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I'm HALPING! [Worm AU fanfic]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jul 18, 2016.

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  1. Threadmarks: Index
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    When a stranger comes to Brockton Bay with the intention of HALPING, things are going to get interesting ...

    Disclaimers:
    1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
    2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
    3) I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.


    Part One: Introduction (below)
    Part Two: Halping!
    Part Three: Insanity is Contagious
    Part Four: Shortlisted
    Part Five: Eclectic Boogaloo
    Part Six: A Bumpy Ride
    Part Seven: Setting Boundaries
    Part Eight: Home Truths
    Part Nine: No Sale
    Part Ten: And For My Next Trick ...
    Part Eleven: Endbringer Shenanigans
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2021
  2. Threadmarks: Part One: Introduction
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
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    42,989
    I'm HALPING!

    Part One: Introduction


    Thursday Night, December 23, 2010

    The bus from Chicago pulled into the Brockton Bay depot and stopped with a hiss of air brakes. With a sigh of relief, the driver set the handbrake, killed the engine, then pulled the lever to open the doors. He was already thinking of the soft sheets that he'd be sleeping on that night as he opened his log book and began to fill out the row of figures.

    Beside him, the passengers filed out of the bus, most of them just as pleased as he was that the endless journey was over at last. Long-haul from the Windy City to the 'Bay was no joke at the best of times, though he wasn't entirely sure why anyone would be coming to the city. Busy scribbling down odometer figures in handwriting only degrees more legible than a doctor's scrawl, he entirely failed to notice the slight distortion in space behind the last passenger, a tired woman with three cranky children.

    Preoccupied with her own brood, the woman assumed that the teenage boy who appeared behind her had been slouched down in a seat and had just now gotten up. Politely, he waited for her to herd her offspring off the bus, then stepped down to the stained pavement himself. As he looked around, he felt wonder at what he saw and heard and felt, but he did not know how to express it.

    Before anyone could query his presence, and the fact that he was unaccompanied by an adult, he walked off into the night.

    <><>​

    The acne-scarred convenience store attendant rang up the sale. “That'll be forty-two dollars and seventy-three cents, please.”

    Naomi Hess rummaged through her purse and found two twenties. Further down, she located three dollar coins, which she placed on the counter with the twenties. The attendant took the money and counted out twenty-seven cents change, which she dropped into the purse. Prices go up every year.

    “Thank you,” she said to him. “Are you working over Christmas?”

    “Gotta,” he replied with a shrug. “Need the money.”

    He had a point, she had to admit. Keeping her two younger children fed and clothed was a constant trial, even though Sophia seemed to be able to pay her own way more and more these days. She carefully avoided thinking about how that might be the case; it was just good that Terry had his own job these days.

    “Well, be safe,” she told him. It wasn't the best of neighbourhoods; this late at night, her regular store had been closed, and she'd had to drive across a couple of neighbourhoods to find a place to pick up spare diapers as well as some other essentials. I swear, Sophia didn't use half as many.

    “You too,” he mumbled, already going back to whatever magazine he was reading in between sales. Laden down by her purchases, she hooked the door handle with one finger and pulled it open.

    It was a good fifty yards down the block to where she'd parked her car. Her feet were already sore; the walk back to the car with the groceries would only serve to add another layer of discomfort to that. She visualised getting home, getting her shoes off, soaking her feet …

    “Well, what the fuck do we have here?”

    It was the tone behind the words, as opposed to the content, that made her heart sink. A covert glance over her shoulder confirmed her worst fears; three tattooed skinheads, flaunting the colours of the Empire, were rapidly catching up with her from behind. She tried to increase her pace as they swapped comments back and forth, but it was no use. Even if she dropped the bags and ran, she knew that they would catch her with relative ease.

    Slowing her pace again, she hunched her shoulders, dropping her gaze to the ground. Maybe they'll just throw a few comments around and get bored and wander off. It was a slim hope, but it was all she had. There was a pepper spray tube in her purse, but to try to use it on three determined opponents would be a bad idea. She would almost certainly miss one, and that would get her stabbed or worse.

    In moments, they were surrounding her on three sides.

    “Hey, bitch, where you going with that shit?” That was the opening ploy. If she didn't answer, she was ignoring them. That would give them an excuse to escalate.

    “Home,” she mumbled. It was probably better to say something than nothing.

    “What's this shit you're carrying? You steal that shit, bitch?”

    “Yeah, nigger bitch probably stole it.” She felt a tugging on one of the bags, and hung on to it.

    That was when one of them shoved her; she staggered. “Let go, bitch. I wanna see what you stole!”

    “I didn't steal it.” She knew it was a mistake to speak up, but the words came out anyway. “I bought it.”

    “Bought it, huh?” Another shove. This time, she barely kept her feet. “Probably stole the money to buy that shit with.”

    “Just leave me alone,” she pleaded. “I'm not hurting you.”

    A foot hooked between her ankles, tripping her; she fell heavily. One of the bags came free of her hand, spilling groceries across the pavement. She tried to hold on to her handbag, but one of the skinheads plucked it off her shoulder. “Let's see how much money this bitch stole this week.”

    “Or whored for it,” put in another one.

    “Hey, that's a good point. You whore for this stuff?” She stayed silent, knowing that there was no answer that would satisfy. A kick caught her in the ribs, and she gasped, curling around herself. “Answer me, bitch! You whore for this?”

    “'Course she did,” said the one who had suggested it in the first place. “Still, she probably ripped 'em off. Maybe we should try out the goods, see if she's worth it.”

    No. No no no. Please, no. Naomi had been mugged before – in a city like Brockton Bay, this was in no way an uncommon event – but they'd never gone this far before. She tried to struggle to her feet, but the kick caught her in the stomach this time, sending her on to her side, curled around a ball of pain. All the negative thoughts she'd ever had about her daughter going out and being a violent costumed vigilante were gone; there was nothing that she would have welcomed more than Sophia's costumed form swooping out of the night to deal with these thugs.

    That didn't happen, but something did. “What are you doing?”

    It wasn't Sophia's voice. It wasn't anyone she knew. The speaker sounded masculine, though young. There was no anger in the question, or even menace. The question sounded more curious than anything.

    “The fuck?” That was one of her tormentors, the one who had raised the idea of rape. “Fuck off, cocksucker. None of your fucking business.”

    There was a pause, then the question was repeated in exactly the same tone. She turned her head, looked upward. The newcomer was white and seemed to be fifteen or sixteen, well-built for his apparent age, with reasonably good looks and artfully tousled black hair. He was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. She was momentarily distracted by the thought that he should be wearing a jacket; while the temperatures in Brockton Bay never fell below freezing, it was a chilly night.

    When he failed to get an answer, the boy took a step forward. “Why are you hurting her? She has not harmed you.”

    “Always gotta be someone,” muttered one of the other skinheads. There was a click, which her mind interpreted as a switchblade opening. “Okay, motherfucker, give us all your money. And your phone. Right the fuck now.”

    “I do not have anything to give you,” the boy replied guilelessly. “But even if I did, why would I do that?”

    “Because I'm going to cut you if you don't.” She saw the skinhead step closer to the boy, who hadn't even raised his hands to protect himself. Run! Get away! They'll kill you! She wanted to shout all that and more, but she could barely breathe right now.

    “No, you are not.” The boy didn't sound defensive, or even scared. Nor did he sound angry or confrontational. His tone was just … factual. The sky is blue. Water is wet. You are not going to cut me.

    “Uh, hey … “ This was one of the others. “He might be, you know, a cape or something.”

    “I am not a cape.”

    Oh no, groaned Naomi silently. You could've gone with it, made them back off. But you had to say that.

    The skinhead said just one thing. “Good.”

    Naomi saw him lunge forward, the blade in his hand glinting yellow in the glare of the street-light. There was a blur of motion followed by a dry snap, and the skinhead screamed; Naomi couldn't quite see properly from her prone position, but it looked like the boy had the Empire thug's wrist turned back on itself somehow. He let the skinhead go as the other two began to move in.

    Naomi had recovered a little from the kicks, and managed to sit up as the skinhead fell to his knees, cradling his wrist and whimpering slightly. She rummaged in her purse for a moment.

    “Hey.”

    The skinhead looked around as she spoke. She let him have it in the eyes with the pepper spray; he screamed all over again, recoiling backward, trying to clutch at his face. For just a moment, she savoured the satisfaction, then painfully climbed to her feet. Maybe I can get away now.

    But it seemed that there was no need, not any more. Both of the other skinheads were down, one groaning a little. The boy was looking down at a slash in his T-shirt, though thankfully Naomi saw no blood beneath it.

    “My god, are you all right?” she asked anyway. He just beat up those three punks to save me. “Thank you, thank you so much.”

    He looked up at her, his expression mild. “I am well. They only cut my shirt.” His expression fell a little. “It is my only shirt.”

    “Oh, uh …” A moment later, she registered what he had just said. “What, you have no other shirts at all?”

    “No.”

    “No other clothes?”

    “No. This is what I have.” He gestured to himself.

    She frowned. He didn't look half-starved, and his clothes appeared relatively new. I doubt he's living on the streets. “If you don't mind me asking … why is this?”

    “I do not mind. It is all I have.”

    “Nothing else?” She tried to work this out. “Did your folks kick you out? Have you run away from home? Where are you from, anyway?”

    “I have not run away from home. I am not from anywhere.”

    It was like asking a brick wall for answers. “Um … listen, what's your name? Mine's Naomi.”

    He looked steadily back at her. “I do not know what my name is.”

    “Your family? Do you remember your family?”

    “Yes,” he replied. For a long moment, she thought that he was finished, then he said one more word. “Behemoth.”

    Naomi Hess had seen the cartoon effect, with a light-bulb going on over the character's head. She had always derided the notion, until right now. It was as if a thousand-watt bulb had been turned on, so brightly did the realisation illuminate everything.

    It made so much sense. He didn't have anything, not because he had run away from home, but because he had lost his family. She'd heard of cases of traumatic amnesia before now. Poor kid probably saw them killed in front of him, and he's blanking it all out. Blanking everything out, including his own name. It wasn't the weirdest thing that she'd seen or heard in her life. It explained his simplistic way of speaking as well; he'd retreated to a more childlike mindset, to deal with the horror of what had happened.

    “Shit,” she muttered. “Uh, do you have any place to stay?”

    “I have no place to stay.”

    For a moment, she couldn't believe that she was really considering this. Then she made up her mind; on the one side was gratitude toward the boy who had risked his life to save her. On the other was her natural caution It really was a no-brainer. He saved me from … well, whatever those guys had planned for me. I owe him this much.

    “Listen,” she said gently. “You saved me from … well, you saved me. I can't thank you enough for that. Have you eaten today?”

    “I have not eaten today.”

    “And you don't have anywhere to stay, either. Right.” I can't leave him to starve on the street. He doesn't have the grab-everything attitude that he'll need to survive. “Okay, then.” She took a deep breath. “If you want, you can sleep on my couch tonight. I'll make you dinner. I'm pretty sure my son's got some old clothes that'll fit you. In the morning, we'll try and find out who you really are, see if we can contact any family you have left.”

    He looked back at her for a long moment, making her wonder if he was going to refuse through stubborn pride, or maybe ignorance of what faced him. Then he nodded. “I would like that.”

    <><>​

    The taillights of the car had faded into the distance before Conrad stirred and sat up. He moved with difficulty, because his right arm was refusing to work correctly, but he managed it.

    “Guys?” he asked.

    A groan came from one direction, where Joe was trying not to claw his own eyes out with his left hand. The acrid tang of pepper spray still hung in the air; Conrad figured that one out pretty easily. Well, he won't be good for much until he gets them cleared out.

    Conrad looked toward Brent, and recoiled. The last of the three skinheads lay on his back, sightless eyes staring at the streetlight above. His chest was caved in like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it; there was a really serious concavity there. If Brent wasn't dead, then he was tougher than anyone Conrad knew.

    Painfully, he staggered to his feet, trying to stop his right arm from swinging around too much. Need to talk to someone about this, he decided. That little fucker was a cape, all right. Nobody else coulda done that shit to us so easy.

    Unsteadily, he stumbled off into the darkness.

    <><>​

    As Naomi pulled into the driveway on Stonemast Avenue, the house looked subtly different. Or perhaps it was in her own perceptions. What had happened to her – what had nearly happened to her – had changed her view of the world. She had known that Brockton Bay could be dangerous at night. Hell, it could be dangerous during the day. But this fact had been now driven home to her in no uncertain terms. The realisation had changed her, and would continue to do so. She wasn't so sure that the changes would be positive in nature.

    On the drive back to the house, she had attempted to strike up a conversation with the boy, but she hadn't gotten far. He knew some things but not others, and he had no opinions whatsoever about, well, anything. The one positive statement she got from him came when she asked him straight-out why he had come to her aid.

    “I am here to help,” he had replied.

    “I don't understand,” she said. “What do you mean by that?”

    “I am here to help,” he repeated, in exactly the same tone.

    “Oh,” was all she could come back with. “Well, thank you again.”

    “You are welcome,” he responded brightly.

    Neither one spoke after that, until they got back to the house.

    <><>​

    Terry looked up from the first-person shooter as he heard the car pull into the driveway. Mom'll want help with the groceries. He paused the game and got up off the couch. “Sophia!” he called. “Mom's home!”

    “Not deaf!” she yelled back from her room. But there was no sound of her door opening or of her coming down the stairs. She obviously didn't feel like helping with the groceries, either.

    Fine. Be that way. I'll do it all myself.

    He knew that his mother would have trouble with the front door if her hands were full of groceries, so he strolled over to open it for her. His timing was spot-on; the door swung open just as she stepped up on to the porch. But she wasn't carrying any groceries. More to the point, there was a teenage kid behind her, just now hefting them out of the car.

    “Mom?” he asked. “Who's that?” If he's stealing them, I am so gonna chase him down and beat the crap outta him.

    “He's going to be our guest for a day or so,” she said. “I was attacked when I was coming out of the store. He stopped them.” Leaning in closer, she lowered her voice. “He's got amnesia. Endbringer attack.”

    Terry's eyes widened. “Shit, really? Are you all right? Who was it? Empire?”

    “I'm fine, yes,” she assured him. “And yes, it was some skinheads. But it's all good now.”

    He kind of doubted that last bit; she had new scrapes on her hands, and she was holding herself a little oddly, but she was walking and talking, so he let that be.

    “Okay, sure, I'll just help him with the stuff. What's his name?”

    She shrugged. “He couldn't tell me. He can't remember.”

    Terry blinked. “You're not kidding about the amnesia.” He gave his mother a quick hug. “I'm glad you're all right.”

    Smiling, she hugged him back, then added a kiss on the cheek for good measure. “Me too, Terry.”

    <><>​

    The boy had the last of the grocery bags out of the car when a tall young man came out of the house and approached him. “Hi. The name's Terry Hess.”

    Placing one of the bags on the ground, the boy shook his hand. “Hello, Terry Hess.”

    Terry shook it with a firm grip. “Mom says you helped her out of a bad spot. I want to thank you for that.”

    The boy picked up the bag again. “I am here to help.”

    “Well, works for me.” Terry Hess did something to the car door and closed it. “C'mon, I'll help you with the bags.” The bags were no burden at all, but the boy allowed Terry to take one of them. If Terry wanted to help, then he could help.

    Terry led the way into the house and began showing the boy where to put the groceries. Although the boy knew what a kitchen was, this was the first time that he had ever seen one. Naomi Hess came into the kitchen and smiled at both of them. “Oh, good,” she said, and picked up the diapers from where Terry had left them on the bench. “I'll just go deal with this, then I'll start dinner.”

    “No, Mom,” Terry told her. “You have a shower and lie down or something. I'll make dinner tonight.”

    “Are you sure?” she asked, doubt in her voice.

    “Sure I'm sure,” he said firmly. “I'm not as good a cook as you, but I'm not bad. Go shower.”

    “But I've got to -” she began, holding up the pack of diapers.

    “Get Sophia to do it,” he interrupted. “Pretty sure she's only up in her room texting to her high school friends anyway.”

    “Well, okay. You twisted my arm.” But her tone did not indicate anger, and the boy knew that Terry had not touched her, much less twisted her arm. He assumed that she was saying one thing to mean another, and that both of them knew what she meant.

    Smiling, she kissed her son on the cheek and left the kitchen.

    <><>​

    The knock on Sophia's door startled her; it was followed by her mother's voice. “Sophia? Are you in there?”

    With a grumpy huff, the teen Ward swung her legs off of her bed. Her text to Emma and Madison was unfinished, so she added an extra line. Hold that thought. Mom here.

    The text sent, she shut the phone down, then got up and opened the door. “What's the matter, Mom?”

    Almost immediately, a pack of diapers was thrust into her hands. “Anna needs a change. Please deal with it. I need to shower.”

    Sophia grimaced. “Can't Terry do it?”

    “Terry's cooking dinner. I'm making it your job tonight.” Her mother's tone became plaintive. “No backchat, not tonight, Sophia. Please.”

    It took that clue for Sophia to notice things; mainly, the scrapes on her mother's knees and the palms of her hands, but also the way she was holding herself, as if her ribs were painful. Sophia knew that look; she'd been on that side of the equation more often than she really wanted to think about.

    “Shit, Mom, are you all right?”

    “A lot better than I might have been.” A deep breath. “I got mugged. Empire thugs. They … they were going to get pretty violent. But someone stopped them.”

    Sophia clenched her fists, anger growing within her. “Empire? Those racist fucks. Next time I'm out that way -”

    “No, no, I'm fine,” Naomi insisted. “I just need to have a hot shower and lie down for a bit.”

    “Oh, okay.” Sophia frowned. “Still gonna send them a message.” A thought struck her. “Who was it who stopped them?”

    “I don't know his name.” Her mother's voice was matter-of-fact. “He's about your age, but I'm pretty sure he lost his family in an Endbringer attack, and the experience has affected him mentally. He certainly doesn't remember anything about where he's from, or his name, or anything like that. But he doesn't have anywhere to stay, so I offered him the couch for the night. Until we can contact Family Services, see if they can figure out who he really is.”

    Sophia stared. “Mom, are you nuts? Inviting some – some stranger into the house? Who knows what he might do!”

    “I know exactly what he might do,” Naomi retorted, a steely tone to her voice. “He might step between me and three Empire Eighty-Eight thugs and risk his life to save mine. Because that's what he did do.

    “You already said he was affected mentally,” Sophia protested. “What if it's the 'I want to wear your lungs as a necklace' type of mental effect?”

    Naomi set her jaw. “I've invited him for dinner,” she stated flatly. “If you get any sort of bad vibes off of him, anything at all, he's out after that. I'll see if there's a homeless shelter that'll take him in and I'll drive him there myself. But give him that chance, at least, all right?”

    Sophia sighed in frustration. “Fine. He gets this one chance.”

    “Thank you.” Her mother hugged her quickly. “I'm going to take that shower. Go take care of your sister?”

    “Yeah, okay.” Accepting the pack of diapers, Sophia watched her mother move down the corridor toward the bathroom. She turned her attention back to her phone. Powering it up again, she read the return comments. Her lips skinned back from her teeth as she read what they had to say. It was perfectly in line with her thoughts, especially when it came to what was due to happen to Hebert.

    Regretfully, she typed back, Cant stay & chat. Put in charge of sister. Guest for dinner. Momentarily, she considered describing why the guest was there, but changed her mind when she realised that she hadn't even met the guy yet. Talk later. Folding the phone, she tucked it away and went to deal with her appointed chore. Once she was done with changing Anna, she'd go down and see about this guy Mom had brought home. I swear, if he's a creeper, he is so gone.

    <><>​

    Terry chopped the ingredients of the casserole, dumping them into the pot as he finished with each lot. Their dinner guest watched with fascinated interest; it was as if he'd never seen someone preparing a meal before. Or maybe he just had a thing for cooking.

    “So, Mom wasn't really forthcoming about what happened,” Terry observed as he sliced strips of meat. “How bad was it, really?”

    The kid didn't answer for a few seconds. “It would have been bad,” he allowed. “There were three of them. They would have done bad things to her. I asked them why. They could not answer. Then they attacked me. One is dead. The other two are injured but alive.”

    The knife stopped moving, poised in midair, as Terry turned to face him. “You're saying you killed one of these guys?”

    “That is what I am saying, Terry Hess,” the boy agreed.

    “Wait, who killed what now?” asked Sophia, walking into the kitchen.

    The boy turned to her before Terry could decide what to say. “I killed one of the three men who was going to do something bad to Naomi Hess,” he explained. “I helped her.”

    Her eyes widened, but not in fear. Terry couldn't quite figure out what her expression meant. “No shit? How badly did you hurt the other two?” Oh, wait. It was excitement.

    “I broke the wrist of one, and the arm of the other,” the boy told her in a straightforward manner. “The third one had a gun, and may have hurt your mother. So I killed him.”

    “So how -” she began.

    “Whoa, hold on,” Terry protested. “Seriously, Sophia. Not a great topic of conversation. Let's just leave it at that, okay? He had to do something pretty bad to protect Mom, and I can understand why he did it, but can we not dwell on it?”

    She rolled her eyes. “Terr, he did it to protect Mom. That automatically makes it a righteous kill.”

    “What?” He stared at her. “Soph, killing is wrong, no matter who does it to whom. He was kind of justified in this case, because Mom, but still, it's never a good thing to do.”

    She shook her head. “You don't get it, do you? We live in Brockton Bay. We got a guy who can turn into a giant flaming rage dragon and toast you in your house, and we got a guy who can make steel blades shoot out of the floor and make you into a shish kebab – and just incidentally, neither of those people approve of our skin colour, and both of them lead powerful criminal gangs. The wonder isn't that we've got the murder rate we do. It's that it's not higher.”

    Stubbornly, he shook his head. “That doesn't make killing good, Soph. It's never right to take matters into your own hands. The courts exist for a reason. Becoming judge, jury and executioner is illegal, and for many good reasons.”

    She stood her ground. “Tell that to every person who got saved from a gruesome death because some out of control cape got a kill order put on his head.”

    Terry grimaced. “That's a special case. They only do that for S-class threats.”

    “But they do it,” she insisted. “If you know someone's gonna try and kill you anyway, it's better to hit them first before they can do it.”

    “But that's murder.” Terry shook his head. “It wouldn't even count as self-defence unless they were clearly threatening you.”

    “Seriously, bro,” Sophia retorted. “With some of the capes out there, their idea of a warning shot is blowing up half a city block. You don't get 'prior warning'. You get dead. Pre-emptive self-defence. It's a thing.”

    “But it's not,” Terry retorted, his voice heavy with frustration. “Not legally, anyway.”

    Their guest broke in. “Terry Hess, are you threatening Sophia?”

    Terry realised that he was waving the knife around, pointing the blade at his sister. “Uh, sorry, no. Got carried away.” He put the knife on the bench. “Sophia, I don't even know where you're getting all this from.”

    “Real life, bro,” Sophia told him, then turned to the boy. “Come on, let's go into the living room and let Terry finish murdering dinner.”

    The boy looked at the cutting board. “That is already dead. He cannot murder it.”

    She rolled her eyes. “Figure of speech. Come on.”

    “All right, Sophia.” They walked out of the kitchen side by side.

    Terry watched them go, then took a deep breath. That didn't settle his agitation, so he took another one. When he was reasonably certain that he wouldn't be chopping off any fingers, he went back to cutting up ingredients for the casserole.

    God, I hope she doesn't twist his head totally around with her thinking.

    <><>​

    Sophia seated the boy on the couch, then sat beside him where she could keep an eye on Anna in her playpen. “So how'd you kill the one guy? You a cape?”

    He looked earnestly at her. “I am not a cape, Sophia. I punched him in the chest and his heart stopped.”

    “Pretty sure that's a cape thing. Or late night martial-arts movies. Not something an ordinary kid can do, right?”

    “I am not an ordinary kid. But I am not a cape either.”

    For all of her scepticism, she found herself believing him. He was so … open, so transparent. As far as she could tell, he didn't even think that what he did was wrong. Well, neither did she, but then, she knew how the world worked. There's weak and then there's strong. I'm strong. And I'm pretty sure that this guy is too. Which reminds me. I can't just keep calling him 'this guy'.

    “So you really can't remember your name?” she asked.

    “I have no name.”

    “Huh. Well, we can't just keep calling you 'the guy with no name' so how would you like a name?”

    “I would like a name very much, Sophia.” He smiled at her. It really was a very charming smile, causing something to shiver deep inside her.

    “Okay then,” she said, doing her best not to stare into his vivid green eyes, “do you have a preference? What do you remember about your family anyway?”

    He paused for a moment. “Naomi says that they were killed in an Endbringer attack.”

    “Yeah, she said.” Sophia shook her head. “Okay, what kind of name would you like to have? Any ideas?”

    For the first time, he seemed uncertain about what to say. “I do not know. Perhaps Ed Ringer?”

    “No. Just no.” She shook her head. “Way too many people would pick up on it and call you 'Endbringer'. You don't want that kind of reminder, trust me.” She rubbed her chin. “How about … Zachary?”

    He smiled widely, causing that little shiver again. Hey, stop it. He's cute, but I'm not about to fall for him. I don't fall for guys. I got no time for that sort of thing.

    “Zachary is a good name,” he said. “I like it. My name is Zachary.”

    “Excellent.” She leaned back on the couch, doing her best to relax. “So, Zach, tell me how you saved Mom. Don't leave anything out.”

    “All right, Sophia.” He leaned back as well, emulating her posture. “She was lying on the ground. There were three of them. One was kicking her. I walked over and asked them what they were doing. They did not want to answer me, and one produced a knife. Another one said that I might be a cape. I said I was not. The one with the knife tried to stab me, and I broke his wrist, but he cut my shirt. The other two attacked me, and one had a pistol. I punched that one in the chest so that he would not hurt your mother with the pistol. The other one tried to hit me with a club, so I broke his arm and knocked him unconscious.”

    Sophia tried not to stare. Zachary's entire statement had been entirely without any trace of bravado or boastfulness. “Are you sure you're not some sort of cape?”

    “I have told you twice now, Sophia. I am not a cape.”

    “Right, right.” She wasn't quite sure why she believed him, but she did. “Not a cape, gotcha.” Which meant that he was some kind of badass normal. This was especially impressive, given his apparent age. I'm good, I'm really good, but if I didn't have my powers … She was honest enough to admit to herself that she wouldn't be anywhere near as impressive as he had just described.

    This was starting to sound like the plot of a corny martial-arts movie. Kid comes out of nowhere, check. Has no memory of his past, check. Kickass martial-arts moves, check. No super-powers, check. “We are gonna have to spar sometime,” she murmured. Unbidden, an image of him on the sparring mat, shirtless, sprang fully-formed into her mind. A very compelling image. Muscles and sweat were involved.

    “I am sorry, Sophia,” he said. “I did not hear that.”

    “Never mind.” She forced the image away. No. Seriously, no. Stop that, she silently ordered her libido.

    Taking a deep breath, she continued in a deliberately normal tone. “So, you've heard my views on necessary killing. You killed that one guy. Why didn't you deal with the rest of them the same way?” I would have, she didn't have to say. Normally, she didn't set out to kill common muggers, but in this case, she would have made an exception.

    “I did not have to,” he explained. “Only one of them had the potential to harm her, so I ended the threat. The others were no threat at all.”

    “Oh.” It made sense. “But if they had posed more of a threat to her …”

    His tone never changed. “I would have acted to end it.” She had absolutely no doubt that he meant every word.

    Damn. This guy's not just a predator. He's an apex predator. Just like me. “So you've got no problem with killing, when it's needed?”

    “It is as you said, Sophia. Sometimes killing is necessary. Sometimes life requires death.”

    She had never heard it expressed precisely like that, but his words resonated with her. I wonder if …

    The thought was not completed, as Terry came through into the living room, wiping his hands with a towel. “Dinner should be ready in half an hour or so,” he announced. He looked at Zach. “So what have the two of you been talking about?”

    Zach looked over at Sophia's brother. “Sophia has given me my name. I am Zachary.”

    Terry covered his eyes with his hand. “Soph, really? You know he's already got a name. We've just gotta find out what it is.”

    “I like the name Zachary,” protested the boy. “It is a good name.”

    “Yes, but you'll have another name, somewhere in the system,” Terry tried to explain. “When we find out who you really are, we'll find that out as well.”

    “So he changes his name.” It was obvious to Sophia. “What's the big deal?”

    “But he already has a name,” Terry reiterated. “Giving him another name will just confuse him when he gets told his real one, or he gets his memory back.”

    “Well, it's not like we can call him 'hey you', is it?” Sophia snapped.

    Terry grimaced. “I guess. But it's not like he's gonna be staying with us for long, right?”

    Zach's head dropped at that. Sophia reached out and punched her brother on the shoulder. “Now look what you've done. You've hurt his feelings.”

    “Since when have you ever worried about anyone's feelings?” scoffed Terry.

    “Hey, I can worry about someone's feelings.” She couldn't miss the scepticism on his face. “I can! Anyway, look at him. He needs someone to talk to him. To connect to him. Think he'll get that with Family Services?”

    “Wait.” He looked at her suspiciously. “Are you saying he should stay with us?”

    While she hadn't thought quite that far ahead, but he had a point. “Well, why not? He saved Mom's life.”

    “By killing someone, Soph,” he pointed out.

    “Well, are you gonna call the cops on him?”

    They both looked at Zach then. He looked back at them. Terry shook his head. “Nah. Even if he didn't get charged with murder, it'd still be on his permanent record. He doesn't deserve that, not for saving Mom.”

    She nodded. “Anyway, it's Christmas. Everyone should have people around them at Christmas.”

    Again, he gave her an odd look. “Soph, seriously? Who turned on your 'nice' setting?”

    “I can be nice.” Even in her ears, that fell flatter than the first one. With a half-shrug, she conceded the point. “Okay, fine. He's a good guy, and he saved Mom's life, so I'm just saying we should maybe cut him a break.”

    “I'm not saying no, but we're gonna have to run it past Mom,” Terry noted. “And ixnay on the illing-kay thing, too. Just saying.”

    “I do not understand those words, Terry Hess,” Zach said. “What do they mean?”

    “What do what words mean?”

    They all looked around; Naomi had just come down the stairs wearing a dressing gown. She looked a little more refreshed, a little less worn. Light plasters covered where she had skinned her hands.

    “Mom!” Terry spoke first. “How are you feeling?”

    “Better.” She smiled at him. “Dinner smells nice, dear. What words were you using that confused him?”

    Zach stood up from the sofa. “Hello, Naomi Hess. The words were 'ixnay' and -”

    “We were just teaching him pig latin, Mom,” Sophia rushed to say. “See, Zach, you take the first letter of the word and put it at the back of the word, then add 'ay' as a sound. So for 'nix', which means 'no', you say 'ixnay'.”

    “Oh.” Zach tilted his head. “I see. And this is a language?”

    “Wow.” Terry frowned. “You don't even know pig latin. I thought every kid knew it.”

    “Well, I know it now, Erry-tay Ess-hay,” Zach said with a smile. “Is that how it is done?”

    “That's how it's done,” Mom agreed. “You three seem to be getting along all right.”

    “Yeah, he's pretty cool,” Terry said. “Uh, Sophia and me were thinking that if Family Services can't find his folks straight away, he might be able to stay here for a bit? At least until they can get in touch with whoever's been taking care of him?”

    Sophia tried not to stare at Terry. She'd been ready to open the subject herself, but hadn't thought that he was totally on board with the idea. But here he was, broaching it as plain as day. Well, crap. Now I'm gonna have to find another reason to dump on him.

    “Sophia?” Mom was looking at her quizzically. “Are you really in agreement with Terry on this?”

    “Um, yes?” Sophia glanced at Zach, and her resolve firmed up. Don't be too eager about it. “I mean, yeah, sure. He's tolerable, I guess. And I wouldn't want to kick him out on Christmas.”

    “Hmm.” Mom looked at her then at Terry. Finally, she looked at Zach. “And what do you think about this?”

    “I think it is good, Naomi Hess,” Zach replied. “If you let me stay, then I will be happy to stay.”

    “Well, I'll think about it.” Mom raised a finger as both her children began to speak at once. “I said, I'd think about it. That's not a yes, but it's not a no, either. It's not so important that I can't have twenty-four hours to decide. All right?”

    Terry nodded first, the big suck-up. “No problems, Mom.”

    “Yeah,” added Sophia. “That's fine.”

    “Sophia gave me my name,” Zach announced.

    Both of Mom's eyebrows rose. “Really?”

    Sophia couldn't think of a way to defuse what was coming. Terry gave her an amused glance as Zach went on. “Yes. My name is Zachary.”

    “Is it, now?” There was a glint of amusement in Mom's eye as she looked at all three of them. “You do realise, Sophia, that just because you named him doesn't mean you can keep him.”

    “Mo-om,” Sophia gritted out. “He's not a dog.”

    “That's true,” Mom agreed. “And as I recall, there was a Zachary Hebron who you had the biggest crush on when you were in fifth grade. Is there any connection?”

    “Buss-tedd,” murmured Terry. Sophia wanted to jab him in the ribs, but Mom was still watching. She wondered if it was actually possible to die of embarrassment. It's nobody's business whose name I gave him.

    <><>​

    Friday, December 24, 2010

    Zachary liked his new name. He liked staying with the Hess family. He did not need to sleep, although he concealed this from them, because it would raise too many questions. So, on the first night, he lay down on the couch with the blanket over him and closed his eyes. He did not mind this. It was restful.

    He had a primary function. It was something that he needed to do. But the push was not urgent. He still had a few days.

    In the morning, he ate breakfast with the family. Eating was another thing that he did not need to do, but to not do so would also raise questions. He somehow knew that if he did not act too far out of the norm, people would not take notice, but if he exhibited strange abilities, then questions would be asked. So he pretended that he needed to eat and sleep. It made things easier.

    After breakfast, Zach volunteered to wash the dishes. Terry had shown him how the night before, and he had found that he rather enjoyed it. It was good practice for fine manipulation that was not combat. He was a little surprised that Sophia offered to help him. From what he could see, she did not enjoy it in the same way that he did, and still she chose to do this. She certainly did not need the practice in fine manipulation. He did not understand her motivations, but he still did not understand why people did many things.

    “So, Mom,” Terry asked as they were doing this. “Have you checked with Family Services yet?”

    “I rang their number,” Naomi replied. Beside Zach, Sophia tensed a little. Zach heard Naomi raise her voice slightly. “You can relax, Sophia. I got an automated message telling me to call back on the twenty-sixth.”

    “Oh, okay.” Sophia sounded relieved. Zach was not sure why. “Uh, Zach, I was going to get in some last-minute shopping at the mall today. Want to come with?”

    “Oh god,” groaned Terry. “Run, Zach. Run while you still can. Save your sanity.”

    “Why must I run, Terry?” asked Zach. “Shopping sounds interesting.”

    “Shopping can be interesting, when you're shopping for man stuff,” Terry said. “But shopping with teenage girls is soul-destroying. Trust me, I've been there.”

    “But Sophia is just one teenage girl,” Zach replied.

    “Uh, we might be meeting the guys there,” Sophia told him. “If that's okay with you?”

    “I do not know who 'the guys' are, Sophia,” he reminded her.

    “Uh, Emma and Madison,” she said. “I've, uh, kinda told them about you.”

    “Oh. That sounds interesting. I would like to meet your friends.” Zach meant it. Meeting new people was always interesting. Even if it did not bring him any closer to his primary goal.

    “Excellent. You'll love them.”

    <><>​

    Hillside Mall Food Court

    Emma stared at Zach. The teen looked blandly back at her. “You're kidding, right?” she asked. “This guy beat the crap out of three Empire punks?” From force of habit, she glanced around, but the food court was sufficiently noisy that her voice would not carry very far.

    “She is not kidding, Emma,” Zach replied for Sophia. “They were hurting Naomi Hess. I stopped them.”

    “Wow, holy crap,” chimed in Madison. “A regular white knight, huh, Sophia?”

    “Kinda, yeah,” admitted Sophia. “It coulda gone badly for Mom if he hadn't been there.”

    “So Zach, you seeing anyone?” asked Emma. He wasn't the eye candy that some guys were, but he was good-looking enough and if Sophia's story was to be believed, he could handle himself in a brawl. He was also polite and deferential to a fault, which she admired in a man, especially when it came to her.

    The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them, because Sophia turned to look at her. Her friend's eyes slitted ever so slightly, leaving Emma with no illusions as to where she'd gone wrong. “Uh … or not,” she amended hastily. “Just curious, is all.”

    “I am seeing many people, Emma,” Zach replied, causing Madison to choke on her slushie. “There are over fifty people in this food court alone. I can see them all.”

    Emma realised what he was saying, even as she patted Madison on the back. “No, I meant seeing seeing. Like, boyfriend and girlfriend. Not that I'm interested,” she added hastily.

    “Sophia is a girl and my friend,” Zach said. “Is that what you mean?”

    She looked at his open, honest expression, and decided not to go there. “Uh, let's just drop the subject.”

    “Yes,” Sophia muttered. “Let's.”

    “So anyway, I was wondering,” Madison put in. “Zach, why do you never use contractions?”

    Zach looked at her. “What are contractions, Madison?”

    That caused Emma and Madison to both stare at him. “What, you don't know what contractions are?” Emma blurted.

    “I do not know what they are in that context, that I should be using them,” Zach replied.

    “Uh, when you run two words together,” Madison told him. “Like they've, we've, I'm and so on.”

    “Oh.” Zach paused for a moment. “I have heard you doing this. I did not know what you were doing.” He ate a fry. “These taste very interesting.”

    “So why don't you?” pressed Madison.

    “Why do I not do what, Madison?” he asked politely.

    “Use contractions,” Emma reminded him. “Why don't you use contractions?”

    Zach looked at Sophia. “Should I use contractions, Sophia?”

    Sophia seemed to be almost grinning as she shook her head. “You don't have to, Zach. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.”

    “Not using contractions makes me feel comfortable,” Zach declared. “So I will not use them.”

    “You realise that it makes you sound like a robot or something,” Madison pointed out. “Are you a robot? Or an alien? Or an alien robot?”

    “No, Madison,” Zach replied politely. “I am neither a robot nor an alien.”

    “How about a cape?” Emma asked quickly, keeping her voice down.

    Zach looked at her. “Naomi Hess asked me that question, as did Sophia. I am not a cape.”

    Emma was pretty sure that she could tell when someone was lying, or at least shading the truth. Growing up with a lawyer for a father, and then in her position as queen bee of her year at Winslow, she had plenty of practice. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence that undermined Zach's statement, but she found herself taking him at face value. He'd said that he wasn't a cape, so she believed him.

    Sophia was glaring at her again. “What?” asked Emma. “It was a reasonable question.”

    “Swear to god,” Sophia muttered. “Next person who asks Zach if he's a cape, I'm gonna punch their lights out.”

    “So, Zach,” piped up Madison, her eyes alight with mischief. “Are you, uh -”

    Don't say it,” growled Sophia.

    “- going to be attending Winslow?” finished Madison, then poked out her tongue at Sophia.

    “I do not know, Madison.” Zach turned to Sophia. “Is Winslow a place where I can meet people?”

    Sophia shot Madison a dirty look; Emma read it quite clearly as I see what you did there. “Yes, Zach, it's a place where you can meet people.”

    “That is good,” Zach decided. “If I can, I will attend Winslow. I like to meet people.”

    “Didn't you say that he wasn't in the system?” Emma pointed out. “If that's true, then he's almost certainly not enrolled at Winslow.”

    “Yeah, well,” began Sophia.

    <><>​

    Later, at Home

    “It's not like they'll even notice an extra student,” Sophia argued. “Come on, Mom. It'll be good for him. Terry'll be at work, you'll be at work, Anna will be in daycare.”

    Naomi pursed her lips. She wasn't at all sure about this. “You realise, Family Services may well take him away before then.”

    “But if they don't?” Sophia urged. “Is it okay?”

    Naomi sighed. “Zach, do you want to go to school with Sophia, if you're still staying here?”

    “Yes, Naomi.” Zach smiled. “It sounds very interesting.”

    “What sounds interesting?” asked Terry, strolling into the kitchen to raid the fridge.

    “I am going to attend Winslow, Terry Hess,” Zach told him. “Sophia says there are many people there.”

    “Hm.” Terry quirked a grin. “Well, you seemed to survive the shopping mall of horrors, so I'm not going to try to talk you out of it.” He paused, and his tone turned serious. “Just don't go picking fights with any gang members there. I'm pretty sure that some of them go armed.”

    “I will not pick any fights,” Zach assured him.

    “And if someone tries to pick a fight with you, just walk away,” Terry added.

    “Hell, no,” protested Sophia. “Someone gets in your face, you get right back in theirs. You back down even once, they'll think you're weak and never stop coming at you.”

    Terry covered his eyes with his hand. “Sophia, this is Winslow,” he reminded her. “You're reasonably popular and you're on the track team. Not many people are gonna mess with you. Zach's an unknown. He's got no cred there. It's best if he just keeps his head down and doesn't get caught up in anything.”

    “It is all right, Terry Hess,” Zach assured him. “I will not start anything that I do not believe that I can finish.”

    “Plus, I'll be looking out for him.” Sophia spread her hands. “He'll be fine. Trust me.”

    “That's what I'm worried about,” muttered Terry.

    Sophia stuck her tongue out at him.

    <><>​

    Monday Morning, January 3, 2011

    Winslow High School

    “So Family Services is letting him stay with you?” Emma sounded a little surprised.

    “Sure,” Sophia replied. “They went through their files and they couldn't find him, even in the ones specially set up for Endbringer victims and families. So they're still searching, and in the meantime, Mom's okay with him sleeping on our sofa.”

    “Yeah, but how's he doing with sleeping on your sofa?” asked Madison.

    “I do not mind, Madison,” Zach told her. “It is a comfortable sofa, and I do not sleep much.”

    Madison grinned. “One of these days, we're gonna find something that you do mind, Zach, and I wanna be there when it happens. Just so I can see what you're like when you're not happy.”

    Sophia had to wonder about that herself. Zach seemed to be the most even-tempered guy she knew. He didn't get sad and he didn't get angry. No matter what happened, he just … was.

    Must be the Endbringer thing, she mused to herself. He used up all his emotion reacting to that.

    “Oh, hey, there's Taylor now,” Emma said, her voice now filled with vicious glee. “She's heading for her locker. Come on.”

    She hurried forward, leaving the other three to follow in her wake. “Who is Taylor?” asked Zach. His voice held a new note of interest, but Sophia wasn't paying attention. She moved forward faster, leaving Madison behind to explain to Zach.

    It happened like clockwork; Hebert opened the locker, letting the stench within out in all its horrific glory. Everyone within five yards gagged and reeled away, save for Sophia herself; she was holding her breath for that very reason. Taylor, at the locker, bent over to throw up.

    I'll never get a better opportunity. Sophia hadn't actually planned on this, but she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Grabbing Taylor's hair, she shoved her viciously into the locker, into the noxious sludge that was only now starting to ooze its way out. Trash, meet trash.

    The door was slammed shut; Sophia only just pulled her hands back out of the way in time. She looked up into Emma's eyes, bright and eager for mischief. A single thought passed between them; while Emma held the door shut, Sophia reached down and spun the combination lock, locking Taylor inside.

    They stepped back then, as Taylor began to scream and bang on the door. All around them, people were staring, some in horrified delight, others in just plain shock.

    “Holy shit,” Emma gasped. “I don't believe it. We pulled it off.”

    <><>​

    Three Months Ago

    David didn't like to talk about the nightmares. To admit to such a thing would be to lessen himself in the eyes of others, at least as far as he was concerned. One of the most powerful men in the world, he cringed from the idea that such as he could not even control his own dreams.

    So he slept alone, from both necessity and choice, where the touch of another could have made his slumber more restful. And so, on this one night, he dreamed a dream.

    This dream would change the world.

    In the dream, there was a city, a school and a girl. He did not know the city, save that it was gang-ridden, trapped in a slightly faster spiral of economic decay than the rest of the nation. He did not know the school, except that it was a teenage microcosm of the city around it, a hellhole of cliques and gangs, a pressure-cooker enclosed within four graffiti-encrusted brick walls. And he did not know the girl, but he knew her type. Not conventionally attractive, made introverted by circumstances rather than by nature. He knew the type well, because it was what he saw in the mirror on a daily basis.

    An inverse of him, she had no power, no control over her daily life, at school or at home. Where others looked up to him, assisted him, even worked alongside him in his self-appointed duties, she was the opposite. Nobody looked up to her; in fact, for the most part, those who saw her at all looked down on her. The invisible girl, trapped in her own spiral of low self-esteem, emotional abuse and lack of anywhere to turn. Her path would inevitably lead, as his once had, toward ending it all in one way or another. Or attempting to. He had failed; she might not.

    Within the dream, he felt emotion choking his throat. She's where I used to be. I wish I could help her.

    But the dream was coming to an end, the vision of the girl beginning to fade like the morning fog. He watched as she was set upon by those who were nominally her peers, pushed into a stinking locker, locked in. As the dream trailed off, even as his gradually waking mind realised that it was a dream, he raged at the injustice of what was done to the girl.

    I wish I'd been able to help her. Stop what was happening to her.

    Waking, he blinked his eyes clear, finding tears on his cheeks. Reaching blindly for a handkerchief, he noisily blew his nose. “That was intense,” he muttered to himself, even as the memory of the dream slid away from him. All he would recall, later, was that it had disturbed him on a deeply emotional level.

    What Eidolon didn't know, and would never learn, was that it had been no dream at all.

    <><>​

    Sophia, equally jubilant, was about to reply, when Zach reached them. “What did you do that for?” he asked.

    “It's Taylor,” Emma told him. “She's a wimp. A weed. Someone who needs to be pushed down.”

    No.”

    Sophia almost didn't recognise Zach's voice. The tone was harder, stronger and colder than she had ever heard from him before. He moved forward, toward the locker.

    “Hey -” began Madison, grabbing his right arm. He swung back at her; her wrist took the initial shock, snapping like a dry twig. Sophia thought she heard more bones break as the petite brunette was lifted from her feet and sent flying through the air. She bowled over three more students before she hit the ground.

    Emma was unlucky enough to be directly in front of him. He swept her out of the way with his left arm; folding almost in half from the force of the blow, she was thrown back into a locker.

    Sophia didn't waste any time. Not a cape, my ass. Time for nerve strikes and compliance holds. One punch, two, feeling like she was hitting a brick wall. He didn't react. She grabbed his arm, trying to twist it back. He raised his arm with her still hanging off of it, then slammed her straight down into the floor. She landed hard on her back; something popped. Consciousness fading, she watched him stride up to the locker. Everyone else got hastily out of his way.

    Reaching up, he grabbed the top of the locker door and tore it open as easily as Sophia might rip a page out of a book. The shriek of rending metal was still loud in her ears as he tossed the door aside. He caught Taylor as she tumbled out, hefting the skinny girl easily in his arms.

    The last thing Sophia heard before she passed out was Zach's voice, as bright and cheerful as ever.

    “Hello, Taylor Hebert! I am here to help you!”



    End of Part One

    Part Two
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2016
    saugo, A Simurgh Plot, ~[]~ and 75 others like this.
  3. Harbin

    Harbin Getting sticky.

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    From crush, to crushed.
     
  4. Guile

    Guile Clothes That Kill Virgins

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    Eh.

    Human endbringer, cool. Starting on the Hess family was pretty fresh and interesting, although I thought Sophia and Terry's argument was a little too... 'This is my position and it is inviolate let me explain why then you can explain your position.' if that makes any sense? The bait and switch at the end was pretty well executed in general.

    But that he's here specifically to help Taylor, who Eidolon saw in a cape dream and wanted to help? Noooo thank you. Gonna give this one a pass.
     
    Hugs4u, MrHam31, dasstan and 3 others like this.
  5. nobodez

    nobodez Bringer of Context

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    Looks interesting. Instead of QA Halping, she's got Zachary Ed Bringer, brother to Bohemoth.
     
  6. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Oh, great idea! Endbringer help, here we come! Taylor just got the biggest baddest big brother ever.
     
    Alayne, Pyro Hawk and Ack like this.
  7. GiftofLove

    GiftofLove A Gift From The Heart

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    Ok, this, this I like. I am so eagerly awaiting more Ack.

    I love the alien mindset learning to live with humans genre. It's great!
     
    Ack likes this.
  8. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    And then big Ziz shows up and it all goes south.

    Edit: Oh! And "Assistance rendered!"
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2016
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    No, he's here to HALP her.

    There's a difference :p
     
  10. Harpy81

    Harpy81 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Also did Taylor trigger in the locker
     
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  11. Firedon

    Firedon Lazy Sleepy Cat

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    Judging by the uninterrupted narrative and the slow passing out of Sophia, I really doubt it.
     
  12. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    Helping: Rendering assistance to a person in need.
    Halping: Assisting someone, usually against their will. Doing whatever you believe will be beneficial to the halped party.
     
  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Correct.
    Also correct :p
     
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  14. Xilph

    Xilph Well worn.

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    I just had a thought, asking Zachary "Are you a cape?" is probably the same as asking them "Are you a belt?" or "Are you a T-Shirt?".

    Not just being asked how he did what he did seems kinda weird from an in universe point of view, makes perfect sense for the story though.
     
  15. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    Obligatory: "Taylor Hebert, come with me if you want to live" ;)
     
  16. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    A cape is a human with powers; ie, a parahuman. Scion is not a parahuman; he's a space whale pretending to be something he's not. Behemoth is not a parahuman; he's a superweapon. So is Zach. Therefore, he's not a cape.

    In the equally obligatory Austrian accent :p
     
  17. Xilph

    Xilph Well worn.

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    No, a parahuman is a human with powers, Cape is a slightly broader term which includes close analogues such as Saint or Scion typically, a case of connotative vs denotative meaning really.

    Point about them likely not knowing that meaning of the word should still stand though.
     
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  18. EJH

    EJH Know what you're doing yet?

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    Which misconception an author can play for maximum comedy or tragedy potential, as appropriate. :D
     
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  19. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Or, you know, both.
     
  20. ShellOG

    ShellOG Not too sore, are you?

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    I guess Zach isn't going to be living with a certain somebody anymore. Then again, wouldn't it be DARN awkward to see Zach still live with that certain somebody?

    P.s. I'm talking about the big angry tiger in the room.

    P.s.s. Sophia.

    P.s.s.s. Here's a hammer for you to hit my head on. :oops:
     
  21. alethiophile

    alethiophile Shadowed Philosopher Administrator

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    Oh God.

    This is going to be a glorious train wreck, isn't it.
     
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  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    For given definitions of 'glorious', 'train' and 'wreck', yes :p
     
  23. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    All aboard the hype train!
     
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  24. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix Versed in the lewd.

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    Why do I get the feeling this is all a Ziz plot. She manipulated Dadversary's dreams to give Taylor her perfect beefcake, leaving Lisa free for her to swoop in with the romance.
     
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  25. pepperjack

    pepperjack A Variety of Cheese

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    Because she gave you those feelings in your sleep.
     
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  26. Sorain

    Sorain Know what you're doing yet?

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    Zach isn't a cape or a super-weapon. Zachary is a personal assistant. Clearly.

    All joking aside, I definitely want to see this unfold. Especially since he's infiltrating Geth style.
     
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  27. Threadmarks: Part Two: Halping!
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I'm HALPING!


    Part Two: Halping!


    Julia wasn't in a good position to see when Taylor Hebert was shoved into the locker, which had irritated her. All Madison had told her was that there was an 'awesome prank' going down, with Taylor as the butt of it, which was pretty well par for the course. Show up, Madison had said. Be ready to take pictures. It'll be epic.

    She hadn't been wrong. It was epic, all right. Epic in the same way that an Endbringer attack was epic. Julia hadn't been paying too much attention to Sophia's boy-toy, except to express a little surprise, given that the track star rarely spent time smooging up to guys. In fact, if Sophia had been a little more butch, Julia would have seriously begun to wonder if she was playing for the other team.

    When the door slammed shut on Hebert, locking her in with all that crap, Julia had been delighted and amazed – along with being a little pissed, of course. If she'd known that was gonna go down, she would've picked a better vantage point.

    Of course, if she'd known what else was going to go down, she would've picked a different vantage point altogether, for an entirely different reason.

    The first thing that clued her in on something being wrong (for anyone not named Taylor Hebert, of course) was when Madison came flying at her. Not staggering, not even running backward. Flying. Like, airborne. And Julia was in the way.

    Point of note: petite girls are still heavy. When one slams into you at waythefucktoofast speed, they can and will bowl you the fuck off of your feet. And the people behind you.

    Julia went down, of course. Madison landed on her, then rolled off, groaning horribly. Julia wondered if her ribs were broken, or if Madison's impact had just bruised everything from her kidneys on forward. She still had her phone in her hand. It was a conditioned reflex ingrained into every teen; whatever else happens, don't ever lose your phone. Gang attack, Endbringer event, the Triumvirate showing up for a publicity stunt, it was all the same. If you didn't know where your phone was, you were nothing.

    Hebert didn't even own a phone. That was her in a nutshell, really.

    Gasping for breath, Julia watched as the boy-toy slammed Emma up against a locker, then bounced Sophia off the floor like a basketball. Sophia didn't bounce too well. Then the boy-toy stepped up to the locker and fucking ripped the door off. Julia's eyes went wide; before, she'd been going to call the cops and paramedics and shit. Now she knew exactly who she was gonna call.

    And it wasn't the fucking Ghostbusters.

    <><>​

    You've reached nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”

    “Parahuman attack,” gasped Julia. With wide, terrified eyes, she watched the boy-toy, with Taylor Hebert in his arms, stride down the hallway and out of sight. Nobody tried to stop him, for several really obvious reasons. One was the fact that he'd just torn off a locker door with his bare hands. The second was that the stuff that Emma and the others had put in Taylor's locker stank. And some of it was stuck to Hebert's legs. They could probably smell her in Boston.

    The phone clicked and buzzed, then she heard a new voice. “You have reached the PRT emergency call line. Are you experiencing a parahuman attack at this time?”

    “My – my friends have been attacked,” Julia sobbed. “They're hurt badly, I think. The guy just hit them.”

    I understand,” the woman on the other end of the line told her soothingly. “Can you tell me your location, please?”

    “I – Winslow High School,” Julia stammered, trying not to hyperventilate. “Please help us. He might come back any moment.”

    I'm alerting the PRT as we speak,” the woman said soothingly. “The more information you can give me about this, the better. What sort of powers were used to attack your friends, and how badly are they injured?”

    Julia couldn't recall what they called really strong capes. “He just – just hit them, really hard. Just a single punch to put them down,” she blurted. “Then he ripped a locker door off with his bare hands. He's strong, really strong.”

    She could hear the clatter of computer keys. “A Brute classification, then. How badly are your friends injured?”

    “Uh -” Julia sat up and looked at Madison. The brunette was moaning weakly and clutching at her arm. It looked twisted in a really weird way, and her wrist just looked all wrong. Sophia was still lying on her back, a few yards away, breath hissing through her teeth. Julia couldn't see if there was anything badly wrong with Emma, but she was folded into a curled-up position, so she decided to go with the safest option. “I think they're all hurt pretty badly. Broken bones at least. He hit them really hard.” She was aware that she was repeating the same words over and over – he hit them really hard – but she couldn't help herself.

    Ambulance services have been dispatched to your location. Can you describe the parahuman to me? Was he wearing a costume?”

    “No,” she said. “He was just wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He's new here. I thought he was a friend of Sophia's. Tall, good-looking, black hair, kind of serious. I didn't get his name.”

    That's fine, that's fine,” the PRT woman replied gently. “Now, what I want you to do is describe the incident to me as closely as you can. Don't leave out any uses of his powers. Can you do that for me?”

    Julia took a deep breath. We locked some girl in her locker and he went nuts and rescued her. Yeah, that'll go down real well. “Uh, someone played some kinda prank and he just went nuts for no good reason,” she hedged. “Hit Emma and Sophia and Madison, then ripped off a locker door, then went off with some girl.”

    The woman's tone sharpened. “There's someone with him now? Do you believe her life to be in danger?”

    Why did I mention Taylor? “Uh, probably not. She's probably in on it with him. She's a creepy weird loner.”

    I see. Do you know her name?”

    “Uh, yeah, Taylor. Taylor Hebert.”

    Have you seen them together before this point?”

    She thought of lying, but decided it was too dangerous. “Uh, no, this was the first time I met him. But they could've met out of school.”

    Thank you. Your friends, the injured girls. Can you tell me their full names?”

    “Uh, yes. Emma Barnes, Madison Clements and Sophia Hess. My name's Julia.”

    <><>​

    Parahuman Response Teams ENE

    Office of Deputy Director Renick

    Paul Renick pushed his glasses back up on his nose and eyed the email with a vaguely quizzical air. Now, why would Kid Win be requisitioning seventeen pounds of popcorn and a rubber duck … well, never mind. I'm sure Armsmaster's ordered in stranger things before. He forwarded the email onward, with his approval attached, then turned to the next one in the queue.

    But before he could click it open, an alert flag popped up on his desktop. Reflexively, he clicked on it. A window unfolded, and he started scanning the lines of text.

    Parahuman attack at Winslow High. Reported by student. Female, young, agitated.

    Perp Brute. Several students injured. Dispatching emerg services.

    Perp male, teenage, good looking, black hair, serious appearance. No name given. Friend of student called Sophia. No costume, no mask. T-shirt, jeans.

    Perp responded to prank with violence. Struck three girls. Emma, Sophia, Madison. Tore door off of locker (why?) HOSTAGE.

    Caller does not think hostage is in danger (why?) Hostage name is Taylor Herbert (sp?). Caller has not seen hostage w/perp, but thinks that they may be in collusion (why?).

    Renick kept reading, his brow furrowing. This was a standard call-out; he wasn't sure why the alert had popped up on his computer. Then he scrolled onward a little, and saw the highlighted name.

    Full names of victims Emma Barnes (sp?), Madison Clements, Sophia Hess.

    He hadn't registered the name 'Sophia' above, but now he recalled it. Wait, she took a Brute friend to school, where he attacked her and some other students? What's going on here?

    Picking his phone up, he hit speed-dial. It didn't take long for him to get an answer. “Emily,” he said carefully, “I think we may have a situation.”

    He didn't miss the groan from the other end. Emily hated 'situations'.

    <><>​

    I sniffed the air as I scrubbed my legs again. I'd been wearing jeans – I would have to burn them now – but even though I was clean, I still felt the touch of that shit on me. But I couldn't smell anything other than soap and water, so I decided to stop scrubbing. My skin was starting to get a bit red, anyway. Of course, the water was pretty hot too …

    “I have brought you clean clothes and a towel, Taylor Hebert!”

    I spun around, arms flying to cover myself. But he wasn't looking. All I could see was a handful of what looked like clothing being held across the entrance to the shower cubicle.

    Well, I was clean enough already. I turned the shower off and reached for the clothing. “Thanks. Uh … sorry, I didn't catch your name earlier. Who are you again, and why are you helping me?” The thought was never far from my mind that this might be some kind of massive multi-layered prank, to set me up and then have the whole school take photos of me naked or something.

    “My name is Zachary. Sophia gave me that name. I am here to help you.”

    I started to dry myself. “Sophia … Hess? You know Sophia?” The ugly possibilities in the back of my mind began to multiply.

    “Yes, Taylor Hebert. I know Sophia. She is not a nice person. She hurt you. I liked her until she did that. Then I stopped liking her.”

    Zachary's delivery was … odd. Almost robotic. Or very naïve. I finished drying myself and scrubbed at my scalp. “But why did you help me? You don't know me.” Even the people who know me don't want to help me.

    His voice was almost comically bright. “I am here to help you, Taylor Hebert! That is what I am here to do!”

    Circular argument. I am here to help you, so I am helping you.

    I had to know. Mom had instilled in me a certain level of curiosity. “But why are you here to help me?” With the towel wrapped around my hair, I started getting dressed.

    “Because that is the basis of my existence, Taylor Hebert! I am here to help you!”

    The clothing wasn't mine. Too short and too wide, but there was also a belt, which I managed to pull in to the last notch. I had to take the towel off of my head to put on the t-shirt, which hung on me like a tent, but at least I was dressed.

    Okay. Now I could address the philosophical conundrum that had been presented to me.

    I stepped out of the shower cubicle and met his gaze squarely. “So what you're saying is that you're in love with me. Is that it?” Oh, god, please don't let that be it. He's kinda hunky, but I don't need an obsessed boyfriend. Especially one whom I've never met before.

    He looked vaguely confused. “I am not in love with you, Taylor Hebert. I am here to help you. Now, come with me and you can eat some food.”

    “ … food?” I blinked, trying to get past the conversational whiplash.

    “Yes, Taylor Hebert. You have undergone a most traumatic experience. Trauma induces shock. It is good to eat food in order to reduce the effects of shock.”

    “I …” I guessed that I was still a little shaky from all of what had happened. Not least being the fact that I'd been rescued by an overly attentive stranger who was determined to wait on me hand and foot. “ … okay. Food sounds good.”

    “Food is good, Taylor Hebert. You are more than a little underweight. Perhaps you need to eat a little more food every day and exercise for muscle mass. That would be a healthy thing to do.”

    Overly attentive wasn't the half of it, apparently. He was also incredibly rude, without even intending to be so.

    Well, kinda rude. In a well-meaning way.

    I snuck a sideways glance at him as we walked along the corridor. He really was good looking. Also, if his biceps were any indication, he had serious muscle definition. Also also, he had gotten me out of the locker. Okay, I could forgive the rudeness. This time.

    “Okay, uh, Zachary?”

    “Yes, Taylor Hebert?”

    “For one thing, my name's Taylor, all right. Just Taylor, not 'Taylor Hebert' all the time.”

    “Yes, Taylor. I will remember that.”

    “Thank you, Zachary. Uh, do you prefer Zachary or Zach?”

    “I have no preference, Taylor. You may refer to me by either name.”

    “Okay, Zach, one other rule. Please don't make personal comments about my weight or habits unless I invite them, all right? It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

    “I will try not to make you feel uncomfortable, Taylor. But I will make an observation.”

    He paused. I nodded cautiously. “Yes?”

    “Sometimes it is necessary to make someone uncomfortable in order to help them. Is that not true?”

    Dammit. He had me there.

    “Uh, okay, yeah, but still? Ask permission before making any personal comments, all right?”

    “I will do that, Taylor.” He pushed open the cafeteria door. One staff member was present, wiping down the counter. The smell of hot food tickled my nostrils, making my stomach growl. “I will get you some food, Taylor.”

    Food did sound good, but I was pretty sure that we weren't supposed to be there. We approached the servery counter; it was all there, but locked behind glass. “Um, maybe we could go to a vending machine?”

    “Why do we need to do that, Taylor?”

    I gestured at the inaccessible food. “Because we can't get to it?”

    “Can I help you?” We both looked around at the lady behind the counter. She returned a surly expression. I was pretty sure that her question really meant What the fuck are you doing in my cafeteria?

    “Yes, you can help us, please,” Zach said brightly. “Taylor needs some food. You would be helping her if you gave her something to eat.”

    The woman stared at him, then at me. I essayed a little shrug, trying to convey It wasn't my idea, but I am kinda hungry. I wasn't sure if she actually got all of that.

    “Cafeteria's closed,” grunted the woman, starting to wipe the bench again. “Come back at lunch time.”

    That was pretty definite as far as dismissals went. I started to turn away, but Zach spoke again. “No. Taylor is here now. She needs food now.” There was a harder tone in his voice, one that I hadn't heard before. “Please give her food now, so that she can eat.”

    I put my hand on his arm. “Zach, it's all right. I can wait.”

    “No, Taylor,” he insisted. “You need food. There is food right here.” He shifted his attention to the woman. “Please give Taylor some food.”

    The woman's lip curled. “Go away before I call the principal. You're not even supposed to be in here.”

    “All right.” For a moment, I thought that Zach was seeing sense. Then he took hold of the end of the glass cover with one hand, braced the other on the counter … and with a sound like a trainwreck, pulled the cover clear off the servery. That was loud enough. When he casually tossed it to one side, where it demolished a table? That was even louder.

    I'd been meaning to ask him how he got me out of that locker.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster turned his head. A glance at his HUD selected 'all units'. “Armsmaster here. What was that noise, over?”

    A moment passed, then a voice came over comms. “Squad Three Actual. We're near the cafeteria. The sound came from inside there. It sounds like someone's wrecking the place, over.”

    “Roger, Squad Three Actual. Hold position. All other units, converge on the cafeteria. Armsmaster out.” He cut his mic and looked down at where the paramedics were loading the three injured girls on to gurneys. All the other civilians had since been evacuated, of course. “How long until you can evac them?”

    “We'll be done in a minute.” The man in charge glanced up at him. “We've got multiple broken bones, possible internal injuries and maybe spinal damage. But they're stable. We'll have them out of your way soon.”

    “Good.” He paced forward, glanced at Miss Militia. She held a heavy machinegun in a casual grip, a bright red laser dot playing on the far end of the corridor. There were not many people who could use a laser sight with a gun that size; it went without saying that she was one of the few. “Rest of the school's been evacuated?”

    She nodded. “Almost. Classrooms have been cleared. Squad Four reported finding torn-open lockers in the girls' shower room.”

    He frowned slightly. “What is it with this Brute and lockers? And what's with that locker and the filth that's in it?” He gestured with his halberd toward the locker in question; the appalling reek was easily discernible ten yards away. “That's going to need a hazmat team to clear up.”

    “I think it means that there's something going on that we don't know about,” Miss Militia said pensively. “Maybe it's got something to do with the hostage.”

    Armsmaster grimaced. “I hate hostage situations.”

    “Don't lie,” she murmured, elbowing him gently in the ribs. “You love anything that gives you a challenge you can overcome.”

    He didn't rise to the bait. She was closer to the truth than he was comfortable with. He wanted – needed – to prove himself, to show the higher-ups that he was relevant, able to hold his own at the top of the heap in Brockton Bay. His social skills were atrocious, he knew, but there were things that he had trouble grasping and things that came easily to him. Engineering. Leadership. Fighting. Those were his forte.

    “Okay, we're ready to roll.” He looked around. The paramedics were lifting the gurneys, holding the IV trees up out of the way, making preparations to evacuate the injured. The victims, he reminded himself. Including a Ward. That makes it personal.

    “Good,” he said. “Let's go.” The blink of an eye brought up a plan of the school; he set the cafeteria as their target, and the navigation system overlaid a path on the map. The path was also projected on his field of view, so that he didn't have to check with the map. A little overkill while walking through a high school, no doubt, but immeasurably useful when riding at full tilt through the back streets of Brockton Bay.

    Assault here,” he heard in his earpiece; a quick check showed that it was coming in on the capes-only frequency. “Me and puppy can provide backup if you want. Because, you know, Brute and all.”

    “We're trying to keep this low-key,” Armsmaster replied firmly. “There's a hostage involved. If he sees too many capes coming at him, he might panic and hurt her.”

    So Miss Militia's going to do the talking, gotcha.”

    “Clear the channel,” growled Armsmaster. He shot a suspicious glance at Miss Militia; she may have been smiling under the scarf, but he couldn't be certain. After a moment, he cleared his throat and opened the cape channel once more. “Armsmaster to Velocity. Are you in position, over?”

    Roger that,” the speedster replied. “Once you go in there, if I can zip in and grab the girl, I will.”

    “Hold off on that until we get a read on him,” Armsmaster advised him. “He may have better reflexes than we know about. Right now, the well-being of this girl ...”

    “Taylor Hebert,” Miss Militia reminded him.

    “Taylor Hebert, is paramount.”

    Holding off, roger.”

    “Good.” He cut the channel again, and accessed the notes taken by the PRT emergency call responder. “Says here her name is Herbert.”

    “I checked the school records,” Miss Militia told him. “More than one student by the name of Herbert, but no Taylors. There is one Taylor Hebert, though. Fifteen years old.”

    “Hm.” He nodded, taking the information on board. “Poor kid. She must be about scared to death by now.”

    <><>​

    This was the first time I had ever felt actually comfortable in the school cafeteria. With nobody else to poke fun at me or 'accidentally' knock my tray to the floor, or spill their drink on me, I was able to actually relax and enjoy my meal in peace.

    Of course, the fact that Zach had more or less destroyed the servery was a bit of a downer, but I was carefully ignoring that aspect of matters. He was strong. I mean, really, really strong. But he had never hurt me with that strength. In fact, he was using it to help me. I found it weird in the extreme, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the heck out of the meal. The fact that I wasn't really questioning that strength was a faint niggle at the back of my mind, but one that I chose to ignore for the moment. It wasn't really important, anyway.

    Finally, I pushed my tray away and essayed a delicate ladylike burp. Well, it started that way, then went way out of control. “Wow,” I muttered. “Excuse me and all that.”

    “You do not need to be excused, Taylor,” Zach said. “Belching is a perfectly normal bodily function.” He had stayed quiet, at my request, while I was eating, but now it seemed that he felt at liberty to speak once more.

    “Ah, yeah, let's not expand on bodily functions,” I said hastily. “So, uh, what do we do now? My locker's destroyed, my books are totalled and I think they're gonna be a little pissed at what you did to the servery.”

    “I can help to repair that,” offered Zach. “But I do not have any money to pay for it.” He paused. “You did not explain why Sophia put you in your locker. Lockers are not intended for human accommodation. Nor are they intended for toxic waste storage. Why did she do this?”

    I sighed and leaned back in the chair. “It's not just Sophia. It's Emma and Madison as well. They've been picking on me since I started high school. Everything they can do to hurt me or make me feel bad, they'll do it.”

    He looked solemn. “This is not a good thing.”

    “No shit it's not a good thing,” I said, a little more vehemently than I had intended. “I just wish they'd stop, is all.”

    “Have you asked them to stop?” His voice was matter-of-fact.

    I smiled bitterly. “I've done nothing but, since they started. Telling the teachers does nothing. Telling the principal does nothing. They just keep doing it.”

    “Oh.” He stood up from his chair. “I will return, Taylor.”

    “Wait, wait, where are you going?” I jumped up as well.

    “I am going to solve your problem.”

    I caught up with him as he strode toward the doors. “How are you going to do that?”

    “I am going to kill them.” His tone was earnest, almost scarily so.

    “No, you can't! Killing is wrong!”

    “No, it is not.” He really intended to do this. I could hear it in his voice. “Sophia will understand. She knows that it is sometimes necessary to kill to solve a problem. I will let her explain to the other two, and give them time to make their peace with whatever deity they consider significant.”

    “Wait, no,” I protested. I grabbed him by the arm. “Stop!”

    Coming to a halt, he turned to me. “Why are you stopping me? It is the most expeditious solution to your problem. If they are dead, they cannot hurt you.”

    I stared into his face, trying to reach him. “Don't kill them. Don't kill anyone. Please.”

    He tilted his head. “I want to help you, Taylor. I am here to help you. Do you want them to stop bullying you?”

    “Yes … no … but … argh!” I scrubbed at my forehead with the back of my hand. “Not like this. If you killed someone on my account, I would never be able to forget that someone died because of me.”

    “I will not kill them, Taylor,” he agreed.

    I sighed with relief. “Good. Thank you. That makes me feel much better.”

    “I am glad that you feel better,” he said simply. “I have an alternate strategy in mind. I do not need to kill them.”

    A sense of impending doom tapped me on the shoulder and bet me that the alternate strategy was worse. I tried to ignore it. “What is your new strategy?”

    He smiled at me. “I will frighten them instead. I will tell them that I will kill them if they do not stop hurting you.”

    Mentally, I handed the sense of impending doom fifty bucks. It had been right all along. “No. That will hurt me and my dad. Badly.”

    He looked confused. “But I will not be killing anyone, Taylor. How is this hurting you?”

    I sighed. “Emma Barnes is the daughter of a lawyer. If you make threats against her on my behalf, then her father will probably sue me and Dad so hard my grandkids will be paying off the damages.”

    “But you do not have grandchildren, Taylor.”

    “It's a figure of speech. It means that it'll be very costly to me and Dad. Please don't threaten Emma with death or dismemberment. She's extremely vindictive.”

    “Oh.” He brightened. “Then I will -”

    The sense of impending doom was back, but before it could offer me a new bet, the cafeteria doors opened. We both looked around. I was expecting one of the teachers, or maybe Principal Blackwell. What I wasn't expecting was Armsmaster and Miss Militia.

    Oh, wait. Zach's a cape. Well, duh.

    I waved. “Uh, hi?” The wave and my tone of voice were intended to be disarming. We're good. No need for any unpleasantness.

    It didn't seem to work. Armsmaster levelled his halberd at Zach, while Miss Militia aimed a taser at him. At least, I assumed it was a taser; it looked like it could bring down a medium-sized elephant. “Taylor Hebert?” That was Miss Militia.

    “Yeah?” Boy, was I on fire with the witty dialogue today.

    “Are you hurt?” Her voice was serious.

    I blinked. “Um, a bit scraped here and there, but fine, thanks.” The locker hadn't been kind to my knees and elbows, of course, but Zach had gotten me out before I did too much damage to myself.

    “Please step away from the parahuman,” Armsmaster said. It was worded like a request, but I would have had to be tone-deaf, actually deaf and unconscious to not hear it as an order.

    “What?” I asked. “Why?” I stepped a little closer to Zach, just to make my point. “He's not hurting me. He even got me something to eat.”

    Armsmaster flicked a glance sideways at the remains of the servery. “Causing serious damage to school property.”

    Zach chose that point to speak up. “The lady would not serve Taylor. Taylor needed food. I obtained the food for her.”

    “He's right,” I agreed. “I was kind of in shock. I really needed to eat.” I moved again, stepping in front of Zach. Armsmaster frowned slightly, maybe because I was spoiling his aim. “Don't attack him. He didn't do anything wrong.”

    “On the contrary, Miss Hebert, he has perpetrated three counts of grievous bodily harm,” Armsmaster stated flatly. “In addition to this and other incidences of damage to school property.”

    I turned to Zach. “You didn't tell me that you hurt anyone!”

    “I was helping you,” he replied innocently. “They tried to stop me from helping you. I did not allow them to do so.”

    “Wait,” I said. “So who did you hurt?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Armsmaster begin to move, but Miss Militia put her hand on his arm. “Hold that thought,” I added to Zach, then turned back to the heroes. “Can you just hold on a moment? I need to sort this out.”

    I hadn't known that it was possible to glower at someone from behind an opaque visor. In the event, Armsmaster proved that this was indeed the case. Miss Militia didn't seem so angry, although she did look a little concerned. “Please do not provoke him,” she advised me, as if Zach wasn't right there. “We don't want anyone else to get hurt.”

    “I will not hurt Taylor,” Zach stated plainly. “I am here to help her. I will keep her safe.”

    “He really has,” I told them. “Now, can you just hold on? I need to find out what happened.”

    Miss Militia nodded. “All right, but be careful.”

    I sighed. I wasn't sure who was being more aggravating, my self-appointed bodyguard or the self-important heroes. “Okay. Zach. Who did you hurt and why?”

    There was no duplicity in his gaze as he looked at me. “I hurt Madison because she tried to hold me back from helping you. I hurt Emma because she stood in my way and because she locked you in your locker. I hurt Sophia because she pushed you into your locker and tried to prevent me from letting you out. I did not kill any of them.”

    He did not add but I could have, because you had not asked me not to kill anyone at that time. For which I was eternally grateful.

    “Right. Okay.” I turned back to the heroes. “How badly are they hurt? Life-threatening?”

    From the expressions moving over the visible part of Armsmaster's face, he had obviously not known about my little stint in the locker. “Uh, no. Serious, yes, but not life-threatening.” He firmed his stance. “We still have to arrest him. Using parahuman powers on normals is a very serious crime.”

    “Wait.” It was Miss Militia. “You're saying that Sophia Hess pushed you into your locker? The one with all the filth in it? And another one of the girls locked you in? With her connivance?”

    There was something off about her wording, but I wasn't paying much attention. “I, uh … I didn't see who did it, exactly. But Zach did.” I turned to him again. “Is that what happened?”

    He nodded earnestly. “That is exactly what happened. I thought Sophia was a good person. Then she did that, and I knew that she was not.” In exactly the same tone of voice, he continued, “Are you certain that I should not kill her? She intended to harm you badly. I can not allow that to happen.”

    Oh, god, I groaned, deep inside. He didn't just say that where they could hear him.

    My imagination stepped in with a second voice, snickering. He sure did. Where's the popcorn?

    I did my best to quell my imagination. “Yes,” I told Zach as firmly as I could. “You must never kill anyone, ever. That is a very bad thing. I would be very hurt if you did that. And you should not hurt the heroes, either.” Absently, I considered the fact that I was adopting his speech patterns while talking to him. Hopefully, that'll make it more likely that he'll listen.

    “I will not hurt you, Taylor,” he agreed. “I will not kill Sophia. Is it acceptable to harm her short of death if she attacks you again?”

    “I dunno,” I mused, then turned to look at the Protectorate capes. “Is it okay to just break Sophia's kneecaps if she tries to shove me into another locker? Because really, I've taken enough shit from her over the last year. I've had enough. Turning the other cheek just gets me bruised cheeks. So I think it's time for some eye-for-an-eye. Self-defence, defence of others, whatever. When Sophia gets out of the hospital, if she comes after me again, I figure that whatever Zach does to her, she deserves. Yeah?”

    “Let's … shelve that for a moment.” Miss Militia lowered her taser; a moment later, it had become a pistol, which she holstered. Armsmaster went to say something, but she shook her head. He frowned, but seemed to follow her lead. “Can we get back to where you were shoved into your locker?”

    It was my turn to grimace. “Not my favourite memory, like, ever, but sure. Let's do that. What do you want to know?”

    The flag-clad hero turned her attention to Zach. “Your name is Zach?”

    “Yes. Sophia gave me my name.” He seemed proud of that fact.

    “Wait.” That was Armsmaster. “That's not your real name?”

    “Yes, it is my real name.” Zach tilted his head. “Why would it not be a real name?”

    “Never mind that for now.” Miss Militia was back on track. “Zach, you are certain that you saw Sophia Hess pushing Taylor into her locker?”

    Something was definitely off here. They were paying a lot of attention to what Sophia had done, and none at all to Emma. I wasn't able to think it through, because the conversation was still ongoing.

    “Yes,” Zach said firmly. “I saw her do it while Madison explained to me who Taylor Hebert was. Sophia pushed Taylor into her locker and Emma locked her in. Once I knew that this was Taylor Hebert, I knew that she was the one that I was here to help. So I helped her. I pushed the other girls aside and opened the locker and got Taylor out. Then I took her to the locker room so that she could get clean and wear clean clothes. Then I brought her here because food is good for shock.”

    His matter-of-fact tone seemed to puzzle the heroes. I was also reminded of something that I had wanted to clarify with Zach, but which had somehow managed to be pushed to the back of my mind. Why is he here to help me? Who sent him? What's this all about?

    But Armsmaster was speaking. “I understand that you believe you were justified in what you are doing,” he stated. “But you have committed several crimes, including assault and battery, destruction of property and theft. I suggest that you surrender peacefully to arrest.” His halberd was levelled again.

    “No.” Zach said the word simply, but there was a weight behind it, as of an immovable object. “When I am not with Taylor, people try to harm her. I will not allow that. I will not leave her alone to be harmed. I am here to help her. If you try to harm her, then I will stop you.”

    “Threatening a member of the Protectorate is an offence,” Armsmaster replied grimly. “Miss Hebert, step away from the parahuman, or I will be forced to consider you to be an accessory to his actions.”

    “For god's sake!” I burst out. “People committed crimes against me, and he saved me, and you're arresting him? I thought you were supposed to be the heroes here!”

    “Your allegations against the other girls have all been recorded,” Armsmaster told me. “They will be investigated fully. But in the meantime, we know that these crimes have been committed. This parahuman is required to surrender himself to lawful custody until the matter can be sorted out.”

    I opened my mouth to reply, but Zach put his hand on my shoulder. “Taylor, please move aside,” he told me. “I can protect you more than you can protect me.”

    “But they can't just arrest you,” I protested. “You're only helping me! It's everyone else who's doing the wrong thing!”

    He smiled slightly. “They will not arrest me.” Once again, I was struck by the absolute certainty of his tone. I had no idea why I believed him so implicitly, but I did. I stepped aside, moving until a couple of yards separated us.

    Armsmaster spoke, a single word. “Now.” I tensed, expecting him and Miss Militia to unleash attacks on Zach. It didn't happen, but something else did. A blur erupted from the open doorway, blazed past Miss Militia and Armsmaster, and intercepted me. I tried to dodge aside, but the blur resolved into a man in a familiar costume. Velocity.

    “'Scuse me, gotta run.” He scooped me up in a bridal carry, and went to bolt once more. My thought processes were still catching up – no, no, they can't just do this! - when he stopped once more. It wasn't by choice. Zach was standing right there, his hand wrapped around Velocity's upper arm.

    “You will put Taylor down, at once,” Zach advised Velocity. “Please. Taylor does not want me to hurt you.”

    “What the crap?” blurted the red-clad speedster. “How did you do that?”

    I didn't wait for Zach's answer; instead, I wedged the palm of my hand up under his chin and pushed hard. He wore a light helmet, both for protection and to hold his radio, I guessed, and this threatened to dislodge it. Faced with the choice of losing the helmet or having his head pushed up, he chose instead to let me go. I would have landed on my butt, but Zach somehow got his arm under my shoulders, slowing my fall enough that I got my feet under me instead.

    <><>​

    The moment he was free of the Brute's grasp, Velocity went into his Breaker state and blurred away from the both of them, ending up back at the door. How the hell did that even happen? he asked himself. Is he a teleporter? I didn't even see him move.

    Stand down, Velocity,” Armsmaster subvocalised into his ear. “We've got this.”

    What happened, kid?” Assault asked over the common channel. “Did the big bad Brute tag you?” There was the hint of a chuckle in his voice.

    “Shut up,” muttered Velocity. “I'd like to see you do any better.”

    Well, if the boss-man decides to tag us in, we'll see,” Assault replied.

    Ignoring the radio chatter, Armsmaster was focusing on the teenage parahuman. “One more chance to surrender peacefully,” he advised the kid.

    “I will not surrender,” the Brute replied. He wasn't boasting or blustering, simply stating a fact. “If you take me away, then Taylor may be harmed. I will not allow that.”

    “I think we're perfectly adequate to keep her safe,” Miss Militia pointed out.

    “Yeah, well, you've done a bang-up job of it so far,” the girl – Taylor – interjected bitterly. “Where were you when I got shoved into my locker? Or when my flute got stolen? Or when they poured juice over my seat? Or when Sophia pushed me down the stairs? They've been doing this for over a fucking year, and you only get involved when someone actually steps in to help me? Fuck you. Fuck you all.” She turned to Zach. “If they attack you, you're allowed to hurt them. Just don't kill them.”

    “I will not kill them, Taylor,” Zach said solemnly. “I promise.” He stepped toward Armsmaster and Miss Militia. “Please move aside. Taylor and I are leaving now.”

    Armsmaster responded first. His halberd was capable of a wireless taser effect, Velocity knew. He also knew that the effect had variable settings. The crackling bolt that leaped from the tip of the weapon and grounded in Zach's chest was definitely not the lowest setting.

    It did … nothing. Zach looked down at it, then intercepted the bolt with his hand, apparently allowing the current to flow down his arm and into his body. The T-shirt he was wearing now sported a burned spot in the middle of the chest.

    A pained cry from Taylor as she stood off to the side drew everyone's attention. It looked as though a stray arc of electricity had contacted her, given that she was shaking her hand vigorously. Armsmaster shut off the wireless taser; it wasn't as though the attack was doing anything to Zach anyway. Velocity wondered just how high the guy's Brute rating really was.

    “As my brother might say, that was cute,” Zach stated. “Taylor, are you well?”

    “Yeah,” she replied, rubbing a red spot on her hand. “Stung like fuck, is all.”

    “Good.” He turned his attention to Armsmaster. “You are not responsible enough to use your weapon properly. Give it to me before anyone else gets hurt.”

    Armsmaster hefted his halberd defensively. “You are joking.”

    “I do not know how to joke,” Zach said, and stepped forward. “Give your weapon to me before you harm Taylor again. I promise not to hurt you with it.”

    Miss Militia had been pushing grenades into a bulky launcher while this was going on. Velocity knew that if she wanted to fire regular rounds, they would already be loaded up, so these had to be some sort of Tinkertech. Probably a good idea, with the girl there. Some sort of limited effect.

    The exact effect revealed itself a moment later, when Miss Militia fired the grenade launcher at Zach. She didn't just shoot once; one grenade after another hit Zach, as fast as she could rack the action. Containment foam bloomed in splotches on the approaching parahuman, the yellow blobs expanding rapidly to hold and constrict him in an unbreakable grip.

    Unbreakable, that is, except by high-end Brutes. Which Zach apparently was, as he just kept coming. He tore away the foam that had covered his head and chest with a wet ripping sound, while some of the foam that had adhered to the floor stayed there and some stayed attached to his legs. Either way, it did nothing to slow him down. Christ, that's gotta be Brute 7 or 8 at least.

    Armsmaster went into a guard position, his halberd crackling with energy. “I warn you, if you do not surrender immediately, you will be seriously injured -”

    Now shirtless, Zach reached for the halberd. Armsmaster spun adroitly, slamming the butt-end of it against the teen Brute's chest. Now, this should have unleashed a burst of kinetic energy capable of knocking Zach across the room. The energy was unleashed, with a loud POP and the smell of ozone. Zach stumbled back a single step, then recovered.

    Before he could move forward, however, the heroes were reacting. Armsmaster pointed his halberd at the ceiling; the end of it shot upward with a cable trailing behind, reconfiguring into a grappling hook. Miss Militia, on the other hand, was rapidly retreating.

    The grapple engaged on a light fitting, and Armsmaster was yanked upward. Even as he left the floor, more grenades plopped into the foam still encasing Zach's lower body, then commenced hissing, releasing a dirty white vapour. Velocity counted two tear gas grenades and two knockout gas grenades; they weren't playing around. With all but a very few exceptions, even the toughest Brutes had to breathe, and Zach showed no signs of being one of the few.

    As Velocity retreated with Miss Militia and the PRT soldiers, he heard four distinct cracks. He had no idea what they meant, until Armsmaster spoke up over comms. “He's thrown the grenades through the wall.” The Tinker sounded distinctly aggrieved.

    “Any effect on him?” That was Miss Militia.

    None that I can see.”

    “What's he doing now?”

    Peeling the rest of the containment foam off. He's definitely an eight-plus for Brute. Maybe a minor Mover or Thinker as well.”

    “And the girl?”

    She seems unharmed. Stayed out of the radius of the gas. Doesn't appear to be frightened of him.”

    “Damn it. What are our options?”

    Heavy weapons. Really heavy weapons.”

    Assault's voice broke into the chat. “Hey, me and Battery can come see what we can do.”

    Negative.” Armsmaster's voice brooked no argument. “Fall back. He's moving toward the door with the girl.”

    Miss Militia hesitated. “I can try armour-piercing …”

    At best, he would ignore it. At worst, I suspect that it would just make him mad. I don't think we want to see him angry.”

    Hulk smash?” That was Assault.

    Clear the channel,” ordered Armsmaster.

    No sense of humour,” muttered Assault, but fell silent after that.

    They were backing down the corridor now, as the doors opened once more. Zach stepped out first, followed by the skinny girl. She looked over at them. “Why don't you just leave us alone?” she shouted. “You're only making things worse!”

    “She, uh, has a point,” suggested Velocity diffidently. “If you look at it in a certain way.”

    Our job is to uphold the law,” Armsmaster stated. “Parahumans don't just get to commit crimes and walk away scot-free. There is a price to be paid.”

    Velocity wasn't quite sure that it was as black and white as all that, but then, he wasn't the leader of the local branch of the Protectorate. He didn't get to make that call. Or, to put it another way, he wasn't the one being saddled with making that call.

    “I have a suggestion, then.” Miss Militia kept her voice down, although the pair were walking off in the opposite direction. Zach wasn't looking back, although Taylor was, from time to time.

    The doors opened again, and Armsmaster stepped out. “I'm listening.”

    “We bring in the Wards.”

    He shook his head. “No. We can't expose them to this level of danger.”

    “Not all of the Wards,” she explained. “Just Vista, Gallant and Clockblocker.”

    He seemed to think about that. “ … yes. I see where you're going with this.”

    “Is that a green light?”

    “Let me call the Director first. She needs to be in on the loop, here.”

    “Oh, she's going to love this one.” Miss Militia's tone was heavy with sarcasm.

    She's not the only one, thought Velocity.


    End of Part Two
     
    saugo, A Simurgh Plot, ~[]~ and 64 others like this.
  28. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Oh, great scenes there. The heroes haven't yet cottoned up to the fact they're facing an Endbringer... I wonder how far they'll escalate, until they realise that.
     
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  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Not far enough.

    But the problem is that one of his sneakier powers is to project an "I'm human" aura. People won't start wondering if he's an Endbringer while he's present, because he's obviously human. Just look at him. Any other idea is plainly ridiculous.
     
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  30. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chibi-bringer is best bringer.
     
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