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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. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Zach lying, or Ziz informing him after the first quote was made?

    Personally, I like the idea of Zach being able to lie to everyone except Taylor, if necessary. I think all his statements about lying have been "I've not lied to you Taylor", rather than "I don't lie", but I'm not sure...
     
  2. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Why can't both be true? :p that is, Zach can lie, but he was telling the truth this time.
     
  3. Fizzfaldt

    Fizzfaldt (Unverified Flying Book)

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    Nope. He said "I always tell the truth" directly to Alexandria:
    Of course that doesn't necessarily mean it's true...
     
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  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Zach has internalised certain rules.
    Most important is, of course, the welfare and happiness of Taylor (and, by inference, Danny).

    Next is learning how to appear human, specifically to make it easier to protect Taylor.

    Lowest on the list is things like not using contractions and not lying.

    If lying would save Taylor's life, then he'd lie in a heartbeat. But when it comes to ordinary situations, he won't lie. And it would take a lot to make him lie to Taylor. (So far, he has always told the truth as he knew it).
     
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  5. eveakane

    eveakane Formerly an Innocent Grammarian

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    Which should be everything, a normal occurrence when your sister is a know-it-all.
     
  6. Nightmare723764

    Nightmare723764 Initiate of the Lewds

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    What's the different between Helping and Halping?

    Please just humor me.
     
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  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    When you help someone, you actually give them assistance and they end up better off than they were before, with few or no bad effects.

    When you HALP someone, you still have their bests interests at heart, but your enthusiasm tends to make you go overboard a little. While you may succeed at your basic goal, problems are also caused for the person you tried to help.
     
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  8. Nightmare723764

    Nightmare723764 Initiate of the Lewds

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    Ah thank you. I read some explinations in the comments and while they sounded close I didn't think they were wholely right.
     
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  9. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    Well put.

    In Swedish, HALPING is called "björntjänst" (bear service), relating to actual help the same way a bear hug relates to actual hugs.
     
  10. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    That's amazing.

    I love it.
     
  11. Raging Iron Thunder

    Raging Iron Thunder Getting sticky.

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    This is the both epic and strange at the same time. I like this worm fic a lot!
     
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  12. Hye

    Hye Reader of The Long Words

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    You know, it's the same in Danish (just spelled correctly, of course :p ), but I rarely use or hear it, so it didn't really register that it was a somewhat negative term. At least not until a few years ago. I think 3 years ago. Which still means I've run around for 20 years thinking it meant something else :D
     
  13. Threadmarks: Part Nine: No Sale
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I’m HALPING!

    Part Nine: No Sale

    [This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    Emily Piggot
    Monday Afternoon
    January 3
    2011


    “He shouldn’t have done that.” Renick’s voice was calm and level, but Emily could hear the anger buried beneath. “I’m going to file a formal complaint. Or if you’re already going to do one, I’ll add mine to it.”

    She took a deep breath. “Thanks. Not sure how much it’ll help, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

    Renick had been loyal from day one; in fact, although she’d displaced him on her first day from his position as Acting Director, he’d never shown the slightest hint of resentment at being demoted. If she could depend on anyone to back her up, it was him.

    He shook his head. “I just don’t believe he could possibly have thought it was a good idea. You had a handle on the situation—as much as anyone could’ve had a handle on that hot mess out there—and you were dealing with it. So just when things are starting to settle down, he decides to pull his glory hound act—”

    She held up a hand, interrupting his growing rant. “While I absolutely agree with your assessment of James Tagg’s character and motives, it’s perhaps not the best career move in the world to refer to your nominal superior as a ‘glory hound’ in an office where there may have been recording devices running before I just now shut them off.”

    “Ah.” Looking somewhat abashed, he scrubbed his hands over his face. “Sorry for sounding off like that. And thank you.”

    “Whatever for?” She heaved a sigh. “I don’t disagree with the man’s priorities—God knows we wanted this situation locked down as fast as possible—but to come in at the last minute and run roughshod over all the goodwill I’ve tried to establish in this town doesn’t speak well to his judgement.”

    “Do you think he actually got matters under control?” Renick asked, sounding honestly curious. “The only thing out of the ordinary in the last half hour was the Endbringer alarm that went off just before, and it shut off pretty quickly. What do you think that could’ve meant?”

    Emily studied the skyline again. It was just as devoid of mushroom clouds or rainclouds as it had been every other time she’d looked. Neither could she hear an unsettling song in her head. If there was an Endbringer attack going on, it was the quietest one on record. “No idea,” she concluded. “And I hate not knowing.”

    A green-tinged sphere appeared across the office from both of them, and Emily tensed. This was one of the ways the Triumvirate got around but if she was wrong, there were a dozen different duress alarms she could trigger. When the sphere opened up to reveal Eidolon and Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown, she relaxed a little … but not too much. A visit from the boss was still a visit from the boss, after all.

    “It’s a good thing I’m here, then.” The Chief Director stepped out of the green sphere with all the aplomb of someone who travelled that way as a matter of course. “Good news, Emily. Upon studying the situation first-hand, I’ve come to the conclusion that far from mismanaging it, you’ve done a remarkably good job of keeping things under control. Tagg, on the other hand, didn’t. Which means he’s out and you’re reinstated.”

    Emily came to her feet as a sign of respect. “That is good news, yes,” she said cautiously. Good things just didn’t fall into her lap. Long experience had taught her that, with many object lessons upon the way. “This still doesn’t explain to me exactly what’s going on with this Zachary person.”

    From the look of sudden pain on Costa-Brown’s features, Emily got the impression she’d prodded a nerve. Given the treatment she’d been undergoing all day, it was just a little satisfying to see that expression on someone else’s face for once. “Ah, yes. Zachary.”

    “Zachary,” Eidolon stated so woodenly he may well have been reading off a teleprompter inside his helmet, “is to be left alone and not investigated. His associates are to be afforded a similar amount of privacy.” He stopped talking abruptly, apparently done with his pronouncement.

    “What?” Emily was left feeling more than a little off balance. “But … he attacked students! And a Ward! And damaged a school!” He damaged Winslow, she acknowledged silently, which meant there was a strong possibility that nobody would notice.

    “The school is insured, or it should be,” Costa-Brown said flatly. “Zachary was acting in defence of Taylor Hebert when he injured those students. As of this moment, Shadow Stalker is out of the Wards program. She’s to be treated as a flight risk and remanded into custody for juvenile detention as soon as she recovers.” She took a deep breath. “As for your local villains Hookwolf, Lung, Cricket and Oni Lee, they’re either in custody or they will be shortly. Also, we’ll be arranging payment of the accumulated bounty for the Slaughterhouse Nine to Taylor’s father, Danny Hebert, as soon as it’s convenient for him to hand over his banking details.”

    Emily found herself sitting down again, a faint ringing in her ears. “They’re dead? The Nine? How?” Later on, she knew, she would freak out more privately over the logistics of imprisoning four of the most dangerous parahumans in the city later. Right now, she wanted to make sure she’d heard the other news clearly. Chief Director Costa-Brown wasn’t known for making jokes like that, or for possessing a sense of humour at all. Still, there was always a first time.

    “By way of Zachary, using a PRT van and a street sign.” That was Eidolon; from the tone of his voice, he wasn’t entirely certain about what he was saying. “From fifteen hundred miles away. You can write off the van as having been destroyed in parahuman combat. Along with the other one that actually was. The Chief Director will sign off on it.”

    “I … see.” Emily metaphorically reached down and pulled up her big-girl pants. Time for the nitty-gritty. “So, from this I’m gathering that Zachary is more powerful than most as parahumans go. What’s your estimate of his threat rating?”

    Costa-Brown shook her head slightly. “You misunderstand. Zachary isn’t a parahuman. He just … is. You will not assign him a threat rating. You will instruct the PRT and Protectorate to leave him alone at all times. He may appear to be entirely nonthreatening or utterly terrifying, depending on his mood. To our very great fortune, he only poses a threat toward anyone who might threaten Danny or Taylor Hebert—especially Taylor—with personal danger.”

    “And for those who do pose a threat to the Heberts …?” Emily knew the question had to be asked.

    Eidolon and Costa-Brown both shook their heads at the same time. “God help them,” the Chief Director said. “Because nothing you can do will save their sorry asses.”

    <><>​

    The Hebert Household
    Later That Evening


    “That was very nice,” Zach said, placing his knife and fork on the plate before him. He had eaten his share of the lasagne with every evidence of enjoyment, which had caused mixed thoughts in my head. The part of me that saw him as a teenage boy wondered if he would want seconds, the part that understood he was an Endbringer wondered if he really needed to eat at all, then a third part wondered why I wasn’t getting more confused over the other two parts until a fourth part reminded the rest of my brain about Zach’s it’s-all-okay Stranger effect. “You are a good cook, Mr Hebert.”

    “Thanks, Zachary,” Dad said with a slightly bemused expression. I was pretty sure I knew exactly what was going through his head, because it was going through mine as well. “So, do you normally eat much lasagne? Or … well, anything?”

    As an Endbringer, I knew he meant but did not say out loud.

    “Normally, we do not eat, no,” Zach said, confirming our unvoiced thoughts. “However, as I am here to learn to be human for Taylor’s sake, I am able to eat food and enjoy it. The food you have given me was delicious.” His eyes twinkled. “My brothers say they are quite jealous. Nobody ever cooks meals for them.”

    “No offense to them, but until your sister visited this afternoon, I don’t believe anyone really saw them as being safe to invite over as houseguests,” Dad said, earning my admiration for his masterful understatement.

    “Talking about her,” I interjected. “You said your brothers are jealous. Is she?” I still hadn’t forgotten the fact that she’d dropped into Earth Bet just to meet me.

    “I did not say my brothers were jealous,” Zach corrected me seriously. “I told you they said they were jealous. They really are not. I believe they were attempting humour.”

    “The Endbringers. Making jokes.” Dad didn’t seem thrilled by this. “That could go very badly indeed. Just saying.”

    “Could you please tell them that even a basic prank could kill thousands of people?” I asked. “I mean, even if they didn’t mean to. Next to Endbringers, humans are fragile.” I was imagining Leviathan sweeping up to some beachfront resort then doing the equivalent of yelling ‘Psyche!’ and running away, but accidentally drowning everyone in a tsunami anyway.

    “My sister is reminding them that this is the case,” Zachary assured me. “They are not used to humour. I told them the joke about the fireman and the suspenders. Behemoth has said he wants red suspenders for when he next appears. My sister has said she will see what she can do.”

    “And Leviathan?” asked Dad faintly. “Does he want green suspenders, or blue ones?”

    “He does not see the point in wearing suspenders,” Zachary explained blithely. “He does not wear trousers, and quite often swims very quickly through the water. He has asked Behemoth why he wants red suspenders, and Behemoth has said because he wants them. He can be very stubborn when he wants to be.”

    I suddenly had a mental image of Behemoth as an oversized toddler, sitting in a playpen wearing red suspenders with his clawed arms folded and his one eye glaring with annoyance because he wasn’t being allowed to play with the other kids. Beside him was a similarly childlike Leviathan in a paddling pool, for some reason wearing an adorably cute striped onesie swimming costume, pouting because he was banned from splashing people.

    “That is very funny, Taylor,” Zachary said with a smile. “My sister is laughing quite a lot. She wants to know if she has permission to share it with them.”

    I gulped. Unless I missed my guess, ‘them’ meant Behemoth and Leviathan. Zachary was nice, of course, and even the Simurgh had smiled as she greeted me, but I didn’t want to piss off Zachary’s older brothers. “What if it annoys them?”

    Zach tilted his head slightly. “She does not think it will anger them, although she might need to explain it to Behemoth. And if they do become angry, she says she will tell them to … what is the phrase … ah yes, ‘toughen up, buttercup’.” He looked at me queryingly. “Is that how it is said?”

    “It is,” I confirmed. “But … could you please ask her not to read my mind like that, without checking with me first? Please?”

    Before I could really reflect on how I was asking the Simurgh to not read my mind, he nodded firmly. “I have told her that you are unhappy with her doing that, and she has said she will not do it in future. She apologises for making you feel uncomfortable. Her intention was to check if you were becoming distressed with talking about Endbringers, and to ask me to stop if you were.”

    I took a deep breath. “Tell her I appreciate the thoughtfulness, but asking me would be less intrusive, and I wouldn’t be offended if you did ask about things like that.”

    “I have said that to her,” Zach said. “It appears we all have things to learn about each other. Would you agree, Danny?”

    “Don’t bring me into this,” Dad disclaimed, shaking his head. “I like to process one bit of weirdness at a time, thanks.”

    I knew exactly how he felt. My life since I met Zach had been nonstop weirdness, but somehow I was good with that. I wondered if his Stranger effect was actually making it easier for me to accept what was going on around me. If so, I wasn’t going to argue. Having a mental breakdown because my best friend was an Endbringer wasn’t in my plans.

    “I will try not to make things too weird for you, Danny,” Zach agreed. “Would it be weird if Taylor and I went out and dealt with the Merchants this evening? It should not take more than an hour or so.”

    Dad looked from me to Zach and back again. “It wouldn’t be weird, exactly, given what I’ve already seen you do, but does Taylor actually need to come along? She’s not nearly as durable as you are, after all, and these are the Merchants. They’re not known for being nice to non-combatants.”

    Zach and I began to speak at the same second, then he paused and nodded to me. “You go first please, Taylor.”

    I knew he meant it, so gave him a nod and a smile in return. “It’s best that I go along for the Merchants’ sake, Dad. If they push Zach too far, I want to make sure he doesn’t execute them for being idiots.” His offer to kill Emma and her cronies was still fresh in my mind.

    “Ah.” Dad nodded, though I could tell he still didn’t like the idea. “Zach, you were saying?”

    “I will keep Taylor safe and happy, as is my purpose.” Zach’s tone was matter of fact. “No Merchant can move faster than I can. I will ensure that all their attacks are directed toward me.”

    “And you’re certain you can tank their best shot?” Dad chuckled wryly and shook his head. “No, ignore that. I keep forgetting that you face-planted Alexandria in the asphalt. Your Stranger effect is giving me cognitive dissonance.”

    “I am sorry for that, Danny.” As best I could tell, Zach was being truly apologetic. “I felt that you would prefer seeing me as not dangerous to seeing me as very dangerous.”

    “It’s nothing.” Dad waved away the apology. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of people who were far more dangerous than they looked, back in the day. At least you’re up front with your motivations. So, you think you can even find the Merchants to deal with them? It’s not like they’re very forthcoming with their plans.”

    “That is easy,” Zach said. “I will ask my sister. She knows where everyone is.”

    “She really does,” I assured Dad. “She gave Zach targeting information on the Nine, so he got them on the first try.”

    “So I saw on the news,” Dad agreed. “Well done for that, by the way.” He gave Zach a nod of approval. “I don’t know for a fact that they would’ve come to Brockton Bay any time soon, but they did have a habit of gathering powerful capes under their banner.”

    “They would have,” Zach said. “Jack Slash would not have seen how dangerous I was, and he would have attempted to endanger Taylor in order to recruit me. To keep her safe, I would have had to kill all of them anyway. In doing it now, when there were no innocent lives to be lost, I saved many lives that they would have taken in the meantime. I believe that this has served the dual purpose of keeping Taylor safe and also making her happy.”

    I nodded earnestly. “Knowing you’ve saved lives definitely makes me happy,” I assured him. “It still feels weird that you’re giving us the payout, though. What are we going to even do with ninety-nine million dollars?”

    “Oh, I can definitely think of one or two dozen things,” Dad said firmly. “Fixing up the car and the house, paying the fees for you to attend Arcadia, renovating the ferry terminals and the port, putting aside about a million dollars for your college fund …”

    “Wow, I hadn’t so much as thought about college at this point.” I shook my head. “Not even sure what I want to study there.”

    “I could ask my sister what she sees you studying in the future, if you want,” Zach offered helpfully.

    “Um, what? No!” I stared at him. “Can she see that? If I haven’t decided for myself, I mean? How does that even work?”

    “My sister can see what was and what will be, but she cannot see what is,” Zach explained patiently. “If in the future you will go to college, she can see now what you will study then. But I will not ask her, if you do not wish me to.”

    “No, no, don’t ask her.” I had the horrible feeling that my future was bound to an immutable path that I couldn’t even see, and that if I were to be told what it was and tried to change it, bad things would happen. “I prefer to believe in free will, thanks.”

    “Alright, I will not ask her.” Zach nodded, as if to settle the matter. “When would you like to go out so that we can deal with the Merchants?”

    “Don’t stay out too late, please,” Dad said mildly. “We’re going into Winslow tomorrow, and I’d like to get that dealt with bright and early.”

    “What, school already?” I shook my head and groaned. “Can’t I even have one day off? And didn’t you say I was going to Arcadia anyway?”

    “Oh, you’re not going back to school there.” Dad’s expression was grim. “I don’t care that Zach beat the crap out of Emma and the other bullies. You’re not going back into that hellhole, Zach or no Zach. With the money we’ve got coming in, you are going to Arcadia if I have to buy the damn school and personally have you taken off the rolls. I just need to go in there and make sure they know it.”

    “I could ask my sister to come with us and explain it to them,” Zach offered helpfully.

    Dad and I paused. I could tell he was tempted. Hell, I was very tempted. But in the end, we both shook our heads; regretfully, in my case.

    “No,” he said with a sigh. “As much as I would utterly love to see the look on that woman’s face when she realised just how badly she’s screwed up, it would probably lead to Armsmaster or someone from the PRT calling us up and begging us not to do it again. And I hate to hear a grown man cry.”

    “Alright, I will not do that.” Zach smiled at me. “If your father does not want us to stay out too late, perhaps we should go soon.”

    “Okay, then.” I got up from the table. “I’ll just go brush my teeth and change. Is there anything specific that I should wear to go and beat up druggie gangsters, or is what I’m wearing okay?”

    It was a measure of how impressed Dad was with Zach that he didn’t even look worried at the joke. “Maybe something dark, and make sure you take a jacket. The news said a cold front is moving in.”

    “That will be Leviathan,” Zach said at once. “He said he thought of a prank he can play. It is something new.”

    “New?” Dad got in just before me as we both looked at Zach. “What do you mean, new?”

    Zach smiled. “You will see. He is certain it will not hurt any people. My sister agrees with him.”

    Dad and I exchanged a glance. This was slightly concerning, but Zach sounded fairly sure that nobody would be in danger. I’d already learned to trust Zach with my own life, so I had to take it on faith that he wouldn’t lie about someone else being in danger.

    “Okay then,” I said. “Dark clothes, wear a jacket. Gotcha.”

    Trotting upstairs, I took care of my dental hygiene then went to my room and dug out some black jeans and a dark blue pullover. There was a brown jacket hanging in my closet that smelt a little musty but still fit me, and it was kind of dark, so I shrugged into that as well. My sneakers went on next; I pulled the laces tight, recalling how fast Zach had zipped us through the streets before. The last thing I wanted was for me to lose a shoe halfway between here and wherever. Looking myself over in the mirror as I pulled my hair back into a tie, I thought I looked kind of badass. Well, I hoped I looked kind of badass.

    Not that I was gonna be doing much more than spectate and award points for style. Zach was the heavy hitter here and everyone knew it. I was just coming along so that the Merchants would survive to reach prison. Given his threat to execute Emma and the others, I was under no illusions that he would be any more merciful to Skidmark and his crew if I wasn’t there. There wouldn’t even be any bodies to be found if he didn’t want that to happen.

    Did that bother me? Not really. Zach might be ruthless to the point of being willing to murder anyone who so much as looked like posing a threat to me, but the two people he was guaranteed not to threaten were me and Dad. And in a life where it had sometimes seemed that the whole point of being Taylor Hebert was suffering, it was nice to have someone powerful on my side for once.

    <><>​

    Danny

    Taylor strolled downstairs and into the living room, where Danny was in the process of filling Zachary in on what little he knew of Merchant practices. “Ready to go?” she asked.

    Zachary smiled at her. “Yes, Taylor, I am.”

    Going over to his daughter, Danny put his hand on her arm. “Have fun, and take care.” He would worry—any father would—but Zachary had proven himself over and over that he would prioritise her safety and happiness over everything else.

    She gave him a smile and a hug, which he returned. “Absolutely.”

    While Danny trailed behind, she headed outside to the front path with Zachary following. Danny stopped and leaned against the doorway to watch them. She had described both the leaping and the running, and he wanted to see this for himself.

    “Okay, um, let’s get started,” she said.

    “Alright, Taylor,” said Zachary. “Do you wish to run there or jump there?”

    It didn’t take Taylor long to decide. “Jump. Definitely jump.”

    “Very well. Hold on tight. Tell me when you are ready.” Effortlessly, Zachary scooped Taylor up in a bridal carry. Danny strongly suspected the advice to hold on was more to make her feel that she was making a contribution; whether she held on or not, there was minimal chance that Zachary would ever drop her.

    Still, Danny heard a giggle as she put her arms around Zachary’s neck. “Ready.”

    Afterwards, Danny decided it was pure bullshit. Zachary merely flexed his hips and knees just a little, and then the pair rocketed away into the night sky at frankly ridiculous speeds, vanishing from sight in less than a second. All that remained were a pair of footprints driven into the lawn, and Taylor’s fading whoop of exhilaration.

    Heaving a sigh, Danny turned and went back inside. They’d be back when they got back, but he decided to keep an eye on the TV news just in case. After all, teenagers were teenagers whether they were human or Endbringers.

    <><>​

    Tattletale

    When Lisa’s phone rang with that number, she felt the same tight little clench in her gut that she always did. It didn’t matter that the jobs were always lucrative; she knew for a fact that the moment Coil decided there was a profit in dumping them in the shit, in the shit they would go. Still, she answered it as she always did. “Hey, boss. How’s things?”

    “Tattletale.” His voice was oddly strained, bringing her oh-shit meter to full alertness. He wasn’t under duress … exactly … but he was in the process of doing something he didn’t want to do. This made part of her giggle with unrestrained glee, while at the same time another part of her wondered who had a hold over her boss, and what plans they might have for the Undersiders.

    “Yeah, boss? Hey, if you’re blocked up, I got a line on some great laxatives—”

    “Shut. Up. And. Listen.” If anything, Coil’s aggravation was increasing, but there was none of the underlying satisfaction that would stem from being able to take his problems out on her. “I am ending my contract with yourself and the rest of the Undersiders. You are on your own. You are not to attempt to locate or contact me. We are done. Is that totally understood?”

    She blinked twice, then nodded, before finally speaking. “Uh … right. We’re on our own. Do we get, you know, severance pay or something?”

    There was a moment of silence on the line, almost long enough to make her think he’d cut off the call, but then he replied. “Yes. You will each have twelve thousand deposited into your accounts. Are there any questions?” He was speaking the words of his own free will, but he desperately wished that he didn’t have to. Also, he didn’t want to answer any questions.

    Which was too bad for him. Lisa noted that the twelve grand apiece made up a sweet six months’ pay, but now her curiosity was running over. Coil wasn’t staying in town; he was cutting and running, and she wanted to know why. She grinned and metaphorically cracked her knuckles. “So, why are you leaving town? Is it anything to do with that Endbringer siren false alarm today?”

    She paused to let him speak, but he said nothing. To her, his silence spoke louder than words. Well, holy shit. It wasn’t a false alarm.

    He encountered an Endbringer and lived.

    And the encounter—Simurgh, has to be—convinced him to go elsewhere. Today.

    Also, to not screw us over.

    Yeah, well, it would take an Endbringer to convince him of that.


    He cleared his throat, with what almost sounded like a whimper. “Do not try to find me.” Then he hung up.

    Lisa stared at the phone in her hand. “Well, fuck,” she muttered, then raised her voice. “Guys? You’re, uh, you’re probably not going to like this.”

    <><>​

    Coil

    “Do not try to find me.” Calvert hit the end-call button then sat back in his chair, shaking.

    The Undersiders were a loose end, one he would normally have had no qualms with eradicating. Especially Tattletale. Either dead with a bullet in her brain or drugged to the gills in a room in his base, mumbling her analyses into a microphone with a TV screen in front of her. Letting her live when she knew that he’d been the Undersiders’ secret boss (and may well have ferreted out his powerset and secret identity) went against every lesson he’d ever learned about covert activity.

    But every timeline where he set out to eliminate them went … badly.

    Sometimes it was that terrifying teenage boy, other times it was the Simurgh; appearing at the moment of triumph and coming for him personally. The scariest ones were where the boy seemed to do nothing at all, and the timeline just … ended. As if he’d negated Calvert’s ability to use his own power. And always, the Hebert girl, just staring at him as though he were scum. Not angry, not even pitying. Just dismissive.

    He wasn’t going to lie to himself. He was terrified. This was worse than Ellisburg. In Ellisburg he’d been able to shoot back, to pretend he had some level of power in the situation. Here, his power was being ignored or even used to terrorise him. Merely attempting to deny them any kind of severance payout—what did she think he was, a legitimate employer?—had led to Zachary literally bursting in through the roof of his base like some insane version of the Kool-Aid Man.

    At least he’d been able to tell her not to track him down. Whether that would hold or not depended entirely on her, but with any luck she would be satisfied with being out of his clutches. But now, it was time to cut his losses and slink off into the night with what disposable resources he could take with him. He’d already paid off the mercenaries and sent them on their way; while he would’ve liked to keep half a dozen as bodyguards, it just wasn’t to be. Not against the Endbringer boy or the Simurgh—there was no defending against that—but against the myriad other evils the world could spawn.

    Well, almost all the mercenaries. The one called Creep had known what his face looked like. While Calvert was paying him (not only in money) he was loyal, but that situation almost certainly would not have lasted past the final paycheck. Thus, Creep was currently residing in a bodybag in the base morgue, a nine-millimetre bullet-hole in the back of the head being the cause of death. By the time it was discovered, Calvert intended to be well out of town.

    He wasn’t entirely certain about his final destination, but it probably would not be inside the continental United States. Wherever he did end up, he intended to be nowhere near Brockton Bay, or even the northeastern corner of the nation.

    With a sigh, he set his computer to perform a total factory reset. Then he got up from the chair, slung his duffel over his shoulder, and left his office. There was one Hummer in the underground garage, with a full tank of fuel …

    All the lights went out.

    The darkness was absolute.

    Scrabbling in his pocket, he took his phone out and activated the flashlight function.

    Half a second later, that died as well.

    “Oh, come on!” he screamed; his voice echoed back from the raw concrete and steel beams. And kept echoing, but the echoes seemed to become disembodied laughter.

    He knew the layout of the base well enough. With one hand on the rail and the other out before him, he began to hurry toward the exit. His boots on the steel catwalk echoed oddly, making him think there was someone just behind him. He hurried faster, then missed a turn and almost went over the rail. The duffel slipped off his shoulder and dropped away from his clutching hands. He heard it go thud, fifteen feet down.

    The duffel contained clothing, his costume, several passports under different names, a spare handgun and about ten thousand in cash.

    Do I go down and get it?

    The ghostly footsteps were getting closer.

    Fuck that.

    Hurrying onward, he reached the exit. The door jammed open after it had slid only a foot or so, leaving him barely enough room to squeeze through. Panting and bruised, he limped onward until he reached the Hummer. It sounded like a dozen men were converging on him in the dimness of the garage. Wrenching open the door, he was halfway in before he saw what was in the passenger seat.

    The body bag, containing Creep’s corpse.

    With a scream, he recoiled clear out of the vehicle to end up sprawled on the concrete. He got to his feet and cautiously edged his way around the Hummer and pulled open the passenger side door. The body bag was even strapped in though how Zachary had infiltrated his base without his knowledge, he had no idea.

    Shuddering, he reached across the bodybag and unclipped the seat belt, then yanked on the bag until it spilled out untidily across the floor of the garage. Then he slammed the door shut, ran around the Hummer, and got into the driver’s seat. Strapping himself in, he fired up the powerful diesel engine, and peeled rubber all the way out of the parking garage.

    He didn’t stop whimpering until he reached Boston.

    He didn’t stop driving until the sun came up.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    One second we were soaring high above night-time Brockton Bay. In the next, Zach made a perfect two-point landing on grimy concrete with an ear-splitting BOOM, sending cracks radiating in all directions from the brand-new footprints in the rock-hard surface. He let me down onto my feet and smiled. “We are in Merchant territory now, Taylor. Do you still wish for me to take them alive? They are bad people who make people younger than you degrade themselves to feed their addictions.”

    And this was why I had come along. Zach’s heart was in the right place, but he was altogether too willing to use lethal violence to settle a problem. It didn’t help that I was half-inclined to agree with his drastic approach to matters, having seen the damage drugs could do to a city. After all, the Merchants were far from the sole purveyors of chemical dependency in Brockton Bay; they were just the only ones who used it as their central stock-in-trade.

    “Take them alive, Zach,” I said firmly. “Please.”

    “Alright, Taylor!” he said happily. “I will do that for you.”

    I looked around. We appeared to be standing on the forecourt of a defunct gas station with an attached garage. While there were a few people across the road, they weren’t paying us much attention. I wasn’t sure if that was due to Zach’s ability to make people think he belonged or if they were just on drugs. Given that this was Merchant territory, it was a toss-up. “So where exactly are the Merchants, anyway?”

    “Right here!” He took two steps toward a door in the side of the gas station garage, just as it opened.

    A woman with hair hanging over her face peered out. “Who the fuck’s making all this fucking noise—what the fuck?”

    The exclamation was due to Zach grabbing hold of her and pulling her out of the doorway, while keeping the door itself open with his foot. As she struggled against his grip, he pressed his hand against her forehead. Her eyes rolled up into her head, a sudden wind that had kicked up died down again, and she slumped in his grasp.

    “She is not dead, just sleeping,” he whispered to me. “This is Whirligig. She would have made it hard to keep you safe.”

    “Oh,” I said. Zach laid Whirligig down on the ground and pushed the door open. Not wanting to be left alone outside with an unconscious supervillain (in the very loosest of terms), I followed him inside.

    Within the garage, three people were standing around a monstrosity of a vehicle that looked like it may have started life as a Mack truck, but then tried to incorporate elements of a jet fighter and a submarine. There might even have been a way to put it all together that was both elegant and functional, retaining the strong points of everything while looking cool and stylish.

    This wasn’t it.

    However, my appreciation of how ugly Tinkertech can really get was interrupted by one of the three turning toward us. He was a little taller than me, wearing a stained and patched blue costume, complete with cape. I didn’t have to see his horribly discoloured teeth or hear him speak to know who he was. Skidmark; the leader of the Merchants, and reputedly the foulest-mouthed cape on the eastern seaboard.

    “Well, who the fuck was it, minge-maggot?” he asked. Even his voice was grating and unpleasant. When he registered that we weren’t Whirligig, his eyes widened. “Cocksucking motherfucker! Who the turd-sniffing fuck are those two knob-gobblers?”

    I didn’t know who the scrawny little Gollum-lookalike was but gauging from how red his eyes were, he was stoned off his ass. That, and I could smell the lingering marijuana smoke from where I was. (I’ve never partaken, but going to Winslow teaches you things like that). He looked us up and down, then sniffed deeply and wiped his forearm across under his nose. “Couple little shits from the preppy side of town, here for some rough trade, Skids. They ain’t nothin’.”

    The last of the three, a trashily-dressed blonde girl who apparently used engine grease as hair styling product, peered at us. “You here for that? ’Cause I don’t think you’re here for that.” Belatedly, I recalled her name; Squealer, the Merchants’ Tinker and one of the main reasons they hadn’t been overrun by ordinary non-cape gangs.

    Zach smiled cheerfully. “No.”

    I could tell the exact instant when he ceased to maintain the “I’m harmless and forgettable” image. All three villains swore luridly, and reacted in different ways.

    A broad strip of concrete between Skidmark and us suddenly began to glow with a gradiated colour band, shading from violet on his end to blue on ours. Bits of dirt and trash began to fling themselves toward us, as if blown by a strong wind. As the villain gestured frantically, the band both increased in width and intensified in colour.

    “Keep ‘’em back, Skiddy!” shouted Squealer, scrambling up the side of the vehicle with an agility I would’ve been hard put to match. “Once I get the guns powered up, I’ll blow ’em into next week!”

    By contrast, the third guy—whose name I was still blanking on—went to run away. Or, as I realised a second later, he was shambling toward a pile of trash in the corner. As he ran, branched growths began to protrude from his skinny body.

    Ignoring Squealer and the skinny guy, Zach looked down at the glowing carpet of colour between us and the supervillains. “That is very interesting,” he said. “Do you mind if I look more closely?”

    Skidmark’s response was impressively unprintable (and I’d heard Dockworkers swear) as he laid down more layers of his field. Some went farther out, probably in an attempt to sweep us off our feet. But Zach stood firm; and with his hand on my arm, so did I. Then Zach leaned down and used his free hand to lift the power effect off the concrete. The move pulled it out from under my feet and Zach’s as well, and he was able to leave me to my own devices as he began to roll it up like a carpet.

    Desperately, Skidmark threw down more fields, only for Zach to catch each of them and add them to his growing collection. Almost casually, he rolled it up into a bundle the size of a basketball, with one glowing violet string leading back to Skidmark. Then, with a single yank, he pulled that cord free and tied it around the bundle to make a ball.

    “That ain’t possible!” screamed Skidmark. He tried to throw extra fields down, but no matter how he waved his hands, nothing happened. I recalled how Zach had pulled this exact trick on Miss Militia, and grinned. This time around, it was much more possible. “Gimme back my fields, you syphilitic goat-fucking herpes blister!”

    “You only had to ask politely,” Zach said reprovingly, then tossed the bundle of coruscating fields at him.

    At the last second, Skidmark seemed to realise the danger. “No, don’t, shiiiiiii—!” He tried to jump aside at the last moment, but the ball seemed to curve in midair, and nailed him in the chest anyway.

    In another instant, he was wrapped from head to toe in the fields, glowing so brightly I could’ve read by them. I would’ve had to be reading very quickly though, as he was launched upward at extremely high speed. There was a hollow BOOOM, and bits of ceiling and roof rained down around us. His last curse trailed away into the distance almost immediately.

    I wanted to ask Zach where he’d sent the guy, but the vehicle powered up, gun-turrets swinging in our direction. Meanwhile, the skinny little guy was in the process of packing garbage around himself to become neither skinny or little. What was his name again? Moist? Mush? Something like that.

    Three guns fired at once, and Zach moved. His arms weren’t even a blur as he smacked the projectiles aside, apparently robbing them of their kinetic energy at the same time. Impressively large cannon rounds fell to the floor at his feet, dented from where they had struck his hands. Then he stepped forward and punched the vehicle once.

    It … fell apart. The bits that came from a plane fell off to the left, the parts that I thought were from a submarine came off to the right, and the chassis of the Mack Truck, minus some important bits, remained in the middle. And sitting there, finger clicking on a trigger that was no longer connected to anything worthwhile, was Squealer. She stared at Zach, still clicking the trigger by reflex.

    “Um …” she said.

    <><>​

    Director Piggot
    PRT Building ENE


    It was amazing, Emily grumbled to herself. Let one jumped-up asshole take over her job for just one hour, and the paperwork to deal with that shit increased to take up the entire goddamn evening. But finally, it was done (and thankfully, she was able to redirect any and all queries regarding ‘Zachary’ to Chief Director Costa-Brown) so she was going home for the evening. Standing up, she reached around and pressed on the small of her back …

    Smack.

    “What the hell?” she demanded, turning so fast she nearly lost her balance. Spreadeagled across her window, plastered to the high-end polycarbonate, was Skidmark, an expression of extreme discomfort on his features. And then, with a long drawn-out squeeeeeaak, he began to slide down the window.

    Grabbing her phone, she hit the icon that connected her to everyone.

    “Now hear this. This is an all-stations alert. Skidmark is on the east face of the building. I say again, Skidmark is on the east face of the building.”

    She wanted to rush from the office and dive into the elevator to see where he ended up, but she controlled herself. She had security troops to do exactly that thing. In lieu of something else to do, she started pulling up external camera feeds. It took her a few attempts, but finally she managed to get the one focused on the main entrance, just as Skidmark collapsed to the pavement outside. To her astonishment, he was still alive and apparently uninjured, given that he was able to stand up as the troopers took him into custody.

    Her phone rang, and she answered it by reflex. “Director Piggot speaking.”

    “It’s Lieutenant Graves down in the lobby, ma’am. We have Skidmark in custody. He’s swearing up a storm about some teenage boy who stole his powers and flung him here from up near the Trainyards.”

    She took a breath. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Well done. Do not assume the power loss is permanent.”

    No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

    Ending the call, she sat down at her desk again.

    Zachary. It has to be Zachary.

    She shook her head as she looked at the greasy smear the villain had left on the polycarbonate. The fact that Skidmark had come from the north and still hit the east window of the building, she wasn’t even going to address right then.

    “Skidmark by name, skidmark by nature,” she muttered, turning off the lights on the way out the door.

    This paperwork, she would deal with tomorrow.



    End of Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2020
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  14. Anti-No

    Anti-No Versed in the lewd.

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    Piggot is starting to achieve wisdom.
     
  15. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    "Before enlightenment; read reports, sign orders. After enlightenment; read reports, sign orders."
    - Piggot, some point in the near future.
     
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  16. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Erm... I thought Whirlygig didn't join the Merchants until after Leviathan?
    The Wiki seems to support this:
    Also, it's Whirlygig, not Whirligig. No one ever accused the Merchants of being able to spell.
     
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  17. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Slight AU, in this story she came to town a bit early.

    It's really not going to alter the course of the story.
     
  18. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Ok, np. I only mentioned it because I know you like keeping your stuff canon compliant where possible.
     
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  19. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, I do. And if it mattered to the plot, I'd fix it.

    Thanks.
     
  20. Threadmarks: Part Ten: And For My Next Trick ...
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I’m HALPING!

    Part Ten: And For My Next Trick …

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



    The Morning of January 4
    Hebert Household


    Dad looked at both of us intently. “So the Merchants are no longer a factor?”

    “Well, no,” I said. “After Zach made Skidmark faceplant all over Director Piggot’s window—and boy, do I wish I had footage of that—we waited for the PRT to come pick up the rest of the capes, then we visited all of their dealers and stash houses. Zach explained politely that he didn’t want them selling drugs to anyone anymore, and they decided to change their ways.”

    “My sister says it is very important to be polite when I am talking to people,” Zach contributed. “Also, to speak clearly and make sure that I have their full attention.”

    “Do I want to know how he got their full attention?” asked Dad carefully.

    I tried to look innocent. From the look on his face, I probably failed. “Well, he was crushing their guns and knives into a steel ball with his bare hands while he spoke to them. And he might have let them see the Endbringer side of him, just a little bit. I mean, they didn’t all wet themselves. Just the ones who were trying to talk the toughest.”

    “In that case, I’m not totally surprised that they listened to him,” Dad said dryly. “Zach, you’re an absolute menace, and exactly what Brockton Bay needs right now. And Taylor, of course.”

    “Yes,” replied Zach brightly. “Because I am here to help Taylor and keep her happy. If cleaning up Brockton Bay will make her happy, then that is what I will do.”

    “Glad to hear it, son.” Dad headed into the living room. “Go ahead and finish breakfast. I’ve got a phone call to make.”

    As I picked up a forkful of fried egg, a pensive look came over Zach’s face. From experience, I knew it was a bad idea to let him mull over an idea for too long, so I put the fork down and turned to him. “What is it?”

    “Eidolon is my father, but he has repeatedly refused to acknowledge this,” he said slowly. “Your father is not related to me, but he has called me ‘son’. Does he see me as family, or am I misunderstanding the situation?”

    Whoo boy. Minefield alert. This was gonna be a doozy. “Dad … knows you’re not related to us, but I know he likes you. Him calling you ‘son’ is his way of accepting you and showing you respect.” I looked carefully at him, trying to judge the way he was taking it. “Does that make sense to you?”

    “Yes, Taylor, it does,” Zach said happily. “I am pleased to be accepted into your household. It is good to be called ‘son’, even by someone who is not my father.”

    “Good. I’m glad.” I went back to eating my eggs. It had just been a casual word from Dad, but it had made Zach a lot happier. Endbringers, I decided, were weird.

    Weird, but nice.

    <><>​

    Mayor Christner

    Roy leaned back in his chair with the morning paper, sipping at his coffee as he took in the news articles. It was the usual blend of nothing stories and gang violence, though his eyebrows tracked up toward his hairline as he took in the information that the entire cape membership of the ABB and the Merchants were currently in PRT custody, along with Hookwolf and Cricket.

    “Well, that’s new,” he murmured as he paused at another article claiming that Assault had been punched all the way to Boston as a result of an altercation with an unidentified cape. Apparently, the irreverent cape was alive and well, and awaiting transport back to Brockton Bay.

    “What was that, Dad?” asked Rory as he continued to inhale breakfast waffles at a rate impossible for anyone but a growing teenager.

    “Did you have anything to do with any of this?” Roy asked, sitting forward and folding the paper to show Rory the articles. “Capturing the ABB and the Merchants? Taking down Cricket and Hookwolf? The PRT certainly had a busy day yesterday.” He didn’t bother pointing out the one about Assault; if Rory knew about that one, he’d give with the details without needing to be asked.

    “I wasn’t there, but I heard about it,” Rory said. “A lot of weird stuff happened yesterday. Did you see on the news about the Nine being wiped out?”

    “Yes, yes, I did.” Roy would forever deny it, but he’d whispered a prayer of thanks that Jack Slash and his murderous bunch would never visit Brockton Bay again. “Wait, are you saying that boy … Zach? That he had something to do with all that?” It didn’t seem possible. The youngster he’d seen on TV didn’t seem capable of going up against Lung and Hookwolf.

    “That’s what I heard,” his son maintained. “Gallant swears up and down that Zach’s the one who smacked Assault all the way to Boston, too.”

    “I find that hard to believe.” Roy opened the paper again. “I think—”

    His phone rang, and he gave the device an irritated look. The caller ID made his frown deepen; there were very few things he wanted to talk about first thing in the morning with Danny Hebert, but that was the name on the screen. On the other hand, he couldn’t just blow the man off without endangering the union vote. The things I do to stay in good with my electorate.

    Picking up the phone, he swiped to answer and held it to his ear. “You’ve got Christner.”

    “Good morning, Roy.” Danny sounded very pleased with himself, which made Roy all the more cautious. “I’m guessing you’ve heard the good news about the ABB and the Merchants?”

    “I have.” Already, Roy thought he knew what was coming next. “Is this going to be another appeal to get Lord’s Port opened up again? Because I—”

    “Nope.” Danny was sounding more like the cat with the canary all the time. “I’ve already arranged for that to happen. What I’m calling about is the ferry.”

    It was like he’d put his foot out in the dark, expecting a step down, and hit the floor instead. “What about the ferry? The gangs—”

    “What gangs, Roy?” Danny wasn’t angry, exactly. Roy had heard him angry, and this wasn’t it. “The Merchants are out of the way, so are the ABB, and the Empire Eighty-Eight doesn’t normally extend this far north. Besides, they’ll be licking their wounds after Hookwolf and Cricket got captured.”

    “We both know the Empire Eighty-Eight will expand into the power vacuum,” Roy said. “And that’s not even assuming the capes don’t just bust out of secure holding before the PRT manages to get Hookwolf and Lung into the Birdcage.”

    Roy Christner had known Danny for most of his political life, but the union boss’s next words sent chills down his spine. “If the Empire becomes a problem, they’ll be dealt with. It’s as simple as that.”

    “What do you mean, ‘dealt with’?” demanded Roy. “Who’s going to ‘deal with’ the likes of Kaiser and Fenja and Menja?”

    “You’ll find out shortly after they do,” Danny promised. “In the meantime, the gangs are no longer an obstacle for the ferry to be renovated. Are you going to stand in the way of it being put back in service, or will you be paying out those funds you promised for when and if the gang problem was ever solved?”

    “Ah. The funds.” That had been a promise made several election cycles ago, mainly to get Danny and the Association on board with Roy’s election platform. At the time, he’d earmarked some money in the budget just to make it look as though he were willing to come through on the deal, but several budgets had come and gone since then. He doubted very much that any such allocation still existed. “Well, like I said, the gang problem hasn’t been solved yet, so—”

    Danny cut him off short. “Which gangs need to be out of the way for you to admit there’s no gang problem anymore?”

    Roy blinked. “What?” Did he just ask what I think he just asked?

    “Which gangs.”
    Danny’s voice was patient. “Empire Eighty-Eight, yes or no?”

    “Uh … yes.” Roy had no idea where this was going.

    “Any others?”

    He floundered, trying to think. Where’s he even going with this?

    “Come on, Roy. It’s a yes or no question. Are there any other gangs that need to be removed from consideration before you will okay the ferry to be reinstated?”
    Danny had gone from ‘patient’ to ‘insistent’.

    Nobody liked to be put on the spot like that, least of all a politician who valued his wiggle room. But Danny had left him none. Coil was barely a factor. The Undersiders rarely even made the news. Faultline’s Crew didn’t do crime inside Brockton Bay. He couldn’t come up with another reason to delay. Though the Empire’s definitely a good enough reason on its own. “I, uh, no?”

    “Good. I’ll hold you to that. I trust that you’ll have those funds ready to disburse once you hear the good news.” There was a click, and the call ended. Roy stared at the phone, dismally aware that the funds no longer existed. He was also pretty sure that Danny knew that as well.

    Slowly, he put his phone back on the table, then realised that Rory was staring at him. “What?” he asked.

    “What do you mean, who’s going to deal with Kaiser? Who were you just talking to?” His son wasn’t talking as Rory Christner anymore. He was talking as Triumph, of the Wards.

    Roy didn’t see much benefit in refusing to answer the question. Besides, this was Rory. “Danny Hebert. Head of hiring at the Dockworkers Association. He wanted to know if I’d be okay with the ferry starting up again if the Empire Eighty-Eight was out of the picture. Talking like it was a done deal.”

    “Wait, what again now?” Rory stared at him. “How’s he going to pull that off? Even without Hookwolf and Cricket; they’ve got Krieg, Stormtiger, the twins, Kaiser himself, Victor and Othala, Rune … no, it wouldn’t be possible for the local Protectorate, even with the Wards as backup.” He frowned. “You think he might be hiring Faultline’s Crew, or maybe out of towners, to take care of them?”

    It took Roy all of two seconds to discount that idea. “No. In fact, hell no. Danny Hebert’s about as straight-arrow as they come. He personally doesn’t have the cash to pull that off, and even if the Association did—which they don’t—he’d be the last person in Brockton Bay to consider embezzling it.”

    “Oh.” Rory rubbed the back of his neck in confusion. “What do you think he meant, then?”

    “Damned if I know, son. But I don’t exactly have a good feeling about it.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Zach was buttering a slice of toast when Dad came back into the kitchen. I still wasn’t sure if he needed to eat, or why he did if he didn’t need to. My best guess was that he enjoyed the taste.

    Taking the coffee pot, Dad poured himself a cup, added milk and a little sugar, then slowly stirred it. I knew from past experience this meant he had something he wanted to say, but didn’t quite know how to phrase it. I went back to eating my fried eggs. He’ll figure it out.

    Eventually, he took the spoon out of the cup, tapped it on the edge and laid it on the saucer the cup was sitting in. Then he turned to our houseguest. “Zach,” he said quietly. “You’re here for your own purposes, which involve helping Taylor and making her happy. So far, so good?”

    Zack put down the knife. “Yes, Danny. I am here to help Taylor.”

    “Good.” Dad nodded, as if to himself. “I have … a problem. If you could help me with it, it would be extremely useful. But I’m not asking it as a favour. I haven’t earned that right.”

    “If helping you will make Taylor happy, then I will help you.” Zach’s voice was as bright and happy as ever. “What is your problem?”

    Dad glanced at me; I nodded encouragingly. “My problem,” he said, “is that the Empire Eighty-Eight will very soon be expanding their operations into the area previously controlled by the ABB. Normally, that wouldn’t be a personal problem to me, but Mayor Christner is playing hardball with the ferry. He won’t release the funds to have it renovated while there’s a quote-unquote gang problem in this area of the city. If even one gang member even threatens to set foot within two miles of the ferry terminal, he’ll hold onto that as an excuse to refuse funding.”

    “Well, that sucks,” I observed. Grabbing a piece of toast, I buttered it and took a bite.

    “The Empire Eighty-Eight is controlled by Kaiser, yes?” asked Zach. “They follow the stupid idea that some people are better than others because of the melanin in their skin.” He turned to me. “I had to ask my sister about them. She thinks they are stupid, too.”

    “Well, she’s not wrong,” I agreed with a grin. “In case you’re wondering, I’d definitely be happier if the Empire was gone.”

    “But you do not wish for me to kill them, Taylor?” With the innocent look he gave me, I might once have thought he was joking. But he didn’t joke about things like that.

    “No, I don’t want you to kill them. Capturing them to hand over to the PRT would be perfect, though.” I made a mental note to bring a camera along on this expedition. The looks on their faces would be amazing.

    Zach nodded. “Do you want me to do it before we go to school, or after we finish? I can do it before, but I would be rushed and I might miss a few of their drug dealers.” I had expressed how much I disliked the way drug dealers peddled their poison to schoolkids the night before. As a result, Zach had decided that he didn’t like drug dealers either.

    “I can afford to wait until this afternoon,” Dad said easily. “Are you going to do it loud or quiet?”

    “That depends on whether I wait until they go out in costume, or simply capture them in their civilian identities,” Zach said imperturbably. “I think capturing them in their civilian identities might be loud. Or should I capture them like that then put their costumes on them and hand them over to the PRT? Is there a protocol for this?”

    “I’d say there probably isn’t,” Dad replied, his expression intent. “But are you saying that you already know who they are and where to find them?”

    “Of course.” Zach’s tone was matter-of-fact. “I asked my sister. Kaiser is Max Anders. At this moment, he is travelling from his home to his office in the Medhall building. Several Empire Eighty-Eight capes have civilian jobs within the building. Rune will be leaving home shortly to attend Immaculata High School. I could locate and name each one if you wished.”

    “Son … of … a … bitch,” muttered Dad, slumping back in his chair. “Anders is Kaiser? Anders is Kaiser? How does that even work? He’s a known philanthropist, for crying out loud.” He ran his hand through his thinning hair, more visibly disturbed than at any time before.

    “You okay, Dad?” I asked, a little concerned.

    He nodded jerkily. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine. It’s just … it’s a shock to the system to find out that someone I’ve met over drinks, someone who I thought was on my wavelength for what we needed to fix the Bay, is a goddamn supervillain.” He took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair again.

    “I am sorry, Danny.” Zach’s voice was subdued. “I did not wish to upset you by inflicting an unpleasant truth on you.”

    Dad waved him off. “It’s okay, Zach. I asked, you answered. And I would’ve found out anyway. Probably best I find out now than at some later date after he’s donated to the Association or something, and we find out we’ve got ties to a neo-nazi organisation.”

    “Well, it’s not like you’re going to need donations anymore, remember?” I teased him. “Ninety-nine million dollars and change, for the low, low price of one van and one street sign?”

    He blinked, then did a classic face-palm. “Son of a—! I had totally put that out of my mind until just now. And there I was on the phone with that chiseller Christner, trying to convince him to let go of enough funding to pay for the renovation of the ferry!” He looked extremely disgusted with himself. “This is why I shouldn’t try to do business before I’ve had at least one cup of coffee in the morning.”

    “Oh.” I ate some more toast while Dad sipped at his coffee. “So, uh, do you think he was going to give you the funds anyway?”

    “Pfft, no.” He shook his head, looking and sounding more than a little irritated. “But he made the promise once upon a time, and I was going to hold that over his head come hell or high water, until he found the money somewhere. Still, knowing that I don’t need his funds doesn’t mean I can’t hold his feet to the fire for them anyway.”

    Zach poured himself a glass of orange juice and drank it with every sign of enjoyment, then put the glass down. “Danny, do you still need me to capture all the members of the Empire Eighty-Eight, now that you do not require the money from Mayor Christner?”

    Dad stretched while still sitting down. I heard his back pop in a couple of places. “Oh, absolutely. I want to see the expression on Christner’s face when he realises that my end of the bargain is done, and that he’s got to pony up cash he doesn’t have. Then the look on his face when it becomes publicly known that he’s been holding back on the promise all this time, and I do it myself anyway.”

    The mental image was funny enough to make me giggle. “Okay, so we’re going to hit the Empire this afternoon, after school. Right?”

    “That is correct, Taylor,” Zach agreed brightly. “But we had not decided whether we would be loud or quiet.”

    I glanced at Dad, and he nodded. “Screw it,” I said. “Let’s go loud. Because we all know it’s gonna go loud anyway, so let’s just plan it that way.”

    Zach smiled happily. “Very well, Taylor. We will go loud.”

    “Don’t forget to enjoy school in the meantime,” Dad reminded me with a smirk that I couldn’t decipher.

    As if I needed a reminder. Yay.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert tossed and turned in the uncomfortable motel-room bed. He was a man who liked his comforts, and he’d been out of the field long enough to have forgotten how uncomfortable a thin mattress could be. Besides, there was something in the way when he tried to roll to the right …

    Opening his eyes, he took a couple of seconds to focus, then he screamed.

    Scrambling out of bed, only drawing breath to scream again, he stared at the body-bag occupying the other half of the bed. It was a very familiar body-bag, containing the corpse of the last man Calvert had murdered.

    He’d left it in the parking garage attached to his base.

    Before that, he’d left it in the morgue inside his base.

    What is it doing here?

    He didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.

    Snatching the keys and wallet off the nightstand and ignoring everything else; his overnight bag, the toiletries in the tiny bathroom, even his shoes, he bolted out the door in T-shirt and boxers, scrambled into the van and sprayed gravel in his haste to get out of there. Swinging a hard left as he got onto the main road, he concentrated on putting as many miles as possible between himself and that thing.

    <><>​

    About fifteen minutes later, the room service maid entered the room and looked around. She tut-tutted when she saw the luggage that had been left behind. It would go into a bag and be kept for a while, in case of forgetful guests returning for their property. With quick, efficient movements, she stripped the bed, noting that nobody seemed to have slept on the right-hand side of it at all.

    Humming a tune, she started to vacuum the carpet.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    As I put my sneakers on, I sighed. It wasn’t a very loud sigh, but it was enough for Zach to look around at me.

    “Are you unhappy, Taylor?” His voice was matter-of-fact, but that didn’t mean anything. I knew from experience that he would maintain the same cheerful tone whether he was making jokes about firemen’s suspenders or planning to murder someone on my behalf.

    “Well, a bit.” I stood up, moving my feet around to make sure I hadn’t wrinkled my socks or accidentally put something in there with my feet. It didn’t seem like it, so I picked up my coat. “I mean, what happened yesterday should be the best excuse ever to skip school, but nope. And I know Emma and the others won’t be there, but it’s still Winslow. Ugh.

    Somewhat to my surprise, he put his arm briefly over my shoulders and gave me a quick side-hug. “Cheer up, Taylor. It might be better than you think.”

    Raising my eyebrows, I gave him a suspicious stare. “Since when do you do pep talks? Aren’t you fixated on not lying to me?”

    “But I am not lying, Taylor. I will be with you, and I will not allow anything happen to you that is not to your benefit.”

    His wording sounded suspect to me and my stare intensified, but he met it with a disarmingly innocent gaze. I had the feeling that if I queried his meaning, he would tell me the absolute truth while evading my question for all he was worth. Which was utterly bizarre all by itself; normally, he told me everything up front. Sometimes more than I really wanted to know.

    “Okay,” I muttered reluctantly. “So, did you want to give me a lift, or should we catch the bus?”

    Zach gave the question due consideration. “Your stress levels are understandably a little on the high side, so it may be best for me to give you a lift rather than subject you to more stress on the bus,” he said bluntly. “Also, I have seen a map and now I know where Winslow High School is located.”

    “Oh, good.” Even though Zach would be at my side, I still wasn’t thrilled about going back to Winslow. About the best thing that could happen to it in my expert opinion would be for it to be ground zero for a cape battle, or maybe a meteor strike. Blowing up the whole damn school would be ideal. Or maybe all three at the same time.

    We left the house, going out through the kitchen door into the back yard. Because while Zach wasn’t exactly unknown to the general public—at least, to those who watched the news—I didn’t want to draw any more attention than absolutely necessary. While Zach waited, I turned the key in the lock and stashed it back in my pocket.

    “Okay, then,” I said heavily. “Let’s do this.” Much as I wanted to find an excuse to duck out of going to school, there was literally no way to make myself safer than I already was. With Zach at my side, absolutely nobody would be capable of messing with me, even if they were willing to try.

    Zach paused. “You sound unhappy, Taylor. I do not wish to participate in something that makes you unhappy.”

    That made me stop and think. “I’m not unhappy, exactly. I know I need to go to school, and I know you’ll make sure nobody causes me problems, so I guess I have to go.” I drew a deep breath. “Can we jump there? It’s more fun than running. I mean, running isn’t not fun, but it’s over before I have the chance to enjoy it.”

    “I understand,” Zach said with a nod. “My sister says that if I slowed down to let you see how fast we were going, you may suffer disorientation, and I do not wish to cause you that sort of discomfort.”

    That made sense in a really weird way. Which was par for the course when it came to Zach and his regularly-performed shenanigans. I didn’t argue as he bent to take me into his arms.

    As soon as he had me settled properly, he crouched slightly and launched himself up and over the city. I was almost used to this, but I still let out a whoop of exhilaration as we vaulted skyward. The wind whipped past us, but I had no trouble breathing or even seeing what was going on.

    Which meant I didn’t take longer than a second or so to realise that something was going on. “Winslow’s not this way!” I called out to him as we rocketed toward Downtown. “Where are you going?”

    Before he could answer, we’d hit the side of one of the few tall buildings in Brockton Bay. I could almost swear I could see the window bowing inward under the impact of Zach’s sneakers. But then he was running along the side of the building with me still in his arms, while I had no idea what was going on.

    I was drawing breath to ask him to clear the matter up when he kicked off again. Once again, a lot of Brockton Bay passed by under us in a remarkably short time. We were heading toward Winslow this time, I was pretty sure. Which still didn’t answer the questions whirling through my head.

    “Okay, what the hell?” I demanded, my question coinciding with Zach’s sneakers crunching down into the expanse of patchy asphalt that served Winslow for a parking lot. Even though he barely flexed his knees on landing, I never felt so much as a jar. “What was that about?”

    “I apologise, Taylor.” Zach let me down onto my feet. “My sister suggested that I take a detour on the way to Winslow.”

    “A detour?” Now I was totally lost. “What was that in aid of?”

    He smiled. “She thought it might be funny to send a message.”

    “Message?” My confusion hadn’t decreased measurably. “What kind of message?”

    <><>​

    Kaiser

    Max Anders stood in his office on the top floor of the Medhall building. Coffee dribbled unheeded over the rim of the cup he held, a thin trickle of the steaming beverage dripping steadily onto his flawlessly polished Louis Vuittons. What held his attention was the state of the large floor-to-ceiling windows that faced north from his office.

    In accordance with the fact that he lived and operated in a city replete with capes of every description, the windows were composed of the strongest polycarbonate available on the civilian market. And yet, the windows were cracked in a row across the frontage of the office from one side to the other where the sneakers of the teenage boy had impacted the outside of the building, shaking the whole office.

    Even then, it wasn’t the fact that the windows were cracked that held him stunned and immobile. It was the fact that the cracks formed letters, and that the letters formed words.

    YOU’RE NEXT.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “You didn’t.” I stared at Zach, eyes wide.

    “I will never lie to you, Taylor.” Zach was unruffled by my implied suggestion that he’d exaggerated. “We have neutralised the Merchants and the Azn Bad Boys, so the Empire Eighty-Eight is indeed next. Max Anders is by now aware of what has happened to both of those gangs, so it was amusing to remind him that his turn is coming up.”

    “But isn’t that …” I paused, rethinking my words. With basically anyone else, I would’ve had no hesitation in saying dangerous. It didn’t even show arrogance on his part; after all, it’s not being arrogant if someone really is that powerful. If anything, Zach constantly undersold himself. Personally, I was convinced that he did it for the amusement value for when people suddenly realised exactly how screwed they were.

    “Yes, Taylor?” He gazed at me innocently, though I was beginning to suspect he knew more about my thought processes than he let on. If nothing else, he could ask the Simurgh what I was thinking about something. Though he probably wouldn’t, unless it was absolutely necessary.

    I sighed. “Never mind. If Kaiser chooses not to leave town before you get around to him, whatever happens is on him.” It was still absolutely weird to me that Max Anders was Kaiser; I mean, the man was a pillar of the community. But it didn’t even occur to me to doubt Zach’s word on the matter, especially not after the Alexandria thing.

    It was around about then that I noticed something I should’ve picked up on earlier. Specifically, the limousine that was currently taking up two car slots in the Winslow parking lot. A uniformed driver stood by the vehicle, glaring at everyone who came near. That included us; apparently, falling from the sky wasn’t sufficient to accord us special treatment.

    “Uh … what’s that about?” I asked, gesturing at the imposing vehicle. It didn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to come to the conclusion that it was there, somehow, on my account. Given recent events, it would’ve required improbable mental gymnastics to conclude that it wasn’t about me and Zach.

    “It appears to be a limousine, Taylor.” His reply, though entirely truthful, was utterly unhelpful. “Perhaps if we go inside, we shall find out what is going on.”

    I gave him a suspicious look. Between the tone of his voice and the grin he wasn’t even bothering to hide, I had the distinct impression that he knew more than he was saying. This was probably intentional on his part, which spoke to his improving grasp on subtlety. He wasn’t quite there yet, but he was learning fast.

    “Okay,” I conceded. He had yet to do anything that wasn’t in my best interests, so I figured it was probably best to follow his suggestion.

    Side by side, we headed for the front steps of Winslow while those students in the process of arriving gave us a wide berth. Whether this was due to the precipitate method of our arrival, Zach’s Endbringer capabilities, or if they’d heard what he’d done the previous day, I didn’t know. Either way, nobody came close enough to bother us.

    Given how roughly Zach had handled Emma and the others, I knew we wouldn’t be seeing them in school anytime soon, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be there. Even with Zach standing as a metaphorical brick wall between me and any potential copycat bullies, there were too many bad memories in Winslow to make me comfortable with walking inside. But walk inside I did, pushing open the time-worn wooden doors and preparing to head to my homeroom.

    Except that Mrs Knott, who’d been waiting at the side of the corridor with a stack of books and papers in her hands, intercepted me before I got three steps into the school proper. “Taylor!” she called.

    I slowed, then headed in her direction. Being met at the school doors by a teacher was a new experience for me. “Mrs Knott? What’s up?”

    Her expression was an odd mix of regret and relief. “I was told to give you these,” she said, handing over the papers and the books. “You’re being transferred to Arcadia. I hope you have a happier time there than you did here. And I’m sorry about what was done to you.”

    “Transferred to Arcadia?” I repeated, trying to catch up to what she was saying. “When? Next week?” The apology, I didn’t even know how to address.

    She shook her head. “Not next week. Now. The paperwork’s been expedited and signed. I was told your father had already okayed it, and that they know you’re coming.”

    I blinked. “Now? Wait, what? Like, now now?” Wait, Dad knew about this? I recalled his smirk and the weird comment he’d made. Of course he did.

    “Yes.” She bit her lip. “The last I saw, there were people with suits and ties, along with a couple of high-end lawyers, laying down the law to Principal Blackwell.”

    This made no sense to me. Transfers took weeks to arrange. To have one happen in less than twenty-four hours was basically impossible. “How …?”

    Zach cleared his throat politely. “Chief Director Costa-Brown knows people who are really good at getting things done. She wishes to keep you happy, just as I do.”

    But not for the same reason, I knew without needing to think about it. Zach worked at making me happy because that was a core element of his being. Alexandria wanted me happy so I didn’t unleash Zach’s full capacity for destruction on the general population.

    Which I wasn’t about to do, but so long as Alexandria thought I might, I was satisfied with the results. “So, uh, I can just go to Arcadia?” I asked. “Like, right now?”

    “That’s what I was told.” She essayed a hesitant wave. “Good luck at Arcadia.”

    “Thanks.” Still carrying the books and papers, I turned and went out through the doors again. Zach went ahead without even needing to be asked, which helped clear the press of people trying to come in through the doors.

    Walking in my own little bubble of you-can’t-touch-this, I went down the stairs then turned and looked at Zach. “I suppose you also know where Arcadia is? You know, on the off-chance we might need to go there today?”

    Either my sarcasm was lost on him or he chose to ignore it, for his reply was as cheerful as ever. “Yes, Taylor. I know exactly where to find it.”

    “Oh, good.” I hefted the books and papers I still held. “Is there any chance we can get there without leaving a literal paper trail from here to there? Also, maybe not take any detours, this time?” While having Zach around gave me an entirely unaccustomed sense of security, I was occasionally having trouble getting my head around what he was going to do next.

    “Of course,” he said. “There will be no slipstream from the jump if you do not wish there to be. And I have already sent the message. There will be no detours. We will go directly to Arcadia High School.”

    I repressed the urge to say Oh, good again, and instead focused on the more important aspects. “Can you ask your sister if there’s likely to be anyone who wants to bully me at Arcadia? You know, just in case.”

    His brilliant green eyes went introspective for a moment, then he shook his head. “She says that she does not foresee anyone attempting to bully you at Arcadia High School. Adherence to school rules is much higher than at Winslow. Also, I will be there.” He smiled at me. “We have thirteen minutes before the bell to attend home room. Shall we go?”

    I couldn’t think of any more excuses to delay the inevitable. Stepping up next to Zach, I allowed him to scoop me up into his arms while I kept a firm grip on the papers and books. “Let’s do this thing.”

    “I agree, Taylor. Let us do it.” Despite the fact that he could probably leap into orbit by tapping his toe on the ground, he still took the time to crouch slightly before he leaped, launching us into the air. Destination: Arcadia High.

    “Wooooo hooooo!”



    End of Part Ten
     
  21. Anti-No

    Anti-No Versed in the lewd.

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    Yes, teenagers are stupid. Still, "Let's bully the master who had the Slaughterhouse Nine massacred, and eliminated all the gangs in town in couple of days" is FAR into Darwin Award territory. I also guess there also could be a cape or two trying something because of insanity and/or conflict drive. But there's no way, no how that either would get far.
     
    Death by Chains and Ack like this.
  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Don't forget, Zach can deliberately set his perception filter so that he's just another teenage kid, nothing to worry about. Even if you know what he's done.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Endbringer Shenanigans
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I’m HALPING!

    Part Eleven: Endbringer Shenanigans

    [A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    [A/N 2: In this fic, the Wards as a whole have not unmasked to Panacea.]


    Panacea

    Amy Dallon enjoyed being flown to school by her sister. How could she not, after all. And being carried bridal-style merely served to fuel her secret fantasies a little more. There was just the one little irritating aspect; the fact that when Vicky touched down in the Arcadia forecourt and set Amy on her feet, all the attention was on her, like she’d just performed some amazing feat. Instead of flying her sister to school, like she did every. Freaking. Day.

    Of course, Vicky enjoyed the hell out of the attention. She was New Wave’s golden girl, and she damn well knew it. Amy didn’t resent her for this … exactly … but it would’ve been nice for her accept that other people deserved the limelight once in a while. The worst bit was, Vicky was never mean about it. Just … ‘yeah, this is me. I’m just this good’.

    As they descended toward Arcadia, she could see Vicky’s fan club starting to gather. Some were content to admire Amy’s sister (or so Amy assumed) but most wanted … more. She could see it in their eyes. The guys wanted to be Vicky’s boyfriend, more than one girl wanted to be her girlfriend, and none of them had the slightest chance. She knew this because she was closer to Vicky than anyone except maybe Dean, and even she didn’t stand a chance.

    And then, just as Vicky came in for a picture-perfect landing where her feet just settled on the ground (this being one of her two modes of landing, the other involving three points of contact and cracks in the concrete), there was an interruption. A blur came lancing down out of the sky along with a dopplering “oooOOOooo!” There wasn’t even the sound of an impact on the pavers as the blur stopped and became a teenage boy, casually cradling a girl in his arms.

    Vicky stared. “Bullshit,” she declared, almost forgetting to let Amy down onto her feet. “That doesn’t happen. You don’t get to land that fast and not break anything. I should know.”

    The guy smiled happily at her as his own passenger regained her feet. “Hello, Glory Girl! Hello, Panacea! It is good to meet more superheroes. I did not break the pavement because I did not want Taylor to be in trouble for her first day at Arcadia. It looks like a very nice school.”

    While Vicky was apparently trying to get her head around that, Amy strolled forward. “I saw you on TV, didn’t I?” she asked. “Aren’t you the one who killed the Slaughterhouse Nine?” He certainly looked the same as the kid who’d effortlessly tossed a van fifteen hundred miles to wipe out the most feared villain gang in the United States. What the street sign had been about, she had no idea. Maybe to put a stake through Jack Slash’s black heart.

    “Yes, Panacea,” the teenager said, sounding the happiest anyone had ever been to meet her who didn’t need healing. “They were a danger to Taylor Hebert’s physical and emotional well-being, so I decided to kill them. It was not difficult. My sister told me where they were, and my big brother helped me perform the shots correctly.” He peered more closely at her. “You look unhappy. Is there someone who is a danger to your emotional well-being?”

    Oh, god. If only you knew. Amy had to give him props; he was the first person who had actually said that on their first meeting. Usually everyone was “oooh, you’re so wonderful for healing all those people,” so he was ahead of the game there. The weirdest thing was, she didn’t even feel offended at the personal question.

    “Zach, leave Panacea alone,” said the girl who’d been with him. She gave Amy an apologetic look. “Sorry, he’s only got a vague idea of personal boundaries.”

    Amy chuckled. “I can see that. But it’s okay. Sometimes questions like that need to be asked.” She paused. “Uh … aren’t you worried that he might be outed, not wearing a mask or anything?”

    “Oh, everyone has heard my name,” Zach assured her. “If anyone tries to harm Taylor or her father, I will stop them.”

    The girl—Taylor?—nodded. “He really will,” she confirmed. “Let’s just say, he’s fast on his feet.”

    “But what about his family?” asked Vicky bluntly. She turned to face Zach. “You can’t protect everyone all the time. What if someone gets to the people you love?”

    Amy knew exactly what this was all about. She hadn’t really known Aunt Jess before the young woman was murdered by an Empire wannabe, but Vicky had been close to her. She and Vicky couldn’t help but be public capes—the adult members of New Wave had chosen that for them before they’d even gotten powers—but other people still had that choice.

    Taylor snickered. “I truly pity anyone who succeeds in finding his family. They’re about as powerful as he is. Maybe more so.” She checked her watch. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got all these admission papers to get checked over. Zach, do you know where the main office is in the building?”

    “Yes, Taylor. I do.” Effortlessly, the boy scooped Taylor up in his arms. “It was nice meeting you, Glory Girl, Panacea. Perhaps we can talk more about your emotional well-being later.” It seemed almost as though he began to take a step, then the pair was gone. There wasn’t even a rush of wind.

    “Well, damn.” Vicky bent over and examined the pavers where Zach had landed.

    Amy could tell from where she was that they weren’t even cracked. And for all that he had to have covered the ten yards to the doors in less than a thirtieth of a second so as not to even blur in Amy’s sight, there were no acceleration marks to be seen.

    “What do you think?” asked Vicky. “Teleportation with visual effects?”

    Amy rubbed her chin. “I dunno, but he seems like a nice boy. That Taylor girl’s certainly got him wrapped around her little finger. And if he offed the Nine, then there’s not many people who could mess with him.”

    “Pfft, as if.” Vicky snorted as they started into the building. “I figure I could take him, easy peasy.”

    Amy raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure we’re talking about the same guy? Because I didn’t get that impression at all. He’s got Mover powers up the wazoo and maybe some kind of weird Blaster ability. Who knows what else he’s got? At the very least, we should be careful around him until we’ve got a better idea of what he’s about.”

    “Uh huh.” Vicky’s tone was careless. “And I still say he’s a poser.”

    Glancing across, Amy caught a secret little smirk on her sister’s face. “Nope. Don’t do it.”

    “Don’t do what?” Vicky tried for ‘injured innocence’ and failed utterly.

    Amy gave her a very unimpressed look. “Whatever it is you’re thinking, just don’t. Bad idea.”

    Vicky spread her hand on her chest. “Hey. This is me.

    “Yes, it is,” Amy said patiently. “And normally you’re smarter than this. But something about this Zach guy has flipped your switch.”

    “So what if it has?” Vicky stuck out her chin. “I can still take him.”

    The argument lasted all the way into home room.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Whoever had arranged for my exit from Winslow had clearly been to Arcadia as well; we managed to clear the paperwork in about five minutes, which was about fifty-five minutes shorter than I’d expected. The secretary was accommodating, even to the point of saying that Zach could sit in on the classes if he wished. Which was good, because I wasn’t totally sure that I could explain the concept of ‘emotional support Endbringer’ in a way that people would understand.

    I remembered something else as we hurried along the hallway in (I hoped) the direction of my new home room. By my watch, the bell was about to go but we could still make it on foot instead of resorting to Zach’s near-instantaneous speedster trick. I couldn’t depend on him for everything, after all. (Getting him to carry my books until I could buy a backpack didn’t count.)

    “Uh, one thing,” I said as I double-checked the map against a corridor marking. We seemed to be on track. “If you recognise any of the students as Wards, please don’t call them by their superhero names. Outing a Ward for no good reason would be unfair to them.”

    “Oh,” he said. “Was it unfair when I outed Sophia Hess as Shadow Stalker?”

    I was about to say Fuck, no, but then I reconsidered. “Saying that to the wrong person could get her family hurt. But telling the Chief Director about what one of the Wards was doing was the right thing. If you think you should out a cape, ask me first, okay?”

    “Yes, Taylor,” he said happily. “I will do that.”

    “Good.” I rechecked my handy map and looked at the door we’d arrived at, just as the bell rang for home room. “This looks like the right place to me. Does it look right to you?”

    “Yes, Taylor,” he said, and opened the door for me. “This is the right place.”

    “Thank you,” I said, both for the gesture and the confirmation. Walking on in, I looked over my new home room. A couple of dozen students and one teacher looked back at me. “Uh, hi?” I tapped my map. “I’m Taylor Hebert. I just transferred in. I think this is my home room class?”

    “Ah, yes.” The teacher was an older man, on the skinny side with bifocals and wispy grey hair encircling an extremely aggressive case of male pattern baldness. “I was told that you’d be coming in. I’m Mr Holden. And this is …?”

    As his attention switched to my companion, Zach chose this moment to step forward. “Good morning, Mr Holden,” he said warmly. “My name is Zachary. I will be accompanying Taylor in her classes at Arcadia.”

    Just for a moment, I caught the edge of Zach’s influence, then it died away again. Mr Holden blinked, then nodded. “Well, yes,” he said. “That seems to be in order. Taylor, Zachary, feel free to find desks and we’ll proceed to roll call.”

    There were a couple of empty desks down toward the back, and I took one while Zach took the other. He handed me my books and I stashed them in the desk for the moment. It was quite a liberating feeling to know that nobody was going to be pouring orange juice or glue on my chair, and I allowed myself to relax with a sense of achievement.

    As the roll-call went on, I noticed a few of the kids around me sneaking peeks at me and Zach. Finally, the nearest one leaned over toward me. He was a redhead, but I tried not to hold that against him. Unless he was somehow related to Emma, I wasn’t going to have a problem with him.

    “Hi!” he whispered. “Where’d you transfer in from? Winslow?”

    I blinked. Was it that obvious? “Uh, yeah. Good guess.”

    He grinned engagingly. “Not a guess. I saw the news footage from yesterday. Your friend’s kind of famous.”

    Zach leaned forward slightly and lowered his tone, though I could still hear him perfectly. “My name is Zachary, but my friends call me Zach. It is good to meet you, Dennis.”

    “Hey, it’s good to meet you too, buddy.” Dennis gave us both a grin that gave me the impression that he could be a smartass, then he paused. “Hey—”

    At the head of the classroom, Mr Holden cleared his throat. “Dennis, I understand that you’re curious about our newcomers, but perhaps the time to satisfy that curiosity will be after class is done? Very well, everyone please get out your English books. Taylor, over the Christmas break I have had the class doing a report on Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Are you perhaps familiar with that book?”

    I paused for a moment, fully aware that I was about to show off, but I couldn’t resist. “Chapter One,” I quoted. “Out to Sea. I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.”

    I paused there, and Mr Holden began clapping. A moment later, he was joined by all the kids in the class, including Dennis. “Well, that was moderately unexpected,” he said after the applause had died away. “I presume you don’t have the entire book memorised?”

    “Well, no, sir,” I conceded. “Just most of the first page. My mother was an English professor, you see. She taught me to read from the classics.”

    “So I see.” He nodded in approval. “Do you feel up to presenting a verbal report before everyone else presents their written reports?”

    “I, uh, sure.” I glanced at Zach and he gave me an encouraging smile. This was something else I had to do for myself, but it was nice to have him there for moral support anyway.

    Standing up, I went up to the front of the class, doing my best to recall the thread of the plot and how it all ended. When I got there, I stood looking for any sign of disdain or rejection, and found none. No vicious little smiles, no cupped hands full of pencil shavings. I had made a good impression and they wanted to see what I would do next.

    It was a really weird feeling, but one I could get used to.

    I cleared my throat. “Okay, then. The first thing you have to understand about Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, is that he’s not an everyday person. He’s a genius. Here is a man who figures out that symbols on a page actually mean something and teaches himself how to read and write French, just from books. The next thing is that …”

    <><>​

    Director Piggot
    PRT ENE


    The email popped up in her inbox, looking entirely innocuous with a header that read, Result of Investigation into Incident #9195/01/03/11.

    Despite the dryness of the wording, she felt her pulse quicken. ‘Incident #9195’ was the internal PRT reference to the reported slaying of the Slaughterhouse Nine by the terrifyingly capable individual known only as ‘Zach’. Automatically, her hand guided the mouse and she clicked the icon to open the mail. The Chief Director may be signing off on it, but I still want to make sure.

    The report was dry military-speak, which she still understood fluently, all the way down to being able to read the hidden meaning behind the phrasing. The PRT team had gone to the areas indicated as being hit by Zach’s impromptu missiles. At the smaller crater, they found bits and pieces which may possibly have once been a motor vehicle of some sort, and the carbonised remains of one William Manton. This was established without a doubt because there was an intact hand; the carbonisation ceased at the wrist, showing a tattoo of a white swan, and leaving the fingerprints entirely intact.

    Why Zach had targeted the man, Emily did not understand one hundred percent. But of equal curiosity: why had the one man who had known more about how powers worked than God Himself been sitting in a vehicle within mere miles of the Slaughterhouse Nine? That in itself was what she called ‘cause for reasonable suspicion’.

    The larger crater had once been a building of some sort. Now, nothing larger than a man’s fist remained. Just as in the smaller strike site, just enough remains had somehow survived to identify each member of the Nine, save Burnscar.

    Bonesaw’s left hand, complete with under-nail injectors and razor claws.

    Shatterbird’s head, mostly encased in glass.

    Mannequin’s carapace, wrapped around a tree half a mile away, still containing parts of the once-heroic Tinker.

    Jack Slash’s right hand, again with fingerprints intact, nailed to the same tree with a large knife.

    And nearby, the bodies of Crawler and Hatchet Face, who seemed to have killed one another.

    The pictures could have been far more gruesome than they were; but even if they had been, she still would have looked. It was her job to look. As it was, a human head or a severed hand barely even raised a twinge.

    By the time she was finished perusing the report, she was satisfied.

    The Slaughterhouse Nine was done and gone. There was now an ongoing search for Burnscar but in the absence of her teammates, capturing or killing her would be much much easier. With a rare smile on her face, she closed the email and began to compose one of her own.

    Mr Hebert, it read. Upon investigation, the claimed destruction of the Slaughterhouse Nine has been verified. Please reply soonest with preferred method of reception of reward.

    Regards,

    Emily Piggot (Director)

    Parahuman Response Teams


    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Well, now I know why you transferred from Winslow,” Dennis observed with a grin as we left the classroom at the end of the period.

    I shot him a suspicious glance, but he didn’t seem to have a mean-spirited air about him. “And why do you think that is?” I asked cautiously.

    “Because you can read and write, duh.” He laughed at the look on my face. “Oh, come on. You haven’t heard the jokes about Winslow?”

    “Heard them, no. Lived them, yeah.” I poked my tongue out at him. “And to be honest, you’re not totally wrong about some of the kids there. I knew this one guy in World Affairs who I’m certain gets stoned before he comes to class. And he’s not even a Merchant. That I know of, anyway.”

    Dennis stopped in his tracks, staring at me. “He gets stoned. And nobody does anything about it.”

    “Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “He spends most of the class so spaced out he might as well be putting the moves on the Simurgh.”

    “And the teachers don’t … do anything about this?” He couldn’t seem to get his head around the idea.

    I snorted in derision. “Do what? The teacher’s one of those guys who’s trying so hard to be cool around the kids, he doesn’t pay attention to anyone who’s not in the popular crowd. And he certainly doesn’t notice anything they do to anyone else. Seriously, I’ve had my assignments stolen and handed in by other girls, and he didn’t even notice the difference in handwriting. These are the same girls who put juice or glue on my chair, or tip pencil shavings over me while he’s in the room, and he doesn’t see a thing.”

    “I can’t even …” Dennis turned to Zach. “She’s pulling my leg, right?”

    “No, Dennis, she is not.” Zach’s voice was more serious than usual. “When I first met Taylor, she had just been stuffed into her own locker with a large amount of noxious material. From their prior performance, the school authorities would have done their best to blame Taylor for her own misfortunes. That was yesterday.” His tone perked up. “Now we are at Arcadia. Arcadia is a much nicer school.”

    Dennis raised his finger. “Wait a minute. I don’t recall telling you my name. How do you know it?”

    Zach smiled. “We have met before. I learned your name then.”

    “… oh.” Dennis’ finger went down again. “Okay, yeah, that makes sense. So anyway, what do you guys have next?”

    I checked my class schedule. “It looks like … Math, with Ms Partridge. Is she okay?”

    “Yeah, she’s pretty good. Always willing to help you out. I’ve got a buddy who’s got this number disorder thing going on, he can’t do math in his head? She’s really patient with him and suggests exercises for him to do.”

    That sounded about a thousand percent better than Mr Quinlan already, and my math skills were reasonable enough to get by. “Sounds good to me. Are you going that way?”

    “Nah, sorry. I’ve got Physical Education. Gotta keep this bod lookin’ awesome somehow, right?” He mimed finger-guns at me.

    “Right,” I murmured, carefully not looking at Zach. They didn’t even have to stand side by side for anyone to know who had the more impressive physique; but then, Zach had kinda cheated. “I’ll, uh, see you at lunch, I guess.”

    “See you then, Taylor. Later, Z-Man. I’ll save you seats!” And with one last wave, he disappeared into the swirling throng that was the Arcadia student body.

    “Well, he seemed nice,” I said absently, pulling out my map to see which way we had to go to get to Math class. So far, I’d been at Arcadia for one class and my social interactions had been … positive? It felt weird. Nobody was ostracising me or picking on me.

    “He was curious about you and myself,” Zach observed. “But yes, he is naturally a nice person. Once he gets to know you better, he may play mild pranks upon you. These are not intended in a mean spirit, and he welcomes retaliation.”

    I frowned, distracted from the map. “That seems … a very thorough analysis of his personality. Did your sister tell you all that?”

    “Yes,” he said cheerfully. “That was the Ward known as Clockblocker. You told me not to use his superhero name where people could learn of his real identity.”

    That was the point when I nearly facepalmed. I certainly felt like it; Zach had been calling Dennis by his name right in front of me and I hadn’t thought it was weird. “Welp, call me Captain Oblivious,” I muttered. “I didn’t even pick up on that when he asked how you knew his name.”

    “I believe I will keep calling you Taylor.” Zach either didn’t see my exasperated glance or pretended to not notice it. “It is good that you are making friends.”

    “Yeah, I’m still getting used to that bit myself. Okay, I think Math class is … this way.”

    Feeling a little better about this whole Arcadia thing now that I’d established friendly contact with the locals, I led the way off down the corridor.

    <><>​

    Arcadia Cafeteria
    Panacea


    “Hey, there they are!”

    Amy looked around from the wrap she’d been about to take a bite out of. “Who?”

    “The girl, whatserface, Taylor. And her boy toy, the Mover.” Vicky was on her feet by now. Amy fully expected to see her start to wave her arms and beckon them over.

    “His name is Zach, and he’s not her boy toy,” Amy said. “They’re just friends. You can tell it a mile away. Anyway, leave them alone. They probably want to just sit and decompress while they eat lunch.”

    “So they can sit with us.” Vicky didn’t need superstrength or an invincible force field, Amy reflected, to be relentless in her aims. She could be that way all by herself. “Oh, hey, cool. They’re coming this way.”

    “Sit down,” hissed Amy. “You’re embarrassing the both of us.” She tugged on Vicky’s sleeve, which achieved exactly nothing. Against her own better judgement, she turned her head to watch as Taylor and Zach did indeed come in their direction … right up until they stopped at another table to speak to another student, one with red hair.

    “Aww,” said Vicky, visibly slumping. “They’re not coming over here.”

    “Well, why would they?” asked Amy pragmatically. “You told Zach his powers shouldn’t work that way about one second after you met him. They’ve clearly met other people in Arcadia who don’t try to tell them how to use your powers. Good luck to them.” Idly, she wondered exactly how much money Zach had earned from executing the Nine in the way he did. It had to be quite a bit, by now.

    It was as though Amy’s words were sliding off Vicky’s force field like raindrops. “Well, if they’re not gonna come over here, we can go over there. C’mon, Ames.” Standing up, she grabbed her tray.

    “Vicky! Seriously, what the hell’s wrong with you?” But by now, Amy thought she knew. Vicky enjoyed her status as the local Alexandria package. Others could fly, but she was the only one who could fly and tank a big hit and deliver a smackdown in return. Zach could apparently fly and he could definitely deliver a big hit from a lot farther away than Vicky could ever consider throwing something, so all that remained was seeing how tough he was.

    Amy just hoped her sister wasn’t about to haul off and punch the guy for no good reason. Vicky had always had a little bit of a temper, and when she got ticked off and there was nobody around to rein her in, she broke … people. Five times now, Vicky had called her in to deal with someone who might otherwise die or at least be seriously hospitalised, all because her temper had gotten the better of her. With a sigh, Amy grabbed her own tray. May as well stay close and try to defuse the situation if it looks like getting out of hand.

    As she got there, Vicky was just plonking herself down next to Zach and Taylor, opposite the redheaded boy. “Hi there,” Vicky purred.

    “Hello, Glory Girl,” Zach said with exactly the same amount of enthusiasm as he had when he’d first met them. “Hello, Panacea. Are you having a good day?”

    “As good as it gets, I suppose,” Amy replied, a little amused. “How are you finding Arcadia?”

    Zach smiled. “I am finding it quite pleasant. All of the people are being nice to Taylor, and I am learning things. What do you think, Taylor?”

    Taylor made a noise of mild aggravation. “I’m thinking that I was so distracted by everyone being nice that I’d forgotten that you’ve actually got to line up in the cafeteria. Sorry guys; we’re going to have to get up and go stand in line for awhile.”

    “It is alright, Taylor,” Zach said, standing up. “I will get the food for both of us.”

    Amy saw an odd expression pass briefly over the girl’s face. “Well, okay,” she said. “If you really want to.” She dug in her pocket for her purse.

    “You know that I do not offer to do these things if I do not want to.” Zach’s assurance was about as rock-solid as anything Amy had ever heard.

    “Well, that’s true,” murmured Taylor. She handed Zach some money. “Could you please get me—”

    Zach flickered. He now had an overloaded tray in his hands. No; two trays. Dropping the bottom one off in front of Taylor, he passed items over onto it. “One banana, one pita wrap, one orange juice. Is this what you were going to ask me for, Taylor?”

    Amy’s jaw dropped. She’d seen him run into the school with Taylor, but to infiltrate the lunch line and get two trays’ worth of food in less time than it took to blink was a whole new level of speed.

    To top it all off, Taylor didn’t even seem surprised. In fact, she sighed slightly. “You asked your sister what I was going to order, didn’t you?”

    “Yes, Taylor, I did.” Zach seemed very pleased with himself. He placed some coins on the tray, then sat down. “Here is your change. I did see other food that Winslow does not serve while I was at the counter but I did not know if you would like it, so I did not get it.”

    “Okay, next time I go through the line.” Taylor picked up the pita wrap. “Thank you, Zach. I do appreciate this.”

    “You are very welcome, Taylor.”

    “Wait, how did—” Vicky seemed to be having trouble assembling sentences. “That was—I can’t—how fast can you move?

    Zach looked her dead in the eye as Taylor took a bite from the pita wrap. “How fast do you need me to be able to move, Glory Girl?”

    “That’s not how it works. That’s not how it works at all.”

    “Wow, this is a good wrap,” Taylor said, giving the food an appraising glance. Then she looked over at Vicky. “Actually, when it comes to Zach, that does seem to be the way it works. He can do what he needs to do.”

    “Powers don’t work that way,” Vicky maintained stubbornly. “You get what you get, and there are always limits. If you could just do what you needed, without worrying about where it’s coming from, the cape scene would be a lot more chaotic.”

    “I guess most powers probably don’t work that way.” Taylor opened her orange juice and took a sip. “But Zach’s do. I’ve seen him do things that would make your hair go curlier than Panacea’s.”

    Amy considered her own frizzy locks, then compared them to Vicky’s wavy blonde hair. “Such as?” she asked, beating her sister only by a second or so. She was really enjoying this conversation, she realized. Normally, Vicky dominated whatever table she was sitting at. But Zach and Taylor between them were comfortably holding their own.

    Taylor took another bite of her wrap, then washed it down with orange juice. “Zach doesn’t boast. It’s not his way. But I was right there when he threw a PRT van fifteen hundred miles and wiped out the Nine. He also ran nine blocks, carrying me, in less time than it took me to say the word ‘fast’. And oh yeah, he took Miss Militia’s weapon away from her and didn’t give it back until she asked nicely.”

    “Don’t forget how he bi—uh, pimp-slapped Assault so hard he landed in Boston,” Dennis put in unexpectedly. “That was on the news, too.”

    “Thanks, Dennis,” Taylor said with a smile. “I’d almost forgotten that.”

    It wasn’t often Amy got to see Vicky at a loss. She loved her sister dearly (perhaps too dearly) but it was highly amusing to watch her try to regain her conversational footing. Amy could almost see the steam leaking out her ears.

    “You can’t just take Miss Militia’s weapon away from her!” Vicky said accusingly. “It’s her power!”

    Taylor smirked slightly. “Funny, that’s almost exactly what she said, too.”

    Vicky looked from Taylor to Zach, and Amy saw her expression firm up. “Okay, fine, smart boy. How strong are you?”

    “I am very strong, Glory Girl,” Zach said simply. “My brothers and my sister are all strong, and so I am as well.”

    Which reminded Amy of Taylor’s mention of Zach’s sister earlier. She wondered what the reference to ‘you asked your sister’ actually meant. Taylor had already mentioned that the rest of Zach’s family was at least as powerful as him; Amy wondered why she hadn’t heard of them if Zach was so free with his powers.

    “Yeah, right,” snorted Vicky. “You wanna prove it? Let’s arm-wrestle, right here and right now.”

    “Uh, I don’t think that’s a great idea—” Dennis began.

    He stopped talking as Vicky whipped her head around to glare at him. “Did I ask for your opinion? No? Then sit back and watch the master at work.”

    Amy cleared her throat. “Uh, Vicky, you might actually break the table like you did with Uncle Neil that one time.”

    “Do not worry, Panacea,” Zach said in that same upbeat tone he used almost all the time. “She will not break the table. I will make sure of that.” He pushed his tray aside.

    Amy turned to Taylor, who had just finished off her pita wrap with every indication of enjoyment. “This is a bad idea. You can see that, right? Why aren’t you saying anything?”

    “Hey, whoever wants to take Zach on deserves whatever they get,” Taylor said serenely, picking up her banana and beginning to peel it. “If he says the table won’t break, it won’t break.”

    Seeing her so calm eased Amy’s worries a little. Not much, but a little. “Uh, Vicky, you know you can sometimes go over the top just a bit …”

    “I do not, Ames.” Vicky’s tone was positively snappish. “Now butt out. I’m working, here.”

    She arranged herself across the corner from Zach, elbow firmly on the table, and held up her hand challengingly. Zach moved around so that he was in the correct position, placed his elbow next to hers, and they clasped hands. “Ready to get your ass whooped?” she asked.

    “I am ready for this contest,” Zach replied with a smile. “Taylor?”

    With a total lack of excitement, Taylor said, “Three, two, one, go.” Then she took a bite out of her banana.

    Immediately, Amy saw Vicky throw her all into pushing Zach’s arm over. Vicky’s hand clenched so hard the tendons showed, every muscle in her forearm went into high definition, and a light sheen of sweat sprang out on her forehead.

    Zach’s hand moved maybe an inch.

    The table quivered, and Amy prepared to leap out of the way of flying shards of plastic. But nothing more happened. Zach seemed to flex slightly and regained half an inch of ground.

    “Panacea, I asked you earlier about dangers to your emotional well-being.” Zach’s tone was as casual and light as if they were strolling down the Boardwalk together. “Your happiness is important to your health and well-being. Are you truly happy where you are?”

    “Stop … talking … to … my … sister … and … arm-wrestle … me,” gritted Vicky. She threw another titanic effort into the contest, and managed to budge Zach’s hand an inch or so. The table quivered again. Amy saw ripples in a plastic bottle of water on a nearby table.

    “Glory Girl, do you not care about Panacea’s emotional health?” asked Zach. His muscles didn’t even seem to be straining, but he eased Vicky’s hand back to near vertical again. “She is your sister, and she is under a lot of stress.”

    “You’re … trying … to … put … me … off … my … game,” snarled Vicky. Her lips were pressed tightly against her teeth. “It’s … not … gonna … work.” Where her hand was clenched around Zach’s, her knuckles were white.

    “I am not attempting to put you off your game.” Zach wasn’t even breathing hard yet. “I am merely conversing with your sister while we undertake this contest. Are you enjoying the contest?”

    Already, Amy could see the writing on the wall. “Vicky, give it up,” she advised. “You’re not gonna win this one. And Zach … yeah, I guess my emotional well-being could do with a shot in the arm.” She didn’t even know why she was saying that, opening up to a near-complete stranger, but it seemed the right thing to do.

    Vicky’s only reply was a grunt of effort. The table quivered again but held.

    “Tell me, Panacea,” Zach said. “Would you be happier if you could choose not to be Panacea?”

    Amy’s attention was suddenly focused more tightly than one of Crystal’s lasers. “What do you mean?” she asked tautly. “Just stop … healing people?” She couldn’t imagine it. Healing people was part of her life. By now, it was part of her identity. She was Panacea; Panacea was her.

    “Don’t be … stupid,” panted Vicky, throwing another tremendous effort into moving Zach’s arm. This time, she managed to budge it all of two inches. “Ames is … happy … as a … hero. It’s what … she does.”

    Zach looked at Amy, and she could almost feel those brilliant green eyes boring into her soul. Certainly looking deeper into her than anyone had before. She felt herself starting to blush. “Are you happy, though, Amelia Claire? Is this what you really want to do?”

    This was the first time he’d called her something other than ‘Panacea’, and it took a moment to notice the name he’d actually used. “What?” she asked, even as a deeply buried memory pinged. “What did you call me?”

    “I called you by your name, Amelia Claire.” Zach looked at Taylor. “Do you believe this contest has gone on long enough?”

    Taylor had finished her banana and was sipping at her orange juice. With an off-hand gesture, she nodded. “Sure, go ahead.”

    “Alright, Taylor.” Zach looked Vicky in the eye. “You are very strong, and you are a hero, so I will be careful not to hurt your arm.” Then, as inexorably as the passage of time, he moved his arm over, pressing hers down toward the table. The quivering of the table grew stronger, and Amy heard other tables shaking and juddering on the cafeteria tiles. On Vicky’s face, the look of determination gave way to one of complete disbelief as her every effort was nullified. The sound of her knuckles hitting the table was audible in the relative silence.

    “Thank you, Glory Girl,” Zach said brightly as he released her hand. “Thank you, Panacea, for the conversation. Perhaps we will speak again tomorrow?”

    Amy nodded. She was intrigued about where the talk had been going, and definitely wanted to see it all the way through. “You know, I think we will.” She looked at Vicky, who was shaking her hand out while glaring at Zach. “Are you okay?”

    “What the hell was that?” demanded Vicky. “How did you do that?”

    “Well, it’s like this,” drawled Taylor, her face alight with secret amusement. “There’s always a bigger fish. You wouldn’t expect to win an arm-wrestling contest against Behemoth, would you?”

    “Well, no,” muttered Vicky. “But that’s because he’s Behemoth.”

    “And there’s people who aren’t as strong as Behemoth but stronger than you.” Taylor shrugged. “Zach’s one of them.”

    “I still think he cheated,” groused Vicky.

    “Like you weren’t using your super-strength,” retorted Amy; in return, Vicky poked her tongue out at her.

    “Wait a minute,” said Dennis, looking around. “Glory Girl arm-wrestling someone in the cafeteria should’ve had half the lunch crowd gathered around the table, making bets. What gives?”

    A moment later, Amy realized he was right. People were still sitting, chatting, eating their lunches. This should’ve been a huge deal, and nobody even seemed to have noticed. “You’re right. Okay, what’s going on here?”

    Zach shrugged expressively. “Perhaps they realized this was a private contest, and decided not to bother us?”

    “I suppose.” Looking around at the rest of the people in the cafeteria, Amy figured it was as good an explanation as any. Also, once Vicky got over smarting at her loss, she would be able to take some consolation in the fact that nobody had seen her beaten so easily. Amy put out her hand. “It was nice to meet you. See you around.”

    “It was also very pleasant to meet you too, Amelia.” And there he was, using her name again.

    He shook her hand almost formally, and she got a look at his biology. Just for a split second, her power stuttered, trying to get a read on him, then it all stabilized. He was perfectly normal for a cape, even if she couldn’t locate his corona pollentia at first. She’d read that sometimes they were hard to find, though this was the first time she’d had that particular problem.

    “Thanks. See you guys tomorrow?” Amy made sure to include Taylor and Dennis in her question.

    “Sure,” said Taylor with a grin. “I’m not used to eating lunch in the cafeteria, but I’m sure I’ll manage.”

    Amy wasn’t quite sure how to take that one, but she figured she’d find out tomorrow. “Come on, Vicky,” she said as she got up from the table. “It’s nearly time to go back to class and I want to hit the restroom.”

    “Coming,” her sister grumbled. She followed Amy out of the cafeteria, still massaging her wrist.

    “Want me to look at that?” asked Amy.

    “No, I’m fine.” Vicky flicked a glare back over her shoulder. “I still don’t know how he did that.”

    Amy shrugged. It didn’t hold any particular mystery for her. “Maybe he’s just stronger than you thought he was?”

    “Not that,” Vicky growled. “I tried to flare my aura halfway through to put him off his game, and …”

    “What?” asked Amy. “What happened?”

    “Nothing.” Vicky gritted her teeth. “It was like he didn’t notice, Taylor didn’t notice, Dennis didn’t notice, you didn’t notice …”

    “I’m immune, remember?” But Amy knew that wasn’t quite true. She could still feel the aura; it just didn’t affect her like it did everyone else. If Vicky had tried to use her aura and she didn’t feel it, that meant Zach must have shut it down altogether.

    Which was quite impressive, to say the least. Zach seemed like a man of many talents. She found herself looking forward to their next conversation …

    … even if Vicky wasn’t.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    As we headed back to class ourselves (Zach taking a lightning detour to my desk to grab my World Affairs book and writing materials) I looked at him with a calculating gaze. “Okay, so what was that all about?” I asked. “And don’t bother asking me what I mean. You know what I mean.”

    Zach nodded. “You are asking why I provoked Glory Girl into a contest of strength that she would inevitably lose, and why I kept everyone around from noticing that anything of interest was going on?”

    “And the Panacea thing. Why did you address her by name? And is her middle name really Claire?”

    “Yes, Taylor, it is.” He smiled. “I did all that because both Victoria and Amelia Dallon are potential dangers to your physical and emotional well-being. Amelia is under a considerable amount of stress, not helped by her sister failing to see any of it. So I set up a situation where I could teach Glory Girl a little humility without harming her or anyone else. At the same time, I spoke to Amelia about what she truly wanted out of life. This is because nobody else will. Everybody assumes they already know.”

    With that, the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place for me. “And you made sure nobody around us saw or anything out of the ordinary, so that she would open up to you.”

    “That is correct, Taylor.” He beamed at me, clearly pleased. “Thank you for not speaking up at the time.”

    “That’s okay. I figured you had a reason.” I tilted my head as something occurred to me. “And Dennis? Was he there to, well, witness the whole thing?” I was sure that he’d be spreading it around the Wards as soon as he went on duty. Possibly with embellishments.

    “Actually, no.” Zach shrugged. “Unless my sister had a hand in it, his presence there was purely fortuitous. Sometimes, accidents just happen.”

    I grabbed his arm—the one not carrying my books—and hugged it to my side. “Not around you, they don’t.”

    “Not very often, no,” he agreed cheerfully.

    Side by side, we went to class.



    End of Part Eleven
     
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  24. Anti-No

    Anti-No Versed in the lewd.

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    Nothing to see here! Everything is tooootally normal! Yep!

    Hmm. What do you call escalating normality, anyway?
     
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  25. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    NORMALITY INTENSIFIES.
     
  26. Amdar210

    Amdar210 Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    He's just HALPING the normality.
     
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  27. The_Motarp

    The_Motarp On the other side of the screen.

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    I gotta say, the idea of an emotional support endbringer hit all my funny bones.
     
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