bolts snapped into the Endbringer’s hide and got stuck there. He seemed pissed off by that fact, as he swiped at Armsmaster, sending the Tinker tumbling away separately from his so recenty de-fingered hand.

    Armsmaster down, CC-7.

    “Jump out, I’m ramming him!” Hannah barked as I scrambled to get the passenger door open and kick off to land in an awkward wet roll through the ankle-deep water of the lot, gritting my teeth in expectation of sudden hidden obstacles. Another splash told me Emissary landed nearby as two explosions went off in the general direction of the Endbringer. I chanced a look: the truck’s impact did little to Leviathan’s feet, but the rocket Miss Militia sent after it was enhanced by the shrapnel the truck was turned into and the fuel in its tank. Still didn’t faze him.

    In a repeat of his earlier performances, Leviathan gathered up the water around us, visibly draining the flooding level, bunching it up into a wave that sent Miss Militia careening into and through the wooden front of one of the warehouse buildings.

    Miss Militia down, CC-7.

    It stared at me, all four of its mismatched green eyes burning into mine. It twitched its head once, then it was in front of me. It reared on its hind legs and it's one remaining front leg raised up, cocking it back to strike down. Blasts, shots, and Brute hits from Armsmaster's group rained down on it, but it ignored them.

    And then he was looking at us. At me? And for the umpteenth time I asked myself, why did I even bother coming here? And for the umpteenth time I answered myself: because whatever my reputation. I wanted to help people, even if they didn’t want to help me. Except the idiot, of course.

    Who was suddenly standing between us, pulling something out of her hip holster, pointing it at the Endbringer’s face, making him pause in confusion at this defiance. I couldn't help but think of mom again, what with the way Rose was standing above me, her long wet hair splayed across her armor, that defiant pose and that voice...

    YOU CAN’T HAVE HER!” she roared and apparently pushed the trigger on the device and there was lightning coming from her hand and it was striking Leviathan in the face and there was a shower of gore and it was reeling and you utter idiot, who uses electric attacks when we’re in knee-deep water?! I thought as I blacked out once again.
     
  17. Threadmarks: Responder 2.04
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

    Joined:
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    Responder 2.04

    The monstrous head snapped back, one of its eyes exploding like a microwaved egg, the attacks of other capes driving him further off-balance. I could vaguely make out Skitter yelling something at me, but I didn’t hear it, adrenaline pumping blood through my veins, the hammering in my ears blocking out any other sound, despite the thinning rain. I more felt than heard Mjölnir’s report of an empty battery.

    Fuck, we’re immersed in water, why didn’t I-- right, the rain, the volume, Leviathan got the brunt of the attack, like a lightning rod, and I’m wearing a suit that’s not particularly-- NOT NOW!

    And then Leviathan paused, cocking its head as if listening to something, and turned away and then it hopped over a warehouse and was gone, leaving me to survey the charnel house around me. I was suddenly all too aware I was the last woman standing, as nobody fired at his departing back, nobody gave chase, the realization turning my blood cold again despite apparently scoring a critical hit on an Endbringer with no witnesses except my drone.

    No, wait, not all of them are dead, just their armbands. Skitter’s didn’t even report her as downed! Trigger event fainting? What is that--

    The rush of water out of the storm drains meant Leviathan had just done something big. I snapped back to words half-heard during the briefing while I was setting Finist up. Brockton Bay sits on an aquifer…

    I jabbed the armband again, moving towards Skitter as the water level in the parking lot began to rise.

    “Dragon, mass cape blackout in CC-7, possibly due to Trigger event. Leviathan departed AO, heading west, no, west-north-west,” I reported as I made my way to Skitter, yanking her out of the water, feeling dead on my feet from all the running and the panicking and the goddamn water and now she’s waterlogged too, completely soaked, was she this soaked when I carried her out of the park? “Please advise on possible targets.”

    “Acknowledged, please stand by, alerting possible intercept teams,” the armband responded as my ‘cousin’ began to come to.

    “Did anyone get the number of that donkey cart?” she asked, a lot less groggy than the last time. I let her go as she straightened her hair out, wiped her mask lenses, checked herself up and down again. She looked intact, if a little worn-out, but by that metric I envied her the miniscule rest she got when she was conked out. The cold dampness on the back of my head made me finally realize my own hair was loose and exposed to the elements, probably ever since the explosion of the cannon threw me around.

    “Sorry, Rincewind, that was a Trigger faint. And considering all of us here are already powered…” the lie slid easily off my tongue now. Better to hide my suddenly-realized advantage of dubious tactical worth for the time being.

    “Wait, what if everyone is already powered?” she repeated in confusion. Did she not know how second triggers… right, how would she?

    “Second Triggers are a thing, Skitter. I’ll explain when we have the time for it, ‘kay?” I tried to sound as relaxed as I could, because she was a coiled spring, looking past me to where the man she likely thought had betrayed her lay.

    The other capes around us were gathering up as well, some converging on Armsmaster’s messed-up form, and we were no different. Quickly, threads and fibers flew around him, sewing up his shoulder as much as was possible, with Parian doing what she could despite the rising water level. His armor was busted up, one segment looked as if a small explosion went off there. Was he the source of that EMP blast?

    Looking around me now, I saw that Sophia was still down, and Manpower’s slumped pose likely meant more terrible news for the New Wave movement. Shit, Vicky’s right here!

    “Glory Girl, could you please carry Armsmaster to the field hospital?” I heard James speak, calm as always. “We will assist your uncle, I do not think he can be moved yet.”

    Vicky nodded blankly, sparing a brief look at Manpower (I saw Flechette and Parian already hurrying towards him), then accepted Browbeat’s help in picking the Protectorate leader’s body out of the water. I followed her trajectory out via Finist while the following two things dropped into my head at once: Parian was the oldest cape still standing here but she was no leader material and there was no hide nor hair of Hookwolf anywhere.

    Finist returned from following Glory Girl, showing me a view of an ice dam Eidolon was erecting along the beach, including over where the Boardwalk used to be. Not that it would help much, one earlier fight had shown Leviathan could manipulate frozen water just as well. Then again, he did just move inland... Turning to the Deputy Commander voice again, I started barking orders while we waited for the response on Leviathan.

    “Alright, the armbands are down, we have to check on the remaining downed capes!” I called out, “Skitter, Miss Militia! Browbeat, Shadow Stalker!”

    I myself ran towards the place the Halberd held in Armsmaster’s severed arm flew (along with said arm), and the two out-of-town adult capes which-- were cleaved through by whatever the weird fuzzy field around the Halberd’s end was doing, awesome. Fuck you very much, other Colin, it’s like you jinx everything you touch.

    As I carefully pried the arm’s dead man’s grip off the Halberd and pulled it out ever so slowly out of what was left of the second cape’s chest cavity, my armband came to life again.

    “He’s at CB-5, heading Northwest!”

    That wasn’t particularly close, and my (I guess it’s mine now, ha!) group only had one person worthy of a Mover rating. We’d need some help if we were to get back into the action fast enough to stay relevant. I couldn’t find an off switch for whatever weird disintegration field this thing was running so I had to settle for slinging it over my shoulder like a rifle on parade and hoping I wouldn’t vaporize any of my hair with it.

    I returned to the parking lot to find Skitter supporting a dazed Miss Militia, exchanging silent masked glares with Shadow Stalker, who looked relatively okay. Browbeat stood to the side of her, his stance uncertain, but seemingly ready to stop whatever Truce violation I nearly missed. It’s like herding cats, I swear.

    “Manpower?” I asked of Parian, who stood next to Flechette, a small but appreciable distance from the standoff. The clothier shook her head sadly, as I saw the New York Ward was working her fists in a stress relief exercise. They were all antsy, anxious, and we were missing out on the combat. This made them volatile, and I didn’t need that.

    “Okay. Nobody kills anybody without my say-so, you got it?” I said needlessly. The only villain here was Skitter, and she surely felt antagonized with the way Miss ‘Undersider Murderboner’ was looking at her. I turned to my armband again.

    “This is Emissary, CC-7, Glory Girl has evacuated Armsmaster but we have no fliers or Movers to get the rest of us to the AO. With me are Skitter, Miss Militia, Shadow Stalker, Browbeat, Parian and Flechette, but we only have two fully functional armbands between us. Please advise.”

    “I can track Leviathan if we get closer,” Taylor piped up, “Got some insects on him when he was distracted by you blowing yourself up,” she explained, an edge of not really caring whether it was funny about her voice. Sophia looked ready to snap at her for the jab at a fellow Ward (or maybe just because Skitter rubbed her the wrong way - must be the Hebert pheromones, hard at work), but seemed to bite back whatever she wanted to say when she saw my gesture. Bad Sophia, no attacking the girl propping up our boss!

    I handed the Halberd over to James, then gestured to Taylor, took Miss Militia off her, slinging her over me into a fireman’s carry. Her power fizzled on her belt, alternating between several flavors of knives, it was clear she was out of it even if she kept trying to open her eyes. Concussion or worse? Can’t tell, and no help for whatever it is anyway.

    “Alright, I say we go West, follow the general direction. This place keeps flooding, and any progress is better than no progress,” I began, before Sophia made her displeasure known.

    “Pff. I can get there on my own, I don’t have to babysit you,” she spat, but for some reason didn’t follow through with actions. Seeing that no-one else was willing to respond to her, I took it on myself.

    “How are you for ammo? Or knowing where to go?” I countered, noting that Flechette was quietly counting the bolts she had left, “Skitter’s our best bet for tracking that fucker if he’s not actively engaging, and there’s enough flooding in the city by now for him to play Jaws with us till Scion decides to fucking show.”

    “Please wait, redirecting support,” my (and only my, did Miss Militia’s get borked when she was thrown through the air?) armband squawked in an unfamiliar voice.

    I wrung out my hair in a futile gesture to get it to look a little less like Taylor’s so that Sophia wouldn’t get any funny ideas. I was in no position to distract her with my butt again, I had an Endbringer to chase out of my city. Taylor seemed to notice what I was doing, gave me a puzzled look, head cocked to the side. Sophia, it seemed, was simply looking. Enjoying the show?

    “Parian? Do you have any fabric left?” I asked next, gesturing for our whole group to move, as the rising water was up to knee deep now and worried me further.

    “Not on me, no, I had to abandon my things back at that square where the monster was frozen,” she replied hesitantly, as if unused to speaking so much in one go. What the hell kind of life did you have here instead of what I’ve seen, Sabah? Then again, with her dress so thoroughly soaked, it was amazing she could still wade through this mess, she was probably the most overdressed among us here, between the skintight things Flechette, Skitter and Browbeat wore and the utilitarian value of my armor and Stalker’s cape.

    Look,” James gestured in the direction we were headed. Something oddly-shaped was rapidly approaching until Wadjet scanned the armband and told me it was--

    “Vista! Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!” I called out as the city’s littlest badass made landfall in front of us. Waterfall? Underwater landfall? Never mind. “Can you take us all?”

    She shrugged, and I saw how tired she was. Compared to these Wards, I was a finely tuned machine and I was barely standing. She was two years younger on top of that. “I’ll just hold the bridges for longer, no biggie.”

    “Just… try not to overextend yourself, okay? We’re going to CA-4, see if we can find that scaly bastard.”

    “Sure thing, R-- Emissary,” she caught herself in time. Not that there was anyone here who could do me ill with my false first name, but still. I waved at her dismissively to relax, and gestured ahead in an ‘after you’ way. She nodded and did her thing and we were stepping out of the water and onto the roof of the warehouse Leviathan hopped over, and then the next one over and there was Fenja’s arm again, floating lazily towards the Dockworkers Association offices!

    Missy kept to shorter jaunts, double-checking that we were all bunched up enough to fit through her tunnels in space, which led to some high-school grade awkwardness when Taylor and Sophia brushed their hands against each other accidentally. By the time we reached CB-5, Taylor was gesturing to correct our direction and speaking her insights into her armband, only to be repeated by Dragon’s voice synth in a stilted rewording as the system converted the intel into arrows for the armband maps and spoken word for those unable or unwilling to look.

    In the meantime I used Finist to survey the damage to the city: here was where Leviathan cut a corner through a building, here two cars were stuck into a wall in classic Glory Girl style, and over there a fire was raging despite the rain and the flooding and the hydrokinetic god-monster on the rampage. This almost made me wonder whether one of us would one day learn that their father sacrificed their mother to build a giant killer robot fueled by her soul to fight these things. I hoped to all things holy that the local Dad wasn’t that kind of Dad.

    “He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

    Target in the vicinity of BZ-6, southbound.

    Taylor’s voice made me snap out of it at the sight of a familiar place: Weymouth Mall was half-collapsed, looking like it was hammered first by the waves and then by the Endbringer taking a shortcut through it. The area beyond it was ruined worse than what we’ve seen before: the forcefield users couldn’t cover the whole city from the Endbringer’s destructive waves.

    “That’s what happens when you talk me out of shopping here,” I deadpanned at Vista, drawing a snort out of her and confused looks out of everyone else.

    “Yeah, you’re really gonna be missing that spiked bra now, aren’t you?” she gave as good as she got, and I thanked the heavens (may they please rain this fucking rain elsewhere) that I wore a full-face helmet and nobody saw me blush.

    “Um, not to intrude or anything, but should you be carrying Miss Militia?” Flechette asked with the tone of someone who finally worked up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time, “What about--” she nodded at James, who shifted awkwardly under her gaze, like the aforementioned girl was supposed to, according to popular opinion. While I was fighting back snorts of laughter, Vista explained.

    “His power won’t let him. His TK field is Manton-limited, he can lift her clothes or her with it, one or the other, not at the same time,” she said, trying not to laugh in earnest, “You don’t want to know how that was first discovered,” she specified, making me snicker harder, because I looked it up after he unmasked to me, “And when it comes to using your physical strength to carry someone, Emissary is not a frontline fighter, we can afford to have her tired.”

    “BX-8 or very close to it!,” Taylor announced, looking up from her armband, even with the speaker dead, she could still use the map to look up the co-ordinates. “He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

    “You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

    “Ninety-nine percent.”

    “Noted. We’re teleporting forces in.”

    Target stationary at BX-8. Begin attack!

    “Alright everyone, get your game faces on,” I announced as we stepped onto yet another roof, “Lots of high-rises in that area, we really don’t want to get squished by one.”

    We arrived to a scene of battle, with Hookwolf (did he run after Leviathan while I was occupied with helping Skitter?) doing his level best to slice into the Endbringer’s scaled hide, while ghostly warriors (Crusader?) and ghostly bears (what was that response team cape’s name?) provided a distraction. We had to hold out till reinforcements arrived, prevent Leviathan from going further into the city.

    “Vista! Take Parian to where she left her dolls, then come back ASAP!” I was giving out commands, gesturing with my one free hand, as I sought a position where I could safely put Hannah down, “Flechette, Stalker, spread out, firing positions! Browbeat, that thing you’re holding can cut through anything, use your field to keep it from breaking, please. Skitter-- Skitter?”

    I turned to Taylor who looked dumbstruck, staring at the skeletal half-built structure a bit further out, not moving. I double-checked, making sure the Wards were out of earshot, then stepped up to her.

    “Taylor? What’s wrong?”

    She snapped out of it, her mask turned to face me. Shook her head, then pointed her hand down.

    “N-nothing. I’m setting up swarm clones for distraction, needed to bring in more insects from the surrounding area,” she explained, though it felt somewhat forced, ‘give up a sliver of truth to conceal an omission’-style, “For some reason, my range is greater than normal, it’s taking effort to concentrate.”

    “Alright, holler if you need anything,” I left the issue slide for now (not that I had much goodwill with her thus far), returning my attention to Hannah.

    Finist allowed me to keep track of the way the fight was going while I set her down, resting her back against an air circulation device-type thing. Ursa Aurora, the Protectorate cape whose name eluded me at first, was standing on top of a smaller office building further down the street, her projections co-operating with Crusader’s to harass Leviathan enough so that he wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the movements of my team, or the arrival of backup. Hookwolf ran/sliced/hooked his way up the building I was standing on before throwing himself off onto the Endbringer, hooks and blades slicing into his ribcage, finding purchase on the hole I blasted in him earlier. Shadow Stalker and Flechette were sending bolts at him with varying efficiency, it seemed Sophia’s phasing didn’t cut it for Endbringer hide penetration, but she at least would serve as a decoy for Flechette if Leviathan decided to retaliate against shooters like he did with Miss Militia and Bastion before.

    The Protectorate heroine herself was still delirious, though I couldn’t tell whether it was the damage to her arm, her legs, the impact with the warehouse or some other damage I was unaware of. I tore the Ka-Bar off her belt, waved the knife in front of her.

    “Hannah, please give me something to shoot Leviathan with,” I whispered to her frantically, keeping one eye on the semi-stalemate below, “I’m out of juice for my own weapon, I need you to help me!”

    Flechette’s bolts were having a much more pronounced effect, when one struck the Endbringer in the knee of his bad leg, it buckled, making him drop onto it. That only seemed to enrage him further, as he reached for Hookwolf with one of his claws and tore him off himself, leaving hooks and other bits raining onto the watery street, then casually threw him in Flechette’s general direction, taking a chunk out of her vantage point. I couldn’t see what happened to her, and the armband stayed silent - both her and the Nazi’s armbands were fried from that EMP blast earlier. I hoped to hell and back that that would be the end of the counterpart of the man who killed my Aegis, because I didn’t save this Aegis for nothing.

    As the damage seemed to egg the giant on, the whole scene reeked of how those old arcade games I barely remembered playing with Emma at the mall operated: beat the boss enemy up bad enough, and it would start flashing red, move faster, fight harder. Except this was the fourth or fifth time Leviathan escalated and with the way he way becoming harder and harder to hurt, it was impossible to tell whether the end was in sight or even attainable. With the Endbringers, the win condition was not their defeat, but the survival of the most people possible. And that made our current task not letting him get anywhere near the nearest shelters at BX-8 or CA-10.

    “Rose?”

    Hannah’s were open, properly open. The knife in my hand glowed green, shifting form again.

    “Welcome back to the land of the living, ma’am,” I threw her a mock salute, “Stay down, just give me something to shoot with.”

    She nodded, leaning back against the metal of the air rotation implement, while the green glow reformed into a nasty-looking long-barrelled rifle. Mentally crossing myself, I stepped up to the edge of the roof and set the gun down on its tripod, snapping open my visor so I could use the sights properly.

    Crusader down, BX-8.

    While I was distracted, three giant stuffed toys joined the fray, telling me Vista has brought Parian back. The multi-colored octopus, goat and tiger were set against the Endbringer, as he swatted through black people-shaped masses produced by Skitter, ineffectually swung its tail at the ghost bears and still ignored Shadow Stalker’s shots. More capes were arriving as I could see Eidolon flying in from the direction of the coast, Laserdream’s signature lasers drilling into Leviathan’s back, Browbeat swinging the Halberd in wide arcs trying to slice into Leviathan’s tail, and then it somehow went sour again.

    As I fired my first shot, watching with satisfaction as the high-caliber monster of a bullet impacted the side of Leviathan’s head and trying to ignore the jolt of pain my sprained shoulder gave me from absorbing the recoil, he turned to face me again, his two remaining eyes expressionless but still intimidating. With a swipe of his claw, he sent the stuffed tiger flying across the street, bowling several people over in short order. The other stuffed toys collapsed bonelessly right after that.

    Vista down, BX-8.

    Another swipe brought Laserdream’s risky maneuver behind his back to a painful halt as she crashed through the building I last saw Sophia on, apparently breaking the proverbial straw as it began to slowly, slowly angle sideways in the direction of the fight, risking a collapse on top of the melee. The motion of the Endbringer’s claws snapped off a section of the now-collapsing building, sending them flying every which way. A swing of his tail knocked Browbeat off his feet, and a kick with the monster’s good leg sent him careening away, Halberd in tow.

    Laserdream down, BX-8. Ursa Aurora down, BX-8.

    “Wave incoming!” I yelled into the armband as Finist’s camera showed me an approaching mass of water, larger than anything that came before. At the same time, the ground beneath Leviathan seemed to begin sinking, the hole immediately filling up with water. The impression that left in me felt as if I was watching a Bond villain departing from his self-destructing lair. I was aiming my rifle at one of his remaining eyes, still boring into me, before I even considered my next move.

    “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die.”

    It took me a moment to realize it was Skitter who said that as I squeezed the trigger, another nervous shock jolting my shoulder as the rifle barked and the asymmetrical lone eye popped, spewing the contents of its orb into the watery mess surrounding Leviathan.

    As the wave crashed into our building and I felt it, too, starting to collapse, the armbands announced the maligned “Heavy casualties, please wait.”

    I scrambled to grab Hannah, throwing the rifle away (the green blob quickly snapped to her hip holster, forming a handgun) as my drone’s eye view showed me Eidolon and Myrrdin doing something to the water surrounding Leviathan, both standing on a chunk of tiled roof held aloft by Rune’s power. The water seemed to turn to morasses, flowing slower, slower, as the Endbringer struggled to get free, caught in the sticky stuff from the waist down.

    I stopped paying attention to the feed as Skitter and I made a run towards the next building over, which we were passing as our own continued to fold in on itself. I managed to get Hannah onto a jutting ledge beneath a row of large windows but failed to find purchase with my own rain-slick fingers. The last I saw of her was another green blur as she broke through a window and fell inside the building.

    We were collapsing away from the street with the fight, the next building over in that direction was a few stories shorter, and the impact into it sent us sliding down and off and rolling onto the tarmac of the roof as the one we just left behind continued to collapse.

    The losses are as follows: Myrrdin, Scalder, Cloister, Strider, Frenetic, Penitent, The Erudite…

    “What the fuck?” Skitter exclaimed, “We just saw Myrrdin, didn’t we?”

    “Must have gone down while the system was doing its headcount,” I shrugged, snapping my visor closed again, “Let’s get off this roof, can you still feel Leviathan?”

    “Yeah, he’s still stuck in that goop Eidolon made, but he’s worming his way out, using water to dissolve it, I think.”

    Thankfully, this building had an external fire escape, which we made use of, politely ignoring the fact that at some point we entered into the casual bantering stage. The alley below bore an interesting surprise for us: a gaggle of dogs surrounding a very irate Hellhound, all of them distinctly unhappy to be this wet or, more likely, to be here at all.

    The dogs were warily sniffing at what looked like a brown sack of-- oh shit, that's James! And he's still got the Halberd!

    "Careful with the Halberd!" I called out, "It cuts literally anything that touches that fog!"

    “Rachel!” Taylor called out, obviously happy to see her friend.

    “The hell you doing with a Ward?” the other girl asked gruffly, throwing me a dirty look. “Talk and walk,” she added, leading us and the dogs away from Leviathan, in the general direction of the shelter at CA-10, I realized.

    “She saved my life twice today,” Taylor countered, “That’s worth a bit of trust, Truce or not.”

    We made our way towards the washed-up Browbeat, careful to step over whatever debris was hidden beneath the somewhat still waters of the alley. For the second time today I was pulling the Halberd from someone's resisting fingers, but at least this time they were still attached to their owner. I handed the Halberd to Taylor, then proceeded to secure Browbeat like we're done with the others before, in a recessed space of the building's wall, hoping it would protect him. It wasn't in me anymore to carry someone his weight while treading water, not unless I wanted us both to die when Leviathan cornered us again. I was beginning to suspect he was more or less aiming at points of interest to me or Taylor, or outright targeting us for some reason. Does he know?

    "We're heading towards the shelter," I spoke to no-one in particular, "Join the defences there, maybe?"

    "My-- my dad is probably there," Taylor offered, voicing my hidden worry.

    Rachel’s noncommittal grunt was interrupted by a loud crashing noise and Taylor’s gasp which needed no comment: with his plan to escape underground via the storm drains or sewers foiled by the morass, Leviathan took the overland route towards the shelter. Through us.

    His leap over one of the buildings wasn’t that clear, the accumulated damage to his bad leg threw him off his strides, and it rained brickwork on us from the one he clipped, knocking out one of Rachel’s dogs as Leviathan himself tumbled into the middle of the street-turned-creek, throwing me aside (and likely giving me a dent in the helmet), whereupon Taylor did something terrible.

    While I was trying to get back up, she charged. I could see her forming humanoid-shaped swarms of insects around her, as she more or less dragged the heavy Halberd after her across the scant few yards separating us from Leviathan. Like Armsmaster before her, she dodged the incoming claws -- flying insects on his claws and tail, I'd wager -- all the while swinging the Halberd around in a semblance of an attacking swing.

    "Help... Her?" I croaked at Hellhound, whose dumbstruck reaction at Taylor's sudden spike of suicidal overconfidence seemed to have been identical to mine. Silly other me, I can do that because I'm a Brute! You're squishy!

    Rachel Lindt, whose counterpart I lured away from the Undersiders with promise of exoneration and safe haven, who didn't know me from Eve, but clearly cared for her teammate, my counterpart, nodded resolutely, and took her hands off the dogs nearest to her, who have already grown while I was reeling. Then she said one word.

    "Kill!"

    I looked back at Taylor, who dodged another swipe, managing to counter it with one of her own, then cowered in surprise as sliced bits of Leviathan's claws splashed into the water around her. She rolled under a tail swing, the Halberd producing an odd mist when its cutting cloud touched the water briefly, then swung back again, cutting some more of the already-damaged claws.

    I struggled back to my feet, finally managing to reach my armband with my other arm.

    "Leviathan at CA-9, engaged in melee with Skitter and Hellhound, need immediate backup, he's heading for the shelter at CA-10!"

    Chevalier replied, “Shit. Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can. We'll get to you as soon as we shore up the shelter's defences.”

    I swore wordlessly. We're dying out here, and they--prioritize the civilians. Dad. Dad's probably there. We have to manage.

    Taylor was stuck, the Halberd dug too deep into the Endbringer's wrist, and realizing that, she let go of the handle, turned to run back to me as Hellhound's dogs charged at the monster around her, jumping at him, biting, clawing, roaring. He ignored their attacks in favour of raising water from the street-sized river around him, sending a wave to knock them aside. I grabbed onto a fire escape rung to avoid being washed away again, watching helplessly as Taylor sailed past me, the wave crashing her into the building that we just descended from. As the water subsided, I dropped back into it, checking on Hellhound and her dogs - she had them all giant now, and they were attacking like a pack of wolves, one or two distracting, the others striking at it from behind or the sides.

    I turned to look at Taylor-- Fuuuck! --She was trapped under a mess of brick and metal from the building’s fire escape collapsing on top of her, and I didn’t need to have Panacea’s lifesight to realize her legs were probably mincemeat by now. Please be at the hospital and alive and well, Amy, because only you can unfuck this for me.

    “Shit, h-hold on!” I stammered out, rushing to her side, watching her whimper from the pain, as I started pulling the bricks off of her. I didn’t glance behind me, redirecting Finist instead, just in time to see Leviathan lose a chunk of meat to an engorged bulldog. The dogs charged it again and again, ripping, shredding, but not really doing any damage beyond the surface that I could see.

    I shifted enough bricks to uncover the problem: a section of the fire escape crushed Taylor’s hip and shin bones, probably shattering everything below the pelvis. How she could stay awake through the unimaginable pain, I could not understand, because she wasn’t making that much noise any-- Shit, she’s in shock, I have to get her out of here! I kicked a section of the metal framework off the top of the segment that lay across Skitter, then crouched, took hold and pulled, and pushed, and swore and pulled again. Crabwalking in tiny steps, I managed to shift the metal girders enough to drop them just beyond where she lay, unmoving, blood seeping out through her costume. I started stringing zipties together to create makeshift tourniquets for her thighs, to try and keep some blood inside of her.

    “Come on, Taylor, stay with me, please!” I pleaded, as I looked back at Hellhound and Leviathan. Half her dogs were dead already, one torn in half, another missing its head, and she was half-growling, half-screaming commands now. The other dogs were starting to flag as well, until the Endbringer grabbed one to throw at her. She tried to jump aside, colliding with it in mid-air instead, jacket snagged on one of the bony protrusions, and they landed in a tangle of meat and exposed broken bone right in front of us.

    Her face was twisted in rage and pain, gurgling noises escaping her mouth. Her neck was torn open, blood flowing freely. One arm was free, moving limply. I took her hand. Her eyes met mine, and I saw the fear in them. She was trying to say something, but I couldn't make any sense of it.

    Then she... stopped. Her eyes went glassy, and the gurgling noise ceased. She died saving us, protecting Taylor, and villain or not, I could not hold back the tears at her death. Tears and...

    This time I could not stop the impulse to retch, barely opening my visor in time, expelling all I had in me and then some, trying not to get any on Taylor, although by this point sepsis was likely the least of her concerns, as it looked like she finally passed out. I was torn away from my grief by a loud thud - when I looked away, Scion was there, hammering Leviathan into the ground. I felt enraged, I felt helpless, I felt agony, I felt pure loathing and gratitude and shame and hatred and panic. I was a gnat in the presence of gods fighting. Collateral damage negligible in the grand scheme of things. But why couldn’t you golden fucker come a minute sooner, before my other me’s friend had to die to save her life? Before all these people, good and bad, had to die? Before Taylor got crippled for trying to do the right thing?

    I heard a whoosh behind me, turned around, startled. An unfamiliar cape stood there, the teleporter, I guessed. He looked at us, shuddered, glanced at his armband.

    “You okay?” he called out, glancing uneasily at the scene unfolding next to us as Scion tanked a localized wave from Leviathan.

    “Her legs are messed up, I’m intact,” I said wearily, “Hellhound's dead. Browbeat's out cold over in that alley. Fight’s over, I guess. Scion’s here.”

    He kneeled, touched one hand to Taylor's shoulder, another to mine. There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos. Nurses, doctors, moving all around us. We both stood up, and he left while I corralled nurses to help me get Taylor on a stretcher. There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain, some of them hers.

    “Her legs are shattered,” I told no-one in particular, aiming at the flow of nurses around us.

    She was moved to a bed, monitoring equipment hooked up - curious how the spidermesh didn’t get in the way of heart rate monitors - an IV drip was prepared but not put in use, not with a nigh-bulletproof suit on her. I finagled a catheter needle between the fibers for a nurse who somehow managed to manipulate it into a vein (I hoped) blind through the fabric. That gave some much-needed painkillers into her system, as I could see the tension bleed out of her. Or was it the blood? I followed along as they wheeled her into a curtain cubicle, one of many, ten by ten feet at best.

    “Your name?” someone asked.

    I looked to the open side of the cubicle. It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired. A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on us.

    “I’m Emissary, with the Wards. She’s Skitter, of the Undersiders.”

    “Villain?”

    I shook my head. “What?”

    “Is she a villain?”

    "Former villain, now independent," I stated calmly, "She was leaving the Undersiders when the Call came."

    "Then she's still considered a villain, ma'am, and we need to cuff her," he answered, clearly bored. He stepped forward, and I blocked his way.

    "Just mark her down as independent, then," I argued, trying to keep my voice level.

    He rolled his eyes. "There is no independent label here," he ground out, clearly exasperated.

    I sputtered a that. "Wha--" I threw my hands up, "We've been fighting these things since before I was born! How do we not have a tag for independent capes?!"

    He leaned in and began to whisper.

    "Officially, any independent who isn't a villain is a hero. Unofficially..." he shrugged apologetically, "It's been stuck in committee for years."

    I slapped y helet's faceplate. Of course. I made a note to look at his nametag - Davidson - hoping my helmet cam was still rolling. Better safe than sorry.

    “Powers?” he asked, clearly glad to be able to return to the script.

    “Hers? Master 5, insects. Not humans, no other powers.”

    “Yours?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “I’m a Ward, you prick!” I protested, before remembering that my most distinctive feature - my paint job - was gone. I held up an arm, pulled out my uniform ID tag for him to scan with his device.

    “Sorry ma’am, but I still have to cuff her,” he replied, nodding at Taylor. She shifted, moaning in pain. I sighed, biting back the argument about the futility of cuffing a Master, and helped him do it, as gently as possible, before needling the nurse into leaving me alone with her and a pack of whatever haemostatic they could spare. I couldn’t get her out of the suit, but I could try and stop her from bleeding out by saturating the fabric with the stuff. If it ruined the suit, she’d at least have legs to stand on when she would be making a new one.

    When I was done, I sauntered out, giving a contemptuous stare to the red tag they hung from her curtain. The inflow of patients slowed down while I was inside, and most of the traffic around me was limited to wrung-out nurses, tired-looking PRT troopers and the occasional haggard cape.

    You didn’t win an Endbringer fight, you survived it. Because sure as fuck nothing about this felt like a victory.

    ------​

    I was deposited in a similar cubicle, despite my protestations that I was a regenerator and didn’t need a healer. They didn't let me stay with Skitter either. All it got me was reproachful looks and the occasional tut-tut of older women complaining about the callous youth. At least I got to keep my (relative) freedom, a blue tag and the visit of Carlsson - still alive, still moving, although the large bloodied bandage across his left eye didn’t exactly leave me filled with optimism. He promised to check in with me later and left me alone again.

    I spent my time waiting for the checkup fiddling with Finist. It was running low on energy after searching the city for me after the teleport, but now was touching down on the hospital roof, deploying its emergency ‘I’m a Ward’s Tinkertech, touchers will be prosecuted’ flag. Just as I was done with it, I received my ticket out of here: Panacea walked through my curtain.

    She wasn’t simply worn out, she was frayed like a piece of cloth that spent a decade hanging in the wind on a seashore. Her robes were spattered with a rainbow of various colours, her body language screamed ‘I’m in need of a smoke’ and her face looked like she would never smile again. Shit, is my Amy looking like this right now? As soon as this blows over, I’m kicking Über and L33t until they agree to work for food.

    “Do I have your permission to heal you?” she asked in a familiar monotone that made me want to scream.

    “I’m sorry about your family,” I replied instead, “I couldn’t get to your uncle in time.”

    “You… you’re Emissary, right? The new Ward?” she asked hesitantly.

    “Yeah. I toughed out one of the waves, lost my paintjob as a result,” I admitted sheepishly, opening my visor to offer her a Jessica Yamada #3, ‘This is a safe space’.

    “Don’t blame yourself," she replied in a tone I did not fully believe, "I heard you saved Miss Militia. And Chubster. And that garbage-mouth Miss Priss too,” she replied, still standing awkwardly at the entrance. I patted the space next to me, she sighed, closed the curtain after her and sat down.

    “I’d offer you a smoke, but we’re indoors,” I said humorlessly, “So you’ll have to make do with calming conversation.”

    She gave me a puzzled look.

    “How did you-- oh, shit, this is like talking to Tattletale all over again, you’re like her?” she sounded exasperated and pissed and tired and I wanted nothing more than to hug her and tell her it will get better, but I couldn’t just yet.

    “Except with no boobs, and on the other side of the law,” I countered with an unnamed smile of my own, “If you need a little break, just stick around, I regenerate. I’ll live.”

    “You realize that would keep me from healing other patients, right?” she fumed, hopping off the cot, “But still, thanks for the offer.”

    "Wait, I..." I began, moving after her, not knowing what to say, before remembering exactly how starved Amy and I were for physical contact when we first met back home. "Do... would you like a hug?"

    She turned to face me, arms crossed under her chest, not amused. I rolled my eyes.

    "Come on, it's not like we don't both need one," I gestured at the curtains, "It's been kind of a shitty day."

    She continued her glare of disapproval, but I knew Amy's body language well enough to know that her desire to be a hero was warring with her desire for hugs. Seriously, Amy back home really liked hugs. She was pretty good at giving them, too, and had the advantage of-- not now.

    Finally, she seemed to slump and opened her arms, allowing me to step forward and wrap my arms around her midsection. I squeezed slightly, and mentally smirked at the tiny, nearly inaudible squeak that ensued, as well as the slight stiffening that preceded her attempt at an embrace. Carefully, I lowered my head to hers and bumped my cheek against her own.

    It was then that I knew I screwed up.

    Or rather, it was the feeling of Amy stiffening in my arms, followed by every muscle in my body seizing like it was hit by an electrical currant that I knew I screwed up. My arms moved back against my will, muscles contracting on their own, and she backed away from me, fists balled, face snarling.

    "What the hell are you!" she growled, then shook her head, "Or who the hell are you!" She stepped closer, hand raised threateningly, "Answer me right now, and you might walk out of here!"

    I stared at her, mentally making peace with God. I said nothing. Her eyes were burning with anger and fear.

    I grunted instead of replying. She slapped her forehead, then poked me in the chin.

    "Now that I've unfrozen your jaw, same questions."

    I gave her a creaky smile, one of Dad's, it had no number yet.

    "Like I said, long day, huh?"

    "You don't get to be flippant," she barked, "How did you get out? Where did your powers go, and why are you built like a truck... Skitter?"

    I grimaced as much as my face would allow.

    "I see you've met her, then."

    "Give me a good reason why I shouldn't report who you really are. You get one chance, spy."

    Spy? Oh come on, how did she-- wait. She thought I was Skitter. She thought I was Skitter posing as the new Ward. Shit shit shit.

    "Listen," I said, keeping my voice as calm as possible, "Please put your hand on my face. I want to tell you, and I know you can use your powers as a lie detector."

    She quirked an eyebrow at me.

    "And you know that how?"

    I rolled my eyes. "I'll tell you once you're sure I'm telling the truth, or you'll think that's a lie too."

    She looked at me. Very, very closely.

    Then she cupped one of my cheeks. Her hand was pleasantly warm after being soaking wet in the cold rain all day...

    "All right," she commanded, snapping me out of my thoughts, "talk."

    I took a deep breath.

    "I'm a version of Skitter without powers from a parallel universe. I got sent here via accident because Über and L33t are vast, gaping anuses." I scrunched my forehead in confusion, "Anuses? Anii? Hey, you work with doctors, do you know the--"

    Amy, who had looked confused for a moment, was back to distinctly unimpressed. I cleared my throat.

    "Doesn't matter. I got here, found out my other self was a villain, decided to fix that. Wanted to help all the friends I had back home." I smiled at her. "You were one of them... over there. I tried to contact you but I just got the New Wave 'Thanks for saying hi' message.'"

    Amy stared at me, expressionless. We stayed motionless for a long time, before all my muscles relaxed and I crumpled to the floor, free from whatever she froze me with. I tried to rub feeling back into my legs, but my arms felt like they were made of rubber.

    "You're either telling the truth," she stated, "In which case, you're crazy for doing what you did... or you're so crazy that you believe what you say...." she trailed off, looking at me suspiciously, "but I've heard of memory-altering Tinkertech, and Blasto..."

    "I can prove it!" I blurted before she could finish that thought. "We were friends there and you told me two things you've never told anyone else."

    She crouched down, her face close to mine. "Go on," she stated, deadly serious.

    I took a breath.

    "Your orientation and brains. Not saying anything else."

    Amy leaned back and fell on her behind, losing her balance. I winced as I climbed to my feet.

    "Believe me now?" I asked as I offered her a hand. She hesitated for a moment before taking it.

    "Not a chance," she replied, and mentally I groaned. "Tattletale could have figured it out and told it to you."

    "So where--" I was interrupted by the sounds of yelling and a struggle. This time my groan was audible when I heard one of the voices.

    "Quick question," I asked a curious Amy, "You healed Skitter, right?"

    She looked offended. "Of course I did!"

    "Did you then do that passive-aggressive snarking thing at her?"

    She withdrew into herself slightly as she replied "Maybe, so what?"

    I snapped my faceplate back into position.

    "I'm guessing she tried to escape. C'mon, let's go make sure she's not doing something really stupid."

    With that I grabbed her wrist and dragged her out of the cubicle.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2017
  18. Dakkaface

    Dakkaface Magical Defender of Justice

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    Always glad to see fics get ported to QQ, bonus points when it's one I'm already watching. Welcome aboard Noelemahc.
     
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  19. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Kimochi~

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    .....You killed Rachel....You BASTARD! T~T
     
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  20. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Assholes works fine.
     
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  21. Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Thankoos. The other one will come over as well, but after I get an NSFW thread off the ground. Gotta pace myself.
    The other one is still alive though, and will stay that way.
    It's kind of a running gag, her trying to figure out more convoluted words to share. 'Assholes' is so pedestrian. =]
     
  22. Threadmarks: Interlude 02.P
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Interlude 02.P

    They were starting to blur together. Masks, faces, names, damages. Ruptured spleen, broken ribs, missing lung, fourth-degree burns (Friendly fire? Collateral damage? Leviathan doesn’t use flames, does he?), crushed joint, partial decapita-- what?!

    I was ferried from one curtained-off area to another, resigned to trusting the triage nurses to filter the dying from the merely hurt and for the fifth time today to stop putting regenerators on the damn list, because my power often hindered the way some of theirs worked. Hoping for the capes I visited to recognize me, or at least respect the Endbringer Truce enough to be cooperative or at least not too ornery while I was trying to heal them. Longing for a chance to get the fuck out of here and breathe some air that wasn’t antiseptic and shit and pus and blood and tears and sweat and for fuck’s sake just let me have a smoke already!

    I didn’t say that out loud of course. What I said was “Do I have your permission to heal you?”

    “Yes, you do,” was Miss Militia’s quiet answer. I wasn’t certain if I wanted to know whose bright idea it was to plug the holes in her legs with containment foam, and whether they knew of the damage it did to the wounds when the triage nurses decided they had to cut it off because they didn’t think to ask for the solvent. Oh, wait, that would make it the nurses’ fault, right? I rescind that demand, I need some coffee. And sleep. And some arsenic to go, please.

    “You’re not the first cape I see with wounds sealed with containment foam,” I began to distract myself from cataloguing her damage out loud - the lacerations on her left leg were the worst of these, but easily dealt with, and the mess that was her arm needed more urgent care. “Do you know who I have to slap in the face for how unsanitary that is, then maybe hug for not having to deal with gangrene and necrosis?”

    Mentioning the necrosis may have been a bit overboard, Amy, dear.

    “Emissary,” Militia breathed out, exasperation mixed with relief, “I swear, the skillset of that girl makes me suspect she may have been a Marine in a previous life.”

    “The new Ward?” I fished, keeping her talking. She seemed to want to ramble, I ascribed that to the concussion, no, plural, concussions, she’s had a pretty shitty day thus far, and distracting her from it would help a lot, because I wasn’t going anywhere near her brain. “No scars, right?”

    It was a simple gentlewoman’s agreement I had with Protectorate and Ward capes (except that asshole Shadow Stalker, but she seemed to revel in that stuff), where, situation permitting, I would go a little farther to keep their caping scars from lingering, to help protect their identities. No such offers for villains, what few of them I had to heal. In fact, I think I healed more villains in the past hour that I ever had in all my career, and I was thankful as all fuck I wasn’t the one who had to tell Kaiser that he likely wouldn’t ever be having any children of his own.

    “No scars. Thank you,” she confirmed, her eyes drooping a bit, “Yeah, she’s the newest Ward. This was her fourth day on the job. She said she’s had prior training -- PRT intern, you know? But…”

    She trailed off. With her pain gone, her body decided it was time to put out the light, and I didn’t feel like objecting. The faster I was done with this, the faster I could get some sleep of my own.

    Stepping out of Miss Militia’s enclosure, I turned to the nurse that was babysitting me for the past hour or so. She was fairly young, mildly attractive, and utterly bow-legged. Not that it had any impact on her nursing, but the longing looks she was giving me clearly indicated she wasn’t about to declare her undying love for me, that’s for sure.

    Who’s next?” I asked, rubbing my eyes to get the sand out. When I was younger, I always joked that if Ole Lukøje, the Danish version of Mister Sandman, would ever come for me, his colourful umbrella would be an LSD dreamscape because of my powers. Vicky would then call me a nerd for obsessing over weirdo Euro fairytales and I’d throw my pillow at her. Right now, I would settle for the black umbrella of dreamless sleep, and Vicky…

    Vicky was still crying her eyes out over Dean’s body, probably made worse by the state he was in. I almost felt sorry for his family, a closed-casket burial would… no, I am full of shit, even if I hated him, no family deserves to lose their child. And he’s only one of many here. Hell, our own family lost two of its members today, and while Eric and Crystal were still out of it and didn’t know their parents were both gone, the rest of us were already dreading what the death of the Pelhams meant for the future of New Wave as a team or as a symbol. Or for Carol’s mental health.

    Instead of replying, the nurse simply led me along the row after row of curtains, some stained, some clean, many muffling sobs or whimpers of pain. We stopped in front of a red-tag room, and I steeled myself mentally for another argument about boundaries like with that clothes-vaporizing asshole who thought she was entitled to an ass-kissing just for showing up, then getting her hip broken at the very beginning like some old lady. I’ve healed old ladies that walked with hip bones in worse states than hers!

    Tamping down my anger at her, I swung the curtain open, only to freeze in confusion. In front of me lay Skitter, the bug bitch that held a knife to my throat at the bank while her asshole teammate blackmailed Vicky with my secrets about-- I sighed, this is not the time for this shit, there are other people, better people, waiting on me to heal them. The faster I get this over with, the better.

    “You’re so creepy, you know that?” I said, stepping inside and closing the curtain behind the PRT man accompanying me. She had cockroaches dancing in circles and other geometric patterns on her chest, apparently to keep herself distracted from the fact that her legs were the wrong shape. That is, they had no shape at all, the legs of her costume were like two elongated sacks of potatoes. To top it off, they and the formerly white sheet beneath her were covered liberally in dried blood, hers presumably, and a purple powder that I suspected was the result of someone trying to stop the bleeding without having to remove her full-body costume.

    “I’ve heard worse,” she replied, sounding as tired as I was, turning her head to face me as the cockroaches scattered off of her. It looked like she was hopped up on painkillers, but not far enough to completely numb the pain, as even that little amount of motion seemed to cause her discomfort.

    “I’m sure you have,” I frowned. I tried to figure out where I was supposed to find a seam in this thing of hers, to get it over with and get out of here. No intention to stay anywhere near my would-be killer, nosiree. I spoke, sighing the words, “I need your permission to touch you.”

    “What?”

    “Liability reasons. The cape that brought you in said your legs are ‘shattered’, there could be a thousand and one complications from that. You could refuse to let me touch you, but that would mean having to go through the hospital, with X-Rays, splints, reconstructive surgery or whatever you have in there, which would cost the government a pretty penny and take years,” I waved vaguely at her lower half, “You’ll still likely never walk again without healer involvement, and who’s to say you’ll even live until the next one goes on shift?”

    “Um.”

    “Just agree, so I can move on to other patients.” More deserving than you.

    “What was it you said during the bank robbery? You’d make me horribly obese? Make everything I eat taste like bile? What’s to stop you from doing something like that here?” she asked, and I seriously pondered my options. I did not particularly enjoy the answer I got back.

    “Nothing, really. You could sue, but good luck proving I was the cause beyond a reasonable doubt. And, let’s not forget, Carol, my adoptive mother, is a pretty kickass lawyer. Whatever you did by trying to sue me probably wouldn’t cripple me as much as what my power did to you.”

    “That sounds suspiciously like admitting to a Truce violation,” she said, turning to the PRT man. He huffed dismissively at her. I turned to glance at him, then back again. “Am I under arrest? Is this what all villains get for helping out?” she asked, jingling the handcuffs she was chained to the bed with.

    I frowned, cuffing both her hands seemed a tad excessive for someone whose legs were literally useless meatsacks and a bit meaningless for a cape that could kill you with a wasp sting from who knows how far away.

    “Be thankful you get anything at all,” the man spoke quietly, clearly taking care not to be heard from the outside. “One of you assholes vaporized my aunt this Tuesday.”

    “My team fought to stop Purity!” she protested, rather loudly, “Besides, she only did it because you idiots abducted her children and forgot to tell anyone it was you!”

    “Shush!” I silenced them both, mulling her words over. Was she lying? What would she stand to gain? Cape politics were not my purview anyway. “We’re getting off track here. I’ll be frank, Skitter. The more horrible a human being you are, the more you’ll agonize over what I might have done to you, with a time delay of minutes, hours, days, years,” I paused, my face an unkind mask, “Yet if you’re a decent person, you’ll be more inclined to think better of me.”

    “Are you?” she asked suddenly, grunting a bit with the pain of jerking her head up as she did so.

    “What?”

    “Are you a decent person, Amy?” she repeated. The nerve of that bitch!

    “Does it matter?” I sneered, “I will abide by the Truce. You pitched in, you get healing for the damage done to you, your secret identity preserved. What more do you want?”

    “I… use your power, please.”

    Fucking finally. Like pulling teeth, every one of them.

    I nodded to the guard, who stepped out. He was not a cape, and the whole preserving secret identities part was sketchy enough as it is. Now for the thousand-dollar question: how do I reach her skin?

    “I’m going to have to move some of your mask aside, to touch your skin,” I explained as I leaned down towards her face.

    “Permission granted,” she replied, a lot less hesitantly, “Though I’ve been wondering since the bank robbery – why didn’t you reach up and touch my scalp?”

    “No comment.” Sneaky bitch, still trying to get a grip on my powers?

    I fumbled around with the edge of her mask, the faux mandibles, but however I moved them, all I found was more of the strange silk-like material her suit was made of.

    “Lower,” she offered, “The mask and body part of the costume overlap just above the collarbone.”

    I finally found the edge, which was about as fun as finding one on a roll of misused sticky tape -- thanks a lot, Vicky! -- then pulled the layers apart, reaching out to touch her neck. I stifled a gasp, the fact that she was still lucid was astounding considering the only intact bones below her pelvis were in her toes, and even then, not all of them made it through unscathed. I numbed her pain receptors, didn’t need her blacking out from what I was about to do, then started listing off the butcher’s bill.

    “You have a brain injury that’s not fully healed,” I noted. It seemed to be part of why she was still awake, her pain receptors were already messed up.

    “Bakuda’s fault.” Right, the villains teamed up to fight the ABB while the Protectorate defused the bombs…

    “Hm. Outside the scope of my abilities.”

    My reply was curt, matter-of-fact. Her reply was almost dismissive, to her core, she didn’t even show a proper chemical response to the disappointment I expected, although there was some weird neurological activity going into her-- huh. So apparently, she was deserving of a Thinker rating, considering some of her thought processes and, apparently, emotional response, were routed through her powers now. I needed more data.

    “Okay,” her voice was stronger, more assured of herself. I wrote it down to the pain relief.

    “Microfracture in your shoulder, nerve damage to your left hand, reduced fine dexterity,” I continued, watching her reactions on a neurological and chemical level. Who said I can’t look if I can’t touch?

    “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

    She sounded genuinely honest, and it bled into the appropriate internal responses - if she was unmasked, I’d be seeing surprise on her face right now.

    “It’s there,” I confirmed, “I’m not going to bother with that, either.”

    “Wasn’t expecting you to,” she replied, feeling like she was trying to be snide, but the emotion fell out of the words somewhere along the way.

    “Broken femur, shattered femur, both tibias… It’s easier to list what’s still intact,” I scrunched my nose, didn’t they say a building fell on her? “Whoever drowned you in haemostatic powder did an okay job, but you’ve still lost a lot of blood. This will take a few minutes and you will have to increase your food intake for a couple of days if you don’t want those wonderful leg muscles to degrade.”

    Yes, that may have been petty, but I felt justified, and a little envious. Criminal or not, she was in better shape than me, and I’ve been a cape for three years, while she had less than three months.

    “Ow, ow-ow-owww,” she howled as the pieces of bone inside of her minced meat began to re-orient themselves. I had to admit, making her suffer a bit did lift my spirits somewhat.

    “I’ve got to rebuild your legs like a 3D puzzle with missing pieces, and I can’t dope you up with endorphins because Armsmaster, Battery and Legend will be coming to talk to you in a bit, and I’ve been told you need your head one hundred percent clear for that,” I explained patiently, not ceasing the task for even a moment, then added, not without deriving some pleasure from it, “So some of this is going to hurt.”

    “Wait, what?” she seemed to flinch, at least as far as my power was concerned, “Why do I need my head clear to talk to them? Why are they talking to me?”

    “Mmm. I can feel your emotions in your body, hormones and altered chemical balances. You’re scared,” I teased her, well aware of the whole Emperor Palpatine tone I accidentally achieved, which was likely only compounded in effect by the robes I was wearing.

    “Damn right, I’m scared-- ouch! Fuck, that stung,” she hissed, and her limbic system tried to jerk her leg in response, but I wouldn’t allow it, I didn’t need those pieces already in place to be jolted, “My last two encounters with Armsmaster ended in me stinging his face with wasps,” I winced, and she howled with pain again, “Shit, and the second was him looking down on me while I was saving Kid Win. Guy hates my guts.”

    “You know, this is going to happen any time my concentration slips,” I chided her, trying to locate a piece of bone that was apparently now outside of her skin, “Best to stay quiet. And for what it’s worth, I have no idea why they want to see you, or why these three.”

    “Why tell me at all then?” she fumed, likely meaning both Armsmaster and the distractions, before hissing in pain again, “Do you enjoy watching me suffer?”

    Did I? Yes. Did she deserve it for what she and her friends did to me and Vicky? Probably.

    “I am healing you, aren’t I?” I retorted, sounding like a prissy teen, and hated myself immediately for it. “There, your left leg is whole again. Try it.”

    She stiffened, obviously bracing for the pain, then hesitantly moved the foot up and down a bit, bent the knee, straightened the leg again.

    “Thank you,” she exhaled, but then unrelaxed again, alarm in her voice, “And the other one?”

    “Working on it,” I replied tersely, “What’s with the microfractures in your arms? They’re healed over, not something that happened recently, I think. You don’t look like a boxer or a motorcycle crash survivor.”

    She stiffened again, swallowed nervously. Hah, did I strike a nerve?

    “Likely the souvenirs from my Trigger event,” she replied, a little heated, “Instead of a simple Brute power to break out of the box I was locked in, I got a Master power over the insects that were gnawing on me.”

    My blood chilled at these words. Was that actually her Trigger event? Was she screwing with me? How would I know the difference? She felt honest to my power, but if she could route her thoughts through her power... She was still not done speaking, however.

    “Do you ever wonder what life would be like if you got a different power, or none at all?” she asked, making me feel a bit queasy, “One that didn’t shape your life the way yours did?”

    Was she still speaking about herself or about me? Insect control is a creepy power… but what would I have done in her stead if I was saddled with it? Be the sideshow attraction? The Marvelous Glory Girl and her creepy sister, the Skeevy Bug Girl!

    I was suddenly aware that I had long since reconstructed her other leg and even fixed her arm and shoulder - the one I promised not to touch - because I got carried away. I withdrew my hand, took a step back.

    “Even if I did, there’s no changing it now,” I remarked, trying to keep my voice level, “I think we’re done here.”

    “Wait, I have a question,” she called out just as I was about to turn away to open the curtain. “Tattletale. Did you heal her?”

    I quirked my eyebrow at her. She was worried about her asshole teammate?

    “No,” I shook my head, “I can tell you I didn’t.”

    “You didn’t… Because she didn’t need your help, or because she was already dead?”

    Why does she-- oh, right. Hellhound. Shit. Does she even know about her?

    “Not so fun, is it, the uncertainty?” I asked, stepping back towards her, leaning closer to her creepy fucking mask, “Let me tell you, this isn’t a hundredth of the mind-fuckery that your teammate was pulling on me, back then at the bank.”

    “That wasn’t-” she tried to protest but then stopped, the senselessness of it probably making it through that thick skull of hers (literally, it was very impressive, from a biological standpoint). “I’m sorry,” she finally said, her voice small.

    “Maybe you are,” I said, shrugging dismissively, still not committed to feeling sorry for her, “I doubt it. I’m sorry to leave you wondering what happened to your teammate, what the big name capes are going to say to you, but I do have others to help.”

    I turned on my heels to leave, and she called out again, this time as I opened the curtain.

    “Hey!” she raised her voice again, “Come back here!”

    I turned my head to give her a chastising look as I walked away, “Good luck with Armsmaster.”

    As the PRT man closed the curtain, I could still hear the rattle of her handcuffs against the bars and the muffled cursing. As we departed, I noticed that a different PRT trooper - this one a red-haired woman in full combat gear, accompanied by a nurse I hadn't seen yet - has approached Skitter’s curtain and opened it just as we turned a corner.

    The nurse led me to the next one on the list, one of the Canadian capes that showed up to assist us. Her chest was partially caved in and she only survived due to some creative Tinkering of the one who recovered her, but now that contraption he built to work around her lungs was no longer necessary, so my aid was required to even begin administering aid to her. I enjoyed patients that couldn’t talk, I would ask questions, they would nod, I would heal them and leave. This one took only a few minutes compared to the teeth-pulling experience I’d just had with Skitter. She was still thanking me when I left her enclosure.

    The next name on the list was circled in blue for some reason. The tag on their curtain was also blue, and it was wide open, presumably to admit more light and reveal the fact that I’ve been played by the nursing staff into a fake break: a cape that didn’t really need healing. Both the nurse and the guard made themselves scarce shortly after that.

    Probably a regenerator too. Gods damn it, just let me out to have a smoke already! It would do more good than this… this… fake charity!

    “Do I have your permission to heal you?” I asked in a practiced monotone revealing nothing of my internal rage.

    “I’m sorry about your family,” the cape replied instead, the voice sounded female? “I couldn’t get to your uncle in time.”

    “You… you’re Emissary, right? The new Ward?” I asked hesitantly, racking my brain for who else could fit the general shape and was featured in the reports about Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil.

    “Yeah. I toughed out one of the waves, lost my paintjob as a result,” she said sheepishly, drawing my attention to the ton of pockmarks on her mostly paint-free armor plating that looked like she was dragged up and down Main Street until she was scrubbed raw. She suddenly lifted up her visor to offer me a warm smile that didn't show teeth and reminded me of a PRT therapist I was once forced to talk to after a day of dealing with Bakuda’s victims.

    “Don’t blame yourself," I replied in a similar kind tone neither of us probably could fully believe, "I heard you saved Miss Militia. And Chubster. And that garbage-mouth Miss Priss too,” I listed off, frowning at the last name, all the while still standing awkwardly at the entrance. She patted the bed next to her, so I sighed, closed the curtain after me and sat down. I could have had worse company for this, I thought as I shifted my hood off. Even with her visor up, I couldn’t see all of Emissary’s face, I noted, with some sort of Tinkertech goggles covering her eyes. Up close, she looked less like a movie character and more like a girl my age, with pretty soft lips, a strong jaw and a nose that looked like it was once broken, then carefully re-set. She was, I mused, probably pretty, all put together, even if her long dark hair did kinda remind me of Skitter’s.

    “I’d offer you a smoke, but we’re indoors,” she said in a flat tone, surprising me with the offer, “So you’ll have to make do with calming conversation.”

    I gave me a puzzled look. How did she know? Or was she a smoker herself and couldn’t wait to get out of here too? I grudgingly admitted I’d maybe have to thank the nurse for this contact.

    “How did you--” I began, then cut myself off with the realization, “Oh, shit, this is like talking to Tattletale all over again, you’re like her?” I exclaimed, wincing as I did so at how rude that sounded. Tattletale was a turbobitch. This girl was a hero, four days on the job, and she contributed more than some Protectorate members did, despite being a Thinker 2.

    “Except with no boobs, and on the other side of the law,” she deflected with a wider smile that actually made me look down at her pockmarked armor, then look back up quickly, red in the face, all too aware I wouldn’t have seen anything through it anyway, “If you need a little break, just stick around, I regenerate. I’ll live.” she added, refusing to comment on my faux pas.

    “You realize that would keep me from healing other patients, right?” I fumed, cursing the nurse despite my earlier promise to thank her as I hopped off the bed, “But still, thanks for the offer.”

    “Wait, I…” she began, and I saw her take a step after me, hesitate, then slowly say, “Do... would you like a hug?"

    I turned back to face her, arms crossed across my chest, decidely unamused by the offer from someone who was a complete-- Social Thinker, duh.

    "Come on, it's not like we don't both need one," she gestured at the curtains, conveniently punctuated by a distant wail of pain, "It's been kind of a shitty day."

    I warred with myself. She was not Tattletale, they didn’t let just anyone into the Wards (Shadow Stalker is on probation, isn’t she?), and I kinda felt like a hug would help. I would have preferred one from Vicky, but even to my sister, I still rated below a corpse. Shit, I am doing the ill-of-the-dead thing again.

    Dejected, I opened my arms, allowing her to step forward and wrap her arms around me. I stiffened at the expectation of the unknown, but still let out an undignified tiny squeak when she squeezed my ribs. Damn, she’s strong. And tall. And… now she’s squishing her cheek against mine? Is this a come-on? Well, it is nice and warm and-- wait a minute.

    My face twisted as I fought between what I had to do while maintaining skin contact and the urge to get as far away from her as possible.

    Shut down muscle movement, contract necessary muscle groups to make her release me, make sure vital organs continue working, double check she won’t fall over when released. Finally, I backed away from her, fists balled, face snarling.

    "What the hell are you!" I growled, then shook my head, correcting myself, "Or who the hell are you!" I stepped back towards her, raising a hand as if to slap her (the thought of knocking her over like a store mannequin suddenly became very enticing) "Answer me right now, and you might walk out of here!"

    The inside of her brain, the shape of her skull, the familiar shape of the extra-long tibias I just spent an agonizing amount of time reconstructing from little more than bone dust… this body, this person in front of me, was Skitter, or rather a carbon copy of Skitter made maybe a year or two ago, going by the absence of a lot of her accumulated damage, which then lived a vastly different lifestyle, including an intensive muscle-building regime which she started about a year ago. With impressive results. Whoever her nutritionist was, I wanted to pick their brain for tips. Keeping Vicky fit was an uphill battle in the best of times.

    No wonder her hair reminded me of Skitter’s, it is Skitter’s! No, wait. The state of her bones, the Brute rating, of course! Correction: workout regime begun five or six months ago, enhanced by the minor regeneration and enhanced durability of her body. Interesting, same body, different Trigger? But… no, that’s not it…

    Then the realization hit me.

    SHE HAS NO GEMMA.
    She has no powers.

    An unpowered person waded into an Endbringer battle and walked out on her own two feet.

    She said nothing. Her eyes darted to and fro, clearly panicking over her frozen state. Finally, she grunted unintelligibly instead of replying. I slapped my forehead in frustration, then poked her chin.

    "Now that I've unfrozen your jaw, same questions."

    She gave me a lopsided smile, like a parent caught by their child in the act of having sex.

    "Like I said, long day, huh?"

    "You don't get to be flippant," I barked at her, still trying to process what my brief scan of her told me, "How did you get out? Where did your powers go, and why are you suddenly built like a truck... Skitter?"

    She grimaced awkwardly, because not all of her face was unfrozen, then changed the tone, dropping all levity.

    "I see you've met her, then."

    "Give me a good reason why I shouldn't report who you really are. You get one chance, spy."

    Petty? Knee-jerk? Sure, but holy fuck, I was reeling, trying to wrap my brain around how the FUCK did a perfect copy of Skitter make it onto the Wards, or even EXIST, no, wait, she wasn’t a perfect copy, just--

    "Listen," she said, her voice eerily calm for someone in full-body paralysis, "Please put your hand on my face. I want to tell you, and I know you can use your powers as a lie detector."

    I quirked an eyebrow at her. How dumb does she think I am?

    "And you know that how?" I sneered, wondering if Tattletale could have been following me in my normal life. I mean, I did have a predictable routine, and...

    “I'll tell you once you're sure I'm telling the truth, or you'll think that's a lie too.”

    I narrowed my eyes and looked at her. Very, very closely. She remained impassive, but how much of that was my doing and how much was her self-control? I had no way of knowing except for...

    I reached out, cupped one of her cheeks. Not the one she touched mine with, just in case. It was cold, but not deathly so, just as cold as a tired soaking wet person would feel to someone who spent the day indoors, healing people left and right.

    "All right," I tried to say in a commanding tone, channeling my best Carol, "Talk."

    She took a deep breath.

    "I'm a version of Skitter without powers from a parallel universe. I got sent here via accident because Über and L33t are vast, gaping anuses." she briefly made a confused face, "Anuses? Anii? Hey, you work with doctors, do you know the--"

    I gave her a skeptical look. Claiming otherworldly origins was insane enough, but that anal aside? Granted, I wasn’t a big fan of Über and/or L33t either, but still, not the best opener for a ‘why I am a clone of a supervillain?’ speech. She cleared her throat.

    "Doesn't matter. I got here, found out my other self was a villain, decided to fix that. Wanted to help all the friends I had back home." she smiled awkwardly again. "You were one of them... over there. I tried to contact you but I just got the New Wave 'Thanks for saying hi' message.'"

    I stared back at her, my face blank. Like earlier with Skitter (which one’s the original though? Probably Skitter, this one has signs of parahuman tampering, maybe Blasto?..), I was watching the minute changes in her body and brain chemistry, and whatever other emotions she may have been feeling, she implicitly believed her words to be the truth, as far as I could tell.

    We stayed motionless for a long time, before I made most of her muscles relax (wouldn’t want a potty emergency!) and she crumpled to the floor, free from my hold over her. She started to rub her legs, probably because this much muscle seized up at once was a wonderful risk of permanent damage, but I did freshen her muscle tone before releasing her. I am not a monster.

    "You're either telling the truth," I began warily, "In which case, you're crazy for doing what you did... or you're so crazy that you believe what you say...." I trailed off, still eyeing her for potential danger, "But I've heard of memory-altering Tinkertech, and Blasto..."

    "I can prove it!" she blurted out, interrupting me. "We were friends there and you told me two things you've never told anyone else."

    I crouched next to her, still floored, lowered my face close to hers. "Go on," I ordered, deadly serious.

    She took a deep breath.

    "Your orientation and brains. Not saying anything else."

    She… knows? How much did I-- does she?

    I suddenly found myself tipping backward, landing ungainly on my bottom and probably doing no friendly gestures to my coccyx. When the stars of pain cleared from my eyes, she was already standing above me, sympathy to my pain on her face.

    "Believe me now?" she asked, offering me hand. I hesitated briefly, then took it. Not like this can get any worse if we’re cooperative?

    "Not a chance," I replied, stubbornly. There has to be a more rational explanation for this! "Tattletale could have figured it out and told it to you. You could have just read it off me with your pow-- oh," I stopped, remembering what my power saw and what she said herself. No powers. That meant the Brute aspect came from external influence. But the Undersiders didn’t have a Trump or a Biotinker, did they?

    "So where--" whatever she was saying got interrupted by the sounds of yelling and maybe a fight? One of the yells sounded like Armsmaster, I noted.

    "Quick question," she asked me, snapping me from the vocal analysis, "You healed Skitter, right?"

    I found it in myself to look offended. "Of course I did!"

    "Did you then do that passive-aggressive snarking thing at her?"

    I bowed my head, hugging myself, guessing what she would say next. "Maybe, so what?"

    She closed her helmet.

    "I'm guessing she tried to escape. C'mon, let's go make sure she's not doing something really stupid."

    With that, she dragged me bodily after her down the rows of curtained-off rooms towards the source of the commotion. The situation came to a boil at a nurse’s station not far from Skitter’s cubicle: Armsmaster towered over her, pressing her head into the desk with his one good arm (I just gave him his fingers back an hour or so ago, a part of me was pleased to see they were working normally), as Battery and Legend stood over them, both looking reproachful. The red-headed trooper I saw visiting Skitter was here as well, her arms crossed, face indignant.

    We approached just as Legend was wrapping up a speech of some sort, presumably chiding Skitter for doing something that merited this kind of treatment. Armsmaster was a curt person, but never one quick to anger, as far as I knew, and he looked pretty livid right now.

    “...this is a serious issue, and we cannot abide any violations of the truce. Understand?”

    When it became clear she wasn’t going to respond, he added, “If the tables were turned, if it was you who had your identity uncovered, you would want us taking the same firm hand, giving you that same respect.”

    “You already know my fucking identity, you assholes!” she found in herself to growl, “Just as you probably know Shadow Stalker shoots to kill whenever she runs into the Undersiders!”

    That certainly produced an effect, as Armsmaster released his death grip on her, and she pushed herself off the desk rubbing the back of her neck with one hand, the other an accusing pointer.

    “So don’t lecture me about fucking respect!” she finished, catching herself as she realized she just cussed out Legend. To his face. Surrounded by other heroes. The trooper took a tentative step forward to put a hand on her shoulder, but Skitter shrugged it away.

    “Who said we knew your identity?” Battery asked carefully, still not noticing we were listening in. Skitter wheeled around and pointed straight at us, no, at Emissary. How did she-- insects, shit. Everyone forgets the arthropovoyance!

    “She did! And Miss Militia confirmed it during the battle, when I was busy saving her life!” she shrieked, going full steam ahead now, “Not the best of times to lie, is it?”

    As she stood there, huffing, trying to recover her breath after exploding like that, Legend turned to us as well.

    “Panacea, I’m sorry you had to witness this,” he spoke in that smooth voice of his, every word carefully measured, “Could you please leave before any confidential--”

    “She stays, Legend. We need her for this,” Emissary spoke, and it wasn’t a voice that she used before, this one felt like it was cast from the same mold as his own, or Alexandria’s, a voice that made you listen, a voice that made me seriously think whether I dismissed her having powers a bit prematurely.

    “Hey there, Red,” the trooper greeted her, stepping closer, circling the scene to avoid provoking Skitter further. I could just make out the name tag on her uniform: ‘Martinez’. Huh, she probably married into it, she looked more like an O’Grady or at least a MacDougal. Emissary waved a greeting to Skitter, earning a dumbstruck look in response, then to the trooper, who grinned back.

    “Emissary?” Legend asked warily, “What do you have anything to do with this?”

    But while he was saying this, I couldn’t help but notice that Armsmaster’s bluster was gone, he was staying silent, leaning against the wall and trying not to draw attention to himself. This smelled a bit too fishy.

    “Just the thing I was going to ask, Mister Legend, sir!” a cheerful voice called out.

    I whirled around to direct the worst glare I could at the turbobitch, who crowded the nurse’s station further with her presence. She smiled at me instead with that irritating grin of hers, then faltered under what I saw was Emissary’s mirror-visored stare. Alongside Tattletale stood the two other surviving Undersiders, Grue, wreathed in his darkness, seemingly unscathed, arms folded across his chest, and Regent, dirty, bloodied, a long cut running from his neck to his shoulder, neatly stitched up. The turbobitch herself was standing on crutches, one leg bent back to avoid even accidentally standing on it. Skitter looked like she barely suppressed the urge to glomp her, probably because of the crutches, but the intent was clear even to me, and Tattletale grinned at her in response.

    “Before we move anywhere, I have to warn you all my helmet cam is recording everything, and Armsmaster already has less political capital than Mount Rushmore,” Emissary said, still in that steely voice, “And has been caught falsely accusing Skitter on record previously.”

    The Tinker in question gritted his teeth but stayed silent as Battery raised a questioning hand.

    “I’m sorry, but aren’t you a little young to be pushing Protectorate members around, young lady?” she asked the Ward, her voice a little too scathing.

    "Raise your hand if you mutilated an Endbringer today." Emissary said in lieu of an answer, then raised her hand. Skitter hesitantly raised her own.

    “Claws count, right?” she asked, her voice still carrying an edge.

    “Sure, claws count, Skitter,” Emissary replied faux-cheerfully. Skitter raised her hand further upward.

    Battery's accusing hand dropped. Legend, fighting back a grin, raised his own hand, surveying the surreal scene.

    The rest stayed down.

    "Oh? Really? Just me, the spider girl and a Triumvirate member? Well, I guess it's natural. We are, after all, all of us high-ranked Brutes, Blasters and Movers…” Emissary listed, before pausing, as if remembering something, “Oh, wait, no, I'm not. My highest skill is Thinker 2,” she paused again to chuckle and shake her head, “And I managed to blow up two of the fucker's eyeballs, coordinated a large group of capes, and rescued at least a dozen wounded. Skitter cut off his claws with the Halberd Armsmaster lost, and helped everyone by tracking Leviathan in real-time. Master 5, everybody. What, exactly, did you do to him?" She pretended to tap her chin. "Oh, yeah, you charged right at him and punched him a few times." Her tone got icy. "You want me to respect you? Then a) don't show up trying to intimidate my cousin with numbers and a member of the Triumvirate in tow, and by the way, it's so nice to meet you Legend, I'm Emissary, sorry we're meeting like this and b) Actually do something worthy of respect."

    She then nearly jumped at the sound of applause from the lone trooper in the room, followed shortly by the ones that stopped in the hallway to watch the byplay, because she got pretty loud by the end. Once they were done, Martinez shushed them all away as Emissary continued her rant.

    “Returning to my original statement: I don’t see him arguing. Do you? As I said, recording everything. We will need a secluded space for this, however,” Emissary continued, unfazed.

    “Why, exactly, if you don’t mind me asking?” Legend inquired warily, the Undersiders exchanging what looked like wary glances, as if they knew the response in advance. I wondered why nobody dared bring any attention to the word 'cousin' she seemed to let slip. That would sound like a plausible cover story, what with the different body types between them.

    “I was going to do this anyway, but in order to secure the aid of the Undersiders in an ongoing investigation I agreed to unmask to them today,” she explained, gesturing at the turbobitch, who paled again, wincing as she did so. I hope you choke on that Thinker headache, I thought cheerfully. “Since Alexandria greenlit it to begin with, I hoped you’d be in on this, Legend. Do you need a moment to find and ask her?” her voice, laced with disdain, was chock full of an emotion I recognized all too well: irritation at lack of agency, “We can wait. Preferably in a secluded location,” she repeated.

    “All she told me about you besides your name was ‘keep an eye on this one’. I now see what she meant,” Legend replied, his voice filling with more and more disdain as he spoke.

    “People are watching,” Skitter said suddenly, pointing at where the PRT troopers Martinez moved were holding the other capes and non-powered personnel from wandering too close to the proceedings. I could make out Laserdream, one of the Travelers recording the farce with his cellphone, others I couldn’t recognize.

    “All because Armsmaster accosted Skitter when I was escorting her to the bathroom,” Martinez stated, intruding on the previously cape-dominated argument. “No reason given.”

    I gave her a puzzled glance - I only recently healed Skitter, and I had to break down and reclaim all the contents of her bladder to replenish at least part of her lost blood. That was a lie if I ever heard one. She winked at me conspiratorially and turned back to glaring at the one-armed Tinker.

    Armsmaster moved to speak, but as he opened his mouth, a raised hand from Legend silenced him.

    “Let’s not draw it out any more than we have to. Where can we go that’s empty now?” Legend acceded.

    “Morgue, most likely. Also Operating Room Three, the lights are out in that one so it’s out of circulation, but between you all that can be rectified,” Skitter listed off as I realized she had a steely edge of her own, but very much unlike Emissary’s. More arthropovoyance? How big IS her range, anyway?

    “Some time this century, then? I’ve still got people to heal,” I suggested, irritation seeping into my voice. Some break this turned out to be.

    “Operating room it is, then,” Legend finalized, leading the way towards a nearby hallway. Martinez’s questioning glance earned a nod from Emissary, so she ended up walking right behind the two of us (when Emissary gave her a glance of her own, she winked again, said "Carlsson" and that seemed to suffice), as we followed Skitter, who made a show of not talking to anybody. I tiredly wondered when did my day turn wrong that less than an hour ago I was threatening a girl with never being to walk again and now I was trying not to watch the way her leg muscles moved under that skintight outfit of hers. Glad I put her bones back together, look at her go!

    We trooped away from the nurse’s station, into a hallway, down a short set of stairs (it was hilarious to watch the turbobitch struggle with coming down it), towards the operating block. I belatedly realized I last saw Vicky somewhere around--

    Shit, Glory Girl!” Skitter hissed just in time for my dear grief-stricken sister to fly out from around a corner and land in front of our ridiculous group, glaring at the Undersiders in sequence and sending questioning glances at me.

    “Amy, I was just looking for you! Legend? Battery? Where are you taking my sister, and why are the Undersiders involved?!” she asked in her favorite ‘who do I punch first?’ tone.

    “Hello Victoria,” Legend said, “We’re trying to get these ruffians to cooperate in order to resolve a conflict of interest. Unmasking will be involved. Would you like to help us by making sure nobody passes through this hallway until we are done? We need to use the abandoned operating room for this.”

    She shook her head, stubborn as ever.

    “I lost enough of my family today to leave her unattended with Miss Sneaky Boobs there,” she objected, nodding at the turbobitch.

    “Glory Hole, I didn’t know you cared!” Miss Sneaky Boobs responded in a sweet tone, but was shushed by Emissary.

    “Did Dean tell you about the shopping?” she asked Vicky, a complete non-sequitur as far as I was concerned, “I’m unmasking first. You could come with us.”

    That… somehow convinced her, earning a nod. Legend gave Battery a look, so she stayed outside the room as we proceeded to file into the darkened room, positioning ourselves awkwardly between the stands, the gurneys, the body bags and the… parts bags?! It looked like once the room was rendered useless, it became a spare storage room. Without a word, Legend began glowing a faint bluish light, which gradually increased in intensity until he was lighting up the whole room.

    “If any of this leaves this room without Protectorate approval, I am more than certain Alexandria will personally twist your head off, then will go bowling with it,” Emissary said, in the same dispassive steely voice. “I am not fucking around, it’s that bad.”

    Tattletale gulped audibly, then turned to her teammates.

    "Guys, this concerns Skitter's... Personal problems. Could you please wait outside with Battery?" she said, almost pleadingly. Regent shrugged in response, but Grue seemed to only grow foggier.

    "No head-twisting off for me, thank you very much," Regent rattled off, making a beeline back to the door.

    "This isn't over," Grue said to no-one in particular before stomping off after his teammate.

    "Thank you," I barely heard Skitter whisper to the alleged psychic villainess.

    Satisfied with the remaining spectators, Emissary undid the clasps on her helmet, pulling it off, then the goggles, revealing a face I’ve seen a part of already. It wasn’t as pretty as I thought it would be, the mouth was way too wide in proportion to the rest of her face. I idly wondered if Skitter’s mouth looked the same.

    Victoria and Legend remained calm, they clearly had no idea who she was. Skitter tensed, but kept quiet. Armsmaster simply buried his face in his one hand.

    “Fuck me sideways!” Tattletale exclaimed, eye twitching so badly her mask couldn’t hide it.

    “My name is Taylor Anne Hebert,” Emissary said, her name as meaningless to me as her face, “And I am from another Earth. Another Earth Bet.”
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2017
  23. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Classic reactions.

    Nicely done.

    Okay ... so Amy knew they were different people ... but still called her Skitter.

    ??
     
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  24. Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    She was still parsing the concept of what her power saw as a pre-Trigger-clone-of-Skitter-with-a-different-life-story, and the whole "clone" bit was enough to make a direct challenge. Like all those classic sci-fi shows where the villain of the week is played by the same actor as one of the main cast, and the differences are blatant, but nobody in-story sees them. Once she recovers from the initial shock, it all works out. Sorta.
     
  25. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Kimochi~

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    Aww this would've been one of those perfect "HA! I knew it!" moments for Lisa, to take that away from her just proves that you're a monster Noelemahc.
     
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  26. Elitist Oars

    Elitist Oars Versed in the lewd.

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    "Different people" is too simplistic. She'd imagine Skitter had a power of self-duplication and used it to be both a villain and infiltrate the heroes while possibly controlling both bodies. Or that someone else in her team could duplicate her for the same purpose.

    Either way she believes Emissary to be a copy of Skitter, so she calls her Skitter, and it's unclear whether there's a shared mind between the two. That's simple enough.
     
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  27. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I like Lisa, but it's still friggin' hilarious to see the smug shocked out of her.
     
  28. Threadmarks: Responder 2.05
    Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Responder 2.05


    Silence reigned the room for a moment before Taylor broke it with a single word.

    "What."

    I shrugged helplessly as I stared into her golden goggles. "It's true," I said meekly.

    Taylor shook her head, cupped her hands around her face, and took a deep steadying breath.

    "I'd like to repeat myself," she stated in an eerily calm voice, "WHAT."

    "Are... are you serious?" Glory Girl’s voice was hesitant at first but gained in strength as she went on. I could see Tattletale and Martinez starting to wince as the invisible pressure began to claw at their hindbrains. "You try to defend her,” she gestured at Taylor, who was now staring at her hands, seemingly in shock, "Drag my sister into this bullshit, and use De-- his name to get me to follow, and your whole reason for this is 'Don't worry, I'm from a parallel fucking reality'? Fuck you, you--" she was sobbing now, but I could barely tell, I was being forced to my knees under the long-forgotten pressure of her aura. Taylor succumbed next to me, on all fours now, gasping for air. Martinez was fumbling for something on her belt as Vicky began to float, curling up, her face a rictus of hatred and grief--

    VICTORIA DALLON,” The voice rang with force, with energy, with a… If I didn’t know better, I’d have accused him of being a Master, because it cut through her aura easier than one of Chevalier’s blades. The aura she was putting out wasn’t stopping, but it wasn’t increasing anymore either, allaying my fears it would be noticed elsewhere in the hospital. I was loath to imagine the potential disasters it could cause in a hospital full of wounded capes. Legend gently floated over to her, placing a single hand on her shoulder.

    “I won’t say it’s okay,” he spoke in that smooth, calm voice of his, “Because I’ve been where you are. Every time we fight one of those things… we lose so many. It’s not okay, and it’s never going to be okay. If you’re anything like me…” he hesitated for a moment, swallowed the lump in his throat, and continued, “If you’re anything like me, you’re going to remember what you’re feeling right now, and it won’t go away. It’ll lessen over time, but you will still remember.” As he spoke, Vicky slowly reached out her arms, and he gently pulled her into an embrace.

    I leaned down over Taylor and started to rub her back, causing her to glare at me. I rolled my eyes as she stiffened, then slowly turned her head back to facing the ground.

    “First time exposed to her aura on this intensity, huh?” I asked lightly, “Yeah, I remember that feeling too. Just wait for it to pass and make no sudden moves.” She looked like she was going to respond, but stopped herself.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amy’s eyes twitch in irritation-- she really had quite expressive eyes even before she broke away from Carol, now that I thought about it --and Legend took notice. Vicky began to sob gently into his shoulder, and her aura slowly dropped.

    “And it hurts, but you use that hurt to make the good times feel as good as you can make them… appreciate those who would help you. Your friends…” he tilted his head in a gesture, and Amy scurried up next to her sister. Legend let go of Vicky with one of his arms and scooped Amy into their hug with minimal effort. Vicky twisted her arm around and wrapped one around Amy as well. Unlike last time, the squeak was audible even from over here. “… And your family.”

    He slowly began to rub her back between the shoulders, and just as slowly, the aura began to fade away. Martinez and Tattletale gasped, nearly in unison, before Martinez shot her a glare, confoam canister clenched in a white-knuckled grip.

    Even as Vicky’s sobs filled the quiet room, Taylor was already struggling to her feet, smacking my hand out of the way as I tried to lend her one.

    “God fucking… And I thought what I felt at the bank was bad,” she grumbled as she steadied herself against a surgical bed.

    “Try it when it’s all directed at you, then we’ll talk,” I snarked at her, only for my smile (Taylor Hebert #8, 'Story of my life', for a change) to slide off my face as she turned to face me. She folded her arms. Is this how Dennis feels when I’ve caught him screwing up? I gulped.

    “No, I don’t think we’ll talk then, we’re talking now,” she growled, “Beginning with ‘What the fuck’ and…” she hesitated, “ No, wait, that’s pretty much it. WHAT. THE. FUCK!” She yelled, and then everyone was staring at us, the tear-stricken Dallon sisters included.

    I scratched my throat awkwardly. “Ah, right, I guess I should explain what I said,” I replied sheepishly, gesturing at them, “Sorry, I meant to do that, just got distracted by… you know…” As I spoke, I noticed Tattletale was sidling as innocently as she could to stand right behind Taylor.

    “Quite understandable, Miss… Hebert, was it?” Legend asked, eyebrow raised over his domino mask, floating up as he separated from the sisters. Vicky’s tears were drying now, though one arm was still locked over Amy’s shoulder. “You must understand that your claims are… rather… unique. I’m not saying that I don’t believe you, but without--“

    Martinez snorted. “And how long have you been around, again? This cannot be the weirdest thing you’ve heard in your career,” she leaned back against the wall. “Or in the last few months.” She twisted her face in thought, “Or today, for that matter.” She shrugged, seeing the faces of the others turning to her, “What? Get enough capes in one place and the laws of the universe start weeping for mercy. Weird stuff’s gonna happen.”

    Legend shot a dark look at her, and my mental image of the Triumvirate dropped another notch. I was really hoping Eidolon lived up to his reputation, or that my versions of them were nicer. I wasn’t holding out much hope, though, after all I’ve seen here.

    “As I was saying,” he continued, “Your claims are rather… dubious. While you might believe that you’re from a parallel Earth, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a claim, and most of them were--“

    It was at this moment that Tata decided to intervene.

    “Please note,” she said, gesturing at her skintight outfit, “There is absolutely nothing up my sleeve,” she chimed as her hand swiped upwards, taking Skitter’s mask away with it, “And voila! Abracadabra!”

    Tattletale!” Taylor yelped, covering her face with her hands quickly, “You can’t--“

    “They were trying to get you to do that anyway, Skitter,” the purple-clad villainess stated calmly, “Remember? The whole ‘violating the rules’ thing? And she--“ she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Martinez, “Already knows what you look like and she’s buried up to the gills in NDA’s because of the other you.”

    “Still could have asked her permission, Tata,” I grimaced at her. Taylor’s hands dropped as she rounded on me, and I got my first good look at the face of the Taylor Hebert of this world.

    It wasn’t a perfect mirror of my own, thanks to my Amy, but it was similar enough to be eerie, reminding me of the face that looked at me out of the mirror the day I got out of the hospital after the tussle with Shadow Stalker. After I died, and was revived, and the look in my eyes, in her eyes, was nothing like that of the Taylor Hebert before the Locker happened, one way or the other. Her nose was a hint straighter, hers hadn’t been broken, because of course she probably never fought Glory Girl hand to hand. A huge part of me hoped she would never have to. A touch of acne around her temples, traces of nicks and scratches all over (Wait, did Amy half-ass healing her? We’re having words after this!), and what looked like a fading black eye. Uneven skin, a hint of discoloration around the right cheekbone from the time Sophia pushed me into a doorjamb a little too enthusiastically - all of them things I no longer had because my best friend once lost control of her powers. From Taylor’s point of view my face must have looked like a mockery, an airbrushed version of her. That should have accounted for about half the intensity of the glare I was staring back at.

    But the eyes themselves were the same as mine, as was the overall shape of the face, the nose and the jaw, and all the way down to the too-wide thin-lipped mouth pulled back in anger.

    “Yeah…” she started, clenching her fists, “Yeah, you could have asked my permission. But I guess you’re not really one to do that, are you?” she pointed a finger at me, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see Vicky and Legend’s jaws dropping slightly. Amy looked… contemplative? I’ll have to ask her about that later, she probably noticed we weren’t identical. Wait, this Amy won’t talk to me openly yet. Damn. And Taylor is still mad at me.

    “It’s not like I could ask permission to give away your identity, I didn’t know what was going on!” I blurted, “I had-“

    “Don’t give me that, you’ve been a Ward for less than a week and Militia already knew what my face looked like, she knew my name!” she took an aggressive step closer, I took one back. “I thought that the unwritten rules were supposed to be important, does it not work in that way in your freaky world?” She stopped, pointing a finger at me, but a little rage had bled out of her, leaving confusion and loss. “And why me? Why… What did I ever do to you?”

    Legend clapped his hands, drawing us out of the little confrontation. “Alright, I suppose… that’s fairly convincing…” he hedged, looking more than a little hesitant. “How did you… how did you even get here?”

    “That alone doesn’t prove anything,” Glory Girl persevered, “Maybe you were in collusion the whole time, or you’re a clone,” she paused, pointed at me, then reconsidered, pointing at Taylor.

    “Ask your sister,” Tattletale offered. “It looks like she wasn’t surprised by this revelation at all.”

    All eyes turned to Panacea. Except Armsmaster’s. Was he really about to throw Taylor under the bus to cover for the fact that each of the two of us did more damage to the Endbringer than he did? The way his eyes bored into mine made me wonder whether my Colin was as much of a bastard as this one.

    “They’re identical,” Amy supplied, “Not perfectly, mind you, muscle mass, accumulated wounds and all, but the power-granted differences are the only ones. Speaking of which, how the hell are you even alive, going into an Endbringer battle without--”

    I looked at her quizzically as she cut herself off. She could see I had no powers, so why did she-- right. She thinks the regen and the bones are a biotinker’s work, and is wondering whether my Amy did that. So she's covering her own ass too. Good one, Amy girl.

    “Miss Dallon, please, don’t--“ Legend began, but I cut him off again. It was becoming an entertaining habit. I wonder if I’ll get to cut Eidolon off next Sunday?

    “No, no, Amy’s right, I don’t have powers,” I explained, a little too chipper. “And please don’t ask me to go through testing to prove that, I’ve been through at least three tests to make sure of that.”

    This left everyone staring at me, with Martinez smirking and Tattletale wincing again. Thinker headache, right. Shouldn’t try to get ahead of the class like that, dear.

    "So how did you get here?" Amy piped up, "You said something about Über and L33t being 'vast, gaping anuses'?"

    I swiveled my head, looking at everyone.

    "Tell me that's inaccurate. Someone, please," I implored, but there were no objections. "The long and short of it is: they built some sort of thing from some sort of old videogame, that acted exactly like the thing in the game did: a dimensional doorway. Unfortunately for me, it was one-way. So when I got kicked into it..." I raised a finger. “How about I just tell my side of the story before we get into the other issues?” I asked cautiously.

    “That… would probably be for the best, Miss… Hebert?” Legend hazarded, his gaze switching between the two of us.

    “If it feels better, I’m calling myself ‘Rose Ellison’ here, not my world, so I don’t get to be Taylor Hebert, she does” I interjected, nodding at Skitter and earning another glare in repayment. I directed a question at her, “Oh, and is it okay if I spill a little more stuff? I don’t know exactly if something else changed or not, so some of my story might not be the same as yours…”

    Taylor sighed. “If it lets me know what the hell is going on faster, fine. Just do it already.” She crossed her arms. I nodded.

    Okay. So remember back in October, when Winslow has its annual Career Fair?” I asked her, mentally shutting out everyone else from the conversation.

    “Yeah,” she grumbled, “But I didn’t attend because the Trio dumped pudding in my backpack. I spent the whole time trying to save my homework…” she scowled at the memory, “It didn’t take. I had to redo all of those assignments and get a new backpack since the old one smelled like tapioca.”

    “The Trio,” I announced to the rest of the room, “Are a group of bullies who made my-- our-- lives a nightmare… Emma, the former best friend, Sophia, the school track star, and Madison, the hanger-on. But back to the topic at hand. Unlike Taylor, I was able to attend.” I held up a hand. “No, I don’t know how I avoided getting my stuff soaked in tapioca…”

    Armsmaster twitched, looking about to speak, but settled back into his ‘If I press against the wall hard enough they won’t suspect I’m here’ routine. Ah, I thought, realized it’s about Shadow Stalker? I hope he won’t spill the beans before she’s ready.

    “But what I do know is that I signed up for an internship with the PRT.” I shrugged. “I started the next month. They started with me getting coffee for Director Piggot, but things kind of… escalated. I was put through a few departments in the right order, and from bits and pieces of intel that I picked up while working there, I got a theory that the Empire was using the Boat Graveyard to smuggle in weapons. I convinced someone to send a drone over, and it turned out to be correct.” I gave a hesitant smile. “I think it was then that I caught the eye of Director Piggot. I don’t know, she seemed to… take a liking to me, so to say. I knew I was really good with image analysis and bureaucracy, plus I began taking the training I was doing with the troopers seriously. But I think what really changed things was the November Gang War between the ABB and the Empire, where--“

    Tattletale and Martinez’ heads snapped up.

    “Gang war in November?” the blonde asked.

    I nodded, “Yeah, the ABB were using mortar strikes in the city, don’t you remember?”

    Martinez shook her head. “That never happened here, Red.”

    “Shit…” I bowed my head, “Well, I mean, it’s good, no gang war is good, all those people lived, but still--“

    “Breathe, Red,” Martinez was standing upright now, taking a few steps towards me. “You’ve got all the time in the world.”

    I followed her advice. In, out. In, out. Just like Martinez said. Just like Yamada said. All the time in the world.

    “Not all of the time though,” I heard Amy grumble from her corner. Right. They’d be looking for her and Vicky soon.

    “Well, I was at the PRT building that day, and I noticed that PRT emplacements were getting hit even though no gang members were spotting for the mortars. Somehow, I was the one to notice they were using toy helicopters as camera drones for aiming.” I mimed holding a rifle, “I passed on the message to the Director, and that turned out to be right as well.”

    Legend raised an eyebrow at me. “You got two major intelligence coups to your name, Rose. Have you considered that you?..”

    NO,” I cut him off again. Then I laughed at the look on his face. “Sorry, sorry, but Director Piggot was starting to ask the same question: ‘Does she have powers?’ She put me through an MRI machine and then made me run a practical test with no win state to try and force me to use my ‘Thinker powers’,” I made air quotes with my fingers, “And out myself as an unknown parahuman.”

    “I’m guessing it didn’t work,” he replied. Amy snorted.

    “Of course not. Not only has she not Triggered, she can’t Trigger,” Amy blurted. At the looks she was given, she rolled her eyes. “I’m a healer. Trust me on this one, she lacks the equipment to Trigger.”

    “Amy’s right,” I replied, “I can’t Trigger. But Piggot was happy about that, since it meant I wasn’t hiding a secret or anything,” I cocked a finger like a pistol and smirked, “I’m just that good.” The eye-rolling of Skitter and Tattletale was glorious to behold. Then Taylor raised a hand. “Yes?”

    “Can I put my mask back on?” she asked, “I know you needed to see my face, but the lenses are corrective, and I’d… well, I’d like to see again.” she explained, fiddling with her fingers as if she were a student asking for a hall pass to go to the bathroom. I glanced at Legend, who gave me a nod.

    “Sure thing, I doubt anyone will mind that.”

    She reached out and snatched the mask from her teammate’s hands, tugging it over her head as I resumed.

    “So, because I had turned in my bullying notes to the Director, and because I was apparently really, really good at my job, the Director offered me a scholarship and to transfer me to Arcadia after the New Year was out.” Taylor took a step back, “Yes, that is why I wanted the bullying journal from you-- I was going to turn it in to the authorities that would give a damn.”

    “That’d be a first,” she grumbled, “Do you have any idea how many people I’ve tried to tell? They just said I was ‘Making up stories’ about ‘model students.’”

    I winced. I wasn’t going to tell her the real reason that they had ignored Sophia’s antics… at least, not all of it. Part of it would suffice.

    “It probably didn’t help that Winslow Staff are really, really terrible at their jobs,” I stated. It was fact, after all, even if it wasn’t the whole truth, “Like, seriously. They’re awful… just like I found out after the break.”

    I shifted uncomfortably. I knew that being reminded of their Trigger was one of the worst things you can do to a parahuman, but I needed to tell them this. I needed to get her on my side, and being dishonest after being screwed with by authority figures for years would have sabotaged everything.

    “The first day at Arcadia, I met my universe’s version of Glory Girl and her friends-- hang on, yes?” I held up a hand before turning to Vicky, who was visibly shocked.

    Bullshit,” she growled, “There is no way that--“

    “How’s Mandy doing? Does she still have all those motorcycle pictures on the inside of her locker?” I grinned. Her jaw dropped open.

    “How did you--“

    “I accidentally set her up with her boyfriend.” I squirmed awkwardly in place. “She convinced him to get a motorcycle of his own.”

    Amy let out an undignified snort, followed by Tattletale giving one of her own. Martinez and Legend just looked confused.

    “Don’t ask,” I said to them, before continuing, “Vicky and her group became the first friends I’d had in years, but in particular was Amy.” I breathed in, “Back home, Amy is my best friend… and I’m hers.”

    Bullshit.”

    The matter-of-fact statement from Taylor was so without emotion that it caught me by surprise.

    “I’m sorry?”

    “You’re telling me that that person,” she pointed accusingly at Amy, who scowled in response, “Who clubbed me over the head with a fire extinguisher and threatened to give me fucking cancer is my best friend? No. This is… fuck you. Fuck you, and the interdimensional horse you rode in on.”

    “Yes,” snapped back Amy, arms folded across her chest, “Because the one who put poisonous spiders on people and filled the orifices of heroes with biting, stinging insects is clearly someone we should be able to trust regarding proportionate response.”

    “I was trying to prevent people from getting hurt!”

    “What part of that involved putting a knife to my throat!”

    “Okay, okay!” I stepped in as the two began to circle one another like cats looking for a fight. “I think we can all agree that you two probably did not meet under the best circumstances. Would it be fair to say that if you had met under other conditions, things might have been different?”

    “No.”

    “Bite me.”

    Ohhhhhkay. Not surprising, but there was a LOT of vitriol there. I rolled my eyes, and started counting out fingers.

    “Truly knowing what it is like to have no real friends, awesome hair, classic literature, being overshadowed by a beautiful best friend-slash-sister… and the snarking, of course.”

    The glares didn’t cease, but Vicky’s stern expression told me my aside was not well-received.

    “Alright, can you two at least not kill each other until we’re done?” I offered as a compromise.

    Amy grunted, a response mirrored by Taylor.

    “I’ll take that as a yes for now… where were we…” I slumped. “Uh… Taylor… I’m really sorry about this next bit, but I kind of have to talk about it if we’re going to…” I wrung my hands. “You know. Context.”

    “What are you talking about, it’s-- wait, I thought you said--“ her body language changed. Suddenly she looked very scared. I could hear a faint thrumming in the walls as the bugs inside began to agitatedly thrash around in response to her mood.

    “I said I didn’t Trigger, and I can’t Trigger,” I said with a sad smile, a Yamada #4 (‘I'm going to MAKE it better'), “I didn’t say that things didn’t go wrong elsewhere.”

    “What are you talking about?” interrupted Legend, floating a little closer.

    Taylor looked at me. I stared back at her. Slowly, we exchanged nods.

    My Trigger event, Sir,” she admitted.

    Each of the parahumans in the room flinched back. I swallowed heavily.

    “About the only good news about the whole thing was that I wasn’t directly involved. About a week after Arcadia started, I got pulled out of class along with Amy and was deputized by the PRT.” I snorted. “It may be a PHO meme at home, but that’s where it started, as a serious operation. But the reason that happened was because I was the PRT’s best source of intel on a massive Parahuman attack… on Winslow.”

    My gaze turned down to my hands as I turned my helmet over and over again in them.

    “It seemed that some unknown master had covered the entire school in a swarm of bugs. We’re talking something like one of the plagues of Egypt straight out of the Bible. Armsmaster had sent in a probe to find out what was going on… and he found a girl trapped in a locker.” Taylor had, while listening, begun to hyperventilate, clutching at her arms. I moved and held one of her arms, steadying her, to my great surprise, Tattletale was on the other side. I cleared my throat.

    “The locker was number--“

    “Three hundred and twenty-three,” she whispered. I nodded, before turning to face the rest of the audience.

    “Before the break, before I was transferred, my bullies filled my locker with used feminine pads and tampons.” I gritted my teeth together. “They then left it there over the break, and since Winslow is lazy and starts a week after Arcadia does...” I looked each of them in the eye. “Because they couldn’t do their original plan with me, they used another girl in her place.” My gaze grew steely. “They shoved that poor girl in the locker, locked the door, and left her there. For over an hour.”

    Amy was looking decidedly green, although that didn’t happen until I mentioned the time. Did she learn something when she was healing Taylor? Worth following up on. Vicky looked like she did not know what to do with her hands so she set them down on a gurney… which would have to be thrown out, if the warped metal was any indication. Legend and Martinez were horrified. I looked at Taylor. Even with her mask back on, her reaction… God, Taylor, I swear I’ll make it up to you. I’m so sorry.

    “Except here, it wasn’t some other girl. It was her. She was put into the locker for an hour… only she didn’t go crazy in there, as the official reports stated when the school tried to sweep this incident under the rug.”

    Taylor was shaking, and I grabbed her hand more firmly. We stayed like that for a short while.

    Then Legend cleared his throat again.

    “I’m… I’m sorry to hear what you’ve gone through, Miss Hebert,” he said slowly, as if picking each word carefully, “But…”

    I wiped the tears from my eyes. When had I--? Doesn’t matter.

    “Sorry sir. Continuing on… It turned out that the bullies had turned in on themselves.” I looked down at Taylor’s sharp look of surprise. “The girl in the locker was Madison. She got your powers, while Sophia and Emma were arrested after trying to leave town. With Madison corroborating my journal, I finally got justice.” I grimaced. “Over the next month, I was really busy. My next intel coup uncovered an E88 smuggling ring, which we had to share with several alphabet soup agencies due to jurisdictional issues. The CIA actually brought along a cape of their own.” I smiled at the thought of her. “Her name is Synod.” Legend looked interested, but I waved him off. “Long story short, when it was discovered the CIA was all but abusing her for her powers, we managed to wrest her away from them. Along the way we learned she Triggered because her mother put untenable pressure on her, and that’s how the CIA got control: her mother was institutionalized. The Youth Guard tried to get involved, resulting in broken ribs for me, a tazed and hogtied YG intern for them, and a very irate Director Piggot kicking them out on their ass. And thus, Brockton Bay gained a new Ward and I got a new sister.”

    I beamed at them before two near-simultaneous reactions broke my feeling of warm fuzzies at the memory of Anne Marie who must be worrying herself sick over my disappearance.

    “I have a sister?” Taylor asked incredulously.

    “This is pertinent how?” Amy asked irritably.

    “Right, sorry. I've been trying to do about fifty different things since I got here, most of which are related to you," I nodded at Taylor in a conciliatory tone, "So I haven't been able to find out anything about her counterpart here, so if you feel like helping me get a tween Thinker out of the clutches of a megalomaniacal asshole, let me know!” I replied bashfully, storing away the confusion as the way Tattletale and Taylor simultaneously choked in response to my stupid joke. What the fuck was that? Do they already know something?

    “Then Aegis died at Hookwolf’s hands, trying to defend Parian after she explained why she didn’t want to accept his invitation into the E88,” I continued, eyes downcast, but the frightened gasps told me all I needed to hear - killing a Ward was a terrible line to cross, “The Empire executed him rather publicly to cover their asses. A month later, Cricket went on a rampage, trying to avenge him, attacking other Empire capes, but I arrested Rune by that point, and her attack on Purity resulted in a pile of ashes.”

    Wait, wait,” Amy interjected, venom clear in her words, “If you’re so awesome, where were you when Aegis was being killed?”

    “At home,” I replied bitterly, “Preparing for my third date with him. I was very pretty when I opened the door to receive the news.”

    The silence that fell onto the room gave me enough time to recompose myself, deep breaths and all.

    “Aegis’s death was followed by Shadow Stalker going rogue due to my uncovering her violating her probation terms. She went after me on a promotional visit to the newly opened PRT office in Providence. The meme Clockblocker started--” at least this snort was unanimous, “--made me a good PR symbol. I took her down, but not before sustaining life-threatening injuries. Panacea saved me, but refused treating her -- they had to harangue Othala into doing it.”

    “Wait, isn’t Shadow Stalker black?” Tattletale asked, a playful smile on her face. “That must have been a hilarious proposition.”

    “Yep. She’s also in the Birdcage now, because the violations included several counts of attempted murder, including Grue of the Undersiders and several civilians,” this got an extra hard wince out of Tattletale, I saw, “Since she was already suspected of at least one murder as a vigilante, adding a clear case of assault with parahuman ability on an officer of the PRT - that’s me - got her all the strikes she needed. I’m currently gathering evidence against this version of her, preferably without letting her escape this time.”

    “Huh. But Dean told me--” Vicky began, before I quickly shushed her, knowing the next words out of her mouth. That Shadow Stalker was bullying my cousin, who was just revealed as Skitter. Do you really want to drown in bugs today, Vicky?

    “Whatever he told you, will likely out Shadow Stalker, who may be lying out cold in the hospital above us, but is still deserving to keep her identity safe, don’t you think?” I replied, trying to sound as neutral as I could.

    The way Tattletale was looking back and forth between the two of us sent warning bells ringing in the back of my mind.

    “And this helps you two how exactly?” Legend asked next. “Us knowing the identities, or identity, of a Ward and a villain don’t seem to work towards the good of either of you, unless I’m missing something.”

    “I’m lawyered up,” I replied, Thomas Calvert’s milk-curdling #2 ('This is not a joke') on my lips, “The PRT is bound by Directive 507. I’m a PRT asset back home, so my identity is their responsibility, and so is the identity of my counterpart,” I gestured at Taylor. “The Protectorate is bound by Alexandria’s word, and also the same Directive, as I lead my version of the Wards as punishment for what I let happen with Shadow Stalker. The Undersiders won’t betray their friend, to the point that one of them sacrificed herself to save us from Leviathan--”

    “Rachel’s dead?!” Taylor squeaked out, her eyes filling with rage, “And you’re only telling me this now?!”

    I sighed, rubbing my forehead, then looked back at her.

    “What time did I have?” I asked, exasperation filling my words, “I carried you into the hospital, you were well out of it, and after that all this,” I gestured around the room, “Was to keep you safe.” My expression softened as she visibly began to crumble. "I'm sorry," I reached out a hand, only to hesitate and withdraw it. Not now, still too suspicious, she wouldn't appreciate it. "I should have told you sooner. That was a mistake, and I'm sorry. Believe me, I..." I paused before changing my mind and placing a hand on her shoulder. "She saved our lives. She gave her life for us... I'm sorry..." I trailed off.

    “Alright, but what’s to stop me from revealing who you are?” Victoria asked stubbornly, “I’m with neither of those teams.”

    “Aside from the whole head-twisting-off?” I shrugged, “Panacea’s reputation - she did heal us both - and the Endbringer Truce. These wonderful heroes--” I gestured at the two Protectorate capes, “--were so cavalier about setting Skitter up about breaking it, they forgot the knife cuts both ways.”

    “I hate to break it to you, Rose,” Taylor piped up, “But they’re kinda still masked up? And we aren’t?”

    “In the interest of full disclosure, I know at least the first names and faces of everyone here or outside that door except for Legend and Grue.”

    That got everyone’s attention. Noticing Tattletale was about to open her yap again, I stared her down.

    Sally,” I said reproachfully, “Freckles.”

    “Did you just out her?!” Amy gaped at me.

    “Not her actual name, from what I know of her,” Taylor supplied, a small trace of laughter in her voice, “But the guppy fish impression she’s doing right now tells me her power just told her the other me knows the real one, and it’s not the one she gave us.”

    My triumphant nod was broken when both Sarah and Taylor turned to glare at me.

    “But you knowing this, and how her power works--”

    “Of course I tussled with the Undersiders, Taylor,” I replied reproachfully, “They’re thieves and Tata is kind of a bitch that gets her rocks off on fucking around with people. I almost tore their team apart when I got Rachel Lindt acquitted -- was going to do the same here, but then she went and saved you and me from a freaking Endbringer at the cost of her own life before I could do so. I held her in my arms as she died.”

    This got another round of shocked looks, and Taylor even let loose a few quiet sobs. Martinez, wonderful, reliable Martinez, saved my bacon again.

    Acquitted, Red?”

    “The initial manslaughter was involuntary. Trigger event, nobody has real control or understanding of their powers, and Triggers don’t leave newly-minted parahumans in the best of headspaces to begin with,” I explained, my voice tired again. I was this close, I would have saved her too… but I failed, “There’s laws for that, of course, but just as the foster system failed Rachel, so did the judicial. End result: declared a villain without a chance to defend herself. Just like Canary.”

    “I take it Canary’s case went different in your world as well?” Legend asked softly.

    “Yeah,” I replied, dejected, “She killed herself early in the trial proceedings. When the world needed a new scapegoat to set a false precedent on Master powers, they went after Swarmbringer, the cape that menaced Winslow High School. My bully, Madison Clements.”

    “Um. Red?” Martinez spoke up,”Aren’t you a bit cavalier about revealing her name?”

    “She’s a Ward now, Lieutenant. One of mine,” I set my mouth in a grim line for this statement, hoping it got the point across, “I don’t care for the local one even a bit. I fought tooth and nail to keep my Madison out of the Birdcage. The PRT exists for a reason that has largely been forgotten in this fucked up warzone of a town, and if I’m the only one who cares to fix that, then so be it.”

    “It’s still so damn creepy to see my face say all these thoughts that aren't mine, but could have been,” Taylor said, her voice a bit sleepy… or contemplative? Curse that mask and her nullified body language!

    “For what it’s worth, I never expected me to become a villain either, though I know that wasn’t your fault,” I replied, nodding my head to the side, where Armsmaster brooded in silence.

    “Alright, this has been bothering me a bunch too: as far as my power’s concerned, you’re different people, kind of like estranged cousins more than anything else,” Tattletale interjected again, “It took me a while to figure who you were to begin with, and even then you’re like two or three people jumbled in one body together, constantly being swapped out for other people. Who designed your body language, Hieronymus Bosch?”

    “What is even your power, Sneaky Boobs?” Vicky piped up, ignoring Amy’s tug on her dress.

    “Being awesome of course, Glory Hole,” the villainess replied without hesitation.

    Favorite movie?” Taylor asked me suddenly.

    “Blazing Saddles,” I shot back, and when she nodded, replied with “Favorite serious movie?”

    “Forrest Gump. Either version, although I only cry on the Aleph one. Favorite food?”

    “Lasagna! Favorite Fugly Bob’s dish?”

    “Trick question, I love the distinct taste of the Challenger, but I could never finish it, so I order the Royally Fugly most often,” I could swear I heard a grin in her voice, and Martinez flat-out laughed at that admission, “Favorite Triumvirate hero?”

    “Alexandria as a kid, but meeting her in person has been very sobering, I’m afraid.”

    “Alright, I believe you you’re me,” Taylor acceded, finally, “I still have the better hair though. What’s your end goal once you get the journal from me?”

    “For starters, the Trio gets jailed as they did back home. I don’t know if your Madison can Trigger or not, but she’s also not a victim here, making things way simpler. After that, I made a deal with Alexandria to maybe get the both of you into the Wards.”

    Can’t,” Sarah protested. “Already spoken for.”

    “I’m aware of your prior engagement with Coil, and I’m sitting on more intel for that case as well. Just… try not to tip him off, alright?”

    I ignored the looks of confusion on the Dallon sisters’ faces, or Legend's look of concern at the mention of Coil. It was then that Armsmaster chose to remind us of his presence.

    “Should I remind you all that Skitter is a wanted felon with a rap sheet quite impressive for the month she had been active?” he spoke, a collected simmering anger behind his words.

    “Were you not looking to talk her into giving herself up for a probationary Wardship, however?” Legend asked with incredulity in his voice, “That was what you told Battery and me when you sought us out.”

    “And then we found her wandering the halls, probably looking to use her powers to uncover someone’s secret identity. Shadow Stalker, perhaps, given their shared history--” he began, glaring daggers at me as I realized what the bastard was trying to do.

    “--of almost being killed by her? Great story, sir,” I interjected loudly, trying to stifle his next words. He would not ruin this for me, “Besides, as I said before, this would not be the first time you’re trying to screw her over. First you talk her into letting you claim the Lung capture that was mostly all her,” that got a shocked look out of Vicky and appreciative nods out of Amy, Martinez and Legend, “Then fail to inform the PRT of that fact, or the offer she made to infiltrate the Undersiders for you.”

    Taylor’s face, hidden by the mask still, snapped to look at me, boiling my blood with the indirect contact alone. Sarah looked at her with an odd pitying expression, however. She already knew? Of course she did, she’s fucking ‘psychic’!

    “Don’t look at me like that, Taylor, she already knew. And the heroes would accept you faster knowing that you never wanted to be a villain, and only got stuck in the role when Armsmaster made sure nobody would find out and believe you if you came to them for help.”

    Taylor turned a look that was almost pleading towards her teammate, only to be met by the same foxlike grin Sarah always used in her cape persona.

    “All true, T. Sorry I didn’t tell you, but I couldn’t be sure you’d be able to keep up appearances where Coil could see,” she explained, offering Taylor a hand to hold to reassure her, “And your sudden yet inevitable betrayal of the team would have worked wonderfully towards my own goals of seeing that bastard chained up. I was recruited at gunpoint, after all. You’re still, and always will be, my friend though.”

    Armsmaster’s hollow laugh resounded through the room, making me worry for the man’s grasp on reality, the way it carried a hysterical note. He pointed his sole hand at me.

    “None of this matters though. We have her on camera, your camera, handling my Halberd that has been used to kill two capes in the Docks area around the time I was… incapacitated. Add to that whatever Master or possibly Thinker bullshit she has for her insects that allows her to fake out my lie detector… who knows whose identities she knows by now, besides Miss Militia’s.”

    “Is this true, then, Miss Hebert? Miss Ellison?” Legend asked warily, “Skitter has learned--”

    “In the battlefield,” I quickly inserted, “Her bandanna came loose when we were pulling her out of a wrecked bus where Leviathan threw her, she reciprocated by revealing she already knew Taylor’s identity from me,” I explained, shifting uneasily under one more of Taylor’s glares. Were my glares as inflammatory or was it something that came bundled for free with her powers?

    “And the rest of it?”

    Bullshit, sir,” Martinez reported, stepping into his glare again. Is Legend naturally powerist or is it something he does unconsciously? I wondered, “As I tried to tell you several times, I was escorting the girl to the bathroom when we were accosted by Armsmaster and his accusations. The rest most of you saw - he faceplanted her into a table, started accusing her of looking for ways to break the Truce.”

    Legend rubbed his forehead, it was clear the circular arguments were tiring him out. That and it was rather stuffy in this room. I wondered if our escorts outside were getting along well enough while we were busy bickering in here.

    “Aren’t we going to discuss that I got the Halberd from Browbeat who got it from Emissary who got it from Armsmaster’s severed hand?” Taylor wondered aloud, her golden gaze scanning the assembled crowd. “I mean, Glory Girl saw half of that thing, how his arm flew through the air, blade still active. For all we know that’s what killed those capes.”

    It was at that point that Armsmaster threw his punch.

    I had to give my ‘cousin’ credit - she was ready for it, taking half a step back, swiveling on the ball of her stationary foot, just enough that the Protectorate hero’s fist would have flown wide had it not ended up cupped in the open palm of a familiar long-haired grey-clad heroine. Alexandria is here. This will probably end in tears and suffering, some of them mine.

    “Actually,” she said, her steely voice seemingly filling every corner of the room as I scrambled to helmet up, hoping none of the three we left to stand guard outside saw me as they filed in after the Triumvirate heroine, “I was wondering about that myself. The matter with the EMP blast that burned out the armbands and comms of every cape in that area -- except you -- is also of high interest. Or are you going to shift that one on Skitter too?”

    “That was an accident,” Armsmaster replied, his voice surprisingly calm for someone whose sole remaining fist was caught in a vise-like grip of The Benchmark for Flying Brick types. “Damage sustained by my armor earlier in the fight caused a short circuit.”

    “Great,” she scoffed, still not letting go, “Is a long-range EMP emitter part of your standard kit then, in a city where only one Tinker not aligned with the Protectorate resides permanently?”

    “No, ma’am. I had no time to swap it out when preparing for battle this morning.”

    “And yet you had the time to take the anti-Endbringer Halberd, which, apparently, has not passed the Tinkertech review board. I find it intriguing that it lacked a simple shutoff mechanism for when it was dropped.”

    “If I may, Miss Alexandria, ma’am?”

    It took me a moment to comprehend that the careful polite voice belonged to Sarah Livsey, aka Tattletale, who somehow became a different person under Miss Library’s wilting glare.

    “Yes, Tattletale?” the regal woman admitted the line of questioning.

    “The mechanism expected to shut off when the Halberd was let go,” the masked blonde offered, “With the detached arm still holding it, it considered the weapon as still being held.”

    “Emissary?” she asked next.

    “Ma’am?”

    “I presume your helmet camera recorded everything?”

    “Yes ma’am, including having to extricate the Halberd from Fulgurite’s chest cavity,” I reported, “I was going to bring it up the moment Armsmaster was done presenting his argument. I was not expecting him to physically assault anyone in front of Legend, ma’am. I’m sorry, Skitter.”

    “Eh, I could take him. Wouldn’t be the first time,” she deflected, her tone a confusing combination of hero worship for Alexandria, indignance at being physically assaulted and genuine disbelief in Armsmaster’s ability to beat her. It was in that moment, I felt the most kinship for her since the beginning of this crazy fucked up day.

    “My condolences on the death of your teammate, Undersiders. Emissary, I believe you were the one who witnessed her death?” Alexandria said suddenly, making all five of us stand stock-still at her address.

    “I held her as she died, ma’am,” I replied, earning even further skeevy looks from Grue and Regent and an affirming nod from the idolized heroine.

    “Good,” she said unexpectedly, “None of us should die alone, and for naught. You and Skitter yet live thanks to her. Do not waste her sacrifice.”

    With that wisdom dispensed, she finally turned back to the Protectorate hero whose hand she was still holding perfectly still. She did not seem at all inconvenienced by this. He, on the other hand, looked like he was sufficiently marinated in sweaty panic. My peripheral vision showed me Taylor finally decided to hug Sarah, and the blonde girl reciprocated awkwardly, crutches and all.

    “Armsmaster, you are being arrested for violation of the Endbringer Truce, abuse of the ceasefire offered by the Truce for your own personal gain, the framing of another for breaking the Truce…” Alexandria recited as she manhandled Armsmaster out into the hallway and away from us all.

    As Taylor’s sobs told me she wasn’t going anywhere for the time being, awkwardly hanging around Sarah’s neck (who was having trouble balancing them both upright until Grue decided to help them despite the earlier cold shoulder), I stepped up to the Dallon sisters.

    “You,” Vicky said, “Are one duplicitous and severely fucked-up individual,” she enumerated, enunciating each word as if it had twice the syllables than usual, “And crazy as fuck to boot, given--” she paused, casting a side glance at Battery, who was talking something over with Legend, who was still graciously illuminating the room for us, “--given your powerset. Was my uncle--”

    “I’m sorry, Vicky,” I nodded, “He was already dead when we sent you away. After what Shielder did when your mom got shot down, we needed to keep you in the fight. Had he been alive, we would have carried him out, I swear.”

    She nodded, silently sniffing, then was startled when I gave her a quick awkward hug. I may have put her counterpart in jail, but here and now, I didn’t see an accidental killer waiting to happen, I saw a traumatized teenager who had just lost family, and this meant I had to be supportive. When I let go and turned to Amy, she was eyeing me warily.

    “Best friends, you said,” she repeated, “I still have trouble believing it.”

    I hugged her again, enjoying the squeak despite her stiffening again, and repeated my earlier faceplate-opening cheek-to-cheek contact.

    “Whose handwriting is this, do you know? You have my permission to tell me,” I whispered, letting her look into my biology again.

    "You are just as manipulative as your counterpart. You're a terrible person deep down, and I'm going to find out what your scheme is in the end."

    I started to back away, looking at her in confusion, feeling a little betrayed. What does it take for this girl to trust me? What the hell happened to her in these four months? As I stepped back, her lips twisted into a grimace.

    "Bitch, did I tell you to stop hugging? Put your back into it."
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2017
  29. SwiftRosenthal

    SwiftRosenthal Connoisseur.

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    I'm not sure what precisely happened there, but it looks like you copypasted the chapter twice.
     
  30. Noelemahc

    Noelemahc These things, they happen

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    Yeah, not doing it THAT way ever again. Fixed, thanks!
     
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