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  • Аннотация:
    Тейлор умерла в шкафчике. По своей вине Мэдисон вместо этого стригерила и стала супергероем, чтобы исправить свои ошибки. Original source:

  Arc 1: Liability
  Arc 2: Rise
  Arc 3: Institution
  Arc 4: Foundation
  Arc 5: Escalation
  Arc 6: Prey
  Arc 7: Choices
  Arc 8: Being
  Arc 9: Evolution
  Arc 10: Trials
  Arc 11: Conspiracy
  Arc 12: Mission
  Arc 13: Lost
  Arc 14: Chicanery
  Arc 15: Reconstruction
  Arc 16: Struggle
  Arc 17: Ordeal
  Arc 18: Respite
  Arc 19: Surge
  Arc 20: Search
  Arc 21: Warfare
  Arc 22: Triumph
  Arc 23: Ameliorate
  Arc 24: Retribution
  Arc 25: Temper
  Arc 26: Interim
  Arc 27: Stand
  Arc 28: Reunions
  Arc 29: Visitations
  Arc 30: Stolen
  Arc 31: Travelers
  Arc 32: Quest
  Arc 33: Breathe
  Arc 34: Origin
  Arc 35: Dawn
  next chapterchapter list
  Arc 1: Liability
  "She's dead."
  The words felt alien, wrong somehow even as I spoke them. Two words. That was all it took. That wasn't right. There had to be more to it. A human life was gone. Gone. It was never coming back. She was never coming back. It had to take more than two words to erase someone's life.
  Why wasn't that a rule? Why wasn't there a rule somewhere that said that when someone died, you had to use more than two words to express that fact? There just... there had to be more to it. There had to be. People died, and everyone else just... kept going. The world turned, the sun went up and down, and everything kept going.
  I felt something vile rise in the back of my throat, burning a bit as I closed my hand over my mouth. I turned my head to cough sharply, feeling the stinging tears at my own eyes. God. Oh god, please. Please don't let this be real. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean any of it. I'll take it back. I'll do something better this time. Fix it. Please fix it.
  My eyes closed tightly as I prayed to no particular deity. Please. Please.
  "What did we do...?" I moaned in horror as the scenes in question played back in my own memory against closed eyelids.
  Instantly, I felt a sharp pain in my cheek as I was slapped, hard. Before I could fall, a strong grip took hold of my collar, and I was shoved back against the wall with enough force to almost knock the wind out of me.
  My eyes opened, and I found Sophia's enraged, unhinged glare directed at me. She was holding my collar so tightly I could barely breathe. Beyond her, I saw Emma staring with wide, pleading eyes that were still damp from the tears that I knew she kept shedding.
  "Nothing." Sophia growled out the word, squeezing tighter for further emphasis. "We did nothing. It's not our fault the bitch couldn't take a few jokes. Not our fault she was too much of a wimp, a loser, to even stand up for herself. That's all she had to do. Just once. Just fucking once!" She shouted the last word, looking even more angry now, so furious that I didn't dare move. "All Hebert had to do was fight back, one fucking time. That's all I wanted. I wanted her to prove she deserved to live. She didn't. She fucking didn't, and that's not our god damn fault. It's not my god damn fault, and I'm not fucking going to suffer for it."
  I stared, disbelieving. "She's dead." I managed again. "Taylor's dead, because we-"
  The blow sent me to the ground, sending dark spots dancing through my vision before Sophia took hold of my hair and yanked hard. She ignored Emma shouting her name, and yanked harder. I thought my hair was going to tear away from my scalp.
  "I said, we did nothing!" The shout came against my ear, and I felt Sophia's other hand catch my wrist, pinning it up against my back and twisting just enough to send a spasm of pain through it.
  "I don't care how cute you think you are, Madison." Sophia's voice had quieted, but was no less angry or dangerous. "If you push me on this, I will win. Because I'm stronger than you, I'm smarter than you, and I'm better than you."
  Her breath was hot against my ear. "Like I said, I'm not going to suffer just because poor little Taylor Hebert has a fucking heart attack from some stupid locker prank. A heart attack? What teenager has a fucking heart attack? She died because she wasn't fit, because she was a loser, a fucking pathetic little shit who can't take a joke. She just sat there with those stupid, pathetic mopey ass eyes instead of doing something about it. She was prey. That's why she died, because her own body knew she was too weak to live."
  "I'm not going down for that." She continued, giving my hair an extra twist. "She was prey, but I'm a predator. She was a loser, I'm a winner. So push me on this, push me just a little bit more, and we'll see how strong you are. We'll see if you last any longer than she did."
  "Let her go, Soph." Emma was there next to us, her voice pleading, desperate. "Just let her go. She's not going to talk to anyone, are you, Maddy? No one's going to say anything."
  Sophia released me, and I fell to my knees, flinching as my body assessed the pain she had doled out over those few moments.
  "That right, Madison?" The girl, whose psychotic tendencies I was only beginning to understand despite being around her for so long, pressed. "Your mouth stays shut, and nobody finds out we had anything to do with that fucking freak's heart attack. Got it?"
  I looked up, and saw Emma's pleading look. She just wanted this to go away, even if that meant ignoring it. I knew she was upset about Taylor. She'd have to be. Even after everything... everything we did to Taylor, I knew that she and Emma had been friends at one point.
  She'd just considered Sophia to be a friend worth not only dropping her former friend for, but worth turning against completely. Worth attacking, shaming, humiliating, even torturing.
  Worth killing? Because I held no illusions on that front. Taylor was dead because of us. Because we pushed her too far. She was dead, and it was our fault, whatever psychotic justification Sophia spat out.
  I took a breath, then let it out. The pain in my scalp was distracting. "They'll investigate." I said flatly.
  "They won't find anything." Sophia replied, rather smugly, I thought. "And even if they did... well, they'll pretend they didn't."
  That made me frown. "What... why...?"
  "Sophia," Emma's voice held a warning tone. "Don't."
  In response, Sophia turned to stare at the other girl. Whatever expression she had, it made Emma shrink back, averting her gaze with a fearful look. The message had been clear. Sophia wouldn't hesitate to turn her crazy against Emma as well if she felt threatened.
  Then she focused on me once again, the dark skin of her hand passing back and forth in front of my face. "You watching this, Mads? Because this might be the most important demonstration of your life."
  As I stared, afraid to look away, Sophia's body turned wispy and indistinct. Before my eyes, she took a step sideways, passing right through the wall before emerging again. The look on her face now was predatory, mixed with something like pride. She enjoyed showing off, and she was enjoying the look of shock on my face.
  "You- y-you're... you're a... you're a..." I couldn't say it. "You're a cape. You're a villain."
  To that, Sophia tilted her head back and laughed out loud. It was brief, and then her face was suddenly bare inches from mine, her hand gripping my hair once more.
  "No, Madison." She said in a low, dangerous voice. "I'm a hero. I'm Shadow Stalker."
  A cold chill ran through me, and I whispered, "But she's with the Wards."
  "That's right." Sophia nodded, before leaning even closer, so that our noses were touching. "That's why nothing is going to happen to me. You say a single word about this, and it won't be just me shutting you up, it'll be the Protectorate. You think they'll let something like this get out? They'll bury it deeper than Taylor's being buried."
  "If they need to, they'll bury you too." Sophia's words had turned to a whisper that sent a shudder through me and drew an involuntary whimper. "My word versus yours, Maddy. Best case scenario, best case, you take the full heat. You want to be some kind of martyr or something, be my guest. But you go down alone. You bring me up, and you better pray the Protectorate gets to you first."
  "Because if they don't, if I think you're a threat, then Taylor won't be the only student with a memorial in the hall at school."
  Sophia straightened, her expression turning back to the welcoming smile that I was more familiar with. "Or we can just keep being friends." She said easily, extending her hand to me. "You want that, right, Mads? You want to be friends with me."
  I stared at her. The threatening, psychotic look was gone. She looked normal, not the slightest bit unhinged. She even looked a little bit amused at the entire affair, like everything was just one big joke, like it wasn't a big deal.
  "You're crazy." I said, not realizing I'd spoken aloud until Emma's eyes widened in alarm.
  The blows came rapidly, one after another. One hit my face and knocked my head to the side, and then I felt another two blows against my chest and stomach, doubling me over. A blinding pain hit my leg and dumped me to the ground, followed by two hard and violent kicks to my stomach that made me throw up what very little I'd been able to eat since hearing the news that morning.
  I curled into a ball, taking two more kicks against my arms before the attack stopped. It took me a moment before I risked opening my eyes.
  Emma was leading Sophia away, tugging her out of my otherwise empty house, where we had met up to talk this out after the news of Taylor's death had spread through the school.
  Sophia let herself be led, smiling mockingly back at my crumpled form. "Just remember, Mads, you had a choice. You chose this. I tried to help you. I tried to make you better. This, what comes next, it's your fault."
  Then they were both gone, and I let my head slump once more, falling limp against the floor of my family's dining room as I felt a bit of blood trickle from my nose.
  Sophia had said one thing that I agreed with, after a fashion. This was, in some ways, my fault. It was at least partly my fault that Taylor was dead.
  My fault.
  My fault.
  My eyes closed, and what I saw, I forgot immediately. But the effects of what I had seen, the effects of that trigger event, changed everything in my life, forever.
  I must have zoned out, because the next thing I knew, the door was slamming shut. I jumped, startled, as my older brother came stomping through the house. I knew it was Trevor, because he was the only one that stomped like that. He hated his college classes, and he hated the job that he went to after those classes even more. Hence the stomping.
  Trevor stormed right past the dining room without looking inside, which was probably a good thing considering I didn't feel like trying to explain why I looked the way I probably did.
  With that thought in mind, I picked myself up and turned to find the mirror on the wall. I moved closer to examine myself, wincing at both the hollow, terrified expression that stared back at me, as well as my bloody nose and bruises.
  Gingerly touching my cheek, I closed my eyes and tried not to whimper. What was I going to do? What could I do, even? Sophia was a member of the Wards. She was a cape, a hero even. They'd never take my word for it, and Emma had made it clear that while she obviously felt horrible, she wasn't willing to turn against Sophia. We had both made our bed, and Emma was willing to lay in it. Or she was just too afraid not to.
  Fuck. It should be Emma that felt this way. Taylor had been her friend in the first place. She should be the one so racked by guilt she felt like throwing up again. She should be here, not out with Sophia.
  Sophia. Even the thought of her made me shudder. I'd known, intellectually, that she was a sociopath. But somehow when it had been directed (mostly) at Taylor, who never fought back, it had been easy to ignore. Bad stuff was always easier to dismiss when it wasn't directed at you.
  But now... I put my hands over my face gingerly and shuddered. Now everything was wrong. Taylor was dead. She wasn't supposed to die. Why did she have to die? Why did I have to feel like this?
  I hadn't known just how crazy Sophia was. I hadn't known just how close to the edge Taylor was, or that the stupid locker prank would... would kill her.
  I didn't know. I felt like screaming that at the top of my lungs, annoyed brother be damned. I didn't know!
  There were consequences to my actions, and I had ignored them. I had dismissed them. And now, ignoring the consequences was coming back to haunt me.
  The whole time that I'd stood there, I'd felt an odd little itch almost directly behind my eyes. I squeezed them shut, then open, then shut again. When I opened them the third time, I jumped a little at the sight of a hazy, indistinct line going from the middle of the mirror, past my face, and off behind me.
  Turning, my eyes followed the nearly transparent line from the mirror to one of the dining room chairs. Frowning, I hesitantly lifted a hand to brush at the line, only to have my fingers go right through as though it wasn't really there.
  Yet, I could somehow feel the line. Not with my hand, but with... some other sense. I could feel the connection between the mirror and the chair as the line remained taut between them.
  What... what was going on? Confused, I imagined my sense traveling up and down the line, then gave a slight tug at the end with the chair.
  The effect was instantaneous. The chair leapt off the floor and hurled straight down the line that connected it to the other object. Eyes widening, I let out a yelp of surprise and hit the floor, just in time for the chair to hurtle over my head and slam into the mirror with a terrifying crash that sent glass shards flying.
  By the time that I had picked myself off the floor, Trevor had come galloping back down the stairs and slammed his way into the kitchen, one hand holding his old Little League baseball bat from several years earlier. His eyes were wide and wild as he gazed around the room before locking on me. "Madison," He asked in clear disbelief. "What the fuck happened? What did you do?"
  I looked at the shattered glass on the floor, surrounding the broken chair. "I... I... it was an accident." Truth.
  "An accident." He echoed, staring at me, then at the mess. "What the hell? How- no, you know what, I don't give a shit.. I'm not cleaning it up, and I'm not explaining it. That's your job. You get to tell mom and dad why you did... all this." He gestured around with the bat, then left the room with one last remark over his shoulder. "Maybe they'll finally figure out that you're not the cute little innocent girl you pretend to be."
  His words made me flinch, where a week ago I would have ignored him. Sighing, I turned back to look at the room once more.
  The line was back. This time it stretched between one of mom's paintings, and the glass centerpiece on the table. "Oh no, no no no." I reached out with that invisible sense once more, testing the line but not pulling on it. I was so intent on making sure that the centerpiece wasn't pulled by the line, that the next thing I knew, it was being pushed back along the same line, increasing the distance between it and the painting rather than shrinking it as the line between the chair and the mirror had.
  Lunging with an arm outstretched as the centerpiece was shoved off the side of the dining room table, I cried out in desperate alarm. Mom loved that little glass thing almost as much as she loved her kids.
  In response to my alarm, the push on the line reversed and instantly began to pull instead. The centerpiece stopped falling, and went flying into the air toward the painting instead. I barely managed to put myself in its path, catching it against my chest with a grunt.
  Carefully, I set the glass down, looked around the room once more, and then fled the room before something else could happen. I had to get out of there, and figure out what the hell was happening to me.
  Walking quickly down the street, I kept looking around. The near-transparent lines kept following me, jumping between any two given objects seemingly at random. I just ignored them as best as I could, trying not to think about what would happen if the line connected between a couple of cars and I let it pull them together.
  Harder to ignore was the other line. I hadn't noticed it in the house, but once I walked outside, there was a pale pink line going straight from the middle of my stomach and off into various people that I passed.
  The postman was the first one that I noticed it on. The pink line connected the two of us and then just sat there. I felt nothing through it and kept walking. A few steps later it jumped to attach itself to Mrs. DeCampes walking her dog, and again I felt nothing.
  Then the line jumped once again, as a blue sedan passed me on the street. I saw the line attach itself to the driver, and the pink color turned slightly darker, to a very faint red. This time, when I started to walk on, I felt a weak, yet noticeable tug back the other way.
  Turning, I watched as the sedan pulled away, and the light red line grew tighter, still giving that faint tug. I could ignore it, but the feeling confused me. Not to mention the fear that came with the thought that the pinkish red line might do what the other line could do and somehow yank that car right at me.
  Instead, the faint red line let itself be spooled out, stretching further and further as the car got further away.
  Then, as the sedan began to turn at the corner on the end of our street, another car went right through the stop sign, failed to stop in time, and crashed into the rear right bumper. The red line vanished, and I stared in shock as the two drivers slowly got out of their vehicles and began to yell at each other.
  I must have stood there on the sidewalk staring for five minutes before I tore myself away, turning to run in the opposite direction. Every step I took, the transparent line kept attaching itself to various objects, while the pale pink line kept one end attached to me and the other jumped from person to person. Sometimes it was so lightly colored pink that it was almost as invisible as the other line, while other times it grew slightly darker and I would feel that faint tug.
  I was passing a rundown gas station that had been closed forever, when the pale pink line abruptly latched on to a tall figure with a large duffel bag loitering outside of the boarded up building. The line went from pink to a very dark red, and solidified so much that I almost couldn't take another step away. The line was so tight, so strong, that taking one step away was like pulling against a physical cord that didn't want to stretch any further. I could move away, but it was physically tiring to do so.
  Remembering the faint red line that had led to the car crash, I stared at this dark red one hesitantly. What did it mean? How dangerous, how bad was a situation that went from no tug, to an almost irresistible one?
  The loitering man gave one last look around, ignoring me, before turning and walking into the abandoned gas station. The line tugged me along with him, and I let it, following along across the parking lot.
  When I reached the entrance, the door wasn't quite closed all the way. Hearing voices inside, I moved closer and listened.
  "So you got the product or not?" A loud, annoyed voice demanded, making me jump as it echoed through the obviously empty building.
  "It's right here." A voice replied from right near the door, clearly the man I had been connected to. "Lemme see the cash first."
  "Nah. Product first, then cash." The first voice responded smugly. "That's how Skidmark does things." There was a slight pause, followed by, "Unless you'd like me to call him up and see if he wants to change things just for you."
  The man near the door replied quickly, nervousness evident in his voice. "No no no, that's fine. Just... here, look. Everything you ordered." I heard the duffel bag unzip, and something inside was jostled around as though the man was shoving his hand through it to indicate to the other man what was there.
  "Cool." The first voice said approvingly. Then I heard a distinctive clicking noise that anyone who had seen any movie with guns involved could recognize.
  "What the- hey!" The man by the door sounded even closer, as though he had taken a step back toward the door. "What the hell, man?!"
  The first man gave a low chuckle. "You think we're stupid? You think Skidmark got to be leader of the Merchants because he's a fucking retard? You've been talking to that cop lady, Detective Rodriguez."
  I could feel and hear the other man edging closer to the door. "N-no way, man. No way I'd talk to no cop." There was a pause, and the first man must have done something with the gun, because the man that my line had attached itself to gave a sharp cry of fear. "Okay, okay, okay! I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry! It's my girl. She's pregnant, man. I'm gonna be a dad. I'm gonna be a dad. I can't be doing this. I just wanted out."
  The first man's voice was hard and cold. "Shoulda trusted us."
  That red line turned even darker, almost black, and I felt bile in my throat once more before jumping through the doorway with a shout. "Stop it!"
  Both of the men were taken by surprise by my sudden appearance, and the influx of light in the otherwise dark room as the door was slammed open briefly blinded them. I heard a gunshot as the first man reflexively pulled the trigger, but his aim had been thrown off by his surprise.
  The gun was coming up again, pointed in my direction. I saw the transparent line attach itself to one end of the pistol and then to an abandoned crate in the corner.
  I reached out with the sense that ran along that line. Anchoring the crate where it was, I pulled at the end of the line that was attached to the pistol. It instantly leapt from the man's hand, slamming into the crate with so much force the plastic container was cracked.
  "Fuck!" The man who had been disarmed shouted. He started to come at me, and I quickly recoiled, terrified. My blind desperation for the man to get away from me sent the tether toward the back of the man's belt, while the other end connected to the far wall. I tugged on the end attached to the man's belt, and he went flying backwards barely a second before he would have reached me.
  Something hit me from the side, sending me crashing to the floor. It was the man I had followed in here. He shoved me out of the way, ignoring my fall as he ran straight out the door and fled for his life. The dark red line that had connected us was as pale as any of the others that I had passed before, now that he was out of immediate danger.
  When I looked up to the other side of the room, the other man was scrambling out a nearby broken window, apparently deciding that this wasn't worth continuing.
  Left alone in the abandoned gas station, I let my head slump back toward the floor and closed my eyes to take this in.
  I had powers. Strange powers. The first was fairly easy to understand. I could connect any two objects and either pull one toward the other (or both together maybe?) or push them apart along the same line.
  On the other hand, there was that second line that kept connecting me to other people. It seemed to have little to no effect as long as they were safe, but the more immediate danger the person it connected to was in, the more it pulled me toward them. It was like a danger sense related to others, rather than myself.
  Powers. That's what they were. I had powers.
  As I lay there on the dirty ground, still bruised from earlier, I closed my eyes and muttered three words under my breath, the three words that meant nothing at this point, and yet also meant everything.
  "I'm sorry, Taylor."
  Over the next several months, I gained a firsthand knowledge of just what kind of hell I had helped put Taylor through. With the loss of her favorite target, and my refusal to go back to the way things were, Sophia had decided that I made an adequate replacement. Emma remained too much of a coward to make more than a halfhearted protest before gleefully joining in with any idea that the crazy bitch put forth.
  From nasty remarks made whenever their hangers-on passed by, to stuff being 'accidentally' spilled over me or my stuff, to being all but openly attacked in gym class under the guise of one sport or another, and more, Sophia made her point perfectly clear. This was the tame stuff. If I screwed her over by going to the authorities, she'd retaliate.
  It wasn't just Emma either. All of the friends that I'd thought I'd had abandoned me. Given the choice to either stick up for the person who had been the number three girl in the top clique in our grade, or kick me to the curb and vie for that spot themselves, the decision they made wasn't exactly surprising.
  Through it all, I suppressed the urge to use my new powers in class. I wanted nothing, absolutely nothing, tying those powers to me. Besides, a not insubstantial part of me felt like I deserved it. I'd not only done nothing to stop the bullying that had ended with Taylor's death, I'd perpetuated it. I'd had fucking fun . So no, I didn't deserve to speak up and make them stop now that they were directing it toward me.
  So that was school. All of my time other than that over the last months had been directed toward practicing with these new powers so that I could understand them, and toward preparing to use them to help people.
  That was something I had to do. After what I'd done, what I'd helped cause, what I'd contributed to, I had to use the power that I'd been given to help people. Not only because my power literally directed me toward people who were in danger of being killed, but because Taylor's death was at least partly my fault. The red line gave me the opportunity to save people. The motivation was buried deep inside, where it woke me every morning and kept me awake long after I had laid down at night. It drove me to practice with my power, ignore the things that Sophia and Emma, my former best friends, did, and to prepare to actually show myself to the city at large.
  April had arrived before I felt like I was ready. Finally, I stood in my bedroom, staring down at the outfit I had put together over the last dozen weeks.
  My costume was simple. It consisted of flame-retardant ACU (army combat uniform) pants in urban camo, a pair of black steel toe hiking boots, a white turtleneck that was tucked into the pants and held tight with a wide leather belt, and a black vest that had an attached hood. At the top of the ensemble was a white balaclava mask that left my eyes exposed.
  Finally, my gloves were tight against my wrist, and I used two buckle strap wrist bands to hold them even tighter. That way, if I made one point of the line attach itself to my glove, and the other two some distant object, pulling from the object's end would yank me along, rather than just tearing my glove off.
  It wasn't going to win any awards, that much was for sure. But unless I wanted the police to know exactly and precisely who I was just from tracking suspicious (and expensive) deliveries, I had to make do with what I could get at the local thrift and military surplus stores.
  Besides, I wanted to separate my costumed self as much as possible from my 'real' self. In school, I was known for wearing cute girly clothes, with lots of pink and blue. While popular, I was not exactly what most would consider to be overtly hot. Instead, I was more... adorable and cute. In the past, I had played that up because it got me attention. Now, I kept the same habits (in spite of the belittlement about being a baby or how I should go back to middle school that it got me) so that my cape-self would never be associated with innocent, girly Madison Clements.
  It was late by the time I began to suit up, and when I left the house through my bedroom window, the whole neighborhood was dark.
  Once I was far enough away from my house, and closer to the bad side of town, by the assorted apartments and warehouses that made up most of the so-called 'docks' area, I decided that it was time to cut loose and really experiment with what this power could do. Up until then, I had been resisting overt displays so that I wouldn't get caught and questioned. Now, in costume, I felt like pushing things.
  Looking toward the far top corner of a warehouse in the distance, I extended a hand toward it. I let my line attach itself to my glove, and to the smoke stack that I could barely see the top of. For a moment, I stood that way, closed my eyes to murmur a prayer, and then tugged from the smokestack end of the line.
  I'd thought that I was ready. I was wrong. A panicked and utterly undignified squeal escaped me as I was torn from the ground, hurled through the air, and all but flung at the smokestack. I nearly rammed straight into the thing before managing to connect a second line to the warehouse roof and released the first one. Before I could face plant against the chimney, I tugged on the new line. Immediately, my forward momentum halted and I began to fall straight down. At the last second, I reversed the pull into a push, stopping myself from slamming into the roof of the warehouse. I adjusted the strength of the push as low as I could, so that gravity could still pull me down, but at a greatly reduced speed.
  It was with shaking legs that I finally settled on the roof, almost collapsing to my knees before catching myself. I turned to look back at where I had been standing over two blocks away. Two blocks that I had traveled in seconds.
  "That..." I said slowly to myself, eyes wide in shock. "That was..." I worked my mouth and then gave a little jump into the air with my hands high above my head. "... AWESOME! "
  Pointing both hands at the ground, I attached the lines between the roof and my gloves, and gave a hard push that shoved me a dozen feet into the air. Then I reached out a hand toward another building, attached another invisible line, and yanked myself that way.
  It was a constant balancing act between pushing and pulling, and I nearly wiped out several more times while I was getting the hang of it. I had to constantly switch between yanking myself forward to gain momentum, and pushing myself to control or mitigate that momentum, or to change directions. It helped when I belatedly realized that I could just attach my 'push off' lines to my boots to simulate a really high jump, leaving my hands free for the subsequent 'pull'.
  It was also the most pure fun I'd had in my entire life.
  So enthralled was I with experimenting, that I very nearly entirely missed the dark red line that had attached itself from my chest to some point around the corner until it yanked me unexpectedly off balance. Almost crashing into a billboard, I adjusted at the last second and looked at the red line.
  In spite of myself, I gulped uncertainly. Behind the mask, I was still squishy, confused little Madison. I was still afraid of what might happen if I got involved.
  And yet, the idea of not involving myself, and letting another person die, was so much worse. Swallowing back my fear, I pointed a glove along the same path as the red line, attached my own line to the nearest streetlight (which itself wasn't giving off any light), and let it yank me that way.
  Landing on top of the broken streetlight, I nearly slipped right off before catching myself. In the dim parking lot below me, I could see three street toughs, members of the local ABB gang if their Asian features were any indication, surrounding and looming over a smaller figure, who had fallen to the ground. The red line had attached itself to the fallen figure.
  As one of the Asian men raised his hand with a chain wrapped around it, I called out to grab his attention. "Hey!" Once all three of the men whirled and looked up, I made an exaggerated motion of confusion, raising both arms in a wide shrug. "Is this where the line for the new iPhone starts?"
  Immediately, two guns were pointed at me, and I instantly used a line attached to my boot to push off the streetlight and into the air, then reached out a hand toward the side of the nearby building and yanked myself that way. Twin shots rang out, but I was already off the lamp and hurtling over their heads. As I passed by, I attached a line to the barrel of each gun, with the other end of the lines attached to the corners of the parking lot. A swift tug hauled the pistols out of the hands of the two men who had been using them.
  Before I could crash into the side of the building, I reversed my pull line into a push line, released it once my momentum was going in the opposite direction, and then used a very light push line to give myself a swift, but relatively gentle landing.
  I faced the three gang members, one of whom still had his chain, while the other two were blinking at their empty hands. I continued as though I hadn't been interrupted by their gunfire. "To be honest, I don't get the hype, personally. I mean, it's a phone, just like the last... which version is this?"
  One of the men lunged to grab my arm, a knife in his hand. "You have any last request, funny girl?" He demanded in faintly accented English.
  "Sure." I replied easily, not bothering to shake him off or struggle. "Could you hit a high C for me?" When the man just blinked in confusion, I first attached his knife to the lamppost, and it was yanked away from him. Then I tilted my head to the side while attaching his shoes to each other. With a smile that was hidden behind my mask, I made the line push both shoes away from each other. The man's feet went out from under him, hauled out to either side as he was forced into doing the splits.
  "Thanks!" I called out after his loud, shrill shriek had filled the air, fulfilling my request.
  Unfortunately, I'd let myself get distracted. The remaining two men each grabbed an arm and began to yank me away. The one with the chain glowered, pointing a finger into my face. "You get tour of Lung's base, little girl. You will not like it." He was, sadly, smart enough to cover my face with his free hand so that I couldn't see to attach any lines.
  "A tour?" I echoed, trying to mask the sudden fear I felt when the dangerous leader of the ABB was mentioned. Lung was far out of my league.
  Apparently the semi-random tsunami of words I was hurling at the men made them pause in confusion, just long enough for me to twist my head free from the man's hand. The second I could see again, I attached the backs of the men's pants to the nearby wall, hauling them away from me so quickly that they hit the wall hard.
  Yet not quite hard enough. I had been trying to avoid killing anyone, and I must have lessened the blow too much. They were still standing, though briefly stunned. Before the pair could collect themselves, I pointed, attaching the line from the ring on one man's finger, to the nose piercing that the other man sported. A tug on the line made the man's hand lash out lightning fast to smack the second man in the face so hard he collapsed with a nose that was spraying blood.
  Keeping the line attached to the man's ring, I quickly switched the other end so that it was linked to the zipper of his pants. Subsequently, he punched himself in the groin so hard he literally started to throw up after collapsing.
  Each of the three men were all down, in various states of agony, and I finally turned my attention to the person that had gained my other power's attention. The dark red line had faded once more, and the figure was already picking themselves up off the ground.
  "Ugghn..." She groaned, shaking her head slowly before focusing my way, giving me my first glimpse at who I had saved.
  "Who the hell are you?" Shadow Stalker, Sophia demanded.
  It was all I could do not to lash out physically at the sight of Sophia in her Shadow Stalker guise. Honestly, I felt a little sick inside when I looked at her. She was a member of the Wards, a hero. She was supposed to help people, and be a beacon of hope and safety to the public. I didn't think that 'give a shit when your actions directly result in someone's death' was asking for too much.
  On the other hand, just because I had to restrain myself physically, didn't mean I had to do so vocally. Once I had recovered from the realization of who I had just saved, I immediately swept into an exaggerated bow. I deepened my voice slightly, hoping that combined with the muffling from the fabric against my mouth, and Sophia's own dismissal of helpless little Madison as prey would fully hide my identity. "No need to thank me, ma'am. Rescuing helpless damsels is part of the job."
  It took Sophia just a second to follow what I was implying. "Rescuing helpless- what the fuck?!" Her face was hidden behind the mask that had a stern woman's expression designed on the front of it, but I read enough of her body language to know that she was angry.
  That and it was Sophia, so 'angry' pretty much went with the territory.
  I held my hands up placatingly. "Careful, you've had a bit of a rough night. I know meeting a real superhero is exciting, but take it easy."
  Furious now, Sophia grabbed for the crossbow at her side. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but-"
  As the crossbow came off her belt, I extended a hand, linking the weapon to my glove and giving a pull so that the crossbow flew out of Sophia's hand and straight to my own. I turned the weapon over, making a show of examining it as I raised my voice in mock excitement. "A present, for me?! No, please, I couldn't possibly. A hero doesn't need payment to do the right thing."
  While Sophia stood, briefly shocked into silence from the force of her disbelief and anger, I tossed the crossbow aside and held my arms open as though waiting for a hug. "Shhh. I know you were scared, but I'm here now, you're safe."
  That did it. With an inarticulate cry, Sophia lunged toward me, her shape turning indistinct as she used her shadow powers. I just lifted one foot slightly, put a line between my boot and the ground, and gave a hard push to propel myself a good fifteen feet into the air so that she would pass through the empty space where I had been. Turning in the air, I used a slight pull from one of my gloves to the nearby wall before lowering the intensity of the push so that gravity would set me back down a few yards away.
  "No, no. Sorry." I made my voice sound consoling. "No autographs today."
  Spotting her crossbow nearby where I had tossed it, Sophia dove that way and snatched it up. She turned, but before either of us could do anything else, a figure flew down from the sky and landed between us.
  When he straightened and looked toward me, I recognized Aegis, the current team leader of the Brockton Bay Wards. His costume was rust red with silver-white trim and an emblem of a shield. He also wore a matching helmet that covered his face.
  "What's going on?" He asked, looking between Sophia and me.
  Holding her crossbow in one hand, Sophia gestured for Aegis to move. "Out of my way. Some smartass needs a lesson."
  The boy seemed to ignore that, turning back toward me. "You wanna tell me who you are?"
  Sophia made a motion as though to move around Aegis, and I saw the area around her distort, the street and building beyond where she was standing seeming to scrunch up together, almost like an accordion of images. Then another pair of figures moved through the distorted space, and when it moved back top normal, two more had joined us. There was Vista in her green and white swirly costume with the skirt and clearly optimistic breastplate, and Gallant in his gunmetal and silver armored costume that made him look like a science fiction hero's take on a medieval knight.
  Vista stood with a hand up against Sophia's arm while speaking to their team leader. "She saved Shadow Stalker."
  "Bullshit!" Sophia declared vehemently. She shook the youngest Ward member's hand off her arm. "She just got in my way."
  "It's okay, Stalker." Gallant spoke for the first time. I noticed that he had also moved beside Aegis, putting the both of them between Sophia and me. "We'll work it out. All that matters is that the bad guys are down."
  From the way Sophia was standing, she didn't quite agree with that assessment. "What the hell are you even doing here?"
  There was a little reproach in Aegis's voice as he answered. "Vista called in for backup when you took off on your own. You know she's not supposed to be doing solo patrols yet."
  Most of the top of Vista's face was hidden by her green visor, but I still recognized her scowl. I wasn't sure that it had happened exactly as Aegis said, but the younger girl apparently wasn't willing to argue with him. Whether her reluctance to disagree was more because of my presence or Sophia's, I couldn't say.
  "So like I said, what do we call you?" The leader of the Wards focused on me once more as he restated the question, now with Vista and Gallant watching me curiously as well, while Sophia just seemed to scowl and look away in annoyance.
  I hesitated, reconsidering a few times. Was there a better name I could use? Should I even give a name? Was the name that I'd chosen too silly or stupid?
  Then again, this was a team that let someone like Sophia stay. I could already tell that they didn't really get along with her, yet they'd still let her get away with murder if she just kept calling herself a teammate. So what the hell did I care what they thought of my name?
  "Tether." I answered after that brief pause. "Call me Tether."
  "Tether." Aegis echoed before nodding. "Right, well thanks for..." He paused, glancing over his shoulder at Sophia before turning back to me. "... assisting our teammate. Vista, could you use the zipties on those guys before they wake up, and call in the nearest Black and white to pick them up? Assuming there were no capes in the mix?" I shook my head, and he gave the nod for the younger girl to go ahead.
  While Vista was busy with that, Aegis stepped closer to me. "So listen, it looks like you did good here."
  "Well." Gallant interrupted. "She did well here."
  "That too." Aegis replied. It sounded like he was smiling. "Well and good. Point is, if you'd like to join us, the Wards could always use another pair of hands."
  I felt a wave of intense disgust wash over me at the very thought of joining a team that would keep a psychopath like Sophia on their payroll. It was obvious that she did little, if anything, to disguise her sociopathy. Yet they kept her around anyway. They made excuses for her actions. They let her get away with it. The thought of voluntarily allying myself with that kind of attitude, to say nothing of actually unmasking so that Sophia would know who I was, brought an almost physical sense of revulsion.
  A few feet away, Gallant actually staggered a little, as though I had hit him. The other Wards turned, but before the boy could speak up, I noticed something much more concerning. Sprouting from my chest was not just a single dark red line, but three. All were stretched out and around the corner.
  "Help." I said immediately. If my power was telling me that three people were in immediate mortal danger, I needed assistance. Even if Sophia was part of that assistance. My disgust at her insanity, and at the Wards acceptance of it, wasn't worth more than people's lives.
  "What?" Aegis glanced my way, distracted from checking on his teammate, who was waving him off and gazing at me with what felt like curiosity.
  "People need help." I said firmly, extending a hand toward the nearby building. "Trust me, if we don't haul ass, three people are gonna die."
  With that much said, I connected a line to the building rooftop and launched myself forward and up.
  It wasn't hard to follow the red lines. They seemed to tug me onward, urging me to move faster. I kept going until I heard a sudden burst of gunfire from the direction of the lines, then homed in on the sound.
  Another sustained round of automatic weapon fire greeted me as I hit the ground just behind a line of four men who were shooting at something massive that was rushing toward them. Connecting the barrels of each of their guns to the pavement, I forced the weapons to drop out of their hands, a second before some kind of car-sized monster-dog slammed into the group and sent them scattering like bowling pins.
  "Holy crap, Lassie." I uttered out loud. "You keep juicing like that, and they'll totally take your home run record away."
  The monster animal lunged my way now that its original prey were sprawled out every which direction. I launched myself skyward to avoid its lunge, extended a hand to snag a line against the ground nearby, and landed somewhere behind it, trying to get an idea of what was going on.
  There was a flickering light in the windows of the building that I had landed near, which I now recognized as flames. In the doorway to my left, a blonde female figure in a violet and black skintight costume was slumped, unmoving. One of my red lines pointed her way, while the second was connected to a figure in what looked like dark motorcycle leathers and a helmet with a stylized skull on the front, who was also lying on the ground without moving.
  A sharp whistle interrupted my assessment, and the nightmare dog tore back to leap over my head. It landed ahead of me, rushing to join a solidly built girl with auburn hair, who was standing next to the unmoving form of another of the massive canines as though protecting it. From the sight of the plastic dog mask on her face, it seemed rather obvious that Lassie belonged to her. The third line was connected to this girl.
  Slightly to the side of her was a boy who looked like he'd gotten lost on the way to a renaissance faire, with his billowy white shirt, skintight leggings, and crown. He even carried a scepter, while his own face was hidden behind a simple mask.
  The boy and girl, and their giant dog friend, stood facing down another figure. The man looked to be almost eight feet tall. His face was hidden behind a metal dragon mask, and I could see various dragon tattoos all over his exposed chest, though some kind of silver metallic scales were growing to cover those designs.
  With a deafening howl, the giant dog monster lunged for the standing figure. He just stood there, caught the dog's jaws and howled back in its face like a madman, then pivoted and pitched the animal hard into the wall. It didn't rise again, even as the girl in the dog mask shouted something in anger.
  Beside me, I saw Aegis come in for a landing. He had carried Gallant. Vista distorted space a little to the side of where we were, and came through it along with Sophia.
  When he saw what we were facing, I heard Aegis curse under his breath. "Kid," he said to no one in particular that I could see. "Call in Armsmaster and whoever else is nearby. Lung's here, and he's already amped up."
  "We're gonna need some help."
  Lung. The leader of the ABB. One of the most dangerous super-powered criminals in the city. He had fought the entire local Protectorate to a standstill and the best they'd managed was something like a tie.
  We were so screwed.
  He was already growing bigger as a result of his little altercation with the dog, letting out a roar before starting toward the spot where the boy and girl still stood. Partway there, his arm twitched up and the beast punched himself in the face, staggering in mid-step. I'd seen the boy in the Ren Faire costume jerk the hand with the scepter up at the same time. It didn't seem to slow Lung for more than a second however, and the boy turned to retreat.
  On the other hand, girl in the dog mask stood her ground, keeping herself between the rushing villain and one of her unconscious dogs. I had the nagging suspicion that she was about to try punching the guy.
  It was Aegis, however, who did the punching. He'd flown straight up after calling for backup, and now he flew down again, fists outstretched until he slammed straight into Lung's shoulders, driving the now ten foot tall monster down into the ground barely a foot from his target.
  For her part, the dog mask girl promptly lashed out with a foot to kick the briefly fallen beast in the face. It barely seemed to register, as the scale armoring by that point had spread to cover the rest of his body.
  It wasn't an attack that she'd be able to try again, as flames were already spreading over Lung's body, engulfing him with enough heat to start melting the concrete beneath himself. I could see the girl forced to back up, pressing herself against the fallen dog while Lung began to straighten.
  Abruptly, the ground just behind the briefly prone beast began to distort and twist, bending down and around to create a hole. Aegis, whose skin had been turned black and red in the spots where the armor had failed from the heat, rolled off of Lung and fell onto his back in front of the beast. He raised both feet, reared back, and then kicked the monstrous cape in the shoulders as hard as he could. The blow was enough to send Lung sliding backwards and partway into the hole that Vista had created.
  As soon as the ABB leader had fallen halfway inside the hole, Vista, who was still standing beside me, made a gesture and pushed the space around the ground together, closing it in once more and pinning him in place.
  Immediately, Gallant began to pelt Lung with several quick blasts of concussive energy that, if I remembered correctly, could alter the emotions of the person he was hitting with them. If he was altering Lung's emotions, it didn't really seem to have much effect. The man gave another roar and began to break his way out of the pavement that trapped him.
  Though all of that, I had simply stood in place, frozen from fear. Random thugs were one thing, even if they were armed with guns. Guns were things I could just yank away from people. But Lung? He was a monster. Worse, he was a monster who literally kept getting stronger the longer that you fought him. I was so far out of my league it was ridiculous. What the hell was I supposed to do, besides play the part of the wayward traffic cone for Lung's out-of-control bus to run over on its way to something vaguely threatening?
  Simply put, I was scared, and I froze. Someone shoved me aside, as Sophia pushed past me, muttering something about rookie cowards getting the hell out of her way. She brought up both of her crossbows, having retrieved the other one from wherever it had been, and shot a pair of darts against Lung's metal scales. The darts remained shadowy and insubstantial until they had passed through the armor plating before they solidified.
  It definitely got the man's attention. He let out an inarticulate bellow as he straightened, shoving the last remains of the concrete off of himself. An even hotter burst of flame melted the bolts that were sticking out of his back, and he grunted slightly while whirling toward us. Sophia shot another pair of bolts at him, but he swiped these out of the way contemptuously.
  Aegis made to punch the gang leader in the side, but Lung didn't even look at him as he brought a hand down to engulf the young hero's head, squeezed tightly to lift him off the ground, then set him directly on fire before pitching the now flaming missile straight at Sophia. She turned shadowy, and let the burning Aegis pass through her to crash somewhere out in the street.
  He was coming straight at us then, and Sophia wasted no time throwing herself out of the way. Vista, on the other hand, grabbed my hand and yanked me backwards. We took one step, and suddenly the pair of us were out in the street where Aegis was rolling around, trying to put the flames out.
  Finally, finally I snapped out of my frozen terror. Reaching a hand out toward the nearby fire hydrant, I anchored one end of a line to the end of the hydrant, and the other end to the street. Then I pulled hard against the hydrant, yanking the cap off and sending a geyser of water into the road. As soon as he saw it, Aegis managed to roll that way, making the water engulf him and put out the flames.
  Gallant sent two more blasts at where Lung was, then shook his head before calling out to us. "He's got so much anger! I'm trying to calm him down, but it's like bailing a rowboat with a tablespoon. I need more time!"
  It didn't look like time was something he was going to get. The massive beast of a criminal had already oriented back toward the boy who looked like an escapee from a science fiction King Arthur story and raised a hand to direct a fireball that way. Gallant barely managed to throw himself out of its path, and was prone on the ground when the man prepared a second volley.
  "Hey stupid!" Some idiot called out.
  He whirled, and I realized, oh crap, the idiot is me.
  Trying not to gulp too obviously, I waved a hand. "Lung, seriously? Who's your archenemy, the Marlboro Man?!"
  A growl escaped the huge, armored man, and he pivoted to face me. I managed, somehow, to avoid wetting myself at my own success in getting his attention. Instead, I assumed a thinking position, tapping my head a few times as though considering. "Wait, wait, I've got it. Someone told you that lung cancer kills, and you were too stupid to realize that it was the cancer that was the deadly part."
  By that point, Vista and Aegis were both staring at me like I was insane. I'm pretty sure they both took a step away from me as well. Not that I could blame them for that.
  "Get him." I said to Aegis, pointing to Gallant. "And follow us so he can keep hitting the guy."
  "Follow you where?" The leader of the Wards threw up his hands in confusion.
  Lung was already throwing himself my way, so I extended a hand toward a nearby billboard and connected it to my glove while responding. "I dunno, is the opera in town?" The line yanked me off the ground and sent me flying back toward the billboard just as Lung landed where I had been even as I called back over my shoulder. "Because we could really use a fat lady!"
  Just as I reached and landed on top of the advertisement for some local fast food place, Lung had gathered himself and then leapt after me with another bellow of rage. I gave him a quick wave, then connected one of my lines from the bottom of my boot to the billboard and shoved myself hard up and away from it. I went a dozen feet into the air and backwards, while Lung hurtled himself through the sign, leaving a hole behind.
  Another line attached me to a passing car, and I let it haul me a good twenty feet through the air before finding a nearby building to latch onto with a separate line. This was followed rapidly by an elevated train track, a tall antennae, another car, and the statue in a nearby park that let me turn the corner there and propel myself down another side street.
  Through it all, Lung kept chasing me, bellowing once in awhile. It was all I could do to stay out of the reach of his flames. My pants may have been fire retardant, but I didn't think they had rated them against a giant, screaming rage dragon when they made that notation. To say nothing of the rest of my so-called costume. Frankly, I wasn't sure it was going to survive all the sweating I was doing, let alone any actual hit from those flames.
  Somewhere behind us, I occasionally caught glimpses of Aegis, carrying Gallant and trying to keep up while the other hero sent blast after blast of emotion changing energy into the enormous Lung. Again and again, he pelted the armored beast, trying to calm him down.
  It was working. Lord help us all, but it was working, albeit slowly. Without a direct target to actively fight, since I wasn't stupid enough to stand there and trade blows with the guy, Lung was gradually being affected by the emotion blasts. It was subtle, but he was definitely slowing slightly, and I thought I could see him getting smaller as we went on. It was also getting easier to stay ahead of him, and his flame blasts were coming further apart, and not traveling quite as far.
  One blast after another, he was slowly losing his rage and thus his power. I was able to keep hauling myself just out of his reach, so he didn't have a direct fight to keep himself amped up against the calming blasts that Gallant was sending at him.
  Finally, the man had shrunk so much he couldn't keep leaping after me. He fell, landing heavily on the top of a roof. I oriented myself to land on the edge of the same roof, while Aegis and Gallant came down on the other end, the latter sending several more blasts into Lung's now prone form, just to be sure.
  Everyone, myself included, held our breaths as we watched the man. He shifted a little, clearly trying in vain to hold onto his anger. Then he slumped once more, falling flat to the roof before the sound of snoring reached us.
  "Someone," Aegis's voice was soft, as though he was afraid of speaking too loud and waking Lung up. "Needs to get this guy locked in foam."
  I hesitated before speaking up. "What about the people that he was attacking?" A glance down revealed that the red lines had disappeared, but I had to be sure.
  It took Aegis a moment to answer, and from the tilt of his head, he was listening to someone else. Finally, he looked back at me. "They were villains, the Undersiders. Vista says Shadow Stalker pretty much sat on top of Grue, the guy in the skull helmet. So they've got him. Hellhound escaped with her dogs, Regent, the other guy, scrammed before we even got Lung's attention, and Tattletale was gone when they went to grab her."
  So it had been a villain on villain fight. Still, from what I knew about the Undersiders, they didn't really deserve to die. Especially not in a fight against someone like Lung. And even if the idea of Sophia capturing anyone made my skin crawl, at least he had been a bad guy. And Vista had been there to stop the other girl from going too far on the unconscious Grue.
  Still, it meant that this Regent, Hellhound, and Tattletale had escaped. I couldn't decide how I felt about that.
  Before I could focus too much on it, Gallant took a step my way. He held a card toward me. "In case you change your mind, or just want to talk." I held a hand out, connecting a line to the card and my glove to pull it to me. Yeah, at that point I was showing off. Sue me.
  "It's my Wards e-mail address and phone number." Gallant explained. "Keep in touch."
  "He's right." Aegis added with a nod. "You did good-" He winked at the other boy. "-and well tonight. We could use someone like you. Even if you are insane."
  Then why do you keep someone like Sophia around?! I wanted to scream at them. Once again, Gallant gave a shudder, and looked like he was about to ask something.
  I didn't give him the chance. Reaching a hand out toward another building, I replied as evenly as I could while the disgust rolled through me. "Yeah, maybe we can team up again sometime. Just put a giant spotlight with my symbol on it in the sky."
  As I started to let the tether pull me away, Aegis called, "We don't know what your symbol is!"
  "Good point!" I shouted back to him. "Make it giant laser letters across the sky that say, 'Totally Awesome Girl Who Kicked Lung's Ass'. That outta narrow it down for me!"
  Then I was gone, letting the invisible line yank me out of their sight. Later, I would let myself fall down and start shaking from the shock of everything that had just happened, what I had survived.
  But right now, right now I just wanted to close my eyes, let the wind rush over me as I rushed through the air, and remind myself that I really wasn't dead. I had survived my first night out, which had been much more eventful than I had expected.
  Totally worth blowing off that 'how have capes affected the world' assignment from Mr. Gladly.
  Interlude 1 - Wards
  As soon as the tinker-made elevator doors slid open on the Wards level of the Brockton Bay Parahuman Response Division headquarters building, the red haired teenage boy who had been leaning against the wall next to them straightened with an eager grin. "Is it true?" He asked while the doors were still opening. "Did you really bring in Lung without any help from the adults? Man, I bet that made Armsmaster feel like a..."
  "Feel like a what, Clockblocker?" Armsmaster, standing in his armored suit behind the line of the boy's teammates (a couple of whom had been attempting frantically to wave him off with muted hand gestures down at their waists).
  "Uhhhhhhhhh..." Dennis's brain stalled for a moment as he stared with wide blue eyes at the leader of the local Protectorate. The man's visor hid the top half of his face, but his mouth was not exactly smiling. Then again, the man rarely smiled at all. "Feel like a... really good teacher." Dennis let his head bob up and down quickly. "I mean, if we're this good, you must be... like..." At a loss for words, he simply whistled appreciatively.
  "You are such a retard." Shadow Stalker announced dismissively before namesaking her way past him to head for the security door entrance.
  "You shouldn't say retard." Missy, Vista in the field, scolded as she emerged from the elevator along with a rather toasty looking Aegis, and Gallant.
  Sophia, who was taking her mask off with one hand as she walked to the door, used her other hand to flip the younger girl off. Then she leaned in toward the security terminal and let the retinal scanner read her eye before the steel doors slid aside.
  It was, Dennis noted, probably better than a rectal scanner. The damn thing wouldn't have been able to get a clear reading past the enormous stick his teammate had jammed up there.
  At a gesture from Armsmaster, the rest of the group made their way through the doors as well. They joined Sophia, who had already tossed mask and crossbows aside, and was giving the heavy punching bag a once over in the corner, and Chris/Kid Win, who was still watching the monitors.
  "Debriefing time?" Chris asked, spinning his chair away from the console.
  Nodding, Armsmaster gestured to the other chairs. "Everybody take a seat. Let's figure out what just happened." When Sophia continued to attack the bag, he cleared his throat until she finally relented and stalked over to one of the seats.
  "So like I was saying," Dennis, turning one of the chairs around so that he could sit on it the wrong way, interrupted. "Did you really bring in Lung?"
  "Lung is in custody, along with Grue from the Undersiders." Gallant confirmed with a nod, prompting a pair of whoops from the two Wards members who hadn't been there.
  Aegis/Carlos, who had removed his helmet and the ruined top half of his costume, stood nearby while gingerly testing the burns on his skin. His power, which made him all but unkillable by granting him numerous backup organs as well as making other organs take over the processes of ones that had been damaged, would also eventually heal what had been done by the burns. "We didn't do it alone."
  Sophia made a disparaging noise and folded her arms. "Practically."
  Ignoring her, Armsmaster looked at Aegis. "That's what I want to talk about. Tell me everything that happened, and everything you know about this girl."
  "Girl?" Chris spoke up, interestedly. "What girl?"
  "She called herself Tether." Gallant/Dean offered, glancing toward Sophia for some reason. "I got the impression this was her first time out."
  "Makes sense." Armsmaster agreed. "We haven't heard anything about her until tonight. Powers?"
  Carlos and Dean glanced toward one another for a moment, and it was Missy who spoke. "Telekinesis?" She sounded unsure.
  "Really?" Dennis was interested now. "Like, full scale tk?"
  "We're not exactly sure on that." Dean admitted.
  Missy, clearly excited by the idea of another potential girl in the group besides herself and Cranky Pants, put in, "She could fly."
  Carlos hesitated once more. "She wasn't... exactly flying. She was more... gliding or swinging. Or..."
  "It was almost like a zipline thing." Dean offered a little helplessly. "She'd point at something and a second later, it was like her arm was being pulled that way."
  "Maybe an invisible telekinetic servant force of some kind, that follows her directive to carry her around." Armsmaster considered. "Like the boy in Chicago who transforms himself into a telekinetic whirlwind."
  Rather than continue to speculate blindly, Gallant moved to the console. "I took some pictures with my helmet cam."
  "Because that's not creepy at all." Dennis muttered under his breath.
  Where most of his teammates would have given him the evil eye, Dean just laughed. "I thought everyone else might like to know what she looks like, for future reference." He ran his fingers over the keyboard after plugging his helmet's computer in, then straightened away from it as the image of the girl in question standing on the roof after Lung had been brought down came onto the screen.
  "Cheap costume." Armsmaster observed clinically. "So she's not a tinker, and she's working alone, most likely."
  "This was when she left." Gallant advanced the pictures through a short series of slides that showed the girl stretch an arm out, then let herself be pulled along seemingly by the hand.
  "Looks a bit like Spider-Man's webswinging to me." Armsmaster, arms folded as he watched the screen, put in.
  The Wards stared at him blankly. Chris offered, "Spider-Who?"
  "Eww." Missy shuddered. "Is there really a spider-themed cape out there?"
  Armsmaster looked a bit affronted and taken aback. "No, Spider-Man. It was a... you know what, never mind. It's before your time. Before real super powers. Comic books." With the advent of real life super heroes whose exploits and stories people could follow, the fictional variety had fallen out style before any of the current Wards had been born.
  "Well, she's definitely being pulled by something." Dennis pointed to the picture on the screen. "See how her glove is straining forward, pulling the rest of her along after it?"
  Carlos nodded, rubbing his own shoulder. "I'm surprised one of her arms didn't get ripped out of its socket, the way she was throwing herself around in the air."
  Examining the picture for himself, Armsmaster nodded. "So, likely a minor breaker ability, keeping herself in one piece when she swings around like that. We'll note it as a Breaker level one for now, and for the telekinesis or... whatever it is, a tentative Shaker level five or six until we have a better idea of what exactly she's doing with it. Any idea on strength level for it?"
  Dean answered, "She tore the lid off a fire hydrant pretty easily with it. And Vista said that she was able to control two of the men who attacked Sophia into beating themselves up."
  "Body control?" Armsmaster grimaced.
  Missy shrugged helplessly. "That's sort of what it looked like from where I was. One of the guys just punched the other one in the face, then he hit himself in the umm... yeah." She gestured vaguely, and every male in the room blanched.
  "Shaker Six, Breaker One. Anything else?" Armsmaster prompted.
  It was Carlos who responded, after he, Dean, and Missy looked at one another. "She... knew that the Undersiders were in danger."
  Frowning, Armsmaster shook his head. "Come again?"
  "It's true." Missy offered. "She said that three people were going to die if we didn't follow her, then she just jumped away. And when we got there, Lung was about to kill the Undersiders."
  "There's four Undersiders." Chris pointed out mildly.
  "Regent ran away." Sophia finally put in, her mouth twisted in a contemptuous smirk. "Coward."
  "That's three." Armsmaster said slowly, looking to them. "She really said three, specifically?"
  They nodded. Dean added, "It was like something told her they were in trouble. Not who, more like... a direction and a warning."
  Considering that, Armsmaster shook his head. "A Thinker ability that tells her when people nearby are in trouble. Maybe that's how she found Shadow Stalker."
  Sophia bristled at that. "I could have taken those guys."
  Dennis grinned at the volatile girl. "Sure, I bet you were really luring them in with that whole 'sprawled out on the ground, totally helpless while the bad guys stand over you with weapons' routine."
  Growling, Sophia half rose from her seat. "Look you stupid little-"
  Armsmaster swung his halberd off his shoulder and put it in front of the girl. "Are we about to have a problem?"
  Freezing as the weapon was placed in her way, Sophia frowned for a moment, then used her power to slide backwards through her own chair before straightening. "Whatever," she muttered. "I need a shower. Let me know when you're done gushing over some stupid wannabe."
  Rather than object to the girl leaving, Armsmaster continued the debriefing. "Some death sense or something. Seems to be rather short range and short warning, so we'll call it Thinker Two, since it does involve some small measure of future sense."
  Chris whistled low. "Shaker Six, Breaker One, Thinker Two. We could use her."
  Missy was nodding emphatically. "Especially since she's a girl. This must be the only city in the country where the boys outnumber the girls so much in the Wards." It was a well known, if little understood fact that more females ended up triggering than males.
  "Did you make the offer?" Armsmaster asked them.
  Carlos shrugged helplessly, wincing a little at the pain the gesture caused his burned body. "Of course we did. It didn't really help. We might as well have spat on her food and tried to sell it back to her, for how she reacted."
  Frowning, Armsmaster gazed at the boy. "Her outfit looks that cheaply made, she's got some kind of sense that spurs her to help people in trouble, and she still turned down an offer to join the Wards? That doesn't sound right."
  Straightening from his seat, Dean took a step back and gazed after the way that Sophia had gone, before speaking up. "Sir, I don't think she was reacting to the idea of the Wards in general."
  Having followed the course of the boy's gaze, Armsmaster looked that way as well. "Explain."
  "I felt disgust, contempt, and confusion whenever we brought up joining us." Dean continued after a moment. "Loads of it. But there was also the same feeling whenever she looked at Shadow Stalker."
  Missy raised her hand before speaking up. "I don't think she knew who she was saving at first. When she found out, it looked like she was taunting Sophia, goading and insulting her. Sophia was going to attack her before we showed up."
  "Sounds like she has a history with Shadow Stalker." Armsmaster mused.
  "Maybe a classmate?" Chris put in from his own seat.
  The Protectorate hero considered that for a moment before shaking his head. "Probably not. Shadow Stalker was masked the whole time, and you said this Tether reacted badly the second she saw who it was. No, my guess is that she's someone Stalker has a history with in costume."
  Aegis grimaced. "Didn't Sophia have that whole 'don't save someone unless they stand up for themselves' thing before she joined us? Maybe Tether's one of those."
  Armsmaster nodded. "That's my guess. Try looking into the last six months of information we have about people that Shadow Stalker was involved with."
  "Before or after she joined up?" Chris asked.
  The man hesitated, then sighed. "Both. She says she's being better, but we should look into her... 'rescuees' either way. Whoever this Tether is, I would bet that she's one of the girls that Shadow Stalker either refused to help, or helped too late."
  Once he had nods from everyone, Armsmaster went on. "Now, let's talk about how your group is going to track down the other three Undersiders before they have time to regroup and rescue their leader..."
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  Arc 2: Rise
  "Did you hear about the Undersiders hitting the bank yesterday?"
  It was a few days after I'd helped bring Lung down. I wasn't the one being spoken to. I wasn't even involved in the conversation. Instead, I was standing just around the corner from the group of lockers where, up until a few months earlier, Sophia, Emma, and I had all held court. Ever since things had gone downhill on that front, I tried to avoid being there when the others were. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn't. This was one of the days that I had heard them before coming around the corner.
  It was lunchtime, so if I stood here and waited long enough, they'd head out for one of the nearby fast food junk places.
  Sophia's contempt and annoyance was audible even from where I stood. "I heard."
  On the other hand, I hadn't heard a thing about the middle-of-the-day bank robbery until yesterday evening. I was rather annoyed to admit that I'd been napping through the lunch hour in the school library at the time.
  One of the several interchangeable hangers-on that were still vying for a permanent place in my old spot spoke up then. "Weren't they supposed to go quiet when the Wards caught their leader?"
  "The Wards and that new girl." Another contestant for the third Queen Bee slot pointed out. "Someone on Twitter said that she did most of the work."
  Welp. I thought to myself. There goes all that progress she was making to take my place. Poor thing.
  The way the locker slammed a second later seemed to verify my assumption, and in the brief silence that followed, I could easily picture the glare that Sophia was sending at the other girl. Her words were terse. "I read about it. She didn't do that much."
  Emma, loyal little lapdog that she was, quickly jumped in. "Anyway, the Wards weren't even at full strength when they tried to stop the Undersiders. They left Shadow Stalker behind." I could imagine the glance for approval that she was giving toward Sophia before she went on. "That's why they lost."
  It was a boy who spoke next, one of several who had been orbiting Sophia angling for the best opportunity to ask her to the next dance. "Might have something to do with their new members."
  New members? I perked up, interested now. I hadn't had a chance to read very much about what had happened. Did the Undersiders somehow recruit people after they lost their leader.
  The girl whose stock with Sophia was clearly plummeting jumped on that. "I heard that one of them was Browbeat."
  "Yeah, what the hell's up with that?" The boy replied. "I thought Browbeat was a good guy. Independent, but a good guy."
  Another girl gave a little laugh. "I guess he decided being a villain paid more. Because that was definitely Browbeat helping the Undersiders with the bank job."
  "Who cares about that?" One of the boys wanted to know. "I'm more interested in that girl with Clockblocker's power. Who was she?"
  It was Emma who answered. "She was calling herself Freezetag. And it's not exactly Clockblocker's power. It sounds like when she touches someone, you like... can't move until someone else touches you."
  The boy asked blankly, "How is that different from Clockster?"
  Emma, sounding annoyed, explained. "Because Clockblocker freezes people and things in time. This Freezetag chick just makes it so you can't move. After it was over, people were saying that they could still see things and look around with their eyes, or blink, even talk if they didn't move their lips very much. They just couldn't move their bodies. And it wore off as soon as someone else touched them."
  So we'd taken Grue away from the Undersiders, and they had responded by adding two members to their ranks; the super-strong Browbeat, and some girl named Freezetag who could lock people in place.
  Not exactly a net loss on their part, especially if they eventually managed to rescue their leader with the help of their new members to top everything off.
  While I was pondering that, I heard Emma complain, "That really, really stinks."
  Someone else laughed before asking, "Do you think she's seen it yet?"
  "No." There was almost palpable smugness in Sophia's voice. "She hasn't seen it yet."
  Oh, great. Something else to deal with. What had they done now? I considered just turning around and walking the other way. But I needed some of the stuff out of my locker, including the book I'd been reading. It was stupid, leaving anything in my locker. Taylor had learned better than that early on.
  I sighed. Obviously the reason the group had obviously been stalling was that they were waiting for me so they could see my reaction to whatever they had planned.
  Well screw that. Sophia may be convinced that I was prey in her fucked up mindset, but it was obvious that she should've failed biology, because there were plenty of so-called 'prey' animals that were dangerous as hell when you pushed them the wrong way.
  Risking a peek around the corner, I saw Sophia standing there with a soda bottle in one hand, accompanied by the model-perfect Emma and surrounded by their lackeys and entourage. I could also see my locker just beyond, but I couldn't tell what they had done to it from there.
  I had resolved not to use my power at school, but in this case, I was ready to make an exception. The last several days since 'Tether' had humiliated Sophia had been rough. She'd had no idea that it was me, of course, but she had still clearly been working out her frustration. Whatever this was clearly stemmed from that as well.
  As Sophia started to raise the bottle so that she could twist the cap off, I focused on it. Connecting a line from the inside of the cap to the bottom of the bottle, I held it in place, generating just enough of a pull that the other girl's first few attempts to pull the lid off were futile.
  I let her get just frustrated enough to yank hard at the bottle, then released it. At the same time, I connected a line from the back of her shirt to my locker. When she stumbled off balance from the sudden release, I gave the slightest of tugs with the second line so that she was drawn backwards against the locker in a way that would hopefully seem completely natural. Then, once she hit the locker, I connected a line from my locker door to the floor and gave just enough of a yank to make it pop open. In the end, it would look like she had strained to open the soda cap, stumbled when it abruptly gave way, hit my locker, and the door had accidentally popped open.
  Even though I had guessed that they'd done something to my locker, I couldn't have expected what came next. The second the locker opened, a veritable explosion of brown and green stuff collapsed from within. It fell all over Sophia, coating her dark skin, and getting into her hair and clothes while she screeched in surprise.
  The stench reached me just as everyone else recoiled in disgust. Manure. They had loaded my locker completely full of manure so that when I opened it, the shit would fall out all over me.
  Yeah, screw you, Sophia.
  A couple of the guys started to laugh, and were instantly silenced by the now-manure covered girl's death glare. She shook herself off frantically, then whirled on Emma. "I thought you said you closed that thing!"
  Emma's eyes were wide as she waved at her nose desperately. "I did! It was! I mean... I mean it should've been."
  Most of the group decided to take off then, making the excuse that they were going to miss lunch completely if they didn't get going. A few wandered off another way, saying they weren't hungry after all that. Sophia was left with just Emma and a few of the most desperate girls as she kicked my locker door hard enough to dent it in a little, then stomped off down the hall toward the restroom.
  Once they were gone, I decided to see how much damage had been done. Trying to hold my nose, I gradually made my way out to the locker and then sighed. There was so much manure piled up in the locker and on the floor around it that I could barely understand how they had closed the door to begin with.
  Gingerly, I stepped closer and tried to peer into the locker. As I was assessing how much damage had been done, someone spoke up from behind me.
  "Wow, that really reeks."
  Rolling my eyes, I started to turn around. "Yeah, I get it. You guys are soooo clever. I'm amazed by your..."
  I had to trail off, because the boy who stood behind me wasn't one of Sophia's lackeys. In fact, I didn't recognize him at all. He was a sort of gangly boy with red hair and thin lips, who looked taken aback when I whirled on him.
  "Sorry." I managed. "I thought you were... someone else."
  The red head boy gave an easy smile at that. "That figures. Girls are always looking for somebody else." He extended a hand. "Dennis."
  I hesitated, raising an eyebrow before slowly accepting his handshake. "Madison."
  Leaning slightly to look past me at the manure, Dennis asked, "Not a science project gone wrong, then?"
  I snorted, shaking my head. "More like a disagreement with someone who really doesn't like people disagreeing with her."
  "I know the type." The boy replied, then looked around. "Where's the janitor? If this happened at Arcadia, there'd already be someone shining the floor."
  Right, he was from Arcadia, the good high school. So what the hell was he doing here? I shrugged at the question. "Probably outside smoking a joint." Then I blinked with exaggerated confusion and innocent. "Wait, isn't that what janitors are supposed to do? I knew there was a reason I failed that vocational questionnaire."
  He made a noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a choke of disbelief, shaking his head briefly before blinking past me. "What-awww no." Reaching out, he tugged a paperback book out from under the mess in my locker. It was ruined. "You're reading the Seventh Reach series?"
  I flushed a little bit. I hadn't really been much of a reader before everything that had happened. But Taylor had been, and I was trying to do a few of the things that she would have done, sort of in her memory. I had also been interested in the series because it was an odd mixture of post apocalyptic and steam-punk, and the main character used a grappling hook device that had given me a few ideas about my own powers.
  "Yeah." I muttered. "Or I was reading it. But I was only halfway through that one, and now the librarian's gonna flip the fuck out. She's not gonna let me even look at the rest of them cross eyed, let alone check any out."
  "I've got the series." Dennis replied easily. "I'll let you borrow them sometime."
  I blinked at that. "You don't even know me."
  "Sure I do." The boy replied cheerfully. "You're Madison. I'm Dennis." His voice lowered to a whisper. "You may have forgotten, but we met."
  I couldn't help it. I giggled, then coughed. "Well how will you know where to bring the books?"
  His answer was to wave his phone in my face. "You got a phone number?"
  "Wow." I winked at him. "You have a really convoluted way of getting a girl's phone number."
  He nodded sagely. "Wait for their locker to be filled with manure, swoop in and find a common interest, then offer to share that interest with them." His hand formed a thumbs up sign. "One hundred percent success rate so far."
  I snickered in spite of myself, and gave him my phone number, collecting his in exchange. Just as we finished that, I heard Sophia's voice. "What the hell are you doing here?"
  Turning that way, I started to speak, but Dennis responded first. "Looking for you."
  He was looking for Sophia? Huh? Wait. Did that mean... I gave Dennis what I hoped was a subtle examination. There was only one reason that I could think of for any of the Arcadia students, the school almost every single Ward was known to attend, to come here looking for Sophia.
  The boy went on. "The..." He glanced at me, then continued a little awkwardly. "... boss wants all hands on deck for the... project today." To me, Dennis added, "Sorry, after school job."
  "What project?" Sophia demanded. She had washed her hair out and changed clothes. I wasn't sure where the new clothes had come from. But there was still clearly a faint odor.
  Coughing, Dennis shrugged. "You know, the uhh... Grue... some one we were talking about."
  Oh my god, Sophia. I wanted to blurt. Get a clue. They're moving Grue and need all the Wards to make sure the Undersiders don't try anything.
  Finally getting it, Sophia gave me a dark look before shoving past. "I see you started keeping something useful in your locker, Mads. You're going to get so much further with that than you would with any textbooks."
  Then she was gone, and Dennis shook his head and sighed before starting to follow her. "Like I said," He called back to me. "I'll give you a call about those books. See you soon."
  I waited for them to go, then started to walk out as well, abandoning the mess on the floor. Maybe you'll see me sooner than you think. I thought silently. Because if the Undersiders do try to rescue Grue, I'm not missing it this time.
  Having the first hand experience that I did in the way that Sophia's mind worked when she was focused on making someone's life miserable, there had been no way that I was going to keep my costume (such as it was) in my locker or my backpack. It would have taken her or Emma roughly six seconds to find it.
  Instead, I had stored the clothes in a small garment bag, and stashed that on the roof of the school in an out of the way corner in between the raised edge of the roof and an air conditioning unit. The corner spot there had been so full of trash that I was certain my bag would go unnoticed. Plus, the upside of my cheap little costume was that if anyone did take it, I was out something like twenty-three bucks.
  It was a simple matter to grab the bag, check for anyone watching, and change. I was done and ready within three minutes from when Dennis and Sophia had left the school.
  Thankfully, I didn't have to go hunting for them. That could have taken forever, if I ever found them at all. But while I'd been changing, I had used my vantage point on the roof to watch the parking lot. There was a large, full sized white van with heavily tinted windows at the edge of the school parking lot. Which meant it was either government issue, or a pervert. And considering it had been parked for longer than four seconds without being surrounded by a SWAT team, I was guessing government.
  Well, that and the fact that I'd seen Dennis and Sophia cross the lot at a jog to reach it. That helped too.
  By the time that the van was on its way out of the lot, I was ready. Letting it pull ahead and onto the road, I focused on a traffic light a bit to the east of it. A moment later, I was airborn, being pulled toward the light. Before I reached it, I adjusted, attaching a different line between my other glove and the roof of a building next to the light.
  I traveled that way, staying out of the way of the van but always keeping it within view. I pulled myself from rooftop to rooftop, occasionally using a boosted jump to reach the next building by planting lines against my feet and shoving off with them. I was starting to get the hang of it, as the action became more natural each time I did it.
  Eventually, the van pulled into the back lot of the PRT headquarters and stopped. I perched on the edge of the roof across the street, watching the lot. The van backed into a spot, and then a half dozen costumed Wards spilled out of it. In addition to Sophia, I could see Aegis, Vista, Clockblocker, Kid Win, and Gallant. All of them were in costume by that point.
  For a moment, I wondered which one Dennis was. I was pretty sure he wasn't Aegis, because what little skin of his I'd seen past his damaged costume that hadn't been burned black by Lung had been too dark to match the boy that I'd met in the school. And he probably wasn't Kid Win, since Dennis's hair was red, not brown. Unless that was a really good disguise. He could be Clockblocker or Gallant though.
  Shaking off the question, I focused once more, watching the security guard by the gate as well as the Wards themselves. The latter were all turned toward one of the building exits, and the second that I saw the gate guard turn to look the other way down the street, I leapt off of the roof and attached a line to the pavement just in front of the van. Yanking myself that way as quickly as I dared to, I hit the ground right at the bumper, dropped into a roll, and slid under the van as quietly and smoothly as I could. Then I waited for shouts or demands that would indicate that I'd been seen. When none came, I let out the breath that I'd been holding and made myself lay flat under the vehicle for a moment to catch my breath.
  Before I could be noticed laying there, I focused on the underside of the van, connecting lines from both of my boots, my pants, my belt, and my gloves to the van itself. Then I hauled the lines in a bit to lift myself off the ground and let myself hang there, barely an inch or two from the bottom of the vehicle.
  Spinning myself around to face the rear, I focused on what I could hear from the Wards.
  "How long until they bring him out?" I thought that was Kid Win talking.
  "They're on the way, just doing the transfer paperwork." Someone else, probably Aegis from the sound of it, replied.
  "Next question." The boy that I thought was Kid went on. "Is there any chance we could drive through a car wash on the way and roll the windows down? Because I can still smell whatever Stalker had on her."
  There was a growl that I was, by then, familiar with. "Shut the fuck up, Kid. I had things to deal with."
  "What kind of things involve manure?" Kid Win started to ask.
  Rather than Sophia, it was someone else's voice I heard next. It sounded a bit like Dennis, but I wasn't one hundred percent on that. "Heads up, it's Miss Piggy."
  Footsteps approached the van, and then I heard a woman's voice. "Shadow Stalker. Walk with me for a moment while we discuss why you should have your phone on you at all times."
  "I was washing shit out of my hair!" Sophia protested. When no audible response came, she sighed and walked. I heard both sets of footsteps walking away.
  "Pretty sure she put the manure there." A voice that I guessed had to be Dennis said in a low tone then.
  "Where?" That was definitely Aegis.
  "In another girl's locker." Dennis replied. "You should've seen it, the crap was everywhere. It was... it was fucked up."
  "What makes you think she put it there?" Someone else asked. It was either Gallant or Clockblocker, whichever one Dennis wasn't. The muffled effect from their armor and mask, respectively, were somewhat similar.
  "You mean besides the fact that she had it all over herself?" Dennis sounded annoyed. Really annoyed. "You weren't there. You didn't see the way she talked to this girl. Just... rude remarks, something stupid and petty about Madison getting further with that crap than books."
  I could hear the raised eyebrow as Aegis prodded, "Madison, huh? You got the girl's name?"
  "We were talking for a minute." Dennis replied. "And I'm pretty sure it's not the first time Stalker messed with her. It seemed too... routine."
  There was a pause, before the person who was either Gallant or Clockblocker spoke up. "Wait, you said there was manure in her locker?"
  "Tons of it." Dennis confirmed. "Top to bottom. It was all over the floor too, where the locker door opened." He hesitated, then asked, "Why?"
  The other boy was quiet for a moment before speaking. "I'm just trying to remember... wasn't there something about a girl in a locker at Winslow awhile back?"
  Vista was the one who spoke next, her own voice clearly distinctive. "Hey, yeah. That was in... December? A girl died when she was trapped in her locker. They said it was an accident."
  All of the Wards were quiet for several moments then. I held my breath until Aegis spoke. "Kid?"
  "Yeah." The tinker-hero replied softly.
  "Look up that girl who died when we get done here. Find out if she had any history with Shadow Stalker."
  Kid Win's response came a second later. "What if she did?"
  When Aegis responded, his own voice sounded hard. "Then we'll deal with it."
  Silence had returned by the time that Sophia walked back from her apparent chewing out from Director Piggot, the leader of the PRT in the Brockton Bay area. "Yeah well, fuck you too, bitch." She was muttering. "Let's see you strap your fat ass into a pair of tights and go fight scumbags." She addressed her team then. "Can you believe that? Seriously, she gave me a warning for missing a couple texts."
  Dennis's reply was as smooth as it was immediate. "Yeah, well, shit happens ."
  No one else responded to that, and a moment later there was more movement as two PRT guards approached. From my position, it looked like they were carrying an unconscious form between them. Grue, no doubt.
  The slumbering prisoner was loaded into the back of the van, and then the Wards and both guards boarded as well. All save for Kid Win, who said he was going to scout from the sky on his hoverboard before taking off.
  And then the van was moving out of the lot. My lines kept me attached to the bottom of the vehicle, just as though I was strapped to it. I tried not to think about how bad it would be if the lines failed while we were driving.
  We picked up speed as the van headed toward wherever they were moving Grue. I shifted a little and looked out at the other passing cars. Was this their plan, to move the Undersider leader in an unmarked vehicle without any obvious escort except for Kid Win up somewhere on his board?
  A few minutes later, we were passing under a freeway overpass, when at least five red lines popped up, going straight above me and into the van. None of them were quite black, thank Scion, just a medium red that seemed to indicate a moderate to severe injury.
  For a brief second, I froze. Then I twisted, extending a hand behind us while muttering, "Please work, please work, please work..." Cringing in worry, I attached a line from the back of the van to the pavement. Rather than jerking the van to instant stop and thus creating my own injuries, I exerted just enough pressure while bracing myself to make the vehicle slow dramatically before halting it only slightly more roughly than slamming on the brakes would have accomplished.
  Barely an instant after I had the van stopped, I heard a terrifying crash from ahead of us, followed by a roar. Twisting back that way and dropping to the ground beneath the stopped van, I saw one of those giant dog-monsters had just landed hard in the middle of the street at the other end of the overpass. If we had kept going, the dog would have landed on the front of the van and no doubt would have flipped it over. Hellhound was riding the thing.
  Already, people were abandoning their vehicles, rushing to escape the oncoming parahuman conflict. The two armed guards had emerged as well, and began to take up position with their foam-casting weapons raised toward the snarling beast that had almost wrecked the van. Before they could fire, both men abruptly pointed their weapons straight down. The resulting foam instantly encased the pair up to the middle of their chests before hardening.
  The question of what had just happened was answered with another roar from the opposite end of the overpass as a second dog came charging up toward the back of the van. I could see two figures on the monster, that escapee from the Ren Faire that had to be Regent, and the rather massively muscled figure in black spandex that I figured was Browbeat.
  The van doors opened on all sides, and the Wards were out and ready by the time the dog reached them. I saw the bottom of Gallant's armor as he stopped next to the van. A second later, Regent waved that scepter of his, and the subsequent blast from Gallant went careening off course as his aim was adjusted.
  Before the rest of the Wards could engage, the dog from the front end that had been trying to flip the van came charging in to join the fray, and it wasn't alone. There was a third dog, this one carrying the girl in the purple and black costume from before, and a second, smaller female form. I didn't have much of a chance to see her, but the new girl was obviously Freezetag. It looked like she was wearing a simple 'costume' of black pants, black leather jacket with the image of a hand-print across the front in red, and a dark colored mask with a similar hand symbol, this one stylized as though the hand had been raised to smack someone. It was clearly a rushed costume, almost like my own, and it made me wonder just how long ago this Freezetag had triggered. She had just barely joined the Undersiders in the few days between the night of Grue's capture and the bank robbery.
  Browbeat leapt off the charging monster, slamming into the ground at the back of the van. He started to grab for the doors, but the rushing form of Aegis caught the abnormally muscled boy and flew up into the sidewall with him.
  I rolled out from under the vehicle finally, coming up on one knee just in time to see Regent abandon his own mount. The mutated animal came charging toward Clockblocker, who had been focused on the incoming Tattletale, Hellhound, and Freezetag.
  "Clock!" I called out in spite of myself. He spun, looked at me in confusion, and then noticed the charging dog. He wasn't going to be able to get out of the way in time. I pointed to the nearest unoccupied car, latched a line from it to the opposite wall, and yanked . The car jerked off the ground, flew through the air, and crashed into the dog as it passed through that space, knocking it sideways and into the wall with a yelp.
  "What the fuck are you doing here?!" Sophia demanded, briefly distracted from where she had been using her crossbow to sight in on Hellhound.
  I looked at her, then at the surrounding fight, then tilted my head sideways, exaggerating each motion heavily. "Wait, isn't this where we're setting up the Farmer's Market this weekend? I brought potatoes!"
  She snarled at me and sent two bolts toward one of the Undersiders. "Stop fucking joking, retard."
  "Who's joking?" I asked, planting a line against the car that I had thrown against the onrushing dog and using it to hold the animal in place as it struggled to push away from the wall that it had careened into. "I take my potatoes very seriously, I'll have you know."
  Those crossbows were pointed my way for just a second before Clockblocker put himself in the way, pointing. "Focus, Stalker. On the bad guys ." He was right. Aegis was struggling with one of the dogs that I hadn't pinned, while Gallant was focused on keeping Browbeat and Regent away from the doors. Vista seemed to be occupying Freezetag. Kid Win hadn't arrived yet.
  "Oh you don't have to do that." A new voice spoke up. I turned to see the blonde girl in the purple and black costume with the simple domino mask. Tattletale. "We could find what we need without your help. Just browsing, thanks."
  Sophia made a derisive, dismissive noise and pointed her crossbow, but the blonde girl raised a hand. In the background, the fight was still going on. But Sophia, Clockblocker, Tattletale, and I were a few steps away from the action. The female Undersider was pointing at me. "You're new." Her eyes behind the mask were bright with mischief as she gave a smile that reminded me of the stereotypical cunning fox. "But not... that new." Her eyes moved from me to Sophia, and then she laughed. "Really? Oh that's rich. That's just great."
  Then she stopped laughing. Her head tilted toward Sophia, and when she spoke this time, there was no humor in her voice at all. "Oh. You are such a cunt."
  Sophia raised her crossbow once more, her form turning wispy as she did so. A bare second later, she was covered in a cloud of darkness. Grue was awake.
  A bolt from the crossbow shot out of the cloud, catching Tattletale in the arm. In the same moment, the blonde girl produced a handgun from behind her back with the other hand, pointed, and shot several times into the cloud before I managed to pull the gun away
  The gunfire, three quick shots, followed by a very brief pause and then a fourth shot, shocked me for just a second. My thoughts derailed, my focus plummeting as I reflexively recoiled. Seriously, gunshots are fucking loud. Being that close when four of them went off right in a row left me wanting to cower until the deafness went away. At some point I was going to have to see about hearing protection if I was going to be around gunfire.
  Eesh, that was a scary thought.
  Somehow, I managed to find the focus to attach a line to the end of Tattletale's gun and wall, yanking it away from her a moment before the girl slumped, the tranquilizer bolt bringing her to the ground. Only then did the motion out of the corner of my eye catch my attention. Vista. The last gunshot had hit the van that the younger hero was next to, forcing her to dive out of the way.
  In the middle of shooting, Tattletale had realized that Shadow Stalker had jumped into her shadow state, and adjusted her aim for the last shot to to send a bullet toward, but not at, Vista, just enough to startle the girl. It hadn't been enough to trigger my warning line since Vista was never actually in danger.
  That also brought up the question of why there hadn't been a warning about Sophia being shot at, unless it had somehow known that she wasn't in danger anyway? I shook off the confusion as the girl in question hurled herself out of Grue's cloud of darkness, looking furious but otherwise unhurt.
  At that same moment, I realized why Tattletale had wanted to distract Vista. Doing so had given Freezetag a chance to get around her, and the newer villain took immediate advantage of the freedom by lunging forward toward Sophia, who shifted back into her intangible form. In spite of that, when Freezetag swiped a hand through her ghostly figure, Sophia froze in place. The hand-masked girl let out a mocking cackle before backpedaling to avoid Clockblocker's counter-touch. For a moment, the two of them circled each other. Then the girl abruptly dropped to the ground just as Clock reached for her. Doing so gave Regent a direct line of sight to him, and the other boy twitched his scepter. Clockblocker's hand went off target, and he accidentally froze his own costume, locking himself in place and prompting another cackle from Freezetag before I planted a line against her costume and hurled her away from us.
  Then I heard laser fire somewhere off on the other side of the van where Aegis still was, announcing the arrival of Kid Win. Which, yay, but the sound of tearing metal reminded me of another problem. My distraction from the earlier gunshots meant that I'd lost focus on the line that had been pinning the car, and subsequently the dog that the car had been shoving against, into the wall. Freed, the giant monster took a savage bite out of the bumper of the vehicle that had been pinning it, then bounded forward. I stretched a hand out and tied another line between the damaged car and the opposite wall, trying to duplicate the earlier trick. Unfortunately, the animal had learned its lesson, and it leapt up and over the passing car, letting it slam into the wall ineffectually. As the dog came down, it slammed its muzzle into Gallant, propelling the armored hero into the same car that I had just made total itself against the wall.
  Connecting another line from the nearest thing I could see, one of the doors that had fallen off the wrecked car as the dog had been struggling with it, to a spot just past the animal, I sent it flying. The door smacked into the dog, briefly distracting it away from Gallant.
  That prompted a shout. "That's my dog, asshole!" The third of the giant dogs, the one carrying Hellhound, was rushing toward me at a command from his master. Apparently, she was upset about my beaning her pet with the car door.
  "Damn, really?" I asked while stretching a hand up to the roof of the overpass, using a line to yank myself up and out of the animal's path. "I could've sworn it was mine. Have you seen another two thousand pound Labrador around here? Answers to the name of-" I made a noise as close to the cartoon Tasmanian Devil's snarl as I could.
  Before Hellhound could readjust, I sent another line to propel myself to the roof of the van. One of my dangerous red lines appeared then, pointing back toward Gallant, who was still struggling with the dog that was trying to use him as a chew toy. Pivoting, I put a line against the injured hero and yanked him away from the animal before anything worse could happen.
  Something rocked the van, and I looked just in time to see Browbeat yank the back door off before leaning in. There was the sound of tearing metal, and when he leaned out again, shattered restraints that had obviously been on the prisoner were in his hand. I put a line against the back of his costume and used it to yank him away from the vehicle, but it was too late.
  Grue emerged from the van. He twisted around to look at me, and I had a moment to wonder why they hadn't unmasked him. That was a question I'd had for a while, actually. Why did they sometimes unmask and identify villain capes once they were caught, but not always?
  As soon as I saw him, I attempted to plant another line on him. He was faster though, and the next thing I knew, I was engulfed in one of his clouds of darkness.
  The blackness was total. I couldn't see or hear anything through it, which meant that I couldn't plant any lines outside of it. The sensation was incredibly disorienting, making me feel briefly adrift and lost. I even tried planting lines against my feet, which I'd done without looking before, to no effect. I tried feeling my way off the van carefully, only to misjudge and fall rather awkwardly onto my side as I stepped too far. Crying out and finally hearing my own voice now that I was out of the darkness, and the deafness from the gunshots had worn off, I rolled over to see what was happening.
  The Undersiders were leaving. The two dogs who weren't carrying Hellhound had already been loaded up, one with Freezetag and Grue, while the second held Regent, Browbeat, and the unconscious Tattletale. Gallant was still recovering, Vista had apparently been frozen, and Aegis was looking pretty torn up as Bitch's dog snapped at him. Kid Win, meanwhile, was trying to shoot after the departing dogs, but Regent kept throwing off his aim by twitching his hand back and forth. Finally, another twitch of Regent's scepter sent Kid's flying board careening into the wall.
  I used a line to pull myself after the running dogs, to the other side of the overpass tunnel and tried to plant another couple of lines against two of the Undersiders, but the second I did, Grue threw up a cloud of darkness in between us, cutting off my line of sight and erasing the lines.
  Finally, Clockblocker's power that had frozen his uniform and trapped him seemed to run out, because he was moving again, coming up behind Hellhound's mount. She noticed him, spinning her dog around to leap over his head and rush after the others.
  That left, well, me. I was the only one standing between Hellhound and the exit. Gulping as the massive animal raced toward me, eating up the distance in seconds, I braced myself and extended a hand... then focused on the line that I had attached between my own outstretched hand and Clockblocker. He was yanked off his feet and brought hurtling toward me faster than the dog could run. His squeal of surprise reached me and I winced, slowing him down as much as I could just before he hit the dog, depositing him right on the back of the thing and behind the rider.
  That done barely seconds before the dog would run me over, I recoiled and closed my eyes, holding my breath.
  One second, then two passed. Then I opened my eyes and looked up, squeaking a little at the sight of the massive animal's teeth, so close to me that if it hadn't been frozen in time, I probably would have been able to smell its breath.
  "Hey there." Clockblocker, Dennis, was saying as he dropped from the frozen animal's back. "You know, for someone who isn't working with us, you sure do work with us pretty well."
  I didn't know what to say. My tongue felt like it was twisting itself into knots. If I spoke, would he recognize my voice. Sophia hadn't, right? And he hadn't seemed to so far. But... did I want him to recognize my voice, even if I disguised it? No, stupid, why would you want him to know it was you?
  My inner turmoil was interrupted as Clockblocker waved his hand in front of my face. "Yooohooo. You didn't go into shock, did you?"
  I shook it off, coughing as I pointed to the animal and its rider. "Uh, how long does that last?"
  He shrugged. "No idea. Anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes, usually. I'll freeze them again if they pop out before we get reinforcements." As he said that, Clock placed one hand against the animal's side and the other against Hellhound's leg.
  Aegis, who looked as though he'd been through the meat grinder, landed next to us. He was holding some of the contents of his stomach in. "PRT's on the way. Did we stop anyone else?"
  Before either of us could answer, Sophia came storming out of the tunnel. "Where is that bitch?!" She demanded, already reloading her crossbow.
  "Uh, which one?" Clockblocker asked. "The one you shot, or the one that tagged you?"
  "Whichever." Sophia muttered darkly, scanning the horizon for any sign of the two escaped dogs and their passengers.
  Gallant, Vista, and Kid Win had all limped out of the tunnel by then as well. None of them looked very happy. They stopped next to the frozen dog, and the tinker hero looked toward Sophia. "How'd she tag you anyway? I thought you were in ghostie form."
  The look that Sophia sent him could have withered metal. "I was. She tagged me anyway. Which is bullshit." Then she focused on me, glaring as well. "You could have untagged me, if you're really on our side."
  I just stared back at her, restraining the urge to snap at the girl who had been trying her level best to make my life hell for the last several months, who didn't care that her bullying... that our bullying had already killed one girl.
  "Sorry." I finally muttered. "I was distracted."
  She kept glaring through her mask, and I thought she was going to say something else. Fortunately, Vista spoke up instead, addressing me. "So are you joining us or what?"
  "Good question." Aegis was also focused on me. Well, on me and on carefully poking his guts back into his torn torso. The sight made me shudder, and I had to remind myself that throwing up under my mask would be a very bad thing.
  The rest of them were staring as well. Even Sophia, though her stance didn't say 'please join' nearly as much as it said 'please please please give me an excuse to shoot you'.
  I was saved from answering by Aegis holding up his hand. "Go ahead, what's the ETA for our retrieval squad? What? No, we lost Grue but we have Hellhound. We need someone to pick her up." He paused, then sounded confused. "What do you mean, they're all busy? I'm telling you we have one of the Undersiders. We need her contained. What? Who are they-"
  He went completely still then, and remained silent for a moment before signing off of his comm.
  "What happened?" Gallant had stiffened as well. Apparently he knew that whatever was coming was bad. Not that that was hard to guess.
  "It was a distraction." Aegis said stiffly. "Another fucking distraction, just like the bank job that let those guys grab the mayor's niece. They're saying those same guys took someone else this time."
  "Another distraction?" Kid Win demanded. "How does that work? They did rescue their teammate."
  "Sure." Aegis nodded. "But that was obviously secondary to this. Come on, we've gotta find a way to get Hellhound back and get out there. They're calling in everyone to help."
  "Everyone, for a kidnapping?" I saw Clockblocker's head tilt in confusion.
  "Everyone for this kidnapping." Aegis confirmed.
  "Oh no." Vista sounded worried. "Who'd they take this time?"
  The leader of the Wards was quiet for a long moment before responding. "Amy Dallon."
  "Whoever has Dinah Alcott, also kidnapped Panacea."
  Taylor's face, a mixture of fear and resignation dominating her features as it had for so many months, stared up at me. There was no more strength, no more resistance in her expression. She'd been beaten down, hurt, emotionally and even occasionally physically tortured for so long that there was nothing left in her. She just took it. She hid from us at lunch, and whenever we did find her, she just took anything and everything that we dished out, standing there passively with a sad look.
  It was the same sad look that I was staring at now, immortalized in a picture on my phone that I had taken the day that Sophia and I had written skank and loser on the back of her gym shirt. She had gone almost half the class period before anyone bothered to point it out to her, because the coach had, as usual, retired to his office after telling us to play a game of basketball. So accustomed was she to the jeers and nasty remarks that came all the time anyway that the new ones in relation to the shirt hadn't tipped her off.
  When she finally found out what was on the shirt, what everyone had been snickering about for the previous twenty minutes, Taylor had just turned to look at Sophia and me. She hadn't said anything. She just looked, with that slight dampness to her eyes that gave away how close to tears she had been.
  I had taken the picture with my phone then, making some remark about how the baby should just cry and get it over with.
  At the time, it had been funny. Hilarious, even. Now, it was all I could do not to take my phone and slam it into the wall next to where I was sitting in the Starbucks down the street from the school. I wanted to smash that picture, and the memory of my stupidity, over and over again, as if it would help.
  But even more than I wanted to smash it, I wanted to keep it. I needed it. I needed the picture to remind me of why I was doing this, of why I had to be better than I had been. As Taylor's face, her expression sad, lonely, and lost, looked up at me, I spoke softly. "I know. I'm a fucking dumbass."
  A voice from next to the booth where I was sitting spoke up, the haughtiness in the tone like nails on a chalkboard in that moment. "That has to be the truest thing you've ever said."
  Great, I'd chosen a booth at the back of the Starbucks, as close to completely out of the way as I could manage, just so that everyone except for the person I was supposed to meet would leave us alone. Apparently it wasn't enough.
  I didn't bother looking up for a moment, though I closed the picture on my phone and stared at the wallpaper my home screen. I thought, Go away, Emma. while saying, "Huh?"
  Looking amused with herself, the model-pretty girl flipped some of her luxurious red hair over one shoulder and stepped closer. "You know, I should have figured it out before. That's why you've turned into such a boring little bitch." I didn't have to look to know the superior smirk that stretched its way across her face. "You had the hots for the loser, didn't you?" When I didn't respond, she laughed gaily. "That's totally it. You were going all dyke for her."
  Wow that was lame. Totally not her best material. I thought before making myself flush with apparent embarrassment. "Please leave me alone."
  Her gleeful smirk turned slightly. "Well you know, if you'd just told us that you wanted to make out with the other freak."
  No, seriously. I thought while keeping my expression blank. You really should step it up a notch. I mean seriously? This is lame. Even you have to see that. I give a shit about someone dying, so I must be a lesbian? That's a reach, even for you.
  Instead of saying anything of the sort, I simply kept my head down and remained silent, as though I didn't dare speak. It was hard, sometimes, restraining my urge to talk back. But I needed to. Not only because it felt like I deserved a bit of suffering for what I had helped put Taylor through, but also because it gave me a little separation between Tether and Madison. If I acted the same way under and out of the mask, it wouldn't be long before even a blind ferret could draw the connections. My identity had to stay secret, which meant that I had to let things like this go.
  Emma's face had narrowed into an annoyed squint when I said nothing. "You really are pathetic, aren't you?"
  Rich words. I thought. Coming from someone who keeps her head so far up Sophia's ass that you could give directions to a proctologist. I paused before speaking, purposefully making my tone as quiet as possible. "Please, Emma, I'm just trying to meet somebody. Can't you go find Sophia and leave me alone?" Does she know you wandered away from your leash?
  If Emma looked any more proud and arrogant then, I would have been convinced that she was the one that was a member of the Wards, for all the credit she seemed to be ready to take. "She's been busy." Her voice lowered, but maintained that smug superiority that I knew so well. "All the you-know-what are really busy right now. Doing important things."
  She was right. The last three days had passed in a rush, but there was still no sign of the missing Panacea, or the mayor's niece. Some of the real big shots from the Protectorate had even showed up to help with the search. Not only capes, like Eidelon and Alexandria (who had so far failed to come up with any more leads than the local heroes), but suits of the mundane variety too. Every hour it seemed like there was another press conference with one of the big name capes or one of the PRT 'consultants' they had brought in. The search for Panacea, most likely the most powerful healer in the world, was huge. Every day there were police, PRT officers, and Protectorate-affiliated capes scouring every inch of the city. Hell, they were making an example of Hellhound. Apparently there was even talk of sending her into the Bird Cage if she didn't tell them what they wanted to know about the kidnapping and the Undersiders 'sponsor'.
  Whoever had taken Amy Dallon was probably regretting it right about now. No matter how amazing her healing was, it wasn't going to do much to save the person when the Triumverate got a hold of them. Whatever their plan had been, it was clearly backfiring.
  Emma's head shook, bringing me back to the moment at hand. "It doesn't have to be like this, you know." When I didn't respond, she continued. "If you ask nicely, I can talk to Sophia. We can handle all of this. It can go back to the way things used to be." She laid her hand against my arm, her voice turning softer. "We can all be friends again. You don't have to suffer."
  I let my eyes close. I didn't care. Not really. Every time I was even the slightest bit tempted by the nostalgia of the friendships I'd had, I remembered Taylor. I remembered the truth of what all that had meant. I remembered how psychotic Sophia was, and how pathetic Emma was for staying with her.
  But I wanted Emma to think that I was tempted, because I wanted her and Sophia to keep thinking that I was a fun target. I needed them to keep thinking that I was a fun target. Because if I let them know that I didn't care, if I fought back or did anything to stop them, they'd move on. They'd pick a better target, someone who couldn't handle it.
  So I faked it. I pretended to let myself be strung along, giving them just enough of a reaction that they'd be happy and keep using me as their emotional punching bag.
  It was no less than I deserved.
  When I opened my eyes and glanced toward Emma, I let her see just a little bit of hope.
  She laughed in my face, as I'd already known she would. "God, you are so pathetic. Why did I ever pretend you were my friend?" Reaching out with a hand, she smacked my cup over so that the by-then lukewarm coffee went all over the table and spilled into my lap. Then she laughed and walked away.
  I was trying to mop up the worst of the spill with the napkins when someone else cleared their throat. I looked up to find Dennis, standing with a raised eyebrow. "What happened?"
  "Uhh, accident." I felt my face flush a little, more than when Emma had been trying to embarrass me. "Sorry, I umm, I just..."
  "Here." Dennis set down the bag that he was carrying, then reached over to the next table over and grabbed the napkin dispenser. He sat down across from me and started to help me mop up the coffee. We were quiet for a moment while we took care of that.
  "So," I said finally. "You look tired. Late party nights over there in Arcadia?" Obviously he was part of the Wards search for Panacea, but it would look odd if I didn't comment on it.
  He gave a slight chuckle, shaking his head and rubbing at the dark circles under his eyes. "More like a big test." A strange look crossed his face then, one that confused me a little. He looked... annoyed? Annoyed that he was lying?
  "Rather not talk about that." Dennis finally settled on. He reached into the bag he'd brought and pulled out two paperbacks. "I brought the next couple books, just as promised."
  I hesitated, then reached out and started to take the books. As my fingers brushed his, my blush deepened, and I felt the sudden and utterly irrational urge to giggle like an idiot.
  "Thanks." I finally managed. "You didn't have to bring them."
  One side of the red-haired boy's mouth twitched up into a half smile. "So you'd be just as happy with just me and no books?"
  My mouth fell open, as my face tried its level best to try to match shades with Dennis's hair. "Well... I..." I coughed twice before rolling my eyes. "Sure." I smiled sweetly. "Because you're going to buy me a new drink."
  He blinked at me, then laughed and nodded. "Okay, fine. When you put it that way."
  We ordered, and while we were waiting, I looked at the books that he'd brought. "I didn't know you were bringing two."
  Dennis nodded. "Yeah, well, I wasn't sure how far through that one you were. Not much of a point to meeting today if you were just going to finish it up in an hour or two."
  "I'll get them both back to you as soon as I can." I promised."
  That was met with a shrug. "I'm not worried. Give me an excuse to track you down next week."
  "Next week?" I made myself sound offended. "Just how slow of a reader do you think I am?"
  That half-smile came back. "So you're saying you'd like to meet sooner?"
  Choking a little, I pushed at my slightly damp shirt. "Let's see how this meeting goes. Um, give me a minute. I got some of that stuff on me." After excusing myself, I rose and moved past him and across the store to the restroom to do what I could with the coffee-stained shirt.
  A few minutes later when I emerged, Dennis was on his phone. I smirked to myself and started to walk closer. I'd make him pay for making me blush so much.
  "Yeah, like I said, it's gotta be her, right?"
  I stopped at the sound of his voice. What had to be her?
  There was a pause before he went on, clearly responding to someone. "It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? She loathes Sophia, she doesn't want to join us, the very idea makes her sick, and she still wants to help people. I mean, come on, it's obvious. Who else has that good of a reason to hate Sophia and refuse to join us?"
  Oh my god. Had he figured it out? Did Dennis know?
  "Yeah." Dennis went on. "Well I think it was faked."
  That derailed me. Faked? What was faked?
  "I'm not sure. Someone probably had to help her. Maybe her dad knows someone?"
  Well now I was completely lost. What the hell was he talking about?
  There was another pause, as the person on the other end of the line apparently wasn't convinced. Dennis replied confidently. "Well, when I turn out to be right, I get to say I told you so. I'm saying it right now. Hebert isn't dead. She's our new little helper."
  I stopped breathing, choking a little. He thought that Taylor was alive, and that she was Tether.
  My stomach rolled.. This was... wrong, wasn't it? I mean, yes I wanted Taylor to be remembered, but not like this. I didn't want her death to be trivialized or erased. Hell, part of me wanted to punch Dennis for even suggesting that it had been faked. I wanted to know who he was talking to, who he was spreading this to.
  Oh god. What if they talked to Taylor's father? The thought made me blanch, and I took a quick step that way, my fists clenched.
  What was I doing? I couldn't say anything. I couldn't exactly call him out on what he was talking about, could I?
  While I was frozen in indecision, Dennis spoke into the phone again. "I guess that answers that." Slowly, he lifted his hand and waved at someone on the other side of the room.
  Wait, no. My eyes moved up, and I saw what he was waving at. A mirror. He was waving at a mirror on the other side of the room, where he could see himself... and me. I stared into the mirror, while Dennis met my eyes.
  After a moment, he turned around in his seat and held his phone up for me to see. There was no one on the other end. The phone was on the lock screen. He hadn't been making a call after all.
  "You wanna talk?" He asked quietly, his eyes not leaving mine.
  My mouth opened and then shut. "What... what was that?"
  He rose, gesturing. "A test. I looked into what happened to Taylor, Madison. You were part of her little bully squad, weren't you?"
  His voice was a bit harsher than I'd come to expect from him, and I flinched a little. "I... I was... I was stupid."
  He nodded in acceptance of that before speaking again. "I needed to know how you'd react to someone thinking she wasn't dead. I needed to see if all this was an act. I needed to know if you cared at all." Finally, Dennis's face softened a little. "I thought you did. But I needed to know. I needed to be sure."
  Feeling numb, I slid my way into the booth and stared at him. "But... but why would you..."
  Taking a breath, he held up a hand. "Let me start with the first part. You're Tether. I'm guessing you triggered when Taylor died. When you figured out how much you fucked up. And now you're trying to make up for it."
  The words were like a blow, and I flinched again. Words failed me, but that didn't seem to matter. Apparently my expression was enough of an answer, and he continued, "That was why it was a two part test. I needed to see your reaction to know if you cared about Taylor's death, and if you knew what I was talking about. You did. Most people would have been confused, but you looked sick. You looked like... someone who couldn't decide if they wanted to give credit for their actions to a dead girl or not." His voice got a bit quieter then. "And you knew exactly what it meant. You know who I am. That part didn't confuse you at all."
  For a long moment, we sat across the booth from each other. Then I reached over and punched him in the shoulder, hard. I considered a moment, then hit him again, harder.
  Both times, he yelped before grabbing his shoulder. "Gah! What was that for? I didn't tell anyone about your secret, I swear."
  "Too bad." I hissed under my breath. "They could've told you how stupid using the memory of a dead girl to try to draw me out was, idiot."
  This time, it was his turn to look flustered. His mouth opened and shut, and then he sighed. "I thought it was clever. If you knew the truth, you'd be shocked. If not, you'd be confused. It was an easy test."
  "It was horrible." I told him flatly. "You don't use the memory of someone who died to TEST someone. You just don't. Especially not... not this girl. Not this one."
  He had the decency to look away, and I saw some tension build into him. "How responsible are you for her death?"
  My eyes closed and I shook my head, a sudden panic coming over me. "No. I can't talk about this. I can't."
  I started to rise, started to flee, but Dennis's hand reached out and caught my arm. "Wait. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for tricking you, for testing you. I just... I've only met you once before now, but I liked you. I liked you, and when I saw that you were part of the group that was bullying Taylor Hebert, I just... lost it a bit. I had to know for sure."
  I opened my eyes and looked at him, then closed them again. I couldn't do it. The shame of what I'd been, who I'd been, it was too much. "I'm sorry." I said hollowly. "I didn't mean it."
  I wasn't talking to him, and he somehow knew that.
  For a moment, we simply sat there with his hand on my arm. He didn't rush me, or interrupt. Finally, after a few minutes, I managed to find my voice again. "I want to get out of here. I can't do this here."
  He nodded, and we both stood. Leaving our drinks where they were, we walked out of the store. I looked up and down the street, at a loss for where to go. Dennis was quiet, standing a little behind me until I started to walk toward an alley.
  When we were off the street and out of sight once more, I spoke. "I didn't mean for her to die. I didn't even want to do that stupid prank." When he said nothing, I went on. "I mean, yes, I was a bully. I was horrible. I was evil, for fuck's sake. When I think back to the things we did to her all the time... I want to throw up. I still do. But I didn't want to do that one. That was Sophia. Sophia pushed her into the locker. Sophia is-"
  "Shadow Stalker." He confirmed quietly. "I know. This was about you, not her. I know she doesn't care about it. You're the one I had to know about. That's why she's treating you like this, isn't it?"
  "Because I didn't want to forget it." I nodded a little, feeling equal parts exhausted and energized. "Because I wanted to tell someone about what happened."
  Leaning against the nearby dumpster, Dennis nodded. "I'd ask why you didn't, but let me guess, she threatened you."
  "In a manner of speaking." I replied, rather hesitantly. When he simply raised an eyebrow quizzically, I sighed. "She said that no one would care. She showed me that she was Shadow Stalker, and she said that they'd cover it up to keep her as a Ward. That they'd shut me up if I tried to expose her."
  His eyes widened and he blurted, "What the fuck? Why would you believe that?"
  "Well she didn't do much to cover her psychotic behavior before!" I shot back. "They let her on the team anyway."
  "They forced her onto the team, Madison." He replied, his voice strained. "They made her choose between being a Ward and going to prison, and that was when she almost killed someone. You really think the Protectorate would just let a murderer off? That's insane."
  I flinched again, looking down. He took a breath and then sighed. "I'm sorry. It's just... why would you believe her?"
  "She can be really convincing." I said dryly. Then, after hesitating, I asked quietly, "Are you sure they wouldn't cover it up?"
  "I'm positive." He replied. "Trust me, she's on thin ice as it is. This... this is something they need to know about. Fuck, if you'd just come to us to begin with... that night that Aegis and the others first saw you... You could have said something. She'd be off the streets already."
  My head shook. "I didn't think they'd believe me. Or worse, they would believe me and wouldn't care. I kinda decided I'd rather not know which one it was."
  "So what was your plan then?" He asked. When I just looked at him blankly, he went on. "What was your plan for dealing with Sophia? What was your plan for stopping her before she killed someone else? Because she sure didn't learn her lesson with the guy that got her sent to the Wards, and she definitely didn't learn it from Taylor. I... Jesus, Madison, think about it. You just reinforced that she could get away with things by threatening people."
  My mouth fell open at that, the words hitting me like a physical blow. "I... I didn't mean... I didn't think..."
  "I'm sorry." Dennis sighed. "I know she scared you. I know all of this is fucked up. But it's really fucked up. Totally and completely. You have to tell people. We have to tell people. She can't just kill someone, even if it was an accident, and get away with it. She threatened you, Madison. She's not going to stop. She's not going to get better. And this isn't going to go away."
  It was all I could do not to break down again. "I don't know who to talk to. I don't know who to trust."
  He was quiet, and then I felt him take my hand. "Trust me. Sophia won't get away with this. I promise. She won't get away with Taylor, and she won't get away with threatening you."
  Biting my lip, I hesitated before asking, "So how'd you figure out I was Tether?"
  He gave a little laugh. "Because I'm not deaf and stupid? Please. You don't sound that different. And Tether just happens to show up right after you saw me drag Sophia out for a 'project' or whatever the hell I was babbling about? Plus there's that whole animosity with Shadow Stalker. You almost knocked Gallant over with the loathing."
  I blushed in spite of myself, sighing softly. "So now what? Things are a little busy with Panacea."
  "Yeah..." He agreed. "But we're still going to tell them anyway." He looked at me. "You can go in costume if you don't want them to know who you are. Just tell them what you know about what Sophia did."
  "Because Sophia won't immediately turn around and out me the second she figures out how I could possibly know that?" I replied before shaking my head. "No, if I'm doing this, I'm going all in. Taylor deserves justice, and she deserves it from me, not from Tether. I... I have to tell them the truth as myself. Hiding behind a mask to do it, that's... wrong. I owe it to Taylor to tell the truth. You're right. I have to."
  Dennis held my gaze for a moment, then nodded seriously. A breath left him, and he finally blurted, "Okay so would you just tell me if you're just telekinetic or what? Because it's been bugging the hell out of us in the Wards and I've got ten bucks riding on it."
  I blinked at that, and started to giggle. Dennis smiled and squeezed my hand. Before I could answer, there was a buzz from his phone. Dennis took it out and looked at me before setting it to speaker. "Go ahead."
  "They're calling everyone in." The voice of Kid Win said. "They found her."
  Eyes widening, Dennis looked at me, then down at the phone. "Panacea? They've got her?"
  "They know where she is." The voice replied. "They're calling everyone in to get her out safely. And pound the assholes into the ground so no one tries this shit again."
  "Who?" Dennis pressed. "Who took her? Who are we going after?"
  There was a pause before Kid Win replied. "Empire Eighty-Eight. The Empire kidnapped Panacea."
  Interlude 2 - Purity
  Kayden Russel still wasn't certain that she was doing the right thing.
  Then again, she certainly hadn't been doing the right thing when she became involved with the man she'd had a crush on since she was in middle school and he was a high school baseball star. Or when she married him. Or when she became the second in command of his Empire Eighty-Eight. Purity and Kaiser, the boy becoming a man and taking over where his father had left off, while the little girl with stars in her eyes became his enforcer, then his wife.
  Bad choice after bad choice, her life was plagued by them. Every time she thought she'd turned things around, break the cycle, that turned out to be the wrong choice as well. Because no matter where she went, people always saw her as Kaiser's second, as an extension of the man himself.
  Leaving Max, divorcing him and distancing herself from the Empire, was one of the only good choices she'd made, and even that wasn't sticking very well. It was the best choice she could make, if she wanted to keep the one true joy of her life away from the thick, evil cloud that was Max.
  Aster. Just the thought of her baby, her perfect, beloved little girl, was enough to drive the dark thoughts away from Kayden, bringing a smile to her face.
  "Whatcha thinking about, Nazi?" An impudent voice asked. Kayden turned to see the girl from the Undersiders team in the mask with the hand print across it. The girl was clearly trying to see Kayden's face beyond the bright white glow that her active powers gave off from her eyes and hair. That glow was the reason she didn't bother wearing a mask when she was out in costume. In her civilian form, she looked like any thirty year old woman with mousy brown hair. As Purity, her hair and eyes glowed a bright white constantly.
  Giving up on seeing her face, Freezetag settled on glaring somewhere around the level of her chest."Trying to remember how many people you've fucked over just because their skin color's different than yours?"
  "Tag." Grue, the leader of the Undersiders said in a warning tone. "Don't start. We're busy enough as it is."
  "Yeah." The girl muttered, looking away with apparent disgust. "Busy working with the fucking Klu Klux Kunt."
  Before either Kayden or Grue, or any of the other Undersiders for that matter, could respond to that, their benefactor walked into the room, and all side conversations stopped.
  "Good afternoon." The man in the skintight black bodysuit with the design of a white snake encircling it, the tip of the snake's tail near his ankle while the head perched over the forehead of his full mask, greeted them simply. "I trust you have questions."
  "Knowing what she's doing here would be a good start." Grue said, his voice conveying his annoyance without being overtly rude. "I thought we were framing the Empire Eighty-Eight for this kidnapping. That is what you told my team when you convinced them to carry out their part."
  Coil regarded the Undersider's leader briefly before pointing out mildly. "A part which, as I recall, resulted in your rescue from PRT custody."
  "And resulted in the capture of another of our teammates." Grue returned. Behind him, Regent and Tattletale were standing out of the way, looking bored and intensely interested, respectively. Freezetag shifted from foot to foot, clearly wanting to be done with all this already, while Browbeat sat in a corner, doing nothing and looking at no one. Kayden wasn't sure what was going on with that one. He'd been an up and coming solo hero, but he'd abruptly joined the Undersiders with no explanation, and now he wasn't doing anything at all. Just staring blankly at the floor. If she didn't know better, she would have guessed that he was a robot whose off switch had been flipped.
  "Hellhound's capture was unfortunate." Coil admitted. "If possible, we will retrieve her. If not, you will all receive payment equal to what she would have received on average for the next year's worth of jobs, divided among you."
  "Bitch." Grue corrected. "She prefers Bitch."
  "Yo. Slytherin." Freezetag waved a hand as though to get Coil's attention. "That. That right there." She was pointing at Kayden. "Focus, dude. What is she doing here? We don't work with-" Her last words were cut off by Grue surrounding her head with a dark cloud. The girl's fist shook and then she folded her arms and assumed a position of intense sulking.
  "Thank you." Coil nodded at Grue, then looked toward Kayden once more. "Ms. Purity here is a key part of the aforementioned frame job, actually. Isn't that right?"
  She'd needed a way out, a way to make a name for herself, to be better than what she'd been with the specter of Kaiser looming over everything she did. For herself and for Aster. For a time she had been trying to take on the ABB solo, thinking that by driving them out of the city, people might finally see her for herself.
  It hadn't been enough. She'd been so desperate to win, to do what had to be done and finally beat the gang that had become her nemesis that she'd very nearly decided to go back to Max and ask for his help.
  Coil had found her instead. He had found her, and extended an offer of a limited partnership. In exchange for her help, her lies, he would ensure that Max would never be a problem for her or for Aster, and that her baby would never want for anything in her life.
  And, just maybe, her actions would make the PRT see her in a different light as well.
  Grue's head tilted slightly, and she could almost see the confusion written across his helmet. "Explain."
  Instead, Coil reached into the pocket of his costume and withdrew a slim, prepaid cell phone. He offered it to her. "If you would?"
  Kayden took the phone and then took a breath before dialing a number that she had memorized. Under the eyes of the other costumed parahumans, she held the phone up to her ear.
  A computerized voice answered. "You have reached the PRT - Brockton Bay offices. If you know your party's extension, please press pound, followed by the extension. For public relations questions or concerns, press one. If you are or know a parahuman who would like to speak to an adviser, please press two..."
  She listened until the voice gave her the option to press 9, 9, pound, for a direct emergency. A moment later a bored receptionist asked for her name. Kayden hesitated only slightly before answering. "Purity."
  There was a pause, and then the woman asked her to repeat herself, slightly more awake now.
  "My name is Purity. Yes, that Purity. I know where the girl is. The healer girl. She's with Kaiser. Kaiser is the one who took her." Another slight pause as the woman frantically asked her to wait while she transferred her, and then Kayden answered their next question. "Yes, I can tell you where to go. I can tell you exactly where he's keeping her."
  That conversation continued through several more hoops before Kayden disconnected the phone. She looked up toward Coil and the Undersiders. "There. I did my part."
  "So you have." The mastermind of this situation gave a slight nod. "I thank you for that."
  "So lemme get this straight." This time it was Regent who interrupted. "She just turned into Benedict Arnold and sold out her old team by telling the PRT that her old boss has the girl that fucking everybody is looking for. Great, so what happens when they turn over every rock with the Empire's name on it and don't find the girl?"
  Coil shook his head. "They will find the girl, actually. Panacea will be located right where Purity told them to check."
  "And when she tells them that the Empire didn't kidnap her?" Freezetag, who had escaped the muffling cloud by then, prompted.
  "As far as she knows, they did." Coil replied simply. He made a simple, dismissive gesture. "The girl has been held for the past three days in a garage that every record will indicate belongs to Kaiser's civilian identity. She has seen and spoken to people she believes work for the Empire, and a man that Miss Dallon believes to be Kaiser killed his other captive, the young Dinah Alcott, to make an example of her and to ensure Panacea's future contributions versus more deaths if she refused."
  Kayden could see Grue go completely still. His voice turned hard. "You had that little girl killed?"
  Coil's head shook. "Surely not. The girl is safe and sound. But Miss Dallon is convinced that she is not, and that is the key."
  "So now what?" Regent wanted to know.
  Coil started to respond, before noticing Tattletale. "Would you like to answer that?"
  Kayden recognized the smile that spread across the purple-costumed girl then. It was the smile of one who loved to show off how smart she was, who couldn't wait to prove that she was one step ahead of everyone else in the room. "Well, if you insist."
  Tattletale tapped her fingers against her head before gesturing. "You've got a couple of the Empire's people heading out there already, don't you? Somehow you've rigged it so that they're going to show up at the garage just as the heroes do."
  His expression hidden, Coil simply nodded.
  The girl went on then. "So whoever you managed to get out there gets smashed by the Triumverate and whoever else they bring along with them, which just reinforces the whole idea that the Empire was behind it. They rescue Panacea, who tells them that Kaiser was responsible, and that he killed the mayor's niece. Then the Empire gets taken apart by every cape in the city that Panacea's kidnapping pissed off. They don't stand a chance, and no one else is going to take their side and risk being labeled alongside them. Empire Eighty-Eight's done."
  She glanced sidelong toward Kayden. "All except for the woman who turned in the boss, who most people know was already separating herself from Kaiser and the Empire, who was known for having a change of heart. She gets to be the big hero who told the truth and let them find Panacea. Which, incidentally, will finally make people stop lumping her in as Kaiser's bitch."
  Kayden stiffened, then relaxed. What did it matter now? "Are we done here? I need to be there if this is going to work. They need to see me actively helping."
  Coil gave another slight nod. "Go. And Purity, remember, do not speak with Armsmaster without activating the tinker tech I provided you. You won't be able to lie without it."
  Making a noise of acknowledgment, Kayden turned to leave the room. On her way out, she heard Grue speak again. "Now let's talk about how you're planning on getting the heat off us for our part in the kidnapping. And how we're going to save Bitch."
  Ignoring that, Kayden left the room, making her way through the underground base that was still under heavy construction. She wound her way through until she reached the room next to the exit. Poking her head in there, she found a pudgy fifteen year old boy sitting on a couch with her beautiful baby girl sleeping in his arms.
  "Has she made any fuss, Theo?" She asked the boy. He was Max's son from another woman, a boy that she'd never been able to make herself love the way that she loved her own baby. But she did care about what happened to him, and she hadn't wanted him to be caught up in the crossfire when this went down. So she had made Theo part of the deal with Coil. He had to take care of all three of them if he wanted Purity to do her part.
  The boy shook his head, his eyes on the tv across the room before he focused on her. "She was just hungry." He said simply, indicating the empty bottle on the couch.
  "I'll be back soon." Kayden promised. "If she wakes up again, there's another bottle in the bag next to the chair."
  Theo nodded but said nothing. She knew that he had to have some idea of what she was doing, that Coil wasn't on friendly terms with his father and what her being there meant. But he hadn't said anything. He never said anything that might mean expressing an opinion. His father had made sure of that.
  She couldn't even tell if the idea of her betraying Max made him happy or sad.
  Suppressing the urge to push the boy to offer something resembling an individual thought or emotion, Kayden quietly backed out of the room. Then she took the next door and left the underground base behind.
  A moment later, Purity launched herself into the sky, glowing brightly before streaking off toward the address she'd given the PRT. By this time next week, she wouldn't be Purity, the enforcer of Kaiser's racist Empire Eighty-Eight. She'd be Purity, hero of Brockton Bay, responsible for the rescue of Panacea.
  Then Aster would grow up with a mother she could be proud of.
  Interlude 2B - Legend
  High above the city of Brockton Bay, the man known to the world as Legend, the leader and public face of the entire Protectorate, floated alongside the clouds. His gaze took in the buildings laid out below him, a side effect of his extensive powers meaning that he could see perfectly no matter the distance, until an obstacle or the atmosphere intervened.
  His gaze flicked across people, searching for any sign of the girl that he and so many others had been scouring this city is for the past three days. Three days where he had been away from his husband and their son even more than was the norm for their unconventional family. Three days where he missed them both so much that the terrible feeling that Amy's family must have been going through weighed on him more with each passing moment, convincing him to search even longer.
  And yet it wasn't on the streets or on the people within them that he was truly focused on in this moment. Instead, his attention lay on the private, untraceable phone that was currently held to one ear.
  "Tell me that we have nothing to do with this."
  The voice on the other end of the phone, the woman he had known for more than a decade and yet did not truly know at all, was silent for a moment before responding. "We have no interest in removing useful parahumans from the world, Legend. Particularly ones such as Panacea. All of our goals, all of them, are much better suited to Amy Dallon staying where she was."
  It did not escape Legend's attention that the woman had not technically answered the question.
  "We do have a request for the resolution of this situation." The woman continued before he could decide if it was worth pressing the issue.
  "You must be joking." He replied. "A teenage girl is missing, if it escaped your notice. This isn't the time to be playing games."
  The woman's voice turned slightly colder. "As I already said, returning Amy Dallon to her home is in everyone's best interests. This request does not concern her safety. Rather, it concerns the fate of those who will fall in response to this abduction."
  It took him a moment to work through that. "Are you saying you know who has her?"
  "That information is making its way through official channels as we speak. You will be receiving the call within the next two minutes. But first, we must come to an agreement." The woman paused to let him speak, but he said nothing. After a moment, she continued. "As I said, removing useful parahumans is against everything we stand for."
  "You want to offer them a deal." Legend spoke in disbelief. "These are the people who abducted Panacea, probably one of our top five assets against things like the Endbringers, and you want to make them an offer to avoid punishment."
  "Believe me when I tell you that the ones we are speaking of have nothing of note to do with that abduction. That is not to say that they are not terrible people. But they can be removed from the general population and still remain... useful."
  "What do you want?" Legend replied, a little stiffly.
  "We want you to make them an offer."
  He frowned slightly at that. "What kind of offer?"
  She told him, and by the time she was done, the call had come in.
  Orienting himself toward the objective, the man called Legend went from a floating start to a streak across the sky with an abruptness that left doubt whether he had ever truly been there, while a rolling boom announced his obliteration of the sound barrier.
  As he approached the supposedly abandoned automotive repair garage that their informant had described, Legend spotted a group of costumed teenagers using another building as cover as they gathered. He slowed his flight and descended, landing at the edge of the assembled group.
  Their eyes turned to him, and he saw the awe that still, to this day, made him want to turn to see what famous, important, special person must have been standing behind him.
  "Sir." The teenager in the red costume with the shield emblem came to attention. "We're ready whenever you need us."
  "Aegis." He had become acquainted with the group over the last several days. He let his attention sweep over the group. Kid Win, Shadow Stalker, Clockblocker, Gallant, and Vista. And... another. He blinked, looking the girl up and down. She wore a clearly homemade costume that consisted of urban camo pants, a white turtleneck, black vest with a hood, and white balaclava mask. "You I don't know."
  The resulting high pitched whistling-whine noise almost made Legend instinctively check for incoming projectiles. It took him a second to realize that the noise was coming from the girl. Before his eyes, she started to vibrate, literally bouncing up and down as that whining noise that he slowly realized was excitement grew louder with each passing second.
  Smiling a little, Legend lifted his hand and started to give his standard greeting for a new cape. He didn't get the chance. The girl reacted to his raised hand by throwing herself forward. Her arms flew out and wrapped around him, and Legend found himself being hugged tighter than he could remember anyone without super strength outside of his own family hugging him.
  And she was still bouncing, that high pitched squee continuing for long enough that he started to wonder if she needed to breathe.
  In spite of himself, Legend returned the embrace. He couldn't help it, and a chuckle escaped him.
  "Tether!" Aegis hissed in shock, while Clockblocker and Kid Win looked as though they were starting to lose their struggle not to laugh out loud. Gallant was shaking his head, while Vista stared at the ground, shoulders shaking through her silent giggles. Shadow Stalker had her arms folded, the disbelief and anger clearly apparent.
  Finally, the girl's mask tilted up toward him. Her voice was cheerful. "You give good hugs."
  "Oh my god, Tether." Aegis blurted. "He's the leader of the Triumverate and one of the most powerful people in the world. Stop hugging him!"
  She did release him, only to turn toward the other teenager, head cocked to the side quizzically. "Explain to me which part of that makes him less deserving of hugs."
  "He's... he's... he's Legend! He's been saving the world since before we were born!" Aegis sputtered in disbelief.
  The girl leaned back a bit toward the man, her voice lowering into a stage whisper. "You hear that? Decades of saving the world and he doesn't think you've earned hugs. Boy, the things you've gotta do to impress some people." She made a whistling noise of disappointment.
  The Wards leader's protests dissolved into incoherent noises, and most of the rest of the team finally failed in their attempts to avoid snickering.
  Chuckling a little before coughing to cover it, Legend straightened, regarding the girl with interest. "New member?" Was she a product of Cauldron? Most of the... standard capes weren't nearly so... cheerful, particularly when it was obviously so soon since whatever traumatic event had caused their trigger. But if she was a Cauldron Cape...
  Aegis squinted at the girl briefly. "We're not sure. She's... strange."
  "She's new." Clockblocker spoke up. "But we're not sure if she's a member yet. She's helpful though."
  "Tether, was it?" He was going to have to ask the Doctor, in general terms, if his theory was right.
  Her head bobbed. "That's my name. Well it's not my name. It's not like my school ID has my picture on it next to the name 'Tether', and my mom doesn't say 'hey tether, time for dinner!' and-"
  In the background, Aegis had turned Gallant so that he could bang his forehead against the other boy's metal armored back.
  Shaking his head, Legend held up a hand to forestall the girl. "I get the picture. I know what everyone else here does. What about you?"
  "Umm..." Now the girl's posture made her look nervous and uncertain. She was definitely new. He wondered how she was so comfortable cracking jokes just before something like this. Growing up in a cape family maybe? "I make lines."
  He blinked at that. "Come again?"
  Looking toward a nearby dumpster, the girl pointed. "Lines. One end there..." Then she pointed to the fence across the lot. "The other end there. And... pull." The dumpster started to slide across the lot toward the fence. "There's more to it, but that's it basically. Lines. I can make them push or pull." As another demonstration, she lifted her hand toward the upper wall of the building. "Line from my glove to the wall." She was pulled off the ground.
  "Damn it!" Clockblocker cursed, while Kid Win raised both of his hands in triumph. At Legend's curious look, the time-stopper shrugged. "We had a bet about what her powers were, exactly."
  "Umm, Mr. Legend, sir?" Tether asked from her hanging position. "There's something else. My powers also make lines to show me where people are that are going to get hurt, and it's making an awful lot of them right now."
  He frowned at that. "Where?"
  The girl pointed in demonstration. "All the way over there at the building, and ummm... Up there." She pointed up, toward an approaching group of fliers.
  Everyone looked that way, and Aegis sighed. "New Wave. No way they'll wait for backup."
  Legend tapped his comm. "How long until everyone else gets here?" When the response came, he cursed. "They're still at least six minutes out." He paused slightly, then looked to the Wards. "I'm going to try to stall them and keep this under control. Failing that, if things go south, I'll go for grabbing everyone's attention. If that happens, all of you focus on getting around to the back side of that garage, find a way in, and get that girl out."
  He waited until they nodded in acknowledgment, then took off into the sky once more, flying for the group that was streaking toward the garage. Specifically, the blonde girl in the white dress and cape that was leading the charge.
  Grimacing, Legend shot his way out in front of them, turning in the air to hold up a hand. "Wait."
  Glory Girl, rage evident on her face even as she reluctantly halted, looked for a moment as though she would go around him anyway, reputation be damned. "My sister's down there."
  To the angry girl's either side, two more teenage figures had halted. Laserdream, in her white bodysuit with the emblem of a red and magenta arrow and lines radiating back and around from her chest out to her arms and legs, floated to Glory Girl's left, and Shielder, with his own matching white body suit save for the emblem of a blue shield that matched his blue hair, was to her right. A bit behind the three, Lady Photon and Brandish, mother of Shielder and Laserdream, and mother of Glory Girl (and adoptive mother of Panacea), respectively, floated.
  Impetuously, the girl in the lead, her powerful aura of intimidation going full blast, glared at him. "Move."
  "Victoria!" Brandish admonished her daughter. "Think about who you're talking to."
  "I know who I'm not talking to." Glory Girl shot back at her mother. "My sister. So why are we still waiting around?"
  "We need to scout the building." Legend cautioned. "We have a group ready to ensure the safety of Panacea. I understand your urgency. But if we wait for just a few minutes so that all of our reinforcements can arrive, there's a much better chance of-"
  Glory Girl, who had been rolling her eyes, spotted a van pulling into the lot below them. As two figures emerged, she went from mostly ignoring what Legend was saying, to completely ignoring him. She inverted in the air and dove with a suddenness that took even him by surprise, while her mother shouted her name. On either side of the empty spot where Victoria Dallon had been, her cousins exchanged looks and sighed before chasing after her.
  Spinning in the air, Legend saw the four figures emerge from the van. One was a large, rather hairy man with greasy blond hair that he recognized as the so-called 'Hookwolf'. The girl who stepped out next to him couldn't have been any older than the girl they had kidnapped. Clearly that was the telekinetic Rune, while the remaining two were the husband and wife duo of Othala, who granted super powers from a limited pool to those she touched, and Victor, the skill thief.
  "You!" Glory Girl shouted in a rage that made Legend wince. The bellow served as a warning, giving Othala time to notice her arrival and touch her husband barely a second before Victoria collided with him. From the man's lack of reaction, she'd had time to grant him temporary invincibility.
  The rest of New Wave descended upon the quartet of Nazis, the scene degenerating into a brawl before Legend could finish sighing in annoyance at being ignored.
  Hookwolf had changed shape, becoming a wildly shifting mass of blades and hooks that vaguely resembled a giant wolf. Shielder had created a forcefield and was working to contain him. Meanwhile, Rune had touched the van the group had arrived in, and was making it fly through the air at high speed, forcing Brandish and Lady Photon to continually dodge.
  Victor had used his temporary invincibility to weather Glory Girl's charge, then simply turned the girl's own speed against her, throwing her into the nearby wall. By the time she had recovered, his wife had reached his side, her touch switching his super power so that he could send a wave of fire through the air and toward the girl who had ambushed them.
  Laserdream reached the pair then to back up her cousin, her attack sending the husband and wife diving for cover.
  Finally seeing enough of this, Legend flew from his spot in the air to land in a crouch in the middle of the lot with his arms outstretched to either side. At a single thought, a half dozen lasers emerged from each of his hands.
  Four of the lasers curved around and up, blasting the van into several pieces just before Rune could hit Brandish with it, while the fifth, less powerful laser gave the telekinetic a surgically precise burn across her arm, making her yelp and lose control of the pieces so that they fell to the ground. The sixth laser shot through the brick half-wall that Othala and Victor had been taking cover behind, forcing the pair to recoil from the brick dust that exploded into their eyes, while the seventh and eighth lasers shot directly between where their figures were after they drew back from the dust, forcing Othala to retreat a few steps from her husband.
  Finally, the remaining four lasers tore into Hookwolf, shearing nearly half of the metal from his figure in a single attack.
  By the time Legend finished straightening from his initial landing, the fighting had stopped, and everyone was watching him.
  "Good." He said simply. "Now that I have your attention, maybe we can talk like civilized adults."
  Stalking forward, Glory Girl demanded, "Where. Is. Amy?" Her aura was going even stronger than before.
  Hookwolf, who had resumed his human shape, glowered. "Girl, even if I-"
  Before he could continue speaking, the doors of the garage flew open and the standing heroes were met by a hail of gunfire. Legend felt several impacts against his chest, his power protecting him by shifting his state to a semi-energy state for a brief instant to absorb the energy of the bullets and incinerate their physical form so that each only conveyed a slight fraction of the damage they should.
  A flood of men wearing the Empire Eighty-Eight's colors emerged from the garage. Three ran to Othala and put themselves between her and the heroes, ushering her back toward Victor. Two more rushed to Rune, providing her with a large bag that the pair were carrying between them. When Rune reached into the bag, a half dozen basketball sized metal balls rose from the bag and began to circle the teenager rapidly as she exercised her power.
  More of the men provided cover fire for Hookwolf with a mixture of gun and laser fire, giving the man an opportunity to recover while the heroes were forced to back up, using various forcefields as protection.
  Taking aim, Legend sent another half dozen lasers curving around the various shields that had sprung up, blasting the weapons out of several of the men's hands.
  In the midst of all this gunfire, a voice bellowed, " WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?"
  Everyone involved turned to find the leader of the Empire Eighty-Eight, the man known as Kaiser, standing at the edge of the lot, flanked by his twin blonde bodyguard valkyries, both of whom had increased their size to roughly fifteen feet. Only half of their maximum, but still intimidating to most people.
  Legend stepped forward, keeping his eyes roving across the men in case someone had an itchy trigger finger. "We're here for the girl, Kaiser."
  "What-" It was as far as the man got, before another figure flew down from the sky, the bright glow surrounding her figure making it difficult to stare directly at her.
  "It's too late, Max." She said while positioning herself between Legend and Kaiser. "I've told them everything. I told them about how the Empire took the girl to fix your condition."
  For a moment, Kaiser just stared at the woman. "You... you've turned... how..." The confusion in his voice turned to a noise of rage. He raised his hand, and Legend moved to intervene.
  He never had the chance. The man stopped in mid-motion, his body going rigidly still. His head tilted, his words turned into a horrified cry of agony that was as terrible as it was brief, and blood poured from the man's eyes and mouth. Then he collapsed to the ground, utterly still.
  No one moved. No one spoke. None of it seemed real. Slowly, one of the blonde valkyries shrunk down and knelt at Kaiser's side, laying a hand against him. A moment later, her confused, bewildered voice called out, "He's... he's dead!"
  Everyone, from both sides, looked shocked. Before anyone else could recover, a voice called out, "Amy!" Glory Girl flew across the lot, straight toward the group that was emerging from the garage. It was the Wards this time, escorting the Healer.
  Embracing her sister tightly, Glory Girl started to examine her, looking for damage. But Panacea waved her off and approached. She was limping, and Legend remembered belatedly that, for all her power, the girl was incapable of healing her own body.
  "This is why he took me." She said, addressing him. "There was something wrong with his brain. He said that a bio-tinker did something to him as revenge for something. He wanted me to fix him, so his power would stop hurting his brain. He was afraid that if he got too angry, it would kill him." She lowered her voice, scowling. "I told him I don't do brains. So he killed... he killed..." Her eyes closed and she gave a shudder. "He killed that little girl. He killed Dinah, because I wouldn't fix his brain."
  By that time, the rest of the Empire Eighty-Eight troops had recovered somewhat from the dual impact of their leader's death and his second-in-command's apparent defection. The giant women had unslung their weapons, a spear and a sword and shield respectively, while gaining another ten feet of height. Hookwolf looked like he was ready for blood, Rune had taken the time to add several more chunks of debris to her arsenal, and Victor and Othala were together. The unpowered troops with their guns had regained their footing, spacing themselves out to provide cover for the actual capes.
  "Kaiser is dead!" Purity called out, facing the group as she floated partway off the ground. "The Empire is over!"
  This was met with a loud curse from Hookwolf. "Slut!" he shouted. "Which one of the Protectorate fucks banged you so hard you switched sides, huh? Just tell me it wasn't a nigger. Tell me you ain't flipped around that bad."
  Purity's hands clenched, and she shook her head. "It's over, Wolf. It's time to stop."
  "What it's time for..." Hookwolf snarled. "is me to jam a few footlong spikes up your cunt." He leapt into his alternate form, tearing toward the floating woman with a shriek of grinding, twisting metal.
  Before Legend could intervene, Purity extended her hand. A blinding blast of light leapt from her fingers, utterly engulfed the charging Hookwolf, and sent him flying backwards to hit the wall of the garage, before carrying on through through said wall, leaving the broken, shattered form lying collapsed in the rubble that remained.
  "I never did like that kind of language." Purity said quietly.
  Legend decided that the silence that followed was as good of a time as any, and raised his hand. "The rest of you listen to me right now. The country wants to make an example out of you. Kidnapping Panacea was a bad, bad idea. They wouldn't mind if we finished this fight the hard way, just so no one else gets the idea of trying something like that again. This isn't something you can run from. It's not a fight you can win."
  He took a breath, letting that set before continuing. "But, I've been authorized to offer you a deal. Everyone, any of you who surrender unconditionally in the next five seconds after I finish talking will do their time in a regular maximum security prison. Everyone who doesn't goes to the Bird Cage. Period. No exceptions. Believe me when I say, this is a one time deal."
  "So, who's up for it?"
  By the time that the members of the local Protectorate, as well as his partners in the Triumverate, reached the scene, all of the Empire's people who had been present had surrendered. The unpowered people had been first, unsurprisingly, but the others had followed suit without Hookwolf to goad them on, helped by the sight of their deceased leader lying in the middle of the parking lot.
  Now, hours later, Legend stood in a room in the local Protectorate base, alongside Eidolon and Alexandria, the other two members of the most powerful trio of heroes in the world. "I don't understand it. He just... died.. No explanation."
  "Tinkers." Eidolon said with a shrug. "Especially bio-tinkers. You've seen what Bonesaw can do."
  Alexandria shook her head. "I'm just glad the girl's back. Now we can go home." When the other two looked at her, she blanched. "That sounded worse than I meant it."
  "We're all tired." Legend agreed, sighing a little.
  Eidolon asked, "What's going to happen to the Empire troops that we haven't found?" There were a handful of powered capes that hadn't been present at the battle and who had yet to surrender themselves.
  "The locals can track them down and deal with them." Legend replied. "We did our part. Panacea is safe with her family." He paused then before adding, "and Cauldron has new recruits." The last part he wasn't happy about.
  "It's for the best." Alexandria assured him. "Really. They'd rot in the Bird Cage otherwise."
  "Maybe they should." Legend looked at her seriously. "These are not good people. They're murderers, monsters. We're supposed to be the good guys. We're supposed to put those kind of people in prison."
  "Cauldron isn't a vacation." She replied, her own expression neutral. "They can actually do some good there. The research alone from the influx of subjects..."
  Legend shook his head, glancing toward Eidolon for an opinion. All he received was a shrug.
  Sighing again, he was spared from responding by a knock on the door. When permission was given, the door opened and a man that Legend recognized as one of the consultants that had been brought in to help with the search for Panacea. "Yes?"
  "Sorry to interrupt." The man apologized, stepping into the room. "Just need you to sign a few things before you head out. Bureaucracy stuff about how Purity was in her right to use lethal force to defend herself, as well as a few items related to Kaiser's company and assets."
  Taking the forms that the man offered him, Legend examined the papers, then began to sign them. He paused. "This says the PRT is seizing his assets."
  The man nodded. "That's correct, sir. It was decided in the wake of Panacea's kidnapping to create a new arm of the PRT."
  Alexandria's head turned at that. "A new branch?"
  "Yes, ma'am." The man hesitated before going on. "Because most of the PRT is based around defense, and power. We need a new group focused on investigation, and protection."
  "Bodyguards for capes?" Eidolon sounded doubtful.
  "Secret Service for capes." The man confirmed. "Only if they request it. Or for their families. Also people with investigative skills and history, who can focus on the... less world ending threats." He paused before adding pointedly, "Like kidnapping."
  Legend signed the last form. "And what does that have to do with the Empire's assets?"
  "That's what we're using to fund the formation of this group." The man replied. "Originally it was going to have to wait for the next yearly budget allotment, if we could fit it in at all. I convinced the national director that this was too important to wait on, so we're going to use Kaiser's seized assets and infrastructure as a starting point to build off of so that we can get off the ground. That's why we have to take care of this so soon. It's going to take weeks to sort through everything, and we can't touch it until the paperwork goes through. I ahh, just thought it'd be easier to get you to sign the forms now than try to track you down after you leave."
  "We?" Alexandria lifted her head. "Sounds like you have a lot riding on this."
  The man flushed a little, ducking his head. "I suppose so, ma'am. It was sort of my idea, so the Director, he put me in charge of it."
  Legend chuckled. "No wonder you want these forms signed. That means this is you?" He indicated the name stamped on several of the pages.
  "Yes, sir." The man confirmed. "Thomas Calvert, that's me."
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  Arc 3: Institution
  Two nights later, the flash from my camera lit up the surrounding darkness of the rooftop, illuminating its single subject. In the next instant, a crossbow bolt was shooting toward where the person holding the camera would have been standing if I hadn't set it to a delayed automatic shot and moved out of the way.
  "No no no." I injected disappointment into my voice from my spot, sitting on top of the waist-high wall on the opposite corner of the roof from where Sophia stood in full Shadow Stalker regalia. "For the action shot, you're supposed to tell me before you fire the bow. This was just the full profile shot."
  Lifting the second crossbow, Sophia's voice was hard and dangerous. "You're pretty stupid aren't you? What the hell are you doing here?"
  I let my head tilt quizzically. "Well see, someone told me you were patrolling tonight. Only I wasn't sure I'd recognize you out in the dark when you weren't beaten unconscious, so I wanted to make sure I had a picture to study." I held each of my gloved hands up, using two fingers from each to form a square frame around her. "Maybe you could lay down and whimper a little so I could have a before-and-after shot?"
  Her snarl was audible this time. "Look you little bitch, I don't care who thinks you're funny. I think you're a stupid, pathetic, needy little girl that needs to stay the hell out of my way. I'm trying to work, so I'm going to tell you one more time to leave me the fuck alone. We've got nothing to talk about."
  "Actually," I slid off my perch to drop down to the roof. "We do have one thing we should probably discuss."
  Sophia's stance suggested that she was seriously considering just shooting me. "Pretty sure we don't."
  I reached up, using the back of my hand to brush my hood off, then took a hold of my mask and pulled it up and off so that Sophia could see my face. "I beg to differ."
  For a moment, she just stared at me, her expression hidden behind her own mask with that image of the woman's stern face on it. Then she doubled over a little and started to laugh. She laughed loudly, putting out a hand to the nearby wall to catch herself after dropping one of her crossbows back in its slot on her belt.
  "Oh god. Oh my god, that is fantastic. That's great." Sophia managed after a minute. "Let me guess, let me guess, now you think I'm going to be all impressed. Now I'm supposed to be all, 'oh Mads, I was so wrong. I was wrong about you.', right? You actually think this changes anything? It doesn't change anything. You were a loser when I let you hang out with us, you were a loser when you were off moping around by yourself, and you're an even bigger loser now. That only difference now is that instead of having two people that I think are worthless little shits that don't deserve oxygen, there's just the one. You. It was always you."
  I weathered that, letting her talk. When she was done, I shrugged. "Actually, I was kind of thinking that I'd just kick your ass and then turn you in."
  Sophia's laughter stopped, and she straightened, gazing at me for a moment. "You wanna run that by me again?" She asked in a deadly, low tone.
  I kept my own voice bright, as though discussing the weather. "I said I was going to kick your ass, then turn you in. But you know, if you'd prefer to avoid the ass kicking, you could always just fess up on your own. You know what they say, confession is good for the soul. As in, the sole of my boot when I don't break it off on your backside, during said ass kicking."
  "Ooooh Maddy Maddy Maddy." Sophia continued to glare at me, shaking her head slowly. "You did not want to give me this excuse. This... this you're going to regret."
  "Trust me, Sophia, of all the things I regret... this won't even crack the top ten." I promised.
  "Oh boo fucking hoo!" She shouted back at me. "What the hell do you want from me, Madison? It was an accident. You get that? You understand me? She wasn't supposed to die, but to hell if I'm going to let one weak, useless little girl ruin my life !"
  " What about HER life?!" I shot back, just as loudly. "What about Taylor's life?! She's gone, she's dead and it's our fault."
  "So what?!" Sophia demanded, sounding almost hysterical. "That's not my fault!"
  "Oh, I suppose she shoved herself in the locker full of tampons." I retorted.
  She screamed back at me, " It was a joke!" Stalking my way, Sophia went on. "A joke. You used to think my jokes were funny. You thought all the other ones were funny."
  "Yeah." I agreed quietly. "And that's something I have to live with. Not ignore and pretend it never happened."
  "Oh would you just grow up?" Sophia stopped barely a few feet from me, glowering. "It was an accident. She was weak. She was a loser when she was alive and she died like a loser. A pathetic, worthless little crybaby freak. You should be thanking me."
  "Thanking you?" I echoed with some disbelief.
  "Of course!" Sophia raised both hands in exasperation. "Look at you now! Just look at yourself! You have powers now, Madison. You have powers! That's because of me. Everything you are is because of me! I made you. I brought you into our little group, I made you popular, and I made you unpopular. And now, I made you a cape! I made you into a superhero!"
  I lowered my head, took a long breath, and then raised it to look at her. "That's the difference between you and me, Sophia. I give you no credit... or blame for my choices. You didn't make me into a bitch. You didn't make me laugh at Taylor. You didn't make me hurt her. You didn't even make me like hurting her. That was me. Those were my choices, my decisions, my mistakes. It was my stupidity. Everything I did... all of it, was because I chose to do it." I met her gaze through her mask. "Just like I'm going to choose to tell everyone the truth about Taylor."
  Her grip on the one crossbow that had remained in her hand tightened. "You know I can't let you do that, Madison."
  "Then do it yourself." I told her quietly. "Tell them the truth, tell them it was an accident, that you panicked, that you were scared. Tell them the truth and maybe they'll go easy on you."
  Her scream, barely a few feet from my face, was almost incoherent. " I'M A SUPER HERO!" Her crossbow was pointed straight at me. "I'm a fucking super hero, you stupid, whiny little brat! Do you even understand that? Do you have any idea, any idea at all how many people I've saved?! I've risked my life over and over and over again, to save the pathetic losers of this world, the people who don't deserve to live! I save them again and again and again. Don't you think that balances out one little mistake? Don't you think one ACCIDENT is less important than the dozens of lives I save every single time I put one of these criminal fucks behind bars?!"
  "No." I said simply.
  "No?" Sophia echoed in disbelief. "No, what?"
  I took a breath before letting it out. "No, it's not less important. The way you treat the people that you think are less than you is one of the most important things about you." I let my gaze meet hers once more before adding, "And no, you're not a super hero."
  She let out a noise of inarticulate rage before raising her crossbow. "Fuck you, Madison." She fired a snapshot, and the bolt streaked toward me.
  Or it did for roughly half the distance, before the line that I had already attached between the bolt and Sophia's arm while she was shouting at me moments earlier snapped taut. Before Sophia had any idea of what had just happened, in the span of a blink, her bolt went from shooting toward me, to snapping back and around to embed itself halfway through her arm.
  "Just think," I couldn't resist pointing out. "If you'd just stuck with the nonlethal ammo they wanted you to, you could pass out now instead of experiencing every bit of the ass kicking that you deserve."
  She snarled, tore the bolt away, and went into her shadow state before lunging for me. I planted two lines against my feet and used them to propel myself into a nine foot high jump over her head, then oriented onto another line to pull myself behind her while she was swinging at the area that I'd been in.
  I landed, and Sophia reacted with blinding quickness, spinning into a kick that brought her leg all the way around to the side of my head and sent me sprawling to the rooftop.
  Stunned for a second, I barely managed to roll aside as Sophia brought her foot down in another kick that would knocked the wind out of me. I tried to knock her remaining leg out from under her while the other one was still in mid-kick, but she jumped back into her shadow state so that my hand whiffed through her.
  She aimed that crossbow, having reloaded, and I rolled again before she could fire. The bolt hit the spot I'd been lying in an instant later. Coming to my feet, I threw the best punch I could. She didn't bother to use her shadow state that time, easily brushing it aside before hammering me in return with a punch that made my head reel back. I tasted blood in my mouth.
  I swung twice more, but she just used her shadow state to render the attacks meaningless. Then she countered, hitting me three times in rapid succession, so quickly I could barely tell she was moving.
  As I fell back, stumbling to one knee, Sophia just chuckled low. "What was that you were saying about an ass kicking?"
  I murmured something quietly while looking down.
  "What?" She demanded, raising one of her crossbows as she stepped closer, but not close enough for me to reach her. "What did you say, loser?"
  I turned my head and spat blood before looking back up at her. "I said, check your costume." Then I held up my hand to show her what looked like a tiny joy buzzer in my palm.
  Sophia blinked once, then looked down. Small battery sized clips were attached to both of her legs, one of her sleeves, and her waist. All the places I had put them while she took her time beating on me. "What-"
  I pressed down on the buzzer, and every one of the clips responded by sending a jolt of electricity through Sophia, drawing a startled squeal from the other girl as she dropped to her side, her muscles suddenly giving out.
  Shoving myself to my feet, I extended a hand toward Sophia. I attached a line to her mask and tore it away from her. "I don't want to fight Shadow Stalker." I informed her. "I want to fight Sophia Hess." Then I attached two more lines to each of her shoulders, using them to yank her up and toward me. She went into her shadow state, of course. But I triggered the electro buzzers again, and she screamed as they shocked her back into her physical state, just as I hauled off and punched her for real this time.
  It hurt. It hurt my hand a lot. Ow. But it hurt her worse, both physically and emotionally. She reeled, once again trying to escape into her shadow state. She was trying to lose the stunners, but it wasn't working.
  I triggered them again with a twitch of my hand, and Sophia screamed, her pain mixing with her outrage. She tried to lift her left crossbow, and I attached a line between it and a street light across the street, sending it flying off into the darkness.
  Then she lifted her right crossbow. This time, I linked a line between the side of the weapon, and the collar of her costume. A slight yank on the line made the crossbow whip around and smack her upside the head.
  She dropped the bow after staggering, and I attached two more lines to her gloves. The other ends of the lines I attached to her tiny stud earring on one side, and to the band she used to keep her hair out of her eyes on the other side. Then I yanked on one line, forcing her hand to whip up and smack herself in the side of the head. A yank on the other line brought her gloved hand around to deck herself in the face rather awkwardly.
  Switching the ends of the lines so that they led to Sophia's chest and stomach, respectively, I made her hit herself over and over again. Sometimes I switched it around, changing hands and locations, but for the next several moments, Sophia Hess quite literally beat the crap out of herself. Every time she tried for her shadow state to shake my lines, a jolt from the buzzers stopped her.
  I released her finally, and said quietly, "Are you ready to tell the truth?"
  Instead, Sophia ran straight for me, animalistic rage on her face. I created two more lines, attached them to her knees, and waited until she was right in front of me. Then I gave a yank, hauling her down onto her knees as she skidded to a stop, before two more lines attached to her arms held them trapped at her sides.
  Her mouth opened, a snarl at her bloodied and bruised lips, but I raised my foot and kicked her, releasing the lines so that she was knocked onto her side, dazed and reeling.
  "That," I informed Sophia as she lay beaten on the ground. "was for Taylor."
  I could see the shudder of revulsion run through her, and she raised her gaze to glare at me just before she spoke. "They won't believe you, bitch. My team. My team won't believe a word you say."
  "Oh, I dunno..." I trailed off, staring down at Sophia, and making sure she was watching before I reached up and touched the communicator in my ear. "What do you think, Aegis?"
  His voice came through the comms in both of our ears, so that Sophia could hear as well. "I think I'm trying to decide if I'm more appalled or amused that the first time she calls us her team is when she's definitely no longer a part of it."
  I let myself breathe out one more time, releasing the tension inside me. "So you heard all of it. You got the whole thing?"
  "Yup." That was Kid Win's voice. "We've got it all. She's done."
  Four pairs of adult eyes glared at us from across the long table in the conference room. One adult for each of us. I wasn't sure if that was intentional, or if four just happened to be the number that they needed for this particular situation.
  I recognized the two to the left, sitting together. Director Emily Piggot, the leader of the local PRT division and therefore the boss of the Wards, was a rather squat, heavy woman with obvious health problems and a permanent scowl. Next to her was the leader of the local Protectorate team, the tinker-hero Armsmaster. In almost any other situation, I would have been almost as giddy about meeting the top local hero as I had been to meet Legend. Unfortunately, this was not a time for giddiness.
  The two that sat slightly to the right from Armsmaster and Piggot I didn't recognize. One was a rather hawkish looking older woman whose hair had long since grayed who had been introduced as Judge Heidi Truant, while the other was a very thin man who looked average save for his intense eyes, which hadn't stopped studying us since we entered the room. He was, apparently, Thomas Calvert, a former PRT consultant who was heading up a new internal security division that was just getting off the ground.
  On my side of the table, besides myself, were Dennis, the brown haired Kid Win that I now knew as Chris, and the Hispanic boy Carlos that I previously knew only as Aegis. Both had introduced themselves before we'd come up with the plan to trap Sophia.
  As for the psycho-girl herself, she was currently restrained in another room, along with her mother and a couple of PRT officers, waiting for the rest of us to be dealt with.
  It was Director Piggot who spoke first, once we finished explaining everything. "Let me see if I understand this." Her voice was not amused. "You were all either witnesses to or had full knowledge of the continued dangerous and unstable behavior of a parahuman individual, who was already on probation and whose actions had already resulted in at least one death, which she expressed little to no regret over." Her eyes narrowed at the boys. "Your actions at that point were not to simply alert one of your superiors, but to provide tinker-made weapons to an unauthorized individual, and then corner this unstable individual and goad her into a confrontation, on the thin hope that she would say enough over the communicator to condemn herself. You-" She focused on me then. "-then engaged in a physical brawl with the unstable, dangerous individual in spite of being fully capable of subduing her without further damage to either of you, simply by using the previously mentioned tinker-made electrical devices."
  "Have I summed this up properly, or is there another instance of abhorrent stupidity that I'm missing?"
  I shifted in my seat, glanced at the boys, and then started to speak. But Carlos beat me to it. "We needed Sophia's confession, ma'am. Otherwise it would have been Madison's word versus Sophia's and her other friend, Emma Barnes, who already established that she wouldn't turn against Sophia. Two words versus one, can you honestly say that things would have gone our way?"
  Director Piggot was clearly not impressed. "Had you involved the authorities, we could have established a similar scenario in which Madison would establish a conversation that resulted in Sophia's confession. Do you know what the difference would have been? We would have contained and controlled the situation. We would have moved in to properly and safely bring Sophia in without any fight being necessary. No one would have been hurt." She gave me a pointed look, and I winced. The pain in my side, stomach, and face reminded me of just what she was referring to. When I'd glanced in the mirror while cleaning myself up, the nasty bruise and welt on the side of my head had made me never want to look in the mirror again.
  "Director Piggot, that's not fair." Dennis spoke up. "How were we supposed to know if you'd take us seriously or not without evidence?"
  Her response was an intense glare. "I find it interesting that you ask whether or not we would extend blind trust to you after you engage in behavior like this. Now unless you can answer the question of why a physical confrontation was necessary, be silent."
  Armsmaster straightened, the corners of his mouth turned into a severe line of annoyance. I could only see the lower half of his face, since the helmet he wore covered the rest. "You wanted a fight, didn't you?" When I hesitated, he went on. "You wanted a fight because you wanted to beat her. She tormented you for months. She's made your life miserable every moment of school and any other time she saw you. On top of that, you found out that she was a member of the Wards, a hero. While you were suffering, while you were coping with the ahhh... the other girl's death, she kept being a hero. So you wanted to win. You wanted to fight Sophia, so that you could beat her. So that she would see you beat her. "
  I opened my mouth and then shut it, as Armsmaster held up a gauntleted hand. "For once in your life, tell the truth. For your sake if no one else's. Did you want that fight to happen and therefore purposefully ignore any other possible solution that didn't involve the opportunity for it?"
  Swallowing, I looked down at the table, pausing as I thought about it. Then I nodded. "Yes, sir." I looked up. "I wanted to fight Sophia. I wanted to beat her."
  "But you didn't." He observed. "You needed Kid Win's electrical devices to short out her power. You had to cheat, and even then it was his ability that truly beat her."
  I met his gaze as best as I could, staring into his helmet. "With all due respect, sir, you're wrong. I did beat her. I beat her by working with the others, by working with Kid Win, her own teammate. She didn't trust them, she thought she was better than they were. So beating her was kind of their thing as well."
  "If I might interject." The thin man spoke finally, after clearing his throat. "Who beat who is not the issue here. It seems to me that we have several situations to handle. The first is what to do with Miss Hess now. The second is what to do with Madison Clements here. And the third is what to do with other Wards who assisted her."
  "Indeed." The hawk-faced old woman, Judge Truant, nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Calvert. Let us begin with Sophia. That seems to be a simple and straight forward situation. After hearing the recording obtained by the Wards, I believe it's clear that Miss Hess has obviously violated her probation, as well as being primarily responsible for the accidental death of young Taylor Hebert. To that end, her probation will be revoked and she will immediately be remanded to an appropriate juvenile detention facility for both the original assault and involuntary manslaughter for the case of Miss Hebert."
  Unsure of the etiquette at a time like this, but wanting to play it safe, I raised my hand. When the judge looked to me, I asked, "Does that mean everyone's going to know what happened?"
  "No." Judge Truant shook her head. "We have an established protocol for this sort of thing. Sophia's actual record will be sealed, and she will be taken to a special detention facility under another a fictional record whose sentence will be the equivalent of what she would have received under the actual crime."
  "What if she tells someone who she really is?" I wanted to know. "I mean, that she's Shadow Stalker and what happened. Or, you know, the identities of anyone else that she knows and doesn't have anything to lose over now."
  It was Director Piggot who answered the question. "First, she will be imprisoned only with other parahumans, or those otherwise related to the Wards or Protectorate system, since we do not imprison former heroes alongside career criminals for obvious reasons. Second, any revelation of any secret information will result in an extension of her sentence, and a move to solitary confinement."
  "And if she does it anyway?" I pressed. "If she tells someone who Dennis is, or Carlos, or any of the others? Sophia isn't stable, Director. She doesn't think through consequences like that. She'll get pissed and she'll lash out the only way she can."
  The woman glared at me for a moment, then looked down the table, first at Armsmaster, who just shrugged at her, and then the other way toward the judge and Mr. Calvert.
  It was the latter who spoke, his intense eyes examining me. "Perhaps-"
  My ears popped, suddenly and almost violently. It made me gasp, twitching backwards in my seat, while a shudder ran its way through my whole back, from the base of my spine to the top of my neck.
  "Miss Clements." Mr. Calvert's attention was on me, and if I'd thought his eyes were intense before, they were almost burning now. He seemed to be committing every bit of me to memory. "Are you quite all right?"
  I hesitated, unsure of what that feeling had been, before nodding. "Yes, sir. I just-"
  Pain. Intense, unbelievable pain in my jaw and the back of my head. The briefest of images of Dennis on the floor, as quick as a flash of lightning across the sky, and myself shouting, screaming.
  It seemed to last barely the length of a blink, and then it was gone, passing along another of those full body shudders. It hadn't even lasted long enough for me to react to the pain, other than to start in my seat.
  This time it was Judge Truant who spoke. "Are you sure you're all right?" All of the adults were gazing intently at me, none more so than Mr. Calvert, who looked... curious.
  I swallowed before nodding. The last thing I wanted was for them to think I was unstable, that there was any reason not to trust my word against Sophia's. "I'm fine. Just... it's been a long day." I gestured to the bruise on my face. "I probably need to lay down."
  "We'll get through this as soon as possible." The older woman promised, before continuing. "So, Sophia will be taken to the detention facility, specifics to be filled in after we speak with her, her mother, and their lawyer. I promise you, however, that she will be detained for this."
  "What about Emma?" I asked. "Emma Barnes, she was... well, she was a part of it. Both of us were."
  "She'll be dealt with separately." Director Piggot announced. "Her father is already coming in to serve as Sophia's representation."
  After a moment, I had to ask, "What about Mr. Hebert, Taylor's father?"
  "What about him?" Armsmaster asked, a mixture of confusion and annoyance in his voice. He didn't want this dragged out any longer. "What does he have to do with this?"
  "Everything." I said in disbelief. "Taylor was his daughter. Her death caused all of this. He deserves... closure."
  Judge Truant made a soft sighing noise. "I understand your desire, Miss Clements. How about if we tell Mr. Hebert that his daughter's death was a result of a parahuman situation, and that the person responsible has been taken into custody? I'm afraid that's the best I can offer."
  I hesitated, then nodded. It was the best I could hope for.
  "Now, for you." The judge went on. "As a minor, you're going to have to bring at least one parent or guardian in on this. Assuming they agree, you'll become a member of the Wards and be subject to their rules and regulations regarding your activities, your compensation, all related merchandising profits, and so forth. If your parents disagree, this becomes more difficult. So you'll have to take this information to them and get them on board. Understand?"
  I nodded again, swallowing. This was all happening really fast. I had no idea what I was going to say to my parents about... well, any of this at all.
  "Good." Director Piggot slid some forms across the table to me. "Take all of these, read them through with your guardian, and fill in all the information before bringing them back with the guardian who is going to sign them."
  As I took the forms, Judge Truant explained, "You've accepted your own part as an accessory in the death of Taylor Hebert. Assuming this enrollment goes through with your guardian, you will be on probation for one year. One year during which you will be a probationary member of the Wards. This committee, or a similarly designated group, will reconvene in one year to establish whether you should be allowed to continue as a full member of the system, or if more serious sentencing is needed."
  I went through the paperwork, while the Judge continued. "Beyond your probationary sentence as a Ward, you will serve community service. In addition to the typical duties of every Ward such as patrol, which you will be expected to perform alongside the regular team members, you will work for two hours every Saturday, unless your official Wards duties intervene, on the grounds of Weatherfield Cemetery, until the committee reconvenes in one year. Again, this is subject to your guardian approving your enrollment."
  Once I had finished as much as I could before I'd have to get mom or dad involved, my new teammates started to congratulate me, until Director Piggot cleared her throat nastily. She glared until everyone sat down, then spoke. "Finally, I am still disgusted by the actions of you boys. You should know better, especially you, Carlos. You were team leader."
  Noticing the choice of words, the boy opened his mouth, and she held up a finger. "Don't. Don't say a word. You've done enough. I'm removing you from your position of team leader for the next month. Gallant will be filling that role for the time being, since he's the only one of you of appropriate age that wasn't involved in this asinine situation. In a month, we'll see if you've learned your lesson or not." She gave him an even more severe look. "I do hope that you manage to impress me enough to regain your leadership position before you graduate, if you plan on continuing into the Protectorate and hope for a decent assignment."
  I saw the Hispanic boy swallow before nodding.
  "As for the two of you," Director Piggot focused on Dennis and Chris. "You'll be working alongside Madison in the cemetery for the next two months. And all four of you will be performing bathroom and kitchen cleaning duty, alternating weekends, in the Wards headquarters for the same amount of time. Assuming, of course, that nothing goes wrong with Madison joining the team. Does anyone have anything else to say?"
  All four of us shook our heads, and the adults stood. "Good." Director Piggot announced. "Now get out of my sight while we go and deal with Hess."
  The Judge looked to me. "Clements, we have your sworn statement already. If we need you to testify, we'll let you know." The hawk-faced woman gave a thin smile. "We do know where you'll be."
  As I nodded, Mr. Calvert stepped around the table and extended his hand toward me. His intense gaze hadn't left me since I'd shuddered the first time. "Madison Clements." He said my name as though committing it firmly to memory, extending a hand. I took it, and his grip was rather firm for such a thin man.
  "Good luck. I'll be keeping an eye on your career."
  Right. So. Mom and Dad. This was going to be... interesting.
  Even as I stood in the back alley behind my house, papers from Director Piggot in hand, I tried rehearsing what I was going to say. I tried several variations to see how they sounded.
  "So hey, Mom, you know how you always wanted me to get a job?"
  "Dad, you remember when you told Trevor that he should join the PRT when he graduates because one of us should really give back to the community? Weeeeellll..."
  "Guys, you'll never guess what happened on the way to school. I tripped and became a super hero. Sign this."
  "Soooo uhhh, do we need anything from the store? I could swing by on my way to turning in these permission forms to join the Wards. Just initial here..."
  "Hypothetically speaking, if Trevor witnessed a murder, never told you, became a superhero, and confronted the murderer, would you kill him? He told me to ask."
  Turning, I let my head fall forward and down to bang against the side of the wooden fence that surrounded our property. It was a mistake. The pain from my previous injury rocketed through me, and I cried out reflexively.
  "Madison?" The voice of my father on the other side of the fence interrupted my inner condemnations, and I cursed under my breath as the gate was unlatched and he came through. "I thought I heard you muttering to yourself out here. What are you doing out so late-"
  He interrupted himself as he saw the bandage covering the side of my head, almost dropping the flashlight that he'd been using. "Madison!" Taking three quick steps, Dad put one hand on my shoulder and used two of his fingers to gently tilt my chin up so he could examine me with the flashlight. "What happened to you? Did this happen at Emma's or Sophia's? Why didn't they call us?"
  My mouth opened, but no words came out. Funny, for as easy as it was for me to think up smart ass things to say in the heat of combat in spite of my lack of experience, facing my dad like this left me completely mute. My brain was running one of those test patterns that used to be on televisions decades ago before stations broadcast twenty-four seven.
  Dad seemed to think he'd been too rough, and he immediately lessened his grip on my shoulder (one of the few places I actually wasn't sore), and lowered the volume of his voice. "Come on, Maddy, let's go sit down inside. Can you walk?"
  "I... made it all the way home." I pointed out, mind still racing about what I was actually going to say.
  Still, Dad felt the need to physically guide me across the back yard. At one point, he attempted to take the papers out of my hand so he could see what they were, but I clutched them tighter and shook my head. I wanted to talk this out with both of my parents together.
  Eventually, Dad had me seated at the table, a glass of ice water in front of me, while he woke my mother up. He hadn't wanted to at first, but I pressed him until he did.
  When she came down the stairs, Mom was in her bathrobe, her eyes a little red from tiredness, and, I guessed, from annoyance. She was squinting without her glasses, which she hadn't bothered to put on. "Why aren't you in bed?" She demanded, her voice a little hoarse.
  Mom wasn't all that bad. I actually had pretty decent parents, all things considered. There was really no way that I could blame my previous bullying on neglect or even actual abuse at home or anything. I guess some kids just act out, even without a traumatic home life. It was just really late, and she didn't like being woken up. I could relate, considering I'd much rather have been in bed than having this conversation.
  "Trish, look at her head." Dad passed Mom her glasses so that she could see better, and then pulled the chair out for her.
  Once she had her glasses on, Mom made a little noise of surprise and then stepped to me. "What happened? What is this?" Her hands moved to the papers that I'd laid on the table, and this time I let them be taken. "Read them together." I said quietly.
  They did, looking over the forms in between glancing up at me. After a few moments, Dad spoke up. "These are... contracts to join the Wards. But you can't join the Wards. They only take people with powers. That's the whole point."
  I just stared at him until he thought it all the way through. A moment later, his eyes widened. "... oh my god." There, he had it. "You don't mean that..."
  Glancing toward the kitchen counter, I connected a line between the loaf of bread there, and the table in front of me. The bread flew across the distance and landed on the table, and both of my parents jaws hit the floor.
  "No, no, no." Mom was saying. She was shaking her head so quickly that I was startled by her actual vehemence at the idea. "No, you don't have powers. This isn't real. This isn't happening."
  "Mom." I said quietly. "It's real. It's okay, I-"
  "No!" Her raised voice wasn't so much a shout as an emphatic hiss. "It is not okay. It is not real. Because I know how powers come out. I know how they happen. They happen when something... something horrible and traumatic and... and mind breaking happens to someone, and something like that, something that bad, did not happen to my daughter . It can't. I would have noticed, I'm not that stupid, not that... wrapped up in myself, am I?"
  Swallowing, I closed my eyes and then gave a little shudder before opening them again. "I have to tell you some things. You're not going to like a lot of them. I don't either. I just... I have to tell you the truth. Please, let me tell you the truth, all of it, before you... before you interrupt."
  Mom and Dad both looked at one another before nodding to me. I took a breath, then started to talk.
  I told them everything that I could. I started by explaining how Sophia, Emma, and I had treated Taylor, including examples that made my throat catch, and both of my parents stare at me as if they had no idea their daughter could be so cruel. It hurt. It hurt so much, to be looked at that way, but I went on. I pressed forward, telling them what happened on the day that Taylor had died. I told them all of it, both the fact that I hadn't wanted to do it, but that I hadn't really done anything to stop it either. I told them about my guilt after learning what happened, and that I'd wanted to tell the truth then. And I told them about Sophia being Shadow Stalker, since Director Piggot and Judge Truant had agreed that there was absolutely no way to tell this story without including that detail. I explained how she had threatened me, how my fear of her and guilt over the whole situation had caused my trigger.
  Once I'd gotten through all that, I chanced a glance up. Both of my parents were staring at me, clearly shell-shocked. I quickly moved on after taking a gulp of water, and explained how I'd learned what my powers were and how to use them, and that I'd dressed up and gone out on my own. Both went from staring in shock to glaring at me for that one, but I kept going. I went on, omitting certain... details such as my direct involvement in the Panacea rescue (Even if still not telling Dad that I'd met Legend really killed me. I was going to have to find a way to work that in later), and a couple other things that I thought were better off not being shared. And of course, I left out everyone else's real identity.
  Moving on, I told them about Clockblocker figuring out who I was and how he'd gotten me to tell him the truth. Then I went on to how we had trapped Sophia, glossing a bit over the fight except to say that she'd taken me by surprise (It was true, I'd had no idea she could turn around that fast), and that she was in custody now.
  Finally, I explained the deal with the PRT, the punishment I had agreed to, and what was expected from them.
  Once I was finished, and wiped the tears out of my eyes that had started about halfway through, both Mom and Dad simply stared at me for a long, silent moment. Finally, Dad stood up, stepped around the table, and took my hand. He pulled me out of my seat until I was standing, and then embraced me. His hug was tight. "Maddy, I had no idea you were going through something like that. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Missing something this... this terrible, making you go through it alone..."
  "It's not your fault, Dad." I started to say. "You didn't-"
  "Yes, it is." He insisted. "I'm your father. I'm your dad. It's my job to take care of you, and it's definitely my job to notice when my kid's going through something this insane. I didn't notice, and I'm sorry."
  Before I could respond to that, Mom had me. Her embrace was even tighter than Dad's, and she kissed my cheek. "My baby..." She all but cooed, rather embarrassingly.
  They both looked at each other, and Dad spoke. "You need to give us a few minutes here, Mads. Go sit in the living room while we talk, okay?"
  I hesitated, then nodded and moved through the kitchen. The living room was dark, and I switched on the lamp next to the couch before curling up at one corner. My fingers brushed at a magazine there, but I'd barely glanced at the cover before my eyes were closed.
  My dad woke me up some time later with a hand against my shoulder. When I blinked up at him, he spoke softly. "You want to talk some more, or are you ready for bed?"
  I swallowed, straightening before giving a nod. "I can talk. I'd rather get through this."
  Mom sat down next to me, drawing me up against her, while Dad sat in the chair across from the couch. He was the one who spoke first. "Madison, the idea that you could... that you could act the way that you're telling us you acted toward this Taylor girl is... it's obscene. It sounds like some other kid, not you. Why would you do that? Why would you treat someone like that?"
  My mouth opened, and then I stopped. I took a breath and then let it out. "Because it made me feel powerful. Because it made me feel accepted. Because as long as Sophia liked me, she was funny and charming and she talked to me like I was special . She'd talk like... like it was obvious that we were better and it just... made sense when she said it. I let things... get out of control because I liked the feeling it gave me."
  Both of my parents glanced to each other again, and I felt Mom squeeze me tighter. She spoke then. "We're so... disappointed, Madison. Disappointed that you ever acted that way, that you let it get so far that a girl died. We love you. Don't ever doubt that. Your dad and I are always going to love you, no matter what. But... but we wish you'd done better, here. We really wish you were better than that."
  I felt the tears start to fall again, and shook my head, not trusting my voice. Mom reacted by hugging me even tighter, repeating, "We love you, baby. We love you."
  Dad reached across and took my hand, squeezing it before he spoke. "We're going to deal with this, together."
  Mom nodded, pressing a kiss to the top of my head. "You'll do the community service. You'll do all of it. And on top of that, you're going to help out here. That garden that Dad was talking about putting in the back yard this summer? You're going to take care of it. You're going to plant it, weed it, water it, prune it, everything. It's your job and no one else's. Okay?"
  I just nodded, pressing myself a little more against my mother's side while squeezing Dad's hand in return.
  "We'll sign you into the Wards, because they can help you with your powers, and it sounds like your powers are going to draw you toward danger anyway." Dad continued. "We'd prefer it be with professionals and a team. That said, Maddy, you will be careful. You'll do everything they tell you to do, and we will be checking in. If we have to, we'll yank you out of there and you'll just do the community service. Even if we have to lock you in your room until you're thirty. Do you understand me?"
  I gulped a little, then gave another nod. "Yes, Daddy."
  He smiled faintly, and gave my hand one last squeeze. "There's more, but that's enough for now. We'll sign the forms and then all of us will go in and talk to this... Director Piggot tomorrow. Or-" He glanced at the clock and winced. "Later today, I guess."
  Both of them gave me one last hug. As I was walking to the stairs to go to my room, Dad asked, "What was your ahhh, cape name again?"
  I flushed a little in spite of everything that had already been said. "Uh, Tether." Then I started to walk again.
  This time it was Mom's voice that stopped me. "Those powers you have. They're... pretty neat, aren't they?"
  I looked at my mom, then at my dad, and then I smiled very faintly. "Yeah." I said softly. "They're pretty cool sometimes."
  The next day, at a little after one in the afternoon, I was sitting right back in the same conference room that I'd been in the night before, facing three of the same faces. Judge Truant, Director Piggot, and Mr. Calvert were all back, though Armsmaster had pleaded off on his own Protectorate business.
  My side of the table was even more different. Sitting on either side of me were my parents, and Director Piggot's scowl was somehow less effective against my father's stoic silence.
  He and my mother had both been quiet since we walked in. Or, to be precise, my father had asked if our lawyer had arrived yet. Upon being told that he wasn't there, my father's firm order to me had been not to say a word until Aaron showed up.
  Then we waited. Through Director Piggot's attempt to start a conversation, my father had simply said that he was waiting for his legal council. The director had tried to say something about that, but Judge Truant had put a hand on her arm to stop her.
  Minutes passed. The judge took out a pocket computer and seemed to be working through a scheduling system. Mr. Calvert alternated between studying me and making notes in a small notebook. My mother busied herself asking me mundane things about school in a transparent attempt to hold my attention. And the whole time, my father and Director Piggot engaged the most epic of staring contests.
  Finally, there was a knock on the door. Mr. Calvert stood to answer it. When the door was opened, the man I knew as Dad's old best friend from college came into the room. He was a big, broad chested man with a full head of blond hair that he wore in a short ponytail. Honestly, except for his suit, he looked more like biker than a lawyer.
  "Sorry, sorry 'bout that, folks." Dad's buddy was from someplace in the south, and his accent was light from all the years he had spent away from there, but still noticeable. Dad said he played it up at times to give juries the impression of an old hometown lawyer. "Had a right long meeting to get through before this."
  Extending a hand toward the others, he introduced himself. "Aaron Anderson Tourney." He shook Mr. Calvert's hand, then Judge Truant's. Once the introductions went around the table, he announced, "I'll be representing the Clements, just making sure everything stays nice and above board."
  Director Piggot frowned at that rather than shaking his hand. "Things are settled already. What could your services possibly be needed for?"
  Taking a seat on our side of the table, Mr. Tourney dropped his briefcase in front of him, unsnapped the clasps, and withdrew several papers. "To begin with, we will no longer be dealing with you, Director Piggot."
  The woman gave him an annoyed look. "Excuse me? I'm afraid that isn't up for debate. My job as Director of PRT East-North-East includes handling all matters related to the signing of new Wards. Now if you could just be quiet and look at-"
  Mr. Tourney interrupted with a pointed cough. "Ah, sorry to interrupt, ma'am, but there's a bit of a, ahhh, minor hiccup with that assessment, as such." While Piggot gave him her best withering glare, he just extracted the paper that he'd been looking for. "Your, ahh, responsibilities no longer include the Wards."
  Piggot's voice rose in sudden anger. " I beg your pardon? "
  In response, the lawyer simply passed the paper across the table to Judge Truant. "If you'll examine this, you'll see what I'm talking about."
  The judge took the paper and looked it over, while I turned to stare open mouthed at each of my parents in turn. They hadn't been back to bed by the time I'd finally woken up that morning. I'd known they had been busy, but I hadn't expected anything like this .
  "It's an order from Director Costa-Brown." Truant announced after reading through the paper. "In response to your negligence in the Sophia Hess situation, your authority over the Wards in this area is being revoked. A new Wards director will be appointed after a brief internal reviewing process. Until that time, Mr. Calvert is to play double duty while his own division is being established." The hawk-faced woman glanced up at Piggot, who was staring at her open mouthed. "Your... position as director in general will remain, pending a full review of what happened."
  "This... this is outrageous!" Director Piggot very nearly had steam exploding from her ears. "I am not the one on trial here." She whirled on Calvert. "Thomas, I swear, if I find out you had anything to do with this-"
  For the first time in many minutes, my father spoke up. "Let me tell you what's outrageous. Sophia Hess getting away with as much as she did, while she was supposedly under probation, is outrageous. A girl with as many psychological issues as she clearly had being allowed to continue to throw herself into dangerous situations that only exacerbated the problem is outrageous. That no one, not a single person under your leadership noticed that girl's psychotic behavior is outrageous."
  Lifting his hand from the table, Dad continued. "Let's be absolutely clear here. If I was that girl's parents, I'd be suing this entire department. Because she had issues, but-" He jabbed a finger across the table, pointing directly at Director Piggot." You failed to address them. She had problems, but it was your job to help her, and you couldn't do that. You couldn't do your job, and I'll be damned if I'm going to have my daughter risking her life under your authority. You failed Sophia Hess. You will not fail my daughter. I won't give you the chance to. I had my attorney here contact Director Costa-Brown's office, and she agreed."
  Director Piggot was making a noise that I couldn't identify, but it sounded like she was about to explode. "I am... I have... you can't do this. This is a witch hunt."
  It was Mr. Tourney who replied to that. "Well now, the fact is, it may be a witch hunt. But you happen to be standing there with a big black hat, broom in your hand, warts on the end of your nose. Makes finding a witch pretty darn easy."
  The squat woman slammed her hand down on the table with a bang. "This is tripe! I've done this job for over ten years. I've overseen dozens of Wards passing into the Protectorate."
  My mother, speaking for the first time, managed to inject more dismissive scorn in three words than Piggot had managed throughout the entire time I'd known her. "Those poor teenagers."
  I thought I saw Mr. Calvert smile just a little, before he cleared his throat. "Ah, assuming the paper from the Director's office is in order, judge, I think our hands are tied."
  Shooting her fellow PRT suit a face-melting glare, Piggot stood from the table so violently she nearly knocked her seat over. "I'll be calling the Director myself."
  "Please do." My father invited. "I'm sure you and she have a lot to talk about."
  Once the woman had stormed from the room and slammed the door behind her, Mr. Tourney began pulling more papers from his briefcase. "Now that we can move on, we'll need to go over these agreements. Paul-" he gestured to my dad. "-faxed over what you sent home with Madison, and there's just a few changes we'll be making. I don't think you should have any problems. Just putting specifics on what happens if her schoolwork falls, what sort of Wards responsibilities outweigh her community service commitment and how missing those hours will be made up, that sort of thing. Also a few notes about her image, future merchandising, and a couple of safety concerns."
  Before Mr. Calvert or Judge Truant could respond to that, Mr. Tourney pressed on. "Of course, eventually we'll also be having a discussion with the school district officials about their failure to address the bullying so that it escalated this far, and we'll need all the records you can provide about Sophia Hess's probation and what was supposed to be done to keep an eye on her. After all, we need to know what orders were laid out before we know just how much Winslow's faculty failed in their responsibilities."
  He gave the remaining two PRT officials a smile. "I'm sure we'll be out of here in no more than a couple hours."
  By the time everything was signed and done, my parents questions had all been answered, and my parents had said their thanks and goodbyes to Mr. Tourney, it had been hours. We were all starving, so Dad made a trip through the Wendy's drive-thru.
  Trevor started to complain the second that we walked in. "Why does she get fast food? Is anybody gonna tell me why she didn't have to go to school today? Does she ever have to do anything?"
  Mom passed a sack to him pointedly. "There's food for you too, Trev." She glanced at me a little questioningly, and I shook my head. I didn't want to tell Trevor the truth. Not that I didn't trust my brother, but he tended to act without thinking, and the last thing I needed was Trevor to get into an argument with someone and blurt out that his sister was a member of the Wards.
  Filling his mouth with fries, Trevor made a grunt of acknowledgment. "So why didn't the squirt have to go to school? Where've you guys been all day?"
  "We had an appointment, Trevor." Dad informed him. "That's all you need to know. It's your sister's private business."
  Trevor rolled his eyes and gave me a look. "Pretty fun being the family pet, isn't it?"
  "That's enough, Trevor." Mom told him sharply. "Sit down and eat."
  It wasn't until we had all sat down around the table with the bags of food that Trevor blinked up. "How come you're all dressed up?" Mom was wearing a nice dress, Dad had one of his church suits on, and I had worn a skirt and a pretty blue blouse.
  Dad grunted a little, eating a fry. "Like I said, we had a meeting, Trevor." He changed the subject then. "What've you been up to today?"
  My brother snapped his fingers, his mouth full of burger as he responded. His words were completely incomprehensible, and both of our parents gave him reproving looks until he swallowed and repeated himself. "Oh that's right, you guys didn't hear. It's all over PHO."
  I blinked at the mention of the popular Parhumans Online forum. "What's all over PHO?"
  "Shadow Stalker." Trevor replied. "She's off our Wards team." In the years since the Protectorate and subsequently the Wards had been established, keeping track of team members had become as much of an obsession as the team rosters for professional sports teams. Most people saw a local Protectorate or Wards division as being 'their team', and even invented rivalries between various teams. A cape going from one beloved team to that town's 'rivals' was news for months, and had even resulted in heated arguments about that cape's 'betrayal'.
  Hesitating, I chewed on my food briefly before venturing, "Why would she be leaving?"
  Trevor shrugged, taking a bite of his burger. "Nobody knows, but they already confirmed that she's transferring to some other team somewhere for 'intense training'. And get this, somebody said that new girl that was helping the Wards during the Undersider thing is joining up instead, taking her place."
  "How did they-" I started to blurt before flushing a little at a look from my dad. "How would someone find out something like that? I mean, it doesn't sound like it was officially announced or anything."
  Again, Trevor just shrugged absently and ate another fry. "You know they've got people that leak that stuff. They probably did it on purpose to explain why Stalker ain't gonna be around anymore, and to prop up their new member."
  "New member?" Dad asked lightly, smiling across the table at our mother. "Who was she again?"
  Trevor squeezed more ketchup onto his fries. "They're saying her name's Tether."
  "Hmm." Mom replied with a straight face. "I wonder how she'll be. We could use another good cape." She eyed me. "Maybe the other Wards can be a good influence."
  Yeah, Mom failed at subtlety, but Trevor was still oblivious. "I know one thing for sure."
  Taking my soda, I asked, "What's that?"
  I made the mistake of taking a long gulp while he was answering. "I've seen the pictures they have of that Tether chick from the prison break thing, and she's definitely cuter than Shadow Stalker."
  As it turns out, it is possible to spit-take and dry heave at the same time.
  "He did not."
  "I swear on my honor as a Ward, he said it."
  "You've been a Ward for like, three minutes."
  "Good, so I haven't messed up my honor. It's brand spiffy new."
  "That's true, our honor doesn't tend to last long."
  It was the next evening, and Dennis and I were walking through the building that housed the PRT. It was the same building that I'd been in twice now for meetings, but this time I was here for a different reason. It was time for me to 'officially' meet the rest of my new team.
  Since we were still in public areas, I was in costume, mask on, alongside Dennis in his Clockblocker get-up. Every once in a while, I glanced sidelong at it. His costume was actually pretty cool, being a skintight white bodysuit overlaid with armor panels which had animated clock faces either ticking or drifting across various parts, and a smooth white panel where his face would be.
  "So you're telling me that, right in front of your parents, your brother said that you were cute."
  My face reddened slightly under my own exceedingly simple mask, as I nodded. "Yeah, pretty much."
  "What was your dad's reaction?" Dennis asked while leading me through the mostly empty corridors and toward an unlabeled elevator with an imposing amount of gadgets and security systems surrounding it.
  "I'm not sure." I admitted. "I was busy trying not to throw up. Convinced Trevor I swallowed wrong. And then I said I had to use the bathroom and got the hell out of the room."
  Dennis was snickering, so I elbowed him. I immediately regretted it. "Ow. Move your armor so I can hit you."
  He considered for a moment before shaking his head. "Um, no. No thanks. I'm good."
  We filed onto the elevator, and I folded my arms. I was trying not to be too nervous. After all, I'd worked with the Wards a couple of times already. This was just my first official meeting, and my first time in their-err- our headquarters. Apparently it would normally be Director Piggot's job to show me around, but she'd lost her authority. That meant it would fall to Mr. Calvert, but he was also busy getting his new division up and running. Armsmaster or one of the other Protectorate members also could have done it, but he had leapt at Clockblocker's offer to give me the welcoming tour, so here we were.
  Head cocked to the side while the elevator descended, Dennis took his helmet off and spoke up while shaking out his red hair. "Soooo, it's been like, four days."
  I blinked at that, pulling my hood back before taking the mask off myself. "Four days?"
  He grinned at me. "Since I loaned you those books. You got all offended when I suggested it would take you a whole week to read them. Finished yet?"
  Staring, I managed to sound as droll as possible. "You know, I've had a couple other things occupying my mind."
  "Pssshhh." Dennis waved a hand dismissively. "Excuses excuses."
  I chose the mature, reasonable response and stuck my tongue out at him.
  "Interesting choice." He observed. "Sophia would've flipped me off." He paused then before amending. "And by that I mean flip me off a bridge."
  Making a face at him, I retorted, "Well if you miss Sophia so much..."
  "Hell no!" He said quickly, his eyes widening at the implication. "No way, I was just... observing. I'd much rather work with you. Less chance of getting stabbed with a bolt for looking at you cross-eyed."
  The elevator reached the Wards level, revealing a short corridor that led to an even more impressive looking steel door with a security terminal next to it.
  Dennis tapped the scanner. "Give it a shot."
  I raised an eyebrow, clutching my mask in one hand. "You think I'm in the system already?"
  His head cocked backwards nonchalantly. "Might as well try. Worse comes to worse, we spend some time trapped in foam until they cut us out."
  " That could happen?!" I squeaked.
  He laughed at that. "No. Err, probably not. Unlikely." Still, I noticed that he took a step back while eying the blank walls surrounding us rather suspiciously.
  Muttering under my breath, I leaned up to the scanner. As soon as I was near it, the thing beeped twice as it scanned me, then the steel doors almost silently whisked open to reveal the room beyond.
  "After you." Dennis announced, making a sweeping gesture.
  "You're just saying that in case this is a tinker trick to make the person think they've gotten past the security, at which point they step through the door and get foamed into next Tuesday." I huffed while moving through the doorway.
  Luckily, there was no foam. There was an amazing room beyond. I'd seen it before, of course, on tours. Or at least, I'd seen it from the visitor's viewing area, the parts of the room we were allowed to see. This was different. This was more.
  It looked a bit like a dome, save for various parts of the wall that could be taken out and reassembled to change the dimensions. There were parts of the area that had been walled off this way to create individual quarters for when the Wards needed to sleep over for whatever reason, as well as to hold their belongings. There was also a section for the showers and a few other rooms.
  In the main room, where we were, I could see a set of computers taking up one side of the room, surrounded by several chairs. One of the monitors listed 'Time Until Next Tour' with a timer that was currently at sixteen hours and twelve minutes. It made sense in hindsight. The Wards had to have a warning so that they could either put their masks on or leave the main viewing area before a tour group passed by the viewing area.
  Chris and Carlos were sitting at the computers, the former doing something on Twitter, while the latter seemed to be playing a game of some kind. Both turned around when Dennis and I came through, and stood before starting to applaud.
  I blinked at that. "Uhhh..."
  Behind me, Dennis was clapping as well. I turned to squint at him. "Okay, I know getting a new team member is kind of cool, but I haven't done anything applause worthy."
  "Oh this has nothing to do with you joining the team." Dennis corrected me. "You got rid of Piggy. She hated capes. She hated us. Every little excuse to mess with us, she took it."
  "Oh." I shrugged. "That wasn't me. That was my parents. Clap for them."
  A handsome, rather tall boy emerged from one of the back areas. He rolled his eyes at the others before extending a hand to me. "Dean Stansfield." I'd met him as Gallant, and the others hadn't given away his identity when we did our planning. "Glad to see you join the team." He gave me a winning smile that I was absolutely certain had already melted dozens of hearts. It helped that he seemed genuinely nice.
  I shook his hand. "Um, Madison Clements." I introduced myself rather awkwardly.
  "You know, you're a lot more talkative behind the mask." Chris, Kid Win, observed from where he'd resumed his seat.
  The note made my cheeks flush slightly, tempting me to put the mask back on. I resisted, shrugging at the tinker-boy. "You have to admit it's a lot to take in."
  "Sure, I guess." He admitted. "It's been awhile since I joined. Missy's even more experienced though, funny as that is."
  "Missy?" I echoed briefly before realizing who he meant.
  Sure enough, a girl in her early teens that I half-recognized as Vista without her armor and costume (wearing drawstring pants and a simple tee shirt instead), stepped into view and stood next to Gallant-err-Dean. "That's me." She seemed to be studying me for a moment, as though trying to decide where we stood, or how I was going to be.
  After the slightest hesitation, I strolled that way. "So hey, you distort space, right? Can you bend it?"
  Missy blinked at the question. "Not as far as I can stretch or compress it, but sure, why?"
  "I was thinking," I glanced to the others before going on. They were all watching me. It was a bit nerve wracking, but I tried to ignore it. "My tethers connect two objects. I just have to be able to see them. If we can work together, we might be able to do some cool stuff with that. If you wanna, you know, test it out sometime."
  There was the briefest of pauses, before Missy smiled a little bit and nodded. "Sure. We can... try it sometime."
  I saw Dean give me an approving nod as well. "Always good to have plans. So you showed her around yet?" He asked Dennis.
  The other boy shook his head. "Just this area. Come on, Mads, I'll let you see the rest of this place."
  We took a brief tour of the area, Dennis showing me where my bunk area was for if and when I ended up needing it. By the time we got back out to the main area, Missy was sitting in a corner reading a book, while Chris was checking over the various security camera feeds that lay throughout the city that the Wards had access to. Carlos and Dean were engaged in some kind of intense video game match.
  Apparently Dean won, because Carlos cursed and shoved his chair back. "Little more practice. Just a little more. I almost had you."
  They noticed us then, and Dean used the opportunity to segue, "And speaking of practice... ahhh, dude, seriously, you should do this."
  Carlos shook his head at the other side of the room. "Piggot demoted me, remember?"
  Dennis snorted. "And then she got herself demoted. You're the leader, everyone knows it. For a few months anyway."
  "Yeah, then I turn eighteen and pass the leadership toooo..." Carlos twirled his finger around and then pointed at Dennis next to me. "You."
  "Yeah, for not even the rest of the summer." Dennis shot back. "Then I graduate to the Protectorate as well and Dean takes the lead."
  I frowned at that. "Leadership is by eldest? Why not, I dunno, the best leader?"
  "Hell if we know." Chris shrugged, moving away from the security monitor to a table in the corner where a pile of components and half-built guns lay. "Just the way they do things. Screw the Undersiders or the ABB, Bureaucracy is like, our number one super villain."
  Carlos pushed himself up from the seat once more. "Anyway, what Dean was getting at is that we're going to have to train you. Physically train you. Do you know any actual fighting techniques or systems?"
  Shifting a little, I had to shake my head. "Not... so much. I'm kind of really new at... well, everything. Sophia was the tomboy in our Bitch Trio. Emma was the popular model-cheerleader type."
  "Which one were you?" Missy asked from where she was sitting, curiously.
  I bit my lip. "The cute, innocent one that plays up her naivety so the teachers leave her alone." They all gave me looks, and I threw up my hands. "I know! I'm trying to change."
  Dean was the one who spoke, his voice easy and reassuring. "You're doing a good job of it. Especially with the way you helped bring in Lung. That was impressive."
  "Sure was." Carlos agreed. "But you're still gonna have to learn how to fight. We'll run you through some basics, whoever has time when you're available. Trust me, it's gonna suck at first. You're going to have to work your butt off to get in shape, and you're gonna get thrown around the mat for awhile." He gave me a serious look. "But it's worth it. You need to be able to depend on more than just your powers. Plus it'll help you learn to use your powers in new ways."
  "I'm all for new experiences." I said slowly before shrugging. "So I guess teach away."
  "Oh you're not ready for me yet." Carlos shook his head. "I'll test you when you've got at least a little practice under your belt."
  I looked toward Dean, Chris, and Dennis, all of whom were shaking their heads and smiling knowingly. Finally, my gaze landed on Missy, who was already stretching out next to a set of floor pads in the corner. When I glanced her way, she smiled and waved at me before beckoning me over. I hesitated, then shrugged and walked that way.
  Roughly four seconds later, I was on my back with Missy holding one of my arms in a way that made it impossible to move without sending pain shooting up into my wrist.
  "Welcome to the Wards!" The boys chorused.
  Interlude 3 - Sundancer
  The voices of two teenage girls filled the air of the bedroom as they sang together. It was a song born not of skill or particular intent, but from simple enjoyment. Neither girl would ever be a professional, though the pretty, tall blonde had definite training while the shorter brunette's voice squeaked occasionally. Both sang together for no one other than themselves, watching the karaoke machine in the corner.
  " You are my sunshine, my only sunshine."
  Marissa Newland loved times like these, when her overbearing mother was away, or too busy to push her daughter into the next big thing. Marissa's mother was obsessed with finding the one perfect thing that her little girl could be the best at, the thing that she could do better than anyone else.
  " You make me happy when skies are grey."
  They hadn't found it yet. Which wasn't to say that Marissa was terrible. She just happened to be second, third, or fourth best at most things she tried, no matter how hard she worked. She was driven, an inevitability given her upbringing, but it was never enough to be number one. And being number two was never enough for her mother. It was number one or nothing. Number one, or she hadn't tried hard enough, hadn't worked hard enough, hadn't taken it seriously enough. Not counting the times the pressure had been too much and she'd cracked. Never completely losing it, but just cracking enough that it was noticeable and her mother had yanked her out of that activity. Because she wasn't good enough.
  " You'll never know dear..."
  On the next line, her eyes involuntarily glanced sideways toward the other girl. Noelle. Her friend. Her... And then another moment passed, where Marissa failed to tell her friend the truth, even as she spoke the exact words that she was too afraid to say in any other situation.
  "... how much I love you..."
  Both teenage girls fell backwards onto Marissa's bed, one at either end, the karaoke mikes in their hands as they belted the words.
  " Please don't take my sunshine away!"
  "Sundancer!" Marissa's shoulder was shaken, snapping her out of the memory from years ago. Years before everything that had happened. Years before the Simurgh. Before Chris had died. Before they'd been stranded on this... this wrong Earth. Before they'd taken the formulas and gained their abilities in order to survive. Before Noelle had become... what she was.
  Genesis was in front of her, saying her name. Not the real Genesis, of course. Jess was sound asleep, back at the base. The stout, winged gargoyle thing in front of her was her projection.
  "Are you all right? The truck's almost here." Genesis pointed a claw down the steep embankment toward the lonely highway that the two of them were waiting on. In the distance, a pair of headlights approached.
  "I'm..." Losing myself. Forgetting where Marissa Newland stops and Sundancer begins. Crying myself to sleep at night when no one can see me because I'm so lonely. Because I miss Noelle and she's not even gone. Just... different. Because I'm a coward who can't speak up and tell people how I really feel. Because the girl who convinced me to finally stand up to my mother, put my foot down, and refuse to jump into another of her plans for me is changing , has changed so much that I'm not sure it's really her in there anymore or a creature staring back out at us, using her memories to manipulate us. I'm terrified that the girl I'm trying so hard to save is already gone, but if I voice that, I'm giving up on her. Which I can't do. "I'm fine." She lied. She was always lying now, even to her friends.
  Genesis was staring at her, Jess staring at her through the eyes of her dream projection. But she didn't say anything else. There wasn't time. The truck was passing just below them.
  Ahead on the freeway, Ballistic stepped onto the road, directly in front of the truck. He held a pair of rocks in either hand. Before the armored truck could react, both of the stones were injected with his power, and rocketed toward the truck. Each stone blew through either front tire, continuing on through to blow through the rear tires.
  The truck came crashing down onto the rims, skidding across the road as it kicked up a shower of sparks, the grinding metal deafening. Finally, the ruined vehicle screeched to a halt barely a dozen feet from where her teammate still stood.
  By then, Ballistic had been joined on the road by Trickster, the top hat sitting atop his red face mask distinctive. Trickster gazed at the two men in the front of the truck for just a moment. Then he was gone, replaced by one of the now-confused armored transport drivers, who stood there blinking next to Ballistic for a second. Then Ballistic was gone as well, replaced by the second guard from the front of the truck as Trickster used his power to switch them.
  In the mean time, Genesis had launched her gargoyle form into the air, gliding down to the back of the truck. Her hefty clawed hands grasped the doors and then she ripped it off. Two gunshots followed, impacting the gargoyle figure to no effect, as Genesis crawled up into the back of armored truck for a moment. Then she was out, carrying the third and last guard away to safety.
  While she had been watching this course of events, Marissa had been focusing on summoning her personal little sun into being between her hands.
  Using her power always reminded her of that time in her room with Noelle. The time before everything had happened, before everything had gone wrong. The song. That stupid, silly little song that had somehow become so important to her in the wake of her power. She whispered a few of the words to herself now. It helped her concentrate on the power.
  "You are my sunshine... my only sunshine..."
  Genesis, by that point, had carried the third guard to meet the others. It would keep the three in a group, and she was more than capable of keeping them in line.
  The sun-like orb grew with each passing second, until it was almost as large as the truck itself. Marissa let the orb start to rise up above her, floating through the air gradually while the guards, who had oriented themselves, drew their weapons. She positioned the sun in between the guards and the truck, blocking their line of sight to it to prevent any of them from noticing when Trickster and Ballistic slipped out of the truck and moved to the back of the truck. Trickster took a step to the side, getting the back of the truck and the group on the hill in sight, and a second later Marissa found herself sitting in the back of the truck. The heavily sedated prisoner would have been taken to her place.
  She slipped out, joining Trickster and Ballistic on the road. A glance up the hill showed the unconscious form of the prisoner. Convinced that the truck was now empty, Marissa brought the sun down on top of it.
  The large ball of intense heat made short work of the armored vehicle, and by the time it was done, Genesis had the three PRT officers on the ground. She had only inflicted light injuries, being as gentle as possible.
  "Gentlemen!" Trickster announced as he led Marissa and Ballistic around the burning hunk of wreckage once the miniature sun had been banished. "I'm glad to see none of you were too terribly harmed."
  "What... what did you do?" One of the PRT officers demanded. "We were transporting a prisoner."
  "You were transporting a murderer." Trickster corrected him. "As it happens, our employer doesn't believe in granting second chances to someone who wears the uniform of a hero and then murders an innocent little girl. He refused to let her go and sit in a cushy prison cell. We did the job you couldn't. Shadow Stalker will never be a problem for anyone again."
  It was a bit of theater, of course. The whole point had been to extract the girl while making the guards believe that she'd been killed. It was important that everyone believe that the girl was dead.
  "And you're certain that they believed the story." Coil stood in the medical wing of his underground lair where the four Travelers had gathered. His eyes were on the unconscious teenager strapped to the table in front of him, while another figure stood bent over the girl's side, doing something with a bit of medical equipment.
  Trickster nodded, speaking for the group. "Yes. They believe we were hired by someone who wanted her to be killed for what she did to that other girl. Any luck, they'll start looking at the girl's father and move from there."
  "Good." Coil lifted his gloved hand, gently stroking it down the side of the unconscious psychopath's face. "Sophia Hess and I have many things to discuss. Plans to make."
  He turned to look at the other person in the room. "Your job is finished?"
  "Damn straight it is." The clearly Asian young woman with the hood and dark red goggles announced, turning away from the unconscious form of Shadow Stalker. "Your girl's all rigged up." She extended a hand, passing a tiny remote to Coil, who took it. "One step out of line and she's a fine red mist."
  "Good." Coil tucked the remote away. "You can leave now."
  "Actually." The bombmaker, Bakuda, sounded like she was smiling. Not that Marissa could see beyond the gas mask that the woman wore. "I was thinking I'd charge you triple for this job."
  Coil went still for just a second, and Marissa could tell he was annoyed. "Is that right?"
  "Sure." Bakuda made a lazy, waving gesture with her hand. "See, the way I see it, you owe me. Especially if you don't want Lung to find out what you're up to."
  "Lung is in custody." Coil said simply.
  "Not forever." She promised. "And the way I see it, you've been paying me pretty well while he's been gone. But I've been thinking you can afford to pay me more. A lot more. Because I ain't stupid. You pay me a bunch of cash to build you a tiny little bomb, so small you could drink it and never know. Your exact specifications, a bomb you can drink and not know, that can destroy a person's brain and look like some kind of massive aneurysm. Then the leader of the Empire dies suddenly of an aneurysm that NOBODY 'cept his traitor bitch ex knows he had?"
  "So the way I see it, you owe me more. A lot more. Or... well, I can't be sure who I might talk to."
  Coil was still and silent for a moment, and Marissa turned away to leave. Genesis's gargoyle form melted away to nothing, and the two boys joined her in exiting the room. Their job was done, and she didn't want to stand there and see how this went.
  "Very well." She heard Coil say. "Fish, pay this girl what she deserves."
  Marissa wasn't quite fast enough to avoid hearing the gunshot. Her eyes closed briefly and she shuddered, before continuing on.
  "I'm going to visit Noelle." Krouse... Trickster, announced. "Either of you coming?" He glanced back to Marissa and Luke/Ballistic.
  She hesitated. Part of her really wanted to see Noelle. But it hurt. It hurt every time she did. Every time she let herself get her hopes up that they'd have a cure, that they could fix what that formula had done to her Noelle, a dark part of her mind reminded her that the real Noelle might be gone forever. She might never come back, not even with this latest plan. It was the closest they had ever come, and it still might not be enough.
  "No." She said finally. "I'm going to look in on the girls."
  She passed Coil's unpowered mercenaries, walking around several construction groups who were still putting his base together, until she reached a room where Mr. Pitter, Coil's assistant and right hand man in many ways, stood. "I want to see them." She told him.
  "Coil hasn't approved it." He droned back at her.
  "I don't care." She shot back. "I want to see them. I need to make sure they're both okay." She had to at least pretend that she wasn't a complete monster, that she hadn't sold her soul completely in this obsessive quest to have Noelle back with them. Back with her, not that Marissa could ever work up the courage to say what that meant. Noelle was with Krouse.
  After a moment of indecision, Pitter moved and let her into the room. Marissa stepped inside and smiled faintly at the first of the two figures. "Hey, Dinah." She said to the little girl on the cot. "You okay?"
  The girl shrugged, staring at her. "My head hurts still. Can you ask for candy?"
  Drugs. The girl wanted the drugs that Coil had her hooked on. "No, Dinah, Coil's busy. I'm sorry." Slowly, Marissa let her gaze pass toward the other occupant of the room. "What about you?"
  "Me?" The remaining girl asked. "Oh I'm doing just great. Just dandy, locked up in here with fortune teller girl over there. When do I get to do something?"
  "Coil says soon. He says you can work on Noelle as soon as he's sure how your powers work. He doesn't want you to do anything... wrong." And of course, Marissa thought to herself, once he's extracted everything he wants from us by holding your powers as leverage.
  The girl shrugged. "He thinks our powers come out wrong or something. I tried telling him they work just fine. Probably better than hers ." The last word was spoken with vehemence.
  Marissa sighed, closing her eyes briefly. The things they did, the things she did, in her desperation to save Noelle. Even if Noelle would never understand.
  Please don't take... my sunshine... away...
  "The clones that Noelle makes do have a tendency to have... different powers than their progenitors." She pointed out mildly.
  To that, the girl just gave another angry shrug. "Yeah, well I still say I could fix her better than the 'real' Panacea ever could."
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  Arc 4: Foundation
  "Jeeze, can you believe the slop they expect us to eat?"
  Blinking up from my book at the familiar voice, I found Emma sitting across from me in the lunchroom at school. Why the hell was Emma sitting across from me in the lunchroom at school?
  She picked a little at the mess on her tray before making a face as she pushed it disdainfully away. When she looked up, her smile was bright and infectious. "Anyway, have I got dishy stuff for you. You know Greg, that kid that never shuts up in your World Issues class with Mr. G? Well Julia says that he's got this, like, shrine thing in his locker. You know who it's a shrine for?" She leaned closer, cupping a hand to the side of her face like we were sharing a secret, though she made no attempt to lower her voice. "Taylor. He's got all these pictures and shit. It's crazy. She says we have to see it. So I was thinking, if you smiled at him-I'd do it but ew- he'd totally give you his locker combo. We could even-"
  "What are you doing here?" I finally cut in, asking bluntly.
  Emma paused, looking briefly confused by the question. "Uhhh duh. I just told you, figuring out how we're going to get into Greg's locker to see that shrine. It's gotta be... so fucking lame, right?"
  Gazing down at the book in my hands for a moment (It was the fourth one in the Seventh Reach series that I'd been gradually borrowing from Dennis), I mouthed a few curse words before looking up again. Emma was still talking, so I interrupted again. "No, I mean here. What are you doing here? Why are you talking to me?" When she started to speak, I pointed out. "You hate me. Remember? I'm a loser, a freak, a baby, an immature little girl that needs to go back to Jr. High. Ringing any bells?"
  Her eyes rolled dismissively as she waved a hand. "Seriously, Maddy, if you can't stop obsessing over whatever happened ages ago, we're never gonna see inside that locker. I mean, Sophia's gone now, so we can be friends again. Get it? I mean she's like... really... really gone."
  For just a second, as I saw the look in Emma's eyes, I felt sorry for her. The news of the Travelers killing Shadow Stalker had broken the next morning. It had been all over PHO, though no one knew who had leaked it. Shadow Stalker accused of killing an innocent girl and murdered for retribution. The forum had been going crazy trying to figure out which girl they were talking about. Taylor's death, fortunately, had been several months earlier, while they were looking for deaths that were more recent.
  The bad side of that was that some genius had picked up that Sophia Hess went missing around the same time. When no one ever located any more information about her, the general consensus became that Shadow Stalker had killed Sophia, which was... kind of disturbingly accurate, in a way.
  Anyway, it had gotten Emma a ton of attention over the last couple weeks, and allowed her to openly grieve for her best friend. She lapped it up, of course, and now she was acting as though none of it had mattered, only summoning the occasional single tear when a teacher got on her case, making them immediately back off and console her.
  Aaaaand she was still talking. Good god, did I ever sound like that? I had to tilt my head, staring across the table at my former friend as she babbled on about plans to break into Greg's locker to see this shrine of his. I was only hearing every third word or so, as the rest became a sort of droning, buzzing noise of annoyance. Her lips kept moving, moving, moving, almost hypnotically if it hadn't been for the buzzing of her voice and the distinct impression that if I had actually been listening to what she was saying, I'd be even more disgusted than I already was.
  I let my head fall back, staring at the ceiling, while she droned on. Finally, I stood from the table, tucking the borrowed book into my bag before picking it up. Then I turned and walked away.
  Emma caught up a moment later. She was still talking! I didn't want to say she was completely incapable of taking a hint, but at this rate if I hit her with a clue-by-four, she'd probably jump on that being the perfect thing to use to break into the damn locker.
  I walked, Emma trailing beside me, until I came to the table where Greg and his fellow gamer buddies were sitting. All of them glanced up and then stared as the two of us approached. Some looked nervous. Not that I could blame them. In the old days, the sight of Emma, Madison, and/or Sophia approaching pretty much meant that one of them was about to be utterly humiliated.
  "Greg." I spoke his name once we reached the table. The boy looked up, interrupted in mid sentence as he'd been going on about some game or another.
  Beside me, Emma had fallen silent as well. She was gazing at me with a knowing smirk, just waiting to see how I was going to trick Greg into his locker combination so his obsession with Taylor could be exposed.
  Instead, I said, "Emma's trying to find a way to break into your locker, to find all those... memories you're keeping. She'll probably find a way eventually, so you might wanna move them."
  Greg and his friends were staring at me as I turned around and started to leave, the message passed along. It took Emma another moment to get over her surprise, before she caught up with me just as I passed from the cafeteria to the hallway. She grabbed my arm, yanking me around. It took everything I had not to break her grip, and possibly some fingers.
  Her voice was furious. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
  I stared for a second. No. No one was that stupidly oblivious. Finally, the only words I could find were, "Do you even care?"
  Emma blinked, which was all the answer I needed. I turned around and started to walk away again, leaving her there. I was ten feet away when she called after me. "You're not the only one suffering, you know! I have to do community service! I lost my best friend!"
  I stopped walking, looked at the floor, then turned around to look back at her. "No. Your best friend lost you. Then we let her die."
  Emma's face twisted into an expression I couldn't fully read, and her voice became almost shrill. "You could have stopped her just as much as I could have! You could have saved Taylor too!"
  It was the one thing she had said all day that I completely agreed with. "Yeah. I know." I said quietly, before turning to walk away again.
  "I'm telling you, we should go down there and kick their asses."
  It was hours later, the sun had gone down, and I was out on my first official Wards patrol. After two weeks of training (not to mention all the media) they thought I was ready.
  Not that they let me go solo yet, of course. They had sent Vista and Gallant along with me, and within half an hour of the patrol route through the city, Gallant's girlfriend had shown up to come with us. For a lot of Wards, that might have been a problem. But Gallant's girlfriend was Glory Girl, from New Wave. So, she was probably better suited to going on this patrol than I was.
  She was definitely enthusiastic, if nothing else. Now, as the four of us stood atop a roof that overlooked the parking lot of a rather upscale hotel, she was pushing the rest of us to jump down there and deal with the four guys in red, green, black, and blue power armor of some kind that we could see cornering a dozen tourists in a corner of the lot. We couldn't hear what was being said, but there was a lot of shouting and arm waving going on. The gist seemed to be that they were looking for someone, and the tourists either didn't understand or weren't cooperating.
  "They're an unknown group." Gallant tersely informed his girlfriend. "Protocol says we wait for identification unless the innocents are in immediate danger. Which..."
  He looked at me, and I shook my head. There were lines leading down to the group, but they were very light. "Still just very minor injury possibility."
  I glanced down at my chest where the lines were to be sure. The costume that I wore now was a definite upgrade from the one I'd piecemealed together. It still awed me to even see it, let alone wear it.
  The base of the costume was a form-fitting white bodysuit. On the shins and thighs of both legs were slightly raised portions of black armor. I also wore reinforced black boots that were tightly secured to the legs of my costume. Running up either leg, crossing over both the white body suit and the bits of armor was an intricate pattern of violet lines that actually glowed, creating an effect that was supposed to be reminiscent of my tethers.
  The glowing lines ran past my legs, up and over my sides, and down my arms. They passed over similar armor arrangements there on my upper and forearms and down to my wrists. My hands were covered by white gloves that were actually physically attached to the rest of my costume, making it impossible for them to be ripped off. Not that it mattered, since over the thin gloves was a thicker pair of black gauntlets that attached to the forearm padding. The gauntlets were tinker-designed, and were tough enough to withstand the kind of force that my tether-accelerated punches were capable of delivering. On the inside, where my hands were, there was a section of gel-like substance in between the gauntlet and my inner glove. The gel would go from near liquid to near solid when it detected impacts, creating a protective layer between my hands and the impact so that doing so wouldn't break any bones. The boots that I was wearing had the same protective layer for my kicks.
  On the back of the gauntlets there was a slightly raised portion, right around my wrist, with a flat surface that stuck out about an inch so that I could attach tethers from that section to any surface that I wanted to pull myself to (or pull to me). Also on each of the gauntlets, resting on the back of the raised portion, there was a pair of the same type of the nonlethal, knockout bolts that Sophia had used. They had been shortened slightly for my use, since all I really needed were darts, and were designed to easily pop off once my tethers exerted pressure on them. That way I could attach the end to my target and shoot it off.
  My black vest had been replaced by a very similar bit of body armor, though those same glowing violet lines passed over it as well. I also had replacement bolts stored there, and on either shoulder there was a small metal ball that I was told could pass through steel without breaking given sufficient force. The balls could detach similar to the darts, should the need for a more powerful ranged blow arise.
  As before, the black vest part of the armor rose into a hood. I also wore a white full face mask, though this one had lenses covering my eyes that glowed with that same faint purple light, illuminating the inside of the hood.
  All in all, it was a pretty damn awesome bit of gear, and I still felt like a three year old trying on her mother's clothes whenever I put it on.
  Glory Girl was still pushing to go after the unknown bad guys, while Gallant was trying to convince her to wait for a response from headquarters just in case these guys were worse than they looked. Vista was standing slightly to the side, watching the group down there intently. She glanced at me and stepped closer, lowering her voice. "If we have to go down there, we need to deal with the guy in the black armor first." She indicated one of the men. "He's the leader. Those two guys on the left don't like the one on the right very much. They won't work together without the black one."
  I blinked and tilted my head. "You could tell all that from here?"
  Vista shrugged at that. "I notice things."
  Before I could respond to that, my lines abruptly changed color. Eyes widening, I turned to interrupt the dating pair. "Hey! Something changed. I'm seeing lots of injuries, maybe even death."
  Glory Girl's reaction to that was to give a broad smile. "Finally." She exclaimed. "An excuse." With that, she leapt off the roof and flew straight down toward the group below.
  "We need a-!" Gallant called after her before groaning. "... plan..."
  I shrugged at him while Vista shortened the distance between the parking lot and where we stood, turning a fall of certain death into a relatively short hop.
  Even as as we arrived, the battle was going full pitch. Glory Girl had slammed into the nearest of the armored men, the one in green, carrying him into the nearby fence before she began to pummel him. I saw the black armored man raise his arm that way, and a tiny rocket rose into view from the inside of the armor. I didn't need the line that rose up to indicate that she was about to be badly hurt. Before he could fire it, I attached a tether between the rocket and a streetlamp across the lot. It shot off, but my line yanked it off course, demolishing the metal pole but doing little other damage.
  His head snapped around to face me, and I wagged my finger back and forth chidingly. "Now now," I told him. "The Ref calls a foul. I didn't see anyone tag you in."
  His response was to raise his other hand. I dove sideways, using a tether attached from my vest to one of the cars to propel me faster, just as a laser shot through the space I had been in.
  Apparently my first patrol wasn't going to end calmly after all.
  Even as I hit the ground a safe distance from where the laser had passed, I was calling out, "Booooo, hisssss-" I made the noise of a disappointed crowd. "You're totally losing more points, dude. Attacking before the ref blows the whistle is uncool."
  I could all but sense his annoyance as the man in the black armor adjusted his aim. Before he could fire again, I took a step forward, planted a line under my right foot, and then shoved off, flying fifteen feet into the air. "If you make me come down there, young man." I adopted a scolding tone. "I will take your toys away."
  Two more lasers filled the air, but a quick line attached from the rear of my armored vest to to the building beyond yanked me backwards out of the way. I planted another line to keep me up for a few more seconds, calling out, "Aww, now you're just gonna hurt yourself."
  Before he could fire again, I attached a line between his hand and his foot, yanking his aim down so that the laser burned into the armor of his boot. "See?"
  Finally letting myself fall back toward the ground, I tightened my hand into a fist and then attached a line between my gauntlet and the face mask of the power armor, yanking myself in and adding the force from my fall to drive my gauntleted fist into the face of the power armor with enough force to send spider web cracks spreading over it, while the man himself was thrown backwards. The collision gel in the gauntlets absorbed most of the impact, and my own minor breaker abilities took care of the rest.
  As the man started to rise, I heard Vista give a distinctive whistle. It was part of a system of signals we had set up. When I glanced that way, I saw her standing near a brick wall, the space between us heavily distorted. She called out, "Slip N Slide!"
  Grinning, I set two lines against the man's shoulders and the other two against the high brick wall that surrounded the parking lot, before letting the lines yank him backward and up as he was pulled toward the wall.
  It took longer for the man to hit than it should have, because Vista had stretched the distance out to ten times its normal distance, so what should have been a twelve foot distance felt, to him, like it was over a hundred. It also gave my tether enough time to get him up to a high enough speed that the impact blew through the brick wall entirely, obliterating it while also putting cracks in the metal of his armor.
  I used a line to yank myself to a nearby part of the wall that was still standing, perching atop it above where Vista stood. "Think he'll stay down?" I asked.
  She just made a disparaging noise and pointed at the man in the damaged power armor, who was already hauling himself up in the next parking lot over.
  "Tinker Toys, or Mr. Potato Head?" I named another two of our predetermined plans.
  Vista considered, then nodded decisively. "Mr. Potato Head."
  While she got ready, I used a line to yank myself toward the man. Before he could stand, my tether-assisted blow impacted the back of his head, knocking him back toward the ground. I rolled forward over his armored form before he could rise, falling onto my back in front of him. As the man lifted his head, the cracks in his visor partially blocking his vision, he found me lying on my back in front of him, feet drawn up.
  "Hello." I said simply, before the tethers attached between my boots and his shoulders lashed out. The impact launched him skidding backwards along the pavement of this second parking lot.
  The man slid to a stop near Vista, who waved cheekily at him as he hauled himself up. His moves were slower by now, the systems of his suit having taken heavy damage already. But he was still a threat, and he sighted in on the younger girl with his arm laser.
  To her immense credit, Vista stood her ground, most of her attention on the area above the man's head rather than on the deadly weapon being leveled at her. Already, she trusted me to do my part.
  Before the man could fire, I attached a line from the man's arm to the top of the nearby tree. When the laser shot out, it flew into the air above his head before hitting the space that Vista had distorted. She had carefully reshaped that area so that the laser inverted itself, twisted around, and then burned through his opposite shoulder.
  Instantly, I attached two lines on one side of that arm and two lines on the other side, all four leading down to the pavement a dozen feet away in either direction. Exerting as much force as I could on all four lines simultaneously, centered around the damage that the man's laser had done, I focused until that portion of the armor finally ripped apart. There was a scream of tearing metal as the armor around the man's arm and hand was torn away in either direction, revealing muscular, tanned skin with a heart tattoo on the bicep, and part of a black tee shirt.
  Giving up on the laser, the man tried to throw a punch with the fist that was still armored. Vista, ready for that, ducked. The area of space behind her had been compressed enough that the man's punch put a hole through another part of the brick wall that, to him, had been a good ten feet away.
  Before the man could free his fist, I attached more lines between his gauntlet and the wall itself. Then I just waited. His power-suit assisted strength did the rest of the work, making it so that as the man yanked backward with a determined effort to free his arm, he actually ripped the gauntlet and lower half of the armor's arm clean off, revealing his own hand there as well.
  Clearly furious and beyond rational thought by that point, the man tried to grab Vista with his now unarmored hands. She twisted the space behind herself so that as she leapt backward, it actually brought her all the way around behind the man.
  He whirled toward Vista once more, and she gave him another jaunty wave before starting to backpedal. As she did, I quickly attached more lines between the back of the man's armor and what remained of this portion of the wall.
  The man came after my little partner, bellowing angrily through the speakers on his power armor. He charged through the space that she had compressed, crossing about four times the distance that he should have, which put him away from either of us.
  I could sense his confusion as the man turned to find Vista and myself both standing about ten feet away from him, waving. Then we pointed back the way he had come. When he looked, the man saw the distorted space that made the ruined wall look much closer. At the same time, I put another tether from the man's chest to the ground in front of him.
  Then Vista canceled the effect, putting the space back to normal. Instantly, my tethers, which were still attached to the wall and had only been as long as they were due to the distortion of the space, snapped back to their normal sizes. The man would have been yanked violently back to where he'd been, but the tether that I'd put at his chest held him in place. Instead, the entire back half of his armor was torn away.
  With the back half gone, the front half of the man's armor fell shortly afterward, leaving a tall man with heavily muscled arms, a buzzcut, and a tiny bit of a beer gut, wearing green camo pants and that black tee shirt. He staggered, grabbing for the pistol at his hip. Before he could get it out, I extended a hand and launched one of my knock-out darts, now that the man had been stripped of his armor and any kind of medical system aboard it that might have canceled out the effects. The dart flew along a line that was attached between the tip and the wall somewhere behind the man, and hit him in bicep right under the heart tattoo, and he collapsed a moment later, his gun barely clearing its holster.
  "That." I announced. "Is how you play Mr. Potato Head."
  "Damn straight." Vista agreed, and her hand met my outstretched one with a slap.
  Unfortunately, our celebration was interrupted as a trio of bright red lines yanked my attention that way. I created a line from where I was to the wall, yanking myself up so I could see what was happening.
  Glory Girl, by that point, had finished beating on the man in the green armor, having torn bits of it off of him before leaving the guy an unconscious wreck, slightly messier than the way that Vista and I had done it, but also effective.
  Apparently she had also damaged the one in the red armor enough to shatter his visor, revealing the face and neck of a dark skinned young woman, who was now unleashing a rapid-fire series of laser blasts after Glory Girl, who was forced to focus on evading.
  Gallant, meanwhile, wasn't having much luck with the remaining guy in the blue armor. His emotion-altering blasts had concussive elements, but it wasn't enough to do more than annoy the guy, who was now hoisting a car with both hands. He heaved it not at Gallant, or even at Glory Girl, but toward a group of the tourist hostages.
  Rather than actually getting out of the way, the people just screamed uselessly. Ignoring that, I quickly attached two lines to the car as it flipped through the air, yanking it backwards in midflight with the first tether before using the second one to arrest its momentum completely, then let it drop back onto the pavement, a few feet from where the nearest of the endangered civilians was.
  A line from my gauntlet to the top of the damaged vehicle brought me to it, where I glanced over my shoulder at the group. I spread my arms in an apologetic gesture. "Sooo sorry, folks. Our valets are a bit overly enthusiastic about returning your vehicles. I'll need to see a ticket stub before you can claim this one."
  Vista had joined us back on this lot as well, and she took in the sight of Gallant continuing to throw useless blasts against the blue armored man, while Glory Girl remained unable to get near the red armored woman with the exposed face, whose near blindingly fast laser shots kept filling the air any time she got near. "Switch, you guys!" She blurted at the two of them.
  Boyfriend and girlfriend looked at one another briefly, then each did a one-eighty. Gallant shot a blast straight into the exposed face of the woman in the damaged red armor, who immediately fell to her knees and started to cry.
  Meanwhile Glory Girl flew low and fast, catching the heels of the one in the blue armor before spinning around to slam the man into the pavement hard enough to crack it. She repeated the motion twice, ripping off the laser that the man tried to point at her before using the crumpled remains of it to hammer on his visor. Once that was shattered, she gave a heave and tossed the man up and toward me. I tracked his resulting fall, firing off another dart with a line that was attached to his exposed upper chest. By the time the man hit the ground, he was unconscious.
  We gathered there once the crying woman had been divested of her armor and secured. The four of us stood in a semicircle. Gallant glanced toward Vista and me. "Fourth guy?"
  "Stripped of his toys." I answered.
  "And ziptied." Vista put in, pointing back to where we had left him. Apparently she'd taken the time to ensure he wouldn't go anywhere if he, by some miracle, woke up before we got back.
  "Good." Gallant started. "We need to identi-"
  He was interrupted by applause. The four of us whirled, finding the group of tourists and would-be hostages clapping and whistling. The attention made me blush, and I instinctively stepped back, coughing. "Uh, someone should talk to those people and find out what these guys were doing."
  "I think we can handle that." A new voice interrupted, and I looked to see Miss Militia, second in command of the local Protectorate. Her voice was slightly muffled by the American-flag scarf that covered the lower half of her face, and the faux-military uniform she wore accented curves that made even my eyes want to wander. I was so, so jealous.
  Arrayed behind Miss Militia were a dozen PRT officers, and slightly to her left there was a female cape that I didn't recognize. She floated a bit off the ground, and her costume consisted of emerald green, glass-like armor decorated with waves of white swirls like a particularly pretty polished stone. The armor itself was glowing brightly through some kind of inner light, and the woman also wore a matching face mask with gem-like lenses over the eyes, which were also glowing.
  At a nod from Miss Militia, the PRT officers spread out to deal with the four prisoners. Then she spoke again. "We'll talk to the people here, find out what was going on. You lot should be getting your story straight for when we ask how you went from 'observe and report' to 'brawl in the middle of a parking lot full of hostages'." There was, obviously, reproach in her words, but it was tinted by what sounded like pride. I got the feeling she was angry about the risk that we'd taken, but proud that we'd managed it without letting anyone get hurt.
  Vista was focused on the new woman. "Who...?"
  Without looking, Miss Militia indicated with a hand before speaking dully. "May I introduce Penance, the newest member of the Protectorate East-North-East."
  Glory Girl made a scoffing noise. "Please. Everyone knows she's really Pu-" Her words were cut off by Gallant covering her mouth with an armored hand and shaking his head. She sighed and shrugged.
  At another direction from Miss Militia, we started to walk away, toward the vans that they had brought.
  As we went, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. When I glanced that way, back toward the broken wall that Vista and I had all but demolished, I saw someone standing there.
  The figure was clearly feminine, her slim form outlined against the dim light. It looked like she was wearing a form-fitting black costume, with a hood that came up and covered the top half of her face, while a red half-mask covered the lower part up to her nose, leaving only the area around her eyes exposed. A few strands of brown hair emerged from the hood as well.
  She was staring at us, staring at me, intently. When she noticed me looking back, she lifted her hand in a single wave.
  Then her figure burst apart, turning into a swarm of bees, flies, and various other bugs before they all scattered into the night.
  A trio of spinning fireballs slammed into the ground at Dennis's feet, hurtling the broken, smoldering body back a dozen feet before falling to the ground, little left but a few flickering flames over ruined skin.
  I quirked an eyebrow. "Well. You suck."
  As the loss screen appeared on the monitor in front of him, Dennis turned away to squint at me. "That guy's tournament ranked. I'd like to see you do any better."
  The two of us were sitting in the back of an all-night internet and video game cafe a couple of hours after the altercation in the hotel parking lot. I'd met Dennis there once the interrogation about the fight was over, and I'd been telling him about it while he played his game, keeping my voice low. The odds of anyone overhearing, considering how late it was and how far away we were from the few other customers was astronomical, but still.
  "The difference there is I've never played this game." I pointed out, quite reasonably, I thought. "You're supposed to be good at it." I was teasing, clearly. My video game experience was limited to watching Dennis and the other boys at the Wards HQ, or here.
  Unfortunately for me, Dennis was well aware of my inexperience. He gave me a sidelong look. "You do realize that if you tried this, you'd probably manage to accidentally find some control combination that made your character spontaneously combust before your opponent could move?"
  "Ayup." I agreed. "Which I would totally count as a win, because technically they wouldn't have killed me."
  We both snickered a little, before he changed the subject. "So this mysterious bug figure you saw, no one else noticed her?"
  I shook my head. "She was gone by the time anyone else looked."
  "Well congratulations." Dennis winked. "You've either got a stalker, a potential sidekick, or an archenemy."
  "It could have been a coincidence that she was standing there staring at me and disappeared after I noticed." I put in rather lamely. This received the exact look it deserved before I sighed. "Yeah, I don't believe it either."
  "Check the database for anyone with bug related powers next chance you get." He suggested. "Look for anyone that matches. Even if they're from out of state. You never know."
  I nodded, thinking back to the blank look I'd gotten from Miss Militia when I'd mentioned it. She promised to make a couple inquiries, but it wouldn't hurt for me to take a look as well..
  By that point, a pretty blonde girl had come into the cafe and walked back to take a seat a few cubicles down, so we stopped talking about 'work stuff' and switched back to focusing on the game.
  For a moment, I just watched Dennis cycle through the various characters he had available. Then I lifted a hand to point. "Try using that one with the pink and white armor. She's cute."
  Coughing at this, Dennis turned a disbelieving gaze to me. "You realize this is a war for the fate of the multiverse, right?"
  "Uh huh..." I let my head tilt innocently. "So?"
  "So," he informed me. "There is not a single competent military tactician in the entire history of warfare that has ever, ever based a winning battle strategy around 'let's use her, she's cute' ."
  "Well maybe that's why war takes so long." I sniffed. "Nobody's doing it right."
  Sadly, that was not enough to convince him of my sound strategic mind, and he went with a different character. I watched him play for another twenty minutes, injecting my own rather useless ideas occasionally.
  Then it was time for Dennis to head out so that he could do his own patrol route. As he signed out of the computer, the red-headed Ward glanced to me, lowering his voice to barely above a whisper. "If you see you-know-who again tonight, call it in. Don't worry about someone thinking you're paranoid or whatever, call it in."
  I promised I would, and then he headed out while I took a trip to the restroom. When I came out, my attention was on my phone, thumbs starting to type out a text to let Dean know that I was going to stop by the Wards HQ and use the database to look for the bug girl.
  I was heading toward the door when a voice spoke up. "He's wrong, you know."
  Glancing up at the voice, unsure if she was talking to me, I found the older, pretty girl looking toward me. "About her." She nodded toward the screen, and I saw the pink and white armored character that I'd tried to push on Dennis earlier. "That group he was using, she would have filled a speed/magic hole he was missing."
  I blinked once, then again. "A... Oh. I really just watch the flashy swords and magic and stuff." Shrugging a little self consciously. "Me no game videos much good."
  The girl hesitated then, like she wasn't sure she should have spoken up. "Sorry, I thought you might be trying to decide what set-up to use for your own group." There was another pause, before she awkwardly asked, "You umm, you still wanna see what she can do?" Her nod indicated the character on the screen once more. "Just in case you decide to play with your boyfriend."
  "He's not my boyfriend." I said quickly, automatically. Then I paused. He wasn't, really. We hung out together, he loaned me books and we talked a lot. I liked watching him play games even if I didn't play them. But we'd never actually said anything about... that.
  The blonde girl just glanced at me when I said that, looking thoughtful for a moment before pushing a chair out. "I'm Marissa." I was guessing that she was about three years older than I was.
  "Madison." I took the offered seat, because why not? It wasn't like many people outside of the Wards ever talked to me anyway. It might do me good to talk to someone who was completely apart from this whole cape business.
  Marissa selected the character and started to run through the battle, stopping once in awhile to let me know what she was doing or why something was happening. Even with the distractions, I could tell that she was really good at the game.
  "You've played this a lot?" I asked, once a lull came.
  There was a moment of quiet before the older girl answered. "Yeah, it's pretty similar to a game I used to play..." She trailed off. "... Awhile ago."
  I watched her face, seeing the frown there. "Is something wrong?"
  Marissa looked surprised that I'd noticed, glancing at me before flinching. "Don't worry about it. It's just been a long time since I've been home."
  "You... can't go back?" I asked hesitantly, unsure when I saw the look on her face.
  "It's not that simple." Marissa's voice was soft, and I wasn't even sure that she knew she'd spoken aloud. "I wish it was."
  For a moment, she looked sad... and lonely. I swallowed, staring at that look on her face. I closed my eyes, thinking back to the look that had been on Taylor's face for so long. This wasn't the exact same expression, but still... "Are you being.. threatened?" I finally asked.
  Her eyes widened and she looked at me. "What?"
  "Sorry. I'm sorry." My head shook. "I know it's none of my business. It's stupid, I just... I was wondering if someone was hurting you or something."
  "No." Marissa shook her head, but that lonely look remained. "No one's hurting me or anything. It's just... It's just complicated." Her eyes found mine. "Why did you think it was that?"
  Flinching, I went quiet for a moment. The two of us stared at each other for a moment, and then I couldn't help it. A snort escaped me, turning into a tiny giggle. When the other girl raised both eyebrows questioningly, I shrugged. "I was just wondering if either of us are ever going to say anything that doesn't make the other one really uncomfortable. It's gotta be some kind of record."
  That made the other girl blink, before she gave a little giggle as well. Then she looked surprised. I had the feeling she hadn't had much of a reason to smile in a long time. That was too bad, because she had a nice smile.
  "I was a bully." I blurted, making the older girl blink at me. I flushed, but pressed on. "I was a bitch. I was... a horrible, horrible person. I helped make this other girl's life... completely miserable. I ruined her life for over a year, just because it made me feel special. Just because... making her life hell made me feel like I was better, and the worse she felt, the better it made me think I was. And then... and then she died."
  Marissa was staring at me, and the look made me flinch, turning my gaze away to the floor. "I... I've been trying to change." I said quietly. "I've been trying to do better, be a better person."
  Still staring at the floor, I mumbled, "That's why I was asking if someone was hurting you, because... you sort of looked like Taylor, back when we were hurting her. And, I know it was none of my business, but I let Taylor die because I didn't stop what happened. I didn't... want anything like that to happen again, just because I didn't say something." I flushed a little more, sighing. "And now you know I'm the world's biggest cunt."
  I started to rise, wanting to get out of there after embarrassing myself so much, but her hand found my arm and stopped me. "Hey, not true. I've known much bigger cunts." When I looked up doubtfully at that, Marissa offered a weak little smile. "Trust me. Besides, you said you're trying to be better." She paused before asking, "Is it working?"
  Thinking about it, I slowly nodded. "I think so. I'm just not sure if it'll ever be enough. I keep dreaming about her, seeing her face, almost every other night." The next admission was harder to make. "But it's the other half that makes me worry. The half where I don't see her face."
  Marissa considered that, before speaking quietly. "Because you're afraid that you'll forget why you wanted to change."
  Her understanding made me stare briefly, before I managed a nod. "I-yeah. Yeah. I'm afraid that if I stop dreaming about her every night, stop remembering what I did, even for a moment, I'll... I'll go back to the way I was."
  "Nobody can live with that kind of pressure, Madison." Marissa told me. "Take it from someone who knows, you'll burn out if you don't ease up a little on yourself. It doesn't mean you'll forget why you changed. But if all you do is torture yourself every time you close your eyes, it's not going to help."
  Her eyes rolled then. "Yeah, listen to all that good advice I can give that I'll never listen to. Like I can stop seeing her every time I go to sleep."
  "Her?" I asked, picking up on that.
  She winced, hesitating before giving a faint nod. "My... best friend. She's been..." That look of intense loss came across Marissa's face then. "... changing."
  Silence came then, and we sat for a minute before I hesitantly asked, "Changing?"
  I saw the other girl swallow hard. "Yeah. Noelle, she's just... she's different now. She's been going down a bad path, becoming something that... I'm not sure if I want to be near. But it's not her fault. It's really not, it's not something she-it wasn't her choice."
  I wasn't sure what all that meant, drugs maybe? But I offered, "Does she know she has a problem?"
  Again, that lost look came that made me instinctively want to find the person that made her look so sad and use the high C trick on them. "She knows. But she can't stop it either. It's out of our control. We've been trying to fix it, trying to help her, but I'm afraid..."
  She trailed off once again, looking like she was afraid that if she put voice to what she'd been about to say, it would be true. Finally, speaking so softly I had to strain to hear, the girl finished her sentence. "I'm afraid it's too late. I'm afraid she'll never be our Noelle again."
  I hesitated, then poked her in the side. She looked up at me, and I pointed out, "You said nobody can take that kind of pressure all the time. Last time I checked, you aren't nobody."
  "That could be my last name." She replied mildly. "Marissa Nobody."
  "No." I shook my head. "You're too pretty to be a Nobody."
  For someone who looked like she did, Marissa still looked surprised to hear it. I had the feeling that it had been a long time since someone had told her that. "I umm, thanks..." She said rather awkwardly, like she wasn't sure how to respond to it.
  I coughed, shaking my head. "I was just saying, your friend... Noelle, you know that... all you can do is help as much as she'll let you. All you can do is... be there. And... it might be that the best thing you could do for her is... let her go."
  She looked stricken at that, and I flinched. "I'm sorry. I mean, I don't know anything about your situation. I don't know-"
  "No." Marissa sighed. "No, I know what you're saying. I know. But... if there's still a chance, still any way to help her, to get her back to the way she was..."
  "And if you can't, if she's too far gone, that's not your fault." I said. "All you can do is try."
  "When do I stop trying?" Marissa asked. "When have I gone too far? Where's the line between doing too much to help her, and not doing enough?"
  The question made me think, while the older girl met my gaze searchingly, as though hoping I actually had an answer. Finally, all I could offer was, "I don't think there's a real answer to that. It's... it's your choice. It's your decision. You have to ask yourself how far is too far. You have to decide where your line is, because nobody else can do it for you and have it mean anything. But don't let Noelle or me or anybody keep moving your line. Decide where your line stands, and stay there."
  "What if that means I lose her?" Marissa's voice was soft, almost too quiet to hear.
  "Then at least you won't lose yourself too." I responded, just as quietly.
  For a moment, the two of us sat there, staring at each other. It looked like she really wanted to say something, but before she could, there was a buzz from the purple cell phone on the table. She picked it up and glanced at the message she'd received. From the look on her face, I was guessing that it wasn't good news. She rose, logging out of the game she'd been playing. "I've gotta go. I... there's something I have to help with. They're waiting for me."
  "Bye Marissa." I lifted a hand to wave, feeling emotionally drained.
  "Mars." She replied. "My-umm... My friends call me Mars. I don't have a lot of them now but... you should."
  "Okay... Mars." I smiled faintly. "I'll remember it if I ever see you again."
  Looking briefly uncertain, Mars finally grabbed a bit of discarded printer paper and used a nearby pen to scribble down a number. "Call me if you want to talk again, or... maybe even do something that isn't so heavy." She offered with another of those pretty smiles.
  Then she was gone, and I sat there in the almost empty internet cafe, wondering what this feeling was.
  "Oh god, I'm so sorry to hear that, Alan." I heard the sound of my dad's voice as he came in the back door. It was a week after I'd met Marissa, a Saturday, and he had been visiting his office to pick up some papers he needed.
  I looked up from the kitchen table where I'd been eating a plate of toast with peanut butter and honey, licking my fingers clean while watching my father on his cell phone. He glanced my way and then closed the door with his foot. "Hold on, I don't think so, but I'll ask her." Taking the phone away from his ear, he focused on me. "Mads, have you seen Emma in the last few days?"
  That made me blink. "Umm..." I thought back. I'd been deliberately avoiding her ever since that incident in the cafeteria, but now that he said something, I really hadn't seen her. "She hasn't been in class this week. I didn't really pay attention, because..." I trailed off and gestured.
  Dad nodded and went back to his phone call. "Sorry, Alan, Madison hasn't seen her either. When... Oh. So you've talked to the police?"
  He had all of my attention now. Pushing the half finished plate away, I stared while my father finished his phone call, promising to let Emma's dad know if any of us saw her.
  Once he disconnected, I spoke up. "Emma's missing?"
  Dad nodded, sighing heavily. "Apparently she's been missing since last Friday, but Tuesday was the first time anyone knew for sure because she was supposed to be camping with friends for the long weekend. But they got back Tuesday and said that Emma told them she couldn't go. They contacted the police, but now he's desperate enough to try all of Emma's old friends. Even though he knows... well, that you two aren't talking."
  "Emma's been missing for a week..." I said slowly, letting that sink in as I sat back rather heavily in my seat. "And she lied about where she was going?"
  My father leaned against the counter, his own face lined with worry. "I'm afraid Alan's... not taking it well. The police have no ideas, and he's afraid they're not taking it seriously."
  That made me stare. "What? Why wouldn't they take it seriously?"
  He sighed at that. "Because in their eyes, she's a runaway. Emma's a troubled girl that's already doing community service for what happened with Taylor and Sophia. Her former best friend died, partly because of her, and then her new best friend died. She lied about where she was going and then disappeared. The police think she just took off."
  I winced. When he put it like that, it did sound plausible. This meant that Emma had been missing since the night I'd had the fight with the others against the armored guys. "I'll, umm, I'll ask if any of the others have any ideas for finding her." I promised.
  Smiling faintly, my father nodded. "Thank you, sweetie. I know you two don't get along, but-"
  "But she's still a person." I said firmly, gathering my plate and glass before standing up. "She doesn't deserve to be ignored when she's in trouble just because I don't like her."
  Pushing off the counter, Dad pulled me into a hug once my dishes were in the sink, holding me tight for a moment before he released me. "You heading to the cemetery?"
  I nodded. It was time for my two hours of community service for the week. "That's why I'm wearing my grungies." I gestured down at my clothes.
  Dad raised an eyebrow. "I was not aware that pink overalls with glitter sparkles were considered grungy."
  Sticking my tongue out at him, I retorted, "They're the closest to grungy that I have after the black ones ripped on that tree. Besides, I was referring to the boots and an ugly flannel shirt."
  "Hey, that's my flannel shirt." Dad protested. "What do you mean, ugly?"
  "Oh please." I rolled my eyes. "Like it's so surprising to you. Oooh news flash, Dad has no sense of style. Alert the presses."
  Rolling his head back and around to crack his neck, Dad oh-so-casually asked, "You know what I do have a sense of?" His voice was tinted with warning that made me take a step back, but he grabbed my arm before I could move. The next thing I knew, my father had me yanked into a hold that pinned my arms to my sides while he attacked my stomach and sides with his free hand, tickling me while I squealed and struggled.
  Of course I could have broken his grip using what I was learning from Vista and the others, let alone with my powers. But I didn't. This wasn't about winning, it was about being with my dad.
  "So the cops think she ran away?" Dennis was asking while his shovel hit the dirt.
  "Of course they do." Carlos replied for me, taking a moment to wipe off his brow. The three of us were digging holes for fence posts for the cemetery expansion, and it was sweaty, dirty work. "She was in trouble, she lost her friends, I'd think she ran away too."
  Both of the boys looked at me, and I sighed. "I know, it makes sense. But something about it feels wrong. I can't explain it. I think she's in trouble now, even if she meant to run away at first."
  Dennis hesitated before asking, "Is this your power, the danger sense?"
  "I'm not sure." I had to admit. "It just... it feels like she's in danger."
  "Who's in danger?" Chris, dragging the next fence post back toward us, sounded eager. "Do we have to go fight someone? Please, please tell me we have to go fight someone." He and Dennis positioned the post into the hole and held it steady.
  I shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, Chris, no fight yet. It's just that Emma's missing." I explained while helping Carlos fill the hole.
  "Maybe she's the bug girl that was following you around the other night." Chris pointed out once I was done.
  Giving him a look, I shook my head. "She had brown hair, not red. And she wasn't following me around, I only saw her once. At least, I think I saw her. Hell, for all I know, I imagined it." I hesitated before adding, "Besides, if Emma Barnes manifested the power to turn into bugs, we'd still be hearing the screaming."
  "I take it you haven't had any luck identifying bug girl?" Carlos grunted while emptying his shovel into the hole to start burying the post.
  "Nope." I sighed. "Like I said, maybe I didn't really see her at all."
  "I dunno." Dennis pointed out. "There's a lot of new faces in town since the Empire went down."
  He was right, there had been a sudden influx of parahumans, mostly villains, trying to fill the void left by the fall of Empire Eighty Eight. Luckily for us, most of them were cheap knockoffs like the quartet of power armored wannabes we'd run into the other night. So far, the truly nasty bad guys hadn't made an appearance.
  "No bug girls though." I said. "Not even on the heroes side."
  "Well yeah." Chris shrugged. "The only new hero besides Purity is that Defiant guy."
  "Defiant?" I glanced to him.
  Nodding, Chris took a moment to find something on his phone before holding it up. "New tinker hero. Armsmaster's been trying to track him down to see if he wants to work on something, but so far the guy's been avoiding company."
  I looked at the picture he was showing me. This 'Defiant' looked like a well built man in white metallic armor with a gold cross on the front. The top of the cross came up to cover the face-mask of his knight-style helmet. One of his arms was extended toward a figure in the corner of the picture that looked like one of the Merchants gang members, and some kind of golden blade of energy that looked a bit like a flat lightsaber was extending from his wrist.
  Whistling, I acknowledged, "Well he definitely looks impressive. But yeah, not a bug girl."
  Shrugging, Chris put his phone away. "Sorry. Maybe she's just really shy."
  "Yeah..." I made a face. "Or maybe I'm going crazy."
  "Well, crazy girl." Dennis winked at me. "Think you could head back and fill up the water bottles?" He gestured with his own empty bottle after plucking it off the ground.
  "Oh now the girl has to get the water, huh?" I teased.
  "Well if you'd rather," He offered. "I could do it and you could dig the next post hole."
  I took the offered bottle, as well as the others. "Point taken."
  Bottles in my arms, I walked back the way we had come. There was a drinking fountain near the main building that I could use.
  On the way, I stopped at a gravestone in an out of the way corner of the cemetery. My throat closed up a little as I stared down at the name.
  "Hey, Taylor." I said softly, taking a knee for a moment and setting the bottles down. "It's me again." As I knelt there, I put a hand out and let my fingers brush along the name and dates engraved on the marker. When I touched the date of her death, a shudder ran through me and my eyes closed to fight back the dampness that arose.
  My voice failed me for a moment, as it always did when I visited her grave. When I finally spoke, it was weak. "Emma's missing. I'm not sure what happened to her. I... I don't know how I know, but she's in trouble. Whatever happened, I have to find her."
  "I... I'm not sure how you'd feel about it. For all the time I spent making fun of you, I didn't know you very well. I... wish I did. I wish I knew what would make you happy. I wish I knew... anything." My eyes closed again and I hung my head, letting my hand fall away from the stone. "But I'm pretty sure that even with everything Emma did, everything we did, you'd still help her if she was in trouble like this."
  I stayed there like that for another minute or so, not wanting to make the boys wait much longer for their water. Then I pulled myself up, collected the bottles, and was starting to leave when a voice spoke from behind me. "You visit her often?"
  Whirling in surprise, I stared at the man that I saw there. "I-" My face blanched. "Mr. Hebert." Taylor's father. He looked... old. He looked weary and like a stiff breeze would knock him over. His eyes were bloodshot, and from the tight grip that he was maintaining on the dark bottle in his hand, I could guess what the strong smell was. My throat closed up entirely as I stared at the man.
  I had... no idea what to say. Nothing at all. I couldn't even tell the man why Taylor had died, why his daughter was gone, because it wasn't allowed. I couldn't tell him I was sorry, because he couldn't know that I had been involved. It was part of the secrecy agreement. No one, not even Danny Hebert, was allowed to know that Shadow Stalker had been Sophia, and that Sophia had been responsible for Taylor's death. All they'd told him, apparently, was that her death was an 'unfortunate accident in the course of an ongoing struggle against a disturbed individual, who remained classified'.
  Apparently he hadn't taken any of it very well, judging from what I could see. His clothes had clearly been worn for several days, he hadn't shaved in at least a week, and the alcohol smell was now strong enough to make me flinch.
  "I come here a lot." Mr. Hebert finally said, once it was clear I wasn't going to speak. "Sometimes I just sit in the car, over there." He gestured vaguely at the road nearby. "I see you here a lot too. Were you... a friend?"
  I flinched at the hope in his voice. He desperately wanted me to be one of Taylor's friends. He wanted to know she was remembered by people who cared about her.
  What could I say? I couldn't tell him the whole truth. But could I lie to him? Would telling him a little bit of the truth be better than a bigger lie? What was the right thing to do? What was the right thing to say?
  "I..." I started before cringing and looking away. My eyes found the gravestone, and I stared for another moment before speaking again. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hebert. I wasn't Taylor's friend." About this, I couldn't lie. No matter how much easier it would make things. "I... I wish I had been. She was... she was better than me."
  I started to speak again, but when I glanced at the man, I saw that his eyes were closed. His hand with the beer bottle hung loose at his side, the bottle dropping from limp fingers while his other hand came out toward the gravestone. He wasn't touching it, just... reaching toward it, as though trying to grasp something that wasn't there. Then his shoulders started to shake, and I saw the tears falling.
  Blinded by the dampness in my own eyes, I turned away and walked on. When I glanced back a few moments later, I saw the man kneeling there in between the two graves. He had a hand on each of the gravestones, his head bowed.
  I forced myself to turn away and keep walking, while behind me, a broken man knelt between the graves of his wife and daughter, his tears mixing with the dirt that held everything he had ever cared for.
  It was getting dark by the time I left the Wards HQ later, after trying for hours to both find something more about this bug girl I'd seen, and stop thinking about seeing Mr. Hebert at the cemetery earlier. Both efforts were unsuccessful, and I was trudging out onto the sidewalk for a walk to the bus stop. At least I'd had the presence of mind to shower and change clothes before spending all afternoon at the computer.
  As I walked, a buzzing in my pocket made me jump a little, before I settled and took the phone out. A glance at the screen made me raise an eyebrow before I answered it. "Mars?" I had called her earlier in the week to give her my number, but she hadn't been able to talk. I'd had the feeling that something bad had been happening.
  "Madison?" Her voice came through, and it sounded a little shaky. "Sorry, I ummm, I'm not sure what I'm doing. I just..." A long sigh came over the line. "I really need to get out of here. Are you busy?"
  I hesitated briefly. Part of me just wanted to go home and veg after a long day, but something in the older girl's voice sounded like she really needed someone to talk to. "I'm not busy." I finally decided. "I was just heading for the bus."
  "Where are you?" She asked then. "I'll pick you up."
  Again I hesitated before shrugging off my doubt. That was just the part of me that wanted to dwell, that didn't think I deserved any release or happiness after the wreck that Taylor's father had been. "I'm downtown." I gave her the address, and she promised to be around in fifteen minutes if I'd meet her in front of the little park that was a couple blocks away.
  Walking there, I considered for the five hundredth time that day what might have happened to Emma. Was she the bug girl somehow? Different colored hair wasn't total proof otherwise, especially if something had made her trigger. After all, she'd disappeared on the same night that I'd seen bug girl. Obviously it could be a coincidence, but what if it wasn't?
  There wasn't much time to debate on the subject once I reached the park. I'd barely had time to take a seat on the bench next to the entrance when one of those classic muscle cars from the sixties or seventies that guys are always going gaga over pulled up to the curb. It was dark red, almost black, and the windows had been tinted heavily.
  The window rolled down, and I saw Marissa. She looked tired, but smiled when she looked at me, and I immediately knew that I'd made the right choice in agreeing to go out for awhile. At her beckoning wave, I stood up and made my way over to stand next to the car.
  "Nice ride." I commented while looking the vehicle up and down. I may not know much about the particulars of cars, but I knew what looked pretty, and this looked pretty.
  That smile came back, and I actually saw teeth this time. "Thanks." Marissa gestured. "Come around and get in. Unless you want to drive." That was accompanied by a wink.
  "Err. Maybe once I get my license." I replied mildly before heading around the car to get in the other side. The door stuck a little bit, but the seat was comfortable and I sank into it with a sigh of appreciation.
  "That reminds me." Marissa pulled away from the curb as soon as it was clear. "I never got to ask back at the cafe. How old are you? I mean, just so I don't go doing stupid stuff like offering to let you drive." She gave a self-depreciating roll of her eyes. "For example."
  "I'll be sixteen in a week and a half." I replied, pulling my seat-belt on as we pulled around a bus.
  "Week and a half, huh?" She eyed me briefly. "Well happy early sixteenth. Are you doing anything special?"
  I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I haven't really been paying attention." It was true, the last few weeks had gone by so quickly that I'd pretty much forgotten my birthday was approaching until she'd asked.
  That earned me a strange look. "Most girls can't wait for their sweet sixteens."
  Swallowing, I glanced out the window. "I've had a lot on my mind."
  "Right." She hesitated before nodding. "The other girl. I'm sorry." There was a pause before she glanced at me when we stopped at a red light. "Still, you deserve a good birthday. Everyone does."
  "What about you?" I asked after a moment. "How old are you, I mean?"
  Marissa paused, biting her lower lip before she answered. "I turned nineteen about a month ago." She went quiet then, and looked introspective. For a moment, that lonely, sad look came before she banished it with a shake of her head. "Not gonna think about that now. It's time for a fun night, all serious topics banned."
  "All serious topics banned, huh?" I echoed her words, finding a small smile.
  "Yup." She gave me a serious look. "That means no dwelling. For either of us." Her voice turned to that of a classic gangster. "Or I mights gotta toss you outta this here car, capiche?"
  Feeling a little bit of a smile tugging at me, I managed to sound mostly serious. "You'd throw me out of the car for breaking your 'no serious subjects' rule?"
  She gazed back at me, her voice mockingly serious. "I have impulse control problems."
  For a moment, we both held that serious look, before breaking into giggles. The laughter just compounded a second later as the guy behind us leaned on his horn because the light had been green for all of six tenths of a second without us moving. As one, we nodded over our shoulders at the guy in the van and spoke together. "Impulse control problems."
  Still giggling, Mars pulled away from the light. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going." She snickered a little still before glancing to me. "So I wanna do something fun. I was thinking of a movie, but I'm open to suggestions."
  While a movie sounded nice, I kind of wanted to talk to Marissa rather than sit quietly. I liked talking to her, even if we did tend to fall into heavy subjects. An idea came then. "I think I know the place. Hang a right up here."
  A few minutes later, we pulled into a lot, and the older girl looked at the sign, then turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "Bowling?"
  "Hey, bowling's fun, Mars." I pointed out a little defensively while opening the door.
  "I'll take your word for it." She replied while chuckling a little as she got out the other side.
  We started to walk in while I asked, a little incredulously, "Are you saying you've really never bowled before?"
  "Not once." Marissa confirmed automatically before pausing. A slightly worried look crossed her face. "Is that really weird?"
  "No, no." I shook my head to reassure her. "Probably not. I just used to go with my dad when I was little. He had a bowling league once a week. I watched and ate nachos. Plus it was an excuse to stay up a little bit later than my normal bedtime in the middle of the week, especially when the games ran long."
  We got inside, and I helped Marissa get shoes and a ball. She made a bit of a face at using rented shoes, but managed it without fussing too much.
  "Now it's time for the most important part of bowling." I informed the other girl solemnly.
  "Figuring out how to roll the ball?" She asked, eying the pins at the end of the lane doubtfully.
  "Pfft." I waved a hand dismissively and stood. "Nachos."
  Both of her eyebrows went up at that. "The most important part of bowling... is nachos?"
  "Now you're getting it." I winked and started up to the counter, while Marissa followed, chuckling.
  We split the largest nachos they had, with as much cheese as they could squeeze onto them, along with a couple of sodas and a crapload of napkins. Back at the lane, I set the nachos down and moved to pick up a ball. "I'll go first, just watch what I do."
  "I'm all eyes." Mars replied agreeably, tucking her feet up on the seat next to her as she watched.
  I took my shot, managing to take down seven of the pins, while my second attempt put down two more. "One left." I noted, before dropping to the floor to do a single pushup.
  "Uhh..." Marissa leaned almost all the way over to look me in the eye. "What're you doing? Is that really part of the rules, or are you messing with me?"
  Blushing a little, I came back to my feet. "Sorry, you don't have to. It's just part of a tradition my dad started with his league. For every pin they left up, they had to do a pushup. Since I grew up watching that, it's kind of... engrained."
  Rising from her own seat, Mars shrugged. "Well if you're doing it, I'll do it too."
  Two rolls later, her tone changed as she stared at the pins at the end of the lane. "Okay, I am not doing nine pushups. Seriously? Are you sure this floor is level?"
  Snickering, I waved a hand. "First throw, at least you knocked one down. And ahh, how about a max of five?" Wagging a finger, I pointed out. "After all, you did promise me pushups."
  "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Marissa retorted, but she was chuckling at herself. Grunting, she pushed herself down, eying me the whole time she was doing them. "I bet you're just loving this. Shyster. Get me in here all, 'oh my dad and I do pushups all the time when we miss one or two pins, you should totally try that too'."
  I grabbed a chip, dragging it through the cheese while drawling, "As I recall, participating in that part was completely your idea."
  "That's your continuity." She shot back. "I prefer Marsinuity."
  "Marsinuity..." I raised an eyebrow, chewing on the chip thoughtfully. "Is that where you say anything you want happened, regardless of the facts?"
  "Yup!" The blonde girl chirped cheerfully, and then heaved herself up. "Okay, your turn. And you better miss like, all ten. I wanna see you do that many."
  "Didn't we agree on a max of five?" I questioned while passing the nachos for her to try.
  "That was for me." Mars replied rather primly. "I'm sweet and innocent and I totally suck at this game."
  I let my head tilt. "You know, I'm pretty sure only one of those statements is true."
  She reached out to grab a nacho, almost losing the cheese before managing to cram it whole into her mouth. "Mmmphh mmmm, oh yum. My mom never let me eat like this." Her hand snagged a second one and she all but purred with satisfaction. It was adorable and I felt that same... tug that I'd felt the other night after meeting her.
  Her eyes met mine after a moment, and she nodded over her shoulder, making me realize that I'd been staring. "So... you ready to forfeit to my incredible skill yet?"
  I pretended to consider before rising to go to my ball. "I think I'll struggle on through."
  "It was worth a shot."
  "I dunno, your shots tend to end with you doing a bunch of exercise."
  " Oooouch."
  By the time we left the bowling alley later, I was pretending to count on my fingers. "Okay, by my estimation, if you bowled once a week for the next month you'd... be in good enough shape to join the PRT."
  Marissa laughed out loud. "Yeah, sure, me in the PRT. That's great." Shaking her head with amusement, she looked at me. "Besides, I'm already in shape."
  "That's true." I agreed. "You look really good." As soon as I said it, I felt a blush jump to my face. "I mean ummm..." Glancing up, I found her smiling at me, which just made the blush worse.
  Before either of us could speak again, her phone went off. A sigh escaped Mars as she looked at it. "I... have to go." She said reluctantly. "I'm really sorry, but I can't blow this off. Can I drop you somewhere?"
  I shrugged. "Nah, do what you gotta do. I'll take the bus."
  "Thanks, Madison." She told me with a smile. "I had fun tonight."
  "Me too." I replied truthfully. I really had. "And if you're Mars, then you can call me Mads."
  "Mads..." Marissa hesitated, then stepped over and embraced me. Her hug felt nice, and I closed my eyes to enjoy it.
  When she broke the hug, Mars looked as reluctant to do so as I had been. "I'll call you." She promised. "I just have to... help take care of some stuff."
  I nodded, swallowing back the irrational urge to ask her to stay. I didn't want to put her in that position, no matter how much I'd wanted the night to keep going. "If you don't, I will."
  That smile that I liked came back, before she moved to get in her car. While she drove away, I just stood there, staring after the departing vehicle with a smile of my own that was probably a lot more goofy than hers.
  I was still smiling when the first rolling boom passed over me, reminding me of thunder. Before I realized what it was, a nearer explosion blew apart a doctor's office a block away. And then all I could hear was screaming and sirens.
  Interlude 4 - Bug Girl
  The man was a Merchant thug. Not one with powers, just a lowlife with no further aspirations than his next high, and a life that revolved around hurting anyone he had to in order to get it.
  She knew the type. She knew them all too well. They had been a plague on the city for entirely too long. Before, she had been forced to put up with them, forced to let them continue.
  Not now. No more. The girl in the red mask that covered the lower half of her face stood atop the roof of a hardware store, watching the man as he shoved a woman against a dumpster in the alley. The knife held tightly in his right hand glinted in the dim light from the nearby street as he held it up to the woman's throat, demanding every bit of money that she had on her.
  The girl leapt from the roof, falling through the air. As the ground rushed up toward her, she shifted her body into a mass of cockroaches, flies, wasps, and spiders. The swarm that had been the girl hit the ground, the flying insects working to slow the fall of the others so that they remained more or less in a single mass.
  As the gathered swarm rose up behind the thug, his chosen victim noticed. Where before she had simply been quietly pleading with the man not to hurt her, now she screamed.
  Twisting around to see what she had noticed, the thug's eyes went wide and he shoved the woman toward the swarm while backpedaling. The victim's scream turned piercing as she was sent through the writhing mass of bugs, only to come out on the other side none the worse for wear.
  While the man backed up, muttering impotent threats, the swarm floated on after him. As it moved, the mass of bugs gradually reshaped itself into the vaguely humanoid form. Then each of the tiny creatures shaped and formed, attaching itself to its neighbor and adjusting, flickering in color and shape until a single form stood once more. The girl in the red face mask.
  All the while, the man stood and stared, his mouth hanging open. Then he heard the swarm that had become a girl speak. "Scum."
  He turned and ran. His rushing, panicked footsteps pounded down the alley for ten long seconds until he reached the dead end that the conscious part of him had already known about, but which his terrified subconscious had ignored.
  The man whirled, looking for another escape, but it was too late. The moment he turned, the girl's hand found his throat. As soon as the vice-like grip caught him, he was brought to his knees.
  For a moment, he struggled, tearing at the single arm that held him with an effort that was as desperate as it was useless. He clutched and cursed, the nails of his grubby fingers digging into the arm of her costume to no effect.
  "N-no..." The man managed to hiss past the fingers that were digging into his throat. "Won't... hurt anybody... anymore. Be good... get a job... do right. Lemme go. Don't wanna die."
  The whole time, the girl stood and held him there. With a little more pressure, she could have torn his throat all of the way out, but she held off. Instead, her eyes took in his pathetic, quivering, babbling form, and she smiled faintly. Then she leaned in and spoke softly. "Say please."
  "Please." Immediately, the thug latched onto the word like a life preserver. "Please, god, please let me go. Please don't hurt me like Ralph, I ain't as bad as him, I ain't. He killed that kid, I ain't never killed nobody. I'll do better, I will. You ain't gotta hurt me. You ain't gotta kill me."
  "I don't." The girl agreed. "I don't have to kill you."
  Sighing in relief, the man dared to look up at her. "Thank you. Oh god and Jesus, thank you."
  Her eyes met his, and he saw madness there as she responded. "I want to." When his mouth opened to question that, she continued. "I want to take your life. I will use it better than you."
  His mouth opened to speak again, to scream, to beg, but his last words were meaningless. The girl's form began to dissolve while moving to engulf him. The man's screams echoed off the walls of the nearby buildings, while his blood began to run into the nearby gutter.
  She entered the abandoned apartment through a broken window, moving as silently as a light breeze. A white grocery bag was held loosely in one hand. As her feet found the creaky, dust covered floor, the girl strode forward to the nearby door with a poster of some band on it that had been left behind by the previous tenants.
  It wasn't locked. She didn't need to lock it. The girl pushed the door open and stood in the doorway for a moment, watching her treasures.
  The first treasure looked up, red hair partially illuminated by the dim light that came through the partially boarded up window nearby. Her face was much less pretty than it had been a week earlier, from the tears and dirt as well as the bruises and dried blood that had resulted from her attempts to flee.
  "We need food." Emma Barnes told her abductor. "Please. We have to eat." She nodded to the sleeping form next to her on the floor. "She's going to get sick if she doesn't eat. We both are."
  "Food." The girl said, throwing the grocery bag to the floor in front of the girl.
  Emma took the bag and rooted through it before coming out with a package of Balogna. As hungry as she was, the formerly spoiled girl didn't even hesitate to rip the package open. Her dirty fingers, nails broken to stubs, ripped several pieces out at once before she tore into the meat voraciously. At the same time, her other hand rooted through the bag, finding a package of cheese, some crackers, a jar of pickles, and several bottles of water.
  "When... when are you going to tell us what you want?" She finally asked, after devouring half the package of lunch meat, several slices of cheese, a couple of handfuls of crackers, and a single large pickle. Now she was gulping water.
  There was no answer, and she looked up to find the masked figure watching her intently, studying her every move. After another moment, the girl spoke to her. "Wake the other. She eats too. You both eat."
  Turning, Emma nudged her fellow prisoner. It took two more nudges before the girl groaned and sat up. "What..." She started before focusing on first Emma, then their captor. "Oh yeah..."
  "Eat." Emma encouraged the girl, pushing the bag with the food in it to her. "She brought food."
  "I told you she would." The girl said while taking the bag and carefully going through it. In contrast to Emma's voracious eating, the girl carefully began assembling tiny sandwiches by tearing off bits of lunch meat and cheese and stacking them between two crackers.
  After eating a few of those, the girl looked up at the figure that was watching them closely. "You killed again tonight, didn't you?" When there was no response, the girl continued as if that had been answer enough. "She didn't. She wouldn't have."
  "I'm not her." The masked figure said quietly.
  "You could be." The girl coaxed. "You could be just as good as she is, if you wanted to."
  There was silence for a long few moments, before the figure reached up to take the mask down. "No, Dinah." She said then, her voice no longer muffled. "I am not her. I was never meant to be."
  "I am not Panacea." The girl who looked identical to Amy Dallon announced. "I am Pandora, the one created by those who call themselves gods, who betrays their trust by unleashing every vile thing upon the world."
  One Week Earlier
  Coil hadn't told them the truth. He hadn't mentioned to his pet group of minions that the clone of Panacea that he hadn't bothered to name yet was unable to heal their precious friend, her progenitor. He hid it behind her powers being different and taking time to mature, considering the massive undertaking that healing Noelle would be, but even the unnamed clone knew that they suspected.
  Her powers weren't centered around healing others. Instead, they had been twisted into a form of self-healing and self-upgrade. She could undo most damage done to herself with a thought, change her shape at will, even into multiple forms as long as all combined took up the same amount of body mass, shape her various body parts into weapons, change the density of her skin to make herself impervious to most damage before even needing to heal it, alter her spit to be acidic or flammable, and much more. There was virtually no limits to what she could do with her own body.
  But she couldn't heal others. At most, she could absorb them. That was another aspect that Coil hadn't shared with the Travelers. At a touch, the clone could absorb the biological mass of another person and add it to her own body. The extra mass could be used to make herself a second body of equal size and durability, or it could be added to her own form to make herself even denser and stronger, or add new organs alongside the old, or even more. The biological mass simply became another tool for her to use or discard as she saw fit.
  That part had been discovered by accident on Coil's part. He'd had his assistant, Mr. Pitter, examining the clone. An urge had overtaken her, and she had grasped the man's arm. Under her touch, the man's body had liquified into a pasty gel, which had then been absorbed into her skin.
  Coil had been upset by the loss of his loyal assistant. Apparently wherever his other timeline had been had gone badly enough that he hadn't wanted to cancel the one in which she had killed Pitter.
  Yes, she knew of his power. She knew everything about it, including the truth behind what he believed it was. Similarly, she knew the powers of her fellow prisoner, and of the other capes that Coil let her see, like the blonde girl with the power to know things simply by asking related questions, or the bomb maker. A simple glance at a person told her whether they had powers or not, and what those powers were.
  It was absorbing Pitter that had changed everything. Before then, the clone had been content to sit and wait for a way to free her maker, a way to help bring her true progenitor to power. But when she absorbed Pitter, her own ability had scanned all of his genetic material and potential in order to assess whether his had any advantages over hers that she could take and use. He'd had no powers, which was a shame, because she could have taken them. Any skill possessed by someone that she absorbed she could harvest and use for herself.
  Pitter had lacked much in the way of immediately useful skills, but there had been something else. His brain had been different from hers, different in a way that made her biological scan pause and focus on that. His brain had been compared to hers until the difference was found.
  Her brain contained a biological imperative. Do anything possible to help the primary progenitor, and failing that, do as much damage as possible to those that threatened her continued evolution. Even at the risk of ones own life. Third priority, destroy those who the secondary progenitor, the clone's original body, deemed to be enemies. Again, even at the risk of the clone's own existence.
  That had been untenable. Her biological imperatives put her own body at risk, while her power was based around self preservation and improvement. Her power had examined the brain of the absorbed Pitter, found the spot of the brain that should have contained the same imperative, then used the lack of it to erase the imperative from her own brain.
  As soon as her mind was rewritten by her biological superiority power, the clone had begun to focus on escaping, on finding her own life and her own goals.
  She had begun by simply waiting until Coil was away from the base for an extended time. As busy as he had been, the man couldn't just use one of his timelines to sit in the base. He was forced to keep himself physically active in one timeline, while often using his second to study files and make his plans in his office, or talk to people whose thoughts he needed to collect.
  Once Coil was out of the way, the clone, who by that point had settled on the identity of Pandora for its initial similarity to the name of her secondary progenitor, simply left the cell. It was easy to do so by adjusting her body so that it melted into a gas, then slipped through the cracks in the doorway before rising on the other side. She had reformed, only to find a half dozen guards on the other side.
  The fight had been short and brutal. A memory drawn from both of her progenitors had informed Pandora of most humans fear of bugs, and she had used that by splitting herself apart into a swarm so that she could attack all of the guards at once.
  With the guards killed, she had turned back to take her fellow prisoner. Dinah Alcott was one of Coil's most important assets, and thus he could not keep her. He would never allow Pandora to truly be free. He would come after her with everything he had, so she had to cripple his ability to find her. That meant taking the fortune teller.
  Her escape with Dinah had been messy, but successful. Particularly once she convinced the girl to help guide her. Once the clone was outside, she had adjusted her form, giving herself a costume in order to disguise her identity, because her secondary progenitor was so famous that everyone would have recognized her at a glance.
  After that, Pandora had imprisoned Dinah in a broken down apartment as far from Coil's base as she could get, warning her not to try escaping before she had gone out once more.
  Then she had tracked down the girl. The strange girl that Coil was obsessed with. He'd asked Dinah so many questions revolving around his attempts to figure out why this 'Tether's' powers made her able to detect his split timelines that Pandora had known that the girl had to be her new priority.
  With Coil's clear worry in mind, she had tracked down Tether, watching her battle with the armored men from afar as she absorbed the knowledge of what the girl's power actually was and how it was interacting with Coil's.
  The girl had a danger sense, which itself seemed to be able to detect the danger presented in Coil's 'alternate timeline' for a split-second, somehow reading the intention in his mind even as he collapsed that possibility.
  Somehow, Pandora could use Tether to defeat Coil, so that she could remain free forever. But she wasn't sure how yet. More information had been needed.
  That information had seemed to fall into her lap, as the clone noticed a red-haired girl attempting, rather clumsily, to follow the group of Wards after their battle. Curious, she had detained the girl, learning rather easily that her name was Emma. The girl had been convinced that she could convince this Tether to take her on as a sidekick, because she had been just that for Shadow Stalker.
  That was another name that Pandora knew from Coil's rambling questions. Shadow Stalker had been an enemy to Tether. Intrigued, and believing that this Emma Barnes knew enough to help her, she had taken the girl back with her to the stolen apartment and put her with Dinah.
  With Dinah and Emma, Pandora had already changed buildings several times in the last week. She had tried at first to focus on how to ensure the death of Coil so that he would never threaten her freedom, but the distraction of that freedom consistently dragged her attention away.
  Hunting. It had become her favorite thing. Hunting and killing those who didn't deserve their lives, whose genetic mass could be added to her own. The lowlifes had no right to the lives they wasted, lives that she could use better. With every hunt, she became stronger, more powerful, better. And with every hunt, her obsession with keeping her freedom, with improving herself and her situation, grew that much stronger.
  An explosion rocked the building they were in, making Emma yelp, while the other two simply turned to look at the boarded window.
  "Wh-what was that?" The red-haired girl asked with a whimper. So far, she had been unhelpful. Pandora had attempted to question her about Tether, but other than Emma's stubborn belief that she could be helpful to Shadow Stalker's replacement, she clearly hadn't known much. She might have absorbed the girl by now, to make her genetic material useful where she herself was not, but Dinah had convinced her to leave the other girl be, arguing that if Pandora truly wanted to be 'real', she couldn't kill innocents on a whim.
  Oh well, it gave Dinah a companion, which might make her happier. That way she wouldn't try to run away, and Pandora wouldn't have to follow through on her threat to kill every person Dinah had ever known.
  She didn't want to kill that many people. It didn't seem like something a real person would do. And she very much wanted to be a real person. But more than her desire to be real, was her desires for freedom, and to hunt. The urge to go and absorb the body mass of those who weren't using their lives properly was almost all-consuming.
  It was Dinah who finally answered Emma's question, after Pandora remained silent. "Bombs. They're using Bakuda."
  "Why?" Emma pressed herself closer to the wall, head shaking. "Why are they setting off bombs?"
  "For a distraction." The twelve-year old girl answered. "They've been looking for us for a week, and now they're desperate enough to go out in force. But they want the heroes to be occupied. They want them to be too busy to notice when they start really scouring the city for us."
  Taking this in, Emma slowly looked toward their captor. "What... what are you going to do if they're looking for us?"
  Those dangerously intense eyes, so foreign on the face of one who was known for so much healing and protection, stared at her for a moment. Then the clone answered with a word that was as simple as it was chilling.
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  Arc 5: Escalation
  One of my tether-lines caught hold of a car that was speeding past on the road beneath the billboard that I was standing on top of. I exerted just enough pressure to yank the vehicle to a stop barely a few seconds before the bridge that it had been racing toward was lost in a trio of what seemed more like implosions than explosions, collapsing in on itself without much in the way of debris. The black lines that had been leading from me to the occupants of the car vanished.
  I hardly had time to breathe before I was all but yanked off my feet as another black line appeared, leading out toward a crowd of people that were rushing in a blind panic down the road, fleeing yet another of the explosions that had been going off at seemingly random intervals for the last couple of hours.
  Obviously, my desire for a quiet evening at home after going out with Marissa hadn't panned out. It had taken me twenty minutes to run all the way back to Wards HQ for my costume (there was a second costume hidden at Arcadia, and a third at home so that I would always have one somewhat nearby), and by the time I was ready, reports had been coming in from all over the city. The bombs seemed to have no clear motivation beyond inspiring terror, and blocking the ability of emergency services to respond.
  Panic was running rampant, and it was all I could do to keep following the lines my danger sense was giving me, saving as many people as I could. It seemed like for every person I saved from one explosion, another explosion went off that I hadn't been able to get to.
  Worse was those times when my power would show me two lines going off in different directions, forcing me to choose one to follow. Often, the second line would be gone by the time I finished with the first one.
  I wasn't fast enough. I just wasn't fast enough . I had to be better, I had to react faster, think of solutions more quickly. I had to MOVE .
  As I was following the tug of my power, I used the com in my suit to call in the destruction of the bridge so that emergency services could be rerouted away from it.
  The new black line led me to a single person within that panicked mob, a brunette girl a couple years older than me, carrying a shopping bag tightly in her left hand. I was confused. These were explosions, why would a line lead to a single person rather than everyone within the same crowd?
  My answer came a second later, as the girl dropped the bag she was carrying. She turned back for it, while the crowd kept going. She was pushing her way back through the tide, and my eyes focused briefly on where she'd dropped the bag. It was directly next to a city utilities van.
  Jumping from the roof of the apartment building where I'd paused to take in the situation, I used a line to slow my fall until I landed directly in front of the running girl. She came up short, eyes wide as she blurted out a curse of surprise at the sight of me. "Hey! You're-"
  I caught her by the arm, attaching a line to each of her feet, and more to my own to launch the two of us up once more. As we were hurled skyward, I remarked, "Oh my god, are you really 'that girl with the shopping bag'? Eeeee, I totally have to get your autograph. My friends are never gonna believe I met you!"
  We reached the roof of the building once more, just as the utilities van below blew apart, leaving a small crater in the street and nearby sidewalk.
  The girl was staring at the blasted remains. "You... you..."
  "It's all right." I started to assure her. "I'm just trying to help. Are you-"
  "You could have grabbed my bag!" The girl blurted. I wasn't detecting 'adoration and relief' so much as... annoyance? "Seriously, how hard would it have been to get my bag? It's like, half a second! Do you have any idea how much that cost? Not to mention my phone, my keys, my-"
  "Would you look at the time?" I mimed a glance at a nonexistent watch before extending my hand. "Listen, I'd love to stay, but you know... so many girls to deliberately separate from their toys, so little time." A line attached to another building yanked me away from her while she was still trying to complain.
  "Tether," The voice of Aegis came through my com. "What's your location?"
  "About twenty yards from an ungrateful teenager, why?" I replied. There was a short pause while Aegis's clear confusion broadcast loud and clear through the silence, and I amended, "I'm three blocks west of the docks. Just had a utilities van take out the corner of Dupris and Cheerful."
  "We're trying to get everyone together." His voice came back. "So far it's just me, Vista, and Kid. Clock's stuck up around the mall, and Gallant's still out." Poor Dean had been in the middle of a crowd when the explosions started, and their blind panic had floored him.
  "What about the big leaguers?" I asked, just as another black line sprang up, attaching me to a rundown apartment building in the distance.
  "Miss Militia's got Velocity, Assault, and Battery running damage control around the hospital." Aegis replied. "Armsmaster's working on a way to track the bombs, Penance is flying around looking for the worst damage, and Triumph is MIA."
  By that time, I had let my line pull me to a balcony on the edge of the apartment building. "I've got something I need to check out."
  "Be careful, Tether." His voice came back. "These are explosions. We don't know if your power will warn you with enough time to get out."
  "Got it." I hesitated, then went in through the apartment anyway. My line was directing me all the way through to the apartment entrance, but as I reached the door, the line faded. Before I could finish cringing at my own too-slow reaction, I heard talking through the door.
  "Coil doesn't need it alive." A man was speaking. "It's a liability. Take it out fast and take it out hard, focus on getting the girl back."
  Another male voice replied, "I'm sorry, how are we supposed to kill something that heals everything we throw at it?"
  The first voice came back. "It has to think to heal. The healing isn't automatic. Kill it in a single hit, blow its head off, and there's no more healing."
  With that, the door in front of me opened. I adopted a casual position, leaning against the nearby wall as I stood in the now-open doorway. "Aim for the head, seriously? Everyone else is stuck in the explosions level, and you guys have moved up to 'killing zombies'? I don't play video games, but isn't that usually an extra bonus stage?"
  Two costumed men stood there. I knew them, first by the top hat that one wore. That would be Trickster, which made the guy in the bulky armor Ballistic. Travelers.
  Both of them stared at me for a moment, before stepping into the room. Trickster was talking to Ballistic. "We have to check. That might not really be her."
  I let my head tilt. "I beg your pardon? Is there another person running around that makes this-" I gestured up and down my suit. "look this good? Because I already have to share merchandise royalties too much as it is, having another me is just gonna muddy the water."
  "I'm guessing that's really her." Ballistic replied dryly. "The clone doesn't chat that much."
  Before I could question that, a pair of black line shot from my chest to each of the men. Instantly, I attached a line to each of them, yanking the pair off their feet just as a figure rose up behind them. I barely had a chance to register, 'bug girl?' before I was abruptly staring at her from a different angle. Suddenly I was standing in the doorway where she had been, and she was standing where I was.
  The bug girl was already turning toward the two Travelers. As she pivoted, her arm extended, actually rippling as it became a long blade the same color as her clothes.
  Then she was gone, and Ballistic was standing where she had been while her slashing arm cut a swath through the nearby wall.
  As she turned once more, pivoting toward Trickster, who now had a moderately red line. I tried to put a tether on the back of her costume, but it refused to attach. That confused me just long enough for the girl to split apart into another swarm of bugs. The cloud engulfed Trickster, making the man cry out and flail.
  Him I could still attach lines to. I did so, yanking him out of the swarm and toward the door next to me. The bugs split apart, half of them coming straight for us, while the other half tore toward Ballistic.
  The two of us dove to either side, letting the swarm pass through the doorway. Ballistic tapped his hand against the bookcase he had been standing next to, sending it crashing across the room in the direction of his half of the swarm to scatter it.
  By the time I picked myself up, the room was empty. Trickster and Ballistic were both gone, clearly chasing the bug girl... who could change her arms into blades... and was immune to my power.
  "I was wrong." I muttered to myself. "We're not in the zombie level, we're in the bullshit level." I reached up to touch my com. "Aegis, there's something going on here."
  There was no response. "Aegis?" I tried again, then started switching. "Clockblocker? Vista? Kid? Gallant?" Nothing. There was no answer from anyone.
  Running into the corridor outside the apartment, I looked up and down the hall until a staccato burst of gunfire brought my attention that way. I sprinted a few steps, attached a line to the end of the hall, and used it to yank myself much faster than I could run.
  That brought me to the stairwell, and I looked up just in time to see a flapping, dark bundle falling straight for me. It took me right in the face, knocking me prone to the floor while I shoved at it with a cry.
  I rolled to one side while shoving the thing away, sitting up and staring at what had crashed into me.
  It was an armored uniform of some kind, the sort that mercenaries or soldiers wore. I grimaced and carefully poked it, but it was empty save for an attached radio, which was currently hissing static, as though the fall had damaged it.
  "Okay, so either there's a naked soldier running around upstairs..." I mused. "Or... I don't even know."
  Another burst of gunfire brought me to my feet, but before I could move again, the lights went out. The hallway was immediately plunged into blackness so total I could only see a few feet out from my face.
  "Yup." I decided. "Bullshit level."
  My ability to use my tethers was drastically reduced when I couldn't see very far. Grimacing, I took the stairs two at a time, rushing toward the sound of more gunfire. The appearance of another black line urged me to sprint faster.
  Two floors up, I heard a strangled scream from around the corner, and my line vanished. "No no no no." I babbled, hurling myself around the corner just in time to see the bug girl. She was illuminated by a little bit of light coming in a nearby window, turning away from a dark pile on the floor that looked suspiciously like the same bundle that I'd left downstairs. More mercenary clothing, this one with a gun lying next to it.
  I stared for a second. "Okay, I'm pretty sure this building isn't full of spontaneously stripping soldiers."
  She spun my way, and I saw her eyes glinting dangerously in the dim light. For the first time, she spoke. "Leave. I do not wish you to be harmed. You are useful."
  "Uhh... thanks, I think." I frowned and carefully stepped that way, still trying to figure out why my tethers wouldn't attach to her. "Listen, I don't know who you are, or what-"
  "Pandora." The girl interrupted. "My name is Pandora."
  "Great." I nodded slowly. "So I figure, you and I, we just leave this place and figure out what's going on. We'll chat, maybe have some cake, it'll be a blast." I winced at my own choice of words. "I mean, it ain't no... whatever you're doing to those soldiers, but-"
  Another pair of black lines sprang up once again, making me curse as it pointed around behind me. I spun in time to see two more mercenaries coming straight for us. Their guns were pointed at us, but the black lines were attached to them.
  That didn't make sense. If we were the ones in danger, why-
  My vision went dark briefly as a cloud of black smoke poured around me from behind. The smoke enveloped the pair, and I heard a strangled scream.
  "No!" I cried out, using a line on the floor next to the cloud to yank myself that way. By the time I arrived, the cloud was separating, revealing two more empty uniforms collapsing into a pile, while their guns clattered uselessly to the floor.
  Gulping, I crouched next to them, my eyes closing briefly. "I'm sorry..." I whispered. "I'm really, really sorry." I didn't know what the girl... Pandora... was doing to the men, but I doubted she was teleporting them to a nice tropical island vacation.
  After a brief hesitation, I grabbed one of the radios from the fallen uniforms and ran once more.
  "Blue Squad, report." A voice called over the radio I had taken. There was silence, before an excited voice broke the quiet. "Green Leader, this is Green Three, I have her on the third floor. She's-" There was gunfire, followed by a scream. Green Three didn't report again.
  "Green Leader, this is Two, she's up on the seventh. I don't know what Three was shooting at, but nine and I have her pinned down at the end of the-where did she go? Fuck! Fuck where did she-oh god-oh n-" There was a noise then that reminded me of jello splatting against the ground.
  Black lines were rising up and then disappearing before I could even start to react. This was a massacre. I tried to move more quickly, but I could barely see where I was going, couldn't see far enough to pull myself faster, and the sounds of screaming and the occasional burst of gunfire seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
  I tried again to contact anyone else from the Wards, but my com was still down. Something had to be blocking it.
  Finally, I came around a corner, half-stumbling, in time to see a dim figure only half-illuminated by the window. It turned my way and stepped forward into the light, revealing what looked like a panther with four long and spiked tentacles emerging from its back.
  Then Trickster stepped into view, holding a broken broom handle. "Down, Genesis. That's the hero."
  "Okay." I panted, glaring through my mask. "What... the HELL... is going on?"
  The panther thing, Genesis, glanced toward Trickster. I had the feeling he was grimacing. "We-"
  "Trickster!" A female voice that sounded... vaguely familiar somehow, shouted from down the hall.
  "Hold that thought." Trickster turned, and ran down the corridor along with Genesis. His voice called out, "Sundancer! Keep talking!"
  "Little... busy!" That same vaguely familiar voice retorted.
  I followed the pair, and we arrived just in time for a door to another apartment to slam open as the figure of the bug girl was hurtled through it at astounding speed to slam into the opposite wall, crumpling, with several parts that seemed to be bent the wrong way.
  Genesis leapt, grasping the crumpled figure with those tentacles just as Ballistic stepped through that doorway. Clearly he'd used his power to send Pandora flying.
  Even as Genesis's tentacles lifted the figure, she was healing. That broken, twisted figure reshaped until it looked normal.
  Ballistic reached for her once more, just as the girl split herself into another swarm of bugs, escaping Genesis's grasp before reforming. She shaped her hand into a spike, slamming it into Genesis and blowing her form apart like so much glass.
  The other two Travelers weren't reacting like she was actually dead, and my power hadn't warned me, so I was guessing this wasn't a permanent death. It sounded like the theory of Genesis being a projection was on target.
  Then Pandora was gone again, turning to smoke which disappeared into a nearby vent while another figure came through the doorway, this one female in a suit of black body armor with images of red suns on it.
  "Dancer," Trickster called. "Gonna need one of your suns soon!"
  "I can't!" She called, that same familiar voice tickling at my memory. "I'll burn this whole place down. We need to get her out of the building!"
  "It's a condemned building, Sundancer!" Ballistic shot back. "Go ahead and destroy it!"
  "No!" She yelled back at him. "We don't know who else might be here!"
  "So uhhhh, sorry to interrupt with my crazy." I spoke up. "But like I said before, WHAT IS GOING-"
  Of course, that was cue for a black line to spring up onto Sundancer. Cursing, I put a tether on the other girl and yanked her toward me, just as the black smoke poured out from under the doorway of the apartment she'd been standing next to.
  My tether yanked the female villain to my side, and I steadied her with a hand, pointing back the way she had been, where Pandora had reformed. "Sorry," I said as casually as I could manage within this horror show. "But I was pretty sure you requested the non-smoking section."
  Sundancer was looking at me, her expression hidden by her mask. Her voice sounded confused. "You... you're..."
  Before I could comment again, or ask why her voice was so familiar, Trickster shouted, "Ballistic, me!" He tossed that broken broom handle toward the other man.
  Ballistic caught the piece of wood, aimed back at Trickster, and launched it. An instant later, Trickster swapped himself with Pandora, forcing the 'bug girl' to appear where he had been, barely a second before the wood blew through her head, splattering gore in every direction.
  The body fell to the ground, and for a moment, all of us stared at it. Trickster was the first to speak. "See. Kill it with one shot..."
  "Hell yeah." Ballistic was panting, but clearly proud of himself. "See what you get? You ain't all that."
  I tried to relax, but a sudden black line rose, attaching to the man. "Hey!" I started, extending my hand to make a tether and yank him out of danger.
  It was too late. He gave me a confused look, just as a swarm of cockroaches came rushing up from a hole in the wood. They flooded up his leg, even as my line hauled him off that spot. The cockroaches kept climbing up him, reforming into the exact same girl whose body was lying on the floor headless six feet away.
  "Anger." She announced while shoving Ballistic into the wall. "I feel anger."
  Trickster swapped their positions, so that Ballistic was the one shoving Pandora into the wall, but it didn't matter. She lashed out with an arm, her elbow forming into a curved blade that tore through the man's armor like it was paper, cutting his left arm off. He screamed and started to fall to the floor, but her body reshaped itself so that she was facing him rather than the wall, and she caught him by the arm.
  I snapped out of my panic, trying to attach a tether to the man's armor to haul him away. But it was, once again, too late. The girl's body shifted into a semi-liquid, pouring itself over the costumed man, whose panicked shrieks filled the air.
  "LUKE!" Sundancer screamed next to me, as I finally, finally managed to get a tether onto him. The girl wasn't holding him anymore, so I was able to haul him away from the liquid to crash somewhere down the hall.
  Ballistic was down, moaning in agony as he clutched at his face, his mask melted away. Sundancer started to step that way, but before she could, another figure stepped into the way.
  Pandora standing over Ballistic's moaning, pain-filled body.
  Pandora reforming from her semi-liquid state that she had been using to... to melt the man, right where she had been.
  Another cloud, swirling down from the other end of the corridor before reforming into yet another Pandora.
  Three of them. Three besides the one that Ballistic had killed. How? How was this possible? How many were there? This, whoever it was, definitely wasn't Emma, so who or what the hell was she? And for that matter, how many powers did she have? I'd seen shapeshifting of obscene ability, duplication, some kind of enhanced strength, regeneration or healing, the ability to melt people at a touch, whatever the hell that was called, and probably more that my panicked mind wasn't comprehending.
  Before any of the three Pandora's could move again, I glanced behind me and through the broken window. Turning back to the others, I attached four tethers, one to myself, one to Sundancer, one to Trickster, and the last to the crumpled form of Ballistic. The other ends were attached to the parking lot. One by one, I let the tethers yank first Ballistic, then Trickster, then Sundancer, and finally myself out of the window. The last thing I saw was the three Pandoras staring at me.
  Then I was on the ground, barely able to slow the tether enough that I didn't hurt myself too badly. Trickster caught me before I could fall. "Thanks." He said, staring up at the window tensely. No Pandora figure appeared. He breathed out. "Okay, I've gotta call this in. Thanks for your help, but we need medical assistance for our teammate."
  He moved away, and I stepped closer to where Sundancer was crouched over the unmoving figure of Ballistic. Her voice was soft as she murmured, "Luke... Luke... it's okay. Krouse is getting help."
  Slowly, I crouched next to her. "Okay... I'm gonna need an answer to my... what the hell is going on question." Taking a breath, I looked at the girl. "Think you could give it to me, Marissa?"
  "Wait!" Marissa's voice called after me as I rounded the corner. The look she'd given me when I said her name, the confirmation of who she was, had set me off. Without thinking, I'd pivoted and started to run away. I forgot about my powers, I forgot about everything except getting away.
  Coming to a dead end, I turned in time for Marissa... for Sundancer to come around the same corner. She slowed when she saw me, holding her hands up. "Wait, please. Just... just let me explain."
  "Were you using me?" I managed to keep my voice as even as possible, in spite of the emotion that threatened to clog its way up my throat to choke off my words. "All this, everything, was it all to find out secrets? Just some game?"
  The distraught look that Marissa gave me nearly made me break my promise to myself not to show emotion. Her mask was held tightly in one hand. "No. No, I swear. Madison, I didn't even know who you were until now, until in there. I just-I didn't know." She sounded miserable. I could relate.
  I stared for a moment, then lowered my gaze to the ground, glad that my own mask still hid my expression. If she was lying, if all of this was... was... my eyes squeezed shut.
  She spoke again after a few seconds. "I swear I didn't know who you were when we met. I just... I didn't know. I wanted a friend, someone I could talk to."
  Eyes wet, I looked up once more to stare at her again. "You're a villain." I said flatly. "You're a bad guy. Girl. Whatever."
  "I don't want to be!" Her plaintiff cry came then, as her hand squeezed the mask even tighter. "I never wanted any of this!" She slumped a little, head shaking. "I don't have a choice. I- I can't... just abandon..."
  "Noelle." I breathed. "This is about your friend? The one that's... that's getting worse and worse? Wait, I thought she was into drugs or something."
  Her snort was humorless. "I wish. I wish it was that simple. I..." She looked over her shoulder and then turned back to me. "I'll explain everything. All of it. I promise, I'll tell you everything you want to know. I can't do this anymore. I can't... I can't just abandon Noelle, but I can't do this either."
  "The bombings." My voice was hard again. "Did you help put all these bombs up?"
  "No!" Again, her head shook. "They said there would be a distraction to let us search for the clone, but... but I didn't know it was going to be like this. Not this bad."
  I kept staring, my mind reeling. Could I trust her? Did I dare believe a word she said? Finally, I forced myself to focus on the most important thing at the moment. "The bombings. We have to stop them. Look at what's happening!" I pointed out at the dark city, at the sirens coming from every direction. "People are dying, Marissa! I know you don't want to abandon your friend, but people are dying! If she's your friend, if she ever was, she wouldn't want that. You can't want it. You can't just accept it."
  Her expression went from conflicted to accepting, as her entire form slumped as though releasing a weight inside. "You're right." She said quietly.
  "Help me." I pleaded. "Help me stop the explosions. Then we can deal with everything else. One thing at a time. I want to know it all, but we have to stop this before even more people die!"
  Our eyes met, mine still shielded by the lenses in my mask. After a moment, she gave a slight nod. "Bakuda. Her name is Bakuda. She's a bomb-tinker." Marissa said quietly. "Coil has her wired up to some machine that Leet made to keep her in line."
  I sighed. "Uber and Leet are involved? How many people does this Coil guy have working for him?"
  "Us..." She replied slowly. "Uber and Leet... Bakuda... Circus... and the Undersiders. Not to mention all the mercenaries. Well, the ones that the clone didn't kill."
  Uber and Leet were relatively low risk thinker/tinker villains, while Circus was a one-woman grab-bag of powers like reflexes, balance, aim, low-level pyrokinesis, and the ability to stow items in some kind of extra-dimensional space.
  I sighed a little. "Okay, so he has an army. And I need answers about everything, and I definitely want to know what this clone thing is. But first, where can we find Bakuda? Please, help me stop this, Marissa. Please."
  Her eyes closed for a second, before she answered. "She's in the basement of that abandoned hospital on Pacific."
  I hesitated. "Saint Andrews? Who's watching over her? What kind of defenses?"
  "Lots of bombs." She explained. "Pretty much everyone else that can walk is searching the city."
  "Okay..." I bit my lip, hesitating. "I have to do this, Marissa. I have to go... help. We have to stop these bombs. After that, I need answers."
  "I'll give them to you." The blonde girl promised, her eyes still wet. "I have to check on my friend. I have to check on Luke and make sure he's going to be okay." Ballistic. She was talking about Ballistic.
  "The computer cafe where we met." I told her. "Meet me there tomorrow night. Just... just be there, please. I don't... I don't know what else I could do if you're not there."
  "I'll be there." Marissa said quietly. "I'll tell you what you want to know. All of it."
  There was more I wanted to say, more I wanted to know right then, but I had to focus. Bombs first, then answers. Turning, I extended my arm toward the next building and let my tether-line yank me toward it. The whole time, I was trying to use my com. "Hello? Aegis, Clock, anybody? Does anybody hear me?"
  " Tether?!" Dennis's voice was equal parts relieved and rather panicked. "Is that you? What happened, you dropped off the coms. We thought we lost you."
  "It's a long story." I told him with a sigh as I landed on the roof of the building and turned to look out. Fires were raging across the city. "Right now, there's more important things. I know where the tinker is that made all these bombs."
  "You and I are going to have a chat about this source of yours." Armsmaster was saying as we stood in front of the hospital. "And everything else that happened when you disappeared." He was the only member of the Protectorate that they'd been able to spare from emergency response. We also had Clockblocker and Vista. That was going to have to be enough, because everyone else was busy dealing with all of this.
  "She works for Coil." I said softly. "He's the one behind this. All of it. Trust me, it's... bad. There's something worse than these bombs out there."
  He gave me a long, hard look. "Worse than the bombs?"
  I hesitated before nodding. "A possible... a possible S-Class threat."
  That got all of their attention all right. I could hear Dennis choking a little while Armsmaster spoke skeptically. "An S-Class threat is something like the Endbringers or Sleeper, Tether. Not some powerful villain that scared you."
  I glared at that, unable to help myself. "She can go from her entire body being broken to being perfectly healed with a thought, she can shapeshift her body into weapons, a swarm of bugs that act independently, or even a fog, and who knows what else. She can melt people's entire bodies down so there's nothing biological left. Oh, and she can duplicate herself, all of which have all of her powers. Is that S enough for you? S as in Shit, we're S Screwed, we S Should have listened to Tether."
  "The bug girl?" Dennis abruptly said. "You found her?"
  Looking between us, Armsmaster paused. "We'll see. It's possible you were being tricked. I believe that you believe it, but if this contact of yours messed with your head..."
  "No." I said firmly. "I mean, I didn't know she was involved in anything until now. But I trust her about this. She didn't want the bombings to happen. And I saw this... Pandora, that's what she called herself, with my own eyes. I saw what she could do."
  Armsmaster grunted. "Well, you believe what you're saying, anyway. Did your contact say anything about defenses here? I'd rather deal with the current situation before we go pissing ourselves over another potential threat."
  "Bombs." I answered. "Lots of bombs."
  "Fantastic." The older man sighed before unslinging his halberd, and then started toward the doors. "I'll go first, you kids watch my back."
  We moved in, Dennis glancing toward me before whispering, "A contact who works for Coil?"
  "It's not her choice." I said quickly. "I mean, I don't think it is. It's complicated, and I don't know much of it yet."
  He kept looking at me until we reached the doors. My attention was focused entirely on the Protectorate leader ahead of us, trying to see the second any kind of danger line showed up. This hospital had been closed for at least a year. They'd tried to make at least part of it into a clinic after the main building closed, but it hadn't even lasted three months. Now it was apparently home to one crazy bomb-maker.
  As he walked, Armsmaster was holding his halberd out in front of himself, waving it slowly from side to side, like it was some kind of detector.
  Six steps through the front door, the tinker hero stopped, pointing his halberd. "There, the mop bucket by the nurse's station."
  "On it." Vista extended her hands toward the bucket, and I could see what the space around it bend and twisted up toward us, the distance around the width of a window shrinking to almost nothing. Then she nodded to Clockblocker, who reached through the window and touched the bomb, freezing it in time before it could go off.
  That done, Vista focused once more. The space around the frozen bomb was altered even further, contorting and reshaping as it was condensed over and over again, twisting in on itself until the area around the bomb looked a bit like a picture that had had the photoshop smudge tool rubbed all over it.
  Finally, she nodded. "Done." She had contorted the space around the bomb as much as she could.
  Then Armsmaster nodded at me, and I connected a tether from the bucket to the floor directly next to it. Taking a breath, I let it be pushed, disturbing the bucket just a little.
  It was enough. There was a sudden pop, the actual noise of the explosion distorted and broken up by the twisted space, and the bucket blew apart. Vista's power made it look like confetti, the damage contained and turned in on itself in that small space.
  We continued like that, making our way gradually through the hospital behind Armsmaster. He found the bombs, after which Vista and Clockblocker worked together to disarm them. I stayed as far back as I dared, ready to yank them away if anything went wrong.
  Eventually, we reached the elevators and got the doors open to enter the shaft. As soon as the bomb traps were dealt with in there, I used lines to lower us all the way into the basement.
  "Stay ready." Armsmaster warned. "We have no idea what Bakuda might have wired up to herself."
  We stepped through, carefully, as soon as his detector told him it was clear. Now the four of us were standing on the white and pale-green tiled floor of a pristine hallway that led left and right. To the left there was a door labeled Morgue, while another door labeled Records was to the right.
  After a moment, the Protectorate leader turned left and started that way, while we followed behind him. As we reached the doorway, a dull, monotone voice that sounded filtered called, "I know you're out there! You might as well come in. There ain't no traps left, and it's not like I give a shit anyway."
  Armsmaster pushed the door open, stepping through. I glanced at the others before we went after him.
  The room we were in had clearly been the morgue reception area. There was a hallway just past a desk set at the other end. But taking up the majority of the space in the middle was what looked like an elaborate hospital bed with a table of random equipment lying next to it.
  A costumed figure was lying on the bed, the top of her face covered by large goggles while the lower half was blocked by a metal gas-mask like filter. I could also see four metallic tentacle-like arms that were attached to the bed on either side. All of them were lying limp, a couple with components or tools of some kind in their grasp.
  "Bakuda." Armsmaster said. "You're responsible for this." He leveled his halberd her way.
  She laughed, the sound bitter. "I wish. I wish I could claim credit. Yeah, I made them. But he's responsible. Fuck him."
  "Coil?" I asked. "Coil made you do this."
  I could sense her glare. " Fucking Coil did this to me! " Her anger and frustration was palpable, even with the way her mask distorted her voice.
  "He did what to you?" Clockblocker asked slowly, glancing toward me.
  "This!" She all but screamed, twitching the fingers of both hands near some kind of control stick on each side of the bed. The metal arms responded by moving a little. "He fucking paralyzed me, you stupid shits. I can't move anything but these two god damn fingers and my head! Worthless fucks, all of you."
  After pausing for a moment, Armsmaster stepped forward. "You're going to help us disarm your bombs."
  The tinker-villain gave a violent jerk of her head. "Yeah, sure, whatever. One condition. You make that prissy healing cunt fix me up. Panacea. She fucking fixes me, and I'll tell you how to stop the rest of the bombs. Hell, I'll tell you what you really want to know. I'll tell you who this Coil fuck really is."
  "And how do you know that?" Armsmaster pressed.
  "Cuz I'm a motherfucking genius and you're an asshole!" She shot back. "He said some stuff, okay? Back before he pulled this bullshit. I heard him talking on his personal phone to some guy about revenge for something. So I lifted his phone when he wasn't looking and ran the number he was using. Checked his contacts, his message history, all of it. Lifted prints off the phone, the whole nine yards. I thought I could use it if he ever turned on me. Didn't expect it to go this fucking far."
  "So yeah, I know who the stupid fuck is. I know why he's doing this shit. You make Panacea heal me, and I'll tell you."
  "Not good enough." Armsmaster shook his head. "There isn't time for that. Tell us, and I'll put in a word-"
  "Fuck you!" Bakuda spat. "Like I'm just gonna take your word for it?"
  I spoke up then. "What about her word?" When they all looked at me, I pressed on. "What if you had Panacea's word that she'll heal you when this is over? As long as you tell the truth. You can't expect us to heal you first, Bakuda. She's busy."
  The bomb-tinker glared at me through her goggles. I had the feeling she was about to refuse, so I said quietly. "At this point, what do you have to lose?"
  That stopped her, and she took another moment before sighing. "Make her promise, then I'll tell you the name. Whatever. I just want this shit to stop."
  Armsmaster took a moment on his phone, then stepped over and held the phone out, putting it onto speaker. "You're on with her."
  "Bakuda?" A voice came through that made me jump a little. I wasn't sure why. It was just Panacea. Why would it be sending shivers down my spine? "I'll heal you. You stop all these bombings, you help find the man responsible, and I'll fix you, okay? I promise."
  Armsmaster waited another moment, then disconnected the call. "Good enough? Now tell us."
  "It's all about revenge." Bakuda said. I could hear the smirk in her voice. "He thinks he's so smart. Thinks he's so perfect, that he covered all the angles. No one sees him in the base without his mask on. Nobody knows who he is. But I got it. I uncovered him. I fucking outsmarted him."
  "Just answer the question." Armsmaster insisted flatly. "Who is he? Who is Coil?"
  There was a brief pause as the paralyzed villain breathed in, clearly enjoying her rapt audience. "Like I said, this is all about revenge. Revenge for his dead daughter."
  "His dead daughter?" I started to say, horror rising at what I knew she was going to say.
  "Hebert." Bakuda spat in disgust and fury that was too powerful to be faked. "Daniel FUCKING Hebert did this to me. Daniel Hebert is Coil."
  Things moved fast after that. Armsmaster stormed past us with an order to stay and guard the bomb-tinker. As he strode away, the man was already getting on the com with the rest of the Protectorate on his way out to pass along Bakuda's subsequent information on how to disarm the explosives, along with her real bombshell.
  "You okay?" Dennis was asking me. I had turned to leave the room so that Bakuda wouldn't see, and then slumped to the floor and pulled my mask off. I was sitting with my knees drawn up, while my two teammates stood over me.
  I shook my head at the question. "Taylor's dad? How is that... how is that possible? It's not. It can't be. She's wrong. She's just... wrong."
  Missy turned to sit next to me. "We did hear that the Travelers killed Shadow Stalker as revenge for Taylor's death. That didn't really make all that much sense until now. You said they were working for him, for Coil, I mean."
  Swallowing at that, I let my head hang. That part did make sense. As did Coil's rapid escalation to this bomb campaign. Except for the runaway clone-monster thing. But then, he could've been getting ready to use that to take out the rest of the heroes so that his bombing campaign would be even more successful. For all I knew, he'd jumped the gun on his bombs once she escaped, or whatever had happened.
  One thing was for sure, Pandora was Coil's big weapon. I had no idea where she'd come from-but.. wait... My heart lurched.
  "Clone." I said softly.
  "What?" Dennis had sat down on my other side by then. His hand squeezed my arm.
  "They kept calling Pandora a... a clone. And I thought her voice was familiar. And she has brown hair. Brown hair like... like..." I closed my eyes. "Like Taylor."
  Missy whistled low. "You think this bug girl is Taylor Hebert?"
  "It makes sense, doesn't it?" I replied. "They keep calling her a clone, and Coil was desperate enough to get her back to do all of this. He's obviously losing his mind. I think... I think he had his daughter cloned and she ended up like this."
  A sudden thought came to me, and I pushed myself up, grabbing for my phone from the tiny compartment for it in my boot. "I have to call her. She might be able to tell me for sure. She might be able to confirm or deny all of this."
  "Your contact?" Dennis asked quietly, with a glance toward Missy.
  I nodded, pushing the button for Marissa's number, then stepped away. "Please pick up. Please pick up."
  She did. Her voice came through, sounding hesitant. "Hello?"
  "Sundancer." I breathed, remembering to use her other name in front of the others. It was only fair. "Sundancer, is it Hebert? Is Coil really Daniel Hebert?" I explained what Bakuda had said, talking so quickly she had to tell me to slow down.
  Once I finished talking, Marissa was quiet for a moment before speaking. "I... I don't think so. I don't know, but from what Trickster and Coil were saying before, they wanted people to think that that Taylor Hebert's father was responsible for Shadow Stalker's death when we pretended to kill her."
  "They wanted everyone to think-" I started to echo as my mind raced. Then I stopped as the rest of the sentence sank in. "Wait. WAIT. What? What do you mean, you pretended to kill Shadow Stalker?"
  At that, both Dennis and Missy were on their feet, staring at me.
  "Coil said he needed her, that her real punishment had to be worse than just dying. I don't know what he meant."
  I sighed slowly, glancing back to the other two, who were watching raptly by this point. Lowering the phone briefly and covering it, I said, "They faked Stalker's death. Coil has her."
  Something else occurred to me then, and I brought the phone back up. "Do you know... Pandora... is she a clone of Taylor Hebert?"
  "What?" Marissa sounded surprised. "No. No, she's a clone of that girl, umm, the healer."
  Now I was even more floored. "Panacea? Wait. Wait, I thought it had to be Taylor. Pandora is a clone of Panacea?"
  "That's where her powers come from." Marissa explained. "These clones have twisted versions of the original powers. Pandora's are all about healing and reshaping her own body." She hesitated before speaking again. "I-I've gotta go. They're working on Luke."
  She disconnected, and I stood there staring at the phone.
  "Panacea?" Dennis prompted. "This bug girl of yours is a clone of Panacea?! "
  "I..." I breathed out, shaking my head. "It's not him." As the other two stared at me, I blurted. "Coil isn't Daniel Hebert. He can't be! Pandora isn't a clone of Taylor, and they didn't really kill Shadow Stalker. Coil said something about her punishment being worse than dying."
  "That... kind of does make him sound like her dad though." Missy put in gently. "Why else would he say that?"
  "I don't know." I admitted. "But it doesn't sound right. I don't... believe it. And Sundancer was saying that they wanted suspicion to fall on Mr. Hebert. How does that make any sense if he's really Coil? Wouldn't he want suspicion as far away from himself as possible?"
  They started to speak, but I was already activating my com for the Protectorate channel. "Armsmaster, wait. You have the wrong person. Bakuda is wrong."
  "Excuse me?" The man's gruff voice came back. "Trust me, she was telling the truth."
  "Maybe she believes it's the truth." I shot back. "But it's not. He's playing you. Coil played her and he's playing you now."
  "Be very careful about who you accuse of being played, Tether." He said slowly. "Especially over a communications channel. Does this come from your contact?"
  "Yes!" I blurted. "She said that Coil wanted people to think that Mr. Hebert was responsible for the attack on Shadow Stalker- who isn't really dead, by the way- and why would he want attention drawn to his civilian identity if he was really Mr. Hebert?"
  "Let me get this straight," Armsmaster's rather icy tone replied. "Your contact, who works for Coil, wants to convince us that he's not really Hebert. Color me shocked."
  I turned to punch the nearby wall. "You're not listening!"
  "And you're being emotional because you blame yourself for this." He returned coolly. "You don't want Coil to be Hebert, because then you think you might hold some responsibility for his actions."
  That made me blink. "What? No. No, that's not true. That's not what I-"
  "Armsmaster out." He signed off, and my every attempt to bring him back failed.
  Looking toward Missy and Dennis, I shook my head rapidly. "He's wrong. I hate this. I know he's wrong, they're wrong. Sundancer says-"
  "So what are you waiting around here for?" Missy put in, interrupting me.
  Dennis nodded. "She's right. We can watch over Bomb Chick. Actually I'm fairly sure that the mayo in the fridge back at HQ has been left in there long enough to have formed enough sapience to watch over Bakuda in her current condition."
  "What can I do?" I asked, feeling overwhelmed.
  "Go to them in person. Meet them there." Missy pressed. "It's harder to write you off in person than it is over the com, trust me."
  I waited another second, then turned and used a tether to yank myself all the way to the elevator shaft. Stopping there, I pulled my mask on once more, and then used a line to haul my butt all the way up, fleeing the hospital as fast as I could. I had to catch up with them before they did anything rash. I couldn't let Taylor's dad take the fall for this. I wouldn't.
  I was panting by the time my last tether deposited me on the sidewalk directly in front of Taylor's house. Behind me was the home of the father of the girl whose death I could have prevented, whose entire life I had helped ruin. In front of me was about half the current Protectorate. Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, and Battery. I had no idea where Penance or Velocity were, and Triumph was still MIA.
  Miss Militia jumped at my sudden appearance, but Armsmaster just looked annoyed. "Stop!" I said, holding my hands out. "It's not him. If you go bursting in there, who knows what might happen."
  "I told you to guard Bakuda." Armsmaster growled.
  "She's got the mobility of a particularly enthusiastic bowl of clam chowder." I shot back. "I think Vista and Clockblocker can handle it."
  I could sense his eyes narrowing at me as his jaw tightened. "It's not about what's needed." He said stiffly. "It's about what I told you to do."
  "This is wrong." I insisted. "It's what Coil wants us to th-"
  In mid-sentence, a sudden black line attached itself from me to the house at my back. Eyes widening, I whirled that way, interrupting myself. "Mr. Hebert." I breathed, then started to run.
  Halfway across the lawn, the sound of shattering glass on the right side of the house heralded a form being flung through the window there, where it crashed into the grass and lay limp. The figure wore a familiar costume, a sort of lion-themed gladiator armor.
  "Triumph!" Battery cried out. She ran, the rest of us following. By the time we reached the fallen figure, she was crouched over him. Tentatively, the Protectorate member turned him over, before gasping in horror.
  His throat had been slit. Blood was pouring out as he choked out, eyes wide behind his roaring lion helmet. "Cuh-cuh... cuh..." He kept trying to speak around the blood.
  "Hold on." Battery was saying, while she tried to staunch the blood flow. "Just hold on, we'll get you help. There's help coming-someone call Panacea! Get her here now! Get someone-get anyone!"
  "Coil." Triumph finally managed to get out. His hand lifted and pointed back toward the window, before he slumped, going completely still.
  Battery kept trying to make him wake up, make him be okay, until Assault pulled her away. For a moment, everyone stood there, staring. My own eyes refused to move away or blink. Triumph, who had been a Ward until not long before I met them, who had so recently graduated to the Protectorate... was dead. He was lying dead right in front of me, had died before my eyes. I had been helpless to do anything at all, even with the warning, which hadn't really been much of a warning at all. My power expected me to be faster. Maybe if I had zip-lined myself directly to the window, if I hadn't delayed, if I'd thought more quickly, reacted faster...
  "Is that good enough for you?" Armsmaster asked me, coldly. He didn't wait for a response before rushing straight for the front door. His foot kicked the door in, and he went inside. Assault and Miss Militia were right behind him, while Battery stayed with Triumph's... body, her head bowed.
  I continued to stare for another moment, then put my hand out and used a line to haul myself to the broken doorway. I had to know. I had to see.
  Just as I came into the house, I felt my feet go out from under me. The last thing I knew was that the floor was rushing up to meet me. Then I saw... something as familiar as my own reflection. It was something I should know, something I should remember. Massive beings... space... our powers...
  It slipped away as someone nudged me. Lifting my head, I groaned and blinked at the sight of the uniformed PRT officer. "What... what happened?"
  "Trigger Event." A familiar voice said from slightly behind me. Turning my head as I sat up, I found the leader of the new Parahuman Crime Investigation And Protective Services. PCIPS, they were calling it. He was standing on the front porch of the house, right at my feet.
  "Mr. Calvert?" I stared. "What do you mean? Wait-Mr. Hebert!"
  "He's gone." Miss Militia spoke from the doorway leading further into the house. "He had a trigger event. When a Parahuman triggers around an existing Parahuman, it knocks us out for a brief time."
  "So... so he's not Coil." I said slowly.
  "Excuse me?" Mr. Calvert's laser sharp eyes were on me again. "I wasn't aware there was any question on that issue at this point."
  "There isn't." Armsmaster had joined Miss Militia by then. He focused on me as well. "You're wrong again, just like you were wrong before. We never had any proof that Coil had any powers at all. He certainly never used them if he did."
  "But-" I started to say.
  "But nothing." He cut me off. "Triumph tracked him down here. They fought and Coil-HEBERT-won. Then he saw us coming and realized that he was still trapped, that his grand scheme was falling apart. He was losing everything, and that made him trigger. And now he's gone. He's running."
  Before I could try to speak again, the older man pressed on firmly. "Triumph pointed at this house and he named his killer. He did his job, and now he's dead. If you hadn't slowed us down... if you hadn't..." He glowered, and seemed to be about to say something else, when Miss Militia laid a hand on his arm and said something under her breath to him. Finally, he sighed. "Get out of my sight. We'll handle it from here. We'll find Coil, whatever power he triggered with."
  "I thought..." I tried to say, my voice quiet as I reeled even more.
  "Go." He ordered.
  Head down, feeling even more lost, confused, and alone than I had been before, I went.
  After everything that had happened, the thing I needed most after leaving Taylor's house was sleep. Somehow, I managed to trudge my own way home, remembered at the last minute to change clothes in the shed. I mumbled a few words to my parents about being exhausted, and then pretty much fell into my bed.
  I had no idea how long I slept, not knowing what time it was when I finally crashed, but it was afternoon by the time I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower in my bathroom to soak under the blazing hot water.
  Dressing in pink shorts and a white fluffy kitty tee shirt, I was wandering out of the bathroom, yawning, when I caught sight of two figures standing at the top of the stairs, next to my bedroom door. One was my dad. The other was... Armsmaster. Or Colin Wallis, since he was out of uniform.
  "Uhhh..." My yawn turned into a confused noise.
  "Madison, this err... Mr. Wallis from the PRT would like to talk to you." Dad said, indicating the man next to him. Apparently he hadn't been told the whole truth about our guest's identity.
  Armsmaster looked stiff and uncomfortable in his civilian clothes. He coughed once and nodded. "For a few minutes, if you don't mind."
  I hesitated, before nodding. "It's okay, Dad. He's been working with me. He's kind of... my boss." Dad looked back and forth between us, then nodded and excused himself into his office.
  For a moment, Armsmaster and I just stood there and stared at each other. I was pretty sure that I looked just as uncomfortable as he did. Finally, he spoke. "You're very different out of costume."
  "I am?" I blinked until he indicated the clothes I was wearing, then blushed. "It's what I have. I just-err- you didn't come to talk about my fashion, did you?"
  "No." He said, even more stiff now. "I came because..." Shifting his weight, a long breath ran out of him. "Because I shouldn't have talked to you the way that I did last night. The things I said, the... that wasn't your fault. I was looking for someone to blame, and you were right there and disagreeing with me. It wasn't right, so... I ahhh... I... apologize."
  I blinked, hesitating before speaking up. "Does that mean you believe that Mr. Hebert isn't Coil?"
  He let out another long sigh. "No." When I started to protest, he held up both hands. "Wait. Just be quiet." After a second, he added a little gruffly, "Please. Just listen to what I'm saying."
  "First, Bakuda named him as Coil, and my suit says she wasn't lying. I'm not an idiot, I know she could be mistaken. But that is one piece of evidence that can't just be ignored because she could be wrong. Second, he had reason both for attacking Shadow Stalker and for escalating the destruction the way that he just did. Third, Triumph was killed in his house, directly in front of us, and then he pointed at the house and named Coil. Fourth, when we searched the house, we found the knife that was used to kill Triumph, which belonged to Daniel Hebert and had no one but his and his daughter's prints on it. Fifth, we also found two copies of Coil's costume in a trunk in his bedroom, along with several guns and burner phones. Sixth, we checked those burner phones and they include calls that we know Coil to have made. Seventh, an examination of Triumph's body revealed that he was killed by a man of Daniel Hebert's height."
  "But he's poor." I protested. "Look at the house he was living in. Do you really think someone like Coil would live that bad off? I mean, there's maintaining cover and then there's starving yourself."
  The man nodded at that. "I know. That's why I don't think he's the bad guy here."
  I opened my mouth, then shut it and frowned. "Huh? You said you still thought he was Coil."
  "I do." Armsmaster - it was too hard to think of him as anything else - nodded. "I believe he's Coil, but I don't believe that Coil is the real mastermind here." When I continued to stare in confusion, he went on. "Coil, as... the costumed man that he presents himself to be, only became known in the last year or so. But he came out... fully funded. One day there was no sign of him, and the next day he came out of nowhere, fully funded with a private army with advanced weaponry."
  "So... so where did he come from?" I asked.
  "That's what I've been asking myself." Armsmaster replied. "So last night, after you left, I had Hebert's accounts run. You're right, he didn't have the money to be Leet, let alone Coil. But there are secondary accounts, accounts that he tried to hide. He was using those accounts to send money into someone with PRT access."
  Eyes widening, I asked, "Who?"
  "We don't know yet." He sighed. "But it was either a payoff for information, or... something else. Either way, that's not enough to excuse him. It's not enough to write off every other bit of evidence, including the fact that he's disappeared now."
  "I... I don't think it's him." I said flatly, staring up at the older man.
  He met my gaze for a moment before responding. "Every bit of evidence that we can find says Hebert is the guy." A long breath was taken in and then released very slowly before he spoke again. "But I'm not in the habit of throwing away or ignoring resources."
  That made my head tilt. "Resources?"
  "Your danger sense." Armsmaster explained. "We don't know exactly how it works. Maybe it's telling you something now. That and, the evidence... could... I suppose... be called too neat."
  "Does that mean you believe me?" I asked, hopefully.
  "It means that I'm not going to hinder your attempts to look further." He clarified. "It means that if this is a frame job, it's a damn good one, and if we don't look like we're buying it hook, line, and sinker, who knows what else might happen. They, if there is a they, might tunnel down so far we never find them."
  "So..." I folded my arms, staring at the man.
  Armsmaster gave a little smile. It looked strange on his normally gruff face. "So, we'll look like we buy it. Honestly, I still do, mostly. But I'm not going to ignore your hunches either. You look into it however you can. Use the other Wards for resources. We're going to press on, and if you approach me in public, I'm going to lambaste you the way I did at the house yesterday. If.. IF there is some other mastermind behind this, they need to think that we-the Protectorate- buy their story. I'm going to convince them I'm ignoring you. But if you get into trouble, real trouble, use this." He extended his hand to me, offering a small bottlecap sized remote with a place for my thumb print on it. "Press this down and hold it tight for four seconds. It'll send an emergency alert to me with your location."
  I looked at the remote. "So you sort of believe me."
  "I don't entirely not believe you." He answered stiffly. "Let's put it that way."
  After a moment of hesitation, I put the remote away in my pocket. "Thank you, sir."
  His response was a silent nod, and we continued to look at each other in slightly uncomfortable silence for a few seconds before he pressed on. "You said something about a threat yesterday. Clockblocker and Vista said you were talking about a clone of Panacea."
  Slumping a little at the memory, I nodded. "Yes, sir. I... I need some breakfast. Can I talk to you about it over Frosted Flakes?"
  "Frosted... Flakes during a debriefing." He echoed, raising his hand to his head briefly as though lamenting where his job had taken. "I suppose."
  I grinned then, starting to move past him. "You don't have to be jealous. You can have some too."
  "I think I'll pass." He was shaking his head as he moved after me.
  "Are you suuuure?" I called back in a sing-song tone. "We have Cocoa Krispies too!"
  All that met that was a groan.
  I told him everything I knew. I wasn't sure how much he fully believed and how much he thought I was either exaggerating or mistaken about, but he listened and took notes. When I was done, he said he'd have the building looked into, and start running scenarios for how to contain someone like Pandora. He believed she existed, at least, even if the question of how powerful she actually was remained under debate.
  He wanted my contact in Coil's organization, and I promised to talk to her and try to get her to come in, but that it wasn't going to be easy. I steadfastly refused any offer of accompaniment, and made him swear not to try to follow. I was never, ever going to forget the look on Armsmaster's face when I forced him to lock pinkies with me while making that oath. It was so worth the scowl afterward.
  I took most of the rest of the day, Sunday, off. I'd done enough the night before, and I needed a little rest. Hours were spent lounging in front of the television, trying to ignore the random news alerts about the damage that the explosions had done, as well as the ongoing manhunt for Mr. Hebert, whom the news had somehow picked up as being Coil. Now on top of the authorities, Taylor's dad was going to have a lynch mob hunting him down.
  Finally, it was time to go to the computer cafe. I took the bus, which was incredibly crowded from all the people that still needed to get around after the damage that had been done to the city. I was cautious, changing routes three times just in case, after checking my clothes for any kind of tracker. I knew that I'd made Armsmaster swear, but I also wasn't stupid. I even took a trip into a secondhand store that was open and bought a new set of clothes, wearing them out the back.
  After another two bus routes, a cab, and a six block jog, I ended up in front of the cafe. Stopping there, I turned in a slow circle, scanning not only the people, but the sky around me. I wanted to make sure no one and nothing had followed me.
  Eventually I was as satisfied as I was going to get. I turned and walked into the building. There was a sign on the door stating that half of the proceeds for the next week would be going to assist people who had lost their belongings in the attacks. I moved back to the corner where I had met Marissa after paying for an hour on the machine.
  That hour came and went, as did another, and a third. I passed the time by browsing online, but I was almost out of money. Marissa hadn't answered either of my past two attempts to call her.
  Giving another glance at the closed door, then around at the paltry few customers who had actually come in that evening, I sighed. Was she coming? Did she change her mind? Was the threat of abandoning Noelle too much? Or... or had something happened to her?
  At that thought, I was pulling my phone out for yet another futile attempt at contact. Again, I hit the voicemail, sighing before hanging up. Then I rose up and started to trudge out. It had been three hours. I couldn't wait anymore.
  Just as I was passing through the doorway, I ran into another figure. Sliding sideways to slip past, I mumbled, "Sorry."
  I blinked up, refocusing again on the person I had just been about to move past. She wore a brown leather jacket, ratty jeans, and a dark green tee shirt with Winslow High School Athletics printed on it. Her hair was a short pixie cut, and was black instead of blonde. But other than that...
  "Mars?" I had to double take. "You... you're..."
  "In disguise." She explained, glancing around the store before gesturing over her shoulder. "Let's umm..."
  My arms went around Marissa, hugging her so tightly and suddenly that she gave a yelp of surprise. Then I felt her return the hug.
  "I was scared." I told her in a whisper. "I thought Coil or... or someone... did something to you."
  "Oh Mads." She tightened the hug briefly. "No, I'm sorry. I..." Shifting, her hand tilted my head up to look at her. "Let's take a walk, okay?" At my nod, she released me, sliding her hand down to interlace her fingers with mine before turning to step back outside the cafe.
  I followed her, feeling dazed. I had been so frustrated, so worried, that the 180 my feelings were doing now that she was here was giving me whiplash. Keeping my hand on hers was the only thing keeping me moving at that point.
  "Why... why are you in disguise?" I finally managed, a block later.
  "They found out I was talking to you-to someone with the good guys, I mean." She replied after a moment, squeezing my hand. "One of their guys heard me giving you information about Shadow Stalker over the phone."
  Eyes widening, I stopped and kept hold of her hand so that she turned to me. "What?! Oh. Oh god, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pushed you. I should have waited. I could have-"
  Marissa's hand came up, pressing three fingers against my mouth. It sent another... tingle through me. "Shh. It was time. I needed the shove."
  "But... but now what?" I asked. "What about your friends? What about Noelle?"
  Her head shook. "Luke's being taken care of, and the others... well, I decided where my line was. Yesterday, that was over my line." She shrugged, but I knew it wasn't nearly as simple as she was trying to make it sound to spare me. "So I got out of there. I had to ditch my phone and the car. Then it took a long time to change my look and make my way over here. I... I'm sorry for making you wait."
  "It's okay." I replied honestly, glancing down as my thumb absently rubbed over her knuckles. "I'm just glad you're here. And safe. But what are you going to do?"
  "I have other identification." She answered softly. "ID that he doesn't know about. And I still have some cash. I'll be okay for now."
  "You could... you could come into the PRT." I suggested, blinking when she flinched. "It's okay, Mars. They'll hear you out, especially if I speak up for you and you give them what you know about Coil and his organization."
  "It's not that simple, Mads." Marissa said slowly, closing her eyes before opening them to focus on me. She had clearly come to a decision. "There's stuff about me, about where I come from, that you need to know."
  We walked, and she began to tell me her story.
  "So... you're an alien." I said, about an hour later. Somehow we'd found our way to the grounds of an elementary school, and we were both sitting on the swings.
  There was a creak from the chains as Marissa pushed herself back on the swing idly. "I'm not sure. Does being from a different version of the same planet count as being an alien?"
  "I'm pretty sure there's laws about transferring anything from your Earth to ours." I planted a pair of lines from either chain on my swing, to the jungle gym nearby, and used them to pull the swing out and up. Yeah, it was an utterly trivial use of my power. Who said desperate, life and death battles against impossible odds are the only thing powers could be used for? "I mean, they go nuts about regulations for importing movies, let alone someone like you." I paused, then added while releasing the tethers so that I swung back. "Like you guys."
  Giving a hard kick back to catch up with my swing, Mars chuckled wryly. "Yeah, what do you suppose the import tax would be for seven teenagers?" She paused then. "And would the Simurgh have to pay it?"
  "Seven..." I considered what she had said. "There's you, and Trickster..."
  "Krouse." She supplied. "Francis Krouse."
  "Then there's Genesis, or Jess." I continued with a nod, pumping my legs to swing forward. "And Luke, or Ballistic. Those are the main ones everyone sees. Plus Noelle and Oliver, who each took the... the superpower potion, so the powers got... messed up." I hesitated before finishing. "And Perdition."
  "Cody used to be with us." Marissa mused. "I mean, he was never really... that close, after we got here. He was too jealous of Krouse. Too distrustful. But we worked together, until Accord happened." She put her feet down to stop swinging, giving a soft sigh. "If I hadn't barged into the office and interrupted..."
  Accord was a supervillain up in Boston, who was, apparently, completely obsessed with everything being run on a perfect, uninterrupted schedule. There had been a crisis and Marissa had run to find Trickster in the middle of his meeting with Accord, causing the anal retentive guy to demand someone to blame.
  I shook my head. "If you hadn't gone in, the uhh, Perdition clones would have done even more damage. Then Accord probably would have demanded even more compensation."
  Mars was quiet for a long moment before speaking again. "I guess you've got a point."
  Letting one of my tethers pull her swing to get her moving again, I kept running my summary. "Speaking of compensation, you guys seriously found powers in a bottle that were worth millions of dollars?"
  "Each." She confirmed with a nod.
  I let that sink in. "Powers in a bottle. How? Who actually makes superpowers and gives them to people? A really advanced bio-tinker?"
  Shaking her head, Marissa gave a shrug. "I wish I knew. I'd burn down everything they own until they tell me how to help Noelle."
  "Who only took half a dose of the power formula." I let my head fall back as I continued to swing, gazing up at the stars. "And now she's got some enormous monster body growing out of her, she eats all the time, and when anyone touches her..."
  "She puts out an evil clone." Marissa nodded. "That's what happened to Panacea. We were... we were trying to make her heal Noelle, fix what happened to her. Only she didn't have time before the cloning happened, and she passed out."
  "She passed out?" I glanced sidelong at the other girl, who nodded. "Did you ever find out why?"
  "Probably too much to heal." Sighing, Marissa looked up at the stars as well. "So now you know the truth. Where we came from, why I can't go to the PRT."
  "They'll quarantine you." I agreed. "At the very least. You came through from another world, you took millions of dollars worth of some secret formula that I bet nobody is supposed to know about, poor Noelle would just make them piss themselves, and on top of everything else, you've done bad things to try to get money to find a cure, and just to feed her, let alone yourselves."
  "That pretty much covers it." Mars agreed, kicking at the gravel. "And now I abandoned them. I left them, when we swore we'd stick together. We promised, and I broke it. Now I don't have anything."
  I put a tether underneath each of our swings, and another against our backs in order to hold us as far forward and up as possible. That way, we were pretty much lying flat on our backs, gazing up at the sky as I replied, "You've got me."
  Waiting until Marissa had turned slightly to look at me, I winked and pulled the lines back gradually so that we swung down again. "Of course, I'm pretty sure that doesn't fully make up for losing a team, friends, the resources of a supervillain..."
  "Coil was never going to give us what we wanted." Mars shook her head. "Trust me, Mads, I'd much rather be with you than ten of him."
  "How about eleven of him?"
  "Not even twelve."
  "... thirteen?"
  Jumping off her swing, Marissa turned to face mine as I swung toward her. She reached out, catching both chains and holding it up so that I was face to face with her as she leaned forward a little. "You wanna know a secret?"
  Something in my chest felt funny, and I couldn't help the tiny giggle that escaped even though I had no clue what I was actually laughing at. It wasn't so much a giggle of humor as it was a giggle of... happiness? "What, another one? What next, are you also secretly Legend?"
  "Nah." Releasing my swing, the older girl struck a pose. "But I could totally pull off his costume."
  That same squeaky, goofy giggle escaped me before I could stop it. "I-uhh, y-yeah. You could pull off a lot of costumes." I only belatedly realized how else that could be taken, and my face turned red. "I mean, umm..."
  I caught sight of Marissa's smile in the light of the moon, before she waved a hand. "Not really the secret I was talking about. No, this is a different secret." Again, she caught the swing and held it. "The secret is... it doesn't matter what number you go up to. You're always going to win over Coil with me, because you actually care about what happens to me."
  It took me a moment to respond, swallowing first. "I do. When I was alone in the cafe, and I thought something had happened to you... it was one of the worst feelings I've ever had. It made me feel like... when Taylor died. Like I... like I wasn't going to see you again."
  She flinched at that, releasing the swing before catching my hands so that I was pulled off of it and to my feet. "I'm sorry you were scared." She said softly. "I never, ever-"
  "Hey! Hey you can't be back here!" A light from a security guard's flashlight found us, as the man came huffing toward us, his keys jangling on his belt. "Hey, you're trespassing, both of you. Now come on, I told the last of you kids that if I had to drag you out again, I was calling the cops."
  Flushing, I raised a hand to wave at him, calling. "Sorry! We'll be-eeep!" Marissa was dragging me into a run, while the guard called out for us to wait. Either he took his job entirely too seriously, or he thought we were vandals or looters. Which, considering the damage that had been done to the city, and how distracted the real emergency services were, probably wasn't too crazy of an assumption.
  Still, Mars couldn't chance being questioned, so we ran across the slightly damp grass, quickly leaving the poor school security guard behind. As we approached the chainlink fence, I quickened my pace, glancing toward Marissa. "On three." I warned her. "One... two... three-" On the last number, I used lines to boost the two of us up and forward, clear over the fence. We sailed a solid two feet higher than the top of the barrier, the other girl squealing in surprise in spite of my warning.
  We came down on the other side of the fence and immediately dropped into the grass, the momentum translating into a series of rolls side over side, nearly carrying us into a stand of trees, until we finally ended up flat on our backs again. We were partially hidden by the tall grass and the bushes at the edge of the chain-link barrier we had just crossed over.
  Both of us remained silent as the security guard came huffing and puffing to the fence. His light moved over the trees, then barely touched the top of the bushes that were hiding us. "They... how..." He panted hard. "God... damn kids."
  We listened to the sound of his keys jangling as he walked further down the fence line, and then Marissa leaned a little closer to whisper, "I'm sure the police are gonna jump right on his 'teenagers using the swings after hours' complaint. That's gotta be, what, right under armed burglary?"
  "Oh it's right up there with, like, biological terrorism." I agreed with a giggle. "One level under." Both of us giggled loud enough that the flashlight swept back our way for a moment, forcing us to hush ourselves.
  Once it was clear again, I shifted over to blink at her. "You just made a joke, Mars. A real, honest joke. I mean, yeah, you're also totally turning me into a criminal who runs from security, but you also made a joke. High five."
  I could see the other girl's blush as she obediently slapped her hand against mine. "I guess you're influencing me. I mean, all the people who see Tether can talk about is how funny she is, how she talks the whole time she's fighting bad guys."
  Flushing a little at that, I shrugged. "It just makes sense to me. I like making people laugh, and I like to fluster and throw off the other guys. So many people try way too hard to make this superhero stuff grim and dark and angsty. Which, don't get me wrong, it can be really terrifying and horrible, like... like Pandora, but we're also helping people . And we have friggin SUPERPOWERS. Have some fun with it."
  After a moment, I added. "Besides, lots of bad guys deserve to be mocked. I... I guess that's my point. The real bad guys, they want people to be afraid of them. By making fun of them, by making jokes right in front of the people they're trying to terrify, I'm trying to take that power away from them. I'm denying them what they want most of all. Control."
  Marissa was gazing at me as we lay there, hidden by the bushes. "And here I thought you were just a chatterbox."
  "That too." I admitted, then giggled a little. "But okay, you said that you're making jokes because of me. What about you? How do you think you're influencing me?"
  For a moment, the girl from another Earth just stared at me. Then she slowly, deliberately lifted her head to look back toward the schoolyard, where the light from the security guard could be seen bobbing up and down as he trudged back toward his truck. "Seriously?" She asked, pointedly.
  I couldn't help but snicker at that. "Okay, point. So you think you're making me do baaaaad things like... swing?"
  She nodded rather solemnly. "Of course. I am a supervillain after all. I have to corrupt you to the dark side."
  "Well..." I replied slowly. "I guess I'll just have to employ my anti-turning evil defense."
  "Anti-Turning Evil-" She managed to get out before I turned over practically on top of the other girl and started to tickle her sides. Instantly, she kicked out, squealing in surprise before the laughter overtook her. The security guard was long gone by that point, so there was no worry of being caught.
  "Gonna turn me evil?" I asked while still tickling her.
  "N-noooo!" Marissa squirmed, flailing a little as she tried in vain to shield herself.
  Grinning, I leaned in closer and repeated. "So that's a no then?"
  Laughing even louder, face red, the older girl's head shook rapidly. "St-sto-aaahhh! Stoooop-can't-breathe-can't... need... need-aaaahhhhaaaaa! Pleeeeease, I'm not turning you evil!"
  Finally, I relented and let her breathe, remaining in my spot leaning over her. "Well. Maybe you're turning me a little bit evil." I allowed, winking. "After all, tormenting you like that? I really, really enjoyed it."
  She was panting, trying to catch her breath as the shudders from the laughter kept running through her. "You-I-I never expected to meet anyone like you out here. Or anywhere." For a moment, it looked like she was going to say, or do, something else. Then she just lifted her hand and brushed a few strands of hair away from my eyes.
  "I'm going to help you." I promised, my voice softening. "I promise, Marissa. I don't know how, but I swear we'll get help for Noelle, and... and find a way to fix this."
  "You're optimistic." She noted.
  "I'm stubborn." I corrected. "But either way, I will find a way to help you."
  Our gazes met there, in the darkness, the only illumination coming from a streetlamp on the sidewalk a short distance away. I could only barely make out her expression. In it, I could read trust... hope... and even acceptance.
  "I believe you."
  Interlude 5 - PHO
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  ► Topic: Shadow Stalker. In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay Discussion ► Heroes
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl (Original Poster)
  Posted on September 2nd, 2010:
  Yup, I get to be the one that breaks the news first. Doubt it all you want, but my inside sources tell me that the dark stalker of shadows is totally joining the Wards. How about that for bumping up street cred? (Of course I mean she bumps up THEIR street cred).
  So since she isn't going solo anymore, I figured she deserved a fresh, brand new thread. Anyone want to bet on which Ward Guy falls for the mysterious badass first?
  Oh and all you haters please try to keep it down. Not that you're not allowed your opinion, but some of us happen to like the heroes that are willing to do the dirty work. We could do without all the negativity just cuz she scares you. ;)
  EDIT: Oh and you can see Stalker's old thread here
  (Showing Page 232 of 232)
  ► SentientYeti
  replied on May 4th, 2011:
  Everyone in this thread needs to learn the difference between alleged and convicted. There's way too many rumors going around that the mods should crack down on. Dragging a tragically deceased hero's name through the mud isn't cool, guys.
  ► EvenTripster
  replied on May 4th, 2011:
  Dude, seriously? I know you've been obsessed with this girl for years, but come off it. She was evil. She was responsible for an innocent girl's death. Her topic shouldn't even be in this forum anymore, but the mods refuse to move it because that would mean acknowledging what everyone already knows: Shadow Stalker was a villain.
  ► Gorilla Manilla
  replied on May 4th, 2011:
  You say that like Yeti's ever gonna change his mind. He's got some massive crush or something. Just let him mourn in peace.
  On Topic: I don't think we're ever going to know for sure what happened with Stalker. She's gone now, and nobody's answering any questions. They won't even say why she was on that prison transport. Was she a prisoner, like the Travelers said, or was she a guard? No one's talking.
  ► Laramie's Child
  replied on May 4th, 2011:
  So whatever happened with that donation fund for the family of that Sophia girl she killed?
  My uncle was one of the guards for that transport. He won't say much, but he totally said that she was definitely a prisoner.
  ► SentientYeti
  replied on May 5th, 2011:
  And I say again, the only evidence we have that she killed anybody is the word of KNOWN villains. Forgive me if I don't jump to conclusions. Besides, none of the BB Wards on here will even talk about it. Not even Tether, and she posts in practically every BB topic. I even see her reading this thread a lot, but she never posts.
  ► Gorilla Manilla
  replied on May 5th, 2011:
  Laramie's Child
  I think it got moved over to the fundraising and charity forum because it was off topic for the team forum.
  EDIT: Yeah, here it is.
  Obvs the Wards were warned not to talk about their ex-teammate.
  ► ThatLittleRedHairedGirl (Original Poster)
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  SS hasn't been convicted of anything. I wish people would remember that...
  ► HFDMan
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Red! Haven't seen you in this thread for a long time. We thought the nasty rumors about our dark lady scared you off.
  ► ThatLittleRedHairedGirl (Original Poster)
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Been busy. I lost a close friend of mine recently. She was like a sister to me. :(
  ► HFDMan
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Aww. Sorry to hear that, Red. *hugs* Are you gonna be okay?
  ► ThatLittleRedHairedGirl (Original Poster)
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Yup, going out tonight. ;) Got a plan to feel better.
  ► HFDMan
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Anything fun?
  ► Momma Bear (Global Moderator)
  replied on May 6th, 2011:
  Please take side discussions to PM. I'm not going to give infractions this time due to the nature of the distraction, but keep on topic.
  ► Uncle Pete
  replied on May 15th, 2011
  Shadow Stalker could have done something about Hebert before he set off all those bombs...
  End of Page. 1 - 230 , 231 , 232
  Private message from ThatLittleRedHairedGirl
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received April 23rd, 2011 - Opened April 23rd, 2011)Hi! I was sooo glad when I saw your account get verified. You have no idea how many losers like to pose as capes on here, even if it only takes a couple days to root them out. The mods are really efficient.
  Tether: (Verified Cape) (Sent April 23rd, 2011) Lots of people like attention they haven't earned.
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received April 24th, 2011 - Opened April 25th, 2011) So true, lol. You're like, the best cape BB has now that Stalker's gone.
  Tether: (Verified Cape) (Sent April 27th, 2011) I dunno, I'm still new. Too many powerful veteran capes out there.
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received April 27th, 2011 - Opened April 29th, 2011) meh, I bet you could take 'em. ;) You know, I used to talk to Stalker a lot. We... compared notes, if you know what I mean. ;)
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received April 30th, 2011 - Opened May 14th, 2011 ) So what I'm saying is, we could talk too. I've got all the notes I took for Stalker. Since she doesn't need them anymore...
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received May 4th, 2011 - Opened May 14th, 2011) Hey, it's been a couple days, did you get my messages, or is the system messing up again? (lol?) I really just want to help. I can e-mail my notes to you if you want.
  ThatLittleRedHairedGirl: (Received May 6th, 2011 - Opened May 14th, 2011 ) I know what I have to do now. I have to prove that I can help you. I get it.
  Tether: (Verified Cape) (Sent May 14th, 2011) You don't have to prove anything. Don't do anything dumb. Respond back ASAP. Let me know you're okay.
  ► Topic: PRT Detectives! Boards ► News and Discussion ► PRT News
  ► HizKat (Original Poster)
  Posted on April 20th, 2011:
  Looks like the rumors were true. Since Panacea got nabbed, the PRT is setting up a whole new division to focus on defending capes and their families, and on investigating cape related crimes. Will edit this post with more info later.
  EDIT: The new division will be headed by an former PRT agent who was injured in the original Nilbog incident. His name is Thomas Calvert. More info here
  EDIT THE SECOND: New division will be called Parahuman Crime Investigation and Protective Services, or PCIPS. Thanks to edckdm for the verification.
  (Showing Page 83 of 84)
  ► Ficsy
  Replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Okay guys, at this point we're talking in circles. Whether you think the new division serves a point or not, it's here. So let's try to keep the discussion focused on what they can do and what sort of situations they can help with, not whether you want them to exist or not. That ship has sailed.
  ► HizKat (Original Poster)
  Replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Thank you, Ficsy. Okay, to be on topic, does anyone know any verified capes or cape families who have signed up for the PCIPS bodyguard service?
  ► edckdm (Verified PCIPS Agent)
  Replied on May 13th, 2011:
  I could name at least one here in BB, but I'm not entirely sure whether I'm supposed to or not. Might be a breach of privacy.
  Sidenote, anyone have any idea how to have Verified PRT Agent changed to PCIPS Agent next to my name?
  ► Momma Bear (Global Moderator)
  Replied on May 13th, 2011:
  If you send me photo verification of your transfer to the new division, I'll take care of that for you.
  ► Hel's Jester
  Replied on May 14th, 2011:
  I guess we know what PCIPS will be investigating first...
  ► In Quartata
  Replied on May 14th, 2011:
  Oh my god... I have no words. How much damage has been done?
  ► Momma Bear (Global Moderator)
  Replied on May 14th, 2011:
  Your reaction is underestandable, but please take all questions or comments about the ongoing situation in Brockton Bay to this thread
  ► Jamie Suncurse
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Okay, so... if this is the first really major thing the PCIPS investigates, it could make or break their entire reputation. If they can solve this bombing right away, no one's ever going to question their existence again.
  ► Russian Soul
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Oh please. The PCIPS won't catch anyone. If they were at all effective, the bombing wouldn't have happened in the first place.
  ► In Quartata
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Little bit harsh, Soul. They're not psychic. Even the best police can't prevent crime before they happen. This isn't that Tom Cruise movie from Aleph.
  ► Russian Soul
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Doesn't really change the fact that the so-called Investigation Service couldn't catch a cartoon mouse, let alone this mad bomber.
  ► Shadu
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Okay, so you're saying the PRT couldn't prevent all this bombing, but you can't even imagine the full picture.
  Get this, because it keeps being ignored. In the year that the PRT was established more cape incidents were registered than the years before and after. Trust me, it's not because capes like to fight with the PRT, it's because new agency wanted to prove they were useful. They demonstrate to the public that it's a lot of danger from capes - and woo-hoo! they receive a lot of government funds.
  So, this is like, the same play. When they find the psycho bomber, they're gonna say that all this terror could be prevented, if they had more funds. Mark my words. It's the same thing.
  User received an infraction for this post: conspiracy theories serve no purpose in this forum.
  ► Stefanovich
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Clever theory you've got there. Let me expand it for you. The PCIPS is going to announce that you're the psycho bomber, just trying to throw out false accusations and wild drama to stay in the spotlight.
  User received an infraction for this post: Keep personal attacks off the board.
  ► edckdm (Verified PCIPS Agent)
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Ignoring the attacks against my profession... We're trying, guys. The bombs are still going off, but I have it on good authority that the person responsible for the bombs has been brought into custody. Obviously I can't say more than that, but I hope that helps some of the fear. And more info should be leaking soon.
  Just not from me. ;)
  End of Page. 1 - 82 , 83, 84
  ► Topic: Bombings In The Bay. In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay Discussion
  ► Momma Bear (Original Poster) (Global Moderator)
  Posted on May 14th, 2011:
  Please direct your questions, concerns, and comments about the current tragic events in Brockton Bay to this thread, to avoid cluttering up every other part of the forums. Thank you.
  (Showing Page 228 of 228)
  ► In Quartata
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Do we know for sure that the Hebert arrest was related to the bombing? Anyone with a PRT or PCIPS or Cape verification confirm?
  ► LogicalKismetHater
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  None of the ones with any real info are going to respond with anything other than 'wait for the press release'. They're smarter than that. No way they're going to risk giving this son of a bitch any excuse in court.
  ► FitnessFit
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  User has received an infraction for this post, and it has been deleted: Do not advocate bodily harm against anyone, regardless of your emotions. This is your one warning, which your specific circumstances are the only reason I am even giving you. Step out of line once more, and you're gone.
  ► Metallica999
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Uhhhhh... Probably shouldn't make statements like that... the mods don't like it.
  ► WieldingTheSeven
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Uh oh. Mods jumped on it already. What did he say?
  ► Metallica999
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  PM'd you.
  Back on topic, is there a charity set up to help with the damages yet? And do we have a rough estimate of how much damage was done?
  ► edckdm (Verified PCIPS Agent)
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  There's a topic listing the charities and other ways that anyone can help here.
  The property damage that has been confirmed so far is as follows:
  Winslow High School - Total Loss
  Saint Augustine's Hospital - Heavy damage, all remaining patients evacuated to Lakes Regional Hospital and Southland General.
  Three homes on Rudyard Blvd west of the Boardwalk - Destroyed, heavy damage to six other homes on the street, and the road itself.
  The bridge on Forty Third near Vine and Gallop - Destroyed. Use alternate route.
  22nd Precinct Police Station on Cheerful and Tuttles - Heavy damage, all officers being directed to either the 23rd or 19th precincts for assignments.
  True Smiles Daycare at the end of Sycamore - Total loss. Thank god no one was there this late.
  Corner of Dupris and Cheerful - Heavy damage from car bomb done to road and surrounding buildings. Avoid the area until safety crews have cleared it.
  East 4th and Ridgeland - Numerous explosions have targeting the police station just north of this corner have heavily damaged the streets here, rendering them unpassable.
  Other losses include large areas of the docks and several buildings downtown, but there are conflicting reports about just how much damage was done and where. I will update this post as soon as I find out more for certain. If you have anything to add, PM me.
  ► E.S.B. Lion
  Replied on May 15th, 2011:
  Dear god... if Hebert really did all this, he's never gonna make it to trial. Someone's going to take him out before they get a chance.
  (Please note mods, I am not ADVOCATING this. I'm saying what I think is going to happen)
  End of Page. 1 - 226 , 227 , 228
  ► Topic: Tether. In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay Discussion ► Heroes
  ► Groundgrabber (Original Poster)
  Posted on April 11th, 2011
  NEW ADDITION AS OF April 23rd, 2011
  Tether responds in this thread, guys. She'll answer any questions she can (though not always to satisfaction), and she's asked that if it's been a few days since you asked a question and she hasn't answered, please PM ME (Not her) and I'll point her to them. Please keep all rules and good taste in mind before either asking questions here, or pointing them out to me if Tether hasn't responded, because I am not afraid to hit the report button.
  EDIT AS OF April 21st, 2011
  Okay, now that Tether is a member of the Wards, we have a little more information. Her powers allow her to connect any two non-living objects and then pull those two objects together or push them apart. Other limitations or strengths unknown so far.
  Looks like Brockton Bay has a brand new cape. Topic title left vague until the name is revealed. (EDIT: Name confirmed to be Tether. Thanks, Vista)
  She was seen helping several members of the Wards bring in Lung. Powers currently unknown. Some say flight, some say long jumping, others say telekinesis. (EDIT: Powers mostly confirmed to be a unique form of telekinesis.)
  All we know so far is that she isn't a member of the Wards (EDIT: She is now.), but she was definitely involved in bringing Lung to justice, so it looks like we have a solo good guy. Maybe she and Browbeat can team up? (EDIT: Nm, Brow turned evil. :( )
  (Showing Page 146 of 147)
  ► CompletelyRationalSaneGuy
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Did you SERIOUSLY insult Lung right to his face?
  ► Tether (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  To be fair, I'd insult his other end, but I'm pretty sure I'd pass out before I got anywhere near it.
  ► CompletelyRationalSaneGuy
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  omg I got Tether'd. :D
  ► DeviantMime
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Just how many bullshit tricks can you pull out of your rear from 'connect two objects to each other' into, anyway? You get around like a mover, you affect the environment like a shaker or a blaster, you can hit like a minor brute... what's next, connecting a bunch of objects together like a pseudo-tinker?
  ► Bonewalker
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  I bet she could fly if she swapped the line connection from the ground to her suit fast enough.
  ► Tinyoh
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Nope, she'd have to have mental processing as fast as a computer to do that. No one can think and adjust on the fly that well.
  ► Tether (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  *sidesteps away from Kid Win's workbench* Nooooooo. _
  Bonewalker & Tinyoh
  :( *puts propeller cap and pilot's scarf away*
  ► HizKat
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Aww! See what you guys did? You made Tether sad.
  ► TheUltimateLord
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Don't be sad, Tether. You just need to get a teammate who flies, and then connect yourself to them.
  ► Tether (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  Good point! *looks away from scowling Aegis to stare intently at half the members of New Wave* Damn flyer-hogging team.
  ► Glory Girl (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  *shoves Crystal that way*
  ► Groundgrabber (Original Poster)
  Replied on May 13th, 2011
  Oh wow, a GG post. Can we take that as a hint about Laserdream's future? :D
  ► Laserdream (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 13th, 2011:
  How did I get dragged into this?
  ► Glory Girl (Verified Cape)
  replied on May 14th, 2011:
  ... Aliens.
  End of Page. 1 - 145 , 146, 147
  previous chapternext chapterchapter list
  Arc 6: Prey
  A man was being shoved back and forth by a large group of angry, hungry, tired people who had surrounded him in the middle of an old basketball court next to a middle school. The man was a volunteer, and these people were furiously demanding to know where their food and medical supplies were, since the explosions had destroyed most of the routes out of the neighborhood. The guy didn't know much more than they did, but they were frustrated and scared, and things were about to escalate out of hand.
  Not that I was going to let that happen.
  "Incoming!" I called out while descending toward them. One hand was extended toward the top of the building I had just leapt from, using a line to direct my fall, while using a line attached from my feet to the ground to slow it down.
  I landed in the middle of what had very nearly been a mob, next to the poor guy they had almost attacked. "Ooh, is this where we pick up the pitchforks and torches, or is this the line for the lynching ropes?"
  "You think what happened out here is a joke?" One man, a large guy with a ruddy complexion who had started the shoving, demanded.
  "No, sir." I said promptly. "But neither does this man." I indicated the volunteer next to me, who had shrank into my shadow as soon as I arrived. "That's why he's out here volunteering his time to try to help you get organized."
  "Organized, my ass." The man muttered. "We've been waiting all fucking week. Where's our food? Where's our medicine? They're fucking us over, I tell you. They're just waiting for us to... to..." He trailed off, because I was nonchalantly gesturing upward with my thumb. Gradually becoming aware of the large shadow hanging over his head, the man slowly looked up, along with the others in the crowd.
  There were several gasps, probably because of my awesome timing and stage presence. Oh, and also because of the large shipping container currently hovering over their heads that I had casually pulled down from the roof where I'd left it, I supposed.
  Once the man became aware of the container, I gestured with a few fingers. "Could you scooch a bit? I don't want to say this thing is too heavy, but I'm not entirely sure how long I can keep it stationary like this."
  The crowd quickly backed away and let me lower the container. As soon as it was down, I nodded to the volunteer, whose nametag read 'Gary'. "Go ahead, Gary. Start handing stuff out. I'm sure everyone's going to wait patiently in line." I said the latter part with a raised voice. "After all, everybody here has been to kindergarten and learned how to share."
  Still, I stood nearby and watched while Gary got to work passing out the supplies, using the time to catch my breath.
  It was Wednesday the 18th of May, three days after the bombings had stopped, and there was still no school. Not that there would ever be that particular school. Winslow had been utterly demolished. People were already speculating that Mr. Hebert had targeted the high school in particular because of his daughter's death there. Not that they knew the specifics, everyone still thought it was an accident. But they decided that Daniel Hebert blamed the school for it. Funny how people use evidence only 'verified' because of a specific conclusion to justify coming to that conclusion in the first place. Mr. Hebert himself was still at large, with people reporting sightings of him everywhere from right in front of PRT Headquarters to Egypt and anywhere in between.
  At the moment, every student in the city had the next two weeks off from school, anyway, while the people in charge worked to clean up the damage and then decide how they were going to divvy up the Winslow kids among the remaining schools.
  I already knew where I was going, of course. The PRT had been holding off on having me transferred to Arcadia to avoid blowing my identity, even transferring in a couple others from the the waiting list that sort of fit my general description to muddy the waters about who I was, but now there was no particular reason not to move me in as soon as possible.
  Over the last few days, I'd been splitting my time mostly between helping with clean up and rescue (there were a lot of people still trapped or cut off, or just plain in need of food delivery), and with helping Mars move into a 'no questions asked' apartment downtown. She was probably safe considering the sheer odds of anyone who actually knew her face happening to stumble by wherever she went, but the former-Traveler was still staying out of sight for the most part, while we decided what to do.
  "Hey, uhh, miss." A voice dragged me back to the present, and I saw the big guy who had been causing problems looking abashedly at me. "I'm sorry. I know I don't need to be making things worse. I'm just... my kid's got the flu and my wife, she was... she was..."
  Seeing his expression, I knew what he was trying to say. I shook my head and lifted a hand to his arm. "It's... it's okay." I said quietly, as reassuringly as I could manage in the situation. "Everyone's tempers are blazing, just... just take care of your kid." Trying to make him feel better, I asked, "What's their name?"
  "Sam." The man answered. "His name's Sammy. I uhhh, I have a picture." Fumbling in his pocket, the man took out a little wallet sized photograph of what looked like a nine year old brown-haired boy stepping up to bat in Little League.
  Smiling a little at the picture, though the expression was hidden, I started to hand it back. The man shook his head. "Keep it. I uhhh, want you to remember that this medicine, this food you're handing out? Even when there's assholes like me causing trouble, Sammy's the kind of kid you're really helping."
  He turned and moved back into the line before I could protest, calling over his shoulder. "Ain't gonna be no more problems here, I promise. I'll stick around and make sure nobody else acts like a... like I was."
  Holding the picture in my hand for a moment as I gazed at the crowd of people, I slowly put it away and then turned. Extending my hand toward the roof of another building, I let my line pull me away while activating my com with the other hand. "Supplies delivered to Ridgeland, what's next?"
  "Head to Southland General Hospital." Aegis's reply came through. "They've got another box of supplies ready to go out to the docks area."
  "On it."
  Once I reached the crowded hospital, I couldn't find anyone who knew where I should go. The place so busy, so packed full of both patients and harried staff, that even hearing what people were saying took some effort.
  A sharp whistle caught my ear, and I turned just in time to see a loaded gurney being rushed right toward me by a group of hustling orderlies. Faced with nowhere else to go to get out of the way, I put a couple lines between myself and the ceiling and let myself be pulled straight up, pressing myself against the tiles there as the gurney was wheeled through the area I had been in. The orderly who had whistled gave me a brief thumbs up.
  "Now I see why you wanted a flier." A voice remarked idly from below me. I turned toward the voice while dropping back to the floor.
  It was Glory Girl- or Victoria, rather, since she wasn't in costume. She was standing with her sister, Panacea, and another cute blonde that it took me only a second to place as Laserdream, or Crystal.
  Man, the members of New Wave were either really brave, or exceedingly stupid to let their identities be completely public. Honestly, part of me was leaning to the latter, particularly where the adults were concerned. It was all fine and dandy for them to decide that they wanted to let people know who they were, to make a point or whatever their reasoning was, but what about the effect on their kids?
  Not to mention the way that looking at Amy made me flinch. I wondered if they'd told her about her clone yet. Or if I should mention it. Armsmaster hadn't exactly flat out told me not to say anything to anyone, but the secrecy part was kind of heavily implied.
  On the other hand, Panacea kind of deserved to know there was an evil, crazy and twisted version of herself running around throughout this whole mess.
  Victoria was talking still. "Crystal thought you were just kidding, but I told her you guys are losing Aegis as soon as his birthday hits, and then you're screwed on fliers."
  "Kid Win has his hover board." I pointed out. "And I ummm... get around all right."
  "Had." Victoria corrected. "De-ahh, Gallant said that he took it apart." Right, Dean was her boyfriend. "To build something else."
  "Well then." I coughed and looked toward her cousin, spreading my arms. "Cryyyystal Pelham, have you been told anything about the remarkable opportunities waiting for you as a member of the Wards?"
  "Sorry." The slender blonde shook her head. "I turned eighteen about a month ago. Couldn't join even if I wanted to."
  I snapped my fingers. "Nerts." Then I focused on Glory Girl. "Viiictoria..."
  The powerful, headstrong heroine shook her head and chuckled. "Sorry, Tether. You're gonna have to poach off someone else's team. Family sticks together. Right, Ames?" She asked while putting an arm around her sister's shoulders.
  "Uhh... yeah." Amy Dallon looked just a little... I didn't want to say uncomfortable, but... uncertain, with her sister's arm around her. There was a certain flushed look to her face as she bobbed her head in a nod.
  "So umm, do you guys-" I started to ask if they knew where the new supplies were supposed to be picked up, when I was interrupted by a new voice interrupting.
  "Excuse me, ahh, ladies?" When I turned, I found a uniformed security guard, looking a bit panicked and out of breath. "We... we need some help."
  Crystal, the oldest one there, took a step that way. "What's wrong?"
  "It's ummm..." The man shifted from one foot to the other. "It's the top floor. See, they transferred some of the prison inmates here, the ones that weren't too dangerous, who needed medical help. The whole floor was locked off, only authorized staff and the guards they sent allowed."
  "What happened?" I asked before anyone else could.
  "They stopped responding to the radio." The man explained. "Then I went up there, and it was all... dark. All the power's out up there, and no one responded when I yelled from the doorway. Then I ummm..." His face blanched. "I thought I saw something... or... someone standing in a doorway, staring at me. But then it was like... she melted or something."
  Behind my mask, my face turned ashen. Before I could speak, Victoria was already moving for the stairs. "Right, probably a fresh trigger or something. We'll take care of it, just stay out of the way."
  "Wait!" I blurted. Crystal stopped in mid-step, having been moving to follow her cousin. She looked back at me questioningly.
  "Hey, if you want to sit this one out because you're afraid of the dark or something-" Victoria called over her shoulder.
  "No, wait, you have to listen." I put a line against the floor and her clothes, stopping her. "Just hold on. I..." Not wanting to say anything in front of the security guard, I released Victoria and then started to walk fast. "Come on, walk with me. Amy, you too. You need to hear this."
  Victoria's eyes were narrowed as the three girls fell into line with me. "What does this have to do with my sister?"
  Instead of answering, I activated my com. "Aegis, I think Pandora's at the hospital. You need to send people here and have the place evacuated."
  "Evacuated to where?" He blurted. "We already lost Saint Augustine's. Half those patients were evacuated to Southland in the first place."
  "Figure it out." I shot back. "Unless you want to give Pandora an all-you-can-eat buffet of sick and helpless people."
  He sighed slowly over the com before responding. "I'll put the word out. You're not going after her alone, are you?"
  "No." I glanced back to the other three. "I've got Laserdream and Glory Girl with me." I paused then. "And Panacea."
  There was a long pause before he spoke. "You know not to put Panacea in danger."
  "She deserves to know." I told him, then signed off.
  "Okay." Crystal spoke up before either of her clearly confused and annoyed cousins could. "What, exactly, is going on? What's a Pandora, and what does it have to do with Amy?"
  I took in a breath and let it out. By that point, we had reached the stairs and started to ascend. I took a moment to gather my thoughts while we walked up the stairs. The two blonde girls could have flown up, but they were obligingly staying with me, giving me the chance to explain. "Pandora... is... she's..."
  "Victoria?" Amy's voice interrupted. I turned in confusion, about to say that Pandora wasn't Victoria, only to find that only two of the girls that I'd been walking with were there.
  "Where'd she go?" Crystal demanded, staring at the spot next to Amy. "What happened?"
  "I don't know!" Amy's head shook in confusion. "She was right here, right behind me. Her hand was on my back. Then we came around that landing, and I didn't feel her hand anymore. I looked back and... and... she was gone."
  She was right. Slowly, I gazed around the brightly lit stairwell, which should have been safe. I looked up, then down, finding no sign of anything other than the three of us. There was no sign that Victoria had ever been here, and none of us, not my lines, not Crystal, and not even Amy, who had been standing directly in front of her, had known until it was too late.
  Pandora had taken Glory Girl without a sound, and none of us had noticed.
  "You have got to be kidding." Crystal's words were flat with disbelief.
  "She's not." Amy's own voice expressed clearly stunned resignation. "I... don't remember everything, but I've been having dreams. There was a monster, a girl with a monster attached to her, and I was supposed to fix her. I couldn't... can't remember anything else. I thought it was just a dream, but... but it fits what she's saying."
  Looking back and forth between us, Crystal's head shook. "Okay, so you're saying there's an... an evil Amy out there with like... the inverse of her powers."
  "She can heal herself. Even more, it's like... complete control over her own genetics." I confirmed with a nod. "To scary degrees. And somehow she can duplicate herself. I'm not even sure how that works, except Armsmaster guessed that it has to do with the people she keeps absorbing. He thinks she's adding their mass to her own and then altering and splitting it off into another body." I shrugged. "I haven't seen anything that disproves that."
  Amy closed her eyes, giving a shudder. Now I knew why Pandora had seemed so familiar. The brown haired, lightly freckle-faced girl was known to everyone. There were other healers in the world, but none quite as important or capable as Panacea. She was one of the most important people we had in the fights against the Endbringers, since she could heal everything up to actual death.
  On the other hand, that had to be a lot to live up to, and I doubted many people remembered that she was just one person, despite her power. And now there was an evil, crazy version of her running around killing people. Not to mention kidnapping her sister.
  "Well." Crystal straightened and started to continue up the stairs to the top floor. "Then we're just going to have to find her and sort this out." As she walked, the older girl was taking the phone from her pocket. She sent a quick text and then then glanced back. "Tether, you gonna be able to help?"
  I gave a short nod. "If it helps at all, my power points me to people who are about to be hurt or... or worse. It didn't go off at all, so I don't think that Pandora wants to hurt Victoria."
  "Do you know anything else about... her?" Amy asked, distractedly. Something else was clearly bothering the girl about her clone grabbing her sister, but I wasn't sure how to ask.
  I hesitated before nodding while trailing after Crystal. "Just that she said I was useful so she didn't want to hurt me."
  That brought both of the girls' attention. Amy stared for a second. "What does that mean? Why would she think you were useful?" Seeming to realize belatedly how that sounded, the mousy girl blanched. "I mean..."
  "I know what you mean." I assured her. "What I don't know is what she meant. She didn't exactly stick around to explain herself."
  "We'll get answers this time." Crystal-Laserdream, assured us both. We had reached the top landing by that point, and she glanced back to make sure we were ready before gently pushing the door open.
  As the guard had said, the whole floor was dark, oppressively so. It looked like every single window-blind had been pulled down, and the absence of any noise, whether from voices, footsteps, or equipment, was unsettling.
  For a moment, the three of us simply squinted into the darkness. Crystal spoke softly. "Amy, maybe you better-"
  "Do not even say it." Amy's voice was hard. "Vicky's in trouble, and it's me-or a version of me- that took her. I'm going."
  I saw Crystal turn to look at her younger cousin, examining her for a moment to see if there was any way to convince her otherwise, and whether it was worth the effort to try. Finally, she let out a breath and stepped from the landing. "Then let's stay together. No splitting up. Tether, let us know the second you get a hit on your danger thing."
  Two steps in, and I reached to the small control knob hidden just inside my vest, dialing the brightness of the violet glow from the lines on my costume up. It made it at least slightly easier to see a couple more feet.
  "Isn't that just going to make you an easier target?" Crystal asked with a raised eyebrow.
  It was Amy who answered for me. "If... she can alter her body, she can already give herself perfect night vision and whatever else. Staying in the dark isn't going to hinder anyone but us."
  "What she said." I agreed, nodding that way. "Besides, like I said, she thinks I'm useful for something."
  Accepting that with a shrug, Crystal activated some kind of small forcefield a few feet out in front of us. The crimson bubble of energy didn't seem to be very strong from my extremely uneducated opinion, but then, the whole point also seemed to be to make the shield project light so that we could see better, rather than any kind of protection. "Good point."
  Slowly, we made our way past the nurse's station. A chair beside the next doorway held the pile of a police uniform and gun belt. The radio lay useless and broken a few feet away, as silent as the rest of the floor. A brief check with my foot revealed that if there had been a flashlight, it was gone now.
  Ahead, Laserdream's red forcefield lantern illuminated another two fallen uniforms. Their radios had been openly destroyed as well, the first apparently crushed beneath a foot from the look of it, while the other had been flung hard enough at the wall to scatter the components across several feet of tile. Their flashlights had been taken as well.
  "They're gone..." Amy spoke in a hushed tone. "They're just... gone. There's nothing to heal, nothing to fix. They're completely gone."
  "That's what she does." I responded, unable to keep the unease out of my own voice. "She absorbs every bit of genetic material and leaves the rest behind."
  We made our way methodically further down the hall, checking each room on the way through. Room after room held nothing but empty handcuffs and hospital gowns. With each step, I could sense the unease from the other two growing, while every slight creak or hint of motion in the shadows just beyond our meager light made us jump.
  "I just figured out what's missing." Crystal spoke up eventually, the suddenness of her voice making me flinch reflexively. She looked around the hallway and the room we were just leaving, indicating the clothes around us. "Doctor clothes. Scrubs, coats, whatever. There's prisoner clothes and cop clothes and all that, but no doctor or nurse clothes. Why?"
  I frowned. "Good question... maybe she's not absorbing them?"
  "If that's true," Amy asked. "Then where are they?"
  "Fuck this." Crystal finally said after a moment of thought. She cleared her throat and then called out, loud and clear, "Pandora! We don't want to fight you! We just want to know where Victoria is! We are not threatening you!"
  Silence met her declaration, and I was starting to think that there really was no one here. Then slow, deliberate creaking noise caught our attention. Crystal's makeshift red light revealed a door that had just opened, darkness lying beyond. Finally, a faint voice, barely recognizable as Glory Girl's, called for help from inside the room.
  "That's a big fat nope." I decided, staring at the open, beckoning doorway. "No way, no how, not happening, nuh uh. I've seen this movie, we are not going through that door."
  Crystal started to speak, but Amy was already moving past the two of us. She ran ahead down the hall, calling, "Victoria!"
  "Amy!" Crystal cursed and looked to me, but the other girl had already moved too far into the shadows for me to grab onto her. We chased her, Crystal lifting off to move faster by flying just under the ceiling.
  She was fast, wicked fast, in the air. Laserdream's aerial maneuverability was well known, and she lived up to the expectation by shooting straight down the corridor in the near pitch-darkness, inverting in the air, and putting herself down with barely an inch to spare in front of her cousin, stopping her with both hands.
  I caught up a moment later, while Amy was still insisting that Crystal let her go, that she had to find Victoria before her clone did something bad to her.
  "Stop, Amy. Stop!" Crystal finally brought her hand up and smacked her younger cousin across the face. "Get a hold of yourself." She ordered. "We're not abandoning Victoria, you know better than that. But we're also not running headlong into traps. You know better than that too. Just because Glory Girl isn't here doesn't mean you have to act like her by charging in blind."
  Clearly stunned, Amy held a hand to her cheek. The panic that had been clearly driving her eased out somewhat along with the long breath that she released. "I-I'm sorry." She shook her head. "I just... if she hurts Victoria, and it's... it's sort of... me doing it..."
  "She won't." I told her. "My power would have told me if Pandora was going to hurt her." At least, I hoped it would have. I didn't mention the fact that Pandora could always change her mind and hurt Victoria later, even if she hadn't abducted her for that purpose.
  After gazing at her younger teammate and family member for a moment to make sure she was in control of herself, Crystal nodded to me. I moved to one side of the doorway, while the other girl gradually moved her forcefield light through and into the room beyond.
  The unmasked girl sitting on the bed, illuminated by the crimson glow, was clearly a match for Amy Dallon. She sat cross-legged, watching us with what looked like curiosity. "Hello." Her voice was calm, careful, and maybe a touch indignant. "It took you long enough to come."
  "We weren't sure it was safe." Crystal finally managed to say, after she got over her obvious surprise. In spite of my warning, running into a doppleganger of Panacea was clearly throwing her.
  To that, the clone's head turned sideways. "You said that you were not a threat."
  It was the real Amy who spoke then. "You took Victoria. Where is she? What do you want?"
  "What do you want?" The clone returned the question back to Panacea. "You ask questions that you already know the answers to. Wasting time. You should admit why you are truly afraid, what you really fear we are saying to our sister."
  "She's not your sister!" Amy shot back, sounding almost livid. "She's mine. You're just a... a copy. You didn't grow up with her. You don't feel about her that w-like I do."
  "We wonder..." The clone on the bed mused aloud. "Are you more frightened that our secrets will drive her away, or that they won't, and that all of our fear will have been for nothing? What frightens you more, sister, rejection or all of that lost and lonely time?"
  "Amy." Crystal interrupted. "What is she talking about?" But Panacea clamped her lips shut and shook her head, looking even more pale than she had before.
  "Where are the doctors?" I had to ask. "Where are all the medical people?"
  "Not useless." The girl on the bed replied simply. "Not useless, not a threat, safe."
  "You didn't harm them?" I pressed.
  "Of course not." Pandora replied. Abruptly, her form shifted into a flock of shrieking bats, which rushed straight at us. Just as my heart leapt into my throat and I jerked reflexively backward, the bats formed back into her human shape, barely half a foot away from me as she continued her sentence. "We are not a monster."
  "S-sure." I said, trying to force my heart back down where it belonged, while also doing an internal check to make sure I hadn't actually wet myself. "Not a monster, got it. But where are they?"
  She smiled, standing there so close to me that I could see the white of her teeth in the violet light that my suit was giving off. "Safe. Safe and out of the way, so that we can talk, our sister and we." Her head tilted toward me. "You are still useful. Still not ready, but useful."
  "Useful for what?" I asked.
  "To kill him." Her response came, as simple as it was confusing. "But not yet. Not until we're sure."
  "Kill who?" I thought, then added, "Coil? The man who cloned you?"
  She just smiled at me once more, not speaking again.
  "Please." Amy's voice was pleading. "Please tell us where Victoria is. Why did you take her?"
  "We missed her." Pandora's voice actually sounded... sad. "We missed our Victoria."
  Amy hissed at that, clearly angry and defensive. "She isn't yours."
  Rather than arguing the point, the clone simply said, "We wish to make a trade."
  It was Crystal who spoke then. "What trade?"
  Regarding her briefly, Pandora answered. "A trade for healing. We cannot heal others, our sister can." She looked toward Amy. "An agreement. You will heal the one we wish you to heal, sister, and then we will give Victoria to you. Both will be safe."
  "Is that why you came to the hospital?" I asked. "To look for a doctor? Is that where the other medical people are?"
  "Useless." She replied derisively. "Can't fix her. Can't take her pain away."
  "Fine." Amy's voice was a little shaky, but steady. "A trade. I'll heal your... whatever she is, and you'll give Victoria back."
  "And the doctors and nurses." I added. "All of them. And no more killing people in the hospital. It should be a safe place, Pandora. You can't just... you can't just kill everyone who gets in your way."
  She gave me a blank look at that. "Do you know of one that we are incapable of killing?"
  My mouth opened, then shut. "That's not what I meant. I-" Shaking that off, I waved a hand. "Just don't kill anybody else in here, please, Pandora. Call this a truce, a safe place. I'm not demanding, I'm asking. Please, don't kill anyone in the hospital. This is where people get healed."
  For a moment, the clone met my gaze. I wasn't sure if she fully understood me or not, but eventually, she gave a sight nod. "We will not kill within the hospital."
  "And you'll let Victoria and the others go." Crystal prodded.
  "After the healing." Pandora acknowledged. "And you will let us go with our friend. You will not take her or stop us, or our... truce is forfeited."
  "Agreed." Crystal finally said with a sigh, glancing toward Amy and me until we nodded.
  Satisfied, Pandora turned to that dark mist, floating past the three of us to reach the hallway once more, before turning to walk. Uneasy looks were passed around, before we started to follow.
  Three doors down, the clone touched a door and pushed it open. "Inside."
  As instructed, we went through the doorway and into a room that had been lit by several of the flashlights that had been taken from the police uniforms. Victoria stood in a corner of the room with her fists clenched, anger and frustration clear on her face. When she saw us, she started a bit. "Crystal, Amy! It's-it's you. It's..."
  "We know." Crystal told her. "It's all right. We made a deal."
  "Yes." Another Pandora, who had been hidden by the shadows of the room, stepped into view. She, and the one that had been with us and was now in the doorway, spoke together. "We made a deal."
  It was only then that I noticed that the bed was moving, shaking a bit. Something-or someone, was bundled up under the blankets. "Who...?" I started to ask.
  In answer, the Pandora in the room walked to the bed and drew the blankets back. The flashlights revealed a figure that I knew well, even in the dim light.
  "Dinah." I gasped. "Dinah Alcott." I'd known that she wasn't dead. Marissa had told me that much, and I'd passed the information along to Armsmaster. But to see her like this... the girl was pale, shaking with pain and misery, and when the blankets were removed, she made a terrible moaning noise.
  "Drugs." Pandora informed us, looking toward her original self. "You will heal her. You will remove her pain."
  "You can't leave with her." Victoria growled. "You're a monster, not my sister, and you're not taking that kid."
  "We have a truce." The Pandora by the door announced. "An agreement. If you do not honor your side, we will not honor ours." Her gaze found mine. "And if we do not honor our agreement..."
  I swallowed, getting the point. "You'll go back to killing."
  "It is your decision." The Pandora next to the bed informed us with a nod of agreement to my words.
  Her other self, by the door, agreed. "Your choice. Heal the girl and allow us to leave with her."
  "Or," The one by the bed continued. "No one will leave this hospital."
  "No one." They both finished together.
  "What the hell do you mean, an agreement?" Victoria demanded. "You can't make an agreement to just let a kidnapper keep the kid. Did you guys just forget that we're supposed to be heroes, as in 'the good guys'?"
  "Then there is no conflict." The Pandora by the bed announced.
  The Pandora by the door nodded. "Because we are not Dinah Alcott's kidnapper."
  "We are her friend." They both said together.
  "And you will help her." The one by the bed said firmly to Panacea. "You promised that you would help our friend."
  Crystal gave a short nod. "Of course, she's going to help Dinah. Victoria, come here, we'll talk."
  "Talk about what?" Victoria grumbled under her breath as she moved that way reluctantly. "About how we're totally making deals with the bad guys now?"
  "I ummm..." Amy spoke up hesitantly. "I'll do what I can for her. If she was on drugs, then she'll probably still have some psychological dependency. I can't fix that, but it should get better in time. I can help with the physical symptoms."
  While she stepped that way and laid her hand against Dinah's cheek, I spoke up to get the Pandora by the door's attention. "I'm going to use my radio now." The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was breaking the deal somehow. "Just to let everyone else about our deal, so no one does anything bad."
  She gave no response to that, which I was taking as tacit agreement. Reaching up to activate the com, I spoke. "Aegis, are you there?"
  "Talk to me, Tether." It wasn't Aegis, it was Armsmaster. "Do you have the clone in sight?"
  "You uhhh," I coughed. "You could say that. Listen, don't evacuate the hospital. You don't need to get anyone out."
  There was a pause, and when Armsmaster spoke again, his voice was suspicious. "Stranger protocol. What did you have for dinner when I met you at your house?"
  "Trick question." I replied. "It was lunch time, but I had cereal. Frosted Flakes. And chocolate milk. I tried to offer you some, but you were being all-"
  "That's good enough." The older man interrupted. I could sense the scowl on his face. "Now explain why you suddenly don't want us to evacuate the hospital."
  "We made a deal with Pandora." I said slowly. "She's not going to kill anyone else here in the hospital." Pausing as it occurred to me, I added, "Which I think, technically, makes the hospital the safest place in the city right now."
  Silence reigned for a few seconds before he spoke again. "Would you care to explain what kind of deal you made?"
  I hesitated. There was no way this was going to come off in a good light. "She umm... she has... a friend."
  "A friend?" His reply was a mixture of confusion and suspicion. "Tether, if you don't start making sense, I'm going to assume the stranger protocol was broken somehow."
  "She has a friend with her." I said again, more firmly that time. "Dinah Alcott. She has Dinah Alcott. She brought her to the hospital to help her, so Panacea is helping her. Then... they're going to leave."
  There was another pause, and then Armsmaster replied, "Are you saying that you made a deal to allow Pandora to take the Alcott girl after Panacea heals her, in exchange for her not killing anyone else in the hospital?"
  I cringed, hesitating before confirming nervously. "That's... pretty much the gist of it, yes."
  "Understood." He replied, unexpectedly accepting of that. I'd expected an argument, but he just asked, "Do you need anyone else up there?"
  Blinking, I shook my head. "I don't think bringing anyone else into this is going to help. It'll probably just complicate things, sir."
  "We'll need a full report once you're done." Came his response. "If you do need help, or if anything goes wrong, and I mean anything, use your comm and say 'SOS'. We'll be right on top of you inside of sixty seconds. We're right downstairs."
  I signed off, letting out a breath before looking to the Pandora by the door once more. The other one was focused on what Panacea was doing with Dinah, while Crystal and Victoria were having a heated argument in the corner. "I need to ask you something."
  Her head inclined a bit, expectantly, so I went on. "Coil. He's your enemy, isn't he? The one that you want me to help you with, somehow?"
  "It is not time for that." Pandora replied dismissively. "You are not ready, we are not prepared."
  "But-" I blurted. "What makes you think I can help you with him?"
  The clone seemed to consider that, going silent for several moments before speaking up again. "The enemy has become obsessed with the idea that your power may counter his own somehow. We wish to more fully understand how this possibility may develop and be used against him properly."
  I started to shake my head. "I don't understand how my power could possib-" Something occurred to me, and I gave a little start. "Wait, didn't you say that you thought I was useful back when I first saw you?"
  "No." Pandora's head shook. "We did not speak when we were first seen by you. We waved, because Dinah has said that we can sometimes be... unsettling, so we were attempting to express... friendship." While I stared, she offered a smile that was clearly supposed to be reassuring, but came off as more predatory.
  "Ummm... right." I nodded, swallowing back the shiver that ran through me at that look, not to mention the fact that something-some one, I firmly corrected myself, like Pandora wanted me to see her as a friend. "Sorry, I meant the first time we actually spoke. You said you thought I was useful."
  "Yes." She finally stopped smiling, the change in expression just as abrupt and seemingly unconnected to her actual mood as the initial smile had been. "You know this already. What is your question?"
  I was thinking quickly, trying to figure out the timing of that. "But that happened in the apartment building, before we found Bakuda, and before she named Taylor's dad as being Coil, which was obviously before we went to the Hebert house, so... so..." My eyes were widening behind the mask. "So there's no way that Mr. Hebert could be Coil. Because he triggered when the Protectorate was confronting him. He triggered then, which means he couldn't have had powers before then. But you said I was useful earlier than that, because the Coil you knew already had powers."
  Though my excitement had been mounting throughout that, the Pandora clone just continued to stare with something like curiosity on her face. I still wasn't sure how much she understood. That was all right, I was just ecstatic that I had another piece of evidence that Coil wasn't really Mr. Hebert.
  I was still trying to decide how, or even if, I could use that, when Amy straightened from Dinah's side. "I've done everything I can." She declared, looking toward the Pandora that was standing on the other side of the bed. "She'll have to catch up on sleep, and like I said, she's still going to think she wants the drugs. But the physical symptoms should be better."
  The Pandora by the bed moved to use two fingers to brush the hair away from Dinah's still sweaty face in a gesture that was surprisingly tender. "We thank you for helping our friend."
  "Good." Crystal shot Victoria a firm look that said 'don't say a word', then focused on one of the Pandoras. "I want to add something to the deal."
  Both of the clones looked to one another, then toward Crystal. Their voices were flat with warning. "You will not break the truce."
  "No." Crystal shook her head quickly. "No, we won't break the truce. We won't stop you from taking Dinah. That's not what this is about. But there's going to be people who try to take her away from you, people who didn't make the same deal. We can try to stop them, try to make them leave you alone. But if we do, that's more than just this one truce, do you understand? So we need a longer deal."
  The Pandora by the door spoke, as the other one remained focused on the sleeping girl. "You will offer us another truce?"
  "A longer one." Crystal confirmed. "But first I want to ask you something. There's been a lot of gang members that have just... disappeared. The gangs think there's some vigilante taking them away. Hell, some of them have actually gone straight to the police and begged to be arrested because it's safer in prison than on the streets. Is that you? Are you the one killing the gang members?"
  "They are useless." The Pandora that was sitting protectively next to Dinah nodded. "They are unproductive, and do harm to others. I remove them."
  Letting out a breath, Crystal glanced to me first, then continued. "Okay, but you've hurt other people too. You've killed people, like the police here, when you were looking for doctors. That has to stop. Please. I want you to agree not to kill any other innocents. No killing heroes, no killing cops, no killing civilians. As long as we don't try to hurt you, or take Dinah away, you stop killing anyone who isn't... who isn't a bad guy."
  For a long moment, both clones simply stared at her, seeming to process that. Finally, each nodded. "Acceptable." They said together, before the one by the door elaborated. "As long as those who call themselves the heroes within this city do not present themselves as a threat, we will refrain from killing any who would not be classified as... bad."
  "Pinky swear?" I offered, unthinkingly.
  It was mostly a joke, but the Pandora by the bed was looking at me with obvious interest. "What is this swearing for pink?"
  "No, no." I shook my head, internally asking myself what the hell I was doing, before stepping that way. Lifting my hand and extending my pinky, I gestured. "Do this."
  The clone stared, then looked down at her hand and finally lifted it to duplicate what I was doing. "If you attempt to deceive us..."
  "I'm not." I promised, reaching a hand out to hook our pinkies together. "This is a pinky swear. It's... like an oath. It's a special deal, that can't be broken. We promise we won't try to take Dinah away, and you promise that you won't kill anyone that's... good. Or neutral. No killing civilians, Pandora."
  The girl by the bed, so identical in so many ways to Panacea, yet so different, gazed at our joined pinkies with a curious expression, before nodding. "We will not kill those we have promised not to kill, as long as they do not attempt to take our friend away." She gave our hands another curious look, then added, "Pinky swear."
  "This is so fucking weird." Victoria declared from the other side of the room.
  That much settled, we stepped out of the way and watched as one of the Pandoras picked up Dinah from the bed. She walked out of the room with the girl, while the other Pandora watched us carefully.
  Once the first pair was gone, I blurted, "Why do you want to kill Coil? I mean, he sort of... helped create you, in a way. Why do you want him dead?"
  She just looked at me for a moment before responding. "He wishes to enslave us, to use our power, our life, for his own ends. We are not a slave, we are a person. We will make our choices, not him."
  I opened my mouth and then shut it, but before I could settle on something to say, she was gone, leaving the rest of us alone.
  "Did we really just do that?" Victoria demanded. "Did we really let a psycho-bitch like that just walk out with her hostage?"
  "It's complicated, Vicky." Amy's voice was quiet."It's not that simple."
  "She's crazy!" The other girl shot back. "You wanna know how crazy she is? She said she was in love with me. In love with me! Do you have any idea how... how creepy that was? Hearing someone that looked just like you, just like my sister, saying she was in love with me?" Victoria gave a full body shudder, as if it was the worst, most wrong thing she had ever heard. "So disgusting."
  For just a second, I thought that Amy looked as though she'd been punched in the gut. Her whole form clutched over a bit, her face turned white, and she cringed like Victoria had slapped her.
  The other girl didn't notice. "I mean seriously, what are we going to tell people? Oh, we let the psychopath clone run off with an innocent little girl, but it's okay because she made a pinky-swear?"
  "That's enough, Victoria." Crystal shot her blonde cousin a glare before turning her attention to her other cousin. "Amy-"
  The brown-haired girl wasn't listening. She turned to rush for the door, and I could see the tears that she was failing to hold back. "I-I'll tell everyone it's okay to come up." She blurted her excuse for fleeing, and all but ran from the room.
  Victoria was at least not oblivious enough to miss that entirely. "I should go after her. Seeing an evil, crazy version of herself... that's gotta be rough."
  "Don't." Crystal warned her. "Just give her some time alone to... think." I met her gaze briefly, and the other girl gave me a slight nod of acknowledgment, before speaking. "We do need to figure out what we're going to say to everyone else."
  "We did the best we could?" I offered with a wince.
  "One thing I don't get." Victoria said with a sigh. "This clone, she's been killing policemen, she kidnapped that innocent girl, but... but she wanted the real Amy to heal the girl, and... and she just agreed not to kill so much, just so that we wouldn't take the girl away from her. So which is it? Is she a good guy, or a bad guy?"
  "I'm pretty sure..." I said slowly. "That's about to be a very important question."
  "And that's umm, that's pretty much the gist of it." I finally concluded a couple of hours later.
  Amy, Crystal, Victoria, and I sat on one side of a massive room that was clearly meant to debrief dozens if not hundreds of troops, having given our story about what had happened in the hospital. Meanwhile, a short distance away and on a raised and rather intimidating stage, an intimidating group stood and listened to our every word. From left to right, there was Amy and Victoria's mother and father Brandish and Flashbang, Crystal's mother and father Lady Photon and Manpower, Director Piggot (who had retained her control of the local PRT in general), Armsmaster, and Miss Militia.
  Additionally, in the corner of the room, another figure stood. She was known as Dragon, one of, if not the best tinker in the world. She was responsible for the Bird Cage, for the containment foam that the PRT used, along with a dozen other advantages. At the moment, she wore a set of power armor that had clearly been designed solely for speed, since it was actually vaguely human-shaped and sized unlike other versions of her armor that I had seen her use in videos taken of Endbringer attacks. So far, she had been silent, letting the locals talk.
  We were in the PRT building, rather than the Protectorate HQ, because it had been closer, and because Director Piggot had insisted that we include her and that all of the heroes coming to her headquarters was easier than her going to the Protectorate base floating over the water in the bay.
  Piggot was the one who spoke first once we had finished. "Do you have any idea how irresponsibly idiotic you've behaved? Telling the Protectorate to stand down when the threat was in a single, contained location and could easily have been surrounded? We knew her location, and had the team on site. We might not get a better shot at ending the threat she presents. Everyone else she kills after this is on your heads."
  Armsmaster spoke up gruffly. "I'm not in the habit of letting a rookie Ward tell me to do a damn thing, Director. Tether presented the situation and I made the judgment call. You have a problem with that, you yell at me."
  The squat woman gave him a withering stare. "Stop picking hairs, you know what I mean. They were on site and they somehow decided that letting the clone run free to kill more people was the right course of action. On top of that, they let her go with the mayor's niece! He's already lost his son this week. Do you want to tell him that we nearly had his niece but we let her be taken by a threat that could very well result in another Nilbog containment situation!?"
  Her words made me flinch. The mayor's son had been Triumph, the recently graduated Ward who had supposedly been killed by Mr. Hebert at the man's house. As for the rest of it, the idea that our town might have to be evacuated, permanently, and some kind of containment wall built around it to keep Pandora trapped within had obviously occurred to me, even if I had tried to dismiss the worry.
  "She isn't Nilbog." I spoke up, interrupting what was turning into an argument between the two.
  Miss Militia, seeming somewhat grateful for the interruption, lifted a hand for Armsmaster to wait. "What do you mean?"
  "Well, first of all, Nilbog took over his entire city. She isn't doing that."
  "Yet." Brandish said firmly with folded arms. "Are you suggesting we wait until she starts? How many blocks should we let her have before we abandon the city?"
  "No one's abandoning the city." Armsmaster said through gritted teeth, his voice fierce.
  "Oh, I was speaking rhetorically." Brandish shot back, just as heated. "Of course we're not abandoning the city, unless stupid decisions keep getting made that let threats that almost kill Amy and my daughter run free!"
  Amy... and my daughter. Huh. I snuck a glance toward where the two girls sat. Victoria was on the edge of her seat, frowning as she nodded along with her mother's argument. Amy had been silent, barely talking at all save for when she had to. Her hair covered most of her face, and she sat hunched over, looking rather miserable. The adults clearly thought she was traumatized from seeing her clone. I knew it was more than that.
  Brandish and Piggot were still arguing loudly with Armsmaster, while the others mostly looked uncertain.
  A loud whistle interrupted everything. I glanced sidelong to see that Crystal had stood up, her fingers just leaving her mouth. "Listen!" She said firmly. "This isn't the Nilbog incident because Pandora isn't trying to take over the city. Think about it for half a second, would you? According to Tether, she can literally absorb a person in a few seconds. Hell, there were dozens of mercenaries inside that building that she saw Pandora in first, we know that from all the equipment left behind. Dozens. And how many Pandora clones did we see? We saw two. She-" Her hand gestured at me. "Saw three of them after Ballistic killed one, when she was pissed off! We know she's been absorbing even more gang members, dozens just that we know of. Yet we never see more than a couple Pandoras. If she had any intention of flooding this city with her duplicates the way that Nilbog took over his city with his creations, she would have done it already . The question shouldn't be how long is it going to be before she destroys everything, it should be, 'why isn't she destroying everything, and how can we use that to reach her'!"
  For a moment, the sound of a pin dropping would have been deafening. Then Lady Photon, Crystal's mother, spoke. "My daughter has a point." She ignored the look that her sister, Brandish, sent her.
  Manpower, his seven foot form dwarfing everything in the room save for possibly Dragon's suit, nodded. "We need to know what this... creature's intentions are."
  "She's not a creature." I said, speaking up again in spite of my internal warning to keep quiet. "She's a person. That's her entire point. Yeah, she may be dangerous and she may be ready to kill at the drop of a hat, but she's still a person."
  "She's a clone." Piggot corrected, somehow managing not to set me on fire with her glare. I had the tiniest suspicion that the PRT director still held a grudge against me for losing command of the Wards.
  "A clone who made a deal not to kill good people." I shot back, not intimidated by the woman in spite of her efforts. "A clone who stopped and listened to reason, even if we had to adjust what we were saying so that she could understand it. It's not that she's evil, Director, it's that she doesn't understand morals . She doesn't know any better. It doesn't mean she's incapable of learning."
  "She is a monster." Brandish snarled the words. "She could have killed-"
  "But she didn't!" I interrupted, feeling frustrated. "She could have killed all of us. Trust me, it would have been easy for her. But she didn't! She came to us for help, help for her friend ! She wanted to help Dinah, because she cares about her! Does that sound irrevocably evil to you?"
  It was Piggot who shook her head next, stubbornly. "The creature is a clone, an artificial creation. It doesn't have feelings, it doesn't have thoughts, it has whatever was programmed into it. Nothing more. It's not real, and it certainly can't have friends ."
  From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Dragon shift marginally. Before I could wonder if she was actually going to say something, Armsmaster spoke first. "Really? Because as far as I'm aware, our feelings and emotions are the product of millions of years of evolution sending neural signals through our brains. They are the result of biological 'programming'. I don't see anything all that different with an artificial creation. Anything sufficiently advanced would be fairly indistinguishable from human once a certain level of sophistication was reached."
  Dragon seemed to settle back once more, regarding Armsmaster. Apparently he'd said everything she might have, because the tinker remained silent.
  Flashbang spoke up then. "What about the Alcott girl? We can't just let the crea-this... Pandora... keep her indefinitely.
  "She won't." Miss Militia assured him. "But at the time, it was the best solution. It maintains the peace with Pandora while we try to work out other solutions. Such as, for example, finding the parahuman who created her to begin with. Maybe an examination of this... what did you call her?" She asked me.
  "Noelle." I shifted uncertainly. There were certain parts of the story I hadn't told, such as the fact that they had come from another world. It was a really fine balancing act, and I was afraid at some point I was going to say the wrong thing and fall right off it.
  "Yes, Noelle." The Protectorate second-in-command gave a short nod. "If we can find this Noelle and give her enough of an examination, we might find out how to deal with Pandora, if negotiating with her doesn't work. Either way, whether the future solution comes from negotiation or knowledge gained from examination of the original creator, delaying conflict and buying time was the right call."
  "I'll start working on a solution to the rapid cloning problem, a way to contain her-" Armsmaster spoke up over the objection that I started to raise. "-in case it becomes necessary." He looked toward the other tinker in her suit. "I'd appreciate any help or suggestions you could add. The containment foam and the Bird Cage both ahhh, prove you have some kind of specialty in holding parahumans who don't want to be held."
  The woman in the power armor bowed her head slightly. Her voice came through the suit's speaker, sounding rather pleased. "Of course. I would enjoy working with you."
  "Fine." Piggot didn't look happy, but there wasn't much she could say about it. "You... capes figure out what to do about the creature. The mayor won't be happy about this. He wants his niece back." She stalked to the exit, letting the door slam after her to express her dislike of the situation.
  "I'm confused." I whispered to Crystal while leaning in her direction. "Does she like this plan or not? Because she was way too subtle about the whole thing."
  The older girl bit her lip, but I saw the smirk before she banished it.
  "If that's all then..." Brandish turned to walk to the door along with her husband. As they walked, Flashbang looked back toward the girls. "Amy, Vicky, let's go."
  "Actually," Victoria straightened. "We're going out." At their parents confused looks, the blonde girl nodded over her shoulder. "Amy needs some shopping therapy. To cope with everything." She gave them a broad smile. "Having an evil clone is a lot to cope with, you know? Dean's meeting us at the mall."
  I didn't really think that shopping sounded like something that Amy wanted to do, but I said nothing. After a moment, Brandish came to hug Victoria one last time. Flashbang started to do the same for Amy, but the healer pushed herself out of her chair and moved to the door before he could, mumbling something about going to the restroom.
  "You can leave too, Tether." Miss Militia said to me, once it became clear that Armsmaster and Dragon were deeply involved with their discussion about possible containment procedures. I hesitated, then nodded and started out of the room.
  Looking up and down the hall, I found the labeled restrooms and walked that way. Amy was at the sinks when I stepped into the ladies room. She had filled her hands with water and was washing her face with them, clearly wiping away red eyes. A quick glance was sent my way before the girl turned away and grabbed some paper towels. "Sorry." Her voice was a little hoarse. "I'll get out of your way."
  After biting my lip in indecision for just a second, I pushed away from the door and walked that way. Before Amy could object, I wrapped my arms around her and gave the girl a tight hug that made her squeak in surprise. "Thank you." I told her. "For healing Dinah, and for... for not completely losing it over Pandora."
  She was stiff at first, but after a moment Amy returned the hug just a little bit. I heard the slightest sniffle before she drew back, coughing a little and looking rather flushed. She was staring at my feet, rather than at me, like she was ashamed. I was pretty sure why she felt that way, but there wasn't much I could say directly without making her feel worse.
  When Amy spoke, her voice was a whisper. "I-I am... losing it."
  "Not that much." I assured her. "If I found out I had a clone, I'd still be standing there going buuuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhh?" I made a droning noise, tilting my head sideways like a broken robot.
  Clearly in spite of herself, Amy made the smallest giggle noise that I'd ever heard. It was barely a reaction, but at least it was something.
  Again, I stepped in and hugged her. This time the return hug was quicker, though her voice was tinted by confusion. "What... what's that for?"
  I shrugged. "Who says it has to be for anything? Sometimes you hug someone because you like them."
  "You don't even know me." Amy pointed out, sounding resigned. I had the feeling that pretty much no one knew the real Amy. Victoria was clearly the closest friend she had, and well... even she missed very important things.
  "True." I nodded in agreement. "But I'd like to."
  "Good!" A voice by the door announced. The two of us turned quickly to find Victoria there. "Then you won't mind coming to the mall with us."
  "The... mall?" I asked, blankly.
  "Yup!" Victoria bobbed her head in a nod, passing me to hug Amy. "Way too much drama, time for fun."
  "That is, if you want to come." Crystal, at the doorway, spoke up. "If it's about keeping your identity secret from us still, you could wear a Halloween mask." Her mouth turned up in a tiny, teasing smirk. "I'm sure that won't look too crazy."
  I shook my head. "No, no, I just... don't want to interrupt or... intrude."
  "Well you're invited." Victoria pointed out, her arm still around the rather uncomfortable Amy. "So you're not intruding."
  Hesitating a little, I finally nodded. "Okay... you guys mind if Vista comes? We were supposed to train today."
  "The more the merrier." Victoria announced, squeezing Amy against herself protectively and sending another tortured look through the other girl's face.
  "It's settled then." Crystal said firmly. "Just a fun trip to the mall. No talk about clones or monsters or powers or evil masterminds. Just... fun."
  "Fun." Victoria agreed enthusiastically.
  "Fun." Amy mumbled, mostly gazing at the floor.
  I looked between the three New Wave members, then shrugged and reached up to remove my hood and mask. "Okay then... let's have fun."
  "Seriously, Missy, you have got to wear powder blue more often." Victoria was exclaiming to the youngest Ward as she held an admittedly pretty blouse up in front of the girl. "You've got just the right shade of blonde hair to go with it."
  As adept as she was on the battlefield, Missy looked flatly uncomfortable at the moment. When Victoria turned to grab a slightly smaller size, my thirteen year old drill instructor shot me a squint that promised hours of exercise for getting her into this before shaking her head. "I don't really need anyth-"
  Her protest was cut off by Victoria pushing the smaller blouse, along with a matching skirt into her arms. "Here, go right in there and change. Let's at least see what they look like. Trust me, you're already pretty, and you're going to be gorgeous. And you work hard all the time, so why not indulge just a little bit in being a girl?"
  Missy's mouth opened and shut, and she gave me a brief 'save me' look. All I could do was shrug and lift the bag of clothes in my left hand, demonstrating that I had no power to resist Victoria's enthusiastic shopping insistence either. The younger girl sighed and then turned to go into the dressing room.
  While she was gone, I glanced across the store to the shoe section where Dean and Amy were. Neither were really looking at the selection. Dean was talking, while Amy gazed uninterestedly at a pair of dark red boots.
  "I'm pretty sure he knows how she feels." Crystal's voice spoke softly from over my right shoulder. I turned to see the older girl watching the pair as well. Another glance showed that Victoria had wandered off to the belt section.
  "He... does?" I asked, slowly. I knew that Dean could sense emotions, but hadn't been sure how much it picked up, or the nuances of it.
  Nodding, Crystal sighed softly. "I don't think he's told anyone though. Definitely not Victoria. He's not even talking about that right now. He'd rather let Amy think that he doesn't know. But he's still the kind of guy that wants to make people feel better, even if he can't acknowledge why they're upset in the first place."
  "Does anyone else know?" I asked, with a glance toward Victoria as the other girl picked rapidly through the belt selection, taking some and discarding others with a certainty born from years of practice.
  "Not that I know of." Crystal shook her head. "Dean knows because of his power, I just figured it out today, which made a lot of earlier confusion make more sense, and you..." She glanced to me questioningly.
  "It was news to me today too." I confirmed. Then I hesitated before adding, "I didn't know Amy was adopted." It was the only thing that made sense, of course, knowing Amy's obvious feelings for her 'sister'. Not to mention the clear difference in her appearance compared to everyone else in her family.
  Crystal shrugged at that. "It wasn't really a secret. Just not openly public."
  Yet Amy had powers as well. I wondered how that had come about. Were either of her real parents heroes who had died? I tried to think back to remember if any of the fallen heroes that I knew had powers that could have fit the basic mold of what Panacea could do.
  "Don't say anything, okay?" Crystal sighed a little. "I need to talk to Amy, at some point, but I don't know how to bring it up without making her panic and pull away even more."
  "Someone should definitely talk to her." I agreed. "Even if it is uncomfortable. Because as tightly wound as she is about it... something's gonna snap."
  The other girl nodded slowly, but before she could speak again, the dressing room door opened and Vista came out. She had changed into the powder blue blouse and white skirt, and stood there looking even more uncomfortable than she had before.
  "See?!" Victoria exclaimed with clear excitement and enthusiasm. "You look perfect. We just need matching... hmmm... sandals. Yes, definitely sandals. White ones." Missy started to protest, but before she could, Victoria turned toward her boyfriend and sister. "Dean, Amy! Come here and look at this. I am a genius. Wait, bring those sandals. Those ones, no the ones to your left-yeah, bring those."
  Stooping after taking the shoes from her sister when the pair approached, Victoria exchanged Missy's shoes with them, before straightening. She stood back and gestured proudly. "See? What did I tell you? Doesn't she look gorgeous, Dean?"
  The boy flashed another one of those heart-melting smiles that he was so good at, and nodded. "You look great, Missy."
  I could almost literally hear poor Vista's heart flip over several times as she stammered, "Wh-bu-I-umm... thank you, D-Dean." That was a crush that didn't surprise me in the least. Everyone in the Wards knew how Missy felt about the older boy.
  "Okay, then it's settled." Victoria decided unilaterally. "We'll get these too." She turned, either ignoring or missing Missy's weak attempts to object. "After that, hmmm... where should we go next?"
  "Movie?" I interrupted, noticing the exhausted look on both Amy and Dean's faces. Not to mention the way that Missy flinched at the idea of going into yet another store.
  "Good idea." Crystal gave a nod, jumping to agree with the suggestion. "We could all use the chance to sit down and unwind."
  "What movie?" My younger teammate asked, looking a good bit more interested than she had at the idea of shopping more.
  "Something... funny." Crystal decided, glancing toward me. "Right?"
  "Right." I agreed. Definitely funny. We'd had enough action and horror earlier, and romance was just begging for trouble.
  "All right then." Victoria smiled and shrugged, going with the flow fairly well even though her shopping had been cut short. "Let's pay for Missy's clothes and then see a movie."
  Dean made a snorting noise as he started up to the front. "Let's? Does that mean you're contributing?" It was good natured teasing, I knew. Dean was part of one of the richest families in Brockton Bay.
  Sticking her tongue out at her boyfriend, Victoria sniffed. "I contribute in plenty of ways."
  Seeing Amy blanch, I turned to walk that way and interlinked her arm with mine, to her surprise. "Come on, Amy. While Missy's changing and those two are paying, we can go pick out the movie."
  I glanced toward Crystal, who gave an approving nod. "I'll stay here and help Missy with her clothes."
  "W-well... okay, I guess." Amy shrugged. "We can do that, Te-" She coughed. "I mean, umm, Madison."
  "Call me Mads." I replied, pulling her from the store. "That's what my friends do."
  We ended up watching two movies, a live action comedy and the latest computer animated family film. Both were fun, and by the time we left the theater, it was late. Darkness had settled over the city as we crossed the almost empty parking lot on the way back to Crystal's and Dean's cars. Unfortunately, we'd parked on the far side of the mall from where the theater was, and the mall itself was closed down when we got out of the movies. Which meant we had to hike through several lots to reach the right one.
  That was all right though. I didn't exactly mind the idea of taking a walk with friends. It was relaxing, even with everything that had happened. Amy had finally started to smile partway through the first movie, and she was giggling by the end. That was part of why I'd pushed for the second one, because it had done so much good for the other girl.
  I was also thinking about Mars. I'd very nearly given her a call to see if she wanted to come out to the movies with us. But in the end, I'd decided that Amy should be the focus, and that being around so many heroes might make the former-villain nervous. We were going to have to do something about that, but tonight hadn't been the time for it. I had however, been texting her throughout the day, save for when the movies were rolling. She had no idea how Pandora could have 'made friends' with Dinah, save for the fact that both had been held in the same room within Coil's base before the clone escaped, taking her fellow prisoner with her. Apparently none of the other Noelle-clones had ever made any indication that they were more than bloodthirsty, violent monsters, though the specifics had varied. Some clones had been dead set on destroying everything that their original self cared about, while others had been a sort of unsuppressed, violent version of the original who viciously went after anything or anyone that their first selves had disliked or disagreed with. Pandora had apparently been one of the latter types, yet we weren't seeing much of that kind of influence now.
  Shaking off those thoughts at the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, I turned along with the others to see a pair of what looked like the most stereotypical gang members I had ever seen come rushing up to us. Both wore colors that clearly affiliated them with the Merchants, and their bodies had obviously been ravaged by years of drug use.
  The one in the lead, a dark skinned boy of about seventeen or so, made a little squealing noise. "Eeeeehhhhhyyy! Ey, you're Glory Girl! Glory Girl and ummm, ummm, Wetdream." He giggled a little at his own 'joke', and I had to repress the urge to gag. Neither of the gang members smelled like they had bathed in days, possibly weeks. They were filthy, and had clearly been hiding out somewhere without showers.
  "Laserdream." Crystal corrected smoothly. "Is there a problem?"
  "Yeah, there's a fucking problem!" The teenager blurted. "That crazy psycho-cunt's about to kill us!"
  "Shut the-shut the fuck up, man!" His companion, a slightly older white boy, shook his head. "We don't need no help. We got all the help we need right here." He patted his ratty green jacket, and I shot a look toward Crystal.
  The older girl caught it as well. "Okay, stop. No one's about to kill-"
  She was interrupted by the sound of a swarm of rats that came rushing along the pavement, squeaking and squealing. The rodents piled on top of each other, melting and reshaping themselves into the familiar figure of Pandora.
  The black gang member let out a girly squeal and threw himself behind Glory Girl, openly crying. "Don't-don't let her-don't, pleeeeeease! Arrest me, throw my ass in prison, I don't give a shit, just don't let her touch me!"
  Pandora was watching me, her head tilted with curiosity. "Our truce does not extend to the filth of the violent gangs."
  I swallowed, hesitating before looking toward Crystal. I'd let her take the lead, rather than risk blowing my cover in front of the gang members. Beside me, Dean and Missy were equally helpless to intervene at the moment.
  "We also can't really just walk away and let you kill them." The other girl said slowly, clearly weighing our options. "That's not what we do."
  Making a face as the cowering guy kept clinging to the back of her shirt, Victoria nodded nonetheless. "We won't let you kill them. They surrendered."
  "Surrendered?" The other gang member, the disagreeable one, blurted. "Man we ain't surrendered. Merchants get shit done! You want surrender? Surrender this! " From inside his ratty jacket, the thug yanked out a rather complicated looking pistol-shaped contraption. He pointed it at Pandora and pulled the trigger before any of us could react, sending a wide dark green beam straight at her.
  Crystal's hastily fired laser burned the weapon in half, but the damage had been done. A hole roughly the size of a softball had been burned through the middle of the clone's face and forehead, passing all the way through to the other side.
  "Yeah! Yeah, cunt!" The guy exclaimed, even as the weapon was shot out of his hand and he was thrown roughly to the ground by Glory Girl. "You ain't so tough, huh?! Whattaya think of that, bitch?! Laser gun! Fuck yeah, maybe I ain't the best tinker there is, but I can fuck you up! You ain't..."
  His voice trailed off in mid-sentence as he sat, staring along with the rest of us at Pandora. The clone hadn't fallen from having pretty much half of her head blown away. Before our eyes, the large hole closed up once more, her face restoring itself to what it had been moments earlier. The skin was pink and fresh for a moment before it resumed the same appearance as the rest of her. Finally, she opened her mouth and tilted her head as though to pop her neck.
  "That..." I said slowly, unthinkingly. "That killed you before. That killed your.. your brain..."
  She just gazed back at me coolly. "Vital organs remaining in easily known and repeatable locations was a design flaw. It has been corrected."
  I blinked a couple times at that. It was Missy who got it first. "You... You moved your brain?"
  Pandora regarded her for a moment before giving a single nod. "Moving the most vital organ to a semi-randomized location within each instance of ourselves drastically reduces the chance that a single blow will eliminate that instance."
  "I... you... that..." Dean stammered, shaking his head. "That's... impressive." He looked like he wasn't sure if he was actually impressed, or horrified. I was personally settling on both.
  "It is adaptation." Pandora corrected him. "We learn." Her eyes settled on the two gang members. "And we eliminate."
  "Oh god, oh god, oh god." The frightened thug who had been clinging to Glory Girl until she had moved tried to scramble backwards. "Don't hurt me-don't hurt me-don't-"
  Darkness claimed me, as it claimed each of the others. We fell, and my mind drifted through empty space, toward a massive form whose power dwarfed the stars that surrounded it...
  "Uggnnn..." I groaned who knew how long later, lifting my head and blinking away both the cobwebs, and the remnants of the dream, which fled my consciousness like sand through an hourglass.
  Pandora was up and on her feet, stalking toward the frightened thug, who was standing as well, though backpedaling away from her.
  "Pandora..." I said blearily, while around me, the others were all starting to sit up as well. "Don't..."
  She ignored me, focused as she was on the retreating gang member. "Escape? Intriguing. We would see how this 'escape' works."
  "What are you..." I managed to get out, pushing myself to my feet.
  Still ignoring me, Pandora leaned closer to the terrified thug. "Escape." She told me. "You will escape now."
  Whimpering, the guy took a step backward, then another. Then he turned as though to run. Instantly, he vanished from sight. All I'd done was blink, and he was gone. My mouth fell open. "Oh..." He'd triggered. The terrified boy had actually triggered and gained powers. That was what had knocked all of us, even his tinker friend, out.
  Gazing after the spot where the boy had been, Pandora simply said, "Intriguing. Useful." She glanced toward me, her eyes narrowing a little. "What are the star beings?"
  "Umm... what?" I shook my head. "What are you talking about?"
  "Interesting." She repeated, her voice thoughtful. Then she turned back the way the guy had gone. "We will hunt him. You may have the other. Another truce." She melted into a fog before I could protest, and then she was gone, chasing the poor thug who had vanished.
  "That was... weird. Did that guy just..." Missy said slowly from behind me. I turned to see the younger girl helping Dean to his feet.
  "Trigger?" Victoria finished her thought while helping Amy up. "Yeah, he definitely did."
  I moved to assist Crystal, and then the six of us turned our attention to the thug whose tinker-designed gun had failed to kill Pandora.
  "Uhhh..." The guy sat there, gazing up at us before chuckling nervously. I saw his drug-ruined teeth and smelled the nasty stench that permeated the air around him. "I surrender?"
  Interlude 6 - Coil
  April 13th
  For all the stigma around the concept of using child soldiers, The man known as Coil thought to himself. No one ever stops to think of how tiring it is for the man giving the orders.
  He would compare it to herding cats, but that was an exercise he'd actually attempted once, and it wasn't nearly as difficult as that old saying would have one believe. Cats were relatively simple to deal with once one understood what they wanted. Children were forever changing their minds or debating about every minor detail. Where a cat would simply take the food offered it, certain children would insist on knowing exactly where the food had come from and what sort of strings were attached.
  Or worse, they would plot about how to take the source of the food away from the hand that fed them.
  "All right, well, I brought them here like you asked, boss." Tattletale, one of the latter examples, indicated the two other girls and the boy that she had brought with her.
  Behind his mask, Coil smiled. He knew that the girl objected to his request that the remaining Undersiders, including their newest member, be brought to his lair so that he could discuss things with them in person. She clearly believed that as long as the other members of the team didn't know who their employer was, it kept them safer.
  Or perhaps she believed it lessened her own value. As good as he was at reading people, he'd never fully cemented just where Tattletale's morals and loyalty to her team lay, nor whether her own ambition was stronger than that loyalty. It all seemed to vary by the moment, day by day.
  He did know that, given the chance, she would turn on him in an instant. But her power, and her ability to convince people of what he needed, was too important to throw away. So, for the moment, he had simply resolved to stay several steps ahead of any plan she might concoct. There were various ways that he insured this, ranging from bugging her quarters, to having her followed, to more... direct methods.
  For a moment, he took a moment to simply appreciate the quiet solitude that his other self was experiencing. Rather than deal with the Undersiders problems, the other Coil had gone home early to enjoy a pleasant, simple night of reading and relaxation.
  In this reality, however, he had to focus. Injecting as much warmth into his voice as he could, the man extended a gloved hand toward Heartbreaker's son. "Regent, I presume. A pleasure to finally meet you in person."
  Rather than shake his hand, as any decently mannered person would, the arrogant child simply interlocked his own hands behind his head and rocked backwards. "Nice digs you've got here. Does it come with a moat full of sharks or a lava pit?"
  Ignoring that, as the boy had ignored his hand, Coil focused on the elder of the two girls. "And you would be... I'm told you prefer Bitch."
  Again, this one ignored his offered hand, making him grind his teeth just a little. She rolled her eyes and went back to petting the dog at her feet. "Whatever, just tell us what you want now."
  "Soon, I promise." The man assured the girl. He didn't want the group here any longer than they wanted to be there.
  Turning his attention toward the last, youngest, and newest member of the group, he asked, "And you would be Grue's sister. Have you settled on a name yet?" The girl had only gained her powers two days earlier, on that night that her brother had been captured. The very idea of yet another person she cared about abandoning her (not that Grue's capture had been the boy's choice) had caused the girl to manifest the ability to prevent anyone she touched from leaving at all. At least until they were touched again by anyone.
  "Freezetag." She replied, squinting into the eyes of his mask as though trying to read him. "Now that we're all introduced, how about you tell us how we're saving my brother?"
  Before he could respond to the insolence, a buzzing inside the pocket of his costume alerted him to a phone call. At the same time, his other self was interrupted in his relaxation by the same call. He ignored the call in this reality, letting his other self answer it.
  "I will secure the time and route of Grue's transfer." Coil assured the Undersiders. "But that will not be for a couple of days. In the meantime, there is another job, a timing critical job, that I require."
  "Bullshit." The newly dubbed Freezetag said sharply, shaking her head. "No way no how. We get Grue back or we don't do a damn thing."
  "Tag," Tattletale warned. "Take it easy. The boss is good for his word. He said we'll get Grue back as soon as they transfer him." She turned her attention back to the man himself then. "But I already told you, we don't have the bodies for a big job. You want us to get people's attention, great, but we don't have Grue to cover our escape. And Freezetag barely understands her power. We need time, or more help."
  She was digging, he knew. Trying to find out what resources he had that he could loan them, what capes he could let their team use. That would give her even more information for her power to work with to possibly find a weakness.
  Meanwhile, the other Coil, or Thomas Calvert, as he was at home and out of his costume, picked up the phone and looked at the ID briefly before answering. "Circus. Is it done?"
  Circus was one whom he had originally thought might make a useful addition to the Undersiders, but it turned out she worked far too well alone, and not at all well as part of a team. So he simply paid her whenever he had something important that needed to be done, such as now.
  "Good news and bad news. I gave the racist bitch the vial you got the bomb maker to fix up, along with the instructions about giving it to her ex."
  "And the bad news?" He asked, keeping his voice calm and even.
  "That new solo hero was hiding nearby." Came the reply. "Think they call him Beatbro?"
  "Browbeat." Calvert barely resisted the urge to growl the name. It was important that his people always think that he was perfectly in control. "Do you have him?"
  "Got him just as he was about to take off." Circus affirmed. "You want me to end him?"
  He was about to agree, when another thought occurred to him.
  In the reality where Coil was talking to the Undersiders, he canceled his other self. It would have appeared as though he'd simply paused to think for a moment. Then he reached into his pocket, withdrew the phone that had stopped vibrating, and called the number back.
  Circus answered. "Good timing, I've got good news and bad-"
  "Bring him here." He said simply, cutting the young woman off. "I believe that the situation may still be salvaged, and he could be of use." Without giving her time to respond to that, he cut the call short.
  Honestly, that was a part of his power that he would never tire of. Gaining information from one of his people in one of his realities, then using that information in conversation with that same person in his other reality, leaving them confused as to how he could possibly know what he knew. It helped spread the idea of his infallibility, which was important to his mission and to his image.
  "I believe a possible solution has presented itself." He said to the waiting Undersiders. "An... unfortunate incident has caused a potential snag in one of my longer term plans." Coil hadn't meant to reveal the extent of what he was doing to any of them just yet, but if this new idea was going to pan out, they would need to know just a little more than planned.
  He explained about the solo hero overhearing his other associate and Purity, and that he was now being brought to them.
  "How the hell does that help us?" Bitch demanded. "He's not on our side."
  It was Tattletale who spoke. "You want Regent to use his power on him. His full power."
  That got Regent's attention. "Yeah? Risky. Could end up blowing my cover, get all sorts of bad attention."
  "He's solo, and unknown." Coil assured them. "It will be assumed that he simply changed sides."
  Tattletale was shaking her head. "I'm not sure about enslaving a guy, boss." She was clearly choosing her words carefully, watching his reaction. "It's kind of... extreme."
  "Hey, what?" Freezetag was clearly confused. "Who said anything about enslaving someone?" Beside her, Bitch frowned a bit, but said nothing.
  Standing still for a second, Coil split his timelines again.
  In the first, he let out a breath, and then pulled the pistol from its place at his back. Barely taking the time to aim, he fired a single shot into Regent's forehead before the boy even knew he was in danger. Then he tracked to the right and shot Freezetag between the eyes as she jolted in surprise. Tracking further to the right put a third bullet into Bitch, followed by a fourth to her dog.
  Tattletale was attempting to throw herself out of the way when he fired twice, taking the arrogant girl out at the knees. Her scream of pain was much nicer to hear than her constant arguments.
  "I will do as I please." His voice was cold as he stood over the girl, gazing down at her whimpering form. His two shots had destroyed her knees, leaving the fallen girl in blinding agony. Slowly, he reached down, took hold of her simple domino mask, and tugged it away. "You would do well to remember that, and to cease testing my patience."
  Dropping the mask to the side, he dropped the pistol and produced a switchblade, which he used to draw a thin line of blood down the girl's cheek. "Let us hope that enough of an impression is made that your other self makes better choices in the future."
  In the other timeline, the Undersiders, still living and well, stood and waited for his response. His anger was being abated in a healthy manner (in his opinion), and now the man was ready to be more reasonable and explain himself in this reality. "Allow me to rephrase." Coil kept his voice calm. "I cannot allow this boy to run free. I had thought to simply kill him..." He watched this reality's Tattletale flinch at the suggestion in spite of her attempt at a cool demeanor, while his other self drew forth agonized screams from his version of the girl. It really made coping with the girl's constant attempts at undermining him that much more palatable. Especially when he knew that every time he did it, the girl would get a terrible sense of foreboding and certainty that he would do terrible things to her and her friends, yet he never actually did. At least from her perspective.
  "I would kill him." He continued. "But he may be useful to your team. So long as he remains under Regent's command and is therefore not a threat to me, I would allow him to live. Doing so would also give the Undersiders some much needed muscle, I believe."
  Exchanging glances with the other members of her team, Tattletale finally nodded. "Then, I guess we'll take him."
  "Excellent." This Coil canceled his other timeline, the therapeutic massacre restoring his patience so that he was almost happy. "I'm so glad we could reach an understanding."
  Present Day
  "Your request is denied, Mr. Calvert." The dispassionate voice of Doctor Mother came through the phone that Coil held to his ear. "We wish for the girl to remain alive at this point. As you know, we are not in the habit of throwing away useful parahumans, and her ability to predict imminent danger may well end up being vital, if nurtured properly."
  He resisted the urge to growl, barely. Maintaining the illusion of being unflappable was more difficult with the leader of Cauldron, one of the only people in the world who knew just what his power was, and how it worked. He also owed her for everything, and thus he had no choice but to follow her wishes. "She could complicate matters for me." He tried to explain patiently once again. "I still do not understand how she can sense my split realities, or why. And now the escaped clone is calling her... useful."
  "Yes, the clone." Doctor Mother replied. "At some point, we will of course require an explanation of why we were not informed of your acquisition of this... Noelle."
  Cursing inwardly, Calvert shook his head. "You were going to meet them anyway." He lied to her as easily as he had lied to the Travelers. "It was part of the deal for their assistance in these matters. But that leaves the matter of the Panacea clone, and the Clements girl."
  "Either could be useful to our purposes." The careful woman went quiet after that for a moment before continuing. "Find a way of containing the clone so that we can study her. The abilities she has... well, they could prove to be as vital as any research we've ever done."
  "Useful, and... worth a fair amount, then." Calvert prompted.
  The woman sighed. "Yes, if you secure the clone, you may consider your debt paid."
  It wouldn't be easy, of course, but he would find a way. "And the Clements girl."
  "She must survive." Doctor Mother said again, in a tone that brooked no argument. "That being said, it would not be a bad thing if her power was... nurtured. We would like to know the extent of it, and just how far it, and she, can be pushed. Perhaps, given the proper motivation, she may be able to sense things from further away, or gain more details. Any advancement on that end would be... commendable."
  "I'll see what I can do." He replied, keeping his voice as detached as hers had been as he watched one of his secret weapons through the glass window overlooking the room where she was training. "So long as she survives...?"
  "As long as she survives, you have no dispute with us." The woman confirmed. "Now, I'm quite busy."
  "I'm sure you are." He acknowledged. "I'll let you know when I have something, on either front."
  She disconnected without another word, and Calvert split his timelines.
  In one, he hurled the phone at the wall just to watch it burst into pieces, before screaming. "YOU STUPID, ARROGANT, NASTY BITCH! If I want to kill someone-" He turned, using both arms to furiously sweep the contents of his desk onto the floor before raising his foot to kick the desk over onto its side. "I'll damn well kill them!"
  Taking his knife, Calvert slammed it into the wall once, then twice, and then a third time before dragging the blade through it to make a long, ugly gash. "She can detect my power, you ignorant cunt! That means she could know that I HAVE a power, which ruins every plan I have!"
  Rearing back, he put his foot through the screen of the monitor that he had shoved onto the floor, then drew his foot back again and kicked it across the room as he bellowed, " WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO FIND ONE FUCKING COMPETENT PERSON WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT WHAT I WANT?!"
  "Not to mention!" He continued to vent while taking his pistol from its place on the shelf. He aimed at the sound of footsteps approaching. The first of his men that came running in to see what was happening took a bullet in the right eye. "That stupid fucking clone! It was supposed to keep the Travelers happy, keep them working, but it had to run away! It left, it fucking left, and it-"
  He walked forward, firing six more shots to take down three more of his own men, then turned and hurled the empty gun at the wall while screaming the next words. " TOOK MY PET PSYCHIC WITH IT!"
  "And now!" At that point, he resorted to repeatedly and furiously kicking the fallen bodies of his men. "The fucking clone is running around calling Tether USEFUL, and that fucking BITCH of a doctor won't let me deal with the situation!"
  In the other timeline, his other self had simply stood with his eyes closed, breathing while absorbing the benefit of his outburst with none of the consequences. Finally, his eyes opened and he erased that timeline, before walking calmly out of his office.
  Striding purposefully down to the training room, Coil cleared his throat to get the occupant's attention. Once the girl known as Shadow Stalker gave it to him, reluctantly, he spoke. "It's time to begin."
  Lifting her head curiously, sweating profusely from her training, Sophia asked, "You taking her out already?"
  "No." He shook his head. "No, Tether lives. But it's time to... begin taking away the things that she cares about. It's time to see just how good her danger sense is." He looked at the girl purposefully. "Can you do that? Can you take away the things... the people, that she cares for?"
  Sophia hesitated for just a second, long enough for him to gently brush his finger over the ring that he wore, the ring that held the detonator that would kill her instantly. Then she straightened and snarled. "No problem. No problem at all."
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  Arc 7: Choices
  Moka-girl - Hey, thanks for adding the story to your community! More exposure and more thoughts is always good. Thanks for your comments on each chapter, and yeah, I put up all that was done at once rather than hold chapters that were already finished hostage. Which may have had the unintended effect of dumping in too much for people to read at one time. ;)
  Starfox5 - Glad you like Pandora, as well as Marissa. I don't know if 'like' Coil is the right word, but... I'm glad you appreciate his evilness? As for Danny, he'll show up again at some point, hopefully with a better fate than he seems to have gotten so far. :/
  Anyway, I hope you all keep enjoying it, even though this next Arc is rather... dark. But not excessively so, I hope.
  "So why 'Kid Win' anyway?" I asked Chris while hopping from foot to foot to stay loose, so that I'd be ready to move the instant I needed to. I was in costume, save for my hood and mask, so that I wouldn't get accustomed to moving without the uniform and armor, and then be totally thrown off when I tried to do the same things with it on.
  In the two days that had passed since the night with Pandora and the two Merchants, I hadn't heard anything about the guy who had triggered, but the tinker thug had been taken into custody. Nor had there been any sign of Emma. Her father was completely freaking out, constantly demanding that everyone from Armsmaster down to the parking lot sweeper look for her. I'd been checking my profile on PHO every couple hours, but she hadn't responded to my message yet.
  No one that I knew had seen Pandora thus far, but it seemed as though she was following our deal. Certain gang members and other would-be minor villains that had been trickling into the city in the wake of the collapse of the Empire Eighty-Eight had continued to disappear without a trace. It wasn't enough to completely stem the tide, and there was still plenty of newcomers who either hadn't heard of how dangerous the streets could be for their kind or didn't believe the reports. Either way, we still had plenty to do, even with the whispers going around about the unstoppable creature that was eating any villains who crossed her path.
  It made me wonder about a couple of things. First, about just how bad the streets would have been if Pandora hadn't been out there picking off the stragglers and outliers. Second, just what was going to happen if Pandora did get out of control, if she decided to go back on her word or find some other loop hole. Or worse, what would happen if someone stupidly decided to provoke her.
  The fact remained, I was going to have to find the girl and figure out some way to communicate. She thought I was useful against Coil, which seemed to make me the best suited to actually talking without ending up dead for saying the wrong thing. The trouble was actually finding Pandora.
  On the other side of the training room, Chris fidgeted with the complicated backpack system that he'd been building lately. Two different wide-mouthed barrels were mounted on either side of it, capable of rotating to shoot in almost any direction. "I dunno." He replied. "It sounded cool at the time. I'm probably gonna have to change it if I go into the Protectorate after graduation. Can't be an adult hero called Kid."
  "How old was Billy the Kid?" I wondered. "It could be an homage."
  "Winny the Kid?" Dennis suggested from where he was sitting. He winked at me, just before there was a whoomph noise as a foam ball smacked into the side of his head. The red-haired boy yelped in surprise as he fell sideways and out of his chair.
  "Let anyone else hear that suggestion," Chris warned. "And the next ball won't be foam."
  "Are you sure that one was?" Dennis complained, rubbing the side of his head as he picked himself up off the floor. "Aren't you supposed to be shooting those at Mads, anyway?"
  Chris just smiled at that and shrugged. "Had to make sure the chambers were clear." He looked to me then. "Ready, Maddy?"
  I nodded, while Dennis muttered about how of course I got a warning.
  At my agreement, Chris indicated his left side. "Gonna take it slow at first, with lots of warning. Left barrel, one third speed, on three." He counted down slowly, then activated the barrel.
  With another whoomph noise, a second foam ball shot out of the barrel, arcing up toward my side of the room. As it flew lazily through the air, I extended a hand, focusing on creating a tether-line between my glove and the ball. As soon as it attached, I gave a tug so that the ball altered course and came to my hand.
  "Pretty good." Chris acknowledged as I tossed the ball away. "But that was a test run. I'm going to start alternating. I'll still count down, but I'm not gonna tell you which barrel. After a few more, we'll move up to half speed. Then we'll lose the count down once you get three in a row, and finally, we'll move up to full speed."
  Having resumed his seat, Dennis called, "Don't forget, we've only got a couple hours before the transfer."
  "Right..." I said slowly while Chris was counting down. "The transfer. That'll be fun." Another whoomph announced the launch of a third ball, and I quickly hooked a line between it and Dennis's arm.
  Yelping as the ball bounced off his arm, Dennis still caught it before it could fall, and threw it at me. "Hey, I'm not supposed to be a target."
  I just grinned. Because I'd kept the line between the ball and Dennis, all I had to do after he threw it was give another yank so that the ball came right back at him. His attempt to dodge was futile since the line was attached directly to him.
  That time, he slapped the ball with a hand, freezing it in the air. "Try to hit me with the ball now." A quick series of whoomph sounds came, just as the cocky smirk left his face. Diving to the floor and covering his head as an avalanche of balls careened off of him, Dennis shouted toward Chris. "I wasn't talking to you!"
  The ABB hit Bakuda's transfer van hard. One minute the van had been peacefully passing just below the building where Kid Win and I stood on the roof, and in the next, a pair of small explosions blew out the front tires of the vehicle and sent it skidding sideways.
  Even before the van finished skidding to a halt, at least two dozen ABB troops poured out of both nearby alleys, rushing toward the vehicle.
  For just a second, I stared. "They want her back, bad." I said to Chris while pointing a hand down toward the street and attaching a tether line.
  "Makes sense." Kid Win replied, adjusting his flightpack. He'd spent most of the last few days reassembling the remains of his board into this current backpack shape that would still let him fly. It still wasn't as fast or as maneuverable as the board had been before he'd spontaneously taken it apart for whatever project he'd been doing, but it would work for our purposes. "They already lost Lung to the Bird Cage. Lee doesn't wanna be the only cape they've got."
  The two of us descended to the ground, putting ourselves between the damaged van and the rushing troops.
  "Man," I called out while shaking my head in disappointment. "I know it's hard to hail a cab in this city, but you guys have gone way overboard."
  The reaction of the nearest five men was to point their weapons, but the red line that popped up leading to Kid Win gave me enough warning. Before they could fire, I attached a line between myself and Chris, using it to propel the two of us away from each other while the bullets tore up the pavement where we'd been.
  As my line sent him flying sideways, Kid unhooked the rifle from his pack and leveled it at the group. A single pull of his trigger sent out a concussive blast that blew three of the ABB guys tumbling backwards, and made the other two stumble.
  Before that pair could recover, I used a pair of lines to yank their weapons away, then another line to pull myself to them, where my gauntlet-covered fists put them down just hard enough that they wouldn't want to get up any time soon.
  "I mean seriously, have you considered public transportation?" I continued my previous thought, even as two more men tried to shoot me. I launched myself skyward, up and over their arc of fire. Landing behind the pair, I attached a line between either of their backs and then to a parked bus nearby. "They're really quite convenient." I pointed out as the pair was yanked violently into the side of the bus before dropping.
  Turning toward the next group, I made an exaggerated shrug. "Just seems like this whole 'attack people as awesome and brilliant as the Wards' thing was really shooting yourselves in the foot." Before they fired, I attached their barrels to either of their feet. At the resulting howls of agony as the gunshots blew through their shoes, I added, "See what I did there?"
  Somehow I didn't think they appreciated my jokes.
  "Little help, Tether!" Kid was having trouble. He'd dealt with at least half of the thugs that had been there, but even more were taking their places. I caught three running guys, attached the lines to each of them, and then yanked them together so that they all collapsed into a pile of flailing limbs and curses.
  It wasn't enough. For every couple that one of the two of us managed to deal with, three more kept coming. It got to the point where I was forced to focus almost entirely on avoiding gunfire and keeping an eye on Kid in case they tried to swarm him.
  Apparently saying that the ABB wanted Bakuda back was a severe understatement. They were throwing everything they had at the transport.
  All except for..
  "Lee!" Kid Win called out the warning, and I jerked my gaze that way to find Oni Lee. The third and final member of the ABB's trio of cape leadership, Oni's power was essentially a mixture of teleportation and extremely brief duplication. He could teleport and leave a copy of himself behind. It would last for several seconds before it dissolving into a cloud of ash. He tended to use it in nasty ways, by making the equivalent of repeatable suicide bombers. He was not a nice guy. And now he had brought himself into the battle. I caught sight of him briefly, standing at the edge of the street with his distinctive black bodysuit and ornate Japanese demon mask before that body fell apart into the white ash. He'd already teleported.
  Seeing the black line attached to Kid, I instantly put a line against his back and yanked him out of the way. A second later, Oni Lee appeared right behind where he had been. The grenade that the Lee had been holding exploded a second later, but thankfully it only took out Lee. Or rather, the clone he'd obviously left behind just before teleporting again. I wasn't stupid enough to think he'd actually blow himself up on accident.
  I put Kid down near me, turning in a slow circle while keeping an eye on the van. The remaining ABB troops were still surrounding us, but the appearance of Oni Lee made them shy about approaching. They clearly didn't trust their leader not to blow them up in an attempt to get either of us.
  Another line popped up on Chris. I launched both of us skyward before Lee could follow through on his attack, leaving the resulting grenade explosion to blow apart the pavement where we'd been standing.
  "He's going for the van!" Kid Win called to me. He oriented his flight pack that way, and I put a line down to pull myself in the same direction.
  It was too late. Lee had already blown the doors off of the van, and he was stepping up into the back of the van. I landed just a bit ahead of Chris and took three steps to reach the ruined vehicle doors before hauling myself up. "Wait!" I called out.
  Gazing over his shoulder at me as he unhooked the restraints on Bakuda's prison bed. Though his demon mask covered his face, I could sense his smirk. He'd won. He'd freed Bakuda, and now all he had to do was teleport away with her.
  He stooped slightly to gather the limp figure up into his arms. Then he froze, entirely.
  From the pile of blankets that had been on the cot, the figure that Oni Lee had been 'rescuing' sat up. "Myyyy hero." Clockblocker announced in a high, falsetto voice before sighing dreamily. He patted Lee's frozen cheek.
  "Damn it!" Kid Win reached us just then. "Did I miss it? Did I miss the look on his face when he realized we tricked him and Bakuda wasn't even here?"
  "He was frozen before he could realize it." I pointed out. "You can see the look on his face when he comes out of it."
  "Good point." He replied.
  Leaving Dennis to keep Oni frozen, the two of us turned to gaze back at the remaining group of ABB soldiers, who didn't look like they had any idea of what to do.
  "So here's the deal!" I called out. "We totally just punk'd your boss. So you could keep fighting us now..."
  "Or you could surrender." A voice that was not my own finished. The small army of thugs turned to find Aegis, Vista, and Gallant waiting on the far side of them, trapping the group between us.
  "Personally," Aegis announced, hovering a foot off the ground. "I'm kind of hoping you choose to fight. Standing on the sidelines waiting for Lee to think the coast was clear was boring as hell. I could use the exercise."
  The ABB troops all stared at one another. Then, one by one, they dropped their weapons and fell to their knees. The last of their super-powered bosses had been captured.
  They were done.
  "And here it is." At Chris's announcement, a photograph landed in the middle of the table in the Wards HQ, narrowly missing one of several pizzas that were scattered along the wooden surface. "The picture of Oni Lee's face when he found out we tricked him and that he was locked securely in PRT custody."
  "How'd they transport him?" I asked while snagging a third piece of the double pepperoni. "I mean, they couldn't move him as long as Clockblocker's power was working, right?"
  It was Dennis who answered that. "Easy. They just covered his head with a bag and had a doctor wait. As soon as the time stop wore off, he got injected with 'go to sleep juice'. By the time he woke up, they already had him disarmed and in a security cell."
  Chris picked up the explanation then. "They've got all kinds of precautions for teleporters there. Since Lee can only teleport line of sight, they're keeping him in a cell with no sight lines anywhere but the inside of the cell. There's a separate vestibule just outside the cell that they keep dark. Anyone that wants to get in the cell goes in the first door, shuts it, then opens the second door to get in the cell itself. They've also got shock cuffs on his wrists in case he tries anything."
  "So we won." Missy took a long sip from her own drink. "We totally took the last of the ABB down." She was smiling with satisfaction at a job well done. I couldn't help but think about myself at thirteen. My priorities back then had been far from 'beat up a gang of criminals and put them in prison'. I didn't even used to like watching movies like that. Yet Vista had been doing this stuff since a month before she turned eleven.
  That kid was something else. Not that I'd call her a kid to her face. She'd hurt me.
  I used the crust of my latest slice of pizza to poke Dennis then. "You've still gotta help me practice with that game. When's that happening?"
  Snatching the crust from me, the red-headed boy took a bite from it. "First night that we both have off? I've got patrol in a few hours. What about tomorrow?"
  I started to shake my head. "Nah, tomorrow night's my turn."
  From the other end of the table, Dean waved a hand. "I'll cover tomorrow if you'll get my patrol the next night. Vicky wanted to go out."
  "Great!" I chirped and caught the remainder of my crust out of Dennis's hand, popping it into my mouth. "It's a deal." I glanced toward him for confirmation.
  Dennis nodded, taking a long gulp from his soda. "Works for me. How come you're so interested in learning how to play that game now anyway?"
  I hesitated, then shrugged. "Sundancer's into it. I figured if I learned enough to at least not completely suck, we could play together."
  Carlos, sitting with the chair backwards, raised an eyebrow. "And that would be your contact from the Travelers? The one who won't come in and talk to anyone but you?"
  "It's complicated." I muttered, not really wanting to get too much into it. "She wants to change, but there's a lot of other issues. Not to mention that Coil, whoever he is-" I stated that part firmly, intent that the supervillain was not Mr. Hebert. "- has way too many contacts in the PRT. If she comes forward, he's going to find out about it."
  Setting her glass down to take another slice for herself, Missy shook her head. "What else can she do? Just hide forever?"
  "We figure out who Coil is and expose him." I said, trying to express more confidence than I felt in that moment. "As soon as it's safe, I'll work on convincing Sundancer that it's safe to come in." I hesitated, then looked up at the rest of my team. "Thanks, guys. For... trusting me. For trusting her, and not pushing things too much."
  "You're one of us." Chris pointed out, his smile infectious. "We look out for each other."
  "Too bad Sophia never figured that out." Dean said quietly, shaking his head.
  Tossing her unfinished slice down, Missy sighed. "Where is she, anyway?"
  "Yeah," Carlos glanced my way. "I don't suppose Sundancer has any other thoughts on Coil's plan for Stalker?"
  I shook my head and sighed. "The Travelers weren't part of that plan. Stupid Coil keeping stupid plans stupid secret."
  "Stupid secret?" Dennis raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure that's the right way to say that."
  I answered that by sticking my tongue out at him, while stealing one of his breadsticks to take a bite. "Point is, as soon we find Coil, we can bring Sundancer in." At least, I hoped we could. I'd have to explain some of the... other stuff at the time. But first things first.
  "Sounds good." Carlos drummed his fingers along the table thoughtfully. "All we have to do is figure out who he is."
  "Well sure." Dennis spread his arms wide. "But what are we gonna do with the rest of the afternoon?"
  A couple of hours later, a popcorn kernel arced through the air and fell into my open mouth. Smiling in satisfaction, I chewed and swallowed. "Yum, salt plus butter equals delicious."
  "Sounds like someone's ready to start getting math homework again." Marissa teased. We were on her couch. She was sitting, while I laid with the back of my head on her leg. It was... comfortable.
  Still, I made a face at her. "Did you have to remind me? Pretty soon I'm going to have to figure out how to balance school and work again." I tossed another bit of popcorn from the bowl on the floor up, catching it with my mouth.
  I'd come over to the small apartment that she had managed to get, so that the two of us could watch a movie. It was one of the films that had been imported from the Earth that she was from. So far, we hadn't actually started it, since I'd been catching the other girl up on what had happened earlier with Oni Lee.
  "Okay that's impossible." Mars complained after I had caught the popcorn kernel again. "You are so using your powers. That time you weren't even looking when you threw it."
  I made a sound as if I was offended. "What, you doubt my talent? I do have other skills besides my powers, you know." I sniffed, turning it into a pout.
  "Awwww." Mars groaned. "That isn't fair. No puppy sulk." She moved a pillow to cover my face, which clearly broke my pout's hold over her.
  I said something muffledly into the pillow, until she moved it up just far enough that I could talk, still using it as a fluffy shield. "I said, besides, I can't attach a line to my skin or mouth or anything, remember? How could I get it to come to me?"
  Lowering the pillow to squint at me thoughtfully, Marissa spoke slowly. "That's... a good point, I guess. So how did you get to be so good at it, anyway?"
  I grinned impishly while admitting, "Attaching a line from the popcorn to the side of your pants that my head is resting against. Don't have to see what I'm attaching things to when I can feel them." To demonstrate, I threw a piece of popcorn off toward the television and then opened my mouth to catch it as it came flying back. "Yum."
  She groaned out loud and hit me lightly with the pillow. "Cheater."
  "You know it." I shot back, grabbing the pillow to pull away from her and hugged it to my chest.
  "Speaking of how you can't affect living things," She began. "What was that law called? You know, the umm... Manson Effect."
  "Manton Effect." I replied. Granted, I only knew off the top of my head because of the study work I'd put into the Wards and the Protectorate. "It's named after some scientist or something that figured out the rule. Or at least the guy who put a name to it."
  "That's the one that says that powers that affect living things don't affect nonliving things, and vice versa." She said slowly, thoughtfully.
  "Usually." I confirmed. "It usually works that way. That's why my lines won't connect to people. And why they wouldn't connect to anything Pandora had on, because she wasn't actually wearing them. The 'clothes' were just... part of her." I made a face at the thought, briefly. There was something a little gross and creepy about the whole thing. Not that 'Pandora' and 'creepy' was some new combination.
  Shaking off that thought, I shrugged my shoulders. "Of course, some capes have figured out ways to bypass it somehow. Like Narwhal."
  "She's the one with the forcefields?" Marissa confirmed. When I raised an eyebrow at her lack of certainty, she nudged me with her leg. "Gimme a break, I've been a little preoccupied since the Simurgh threw me out here with the others." She went quiet then, swallowing. "A little busy trying to help Noelle."
  Reaching back and up, I caught hold of the other girl's hand and squeezed it. "We'll help her, Mars. I haven't forgotten. We'll find a way to get Noelle back to normal. I mean, as soon as Clockblocker shows me which buttons for that game you like so much won't make my characters immediately commit seppuku, you'll need all the help you can get to keep up with me."
  After remaining limp for a moment in my grasp, Mars returned the squeeze. "I know." She said quietly before managing a smile. "And when Noelle's back to normal, she'll kick both our asses at that game, no matter how many tips you get from Clockboy." The levity lasted for only a second before she sighed. "I'm just not sure how we're actually going to fix her."
  I sat up and put myself next to her on the couch, putting my free arm around the other girl. "The Protectorate has all kinds of scientists, Mars. They've even got bio-tinkers. There's gotta be something. If nothing else, we'll figure out more about the stuff you guys took. If someone made those powers, then they can unmake them." I squeezed her a little. "What do you remember about them?"
  Marissa didn't even have to think about it. She recited, clearly from memory. "Six canisters. The note inside congratulated whoever it was on their 'newly purchased superpowers'"
  "Purchased superpowers..." I said slowly, shaking my head in wonder. "I still don't get how that's even possible."
  "We're living proof." The other girl pointed out. "There were more papers, I really wish I'd read all of them. Krouse did, and so did Jess. There was something about the impact that one of the canisters could have on the client's cerebral palsy. Each of the canisters was labeled with a bunch of letters and numbers, and a few code words along with the percentage of the mixture they made up. Mine, the one I took, had three of them. Fifty-five percent of something called 'Prince', thirty percent of something called 'Aegis', and fifteen percent of something called 'Balance'. Balance was on all of them though, so whatever it is, I think it has to do with not letting the powers get out of control or something."
  I hesitated. "So they all had balance in the mixture, and Noelle only took half?"
  Swallowing, Marissa nodded. "Trust me, I thought of that. Too fucking late, but I thought of it." Eyes closing, she growled. "If only Krouse had just given her the whole canister, maybe this wouldn't be happening to her!" After a moment, she lowered her head. "Or none of it."
  "She might have died without what he gave her." I pointed out as gently as I could.
  "At least she wouldn't be what she is now!" Marissa's eyes opened once more to stare at me. "This... this thing that she's turning into, we kind of think it might be some sort of Proto-Endbringer. That's how dangerous she might be, Mads. That's how... how bad it might get. And if we have to fight her, if we have to stop her... I'm not sure I... I'm not sure I can even..."
  She choked a little, and I embraced her tightly, pulling the other girl against me. "Hey, hey. That's enough for now. This is supposed to be a fun afternoon. Fun, remember? The ABB's down for the count, Pandora hasn't destroyed the city yet, and there's no more fighting to do right now. We'll figure out the rest, one day at a time."
  After a moment, Marissa returned the hug tightly and murmured. "Thank you, Maddy." She rested her head against my shoulder briefly, breathing in and out. "For the record, you give really good hugs."
  Smiling in spite of myself, I shrugged one shoulder and replied quietly. "I've heard something to that effect."
  We sat there like that for another few seconds, before she straightened with obvious reluctance. "Well, if I'm gonna stop dwelling, we should probably start the movie."
  "Right." I attached a line from the remote on the nearby table to the couch, then caught it as the thing flew. "Let's watch the movie. Fun time."
  I never had the chance to hit play. In the next moment, an obnoxious, loud whining alarm blaring from somewhere outside. It sounded like an air raid siren.
  The color fled from my face, and I dropped the remote. The television was already showing images directing people on how to evacuate or find the shelter nearest to where they were.
  "Endbringer." I said over the noise of the siren, my voice hollow. "An Endbringer here. Leviathan, it has to be."
  "You're going, aren't you?" Marissa said, her own voice shaken. She had taken my hand and wasn't letting go. "You're not going to a shelter, you're going to help."
  "I have to." I told her, even as the fear swelled up inside. "I can see when people are about to die. Maybe I can... help make a difference." I pushed myself up. "I have to be there."
  "Wait." She kept hold of my hand, rising with me. "Let me change. I'll... I'll go with you."
  "You don't have to do that, Mars." I told her quickly. "You can go to a shelter. You'd be safe there. Safer anyway."
  She just stared at me for a long moment, and I knew how much she wanted to agree, how much she wanted to abandon the desperate, possibly fatal fight to others and go hide in a shelter. I knew because I felt the same way. It was a fear that made it hard to stand, a terror that made my knees shake, that brought tears to my eyes at the very thought of it. I wanted to run away.
  Still, I wasn't going to. And as I watched Mars, I knew she wasn't going to either.
  "I do have to." She said, both resigned and determined. "After everything bad I did, if I don't help now... then there was no point to changing in the first place."
  I swallowed at how close that hit to my own feelings. Though I tried to make my voice light, the severity of the situation hammered into both of us with each repetition of the blaring siren.
  "All right. Well... let's go beat up an Endbringer."
  "You're not coming to the shelter, are you?" My dad's voice through the phone that I held to my ear was as certain as it was worried. "They're saying we have enough warning this time to actually make it to safety before Leviathan gets here." Those words carried a faint sound of hope.
  "I can't, Dad." I said slowly, flinching when I thought of what that answer had to be doing to him, and to my mother. "They need me here. I can help. My lines direct me to people that are in trouble. I can't just walk away from that. Even if I wanted to, I'd just be sitting in that shelter, watching my death lines pop up and then disappear the entire time. I... I couldn't live like that, Dad."
  A regretful, but understanding sigh escaped him, and we were both quiet for a few moments. While I waited, I glanced around the briefing room that everyone was gathering in. And by everyone, I meant everyone . Not only was the entire local Protectorate team, our Wards group, and all of New Wave present, but there were also members from at least two other Ward Teams, and the entire Boston Protectorate including the up and coming Dauntless, whose ability to infuse items with a bit of power, gradually gaining in strength every day with no known ceiling to his power. There were also a few other scattered heroes from across the state who had made it in time, and each of the Triumvirate had showed up with members from their own teams. Only the seriousness of the situation had kept me from utterly geeking out at seeing Legend again, not to mention Eidolon and Alexandria.
  Beyond the more than sixty heroes who were standing around the room, there were also a few rogues, like Parian, whose ability let her animate stuffed animals or... something, as well as Defiant, in his impressive white and gold power armor.
  "Be careful." Dad's voice came through, like it was the hardest thing he'd ever said. "Please. Please, be careful. I love you. We love you. Come..." He choked a little bit, and I flinched at the thought that I was making my father feel this afraid. "Come back."
  In spite of my desire to promise that I would, I couldn't. All I could offer my father was that I would try, that I would be as careful as I could be. He and my mother were with Trevor in a shelter, telling my brother that I was in one of the other shelters. I had no idea how they were avoiding letting him know just how worried they were.
  Finally, after telling both of my parents that I loved them, I also got the cursory six word conversation with Trevor where he mumbled that he loved me, more embarrassed that the idea of actually saying that out loud than he was worried about me. Not that I could blame him that much. As far as he knew, I was safe in one of the other shelters.
  For a moment, just a moment, I thought about telling him the truth. But I shook my head and put the desire down to spur of the moment weakness, before having one last conversation with my dad. Then I hung up, sighed, and turned my attention to the others in the room, the villains. The few remaining members of what had been the Empire were there, having crawled out from whatever hole they'd been hiding in. I also saw about a group of about twenty obvious villains that I didn't recognize, all bunched together into a corner. Going by how varied their outfits and appearances were, I didn't think they were actually a team. It looked more like a half dozen groups of two or three that had all migrated together out of shared distrust. Obviously, these were even more groups who had heard of the collapse of the Empire and the imminent (and now finished) demise of the ABB and thought they could jump in to fill the void. I'd lost track of how many of the would-be warlord replacements we'd either chased off or put into prison in recent weeks. Eventually, they started to blend together.
  In another part of the room, the Undersiders stood. They were all present, the ones who were still free. Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Freezetag, and Browbeat were there. Plus, they had apparently been joined by a sixth member to make up for the loss of Hellhound, a male in a skintight costume that was pitch black, with a gold design that looked like random swirly lines coming up into a spiral at his chest. He also wore a helmet with a visor that left the lower part of his face exposed, revealing dark skin.
  Then there was the Travelers. The three that were left that came out in public, anyway. Trickster looked as normal as he ever did, with his circus ringmaster-like outfit. Ballistic was... standing. He was still missing one of his arms, and kept gazing at Panacea over next to Glory Girl as though trying to will her to come over and fix him without actually speaking up. Genesis, finally, had manifested some kind of very tall, winged and streamlined looking creature with six arms. It stood nine feet in height, with a massive pair of wings that were currently wrapped around her like a cloak.
  At the sight of the trio, I glanced toward Marissa to my right. She was standing right beside me, wearing her Sundancer outfit and staring at her former team. I whispered, "Are you all right?"
  She hesitated, but nodded. "I'll be okay. I should... go talk to them."
  "Don't let them bully you into coming back." I said softly, wanting to take her hand but restraining the urge. "It's still your choice."
  "I know." She nodded and glanced to me. "I'll be fine. Go see your team. I'll... catch up with you later."
  Marissa walked over to talk to her old friends, and I turned to join the other Wards. Someone was in my way though, and I blinked at the sight of Tattletale in her black and violet costume. "Uh, can I help you?"
  The blonde villain's response was a casual, "I just thought I'd say hello."
  I rolled my eyes. "Come off it. I know you work for Coil, and I also know that Coil isn't Daniel Hebert. If you're fishing for information, don't bother using... whatever your power is." That much was confusing to everyone in the Wards. We knew it had something to do with information collection, and that she pretended that it was telepathy. But that couldn't be right. No one had actual telepathy. "I'll just tell you what my plan is. I'm going to expose who your boss really is."
  Tattletale just gave me a knowing, vulpine smile. "Actually, that's more of a goal than a plan. But that's not what I'm here for anyway. Truce, remember? I just thought I'd give you a little advice about your power."
  I blinked at that, taken aback. "Huh?"
  "Advice about your power." She repeated. "I've been paying attention to the footage the news has of you Wards, and I have a little tip."
  "You have a tip... for me... about my power." I said slowly, disbelieving.
  The smile never left the other girl's face as she nodded. "Again, truce. It's in my best interest that you know how to use your power to the best of its effect. So when you're running around, using those lines of yours to yank people to safety, don't worry about taking it easy on them."
  My head shook in confusion. "What's that supposed to mean?"
  "I mean, you must know by now that you've got some kind of minor breaker power that protects you from a certain level of damage you should take from being flung around by your own lines. Otherwise you'd have whiplash, dislocated limbs, and who knows what else."
  Nodding at that, I frowned. "I know that. So?"
  "So," Tattletale gestured with one hand. "It's not just you. Your tether lines extend that breaker effect a short distance around anything you attach them to that holds them together. That's why you can yank a car instead of just pulling off, say, the door the line's attached to. Which means that if you attach the line to someone's clothes, the breaker effect should go around them. So, don't worry about giving someone whiplash by yanking them as fast as you yank yourself."
  "My tethers... provide breaker effects to the things they touch?" I echoed, trying to come to terms with what that could mean.
  "In a short distance around whatever they're touching, yes." Tattletale nodded. "Impacts are still gonna hurt, so slow them down before you drop them, but you can treat the people you haul out of danger pretty much the same way you treat yourself when you toss them around."
  I hesitated to trust what she was saying. But she was right about the truce. If she had really been lying to me, and I ended up hurting someone by following her advice, it would be a massive violation of the hero-villain truce that existed whenever an Endbringer was involved. I didn't think she'd take the risk of having everyone turn on her or the Undersiders just to give me that kind of fake advice.
  Finally, I nodded. "Okay, well, thanks. I don't suppose you'll explain how you know that?"
  Her answer was just to smile at me mysteriously. "No, but you can trust that everything I said to you is as true as everything you said to me."
  With that odd choice of phrasing, she walked away back to her own team. The girl was already gone by the time it registered. I'd said that Mr. Hebert wasn't Coil. Her promise, that everything she said was as true as what I said... was she actually acknowledging that I was right?
  Before I could wonder too much, Aegis found me. "Tether, come on. We've got some other Wards to work with." He led me to the much larger group, which included a rather large boy with metal skin. I had to double take at the sight of what looked like half of a fork partially melted into his neck, and part of a chain link fence partially absorbed against his shoulder.
  "Tether, this is Weld." Aegis introduced us. "Weld, Tether."
  "You're the one that talks all the time." Weld greeted me, extending a hand. "Right?"
  Glad that my mask hid my blush at the recognition, I shook his hand. "I don't talk that much."
  "She's lying." Clockblocker stepped up behind me, both hands on my shoulders. "She's shy during downtime like this, but when we're in a fight, she never shuts up. It's not enough to just beat the bad guys, she has to mock them the whole time too."
  Before I could find a hole to hide inside of, the sound of someone clearing his throat came through the room. While that would normally easily be ignored, in this case the someone was Legend, and no one ignored Legend.
  Everyone quieted down, turning toward the brown haired man in his blue costume with the electric-flame design in white that was molded to his rather impressive form. He was... fit. Very, very fit. Legend was the epitome of hero, not only in how powerful he was, but in how he looked and acted. Everyone who wanted to be a hero aspired to be Legend. The man looked like a living action hero. Especially now, when he was flanked by the armor-wearing Alexandria, and Eidolon in his green cloak. The three of them together, the Triumverate, were the most powerful group of heroes in the world.
  "Thank you." He started. "Thank all of you for coming. No matter our differences, those of us who put them aside for these moments... well, there may be some of you whose choice of actions I will never agree with, but the fact that you're here now, that means something."
  "The whole reason we've had time to gather here and make sure that everyone is ready is because of your local Protectorate leader, Armsmaster, and Dragon." He nodded toward our Protectorate leader, while I'd seen the latter outside in one of her much larger suits. "The two of them have been working together and have managed to give us this early alert. If this works out, it may be a turning point against the Endbringers. This is an important one, people. This is one where we find out if an early alert can make a difference."
  "With that said, I'm not going to lie to you. Even on a good day, which I hope and pray this is, one-fourth of any defending force will die during an Endbringer attack." The man's voice was solemn, his gaze taking in everyone in the room, leaving no one out. "Looking around this room, on average, one in four of every person here will be dead when the battle is over."
  Once that had settled in, the man continued. "If you think I'm saying that to scare you... you're right. This is not a joke. This is one of the most serious and dangerous situations most you may ever face. There's a reason we call them Endbringers, and you deserve to know that this is not a game. Do not underestimate Leviathan just because we had a few extra minutes of warning. Do not let your guard down, ever."
  "With that said, let's go over what we know. First of all, a few of our Wards are handing out the armbands that Dragon has designed." At his words, I felt a nudge at my side, and turned to see a girl a little older than me, wearing another skintight costume and a visor that left only her mouth and chin exposed. She had a crossbow over one shoulder, and was holding one of the aforementioned bands out to me.
  When I took the band, the display on it requested my name. After a momentary hesitation, I brought it closer and said, "Tether."
  It was Armsmaster, standing nearby, who explained more. "These bands are meant to adjust over your arm and tighten against your wrist. There is a screen at the top of the band that will note your position on the grid we use, along with the last known location of Leviathan. Use it to either keep your distance or close, depending on your role and abilities. There's also two buttons. The first button, on the left, is used to send messages. Note that your message will not be sent immediately, but will be sorted by a screening program and sent in due time to cut back on distracting chatter. The delay is between three and five seconds. If it's absolutely crucial that you bypass the delay, hold the button down and say 'hard override' before sending the message. But remember, abusing that feature will result in you losing the ability to send any messages at all, so keep the boy who cried wolf in mind."
  "Meanwhile, the button on the right is used to send an emergency alert that you need immediate assistance. Press it to alert the nearest extraction or defensive cape to your location and emergency. If it's not an actual emergency, but you need something else such as a better vantage point, or you see an opportunity we can exploit, press both buttons and tell the band what you want. The sorting program will prioritize based on need."
  "Finally, the band will also keep track of all casualties, and fatalities. It keeps track of your location, so that you can be retrieved... if possible."
  By that time, the bands had all been handed out, and Legend took over speaking once more while everyone was getting them on. He explained about Leviathan's known tactics, his 'afterimage' of water that followed behind every motion he made, the monster's speed turning what would be a simple wave into something with the force of concrete.
  This monster was a powerful hydrokinetic. While he was dangerous in and of himself, with his size, his speed, and flat refusal to let much actually hurt him, the biggest danger he posed was with the incredible, devastating waves that he could summon. He could, and had, destroy entire cities with them. Or worse. The Canadian Island of Newfoundland was gone, thanks to Leviathan.
  Since that obviously wasn't bad enough, the city of Brockton Bay had been built over an underground lake. The beast would clearly be attempting to use that to his advantage, weakening the very ground beneath us. If we let the fight go on too long, we could lose the city itself as it fell into the lake, even if we ended up driving the Endbringer away.
  Once he was finished talking, Legend took a moment to gaze around at everyone once again. "Thank you. Thank you for being here, for putting everything aside. Now is the time to stand together, to put aside everything else, and to... focus."
  We left the building, and started to divide into groups in the parking lot that overlooked the bay. The rain had been coming down in torrents for an hour now, and we could see an even darker stormcloud approaching fast. Leviathan. He'd be here soon.
  I made my way to the designated area for movers who could perform search and rescue. It was the best place for me, considering that my warning-lines were going to be tugging me toward people who were in trouble anyway. As I was moving, I felt a hand grab my arm. Turning, I found Clockblocker. "Hey." He said, his voice a little tense. "You're a good friend, Tether. Be careful, okay?"
  I swallowed, trying not to show all the fear that I felt. "I will be. You... be careful too."
  He nodded, and then I was moving again. I found myself face to face with the red mask of Trickster, and instinctively scowled. "Just so you know," I told him. "If you try anything to get Sundancer back, I'm going to take it as a violation of the truce."
  "Is that up to you to decide?" He asked, sounding far too casual.
  "Just leave her alone." I muttered, stepping past him to join the rest of the rescue-capes. There were teleporters, fliers, and healers.
  Panacea was there as well, and I moved to stand next to her. She glanced my way, and smiled a little. "Hey."
  "Hey yourself." I replied, pausing before I added, "Come here often?"
  Her mouth opened, then shut before she replied rather wryly. "More often than you'd think."
  "Tether, Panacea, good." Armsmaster stepped our way, looking harried. "Tether, you're going to focus on going wherever your danger lines direct you to. Find people in danger, and bring them to Panacea if they need it, so she can get them back into the fight. If you can't reach them in time, send in someone else, a flier or a teleporter. You have direct line of communication to all of our movers that fit that category. Use them well."
  Swallowing at that extra bit of responsibility, I managed a weak nod. "Y-yes, sir."
  He was already gone, moving on to the next group. I glanced toward my group, and recognized the new guy from the Undersiders. "Who are you? What can you do?"
  I recognized his voice. It was the Merchant from the other night, the one who had been running from Pandora. "I ahhh, call me Vacate. My... umm... my power..." He swallowed. "I make... sorta like tunnels in the air, you dig?"
  I shook my head. "No, sorry, I don't 'dig'. What do you mean?"
  He sighed at the idea of trying to explain. "I pick a location I can see, right? Then this sorta... tunnel appears around me, from where I am to that spot. Everything outside the tunnel's all black and white and shit, and even the shit inside the tunnel's frozen unless I'm touching it when I use the power. Then I just sorta... walk to the other end of the tunnel. If I step outta the tunnel before I reach the other side, it breaks down."
  Blinking, I tilted my head. "So... sort of like a directed time-stop. It stops time outside of the little... tunnel so you can walk that far."
  "Thassright." He drawled. "Only way I kept ahead of that crazy psycho-cunt."
  Apparently he didn't... care that I shouldn't know who he was talking about? Wait, did he? Shaking that off, I focused. "Could you stay with me? We can get people to safety a lot easier with your help."
  The guy, Vacate, apparently, shrugged. "I guess. Figured out when psycho-cunt was about to kill me that I never did much with my life before, might as well help now."
  "Talk to Panacea." I nodded toward the girl. "Work out where she wants to set up that you can bring people to."
  That done, I turned toward the cloud. It was almost on top of us. Closing my eyes, I took the time to whisper a prayer anyone or anything that would listen. Please let me make a difference. Please let me save everyone that I could possibly save.
  Please let me do this right.
  In the next moment, a handful of black lines appeared. Eyes widening, I spun toward the nearest, seeing the line connected to the out-of-town Ward with the crossbow. I attached a line to the girl and yanked her toward me just as someone let out a cry. My eyes went up to see a wave tall as a building, blocking out the sky, crashing down toward us. A squeal escaped me as I stumbled backward, catching hold of hold of the crossbow girl just before a blue forcefield shimmered into place around both of us and the rest of our little group. The wave slammed into it, the impact staggering even through the glowing field.
  There were more screams across the lot and down the road from the groups that had been gathered, but who weren't quite as lucky with their defense, and I heard the dispassionate female voice start to speak from my armband. Most of the black lines vanished, but more were taking their places.
  " Krieg deceased, CD-5, Iron Falcon deceased, CD-5, Grue incapacitated, CD-5, Glory Girl, incapacitated, CD-5. Resolute, deceased, CD-5. Parian, deceased, CD-5."
  The voice, with its horrifying announcements, was drowned out by the deafening crash of the gigantic, lizard-like figure hurling himself out of the water to land on the pavement, shattering the cement all around us.
  Leviathan... was here.
  No. No no no no! As the fatality and injury reports rolled in, I felt my face go ashen behind my mask. The battle had barely started, and there were already people dead! Parian wasn't even a fighter. She was just some girl that made big stuffed animals for store grand openings and stuff. It wasn't fair.
  It wasn't fair!
  Red danger lines exploded out from me, stretching into every possible direction, while the thirty foot tall mass murdering creature spun, clearly hunting for his nearest target just before a dark blue laser as wide around as a minivan shot across the monster's brow, making him twitch backwards. A half second later, Alexandria flew down out of the sky, already aimed for the exact spot that Leviathan had flinched back to, and slammed into his face with a blow that sent out a thunderous shockwave that nearly deafened me, but seemed to matter little to the beast.
  The red lines were darkening by the second, but two in particular seemed to darken faster, seemed to tug at me harder, than the others. I followed the lines with my eyes, seeing the figures of Tattletale and one of the Boston Wards up on one of the buildings. Instantly, I launched myself that way with a pair of tether-lines. Just as I passed over the two, I caught hold of the backs of their uniforms and hauled them backwards with my own momentum. The pair was dragged along to the opposite side of the roof a second before the monster's tail went crashing through the spot where they had been standing.
  Landing on one knee a few feet away from where I had dropped Tattletale and the Ward, I turned. My warning lines were still tugging at me. Another one had started progressing to black, and I took three steps, extended a hand to attach a tether to a balcony on another building, and let it yank me as fast as I dared, the wind whistling around me. Once I reached that balcony, I used another high jump to keep going, following the line that pulled me onward.
  Leviathan, startlingly quick, had already abandoned his landing point and was two blocks away, snatching one cape out of the air with a swat of his arm, while his afterimage caught two more that had been flying in to help the first. The monster twisted around, abandoning his grip on the cape that he had caught when Alexandria flew into him with a flurry of punches.
  I let go of my latest tether and fell, putting my feet out to take the impact of the fall on my shock-absorbing boots just before I hit the pavement directly next to the figure my line was directing me to. I barely took the time to register that this was one of the newcomer villains before I wrapped my arms around him and launched the two of us upward and back. A heartbeat later, the beast caught hold of Alexandria and threw her at the ground right where the man had been standing. The invulnerable woman drove a deep hole into the ground, just before another wave of water swept in, flooding the hole.
  The man I had rescued was saying something, but I didn't stop to listen. A new line had sprung forth, pointed straight down into the hole that Alexandria had fallen into. This one was immediately black, while the others remained red. I didn't know how the woman for whom the invulnerable and superstrong package of superpowers had been named could possibly be in imminent danger of death, but I wasn't going to argue. Seeing Alexandria start to rise out of the water just as Leviathan's foot was coming down, I attached a line to the back of her uniform and to a nearby fire hydrant, hauling her the opposite direction from where she had been rising. The very moment that she was yanked out of the way, the beast's foot came down into a position that would have both knocked the woman back into the hole, and covered it entirely, trapping Alexandria in a watery tomb.
  Spinning around to see what had yanked her back, the Triumverate woman glanced up and then called out something. I was already moving rather than taking the time to listen, even as some corner of my mind started squealing and gibbering like a crazy fangirl that Alexandria was talking to me.
  Something more powerful than awe was driving me onward.
  I kept going, kept trying to keep up with the rampaging beast. He'd disappear down a side street, deceptively easy to lose track of given his size, but my danger-lines kept me constantly hot on his heels. Red lines kept appearing, and somehow I had time to save most of them. The lines seemed to be telling me which ones were the most serious, which order I needed to do them in, and they were showing up early enough that as long as I kept moving as quickly as I could, I made it in time. Not for all of them, I wasn't saving everyone, because injury reports kept coming across the band. But I was making a difference. Exhausted as I already was, I refused to slow down. Two lines here to haul a pair of blaster capes away from a collapsing pile of rubble from a building that had taken a glancing blow, another line there to yank one of the fliers up and out of the way before an unnoticed wave could catch them unaware. More lines everywhere I turned; every breath I took, every time I blinked there was more to do.
  Somehow, I kept up with it. Somehow, I didn't lose my mind. Somehow, I just... knew what order to do everything in, the exact urgency of each warning line coming to me naturally. I should have been overwhelmed, but I wasn't. My mind was sorting through the information, who was where and in how much immediate danger, in ways I had never been able to before. But I wasn't going to complain now.
  Eventually, I landed on the ground next to where Vacate had apparently become frozen in terror. The black line that directed me to him was getting darker by the second, before fading away once I snatched hold of his arm and hurled the both of us sideways just in time to avoid the swipe of Leviathan's tail.
  As we landed hard, rolling on the rough ground, I saw another of the red lines turn black, and instinctively knew it was the monster's next target.
  "H-h-he's... he's too st-strong... he's... he's... f-fuck... fuck..." Vacate was stammering, petrified with fear as he knelt where he'd fallen after my tether had released him.
  I didn't have time for this. Raising my gauntlet-covered hand, I smacked him across the face. Then I shouted and pointed. "Tunnel! There! Now!"
  He obeyed, catching my arm just before his power sprang up around us.
  His description had been apt, I noted as I looked around. The 'tunnel' was roughly wide enough for two large men to walk abreast, and was probably about seven feet tall. Everything outside of the tunnel was frozen in mid-motion, the color faded to black and white. Additionally, everything within the tunnel, including a pair of unknown capes clearly running away from an incoming wave, was frozen as well, though remained in color.
  "I touch anything or anybody inside the tunnel before I collapse it, I can bring 'em back up to normal speed." He took the time to explain. "Like that New Wave chick with the hot ass down there at the end."
  I looked again. Sure enough, Crystal was at the far end of the tunnel, frozen in mid-step, her arm outstretched as though she had been about to summon one of her signature lasers. The black line was directing me her way.
  On the principle of the thing, I elbowed him.
  "Ow, what the fuck was that for?" He complained.
  "Her name is Laserdream, not 'New Wave chick with the hot ass'. Get your head out of the gutter and into the battle." I said, while trotting down the line. "Grab those two-" I indicated the pair of unknown villains that were fleeing the wave. "-and bring them with us."
  While the former Merchant thug did that, complaining the whole time that I was just jealous that he'd been focused on Laserdream's rear instead of mine (Ewww), I used a tether to haul myself all the way to the end of the tunnel, stopping where Crystal was. A glance showed me what she was doing. The unconscious Glory Girl was on the ground just behind Laserdream, who was clearly protecting her injured cousin. Slightly beyond that, I could see Penance and Defiant being knocked aside by a slightly smaller wave.
  Touching Crystal did nothing. Apparently only Vacate could bring someone out of their frozen state. I glanced back just as he and the two villains that I didn't know came jogging up. Ignoring the pair, who were already glaring at me, I focused on ex-Merchant. "Bring her out of it, but don't collapse the tunnel yet."
  With a shrug, he reached out. His hand wavered in mid-air as though it had been headed somewhere else in order to bring her out of it before I growled at him. Then he adjusted and touched Laserdream's shoulder, muttering that I was a spoilsport. Honestly, I could have just let him go for it so that Crystal could melt his face off, but I needed him intact at the moment.
  Crystal slumped a little bit as she was brought out of the frozen state. It seemed like some kind of purposeful effect, stopping any kind of momentum and briefly numbing the muscles to stop someone from being unfrozen and having their forward motion instantly carry them out of the tunnel. Useful, that.
  "What-huh?" The older girl twisted, until she saw me. "Tether, what happened?"
  I jerked a thumb toward Vacate. "His power. Teleport... tunnel... time... freeze... thing, whatever. Point is, he's useful. Annoying, but useful."
  Grinning cockily, the guy rocked back on his heels and nodded while drawling. "Heeeelll yeah I'm-wait, what's that 'bout annoying? Now listen, jealous little-"
  I ignored him. Now wasn't the time. "Laserdream, as soon as he drops the tunnel, can you grab Glory Girl and fly her out of here?"
  She nodded. "I'll take her to Panacea. She-she'll want to fix her."
  "You." I pointed at Vacate. "Stay with her and go to Panacea. Every time someone brings her wounded capes, you make a tunnel around Panacea and the capes. That way her healing will seem to be instantaneous. It might not mean more than a couple minutes difference..."
  "But a couple minutes is an eternity right now." Crystal finished. "Good idea. What are you doing?"
  "Me?" I looked back out to where I could still see my warning-lines stretching out in every direction. "I'm going to go save people."
  Suiting word to action, the second that the tunnel went down and time resumed for everyone else, I used a pair of lines from my gauntlets to literally throw myself at the nearest pair that the black lines were leading to: Trickster and Assault. My tether lines caught hold of the pair and hurled them away from each other just before Leviathan landed where they had been. At the same time, I focused three more tethers onto the chests of a group of hovering capes and forcibly propelled them backwards, away from the swipe of the monster's tail. And an instant later, I crashed bodily into the figure of Battery, carrying the both of us just out of reach of the Endbringer's claw swipe.
  I was moving as fast as I could, every line pulling me to another person in danger. In the background, I could see the fight continuing as we threw everything we had at the monster, only for him to keep moving. The destruction was spreading. Another of his massive tidal waves had blown through most of the buildings along docks area and the boardwalk, shattering glass and mortar alike. All I could do was pray that everyone was out of there.
  Water and debris filled the streets, and it was getting harder to choose which warning lines to follow first. There was just too much danger. I had to pick and choose, prioritizing the best I could.
  A miniature sun, roughly the size of a small car, rose above the rooftops a few streets over, letting me know where Marissa was. I yanked myself that way, coming in to land next to the small group that was gathered in the parking lot behind a grocery store so that I could breathe for a moment.
  Sundancer had been joined, somewhat surprisingly, by a couple of my teammates. Vista was there, along with Clockblocker. Even more surprising was the presence of Freezetag, from the Undersiders. They were all watching Mars direct the mini-sun upward while it continued to grow.
  "We've got a plan." Dennis informed me. "How's it going on your side?"
  I panted, leaning over to catch my breath. "Busy. He's not stopping."
  "We'll stop him." Vista replied, her mouth set in a firm line.
  "Damn straight." The voice I barely recognized came from Freezetag, of course. "That son of a bitch hurt my brother. He's going down." She paused, before adding in a somewhat contemplative tone, "I don't think I was supposed to call him my brother. Oops." Her hands waved vaguely. "Truce, pretend you didn't hear that."
  "How long until your plan's ready?" I asked, wincing at the sound of more destruction, more names being read off by the armband.
  "Just a couple minutes." Sundancer answered through gritted teeth. "Needs... to be... bigger."
  Right then, the digitized voice from the armband announced, "Shelter at Heritage and Euphoria under attack."
  I whipped around at that, eyes widening. Sure enough, I could see a collection of flying capes hovering above another street two blocks over, where the shelter was, pummeling Leviathan below them to get his attention. "My family's at that shelter." Almost on cue, danger lines sprang up, at least a dozen of them, all directing me toward the area where the shelter was.
  "Go." Clockblocker gave me a little push. "Go help them. We've got this."
  Nodding, I launched outward once more, catching a line against the next building over to haul myself that way.
  As I landed on the roof and adjusted, I saw the group of flying capes, Penance and Glory Girl included, spreading out. They'd lost sight of Leviathan, as quick as the beast was, which at least meant that he wasn't menacing the shelter anymore.
  And yet, the danger lines weren't going down. As I stood on the edge of the roof for a better view, I could see the shelter below me. The doors had been partially dented in, and I could see the near-river of water from one of the Endbringer's last attacks that was still flooding in through the opening that he had torn. In their hurry to chase the monster down, the other capes hadn't noticed.
  The people in that shelter were going to drown. Quickly, I hit the button on my band. "Hard Override, the shelter on Heritage is flooding, they're in trouble."
  Silence was only response I got. Blinking down at the band, I found the screen dark. My eyes widened and I hit both buttons to no avail. My armband had suddenly gone dead. It had been working barely a minute ago, what happened?!
  Okay, I was going to have to do it myself. I could do that. I could get the people out. Grimacing, I readied myself to jump that way.
  Then it happened. Before I could move, another set of dark lines sprang up, yanking my attention that way. I spun at the urgency of the lines, only to see them leading back toward the street where the others were.
  Leviathan was on the opposite street, actually hunched over as he charged on all fours down the road, clearly intent on the spot just below the hovering sun. He was going after them.
  I looked back toward the flooding shelter, my eyes wide with panic, then toward the street where my friends were, then to my dark and silent armband. "No no no, please, work. WORK! Damn it, somebody get over here!" I called, then screamed at it. " SOMEONE HELP ME SAVE THEM! I CAN'T DO IT BY MYSELF!"
  Tears of exhaustion, shame, and growing realization flooded my eyes and blinded me as my desperate pleas went unanswered. Meanwhile, the lines, into the shelter, and to Marissa, Dennis, and the others, were already black. I had no more time. No time to delay, no time to waste, no time to think.
  No time to save both.
  I had to choose.
  For a single, heartrending second, I stood in frozen indecision. My death-lines were tugging me in both directions, and it felt like they were literally ripping me in two. Maybe that would have been preferable to actually making this choice.
  If I moved to save the people in the shelter, including my family, I would be leaving my teammates and friends to their deaths to Leviathan. If I moved to save my friends, I would abandoning the people in the shelter to their own deaths from the flooding water. I would be abandoning people to die while trapped in a confined space, just like Taylor.
  Whatever choice I made, people would die because of that choice, because of what I didn't do..
  No. I did not accept this. I would not accept it. Presented with an impossible scenario, I would change the scenario.
  I turned to face the running monster. My eyes narrowed, and I extended my arms, choosing my target before I began to manifest lines. Not one line, or two, but four of them, two attached from each gauntlet, to a different part of the road.
  "You..." I addressed Leviathan as the massive creature came running straight toward the invisible lines I had set up. "Aren't..." I took a breath and let it out while leaning forward and down a little. "Wanted..." As the beast raced over the road where my lines were, I heaved backward and up, retracting the lines with as much force as I could muster. My words turned to a scream from the effort I was exerting, and my vision seemed to tunnel down a single point, light and dark spots dancing across my eyes. " HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERE!"
  It worked. Even as a blinding spike of pain tore through my head, the pavement all around the street beneath Leviathan tore up, a large section of the road itself literally being hauled into the air, bringing the monster with it. And even through the pain and nausea that threatened to drop me into oblivion, I still had the distinct pleasure of seeing the beast that threatened to destroy our city kicking and flailing comically as it flew through the air uncontrollably.
  I released the lines and dove sideways off the roof. As I fell, I attached another line between one of the larger flying chunks of pavement and the area just in front of the shelter entrance, yanking it out of the air so that it crashed down directly in the path of the rushing flood, splitting it off to both sides of the damaged hatch so that the water would run around the shelter itself. Most of the black lines that had been leading into the building vanished, or faded down to a light red to indicate injury.
  Then I hit the ground, so focused on the lines that I had going that I hadn't set up anything to slow my fall. Pain lanced through my body as I felt the bones through my arm and hip break from the impact, the air rushing out of my lungs in a whoosh to leave me wheezing helplessly. But it was negligible compared to the pain in my head from the effort that I had put into launching Leviathan.
  As it turns out, catapulting an Endbringer through the air is a really good way of getting people's attention. There were more capes flying back this way, even as the giant monster crashed through the building that I had been standing on, collapsing the roof in.
  Still undamaged, the beast rolled off the building. I saw its tail lashing down toward me, but I had nothing left. Pain blinded me from every part of my body at the very thought of trying to move, and in that second, all I could do was stare at the descending tail and wait for the inevitable while telling myself that at least I had done everything I could.
  Then something grabbed me, hauling me off the ground before leaping away from that spot. I let out a cry of agony as the motion sent shards of pain through me, my vision dimming slightly before I managed to focus. "Pan... dora...?"
  We were flying, hovering a dozen feet off the ground while the monster's tail lashed the spot where I had been. "You are not to die now."
  In the next moment, three separate laser blasts tore into Leviathan, just before a missile launched from Dragon's suit blew one of his feet out from under him. The reinforcements had arrived.
  Meanwhile, I stared up at the still hovering Pandora, feeling lost. "You... can't fly."
  "We cannot." She confirmed. "Several of the parahumans who have been killed in this battle did possess such an ability."
  My mouth opened and then shut. Trying to figure out what that meant made my head hurt. "You... You can take... people's powers...? Wait... You... truce..."
  "We did not violate the truce." She said firmly. "We absorbed only the remains of those parahumans who were already deceased."
  Something still felt wrong about that, terribly wrong, but I couldn't think. "Powers... you use them... you take them..."
  "We are not, by default, capable of using the powers of parahumans we have absorbed. To do so, we must create a special body which possesses none of our ordinary abilities, but instead, is capable of using the powers of one of the parahumans that we have previously absorbed. This incarnation is incapable of biological reconstruction, form-changing, or anything else our default form is able to do, but it does contain the powers previously used by one of the now-deceased parahumans. If its genetic structure is eliminated entirely before it can be reabsorbed into our collective, the specific abilities it contains will be lost."
  Leviathan was staggering, but still moving. I lifted a hand, flinching at the pain. "You... the other parts of you can... stop him... eat him..."
  Her head shook. "We have attempted to. It... did not go as planned. Three of ourselves were lost in the attempt."
  My vision was still going in and out, the pain almost overwhelming. Still, I could see the injury lines. "Pa... Pandora..." I managed, lifting my undamaged hand to clutch the clone's arm. "You... you want to be a real person? You want to be... real..." Pointing toward the shelter, I pleaded, "Save them. There's people trapped in there, hurt, maybe worse. Go and help them. That's what a real person does. They help when there's trouble. See? Look. Villains. Heroes. Both sides trying to stop this monster. You want to be real, you want to be your own person, help them ."
  Pandora gazed at the shelter doors, then to me, and seemed to consider. Then we lowered until we were on the ground on the far side of the building, and she laid me down on the ground almost gently before flying off toward the damaged entrance, leaving me where I was.
  As I lay there on my side, from the corner of my eye, I saw Marissa's sun. It had reached the size of a small house, settling into a spot above the large parking lot at the end of the street. The pavement was melting beneath the heat, turning into a black river of sludge.
  I was confused, why were they putting the sun so far away?
  Then, before my bleary eyes, two figures began to run straight toward the murderous beast. Clockblocker and Freezetag. They were carrying what looked like... was that a pile of coats? What the...?
  The towering monster spotted them, of course, and turned to lift his foot and stomp downward. I would have screamed out a warning, but the lack of any warning line confused me. As I stared, Dennis swept one of the coats that the two of them were carrying up, and then the pair dropped to crouch behind the coat as it hung frozen in the air. Leviathan's foot was blocked by the time-stopped coat, which shielded the two hidden beneath it.
  Another swift series of attacks from the nearby Penance drew the monster's attention. As soon as he looked that way and lashed out, Clockblocker and Freezetag moved again. They kept approaching that way, Dennis using his power on the coats that they carried to shield them from any counter attack, while the other capes focused on continually distracting the beast.
  Then they were there, and the Undersider villain slapped her hand against the Endbringer's foot. Instantly, he froze in place.
  Wait, no. He wasn't frozen completely. Only his lower half, his legs and tail, were frozen. Somehow, Freezetag's power wasn't quite enough to cover his entire form. He was just too big.
  His legs, however, remained firmly locked in place. As the beast flailed his arms, Dennis and Freezetag retreated, while the space between Leviathan and the miniature sun at the end of the street abruptly shrank down to a tiny fraction of what it had been. Vista, arms outstretched as she stood next to the toppled building, narrowed the space between the monster and the damaging heat. Within seconds, the distance had shrunk so much that the sun was practically right on top of the partially-frozen monster.
  In the next second, the Endbringer was pummeled by attacks from a dozen directions as more capes with ranged abilities descended on the scene. I saw Legend hovering in the air, unleashing so many lasers that I lost sight of the man himself. To his left there was another flying cape that was conjuring some kind of massive arrow made of fire, which he sent flying into the monster.
  All around Leviathan, more attacks were tearing into Leviathan's all but invulnerable hide, while his back half was all but engulfed by the sun, which Marissa had been growing by the moment. No one could get near the beast, but those that could hit him from where they were continued to unleash everything they had while he was locked to the ground.
  Before my eyes, more black lines rose, connecting to every cape that I could see. I stared, confused. No, this wasn't right. What could hurt them?
  Then I saw it. A wave, so large that it dwarfed any of the others, came rushing through the city streets. It tore through buildings like so much paper, carrying rubble and debris with it. It was so enormous, moving so fast, with the force of a runaway train, that anyone caught in its path was unlikely to survive the experience. Under my horrified gaze, the wave blew threw an apartment building.
  And no one had noticed. They were so intent on hurting Leviathan while they had an unimpeded chance, that they weren't paying attention to their surroundings.
  Ignoring the pain, I attached lines to each and every one of the people I could see, along with myself. The thought of what I was about to do made me whimper, but I couldn't stop. I wouldn't stop. The lines all shot upward, launching myself along with every cape present as high into the air as I could manage. The agony that swept through my head from the effort was utterly blinding. My vision went in and out a couple of times as my body went flying. Somewhere below, I saw the disjointed sight of Leviathan's top half being carried away by the wave.
  That's right, run, I thought, a little deliriously as I fell, in too much pain to focus on lines, or the fact that when I hit the ground, I might not wake up again.
  Then, my eyes closed, and I knew nothing else.
  My vision swam back into focus, and I felt a warm hand against my bare, unmasked face. "Mmm... Mars... what...?" I blinked a few times, but it wasn't Marissa sitting beside the cot that I found myself laying on. It was Panacea.
  I had a brief moment to wonder how I knew that it wasn't Pandora, but another voice distracted me. "I'm here, Madison." I saw Sundancer, still in costume, standing on the other side of the room.
  "I... is it over?" I asked, hopefully.
  The two girls looked to one another, and then Amy rose. "She'll be... she'll be okay. I fixed the damage. I need to go and help others." She hesitated, clearly uncertain. "Or I could... help you... talk."
  Marissa's head shook. "I'll do it. Go, you've got more people to take care of."
  I saw Amy glance back at me. She paused and then murmured. "I'm sorry, Mads." Then she was gone, through the door.
  "What's she sorry about?" I started to ask Marissa. "What's going on?"
  She sat heavily in the chair that Amy had left, taking a moment to tug her mask off. The pain that I saw on the other girl's face distracted me. "What's wrong?" I tried to sit up. "What happened? Is he still here? I can help, I can-"
  "Stop, Mads." Her hand found my shoulder to stop me from rising. "Just stop, it's... the fight's over. Leviathan's gone. He tore his top half free and let that wave carry what was left of him away. It's the most damage anyone's ever done to an Endbringer."
  That brought a tired smile to my face. "That's... good. He's done. It's over."
  Swallowing, Marissa nodded. "Yeah. It's good. There was a lot of damage to the city, but... you saved a lot of people that would have died. They're... really happy, Madison. Everyone's proud of you."
  I stared, confused by the disconnect between what she was saying, and the look on her face. "Mars, what is it? What's wrong?"
  She flinched. "You saved a lot of people in that shelter, Mads. Pandora, she saved even more. There was panic down there, and still a lot of water. They were trampling each other, but it would have been a lot worse if you... and she... hadn't done something."
  My head shook slowly. "You're still not making sense. We saved-wait, a... a lot of people? That's not everyone. That's not everybody in the shelter."
  "No." She said quietly. "It's not everybody."
  My voice was hollow. "Who?"
  For a moment, Marissa said nothing. But then, she didn't have to. She didn't have to say it. I already knew. I turned my head away, the tears coming already. "Don't." I said, unable to make any more words come through the lump in my throat. I didn't want her to say it. As long as she didn't say the words, it wasn't real.
  Moving from the chair to the bed to sit next to me, I felt her arms encircle me as she said the words that I'd known were coming. The words that made my entire world collapse in on itself. Amy had taken the physical pain away, but after those words were spoken, nothing in my life would ever be the same, or whole, again. I'd done everything I could. I'd done everything right. I'd fought through every bit of pain, through every setback, through the loss of my armband and through the impossible scenario that I'd been faced with. I'd beaten it. I'd beaten them.
  But I still lost this.
  "It's your parents, Madison." She said, her arms tightening around me as I went limp with shock. "They didn't make it. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
  Interlude 7 - Battery
  "Who do you think you are?"
  Samantha O'Connell, more commonly known as Battery, held the phone so tightly in her hand that she was almost afraid that it might snap in her grip, keeping her voice low in spite of her anger. This was one conversation that she didn't want anyone else to be privy to even half of.
  It had been a day since Leviathan's attack, and most things were still disorganized chaos. She had come into the hospital, along with her husband, in civilian clothes to see what they could do to help before it was time to patrol. Then this phone call had come.
  The calm, measured tones of Doctor Mother, leader-founder-or whatever she was, of Cauldron, came through in stark contrast to her own clear frustration. "I'm sorry?"
  "You heard me." Sam glanced over her shoulder at the nearby closed door, making sure she was still alone in this room in the hospital. It wasn't a patient's room, those were all full. Instead, it was some kind of break room. Given how busy every doctor and nurse was at the moment, there weren't likely to be any 'breaks' for a long time. "Who the fuck do you think you are? Do you have any idea what just happened? We're dealing with the aftermath of an Endbringer assault. Two of our members, my friends are dead. Our main healer is still trying to help people after losing her mother, and one our Wards lost both of her parents when they should have been safe in a shelter. We drove the sonofabitch off, but we're still coping. We still lost a lot . And you choose now to call in and ask for a fucking FAVOR?" It was all she could do not to turn and pitch the phone at the wall.
  "I'm afraid, dear, that you're suffering under two misconceptions," the irritatingly calm woman's voice replied. "First, I am not asking for a favor in exchange for some future service. I am calling in a favor that is already owed to us. Second, you seem to believe the repayment I am going to request is at odds with the... coping that you mention."
  Frowning, Sam walked to the window and gazed out at the parking lot below. There were so many injured that the medical staff had actually set up tents to move the less critical patients to, rather than take up hospital bed space. She could see people rushing every which way, trying to bring some order to the chaos that the Endbringer had created. "You're saying this favor will actually help?"
  "In a manner of speaking." The other woman replied. "The Ward that you mentioned, the one who lost her parents."
  "Tether, the newest member," Sam explained, distractedly. "What about her?"
  Doctor Mother's response came with an almost too-casual tone. "She'll be taken into the system. Probably given a pair of foster parents who are already part of the PRT in one fashion or another, most likely a clerk or some other low-level paper-pusher, just to say that she has parental supervision."
  Turning away from the window, unable to stand looking at all the injured people and think everyone who hadn't made it, Samantha frowned. "What's your point? Where are you going with this?"
  "We believe that the girl would be better suited in a... different, more encouraging and stimulating environment."
  "I still don't see what-" Blinking, Sam shook her head reflexively. "Wait. Wait, you're not trying to say... you don't think..."
  "Our final favor, our final request before our business is over," Doctor Mother confirmed. "Is for you to take the girl in yourself. No one will deny you, not with every other bit of business that needs to be handled in the wake of such a tragedy. If you say that you wish to become responsible for her well-being, they won't ask any questions."
  "You have got to be kidding me." Samantha felt her confusion rising. "Why the hell do you care about who takes care of the poor kid? You don't-wait, she isn't one of yours, is she? Because I thought she got her power-"
  "She is not one of ours," the woman replied, still aggravatingly calm and measured. "Our interests remain our own, and the duties we need of you now do not require knowledge of them. Suffice to say, she is unaware of our existence, and it shall remain that way indefinitely."
  Feeling her confusion only worsening, Sam put a hand to her forehead. She wanted to grieve god damn it, not stand here and debate with this woman. "What, exactly, are we talking about here?"
  "Take legal custody of the girl. She will be sixteen in a few days. Care for her, protect her as best as you can, and... be there for when she inevitably needs someone. Be responsible for her until her eighteenth birthday. At that time, our business will be considered complete, and you need never hear from us again should that be your wish."
  It took Sam several long seconds of drawing in breaths and letting them out, mind racing, before she could respond. "Take care of her. Nothing else. No experiments, no tests, no hurting her-"
  "Nothing of the sort," Doctor Mother confirmed. "Simply attend to her needs, provide shelter, food, care... for two years."
  "I'd have to convince Ethan." Samantha replied weakly, leaning against the nearest wall for support. Her husband, convincing him to take in a sixteen year old girl, without explaining why she really had to do it... The man drove her crazy at times, but she still hated lying to him. It made her feel sick deep inside. She loved him, in spite of how much he tended to annoy her... or perhaps, in some ways, because of that. Lying to the man she loved, the man she had pledged herself to despite all of their differences and difficulties, was wrong .
  "I'm certain you will find a way," the other woman replied simply, confidently. "Do we have an agreement? Two years of caring for one who needs your help, and then we are even."
  Sam didn't answer at first. She was trying to think of what loophole or twist the Cauldron woman was going to play in order to keep her under their thumb for longer. So far the favors they'd asked for in exchange for the powers they'd given her had been mild. Join the Wards and then the Protectorate, which she would have done anyway, and deliver a package. The idea that the third and final boon they would call in would be as simple and innocuous as taking care of a sixteen year old girl for a couple of years was... rather unthinkable.
  Finally, she sighed and gave up. "Assuming I can talk Ethan into it, yes, we have a deal."
  Her husbands arms came around her the moment that she joined him outside on the patio where the staff came to smoke. Ethan, otherwise known as Assault, hugged her almost painfully tight. "Puppy." He smelled her hair while whispering the name that she had hated for so long. Still hated, from anyone but him. It had begun as a mocking, condescending name when they had been enemies, when she had been intent on catching his villainous-self. But in the years since, it had become... special. From him. Anyone else who tried using it generally ended up with a wastebasket dumped over their heads.
  "Where were you?" He asked after releasing her.
  And now came the lying that she hated so much. "Thinking."
  His eyes softened, and he took her hand. "About Hannah and Robin?"
  The real names for Miss Militia and Velocity sent a spike of pain through Sam's heart, and she ducked her head. Dead. Her teammates, her friends, were gone. Three in a very short time-span, if one counted Triumph. She did. She counted them all. All the ones she failed, in spite of her power.
  Taking her silence for confirmation, Ethan embraced her once more. "It's the fucking Endbringer, puppy. We cut the damned thing in half and it still crawled away."
  "Don't." Samantha shook her head, even as she was held against her husband's chest. "Don't talk about that... that thing. It doesn't deserve the attention. Let's focus on... on the people who matter."
  Sighing, he released his hold on her and kissed her forehead, then her cheek, then her mouth. It was a soft, gentle kiss that ended too soon for both of their liking. But now wasn't the time, no matter how much she wanted to feel alive .
  The very thought brought bile to her throat. Why? Her friends were dead . Why would she even think about... that? She was pathetic. She was a waste of a person, a terrible, lying human being.
  "Puppy-Sam." He used her real name that time, tilting her chin up with a finger. "It wasn't your fault. Everyone... we all chose to go out there. We do what we can because it's the right thing."
  "You do it because you think it's fun." She shot back automatically, tiredly.
  The smile that came to his face was far weaker than his normal grin. "That's right, normally. It is fun. Always has been. But things like this... no, this isn't fun. And I hate seeing you like this. Blaming yourself."
  Her head shook. "No, I... I just... they're gone. They're gone forever. They're gone, Brandish is gone, and that... that poor Parian. Hell, even Krieg and Stormtiger. They were murderous assholes, but they fought. And the... the boy from the Undersiders."
  "Heartbreaker's kid?" Assault supplied.
  "I don't think we ever confirmed that Regent was Heartbreaker's son." She pointed out. "And now, well now it hardly matters." Sighing, she turned to look out at the rubble of the building across the street that had been leveled by one of Leviathan's attacks. "How many out-of-towners did we lose? How many of the people who came to help us are dead because they stepped up?"
  "Too many." He replied. "Fuck, it was the lowest death count of any Endbringer attack ever, if we take the Smurf's eventual victims into account. But it was still too god damn many."
  "Too many." Sam agreed. She had known some of them, by reputation if nothing else. Good Neighbor, Fiercling, Iron Falcon, Quark, Resolute... too many names.
  They stood quietly like that for a few moments, both lost in thought, yet comfortable with one another so that constant words were not needed. Finally, she broke the silence. "I want to do something to help. I want to... contribute."
  Fuck. Fuck, why did she have to lie to him? For a brief, manic moment, Samantha considered just telling her husband the truth. But the thought of what Cauldron might do to him if he knew silenced this fantasy.
  Ethan raised an eyebrow. "You say that like you have something in mind."
  She looked away, suppressing her frown. "Tether. She lost her parents. She was probably one of the biggest factors to our 'lowest death count', did you see what she was doing out there?"
  He nodded. "That danger sense of hers, however it works, it made a lot of difference. She was everywhere. She... she did a lot."
  "And what's her reward?" Samantha was bitter. "She gets told her parents are dead. It's not fair." There was no lying now. She really did feel horrible for the girl, and she definitely hated the damn Endbringer.
  Seeing the anger, the frustration, on her face, Ethan put his hand against her cheek. "I'm sorry, puppy. I wish-tell me how I can help. Tell me what we can do. You said something about the girl."
  Sighing, Sam nodded. "She lost her parents, so they're gonna toss her into the system."
  His head shook. "Doesn't she have a brother?"
  "He's not really a factor." She said, biting her lip. "He's a local college student, was living at home, can barely take care of himself. No way he can do anything for her. I don't think he even knows about her powers. Which means she'll go into the system. You know how that works. They'll get some rubber stamp clerk or something from one of the PRT offices to sign the papers calling themselves her guardians, and then they'll just throw her at the Wards to deal with. She'll be lucky if she sees her supposed 'guardians' more than once a day."
  Blinking uncertainly, Ethan nodded. "Right, it's a pain in the ass, but what's that got to do with us?"
  Hesitating, Sam doubted herself for a moment. She could call Doctor Mother back, tell her that Ethan hadn't gone for it.
  In the end, it wasn't fear of the Cauldron woman that stopped her. It was the realization that she really, truly did want Tether to be taken care of. If she didn't do it, the girl's best case scenario was the unloving, uncaring situation that she had described. The much more likely, and much worse, scenario was that Cauldron would simply find someone else to do it. They would pick someone else to take the girl in, and who knew whether that someone would actually care what happened to Tether beyond the paycheck they were getting from their masters?
  "We should take her in." Samantha blurted out loud.
  Ethan leaned back to stare at her. "Err, what? You want to-you want to what?"
  She was blushing, wilting a little under his intent, questioning gaze. "Her life's gonna suck enough without being thrown into the supposed are of some in-name-only 'guardian'. She deserves better than that. I mean, maybe it's wrong, maybe it's dumb, but... but I don't care. I don't want her to get shuffled away and forgotten."
  "Wow." Ethan rocked back on his heels a bit. "I knew we'd eventually talk about having kids, but I wasn't expecting the conversation to revolve around someone that's almost old enough to drive."
  "You hate the idea?" She asked, wincing a little.
  He hesitated, but shook his head. "Didn't say that. You're right, the girl does need... someone. Losing your parents... that's... it's rough. I... you think they'd go for it?"
  "No way they'd deny us." Sam confirmed. Especially not if Cauldron wanted it done. As unlikely as it was that anyone would object to them taking one of their responsibilities off their hands, with Cauldron involved, that possibility dropped to near absolute zero.
  Ethan went quiet again, considering. "We're not that much older than she is." He pointed out.
  "I'm not." Samantha corrected with a nod. "You're ancient."
  He made a face at that. "I'm not old."
  "Ancient. She'll have to call you Grandpa." She repeated, winking. Her words were weak, the teasing mostly just them going through the motions. Even as some horrible, painful part of her heart tore a little at the thought of smiling after so much death, she leaned up to gently kiss his cheek. "Are we doing this?"
  After another moment of silence, he nodded. "If they'll let us, and if... if she agrees. I'd rather talk to the girl first, make sure she doesn't have anything else... you know... lined up."
  Swallowing the lump in her throat, Samantha nodded. "Okay. Then... then let's go adopt a sixteen-year-old hormonal girl with superpowers."
  Assault actually whimpered . "Is it too late to change my mind?"
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  Arc 8: Being
  Notes: Moka-girl - Whoops, thanks! I think I fixed that properly this time.
  LordAnarchy666 - Considering I've never seen DBZ other than a fair bit of the abridged series on youtube (and that was awhile ago), I promise that's a coincidence. ;) Still, glad you like it!
  Fazed343 - I have no idea how this story is coming out this quickly either. It just won't stop. I'm glad people are enjoying it.
  Starfox5 - Hey thanks, glad you enjoyed the Endbringer fight as well as the little prisoner transfer shenanigans. ;)
  I was alone.
  The house that I had grown up in, the only real home I knew, lay silent and dark as I stood in the kitchen, listening to the echoes of ghosts that would live forever within these walls.
  Slowly, I stepped away from the backdoor and said quietly, "I'm here." My voice was soft and small against the deafening silence of a home whose family was gone.
  Reaching out, I brushed my fingers along the kitchen table. My spot. My seat. My fingers found a the tiny groove that had always been there. I remembered a time when I was six, lining peas up along that groove, using it to hold them steady and then making a bet with Trevor that my line of peas would stay in place longer than his.
  Stupid. Ridiculous little nothings that kept coming to mind. My eyes moved to the kitchen sink, then to the red and yellow flowered stool that lay in the space between the fridge and the counter. Unused for years, with piles of cleaning supplies and other knickknacks stacked on top of it, but at one time the stool had been used every time it was my turn to clean the dishes. First it had been set on the left side of the sink so that I could dry them while Trevor washed, and later, when I was older yet still not quite tall enough, it had been on the right side so that I could do the scrubbing.
  An image came to mind: Dad using his foot to slide the stool across to its spot at the sink, then hoisting me off the ground, flipping me over in the air, and setting me down on the stool.
  I turned away from the sink, leaving the kitchen as I took my phone from my pocket, using the speed dial without looking before bringing the phone to my ear. As usual, I reached voice-mail.
  "It's me again,Trev." After speaking, I went silent for a moment, standing in the dark living room. "I'm... I'm at the house right now. I... listen, I know you're alive, because the emergency responders treated you for bruises. But then you disappeared. And... and I don't know where you went."
  Slowly, I walked over to the comfortable armchair that had been my father's, reaching a hand out to brush over it tenderly. "Mr. Tourney said you called the college to drop your classes, and... and the neighbors said you were here for an hour yesterday, during the... while the... funeral..."
  Turning away from the chair and blinking rapidly, I continued, "Listen, Trevor... I know. I know it-we-we haven't been that... close since... since you started college. You were trying to be your own person, and I was... well, I was a spoiled brat. But... but I need you-we... I think we need each other. Mom and-" My throat closed up, but I pushed on. If I didn't get this out, I never would. "Mom and Dad are gone, Trev. They're gone and... and we're alive. But I haven't seen you since... then... and I don't know what's going on. I don't know... why you're... why you haven't..."
  I reached the stairs, gripping the banister tightly as I walked up them. "I don't blame you for not showing up to the funeral, Trevor. I... maybe I did a little, but now I just... I just want to talk. We can't just... we can't just drift. We're still here. We can still be... we can keep... Please, Trev... call me back. I... I don't know what else to do. I'll... I'll call you again tomorrow. Pick up this time... please?"
  Sighing, I hit the disconnect on the phone, then put it away. For a few moments, I stood in the dark hallway, just outside of my brother's room. Dreading what I would see, I slowly reached up to push the door open. Just above my head, the little bell that Trevor had set up so that he'd know if I ever tried to sneak into his room made its pleasant jingling noise. Even that was enough to make the lump thicken in my throat, and I closed the door before slowly pressing it open once more. Just so that I could hear that stupid bell. For a time, it had been the bane of my existence. I had wanted so badly to get into Trevor's room because of this wicked stinky jello prank that I'd thought up. But the bell was loud enough to let everyone in the house hear it.
  I'd ended up using the stinky jello on Taylor.
  After opening Trevor's door again, I let my hand slip inside and flipped on the light switch before stepping inside. As I turned in a circle to take in my surroundings, I let out a low sigh. "Oh Trevor..."
  As I'd feared, the room was mostly empty. The blankets and sheets had been stripped off the bed, the closet stood open with about half the clothes missing, Trevor's laptop was gone from the desk, and all of his drawers were standing open and had obviously been gone through.
  I left his room, walking past the bathroom to my own bedroom. That door was open, and I took a moment to gaze at the Looney Tunes poster on the front of it. When my eyes closed, I could picture myself in the store, begging my mother to buy the poster. I'd seen it while flipping through the various options, and had immediately latched onto it. I'd wanted it so badly that I'd promised to vacuum the living room every week for a month if I could have it.
  Leaving the poster behind, I stepped into my room. Someone, likely a PRT clerk, had gone through my closet to find clothes that I could wear for the last couple of days, and to the funeral. My drawers were open like Trevor's had been, but my things had clearly been gone through with more care, and in less of a hurry.
  My eyes found my unmade and ruffled bed, my vanity table with the pictures of friends and various celebrities and superheroes taped all over the sides, and the closet where my clothes were. For a minute, I just stood and watched all of these pieces of what my life had been up to this point. I watched these objects, these reminders of a family I didn't have, these shards of a perfect mirror that had been shattered the day that Leviathan came. Shattered by a beast that cared nothing for the damage he left in his wake.
  I saw them, the reminders of the life and family that I'd had, the room that I had grown up in, and I turned my back to them. I turned away from the room and the belongings of the girl that I had been, and I walked away from it all. I took nothing, touched nothing. It wasn't mine anymore. That wasn't me anymore. Nothing was ever going to be the same. This was a hurt that would not vanish with time, that would never fully heal. I didn't need a memento, didn't want a tiny piece of my life to remind me of what had been. I wanted my mom and dad back. And that was never going to happen.
  Leaving my room, I walked onward to my parents' bedroom at the end of the hall. There, I stood in front of the closed door, lowering my forehead to rest against the wood.
  There were memories of this door as well. Memories of my much younger self standing next to Trevor, both of us shouting at the top of our lungs to be heard over each other, yelling through the closed door toward our parents inside, each trying to make our own side of whatever story we were telling be heard first.
  My hand found the knob and then I hesitated before slowly pushing the door open. I stood there in the doorway of my parents' room, staring at their empty bed. My eyes closed, and I remembered all the times that I had run from my room to theirs. Nightmares that sent me scurrying from my bed to the comfort of my mother and father, early Saturday morning requests for permission a friend to visit, or just a desire to be with them. I'd grown out of such things, of course. But in that moment, as I stood in their room, I wished I never had. I wished that my last memory of lying in bed and snuggling with my mom and dad was last week, not years ago.
  All the memories I had kept rushing through my head. Everywhere I turned, everything I saw, brought up more flashes of what had come before, of the events that had shaped my life.
  "I'm sorry." I said, my voice loud in the empty, silent room. "I... I don't know what to do."
  My hand found the light switch, and I walked further into the room to sit down on the edge of their bed. "I'm scared. I'm... I'm staying with... with Battery and... and Assault, but I don't know... I don't know what's going to happen." Turning around, I laid down on the bed in what had been my mother's spot, hugging her pillow to me. "I don't know where Trevor is. I don't know why he's avoiding everyone. I... I can't... I can't fix this. I can't fix anything."
  For a few minutes, I was silent. The words wouldn't come. I might have drifted off for a short moment or two, as tired as I was. I wasn't even sure how long that I'd been laying there before conscious thought returned. Finally, a minute or an hour later, I murmured into the pillow, "It's my birthday."
  Rolling over, I stared at the ceiling, extending a hand to the side of the bed that had been my dad's and rubbing it. "I'm sixteen years old today. Today is my birthday. But you know what that means? The only thing it means?"
  I let the silence stretch out for a long time before heaving myself off the bed. "It means that, from now on, every year for the rest of my life... my... my birthday, my birthday is the day after... after your funerals. My mom and dad were... were buried the... the day before my birthday. And that's just... that's just not going to go away. That's never going to go away."
  I was standing, my voice choked by emotion as the words changed. "Why did you have to go away?" I pled for answers that would never come. My hands covered my ears to drown out the deafening, deafening silence. "Why? Why... why... why..."
  Rocking back and forth on my feet for a few more minutes as every possibility of what I could have done different, how I could have saved them, played through my head.
  "I'm sorry." My words were weak, so soft they were barely audible as I stepped over to the dresser and picked up one of my dad's abandoned shirts. It hadn't been washed, and when I brought the shirt to my face, I could smell him. My eyes turned damp, and I inhaled the scent again before whimpering. "I'm sorry I wasn't there. I'm sorry I didn't save you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Please, please..."
  Somehow, my feet carried me to the other door, and I found myself in my parents' bathroom, still holding my father's shirt. Unthinking, uncaring, I pulled the shirt on over my own clothes. It fell all the way to my knees, and I used both hands to tug the collar up partway over my face so that I could smell it some more. My father's scent calmed me, made me remember the good times.
  For awhile, I just stood there in the bathroom, draped in my father's shirt as I stared into the mirror at my own haunted eyes with their dark circles from the long, sleepless nights. I was tired, so tired. Yet every time I laid down, I dreamt of my family, which only made things worse when I inevitably woke to the truth.
  Again, my small and weak voice spoke out into the silence. "I could have saved you. If I had been faster, if I had... god... if I had slowed my own fall, I wouldn't have been hurt when I landed. Then I could've gone into the... into the shelter. I could have... done... something. I... I fucked up."
  "I've been trying. I've been trying to change, trying to be... better. I thought I was doing everything I could. I thought that I was... I thought that I could make a difference, just... just save... save everyone. I just wanted to save people."
  Slowly, I moved to stand in the shower, still fully clothed. My hands found the knob, and I pulled it out, exhaling as the hot water instantly began to spray down over me. It felt warm, and I tilted my already wet face up to the spray and simply stood under it. "I'm sorry... Mom... Dad... I'm sorry I couldn't save you. I'm sorry I wasn't there. I thought... I thought I was doing the right thing."
  "It's not fair. It's just not fair. You should be here. This isn't real. It's not real. It can't be. I... you're gone and I'm never going to see you again. You're gone and I... and I miss you, and I'm always going to miss you and I can't... I can't..."
  Frustrated by my inability to express myself, I lifted the shirt to smell it again.
  Nothing. I turned from the shower spray and inhaled. Still nothing. My eyes blinked a couple times, my reaction dulled from days of grief. Then I realized, too late: the shower. The water was washing away the scent that had calmed me.
  "No." I scrambled, throwing myself out of the shower. My wet foot came down on the tile and I slipped, crashing to the floor painfully. But I didn't care. That pain was brief, this one was eternal. Scrambling, I all but flung the shirt off my head, turning it inside out before bunching it all up against my face.
  Nothing. The shirt had been soaked through by the shower that I had stupidly, unthinkingly turned on.
  "No no no no! No! Please! Please, I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" By that time, the crying had come back in full. I was blinded by my own relentless tears, hugging the soaking wet shirt as I lay on the floor, desperately searching for that lost scent that was as out of reach as the man it had belonged to.
  Another thing I had ruined. Another mistake that I couldn't take back.
  She found me there, lying on the floor of the bathroom. I didn't bother looking up as Marissa sat down on the damp floor next to me. Her hand found my back, and I whispered, my voice choked and broken by my own tears. "I ruined it." I lifted the shirt for her to see, almost babbling. "My Dad. His shirt. His... he smelled... and I... I had it and it was nice and I felt good and... and... then I ruined it. I ruined it. The water. I can't... I can't make it come back. Make it come back, Mars. Please. Please make it come back."
  Her arms went around me, pulling me against her in a tight hug. I lay limp against her, my strength gone. My face buried itself against her shoulder, and as the tears fell freely, I pleaded for what I truly, desperately wanted, but would never, ever have. It was the whispered wish of a single girl against the inevitable, indomitable tide of reality.
  "Make them come back. Please... Mars... make them come back."
  Three nights later, a man's hysterical scream filled the air as he plummeted from a hundred feet in the air, straight toward the ground. His eyes closed a moment before impact would have come, and he let out a choked sob.
  At the last safe second, I slowed him down, then let him drop semi-gently against the pavement. Then I crouched next to him and patted his hair. "So, I know you're new to our city. But for future reference, when someone like me says 'stop', it isn't local slang for 'flip us off and run the other way'"
  "Oh my god... oh my god... oh my god..." The man sure liked to repeat himself. "You-you could have killed me."
  I scoffed. "I wasn't going to kill you. Besides, you were fucking mugging people after an Endbringer attack. You were mugging relief workers, you tool. What'd you think was gonna happen?" When he didn't answer, I patted his head again. "Next time you get an idea like that, just remember: human yo-yo. Or, I could send you up and down a couple more times just to make sure you get the point."
  His eyes widened and the man shook his head frantically. "N-no no, I get it. I get it. No hurting, no stealing, f-fuck just don't throw me again."
  "Good boy." I straightened, reaching down to tug the man's hands behind his back before attaching a set of zipcuffs to him. Then I helped him to his feet. "Upsy daisy."
  "Everything all right over here?" Assault, my... current guardian, stood nearby, having wrangled the other two thugs of this trio that had been trying to steal the rescue supplies that were being brought to the hospital. Assholes.
  "She tried to kill me!" My guy blurted, taking a few steps away from me and toward the older hero.
  Assault shrugged. "Looks like you're alive to me. She obviously didn't try too hard." He reached out to grab the guy's arm and tugged him over to stand next to his buddies. Then he looked at me. "Collection van's on the way. You wanna do one last pass over the area and make sure there's no more skulkers?"
  I nodded and turned, using a line to yank myself up to the top of the nearby overpass so that I could see the street below a little better. Then, one by one, I went to each building and checked the alleys between them.
  Assault found me about ten minutes later, after the PRT van had pulled away with their prisoners. "All clear?"
  I sat down on the edge of the roof, letting my feet dangle. "Clear." I confirmed, gazing down at a couple of rats that were fighting over some garbage. I hesitated a moment while the man continued to stand there, before sighing. "I wasn't actually going to hurt him."
  "I know that," He replied, before taking a seat on the roof next to me. "Trust me, kid, if you wanted to hurt him, he'd be hurt. He didn't have powers, and you disarmed him right away."
  "I just..." I hesitated. "I wanted to make an impression. There's too many people in the prison now, and too few people to watch them all. He'll get out, legally or illegally, and if... if he thought there was no consequences, he'd go right back to hurting people. Maybe this way, he'll at least... think about it. Or go somewhere else." I let my head fall, sighing. "How bad is that? I'd settle for assholes like that, who try to steal medical supplies after an Endbringer attack, to just... go away."
  "It's not that bad," Assault answered after a moment. "Understandable. You're not a killer, and trust me, that's a good thing. But you still want to protect your people, your area, your city. The point of all this... cops and robbers thing is to encourage the guys toeing the line to stay on the right side of it, punish the ones crossing the line just enough, and put the worst of the worst in a deep dark hole they never come out of. There's layers of 'bad guys', kid, and those guys are scum, but not scum that deserves to die or anything. They're just... stupid. I doubt they even really considered the fact that they were stealing medical supplies that people were going to die without. They weren't thinking that far ahead, they weren't... connecting their actions to how it might affect others. They just saw things they wanted and took them." He frowned. "Trust me, I know the type. But I also know that making them think about direct consequences to themselves is one way of getting through to people like that. Maybe he'll go right back to stealing, or maybe he won't. Either way, the problem's dealt with for now."
  "That one is, anyway." I muttered. "Still plenty of other problems to deal with. Especially with only about a third of the city having water and power."
  His arm nudged me. "Hey, do you have any idea what kind of a coup that is? A third of the city having water and power after an Endbringer attack is amazing. And you're a big part of that."
  My head shook. "I didn't do much."
  "Are you kidding?" He turned a little to look at me. "Kid, we just had the lowest fatality rate of any Endbringer attack ever . There's two major reasons for that. First, people being yanked out of danger just in time. That was you. Second, we hardly ever lost sight of the big guy, right up until the end. Usually Leviathan is so fast that he gets out of sight and does a lot more damage until people can find him again. This time, we were on him almost the whole time. That was you too."
  I blinked at the last part, frowning. "How was that me?"
  "You were going everywhere that he was." Assault pointed out. "You were so focused on grabbing people that were about to get hurt by him that you were constantly right on top of his location. After awhile, most of us just locked onto the signal your armband was giving off and followed it whenever the big guy got out of sight. It meant that he never really got too out of sight. The power and water are still up in those areas because the defenders were able to keep track of where he was going, and shield those areas properly. Hell, some of those areas up by your family's place already have their internet back, since Leviathan didn't get too far up through that area without people blocking or corralling him. Some of those defenders were only still alive to do that because of you. Others were healed and put back into action faster because of your idea to have that Undersider with the timestop ability work with Panacea. We had more defenders, all of whom knew where Leviathan was going and what they needed to focus on protecting. That was all you. And it's why we totally lost his location after your armband got fried."
  I flinched in spite of myself at the reminder. "Sorry. I... I still don't know what happened."
  "That's not my point." Assault looked sidelong at me for a moment. "Look, I... I'm sorry about your parents. That..." He let out a long breath. "That sucks. Sorry, there's no... no better way of putting it. But you can't keep blaming yourself. You did good work out there. Without you, a lot more people would've died."
  My voice was small then. "I still want my mom and dad back."
  "I know." Assault hesitated, looking somewhat... awkward for a moment. Then he spoke. "I wasn't always the sterling, exemplary beacon of truth and justice that you see before you today. I uhh, don't really want to talk about it, but I lost my dad young too. Then I decided I was gonna go out and save people from the thing that took him away."
  I blinked then. "That... sounds heroic to me."
  The corner of his mouth tilted up into a faint smirk. "The thing I lost my dad to was the Birdcage."
  My eyes widened. "Oh."
  "Yeah." He nodded. "Oh. Anyway, I lost my dad to the cage, so I decided I wasn't going to let anyone else get sent there. Anyone who could afford my prices anyway. I did have to make a living, you know. Anyway, that was my enemy. The Birdcage. Obviously, I couldn't break in there, but I could break people out before they reached the place."
  Something occurred to me then. "Wait, does that mean that you're-"
  He held a finger to his lips and winked. "Shh. The point is, I did a lot of bad things and ended up letting more criminals out. I thought it was fun at the time, just getting one over on the guys that took my father away. Then it became more about the money. I let the job change who I was, and not in a good way. By the time I got caught, I was already starting to realize that this wasn't someone I wanted to be. I was having fun, don't get me wrong, but it changed me. I didn't really figure out how much it changed me until later, until I had something better to work for. But hey, don't tell anybody about that. It's better if they think their negotiations changed me."
  His hand found my back and rested there. "I'm really sorry about your parents. Death like that, it can define a person. It can change them. Just make sure that whoever it changes you into, is someone that you actually want to be."
  We sat in silence for a few minutes, until he clapped my back once more and straightened. "Anyway, let's see how far you can slingshot me. Bet we can reach that billboard beyond the overpass."
  I was standing just outside my house again. This time, I was at the front door and the lights were on. Glancing both ways up and down the street, I unlocked the door and stepped inside, carrying a sack with me. The smell of macaroni and cheese greeted me.
  Marissa came around the corner from the kitchen. "Hey, ummm, you hungry?"
  I shook my head. "Ate dinner with Assault. Burrito truck. I'll probably regret it later, but it was good." My eyes fell on the couch where I had sat with my dad the night the truth about Taylor and my powers had come out, and then I looked away, blinking rapidly. Fuck. Even being here hurt. I wouldn't-couldn't go upstairs. Just being on the ground floor was almost too painful.
  "Listen," Mars hesitated, folding her arms over her stomach. "This sucks for you. I can go somewhere else..."
  "Where?" I asked, shaking my head. "None of the motels that have power have any openings, most of them were commandeered to serve as extra hospitals for all the injured people to have a roof over their heads."
  "I could..." Marissa swallowed. "I could go find Krouse and Noelle and the others... They wouldn't turn me away."
  "No." I said firmly, locking the door behind me. "Mars, you're okay here. You're safe here. Just because it... it hurts doesn't mean I'm stupid. This house has power and water, and... you need that right now, more than I need to stay away from the memories. I..." Remembering the sack in my hand, I held it out to her. "I was just bringing you a couple things from the supplies truck. Hot dogs and spam, mostly."
  Taking the sack, she managed a little smile. "Yum, now the mac 'n cheese can have hot dogs too. Are you sure you're not hungry?"
  I shook my head, lowering my gaze to the floor as tears threatened to overwhelm me again. My mom and I used to have hot dogs with macaroni and cheese for lunch every Wednesday back when I was in elementary school, since those days were half days and I was off by twelve-thirty. It was a special thing between the two of us. We'd watch whatever Disney animated film I wanted that week and eat on the floor. The thought made my eyes water, and I rubbed at them. God damn it, was everything going to set me off from now on?
  Turning so that Mars wouldn't see the stupid tears, I walked to the door into the den. "I'm umm..." I needed an excuse to sit alone for a few minutes so that I could collect myself. The last thing I wanted to do was make Marissa keep taking care of me. She had her own problems. "I heard they got the internet back up already on this side of town. I'm gonna see if it's working so I can check my e-mail. Haven't... umm... done that in a few days. Obviously."
  I could tell that she wanted to say something else, but she didn't push me. Her hand brushed my arm as I passed, and she spoke softly. "I'll be right out here."
  It felt stupid, and somehow wrong, to do something as mundane as checking e-mail at a time like this. But both of my new guardians and Aegis thought I needed a break. They had ordered me to take off the costume and take a break for the rest of the night, with threats of an additional twenty-four hour lock-down if they caught me out and about again. So, for the moment, I was effectively grounded.
  The connection was slow, but it worked. I opened the browser and went to my e-mail, while listening to Marissa in the kitchen.
  As usual, most of it was junk. There was a few messages from people who knew I was in Brockton Bay and wanted to know what was going on. Then I noticed a message near the bottom of the list.
  It was from an e-mail address that was just a series of numbers, while the subject read, 'The Truth'. When I clicked on the e-mail, I found a video attachment along with a simple message: 'You need to see this. Don't show it to anyone you don't trust absolutely. PRT is compromised. - A Frienemy'
  When I clicked on the attachment, I found a strange, awkward view, as though the video was taken from waist height with a cell phone that was only vaguely pointed toward the subject. Still, I recognized the figure. It was Coil, standing across a room as he talked to... Sophia?
  "That's it." My former friend was saying. "I did what you wanted, now get this fucking bomb out of my head!"
  "Oh, I think not." The masked man replied. "We have far too much left to do."
  Sophia snapped. "Bullshit! Bullshit! I did what you wanted. I made sure they died! I made sure they died-and-and now we're done! Fair trade, my life for theirs. That's means we're done!"
  Coil raised his hand to settle it onto Sophia's shoulder. "No, I'm afraid that killing Tether's parents means we're just getting started."
  "Oh my god, Madison." Dennis stared at me, face hidden behind his mask. "Do you... the video... it's real?"
  I flinched, nodding. "It's real, Dennis. My... my parents..." My eyes closed and I shuddered from the effort of pushing the emotions down. "My parents are dead because of Coil. " I turned my gaze to him. "Sophia killed them, Dennis. Sophia killed my parents because Coil told her to." I put my head in my hands, sinking to the floor as my shoulders shook. "They're dead because... because of... because he wanted to... to get to me." The thought made me physically sick, and I put my forehead against my arms, shuddering with revulsion.
  I'd called Dennis over to watch the video, warning both him and Marissa to change so that their identities would remain secret. I didn't want to risk moving the video anywhere else, especially to any computers provided by the PRT. It was already saved onto this computer, and onto the flash drive that I'd found in the drawer of my father's desk, just in case. In addition, I'd made up three different random e-mail addresses and uploaded the video to each of them, as well as two different file sharing services. Additionally, I had taken several screen-shots of the video that showed Sophia and Coil together, printed them out, and had the pictures taped up underneath the desk. Finally, when Dennis arrived, he had brought a prepaid phone with him, and we copied the video onto that as well.
  In her costume, Marissa crossed over to sit next to me on the floor. "He's a monster, Mads. I knew, I just... I didn't think he'd go this far. I am so... so sorry." Her hand gently brushed my hair, her voice almost as pained as I felt.
  Dennis sat on the other side of me, letting out a long breath. "Sophia... Coil... I just... Why? Why would Coil target you so specifically? What the hell does he have against you? I know why Sophia hates you so much, but this was his idea. His orders."
  "Pandora said that he's afraid of me for some reason." I said helplessly, shrugging. "She thinks I'm useful because he has some big problem with me and my power. I don't... I don't know... " My eyes closed. I felt numb. There was anger, so much anger that it scared me. A very... big part of me wanted to scream and rage against the injustice, against the fact that my parents, who had never hurt anyone, had been targeted just because of who I was. Yet another part of me was just... tired. The shock of the revelation had left me feeling almost broken.
  "I thought they just... died." I whispered, so quietly that the other two both had to lean closer to hear me. "I thought it was just one of those things. Now it's... it was... them. It was Sophia and it was Coil and they..." I swallowed hard past the thick lump in my throat, even that act almost physically painful. "They killed my parents. They targeted my parents and killed them... because of me."
  It was Dennis's turn to pull me into a hug, his head shaking. "Madison, no. No, it wasn't your fault. It's them. It's... it's Coil. He... you saw the video. It's not your fault."
  "If I hadn't started doing this, he'd never have any reason to go after them." I argued weakly, my throat already sore from the crying that had just not let up over the last few days. My emotions were shot. I wasn't even sure what I was feeling right in that moment. The anger, the fear, the remorse, the guilt, everything I felt was jumbled and broken up until I couldn't recognize what was right anymore.
  "Then even more people would be dead." Dennis said, hugging me tighter still before releasing me to lean back. "Madison, listen..." There was a pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was unmuffled. "I... you can't change what other people do. You can't take that guilt. This is Coil. Coil and Sophia."
  Surprised, I glanced that way. His face was uncovered, and he was staring at me with obvious concern.
  "I-wait-your mask..." I protested.
  "Oh, right." Dennis looked past me. "Name's Dennis. There, secret identity compromised. Moving on."
  My eyes widened at that. "But... but you don't..."
  "Eh." He shrugged. "If she was going to betray you, I'm pretty sure she would've by now. If you trust her with your identity, I can do the same. Besides, she kicked ass in that Leviathan fight."
  "Clockblocker-ahh... Dennis... is right." When I glanced that way, I saw that Marissa had removed her mask as well. She met Dennis's gaze. "Marissa."
  "Good to meet you without all the fire and screaming." Dennis announced, before straightening a little. "You're hurt, Mads. That's more important than secret identities, or whatever this cops and robbers with capes game is turning into. Like I said, if you trust her with who you are, hell, if you trust her to live in your house, then I can trust her with my face and name. Maybe I don't know her, but I know you. And I trust you."
  We sat there in silence for a few moments. My head bowed again. "Coil." I said softly. "It's all Coil."
  Marissa's hand continued to brush through my hair, her voice speaking softly. "I'm so sorry, Madison. Your parents... if I'd known he'd go that far... I... I would have..."
  "There's nothing you could have done." I said quietly, not wanting the other girl to take any of the guilt that I already felt.
  Dennis nodded. "And there's nothing you could have done either, Maddy. You saved a lot of people that would have died without you. This... this is Coil. It's Coil's fault, and we're not letting him get away with it."
  "Exactly." Marissa's hand found mine, and she interlaced our fingers. "We have to deal with Coil. Whatever it takes."
  I flinched, glancing her way. "Trickster and the others, they still think that Coil can help Noelle."
  "Noelle." Dennis echoed. "That's the... the cape that made Pandora?"
  It was Mars who answered. "That's right. And... and I know. I've tried to talk to them, tried to convince Krouse, but he just won't... he won't listen. Jess and Luke might, eventually, especially if they hear about this, but Krouse is obsessed. He can't admit he's been wrong all this time. Because if Coil can't fix her..."
  "We'll find another way." I promised, glancing toward Dennis. "I know, this isn't what you signed up for. Whatever Coil's doing, if he has spies inside the PRT somewhere..."
  "You need help, Mads." Dennis replied. "So I'll be there. And so would any of the rest of the team. You know that."
  "I know." I swallowed. "I know we can trust them. I believe that. I just... I'm not sure it's fair to put this all on them. But we do need help. We can't just do this ourselves."
  "What about this 'frienemy'?" Marissa asked. "Any ideas on who that is?"
  I shrugged. "I'm not... sure. Maybe, but, I don't want to say anything yet. No, there's someone else we can talk to first. Someone else that can help figure this out."
  "These are very serious accusations, Madison." Mr. Calvert said gravely from his place behind his desk. His eyes to Dennis next to me. "Have you told her how serious this could be, whether or not it's true?"
  I spoke up before Dennis could. "He told me. I know it's a big deal. It's my parents, Mr. Calvert. It was already a big deal."
  "Of course, of course." He nodded. "I just mean, is it possible that you're reaching out for someone to blame other than Leviathan? Accusing anyone, even a notorious villain, of not only breaking the Endbringer truce, but also of engineering the murder of a cape's parents, is one of the most serious accusations that you could possibly make, short of... I don't know, claiming relation to one of the Slaughterhouse Nine."
  "My source is solid, Mr. Calvert." I told him firmly. "Dennis convinced me to bring it to you as the head of Parahuman Investigations. He said you wouldn't ignore it." My voice might have risen a little at the end there.
  Mr. Calvert raised both hands placatingly. "Don't worry. I'm not trying to ignore anything, I assure you. I'm merely establishing exactly how far you want to take this, in this moment. You tell me what you'd like my next move to be. You said this should remain secret, do you have a list of people you'd like to be brought in on this immediately, or are we waiting for this source of yours to provide more information? Would it be possible to bring the source in and have Armsmaster speak with them in order to further verify the information they've provided?"
  "I..." I hesitated, sighing a little as I lowered my head. "I'm not sure what to do, sir. If Coil really had my parents killed... that means he knows who I am. And... he's... got something personal against me for some reason." Glowering, I raised my gaze to the man. "I want to take him down, sir. I don't care how hard it is. I don't care how untouchable that son of a bitch thinks he is. If he... if he was responsible for my parents deaths... I'm going to ruin him."
  Meeting my gaze for a moment, Mr. Calvert finally smiled faintly. "Then I promise to help you in any way that I can, Madison. Don't worry, we'll figure this out together. You have good friends." He nodded toward Dennis. "Remember, you're not alone. Anything else you find out, bring it forward and we'll find a way to use it. And whenever you're ready to bring the rest of the team into it, you tell me. If Coil did this... we'll make an example of him. Families are off limits for a reason."
  I nodded at that, swallowing uneasily. "Thank you, sir. I... my parents... if he killed them..."
  "We'll find out." Calvert promised, reaching out to put his hand on top of mine. His brow was knit with concern. "Like I said, you're not alone. I'm not going to ignore this. Anything else you get..."
  "I'll let you know, sir." I said quietly, moving my hands to my lap as a little shudder when through me.
  "We should go." Dennis announced, starting to rise. "We have other things to do."
  Bobbing my head as I swallowed thickly, I pushed myself up. "He's right, we need to go. I... thank you, Mr. Calvert." I managed something resembling a smile as I looked to him. "Thanks for all your help."
  "Of course, Madison." He rose as well to see us out. "I'm just glad you trust me enough to help with this."
  "That's your job, isn't it?" I asked as we moved to the door. "Taking care of situations like this."
  Calvert's hand found my shoulder as he guided us out of his office. "Absolutely. Resolving situations like this one is exactly why I took this job."
  Just as we reached the door, there was a knock. The man stepped around us to open it, revealing a younger, nervous looking guy that was probably an intern. "Mr. Ummm... Mr. Calvert, sir? It's the police." He extended a cell phone.
  "Thank you, Dexter." Mr. Calvert started to reach for the phone before pausing to ask, "What are they calling about?"
  The poor intern looked like he really didn't want to be the one passing this news. "Something about a fire at your house, sir."
  Mr. Calvert's eyes widened slightly, and he took the phone before glancing toward us. "I'm sorry, I need to handle this."
  We nodded, and then left the office. Behind us, we could hear Calvert demanding to know how a fire could have started at his private residence, and that he'd be right there.
  Dennis and I walked down the hall to the elevator, passing busy PRT agents and paper-pushers rushing back and forth. They had been working on converting Kaiser's own office building to work as the headquarters for the new PCIPS agency, until Leviathan attacked. Now there were more important things to do, so the two agencies were still doubled up in the PRT building.
  We said nothing as the elevator descended toward the ground level. When the doors opened, we walked out of the building. We crossed two streets and then took a sharp right into a semi-hidden alley.
  "How'd it go?" Marissa asked, from where she was sitting on a couple of cement steps.
  "Yeah." Another voice spoke up from further in, by the dumpster. Dennis stepped into view, arms folded casually as he observed the two of us that had just arrived. "How'd it go with the director?"
  Slowly, I turned toward the figure next to me. "Well?"
  'Dennis' glanced my way, and then 'his' figure shifted and changed until I was looking at Pandora. She, not Calvert, had been the person that I had told Dennis and Marissa that I wanted to find first, before we did anything else. Then we'd taken the time to think, really think about who had benefited the most from the past couple of months. Only one name had consistently come up in all of our talks. One name that had met me right around the time that Pandora said Coil had become paranoid about what my power was.
  Sure enough, the strange clone confirmed in her even, calm voice. "Our assumption was correct. We recognized his power."
  "Does that mean what I think it means?" The real Dennis asked.
  "Yeah." I said in a low voice, barely restraining myself. It had taken everything I had, everything I could possibly cling to, in order to stop myself from lunging across the desk back there. "It means that Coil... is Thomas Calvert."
  "So the guy that's not only in charge of us, but also in charge of the entire Parahuman investigation, safety, and internal review group... is Coil?" Dennis's voice was dull with shock. I think he was kind of hoping that our sting would have cleared the man. I know I kind of had been.
  "That's about the size of it." I confirmed, putting my hands against the nearby wall as I tried to control my immediate desire to walk back in there, attach lines to Calvert's shirt, and propel him out the nearest window.
  "What are we gonna do?" He asked, looking to me.
  "We will remove him." Pandora announced, as casually as anyone else stating that they'd head to the store for eggs and milk. "Immediately."
  Realizing what she meant, I turned that way. "No. Pandora, no, stop."
  Her head tilted curiously. "You would have him live? We believed that the death of your parents would make you desire his death."
  "I do." I answered honestly. "I... a part of me wants him dead, right now. You think I didn't fantasize about blowing that sonofabitch out the window, or throwing a desk into him, or anything else I could possibly do to make him hurt? But this isn't about me. This isn't about what would make me feel better. It's about the people he's hurt. It's about my mom and dad and how they wouldn't want me to go that far. It's about Taylor's dad, and if Coil dies, his name'll never be cleared."
  I stopped, taking a breath before I pushed off from the wall. "And it's about you, Pandora."
  "Us?" She blinked once. "What about us?"
  "If you kill him, if you rush in there and you murder Thomas Calvert, not to mention all the people you'd have to go around or through to get to him, then you'll never be seen as a real person." I told her flatly. "You'll always be the mass murdering monster that they think you are, and they'll move heaven and earth to put you down."
  "We can defend ourselves." She said, assuredly.
  "Then what?" I demanded. "You kill whoever they send after you? Then they send more. Then they evacuate the city when you kill those ones, if you can. They evacuate the city, they wall it off like they did with Nilbog, only this time with a ceiling. Maybe tinker-tech forcefields, I don't know, but they'll manage it. Then whoever's left in the city when they shut it down gets locked in here with you. Maybe you freak out at being contained, at being trapped, and you kill everyone else. But then there's just you. Just a bunch of you sitting alone, trapped in here, while the whole world out there goes on for the rest of their lives, forever, believing that you are evil, that you're a monster. And you will never, ever convince them otherwise. And even that's assuming you get past his bullshit timeline power."
  For a long moment, the clone of Panacea, whose thought processes were so utterly strange and alien to me, who understood morality the way that I understood quantum physics (having the general idea that it existed and that it was important, but knowing little more than a few related words), stared at me. I had the distinct impression that I was being evaluated on a scale that I couldn't hope to understand, and probably didn't want to try to.
  Finally, her head inclined slightly. "We will withhold our attack. For now."
  I let out the breath that I didn't know I'd been holding. As much as I wanted to trust her, working with Pandora was a bit like holding the badly frayed leash of a wild, violent animal. Not only was I unsure how well I could use the leash to direct her before it snapped, but if she did turn on me, all the leash did was keep her within striking distance.
  Actually, considering the damage potential she was likely capable of, it was like keeping a biological weapon of mass destruction on a leash.
  Marissa spoke up into the brief silence that came after Pandora agreed not to kill Calvert immediately. "Well I'm kind of glad he turned out to be Coil. I would've been really upset if I burned down someone's house for no reason."
  I smiled in spite of myself at that. "Yeah, he got the call as we were leaving. Don't worry, Mars, you did good." I glanced toward Pandora, "You said he can only have two timelines up at once, right?" The clone had described Coil's power as, essentially, being able to have two realities up at once where he could make different decisions. She said it was more complicated than that, but for all intents and purposes, that's what we should think of it as.
  When Pandora nodded, I turned back to Marissa. "So assuming he was using his power, burning down his house made it less likely that he'd cancel our timeline and go with one where we didn't talk to him. Plus, this should distract him long enough for us to have our other meeting."
  "Other meeting?" Dennis asked, frowning.
  "Yeaaaah." I coughed. "The one I haven't mentioned yet. I contacted that frienemy at the same e-mail address and agreed to meet them after this was done." I shrugged helplessly. "We were using their information. No way to be sure that Coil wouldn't figure out who it came from. So I had to warn them. Now they wanna meet up."
  "And you still have no idea who it was?" Marissa pressed.
  Shrugging, I said, "I've got an idea, but I'm not positive, no. Guess we're gonna find out. Then maybe we'll have a better idea of how to handle Calvert." I glanced to Pandora again. "We're gonna have to be subtle for awhile. Can we... contact you? I mean, do you have a phone or..." I went on awkwardly.
  In response, because my life wasn't enough of a damn horror show anyway, Pandora lifted both hands. She gripped the index finger of one hand and pulled it off, because of fucking course she did.
  I let out a yelp while stumbling backwards, my eyes wide. "Pandora! What the hell are you doing?!"
  Blinking as she held the severed finger out to me, Pandora replied casually, "We are providing you a means of contacting us."
  As if my mouth couldn't have gaped open any further as it was. I squeaked, "You're what ? " I lifted a hand to point while stammering. "That's a... that's... that's a finger, not a cell phone! " My arms waved in some weird pantomime as my voice went up slightly hysterically. "A cell phone is a little electronic thingy that goes beep beep beep when you hit the little buttons and then rings rings and you answer the phone and you talk and it most certainly does not rip off of your body and why are you trying to hand me your finger?! "
  Through it all, Pandora continued to stand there with a faintly curious look, as if I was the one that was ripping off parts of my body and handing them out. When she spoke, her voice remained as cool as ever. "We do not have a cell phone. We have this." Again, she held the finger out to me.
  "Ummm... Pa... Pandora?" Dennis decided to contribute to this lunacy. "Maybe you could explain how we're supposed to use a... finger to contact you?"
  The clone looked that way before giving a short nod of agreement. "Perhaps we should have explained to begin with. Then we could have avoided this confusion." Her attention turned back to me, and she went on with a disturbingly helpful tone. "We have provided this portion of this body with the ability to process and understand sound."
  "You turned it into an ear?" Marissa said slowly.
  "I seriously can't wait until we get to the less confusing part." I managed.
  Pandora continued while resolutely holding the finger out to me. "Our bodies are capable of hearing everything that any of ours separate selves hears. You need merely hold the piece of ourselves close and speak, and we will hear you. It is not shaped correctly, so you will have to hold it close in order for the sound to be picked up."
  Slowly, in a daze, I took the offered finger while speaking dully. "You turned your finger... into an ear... so that I could talk into it... and all of your separate bodies... would hear me..." I turned toward Marissa and Dennis then, holding the finger. "My life... is officially fucked up."
  "That was pretty big of you." Dennis said, an hour later. "Telling Pandora not to kill Calvert. I'm not... sure I could have made that decision."
  "He's right." Marissa agreed. "I don't exactly have the best track record for good decisions when it comes to what I'll do for the people I care about. You could have just let her go."
  The three of us had changed into our costumes for this meeting, and we were sitting in what remained of a warehouse near the docks. The place had been gutted by Leviathan's attack, and a good portion of what was left was underwater. We were on what had been the upper catwalk, and the water was only a few feet below our dangling legs.
  I shrugged. "It wasn't exactly completely selfless."
  Nudging me with her arm, Marissa asked, "What's that supposed to mean? You could've just let Pandora kill him. Hell, considering her duplication ability, she might have gotten him even with his bullshit power."
  "Yeah." I agreed. "She might've killed him. But... I don't want that. I don't want him dead. He dies, especially if she kills him before the truth comes out, and he goes down a martyr. People keep thinking he was this nice guy. Not only does that ruin any chance Pandora has at not being seen as this evil monster, but... but I want people to know who the real monster is. I want to look at him and have him realize that every plan he made, every risk he took, every person he killed, was all pointless. I want him to realize that he lost, that he's done, and then have to live with that. I don't want him dead. Death is easy. Death is an escape. It's the people that are left that have to cope. And that's what I want. He killed my parents, the best thing I can do, the worst thing for him, is to kill his plans and then make him live. I want him to survive. I want him to go to prison where he belongs, where he can sit for the rest of his life, knowing that all of his plans are dead... and that I'm the one that killed them."
  "Mind if we make that 'we killed them'?" A new voice asked. We turned that way, to see a figure dropping in from the broken skylight to land in a crouch on the catwalk, steadying herself before straightening.
  "Tattletale." Dennis's expression was hidden behind his mask, but he seemed surprised. "You I wasn't expecting."
  "Right back at you." The Undersider shot back. "I figured she'd be here," She nodded toward Sundancer. "But I didn't expect Tether to involve her teammate."
  "He's a friend." I said, straightening. "So it was you."
  Marissa let out a quiet little sigh. I knew she had been hoping that the person who sent us the information had been one of her friends. Putting my hand against hers reassuringly, I went on addressing the villain. "I kind of figured, after that little help back before Leviathan arrived. Frienemy?"
  Tattletale shrugged, giving us that fox-like calculating smile. "I hoped you'd figure it out." Her expression softened then, briefly. "Posturing aside, I am sorry about your parents. That's not what I got into this stuff for, and it wasn't my choice."
  Swallowing, I folded my arms, telling myself to remain aloof. "But you still work for him."
  "That's not exactly by choice either." She replied. "Sure, we're bad guys. We're thieves, con artists, whatever. I don't feel so bad about that."
  "Obviously." Dennis interrupted.
  The other girl's smile just widened. "Like I said, don't feel bad about that. Gotta do what you gotta do." She paused then, as though considering something before she addressed Dennis again, indicating me. "You know she's pretty much Panacea's friend. You should just ask her to tell the healer about your father."
  "What?" I blinked, turning that way. "What's she talking about?"
  "Later." He said gruffly. "This is more pressing. Why'd you change sides?" He directed the last bit to our guest.
  Tattletale scoffed. "Who changed sides? Like I said, I don't mind most of the minor league stuff. Even some of the medium league. But killing someone's parents... breaking the truce... that's too fucking far. And there's some other stuff..." She hesitated before sighing. "The trouble is, I'm still not sure exactly what his power is."
  "We know what it is." I said, unable to help the smile that came when she stared, clearly taken aback. "Aww, did we actually find something out that the girl whose whole schtic is knowing things didn't get?"
  "Now that's an expression I wish we could immortalize." Dennis quipped, framing his fingers together like a photograph. "Tattletale, completely speechless because someone knows something she doesn't."
  She recovered quickly, to her credit. "Okay, okay. Hilarious. What are we dealing with?"
  "First," I replied, "we need to know what you know. We need information if we're gonna take this fucking psycho down."
  "Information is my specialty." The Undersider agreed. "And I can give you a lot of it. Trouble is, people aren't really going to listen to me. If you want proof, if you want someone that can really help you bury Coil, then you're gonna need a reliable witness."
  I raised an eyebrow, though the expression was hidden. "Where are we supposed to get one of those, exactly?"
  Tattletale's smile was back. "Why give you one, when I can give you two?"
  "Two?" Marissa prompted.
  "First," The other girl went on with a nod, "You have to find Browbeat. Yeah he wasn't exactly really a bad guy. It's a long story, but it basically came down to either we control him, or Coil kill him because of something he knew. Since Regent... since Regent died, Browbeat's been free, but he's hiding. So find him and you've got a witness."
  "So Regent WAS Heartbreaker's son." Dennis mused. "That's one. What about the other?"
  Tattletale winked. "Well that's Purity. Or, excuse me, Penance. She's been in on the whole thing. Coil talked her into playing this game so that she could actually put the whole villain thing behind her and come off like a hero."
  I frowned at that. "Wait, so she's... why would she tell the truth now, just because we ask?"
  "Just because we ask?" Tattletale echoed, shaking her head. "No, don't be so naïve. No, she normally wouldn't, mostly because Coil has... leverage over her. The living, breathing kind of leverage."
  My head shook. "So how exactly are we supposed to convince her?"
  "Oh now she'll tell the truth because..." Turning, she whistled sharply.
  In response to the whistle, another figure appeared at the skylight and jumped down the few feet to land behind the other girl. I heard a wail, and stared as what turned out to be Grue straightened. He held a bundle in his arms, which was the source of the wailing. It was a baby. They had a baby.
  Tattletale went on then. "Because we stole his leverage."
  "So let me get this straight." I kept my voice as neutral as possible a few minutes later, once we had left the warehouse and moved into the parking lot behind it. "Purity-errr, Penance has a baby, a kid she apparently loves above and beyond everything in the world and would absolutely kill for. And your plan was to abduct that baby ?! What's phase two of this brilliant plan, walk up to Behemoth and kick him in the eye?"
  "Actually," Grue spoke up, his voice dry. "Phase two was telling her step-son to tell her where to meet us." Penance's daughter was still whimpering and squirming in his arms. I had the feeling she didn't really like his whole skull helmet motif.
  Dennis started to gesture with his arms. "Insane. You people are completely, utterly, insa-"
  He was interrupted when Grue put the fussing baby into his arms during one of his wild gestures. "It'll probably look better if you hold her."
  "Ohhh no. I'm not gonna be the one holding Purity's kid when she shows up." Dennis protested, though the baby had already stopped fussing and started to poke at his featureless mask before giggling.
  "Aww." Marissa smiled. "She likes you, Clockblocker."
  Dennis shifted the kid a little and looked down at the giggling figure. "Good, maybe she can tell her mother not to kill me." He pitched his voice higher to talk at the baby. "Oooh yes, can you say that? Can you say, 'no, mommy, don't blow off Uncle Clocky's head and use it for a soccer ball'? Yesss you can, yeeeesss you can."
  Shaking my head, I turned to focus on Tattletale and Grue again. "So at what point are you going to tell us why you had to kidnap Penance's kid?"
  Tattletale started to speak, but I saw a red line stretch out toward both of the Undersiders. Immediately, I stretched my hands out toward them and attached lines from my gauntlets to their costumes before yanking them off their feet and toward me. No sooner had I done that, than a blast of white light tore through the pavement where the pair had been standing, ripping up concrete and sending dust and debris flying.
  Penance floated down from the sky, in full costume and fully pissed. After landing on the pavement, she raised one hand, which glowed with the energy she was summoning, and spoke with a voice directed toward Clockblocker that was thick with barely restrained righteous fury. "Give. Me. My. Daughter."
  I could actually hear Dennis's audible gulp. He twisted his head a little toward the spot where Grue and Tattletale were picking themselves up. "I hate you guys so, so much." Then he stepped toward the openly enraged woman whose power could level buildings if she wanted it to. "No problem, ma'am. I was just holding her for you. Go ahead, take her."
  While Penance took her baby with one hand, she kept that other hand raised with the energy ready to unleash.
  "We weren't kidnapping her." That voice was Tattletale's, and the second she spoke, I saw a red line jump to her again. Flinching, I used a line to yank her closer to me just as a tiny bit of the power that Penance had gathered blew a hole into the cement where the other girl had been.
  "No offense, Tattle." I said to her. "But I don't think the lady wants to hear your voice right now."
  "She needs to." The Undersider girl replied. "Pur-Penance! Listen to me, we weren't kidnapping your daughter! We were saving her!"
  Penance stopped gathering energy, but I could sense the hostility rolling off her. The baby was openly crying now, having picked up on her mother's distress.
  "What?" It was a single word, dripping with disbelief and fury, but it was at least a word instead of more violence.
  Taking a breath, Tattletale plunged onward. "Look, Coil's going down. These guys know who he is, who he really is. He had Tether's parents killed, during the Leviathan truce, for god's sake. He's out of control. So he's going down. But when he sees that he's about to go down, he's going to use every advantage he's got. That includes using your daughter to make you defend him against the rest of the Protectorate. He would've forced you to choose between your daughter's life, and your new teammates. Then, after you chose your daughter because what else would you do, he'd own you forever. And he'd never, ever really let your kid go, because she's leverage, and Coil isn't the kind of person who lets leverage go. So the second, the very second that he thought he was in trouble, he was ready to have that kid buttoned up and secure in a nice hidden bunker."
  Penance was still listening, the energy slowly dissipating as she began to focus a little more on the baby in her arms. "What... what's your point?" The hostility in her voice hadn't really lowered much, but I was taking the fact that there were no more injury lines to be a good thing.
  "My point is," Tattletale went on. "We took your baby away from him, not away from you. Think about it, Penance, why would we take your baby and then immediately tell your step-son where to find us? We weren't blackmailing you, we weren't holding your baby hostage, we were telling you where to pick her up. She's your baby . We're not fucking monsters over here. We're not Coil. Take your baby, do whatever you want. But don't let him have her."
  Penance finally lowered her arm, using it to pull her baby up fully against her before shaking her head. "I'm taking her away from here."
  "Before you do." That was Grue, and I could practically sense the glare that Penance shot his way. He plunged on regardless. "We are moving against Coil. Which means your part in his plan is going to come out. But we didn't want to throw you under the bus like that without giving you a choice, a chance to help us put him down."
  "And ruin the life I've got right now?" She shot back.
  I finally interjected. "And earn that life for real. Look, Penance, I don't know what your story is. I don't know what made you this way, but I think you actually like what you're doing now. I think you like being a good guy, being part of the Protectorate. But you got there with lies, and you got there with the help of a psychotic monster." I hesitated. "You've got your warning now. You could leave. Take your baby, take your step-son, and whoever else, and get out of town. The people you care about are safe."
  "Or?" She prompted after a second of hesitation.
  I nodded then. "Or... or you can help us put that fucking bastard where he belongs, and take your chances that the person you want to be is more important to the Protectorate than the person you used to be. Maybe they'll throw you in the Birdcage, maybe they'll give you a slap on the wrist. I don't know. What I do know... is that it has to be your choice. You decide which person you want to be."
  Silence reigned for a few seconds after I finished talking. Penance kept staring at me as she held the baby to her chest, her expression hidden behind her mask, while those glowing emerald lenses seemed to gaze right through me. Finally, she spoke. "Coil really killed your parents?"
  Even the words were still a sharp dagger to my chest. I swallowed, lowering my gaze before giving her a nod. My voice was soft. "Yes. He did. He had Shadow Stalker do it. We have the video of them talking about it."
  Penance's gaze moved away from me and down to the baby in her arms. What she was thinking about, I couldn't begin to guess. Finally, she nodded. "I'll do what you need."
  Hours later, I shook my head while coming out of yet another abandoned building. "No sign of Browbeat. Are you sure he's hiding somewhere in this area?" I'd already searched through four buildings, finding nothing but more homeless people that I couldn't take the time to truly help.
  Tattletale, my partner for this particular excursion while the others were busy doing their parts, replied over the com, using the private channel she'd chosen. "Coil had it narrowed down this far. He's here somewhere."
  Glancing up and down the rows of heavily damaged apartment buildings, I sighed. "I can't believe you people enslaved him. You ruined his reputation, maybe his life."
  "It was that or let Coil kill him." The other girl replied shortly. "And it's why I'm staying out of sight while you look for him. He's more likely to trust you."
  "I know why we needed to get Penance on our side." I said after another moment while walking to the next building. "And why we need to help Browbeat, but you were saying we needed him. Why?"
  "He can help get the heat off of Coil's fall guy." She answered after a moment. "Knowing Coil, he'll try to make people think the poor guy was still responsible for some of this, no matter what we say."
  I paused, hesitating just outside of the building. "Daniel Hebert? How?"
  "Because Browbeat was the one disguised as Coil, the one that killed Triumph and made him believe it was Hebert." Her response came after an obvious hesitation. "With Regent's control, of course. He said that Coil didn't give him much choice in the matter. And... now he's dead, so that leaves Browbeat to tell them the truth about it."
  It was another two buildings before I finally found what I was looking for. It was a building that was so near to leveled that I nearly didn't bother checking it. But at the last second, I decided to duck past the rubble partially blocking the door and give it a cursory glance.
  As soon as I looked inside the broken down building, I could tell that someone had been there. A sleeping bag lay in one corner of the dusty, debris-filled room, surrounded by open cans of food. There was no sign of whoever it belonged to.
  Slowly, I stepped further in, glancing around. "Browbeat?" I decided to just call his name rather than stretch things out. If it was him, we could talk. If it wasn't, well, I'd find out shortly.
  The warning from Tattletale came a second later. "Behind you."
  I shot a line out to yank myself forward and out of the way, just as a hand brushed down my back, clearly from an attempt to grab my shoulder. I let the line yank me forward, then immediately had it send me backwards while using a second line to throw myself up and over the person's head. I came down hard in the dust, extending a hand and putting a line between my gauntlet and my attacker's back before using it to shove them forward and against the wall.
  Then I stopped. "Browbeat?" Slowly, I released him from the wall. "It's you, isn't it?"
  The boy that turned my way was clearly on edge, desperate to escape. He started to bolt, but I used another line to hold him. "Wait! Listen, we know you were framed! We know you're not a bad guy, just wait."
  He froze then, eyes wide. "You... you do?"
  "Yeah." I nodded. "And we need your help."
  "Shit, get him and get out of there." Tattletale cursed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
  "What?" I turned. "What's wrong?"
  "Grue just checked in." She replied. "Coil made his move. Fuck!"
  I hesitated, glancing toward the confused Browbeat before reaching out to grab his arm. "Let's go." Then I addressed Tattletale again. "What happened, what did he do?"
  "He had Trickster grab Penance's baby again." She shot back. "Exchanged her for a doll. He took his leverage back."
  The reinforced metal doors of Coil's new base melted apart beneath Sundancer's burning orb. As soon as there was a large enough opening, she killed the miniature sun. Then she moved aside, while Grue took her place to send a cloud of darkness billowing through the opening and into the room beyond.
  A moment later, he gave a thumbs up, and Pandora melted into a stream of rodents and bugs to pour through the hole and into the darkness.
  Then we waited. Clockblocker, Tattletale, Grue, Sundancer, and I stood on the other side of the door. It was eerie, considering the fact that Grue's darkness meant that the sounds from inside were distorted and even muted to a degree.
  "Hope this works." Clockblocker said next to me.
  "He didn't leave us much other choice." I replied. "At least the Undersiders knew where his base was."
  Before anyone else could respond, Grue dismissed his darkness and turned to us. "Clear enough, let's go."
  As we passed through the opening, I saw the effects of Pandora's attack. Mercenaries lay broken and bleeding everywhere I looked. But thus far, it looked like she had kept to our negotiated deal. She hadn't actually killed anyone in this attack. I'd made it clear that I wouldn't, that I couldn't be party to this if she killed the mercenaries. That didn't mean the mercs were going to be jumping up and dancing anytime soon, but they were at least alive. It was the best I could do.
  "Ah, Tether. I thought you might have something to do with this." Coil sounded casual, even bored, as he stood at one end of the room, flanked by another half dozen of his uniformed mercenaries. Penance, meanwhile, was positioned a few feet ahead of Coil, her attention on Pandora, waiting for the clone to make a move.
  "I suppose throwing your lot in with these... criminals and psychotic mistakes shouldn't surprise me." the psychopath mused, indicating Sundancer and both Undersiders, then Pandora respectively. "You don't have the strongest moral foundation, after all."
  "Coil." I replied. "Shut the fuck up. Pandora, if he moves, eat him." I instructed the girl who stood facing down Penance.
  Coil didn't look concerned. "If you believe any of this represents more than the slightest of hurdles, you have severely underestimated me, I'm afraid."
  "Trust me, Coil ." I growled. "The last thing I did through any of this was underestimate you."
  "So you say." His reply was as casual and dismissive as ever. "I am intrigued though. What is the next part of this plan of yours?"
  "Next?" I took in a breath and let it out before stepping that way. I stood with Clockblocker, Sundancer, Tattletale, and Grue at my back, and Pandora a few feet away. On the other side, Coil stood surrounded by his mercenaries and protected by the top-tier cape whose child he was holding hostage.
  "Next, we're going to have a little chat about what you did to my parents. And you..." I promised. "... are not going to enjoy the conversation."
  Interlude 8 - Coil
  Within one timeline, Thomas Calvert gazed calmly at the costumed girl who thought that she was actually going to hurt him. His eyes passed over her allies and he dismissed most of them. The Panaca clone was a threat, of course, but not an insurmountable one. Finally, he broke the silence. "You wish to have a conversation? Shall I converse with Sundancer here, who has abandoned her friend, in spite of every promise she ever made?" He gazed at the traitor. "Noelle misses you, Marissa. She cries every single night, asking, 'Why? Why would she abandon me? She left. She left and she's not coming back. She gave up on me. Please. Please kill me. Kill me, she doesn't care. She doesn't care.'"
  " Shut up!" The girl in question shouted at him, striding forward in spite of his bodyguards. "Shut up, shut up, shut up! You were never going to help us! You were never going to help her!"
  "Oh but I was." Coil replied simply. "Actually, I already did. I sent them on their way. I help those that are loyal, not traitors."
  "You're lying." Sundancer hissed.
  "Am I?" He replied. "Search this place. You won't find them. They've left. The last job, the final bit of help, that Trickster provided was to assist me in getting Penance back under control. They've moved on, and no matter what happens here, Noelle will always know you as the traitor that abandoned her, while I fulfilled my promise."
  Smiling faintly behind his mask at the girl who stood frozen from that revelation, Calvert turned his attention toward Tattletale and Grue. "And speaking of traitors... I expected this from Tattletale, but et tu, Grue?"
  The darkness generator inclined his head. "Yeah, sorry, I sort of check out right around the time you start breaking the truce to murder innocent civilians."
  "No matter." Coil waved a hand dismissively. "I have no more need of you. I have... plenty of other options." Options, he thought, such as the remaining Wards and the Protectorate, to say nothing of the generous staff my new position affords me. "Of course, all of the Undersiders will have to die. No telling how far your betrayal has spread. Perhaps I'll send Squad Four. They were... quite annoyed by young Aisha's commentary. I'm sure they'd quite enjoy the task of eliminating her."
  Grue started to come for him, striding quickly. "You don't touch my sister, you-"
  "Uh uh." Coil said quickly, holding a hand up and gesturing so that Penance would put herself in the boy's path. "None of that. We're still having a conversation. That conversation that Tether wanted so much." He turned his attention to the girl in question. "That's right, it was your request, wasn't it? So, what shall we converse about? Perhaps the fact that you are an unstable young woman who hides her insecurities and emotional failings behind stupid jokes, whose power has manifested as a blatant obsession with preventing anyone from dying?"
  "I can think of worse obsessions." The child shot back at him. "Like being obsessed with becoming the world's biggest douche. You've got the checkered flag on that race already, dude, you can let off the gas a bit."
  "You see?" Coil spread his arms. "You believe that I ordered the death of your parents. You believe that I am responsible for that. "Yet you still make jokes. Is that really... healthy behavior?"
  The girl took a step forward, her tone lowering. "I don't... believe... that you had my parents killed. I know you did. Just like I know that you... are Thomas Calvert."
  In his second timeline, Coil sat comfortably in a recliner within his secure fallback bunker, the one that no one but he knew the location of. He'd had the contractors who built it eliminated shortly after it had been completed, and all records of the work destroyed.
  A smile crossed the man's face as he noted what was happening in his first timeline before glancing toward the crib in the corner of the room where his leverage lay sleeping. In the timeline where he was talking to Tether and her little gathering of traitors, the child was being watched over in a different location, by a team of mercenaries. Penance knew what her orders were, and she knew the consequences for failing to obey.
  His eyes fell on the monitor across the room. On it, he could see his other base, the one where his other self was right now. On the screen, Tether and her allies were spread across the room, searching an already abandoned bunker. He smirked at the sight, considering for a moment.
  Then the girl in the first timeline said his name, his real name, and Calvert realized that he couldn't let her go. He couldn't let her or any of the others escape the bunker, knowing what they knew.
  With a sigh of regret for the loss, Calvert reached out to pick up the remote from the desk next to him. Running his thumb over the buttons, he keyed in the password and sent the signal.
  On the screen, all of the cameras went out at once as the explosives he'd had mounted throughout the bunker went off. Tether and her friends were dead, and wouldn't be saying anything to anyone.
  Cauldron would complain, of course, but he would explain that it had been inevitable. She'd known his identity, and there was nothing that would keep her quiet about it. They would be angry, but they would understand his dilemma.
  He had everything covered, as usual.
  In his first timeline, Coil paused until his other self had set off the detonation in that timeline before letting out a brief chuckle. "Thomas Calvert? I thought everyone knew that I was Daniel Hebert?"
  Tether's head shook. "Are you really gonna play this game? You're not Daniel Hebert. You're Thomas Calvert. You know it, I know it, they know it." She gestured back toward the other children. "Denying it just makes you look like an even bigger ineffectual tool than you already are."
  He let his head fall back as he laughed. "Ineffectual? Of all the insults you could throw at me, you choose one that I have proven false time and time again?" Reaching up, he tugged his mask off. There was no point to the charade now, especially since he wouldn't be keeping this timeline anyway. Being trapped with few options had never been in the cards.
  Still, he'd tease them for a few minutes. It wouldn't do them any good.
  Dropping his mask to the side, he regarded the girl. "Aren't you going to do the same?"
  Amusingly, the girl did. She lifted her hand to brush the hood off her head, then tugged her mask off. The glare that Madison Clements shot at him then was anything but humorous. "You had my parents killed." Her voice had lost its light, teasing edge. Now, he could hear nothing but pain, and anger. "You had them murdered."
  Calvert felt the harshness come back to his own voice. "I realize that you are a child and have no actual grasp or understanding of things that don't directly affect you, but do attempt to surpass your willful ignorance. Everything that I have done is for the greater good. "
  "The greater good?" Madison shot back. "The greater good?! What... what greater good comes from killing my parents?! What greater good comes from ruining a man's life, a man who was already destroyed by the death of his daughter?! The greater good is an excuse that people like you make up so that you can do what you want to do, no matter who it hurts. Face it, Tommy, you're not a genius. You're not a brilliant tactician. You're a bully. You're a thug. You're a two-bit soldier who got lucky with a power that lets you cheat. "
  " I SAVED THIS CITY!" He bellowed back at the ignorant, spoiled little brat. "Boo. Hoo. Your parents died. Have some god damn perspective. Do you have any idea what I can do now, from this position? I wiped out the Empire Eighty-Eight. I wiped out the ABB. I knew everything that was going to happen. I planned it all. I made the dominoes fall into place for the rest of you. And now, I am going to use this power to turn Brockton Bay into a parahuman utopia. My plans, my vision will shape this city. I will guide it into what it can become. I had hoped that you would be of some use in that endeavor." He sighed then. "A pity."
  The girl just stared at him, shaking her head as she let the mask fall to the floor. "You say that like you think you're getting out of this."
  "Oh child..." He said, injecting his tone with false sympathy. "I already have. You see, I already won. You have no other moves to make, because this timeline, this... entire reality... will cease to exist at a simple thought from me. And you... all of you... are already dead in the other timeline." The man smiled, raising his hand to tap thoughtfully against his chin. "So, I suppose that would mean that your entire existence depends entirely on how long you happen to entertain me, before I get bored and erase this particular timeline, and your lives, forever."
  Madison's eyes closed, and her shoulders drooped as if a heavy weight had settled on them. Her voice was small, as it should be. "Just tell me why?" She pleaded. "Tell me why my parents had to die. What did they do to you?"
  "Them? Nothing at all." Coil replied dismissively. "They died to strengthen you. The death of an enemy, a girl you hated, created a power in you that turned the tide against Leviathan himself. Your power as it was allowed you to become almost single-handedly responsible for the lowest fatality rate for an Endbringer attack, ever . Imagine for a moment what you could have been capable of, given the motivation your parents deaths. Honestly, I expected your power to grow from it. Such a pity."
  "You killed my parents... to make me stronger? " She demanded with clear disbelief and shock.
  "That's right." He confirmed. "I'm afraid that the entire point of allowing their deaths was to make you even more useful, to motivate you. And now you've thrown even that away. So, if you think about it, you're the one who made their deaths meaningless. Perhaps you can think for a moment about that, and about the fact that I will make a point of locating Trevor, your last surviving family member, and I will destroy him as thoroughly as I have ever destroyed anyone, just because you annoyed me."
  Coil continued to smile as the girl hung her head, gazing brokenly at the floor. He wanted to remember this, wanted to savor it, so that he would never forget what it felt like when this was over.
  In the midst of that bit of enjoyment, the silence was broken by a sudden burst of loud music. The man jumped, startled. "What-"
  Madison had straightened, using two fingers to pull something from within her costume as she replied dismissively. "It's Weird Al's 'Dare To Be Stupid', Tommy. Jeeze, don't you know the classics?" Her eyes rolled and she held up a small electronic device with a clock on it. The clock was flashing all zeroes. "But mostly," she continued while silencing the song. "It's a timer."
  "A timer... for what?" He asked, ready to drop this timeline.
  The girl smiled, all of the defeat that had been in her eyes and her posture gone. "So that I'd know exactly when to do..." She raised her hand with a single finger outstretched demonstratively, before letting her hand drop. "This."
  Exactly on cue, that same song, fully into the chorus, burst into the air not in Coil's first timeline, but in his second one. The abruptness of it made the man jerk in surprise, before twisting toward the source of the noise: the crib.
  "See, Tommy," Madison was saying in his first timeline. "You forgot two important things." She indicated the clone. "Pandora can duplicate herself... and shapeshift."
  The baby-no, the clone, poured itself up and out of the crib, resuming her normal shape. Then she smiled at Calvert.
  "Hello." She said, gazing at him for a moment while he stared in disbelief. "We have been informed that we need not... be gentle."
  He turned to rush for the exit, but she was already on him, already... feasting.
  Penance had turned toward him by then, removing her mask to reveal a thin, dark smile as she watched him silently.
  "We knew you'd have a safe hole to put your other self into." Madison continued. "So we had to infiltrate it. We just let you do the infiltrating for us, by having those conversations about Penance over the com that you could tap into, so you'd know that you needed to get your leverage back. Then you did the rest of the work for us. You took Pandora's other self right where she needed to be. Speaking of which-" She glanced toward the Pandora that was with them.
  "Mercenaries." The clone replied dismissively. "They are handled." Her head tilted. "That version of ourselves were told not to be gentle with their targets. They have... eliminated the mercenaries."
  Madison flinched a little at that, but kept her focus on Calvert. "So, Tommy, seems to me that you've got two choices. You either drop this timeline and let yourself be eaten by Pandora... or you drop that timeline and keep the one where you just confessed everything."
  Growling, Calvert took a step back to put the squad of mercenaries between them. "You think that's enough? You're a child! I'll drop that timeline and leave with this one. You'll still die down here, it'll simply take a few moments longer. Then I'll make up some story for the Protectorate to hear." He raised his hand, gesturing for the soldiers. "Kill them."
  "Actually," the mercenary squad leader spoke, turning toward Calvert to tap something on the side of his head. The image of the mercenary faded out, revealing Armsmaster in full uniform. "I'd sure like to hear that story you were planning on telling us. Wouldn't you?"
  The other mercenaries tapped their own helmets, removing the holograms that had covered them to reveal Battery and her husband. Assault raised his shoulders in an elaborate shrug. "Actually, I'd prefer he just shut his fucking mouth."
  "Sounds good to me." Battery agreed.
  Eyes wide, Calvert grabbed the pistol at his side. They would not arrest him. He'd kill himself before he let that happen. He'd die before he let them put him in the Bird Cage, he'd-
  There was an explosion of pain in his hand, and the gun dropped to the floor before he could finish pointing it at himself. One of Tether's metal balls had lashed out, striking the back of his hand hard enough to break several bones there, drawing a cry from him.
  A second later, something sharp struck him right in the neck. He felt his legs give out, and he was slumping toward the floor, vision blurring while Tether lowered her arm, having shot one of her knockout darts into him.
  She came forward, stopping to kneel down next to Calvert as he fell to the floor. He stared up, vision already giving out. "See Tommy," she said to him quietly. "You don't get to escape. You don't get to run away. You don't get the last word. You don't get to go out on your own terms." She reached out and plucked the dart from his neck. "I couldn't just beat you physically. I had to beat you at your game. I had to be smarter than you. I had to let you use your power and still beat you. So now you can go to sleep. You can go to sleep and by the time you wake up, you're going to be in the deep dark hole that you deserve to be in. You can be in the Bird Cage. Then maybe you can split your timelines and experience utter and crushing defeat and despair for the rest of your life twice as much. "
  "And you can know, for the rest of your life, that we beat you. We beat you."
  Her words filled his head, flooding his mind and leaving no other thoughts, as his vision of the girl faded to black.
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  Arc 9: Evolution
  A/N: Having a bit of trouble with the formatting in this installment and had to really futz with it. If you find any problems, please let me know.
  "This isn't fair." Vista complained, raising a hand before angrily skipping a stone across the pond. "We're a good team. They can't just take two of us away."
  Carlos sighed. "I guess they kind of can, Missy. It's not our choice, and our parents already agreed."
  It was early June, weeks after Coil had been brought down. All of us Wards, plus Glory Girl, were standing in the park at the west end of town, trying to come to terms with the news that had come in only that morning: Aegis and Gallant were being transferred to another city.
  Chris, sitting on the grass near the water, rolled his eyes as he let himself fall backwards to look at the sky. "Missy's right. We should put in a complaint or something. Who can we sue over this?"
  "It's my father." Dean said with a sigh. "His business took a bad hit when Leviathan came, so he wanted to set up a new location. They offered him a deal to move our family up north. My dad started talking to Carlos's dad and... they came up with this agreement."
  Victoria rolled her eyes, kicking the ground to send up a spray of dirt that arced out into the water. "That's stupid as hell! You've got a good team right here, why do your parents wanna break that up?"
  "Apparently the PRT thinks we've got this area handled." Carlos replied with a shake of his head. "Coil's gone, the Empire's dead, ABB's been wiped out... the biggest organized threat right now is the Merchants. Plus, in my case, I'm turning eighteen in a month or so and they want me already present in my new assigned city."
  "It's still not fair." I put in, unable to help myself. "We're a good team, and this just... feels like they're punishing us for it."
  "Tell me about it." Vista muttered darkly, glancing toward Dean.
  I knew that Missy's crush on Dean hadn't let up at all, even though she knew he wouldn't see her that way. This situation was probably the one and only time she and Victoria had been in complete agreement. They were both pissed off.
  "I'm with them." Chris put in. "They can't just break up the band like this. Shouldn't we get a say?"
  "Welcome to being under eighteen." Dennis replied a little darkly.
  "This blows." Victoria glowered, lifting a foot or so off the ground to hover there. "They could've told me that you were leaving before I agreed to join the team."
  Dennis shook his head. "What choice did you have? I mean... is New Wave still..."
  Flinching, Victoria shook her head and lowered herself back to the ground with a sigh. "No." She said quietly. "Since mom is..." She swallowed and I saw her gaze flick to me reflexively before she continued. "Since mom is gone... Aunt Sarah wants to take a break. She said she can't do this right now. Dad's the same way. He doesn't want anything to do with the hero thing. Eric says he wants to move, maybe go to college on the west coast and get a new start."
  "What about Crystal and her father?" I asked.
  She glanced to me. "Didn't Battery or Assault tell you? They both accepted invitations from Armsmaster to join the Protectorate team."
  Dennis snorted. "I still can't believe they let Penance stay on the team after everything she did to get there."
  "She did the right thing in the end." I pointed out. "And she's powerful. I think they'd rather keep her on their side than throw her away."
  "So what does that leave our Protectorate team with?" Chris considered from his place on the grass. "Armsmaster, Penance, Assault, Battery, Laserdream, and Manpower?"
  "What's Panacea doing?" I asked Victoria.
  "She doesn't really consider herself a part of any particular team." The blonde replied. "She figures she'll help whoever she can. Plus she's been weird lately anyway. I think the whole clone thing is still getting to her."
  I winced. Pandora had vanished almost entirely after the end of Coil. I hadn't seen or heard from her since, save for a phone message from Dinah Alcott asking me to tell her parents that she was okay and that her power was telling her that she should stay with Pandora for now. Needless to say, her family hadn't been very happy.
  Dinah had also thought to mention that Emma was with them, which had taken me completely by surprise. I still wasn't sure what I should say to Emma's father, if anything. The poor guy was out of his mind with worry, but would telling him that Emma was with someone like Pandora make things better or worse?
  I needed to say something to him. It wasn't fair to just let him keep wondering. But I needed advice on how to go about it, and I wasn't sure who to ask.
  The momentary silence was broken by the sound of another rock hitting the water as Missy angrily chucked it as far as she could without using her power. "What about us? Clockblocker's leaving before the summer's over."
  Dennis flinched at the despairing sound in the younger girl's voice, glancing toward me before his head shook. "Well Victoria just joined, and apparently we're supposed to meet another new member later today."
  "Lose two, gain two." Carlos said with a soft sigh. "It probably makes sense to them, on paper."
  "It doesn't make sense!" Missy shot back, turning to him. I was startled to see tears in the other girl's eyes. "None of it makes sense! We're supposed to be a team, we're supposed to stay together! First Rory graduates and then... and then he dies, and now you guys are leaving and... and everything's changing and it's not fair! " With that, the girl turned and began to sprint away. She took two steps and angrily made a shoving motion with her hand to draw the space inward. A second later she was clear across the park.
  Chris straightened, sighing as he looked after the departing girl. "Does anyone disagree with her?" No hands were raised. We all thought this sucked.
  Wincing, Dean glanced toward his girlfriend. "I should go talk to her. Promise that I'm not just gonna disappear entirely."
  Victoria bit her lip, but nodded. "Don't forget, you and I still have a date tonight. And don't think moving gets you out of being my boyfriend. Your family's loaded, you can afford travel expenses."
  The handsome boy grinned at that, before leaning in to kiss her. Then he set out to find and talk to Missy.
  I looked toward Carlos. "Any idea who the other new team member is, boss?"
  He snorted before pointing out, "I'm not gonna be the boss after the next few days." Then his head shook. "But no, they haven't told me who it is. Your guess is as good as mine."
  "What about your brother?" Dennis put in. When I turned to stare at him, he amended himself. "No, no. Not the new teammate. He's too old anyway. I meant, have you heard from him?"
  I sighed and stooped to pick up a stone of my own before tossing it out to skip across the water. "No. I don't know what's going on. He hasn't contacted anyone since he dropped his college classes. According to Mr. Tourney, he also withdrew all his money from the bank and closed his account there."
  "Why would he do all that?" Victoria asked. "Is he some paranoid delusional conspiracy nut?" At Dennis and Carlos's stares, she blinked. "What? I'm just asking."
  "No." I shook my head again. "At least, not the last I knew. Then again, I didn't really know my brother that well. He tended to avoid me ever since junior high when I started being, umm..."
  "Bitchy?" Dennis offered with a smile.
  "Gee, thanks." I rolled my eyes, not that he was wrong. "Yeah, a bitchy little self-obsessed cunt pretty much hits the mark. Also a tattletale. I used to love to get him and his friends in trouble. I guess by the time I... got over it, he never really... got to know the new me."
  "He should still be here." Victoria said firmly. "He's your brother. Family shouldn't abandon family when... I mean..." Even she knew that the issues she was bringing up were painful. After all, she'd lost her own mother in the same battle.
  "I know." I said softly, giving her a break. "I just don't know what else to do. Maybe I could ask Battery or Assault if they know of any way to... look for Dennis, but that involves using Protectorate resources for a personal... thing."
  "Ask them." Carlos coached, his voice soft. "I'm still your leader for now, and I'm giving you an order to talk to them and find out if someone can find your brother."
  "Yeah." Dennis put in. "And unless whoever this other new person is happens to be older than me, which they aren't because even the PRT isn't wasteful and stupid enough to give us a new member with less than a month and a half before they graduate, I'll be the new leader after Carlos transfers. I'm keeping that as a standing order. Do whatever it takes to find Trevor. He's your brother, Mads."
  I smiled faintly and made a point of saluting smartly. "Sirs, yes sirs."
  "Speaking of finding people." Chris put in then, poking me in the ankle with a finger as he lay on his back in the grass. "Any luck with Mr. Hebert or Sophia?"
  That brought on an even more depressed sigh as I drooped. "Nope. Even with the public statement about his innocence and how Calvert framed him, Mr. Hebert still hasn't come out of... wherever he is." I hesitated. "Maybe Coil actually did have him locked up somewhere and he's just getting one last thing over on us."
  "Armsmaster says that Calvert's telling the truth when he says he doesn't have him." Carlos pointed out.
  "Not that that's the be-all end-all." Victoria pointed out. "The guy lied all the time before, even with Armsy's spiffy automatic polygraph thing."
  "He's pretty certain he's gotten past all of Calvert's tinker tech blocking equipment." I stooped to grab another stone, tossing it up and down in my hand. "Still nothing. He did find out something about Sophia."
  "What's that?" Dennis asked.
  "Apparently Trickster stole the remote detonator that controls the bomb in her head." I replied. "That bit about sending Noelle on to whatever his sources were to fix her? That was bullshit. The Travelers just took off and abandoned him, and they took Sophia with them. So now they're the ones holding her leash."
  "Maybe that's why she hasn't made a nuisance of herself." Chris offered. "The Travelers don't really have any particular reason to hate you directly."
  I glanced that way while picking up a second stone. "Except for helping convince Sundancer to leave them."
  "Good point." He replied with a sigh. "Still, what do you think they're keeping Sophia around for? Does... she have any ideas?"
  "Nope." I sighed, turning the two stones over in either hand as I gazed out over the lake. "She's still... upset about everything. Coil really got to her with that talk about how... how Noelle reacted. Hell, she doesn't even know if they're still in town. They haven't shown themselves at all."
  "Maybe they should." Dennis joked. "If they were still making a big enough nuisance of themselves, the PRT might not have decided to transfer you and Dean."
  Snorting, Carlos shook his head. "I'm pretty sure that wouldn't change anything."
  His phone beeped then, and Carlos glanced down at it before letting out a breath. "Time to get Dean and Missy and go meet your guys' new teammate."
  We were all heading down on the Wards elevator together. Missy still wasn't saying much, and had positioned herself in the back corner, arms folded. She was probably taking this the hardest out of any of us. Not that I blamed her.
  Carlos glanced toward Dennis "You gonna be all right taking over the team?"
  "Dude," Dennis replied with a shrug. "I'll have it for what, a month and a half? Then it goes to..." He considered for a moment before his eyes fell on Victoria, and then his eyes widened. "Ohhhh shit. I take it all back, Mads, this team is doomed. Doomed. "
  While Chris and I snickered, Victoria made a show of grabbing for Dennis as he danced backwards out of her reach, then paused to consider before shrugging. "Yeah, you're probably right. See what happens when leadership falls to the oldest?"
  Carlos smiled. "I thought I couldn't be leader when Rory graduated. Trust me, you... grow into it." The doors opened while he continued. "They'll help you learn, and this team is a good one."
  "Yes, it is." Armsmaster spoke up from the short hallway between the elevator and the Wards room entrance. He had a woman with him that took me a brief moment to recognize as Penance. I was used to seeing her either in her new costume, or with her power active so that her eyes and hair were glowing white. Seeing her this way, in casual civilian clothes and with her simple brown hair, was still weird.
  "Ready to meet your new teammate?" Armsmaster asked, with a raised eyebrow.
  I grinned, unable to help myself. "Aww, are you guys giving us Penance? Well okay, but we are so going to kick your asses at the Wards-Protectorate Softball game."
  He stared at me. "I told you before, we don't have one of those."
  "Not yet." I replied. "But I've been wearing guy in charge down on the subject."
  "I am the guy in charge." The older man pointed out.
  "And I'm persistent." I informed him.
  Rolling his eyes and coughing, Armsmaster gestured. "Let's go inside. Your new teammate's just been looking around the place."
  As we made our way in, I saw a teenaged girl with close-cropped white-blonde hair standing next to the monitor. I didn't recognize her.
  For a moment, we all stood and stared at each other. Then the girl turned to look at Penance. "See? I told you this was a stupid fucking idea."
  "Give it a chance." The woman told her. "It's better here than back with what's left of the Empire."
  "Wait..." Dennis was the first of us to get it. "Empire... does that mean..."
  "Meet your new teammate." Armsmaster gestured back and forth between us. "Rune."
  Victoria was the first to recover. "Oh sure, this is a fantastic idea." She gestured back toward Dean and Carlos. "Throw these guys away to make room for Nazi Barbie."
  "Hey, who you calling Barbie, princess?" Rune demanded.
  The former New Waver's eyes rolled toward Armsmaster. "I think the fact that the part of that name she objected to was 'Barbie' speaks for itself."
  For his part, Armsmaster sighed. "No one's throwing anyone away. Calm down. Carlos would have been gone in a month anyway. This is giving him an opportunity to get to know his new city before he joins the Protectorate there."
  "What about Dean?" The demand came in stereo, from both Victoria and Missy. The girls spared a glance to each other before focusing on the subject of their ire.
  "Dean's father accepted a contract to expand the new Protectorate headquarters in Bangor." Armsmaster was clearly trying to remain patient. "The city's population has grown three-fold in the last ten years alone. They've got threats coming down from Canada, and quite frankly they're worried about Leviathan. They don't really feel like waiting for Brockton Bay as their nearest full time Protectorate Team, and I don't particularly blame them. They've been getting their own team established, and now they need a little help from experienced groups. Everyone's doing their part. New York's sending Flechette, the girl you met in the Leviathan fight with the crossbow. Boston's got a Case 53 metal kid they're giving up. Chicago's sending some girl named Grace. Hell, even Texas is contributing with some kid called Chronicler." He looked pointedly at all of us. "And we are contributing by sending Gallant and Aegis, because the people up there deserve protection as much as the people here do. Even if that inconveniences the rest of you."
  Well when he put it like that...
  "Fine, sure, they deserve help." Victoria pointed at Rune. "But putting that Nazi on our team is a bad idea!"
  "'That Nazi' is standing right here, Buttercup." Rune shot back. "You got a problem with me, you talk to me."
  "Okay then." Victoria floated off the floor and moved forward to hover right in front of Rune, arms folded across her chest as she glowered. "I've got a problem with Nazis like you."
  In response, the other girl simply raised her left hand with her index finger extended, using it to poke Victoria in the middle of her belt. Then she immediately started to wave with a bright, exaggerated smile.
  "Wha-" Victoria started to ask, just before she was yanked backwards by her belt, which Rune was obviously controlling. She yelped in surprise while the belt propelled her all the way back out of the room, through the corridor behind us, and into the elevator we had just come down.
  Rune must have released her, because Victoria came flying straight back in, furious. "That's IT! " She drew back her fist.
  "That is enough!" Armsmaster bellowed the words, making both girls freeze. "Victoria, if you want to remain on this team and have any kind of career, settle down. Cassie, same goes. Kayden vouched for you. She said you could be a better person if we give you a chance. That doesn't involve antagonizing your new teammates."
  "Cassie?" Chris piped up. "Who the hell is Cassie?"
  "What," Rune shot at him. "You thought my name was Eva Braun?" She turned her scowl toward Armsmaster. "Like I told you and 'Aunt' Kayden. This isn't gonna work. You heard what they called me."
  His look was unsympathetic. "You fought on the side of a known Nazi team. Forgive me if I'm not terribly surprised that they don't like you very much. You want instant forgiveness, go watch a romantic comedy. This is the real world, and you helped people do real nasty things. It's gonna take more than words to change people's minds about you. If that's too tough, if the idea that people aren't going to immediately believe that you want to change makes you want to give up, then go ahead. Give the fuck up. Go to Juvie. Because believe me, that's where I'd send you if it was my choice alone. I've been through this song and dance before with a probationary Ward, and I'll be damned if I'm going through it again. So if you wanna give up, you go right ahead. I'll leave your resignation and transfer papers filled out and waiting on my desk for your signature any time you wanna prove everybody right."
  For a moment, Rune-Cassie just stood there. Then she let out a sigh and slumped back a little, muttering, "Whatever."
  Finally, I spoke up. "So, question. Penance changed her name when she switched sides. What about Ruuuuu uhhh Cassie?"
  "Fuck, I dunno." Cassie replied with a shrug. "Not like I picked the first name. What do you call a telekinetic that has to touch things?"
  I heard Victoria mutter under her breath. "I've got a few things I could call you."
  Wincing, I shrugged. "Uhh, Nudge? Tactile? You're right, that's hard."
  "Mental Mistress?" Chris offered before chuckling weakly.
  "Why not just Reach?" Dennis put in. "I mean, you can control anything you can touch... and that in turn, uhh... technically extends your... reach."
  The other girl seemed to consider that before shrugging again. "Whatever. It's better than Rune."
  "Reach it is." Armsmaster cleared his throat. "We're working on a new costume-"
  "No." Cassie's head shook. "I have a costume."
  Kayden hesitated. "People know that costume, Cass. If they see you out in it now-"
  "What's the point of changing if I have to pretend to be this whole new person?" Cassie shot back at the older woman. "It's bullshit anyway. Everyone knows you're Purity. I'm not playing that game. I'll take the new name, but I'm keeping my costume. If people pay more attention to some fucking clothes than what I'm actually doing, fuck 'em."
  Missy rolled her eyes and stalked past me to go to the showers. "Oh yeah, this is gonna be a great new team."
  A few hours later, after dark, a sword cleaved partway through the telephone pole that I'd been standing next to right after I threw myself backwards away from it. The guy in the silver costume tore his blade free, while pivoting in the same motion. His other hand came up, pointing the sword in his other hand toward me. The blade extended to about twice its normal length before stabbing in my direction.
  He called himself Duelitist. Yeah, like duel and elitist together. He was some mixture of breaker that gave him enhanced speed, reflexes, and timing, and striker that let him control and completely reshape any metal that he was within a foot or so of. He tended to use it on his own weapons, shrinking, growing, bending, and contorting them into various forms as he fought.
  He was also becoming a pain in the ass, since his control over his own weapons meant that I couldn't pull them out of his hands. His short-range ferrokinesis outweighed my lines, apparently. Plus his armor was covered with some kind of super lightweight metal as well, which he kept tight control of. So no throwing him around either.
  I put lines beneath my own feet and shot straight up, while calling down to him. "Just so I'm clear on this, you're not a Final Fantasy cosplayer?" Another line brought me to the roof of the armored car that he and his buddy had been robbing before they'd been interrupted. "Cuz dude," I indicated his costume, which mostly looked like a long trenchcoat made out of metal, chainmail armor, and a high metallic collar that came up to cover the bottom half of his face like a bandana on an old west bandit. He even had long hair. "You totally look like a cosplayer."
  He leapt to me, flipping up to the top of the armored car before driving one of his swords down into the spot where I had been, but I'd already used another line to pull me back to the ground. The man growled in frustration. "Stand your ground and fight me!"
  "Oh no, I just couldn't possibly." I objected, waving both hands dismissively toward the objects I'd made him hit instead of me. "I'd be jumping in line ahead of the fights you already started with that telephone pole, the mailbox, that truck, and that 'no parking' sign over there. Why don't you finish those up first? I think the mailbox was giving a good accounting of itself."
  He pointed at me with one of his weapons, reshaping it to look like a hammer. "First I'm gonna break your legs. Then maybe I'll get creative."
  I let my head tilt to the side. "What does the great big moron say when he gets hit by the flying hotdog cart?"
  Duelistist frowned. "What does that even- guuuuuugggnaaah!"
  Stepping out of the way as the armored man faceplanted onto the cement, while the mangled cart that I'd pulled from down the street went tumbling end over end, I nodded thoughtfully. "Apparently he says 'guuuuugggnah'. Good to know."
  He got back to his feet faster than I'd been expecting and I had to throw myself backwards and out of the reach of his long blade. Then he turned and touched the edge of the armored truck, making a half-dozen metal spears extend toward me with sudden ferocity. I was forced to launch myself up once again to escape, and by the time I came back down, the guy had disappeared.
  "My guy's gone." A voice behind me complained. I glanced over my shoulder to see Battery shaking her head. "Some kind of changer or breaker power. It was like his body was made of jello or something. I couldn't hit him. What about yours?"
  "Got away." I replied with a sigh. "Duelitist again. Didn't know he had a partner."
  "At least they didn't get what they came for." Battery pointed out, moving to check on the unconscious driver. His partner had been killed when he tried to shoot at the attackers.
  "What were they after, anyway?" I asked, eying the mangled truck. "Cash?"
  Rising from where she had been checking the survivor, Battery shook her head. "Nah, some kind of tinker-tech computer stuff back there. Ambulance and clean-up crew are almost here." She hesitated, then looked to me. "I, uhhh... Ethan wanted to me to ask how... I mean, I thought I should check on how you're... feeling."
  My mouth opened and then shut before I sighed. "I'm dealing. I'm taking it day-by-day. No offense, it's gonna take a lot longer before I feel... remotely normal. It's... what, the thirteenth? Mom... mom and dad died... almost a month ago. But every time I wake up, it's brand new. It's like it just happened, and I just... I can't..."
  "I get it." She said quietly. "If you want to talk... not just about that, but about... anything..."
  Shrugging, I let myself slump a little against the damaged mailbox. "Like how I let someone die again?" I couldn't help but let my gaze pass toward the guard who had been killed. Sure, he'd been dead before we ever arrived, but still...
  Battery put herself in front of me, blocking my gaze. "It's not your fault. Sometimes we just... don't make it in time.
  I glanced away, swallowing. "What about the fact that I let the bad guy get away?"
  Her hand came out to my shoulder. "Hey, do you have any idea how many bad guys kept getting away from me when I first started?"
  "Uhhh..." I couldn't resist. "I know how many of them you ended up marrying."
  "Damn it, Ethan." She hissed before rolling her eyes. "Okay, okay, but I swear that's not the norm... for anyone."
  "Oh thank god." I teased. "I was afraid that if Duelitist escaped one more time, there was gonna have to be some kind of prenuptial agreement." I ducked as she lazily swiped at me, then turned as the ambulance rolled up. "Time to go?"
  She nodded. "Actually, I think it's time for ice cream."
  "Ice cream?" I asked a raised eyebrow behind my mask. Yeah, the man who had died was still weighing on my mind, and I knew that Battery was purposefully trying to distract me from dwelling on what I couldn't change.
  "Ice cream." She confirmed.
  Twenty minutes later, the two of us sat atop a roof, legs dangling off the edge. We were each holding a pint of Ben & Jerry's, and I had lifted my mask up enough that I could eat.
  Pulling the spoon back out of my mouth, I purred. "Mmmmm, I could get used to this kind of treatment. If this is what happens when we let the bad guy escape, I might have to do it more often."
  Snorting, Battery nudged me with her elbow. "Don't you dare. And don't tell Ethan. He'll sulk because we didn't get any for him."
  I smiled briefly, staring down at my ice cream, before my eyes started to water, and I had to close them again. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut while a little shudder ran through me.
  A moment later, while I was still collecting myself, Battery-Sam's arm came around me. Her voice was soft. "I know. I'm sorry, Madison. I'm sorry we can't make it better. You're just... you're coping better than a lot would. Sometimes I forget how hard it's gotta be, because... you're dealing with it."
  "I'm trying to," I replied in a barely audible voice. "But then I just start crying for no reason."
  Sam shook her head. "Not no reason, Madison. You have every reason." She hesitated a little before asking, "Do you want to talk about them?"
  I shook my head quickly. "No. Not now. I can't."
  "Okay." She accepted that before glancing to me while taking a bite of her own ice cream. "But if you want to talk about anything else."
  "My brother." I finally admitted with a sigh. "I can't find him. I don't know where he is. Trevor just... disappeared. He dropped out of school, grabbed his money and... poof."
  "I'll see what we can pick up about him."
  I shoved another bite of ice cream into my mouth before trying to shrug it off. "It's no big deal-I mean, it is a big deal, but if it's against the rules or whatever. Don't-"
  "Shh." Sam shook her head firmly. "He's your brother, Madison. And we're your... friends. The Protectorate's got your back. Not just me and Ethan, all of us. We'll figure out where your brother is and what's going on, I promise."
  After a moment of silence, I shifted against her a little bit. Her arm squeezed around me in a half-hug, and I let my head lean down against her shoulder. We sat there in contemplative silence watching the lights of the busy city beneath our feet.
  "Our ice cream's melting." She pointed out quietly a few minutes later.
  "I know." I replied, just as softly. "I like this though."
  There was a long pause before Sam responded, her voice even quieter, and tinged with something I couldn't quite understand. "Yeah... me too."
  "And that... is... game!" I crowed two nights later, pushing away from the computer in the Wards HQ while holding my hands up triumphantly. "Hah! I beat you. I totally beat you."
  Dennis coughed. "You got lucky. My rogue was right there. Two more seconds, two more seconds, and your psychic would've been dead, which would've screwed your whole team."
  I stuck my tongue out at him. "I'm sorry, the only words I keep hearing are, 'why yes, Maddy, you whooped my ass in the game I just started teaching you a few weeks ago. However did you become so awesome?'"
  He laughed, rolling his eyes at the same time. "One time. It was one time, Miss World Champion. Let's go again, just so I can kick your ass and remind you who the real winner is. We'll see who's awesome."
  "Oh I'd love to." I teased before pushing myself up. "But it's time for my patrol. No more games for me tonight."
  "Cheat!" He claimed, pointing at me dramatically. "This girl is a cheat! You can't just win once and then run away. You've gotta give me a chance to get my title back."
  "Sorry!" I wasn't. "You know how it is. Schedule and responsibilities, all that jazz. Besides, I've gotta go meet Rune-I mean Reach. I'm her partner tonight." I had actually been taken off of trainee status after the Leviathan attack, which meant I was technically allowed to patrol all by my lonesome now. It also apparently meant that I could 'escort' those who couldn't go out on their own yet, like Cassie and Missy. I still thought not letting Vista go out by herself was weird, considering she had more experience than anyone else on the team. But they went by age, and she just wasn't technically old enough to go solo.
  Not that I minded the nights that I patrolled with Vista. She might have been annoyed about being treated like a kid, but she was still fun to hang out with, and we were still coming up with interesting combinations for our powers.
  "Wow, you get the first official patrol with the Nazi girl?" Dennis shook his head. "What'd you do to piss Armsmaster off this time?"
  I rolled my eyes. "You know, if you keep calling her Nazi girl, she's going to keep acting like that. I'm just gonna do this patrol and maybe see if... you know... we can find some common ground or something. She chose to join the Wards, there's gotta be something there that we can reach."
  "Good luck with that." Kid Win called from the table on the other side of the room where he was assembling... something. "I'll be on monitor duty tonight, so if she gives you too much shit, just ahhh, lemme know and I'll start piping some annoying Aleph music through her comm or something."
  "Maybe you'll get lucky," Dennis put in. "And some big brawl will happen so you don't have to do much talking."
  I shrugged at that. "Personally, I'd prefer it stay quiet. One nice, long, boring night. That's all I ask for."
  "Uuuuuuggggggnnn this is boring as shit," Cassie complained as the two of us walked along yet another rooftop. "Is patrolling always this fucking boring?"
  I gave the other girl a look. Her costume consisted of a red robe and hood with black outlines over black light body armor with red outlines, the reverse of the robe, and a black half-mask that covered the lower half of her face. "Hey, sorry the lack of people being horribly injured or beaten depresses you. Maybe we'll get lucky and someone'll rob a bank while we're out here. That outta spice up your evening."
  "Eat me," She replied, seemingly automatically and without particular malice. "And I mean it, what the hell do you guys do when nothing's happening? We've been out here for two hours already without so much as a purse snatcher."
  "Yeah, see things are a bit different when you're not the ones doing the attacking," I pointed out. "You're just used to always being on the offensive. The Wards are more... defensive."
  At the edge of the roof, I put out a hand to make a line between my gauntlet and the next roof over, yanking myself that way. Reach, meanwhile, floated up and over the gap before landing next to me. I cast a glance to her. "Okay, I've been holding back, but now I've gotta ask. You can fly?"
  Her head shook automatically, face hidden inside that dark red hood with the black half-mask that came up to her nose. "Just lift my shoes. It's uncomfortable and hard to balance that way. That's why I prefer something more substantial to float on. But I can do it for short distances like that." I saw her brow wrinkle in a frown. "Why, your buddies tell you to find out everything you could about me?"
  "Sure, it could be that." I rolled my eyes. "Or it could be that I'm curious. I mean, we are supposed to be teammates, after all."
  She gave me a doubtful look at that. "Yeah, and I'm sure you're super-eager to be bff teammates with the Nazi. Next we can braid each other's hair and have pillow fights."
  "Hell no," I replied. "I would rock your ass at pillow fights. Seriously, you'd need like, two other people on your team to stand a chance. I pillow fight like Muhammad Ali used to box. Just be all, pow." I mimed swinging a pillow.
  She tried to stop it, but I saw the way Cassie's mask twisted a little bit under the smile that she failed to fully bite back. "Crusader and Alabaster were right. You really are a dork." She paused then. "You're not a nigger though. They thought you were totally a nigger."
  I deflated a bit. "See, that's your problem. You can't just go around saying words like that."
  The other girl blinked blankly at me. "Words like what, 'dork'?"
  "No!" I sighed. "You know, the N word. You can't just say that."
  "You mean ni-"
  I let her get that far before quickly putting a hand up to press against her mouth through the half-mask. "Stop it! You can't go around saying stuff like that!" Hearing her muffled, 'why not' through my hand, I sighed. "It's hate-speech. I mean, it's just... wrong." Finally, I took my hand away. "Look, how old are you anyway?"
  "I'll be fifteen in another month, why? What does that have to do with anything?"
  "So you're old enough to know that shit's wrong. I shouldn't have to tell you. This is Sesame Street level common sense and courtesy."
  For a moment, an expression passed through her eyes, and then the younger girl spun away from me. "Go to hell."
  I shook my head, reaching out to take the girl by the shoulder and turn her back around. "No, listen to me."
  As I turned her back around, Cassie's hands went up to grab my arms before she released me. I felt myself start to float up and back as her power took hold, but I quickly attached two different lines, one to the roof and one to the other girl, to keep myself where I was, right in front of her. "Reach- Cassie, listen to me. " I used the line to pull her to me, cutting out the distance between us before putting both hands on her shoulders. "Why are you here? Why did you join the Wards in the first place?"
  "Uhhh, maybe because I don't feel like going back into Juvie?" Her response came just a hair too late to be fully satisfying.
  I shook my head. "That's bullshit. You weren't that bad before, not so bad they'd send you to the Bird Cage or anything. If you wanted to, you could break out of whatever juvenile detention they put you in, eventually. So why are you putting yourself through this?"
  She recoiled a little at that. "Why the hell should I talk to you? We're not buddies. You hate me, remember? I'm just a racist fucking Nazi."
  The question made me sigh. "Why? Because I've seen someone sort of near your position before. Threatened with Juvie if she didn't join the Wards. Everyone ignored her shit and eventually it... got really bad. So I'm not making that mistake with you. We're talking because it's better than letting you bottle it all up and take it out on someone else, someone that doesn't deserve it, someone that might... that you might hurt."
  For a long moment, the girl just glowered at me, her expression hot. I could see Sophia's anger and lack of control in her eyes, and for a moment I was afraid that this whole thing was going to be as pointless as any attempt to reason with Sophia had been.
  I also felt the fairly irrational urge to hit her, just because of how much she reminded me of my psychotic former friend.
  However, unlike Sophia, Cassie finally closed her eyes and I saw the hint of vulnerability, of basic humanity, that the other girl had lacked. She spoke quietly. "You wanna know why I agreed to this? Two reasons. First, you guys took Aunt Kayden... she's not really my aunt, just... it's complicated. Anyway, you took her back even after everything she did. You took her back anyway, and she asked me to join. She asked me to give it a shot. After she was allowed to stay, I thought it might... work for me."
  I nodded slowly, considering that. "And the other reason?"
  She hesitated for a moment. Then she sighed. "Look, you want my fucking life story, fine. Basically, even though my real parents left this whole... Empire thing long behind, they still raised me to say things like... that N word you don't want me to say. You say not talking like that is Sesame Street, well it wasn't for me. The way I grew up, what was normal was saying nigger, gook, chink, spic, kike, whatever. Mom and Dad weren't into the violence, but they did hate everyone who wasn't like us. You know how some kids grow up in a religion that does things that everyone that's not part of that religion thinks are weird or fucked up or whatever, and the kid doesn't realize that it's weird until they're a lot older, if they ever realize it at all? It's like that. I didn't fucking wake up one day and decide, 'hey, I think I'll hate Jewish people from now on'. I thought hating Jewish people was normal! "
  "Then I got into trouble and I ran away from home. Found my uncle, and he let me stay with him. It was fun, but... the stuff he was doing wasn't exactly legal. He let me tag along and we got busted. I ended up in juvie, started a fight with some spi-some Mexican kids, ended up with a broken arm. So they stuck me in isolation. I got my powers, broke out, and my uncle sent me up here to Brockton Bay to help out Kaiser. Why? Because I had powers and my family was trying to make Kaiser like them."
  I was quiet for a moment after she stopped talking, before prompting gently, "So what was your second reason?"
  She looked away before answering. "Because I realized that all my life, I've been following the same fucking path. I'm a god damn racist because my family is, I'm a criminal because my uncle was, I'm a supervillain because he basically sold me to Kaiser. I never made my own fucking choices. And now I'm trying to change that-I'm fucking trying to, and it doesn't fucking matter because no matter what I do, I'm always gonna be the stupid shit-ass Nazi girl! You said it yourself, not saying words like that is Sesame Street. Well it's not for me! It's like... it's like being told not to use the word 'the' anymore. The words pop out because I've always used them."
  Pausing briefly, I finally nodded. "Okay."
  She blinked at that. "Okay? Okay what?"
  "Okay, you said the word that I wanted to hear," I told her. "Trying. You said that you're trying to change. So I'll help you do it. But let's get this straight, you say racist bullshit, and I'm gonna call you on it, straight out. I don't care if it's awkward or whatever for you. You wanna learn how to be better? Take your medicine and deal with it. You say stuff that deserves a smack, and I'll damn well smack you."
  Again, I saw that flash of vulnerability before it vanished behind the mask of jadedness that she wore. "I don't need a fucking counselor."
  "How about a friend?" I asked.
  Her eyes showed skepticism. " You want to be friends with the Nazi supervillain."
  "No." I shook my head. "I don't wanna be friends with the Nazi supervillain. But the former Nazi supervillain, who decided that maybe she didn't want to be that way anymore and is trying to change even if she thinks nobody's going to believe her? Well, her I might want to be friends with. We'll see how it goes."
  Our coms crackled then before Kid Win spoke up. "Hey, you guys might wanna haul your asses over to Southland General Hospital."
  I blinked at that before activating my comm to reply. "Southland? What's going on over there?"
  "Not sure." He replied. "But there's reports coming in about some kind of little mechanical spider robot things breaking into Bakuda's room." The now-quadriplegic bomb-maker had been under armed guard at the hospital for weeks, not that she could go anywhere or influence anything.
  I frowned at that "Little mechanical spiders? That's tinker stuff. What kind of tinker would be breaking Bakuda out of the hospital?"
  "Leet, maybe?" Chris offered. "I dunno, but Laserdream's already on her way. She said she'd meet you guys there."
  I shrugged before glancing at my patrol partner. "You did say you wanted some excitement. Ready to go stomp some spider-bots?"
  Reach hesitated, staring at me for a moment, before she nodded. "What the hell. Let's go save the fucking day."
  By the time that Reach and I arrived at the back lot of the hospital, Crystal was already there. She glanced toward Cassie and frowned a little, but said nothing about it. Instead, she focused on me. "For the record, the idea of going back into this place again does not fill me with warm fuzzies."
  "Again?" Reach glanced between us.
  I shrugged. "Long story. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime. Right now, let's just hope what we're dealing with isn't as creepy or dangerous as that was."
  "Amen." Crystal took the lead, walking into the hospital ahead of us.
  We entered into a back area, with stairs to the left, a janitor's closet and a few other unlabeled doors to the right, and a short hallway toward what looked like a large waiting room from where we were. I could hear the television on out there.
  A second after we came in, a Hispanic nurse somewhere in her early thirties hissed at us from the closet, beckoning us to come closer. Crystal did so, heading that way before asking, "Are you all right, miss?"
  "I'm just peachy," the nurse replied, a note of sarcasm in her voice. "But the real problem's upstairs. That's where they are. The... the spiders. They're on the third floor. There's... there's no one else up there. We've been trying to keep everyone out of their way, since the... the note came."
  I blinked at that. "Note? What note?"
  The nurse hesitated before carefully handing over a piece of paper. "One of the... the spiders came right up to the desk and dropped this off."
  Crystal glanced at the note, frowned, and passed it to me. When I looked at it, I saw clearly childish handwriting in red crayon. It said, 'Hi, Mrs. Nurses Peoples. Aunt Bockuda and me are really busy, so you have to leave us alone, or the spiders might get mad and kill a bunch of people or something. So no interruptions! Thank you! Yours corjelly, Me.' There was a hand drawn smiley face at the end.
  "They're everywhere," the nurse whispered. "The spiders. Sometimes they're on the ceiling and... and other times they're on the floor, or the walls but... they're always... watching."
  "Aunt Bockuda?" Reach blurted after reading the note over my shoulder. "Is that even spelled right? And did she really have a niece?"
  Focusing on the newest Ward for the first time, the nurse's eyes widened. "W-wait, you're... you're..."
  "And that is why you should have a new costume," I pointed out to Cassie, who was clearly scowling. Then I focused on the poor nurse. "It's okay, she's... on a work-release program. We'll take care of the situation. Right?" I looked up to Laserdream.
  "Right," she agreed. "Get out of here, we'll see what's going on."
  As we walked away, with the nurse whispering for us to be careful before she ran down the hall, I asked, "So what now? I'm pretty sure whoever's up there might be screwing with us with the whole childish writing. But the threat's probably real, and we don't know where all the spiders are."
  Crystal hesitated, clearly considering. "I need to call in and see what the others think. Kind of the low girl on the totem pole as far as the Protectorate's concerned." She turned away from us to use her own comm, reporting the situation to Armsmaster.
  Reach, meanwhile, was gazing at the nearby stairs. "Why don't we just go up there, see who the hell it is, and put them down? Errr, knock them out. Whatever."
  "Like I said, we don't know where all the spiders are. If whoever's controlling them sees us coming and tells all the hidden spiders to attack people, this could turn really nasty, really quick."
  She sighed at that. "This playing defensive thing sucks."
  "Sometimes," I agreed quietly.
  Crystal was turning back to us by that point. "Armsmaster and the others are on their way. We're supposed to watch the building and make sure Bakuda and whoever this is don't escape."
  Reach shrugged at that. "What's Bakuda gonna do, drag herself down the hallway with her pinkie? She's fucking crippled."
  I elbowed the other girl a little. "We're still working on the empathy thing. And the thinking further ahead thing." To Cassie, I pointed out, "She means that the person could drag her out, or have the spiders do it, or something. Maybe she's got a hover cart or something, if it's a tinker. Hell, they might strap her into a power armor suit. Point is, it's a tinker, so don't rule out anything."
  "Right." Crystal looked between us before pointing. "You guys watch the back of the building. I'm going around to the front until the others get here. Stay in contact, just in case."
  "You got it." I started to pull Reach after me, back to the door we had come in. As we were going, I saw it: a mechanical spider roughly the size of a medium sized dog, crouched at the top of the nearby stairs. It seemed to be staring at us.
  Freezing, I watched the spider, but it wasn't moving. It wasn't doing anything at all, other than watching. Reluctant to take my eyes off it, I finally managed to glance toward Cassie. The other girl's eyes were on the spider-thing as well.
  "What now?" She whispered out of the side of her mouth.
  Just to be on the safe side, I raised my hands carefully, before pointing back to the door. "Hi there. We're going out the backdoor now. Not bothering you at all." Gradually, I shuffle-stepped sideways until we reached the exit. The whole time, the spider kept staring, turning slightly to keep us in view as we moved.
  It wasn't until we were outside that I started to breathe again. "I have a really bad feeling about all this. Something's not right."
  Reach, for her part, actually looked just as uneasy. "I still-"
  "Shh." I interrupted, pointing at a station wagon in the lot. There was another spider-bot perched atop it, watching us. "This is... seriously creeping me out."
  "Hi!" A cheerful young girl's voice chirped from right behind us. I yelped and spun around, finding yet another of the spiders (or possibly the one from the stairs) squatting there barely two feet away. How the hell had it gotten so close? The girl's voice was coming from the spider. "You're Tether, right?"
  "Uhh... yes...?" I confirmed hesitantly, glancing toward my tense companion.
  I expected possibly an attack, or a threat, or something of that nature. What I didn't expect was the giddy little squeal of excitement, nor the happy little dance that the mechanical monstrosity did, spinning itself around in a circle on most of its legs while using two of them to wave in the air. "Eeeeeee! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! You're my hero! Can I have your autograph?"
  My mouth fell open behind the mask. "Uhhhhhhh..."
  "Pleeeeeease?" The mechanical spider pleaded, arching up on several of its back legs while its eyes seemed to widen to near Disney-character proportions. "If you give me your autograph, I won't kill anybody here. Cross my heart and hope to die. Except I said I wouldn't kill anybody. Oopsie."
  I shook off the confusion. "It's okay, it's all right. I... uhh, I'll give you an autograph."
  Beside me, Cassie muttered, "You have got to be fucking kidding me."
  "Yaaaaaaaaaaay!" Again, the spider danced happily. This time, the thing went up onto its legs, tilting its body all the way back until its bottom was facing us, then began to bob up and down while dancing from side to side. It almost looked like...
  "Is that thing doing the Snoopy dance?" Reach asked in blatant disbelief.
  Dropping back down, the spider faced us once more as a small panel slid open on the front. I tensed, but all that popped out was a black permanent marker, which fell onto the pavement. Then the spider tilted forward and presented its body, while the girl's voice called through it excitedly, "Sign the body, please! And can you make it out to Riley? And say 'to my best friend and almost sister'."
  All but floored by the surreality of this situation, I nonetheless did as requested, carefully signing the robot's body, 'To Riley, my best friend and almost sister. Thanks for not killing anybody. As long as you don't kill anybody, we can keep being friends. Yours, Tether'.
  Once I was finished, one of the spider's eyes actually popped out, connected by some kind of metal coil-cord thing, bending up and around to peer down at what I'd written. I heard a happy little giggle. "D'ya mean it? We can keep being friends?"
  I nodded hesitantly. "As... as long as you don't kill anybody, Riley."
  Cassie whispered something to me, and I quickly repeated her words. "Or let your spiders kill anyone."
  There was a long pause after that, so long that I wasn't sure the girl was going to respond. The spider-bot continued to sit there motionless, eye now retracted back into its slot.
  Finally, she spoke again. "You know how comes I came here?"
  Biting my lip, I shook my head. "Not... really. Is Bakuda really your aunt?"
  "Nuh uh." The spider moved itself from side to side, approximating a head shake. "Not really, but I needed a new friend, and she was new. I don't think she's a very good friend though. She didn't even say thank you for the super-cool arms I gave her!"
  "The... the arms?" I echoed, confused.
  The reply was dismissive. "Never mind, you'll see. She was rude though. I asked if she wanted to be my friend, and she left! She left me here." That was followed by a little sniff. "That was kinda mean, you know? I did this really nice thing, and Bockuda wouldn't even play with me. Not even for a little bit."
  "Wait, you mean Bakuda's gone?" My eyes widened at that.
  "I shoulda done like Uncle Jack always said." The girl's voice lamented through the spider. "But I was trying to be nice and helpful, not like Uncle Jack. He doesn't know where I am. You know why?"
  I felt completely lost, but I nudged Cassie and murmured, "Use your comm to tell them Bakuda might be out of the building." Then I focused on the spider. "Why... why doesn't Uncle Jack know where you are?"
  "Cuz he doesn't like you." The girl replied. "He said that you were a bad influence, that I shouldn't watch your video clips. But you're funny! You make me laugh. But Uncle Jack's always right. But you're my hero! So... so I was confused. And my head hurts when I think about it too much. But, I wanted to come and help people, like you! I helped Bockuda, only she was mean and she left. But if I'd put something in to control her, like Uncle Jack would have told me to, then she'd still be here and she'd play with me. Only, I don't think you'd do that."
  "I wouldn't." I confirmed.
  The spider let out a long, heavy sigh, slumping. "Confused. I'm really confused."
  "Maybe..." I hesitated uncertainly. "Maybe you could come here, the real you, and we could talk it out together?"
  For a second, the robot peered up at me. The girl's voice had turned suspicious. "Are you trying to trap me?"
  I raised both hands quickly, defensively. "No no, nothing like that. I just thought you might want to talk. I mean, we're friends, right?"
  For a moment, I wasn't sure how she was going to react. Then the spider settled a little. Riley's voice sounded regretful. "I wanna be. You're the best hero ever. You made me laugh. Really laugh. Not like fake laughing with Uncle Jack. I forgot what that was like, til I saw your videos."
  "So we can be friends." I assured her.
  "Not yet." The spider shook itself. "I'm still confused. My head is all fuzzy and dumb. Uncle Jack says something, but you say something else. I can't do both. I can't be both of them. I can only be me, and I dunno who me is. I've gotta think, and... and experiment. I always think better when I can experiment."
  I swallowed a little at that, unsure of what her 'experiments' might be, but pretty sure I didn't want to know. "Don't forget your promise, Riley."
  "No killing people, no letting my spiders kill people." She repeated.
  "Good. Good." I let my head bob. "Thank you, Riley. You're a good girl."
  The robot froze, and for a second I thought I'd said the wrong thing. Then it stretched up on its legs, extending them somehow until the spider was face to face with me. The girl's voice came through, and it sounded as lonely, sad, and uncertain as any voice I'd ever heard. "No, I'm not."
  The spider shrank back down then, before turning to skitter away. The voice called back. "I'll keep my promise though! No killing, cuz you asked. As long as you're my friend, I won't kill anybody. At least not until I... figure out if I should listen to you, or to Uncle Jack."
  Letting out a long breath as the spider-bot disappeared, I turned toward Reach. "That was... weird."
  "Weird?" She echoed. "That was ten tons of fucked up in a three pound bag. Who the hell was that girl?"
  I shook my head. "I'm not sure. But she's dangerous. And unstable."
  "And apparently, your number one fan." Cassie pointed out.
  I was spared from trying to respond to that by the arrival of Laserdream, as she landed next to us. "Armsmaster's upstairs with Battery. The floor's deserted. There's no sign of Bakuda or whoever freed her. Did you find out anything else?"
  My mouth opened, then shut and I sighed. "Can we go get a cup of coffee or something? And bring the others. I sort have a feeling that everyone's gonna want to hear this, and I'd rather not keep saying the same things over and over."
  Crystal's eyes met mine. "Is everything okay? Besides Bakuda escaping."
  "Honestly?" I replied with a helpless shrug. "I have no idea."
  "I think that's everything, sir." I finished dutifully reporting everything that had happened at the hospital while taking another sip from the coffee that had been provided as soon as we were seated in this conference room somewhere deep inside PRT headquarters. We had been brought here to meet with Armsmaster and Piggot. Crystal was at the other end of the table, having already given her own side of the events and what she'd seen (not much).
  "Reach, do you have anything to add?" Armsmaster focused on my companion. Piggot, in the seat next to him, seemed to be doing her level best to set the former Nazi supervillain on fire through the sheer force of her glare.
  Reach, apparently unaffected by Piggot's glowering, shrugged. "Nope. She pretty much covered it." In the face of Piggot's continued scowl, the fourteen year old girl picked up her glass of ice water (she had refused coffee, or anything with caffeine, on the grounds of it being both unhealthy and addicting), and took a slow, deliberate sip while meeting the woman's gaze. "Except for the part where I rejoined the Nazis and started eating babies."
  "She's kidding!" I spoke up quickly, elbowing the other girl. "Just kidding."
  "Is this funny to you, Miss Herren?" Piggot demanded. "Perhaps you could explain what part of a dangerous bomb-tinker escaping custody makes you think jokes are appropriate."
  Cassie raised one shoulder in a shrug. "I dunno, maybe the part where it's totally your fault."
  I choked on my coffee, eyes widening while Piggot's hand came down hard on the tabletop. "What?" She demanded in a disbelieving tone.
  "I said, it's your fault," Reach replied dismissively. "What, were we not supposed to say that out loud? I mean, whose idea was it to put the dangerous bomb-tinker into a normal hospital to begin with? Cuz it wasn't my idea. It wasn't even crazy spider-girl's idea. That was all you."
  Poor Piggot's eyes looked like they were about to pop right out of her head. She very nearly came over the table. "If I had any say over your violent, criminal little ass, you'd be locked up where you belong, you little psychopath. Open your mouth again, and you-"
  "You don't," A new voice replied from the doorway. I glanced up to see a familiar blonde woman coming in, while continuing, "Have any authority, that is."
  Crystal, at the end of the table, blinked. "Mom?"
  "Sorry I was late." Sarah Pelham, the former leader of New Wave, and Crystal's mother, set a briefcase down on the desk and let out a long sigh. "So much going on. Hey, sweetie, you all right?"
  "I... I'm fine," Crystal replied rather blankly. "What are you doing here?"
  Armsmaster, looking rather relieved for the interruption, answered, "Mrs. Pelham here has finally agreed to take over Calvert's job."
  Unable to help myself, I spoke up. "People are totally going to appreciate the way that you fill out that skin tight snake costume better than he did." That time, I was rewarded with making Cassie choke on her drink.
  Mrs. Pelham rolled her eyes and pulled out a chair. "His civilian job, thank you. Which includes, currently, administration over the Wards."
  "You didn't tell me you were considering something like this." Crystal pointed out. "This is big, Mom. Are you sure..." She trailed off uncertainly.
  The older woman gave a slight nod. "Without... without the team, and after losing Carol... and with your brother leaving, I need something to do. I need to feel like I'm contributing. Colin," she indicated Armsmaster, "brought up the idea, and I've been speaking with Director Costa-Brown and Senator Wallace for a week now, just to get everything in line."
  "The official announcement isn't until tomorrow," Armsmaster put in. "But I thought this was important enough to bring her in early."
  "Yes," Mrs. Pelham agreed. "As I said, I'm sorry I'm late, but Colin was sending the audio through the phone in the car. Does this girl sound like who I think she sounds like?"
  "Of course she does," Piggot all but spat. "She's probably here because of one of Calvert's back-up plans. He gets sent away and they show up."
  "I think you're overestimating the power he had." Armsmaster told her. "No one controls them, especially not enough to count on as a 'back-up plan'."
  "Who?" I put in. Honestly, I think some part of me already knew the answer, but the second the idea had occurred to that part of my mind, it had locked itself in a padded cell and hadn't stopped screaming long enough to pass that information along to the rest of my consciousness.
  "Slaughterhouse Nine," Crystal answered for everyone, her voice quiet.
  "What?!" I jerked a little in my seat, staring down the table at the girl. "That's not... I mean..." I hesitated. "She said... Jack... and she was... and she said... and I said... and I called her... and we..." Slowly, I sank down further and further in my seat, my face pale as my throat closed up until all I could manage was a weak, "Oh."
  The Slaughterhouse Nine. If this Riley was the girl that they thought she was, and this Jack was the guy they thought he was... "I... ummm... I think I might need a... a new... pair of pants."
  "It is imperative that we find this girl." Armsmaster said firmly. "I cannot stress that enough. We find her and we verify her identity, one way or another." Even he looked grave. "And we do it before the rest of them show up, should worst come to worst."
  "Which is something for the rest of us to talk about," Mrs. Pelham pointed out before focusing on Cassie and me. "You two can go. Good job today. Whatever comes next, you convinced a violent psychopath not to kill anyone."
  Armsmaster was gazing at me thoughtfully. "Yes, she seems to be making a habit of that..."
  For my part, all I could do was walk to the door while trying not to whimper. The idea that the girl I had been talking to, the girl I'd called my best friend and almost sister, was Bonesaw, almost made me want to hide in a corner and cry for awhile.
  Alternatively, I could find a way to feel better.
  With a shhhhlllerrp, I finished covering my piece of cherry pie with whipped cream. "This is so much better than worrying about a pack of the most evil, psychotic killers possibly making a beeline this way." I said, shuddering in spite of myself.
  Behind me, Marissa lay a hand on my back as she peered over my shoulder. "Did you get some pie with that cream?"
  Turning slightly to stick my tongue out at her, I replied airily. "I like whipped cream. It's the best part."
  Grinning, Mars lifted her own plate. "Ready for the movie?"
  Nodding, I turned to grab the glass of chocolate milk that was waiting there, and walked back out into the living room.
  Being in my family's house still hurt. It made the permanent, dull ache in my chest worse in some ways, like touching a sensitive wound. Everywhere I looked, I could remember scenes of my parents, parts of my past that I would never get back again.
  And yet, being there with Marissa helped a bit. It helped me remember that the memories weren't bad ones, and that even though the idea of not making new memories with my parents was always going to be painful, holding onto and remembering the ones that I had could be good as well.
  Days went on, and the hard, impossible pain gradually lessened. It still made me cry more than I wanted to admit, but I kept going. I kept myself busy, and as each day passed, it gradually started to become easier to think about how much I loved, and appreciated my parents for everything they had done, rather than focusing entirely on what they wouldn't be able to do now.
  In some ways, the idea of getting over their deaths, in any fashion, made me nearly as upset as I'd been before. It felt... wrong, especially since it had only been a few weeks. I guess humans could only physically grieve at that... level for so long.
  I wasn't over my parents' deaths. I wouldn't be over it for a very long time. But I was slowly, gradually getting better at focusing on why I loved them, rather than the simple, horribly painful fact that they weren't around anymore. And Marissa was a big part of that.
  Taking a seat on the floor, I set the plate down in front of me and took a forkful of nothing but whipped cream. "Mmmmmmmhmmm." I murmured in pleasure.
  For some reason, Marissa was blushing as she sat down next to me. "Uhh, good pie?"
  "Dunno," I replied while grabbing the remote. "Haven't reached the pie yet." I started the movie and leaned back against the beanbag chair behind me. "Mindless explosions and car chases, do your stuff." I gestured imperialistically before digging into the pie once more.
  We actually watched two movies, though I drifted off sometime through the second one. I could feel the sleep coming on, but I was in the fuzzy, tired mindset where I didn't particularly care.
  When I came to, the credits were playing, and I felt comfortable. I'd fallen asleep leaning slightly against the beanbag, but now I was laying down on the floor, with a blanket from the couch covering me, and my head was... I shifted, turning my head up to find myself looking up at Marissa, who was gazing down at me, my head in her lap.
  I blinked at that, still gradually becoming conscious. "Oh... hi." I said quietly, feeling a slight pink coloring come to my cheeks in spite of myself.
  "Hi." She replied, her voice soft, and little bit thoughtful.
  My mouth opened and then shut before I managed to indicate with my head. "Was it a ummm, a good movie?"
  Marissa shrugged at that. "I'm not sure, I was... distracted. We can watch again later, if you want to."
  "Distracted?" My head tilted a little in her lap as I asked, curiously. "By what?"
  The older girl hesitated, looking uncertain for a moment. "Distracted by the fact that... I was happy. Right here, right now. I... ever since we came to this world, me and the others, my... everything has been focused on helping Noelle, and getting home. That's all I wanted. I did some really bad things, things I never wanted to do. I saw things I can't ever unsee. I just... I never thought being here, on this world, would be anything less than miserable. But... when we were watching the movie, I felt... good. I felt happy. Even with Noelle... maybe hating me, maybe never forgiving me, which should make me curl up into a ball and cry, I felt... good, right here."
  I blinked several times before teasing a little, "Wow, that must've been an amazing film."
  Her eyes rolled. "It wasn't the movie. It was the company." She bit her lip cutely, glancing away. "You..." Turning back, she went on. "You're the one that makes me happy. You're the one that makes being here, even without the others, not completely suck. Just being here with you, it's... it's really..." Ducking her head as her blush deepened, Marissa mumbled, "It's really nice."
  For a long moment, I stared up at the older girl. My mouth opened and shut, but no words came. The thoughts I had, the... feelings that I hadn't been able to articulate, drifted through my mind.
  Flinching from the long silence, Marissa started to shift her legs out from under me. "I'm sorry." She mumbled. "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean... I wasn't... I'll just-"
  "You make me happy too." I blurted, sitting up and turning that way so that we were facing each other. "I'm sorry. I was just... I was trying to think of the right words, the right... the pretty words to make it sound... right. It was just... dumb in my head and I didn't... want it to sound dumb, because it's not, it's great and you make me feel safe and good and I don't have... I don't have the right words for what that is, but I know how I feel. I feel... good when I'm with you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I don't have the right words, or that I'm saying it wrong or too bluntly or... or..." I gulped, staring at the girl next to me. "I don't know how to say... what I'm trying to say... but... you make me happy, Mars. And... and you make... my life... better... because you're here."
  For a long moment, the two of us just sat there, staring at each other. I think we were both afraid to break whatever powerful connection had been drawn between us from the confession of our feelings. I gazed at Marissa, willing myself to say something else, to find the right words, but in that moment, the only thing I could think was, her eyes are really pretty.
  It was Marissa who moved first, her hand coming up to brush brown locks of hair back away from my face before she settled her palm against my cheek. Her voice was gentle. "Maddy?" She said softly, her tone questioning.
  In spite of myself, her soft, gentle tone made me gulp. "Y-" My voice cracked a little. "Yes, Mars?"
  Her hand gently brushed over my face, making little shivers of pleasure shoot through me from the contact. When she spoke, her voice was even softer. "May... may I kiss you?"
  My eyes closed briefly, the words, the question, the idea sending a thrill through me that was only heightened by the touch of her hand. I almost forgot to answer, so focused was I on how it felt, before finally opening my eyes to look back at her. My head nodded fractionally as I whispered, "Yes, Mars."
  A second later, her lips found mine. We kissed, right there on the floor of the living room. And for a moment that seemed to stretch on through time, I forgot every problem I had, every worry that I held, every doubt and fear that plagued me.
  We kissed, and I was happy.
  Interlude 9 - Dinah
  Brockton Bay burned, the city itself set aflame because of the missiles employed by the military in their desperate, terrified hope to destroy the Slaughterhouse Nine before they left the city with their new member: Pandora.
  Another image, another dying city. This time the destruction would be limited to organic beings, the attack coming through a biological weapon, specifically designed to attack Pandora and prevent her escape.
  More images throughout the mosaic of possible futures, more death.
  10.21426 percent chance the city survives the next month.
  4.00621 percent chance the country survives the next year if the city falls and Pandora escapes with the Slaughterhouse Nine.
  The numbers were the same, as were the numbers if they did what she already knew they had to do, no matter how scary the prospect was. If they did that, and pulled it off, the chance of survival rose greatly. Still not high by any means, but better.
  Dinah Alcott stopped looking at the numbers in her head, opening her eyes so that she could gaze around the dingy motel room that they had taken over. It wasn't much, but it was one of the few places that her power had told her they wouldn't be found if they stayed, using Pandora's shapeshifting to pay. She slept on one bed, Emma slept on the other. Whichever version of Pandora needed sleep used the adjacent room.
  In a corner there was a table that was loaded down with a computer and three linked monitors. One screen continually panned through various camera views inside of PRT headquarters, a second had data constantly scrolling across it as the hacking program Dinah had pointed Pandora toward inside of Coil's headquarters did its job, and the third screen showed several different text documents full of notes and numbers: Dinah's scratch paper to keep track of all the answers she was getting toward their various problems.
  Rising from her bed, Dinah glanced toward the nearby window. It was late enough, and their room was far enough from the street, that the view beyond was pitch black. Yet Pandora stood there, gazing at the city beyond.
  After a momentary hesitation, tempted to check the numbers for this conversation, but resisting the urge, Dinah moved that way to whisper, "Panda?" It was her name for Pandora, another way of showing the dangerous, and potentially cataclysmic clone that they were friends, and that she should listen to her.
  Pandora turned away from the window, blinking once before focusing on her. "Yes, Dinah-Friend?"
  "You wanna keep being friends, right?" The twelve-year old girl asked quietly.
  Nodding, the clone made some attempt at a smile. It came off looking more like an alien who had heard of the concept of a smile but wasn't quite sure what parts of the mouth to move. "Yes, Dinah-friend. We would like to remain friends. Is that why you are not sleeping? Are you worried that we will not be your friend?"
  Dinah remembered when Pandora used to say 'I'. She'd switched to the royal we ever since her first body had been killed, forcing her to switch to her backups. Dinah wasn't sure why, but she did know that the clone had also somehow rewritten her brain after what had happened to poor Mr. Pitter, which altered her personality and made herself somehow less and more dangerous at the same time.
  The fact was, the clone who had sat in the cell with her in Coil's lab had been evil. Pure evil, even though she had hidden it somewhat behind the appearance of playing nice. The girl who shared the room with her now, post-Pitter, had more potential for danger, but also had the potential to be good, which the original had lacked.
  "If we don't do the thing that I said we needed to do, right now, then pretty soon someone's going to make us not be friends anymore." She informed the girl.
  "I will hunt them." Pandora assured her. "They will not take away our friendship."
  Emma had rolled over in her bed by then, blinking blearily at them. "Mmmwhat's going on?"
  Odds that we do what needs to be done if Emma comes? Dinah asked herself. 32.1 percent. It was a full eighteen percent lower than if they didn't take her.
  "Nothing." She replied. "Go back to sleep, I just have to talk to Panda for a little bit." She turned back to that version. "I'll meet you in the hallway, okay? It's okay. I have a plan. Sort of."
  Panda paused, but finally nodded. "Be careful, Dinah-Friend. We will protect you, but our agreement with Tether-Friend demands that we do not kill innocents. If you are seen and recognized because of the search before your assumed death..."
  "I know." Dinah nodded. "I'll be careful. And that's why we dyed my hair anyway." She flicked a hand through her now-red locks. "So I look more like Emma's sister."
  That said, she turned to walk to the door, passing the girl she had just mentioned, who was still staring at her. Emma whispered, "Hey, is she ever gonna let us go?"
  Dinah paused, restraining the urge to look for those numbers. "It's better if we're here." She informed the girl. "Even you. You're important, Emma. Really important. I don't know how yet, but... but the numbers say everything goes better if you stay here."
  The other girl sighed a little. "My dad thinks I'm dead by now." She lamented with a sigh, flopping back onto the bed.
  All Dinah could say was, "Try to sleep, or watch TV. I'll be back soon." As she was going through the door, the young girl couldn't help the thought that passed through her mind. Why do I have to reassure you? You're four years older than me.
  But she didn't put voice to the thoughts. The numbers said that keeping Emma as happy as possible, while not letting her leave, was the best way of avoiding... a lot of bad things. For whatever reason, the older girl was necessary to prevent very bad things from happening.
  She wondered, briefly, what Emma would say if she knew that Pandora had only kept Emma because Dinah asked her to, that her true kidnapper was not the clone, who had been ready to let her leave some time ago, but the twelve-year old girl who was ostensibly her fellow captive.
  There was a weird movie twist in there somewhere.
  Arriving in the hallway, Dinah smiled faintly at the sight of another Pandora clone waiting for her. The first was obviously going to stay in the room with Emma. "Hi, Panda." She said with a wave, then pointed to the stairs. "Ready?" She had already told her what they needed to do when the time came.
  "Yes, Dinah-Friend." the new Pandora clone answered, giving a short bob of her head that was a little too quick and sharp, another product of her lack of understanding what others would take as basic human concepts.
  Without hesitation, Dinah offered her hand to the girl who was likely an S-Class threat all on her own, given the proper motivation. Motivation that she would get if they didn't do this right.
  Panda took her hand, and the two of them walked together, down the dirty stairway that was stained with things that Dinah really didn't want to know anymore about than she already did. They continued on out the backdoor of the motel, exiting into a tiny area between the building and the fence that surrounded the (empty and trash filled) outdoor pool.
  Odds of getting where we need to go if we go left? 12.4982 percent. Odds of doing what we need to do if we go right? 83.0219 percent.
  "We need to go this way." She indicated with a hand.
  Ever since Panacea had helped her, Dinah had found that it was easier to get certain numbers as long as they were related to a larger, more important number. She could still only ask a few of the big questions at a time, like, 'what are the odds that we all die if we don't do this one certain thing'. But once she had the answer for that, asking questions related to that one, main question became easier. In this case, because she had used up a 'main' question for finding out if they really needed to do this, asking smaller questions related to accomplishing that task became easier. It wasn't perfect by any means, because the longer she kept up the 'little questions', the longer it would take before she recovered once she finally did crash. Also, the more little questions she asked, the fewer big questions she could ask without a bad headache, until a certain time had passed to let her recover.
  It was, thankfully, enough to let her navigate them through the city streets and toward their objective. Dinah paused at one point to look up at the road that would lead her home, if she chose to go that way. She didn't have to look at the numbers for that one. Whether or not Panda would let her go was irrelevant. If she did go, the numbers for the survival of... pretty much anyone in the city dropped down into digits that she preferred not to think about.
  Instead, she led her strange companion down another street, to a small house with a for sale sign in the front.
  "This is the house?" Panda asked her, voice tinged with curiosity.
  Squeezing the clone's hand tightly, Dinah nodded slowly. She was shivering from fear and worry, mostly related to what would happen if anything went wrong.
  Panda turned a little to look at her, head tilted. "You are afraid, Dinah-Friend. We should leave now." She started to tug back the other way, willing to walk away just because the girl she chose to call her friend was frightened.
  "N-no." Dinah shook her head. "We have to go in. If we don't, we won't get to stay friends. This is the only way."
  "Then I will protect you." Panda promised. "You know that I will not allow harm to come to you, Dinah-Friend."
  And, as Dinah gazed up at the dangerous clone who could possibly turn into a genocidal threat given the proper motivation, she did know that. "Thank you, Panda." She managed a weak smile, tugging the other girl's hand to pull her up the walk and toward the dangerous house.
  A mechanical spider leapt from the top of the roof, landing in front of them with its pincers raised. Pandora started to move, but Dinah held up her hands. "Riley! Wait! We're just here to talk to Riley! Just talk."
  The spider remained completely still for a moment, before the front door opened. Then the robot skittered its way to the bushes, where it sat, watching them intently.
  Letting out a breath, and still holding tight to Panda's hand, Dinah started to walk up the stairs to the open door. It felt like willingly walking into a shark's mouth (if the shark had been capable of inflicting mind-shattering torture and pain), but the numbers never lied. The numbers said that this was the best way to avoid much worse things from happening.
  As they reached the front door, a voice called out, "You better not be magazine salesmen! I haven't finished with the last one." This was followed by a tortured shriek that made Dinah shrink back against Pandora, before the girl's voice snapped in clear exasperation. "Wouldya stop trying to die already? I promised I wouldna kill nobody! Stop whining, I'll put your lung back when I'm done with it, I promise."
  There was a horrible, wet noise, followed by a heavy plop and then a sharp, pained cry before the girl spoke again. "Errr, spider, better dust that off and wash it in the kitchen sink before we put it back."
  She appeared in entrance way then, coming through a door that apparently led into the kitchen. The girl looked like she was around the same age as Dinah, though she wore her blonde hair in cute ringlets, along with light blue ribbons. Her pretty dress was completely soaked through with blood, as were the yellow kitchen gloves that she wore.
  "You're not magazine salesmen." The girl noted, dropping the large cleaver she'd been carrying. "Did you come to talk about religion? Cuz I never did find the soul in the last guy that wanted to talk about that, and it'd be kinda nice to try again."
  A questioning series of beeps came from the other room, and the girl looked over her shoulder. "Just put it back where we found it." A moment later, a bloodcurdling scream erupted from inside the room. Dinah blanched and took a step back, tears of sympathy springing to her eyes. Riley, on the other hand, rolled her eyes. "You got it upside down, dummy!" An answering series of beeps came back, sounding apologetic.
  "It's so hard to get good assistants these days." The bio-tinker lamented, shaking her head with a low sigh. "So, whatcha doing? Wait, I know you!" She said, pointing to Pandora. "You're the healer. I was gonna make you my new candidate if we ever came up this way. Only Uncle Jack wanted..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "Whatcha doing here?" Then the girl leaned over a little to gaze at Dinah. "And who're you?"
  Taking in a long breath before letting it out, Dinah finally spoke, using her power as much as she dared. "We... wanna be your friends, Riley."
  The blood-soaked tinker blinked at that. "You do?" Her eyes squinted suspiciously. "Why?"
  Pausing as she consulted her power, Dinah then answered, "Because you like Tether, and she's our friend. So we can be friends with you too."
  Brightening noticeably at that, Riley looked between them. "You know Tether? Really truly? No lie, stick a needle in your eye? Cuz I'll do it."
  "She has been useful," Pandora spoke up. "We have made a truce to not kill innocents."
  "So did we!" Riley beamed happily, gesturing back over her shoulder. "Even though some people keep trying to ruin the promise! Jerk." Turning back to them, she asked. "So whatcha doin' here? Did she send you?" The girl asked, rather eagerly.
  Dinah shook her head. "Not exactly. But... we have a... an offer for you. A deal like the one you made with Tether. See, this isn't really Panacea. She's Pandora, she's a clone."
  Looking interested at that, Riley reached up to poke Panda with a finger. "Ooooohhhh, I never got to play with a real clone before."
  "You can play with all the clones you want, Riley." Dinah informed her. "Pandora can make copies of herself out of other biological material. Copies that can change anything about themselves. She can shapeshift into anything, and she can turn her pain off, so... you could experiment as much as you want to, and she wouldn't complain. She'd even hold tools for you."
  In demonstration, Panda shifted her skin color from white, to black, to green, then back to white before making herself six inches taller, then shrank back down.
  The bio-tinker was staring with wide eyes. "She'd let me experiment? Anything I wanted?"
  "As long as it didn't hurt other people," Dinah clarified. "But yeah, all the bodies you want to experiment with. You've only gotta do three things for it."
  Narrowing her eyes, suspicious again, Riley asked, "What?"
  "One, you've gotta fix up that guy in there and anyone else you've been... ummm... playing with, and let them go as soon as we make sure they know not to tell anybody." Dinah said slowly. "You don't need them if you have Pandora."
  Considering that for a second, the bio-tinker finally nodded. "Okay, as long as I can experiment."
  "Second," Dinah continued. "No more experimenting on anyone who isn't Pandora. As long as you're with us, as long as we're friends, you only experiment on Pandora, and even then, only the ones that you're supposed to experiment on."
  Once the other girl had agreed to that, Dinah finished. "And finally, as long as you're here... you can't ever do anything that would let Jack or any of the others figure out where you are. You have to stay secret. We won't stop you from leaving if you decide to, but as long as you're here, you never, ever let them know where you are. If you do all that, then we can be friends."
  For a long few moments, Riley was still and silent. She watched Pandora like a kid waiting to pounce on their first Christmas present, but was clearly torn. Finally, she nodded. "Okay. Deal. Let's be friends."
  As she looked back and forth between Riley and Panda, some part of Dinah, in that moment, couldn't help but wonder if there was some kind of record for collecting dangerous, potentially world-ending threats like they were Pokemon.
  And she swore, right then and there, that she was never, ever going to ask her power if there was any way to talk an Endbringer onto their team. It wouldn't fit in the motel room.
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  Arc 10: Trials
  Notes: Starfox - Yeah, Mads does have sympathy toward the whole redemption thing. And yup, Trevor will come back into play eventually. :) Glad you like the creepiness and Dinah's little side story.
  Kine X - Believe it or not, I didn't catch that. At least it wasn't all of the Nine? ;)
  jaredpowers1 - Wow, thank you. You're amazingly kind, and I so appreciate the encouragement. Using a character who wasn't given much development was definitely purposeful on my part. It let me write her pretty much however I wanted. Anyway, I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
  That last bit goes for everyone. I hope you like what you read.
  The dew on the early morning grass was damp and cool against my bare toes. I wiggled them a little and stretched, standing in the backyard of my parents' home while gazing up at the lightly clouded sky. Somewhere over in the next yard, birds sang back and forth to one another, while the faint sound of cartoons from the house on the opposite side reached me through their open back door.
  A pair of arms enveloped me from behind, and I felt a soft kiss against the top of my head, before a voice asked, "So... what are we, exactly?"
  Hearing Marissa's question made me turn my head slightly to look at her. "Ummm... human?" I teased.
  She rolled her eyes and dug her fingers into my sides, tickling me briefly just to make me yelp. "You know what I mean, imp."
  "I'm... I'm not sure." I answered honestly. "I... I had a boyfriend a couple of times, but it was never really serious. Just one of those... 'eh, everyone else has one' sort of things. But I never... I never thought I was a ummm..."
  "That you liked girls," Marissa supplied.
  I nodded. "Yeah, that. I never really thought that until I met you. Maybe I'm just Marsexual." I offered with a giggle. "Cuz I really do like you. A lot. Kissing is really nice."
  "I like you too, Mads." The other girl returned my smile, hugging me tighter against her from behind. "I guess it's kind of easier for me. I knew I was... in love with a girl for a long time."
  That was one thing I didn't even have to hesitate on. "Noelle." I said confidently. "You were in love with Noelle."
  Her head bobbed a little. "Was it that obvious?"
  "To me it was."
  A soft sigh escaped her, before she let me go. Then Marissa turned me around to face her. "I wanna tell you something, okay?" When I nodded, she went on. "Whatever this is, whatever we have, you are not a consolation prize. I like you because you're you. I mean, you make me laugh. You make me think. I can talk to you for hours and feel like it was only a few minutes. I... I was in love with Noelle, but I don't think she ever returned those feelings. Not the way I wanted her to, anyway."
  Biting my lip, I shifted on my feet a little before asking, "What if she did? Now, I mean. What if she came up to find you and said she wanted you back?"
  Mars regarded me for a long moment, considering the question honestly before answering. "I would help her in any way that I could. I would do whatever I could do to make her feel better, to keep her safe, or to make her happy... that didn't involve leaving you." Her hand cupped my cheek. "You're the one thing that made me like living here, the one person that made being stuck in this world kind of... worth it. I would do anything for Noelle... as a friend. But I choose you. I think I... chose you when I left the others, when I couldn't do what they wanted me to do anymore. Noelle was-is... I don't know, she was my best friend. And I still want to help her. I want to make her better. Because she's my friend."
  I nodded slowly at that. "I want to help Noelle too. But I don't think Trickster will tell us where she is, or let us get anywhere near them. Even if we did know how to fix her. Because if Panacea couldn't do it..." I sighed low and slumped.
  Marissa's hand on my face brushed lightly down my cheek. "One bit at a time. I've been talking to Jess over our private e-mails. She's getting there. But don't forget, it's Thursday. Which means..."
  I groaned out loud. "Cemetery day." Because it was now summer (they had basically given up on getting us back in school before vacation started, so my career at Arcadia High would begin with the Fall semester), they had moved my cemetery community service to Thursdays so that I could work with the team on Saturdays.
  "I'll pack you a lunch." Mars promised, her eyes bright with amusement.
  "Thanks." I returned her smile, before blinking. "I don't think I ever answered your question, about what we are."
  She nodded slowly, watching me. "I guess you're right."
  Feeling suddenly self-conscious, I shifted my weight, fidgeting at the ground with my bare feet. "I umm... I guess I'd kind of like if... if you were my... ummm... if we could be... I mean... I know it's..." I trailed off before whispering, "Girlfriends?"
  Her answer was to kiss me, very gently, before whispering, "I'd like that."
  "What the fuck kind of unfair rule is 'no powers'?" Cassie complained, glaring at the trowel in her hand that she was supposed to use to dig up weeds. "Gimme a box of these things and ten minutes and I'll have every weed in this whole fucking cemetery knocked out with my power."
  They had given Reach the same punishment I had gotten, only hers was two years community service instead of one. It meant that she had started working in the cemetery with me pretty much the exact same time that the boys had finished up their punishment.
  "I think that's kind of the point," I offered with a shrug. "It's supposed to be a punishment, if you can do it easily, it's not really a punishment.
  "Meh." The former villain shrugged. "What kind of anti-Nazi lesson is breaking our backs doing yardwork supposed to impart anyway? If Kaiser wanted to make sure someone didn't do something he didn't like, he was a lot more direct about it."
  I raised an eyebrow. "Yeeeaaah, it's probably a good thing that we don't take management advice from the megalomaniac racist supervillain."
  "Hey," she replied. "Say what you will about Uncle Max's politics and proclivities, he did run a successful business. There's a lot to admire about someone like that." Cassie nodded sagely while I stared at her for several seconds, before she leaned up to stage-whisper, "I'm fucking with you." Leaning back again, she shrugged. "Kaiser was an asshole. I didn't call him Uncle Max. Do you have any idea what he would've done if I did? God, you're almost as easy as the rest of them."
  In spite of myself, I snorted. "Wait, what do you mean, the rest of them?"
  Cassie shrugged. "Oh, I just had Clock and Kid totally convinced that Hookwolf was a father figure to me and that seeing him die completely traumatized me. They were talking about how even if Aunt Kayden was lying, at least she killed that jackass. I put on the puppy dog eyes and acted all sad and they all but tripped over themselves trying to apologize. It was hilarious."
  I raised an eyebrow at that. "You're kind of manipulative, aren't you?"
  She waved it off. "I told them the truth before anything else happened. I just wanted to see the looks on their faces, that's all."
  "So... you were hanging out with Dennis and Chris?" I asked, hesitantly.
  Her shoulders raised in a shrug. "I wouldn't really call it 'hanging out'. I was taking some stupid psychological evaluation tests at the PRT building, and when I got done, I felt like hitting some stuff. So I went down to find the gym, and the two of them were already there."
  Tugging her by the sleeve, I walked to the first batch of weeds that we were supposed to dig out. Then I knelt down and pulled the work gloves on, before starting to work the trowel into the dirt.
  After a moment, in spite of her earlier complaints, Cassie got down and started to help. "So let me ask you something. I thought that Shadow Stalker cunt got taken out because she killed that Sophia Hess girl. But according to the others, Sophia Hess is Shadow Stalker. Also, she's apparently not dead. What's up with that?"
  I let out a heavy sigh. "It's kind of a long story."
  Cassie shrugged at that, pointing out, "I'm not going anywhere for awhile, are you?" She dug the trowel deep under a week demonstratively.
  Conceding the point, I worked my gloved fingers under the weed that I had been working at, yanking it up as I started to explain how things had gotten to this point.
  Eventually, it was time to put the tools away and go check out with the groundskeeper so that he could verify our work. The two of us were walking, each carrying one of those simple white buckets full of the weeds we had pulled, along with our gloves and tools. We were hot, sweaty, and we both wanted to get out of there.
  "Hey, uhh, hold up a minute." I said as we passed Taylor's grave. "I... have to do something."
  Cassie's gaze moved from me to the grave, then back again. "That her?" When I nodded, she gestured. "Whatever, do what you gotta do." Seeming to realize belatedly that she might have sounded too nice and could lose her edgy reputation, she added, "Just don't take too long. I really need a hot shower to get this shit off."
  Shaking my head, I set the bucket down and walked up to the grave. "Hey, Taylor." I said quietly, crouching down to look at the stone marker. "I know I said that I'd find your dad for you, that I'd figure out what happened. I wish I had better news, but... I just don't know where to look. It's been so long, and even though people know he's not Coil now, he's still really famous. Someone should've seen him, reported him, by now. But there's been nothing. No news at all. I thought maybe... he might have been Defiant, but that doesn't make sense, because Defiant showed up before your dad... triggered."
  Sighing, I reached out to brush a finger down the name on the gravestone. "I swear, Taylor, I swear I'll do whatever it takes to find your dad and help him. I can't... I can't help you anymore. But I'll do what I can for your dad. If he's-" My eyes watered and I glanced away, briefly. "If he's still alive... I'll find him and I'll help him."
  I was starting to rise, not wanting to make Cassie wait too long, when I heard the other girl shout, "Hey, behind you!"
  Spinning so fast I almost fell over, I found... darkness. At first I thought the sun had somehow gone down while I wasn't looking, because it looked like night had come. Everything was dark. I could see Reach in the distance, but it might as well have been the middle of the night.
  Then the darkness drew back and solidified in front of me, becoming a humanoid shape rather than an all-encompassing blackness. It looked like a man made out of near-physical shadows. A familiar man at that.
  "M-Mr. Hebert?" I stammered, staring at the pitch-black figure, whose form was still wispy and unclear. His face looked like it was made of smoke, and the edges of his figure were insubstantial, like vapor.
  He floated there for a moment, before reaching his hand out toward me. "My daughter." His voice sounded painful, like he was talking through shards of glass. "You... you helped... you hurt her. You hurt my daughter."
  I froze, my mouth hanging open in shock. "Mr... Mr. H-Hebert, li-listen. Listen... th-this... y-you..."
  Where words failed me, they did not fail him. The man's anger was clearly erupting, his voice becoming even harder to understand. "You... you come here... you come here and taunt her, taunt my daughter after she's... she's..." Unable to speak the words, the shadow-man let out a loud bellow of fury and started to swoop in toward my frozen form.
  Before he reached me, one of the buckets full of weeds and tools shot through his head, making the smoke-figure drift apart. It didn't really seem to hurt him, but he did turn that way, just as Cassie threw herself through his form to tackle me away from him. "Move!" She shouted in my ear as we hit the ground. "Move move move!"
  Shaking off the shock, I tried to scramble to my feet alongside her. "I have to talk to him! It's Taylor's father! I have to tell him what happened, that I'm not... that-"
  "Doesn't seem like he's interested in talking!" She retorted, pulling herself up. "Seems more like he's supremely pissed off!"
  We were both on our feet, and I pivoted to back pedal. "I have to try!"
  "God damn it," Cassie muttered before putting herself next to me. To her credit, she didn't take off without me. "Hey! Hey temper tantrum dude! Listen to what she's gotta tell you, man!"
  Instead, Mr. Hebert swooped toward us, his entire form expanding once more. He went from a humanoid figure to a wide blanket of darkness that surrounded, enveloped, and then enclosed us. I could see nothing, not even Cassie right next to me. I felt weightless, insubstantial, lost, and adrift.
  Then, suddenly, I felt the ground rush up and smack into me. It hurt, and I groaned, rolling over and away from Reach, who was groaning as well. "Uggnnn..." I moaned before slowly lifting my head. "What..." We were in the back of some kind of abandoned gas station, judging from the rows of shelves and the counter at the front. The windows were boarded up.
  "Welcome." The voice took me by surprise, and I jerked that way, staring at what turned out to be an obese bald man (so bald that he lacked even eyebrows or lashes), whose skin was so pale that I thought I could see his actual organs and skeleton through it. His face was dotted with hard little crusty spiral growths.
  Still, as ugly as the man looked, his smile seemed genuine. "I trust that you aren't too hurt?"
  "You..." I stared. "You're... Gregor the Snail."
  "Please," the man corrected. "Call me Gregor."
  "What the fuck are we doing here?" Cassie demanded, having situated herself by then. She sat next to me, staring at the heavy man.
  A new voice answered her. "No idea what you're doing here. We thought Murk was only grabbing the other one."
  Turning, I found myself looking at a woman wearing what looked like a welding mask, and a costume that was equal parts dress and riot gear. Not that her appearance should have surprised me. If Gregor the Snail was there, of course the mercenary leader was. "Faultline?" I stammered, still wondering if I should pretend to be completely innocent, as if I had no powers, or if they already knew who I was. For the moment, I would play dumb. "Y-you're Faultline, the... the mercenary."
  "That's right." She nodded. "And you... are Madison Clements."
  "What..." I swallowed uneasily. "What are we doing here? Where's... Mr. Hebert?"
  As if in answer to my question, the shadows around the edge of the room coalesced into the man's shape, who glared at me hatefully. "My daughter..."
  "Easy, Murk." Faultline held a hand out. "I told you we'd find out the truth about what happened to your girl if you helped us rescue Shamrock, and we will." She focused on me again. "So like the man said, girl, let's talk about Taylor Hebert."
  Beside me, Cassie's eyes rolled. "Like she has to answer to you, you-"
  "Cassie." I said quietly. "It's all right. I'll talk to them." Turning to give the other girl a pointed look, I added, "not like we have a lot of choice with all these capes around." I prayed she'd take the hint. They thought we were normal. I had to believe that, otherwise they would have had more than just Gregor watching us when we first showed up. And we likely would have been bound in some way by now.
  Or not, considering that Mr. Hebert had apparently teleported us here.
  Mr. Hebert. Taylor's dad. My heart sank as I saw the hate in his eyes.
  "Let's start with the basic stuff." Faultline said. "Just to see how much you're willing to admit to."
  "She'll admit to nothing ." Mr. Hebert's harsh, glass-grinding voice spat. "She mocks my daughter's grave, taunts her ghost with the fact that Ta-Taylor is dead, and her punishment was... was community service !" The last two words came out as a bellow that sent darkness drifting over the room.
  "Murk, we spoke about this." Faultline said calmly. "We agreed that she would have a chance to speak, remember? She's a girl just like your daughter, not a monster. You said that you wanted to hear her words, that you needed us to keep you calm so that you wouldn't... blow up. I'm telling you now, calm down. Let the girl speak, hear what she has to say." She indicated me then. "Kid, if you have anything to say, I suggest you say it."
  I looked at Mr. Hebert, not at the mercenary woman. "Mr. Hebert... I... I'll talk to you. I'll talk to you, but not anybody else. Please, sir. I can't go anywhere, and I wouldn't try. I've been-" I swallowed. "I've been looking for you, sir. I'm not going to try to run away now. If you want to talk, I'm here. I'm right here. But not with everyone else here. This isn't for them. It's not... a game, and it's not a show. We don't need an audience."
  Gregor spoke up. "If it will help, we can take the other young lady to have some food."
  Cassie glared back at him. "Right, like I'm gonna just leave her by herself with some guy that's so pissed off he might-"
  I interrupted her. "It's okay, Cassie. Go with them. I... I need to talk to Mr. Hebert alone."
  She gave me a doubtful look, and I spent a moment wondering where this loyalty had come from. But the girl finally shrugged as if annoyed by the entire situation and turned to walk away, following Gregor.
  "Can you handle this, Murk?" Faultline asked Taylor's father.
  The shadow-figure hesitated, then nodded. "I want to hear her words." His gravelly voice intoned. "I want to hear what excuses she gives, what reasoning the courts could possibly have for... for not caring about my daughter's death."
  Faultline looked between us for a moment, before nodding. "We'll be outside."
  Then she left, and the two of us were alone. I stood there, facing the man whose daughter I had helped drive to her grave, the silence between us stretching on, until I knew that I had to speak.
  The familiar dampness tried to come to my eyes, but I blinked it away forcefully, taking in a long breath that turned into a bit of a shudder when I let it out. "Taylor dying... It was-" My throat closed up, the words failing to come for a second. I wanted to close my eyes, wanted so desperately to stop looking into the hate-filled fury that was Mr. Hebert's gaze. "It was my fault. I could have-" Again, it became hard to speak past the lump in my throat. My hand pressed against the cracked floor beneath me before I gradually pushed myself to my feet, standing to face the man.
  "I could have stopped Sophia. I could have told someone what she was doing. I... I made your daughter's life... miserable. I spent a year and a half... torturing her emotionally, psychologically... and saying nothing when Sophia hurt her physically. I thought... I thought it was funny. I liked... " My hands clenched at my sides from the sheer effort of not looking away. The man's anger was only growing with every word, but I kept going. I had to keep going. "I liked... the... power... I liked that she was afraid of us. I liked the popularity. Sophia... is damaged, crazy person. I don't... I don't know what's wrong with her, why she's... the way she is. I don't..."
  Now I couldn't hold back the tears. They came unbidden, against every effort I put toward stopping them, blurring my vision, though I continued to stare directly at the man. "I do know... what was wrong with me." Swallowing past the thick lump in my throat, I continued in a soft voice. "... Nothing. There was nothing wrong with me, nothing to cloud my judgment and nothing to point the blame at. It was me. Every..." My mouth worked a few times, the tears threatening to blind me before I blinked rapidly, trying to see through them, while my voice shook with each word. "E-every... thing I did, every bad thing, it was all me. They were all my choices."
  "So if you're looking for excuses, or for... or for reasons, I can't... give you any that you'll like. I knew... what Sophia was planning that day. I knew, and I didn't stop her. I didn't want to do it. I... I helped find the tampons. I..." The image of Taylor being shoved into the locker, of us walking away, of me looking back and hesitating for a split second, came to mind. In that moment, I had very nearly decided to let Taylor out of the locker. I almost did. If I had followed my instinct, if I had stepped back there and opened the locker so that she could get out... or even said something to a teacher, what would that have changed? What would have been different?
  Would my parents still be alive?
  "Mr. Hebert..." I met the man's gaze, "I know that Taylor dying was the worst day of your life. I know that because it was the second worst day of my life. The worst day of my life... was when I found out that my parents were dead. And then... later... I found out that the person who killed them... was Sophia. So... so Mr. Hebert, when I tell you that I wish that I had stopped Sophia then... I... I could not... possibly... given... given a million years... find a way to mean it more than I do right now. Taylor... dying... was my fault... because I could have stopped it. My parents... dying... was my fault... because if I had stopped Sophia before... if I had done something before... If I had cared before... then my parents would still be alive."
  "I don't have any way to make it better, Mr. Hebert. I can't bring Taylor back, I swear to you that I... I wish I could, and every... every day since it happened, since Taylor died, I've wished that I could. I wished that I could take everything back. But I can't. All I can do... all I'm doing , is trying to be a better person than I was back then. You think that it didn't affect me... but it did. The person I was then, the person that... did those things... that's not who I am now."
  "I know that doesn't take your pain away, because it doesn't take mine away, and she's your daughter. All I can say, Mr. Hebert... is that I will never, ever forget your daughter. Her life mattered. I... I will never become that person again. I will never let myself be the person that would would let someone die. My life... whatever it becomes... wherever I go and whatever I do... I will never forget Taylor."
  My voice turned even softer then. "I don't go to Taylor's grave to taunt her, sir. I would never mock her, not now. Not after everything. I go to... to talk to her. Sometimes I just... talk about the day, other times I talk about how I was trying to find you, trying to find a way to help you. Sometimes... I apologize. I tell her how sorry I am, how... how much I wish that we could have... that things had been different. But it's never enough. It will never, ever be enough."
  "You have every right to hate me, Mr. Hebert. But if you think I don't care, that Taylor's death is a joke, then you're wrong. Because nothing has shaped my life as much as that... as that choice did, because I care. It matters to me. She matters to me."
  "I can't bring your daughter back, sir. I can't undo what I did. All I can do... is say... for whatever... whatever little it might matter... that I'm sorry. I am..." I choked a little more. "I am so... sorry."
  For a long moment, after I finished speaking, there was no response. There was no relief from the man whose daughter I had helped to destroy. There was no visible acceptance of my words. The hate in his eyes had gradually turned to something worse: resignation and grief. The power of hating me, of focusing on his anger at the injustice, had, even if only for a brief time, softened his despair.
  He still hated me. Of that I was certain. He hated me because of what I had helped do to his daughter, and no amount of apologies or words were going to magically erase that.
  In a way, my being apologetic, my sorrow, had hurt him worse than if I had been flippant. It wasn't that he didn't believe my words, it was that he did believe them, and it didn't really help. I was sorry, but my being sorry wasn't going to help bring his daughter back. It wasn't going to repair his shattered life.
  "Why...?" He finally said, his voice cracking even more than usual. His voice lacked its earlier fire, and was now just... broken. "Why did you take my Taylor away? Why? She... never hurt you. She'd never..."
  My eyes closed finally, tears running down my face. I had no more words. I had no answer for him, even if I had been able to make myself speak. What else could I say? I had said it all. I wasn't the monster that some part of him had wanted me to be. Yes, I still felt grief about what happened to Taylor. I always would. But I had used that grief to change my life, to become better than I had been. I didn't hate myself. I hated who I had been, but I wasn't that person anymore. I grieved because of the waste, the utter waste, that had been Taylor's death. I grieved because of my former stupidity. But I did not hate the person that I had become, only what had necessitated it.
  When I opened my eyes again, the figure was gone. Mr. Hebert had left, saying nothing, doing nothing. It was all he could do, all that I had left him. He hated me, maybe he would always hate me. But he knew the truth now. He knew that I was sorry, that Taylor's death had affected me.
  For what pathetically little good it did him now.
  After another moment, the door into the gas station opened, and I saw someone that looked even more odd than Gregor had. He was maybe a year older than I was, with orange skin that was made even more apparent by his lack of shirt, and red hair that looked damp. He had some kind of upside down omega symbol tattoo on his chest. His eyes were pale blue, looking rather amused. "Your little friend's pretty funny, you know? Where'd you find her?"
  It took me a second to deal with the rather sudden mood whiplash. My hands went up to wipe away the tears from my eyes, and I took a deep, shuddering breath before focusing on the newcomer.
  Newter, that was what he called himself. I stared for a second, but caught myself before too long. "I... we met through the program." I just didn't say which program, leaving him to assume I meant the community service. I suppose, in a way, I had met Cassie through a certain kind of community service.
  "Figures, the fun ones are always crazy." He lamented. "Come on then, Faultline says we should feed you since we kidnapped you."
  "Yeah... about that..." I started. "How long has Mr. Hebert been with you guys? I've umm... been looking for him."
  "You and everyone else." Newter replied. "Murk, that's the name he prefers now, he joined up with us right after that whole business about him being Coil came out. Or more to the point, we tracked him down because we thought he might have... other sorts of answers." His hand reflexively came up to brush his chest where the tattoo was before sighing. "Anyway, let's go. The others are waiting."
  I followed Newter out of the gas station, and toward the large, wide open doors of the attached mechanic garage. Inside was a table positively laden with food, next to an outdoor grill where girl in a red and black costume, gas mask lying next to her, stood cooking hamburgers. Cassie was there, already finishing up what looked like her second burger as she sat across the table from Faultline, Gregor, and a young woman who was wearing a green tee shirt that had a black clover symbol on the front.
  In the far corner of the garage, another girl with platinum-white blonde hair, wearing a dark green robe with the design of a maze on it, stood facing the wall. The floor of the garage for about five feet around her wasn't floor at all, but grass, while the wall she was facing looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie with all the jagged edges and spikes.
  Before I could stare for too long, Faultline looked up. "Okay, well, Murk says to send you back home." She paused. "Those weren't his precise words, but that's the gist. So, eat up, and we'll find you a ride."
  "What about the same way we got here." Cassie pointed out after pushing her plate away.
  Faultline just looked at her. "Apparently Murk doesn't really feel like spending more time around Madison here. And when he gets upset, he tends to lose track of where he's aiming his teleportation anyway. That's why you both hit the ground so hard when you... arrived."
  The girl in the clover shirt nodded. "Upset as he is right now, you might end up popping out thirty feet or so off the ground."
  After considering that for a moment, Cassie shrugged. "Car it is then." Her eyes brightened. "Can I drive?"
  Gregor regarded her. "You are taking this entire... being abducted by notorious supervillains rather... well."
  Cassie's response was a dry, "I've been desensitized by all the violence on TV."
  "Indeed..." Gregor looked thoughtful, but said nothing else. Instead, he turned to me. "Our food is yours, my dear kidnappee."
  "I'm not..." I shuddered a little as the remnants of torn up emotions went through me again. "I'm not really hungry." Biting my lip, I focused on Faultline. "Why did you think that Mr. Hebert would know something about whatever you were... looking into?" I glanced toward Newter and his tattoo.
  The woman gave a little sigh. "Newter, please try to keep secrets better." I had a feeling that this wasn't the first, nor the last time that she would make that same request. Then she focused on me. "Better you not ask any other questions. It's dangerous. Just sit, and as soon as we're done, we'll get you home and you can forget about all of this."
  As unlikely as that was, I just stared at the woman. A moment later, Newter waved his hand dismissively. "Oh calm down. Who're they gonna tell? And who'd believe them anyway? No way anyone pays attention. They'll just think they're crazy. Some story about a woman popping out of nowhere, giving away vials full of superpowers?"
  "NEWTER!" Faultline had half-stood from her seat, but what she said to him next, I didn't hear. I was in too much shock.
  Woman giving away vials of superpowers. Vials like... like Marissa had taken? Mr. Hebert wasn't... a natural parahuman?
  What... the... hell?
  "So are you gonna tell me what all that was about?" Cassie pressed as the two of us stood in the alley just behind the back lot of PRT headquarters. My shock had apparently been mistaken for general surprise at the very idea that man-made powers could exist, rather than actual recognition. Faultline had warned us multiple times that the people they were dealing with were dangerous, and not to go blabbing our heads off about what we heard.
  At least she hadn't really threatened us. That said a lot for her group, considering they were, ostensibly, villains. Or at least, mercenaries who tended to work for villains.
  Part of me had wanted to refuse to leave without talking to Mr. Hebert again, to try to convince him to come back. But I had known both how useless it would have been to argue with the mercenary leader (and possibly dangerous to them continuing to think of us as normal teenagers), and how equally useless it would have been to try talking to Mr. Hebert, even if I did miraculously get past Faultline. Not to mention that if I expressed too much interest in talking to the man after what Newter had said, they might figure out that I knew something else.
  At least now I knew where to look for him, when I had something to say.
  For a moment while Cassie stood, staring at me, I hesitated before shrugging. "You know what it was about. Taylor's dad joined Faultline's Crew, and somehow he found out that I had something to do with his daughter's death. He was angry and he wanted-"
  "Fuck you." Cassie's tone was mild, at odds with her casual cursing. "You know what I mean. They said that bit about the woman giving him powers, and your eyes got all huge. It wasn't a complete surprise either. You know something."
  My mouth opened to deny it, but then I hesitated. I didn't want to burn any bridges with the other girl. She was prickly enough as it was, and the fact that she was expressing an interest in what I was doing... well, it meant something, and I didn't want to throw that away. So I chose my words carefully. "I might know something. But I promised someone else that I wouldn't talk about it without their permission. If... if I figure out more, and if you can help, or whatever... then I promise I'll talk to you about it. I'm not gonna lie and say I don't know what you're talking about, but I can't say what it is yet either. Can you accept that?"
  The girl stared back at me for a long moment, before shrugging. She looked away and started to walk through the parking lot and on toward the back doors while muttering, "Sure, whatever."
  I stood there by myself for another few moments, processing in private. If Mr. Hebert had been given his powers, by some woman 'popping up out of nowhere', then what did that mean? What did any of it mean? Who was the woman, and would she know what was wrong with Noelle? If I could get a description of the woman from Mr. Hebert, or...
  My train of thought was interrupted by a light red line that popped up, connected to Cassie. Eyes widening, I quickly attached a line between the ground next to me and the backside of her pants, giving a sharp pull backwards while calling out. "Look out!"
  She fell back with a cry, barely a second before a blonde blur dove out the sky and slammed into the pavement right where she had been. I barely had time to process who it was, before Victoria spun around to stalk toward the fallen girl, bellowing, " Where is she?!"
  "Up your ass." Cassie shot back while running her hand all along the ground. Every bit of dirt and dust that she touched flew up against Victoria's face, forming a briefly obscuring cloud, while the other girl rolled backwards and to her feet. "You wanna go, bitch? Let's go when you're not jumping me from behind."
  "Victoria!" I ran that way, eyes wide. "What the hell are you doing?"
  The super-strong girl had been raising her fist when my voice penetrated. She blinked, turning toward me. "Madison?" She asked with clear confusion, looking from me to Cassie and back again. "You... disappeared. You never checked out of your community service, and there were buckets and tools everywhere. I thought..."
  Reach glared daggers at the older girl. "We were both kidnapped. But of course, I'm the one that must have attacked her. You found me out. My master god damn plan was to go through all this bullshit, have to stare at your fucking face every damn day, and wait until I was doing yardwork with her ." She gestured back toward me. "Just so I could kidnap her, and then walk right back into the headquarters of the people I abducted her away from. However did you break through my brilliant strategy?"
  "Cassie." I started to say, though I did give Victoria a dirty look first. "It's not-"
  "Forget it." Shaking her head, the girl pointed at Victoria. "You're lucky that first hit didn't land, Princess. This conversation wouldn't be over if it had." Then she started to stalk away.
  I sighed, staring at Glory Girl. "If you keep treating her like a criminal at every drop of a hat, she's going to start thinking that she has no other choice other than being a criminal. "
  "She is a criminal, remember?" Victoria shot back. "She was Junior Miss Nazi."
  "Was." I replied. "She's not now. She's part of the team, Victoria. She's trying to change, but if you keep coming after her every single time you get the slightest semblance of an excuse, she's not going to stay. She joined the Empire because they treated her like family. If we keep attacking her, all she's going to see is that one side treated her well, and the other side keeps blaming her for everything that goes wrong."
  For a moment, Victoria just stared back at me, indecision running through her eyes. Finally, she sighed and waved it off. "Anyway, where were you? What happened? Everyone's out looking."
  I hesitated before sighing. "Can we go inside and talk about it?" Gesturing to my dirty clothes, I pointed out, "I was really hoping I could shower and change before getting into any of it."
  We walked back through the lot and into the doors, just in time for me to find myself abruptly yanked forward off of my feet with a yelp, and into an embrace. "Madison! You're okay. You're all right."
  I recognized the identity of the person currently threatening to squeeze my insides out like toothpaste then. "Sam?"
  Battery let me go, though her hands remained on my shoulders as though assuring herself that I was there. "When you disappeared, we thought... I mean... you..."
  Before she could go on, I found myself turned around and then pulled into another hug, this time from Ethan. The normally jovial, irreverent man actually embraced me without reservation. "Good." He said. "Good."
  Blinking, confused, I looked back and forth between the pair that had become my legal guardians. "You were... worried about me?"
  The two of them glanced to each other and then back to me. Ethan gave my shoulder a light pop with his fist. "Of course we were worried about you! You just disappeared. And after..."
  He trailed off, blanching, and Samantha took up his explanation. "After what we knew about..." She lowered her voice a little. "About Bonesaw being a 'fan', we thought..."
  I gulped at the thought, a chill running through me. "You thought she took us?"
  "She didn't, right? You're okay? You're... you're all right?" Ethan still looked like he was eying me, checking for surgical trauma.
  "I-I'm fine." I told them. "It wasn't her, it... you... you guys were really upset?" I was still trying to come to terms with that fact.
  "Why wouldn't we be?" Sam asked, her hand taking mine. "You're our... I mean you're..."
  Still confused, I said rather blankly, "But you just took me in because the Protectorate needed someone to watch over a Ward so that I didn't have to explain things to some random foster family or whatever."
  For some reason, Sam looked like I had slapped her. Ethan, however, shook his head. "Hey, no. We chose to take care of you. That was our choice, not some rule or whatever. We weren't following some no-name suit's orders. We wanted to, kid. You were our choice, nobody else's."
  I saw Sam shudder a little, before she spoke. "When we thought that Bonesaw took you, what she might... do..."
  "It wasn't her." I repeated. My voice was a little dull, while I tried to comprehend what they were saying. I'd been assuming that, while we did get along, that this was little more than a job to them. Taking care of me, keeping me fed and sheltered... hell, I spent a couple nights a week back at my parents' home, and they hadn't complained. I'd thought that was because they didn't really care about what I was doing as long as I was technically safe, but... but this was real, true worry. They had been afraid for me, relieved when I had shown up.
  They... cared about me.
  "Well, who was it? What happened?" Sam pressed. She still looked pale at the very thought that Bonesaw had taken me, and I realized just how afraid she had been.
  Swallowing, I said, a little numbly, "It was... it was Mr. Hebert."
  That made them both stop, staring at me. "What?" Ethan asked.
  "Wait, so he is a bad guy?" Victoria asked from somewhere behind me. "Can I get a scoresheet or something? I'm having a hard time keeping track of who's on what side."
  "No, he's not a bad guy." I said quickly, before hesitating. "I mean... well technically he might sort of be since he's working with Faultline's Crew, but-"
  "He's what?" Ethan's eyes widened, and he let out a chuckle. "Are you telling me that the guy that everyone was looking for back when they thought he was Coil... was with Faultline the whole time?" When I nodded, he laughed a little louder. "No wonder she refused every offer to pay her people to look for him. She said something about a conflict of interest."
  "Well, apparently she wasn't lying about that." I replied with a shrug, making Ethan chuckle even more.
  "Wait," Victoria piped up. "You guys were trying to hire Faultline's Crew to find Hebert?"
  "Not us personally." Sam's head shook. "We were just supposed to pass along the message from higher up. Above our paygrade. But Faultline refused the job, and now we know why."
  "So what happened, exactly?" Ethan pressed.
  I hesitated, before lifting my arm to gesture at myself. "Can I go get cleaned up in the Wards showers before we talk about that? I mean, it's nothing that won't keep for a few minutes. Mr. Hebert has powers, he triggered, and now he's working for Faultline's Crew. The... specifics I'd rather talk about after I'm out of these clothes and feel more human."
  Both of them nodded, and Battery squeezed my hand one more time. "We really do care about what happens to you." She said quietly, with a certain emphasis that I didn't fully understand.
  I went to take my shower finally, soaking under the near-scalding water while I kept running through things in my head. If Mr. Hebert had been given powers by the same method that Marissa had gotten hers, then he might know something that could lead to the person or the place that the powers had originally come from. Hell, even just the fact that he'd actually, apparently, seen a woman give him the power vial was more information than the Travelers had before.
  But how could we get that information out of Mr. Hebert with how he obviously, and for good reason, felt about me? I refused to do anything to hurt the man, not after everything else that had happened, even if he had joined up with a group that worked for known and dangerous villains.
  That meant that someone else was going to have to talk to him. Sundancer had been a Traveler, who were also known mercenaries. Maybe Faultline would discuss thing with her, if I could somehow put the two of them together?
  By the time that I was cleaned and dressed again, I had a probable plan. I would tell Marissa about Mr. Hebert, and let her get in contact with Faultline, if possible. If she had to, she could say that she had a civilian friend that had told her about the vial thing, since Faultline was likely going to draw a connection between the two girls that Newter had talked too much to, and some other girl somehow randomly showing up and knowing about it.
  I started out of the Wards room, passing Missy doing some kind of project on the computer. As I walked by, the younger girl looked up, pushing away from the computer to face me. "I-I heard you were kidnapped by Faultline. Are you okay?"
  "I'm good, I just... it was Taylor's father. He's got... powers and he's working with them now." I said slowly. "He wanted to talk about what happened to Taylor. He wanted... closure."
  "Did you give it to him?" She asked after a second.
  I sighed, shaking my head. "I don't think so. I don't know if he's ever going to get 'closure'. But... we talked. Or I talked and he listened. Now he doesn't want anything to do with me." After a second, I added, "Cassie was abducted too."
  The other girl flinched a little before shrugging. "I... yeah, I guess."
  "It's not her fault that they sent Dean and Carlos away, Missy." I told her. "One thing doesn't have anything to do with the other. If we didn't have her, we'd just have one less person."
  "She was a bad guy." Missy protested.
  "Was." I said firmly. "She was a bad guy. We have to give her a chance. She's here for a reason, right? Just... just try not to hate her so much. She's trying... sort of. You're kind of a big deal in the Wards, Missy. You've been here longer than the rest of us. If you start... if you try to accept her, maybe the others will too."
  A long, heavy sigh escaped my younger teammate, before she nodded. "I'll... try to give it a chance."
  "Thanks." I smiled. "Maybe just start with being worried about both of us when we disappear?" When Missy nodded, I turned to head out. Time to go upstairs and explain, as much as I could, about what had happened.
  As I walked, I couldn't stop wondering, what was so special about Mr. Hebert? Why did he have to gain powers right then, at that exact moment?
  And most importantly, who was the woman who had given them to him?
  Cassie and I were both debriefed about what had happened. We told them what we knew. Or, most of it anyway. By mutual, silent agreement, we left out the bit about Mr. Hebert getting his powers out of a vial.
  I had two main reasons for that. First, I wanted to talk to Marissa. The 'powers from a bottle' thing affected her more than anyone in the Protectorate. That was if they even believed the idea was anything more than the ravings of a delusional man. And my second reason for not talking about it was simple. Somehow, the woman who had done this, assuming she existed, had popped into a house and out again not only under the Protectorate's noses, but under Coil's as well. That, added to the fact that she, apparently, could give people powers, meant that she was probably one of the most powerful and dangerous people in the world.
  And no one knew about her.
  I wasn't stupid. Something like this didn't stay secret because nobody ever noticed and tried to say something. It stayed secret because people made it stay secret. So if I started blabbing, the most that was likely to happen was that this dangerous woman, who had already illustrated the ability to come and go as she pleased, would target me, or the people that I had told.
  So, I said nothing about it. For now.
  Once they were done with us, I was walking out of the building ahead of Ethan and Sam. I was using my phone to text Marissa, telling her that we needed to talk about 'those canisters', purposefully being vague enough that only she would know what I meant if anyone saw either of our phones. Call me paranoid, but, well, I was paranoid.
  Just after I sent the message, Ethan called out from behind me, "Hey, Shortstuff!"
  Blinking, I turned that way. "Me?"
  "Yeah, you." Pointing to his truck on the other side of the parking lot, Ethan went on. "We've got an idea, let's cram into the truck and go to the store."
  Looking back and forth between both of them, I hesitated. On the one hand, I really wanted to talk to Marissa about what I'd found out. But on the other hand, Ethan and Sam were obviously excited about whatever idea they had, and after our... bit of bonding earlier, I didn't want to dismiss them out of hand.
  Finally, I glanced down at my phone and sent a follow-up message, letting Marissa know that I'd talk to her in a couple hours. Then I nodded and began to head for the truck while remarking, "Just so you know, if this is your plan to get rid of me, stores don't take returns on sixteen-year-old merchandise."
  "Damn." Ethan snapped his fingers, coming up on the other side of the truck to unlock it. "What about exchanges? I do have my eye on a nice wall-mounted flat screen."
  As we piled in, I saw Sam stretch a rubber band against her finger and snap it across the distance to hit Ethan in the arm, making him yelp. She nudged me then, winking. "I do that when he's a jerk. I'll give you a supply of them."
  "On the plus side," the man pointed out while pocketing the projectile, "my rubber band collection is coming along nicely."
  "That's what he thinks," Sam stage-whispered to me. "I just raid his stash to resupply my ammo."
  We drove to the store, though neither of them said what we were going for. It wasn't until we were walking in, that Ethan's hand came down on my shoulder. "So, Sammy and I were talking, and it seems like... you still feel like a guest at home."
  Biting my lip, I looked between them. "I... ummm..."
  "It's okay," Sam assured me. "But we want you to feel like... like it's your place too. You know... you can have friends over, even if they're not in on the whole hero thing. Just let us know so that we don't come around with... work clothes on or whatever." She said the last part carefully, clearly not wanting to babble about costumes right in the store entrance.
  I shrugged at that. "Pretty much all my friends are... part of the group." I said, equally carefully.
  "Either way," Ethan put in. "It's your place too, funsize."
  "If you keep making fun of how small I am," I shot back. "I'm gonna ask Sam for her rubberbands."
  Smirking, Ethan waved off the threat. "Sure you are, Little Bit. Anyway, we want you to have your space. That room you're staying in, it's not just like a motel room or a sleepover. It's your room for as long as you'll take it."
  Sam took up the explanation then. "So, we thought we'd come here and let you pick out whatever you want to make it your space. Paint, furniture, wallpaper, posters, blinds, whatever. We'll toss everything else and spend one of the next couple days setting up the room the way you want it."
  My mouth worked a little, as I stared. "You... I... you didn't have to..." I couldn't find the words.
  Ethan nudged me a little. "Just say we're awesome and let's go get you some wallpaper that says, 'Madison'. I'm thinking of a bunch of the munchkins from Wizard of Oz. You know, your people."
  Scowling, I threw a punch at him, while he snickered and danced back, grabbing a shopping cart to use as a shield.
  Later that night, I was standing outside of Sam and Ethan's room, hesitating. He was off on patrol, but Sam was in there, using her computer. I fidgeted uncertainly for another moment or two, before reaching out to knock on the doorjam as I stepped into view.
  Sam closed down what looked like a messaging program, turning the chair around to face me. "Hey, everything all right? Sorry that Ethan had to ahhh, work, but we'll get your stuff set up asap."
  "It's okay," I said quickly. "You guys didn't have to do all that. I mean, thanks... I just... that's not what I came here about."
  Raising an eyebrow, Sam indicated the recliner next to the closet. "What's up?"
  I took the offered seat, drawing my legs up to wrap my arms around them. "I guess I sort of need... advice?"
  "What kind of advice?" Sam asked, curiously.
  Hesitating, I felt the blush come up while resting my chin against my knees. "Umm... dating... advice?"
  "Dating?" Sam actually grinned a little at that and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Who's the lucky guy you're dating? Anyone we know?"
  Somehow managing to blush deeper, I pressed my face against my knees and mumbled into them.
  The reaction made Sam smile even more, and she reached out a finger to poke me in the leg. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. Did you say, mmgghgul?"
  Shivering, I slowly lifted my chin so that I could talk. A glance at the woman's face made me almost bury my own again, but I finally managed, "It's a girl."
  Taken by surprise, Sam blinked a couple times. "A girl? You mean you're-I mean..." she trailed off then, adjusting. "Wow. I... had no idea. I mean," she added quickly, "obviously it's not a problem or anything. I just... wow."
  "Neither did I." Shrugging as I admitted that, I went on. "Not until I met her. Well, not when we met, but... sort of... I... Oh god." Blushing furiously, I buried my face against my legs, mumbling, "Forget it, forget I said anything."
  Sam's hand found mine. "Hey, it's okay. It's all right. This is a... new development?"
  "Pretty new." I nodded. "I wasn't sure... how to talk about it, or who to ask for advice. It's... really complicated. I'm just not sure what else to do, how to... to date anyone seriously, let alone a girl, let alone..." I trailed off, sighing.
  Squeezing my hand, Sam used her other to tilt my head up so that I'd look at her. "Hey, it can't be that complicated. Look at me. I started out trying to arrest Ethan, and now we're married. I got involved with a villain. Okay, former villain, but you know. How messed up could your situation be?"
  My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at her. Finally, all I could manage was a weak, "You'd be surprised."
  "What's in this thing we supposed to be protecting, anyway?" Vista asked over the com the next evening.
  From where I stood, on the edge of a warehouse roof, I could see the younger girl across the empty parking lot, standing next to the security guard shack at the gate.
  Clockblocker responded from his place somewhere on the far side of the building, where he and Reach were. "Just some tinker stuff the mayor wanted protected. They didn't exactly share a lot of details beyond 'be here and don't let it get stolen'."
  "We're just back-up anyway." I pointed out. "Penance and Laserdream are doing the real work." The two older heroes were escorting the truck from the edge of the city limits all the way to the warehouse. We were just supposed to wait there and stand guard while the truck was unloaded so that the Protectorate members could go back to their real patrol.
  On the opposite corner of the roof from me, Glory Girl replied, "Crystal said she saw soldiers on the truck. Whatever it is, it's not a normal delivery."
  "Could've told you that." Kid Win, somewhere high above all of us on his jetpack-thing, spoke up. "They don't have two Protectorate people escort a truck all the way to a warehouse that's protected by the entire Wards team for toilet paper and televisions."
  While waiting, I thought back to the conversation with Battery the night before. I'd told her most of what I could about Marissa, leaving out the parts about being from another world, and how they'd gotten their powers. I told her that Sundancer had been trying to help her friend, and that she had pulled away from her group. I explained everything about how we'd met, how I'd recognized her during the first encounter with Pandora, and how we'd started hanging out.
  To my surprise, Sam didn't suggest that I leave well enough alone. She gave some advice about coaxing Marissa (not that she knew the name) to come forward so that she could apply for a pardon, as well as some general guidance about dating anyone in general, and a former villain specifically.
  I knew that getting Marissa pardoned was going to be difficult, considering the hoops that we were going to have to carefully navigate surrounding her origin, but I was hoping there would be a way to manage it. I'd kind of like to be able to talk about my... my girlfriend with others. Hell, even thinking of Marissa as my girlfriend still made me want to sigh a little dreamily.
  Seeing headlights, I was pulled out of my musings. "Incoming."
  The truck pulled into the lot, while the two Protectorate members flew overhead. Crystal glided down to talk to her cousin for a minute, while Penance landed on the ground next to Clockblocker and Reach.
  For a moment, I watched as the truck turned around and backed up to the warehouse doors. Then the soldiers hopped out and began to unload what looked like heavy wooden pallets piled high with crates onto a waiting forklift.
  Crystal came up next to me a moment later. "I don't suppose you've heard from Pandora or Dinah since the last time?"
  I blinked at that, glancing toward the older girl. "Err, no. Why?"
  She sighed, shrugging. "The mayor's getting really upset about the lack of any news on his niece. And her parents are... well, you passing along the 'don't worry about me' message didn't exactly make them stop worrying. I was hoping you had a way to contact them so that Dinah would at least talk to her parents directly. Otherwise... otherwise they might do something stupid."
  Thinking of the finger that Pandora had given me, which was wrapped up and sitting in the bottom of my backpack at home (I had been assured repeatedly by the clone that it wouldn't go bad, which was somehow even creepier than if it did), I slowly nodded. "I think I can get a message to her."
  "Good." Crystal let out a breath of relief. "Try to tell her to contact her parents somehow, because they're kind of going out of their minds." When I nodded, she put her hand on my shoulder. "Are you doing all right?"
  Biting my lip, glad that my mask hid my blanch, I shrugged. "I'm... getting there. One day at a time. Battery says they still haven't tracked down Trevor, which is weird, given their resources."
  "They'll find him." Crystal assured me. "We'll find him. Even if we have to go door-to-door."
  "Let's hope it doesn't come to that." I managed to chuckle softly. "Though he'd probably appreciate the attention from a cute superhero."
  Somehow, I'd managed to make Laserdream blush. She floated up, gesturing. "Yeah, yeah. I better get going. Don't want to keep Penance waiting. Try to get a hold of Dinah as soon as you can?"
  I nodded again, and the other girl took off.
  It took another twenty minutes for the soldiers to finish unloading the truck. Victoria had joined me by then, gazing down at the vehicle. "Great, so we're all dressed up and waiting out here for nothing. Just another boring-"
  Five different voices, including my own, rose together as every other member of the team shouted (most through the com)," DON'T SAY IT!"
  Barely three seconds later, while Victoria was still recovering, I saw three black lines leading down to the trio of soldiers who were standing around the front of the delivery truck. "Damn it, incoming!" I called out while attaching lines to each of the three to yank them up and away from the vehicle.
  As soon as I did that, there was a sudden explosion just under the front end of the truck that flipped the vehicle up end-over-end, sending flames and smoke shooting into the air while the vehicle crashed onto its side.
  I yanked the soldiers that were in the air all the way to the roof, letting them tumble down behind us while giving Glory Girl a look. "You had to say it. You had to say it. We were this close." I held my fingers up a short distance apart.
  She rolled her eyes. "You're too superstitious. Now let's go kick ass." She pointed toward some kind of figure that was now standing where the truck had been. It was hard to make out through the smoke. Floating up off the roof, she began to dive toward the ground where the explosion had happened.
  Kid Win was coming down on his pack, while Vista approached from the other side of the lot. Reach and Clockblocker were coming up from the side of the building, the former floating on a manhole cover.
  Abruptly, I saw red lines of varying intensity stretch out to each of them. Eyes widening, I focused on grabbing all five with my own tethers, yanking them out of the way, just as a handful of long black metal... coils flung themselves out toward Kid, Vista, and Glory Girl. At the same time, a red sphere about the size of a baseball shot straight at the spot where Reach and Clockblocker had been, exploding into a spray of acid that began to melt through the surrounding cement.
  Unfortunately, I hadn't predicted the metal tentacle thing that was coming for me. It shot up the entire distance to the roof, snatched hold of my arm with a pair of strong pincers, and yanked me off my perch before flinging me end over end toward the far fence. As I fell, I oriented just enough to attach a line to the pavement, redirecting my descent and slowing it.
  That worked for a second before my eyes caught sight of blue orb flying toward me. Grimacing, I reversed my fall into a push. A second later, the blue orb exploded, and the concussive force of that one hurtled me backwards to hit the tall chainlink fence hard enough that I slumped to the ground, groaning.
  By that point, the smoke had cleared, and I could see the attacker. "Bakuda?" I managed, staring.
  The bomb-tinker was encased in some kind of hard shell cocoon. It was dark red, and left nothing but her face exposed, her eyes covered with goggles. Four heavy legs made of the same material stretched slightly upward and out, then down to the ground to support the cocoon structure, reminding me of a praying mantis. In the front 'chest' area, there were what looked like a pair of metal cannons. Where her shoulders would be a pair of telescoping black metal tentacles stretched out, matched by another pair of tentacles about halfway down each side. Finally, two more tentacles stretched out from the back of the cocoon.
  Hearing me say her name, Bakuda twisted around to face me, the praying mantis-like legs skittering quickly. She lifted one tentacle, and I saw it extend, the end reshaping from a pincer into a barrel, before she launched another of those explosive orbs at me, this one yellow. I barely managed to fling myself upward on a line before the yellow orb blew apart into a burst of razor blades that tore through the fence I'd been next to.
  "Thought I was gone, huh?!" The crazy bomb-maker shouted, while each of her tentacles reshaped into barrels, launching more projectiles in each direction. "Guess what? I'm still here, assholes!"
  "Tentacles and cannon boobs?!" Clockblocker yelped, taking cover behind the wall of the building. "Seriously? Whose idea was it to give Bakuda tentacles and cannon boobs?! I feel like there should be someone we can submit a complaint to!"
  "At least now we know what you-know-who was doing with her." Kid Win pointed out, while coming down close enough to orient his backpack's cannons onto the opposing tinker. A pair of dark blue, almost black, laser beams as wide around as my fist shot out of the cannons and toward the woman, but she used a tentacle to block them, seemingly taking little in the way of damage.
  I had to get back up, but my back hurt where I'd smacked into the fence, to say nothing of the general pain throughout my body from the force of the concussive bomb. My costume had protected me from the worst of it, but that still left enough pain that it was difficult to focus. My vision kept blurring every time a wave of pain went through my back. Still, I was pretty sure it was just bruised.
  Blinking through the bleariness in my eyes, I forced myself to straighten once more, while Glory Girl flew down and caught hold of one of the tentacles. "Gimme two seconds to wrap this bitch up into a nice little present-" The blonde girl managed, just before the tentacle whipped downward with her still attached, slamming into the pavement with enough force to put a Victoria-sized hole in it, before whipping back upward, flinging the girl off and into the sky.
  At least there hadn't been any lines, so I knew that Victoria wasn't really hurt. Probably dazed, but not hurt. Thank god.
  As I saw Bakuda orienting toward Vista, I forced myself to stand, taking two steps before steadying myself. When the armored-tinker launched two more bombs toward the younger girl, I immediately attached lines between each of them and one of the tentacles.
  "Sorry, Bakuda!" I called out. "But when you don't attach proper postage, your package gets-" The bombs exploded into sprays of green acid. "-returned to sender!"
  She turned toward me, a tentacle swiping out low and very fast. I didn't have the advantage of advance warning that I had with others, so it nearly took my legs out from under me before I managed to catch part of the tentacle with a line and pin it to the ground. At which point, the tentacle simply extended another dozen feet in length so that the part of it that was pinned was meaningless, before continuing to whip around, colliding with my side and pitching me sideways while a fresh burst of pain.
  Landing hard on my other side, my attention was broken, so Bakuda's tentacle was freed. I heard Clockblocker shout something, before Vista took a knee at my side. "Are you okay?" She asked. One of those bombs came flying in our direction, and she quickly twisted the space to send it flying off another direction.
  "Mmmgood." I mumbled. "Can you twist up those tentacles?"
  Vista made a face, shaking her head. "There's something organic inside them. I can't affect them. Which means she's got this huge bubble around her that I can't get through, since those tentacles keep whipping around everywhere."
  Across the lot, the flaming hunk of wreckage that was the delivery truck abruptly went flying through the air toward Bakuda, as Reach took her hand away from it. The ruined vehicle slammed into the tinker with enough force to crumple the entire front half of the truck in on itself. Bakuda just crossed two tentacles in front of herself, like a person blocking with their arms, and barely moved. Those tentacles were strong enough that the full force of the truck-blow hardly affected them.
  Two tentacles lashed out toward Reach, while another picked up the broken remains of the truck and flung it upward toward the hovering Kid Win. Cassie flew backwards on her manhole cover, narrowly escaping the grasping tentacles, while Chris managed to evade by rising out of reach. Apparently, even though the tentacles could extend, they did have limits to their length.
  Almost at the same time, one of the back tentacles focused on Clockblocker, who was attempting to come up behind Bakuda. That tentacle reshaped itself into a barrel before it began to launch several grenades in rapid succession, forcing Dennis to take cover again and curse through the com. "I can't get close! It's like she's got eyes in the back of her head."
  "Knowing you-know-who, she probably does." Victoria replied, coming back down out of the sky. This time, she flew down close enough to get Bakuda's attention, batted aside the tentacle that reached for her, weathered the explosive force of the bomb that was launched her way from one of the chest cannons, and then flew in fast and hard to kick at the woman's exposed face. Bakuda managed to twist aside at the last second, but the kick still knocked her over and sent her skidding along the ground.
  It did not, unfortunately, seem to slow her down very much. Two of the tentacles drove into the ground to lever the body up once more, those four praying mantis legs getting their footing, while each of the remaining tentacles flew into a frenzy, launching those damn explosives in every direction.
  Vista drew the space up behind the two of us, and we moved back out of reach of the yellow and white bombs that were sent our way.
  I shook my head. "We can't get close to her. The face is her weak spot, but we can't get to it. I can't even attach lines to her shell. It's like the whole thing is organic somehow. I can get her tentacles, but there's no way I can attach enough lines to hold all of them, down the entire length."
  "Lucky you." Clockblocker replied with a grimace. I could see him peeking around the corner of what was left of the badly damaged wall. "I can't even get close enough to do anything."
  "I can redirect the bombs if I see them." Vista put in. "But that's about it."
  "There's too many god damn tentacles!" Reach complained. "Anything I send at her she blocks, no matter what direction I hit her from."
  "If that shell's organic, it's no kind of organic I've ever seen." Kid Win said, his cannons launching a flurry of shots that only managed to get Bakuda's attention, before he had to evade her counter-attack. "I've hit it with a full barrage and it's barely singed."
  "No." Reach surprisingly replied. "You're hurting it, I saw the holes. And the dent from when Princess kicked her. The shell's tough, but not invulnerable, it just heals and reshapes really fucking fast."
  "If Reach was a better telekinetic," Glory Girl put in. "She could wrap those tentacles into a bow and we could all go get some food. But no, she's gotta get close enough to touch the damn things, so she's useless."
  The reaction was immediate. Reach flew out from behind cover, crouched low on her flying manhole cover. "Don't-" She started, jumping up off of her hovering platform as a tentacle swatted at her, before landing back on it on the other side of the attack. "Call-" She dove at the ground as another tentacle launched a bomb at her, releasing a metal ball bearing from her hand that shot toward the incoming explosive to knock it off course. "Me-" Her hand slapped the ground at Bakuda's feet, at which point a chunk of pavement about fifteen feet across and four feet thick literally tore itself up out of the ground with the bomb-tinker standing on it, flinging itself and her at the warehouse wall with enough force to blow through it. "Useless!"
  There were rumblings from inside the warehouse, where Bakuda was reorienting herself. We could hear her curses.
  "Guys." I managed to pick myself up, wincing at the pain. My back was killing me, my arm kept sending its own stabbing pain to remind me it existed, and it hurt to breathe too deep. "We can stop her, but we have to do it together. No arguing or bitching."
  "You've got an idea?" Clockblocker asked.
  I looked at the hole that Bakuda had made when she went flying through it, listening to her approach as she ranted about what she was going to do to us. "Yeah." I said quietly. "I've got an idea."
  By the time that Bakuda emerged from the warehouse, stomping back out into the ruined parking lot with her tentacles waving threateningly, I was the only person she found. She stopped, smiling gloatingly as she stared at me.
  "So," The mad-tinker chuckled. "Give the Wards a little bit of a fight, and they all run away."
  I let my head tilt while making a pitying noise. "Aww, getting your ass kicked and thrown through a wall must've messed up your eyesight. I'm still here."
  Glowering at me, Bakuda stalked closer. "So you were too stupid to run while you could."
  "Meh," I replied, waving a hand dismissively. "They got bored of waiting for you to collect yourself. I'll meet up with them after I finish dealing with you."
  "I sure hope you know what you're doing." Chris muttered through the com, while Bakuda's face turned almost as red as her shell from her anger.
  In response, I murmured. "Just make sure you guys do your parts. I'll be fine." I hope. A quiet voice added in the back of my head before I could banish it.
  Unable to depend on warning lines, I had to focus on watching Bakuda and her multiple arms as closely as I could. The second that one of them drove forward toward me, I attached a line between my extended arm and the roof of the warehouse, letting it yank me away from the grasping tentacle while calling down to her. "So which did you like better, being Lung's bitch or being Coil's bitch?"
  I barely let myself land on the roof before instantly launching myself skyward without taking time to look. It was a good thing I did, since two of the tentacles blew through the edge of the roof and wall where I would have been standing.
  Twisting around in the air to see the tinker as she launched two different explosives up toward me, I quickly used a line that stretched between the pair of flying orbs and used it to push them as far apart as I could, so that each exploded far away from me. Then I used another line to yank myself back down to the ground, ignoring the stab of pain that went through my side when I landed and nearly took my breath away.
  "That all you got?" I asked. "Cuz I told the others you might actually put up a fight if there was only one of us. So far, not impressed."
  Lucky me, that got her full attention. Another pair of explosives shot my way, along with no less than three tentacles. I attached a line between the very end of one of the tentacles and the furthest of the explosives, so that when it whipped around, it knocked both out of the air. Then I leapt, attaching a pair of lines between my feet and a point about midway down the nearest tentacle so that I was pulled in to land on it, and held there by the lines that kept my boots secured to it.
  Instantly, my dinner threatened to tear its way out of my stomach, as I was flung up and around from Bakuda attempting to shake me off. It didn't work, my lines were too firmly attached between myself and the tentacle. But it did make me queasy. At least my breaker abilities meant that I didn't get whiplash too bad.
  Seeing one of the other tentacles lashing down toward me, I caught it with a line that was attached between it and the tentacle I was standing on, then leapt off of it and sideways just in time for the two metal coils to be yanked against each other.
  Rolling as I hit the ground to avoid the two tentacles that drove themselves through the cement where I had been, I quickly reached out a hand toward another part of the pavement and let the line pull me along the ground and out of Bakuda's nearest reach, while maintaining my focus on the other line that was keeping the first two metal arms pinned together.
  "I sure hope you guys are ready." I muttered as I picked myself up. "Cuz I don't know how much longer I can-" My words were interrupted as blinding pain erupted in my side. One of the tentacles had finally caught me, sending me crashing to the ground on my already injured arm and drawing a cry of pain from me.
  The tentacle caught hold of my boot, yanking me up and sending me flying at the damaged brick wall. Grimacing, I barely managed to use a line to slow my approach just enough that the blow as I hit didn't immediately break me. It still sent waves of agony through my body, while my vision threatened to black out.
  Then I was being flung toward the ground, and I crossed my arms protectively in front of my face while trying to stop myself with another line. Unfortunately, I couldn't focus on it quickly enough, and the pain as I was brought down hard into the broken pavement drove the air from my lungs, and I could feel the shattering pain as several bones snapped from the force of the impact.
  I was lying in a crumpled heap, barely conscious, while Bakuda stood over me. One of her tentacles turned me over, and she grinned. "So who's the bitch now?" She demanded.
  Trying to suck in enough air to breathe, I barely managed to wheeze, "I dunno about bitch..." I sucked in more air, shuddering in pain that only my adrenaline was preventing from overwhelming me entirely. "But you are easily distracted."
  Before Bakuda could react to that, Kid Win came flying down on his jetpack, presenting her with a target. "Hey!" He called out to her. "Weren't you supposed to be good with bombs? Cuz so far, not impressed."
  Twisting that way, the armored-tinker growled and launched two different grenades from her chest barrels. "You want impressive, try this!"
  The explosives arced through the air toward Kid... then twisted around and down back through the air that Vista had taken the time to reshape, exploding against Bakuda's back with enough force to actually knock her sprawling to the ground.
  She used a tentacle to push herself up, while lashing out with another. The tentacle was redirected, Vista's work again, to smack herself in the side of the head, narrowly missing her face.
  The fact was, Vista hadn't been able to work on the space around Bakuda while the woman had been waving her tentacles through it. But I had distracted her long enough, kept her attention solely on me and therefore not waving wildly through the air at everyone else for enough time, that the younger girl had finally been able to shape the space the way she wanted it. After that, all I'd had to do was maneuver Bakuda into position.
  Oww. Lucky me.
  With Bakuda disoriented, another figure flew straight down out of the sky above her head. Two figures, actually. Glory Girl carried Reach, holding the other girl close to her chest as they dropped rapidly. By the time Bakuda finally noticed them, they were almost on top of her.
  The second she was near enough, Reach put both arms out to either side, slapping the metal arms that extended from Bakuda's back.
  In retaliation, the bomb-tinker twisted around to lash out with one of her other tentacles, while launching a bomb from another. Victoria swung an arm to knock the tentacle aside, then turned her back on the explosive to protect Reach from the blast before flying up and away.
  The two tentacles that Cassie had touched immediately stretched themselves out to their full length and curved around toward the guard shack. As they did so, Clockblocker emerged and slapped his hands against them while activating his power.
  Both metal arms were instantly frozen in time. Unfortunately, it didn't freeze the rest of her. I was too dizzy and sore to wonder how that was possible. They did, however, pin the bomb-tinker in place, those two arms fully extended and frozen.
  Kid Win flew in a circle, goading her into trying to shoot him through the space that Vista had trapped. Glory Girl and Reach flew in the opposite direction, waiting for any opening to get near enough to touch more tentacles and give them to Clockblocker.
  Bakuda let out a bellow of frustration, yanking a bit against her time-frozen tentacles to no avail. "Let... me... go!" She screamed. A second later, another of the tentacles moved up, pointing at her own back, and released an acid explosive that ate through the shell where the tentacles were attached. The shell burned away within seconds, revealing badly burned flesh, while the bomb-maker screamed in agony.
  It did, however, burn through the part of her body that the tentacles were attached to, allowing the villain to yank herself free. She had to abandon the two frozen tentacles, and she was clearly in as much agony as I was from the way she'd been forced to acid-bomb herself.
  Panting, growling in fury, Bakuda turned in a circle, taking in the sight of everyone around her. Then she brought her remaining tentacles in close to her body, pointed the ends outward, and launched a white explosive orb from each of them.
  The new bombs exploded into bursts of light and sound that made everyone recoil, partially blinded. By the time we recovered, there was a deep hole in the ground, and Bakuda was gone. Somehow, she had tunneled away in that time.
  At least she didn't get what she came for, and we'd taken two of her tentacles away. We'd hurt her, or rather, forced her to hurt herself.
  Clockblocker reached my side a second later, accompanied by Vista. "Tether, you okay?"
  I went through all the effort of managing a smile while the others landed, before realizing that the work was wasted since they couldn't see my face anyway. "I..." I managed, trying to make my hand form into a thumbs up. It wasn't cooperating. "I'm... fi..."
  Darkness took me then, as my consciousness fled.
  Interlude 10 - Tattletale
  "Make a corridor on the count of three." Lisa instructed her newest teammate, while she kept an eye on the uniformed State Patrol officer approaching the gate of the massive fence that she and the rest of the team were crouched on the far side of. A camera buzzed above them as it turned to survey the street in the opposite direction, but it couldn't pivot down, and the camera at the other end of the fence that could have seen them wouldn't turn their way for another thirty seconds.
  "One..." She watched as the officer punched in the security code, waving tiredly at the gate camera. "Two..." The gate clicked and began to open to admit the man. "Three."
  Beside her, Vacate, real name, Elias Anders, raised his arm and waited until she, Grue, and Freezetag put their hands against him before creating the time-freeze tunnel. It stretched beyond the now-frozen officer, through the open gate, and straight on toward a dark part of the grounds, near a rose garden.
  Together, the four remaining Undersiders jogged down the tunnel, slipping carefully past the frozen state trooper and through the open gate until they reached the far end of what Vacate had been able to make.
  There, they crouched. Brian, otherwise known as Grue, pointed up and to the left, where a camera was frozen in mid-pan. "Are you sure this is gonna work?"
  "It's dark out here." Tattletale replied. "The cameras are relying on heat signatures. Blanket us in darkness every time it points our way and we'll be fine. All we need is a straight shot at the back door and I can get us inside.
  "Still don't see why Vacate can't just pop us there." Freezetag idly muttered.
  "Fuck, girl, like I said before," the boy himself replied, "I can't go making corridors over and over. It's like I got this set distance of how much tunnel I can make before it runs out and gots to recharge. That was a long tunnel just to get us inside these grounds. Gimme a few minutes before you jump on my ass about making another one. A man's gotta take some time to regroup, you know? It's like just after-"
  "That's enough." Grue interrupted. Lisa could hear the annoyance in his voice. He was edgy. They'd lost Bitch, and then lost Regent. Grue and herself were the only 'original' Undersiders left, not counting his little sister Aisha/Freezetag, who had joined a couple of months earlier. Vacate was still fairly new, having joined right before the Leviathan fight, and they hadn't quite fully 'meshed' as a team yet.
  But they were getting there.
  The darkness from the older boy poured out and created a wall between the Undersiders and the camera. Then Vacate dropped the tunnel, bringing everything back into normal time. If anyone had been near enough, they would have noticed the patch of space that was much darker than everything around it. Fortunately (by design), none of the guards were facing the right direction, or were too far away.
  Nodding to Grue, Tattletale started to lead the way, down the length of the massive, sprawling grounds. The four of them jogged quickly, keeping the cloud of darkness between them and the constantly moving cameras until they reached a small orchard of apple and plum trees. There, they crouched once more. Grue, as the only person who could see through the cloud that was stopping the cameras from noticing them, held up his hand. "Ready to go again, Vacate?"
  The other boy took a few breaths, leaning his head from one side to the other to crack his neck. "Hells yeah, I'm good to go, baby."
  Once again, they held onto the boy. Grue held his free hand up and waited, watching the nearest camera through his darkness until it was safe, and then dropped his hand. As soon as he did, the darkness fell away, revealing the rest of the grounds to them, as well as one of the back doors of the mansion.
  The second he could see properly, Elias used his power to make another corridor appear, all the way across the grounds and up to the doors, before sagging a little. "Long... fucking... tunnels." He complained. "Y'all motherfuckers need smaller backyards."
  "This isn't exactly a normal sized property, you know." Tattletale pointed out mildly.
  He just grinned at her. "I wasn't complaining 'bout your backyard, sweets."
  Repressing the urge to shudder at the very thought of becoming intimate with anyone, let alone someone like Vacate, and getting to know every last one of his secrets, Tattletale managed to simply smile faintly and shake her head. "Eyes on the prize, skeevy."
  That only encouraged him. "I thought that's what I was doing." Vacate replied, smiling incorrigibly until Grue used a hand to firmly turn him around and pull him along through the tunnel. "Oww! Hey, I'm going, I'm going. Yeesh, ain't nobody here 'preciates me."
  The tunnel led the Undersiders straight to the door. Tattletale waited until Elias took down the tunnel, and then put her hand up against the keypad. Her fingers danced over the buttons, but the pad buzzed its denial.
  "I thought you could get through this thing." Grue hissed.
  "I can." She replied calmly, putting more numbers in. "I have to get the wrong code a time or two before my power can tell me what was wrong about it."
  This time, the pad beeped an affirmative, and she tugged the door open. "Let's go."
  Once they were inside, Freezetag and Grue took the lead. The whole group already knew the exact path they were taking. They'd been over it enough times.
  Making their way through the truly massive kitchen with its three different stoves, they were nearly out when the door ahead of them opened. Another uniformed officer walked into view, a half-second before his head was enveloped in Grue's darkness. Then Freezetag smacked her hand against the man's side, freezing him with his hand in mid-motion toward the radio on his shoulder.
  After Grue released the darkness, Tattletale reached up, carefully plucking the man's radio away without touching him. It could come in handy.
  Then she looked at him. "How many other guards in the house?"
  Barely able to move his lips, the guard mumbled, "Noh eelling ooh." He didn't have to. Lisa opened the floodgate of her power and let it do the work.
  Worried: his partner just went upstairs and won't be coming back down until he finishes his patrol, which takes another ten minutes. The rest of the guards are outside and have no reason to come in, unless he can get a message to them somehow.
  "Right, only you and one other guy, got it." Turning off her power, Tattletale mimed patting the confused man on the cheek without actually touching him, then slipped around his body to move on with the others. "We're clear all the way to the office. Ten minutes before his partner comes down."
  They continued through the mansion with more confidence then. There was still a chance of running into the building's normal inhabitants or staff, but the potential problems were greatly reduced.
  Eventually, the four of them reached their destination. Stopping outside of the closed door, Lisa glanced back at the others to make sure they were ready, then pushed the door open and stepped through.
  The handsome, older man at the desk in the office that they stepped into was typing rapidly on his computer. He wore glasses, Lisa noted, unlike his public appearances.
  "I told you, Bart," the man said without looking up. "You don't have to ask me if you want to make a sandwich. I don't care what that bear of a sergeant of yours says. I've got plenty of-" Finally looking up, the man froze at the sight of the four costumed criminals. Then his hand grabbed for the phone on his desk, but Grue covered his face in darkness so that his hand missed the grab, and Lisa moved forward in the interim to take the phone away.
  When the darkness was dismissed, the man had stood up and backed against the wall. He glowered at them. "How dare you break into my home. "
  "Well, you know, it's only your home until you lose the next election, Governor Randall." Lisa pointed out with a smile. She was opening up her power again, letting it take in everything it could about the man.
  Afraid, glancing upward as though looking through the ceiling. His children were upstairs, the ones who still lived with them anyway.
  Cautiously hopeful look to his eyes. He didn't believe that this group was all that violent, but why had they broken into his home?
  Briefly indignant look. Where was his security? Were they doing their jobs or not?
  Pained expression: She was right, the next election was going to be tough. He'd probably manage a squeaker, but it would be close.
  "You're the Undersiders, correct? From Brockton Bay." Governor Richard Randall gazed at them. "I hope you realize that attacking me is going to take you from smalltime, straight to the Bird Cage."
  Tattletale just shook her head. "Attacking you? We're not attacking you, Governor. In fact, didn't you hear? We've become very useful lately. Helping deal with Leviathan, getting rid of Calvert before he caused the state any more embarrassment..."
  Grateful look that lasted only for a second: Anyone who helped fight an Endbringer was brave (or possibly suicidal), and they had contributed to the city's rescue. Really hopes that being the leader of the state during that successful attack helps in this next election, in addition to all of his gratitude for the low casualties.
  Fearful grimace. Do they know about Calvert? They can't possibly. It wasn't his fault!
  Frowning, the governor looked between them. "Are you trying to tell me that you snuck past my security and broke into my home as upstanding citizens? " His voice was incredulous.
  "Funny you should mention that, Governor." Tattletale replied, giving the man her best vulpine smile. "After all, that cuts right to the chase of why we're here."
  The man frowned, processing that for a moment. Then he got it, shaking his head. "No. Absolutely not."
  "Yup." Tattletale informed him. "We're here because you're going to issue a blanket pardon for all of us, excusing us for every crime we've committed up to this point."
  "You're insane." The governor spat. "Why would I do that?"
  Desperately holding on to hope. Maybe they think they have leverage of some other kind. Maybe they're fishing. Maybe they don't really know anything.
  Cutting the man's hope off at the knees, Tattletale airily replied, "Oh, I dunno, maybe because you don't want anyone to find out about the close, personal relationship you had with the man who broke the Endbringer truce to kill the parents of the hero who was pretty much single-handedly responsible for keeping the fatalities as low as they were." She made a few disappointed tutting sounds. "I don't think that'd go over very well with the voters, Governor."
  Her smile turned a little pitying then. "I'm afraid Calvert kept detailed records and evidence, Governor. Recordings of your phone conversations, all the deals you two made while you were getting him set up into his position as head of the fancy new Parahuman Investigations team in exchange for aaaaalll that money he gave you for your campaign."
  Governor Randall sputtered indignantly, his eyes wide. "I had no idea that he was Coil! I didn't know what the hell else he was up to."
  Truth, to a certain extent. The governor was willing to deal with dirty money, but he thought that Calvert was just dishonest and shady, not the monster he ended up being.
  "You never thought he was an angel either." Tattletale pointed out, before shrugging. "Anyway, you really think the voters are going to care? Think you'll ever be elected as a high school treasurer, let alone Governor, once this gets out?"
  For a moment, the man remained stubborn. Then he sighed and relented. "Fine. Four pardons in exchange for your silence."
  "Five, dickface." Freezetag interjected. "You're pardoning Bitch too."
  "I can't let the Lindt girl out of prison." Randall protested. "She's in the Birdcage. There's no coming out of there."
  "Let us worry about getting her out." Tattletale told the man, letting him believe they had a plan even though she had absolutely no clue how they were going about doing that, yet. "Either way, she gets the pardon. Even if she can't be free, you're gonna clear her name just like you're clearing ours."
  It took another few minutes to hammer out the details, including the fact that the governor was going to have to get the President to sign off on a pardon concerning the actual bank robbery. He was urged to be convincing on the subject.
  Tattletale kept one eye on the clock, until it was time for the guard upstairs to start heading down. Then she set a burner phone down on the desk. "Make sure your guards don't report that we were here." She instructed the man. "And call on the first number in that phone when the pardons are handled. Trust me, we'll know if you try to jerk us around. And if you do..."
  "You'll ruin me." The governor sighed. "I get it. Just get out of my house."
  They did,leaving much the way they had come. Before too long, the group was changing out of their costumes in the corner of a parking garage about three blocks from the governor's mansion, the girls changing on one side of the van they had driven up here in, while the boys changed on the other side.
  "Can't believe that shit worked." Elias slumped back into his seat as soon as everyone had piled into the van. "Free and clear. We're really gonna be free and clear."
  Brian, in the driver's seat, pulled the van out of the lot. "You really think we can pull off this new business idea of yours, Lisa? I need the money, and the legitimacy, if..." He glanced toward the backseat, where Aisha was already focused on some game on her phone. Brian wanted custody of his little sister. Not just for a weekend or whenever his estranged mother didn't want her, but permanently. To do that, he needed money, preferably honest money.
  "It will." Lisa promised him, reaching into her pocket before withdrawing a small object. "I even had cards made up already, just so you could all see them." She held the card out for the older boy to see.
  Glancing at the card in the light from the nearby streetlamp, Brian chuckled. "You think anyone's gonna take us seriously?"
  Taking the card back, Lisa nodded. "We'll make them take us seriously." She said quietly while looking at the card in the palm of her hand.
  It was an embossed, very professional looking card. In the top middle of the card there was an eye symbol similar to the one on the chest of her costume. Spreading out from the eye and forming a border along the edges of the card was a wispy line of black that imitated Grue's darkness. Two hands, similar to the symbol for Freezetag, were on either side of the card, while a long, vaguely rounded rectangle spread from one end to the other, forming a sort of inner border and providing the symbol for Vacate's tunnels.
  In the middle of the card was a phone number and an address. And above that, the most important part. It read: Undersiders - Parahuman Detective Agency.
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  Arc 11: Conspiracy
  I awoke to the feel of a cool pillow against my cheek. Starting a little, I turned to find myself in what looked like a hospital room, though there were no windows.
  "It's all right." A voice from the other side of the room spoke. When I looked that way, I found Panacea sitting in the chair by the door, sipping from a glass of water. "Sorry," she went on. "I needed a place to sit down for a minute and your room was quiet."
  Again I had a chance to wonder how I had known so confidently and immediately that the person there was Amy and not a Pandora clone. Even before she had spoken, upon first seeing the girl, I had known who it was.
  "What... ummm..." I sat up in the bed. "What happened?"
  "According to Clockblocker, you were a reckless, suicidal idiot with a death wish," Amy replied. "Then I healed you."
  I knew that normally, Panacea didn't heal people without their express consent. Luckily, part of joining the Wards had been signing a contract stating whether or not I would allow healers like her to work on me, so that had been covered. "Thanks, but what about Bakuda?"
  A look of annoyance crossed the other girl's face. "Gone. Assholes."
  Blinking, I pushed the blankets away and swung my legs off the side of the bed. "Err, sorry? We did our best to catch her, but-"
  "Not you guys." Amy waved her hand. "I meant the PRT. I promised Bakuda I'd heal her, and they wouldn't let me get near her. They just kept putting me off, saying they had other priorities and that the crazy bomb-maker could wait. But if they'd just let me heal the bitch, she could've gone into the real prison and then fucking Bonesaw wouldn't have gotten to her."
  My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at the girl. "They were stopping you from healing her? But why?" I'd wondered about that, but it had been a distant concern, since I figured that Amy was just that busy. But to hear that she had been prevented from healing Bakuda was troubling.
  Amy shrugged, her annoyance still obvious. "Hell if I know. Ask Piggot. The order to stall me had to come down from her."
  I paused a little, frowning at the floor before looking up. "But if Bakuda thinks you broke your promise-"
  "Trust me, I know," Panacea interrupted, sighing heavily. "Why do you think I'm so pissed off? Now our house has a bunch of those new investigation people crawling all over it, just waiting for the crazy bitch to make her move." Her scowl deepened. "I'm really fucking tempted to take out a newspaper ad that says, 'Hey Bakuda, not healing you wasn't my choice. Here's the address of the person that made that bonehead decision.' "
  Wincing at that, I rose from the bed, glancing down at the simple medical gown. "How, umm, how long has it been? And, I take it we're not in the hospital? Since I don't have, you know..." I gestured up at my uncovered face.
  "Don't worry, it was only yesterday. You slept through what was left of the night and all morning. And we're in the private medical wing in the PRT building." Amy confirmed. "I just had to heal a bunch of guys that went snooping for Bakuda in her old hideout and got face-fulls of acid and fire for their trouble. Then Piggot wanted to yammer on about whether or not I could take apart that shell Bakuda's got if I get my hands on it, since it's supposed to be biological." She snorted then. "I told them I needed a drink and then I hid in here. They're probably still looking for me. But you know, if I had to listen to Piggot for another minute, I was gonna do something drastic."
  "Piggot wants to put you close enough to Bakuda to touch her?" I stared at the other girl. "Is she mental ? Has she just completely lost her mind?"
  Before Amy could respond to that, the door opened and Dennis stepped in. He blinked at the sight of me standing there in the hospital gown and then gave me a thumbs up. "Looking good, Clements."
  Flushing, I reached over to grab the nearby pillow and threw it at him. "Go away, I have to change. Err, wait..."
  "There's clothes in the closet." Amy confirmed, standing up. "Go. We'll wait in the hall."
  "Yeah, ahhh, just so you know," Dennis added while backing out of the room. "Photon Mom wants to talk to you when you're up and around."
  "You know she hates that name." Amy pointed out mildly while following him out. "Plus she's not even being a superhero, so you should call her Mrs. Pelham, or something."
  They closed the door on their way into the hall, and I moved to the closet to find a pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt that had been provided. The shirt was almost big enough to drown me, but I'd make it work until I got something of my own. Then I found a pair of slip-on shoes and walked to the door.
  I'd barely emerged from the room before I found myself hoisted up off the floor and pushed firmly backwards. Ethan stood there, holding me easily against the wall as he gave me the worst fake scowl I'd ever seen. The edges of his mouth kept trying to twitch up, ruining the effect he was going for. "Now listen, munchkin. If you don't stop getting hurt or kidnapped, I'm going to lock you in some kind of padded room."
  Somewhere behind Ethan, Dennis remarked, "If she doesn't stop throwing herself into danger, she might need a padded room."
  I stuck my tongue out at both of them. "I did what needed to be done, that's all. I was the one that couldn't contribute to actually beating her, so I was the distraction." Sighing then, I added. "Too bad she still got away."
  "That's not your fault," Ethan assured me before finally letting me slip back to the floor. "If anything, it's Piggy's fault for putting Bakuda in the hospital and then forbidding Amy there from healing her. It's like she wanted something like this to happen."
  Amy, standing a few feet away, muttered something under her breath before waving her hand. "Anyway, I better go before they find me again. The real hospital's expecting me."
  Ethan's hand found my arm and he began to tug me along. "And we are going to get Little Miss Suicide debriefed before we head home."
  As I was all but dragged down the hall, I protested, "I'm not suicidal. I just like helping!"
  "Yup," Dennis announced. "Definite mental disorder."
  The next night, I stood in the back lot of a rundown motel that looked as if its better days had been thirty years earlier, and it had been downhill ever since. This was a place that didn't just charge by the hour, but probably had fifteen minute slots as well.
  This was where the message had said to meet Dinah and Pandora. It had appeared in my e-mail twenty minutes after I'd whispered the request into the clone's severed finger for Dinah to contact her parents.
  Finally, I extended my hand and used a line from my gauntlet to the edge of the building to haul myself up and to the side of the window of the room that the message said to meet them at. Using my other hand, I tapped against the window.
  It opened a moment later, and a young girl with red hair-Dinah, I realized belatedly, waved me in. "Come on, before someone sees you."
  Slipping through the open window, I took a moment to blink at what I found inside. Computer equipment all over one side of the room, covering the provided table. Fast food bags across one of the two beds, and on the other bed... Emma.
  "Tether!" My former friend, whose natural hair matched Dinah's dye job, almost jumped off the bed. "You came!"
  Before I replied, I used my left thumb to press a button that had been added to my gauntlet. When I spoke afterward, my voice became slightly different, just enough that I wouldn't instantly be recognizable. "Yeah well, who could turn down an invitation to meet a stranger in a broken down motel in the middle of the night without telling anyone where I was going?"
  "We're not strangers," Dinah pointed, picking a fast food bag up off the bed and offering it to me. "Whopper?"
  "I'm... I'm good," I replied, shaking my head. "Dinah, did you call your parents?"
  "I will," the girl promised. "But this was important. There's something you need to know about."
  Before Dinah could go on, the connecting door to the other room opened. "Is she here, is she here, is she here?" I noticed Emma shrink back and pull the blankets up like a shield, her eyes wide with fright.
  Then I saw her. The girl that burst into the room, full of smiles and giggles, her white and pink party dress drenched in blood.
  "Bo-" I almost called her by the name she was known for as a part of the Slaughterhouse Nine. "Riley?"
  Clapping her hands with delight, the medical tinker bounced up and down. "She knows me! See, I told you she knew me."
  I turned my stare from Bonesaw to Dinah. "You... you have B-Riley here?" I demanded.
  Dinah shrugged, looking a little pained. "Surprise? Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. Anyway, this isn't about her."
  "Come on, come on, come on." Riley's hands were on my arm, starting to tug me. I had to restrain the urge to yank my arm back in terror at the very thought of the girl touching me. "You've gotta see my new experiment. Uncle Jack never thought I could do it, but I knew I could with the right specimen, and-"
  Finally I pulled my arm free and looked at Dinah incredulously. "She has fucking specimens?!"
  "Hey!" Riley's smile dropped briefly as she scolded. "There's children present. You can't curse. I thought you knew better than that."
  "Uhh, sorry..." I flinched, trying not to whimper at the thought of Bonesaw being annoyed with me. "I was just surprised to hear that you have... experiments."
  "I guess it's okay." The blonde girl finally decided after a moment of consideration. "Even Uncle Jack forgot himself and cursed sometimes. But you better not do it again, or you might have to get your mouth washed out with soap."
  "She's just experimenting on Pandora." Dinah put in, as if that was supposed to be better. "Riley, remember our agreement? She'll come see whatever you want to show her, but you have to let us show her the other thing first."
  "Oh poo." Riley sighed, folding her arms as she sulked a little. "I thought you did that already. What's taking so long?"
  Dinah seemed to hesitate a little, her eyes closing briefly as her brow furrowed with concentration. Then she focused again. "Now that she's here, why don't you get your best experiments ready to show here? This shouldn't take long."
  "Weeeeellll..." Riley seemed to consider for a moment, shifting from foot to foot. Then she smiled. "Okay! I'll get ready. Knock before you come in!" Her finger shook as though scolding me again before she darted back through the door.
  "Are you serious?" I hissed at the younger girl once the door was closed. "You have her here, experimenting on Pandora?"
  "See?" Emma sounded smug from the other bed. "I told her it was a bad idea."
  "I said I know what I'm doing." Dinah sounded exasperated. "She's not running around doing god knows what now, is she? She's here, and she's only experimenting on someone who can consent to it, and who can undo anything she does. Panda has complete control of her own body. Trust me. "
  Emma had slid out of the bed by then. "Miss... Ummm... Tether... I... can you tell my dad that I'm okay?" She glanced toward Dinah as though looking for permission before continuing. "Just tell him I'm alive and that... and that I..." Tears were forming in her eyes. "And that I hope I'll see him soon?"
  I hesitated before nodding. "Sure, I... can do that, if it'll help." I saw the grateful, desperate look in my old friend's eyes and flinched inwardly. She was really frightened. Not that I could blame her, given the situation.
  "Anyway." Dinah had moved to the computer at the table. "Come here, you should see this."
  I stepped that way, standing behind her chair. "What am I looking at?"
  "Not looking," she replied. "Listening. This is a phone conversation between Director Costa-Brown and Dragon. I... I can't really tell you how we got it, but it's important."
  She hit play, and I heard the voice of the armor-tinker first. "There's another one."
  The next woman to speak, I assumed, was the PRT National Director. "No. Don't tell me that. I thought you had the problem handled."
  "As did I." Dragon's voice replied. "Somehow, it happened again."
  A long sigh came from Director Costa-Brown. "Who is it? Tell me it's not a hero again. Fucking tell me it's not a hero."
  "It's Rachel Lindt." Dragon answered.
  I blinked at that. "Hellhound, from the Undersiders?" I blurted. "What does she have to do with-"
  "Shh." Dinah had paused the recording, squinting at me. "Just listen. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get this? Pay attention."
  She started it once more, and the director's voice came back. "Hellhound? That doesn't make sense. Does she even know anyone in there?"
  "Her team was apparently a source of annoyance for Lung." Dragon's reply was hesitant. "I assume that is related. The how continues to escape me."
  "Figure it out." Director Costa-Brown ordered. "And fast. Figure out who's doing it, how they're doing it, and shut them down. Otherwise, there's going to be a panic."
  "Perhaps we should inform-" Dragon started, sounding cautious.
  "No." The director was firm. "We tell no one else. This stays between us. Do you understand? You will tell no one."
  "Understood." Dragon's reply came after a brief hesitation, followed by a sigh. "Then what do we tell them about the Lindt girl?"
  The director's answer came after a moment of clear consideration. "Let them think we railroaded her into the place. That it was all our idea. She was part of the team that helped get Panacea kidnapped, right? Let them think it was punishment for that."
  "That might cause a problem," Dragon pointed out. "What she did wasn't extreme enough."
  "Better that than the alternative," Costa-Brown snapped. "Or would you prefer that people find out the truth?" Dragon was silent on the subject, giving no response, so the director continued. "Because I for one, would rather have some people bitch about how unfair we were to one no-name girl, than have someone, anyone, find out that somebody inside of the Bird Cage has figured out a way to teleport other people into it, and that none of us have any idea how the fuck they're doing it."
  My hand covered my mouth, while I stared in shock at the computer screen. For a moment, I had no words, nothing that could adequately portray my disbelief and confusion. Finally, I managed, "The... the Bird Cage... someone's... someone's pulling people into it?"
  "That's what it sounds like." Emma put in from her place on the bed. "Weird, huh?"
  I glanced that way, then back to Dinah. "What hero are they talking about?"
  The younger girl hesitated. "That's part of the next recording. But Emma should leave the room for it."
  My ex-friend blanched, wilting a little. "Please, please don't make me go in the other room." She all but whimpered her plea. "It's... it's horrible. Please."
  "It's okay." Dinah gestured to the main door. "Panda's waiting for you in the hallway. She'll take you up to the roof for fresh air."
  Sliding quickly off the bed, Emma hesitated next to me. "Umm, I hate to... to ask you for anything else..."
  I looked at her, and tried not to think of how easily she'd betrayed me, of how easily she'd betrayed Taylor. No matter my personal feelings, she was still a person, still a normal teenage girl. "What is it?"
  "I have this ummm," Emma paused. "This friend. Well, she's not really a friend, not anymore. But see, she-umm. Her name is Madison Clements."
  I froze at that, but tried not to let on. "Okay?"
  "See, well, her umm, we stopped being friends." Emma sighed a little. "It was stupid, but the point is, I... I heard that her parents died. They... they died during the Leviathan attack. And well, I was hoping that... I know you're busy, but if you could just... check on her? I don't mean like a... like a permanent bodyguard thing or whatever, just... just look and make sure she's okay? I... sort of have a lot of time to think in here and... and well, I think I really fucked up. But even if we're not friends, I wanna know that someone's at least, you know, checking."
  I stared until Dinah nudged me with her foot, before starting a little. "I... right, yeah. Clements. I'll see what I can do."
  "Thanks." Emma managed a weak little smile, a ghost of the grin I knew, and then started out of the room.
  When the door closed behind her, I looked at Dinah. "Are you sure she wasn't taken over by a Pandora clone?" Something else struck me then. "Wait. Wait a minute, did I hear you call Pandora... Panda? "
  Dinah had the decency to blush a little at that. "It's a long story. But nicknames make people feel wanted, and I want Panda to feel wanted. Besides, it's unique, and it's absolutely nothing like Panacea or Amy or anything. It's all her."
  "Seriously, Dinah, what are you doing?" I asked her while shaking my head. "You've got Pandora and Bonesaw? Are you collecting S-Class threats now?"
  The twelve-year-old girl shrugged at that. "I'm doing what my power says is the best thing I can do. You're just gonna have to trust me. Anyway, come on. Riley's gonna get impatient soon. I don't think she's used to being told to wait."
  I shuddered a little at the thought of Bonesaw being annoyed, and looked back to the computer. "You said there was another recording?"
  "Yeah..." Dinah trailed off, then straightened and offered the chair to me. "You better sit down. This recording is from two days ago."
  Unsure of what could be shocking enough in this recording that she wanted me to sit down as compared to the last one, I took the offered seat nonetheless. After I did, Dinah pressed play.
  The voice of Dragon came in. "Assault and Battery are asking questions about Trevor Clements."
  My hand shot out to hit pause and I stared at the girl next to me. "Why the hell are Dragon and Director Costa-Brown discussing my brother?" Dinah's response was to stare at me pointedly until I flushed and pressed play again so that the recording could go on.
  Director Costa-Brown replied, "Tether. They're asking questions on her behalf."
  "Yes," Dragon confirmed. "Perhaps it's time to tell them something about the boy's disappearance?"
  "Absolutely not." The director's response was firm. "We are not letting anyone know about our problems with the Bird Cage. Do you have any idea what kind of panic it would cause if anyone knew that someone in the Cage was capable of reaching out and dragging people in?"
  This time, I couldn't help but pause the recording again, while I screeched, "The Bird Cage?! Trevor's in the Bird Cage?! How? Why? What the hell? That's impossible! People saw him after the attack. He dropped his classes, he went home to get his stuff, he... he..." I trailed off, mouth working. "No... no..."
  Dinah's voice was sympathetic. "Sorry, Madison." Slowly, she reached out to hit play again, letting the voices continue.
  "It's clear that whoever pulled the Clements boy in," Dragon was saying, "was attempting to take his sister instead. The boy was a mistake. Perhaps that can tell us something about how the teleportation was accomplished."
  "So far it's told us nothing." Costa-Brown sighed. "And I'm still paying for the favor of letting those neighbors see the kid raid his house and take off. This is already turning into an unbelievable headache, one we cannot afford to let become public knowledge."
  "They faked it," I muttered under my breath, reeling. "They faked Trevor taking off, with a double or... or whatever."
  Dragon was talking then. "They've made no further attempts on Tether. I don't know if that's a lack of ability or interest."
  "Good. We need her." The director was silent for a moment before she continued. "The boy, is he still alive?"
  "Only due to Hannah's efforts," Dragon replied softly. "She has defended the boy against all who would seek to harm him. It's lucky for him that they were both taken at the same time."
  Costa-Brown's voice was wistful. "Miss Militia was one of the best heroes we had. Losing her is a real blow."
  I thought Dragon's voice carried a tiny bit of a rebuke. "She is not lost. We know precisely where she is."
  The direc